The Living by Annie Dillard (audio)

the livingMy difficulty and back-and-forth feelings about Annie Dillard continue with this epic story of pioneer families in my place of residence, Bellingham, Washington.

The Living spans more or less the second half of the 19th century, and it expands to fill all those years and all that space. It is a big story, with lots of characters – several families, over generations – and I’m not sure it ever chooses one or several to center around. This is not a book that benefited from my regrettable new habit of taking months to finish an audiobook: I flailed a little in trying to finish, and I confess a feeling of relief now that it’s over.

There were certainly strengths. Dillard is an inspired writer, some of the time, and there were certainly passages I paused to appreciate, and will share with you here, in a little while. The stories were often moving – individual episodes, that is, within the larger saga – and the characters were often compelling, interesting, diverting people I wanted to get to know better – but again, only for a moment, and then we’d zoom out and on to a different character who was less intriguing. These were all small pieces of a whole that, as a whole, failed to capture my attention. There were moments of glittering, evocative, engaging story or character, but then we returned to a larger, sweeping view that repeatedly challenged me to continue to care. Again, this might work better with a quicker reading. It certainly didn’t work for me in the way I experienced the book.

Witness these shining moments of writing, though…

She lay under mats in the bottom of a canoe once, during the Indian troubles, and Rooney told the Haidas she was clams. Lived in five or six different places, including a stockade. She felt her freedom, reared two boys to manhood, busted open this wilderness by the sea, buried the men on their lands. She saw a white horse roll in wild strawberries and stand up red. She took part in the great drama. It had been her privilege to peer into the deepest well-hole of life’s surprise. She felt the fire of god’s wild breath on her face.

Great imagery there, and a strong retrospective view of the gravity of this woman’s life and what she’s seen.

He had long ago concluded that he possessed only one small and finite brain, and he had fixed a habit of determining most carefully with what he would fill it.

A funny and wise moment.

She read books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live. She read books as one would breathe ether, to sink in and die.

And, who among us doesn’t love such a quotation?

But the whole thing might have worked better if presented as a series of vignettes; the parts of it that I loved were relatively few and brief, with a great deal to be slogged through in between. Dillard created some likeable characters, but it’s almost as if she didn’t like them very much, herself. She asked some interesting questions about humankind and the broader sense of what we’re doing here, but she spent so much time setting them up as sort of clinical questions that she forgot to make me care about them, or about the little creatures involved.

I’m sorry to say this one didn’t work for me, especially (by coincidence) as it came up against Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain, an infinitely better, more compelling story with its own momentum.

This review was short because I’m a little sick of The Living and very glad to be quit of it. I’m sorry. You can find better reviews elsewhere; me, I’m looking forward now, not back.

Rating: 6 deaths.

The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner

big rock candy mountainThe Big Rock Candy Mountain is the story of a family, struggling to make a life in the early days of the twentieth century and bouncing around the American West.

Elsa Norgaard is eighteen years old when she leaves her family’s farm in Minnesota to head west, offended that her father and her best friend plan to wed. She takes the train to her uncle’s grocery in a pioneer town in North Dakota, a journey that makes her feel free but also makes her physically ill. In Hardanger, she meets the charismatic Bo Mason, who runs a blind pig (illegal whiskey joint) and is seemingly talented at everything: baseball, shooting, style. His wild nature and occasional violence frighten her, but she is drawn to his charm and his dreams and promises. They marry, and move.

Bo and Elsa have two sons, Chester (Chet) and Bruce, before we see them next. Already a pattern has been established: Bo, the eternal optimist and occasional romantic, chases his fortune. He pursues chances to get rich quick, to settle his family in the good life they deserve. He believes the developing West offers enormous opportunities for the brave and restless. The title The Big Rock Candy Mountain refers to a hobo folk song of the 1920’s which describes a paradise, where “there’s a lake of stew and of whiskey too” and “the jails are made of tin.” (Stegner refers to the song elsewhere, as in the title of an essay collection, Where the Blue Sings to the Lemonade Springs). One of Bo’s tragic flaws is his stubborn belief in the truth of that paradise, if he could just uproot his family one more time and find it.

He has others. He falters in his sense of responsibility to family, leans perhaps too hard on his constant wife Elsa, and is abusive toward his sons – particularly Bruce, the younger, who is a sensitive boy. A violent event related to Bruce’s toilet training sends Bo away, for years. But Elsa brings her sons back to him when he homesteads in Saskatchewan. Over the years Bo runs a hotel; a cafe; another blind pig; tries farming wheat, bootlegs whiskey on the back roads, and opens a casino. He and his family live in small towns in the Dakotas and Washington, in Canada, for a spell back in Elsa’s hometown of Indian Falls, Minnesota, and later in Salt Lake City, Reno, Tahoe. As an adult, Bruce will reflect,

Since I was born we’ve lived in two nations, ten states, fifty different houses. Sooner or later we’re going to have to take out naturalization papers.

The story is told from all four perspectives – Bo’s, Elsa’s, Chet’s and Bruce’s – at different points, and spans some thirty years. It’s a big story, a saga even, and runs nearly 600 pages. I have been sticking to shorter books than this lately, but I nevertheless found this a relatively quick read, because it has such momentum. Each of these characters is complex and compelling, and the expansive drama of their family life is engrossing, and keeps the pages turning. It references a larger story, of the development of the United States: Prohibition and expansion, cultural evolution.

I read this book in a few days, as I also neared the end of listening to Annie Dillard’s The Living (almost as long, over 400 pages). The latter took me much, much longer, and that review will come up soon; but it made for an interesting parallel. Both cover the frontier days of similar locations (The Living is concentrated on northwest Washington state, which is a small part of the larger setting of Big Rock Candy), and span decades of family life. I shan’t review Dillard here, but I will say that Stegner came out ahead, in terms of sympathetic, engaging characters and story. I found The Living more effortful.

Stegner is a fine storyteller. This novel evokes the mountains and the plains, the droughts and sun and rain and blizzards that the Masons live through, and the cultural challenges; but I think most of all it evokes character, the complicated nature of men and women doing their best, trying and failing and occasionally succeeding at business and relationships. It is an autobiographical novel, I have read, with Bruce as Stegner and Bo as Stegner’s difficult father. Indeed, Bruce’s reflections as a young adult upon his family and the hardship of almost entirely hating his father, the question of where home lies for an itinerant man, family, nation, are some of the best, most eloquent, and memorable parts of the book. The narrative of the Mason family story is an outstanding yarn, a tragedy and a tale of adventure, among other things. I loved the whole thing, but Bruce’s ruminations were my favorite part.

Rating: 8 cases of whiskey.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Living by Annie Dillard

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

the living

As is the new norm with audiobooks, I am working my way through Annie Dillard’s novel about my new place of residence very slowly. Set in the region including and surrounding what is now the town of Bellingham, The Living is about the early days of settlement. It is a large and sweeping tale that spans generations, which will give me some challenge when it is time to write about the whole, since I’m taking so long to listen to it. But no worries. It remains an engaging story, and it’s always stimulating to read about a place that you know. Today’s teaser involves a settler to Washington state traveling back east for a visit.

Minta considered the Rockies inferior to the Cascades and dull, for they lacked form, height, and glaciers. The volcanic cones she loved, Mount Baker and Mount Rainer, had enormous forests at their skirts, and waterfalls that drained the meadows above the forests, and precipitous snowfields and glaciers that rose above the clouds.

Indeed. As I am a new resident of Cascadia, this is something to think about in a country enamored of the Rockies.

Thanks for stopping by today. I’ll get around to reviewing this novel one of these days…

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

This compelling novel of resistance to the Norman Invasion, told in a hybrid of Old English, will satisfy motivated readers of history, ecology and the persistent pull of the old gods.


The Wake is a singular debut novel by Paul Kingsnorth (One No, Many Yeses; Real England), set in England immediately following the Norman invasion of 1066. Its first-person narrator is a landowner named Buccmaster, who has lost everything to the attack: his family, his home, his land and his privilege. He takes to the fens and woods, with revenge in his heart and an intention to drive the French from his land and all of England. There he becomes one of the guerrilla fighters known as green men, whose chapter in history is little known.

What makes this powerful story distinctive is Kingsnorth’s decision to write the story in what he calls a “shadow tongue,” an Old English hybrid of the author’s invention, made slightly more understandable to the modern reader. This choice presents an undeniable challenge to the reader, and requires substantial extra effort to pursue the story. (Hint: try reading aloud, to hear cognates and the rhythm of the speech). But Kingsnorth defends his strategy: it evocatively renders Buccmaster’s voice, and brings to an already gripping saga a layer of new meaning, in that the reader has to participate in creating that meaning through interpreting unfamiliar words. A partial glossary deciphers some words, but many are left for the reader to define via context clues and, yes, guessing. Some readers will be turned away. But those who persist will find the language easier to follow after 20-40 pages, and will be rewarded by Buccmaster’s riveting narrative.

Buccmaster is a follower of the eald (old) gods, as was his grandfather, the gods of wilde places on the earth and its wihts (creatures). His father was not. “I will not spec of my father,” he says, but the story of his father is only one of the details that this unreliable narrator leaves out. As Buccmaster travels overland on foot, gathering companions who also wish to drive out the French, he journeys as well into the myths and traditions of his elders, and envisions a grand role for himself. The fate of his band of green men is as tenuous as that of England, as their leader struggles with reality.

The Wake is an ambitious novel in its themes and scope, in addition to its unusual linguistic decisions. As the English folc in his story become disconnected from their land, they lose their freedom: “if the frenc cums and tacs this land and gifs these treows [trees] sum frenc name they will not be the same treows no mor.” As an impassioned defense of the natural world and people’s responsibilities toward it, the novel acts as a metaphor for modern times. Buccmaster’s personal narrative is a lesson in pride and its dangers, a glimpse of another culture in its own language. Kingsnorth’s captivating first novel is thought provoking, multi-faceted and intriguingly rendered.

This review originally ran in the August 11, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 8 fugols.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose (audio)

lovers at theAgain I took way too long to listen to the whole of this audiobook, which might hinder my review a little. But it worked out rather well: Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 is an engaging story, that covers a number of years and is told from a number of perspectives. This might have been confusing when broken up over such a long time as I took with it, but it wasn’t. Instead, it felt like it helped me dip in and out more easily: lots of time passed for the characters too in between my visits to them, so it felt natural, if you see what I mean.

The time and place setting are in the title; or rather, the title of the book is the name of a photograph, taken in 1932. The story remains in Paris (with one brief sojourn to the countryside nearby), covering the years before and during the German occupation. Several characters relate events from different perspectives, including an American writer whose voice is heard through the books and articles he writes about life in Paris at that time; a Hungarian photographer in love with Paris, writing home to his parents; a French girl who is the girlfriend of the writer and then the photographer, writing a memoir which is to be destroyed upon her death; the wealthy French woman who is the photographer’s patroness, writing her own memoir; and a woman, a couple of generations later, writing the biography of the notorious Lou Villars.

Lou is at the center of this novel, although she has no first-person voice: we only know her through the eyes of others. She had an unhappy childhood; was taught to lift weights by the nuns; had a promising athletic career until her coach tried to rape her; worked at the Chameleon, a nightclub for cross-dressers; became a professional racecar driver; met and was awed by the Fuhrer; became a spy for Germany and a torturer for the Gestapo. She is a French cross-dressing lesbian athlete, passionate about France and Joan of Arc, an unhappy woman easily swayed by those who flatter her. She is both a representation of Evil and a complicated question about how a person gets that way.

Prose’s many narrators create interesting questions, too. Are any of them, in the end, reliable? (Questions about the truthfulness of one in particular will be raised in the final pages.) There are many layers to this novel: the beauty and tragedy of Paris before and after the Nazis arrive; the fallibility of human nature; the visual arts (our famous photographer does much of the symbolic work, joined occasionally by Picasso); the challenges faced when any of us seeks to represent the past.

This is a fictional story but based in part on real people. The Hungarian photographer is based on Brassai, who took the picture called “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle” which is described in the novel under the title “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932” and, obviously, serves as the keystone image of the book. The American writer is based on Henry Miller. The real people are simply starting points, though, along with the powerful, mysterious photograph which titles the novel. The story itself is an imaginative work, deeply intricate in its telling (all those narrators!), and compelling. I was intrigued, and certainly recommend Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 as enjoyable and thought-provoking. The audio version very appropriately uses various narrators for the various voices, complete with accents, and was a great way to experience the book.

Rating: 7 cigarette lighters.

Maud’s Line by Margaret Verble

A young American Indian woman’s existential questionings and daily life on an Oklahoma farm will appeal to fans of historical fiction and personal narrative.

maud's line

Early in the 20th century, the U.S. government assigned plots of land to the American Indians displaced by Oklahoma’s statehood. Maud Nail’s day-to-day life on her family’s allotment is consumed by guns, dirt and chickens. She cares for her men–a dangerous, unruly father, aptly named Mustard, and a sensitive, thin-skinned brother named Lovely–as well as the extended family whose allotments neighbor hers. They recently survived the flood of 1926-27 that covered Oklahoma and much of the Midwest, but the difficulties don’t stop there. Margaret Verble’s first novel, Maud’s Line, details the year in which Maud makes several large choices that will affect the rest of her life.

A peddler in a brilliantly blue covered wagon first captures Maud’s eye with his good looks and his books. He gives her a copy of The Great Gatsby, and she can’t stop thinking about those bobbed haircuts and dresses above the knee. Though she loves her family, Maud desperately wishes she could move on, live in a different world. But as she begins to be caught up in a nascent love affair, her family’s troubles demand her attention. Two men from the family that has long feuded with hers are murdered, and Mustard has to leave town in a hurry. Lovely falls ill, and then, more troubling still, seems to be losing his mind. And Maud’s occasional, erstwhile boyfriend then makes a claim on her, just as she is struggling with the biggest dilemma of all.

Maud’s Line is filled with evocative glimpses of violence, viscera, yearning and the brusque but communal caring of family. In her unadorned writing style, below the violence and hardship on the surface of Maud’s life, Verble crafts a story filled with nuance and quiet conflict. She exhibits a talent for characterization: each individual is carefully and distinctly fashioned, so that Lovely’s girlfriend and the members of Maud’s extended family, for example, shine brightly in even the briefest of appearances. Maud herself is finely wrought, caught between the values she’s been raised with–and the people she loves–and a hope for a different life, one with electricity and hygiene in place of dust and blood. One of the greatest strengths of Verble’s novel, set on her own family’s land allotment, is the delicate interior conflicts produced by Maud’s deceptively simple life. Propelled by its own momentum, Maud’s Line pulls the reader along until, amid daily privations and small tragedies, Maud has the chance for the first time to choose for herself what her future will hold.

This review originally ran in the June 30, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 guns.

Madeleine’s War by Peter Watson

A nuanced marriage of military history and romance, set in a secret British resistance unit during World War II.


Peter Watson (who wrote Gifts of War under the pen name Mackenzie Ford) entertains with Madeleine’s War, a novel of World War II romance and intrigue starring fictional characters but with a historically accurate background.

Matthew fought on the ground in France with a secret British resistance unit until he suffered a severe injury. In his new role training fresh recruits, he meets Madeleine, a beautiful, talented French-Canadian woman determined to contribute to the war effort. Matthew’s job is to train Madeleine for intelligence and sabotage before she parachutes behind enemy lines. Her superior officer, he is not supposed to fall in love with her, but the two nonetheless embark upon a passionate, short-lived affair, before she is sent to France and disappears.

Despite its title, Madeleine’s War is told from Matthew’s perspective, leaving the reader as in the dark as he is after Madeleine vanishes in Nazi territory. He is then left to track her down–out of both love and duty, which sometimes conflict. The plot then twists again as Matthew is given an uncomfortable mission of his own to carry out.

Watson’s expertise as a historian lends credibility to the context of this story: in his afterword he states that the geography, training procedures, technologies and secrecy he portrays are all based on fact. Matthew and Madeleine and their colleagues are Watson’s own creations, painted with a rosy, romantic glow but also exposed to the glaring realities of war. Romance fans and war buffs will be equally pleased with the result.

This review originally ran in the June 23, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 cigarettes.

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