In the High Peaks

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

(This is the January 2013 selection for the Literature and War Readalong, hosted by Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, where you will find Caroline's review, links to other participants' reviews, and other reader comments.)

First off, I must say I know absolutely nothing about The Yellow Birds other than what I've read between its covers. I know nothing about Kevin Powers, aside from the brief author blurb on the inner dustcover sleeve. I have read no reviews, have heard no buzz, although I know it was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2012 (only because a silver medallion on the front cover told me so). And who was deemed to have written a better novel? I must check that out.

That said, I do believe it is an inspired work of art by a writer who is on the cusp of grasping the breadth of his considerable writing powers. Aside from some forcing of metaphors very early in the novel, which drove me to distraction, every word and emotion and image after that felt true to me; and in the clearest sense, resoundingly true.

Let me tell you, I am no one to judge a former soldier's novel about war, but I felt the book came alive in the midst of the section "August 2005--Richmond, Virginia," when Bartle leaves home and is wandering along the banks of the river, images of Murph in his head pressing down from all sides. He starts one huge run-on sentence and the emotions run raw, deep, visceral. The effect on me? I felt like cheering, because finally, Bartle was feeling something true.

The hopping back and forth in time, the images kaleidoscoping here and there and scrambled and all out of order did not bother me because that's how the memory of severe trauma goes, I know. Survivor's guilt, I know. Promises left broken, in shards of fragmented glass, I know. I've never been a soldier, but I know that much, that little bit.

I felt a special kinship with Bartle once he began to "come clean," as he himself would have described it. I was so present, in those moments, I could have wept.

That's all I have to say for the moment.

I don't know if Kevin Powers has other books in him, but I hope so. I know he's a poet (the book blurb again), but I hope he'll write more fiction.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Mountain: Books at My Feet

A long week of frigid temperatures. It's 6pm and 8 degrees, and we'll dip well below zero tonight as we have every night since last Sunday. Our daytime high is finally higher at 14 degrees, which it's been the last few days, but I'm beginning to be bothered by my face freezing every time I go snowshoeing. Sasha is having a terrible time with her feet freezing on our treks. I'd keep her at home, but, golden retriever that she is, she howls like an unholy bloodhound if not allowed to accompany me. Warming temps are coming, they say.

Thanks to the blog "Stuck in A Book," I've purchased House of Silence by Linda Gillard for the Kindle. The book seems to be available only via Kindle. I was captivated by several key themes and ideas central to the book. 1) It's a gothic; sort of a "Rebecca meets Cold Comfort Farm," supposedly, if you can imagine. This is hype, but it led me to investigate the book further. 2) It's set during Christmas and the winter season. 3) For the rest of my inspiration, please visit Stuck in a Book's description. 4) The download only cost me $3.50. 5) I can't resist gothic romance. It's a weakness I've had since I was age 15.

A library treasure is Ich blieb in Konigsberg, which, miraculously, I was able to borrow on Inter-Library Loan from another New York State college. I have it for less than a month, so this time only gives me the chance to read a dozen entries and realize I must purchase a copy. As it turns out, I must order from Germany. In any case, because I'm relentlessly studying Europe 1945-1948, and because the book is a personal journal of a young woman living in the "former" East Prussia [then Poland] during these years, I'm keen to read it. As I've mentioned before, my German reading knowledge is much better than my speaking, but not by that much. The diary is clearly simple and easy to read, I can see, but I'll still be tied to a dictionary.

And another fiction title that I'll get to as soon as I finish Third Reich by Bolano:
The Life of Objects by Susanna Moore, published last September. Do follow the link to a Studio 360 retrospective and discussion with Moore about the novel. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

I'm on Fire with Reading: What a Relief

I'm at the tail (tale?) end of The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, which was a finalist for the National Book Award  in 2012.  Okay, I'm in awe now. I have so many thoughts about this novel, I'm not sure how I'll ever begin writing about it. My entry will be posted on Sunday night, the 27th, so it will be available for the scheduled discussion date of  Monday, January 28--all thanks to Caroline's Literature and War Readalong.. I couldn't turn the final page this afternoon. I'm left with about 25 pages or so. When I finish this particular book, I must be in a hushed house with no possibility of interruption. While immersed late this afternoon, the telephone jangled and I literally jumped six inches off the couch . I was at a climactic moment, so deeply enthralled, when that phone jolted me sky-high.

The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano is excellent, and I'm enjoying it even though I don't have a complete picture of where it's going. A young German gaming champion and gaming writer, in relatively modern times, is vacationing in a Spanish seaside resort with his girlfriend, who, as it turns out, he doesn't know as well as might be comfortable. They meet another German couple and can't seem to get away from them. The gamer feels lured in, though he sees danger and wants to get away. He seems to feel helpless, powerless even, to distance himself and his partner from the world this other couple inhabits. Written in first-person, as journal entries. Very interesting.


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

When Work Brings You Too Close to Bookstores: Kate Morton & Mark Helprin

Dear Readers,
This is my dilemma this semester. I'm teaching my courses at a "satellite campus," which is perilously close to a Barnes and Noble, the only bookstore within 60 miles of my home. "Go for it!" my inner reader says. Ah, yes, I'm afraid I have already.

I have an extra-long commute now, so on Monday, as my next semester began, I traipsed into Barnes & Noble and purchased The Secret Keepers by Kate Morton, in audiobook. I've listened to 2 of the 17 discs thus far, and I am so hooked, I've slowed my speed on the highway to 60 mph. Everyone zooms by me, but the book and the reduced speed are exquisite for relieving stress. I need that after last semester. I also bought the American Mark Helprin's latest novel, In Sunlight and In Shadow, at a deep discount. Oh, yes, how I've tried borrowing audiobooks from the library, but I'm so tired of getting super-absorbed in a novel or biography or memoir, and then Disc 5 or Disc 7 is so scratched, it's unreadable. I've decided I need and deserve better for these hours and hours spent in the auto.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sunday at Bookshop Mtn.: Bolaño and the Little Ice Age

I'm gathering books for Bookshop Mountain today because on Saturday the weather was perfect for hours spent tracking animals by snowshoe. Sasha (my faithful golden) and I had a marvelous time tramping up and down ridges and ledges, sorting out the fascinating stories of wild animal encounters.

Caroline's Literature and War Readalong for January 28
I've just started reading The Yellow Birds by the young American writer Kevin Powers. I won't say much about it today, but I will mention that it wasn't until I was on page 52 that I remembered
that this book about a soldier's experiences in the Iraq War is a novel and not a memoir. Indeed, the cover states this fact, though in minuscule print, like this:  The Yellow Birds   a novel.  It is excellent writing.

Novel in Translation:
The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño. (First American edition 2011, translated by Natasha Wimmer). I have never read anything by the Chilean exile Bolaño. This title is yet another of his posthumous novels. Bolaño died at age 50 in 2003, and at that time none of his novels had been published in English.) In any case, I haven't read the work of many South American writers, and because many critics consider Bolaño to be one of the most important Latin American writers of his era, I've decided it's high time that I read him. [The link will take you to information and reviews concerning Bolaño's work from all over the Web.] I'm especially attracted to this novel because of the historical aspects and the European setting. (For a time Bolaño lived in France and then Spain, although he spent most of his post-Chilean years in Mexico.)  
Please weigh in if you've read any Bolaño!

The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850 by the American archaeologist Brian Fagan. Published in 2000.   A number of Fagan's books have focused on the ways in which climate impacts history. I loved The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations,which was published in 2008 or 2009.  The Little Ice Age examines the scientific,  sociological, and historical aspects of the sudden cooling that occurred from the 14th to the mid-19th centuries. He discusses the impact of the cold on people living in Europe, North America, and Asia. Fascinating!

I purchased a hardcover edition of The Yellow Birds and borrowed the other two books from the library this week.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Good House by Ann Leary

I didn't realize how badly I needed a pleasure read until I dipped into The Good House by Ann Leary. It was released on January 15th, and I had pre-ordered it, so that when I woke up on Wednesday morning, there it was, all ready and waiting.

Its genre is "Women's Fiction."
I find I cringe and shudder at the name of the category, not the book. Sorry, I can't help it. It's a category that is so maligned, a category heading that is so misused, I can't help but protest. It so happens, not necessarily by design, that I don't often read books that suffer from such labeling, I don't have a grudge against a novel that's labeled "women's fiction." Women buy more novels than men. They read many more novels than men. And this has been going on since the 1820s. I don't want to get all political about it, but is there a "men's fiction" genre? No, because most of the fiction men read, women do as well.

Back to The Good House. I'm loving it. I wish it wouldn't come to an end. I have 90 pages to go in this 259-page book, and I'm already in mourning. Perhaps I'm identifying with the 60-year-old protagonist a bit too much. It helps if you can identify with a character who sometimes drinks a little bit too much and the fact that her daughters have hounded her for it. But this is not the primary theme. It's about fulfilling work, finagling relationships with one's children and one's ex, carving out a place for love in the present, and learning, always learning about relationships. I like the coastal North Shore of  Boston setting. Maybe its main appeal for me is I needed a fun read about a woman my age who's still discovering and exploring what's next and not letting others dictate for her what that should be. Aahh! I've finally hit on it! May we all be free to define ourselves as we wish until the day... well, you get the idea. Well-written, excellent pacing, well-plotted. Thank you, Ann Leary!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Saturday--Bookshop Mountain is Open!

Welcome to Saturday at Bookshop Mountain. In what I hope will be a semi-regular Saturday event, I will share my past week(s)' book finds, which I've added to the tumbling heaps of books all over the house. Not a picturesque description, but there it is. The titles I discuss will be a few of those I've gathered from the libraries I'm fond of haunting, bookstores (online and not), friends, and one or two titles I dig out of Bookshop Mountain's gaping crevasses.

[Note: This space is supposed to present a lovely bookshop photo, but I'm unable to upload it because Blogger's new image upload function no longer provides a way to upload a photo directly from one's computer. If you use Blogger, have you noticed this abrupt and unwelcome change?]

Novel In Translation:
This Saturday I'm literally sinking into the cushions of my green couch, browsing through Crandall Library's copy of The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller, which was first published in Germany in 2009 as Atemschauckel. It's the story of a teenaged boy who is deported in January 1945 to a Soviet labor camp, where he remains for the next five years. Müller, who was born in Romania and who as an adult defied Ceausescu's secret police, now lives in Berlin. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009. (I'm sitting here trying to fathom how I managed to miss this fact.) The Hunger Angel was translated by Philip Boehm.

Nonfiction Pick: Paleoanthropology anyone?
Book: Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth by Chris Stringer. First U.S. Edition 2012. (First published in the U.K. in 2011 as The Origin of Our Species. (I bought it last summer as a hardcover.)     Intriguing interview in the NY Times
I've confessed my passion for the history of human origins before. I suppose I love the mystery of it all, the dueling theories, the annual archaeological "finds" that can be interpreted many different ways, and the fact that the whole truth will never be known in my lifetime, if ever. The appeal of this volume is Stringer's well-supported conviction that homo sapiens did not originate in a single region of Africa as most modern theorists have assumed. He makes the case, based on new findings, that humans evolved in regions all over Africa, mixing their genes with homo erectus and other hominids. I'll leave you with one quote from a review in Nature, "Combining the thrill of a novel with a remarkable depth of perspective, the book offers a panorama of recent developments in paleoanthropology....Refreshingly politically incorrect."

Why haven't I gotten around to reading the Canadian writer Louise Penny's Still Life? I have a number of friends who love her books, but I've noticed that their most exalted exclamations of praise are reserved for her recent titles. I confess I read the first chapter or two quite a while back as a Nook book. I was able to get it for 99 cents, because it's the first in her Armand Gamache series, set in the province of Quebec. Similarly, I was able to buy Dana Stabenow's first Kate Shugak mystery A Cold Day for Murder for free, I think. (I loved it, and also wonder why I haven't read more in the series.) I bought it a while ago, when Nook Color first came out, so I'll bet they've increased the price by now.  Ken thought a great deal of A Trick of the Light, one of Penny's recent books. He says it's not at all necessary to read the series in order. However, I can't bear not to.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

This Week: Investigating Julian Barnes

I'm halfway through The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2011. I'm enjoying it immensely. I highly recommend it, though I imagine the novel might have the greatest appeal for those born in the post-World War II era, who came of age in the late 1960s and 1970s. (If you disagree with this observation, please set me straight!)

This is the first I've read of Barnes, so I started touring around the web searching for information about more of his works. His website makes for a lively visit--I especially like the long list of links to interviews. I definitely would like to try more of his novels.

I find Webster, the main character, annoying from age 30 onwards. In the long first chapter, he and his wry observations and habits, his relationships with school friends, girl friends, and his wife and daughter interested me. But in Chapter 2, he announces in a number of different ways that he has retired from life, and although he doesn't say it, it's clear he's waiting for the end. He's so complacent, viewing life lugubriously from afar. Thankfully for readers, he's rescued by a mysterious inheritance from his first girlfriend's mother, which includes a diary penned by a school friend who committed suicide a few years after winning a first at Cambridge.

I'm hoping to squeeze in a great deal of reading time over the next few days. I've got lots of books on board. Stay tuned for the new (hopefully regular) Saturday morning post.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Tuesday Evening: Book from the Shelves

A book from my personal bookshelves, that is. I'd like to do a regular bit on this topic. I have plenty of fodder for the cannon, because for all of my life, I've found it unbearably difficult to part with the books I've read and, as a result, have an absurdity of wealth made of pages.

This afternoon, before I even reached our bookshelves in the living room, I knew the book I was searching for. Would I find it? I wasn't absolutely sure because I haven't opened its pages in decades.

In 1964, or 1965--might it have been 1966?--my Aunt Ruth, my mother's oldest sister by 12 years, gave me a luxurious copy of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. The minute she spotted this new edition at the Hathaway House Bookshop where she worked, she couldn't wait to buy it for me. She tucked it away for Christmas, and when I received it, I was thrilled. The edition was so beautiful. After I opened the gift, I flipped through the glossy, thick pages over and over. The illustrations were pen-and-ink and stencil, remarkably. It was the cover art and the paper quality that bowled me over, though. It was perfect in its simplicity. Cream-colored pages. I was in love.

I recall that Christmas vacation and January, propped up by plump pillows and covered by thick blankets. I read and read, transported so completely into the world of Jo March and her sisters. It was a transformative experience. When I finished the book, and read about Amy's good luck and her accomplishments, I felt la tristesse of bidding adieu to a world that I knew I would never, ever reenter in the same way. As I turned the last page, I vividly remember the sun shining out my window on icicles dripping off our roof. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Reflecting on 2013: My Reading & Writing Intentions

When it comes down to hopes and dreams for 2013, I'm thinking in terms of my intentions for the New Year rather than challenges and resolutions. I appreciate and enjoy reading about other book bloggers' plans and goals immensely, but I'm too wary of letting myself down by not "getting there."

Yet with that said, I know what I want. I made one vow, which is my plea for sanity in the coming year. I will not teach three courses per semester. For some reason, I'm not pleased with the results when I do. I hope to stick with two for the Winter/Spring semester and one for what we call the Summer I session.
  1. I want to read for pleasure daily. I will read in the early mornings, and before dinner for at least 30 minutes.
  2. My intention is to improve my blog by posting more frequently and with greater time and effort spent.
  3. I have one bona fide goal--to dedicate myself to at least one writing project. The problem is, I'm not in agreement with myself as to which project is most worthy of my time. I have a novel to revise, yes. (I have never published any fiction.) Yet if I were willing to dedicate the hours, I could write a children's nonfiction book (history and/or nature subjects) as I have many times before. I have not published a book since moving to the Adirondacks in 2005. If a writer spends hours and hours outdoors, she does not accomplish much at a desk. She comes home overly weary and satisfied with life, which is not the formula this writer needs to be productive. Because I have no plans to limit my outdoor time, it will be very interesting to see what I do with my 2013 writing goal. 
  4. In November 2013, I will try, try again to fully participate in Lizzy's and Caroline's German Literature Challenge, from start to finish. I wanted to do this so much in 2011 and 2012 but could not.
  5. Because so many book bloggers are starting the year digging out from under their TBR piles, I'll read at least one 2013 title each month. (Oh, yes, I'll be drawing on my TBR stacks, too!)
  6. I'd like to find some book bloggers who read a great deal of nonfiction. If you know of any you think I'd like and you don't mind leaving me a link or a name, please do. I will do a search as well. I'll be writing about the good ones I find.
  7. My last intention: I would like to do a regular Saturday morning meme. It would be ideal to post the weekly entry early Saturday morning. The Saturday Book Shop (I need a much better title.) will be about a number of the books I've gathered during the past week--from online shopping, the libraries I frequent, my bookshelves, friends' bookshelves, and book sales.)  

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

More Broken Harbor and Purple Chairs

I've enjoyed reading about the 2012 literary adventures of many of you--inspiring!

I'm enjoying Broken Harbor more now that I'm at the mid-point, but I continue to find it slow-moving. Lots of interesting character development of Detective "Scorcher" Kennedy and the marvelous rookie he's breaking in, Richie Curran. What's so interesting is that Curran is turning out to be the principal educator in that duo.

Have any of you read Tana French in the past? I'm especially wondering if anyone has read In the Woods, her debut, which won the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity and Barty awards for best first novel.

I'm also reading Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch, which I started about three weeks ago. I'm enjoying reading a chapter here and a chapter there, mixing it with other reading. I highly recommend it if you enjoy the "book about reading books" memoir genre. It's a notch above many others.