Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt

I'm way ahead on my trip around the world, so I am catching up on other reading. I just finished another Orange Prize shortlist book from 2009. This one focuses on the life of Nikola Tesla, a fascinating and brilliant man who was not fully appreciated in his lifetime. Here is my review from Goodreads:

The Invention of Everything ElseThe Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The six or seven minutes that follow—such a short time when one considers a day, a month, a decade—have the focus and brunt of years jammed into them. Imagining that one could boil the complexities of a lifetime, reducing them over a slow fire for ages until the drops left after dissolution have a flavor as rich and complicated as all mystery. Robert and I say nothing. Perhaps the darkness or the remove allows us to look at each other as honestly and for as long as we do. Perhaps it is the quiet of the night that allows us not to speak, or perhaps it is because what we are thinking is unspeakable.

I wavered between a 3.5 and a 4 on this one, but in writing the review and selecting quotes, I opted for the 4. The reason for my ambivalence is explained below. The Invention of Everything Else chronicles a week in the life of Louisa, a chambermaid at a New York hotel, and her brief friendship with the reclusive Nikola Tesla, who lives in one of the suites there. Through the novel we learn of Tesla's life, both its triumphs and disappointments. We are also introduced to the small circle of people in Louisa's life--her father, still pining for his late wife, his best friend, who is trying to invent a time machine, and a mysterious suitor named Arthur. I found the book a little uneven; I generally liked the sections that focused on Tesla more than those focusing mainly on Louisa's family. However, it came together increasingly successfully by the end. I was pleased with the way the novel succeeded in making me fascinated with and respectful for Tesla. Part way through the book, I hopped on Wikipedia to read Tesla's entry and see how much of the book is based on fact. Virtually all of the material about Tesla is true, and he had a fascinating, but in many ways tragic, life, most of which you can learn about in the novel. When I looked at which passages I highlighted to potentially use in this review, all came from the sections narrated by Tesla.
Here are a couple more, to give you the flavor of the writing.

On his career and its impact: Drawer #53 is empty, though inside I detect the slightest odor of ozone. I sniff the drawer, inhaling deeply. Ozone is not what I am looking for. I close #53 and open #26. Inside there is a press clipping, something somebody once said about my work: "Humanity will be like an antheap stirred up with a stick. See the excitement coming!" The excitement, apparently, already came and went.

On his relationships with people: Having lived in America for fifty-nine years, I've nearly perfected my relationships with the pigeons, the sparrows, and the starlings of New York City. Particularly the pigeons. Humans remain a far greater challenge.

And also: Katharine nods numbly, confused, the hook I planted already beginning to tug painfully as I slip away. Robert stands behind her, broadening his shoulders, stunned by my sudden change. It is my fault. Here is friendship. Here is love. I take a step away from it. The bicycle has turned the corner. There goes invention. I have to catch it.

And about his favorite pigeon: She is pale gray with white-tipped wings, and into her ear I have whispered all my doubts. Through the years I've told her of my childhood, the books I read, a history of Serbian battle songs, dreams of earthquakes, endless meals and islands, inventions, lost notions, love, architecture, poetry—a bit of everything. We've been together since I don't remember when. A long while. Though it makes no sense, I think of her as my wife, or at least something like a wife, inasmuch as any inventor could ever have a wife, inasmuch as a bird who can fly could ever love a man who can't.

This is a moving and fascinating book about a modern day idealist, with a vision far ahead of his time.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Molly Fox's Birthday

So I'm taking a break from my official world tour. I'm back in Ireland catching up on my Orange Prize reads for the quarter. I picked this novel for its length. I needed to get three Orange Prize winners or shortlist books read by the end of June, along with lots of others, and this seemed more manageable than many options. I'm glad to have picked it. It was a charming read, and it also left me with a little mystery to solve. In the novel, the protagonist mentions a man on a train who is holding a wild hare. The man and the hare are a preoccupation for her; she considers building a play around them. Having read The Year of the Hare not so long ago, I immediately made the association. I'm just not sure if the author did. I'll let you know if I figure it out, and if she did intend the reference, what I make of it after some reflection. While I research and ponder (and desperately try to finish all my other April to June reading--prognosis not good), I will offer you my Goodreads review of the novel: Molly Fox's BirthdayMolly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Madden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think I have always understood the value of formulaic conversation and how it can make for real communication. Such exchanges can forge a link with someone when there is deep affection but no real common ground. Andrew, with his impatient intelligence, would never understand this. But I know Molly would agree with me. Her relationship with Fergus is built upon a similar visceral warmth, the childhood bond that has never been broken. Closeness of that particular type is perhaps only possible with people one has known all one’s life, when the bonds have been made before something in one’s soul has been closed down by consciousness, by knowledge; a kind of closeness that can coexist even with dislike. Perhaps this was something that Andrew could understand, perhaps this was why he was haunted by the thought of Billy, but I wasn't sure that I could explain it to him.

This is one of the reflections on life, relationships, art, and human purpose that fill Molly Fox's Birthday, a lovely novel from among the 2009 Orange Prize shortlist selections. I read it over a couple of days, and found myself eager to return to it, despite any real driving plot. The characters are insightfully drawn, and the language flows smoothly, creating beautiful images along the way. I am not a gardener, but I found myself wanting to plant some of the flowers Deirdre Madden described in passing. The story is the tale of a single day in the life of a playwright who is staying at a friend's home while she is away, struggling to begin a new play in the wake of a recent flop. The tiny details of the day prompt reflections on a myriad of topics--the most powerful of which is window friendship creates into another life, and the degree to which the window may be opaque--sometimes more than we know. The home is the home of the playwright's best friend--Molly Fox, a brilliant actress but also a shy and complex character. The occasion of her birthday prompts many of the reflections in the tale, and also provides a reason for several people to stop by--including Molly's brother Fergus, another old mutual friend Andrew, who is now a successful art critic and media darling. The tale also draws indirectly on the tensions of Northern Ireland, from which both Andrew and the playwright come, he a Protestant, she a Catholic. Molly is from Dublin.

I recommend this quiet but beautiful novel for a break in a frenzied schedule sometime when you need it!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Memory of Love - Wendy's Review

And when he wakes from dreaming of her, is it not the same for him? The hollowness in his chest, the tense yearning, the loneliness he braces against every morning until he can immerse himself in work and forget. Not love. Something else, something with a power that endures. Not love, but a memory of love. – from The Memory of Love, page 185 -

Sierra Leone is filled with survivors of a brutal civil war – people who are moving through the remains of their lives, traumatized by loss.

Kai is a young surgeon working in the capital hospital and struggling with his own memories of a lost love and an incident he has buried deep within his heart. Elias Cole is an old man, dying in a hospital bed, and wanting to unburden himself of terrible choices he made, to re-write his own history and spin his story to his own advantage. Adrian is a British psychologist who has left his wife and daughter to come to Africa and help survivors to recover emotionally.

Bound together by their own secrets, desires and one woman, these three men’s lives will become interwoven in ways none of them could ever have anticipated.

Immersed in the novel are the stories of not just the characters, but of a whole country changed by war. Aminatta Forna explores the resilience of the human spirit, the fine line between truth and lies, betrayal, and the ethereal power of love in a novel which spans nearly two decades.
People are blotting out what happened, fiddling with the truth, creating their own version of events to fill in the blanks. A version of the truth which puts them in a good light, that wipes out whatever they did or failed to do and makes certain none of them will be blamed. – from The Memory of Love, page 351 -
Forna constructs her novel with three distinct narratives which move the reader back and forth from present time to when Sierra Leone was embroiled in civil war. The voice of Elias Cole is the echo behind the other stories. Here is a man who begins his narrative with his attraction to a married woman, but whose story changes as the reader begins to see the character through the eyes of others. Driven, competitive, and willing to do anything to advance his career, Elias is a man who represents the quiet support behind the scenes which allows evil to propagate.

Adrian is a complex character – a man who is searching for something greater. He loves his child in England, but has grown distant from his wife. He is drawn to the people of Africa and wants to understand their torments. The last thing he expects to find, however, is love.
How does a man whose task in life is to map the emotions, their origins and their end, how does such a man believe in love? – from The Memory of Love, page 362 -
It was Kai, however, who I was most drawn to in this novel of loss. A young and gifted surgeon, a man whose job was to put back together the physically shattered lives of his patients, but whose own life was emotionally fragmented. My heart ached for Kai. I wanted to know what had happened to him…and Forna waits until the end of the novel to fully reveal his story. It is Kai’s character who brings the novel full circle, who links all the characters together.
Close at hand a dog adds its voice to those of the others. Kai thinks of the day and the journey he now has before him. He does not lack the courage for it. No. Rather it was the courage to stay that had failed him. – from The Memory of Love, page 287 -
The Memory of Love is a quiet novel which reveals the people of post-war Sierra Leone: a boy whose father was murdered, a man rebuilding his body and dreaming of marriage, a woman ready to reclaim her son born of a rape, a community strengthened by its collective memories and cultural ties. Forna’s writing is graceful, introspective, and beautifully rendered.

The Memory of Love is a novel for those readers who enjoy literary fiction and works which examine African culture. It is a book about survival and the power of love to heal us.

Highly Recommended.

Orange July 2012 Giveaways

This just in! Check out my blog post that lists the books I am giving away for Orange July 2012. I am giving away more than 20 books, including the entire 2012 short list.

The giveaways are open to all Orange July participants (NOTE: You must be signed up for Orange July 2012 to be eligible to win prizes). I also ship anywhere, and you can win more than one giveaway.

All About Orange July 2012
Orange July 2012 Giveaways
Mr. Linky (where you sign up for Orange July 2012)

If you have any questions, please email me at Thank you for participating in Orange July 2012!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

I have read a lot of Holocaust books in the course of my journey through the 1001 Books list. Each book has moved me, has added to my understanding of the time and place, of the experience of those whose lives were torn asunder by the large and small horrors. This book may be the best, though it comes at the subject more obliquely than many. The language, the psychological depth, the complexity together left me breathless. Here is my Goodreads review of Fugitive Pieces which begins with the book's opening passage:

Time is a blind guide.

Bog boy, I surfaced into the miry streets of the drowned city. For over a thousand years, only fish wandered Biskupin's wooden sidewalks. Houses, built to face the sun, were flooded by the silty gloom of the Gasawka River. Gardens grew luxurious in subaqueous silence; lilies, rushes, stinkweed.  

No one is born just once. If you're lucky, you'll emerge again in someone's arms; or unlucky, wake when the long tail of terror brushes the inside of your skull.

Let me begin by saying that whatever I type here, I will not do this book justice. You should read this book. I do not give 5 stars lightly, and this volume, which won the Orange Prize in 1997, had earned 5 stars in my mind by just a chapter or two in. In reading farther, I never felt the urge to revise my assessment. This book eases into your soul and takes up residence.

Let me start simply with what it is about. The book captures the experiences primarily of two men. The first, Jakob Beer, is found as a child hiding buried in mud at an archaeological site after fleeing the Nazis who have killed his parents. Only after he escapes does he realize that he does not know what became of his older sister. The Greek archaeologist who finds him takes him back to Greece, hides him, and then builds a new life with him as his godfather. The second man, Ben, takes up the story at the point of Jakob's death. He is a scholar inspired by Beer's work, and the Canadian child of two concentration camp survivors. The book powerfully chronicles the physical and psychological impact that the Nazis had on individuals and on the territories they occupied, but it does so in gemlike fragments--images, moments, dreams, the reflexive responses of individuals wounded in devastating ways by the horrors inflicted by men on their fellow creatures. Beer is a poet; one gift that the archaeologist gives him is the tradition of using of using language to meet the deepest human experience. As he hides in the house on a Greek hillside, he reads and absorbs the literary traditions of Europe's great ancient cultures. But he is given more. The archaeologist loves him deeply, teaches him to trust and to connect with people, and shares his own love of the earth and its records of truth. Geology is present throughout the book, and in the later sections meteorology is, as well, since Ben's scholarship looks at the impact of meteorology on historic events. And finally, romantic love and both its capacity and failure to transform and transcend the wounds of past experience is gorgeously explored in the lives of both men. The language of this book is remarkable, the themes complex and expertly wrought. There are times it is hard to breathe while reading it. This book deserves to be read and reread, as were many volumes on the shelves of Beer's home in Greece which Ben searches through after Jakob's death, seeking journals to take back to Canada to a mutual friend. It is too beautiful and too powerful to leave behind after a single reading.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (Beachreader)

Title:  The Song of Achilles
Author:  Madeline Miller
Published:  2012, Ecco/Harper Collins Publisher
Genre:  Myth
Accolades:  2012 Orange Prize

In this seemingly flawless account of the myth of Achilles Madeline Miller has given us a new viewpoint of the Trojan War and it's hero Achilles as seen through the eyes of Achilles' companion and lover, Patroclus.

I love Greek mythology, and found The Song of Achilles to be a fascinating retelling of Homer's The Iliad.  I was really surprised that I could not put this book down and had to finish it in one day - especially since I knew how it would end.  I think what makes this story so good is that it is a well-written love story that captivates with it's depth and honesty.  This is Patroclus' song for Achilles - the love of his young life.

Miller mixes the love story with rich visual details of a Greece where gods and men interact with each other and shows us a time when honor and glory meant more than life.  If I have a problem with this book, it is a small one.  Patroclus comes off as rather wimpy.  In classic Greek myth Patroclus was a brave and powerful warrior in his own right.  Miller didn't have to make Patroclus weak to make Achilles appear strong.  Achilles was half-god - no one was stronger.

That is my analytical self speaking.  What's most important is that I thoroughly enjoyed this lyrical and magical book about a love that transcends time and is worthy of the gods.

Jacques-Louis David, Patroclus, 1780

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Orange July 2012

It's that time of year again! Orange July is here! Orange July is a biannual event where people around the world commit to read at least one Orange Prize nominee or winner.

For more details, please head over to my blog post!

Hope you can join the fun!