Monday, February 28, 2011

Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

Lord of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon, was the dark horse winner of the 2010 National Book Award for fiction in December 2010.  It had a very small print run (2,000), and its author was relatively unknown.  Her life has changed.

No wonder.  Lord of Misrule is a gem.  It follows five characters through one year and four races at a rundown West Virginia racetrack.  The main characters are memorable.  Tommy Hansel is the "young fool", who has a scheme to run unknown horses quickly at long odds, make his money and get out.  Tommy's advance team and girlfriend, Maddie Koderer is the "frizzy haired girl" who is swept up by Tommy and, unbeknown to Maddie, is protected by her gangster uncle, Two-Tie.  Deucey Gifford is the old lady gypsy.  Finally, there is my favorite, Medicine Ed, the old horse groom. 

Gordon paints a beautiful portrait of the grittiness of a low stakes racetrack.  Her characters are stuck in a soulless track, looking for escape.  The first few sentences vividly describe what is to come:

"Inside the back gate of Indian Mound Downs, a hot-walking machine creaked round and round. In the judgment of Medicine Ed, walking a horse himself on the shedrow of Barn Z, the going-nowhere contraption must be the lost soul of this cheap racetrack where he been ended up at. It was stuck there in the gate, so you couldn't get out."

The writing is convincing and graphic.  Gordon carefully constructs each sentence.  This is a book to be read slowly and absorbed, not flipped through.  Two minor complaints about the novel : the shifts in perspective are a bit distracting and hard to follow and as someone who knows nothing about horse racing, I felt like I missed a few things.

The grittiness of the book reminded me of The Natural and the beauty and intensity of the writing brought to mind Tinkers by Paul Harding (the surprise 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction).

Recommendation:  It was great to see a small press outsider win one of the most prestigious literary awards in the United States.  Lord of Misrule is a beautifully written book that you should move up to the top of your literary reads.

Other reviews:
The Quivering Pen and Shelf Love.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

2011 Tournament of Books

The Morning News published its annual bracket for the Tournament of Books -- March Madness for readers.  The contenders are :

•The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender

•Nox, by Anne Carson
•Bad Marie, by Marcy Dermansky
Room, by Emma Donoghue
A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
Lord of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon
•Bloodroot, by Amy Greene
•Next, by James Hynes
The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson
•Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray
•Model Home, by Eric Puchner
•So Much for That, by Lionel Shriver
Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart
•Kapitoil, by Teddy Wayne
•Savages, by Don Winslow

My call is that Goon Squad takes on Room in the semifinals (Room has to beat Freedom, not an easy feat) and Lord of Misrule takes Super Sad True Love Story in the other semifinal match up.  Goon Squad wins it all.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt

Winston Churchill was the greatest statesman of the twentieth century and certainly belongs in the pantheon of the greatest leaders of all time. His leadership saved England and the free world. 

One of the lesser known facts about Churchill is that he suffered from depression. He called his depression his "Black Dog" and often wrote about visits from the Black Dog.  In the new novel, Mr. Chartwell,  first time novelist Rebecca Hunt presents the intriguing idea of incarnating Churchill's depression as a black dog named Black Pat

The novel is set in July 1964 on the eve of Churchill's retirement from Parliament.  Black Pat, a six foot black dog, visits Churchill, lays across him literally to weigh him down, chews rocks to annoy Churchill and engages in other assorted slobberingly doggish and childish behavior.  Black Pat also attacks a young widow, Esther, who rents a room in her home to him.  She too must battle with Black Pat.

Part of what made Churchill so famous was his use of language.  He was famous for his sharp quips (Lady Astor: "If I were married to you, I'd put poison in your coffee." Churchill: "If I were married to you, I'd drink it."), his inspiring speeches (see below) and his mastery of language (see forthcoming post on Churchill works and bios).  Take away the cigars, the house (named Chartwell), and several other details about setting, and Hunt's Churchill is no more than a cantankerous old man. 

Recommendation: I'd recommend passing on this novel. While the writing is good and the concept was interesting, the execution lacked.  Embodying depression as an annoying dog did not work.  Also, without Churchill's distinct and powerful voice, the novel missed the mark.

Other Reviews:
Follow the Thread, Lovely Treez Reads, and Chick With Books.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Decision Points by George W. Bush

Disclaimer: I did not vote for George W. Bush in 2000 or 2004. When he ran for office in 2000, I was concerned about his proposed tax cuts, social policies and seeming lack of understanding of foreign policy. Immediately after 9/11, I rallied around the leader. Bush acted with decisive resolve, which I thought was needed. Then, he lost me with his push for us to "go shop in the malls" and then the push into Iraq based on faulty intelligence. As the commander in chief, he was responsible for Abu Ghraib and torture, devastating blows to America's moral purpose.

That's the perspective from which I approached Bush's memoirs. Why read it? Between 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the financial meltdown of 2008, Bush presided over the most important and defining period of my lifetime. His decisions will have a lasting impact on the direction of the US. I wanted to hear what he had to say.

Decision Points is not history and it does not pretend to be. It is Bush's view of the significant decisions he faced as president. I didn't expect to like it, and I was wrong.

Bush begins the narrative with his recovery from alcoholism and his religious faith. Like his religious faith, many of his political principles are based on faith rather than reasoning -- stem cells (embryonic stem cells represent life); free markets (the markets should simply self correct); and freedom. That is how he presents them. Nonetheless, Bush showed a willingness to bend to confront the issues of the day. When the credit market seized up and the economy was toppling, Bush backed TARP and the nationalization of several banks. He supported massive AIDS relief in Africa through not only abstinence but the use of condoms.

As a war leader, I don't think I appreciated the need for him to maintain his public resolve as steadfastly as he did. I was very happy to hear that he had private doubts and fears. He discusses his concerns about success in Afghanistan and Iraq. But, as Winston Churchill recognized, to win a war, a leader must have steel like resolve. Any doubt from above corrodes the will to win. Was Bush oblivious to reality as the press sometimes argued? After reading Decision Points, I don't think so. I think he did what was needed--once the decision was made to go to war, he stuck with the battle plan, trusting his commanders and adjusting and challenging the military as needed.

What was comforting to see was that Bush was candid on several occasions when he declared unequivocally that he made the wrong decision or could have done better. He also was busy in the book proving his toughness (see the exchange with Putin) and intellect (he read 17 books on Lincoln and was in a famous reading contest with Karl Rove).

What disappointed me about the the memoir was that Bush avoids responsibility for Abu Ghraib and the faulty Iraq intelligence. While admitting to being sickened by what happened in Abu Ghraib, Bush fails to take responsibility ("I am the decider and I decide what is best."). In addressing the intelligence failure, he claims that everyone had the same information and made the same mistake, so how could more be expected from him. I expected more and was disappointed.

Recommendation: These memoirs should be read. They document the president's view of what happened during a critical time in US history. For the most part, Bush comes across as forthright and candid. You may not agree with Bush but his book is worth your time.

Additional note: There are other administration officials who have written books. From what I have gleaned, the Rumsfeld memoir is not worth reading, the Rice memoir addresses her family and not her time working for Bush and the Paul O'Neill memoir is thin on content and quite bitter. Dick Cheney is publishing his later this year (excerpt here), which could be quite interesting if he reveals anything. Of all of them, Bush is the one to read.

Promotional video with Bush for the book:

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! is the much anticipated first novel by Karen Russell.  This is one of the big literary entries for the year.  The story is the outgrowth of one of Russell's short stories from her collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.  She is a 29 year old writer and was selected in 2010 as one of the New Yorker's 20 Under 40 and previously by Granta, a British literary journal, as one of the Best Young American Novelists

Swamplandia! is the name of the Florida Everglades alligator theme park, which is owned and run by the Bigtree family.  Chief Bigtree, the patriarch of the family, poses as a Native American tribesman and creates a history and corresponding museum based on it.  The family consists of the Chief and his wife, Hilola Bigtree, and their children, Kiwi, Osceola and Ava. 

As the novel opens, we watch Hilola Bigtree, a renowned alligator wrestler, perform her legendary act: diving into and swimming through a pit of crocodiles.  Hilola transforms from a doting mother into a larger than life performer.  Several pages later, Hilola dies from ovarian cancer, and without its headline act, Swamplandia! must compete with a new corporate theme park, World of Darkness.

The family silently struggles with Hilola's death, ever mounting debt and the shattering of their mythic existence.  The Chief escapes to the mainland to search for investors to reinvent the park.  Kiwi, the eldest son, flees the swamp to earn a high school degree and take a low wage job to save the park.  His struggle to integrate into mainland teenage life, having grown up in the cloistered swamp, provides a welcome diversion.  Osceola is carried away on a spiritualistic journey, falling in love with the spirit of a deceased depression-era swamp dredger.  Ava, with an interloper known as Bird Man, tries to rescue her sister from the underworld, where Osceola has gone with her spirit boyfriend.

The narration alternates between Ava (in the first person) and Kiwi (in the third person), but this is Ava's show.  Although she is only thirteen, Russell presents Ava in a highly sophisticated and developed manner, not simply in the voice of a young teenager. 

Russell's writing and word choice are powerful, precise and vivid.  ("Ghosts silked into our bedroom like cold water." "...a hog-necked man with a high Sunday collar, his eyes a colorless sizzle like grease in a pan, half his face erased by the dark barn.") She has a sophisticated mastery of language and successfully paints a magical and mythical picture of the Bigtrees and the Everglades

Recommendation:  Russell's use of words and sentence construction are worth reading by themselves.  It is high impact writing.  She is a writer to watch, and her accolades are well deserved.  If you want a book that moves or is plot driven, pass on this.  This is neither an easy book to read nor one that moves quickly. 

Other Reviews: Nomand Reader and Mookes and Gripes.

Click here for a recent NPR interview with Karen Russell.

A reading by Karen Russell from her short story collection.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is a delightful first novel by Helen Simonson. Major Ernest Pettigrew is the quintessential Englishman, stodgy, prudent, understated and, above all, proper. The death of his brother sparks an unexpected friendship with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, a Pakistani shopkeeper in the Major's English countryside village. Their relationship grows from their shared love of literature and the loss of each of their spouses.  The Major, a respected and deeply rooted member of village life, must deal with the small-mindedness of the villagers.  Ms. Ali struggles with the religious shackles of her family and the villagers' treatment of her as an outsider. The Major also must confront his relationship with his superficial and materialistic son, the London banker, who has left village life and the values of his father.

The novel is loaded with conflicts: intergenerational, cultural, religious, societal and modernization. Simonson beautifully sets the story in the quiet village and paints a convincing portrait of life in the village without becoming farcical or contrived.

What I love about the Major is his strugle.  He is firmly grounded in "old fashion" values ("In my day, respect was something to strive for. Something to be given, not taken."), yet he is impulsive and irreverent. Simonson has fun showing us how he reconciles his dualing sides. 

The major themes of the novel are not new – does love conquer all and can people get beyond their own cultural shackles? What’s fun is the setting and how the characters develop in this timeless novel. It is an optimistic and worthwhile read.

Recommendation: This is a great book club book and an otherwise fun, easy read. The themes and issues are universal and relevant. The story is accessible and worth the read.

Below, the author discusses her book.

On a separate note, I want to welcome the blog's many new readers.  I'm very excited to have the opportunity to share my thoughts with you and would love to hear any feedback.  Thank you for coming on this adventure with me.