Thursday, August 28, 2014

Review of The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

The Undertaking by Audrey Magee
Publisher: Grove Press
Publication Date: September 2, 2014 (US release)
Length: 304 pages
Source: Grove Press via NetGalley

Audrey Magee’s novel The Undertaking, a finalist for the Bailey’s Women's Prize for Fiction, tells the story of two Germans during World War II, a man and a woman who marry for convenience and seek to survive the war in any way that they can. It’s a bleak and brutal book with a profoundly moving conclusion.

The Story: Peter and Katharina marry by proxy in 1941; they have never met and they select one another’s profiles through a marriage bureau. Peter, a private in the German Army, seeks the relief of honeymoon leave from the Eastern Front in Russia. Katharina, a young woman living with her parents in Berlin, marries in order to receive a pension in the event of her husband’s death. Peter’s father calls their marriage nothing more than a “Nazi breeding stunt.”

Peter arrives at Katharina’s apartment directly from the Eastern Front, filthy and covered with lice. Her parents are disappointed in Peter, a lowly schoolteacher before the war. Katharina’s father is a Nazi true believer and encourages Peter to assist the party in order to improve his prospects after the war. Soon Peter, like Katharina’s father, is helping remove Jewish families from their homes in the dead of night.

Unexpectedly, and after a few false starts, Katharina and Peter fall in love during their brief honeymoon. The novel follows the newlyweds’ parallel experiences, as Katharina curries favor with Nazi party bigwigs and Peter marches towards the inevitable horrors of the Battle of Stalingrad. Both Peter and Katharina will make painful, impossible choices as they seek to survive.

What I Thought: This is a powerful book. Once I had become involved with the story, I didn’t want to stop reading. The ending of The Undertaking is one of the most riveting and deeply affecting scenes in fiction I have read in a long time.

Magee brings a new perspective to World War II fiction by telling the stories of two ordinary Germans. Peter and Katharina never question Germany’s victory or the morality of the Nazi party’s actions. Magee has spoken about wanting to highlight the horror in the mundane. There is horror, indeed, in these characters' everyday actions, as Katharina wears the fine clothes of Jews sent to concentration camps and Peter and the other soldiers shoot Russian villagers for their food.

Magee, a journalist, brings into sharp focus the Eastern Front, Russian prisoner-of-war camps, and the barbaric treatment of German women by Russian soldiers at the end of the war. These are not easy or comfortable scenes to read, to be sure, but, as with the Holocaust, these terrible events need to be remembered.

One quibble -- I will say that, although I felt deeply enmeshed in the story, I struggled with the unadorned dialogue in The Undertaking. Magee’s prose throughout the novel is spare and economical, which works well for the most part. But the dialogue, for me, felt oddly stilted and unrealistic. I know that some critics have found this use of dialogue to be innovative, and perhaps it is . . . but I felt it had the effect of removing me from the story and the characters.

I would rate The Undertaking a 4 out of 5 stars, and recommend it to readers of historical fiction or literary fiction. Audrey Magee is certainly deserving of the praise and recognition received for her debut novel; I hope she will write more fiction in the future.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, Grove Press, through NetGalley. The opinions expressed here, as always, are my own.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review of Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
Publisher: Riverhead
Publication Date: March 6, 2014
Length: 308 pages
Source: My own copy

The Story: Helen Oyeyemi’s most recent novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, begins with the strange childhood of a young, motherless girl with the odd name of Boy. Growing up in the Lower East Side in the 1940s, Boy lives with her abusive father, a rat catcher. In 1953, fearing for her life, Boy finds the strength to run away, and creates a new life in a small town in Massachusetts. A childhood friend pursues her and wishes to marry her, but Boy seems incapable of accepting and returning real love.

Boy marries a widower, although she knows she does not truly love him, and becomes the stepmother to his beautiful and sweet daughter, Snow. In time, Boy gives birth to a daughter of her own, whom she names Bird. The birth of Bird, however, reveals a secret that will cause serious repercussions in the lives of Boy and her family.

My Thoughts: Boy, Snow, Bird is a novel that I expected to love. It’s a re-telling (of a sort) of the fairy tale of Snow White, and I usually enjoy novels that incorporate myth and fairy tales. The themes of race, segregation, and identity are just the kind of themes that I often relish in literary fiction. Helen Oyeyemi is a young novelist whose work has been widely praised by critics, and I had been looking forward to reading one of her books.

But while I appreciated parts of the novel, Boy, Snow, Bird mostly left me cold.

The novel started out well; I was interested in Boy’s disturbing childhood and her escape from her father. But once Boy embarked upon her new life in Massachusetts, the narrative began to lose its power for me. I never felt a strong connection with Boy or any of the other characters. Boy, of course, is supposed to be damaged emotionally and thus distant in her relations with other people, but Oyeyemi doesn’t find a way to let readers into her heart. The other characters seem just as distant and often, completely indistinct.

In Part 2 of the novel, the point of view switches to that of Boy’s daughter Bird, which I found a difficult transition. A long section of letters between Bird and her half-sister Snow was dry and unsatisfying. Oyeyemi returns to Boy’s perspective in Part 3, which includes a rather shocking plot turn. This plot turn seemed out of left field and more than a little unlikely, but at least it added some spark into the narrative. But just as I felt my interest peaked—and finally some sense of connection with Boy—the novel abruptly ends.

I do think Oyeyemi is a talented writer and storyteller; maybe her best work is still ahead of her. Boy, Snow, Bird strikes me as a novel with an intriguing premise that needed more crafting to reach its potential.

Others may have a better experience with Boy, Snow, Bird than I did; perhaps it just wasn’t the novel for me.

Monday, August 25, 2014

It's Monday . . . What Are You Reading?

Good morning! I am back from a family trip, and posting again on this weekly bookish meme hosted by Sheila of Book Journey. I hope everyone had a terrific late summer week in reading last week.

I really have to confess that I didn't get a lot of reading done last week! Our trip was to Maine, and we were busy exploring and hiking most of the week. I thought we'd have more poolside relaxation time--which would have given me reading time--but instead we were constantly on the go. As a consolation, I got to see great views like this:

One bookish place I visited in Maine was so, so cute-- I have to add a picture of this as well. This is Pushcart Press & Bookstore in Sedgwick, Maine, which calls itself "the world's smallest bookstore." It has an eclectic mix of new and used fiction and non-fiction, and it operates on the honor system most of the time; you leave your cash in a cookie tin!

I did manage to finish reading this book....

Helen Oyeyemi's latest novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, was not a big winner for me. I will write a review in the next few days and try to express why. But at least reading it allowed me to complete my Summer TBR list.

I have started reading this book:

Audrey Magee's The Undertaking was a finalist for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction earlier this year, and it will be released in the U.S. on September 2.

Have a great week in reading!

Monday, August 18, 2014

It's Monday . . . What Are You Reading?

Greetings, fellow Book Lovers! The weekly "It's Monday" meme is hosted by Sheila of Book Journey. I'm going to be taking some time off from the blog while on a family vacation. In fact, I scheduled this post to run today while I'm away, so hopefully we are off having a fun and relaxing time while you read this. When you go on vacation, do you get a lot of reading done? For me, it depends on the kind of vacation . . . sometimes I'm able to read a great deal, but other times we're so busy doing activities with the kids that the main reading time I get is during travel time. I will bring plenty of books along, but I'm not sure how much time I'll actually have to read on this trip.

Last week on the blog, I posted reviews of these books :

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas is a debut novel generating lots of buzz. It's an intense saga about a New York family facing a colossal struggle; it will be published on August 19th. My review is here.

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, the latest novel from Chris Bohjalian, is the moving story of a teenage girl who runs away in the wake of a nuclear meltdown near her home in Northeast Vermont. You can read my review here.

Jon Enfield's The New Men is about an Italian immigrant working for the Ford Motor Company in early part of the twentieth century. My review is here. I was a tour host for the first time on the virtual book tour for The New Men, and it was quite enjoyable to read all the other reviews as the tour moved along from blog to blog. You can check out the official TLC Book Tour site for the tour here.

Here is what I'm reading right now:

Ha--what a funny set of books to be reading all at once! On the surface of it, these three novels appear to have nothing in common. I did not expect to discover any connections among them, but interestingly, they all address, to some extent, the lies we tell ourselves and others and the meaning of truth. Hmm, I wonder if I'll find any other connections . . . .

I will be back to blogging sometime next week when we get back into town. Hope everyone has another great summer reading week!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Review of We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: August 19, 2014
Length: 640 pages
Source: Simon & Schuster via NetGalley

From the Publisher's Summary: Born in 1941, Eileen Tumulty is raised by her Irish immigrant parents in Woodside, Queens, in an apartment where the mood swings between heartbreak and hilarity, depending on whether guests are over and how much alcohol has been consumed.

When Eileen meets Ed Leary, a scientist whose bearing is nothing like those of the men she grew up with, she thinks she's found the perfect partner to deliver her to the cosmopolitan world she longs to inhabit. They marry, and Eileen quickly discovers Ed doesn't aspire to the same, ever bigger, stakes in the American Dream.

Eileen encourages her husband to want more: a better job, better friends, a better house, but as the years pass it becomes clear that his growing reluctance is part of a deeper psychological shift. An escapable darkness enters their lives, and Eileen and Ed and their son Connell try desperately to hold together a semblance of the reality they have known, and to preserve, against long odds, an idea they have cherished of the future.

Note: I have used the publisher's summary here to keep myself from unintentionally spoiling anything. Too many reviewers have divulged one of the key plot elements of the novel, the source of the "darkness" that enters the Learys' lives. I think it is better for readers to discover this on their own, as the author chooses to reveal it. I recommend that those who wish to read the book avoid reading too many reviews or summaries.

My Thoughts: We Are Not Oursevles seems to be one of the most buzzed-about late summer releases this year. This debut novel, written by an English teacher at a New York City high school, launched a bidding war among publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. Reportedly, Matthew Thomas received $1 million for the North American rights to his novel. The strong advance praise from early reviewers can't fail to attract the attention of book lovers. So I jumped at the chance to read a pre-release copy of the book.

And the novel IS, indeed, a powerful and moving book. My guess is that it will strike gold with the book-buying public because it will appeal to readers of both popular and more literary fiction. It's a sweeping, multi-generational family saga with a plot that makes you want to keep turning the pages. At the same time, Thomas addresses big, thought-provoking topics: why we want more than we have, the nature of our responsibilities to others, and what it truly means to love someone "for better or for worse."

The character of Eileen is richly observed and authentic. While quite often I couldn't like Eileen, it was easy to feel a deep connection to her as she struggles, first to meet the expectations of her parents, and then of herself, while life sends unexpected obstacles her way. The pursuit of upward mobility so worshipped by her Irish-American working-class family becomes, for Eileen, a trap. Her struggles, in some ways, mirror those of many people from her generation.

Thomas offers an intimate depiction of Eileen and Ed's marriage, and this was a highlight of the novel for me. What does it mean to be linked forever to a person who doesn't share your dream? When the "darkness" creeps into their lives, Eileen's fierce commitment to Ed is surprising and deeply poignant.

I do think We Are Not Oursevles has some flaws. The novel started out very slowly for me; there is a lot of exposition that feels heavy and clunky. Thomas meanders through Eileen's childhood and early adulthood before coming to the heart of the novel and revealing the central challenge the Learys must face. Some of this becomes tedious; a few times I felt my interest level waning. The real power of Thomas's story comes in the second half of the novel, and I would have structured the book to emphasize this earlier. Even Thomas's prose improved, I felt, as the novel progressed, as if he saved the best writing for the most intense and compelling parts of the story.

Although it takes far too long to get there, in the end the book packs a devastating and emotional punch that makes it all worth while. I'd challenge anyone to finish the We Are Not Ourselves without feeling deeply affected. I recommend it for readers who like stories of complex family dynamics. I would rate the novel about a 3.75 out of 5 stars, and round up to 4.

I received a pre-release copy of this book from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Review of The New Men by Jon Enfield

I was more than happy to receive a copy of Jon Enfield's historical novel The New Men, published in May of this year by Wayzgoose Press, as part of a TLC Book Tour. This literary and inventive novel offers interesting characters and a compelling plot, as well as a fascinating look at parts of American history that are not often covered in historical fiction.

The Story: Antonio Gramazio, a boy from a dirt-poor Italian village, comes to America at the start of the twentieth century—and becomes Tony Grams. As a young, college-educated man living in Detroit, Tony finds a job with the Ford Motor Company, which makes the famous and coveted Model T.

But Tony’s job isn’t making cars. Tony works for Ford’s Sociological Department, an educational unit in the company charged with shaping the autoworkers on the factory line, many of them recent immigrants, into “new men.” Tony’s duties involve visiting workers at their homes and encouraging them to save money, live in acceptable housing, speak English, and avoid alcohol.

At home, Tony is responsible for his mother, sisters, and brothers, and he takes both his family and work duties seriously. But Tony’s life gets complicated when he meets a wild and emotionally damaged socialite and her wealthy Jewish family. As the U.S. enters World War I, the pressures on Tony mount, and he begins to question the underlying assumptions behind Ford’s creation of "new men."

My Thoughts: Good historical fiction, for me, should do two things: first, offer a compelling story, and second, teach me something new about a period in the past. The New Men does both. The story of Tony and his family’s journey from Italy to America, and Tony’s emotional journey through his work at Ford’s Sociological department, is both absorbing and interesting. The adjustment of Tony and his family members to life in America provide my favorite parts of the novel; Tony and one of his sisters assimilate quickly, while his mother and another sister have one foot back in the Old Country. Although I’ve read a lot of novels about immigration, Enfield manages to offer a fresh perspective on the topic here.

I certainly did learn new things about the time period. Reading about Ford's involvement in the private lives of its employees was fascinating. To our eyes, it seems remarkably intrusive and paternalistic that a company would feel the need to instruct its employees in "proper" behavior. Of course, interesting connections to reform movements throughout American history can be made here; the middle and upper classes have often thought that the poor and recent immigrants need to be taught to live cleaner, more sober, more acceptable (meaning, essentially, middle class) lives. I also found Tony's involvement with the American Protective League, a citizens' vigilante group attempting to ferret out disloyalty to the US government, to be very interesting.

One aspect I appreciated in The New Men was a realistic portrayal of a character’s reaction to the news that a family member might have been gay. Too often in historical novels, I’ve come across a scene in which a character lovingly accepts a gay or lesbian character. This, unfortunately, is probably ahistorical; it’s what we might wish would have happened, but authors shouldn’t try to impose our current acceptance of different sexual orientations into the minds of those who lived in the past. Enfield understands this, and it was refreshing to read a scene in which Tony lashes out at the idea that someone close to him may have had a love affair with a man. It’s a painful scene, to be sure, but realistic. This is a good example of Enfield’s close attention to historical accuracy.

I’d offer a few small critiques of the novel. The corporate espionage sections were a tad complex, and to my mind, not necessary for the main trajectory of the story. Sometimes, I felt, the novel was perhaps a little too ambitious and covered more big topics--labor strife, racial tension, xenophobia, world war--than could be successfully integrated into one storyline.

But overall, The New Men is a well-written, impeccably researched, and original historical novel. I would recommend The New Men to readers who like literary fiction, as well as those who read primarily historical fiction. I will look forward to whatever topics Jon Enfield chooses to tackle next in his fiction!

Many thanks to Wayzgoose Press and to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read The New Men and to participate in this blog tour.

You can visit the other stops on the TLC Book Tour for The New Men here.

About Jon Enfield: Jon Enfield has written for a range of audiences and publications. His work has appeared in Conjunctions, Poetry Ireland Review, Underground Voices, Xavier Review, and He is a former fiction editor of Chicago Review, and he taught writing at the University of Southern California for several years. He received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago for his dissertation on the relationships between American film and fiction from 1910 to 1940. The New Men arose from his longstanding fascination with American in the early twentieth century and from his sense that the emergence and evolution of the American auto industry shed light on some fundamental realities of present-day America.

You can connect with Jon on his blog at: To Burn from Within.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Review of Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian

A homeless teenager in a realistic post-apocalypse is the heroine--or perhaps, anti-hero--of Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, Chris Bohjalian's latest novel. This is an absorbing story about surviving disaster: the disaster of nuclear meltdown, the disaster of parental abandonment, the disaster of prostitution, the disaster, even, of living through the teenage years. In the end, Bohjalian’s tale is a moving reminder about the innate need for human connectedness.

The Story: Emily Shepard should be attending 11th grade in the peaceful Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. She should be living a comfortable life as the only child of two loving, although decidedly imperfect, parents. She should be reading the poetry of her literary idol, Emily Dickinson, and navigating her way through the hazards of her mildly troubled teen years.

Instead, she is living in an igloo made of trash bags filled with frozen leaves.

Emily is utterly alone in the wake of the meltdown of a nuclear power plant. Both of her parents worked at the plant and are presumed dead. Emily flees from her school when she hears that her father, who drinks too much, may have been responsible for the meltdown. She enters the scary realm of homeless teens—shelters, drug abusers, pimps, and teen prostitutes. She forms an unlikely alliance with a young homeless boy named Cameron. Emily experiences disaster upon disaster and makes, at times, terrible decisions, and yet she discovers an inner resilience as she struggles to keep herself and Cameron safe from harm.

What I Thought: I always look forward to a new novel from Chris Bohjalian. He’s a wonderful storyteller, for starters, and I appreciate that he writes both contemporary and historical fiction and explores new directions in his work. Bohjalian has a gift for connecting his readers to the thoughts and emotions of his characters. In my reviews, I often critique authors for failing to make me feel an emotional connection to the main character . . . that never happens in a Bohjalian novel. I always feel deeply, utterly enmeshed in the inner life of Bohjalian’s central characters, and this novel is certainly no exception.

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is not going to knock Skeletons at the Feast from its honored place as my favorite Bohjalian novel. I’d offer a few minor criticisms of his latest book; at times, the structure was a bit confusing and I momentarily lost my place in the story’s timeline (although this structure, no doubt, was intentional, as it seems to mimic how a teen girl might tell her story). I wanted a bit more, in the end, from the relationship between Emily and Cameron.

But this novel is a powerful, thought-provoking, and worthwhile read. After all the fantastical dystopian fiction of the past few years, Bohjalian offers a welcome, clear-eyed vision of what a real "post-apocalyptic" world might be like in contemporary America. At the same time, he immerses readers into Emily's story completely. Emily is a flawed, heart-breaking, and absolutely authentic character, and Bohjalian gets her voice exactly right. Bohjalian writes movingly of the world of homeless teens and what Emily must do to keep herself warm, fed, and relatively safe while living on the streets.

In the end, Bohjalian seems to tell us, the worst disaster we can experience is being alone and losing human connectedness. We all need someone to hold our hand and tell us when to close our eyes . . . And if we keep hold of those we love, ultimately, we can survive even the worst disasters that life will throw at us.

I would rate Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands a 4 out of 5 stars. I recommend it to those who like literary fiction. Although it is not a Young Adult novel, I think many teenagers would respond to the novel and find it a compelling read.

Monday, August 11, 2014

It's Monday . . . What Are You Reading?

Good morning! I'm posting again on the weekly meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey. Hope everyone is finding lots of time for reading great books in these last few weeks of summer. I am reading a lot . . . but falling somewhat behind in my reviews! I think it's partly because it is summer and my kids are around; I'm hoping that it will be easier to sit down and write reviews once school starts in September and I have a little more time to sit and think in a quiet house. For my fellow bloggers, do you ever feel yourself falling behind in reviews? How do you keep yourself on track with this aspect of your blog?

Last week on the blog, I posted reviews of these books:

Michelle Lovric's The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters is historical fiction set in 19th century Ireland about seven sisters who escape from poverty and rise to stardom because of their extraordinarily long hair. You can read my review of Lovric's new book, which will be published in the U.S. on August 12, right here. I also posted my review of Hannah's Kent's impressive debut novel from 2013, Burial Rites. It's a raw and powerful novel about a woman who has been charged with a brutal murder in the stark landscape of northern Iceland in the early part of the 19th century. You can read my review here.

I also posted my list of Top Ten Books I'd Give to Readers Who Have Never Read Literary Historical Fiction on the Broke and the Bookish's Top Ten Tuesday. Take a look--anything you would add?

Here is what I have been reading in the past week:

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas is another debut novel, about a family who must weather a terrible change in circumstances. It's set for publication on August 19; I'll post a review sometime in the coming week.

What's up next for me? For a little fun and escapism, I thought I'd take a listen to this book:

I may need something a little lighter--although still engaging--after Burial Rites and We Are Not Ourselves, so Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies may be just the ticket. It's certainly getting a lot of buzz out there.

And to read? Well, I don't know . . . got anything good to suggest for me? I'll be heading out on vacation later this week, so I need to make sure I have my Kindle loaded for the trip. I do need to read Helen Oyeyemi's Boy, Snow, Bird before the end of the summer in order to complete all of the books that were on my Summer TBR List, so maybe I should start that soon.

Happy August Reading to all!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Review of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is a powerful and riveting debut novel set in the stark, unforgiving landscape of northern Iceland in the 1820s. It is based on a true story of a woman charged with the death of her master on an isolated farm.

The Story: A pair of twenty-something sisters, Steina and Lauga, receive the unwelcome news that their family must house a prisoner at their modest farm. The prisoner is one of three people who have been convicted of a brutal double murder. She is a woman, a servant named Agnes Magnusdottir, and she has been condemned to die by beheading for her role in the murders.

Steina, Lauga, and their parents, Jon and Margret, have no choice but to accept the prisoner into their midst. Government officials bring Agnes to their farm, where she is expected to work for her keep, and sleep with the family in their communal bedroom, until the date of her execution.

Agnes is visited by a young “assistant reverend” nicknamed Toti, who has been appointed her spiritual guardian. Under Toti’s gentle prodding, Agnes tells the story of her difficult life, and her year as a servant at the site of the murders. Toti and the members of the farm family begin to suspect that the reality of the murders may be far more complex than what they have been led to believe.

My Thoughts: Rather famously in the literary world, Kent’s manuscript prompted a bidding war for the North American rights, and she received a seven figure, two-book deal. Not bad at all for a 27-year-old graduate student. Burial Rites has received much critical acclaim; Pulitzer Prize-winning Geraldine Brooks, a fellow Australian who served as a mentor to Kent, is among those who have praised the novel. The novel was shortlisted for the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, and now, reportedly, will become a movie with Jennifer Lawrence in the role of Agnes (and let me just say--this could be one heck of a movie!).

All of this begs the question, of course: is this book worth all the hype?

For me, Burial Rites is, indeed, a vivid, raw, and haunting novel. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that a few scenes took my breath away. Kent’s prose is crisp and clear, and perfectly suited to the story she tells. Not a few times, the book reminded me of Brooks’ novels, although I don’t mean to imply that Kent is derivative. She is, like Brooks, a gifted storyteller who fully immerses readers into a world very different from our own.

I’d offer a few criticisms here—the novel, although an enormously impressive debut, is not a perfect book. Kent tells the story from three different perspectives, switching from the points of view of Agnes, Toti, and an omniscient narrator, and uses the text of a few letters by government officials and other documents. The novel is strongest by far when we hear Agnes’s raw and aching point of view, and I wonder what the book might have been if it had been told only in her voice. I felt, as well, that the character of Toti could have been more deeply fleshed out. The sisters, Steina and Lauga, could have been developed further as well. Kent takes pains to demonstrate that one sister is suspicious of Agnes, while the other is drawn to her; I wanted to know more about each sister and why their reactions to Agnes differed so greatly.

In any case, Burial Rites is a beautifully told and moving novel, well worth the read for those who like literary fiction and historical fiction. Hannah Kent is a young writer to watch, and I will read her next novel in a heartbeat!

Review of The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters

Hair! The seven Swiney sisters are blessed (or cursed?) with an abundance of long, flowing locks. Born into rural poverty in post-Famine Ireland, the girls take to the stage with an act held together by the audience’s fascination with their cascading tresses. Michelle Lovric’s inventive and darkly comic novel, The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters, considers the social meaning of hair, as well as the nature of celebrity, of femininity, and the bonds of family.

The Story: In Lovric’s new novel, the seven Swiney girls are born in rural County Kildare in the mid 19th century, a place where the ravages of the Famine are still fresh, to a poor mother and a mysteriously absent father. The girls are rich only in their luxurious, ankle-length hair, which grows with abandon and ranges in color from darkest raven to a shimmery gold to the coppery red of Manticory, the narrator. The seven sisters arrange themselves into two warring tribes of three, presided over by the hard-hearted eldest sister Darcy.

To escape their impoverished town, Darcy concocts a plan to make a living from their greatest asset. She sets the sisters on the stage as the Swiney Godivas with a vaudeville-style act of songs and skits, written by Manticory; in the final act, the sisters simply sit in chairs facing away from the audience and slowly unpin their rivers of hair. Their act is wildly successful, a perfect match for the Victorian era’s odd obsession with long hair.

Soon the Swiney Godivas attract the attention of unscrupulous men seeking to make money from the sisters, with binding contracts and tie-ins to long-haired dolls and quack hair oils. As the sisters’ fame and notoriety grows, new dangers lurk for them. Manticory begins to question whether they are selling their souls, and to seek a way out of the strange life of a Swiney sister.

My Thoughts: This was truly an interesting read for me. Michelle Lovric based her book on the true story of the Seven Sutherland Sisters of upstate New York, who performed with the Barnum and Bailey Circus and peddled hair products for decades before losing their fortune from ruinous spending. Lovric makes a great choice in setting the story in rural Ireland, and I particularly appreciated the early parts of the novel set in the poverty and misery of the Swiney sisters’ hometown.

I enjoyed the story of the Swiney sisters’ rise from starvation to stardom, but the novel, for me, began to feel melodramatic and overly fantastical by about the three-quarters point. I think it could have been about 100 pages shorter, with a few subplots cut down, without losing the essentials of the story. Lovric’s prose is flowery, lush and almost old-fashioned, perhaps to invoke the style of popular novels of the 19th century. This style choice works for the most part, although at times it can feel unnecessarily wordy and complicated.

Despite these criticisms, I found this to be a thought-provoking novel. Lovric makes some very interesting points about the meaning of hair and its connection to femininity, as well as about the pitfalls of fame. I was fascinated by the Victorian fetishism about hair and the strange, creepy connection of hair with death.

I would rate The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters as about a 3.75 out of 5, and I’d recommend it to those who like literary fiction with a dash of magical realism thrown in.

The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters will be published in the U.S. on August 12. I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Top Ten Books I'd Give to Readers Who Have Never Read Literary Historical Fiction

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted every week by the Broke and the Bookish. This week's Top Ten list is the Top Ten Books I'd Give to Readers Who Have Never Read X, and the idea is that you can fill in the X with any genre or type of book that you like. I'm going to fill in the X with literary historical fiction.

Everybody probably has a sense of what historical fiction is, of course, but I'd define literary historical fiction as being those novels set in a different time period that, like literary fiction, are elegantly written. They are often marked by complex and nuanced character development and layers of meaning. A friend of mine once described literary historical fiction as "those depressing novels that make everyone cry!" Well, I admit, sometimes that's an accurate description ... but I don't think literary historical fiction is ALWAYS depressing! In fact, literary novels set in the past can be hopeful, enlightening, and even humorous.

Here is my list, then, for Ten Gateway Literary Historical Fiction Books:

1. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

2. Possession by A.S. Byatt

3. Roots by Alex Haley

4. Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

5. The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

6. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

7. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

8. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

9. Atonement by Ian McEwan

10. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

What other novels would you suggest to get a reader started in literary historical fiction?

Monday, August 4, 2014

It's Monday . . . What Are You Reading?

It's the the first Monday in August, and I'm posting again on this meme hosted by Sheila at Bookjourney.

Last week on the blog, I posted my list of the Ten Authors I Own the Most Books From as part of Top Ten Tuesday. You can see my list here.

I also posted my review of this book:

You can read my review of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah here.

Here are the books I have been reading in the past week:

Michelle Lovric's The True and Splendid History of The Harristown Sisters , set in 19th century Ireland, is a novel about a set of seven sisters, known for hair that cascades down to their ankles, who take to the stage as a way to escape their impoverished background. It will be released August 12, and I'll post my review later this week. I have been listening to the audiobook of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, but I've decided it just isn't working for me as listening material, and I'm going to read the rest of the book on my kindle. There is nothing wrong with the narration, and I do like the book. Possibly audiobooks just aren't a good fit for me in the last month of summer; maybe I'll try another one in the fall.

This week, I deviated from my usual reading material (which is almost always fiction), and delved into some non-fiction with Todd Decker's upcoming book Who Should Sing Ol Man River? The Lives of an American Song. It will be released in November, so I'll post a review closer to the release date. Reading this book lead me to Decker's previous work, Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical. Both of these books interested me because the musical "Show Boat" and its place in American cultural history has always held a certain fascination for me.

What have you been reading? I wish everyone another nice week of summer!