Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Round HouseThe Round House by Louise Erdrich

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Round House took me to another world (life on a Native American reservation) and showed me that world through someone dealing with a horrible situation that could have occurred where anyone lived. The novel was intense yet also educational.

The story is told through the point of view of Joe, a young boy who is the second Antone Bazil Coutts, but prefers to be called Joe. When Geraldine, Joe's mother, is brutally raped, their family is thrown into emotional hell. She refuses to talk about what happened to her for a couple of reasons. Although she survived, she has been hurt physically and is an emotional wreck. She is also very protective of her family and doesn't want either her husband or her son to be placed in danger while seeking justice. Joe's father is a judge, dealing with crimes that occur on the reservation.

Punishment of the crime is complicated by confusion about legal jurisdiction. The rape was committed at the Round House, a spiritual center that is built partially on Native American land and partially on land granted to the reservation. Before legal action can start, it is critical to know the exact place in the Round House where Geraldine was raped and she refuses to tell.

I appreciated what I learned about the complications of the Native American legal process. I also appreciated what I learned about growing up on the reservation. Joe seems to know every family living near his and is related to most of them. His friends are often cousins. He sometimes rides his bike to their homes and stays there, especially as his mother recovers. It is almost as if he is being raised communally. One interesting fact I learned was about an item called a “thunderbird egg.” This is a stone taken from the foot of a tree that has been hit by lightening. It is supposed to have good luck, although that belief comes into doubt later in the book.

There is a racial aspect to the rape and to the crime that led to it, but greed is more the motivation than hate. Again, I liked how Native American topics were intrinsic to the book, yet were not the only aspects.

I had a couple of issues. I thought the way Geraldine managed to survive the attack was a stretch and there were some coincidences that diminished the story's believability. But those issues were small compared to the good points of the novel.

Overall, I loved this book for its plot more than for what it taught me about life on a reservation. The story grabbed me and held on until I turned the last page. Erdrich's writing style is beautiful.

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Saturday, September 15, 2012

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Caleb's CrossingCaleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Geraldine Brooks has written another wonderful historical novel: Caleb's Crossing, the story of an early seventeenth century colony in Massachusetts on the island that is now Martha's Vineyard. The book's focus is on the relationship between the colonists and the Native Americans who were living on the island when the European settlers arrived. Both groups have strong religious beliefs which dictate how they feel about each other in complex ways that differ from person to person.

Caleb's Crossing is told through Bethia Mayfield, the granddaughter of the colony's founder and the daughter of the minister who is doing the most to convert the native population while treating them with respect. Caleb, the title character, is brought into the story when Bethia is twelve years old. She encounters a young boy who is a member of the Wampanoag people while she is gathering clams. She has a limited knowledge of the Wampanoag language, so they are able to communicate. They become close friends, teaching each other the customs of their people and how to speak their languages well. They decide to give each other names; Bethia becomes Storm Eyes and Cheeshahteaumauk becomes Caleb.

Brooks treats the spiritual beliefs of both the English settlers and the Native Americans with respect. Caleb and some of the other Native Americans see power in the god of the English because of their ability to heal and their resistance to the diseases spreading through the area. Caleb also recognizes the need to understand the Europeans because of their great numbers. At one point he throws a handful of sand into the air and says the following: “You are like these. Each a trifling speck. A hundred, many hundreds-what matter? Cast them into the air. You cannot even find them when they land upon the ground. But there are more grains than you can count. There is no end to them. You will pour across this land, and we will be smothered.” Caleb sees that the native people must “cross over” or perish.

Another aspect of this book I thought was handled well was her portrayal of the racial and gender prejudices of the time. Some of the colonists were rigid in their structured views of the roles people are born to, but others could understand that both Native Americans and women can have the desire and the ability to learn. Caleb was based on a real man who was an early graduate of the college that would become Harvard.

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Saturday, September 8, 2012

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall (Wolf Hall, #1)Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think a good test for historical fiction is to imagine the book you're reading with the names changed, so you come at it for the story rather than its perspective on the lives of real people. If I put Wolf Hall to that test, it fails. The story is about the events during the time when Henry VIII was forcing a break between the church of England and the Catholic church of Rome. It is long and told mostly through dialogue and specific scenes that give the opinions of characters. Henry wanted to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn for reasons that had to do with both his passion for Anne and his desire for an heir. The novel is written in first person from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, which gives it an intensity that I felt was too much for so long a book. I also had difficulty with Mantel's use of pronouns. “He” was Thomas Cromwell by default but not always, so it often took me awhile to determine who was speaking. However, the writing is wonderful when reading short passages. Mantel obviously took a great deal of time with each word choice.

When glancing through some of the other reviews I noticed that the people who thought the most of Wolf Hall already had knowledge of that period of English history. I think that says a great deal for the accuracy and perspective on the events. I had a familiarity with the names of the people who surrounded Henry VIII, but knew very little about the specifics of the English reformation. I now know much more. My previous impression of Anne Boleyn was that she was an unfortunate woman caught up in a situation over which she had no control. I feel less sorry for her after reading this book. She treated people, including her sister, Mary, in a brutal and horrible way. I have a similar feeling about Thomas Moore who also suffered a fate that seems appropriate for such a ruthless man. Since the book was written from Thomas Cromwell's perspective, I'm left feeling that he was a strong family man who loved his children and, especially, his wife, Elizabeth Wyckes.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in sixteenth century English history.

Steve Lindahl - Author of Motherless Soul

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Saturday, September 1, 2012

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon SquadA Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Visit from the Goon Squad breaks the old rules then makes up its own. Considering the novel is about people involved with the punk rock movement this make sense, even if it is a bit disconcerting at times.

The elements that seemed confusing to me include such things as:
1. A section written in first person where I didn't know who the narrator was for a good length of time.
2. Plot elements that were built up then dropped, such as the section set on an African safari when Rolph (Bennie Salazar's son) comes back to find his sister, Charlie, crying. There have been hints of something going on between Charlie and one of the African warrior guides. So is this crying from something sexual that's occurred? We're not sure because we've been told regarding the warrior - “But he's sung for enough American tourists to recognize that in her world, Charlie is a child.” Perhaps Charlie is disappointed that nothing happened? Or she might just be upset that her father went for a walk with Rolph and didn't invite her. The point is - we never know.
3. Characters are introduced early in the book, then brought back much later. I read a Kindle version which helped a great deal. When I couldn't remember the person I was reading about I could search the book to find the places where I'd first read about him or her.

The elements that were new and in many ways amazing include such things as:
1. Egan's writing style seemed to reflect the mind sets of the characters I was reading about. During the time when all the characters appeared to be functioning while drugged, the writing jumped about in an intense manner that reflected the way these people were. For example: this is a section right after Sasha has stolen a woman's wallet, just for the thrill of stealing.

She sat down and cocked her head at Alex. She smiled her yes/no smile. “Hello,” she said.
The yes/no smile was amazingly effective.
“You're happy,” Alex said.

2. There's also a section late in the book that's written entirely in Powerpoint presentation. At first it seemed like a gimmick, but it reflects a filtered view of life that is important for the reader to understand.

There were also traditional aspects to this book that I liked. The subject matter was interesting. I grew up in the sixties, so aging rockers isn't something new to me. But it was different to see it from the punk perspective. I wouldn't recommend this novel to someone who wants to get lost in a book, but for someone looking for a unique read it's great.

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