Monday, September 28, 2015

Benediction by Kent Haruf

Benediction (Plainsong, #3)Benediction by Kent Haruf
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The main plot in Benediction by Kent Haruf is the story of Dad Lewis at the end of his life. He's been diagnosed with terminal cancer. We follow him through his last days. There are a few scenes about the indignity of dying from a debilitating disease, but the novel focuses mainly on Dad's reflections on his life. Dad has been a hard-working, successful man. He owns a hardware store with a few employees and has made enough money to be a good provider. He's been a good family man in his relationship with his wife, Mary, and his daughter, Lorraine. However, his son, Frank, did not turn out to be the exact son Dad wanted and this had led to a conflict. This is one of the two main issues Dad reflects on as he awaits his fate. The second issue is his treatment of an employee who committed a fireable offense. I don't want to discuss specifics in this review, but I can say that Haruf has not passed judgment on these issues. He's left that to Dad and to the book's readers.

The two other plots running through the novel are the story of a minister who seems to be either extremely moral or self-righteous, depending on one's point of view, and the story of a woman who has an affair with a married man. The characters within each of these plots interact, but their conflicts rarely overlap. I found that choice interesting and I believe it made the novel better.

Benediction has been called a “quiet” novel by a number of reviewers who look at its focus on small details. I think that's accurate, but I would add both “moral” and “self-evaluating” to the description. It's about choices, small and large, that sometimes go the way one expects, but sometimes take unusual turns. Whether the evaluating is done by a dying man, a man whose career is in a downward spiral, or a woman whose life hasn't gone the way she'd hoped, the process of appraising moral decisions after the results are known is fascinating.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions

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Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

I count on Jodi Picoult to write books I enjoy and Leaving Time was no exception. The last one of her books I read was The Storyteller, which is my favorite so far, but this was also a good read. I thought the elephant anecdotes were a bit overdone because many of them made the same points about these beautiful animals (that they are loving animals with long memories, a sense of family loyalty, and an ability to grieve). Also, the novel's beginning was a little slow for my taste, but once relationships were established the story drew me in.

Jodi Picoult always has believable, flawed characters in her novels. Alice, Thomas, Gideon, Nevvie, and Grace all have substantial flaws that make them interesting and so do Serenity and Virgil. Jenna also has her flaws, ones that are common among teenagers. She acts in ways that disrespect her grandmother's authority and she is impulsive. It isn't her mother she seeks as much as it is the assurance that her mother always loved her.

Serenity is a psychic who has had some problems, but has a long history of using her abilities to help police solve crimes. Jodi Picoult treated her abilities with respect, something I believe is important in any story that has a paranormal aspect.

The elephant stories are fascinating even if they are a little redundant. These animals seemed to have the traits of dogs. (Anyone who has ever loved a dog will know what a compliment that is.) I was surprised by some of the points made in the book, specifically how clueless the wildlife caretakers were concerning the reactions of elephants to the culling of their herds. But I wasn't surprised by how elephants care about each other and have very unique personalities.

Overall, this is another interesting novel from Jodi Picoult.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the Day starts in the 1950s. It is the story of Stevens, a butler on an English estate owned by a rich American named Mr. Farraday. Stevens' position has become a parody of what it used to be. The staff of the estate is down to four people whose main purpose seems to be allowing their employer to show off. But that said, Farraday is a decent person. When he feels Stevens has been under too much pressure, he suggests that his butler borrow his car and take an extended tour of the countryside. Stevens decides to accept this offer because he wants to visit and talk to a former member of the estates' staff, Miss Kenton. He's hoping to convince her to return.

Stevens spends much of the time on his road trip, reminiscing about his past, mostly about the years leading up to World War II. During that time the estate was owned by Lord Darlington, a member of the English nobility who sympathized with the Germans because he believed that the Treaty of Versailles was too brutal. This belief allowed Darlington to be manipulated by the Nazis.

But the story belongs to Stevens, not Darlington. He is a butler who is the son of a butler, so his role is deeply ingrained. Stevens believes that a good butler subjugates his own opinions to his lord's opinions. Whenever he was asked to do something, he did it. It wasn't so much that he would do things he didn't believe in. Rather, he switched his beliefs to go along with whatever was requested. He becomes a master at having no opinions at all.

Stevens also becomes a master at avoiding answers to questions which may force him to express an opinion. This affects his relationships with people he encounters during his road trip and with Miss Kenton. This damaged, personal side of Stevens is what makes his character so fascinating.

The Remains of the Day is a wonderful character study and an excellent glimpse into a period of English history.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The stories in Jen Knox's After the Gazebo are eclectic, but unified in tone. They are stories of people who have been beaten up by a hard world, but have been left with a sense of hope. Sometimes the characters make bad decisions, but often these are tales of circumstances that build up and overwhelm. The subjects include topics such as substance abuse, the problems of aging, abusive relationships, raging storms, car accidents, and so many others. But the writing is character oriented with the focus not on what happens as much as it is on how it impacts the people.

Knox's writing style is wonderful. Here are a couple of first sentences:

From Disengaged:
The closest I've come to a passionate encounter in the last two decades was with Henry, and he died soon after we met.

From Types of Circus:
The last day I saw Michelle, she weighed 325.2 pounds.

Both of these sentences captured me as soon as I read them. In the first case the death draws me in. In the second the .2 pounds intrigues me. I could go on and on with examples of how Knox subtly and carefully holds her readers' attention.

Two stories in the collection are particularly intriguing because they may or may not be connected. These are Scratching the Silver and Lying to Old Men. Both are about a man named Rattle who has a one night stand with an underage exotic dancer. The first one is written from Rattle's point of view. The second is from the point of view of the woman. But the stories play out in very different ways, leaving me wondering if they are about two different men with the same unusual name and affair, or about the same man with two different dancers (she's named in the first story, but not in the second), or if this is a case of looking at the results of the same event with two very different choices. Knox placed Scratching the Silver early in the collection and Lying to Old Men late, so she wasn't pushing this connection. Still, if she did not want them to be considered as a pair, I believe she would have changed Rattle's name.

Both of the two “Rattle” stories stand own. In fact, according to the acknowledgments: Scratching the Silver first appeared in Per Contra and Lying to Old Men received finalist status for the 2013 Fulton Prize and was introduced in The Adirondack Review. But together they are even more powerful. Like all the stories in After the Gazebo they made me think and feel.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions