Monthly Archives: July 2008

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book is, for me as a reader, the perfect union of an author I love with subject matter I love.  The author is, of course, Geraldine Brooks, famous for her Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel March, but even more admired (by me) for the haunting Year of Wonders, about a woman who survives the bubonic plague while a village dies around her.  Her subject matter this time around is the sub-genre I like to call “Adventures in Research” — a genre made most popular in the unjustly famous Da Vinci Code, though far better exemplified, for my money, in Wilton Barnhardt’s underrated Gospel and a score of other books about dedicated researchers chasing elusive old manuscripts around the world.

People of the Book centres not around a fictional manuscript but a real one — the Sarajevo Haggadah, a beautifully and unusually illuminated medieval Jewish manuscript that has survived all kinds of historical threats to make it to the twenty-first century intact.  Brooks takes the known facts of the manuscript’s survival in twentieth-century Bosnia — where this Jewish manuscript was twice saved by Muslim museum curators, once during World War Two and once during the 1990s civil war — and fictionalizes them.  But the novelist’s imagination allows her to go farther than historical fact or even scholarly speculation — based on a handful of clues that Brooks’ narrator, fictional manuscript conservator Hanna Heath, finds in the Haggadah, she reconstructs the story of its long journey from fifteenth-century Seville to twenty-first century Sarajevo, creating stories and characters for each stage of the manuscript’s journey.

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Skin Room, by Sara Tilley

This may come as a shock to those of my readers who aren’t also writers, but the sad truth is that writers do not always bathe one another in a warm glow of approval.  There is, I am chagrined to report, rivalry and resentment among writers. To the degree that, if you were, say, a middle-aged writer in a small literary community who has managed to achieve only the most modest success, and you were constantly hearing about the brilliant talent of yet another Bright Young Thing fifteen or twenty years your junior, a Bright Young Thing whose talents you have been hearing about since she was in high school even though you’ve never personally met her, a Bright Young Thing whose first novel has already won acclaim far beyond anything you’ve ever achieved … well, let’s just say you might not be so quick to pick up that first novel of hers. (Especially if you’re just finished reading two books by Joel Hynes, so you’re in that kind of mood anyway). You might just check this talented young writer’s new book out of the library and leave it on your headboard for awhile, thinking small and jealous thoughts about how easy it is to get your work noticed if you’re young and trendy and cutting-edge, and how it probably isn’t even really all that good.

Then you would actually start to read the book, and all those petty jealousies would fall away like dead leaves.  You would turn from a resentful fellow-writer into a delighted reader recognizing that every shred of acclaim Sara Tilley has received for Skin Room is richly deserved, and that she should get a whole lot more of it.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general, Newfoundland author

Down to the Dirt, by Joel Hynes

It’s impossible to overemphasize the acclaim and hype that surrounded Joel Hynes’ first novel, Down to the Dirt, here in the Newfoundland literary community (for more on the incestuous politics of literary communities and the nasty emotions they breed, see my next review).  This brash bad-boy novel has such a tang of raw, honest firsthand experience that some people have suggested it should have been a memoir instead.  Fortunately, Joel Hynes is a little smarter than James Frey — he calls his books novels, which leaves him free to embellish incidents and characdter as he wishes while still drawing from the deep well of personal experience.  And the water he draws from there is brackish and dirty, to be sure, but also bracing and strangely refreshing — at least in small doses.

What Hynes does best is voice — particularly the voice of Down to the Dirt‘s main character, Keith Kavanagh.  It should come as no surprise to learn that Down to the Dirt was a play before it was a novel (it’s a movie too, now), or that Hynes shines at readings, because his ability to capture the voice of a nihilistic, narcissistic, self-destructive young male transplanted from a Southern Shore outport to downtown St. John’s, is flawless.  Keith’s inner and outer worlds of alcoholism, drugs, sex, and despair are completely believable, and the book ends with only the faintest hint of a hope for redemption, enough to keep the reader from running out and slitting her wrists but not enough to suggest that “happily ever after” is anywhere on Keith’s horizon.

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Millions of Women are Waiting to Meet You, by Sean Thomas

In a lot of ways, this book reminded me of Around the World in 80 Dates by Jennifer Cox.  British thirty-something single journalist becomes disillusioned with single life, dreams of meeting That Special Someone, and gets a magazine or book deal to try out an exciting new way to meet people.  Wacky hijinks ensue, interspersed with thoughtful reflections on Finding True Love, and of course true love is in fact found by book’s end.

Unlike Jennifer Cox, Sean Thomas didn’t travel around the world — in fact, he barely left his computer chair (except for the actual dates, of course).  Confirmed bachelor Sean decided to check out the exciting world of internet dating, and yes, wacky hijinks did ensue. 

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Filed under Nonfiction -- memoir

The Bride of Science, by Benjamin Woolley

The Bride of Science (subtitled: Romance, Reason, and Byron’s Daughter) is a biography of Ada Lovelace, an early 19th-century woman renowned for her mathematical ability and her friendship with Charles Babbage, creator of a very early version of the computer.  She was, of course, even better known as the daughter of the infamous Lord Byron — although Ada never knew her father, because her mother left him shortly after she was born and allowed no contact between Ada and Byron for the few short years between then and his death.

Author Woolley structures his biography of Ada around the nineteenth-century tension between “Romance” and “Reason,” which he sees as being embodied in Ada’s parents and, to some degree, within two sides of Ada’s own personality. This overriding concept sometimes strains the fabric of the story, as Woolley seems to be trying too hard to bring out the Romance/Reason parallels.

Generally, this is a competent though not terrible exciting biography of an intriguing woman.  Like so many biographies of women in earlier centuries, the main emotion The Bride of
Science
leaves the reader with is regret — regret for another woman’s exceptional talents wasted by the narrow-minded society patriarchal society in which she lived, which never gave her the education or opportunity to develop those talents to the fullest.

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The Lady Elizabeth, by Alison Weir

Awhile back I reviewed Alison Weir’s Innocent Traitor, the first product of a noted biographer who has made the leap to historical fiction.  Having written nonfiction about the Tudors for many years, Weir now allows her imagination free play as she roams about inside the minds and lives of the members of that famous and mostly ill-fated family.

Elizabeth, of course, was the least ill-fated of them all — she eventually succeeded her father, brother and sister to the throne and ruled England wisely and well for many years.  The Lady Elizabeth is a scrupulously accurate but also vividly fictionalized portrait of her early years, up to the moment of her accession to the throne.  While there’s nothing new or startling here either from a literary or a historical viewpoint, this is a very readable and informative historical novel, and I will probably read everything else Alison Weir publishes if she continues in this vein.

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Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

Gilead is a completely strange and lovely book.  It’s the sort of novel that shouldn’t work, on so many levels, and yet it does.  Brilliantly.  Which just goes to show that a truly gifted author can break every rule and create something utterly compelling.

It’s a slow story.  There’s no strong plotline to pull you along, only the gentle, rambling voice of a sick old man, writing down a memoir of his life for the young son he won’t see grow to manhood.  The old man is John Ames, a Congregationalist minister in a small Iowa town in the 1950s.  He is the namesake of a much better-known preacher, his fiery and sometimes violent abolitionist grandfather. As Ames’ life story unfolds in a stream-of-consciousness, not-always-chronological series of stories, we discover that the legacy of the first John Ames has been both a blessing and a burden to the narrator as well as to his own father.

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