Thursday, July 26, 2012

Chris Bohjalian's The Sandcastle Girls

While the emotional content of this book is trademark Bohjalian, the writer takes on a new depth and historical perspective in Sandcastle Girls that is not usually present in his more formulaic novels. Unsurprising, since this novel is the first that delves into his own history.

The little I knew about Turkish-Armenian relations came from working at a used bookstore, where a customer of mine bought up everything he could on Armenia. Occasionally he would toss out historical facts but eventually I learned it was a topic he didn't want to fully engage in, so it was fascinating to read this book as a first attempt to fill in some of the historical blanks. 

(Incidentally, this is the third novel of genocide I've read this year: Rwandan, Cambodian, and now this one, which I guess means my taste run to the dark side, at least when it comes to historical fiction. It also happens to be the fourth novel in a row that I've picked up that features a Muslim/Christian conflict, so it's interesting to me to see these unconscious reading patterns of mine.)

The novel has two main time frames. One is a contemporary, middle-aged first person narrator named Laura living in NY who investigates her Armenian roots and reminisces about her childhood. The other is a third person narration that begins in Aleppo, Syria, in 1915, mostly following Laura's paternal grandparents Armen, an Armenian engineer who has survived the Turks' first onslaught against his people, and Elizabeth, a Bostonian blueblood who has traveled to Syria with her father to give aid and succour to the refugees. Occasionally the narration darts over to Nevart, a widowed refugee, and to Hatoun, an orphan who has witnessed such unspeakable atrocities against her family that she has become practically mute herself, as well as other, more minor characters.

War casualties are awful things and this novel's World War I setting proves no exception, but it's particularly difficult to read of the crimes perpetuated by the Ottoman Empire against some of its own civilians, and the twisted logic and false rhetoric they use to justify their actions is simply appalling.

I can't possibly pretend to know or understand the centuries-old history between the Turks and the Armenians, or how the Ottoman Empire selected the Armenians for extermination over all of the other peoples under its sway. But there is a portion of this novel presented as fact, and if it's true, then it's utterly galling, and I will excerpt some of it here:

"If you visit Ankara or Istanbul today, you will find streets and school named after Talat Pasha ["the real visionary" behind the Armenian genocide]....In other words, the nation that found Talat Pasha guilty of attempting to wipe out a race of people later named concourses after him.
   How is that possible? Because, to much of the nation--though, thankfully, not all--that genocide never happened. Even now, labelilng the slaughter of 1915 "genocide" can land a Turkish citizen in jail and get a Turkish Armenian journalist killed (179)."

If that is true (and Bohjalian did not footnote it or document it, so I don't know), then it really blows my mind.  It's impossible to imagine the German citizens of today wanting to glorify Adolf Hitler in a parallel manner, renaming any of the schools or thoroughfares for him. How is it possible that the citizens of Turkey are, as a nation, able to do so?

Chris was at the Odyssey last night to do a reading and presentation from The Sandcastle Girls, and he's as fine a speaker as any who have passed through this store.  If you missed it, let us know and we can reserve a signed copy for you!


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Book Review: The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones

It's Emerald Torrington's birthday and she's planning a lovely party for herself, her family, and some intimate friends, when nearby tragedy strikes: there's been a railway accident and Emerald's home, Sterne, must give shelter to a couple dozen of the third-class carriage survivors, as it's the closest country estate, and "needs must," as they say. Meanwhile, her one-armed stepfather has driven to town to try to save the estate, the neighboring tenant farmer may or may not be wooing her, her surly and spoiled brother has made an inappropriate friend, one of the maids has called in sick, and her younger sister is gripped with the urge to sketch her pony in charcoal on her nursery wall, in situ. What could possibly go awry?

This book started off with a bang: think Downton Abbey with an overlay of more overt humor, reminiscent of P. G. Wodehouse.  Or, if you prefer your pop cultural references to take a more cinematic turn, the whole story reminded me much of the wayside travelers in the movie Clue, the ones who happen upon the great house seeking shelter from the dark & stormy night. Then things take a decidedly strange turn, and (spoiler alert--highlight the next line with your cursor to make it easily readable)   lo, it turns out that my instincts that screamed ZOMBIE! were not entirely off.  That's all I'm saying now, because nothing else I've read about the book prepared me for that aspect of it, and heaven forbid that I ruin things for another reader. 

It is funny, and it is bizarre, and by the time you come to the end, like any good English period drama, nobody is saying what they mean, much less acknowledging all of the things that went bump in the night.

Here's a fairly representative humourous scene from the beginning of the book, where Emerald's mother and the housekeeper are discussing one of their dinner guests. I'm sure you can guess which one is the self-serving and generally useless mother and which is the servant from the dialogue:

'Oh, I see. A scientist." This last was said in tones of dreary condemnation.
'With red hair.'
'Lord, yes. And a squint.'
'That's the fellow -- spectacles.'
'Hardly his fault.'
'You might say that, Florence, but although many may need them, only a certain type of person wears them. I prefer a passionate, squinting man than one who corrects his sight with wiry little spectacles and is in command of himself.'


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

An amazing read: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

I first heard of Rachel Joyce's debut novel a few months ago--folks on Goodreads were talking it up, and so was my Random House sales rep.  Then, in early June at BEA, it had earned one of the coveted spots on the Editors' Book Buzz panel, where I was lucky enough to snag a copy of it.  I had a hunch that it would make its way into my suitcase for vacation reading, and test-driving the first chapter proved that hunch correct. As it turns out, it provided me one of the most enjoyable vacation reads I've ever had!

Over breakfast one day, recently retired pub man Harold Fry receives a letter informing him that his old friend and colleague, Queenie Hennessey, is dying of cancer. He struggles to write a response, without knowing quite what to say, and he walks out of the house to post it at the closest letterbox.  The thing is, when he reaches it, he thinks he can come up with a better response, so he keeps walking to the next letterbox. Then the next one. Then the next one.  Once he recovers from his reverie, of what to write, he realizes he's walked out of the village.

Stopping at a petrol station, a chance encounter with a young employee there convinces him that really, the best way to do this thing is to deliver the message to Queenie in person, no matter that Harold isn't a walker, he's not in very good shape or wearing appropriate shoes for the endeavor, that Queenie is over 500 miles away, or that Harold's wife, Maureen, might have something to say about his decision. Instead of turning homeward to retrieve suitable items for such a journey (oh, you know, things like maps, water, his mobile, and a sense of direction), he calls his wife from the station to announce his intentions and heads out in a direction that he hopes is northerly.

Along his journey, Harold finds support and succor in the unlikeliest of people, and before long his pilgrimage attracts nationwide attention and more than a few hangers-on.  As he learns to just keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter what the terrain or the state of his poor, blistered appendages, he has plenty of time to meditate on his life, his marriage, his son, his friendship with Queenie, and how he's mostly made a muck of things. At home, Maureen undergoes similar bouts of introspection, and discovers, much to her surprise, that one by one, she has gradually revoked a lifetime of recriminations towards Harold.

This is a book that has so many funny things on the surface that it might be easy to miss the emotional depth and universal human insights that it provides.  While I definitely laughed out loud while reading of the hapless Harold's exploits, more than once was I moved to tears by the wave of humanity that Joyce readily taps into.  Most of the reviews I've read of this book compare it to Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, and while I can see that to a certain degree, I think the more appropriate comp is The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise, where the whimsy of that peculiar ensemble of characters is matched only by the poignancy the story ultimately delivers. I also love that it's a book whose main characters are all of retirement age: there seem so few really good books who feature that demographic that it always stands out when I encounter it.

To say more would spoil the sense of anticipation that I'd want any reader to have when embarking on this novel, so instead I'll just share a few passages that resonated with me as I read.  But please: do yourself a favor and find a copy of this book to read asap! The book releases in the US today, and you can come by the store to pick one up, or call/email/visit our website to order one.

"The kindness of the woman with food came back to him, and that of Martina. They had offered him comfort and shelter, even when he was afraid of taking them, and in accepting he had learned something new. It was as much of a gift to receive as it was to give, requiring as it did both courage and humility."

"He wished the man would honor the true meanings of words, instead of using them as ammunition."

"He wished no one had mentioned religion. He didn't object to other people believing in God, but it was like being in a place where everyone knew a set of rules and he didn't. After all, he had tried it once and found no relief. And now the two kind ladies were talking about Buddhists and world peace and he was nothing to do with those things. He was a retired man who had set out with a letter."


Sunday, July 8, 2012

Book Review: Chris Cleave's Gold

Do you love Little Bee?  Literary fiction? Watching the Olympics?  Then boy, oh, boy--have I got a book for you! Chris Cleave returns to the bookworld with another fantastic novel. Gold is the story of Zoe and Kate, world-class athletes who have been friends and rivals since their first day of Elite training. They've loved, fought, betrayed, forgiven, consoled, gloried, and grown up together. Now on the eve of London 2012, their last Olympics, both women will be tested to their physical and emotional limits. They must confront each other and their own mortality to decide, when lives are at stake: What would you sacrifice for the people you love, if it meant giving up the thing that was most important to you in the world?

I thought the writing in Gold is his best so far--I've got so many dog-eared pages and I shared so many passages out loud with my husband and my extended family that my ARC is starting to look a little ragged.  I had the chance to meet Chris Cleave at dinner at Winter Institute in New Orleans, back in January of this year.  He is one of the sweetest and most delightful writers I've ever met.  And he also happens to write children better than just about any author I can think of--his character Sophie, a little girl battling with leukemia, will absolutely break your heart in this book!

Here are some of the passages I marked:

On watching her competitor on television: "Kate hated the way her body still readied itself to race like this, the way a widow's exhausted heart must still leap at a photo of her dead lover."

On a sick child's trying to read the mood of her mother in a Star Wars costume: "This was the thing with Stormtroopers: they only showed the multipurpose expression molded into the face plates of their helmets--a hard-wearing, wipe-clean semimournful expression equally appropriate for learning that one's souffle, or one's empire, had fallen."

On describing a falling out between friends: "In the weeks that followed, Zoe had been incandescent with remorse. That was how it had seemed to Kate--that her friend had actually flickered with a pale and anxious light that sought to expel the shadows cast by her behavior."

On the nature of time in a modern world: "Time had been restructured like bad debt. The long languid hour had been atomized. Manifestos were shrunk to memes and speeches were pressed into sound bites [sic]..."

If you would like to meet Chris Cleave in person, please come to the Odyssey on Tuesday night, 10 July, at 7:00 pm for a reading from Gold, followed by a booksigning.  For full details, please click here.