Years ago I was a member of the Quality Paperback Book Club (QPB). Looking back I think what I enjoyed the most about being a member was receiving the QPB’s monthly catalog, happily thumbing through it and reading about all kinds promising books. A few books like Kyria Abrahams’s I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing and Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University I ended up buying through QPB. But a number of books such as Ian Frazier’s Travels In Siberia, Guy Walters’ Hunting Evil: The Nazi War Criminals Who Escaped and the Quest to Bring Them to Justice, and Debra Dickerson’s The End of Blackness: Returning the Souls of Black Folk to Their Rightful Owners I didn’t buy but instead borrowed from my public library.
One book I saw advertised in the QPB catalog was Jamie Ford’s 2009 novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Even though I never purchased or borrowed it nevertheless I loved its cover art. Perhaps because of its lovely cover art I’ve always had a soft spot for this novel I’ve never yet. So, when one of my book clubs opted to read it, I borrowed a copy from my public library and gave it a read. The bad news is even though I read Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet I didn’t make it to that month’s meeting. The good news is despite my little soft spot for this novel I kinda had low expectations of it but in the end, still managed to enjoy it.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet in one of those dual timeline novels. In this case, our story begins in the 1990s with the purchase and renovation of a long-shuttered hotel in what used to be the city’s Japanese section of town. Later, action shifts to World War II and bounces back and forth between the two eras. During the war years a young Chinese-American boy falls in love with Keiko, a Japanese-American teen girl. This angers the boy’s father, who bitterly hates all Japanese blaming them for Japan’s brutal occupation of China. To make matters worse, Keiko and her family find themselves imprisoned in internment camps along with other Japanese-Americans.
Like I mentioned, this novel ended up being a pleasant surprise. Another pleasant surprise was the Seattle jazz scene (of which I knew nothing about prior to reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet) playing a central role in the novel. When it comes to Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet I have no complaints. I can see why my book club, as well as others have chosen to read it.
Filed under Fiction, History
I can’t believe it’s been ten years since I heard Selden Edwards’ 2008 novel The Little Book reviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air. That review must have made an impressive on me because I’ve been wanting to read this book for years. About a month ago after learning an e-book was finally available for Kindle download through my pubic library’s Overdrive account I helped myself.
One day Wheeler Burden, a middle-aged American wakes up and finds himself in Vienna in the year 1897. How and why he’s been sent back in time is a mystery. Fortunately for him, thanks to the excellent education he received as a young man Burden adapts quickly to the intellectually charged cafe culture of Fin de siècle Vienna and before long finds himself holding court in American-accented German with the city’s young intelligentsia discussing and debating.
But this is no ordinary time travel novel. It took Edwards 30 years to write The Little Book and he threw a heck of a lot into it. He incorporates a ton of backstory for Burden our time traveler like his upbringing in rural California, East Coast prep school adventures, collegiate baseball heroics and post-college rise to rock and roll stardom. While in Vienna he meets several historical figures including Sigmund Freud. Speaking of which, without revealing too much The Little Book is a time travel novel with a Freudian soul.
I’m happy to say after waiting ten years to read The Little Book I wasn’t disappointed. Like many good novels, there’s no shortage of plot twists, some I saw coming and some, well, I didn’t. I know it’s early in the year but there’s a good chance The Little Book ends up making my year-end list of best fiction.
Late last week I found myself in search of one last book to round things out for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. I didn’t have much time to read and review anything so my choices were limited. So nothing too lengthy or complicated. I thought about something set in Ukraine, Hungary or the Czech Republic but nothing seemed to fit the bill. But thanks to my local public library I found a novel set in Denmark. While I initially had my doubts, by the end it become obvious Thomas E. Kennedy’s 2013 novel staring a bar-hopping, self-destructive middle-aged jazz aficionado was the perfect end to another year of the European Reading Challenge.
Lately life hasn’t been kind to Kerrigan, an American expat residing in Copenhagen. In his mid-50’s his health is already starting to fail. His wife, a beautiful and vivacious Danish woman almost 30 years his junior has fled abroad with their infant daughter, who may or may not be really his. Broken hearted he succumbs to the instructions of his estranged wife’s lawyer and signs the divorce papers, even though he still loves her despite her transgressions. His once promising academic career is no more and instead he spends his days researching a travel guide to the countless bars of Copenhagen. However, in reality he’s been drinking himself into oblivion, wandering the streets of the Danish capital in an alcoholic haze as he travels from one bar to another. Just to complicate things he’s fallen in love with his literary assistant, a twice divorced voluptuous Danish woman. Not only is he attracted to her physically, but he finds her intelligence, humor and world-weariness just want he needs considering his current wrecked state.
Yes, Kennedy’s novel is a tale of middle age loss and bumbling search for love but it’s also an homage to James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece Ulysses. Just as Leopold Bloom (also cursed with an unfaithful wife) traveled the streets of Dublin so Kerrigan migrates back and forth across Copenhagen. Other similarities become apparent as Kennedy mentions Joyce’s belief that Danish blood coursed through his veins, thanks to the Viking conquests of the British Isles.
Perhaps another reason I ended up liking Kerrigan in Copenhagen more than I expected is I have a weakness for self-destructive individuals, much like the protagonist Charlie Kolostrum in the Austrian novel Pull Yourself Together and Mark Richard as he recalls in his memoir House of Prayer No. 2. No matter what they still manage to achieve some level of success. Kennedy’s repeated inclusion of historical factoids and jazz trivia made for interesting reading and reminded me a bit stylistically what Marisha Pessl did with her outstanding novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I guess when it’s all said and done, how could I not like a novel about bars, jazz, history, love and middle-aged regret?
Funny, I’ve never read a novel set in Switzerland. Last week while looking for books I could read for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I noticed there was an available copy of Rose Tremain’s novel The Gustav Sonata. Seeing it’s set Switzerland I was tempted grab it. But not knowing anything about Tremain’s 2016 novel I was a bit hesitant. However, after seeing it won the 2016 Jewish Book Award for fiction and received a glowing review in the Guardian I decided secure a copy. After whipping through it in no time I knew I’d made the right decision.
The Gustav Sonata begins a few years after the conclusion of the Second World War when two five-year old boys meet in kindergarten. When Gustav meets Anton, he’s a sad Jewish boy choking back tears. Gustav is immediately drawn to him and takes him under his wing. Before long Gustav finds sanctuary as a treasured guest of Anton’s well to do and loving family. Unfortunately, Gustav’s own home life is less than stellar. Since his father’s death he and his mother have lived a hand to mouth existence, made worse by his mother’s struggles with physical and mental health issues as well as alcohol abuse. Despite the two boys’ differences and Anton’s frequent bouts of nervousness and self-doubt (today he’d probably be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder) a strong bond develops between them, leading to an intense life-long friendship.
Gustav and Anton’s relationship is a reflection of post war Switzerland as whole. Looking back decades later many in that country and around the world condemn Switzerland for its reluctance and eventual refusal to admit Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. This has led to debates on what should be the country’s priorities during times of extreme emergency. Just as Anton and especially Gustav explore and reflect on the successes and failures of their respective parents so others have scrutinized the actions of previous generations of Swiss when faced with tough moral choices.
I found The Gustav Sonata well written, moving and engaging. With a story that begins in the aftermath of World War II and continues for half a century The Gustav Sonata makes a nice companion novel to All the Light We Cannot See. It’s left me wanting to read more stuff by the novel’s author Rose Tremain. Therefore, don’t be surprised if you see more of her novels featured on my blog.
I’ve been participating in Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge for several years and based on my experience it’s easy finding books set in places like the United Kingdom, France and Germany. I’ve even managed to find books set in smaller countries like Bosnia, Austria and even tiny Vatican City. But when it comes to Bulgaria it’s been tough. Only once have featured a book set in that particular Eastern European nation. I’d almost given up when I learned author Elizabeth Kostova had recently written a novel set in Bulgaria. In spite of hearing this good news, I still didn’t run out and grab a copy of her latest novel The Shadow Land because I still remember a friend of mine calling Kostova’s earlier novel The Historian the worst novel she’d ever read. (Daunting too is the The Shadow Land’s length weighing in just a shade under 500 pages.) But knowing that novels set in Bulgaria are few and far between I took a chance, easily securing a copy from my public library. Much to my relief, The Shadow Land is not an awful novel. To my surprise, I rather enjoyed it.
The story begins with the novel’s 20-something American protagonist Alexandra Boyd arriving in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia to begin her new job teaching English at a local school. Immediately upon her arrival, due to a mix-up while entering a taxi she gets stuck holding an urn of human ashes meant for interment at a Bulgarian monastery. With the helpful assistance of a local cab driver she’s nicknamed Bobby Alexandra embarks on a search to reunite the cherished remains with its rightful owners. But much to her surprise, she quickly learns there are powerful people actively trying to stop her. But why?
On one hand, while I’m tempted criticize the author for her novel’s length, on the other hand I must praise her because The Shadow Land possesses so many of the elements one would expect from a quality novel. Readers of The Shadow Land will encounter exotic locations, heart-breaking loss, action, mystery, shifts in timeline as well as narration and even a bit of romance. And plenty of plot twists.
Who knows, after lucking out with The Shadow Land I might even give her other books including The Historian a chance. Don’t be surprised if I do.
Awhile back a former co-worker raved about a novel with the intriguing title of The Lonely Polygamist. Figuring with a title like that I couldn’t go wrong, I vowed to someday read it. Well, last week or so that day finally came. As I happily made my way through Brady Udall’s 2010 novel I quickly realized my former co-worker of mine did not steer me wrong.
Considering the book’s primary character, Golden Richards is male Fundamentalist Mormon and by default a polygamist, one would assume Golden lives a life of unfettered male privilege. A plethora of subservient wives to indulge his every whim and an army of loving and devoted children some might argue Golden has got it made. Or does he?
His construction business is failing, forcing him to take on projects hundreds of miles from his home. (So desperate for construction gigs he’s agreed to remodel a legal brothel in Nevada, telling his wives he’s working on a retirement center.) His family is a train wreck riven by factions and power-struggles as his four sister wives jockey for control of his chaotic and overpopulated household. Father to 28 children, there’s so many kids under Golden’s roof he’s forced to employ a mnemonic device just to remember their names. Complicating his predicament, while away on business he finds himself falling in love with another man’s wife.
The Lonely Polygamist is one of those wonderful novels you just went to keep reading. Not only is the writing crisp, Udall takes the reader through a full spectrum of emotions. Also, without saying too much, there’s no shortage of plot twists that if you’re like me, you never saw coming. I loved The Lonely Polygamist and it easily made my year-end list of best fiction.
It was hard to resist Jonathan Rabb’s novel Among the Living when I came across a copy last week at my public library. What could be more intriguing than a 30-something Holocaust survivor thrust into the Jim Crow world of Savannah, Georgia?
Among the Living begins in 1947 with the arrival in Savannah of Czech Jew Yitzhak Goldah. After surviving the horrors of the Holocaust he comes to live with his American relatives, Abe and Pearl Jesler, a middle-aged childless couple. Despite their initial awkwardness the Jeslers welcome Yitzhak with open arms, not only providing him with employment but also introducing him to their friends, business associates and fellow members of city’s Jewish community. Thankful nonetheless for the Jesler’s hospitality and with it a chance to restart his life, Yitzhak soon learns the city is riven both racially and religiously. As an outsider who’s experienced firsthand the racist atrocities of the murderous Nazis he must learn how to navigate the circumscribed worlds of white and black. If that isn’t challenging enough, even Savannah’s Jewish population is fractured with the city’s Conservative and Reform communities having little, if anything to do with each other. This animosity becomes apparent when he attracts the attention of an intelligent and beautiful young widow from the city’s Reform congregation.
Overall, I enjoyed Among the Living and now I want to read more of Rabb’s fiction, especially his historical thriller Rosa. (Come to think of it, for that matter his entire Nikolai Hoffner series.) It’s also rekindled my interest in reading Ghita Schwarz’s 2010 novel Displaced Persons because it also features Holocaust survivors. Perhaps sometime in the near future you’ll see a few of these novels featured on my blog.
Filed under Fiction, History