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A Simple Life

A Simple Life

posted by:
August 31, 2012 - 7:30am

The OrchardistDespite majestic surroundings and lifelong ties to the earth's bounty, there was little color in William Talmadge's days.  A solitary figure living a simple life, his emotional and physical toils are somberly chronicled in Amanda Coplin's haunting literary debut, The Orchardist.

 

Set in the rural Pacific Northwest at the turn of the twentieth century, Talmadge spends his days methodically tending a grove of fruit trees started by his widowed pioneer mother on his 400 acres of family land. No stranger to loss, the middle-aged farmer still pines for a beloved sister who mysteriously disappeared years earlier. When he encounters two young and pregnant runaway sisters, Jane and Della, he decides to shelter them. His actions are shaped by his memories of the sister he lost and the family he hesitantly envisions. It is the one person who knows him well, his old friend Caroline Middey, who observes, "suffering had formed him. " Circumstances will now change his life, especially as a new baby, Angeline, becomes "his shadow in the trees," and the new bud of this makeshift family whose fragile underpinnings are about to give way.

 

Coplin's writing is spare and deliberate, with minimal dialogue. Much is conveyed by the silent introspection of memorable characters and their sense of belonging, especially of a broken Della. Coplin, who was born in Wenatchee, Washington, grew up among her grandfather's orchards. Her storytelling is rich with images of a frontier before railroads or highways and of a time and place when one belonged to the earth. Fans of John Steinbeck, Leif Enger ‘s Peace Like a River or Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain will welcome Coplin to their stack of enticing reads.

 

Cynthia

 
 

Memories of War

Memories of War

posted by:
August 28, 2012 - 9:20am

The Yellow BirdsDebut author Kevin Powers takes us to the Iraq War and back in his poignant novel The Yellow Birds. Narrating from a secluded cabin in the mountains of Virginia, twenty-one-year-old veteran John Bartle recalls his hellish experiences in Iraq’s Nineveh Province and his current struggles to rebuild a life ravaged by post-traumatic stress.

 

Private Bartle’s story begins in basic training, where he quickly befriends an eighteen-year-old recruit named Murphy. They become inseparable, and Bartle takes it on himself to protect Murphy and get him back home safely. But once they arrive in war-torn Iraq, these two young soldiers discover that neither is ready to face the physical and psychological battles yet to come. What unfolds is a testament to friendship and loss set against the horrors of war, as well as a moving portrayal of how war affects not just soldiers but also their families and friends at home.

 

Powers, an Iraq veteran himself and recent M.F.A. graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, has the voice of a poet and wrote The Yellow Birds largely based on his own war experiences. Early praise from authors like Colm Toibin and Ann Patchett hails this novel as a “superb literary achievement” and proclaims it a modern classic. In fact, New York Times bestselling author Chris Cleave has compared Powers to Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy for his use of spare, lyrical prose.

 

Rich with flashbacks, metaphors, and written in a stream-of-consciousness style, The Yellow Birds will stay with you long after the final page. Readers who enjoy this new novel may also want to try Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain and Fobbit by David Abrams, two equally wonderful stories that take a satirical spin on the Iraq War.

 

Alex

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Fierce Women

Fierce Women

posted by:
August 24, 2012 - 7:30am

Tigers in Red WeatherTigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann is the story of two cousins growing up in Tiger House on Martha’s Vineyard. The first cousin, Nick, is getting married to the devilishly handsome Hughes when he returns from the war. But Hughes returns a different man, slightly distant and living in his own head. Nick requires variety and excitement, but what Hughes provides is stability and normalcy, and they begin to drift slowly apart. Helena is the second cousin, and she was engaged to a man who was killed in the war. She instead marries Avery, who works in Hollywood in the film industry. Later, Helena discovers that Avery’s sole purpose in life is to maintain a collection pertaining to a dead actress and this drives a wedge between the couple.

 

Years pass, and Nick gives birth to daughter Daisy. Helena has a son named Ed, and the children become good friends. One fateful summer in the late fifties, Daisy and Ed discover the body of a young maid left beaten, strangled and covered in a blanket. This discovery affects all of the residents of Tiger House. Relationships deteriorate, secrets are kept and then revealed, and the world spins off its axis.

 

Klaussman, the great-granddaughter of Herman Melville, creates a compelling story. It is told in five parts, each focusing on one of the characters, and several scenes are replayed featuring a different point of view. This technique allows the reader to get a clear picture of the troubles facing Tiger House as well as the extent of the dysfunction within. Because of the unique storytelling style and the strong character development, this would be a good choice for a book club.

 

Doug

 
 

Where Joy and Sorrow Meet

In the Shadow of the BanyanGrowing up in a wealthy Cambodian family, seven-year-old Raami enjoys a privileged life until a civil war rips from her the only existence she has ever known. In an elegant autobiographical literary debut, In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner brings to life the 1975 Khmer Rouge capture of Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, and one family’s extraordinary fight to live.

 

Told through the curious, fearful eyes of a young girl, Ratner’s story is more than the atrocities of revolution. Rather, it is about not losing faith in life’s beauty and goodness. With Raami’s tender, lyrical voice, the reader is introduced to pre-revolution Cambodia, as well as the new reality of forced labor and other unspeakable horrors. It’s a confusing world where being intelligent can mean death. Silence is the key to survival, and family members become lost. Before they know it, Raami, her beautiful mother and younger sister are forced into a peasant’s life. Raami becomes "koan neak srae," a child of these paddies. Her solace is remembering stories told to her by her stoic Sisowath prince father, who once said he writes because "words give me wings."  

 

Rattner's prose is as mellifluous as the Mekong River that Raami longs to see. Rich with similes, Rattner's images are as magical and lovely as they are harsh. In their fullness, the reader sees a Cambodia that is much more than a war-torn landscape and heartbreaking characters who reflect the human tragedy. A small child when the Khmer Rouge took over her country, Ratner strives to honor the lives lost during the genocides. "Sometimes we, like little fishes, are swept up in these big and powerful currents,” Raami's father tells her. Rattner's personal story describes their journey.

 

 

Cynthia

 
 

A Modern Catch-22

A Modern Catch-22

posted by:
August 3, 2012 - 8:00am

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime WalkBen Fountain’s new book, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a deeply personal novel about one young man’s experience as a soldier in Iraq and his subsequent visit home in which he tries to make sense of his own life and country. The novel features Billy Lynn and his accompanying Bravo Squad soldiers as they attend a Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys game. The book covers this single day, with occasional flashbacks to Billy’s home life and his military life as a soldier in Iraq. Members of the Bravo Squad are being hailed as heroes after a harrowing firefight with Iraqi insurgents. They’ve been invited to the game, with a special halftime show in their honor, complete with a performance from Beyoncé. The entire story is told from inside Billy Lynn’s head. It is a deeply personal account that exposes the incredible disconnect between a soldier’s life in the Iraq war and life in the country he returns to. Fountain brilliantly captures elements of American culture that take on an absurd, grotesque quality when seen through this uniquely cross-cultural lens.

 

Fountain has written a book that is as much about family, grief, media, consumerism, sex and politics as it is about war. It has been hailed as “one of the most important books of the decade….as close to the Great American Novel as anyone is likely to come these days.” Just published in May of this year, it is quickly being considered one of the best novels written about the Iraq War. Billy Lynn is often compared to another classic war novel, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. Both books depict the effect war has on individual soldiers and both are darkly humorous takes on modern American culture and military life.

 

Fountain successfully takes on huge targets: the Bush years, the NFL, the Iraq war and American consumerism. In lesser hands, a book of this nature would feel heavy-handed and one-sided. Luckily for us, Ben Fountain writes like a dream. He is one of those rare writers who can write with both immediate urgency and nuance. Like the best satirists, he is able to inspire dark humor, sympathy, heartbreak and anger, all in equal measure. In the end, Fountain’s real strength is Billy. Readers will cheer, laugh and weep for Billy Lynn, a nineteen-year-old soldier who has seen and done more than most of us could ever fathom.

 

 

Zeke

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Who Are You?

Who Are You?

posted by:
July 16, 2012 - 8:05am

The Song Remains the SameIn Allison Winn Scotch’s The Song Remains the Same, Nell Slattery wakes from a coma in an Iowa hospital to find that she remembers nothing about her life. She is one of only two survivors of a plane crash. Her mother, sister, husband, and best friend are there to tell her about the life she has forgotten, but Nell soon begins to think that the perfect life they tell her about isn’t real. Each of them has an agenda, and they are all telling her half-truths and rewriting her past. 

 

Nell has to choose between starting her life with a clean slate and searching for her past. She wants to believe that she can use this opportunity to reboot her life and become the new, fabulous Nell. She doesn’t want to be the tightly-wound woman whose life was filled with neutral colors and old resentments. Nell’s sister Rory gives her an iPod with a playlist called The Best of Nell Slattery, all songs that played important roles in her life. The music helps Nell catch glimmers of her memory. Eventually, her memory begins to return, and she believes that if she can find the truth about her father, a famous painter who abandoned her family to live as a recluse, she will be able to put together the pieces of her life. Nell finds that the more family secrets she unearths, the more confused she becomes.

 

The Song Remains the Same is a story of self-discovery, healing, and forgiveness. It is by turns funny and heartbreaking. Allison Winn Scotch creates a memorable character whose emotional journey will leave readers wondering if any of us ever really change. If everything that you know about your life disappeared today, could you choose to be someone new or would you inevitably be the same person you were before?

 

Beth

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Distant Love

Distant Love

posted by:
July 13, 2012 - 8:30am

The NewlywedsThe new book by Nell Freudenberger is a quiet, understated novel about home, loss, sacrifice and love. The Newlyweds is the story of an unusual marriage in which both husband and wife attempt to find happiness in a relationship that is different than either imagined. George and Amina enter the marriage with very different assumptions, hopes and dreams.

 

George meets Amina through an online dating site, AsianEuro.com while she is a young woman, coming of age in Bangladesh and he is a fairly conventional suburban man in Rochester, New York. After beginning a friendship online and corresponding for nearly one year, they decide to marry. George goes to Bangladesh to meet his new bride. Shortly thereafter, Amina leaves her village and begins her new life in Rochester. With only a basic grasp of English, she struggles to fit in. Slowly, she begins to carve out a life for herself. She also learns a more nuanced version of English, in which she’s finally able to discern sarcasm.

 

With her unadorned prose and keen eye for detail, Freudenberger does an excellent job of describing suburban life through the lens of this young Bangladeshi woman. Life in the United States is different than Amina imagined. She sincerely wants to belong and make this new life work for her but she also mourns the loss of her home, her culture and the life she might have had in Bangladesh. Her relationship with her parents is especially difficult. She tries to both take care of them and convince them that she’s really ok, all from thousands of miles away.

 

The Newlyweds works beautifully as both an immigrant story and an unconventional, heartbreaking love story. Amina is compelling character that stays with the reader long after the last sentence has been read. The Newlyweds would be an excellent choice for fans of Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy or Monica Ali.

 

Zeke

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A Mother’s Love

A Mother’s Love

posted by:
July 13, 2012 - 7:45am

Afterwards“Motherhood isn't soft and cozy and sweet; it's selfish ferocity, red in tooth and claw.”

 

How far would you go to protect your child? In the novel Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton, Grace Covey is put to the ultimate test. She is attending sports day at her son’s school, and her seventeen year old daughter Jenny is on the top floor, working in the nurse’s office. The building catches fire and Grace races headlong into the building to save her daughter. She awakens in the hospital but all is not as it seems. She can see her body, in a coma, lying in a hospital bed, and quickly realizes that her daughter Jenny is in a similar situation, severely burned but also having an “out of body” experience. Both women are able to see and hear what is happening around them, but are unable to communicate with anyone but each other.

 

Grace witnesses her husband’s pain and his inability to connect with their younger son, Adam. Adam withdraws into himself since he has no one to comfort him. Grace’s sister-in-law Sarah is a police officer and when the cause of the fire turns out to be arson, Sarah starts working on the case to discover the culprit. Grace and Jenny are looking for answers and find themselves privy to conversations with people who don’t know they are there.

 

This is Lupton’s second novel, after her hugely popular Sister, and she truly creates a unique reading experience. The novel is written from Grace’s point of view, and although she is having a strange experience, the core of the novel is her fierce love for her children and her strong desire for answers. The novel works as a suspenseful mystery and at times is very dramatic and even heartbreaking.  Afterwards is also an interesting character study, and Lupton really shines in her character development. You get to know the Covey family and are very curious to follow Grace to the novel’s conclusion. Readers who enjoyed The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and mystery lovers are sure to enjoy this novel.  

Doug

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Double Trouble

Double Trouble

posted by:
June 29, 2012 - 7:30am

Gone, GirlCanadaEagerly anticipated by readers, Pulitzer prize winner Richard Ford and best-selling suspense writer Gillian Flynn have each released a new book in time for summer reading. Flynn’s Gone Girl is a dually narrated tale of a marriage gone wrong with a thriller's edge. Ford’s latest novel, Canada, is a coming of age tale from a master wordsmith.

 

In Gone Girl, we are introduced to couple Nick and Amy. Once darling newlywed writers living a charmed life in New York City, they’ve relocated to Nick’s decidedly less urbane Missouri hometown after the rise of the internet leads to the demise of their magazine employers. Nick buys a neighborhood bar with his twin sister Margo while unemployed Amy chafes at the constraints of a small town lifestyle. Amy disappears and naturally, husband Nick becomes the prime suspect. The couple takes turns telling the story; Nick’s present tense accounts alternate with the backstory provided by Amy’s journal entries. Fans of Gillian Flynn know she does not write for the gentle reader, as her style is taut with sharp edges, raw language, and keen observations into the darker, hidden bits of the human psyche.

 

In Canada, Richard Ford also introduces a set of twins, Dell and Berner, brother and sister respectively. Author of the lauded Bascombe trilogy, Ford’s prose is clear and direct without being spare and complements both the prairie setting and plot-driven story recounted by Dell.  The Montana twins’ parents uncharacteristically rob a bank and end up in jail; Berner runs off, leaving Dell to be smuggled over to an unsavory family friend in Saskatchewan. Dell’s journey becomes more than a trip across the border as he comes to terms with his parents’ actions, loss of family, and a new, unasked-for life on a rough fringe of society.

 

Lori

 
 

One Man’s Journey, One Family’s Saga, One Country’s History

Wish You Were HereReflection can sometimes tell the whole story.  In Graham Swift’s Wish You Were Here, there are few characters, even less action, but plenty about how memory and evaluation of past choices occupy our present-day lives. 

 

The story revolves around Jack, who came from a Devonshire farming family but was forced to abandon his family’s profession after fear of mad-cow disease forced them to put the herd down.  As the story begins, the majority of the family members once close to Jack, those who helped define him, have passed.  He is reliant solely on his wife Ellie, with whom he has co-owned a campground and vacation resort for several years.  This has afforded them a more luxurious lifestyle than farming, but has set them adrift from the family and community connections of their childhood. 

 

The real shift in the story comes when Jack belatedly learns of the death of his brother Tom, a soldier who has been killed in Iraq.  Tom was already long estranged from the family, but going to retrieve his body and bring him home for burial proves a catalyst for Jack to reflect back on his life and choices.  More overarching is the theme of the impact of war not just on his family but on the country of England as a whole, going back many generations. 

 

Swift, who previously won the Booker Prize for Last Orders, spins a slow tale, bereft of suspense or much action. Yet the story he tells is beautiful and poignant.  Readers will want to know how Jack reached his present state, and what the near future holds for him.  Fans of The Shipping News or Olive Kitteridge will appreciate this understated tale about connections to home and family. 

 

Melanie