Saturday, August 31, 2013

I've Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella

I've Got Your NumberI've Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's been more than two decades since I saw the movie Amadeus, but I still remember a scene where Salieri looks at a score Mozart has written and is both amazed and jealous of the lack of scratch outs and eraser marks. The feeling I get from Sophie Kinsella's books reminds me of that. When I write, I rewrite over and over again. And most of the books I read feel as if they've been rewritten numerous times. But sometimes I want a book that feels as if it's being told by someone sitting next to me instead of one that feels as if the writer spent hours polishing it. Kinsella's books are light, funny stories generally centered around a flaky young woman who is much brighter and more capable than she realizes. I've Got Your Number is a funny book, with an easy style and a plot that caught me and kept me reading.

The story is about Poppy Wyatt, a young woman engaged to the handsome son of a couple of academics who are famous enough to have their own television show. The parents intimidate her and the fiance doesn't treat her with respect. Her life is changed when someone steals her cell phone and she finds another in a waste basket. She ends up sharing a phone with the head of White Globe Consulting, a highly successful firm with government connections. Sharing a phone is extremely personal. Here's what Poppy says about it:

I mean, Magnus has seen every inch of my body, including the dodgy bits, but I would never, ever let him near my phone.

Early on in I've Got Your Number Kinsella appears to be taking a swipe at the type of high brows who would most likely not be among her readers when Poppy reveals that she once published a letter in a magazine that was intended to be funny.

Of course, humor is a form of expression which one should factor into one's cultural narrative,” says Wanda doubtfully. “I think Jacob C. Goodson has done some interesting work in 'Why Humans Joke.'”

But Kinsella is also saying that what we hear relates as much to our own self images as it does to the words that are spoken. Poppy needs to understand herself before she can understand Wanda and her husband, Antony.

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Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak

The SojournThe Sojourn by Andrew Krivak
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The rhythm of Andrew Krivak's writing forces his readers to slow down. The Sojourn pulled me in and kept me turning the pages because its subject matter and setting are fascinating. But I had to work to read it. Here's an example of a typical sentence pulled from about halfway through the novel:

But among the Austrian and German troops we fell in with that autumn in Kobarid, we felt the camaraderie of skill and demeanor, and so began to believe again in the possibility of victory in that war, after having lost so many battles, a victory we would soon find out, that was being mapped out in the mountains above the plateau the generals had conceded to their enemy in order to save themselves and their imperial army.

I might enjoy sentences such as this if they were used in moderation, but Krivak rarely breaks his rhythm with shorter phrases.

The novel follows the life of Jozef Vinich, who was born in Colorado but raised in Austria-Hungry. He and his adopted brother, learn to shoot with great skill because they are hunters from an early age. When World War 1 begins, their skills as sharpshooters are highly valued. The scenes from the battles and from long marches in harsh environments bring a very clear picture of a struggle to survive, but Krivak also shows the guilt surviving can bring.

I said that I had ceased to think of life or death because it seemed that I was destined to serve out the sentence of one for having delivered so well the sentence of the other, and that I saw the dead every night before I went to sleep as though they were still alive and standing before me.

The Sojourn is not a book to curl up with on a rainy day. But for readers who enjoy history and who like to work at what they read, it's a good one.

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Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

The Sandcastle GirlsThe Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Chris Bohjalian refers to the Armenian Genocide as “the slaughter you know next to nothing about.” This horrific event involved the mass murder of Armenians living in what is now Turkey. In my case Bohjalian's statement was true until I read his wonderful novel, The Sandcastle Girls. Here is a quote from Wikipedia about the Armenian Genocide:

It took place during and after World War 1 and was implemented in two phases: the wholesale killing of the able-bodied male population through massacre and forced labor, and the deportation of women, children, the elderly and infirm on death marches to the Syrian Desert. The total number of people killed as a result has been estimated at between 1 and 1.5 million.

The Sandcastle Girls bounces back and forth between the period when World War 1 was  in its early stages and the present time. It is about Laura Petrosian, a novelist, who is shown an old photograph of a woman who suffered through the Genocide and who shared Laura's last name. This picture starts Laura's effort to learn more about the history of her ancestors. The portions of the book that take place during the early twentieth century tell us about Laura's grandmother, Elizabeth Endicott, as she arrives in Syria with her father. They are on a humanitarian mission to help the victims. The first day Elizabeth is in Syria she sees surviving women from one of the marches.

These women are completely naked, bare from their feet to the long drapes of matted black hair. And it is the hair, long and straight though filthy and impossibly tangled, that causes her to understand that these woman are white – at least they were once – and they are, in fact, not old at all, Many might be her age or even a little younger. All are beyond modesty, beyond caring. Their skin has been seared black by the sun or stained by the soil in which they have slept or, in some cases, by great yawning scabs and wounds that are open and festering and, even at this distance, malodorous.

The novel views the genocide from a short distance. We hear about the massacres of the Armenian men, but we don't see them. And Elizabeth is in Syria, so the women she sees are the survivors. Along the way many of the women were raped and some were slaughtered for fun, but we find out about those crimes through second hand stories or the recollections of characters such as Nevart, an Armenian woman who has taken on the care of Hatoun, a young, silent, orphan girl.

Bohjalian's book is not only about genocide. The story also covers other, smaller aspects of the characters' lives. Elizabeth falls in love with an Armenian she meets and he also falls for her, but he never loses the love he feels for his wife and his child although they have been taken from him. In the present time we feel Laura's need to find out more about her family and to use that knowledge to better understand her own life.

The Sandcastle Girls is a novel about the importance of remembering our history, especially the bad parts. But it is also a book about hope and love and surviving.

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Saturday, August 3, 2013

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

Company Of LiarsCompany Of Liars by Karen Maitland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Company of Liars has the subtitle a novel of the plague.  It makes me wonder if the person who designed the cover ever read the book. It takes place in 1348 as the plague has started to overwhelm England, but the plague is only one of a number of reasons why nine outcasts have taken to the road. The disease has changed the landscape through which these travelers wander, but it is not the cause of their suffering. Fourteenth century England had plenty of other reasons why it was a hard time and place to live.

The story is told by an old character who is known to the readers as Camelot, a profession rather than a name.

I am, after all, a camelot, a peddler, a hawker of hopes and crossed fingers, of piecrust promises and gilded stories. And believe me, there are plenty who will buy such things. I sell faith in a bottle: the water of the Jordan drawn from the very spot where the Dove descended, the bones of the innocents slaughtered in Bethlehem, and the shards of the lamps carried by the wise virgins.

Camelot, who is clearly a seller of lies, is joined by eight others. These include Zophiel, a magician who owns the cart and horse they are using and who has a number of boxes with unknown contents, Osmond and Adela, a young couple who are expecting a child, Rodrigo and Jofre, an Italian musician and his apprentice, Pleasance, a midwife, and Cygnus, a storyteller who has a swan's wing in place of one of his arms.  All of these people have secrets they do not want to reveal. But they also have brought another traveler with them: Narigorm, a young, pale skinned, white haired girl who is a mystic and who has very little use for liars.

This novel has strong characters and an excellent feel for life during the fourteenth century, which is the aspect I found most interesting. But there was more to it than that. Karen Maitland handled the subjects of human sexuality, gender identification, and bigotry in interesting and sometimes surprising ways. She also mixed mysticism and reality in ways that made me think.

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