Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fiction Review: Gone Tomorrow by P.F. Kluge

We're on vacation on a road trip and enjoying lots of good books along the way! I stopped off in a Panera with internet access to post some new reviews. You might also want to check out my review of The Hunger Games at Great Books for Kids and Teens. It's a YA book that readers of any age will love! Now, onto this review...

Let me get this out of the way first: I loved this book. I spotted Gone Tomorrow by P.F. Kluge on my library’s shelf of new arrivals and picked it up because I remembered hearing some good things about it. I’m so glad I did.

Oddly enough, the likeable main character has already died in the first sentence:

George Canaris is the first faculty member of this college in half a century whose death merited an obituary in the New York Times. He was our best-known professor, one of those outsized characters who arrives in an obscure place and makes it his own. “A writer, a critic, a professor, a campus legend and a national figure, the very embodiment of the liberal arts,” the Times obituary said. And a mystery. He was the author of two well-received novels and a book of essays, all published more than thirty years ago. Taken together, they were the beginnings of an impressive shelf to which, in all his years here in Ohio, he added nothing. “Compared to Faulker and Dos Passos at the start of his career,” the Times observed, “in the end he resembled Harper Lee.”

To some of us on campus, that last remark seemed harsh and condescending: the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately school of criticism, unfair to George Canaris and to Harper Lee. They were both authors – add J.D. Salinger to the list – who left readers wanting more and whose accomplishments, even as they recede, remain fresh and new and magic. Of how many writers can this be said? Also, there was always a chance that something more would be coming from a small town in Alabama, a remote New England farm, a small college on a hill in central Ohio. There was that hope, tantalizing, like a phone call from an unlisted number. In Canaris’ case, there were specific grounds for hope, his references to a novel underway, something major, years in the writing. He called it “The Beast.” But, as time went by, inevitably, there was speculation that the book was a myth, a lie, a joke. Every passing year made skeptics more confident. But never certain.

And that’s the main set-up of this book within a book, told in part in Canaris’ own words: how he progressed from a famous and sought-after author to an aging professor at a small rural college. Much of the novel goes back and forth between his past and the present, gradually filling in the blanks. The central question, both in Canaris’ life and in Gone Tomorrow, is whether The Beast really exists and whether it will ever be published.

To make the book even more captivating, the author, P.F. Kluge, happens to be a writer-in-residence at – guess what? – a small college in central Ohio. I couldn’t help wondering how much of the novel was autobiographical (though, obviously, not the part about not publishing in 30 years). Perhaps his own experience is the reason why the setting and descriptions in this book are so vivid.

Gone Tomorrow is clever and engaging, and I grew to really like George Canaris. I was rooting for him and hoping that The Beast was real and that he would conquer it and show those naysayers. I also became fond of the college and its little rural town and enjoyed Canaris’ tales of teaching there. All in all, this was a very enjoyable novel.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Fiction Review: A Map of the World

Ten pages into reading Jane Hamilton’s novel, A Map of the World, for my book group, I realized I had read it before. That was probably about five years ago, though, and I didn’t remember how it ended, so I re-read it. I’m glad I did, and, oddly, I think I liked it better the second time. I remembered it was a somewhat dark book, filled with despair – something I don’t normally enjoy – but I had forgotten how well-written it is. The story, characters, and writing make it a very compelling book that’s hard to put down.

Right from the very first paragraphs, you know that something terrible is going to happen and you get some insight into how the main character, Alice, thinks and feels:

I used to think if you fell from grace it was more likely than not the result of one stupendous error, or else an unfortunate accident. I hadn’t learned that it can happen so gradually you don’t lose your stomach or hurt yourself in the landing. You don’t necessarily sense the motion. I’ve found it takes at least two and generally three things to alter the course of a life: You slip around the truth once, and then again, and one more time, and there you are, feeling, for a moment, that it was sudden, your arrival at the bottom of the heap.

I opened my eyes on a Monday morning in June last summer and I heard, somewhere far off, a siren belting out calamity. It was the last time I would listen so simply to a sound that could mean both disaster and pursuit. Emma and Claire were asleep and safe in their beds, and my own heart seemed to be beating regularly. If the barn was out the window, clean, white, the grass cropped as close as a golf course, then my husband Howard was all right. I raised up to take a look. It was still standing, as I suspected it would be. I had never said out loud a little joke I used to say to myself now and again: Everywhere that barn goes, Howard, you are sure to be close behind. He was a philosophical and poetical farmer who bought Golden Guernseys because he both liked their color and the way “Golden Guernsey” floated off his tongue. It was secondary that the breed was famous for their butterfat. I worried about his choice when we bought the farm because I was certain that poetry is almost never rewarded. Now, in my more charitable moods, I wonder if our hardworking, God-fearing community members punished us for something as intangible as whimsy. We would not have felt eccentric in a northern city, but in Prairie Center we were perhaps outside the bounds of the collective imagination.

Those first two paragraphs provide a huge amount of information about Alice and her family and give a good example of how Alice thinks – in a sort of rambling, thoughtful way. I sometimes found her lack of focus irritating, but some in my book group really related to her.

You know right away that something bad is going to happen, and you don’t have to wait long to find out what it is. In the first chapter, Alice’s best friend’s toddler daughter drowns in the pond at the farm while Alice is babysitting. The accident is, of course, absolutely devastating to every character, but it’s only the start of Alice’s problems in this community where she has never felt accepted and in her role as mother in which she has never felt completely adequate.

Does this sound depressing? Well, it is, but it’s also fascinating and suspenseful, culminating in a courtroom drama. Interestingly, as a friend pointed out at book group, customer reviews of A Map of the World on are evenly distributed among all five ratings, from 1 to 5. We did an informal poll at book group, and almost everyone rated the book a 3 or a 4 and agreed it was well-written and compelling.

However, we were about evenly split on how we felt about Alice. About half of the group really related to her struggles with motherhood, depression, and her feelings of isolation. The other half – myself included – were vaguely annoyed by Alice’s behavior and wanted her to pull herself together (her response to the child’s drowning was understandable but her behavior in other aspects of the novel was sometimes hard for me to relate to). Some of the group found the book uplifting in the end and some still found it depressing. One thing we all agreed on – it was a gripping, very thought-provoking novel, and we had plenty to talk about!

Doubleday, 390 pages

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Top Ten Books I Want To Read This Summer

It's Tuesday and time for another Top Ten list. We spent Sunday evening at Barnes & Noble armed with long-held gift cards, and we're getting ready for our vacation, so today's list is ten books that I plan to read this summer. It's a strange sort of list, including some new releases, some classics I've never read before, and a mix of middle-grade, teen, and grown-up books. I'm sure more will come along as the summer progresses, but these 10 are on my bookshelf, waiting...

Top Ten Books I Want To Read This Summer
  • Emma by Jane Austen
  • The Pilgrims of Rayne by D.J. MacHale –middle-grade/teen (Book 8 in the Pendragon series)
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins - teen (author of The Underland Chronicles, a family favorite for middle-grade readers)
  • The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  • The Soloist by Steve Lopez
  • Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver
  • Building a Home with My Husband by Rachel Simon (author of Riding the Bus with My Sister)
  • Plainsong by Kent Haruf
  • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
I can't wait to get started! So, what do you want to read this summer?

Sunday, June 07, 2009

It's Monday, 6/8! What Are You Reading?

Well, it's actually still Sunday night, but I'll be out of town tomorrow, so I thought I'd post early. Nothing new this week - just finishing what I started. Getting very busy preparing for our upcoming vacation. We had a blast at Barnes & Noble tonight spending a few long-held gift cards for summer reading.

Last week:
  • I finished A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton for one of my book groups. This is the one I'd forgotten I already read! I re-read it and was still surprised by the ending. One of the benefits of getting older. Everyone in the book group agreed it was very well-written and compelling.
  • Then I was able to return to Gone Tomorrow by P.F. Kluge, a novel within a novel about a famous writer who takes a teaching job at a small mid-western college and never leaves (and also never publishes again). I'm enjoying this book very much so far.
So, what are YOU reading this week?

Friday, June 05, 2009

Fiction Review: The Girl She Used To Be

Like most people, I am completely fascinated by the Witness Protection Program. Who wouldn’t be? Families whisked away in the middle of the night, given new names, new identities, new lives. It’s all so mysterious and thrilling. So, I was intrigued when I heard about David Cristofano’s first novel, The Girl She Used To Be, about a woman who grew up in witness protection. My mom recently lent me the book, and it lived up to my expectations.

She’s been known as Karen Smith, Anne Johnson, Shelly Jones, and five other 3-syllable nondescript names, but what Melody Grace McCartney wants more than anything in the world is simply to be free to be herself. She and her parents have been in the Federal Witness Protection Program since Melody was six years old, when the three of them witnessed a horrible murder at the hands of a notorious mafia leader.

Twenty years have passed, and Melody is still on the run, unable to set down roots, retain any hint of her former life, or even get close to anyone for fear they might find out who she really is. She lives a numbingly routine life, devoid of any real connections, so desperate for intimacy that she listens to the family in the next apartment over a baby monitor. This solitary life takes its toll:

I’m getting that feeling again – a sort of wanderlust fueled by the assumption that the grass has got to be greener somewhere. Anywhere. I’ve seen a lot of grass, mind you, having moved with the frequency of an army brat and having acquired all of the inevitable angst and rebellion. It is one thing to deal with the lousy decisions in your life and suffer from the relative regret and misery, to play the hand you’ve been dealt; it is quite another to be dealt hand after hand, with some federal employee leering over your shoulder, whispering, “Fold.”

Anyway, I’m getting that feeling again.

Randall Farquar, whose name I intentionally mispronounce toward the more phonetic, will not be happy when I call, but it’s his job to talk to me, to protect me, to keep me safe and secure and toasty warm at night.

These are your tax dollars hard at work.

Melody seems stuck in this never-ending cycle, until Jonathan Bovaro comes along. For the first time in 20 years, someone calls Melody by her real name and seems to know everything about her – the real her – but Jonathan is part of the mafia family that is responsible for Melody’s lost life. The feds are sure Jonathan is using her as a pawn in their war against the Bovaro family, but Melody is drawn to him because he’s the first person she’s been able to be herself with in twenty years.

The Girl She Used to Be is full of suspense, with surprising plot twists at every turn of the page, as well as mystery and romance. The characters are fully formed, and you find yourself wanting to protect Melody but not knowing whom to trust. I devoured this exciting novel in one big gulp, during a sick day. It’s one of those books that you can’t wait to turn the next page and then find yourself sorry when it ends.

Monday, June 01, 2009

It's Monday, 6/1! What Are You Reading?

Can it really be June already? Wow. My kids finish school this week and next. Then, we have no more early mornings or rushed evenings...but I'll also have less quiet time to write! Things are very busy around here now, with all the end-of-the school year stuff, end-of-soccer stuff, plus getting ready for our annual summer road trip.

My reading week was similarly hectic:
  • I got about a third of the way through Gone Tomorrow by P.F. Kluge and was enjoying it when I got a notice from the library that my next book group selection was in. I'm a linear reader and like to read one book at a time, straight through, but with less than a week before book group, I had to put this novel down and pick up...
  • A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton. I got about 10 pages into this book when I realized I'd read it before! Unfortunately, I don't remember how it ends, so I'm reading it again. That's one of the benefits of getting older and losing your mind - everything old is new again! Anyone else ever do this? My husband and I do the same thing with movies - we're not sure whether we've seen something before until we get to the end. Then we say, "oh, yeah, we DID see it before!" The strange thing is that I didn't think I liked the book that much the first time through, but I'm having trouble putting it down. It is quite dark and pessimistic (which is probably what I didn't like), but it's also a very compelling story.
What are YOU reading this week?