Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Gilgamesh by Joan London (Jill)

By Joan London
Completed August 28, 2011

Joan London's debut novel is the story of Edith, a young Australian girl who lives in the bush with her mom and sister. Edith knows the realities of hard country living - her parents' farm never taking off after years of effort. When her cousin, Leopold, and his friend, Aram, arrive for a visit, it's a breath of fresh air. Edith and her family are charmed by the young men's stories and antics, and slowly, Edith falls in love with Aram.

After the men leave, Edith begins to plot her own departure, a worldwide journey to Aram's homeland of Armenia. However, Edith didn't realize that Europe was about to burst with World War II, and as she draws closer to her destination, Edith becomes an unwilling pawn in a political chess match.

The fable Gilgamesh is central to this story, and it fits well with the travels of many characters. London does a wonderful job weaving in texts from the poem to help the reader connect the dots between the fable and the story. In fact, my favorite parts of the book are when Edith is traveling - first on a ship around Africa, then to London, Armenia and finally northern Africa. Each stop on Edith's journey gave the reader a snapshot of life during that time.

Gilgamesh is a quick read - very enthralling with fully developed characters and great plot twists. London's writing is subtle but powerful. Fans of the Orange Prize or literary fiction are sure to enjoy this fast-paced novel. ( )

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Laura's Review - Great House

Great House is an unusual novel that makes considerable demands of the reader. The book is made up of four loosely connected stories, but I didn't pick up on that at first. Part I has four chapters -- the first part of each story -- and felt disjointed, like four unfinished, disconnected works with weak character development. At the close of Part I, I was enormously frustrated. I broke one of my cardinal rules and read some reviews of this book. They inspired me to continue reading, and I'm glad I did. I finished the first story in Part II and was flooded with emotion. The same thing happened with the second, third, and fourth stories. And suddenly the book made sense, and I was reminded of a quote I'd flagged early on:
There are moments when a kind of clarity comes over you, and suddenly you can see through walls to another dimension that you'd forgotten or chosen to ignore in order to continue living with the various illusions that make life, particularly life with other people, possible. (p. 14)
I found myself warming to the characters which include a writer telling her life story, an older man reflecting on his relationship with his adult son, a man who discovers a secret his wife kept from him for years, and the adult children of an antiques dealer. Woven through Great House are themes of exile, loss, and betrayal, all in a Jewish context. It was fascinating, and I kept flagging quotes like this:
What is the point of a religion that turns its back on the subject of what happens when life ends? Having been denied an answer -- having been denied an answer while at the same time being cursed as a people who for thousands of years have aroused in others a murderous hate -- the Jew has no choice but to live with death every day. To live with it, to set up his house in its shadow, and never to discuss its terms. (p. 175)
Towards the end I could see how Nicole Krauss was building a kind of metaphor for the Jewish experience:
if every Jewish memory were put together, every last holy fragment joined up again as one, the House would be built again, said Weisz, or rather a memory of the House so perfect that it would be, in essence, the original itself. Perhaps that is what they mean when they speak of the Messiah: a perfect assemblage of the infinite parts of the Jewish memory. (p. 279)
Well as I said, this book does make demands of the reader. I'm not even sure I understood it all, but I felt rewarded in the end.

Cross-posted from my blog

The Long Song - Wendy's Review

Kitty turned to face her master.

‘Come along, Caroline. Hurry. We need to get out of the sun.’

‘Can I take her?’ she asked.

Kitty tried to seize air enough to breathe.

‘Yes, if she’ll amuse you. She would be taken soon enough anyway. It will encourage her to have another. They are dreadful mothers, these negroes.’

‘She’ll be my companion here,’ Caroline said. ‘I could train her for the house, or to be my lady’s maid.’ – from The Long Song, page 41 -

July is born in the early part of the nineteenth century on a Jamaican sugar plantation. Her mother is a black slave, her father the white overseer who is her mother’s rapist. One hot day when July is still just a young child, she is noticed by Caroline Mortimer, the sister of the plantation’s owner who has arrived from England. On a whim, Caroline decides to take July to be her companion, stealing her from July’s mother without a second thought and renaming her Marguerite. The Long Song is July’s story, narrated retrospectively by an adult July many years later. It is not an easy story, spanning decades and taking the reader through the tumultuous years of the Baptist War and the controversial end to slavery in Jamaica. But, it is July’s voice which drives the narrative. Funny, cynical, highly observant and intelligent, July weighs in on racism, violence, and the struggle for freedom at a time when blacks were viewed as property to rich, white landowners.

Only with a white man, can there be guarantee that the colour of your pickney will be raised. For a mulatto who breeds with a white man will bring forth a quadroon; and the quadroon that enjoys white relations will give to this world a mustee; the mustee will beget a mustiphino; and the mustiphino…oh, the mustiphino’s child with a white man for a papa will find each day greets them no longer with a frown, but welcomes them with a smile, as they at last stride within this world as a cherished white person. – from The Long Song, page 203 -

The Long Song is a brilliant novel narrated by an unforgettable character. July is, perhaps, one of the most memorable female voices I have read in a long, long time. Bittersweet, funny, often devastating…this is a novel which drew me in immediately and held me in its grip to the final page. Andrea Levy writes with an honesty and insight into the human condition that takes one’s breath away.

The Long Song was shortlisted for the 2010 Booker Prize, longlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction, a finalist for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers Prize, and named as a 2010 New York Times Most Notable book. It is, in my opinion, worthy of all these accolades. Beautiful prose, enduring characters, and the evocation of place that vibrates off the page, all combine to create a remarkable novel of historical significance.

Readers who love literary fiction and historical fiction will want to put The Long Song on their must read list.

Highly recommended.

  • Quality of Writing:
  • Plot:
  • Characters:
Overall Rating:

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld (Jill)

By Curtis Sittenfeld
Completed August 1, 2011

Lee Fiora decided at the tender age of 13 that she wanted to escape her hometown of South Bend, Indiana, and take part in an idyllic rite of passage - boarding school. Despite her parents' lack of financial support, she applied to Ault School in Massachusetts and received a scholarship for her tuition. Prep is the story of Lee's life as a boarding school student - an intriguing look at the socialization of high school students at a prestigious boarding school.

As a graduate of a small, all-women's college, I found many of Lee's experiences very similar: the traditions, hazing rituals, cafeteria food and dorm experiences all seemed like pages from my life history. Attending small, private institutions can be very alluring. Unfortunately, though, for many students, it can turn into a private hell.

High school is tough - the feelings of being left out, socially awkward and trying to second guess everyone's motives weigh down most teenagers. Lee did all this and more. Lee was blessed with a wicked sense of humor but rarely showed it. She had a few good friends but remained aloof with most of her classmates. And when she finally gets the attention of her crush, Lee surrenders herself without a second glance. As I read Lee's story, I commiserated with her plight as a scholarship student in a sea of wealthy kids but frowned at some of her mistakes. Sometimes, Lee was her own worst enemy.

And then I smiled, because that's what being a teenage girl is all about: learning, growing and making mistakes. As Prep concluded, I knew Lee was a better person as a result of her Ault experiences. This story was a great reminder of the journey teenage girls take to become self-sufficient women. If you're a mom to a young girl or a young woman yourself, put Prep high on your reading list. I don't think you'll be disappointed in this enchanting coming of age tale. ( )