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A Death in the Family
By James Agee
Completed August 8, 2010
James Agee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, A Death in the Family, captured the initial moments of grief with beautiful clarity. The shock, anger and sadness that inflicted each character was so realistically drawn, it was near flawless. Won posthumously in 1957, the edition of A Death in the Family that I read contained only minor changes to Agee’s writing, plus two sections that were not placed formally into the story by the author. To think that Agee wrote this masterpiece without the benefit of an editor shows you the caliber of his writing. Like his character development, this story was close to perfect.
Jay Follett was a husband and father with a slightly mysterious past, who was called to his father’s bedside in the middle of the night. On his trip home, his car experienced mechanical failure, resulting in Jay’s instantaneous death. He left behind his wife, Mary and his two children, Rufus and Catherine.
The mysterious aspects of Jay’s life enthralled me. You get the impression that he was an alcoholic – perhaps on the wagon at the time of his death – who pulled himself out of nothing into a productive life. As Mary’s family learned of Jay’s death, you discovered they were not supportive of Mary and Jay’s marriage initially, but as time evolved, they grew to love him. Without a doubt, he held a tight bond with his son, Rufus. For most of the book, you witnessed the emotional roller coaster that the family experiences as they deal with Jay’s death. From wanting to know the details of the accident to trying to sleep and eat, death and daily living were juxtaposed for the readers to consider: How would you deal with the sudden death of a loved one?
The book ends on the day of the funeral, leaving you curious about how the family would cope so early in their grief. How would Mary survive without her husband’s financial support? How would the children learn to live without their father? Agee leaves many questions unanswered, but made one thing clear: grief is a force to be reckoned with. It ebbs and flows throughout a person’s lifetime; always there – sometimes in the distance, sometimes very close. A Death in the Family was a wonderful tribute to this raw human emotion. ( )
The News Where You Are
By Catherine O'Flynn
Completed August 1, 2010
Frank, the main character of Catherine O’Flynn’s latest book, The News Where You Are, is a 40-something newscaster who is facing numerous crises. For example, the buildings created by his father, a renowned post-war architect, were being demolished because they didn’t adequately meet the needs of the residents (though Frank’s father meticulously designed each one with “the future” in mind). As Frank mourns the loss of his father’s architecture, he also mourns the lost relationship between them.
Frank is also dealing with the death of his friend and mentor, Phil – a popular national newscaster who had a Dick Clarkian way of non-aging. Phil was killed in a hit-and-run accident one evening, and his sudden death left a big void in Frank’s life.
While mourning the loss of his friend, Frank became interested (borderline obsessed) with news stories about people who died alone. For Frank, this is the worst way to go, and he begins to investigate one death in particular – that of Michael Church. Frank soon discovers that Michael was Phil’s childhood friend, and he begins to piece together an incredible story of friendship and secrets.
The News Where You Are is a small book but packed with many complex themes – the young and the old; the popular and the lonely; the past and the future. Each character, from Frank and his cranky mother to Frank’s spirited daughter and his practical wife, are developed with the precision of an artist. As Frank uncovers the past life of Phil and Michael, he explores his own childhood and begins to rectify the relationship with his parents. Ultimately, it’s his daughter Mo who offers Frank the best counseling, reminding him that it’s not the past or future that’s important – but the present with the people you love. In essence, the news is – quite simply – exactly where you are. ( )
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle
By Monique Roffey
Did Not Finish
Sometimes, I can get hung up on a part of a story – to the point where it plagues my entire reading experience. This is what happened while reading The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey.
The book is divided into chronological sections, starting with 2006 and then going back to 1956, 1963 and 1970. So, when Roffey introduces us to the main characters, George and Sabine, we are meeting their 75-year-old versions (with most of their lives’ experiences behind them). For the first 189 pages, it was difficult to like George and Sabine. George was a lifelong philanderer – selfish and egotistical. Sabine drank and smoked excessively, and liked to pick fights with George and their daughter. As I muddled through these pages, reminding myself that the book will reveal more about these characters, something happens. Sabine beats her family dog. The scene was only a few paragraphs long but affected me tremendously. So tremendously that as I moved to the earlier years of the characters’ lives, I could not forget what Sabine did.
120 pages from the end, I couldn’t bear reading about Sabine anymore. I was done with her. I placed my bookmark in front of the next chapter, put the book aside and thought about what to do next. Ultimately, I decided to walk away from The White Woman on the Green Bicycle.
Despite my abandonment of this book, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Roffey’s writing talent and her fascinating exploration into Trinidad’s history. Indeed, many aspects of The White Woman on the Green Bicycle were appealing. Perhaps I can come back to it once I let go of my distaste for Sabine. Until then, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle will sit on my shelf; my bookmark marking the spot where I said no more.
By Sadie Jones
Completed July 14, 2010
In Small Wars, the second novel by Sadie Jones, explores the impact of “small wars” on countries, citizens, servicemen and their loved ones. When you read a novel by Jones, you expect an intensive read. Small Wars is exactly that – a novel that keeps you thinking about its characters long after finishing the book.
Hal Treherne is a young major in the British Army. He comes from a family whose men held distinguished careers in the army, fighting in great English wars throughout history. Hal has no war to fight, until he is stationed in Cyprus, a nation whose interest to England becomes exceedingly higher as the conflict in the Suez Canal erupts in nearby Egypt. Cyprus had a small war of its own, trying to break free of British rule. The country’s desire for independence resulted in terrorist activity, and Hal finally gets the war he’s been trained for. However, it’s not the war of his father or grandfather. There are no trenches, fronts or battlefields. Instead, it’s house-to-house searches, land mines and torture. Hal learns that he’s not emotionally equipped for this type of warfare and begins to question his service in the army.
Meanwhile, Hal’s wife Clara arrives in Cyprus with their twin daughters, and tries to create a life in this tumultuous country. At the beginning of the book, you sense a deep love between the couple. However, as conditions sour in Cyprus and Hal becomes traumatized by its events, you watch as this marriage crumbles. They fail to talk to each other, and Hal takes out the atrocities of the war on his wife. He eventually arranges for Clara’s departure to a “safer” part of Cyprus, but in a country involved in a small war, there are no safe havens. Eventually, Clara and Hal face an enormous tragedy that will make or break their marriage.
I was unaware of this portion of British history, and I found that Jones’ research about Cyprus during the 1950’s to be enlightening. I couldn’t help but draw parallels from the small war in Cyprus to those being fought in countries throughout the world today. The places have changed, but the lessons have not. I applaud Jones for tackling this sensitive subject and for doing so in such a provocative way. I would recommend Small Wars to those readers who enjoy reading intense fiction or books focused on military history. It’s a book that will leave its fingerprint on me for a long time. ( )
By Ali Smith
Completed July 10, 2010
Truth be told, I don’t know how to fairly review The Accidental by Ali Smith. It’s a story that follows the dysfunctional lives of the Smart family and the emergence of Amber, a young woman who crashes the Smart’s summer home one evening. Amber’s presence helps members of the family deal with their individual grief, though the reader never quite learned why Amber was there.
The four Smart family members take turns narrating a chapter. My favorite chapters were told by Astrid, a young girl who likes to videotape everything. With a director’s eye and a stream of consciousness that James Joyce would appreciate, Astrid’s perspective matched her age: big ideas, rambling thoughts and a curiosity about life. Also interesting was her brother’s narrative: Magnus was depressed about the suicide of a fellow classmate and felt at blame for the girl’s death. Smith’s strength is not character development – you never get a full picture of each character – but the snippets she showed of the kids were insightful and captivating.
Smith’s writing style takes a while to get used to. You’re dropped into the middle of each character’s thoughts, and you might need several chapters (as I did) to get into the writing style. Admittedly, it’s not my favorite way of storytelling, and I felt it put up barriers around the characters and their stories. Additionally, the ending was disappointing, and after trudging through this book, I was hoping for something a little more gratifying.
It’s hard to recommend The Accidental because it was a “meh” book for me. I encourage future readers to look at other reviews before deciding on this book. I think it’s a book you either like or don’t; I hate to say that I am in the latter group. ( )