The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan (Reading Ireland Month)

For Cathy’s annual Reading Ireland Month celebration and exploration of Irish literature, I chose an author I’d read and loved before: Donal Ryan. The Spinning Heart is a short book (156 pages) but it packs a huge emotional punch. I kept having to put it down because each chapter was so weighty and gave me so much to consider. He is an absolutely beautiful writer, and if you’ve never tried him before I highly recommend him. But be warned, this is not escapist reading.

712fj-pYwALEach chapter of the book is narrated by a different character, and they don’t come back to narrate another chapter later as in so many other books told from multiple perspectives. Because this takes place in a small town everybody knows everybody else, so we hear about characters again and again from different points of view. In this way the action of the story keeps moving forward despite not having continuity in storytellers.

Set just after the booming economy of the “Celtic Tiger” burst, everyone in the town is feeling the after effects. Jobs vanished, men who’s self-esteem depend on bringing home a paycheck are angry and depressed. Some consider moving to Europe or Australia to look for work. But underneath the narrative of the economic crisis is another story about long-buried secrets and emotions. Emotionally abusive or withholding fathers, boyfriends and husbands who can’t find the words to tell their women how they really feel, women who have lost children and lost their way. A surprising act of violence sets everyone on edge and tongues wagging, and then another surprising twist makes everyone doubt whether they know their neighbors at all.

“The air is thick with platitudes around here. We’ll all pull together. We’re a tight-knot community. We’ll all support each other. Oh really? Will we?”

I kept putting down this novel after every chapter initially. The weight of each character’s separate sadness felt too heavy for me to continue on. Like Bobby, the foreman of the local construction outfit, who everyone views as an upstanding man. His father was emotionally vicious and his mother died too young. The fear and shame of no work is eating him alive, and the bond between he and his wife Triona is all he has with which to steady himself.

“I couldn’t stand her smiling through her fear and having to coax me out of my misery like a big, sulky child. I wish to God I could talk to her the way she wants me to, besides forever making her guess what I’m thinking. Why can’t I find the words?”

This is a beautifully written novel about people who are hurting from emotional wounds both long scarred over and fresh. Donal Ryan is a gorgeous writer who portrays even the most appalling, unsympathetic characters with a measure of care and gives them many layers. The Spinning Heart is a moving exploration of the ways families hurt and heal one another, and the ways a terrible event can expose the frayed seams of a small town community. Four Stars, and a very good pick for Reading Ireland Month.

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What I’ve Been Reading Lately

I’ve been reading some good stuff lately, y’all. These books probably deserve individual posts but I’m just trying to get back into the blogging groove, so here I am with a round-up. Let’s start with the most recently finished.

36300687French Exit by Patrick deWitt. I have a weakness for books about what I call “rich people problems.” You know, where urbanites with a lot of money and family squabbles get together and hash it all out. (Think The Nest or Seating Arrangements.) So I was immediately charmed and entertained by deWitt’s novel of a fractured family, mother Frances and her thirty-something son Malcolm. (They reminded me of Lucille and Buster Bluth from Arrested Development only not as ridiculous.) They are running out of money and are forced to make a serious life change. This novel was so witty, inventive, absurd, and went in a slightly darker direction than I had anticipated. And I loved every second of it, devouring it quickly. I’ve never read deWitt before. I’ve added his The Sisters Brothers to my TBR list.

Before that I gobbled up Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses, the first Detective Rebus 634407mystery. I’d been meaning to try this series for years now and I finally felt in the mood for a mystery. I have to say that Rebus is a very tortured detective, more so than I’m used to.  I’m not quite sure that I like him, but I’m willing to read another one to see if I do. In this one he has to deal with not only a brother that is doing something shady, but a deranged serial killer going after young girls in Edinburgh. His very deeply buried past experiences may hold the clue to catching the killer. This was a quick read and I’ve checked out the second one, Hide and Seek.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was another book I’d been meaning to read for a while. Rachel Joyce had made a big impact on my with last year’s The Music Shop and I’d heard good things about Harold. I really liked it, and boy did it make me cry. Keep your tissues handy for this one if you’ve 9780812993295_p0_v1_s550x406not read it. Harold gets a letter from an old co-worker, Queenie Hennessy, who’s dying. Instead of posting his response in the nearest mailbox, as he sets out to do, he ends up walking hundreds of miles to see her, convinced that if he keeps walking she will live. I enjoyed the vicarious walk through England and getting to know both Harold and his wife, Maureen. They’ve gone through some things and not dealt with them very well, and as the book goes along it was lovely to see them both break out of old, destructive habits. This is a lovely, touching read. I added Joyce’s  The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy to my TBR list.

The best read of the year so far for me has been Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.51wuQJpliWL._AC_UL320_SR206,320_ Linked short stories, all directly about Olive or mentioning her in some capacity, this was tremendously moving and just gorgeously written. I think Strout is going on my favorite writers list, especially since in the last two years I’ve adored her My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible. The woman can write! Olive is a cranky, no-nonsense, but ultimately kind and more perceptive woman than she’s given credit for. She’s no saint, and Strout doesn’t shy away from letting the reader see her fully, warts and all. This novel provides a kaleidoscopic view not only of her but of a town full of people with secrets, dreams, broken hearts, disappointments, and hopes, and I found it masterful. I can see myself reading this again.

My February pick for the #UnreadShelfProject challenge on Instagram was American Street by Ibi Zoboi. It’s a YA novel about a young Haitian woman named Fabiola who americanstreet_wblurbcomes to the US with her mother to live with her aunt and cousins in Detroit. Only, her mother gets detained indefinitely in customs and she has to travel to Detroit without her. It’s a culture-clash novel, a coming of age novel, and a meditation on race and poverty with a heavy dose of magical realism. There’s a lot going on here. But it was absorbing and gave me a better picture of Haitian culture than I had before I read it. I didn’t love it, but I always keep in mind that YA novels aren’t really written for a 40-something woman. I think that a 14 year old could really get into this and learn a lot from it. I’m glad I finally read it and now it can find a good home at my library’s book sale in the Spring. Hooray for reading my own books!

So that’s what I’ve been reading lately (aside from The Count, of course. That reminds me, I need to start reading my next 100 pages.) Have you read any of my recent picks? What have you been reading lately?

Thoughts on Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin (#CCSpin #19)

And the darkness of John’s sin was like the darkness of the church on Saturday evenings; like the silence of the church when he was there alone, sweeping, and running water into the great bucket, and overturning chairs, long before the saints arrived. It was like his thoughts as he moved about the tabernacle in which his life had been spent; the tabernacle that he hated, yet loved and feared.

510dFZyJmyL._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_I feel like I got way with something by reading Go Tell It on the Mountain for the latest Classics Club Spin. We were supposed to be reading one of the longer books on our lists, but I only put ten “big books” on mine, and the spin result happened to be Baldwin’s 1953 first novel. The one I borrowed from the library clocked in at 291 pages. Oh well. Those big books are still waiting for me.

This is a challenging books to write about. It’s a family story and a coming of age story. Goodreads says it’s semi-autobiographical and my copy’s jacket flap quotes Baldwin himself as saying, “Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” I’ve now read three of Baldwin’s books, and I’ve seen the exquisite documentary about him, I Am Not your Negro, but I do want to read a biography about him or at least do some more research into this life.

Not only is this book challenging to describe but it was challenging to read as well, because I felt so bad for the main character, the young teenager John. His family lives in 1930’s era New York City, and his cold and critical father Gabriel is an associate pastor of a very Evangelical type of church. His world seems pretty sheltered and restricted, and you can feel John wanting to break free and explore the variety of experience that New York offers.

He stood on the crest of the hill, hands clasped beneath his chin, looking down. Then he, John, felt like a giant who might crumble this city with his anger; he felt like a tyrant who might crush this city beneath his heel; he felt like a long-awaited conqueror at whose feet flowers would be strewn, and before whom multitudes cried, Hosanna! He would be, of all, the mightiest, the most beloved, the Lord’s anointed; and he would live in this shining city which his ancestors had seen with longing from far way. For it was his; the inhabitants of the city had told him it was his; he had but to run down, crying, and the would take him to their hearts and show him wonders his eyes had never seen. 

Gabriel and John do not get along, and we come to find out that John is Gabriel’s wife Elizabeth’s son by another man. Gabriel becomes a bit more humanized and sympathetic as we delve into flashbacks of his story, and we come to understand in flashbacks how and why Elizabeth married him as well. The last section of the book is John’s feverish, nightmarish religious experience (salvation? conversion?) with an ambiguous ending.

Did I enjoy this book? Enjoy is not exactly the word – it was a surprisingly page-turning read. Some parts were more engaging than others, especially the back stories of John’s aunt Florence and mother Elizabeth. But I gave it four stars because of the beauty and precision of the language and the challenging spiritual imagery.

Time was indifferent, like snow and ice; but the heart, crazed wanderer in the driving waste, carried the curse forever.

Have you read this? If you’ve read Baldwin before, what is your favorite of his books? Are you interested in seeing the new film If Beale Street Could Talk (based on Baldwin’s 1974 novel?)

 

 

Mini-Reviews: A Room Full of Bones by Elly Griffiths and Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

I’ve been doing some good reading lately, although so far this weekend I’ve barely cracked open a book (gasp!) I’m about halfway through Anthony Ray Hinton’s memoir The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row and it is SO GOOD, people. This man has an amazing spirit, despite being condemned to die in an utter TRAVESTY of a trial. I need to finish it quickly, because it’s a library copy and there’s still a waiting list. It was due Thursday (yikes!) But I’m NOT turning it back in until I’m finished with it, so too bad. (Confessions of a bad library assistant.) Oh well. Both of the books I’m writing about today were also library books, written by two of my favorite authors.

The fourth book in the Ruth Galloway mystery series, A Room Full of Bones, was a good,download (1) solid read and a well-crafted piece of entertainment. Elly Griffiths has thus far written a series full of multi-dimensional, interesting characters. Even the secondary characters are delightful (especially everyone’s favorite warlock/shaman/pagan Cathbad!) In this installment, forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is trying to balance motherhood and work, gently dipping her toe into the dating world again after a long absence, and getting ready for her daughter’s first birthday. She is supposed to be supervising the opening of a coffin containing the bones of a medieval bishop. But when she arrives at the museum, she finds the young curator dead on the floor. There’s another death not too long after, someone else associated with the museum, and Ruth and DCI Nelson are once again drawn into an investigation. Aboriginal bones, cultural appropriation, ancestral curses, horse racing, and snakes all play a part in this page-turning mystery. I love how Griffiths seems to find an element of the supernatural to add to her stories, making the rational Ruth and Nelson (and the reader) question the rigidity of their views. I also love the complicated nature of the relationships in the primary and secondary characters. For the first time we see Ruth and Nelson’s wife interact on a deeper, uncomfortable level and it’s compelling stuff. I continue to really enjoy this series and am quite addicted! It won’t be long before I pick up the next book. Four stars.

downloadBarbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered was a delight. She is one of my very favorite authors. I flew through this book because I simply liked spending time with the characters. That is one of Kingsolver’s greatest strengths – she knows how to create compelling, sympathetic characters. Willa Knox is the heart of this book. She’s a free-lance journalist, a wife, mother, and new grandmother who has had to uproot her life in Virginia and move to an old inherited house in New Jersey. The college where her professor husband had tenure unexpectedly closed, leaving the couple grasping for financial security. Not to mention that they have recently taken in her husband’s seriously ill father, Nick, who is a raging bigot and fan of Fox News. Her two grown children, Zeke and Tig, have come back home after trials of their own, and Zeke is now left with a baby to care for on his own after tragedy strikes. As financial troubles mount and the house starts to crumble around them, Willa must find a way to right the ship. She starts investigating the history of the house, hoping for some kind of historical grant that would at least enable restoration.

Enter the second story line, set in the same town in the 1870’s. A young science teacher, Thatcher Greenwood, lives at the same address with his young bride, her mother, and her younger sister. Thatcher is passionate about opening his pupils’ minds to the new teachings of Darwin and other like-minded scientists, but his principal forbids it. We follow Thatcher’s journey as he comes to know his next-door neighbor, the spirited and scientifically minded Mary Treat (a real-life biologist who corresponded with Darwin) and butts heads with the town’s leader.

Kingsolver alternates the two story lines, drawing parallels between them among the forces of stagnation and progress. Both main characters are caught in times of intense change, whether it be climate change and an increasingly interconnected world or a new place for humanity with the dawn of evolutionary theory and archaeological discoveries. I was more drawn to the contemporary story line because I loved Willa so much. Kingsolver always knows how to write a mother/child relationship, and some of the best stuff is the back and forth between Willa and her independent daughter, Tig. Willa is reckoning with mistakes she made as a mother and trying to see her adult children as they really are now, not as the roles she assigned to them when they were growing up. I also love that Willa and her husband have such a physical, sexual relationship – it’s nice to see older characters explore that dimension of marriage.

Some reviews have mentioned Kingsolver’s tendency towards preachiness. At this point, after having read and loved so many of her novels, I don’t even care anymore if she’s preaching to me – the story she’s created here mattered more to me than any notion that I was being taught a lesson. I feel like Willa is representative of a lot of people in the Baby Boom generation; she’s asking legitimate questions and trying to figure out how and why things have changed so much in the last 30-40 years in terms of climate, technology, economic instability. I came away from this book with a sense of hope, which is not a small consideration in 2018. I’m torn between four and five stars for this one, but I’m going with five because I feel such tenderness for Willa and her family. (And because Kingsolver writes with such heart and sincerity.)

 

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood #MARM

Marcie at Buried in Print and Naomi at Consumed By Ink have been doing such a lovely job hosting Margaret Atwood Reading Month (#MARM.) When I heard that they were doing this it was just the prompt I needed to reread her earliest novel, The Edible Woman. I first read it pre-Goodreads, which for me means before 2007. I remembered that the main character had some kind of eating disorder, but that was really I remembered. I’m happy to say that I enjoyed it very much and it was definitely worth the reread.71t3FqjWmoL

Published in 1969, this quirky novel centers on Marian, a young working woman who lives in an apartment with her roommate, Ainsley, and dates the handsome and respectable Peter. She has a less than thrilling job at Seymour Surveys, revising questionnaires designed for housewives. Four months in she’s asked to join the pension plan, which shakes her in a big way.

It was a kind of superstitious panic about the fact that I had actually signed my name, had put my signature to a magic document which seemed to bind me to a future so far ahead I couldn’t think about it. Somewhere in front of me a self was waiting, pre-formed, a self who has worked during innumerable years for Seymour Surveys and was now receiving her reward. A pension. I foresaw a bleak room with a plug-in electric heater. Perhaps I would have a hearing aid, like one of my great-aunts who had never married.

Ainsley is trying to deliberately get pregnant, while Marian’s other good friend Clara is deep in the chaos of motherhood with two small children and a baby on the way. When Peter proposes to Marian (after a disastrous evening out with Ainsley and a doozy of a fight) Marian thinks of Peter as the savior rescuing her from a life of drudgery and the dreaded pension.

I was seeing him in a new light: he was changing form in the kitchen, turning from a reckless young bachelor into a rescuer from chaos, a provider of stability. Somewhere in the vaults of Seymour Surveys an invisible hand was wiping away my signature.

Everything starts to change, however, once Marian meets a strange, scholarly young man at the laundromat and then starts experiencing some unusual visions and thoughts whenever she eats a meal. Just as she gets what she thinks she wants, the promise of being a wife and someday a mother, her world starts imploding bit by bit.

This is an unusual novel in that the characters don’t always do what you think they might do. Marian is a frustrating character in that she doesn’t seem to know herself very well, but her journey is interesting to see play out. And of course societal conventions of the time and place (late 1960s Canada – Toronto? It wasn’t clear to me) are sometimes tedious and offensive to this modern reader. But this novel was more entertaining and thought-provoking than anything. It’s neat to see how Atwood got her start. I see the seeds of her witty, subversive writing here. If you’re a fan of her writing and you haven’t yet read this, I think you should add it to your list.

Oh, and on November 18th, Atwood’s birthday (79 years old,) I ate cake! Just a simple piece of store-bought cookies and cream cake from the grocery store, but it was delicious and I enjoyed every bite. May Ms. Atwood celebrate many more happy birthdays.

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Five Sentence Reviews: Three 2018 Novels

I feel like my reading mojo is returning. I’ve been on a streak of four-star reads lately.

There There by Tommy Orange. This one made me cry. I’d never read a novel told from the perspectives of urban Native Americans before (Sherman Alexie’s reservation-centric stories 36692478were my only reference.) So many characters occasionally had me reaching back to the beginning to get my bearings. And the ways in which the characters all intersected in the end felt just a wee bit too tidy. But the passion and emotion of the writing kept me invested and makes me want to read Orange’s next book. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A sample: Only those who have lost as much as we have see the particularly nasty slice of smile on someone who thinks they’re winning when they say, “Get over it.” This is the thing: if you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that’s how you know you’re on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who’ve never even heard of the words hors d’oeuvres or fluff.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware. What fun! This classic-style mystery with Gothic flare kept me turning pages so quickly I didn’t even take notes. You’ve got a crumbling, spooky estate, an inheritance at stake, family secrets and intrigue galore.51yGj5z3JtL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_ Plus, a menacing, Mrs. Danvers-like housekeeper looming around every dark corner. Highly entertaining – Ruth Ware is becoming one of my go-to mystery writers.             ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A sample: Then she turned the handle of the door and pushed.

Nothing happened.

Hal felt her breath catch in her throat, and her heart seemed suddenly to be beating painfully hard.

The bolts. The bolts on the outside.

But no – it wasn’t possible. She would have heard. Surely she would have heard? And who – why?

Transcription by Kate Atkinson. One of my very favorite authors, Kate Atkinson’s last two books utterly wowed me. This novel, a story of a young, inexperienced woman named Juliet who is recruited to be a spy for MI-5 in the early days of WWII Britain, 37946414wasn’t as magnificent in scope or in emotion as those. But it was typically Atkinsonian in that it was an entertaining mix of heavy and light, serious and witty. It reminded me a lot of one of her earliest novels, Human Croquet, in tone especially. Fans of Atkinson should definitely read this. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A sample: The brooding landscape they were currently traversing, the lowering sky above their heads and the rugged terrain beneath their feet, were all conspiring to make her feel like an unfortunate Brontë sister, traipsing endlessly across the moors after unobtainable fulfillment. Perry himself was not entirely without Heathcliffian qualities – the absence of levity, the ruthless disregard for a girl’s comfort, the way he had of scrutinizing you as if you were a puzzle to be solved. Would he solve her? Perhaps she wasn’t complicated enough for him. (On the other hand, perhaps she was too complicated.)

Thoughts on any of these? What makes the difference for you between a four-star read and a five-star read?

Brother by David Chariandy

But during that first night in Mother’s birthplace, I remember feeling afraid, though of what I did not know. Something old and unburied in the darkness, something closer to us now than ever before. I remember lying awake with Francis and hearing for the first time the scream of a rooster, my brother’s hand pressed hard in mine. The sun still hadn’t risen, and I remember looking at Francis, who lay beside me very still with his eyes wide open. I remember searching for a clue about our situation in some slight movement of his ear, or of his jaw, or of that expressive space between his mouth and nose. And when he caught me looking at him, he swallowed and nodded.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said.

36672820Oh my goodness. This book. I don’t know that I’ve read a book that made me feel more in 177 short pages. David Chariandy’s Brother was highly recommended by three bloggers I trust, Anne @ I’ve Read This, Fiction Fan @ Fiction Fan’s Book Reviews, and Naomi @ Consumed by Ink (links to their reviews if you click their names.) They did not let me down. It’s a book that I could have read in a day or two but I deliberately drew my reading out longer because I wanted to savor the writing and really let the story sink in.

Set in Toronto, flashing back from present day to the 1980’s and 90’s, Brother is the story of Michael and his older, cooler brother Francis. Growing up in a part of town called Scarborough, home to immigrants from many nations, the brothers are smart but swimming against both the high expectations of their hard-working Trinidadian mother and the low expectations of their community. The specter of gang violence haunts their nightmares and impacts their waking hours too. Their father has disappeared and their mother works two or even three low-paying jobs but still doesn’t have enough money to fix a rotten tooth. But the boys find small ways to escape and experience peace through food, music, and through visits to a nearby park called The Rouge Valley.

When we were very young, we’d build forts and hideaways in the brush, using branches but also cardboard and broken piece of furniture occasionally dumped here. We’d race twigs in the creek, spot the little speckled fish swimming together in the blowing current, hunt for the other small lives that had managed to survive in the park unnoticed. The tracks in the mud of a muskrat or a raccoon or maybe a turtle…. One fall we piled the stuff of this land over our bodies like blankets. Coloured leaves and pine needles, branches and the barbed wire of thistles. Also plastic bags and foil drifting down with smashed drinking straws and rushes. Our faces were already the colour of earth.

This is a coming-of-age story as well as a story about grief and identity. The possibility of young love gently permeates the tale, lending the narrative a bit of needed lightness. There is not a word wasted in this book. I marveled at Chariandy’s craft in creating such a powerful story in so few pages. Small details, like a mother gently pinching her son’s earlobe “lightly between her thumb and finger as if it were a raindrop from a leaf” are the kinds of things that made me want to linger instead of racing through the pages.

There is tragedy here, and the reader knows this from pretty early on, so I was bracing myself while simultaneously enjoying the beautiful, searing writing. Yet even with the devastating pain of loss there is still a note of tender hope here, that lives can be patched back up to form something new. This is Chariandy’s first novel published in the United States, and his second novel overall (2007’s Soucayant is one I must somehow find a copy of.) I am so thrilled that I learned about Brother from my blogger friends, and I hope that you will give it a try if you haven’t yet read it. It’s one of my favorite books so far this year.