"River Thieves"

River Thieves by Michael Crummey

I didn’t like this book. I did like certain things about it, but if you asked me if I liked it overall I’d have to say no. I'm not saying it isn’t a good book – I’m not qualified to judge that – it just didn’t appeal to me. I do like his writing; his novel, Sweetland, is one of my favourite books.

Crummey's descriptions are wonderfully vivid. You can smell the forest and feel the cold of a Newfoundland winter. I love the setting: the ocean, the snow, the ice, the forest, the whole wild, harsh, landscape. I also appreciated the history lesson - early 19th century trappers and fishermen from Britain living and working in Newfoundland, contributing to the decline and eventual extinction of the Beothuk Indians. It lead me to do some further research which introduced me to a chapter of Canadian history I knew nothing about.

I didn’t like any of the characters - even the ones I might have liked felt distant. I admit they were believable, each one revealing light and dark in their natures, but they all seemed to make terrible choices, destructive to themselves and everybody else. The story is based on historical fact but it is told with such violence and brutality, it left me feeling like the whole human race is beyond hope. It is grim. 

So, while I do very much enjoy Michael Crummey's writing, I did not enjoy this book.

"The Return Journey"

The Return Journey by Maeve Binchy

I'm not much of a short story fan, but I love Maeve Binchy's story telling style. Since there won't be any more novels, I thought I'd give this a shot. The stories are quite short, tiny snippets of people's lives dealing with a particular situation, sometimes covering a mere few hours and yet each one feeling complete. And they are absolutely wonderful. The characters are poignantly real and their problems ordinary and familiar, but as always she manages to make them fresh and fascinating. It's a small book filled with tiny, delicious slices of life, highly readable and very satisfying.

"To The North" and "The Princess Saves Herself In This One"

To The North by Elizabeth Bowen

Well did I ever have the wrong idea about this book. It’s been on my shelf for a long time and I was sure it was about a woman who moved to the far north with her husband. I thought it was about them scratching out a living in the snow and ice of the Northwest Territories. I’ve read several similar stories and wasn’t yet ready for another one so I kept putting it off. When I make my quarterly reading list I always include one book that’s been on my shelf far too long and this time my attention turned to To The North because I’m tired of seeing it there.

What a surprise. It has nothing to do with wilderness life, but is in fact set in 1940’s London amongst well-to-do people with names like Julian and Cecilia. Svelte dresses, cocktails, and beautiful homes are the stuff this book is made of. So I went from thinking ‘pioneer drama’ to ‘upper class fluff’, but surprise again, this is nowhere near fluff. It’s a serious story about how we live our lives on one level while showing the world another, nicer, level. These characters are very human, deeply flawed, and trying to make the most of lives they find unfulfilling.

I love Elizabeth Bowen’s writing style and was pleased to discover a backlist of novels I’d never heard of. So not only did I enjoy a book I was dreading a bit, but I discovered an author with a whole list of books I can now look forward to reading. Success on every level.    

The Princess Saves Herself In This One by Amanda Lovelace

This is a book of poems that tell the story of a girl who worked her way from abused and depressed to strong and free. It’s written in free verse and I’ve read some of the criticisms that say it’s not really poetry, but I disagree. Yes, there are some that read like an ordinary sentence with the words written in a column instead of a line, but there is more that does read like poetry, in that much meaning is packed into few words. In poetry every word, every image, every figure of speech has a purpose and I see that in these poems. I did think it was a bit self-indulgent at times, but then I don’t know the author or what she’s been through. It's possible that if I read it again, and I want to, I may not feel that way.

Overall I liked it. It’s easy and smooth to read as far as language goes (fyi, there are a few f-bombs) and easy to understand. I got through it quite quickly but it would be possible to spend more time in it absorbing the impact of her words. I do think it deserves that.  

"The Bridge"

The Bridge by Karen Kingsbury

I haven't got much to say other than that I didn't enjoy it. It's predictable, everybody is too sweet and perfect and it's more than a little bit unrealistic. I guess unrealistic is what everybody wants this time of year given the popularity of tv Christmas movies, but this one really stretches the limits of credibility. I can handle a reasonable amount of seasonal sap, just not quite this much.   

"All The Light We Cannot See"

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

There is so much going on in this book I hardly know where to begin. It's crammed full of characters, plot lines, and timelines, though it is written in short chapters, sometimes only a paragraph or two on a page, which makes it easier to process. It's written in thirteen sections but I couldn't see much logic in the divisions until I made a list of the sections and the main ideas presented in each one. I have difficulty understanding things if I can't put them in some kind of order or see the plan they are laid out in, so sometimes drawing "maps" of stories brings clarity. If I hadn't been leading a discussion at book club I probably would have simply read it and found it slightly disorienting. Going into it a little deeper uncovered layers of meaning I would otherwise have missed.

One main character is Werner Pfennig, a young orphan in Germany who joins the Hitler Youth rather than end up working in a coal mine, as his father did before him. He and his sister, Jutta, listen to science programs broadcast from France on an old radio, and Werner develops an interest that will set him on a course he would never have foreseen.

The other main character is Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind girl, who is the grand-daughter of the voice Werner heard on the radio. She lives with her father in Paris until the Germans move in, then she and her father go to Saint Malo where her great uncle, Etienne, lives in the house from which the radio programs were broadcast.

The chapters alternate between Werner's story and Marie Laure's: his time at the orphanage, then at the Hitler Youth training facility, and finally his service in the German army; and her time in Paris, then the changing circumstances of her life in Saint Malo before and after it, too, is occupied, her father is arrested and she begins helping with resistance efforts.

There are other significant characters whose stories are told in their own short chapters among those of Werner and Marie-Laure. And there's a diamond. A very large, cursed diamond, that may or may not have powers of its own. I'll leave you to decide what to think about that. To me it was superfluous to the story, which could have been told just as well without the supernatural aspect. I thought it took away from the gravitas of the story and unfortunately, lessens its significance.

Books that offer insight into the human condition, or that reveal hidden or forgotten historical realities are often the best books and the ones that become important either to the reader specifically or to society in general. I think this one tried to be that, but fell somewhat short. In my opinion, and I do realize it's only my opinion - this book did win a Pulitzer - it's over-stuffed with attempted wisdom, motifs, symbols, figures of speech, and imagery. I felt like it was trying too hard to be profound on every page, when sometimes what I really wanted was more story or dialogue to help me know the characters better. I found some of its proverbs unfathomable:

"The sea is everything. It covers seven tenths of the globe.The sea is only a receptacle for all the prodigious, supernatural things that exist inside it. It is only movement and love;it is the living infinite." 

"Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air."

And some of it I simply found stale and overused:

"Every outcome has its cause, and every predicament has its solutions."

"You know the greatest lesson in history? It's that history is whatever 
the victors say it is. That's the lesson."

"Sometimes the eye of the hurricane is the safest place to be"

"'Is it right,' Jutta says, 'to do something only because everyone else is doing it?'"

To be fair, there were also wonderful descriptions, figures of speech, etc, some chilling and others beautiful, many of which stopped me in my tracks to read again just to enjoy the way he put the words together:

  "One hundred children passing sleek and interchangeable in their white uniforms like livestock before the eyes of the examiners."

"The drain moans; the cluttered house crowds in close"

"Memories cartwheel out of her head and tumble across the floor."

If I was asked what this book is about, I'd start with the war story, but it's also about vision and hearing, good and evil, light and dark, water and fire, the natural world, things hidden within other things, radio technology, fear and courage, free will and choices, propaganda, the pointlessness of war, how it devalues human life, and how even in the midst of the horror some will still offer kindness. It's also about how children were brainwashed in Nazi Germany, the French resistance, Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Debussy's Clair De Lune, and the phrase "Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever" which appears throughout the book. And it's about a spooky diamond. That diamond made me feel like I was reading two different genres that somehow got stuffed between the same covers.

It's a book that deserves more than a cursory reading. There are dots to connect all the way through, and interesting things to uncover - like the foreshadowing of one character's death and the exquisite irony of someone ending up in the very position he had compromised all his standards to avoid. There are puzzles in the story, and the story itself is a puzzle.   

Although there were aspects of the book I didn't enjoy, I don't want to leave the impression that I didn't like it at all. It showed me things I'd never seen, taught me things I didn't know, and will stay with me, I'm sure, for a long, long time. It's a moving, in some ways beautiful story and most definitely worth reading, I just think I would have enjoyed it more if it hadn't tried so hard to say so much about so many things.  

 One last thing. There is something about this book that I find disconcerting. I think this is the third book I've read where the reader is meant to sympathize with the Nazi character. Now before anybody gets defensive, I'll state for the record that of course I know the German people suffered. Bombs and bullets killed and maimed Germans just like they did other people and Nazis grieved their dead the same way as anybody else. I also realize not all German people were supportive of the Nazi regime. Having said that, I wonder if lines are being blurred, and I wonder why. The Nazi cause was evil and I think we absolutely must remember that so it never, ever, happens again. The bombing by the Allies that takes place in this novel and which we are meant to find horrifying, had some hard consequences yes, but it doesn't begin to compare to the horror of the Nazi bombing campaigns. The Allies were pushing back the darkness the Nazis were spreading. There may be good and bad on both sides, there always is, but the bottom line is the Nazi agenda was evil and it was right to stop it. That is a line that should never be blurred.

"The Name of the Rose"

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Well. This sure wasn't light, summer reading. I kept wanting to put it down to read something less strenuous but then I'd find myself another thirty pages in and by the time I got to 400 there was just no way to abandon it. It's over 600 pages, and it's not easy reading, still there's something about the writing, and the story, and the characters that wouldn't let me go.

The setting is a fourteenth century Italian abbey. A monk, Matthew, and his young assistant, Adso, have been sent there on a particular mission, but when they arrive they are asked to investigate the murder of a young monk. In the seven days they are there, other crimes occur and they are drawn into the darker side of monastic life. Some of it deals with ordinary human weakness and sin, but there are other passages, long and philosophical, about things like the purpose of laughter and whether it's good or evil.

There's an ancient library on the abbey's top floor, a dark and musty labyrinth, the secrets of which are known only to the Abbot and the appointed librarian. Matthew and Adso have to figure out how to get in and out, how all the rooms connect and why one room seems to be missing. The book has diagrams thank goodness or I'd have been as lost as they were.

Although this is a murder mystery, the mental workout you get while you're reading it makes it far more. It will have you turning back to try to figure out what just happened, or to understand how he got you started on this particular train of thought, or to see how this new piece of the puzzle fits into the whole. It quickly becomes clear that the author is a scholar with a brilliant mind and that your job as his reader is to hang on and try to keep up. By the time I was finished, I was simply grateful for the amazing world he created and allowed me to share. As one reviewer said, the detective story is just "the frosting on a rather rich cake".

Another review called it "a philosophical and intellectual exercise". I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but it was worth the effort. The rich, detailed history; the ideas; the architecture; the character types, the glorious books - it was an education. If I was asked if I liked it, I wouldn't know what to say. Like seems a trivial word for such a book. I am very glad I read it, and I know I will never forget it.