The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

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Alexandra was not only very tired, but also young, in both years and experience… In other words, nothing in her previous experience had prepared her for the feeling of being suddenly locked in a monastic room with a stranger five thousand miles from the Blue Ridge Mountains, holding an urn containing the ashes of another stranger. (page 61) 

Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land follows a young American woman, Alexandra Boyd, as she travels to Bulgaria in memory of her lost brother. On her first day there, she accidentally takes the bag of an elderly couple, finding in it the boxed ashes of Stoyan Lazarov, talented musician and beloved father, friend, and husband. Setting out to return the box, alongside a taxi driver with a mysterious past, Alexandra becomes entangled in a far larger conspiracy that encapsulates Bulgaria’s past and will determine its future.

It is also a novel that deals sensitively with loss and tragedy. Alexandra struggles to cope with the loss of her brother ten years before and many of the Bulgarian characters struggle with the legacy of the brutal Communist regime in their nation.

Two confessions: I know nothing about Elizabeth Kostova and even less about Bulgaria. I vaguely remember attempting to read The Historian, but giving up early on. As for Bulgaria, my partner was briefly obsessed with moving there for a while so I know that the housing market is fairly cheap. After reading this one I’ll definitely be on the hunt for more Kostova and more Bulgaria.

I was quickly sucked into the narrative and the 500 pages seemed to fly by. Taking readers across Bulgaria and the twentieth century, The Shadow Land would appeal to lovers of literary fiction, historical fiction, and mystery and adventure novels.

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The Word Detective by John Simpson

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Can we just get something out of the way? Isn’t that the most terrible book cover you’ve ever seen? It looks like something an eight year old obsessed with clip art on Microsoft Word would’ve made.

But despite its horrific cover it was quite a pleasant read. The Word Detective acts as a memoir covering the four decades Simpson spent editing the Oxford English Dictionary. Sprinkled throughout his reminisces are frequent asides about the history of different words. As a book/English language lover, obviously this is just my cup of tea. For example, why are English people called Pommies in Australia? The short version: immigrant -> Jimmy Grant -> jimmygrant -> pomegranate -> Pom/Pommie. Simpson answers other pertinent questions such as where does the burpee come from and how does one properly define a salad?

In case you’re not as fascinated by linguistic gobbledygook as I am, you should know that Simpson gets quite personal as well. Some of the most interesting and moving passages in the book concern Simpson’s experiences raising a non-verbal child.

Recommended.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan

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My poor, poor blog. You’ve been terribly neglected haven’t you? Well, gentle readers, expect a slew of reviews coming your way as I try to get through my back log of books.

First up: Barbarian Days. Recommended by a few people at work (not to mention the Pulitzer committee). I was pretty eager to get stuck into this one. My limited knowledge of surfing (and surfing culture) comes exclusively from the Disney channel movie Johnny Tsunami which is technically more about snowboarding and fish-out-of-water storytelling so there you go.

Spanning the 1960s to the present day and locations as varied as Hawaii, California, the South Pacific, Australia, and South Africa, Finnegan’s life is definitely book-worthy.

Because of my limited surfing knowledge, I went into Barbarian Days expecting to hear of the exploits of world-famous surfer Bill Finnegan. Well turns out Finnegan isn’t a professional surfer just a life-long devotee. After a lifetime of chasing waves, Finnegan offers up an intensely personal biography-cum-social history of those who put their passion for surfing above all else. Told with humour, reverence, and a refreshing amount of self-deprecation, I have a hard time imagining who this story wouldn’t appeal to. Goodreads describes it as “an old-school adventure story, an intellectual autobiography, a social history, a literary road movie, and an extraordinary exploration of the gradual mastering of an exacting, little understood art.” Well put.

Now, time for some complaints. At 400 pages, Barbarian Days is perhaps a mite too long. I felt my interest flag for the last hundred pages or so. Another (minor) complaint: even though you don’t have to be well-versed in surfing it does pay to know a bit about wave mechanics as Finnegan isn’t above devoting pages at a time to the different ways in which waves operate. I can’t be the only one who feels completely ignorant when tidal mechanics are casually dropped into a narrative.

In the grand scheme of things, however, these are small issues. Finnegan is engaging and his life story is fascinating. This one will appeal to those with wanderlust or anyone who has ever felt compelled to chase a wave or their passion. For Finnegan, those two just happen to be one and the same.

 

 

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

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Summary from Goodreads:

What is the difference between friendship and love? Or between neutrality and commitment? Gustav Perle grows up in a small town in ‘neutral’ Switzerland, where the horrors of the Second World War seem a distant echo. But Gustav’s father has mysteriously died, and his adored mother Emilie is strangely cold and indifferent to him. Gustav’s childhood is spent in lonely isolation, his only toy a tin train with painted passengers staring blankly from the carriage windows.

As time goes on, an intense friendship with a boy of his own age, Anton Zwiebel, begins to define Gustav’s life. Jewish and mercurial, a talented pianist tortured by nerves when he has to play in public, Anton fails to understand how deeply and irrevocably his life and Gustav’s are entwined.

Lovely, lyrical little book.  I have to admit to sadistic tendencies when it came to this one – I enjoyed the book most when the main characters were miserable. And we’re looking at post-WWII Europe. So people are miserable A LOT.

Another confession: I’m a bit dumb when it comes to the structure of this one – apparently it was modelled after a sonata (perhaps unsurprisingly…). I had some of my musical friends try to explain what this might mean for the narrative structure but I still don’t get it. Can someone explain?

That being said, the narrative works even if (like me) you have no knowledge of classical music. Goodreads describes this book as “tender” and I can’t think of a more fitting description so I’ll just steal theirs. Even people (like Gustav’s mom) who initially come across as deeply unsympathetic are given a backstory that redeems (or at least explains) their character. Tragic and sentimental are probably two other fitting adjectives. Take a look at Gustav’s thought process late in the story:

Would my own existence have been happier, if I’d never known Anton Zwiebel? And he felt, at this moment, that it would have been. (pg 235) 

This was my first Tremain and despite being slightly disappointed in the ending I’m definitely keen to give Restoration a go.

I find these reviews are getting increasingly rambling so I do apologise. But I am also determined to keep this blog as a record primarily for myself so I’m probably going to keep on rambling. Please ramble back in the comments.

 

 

Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst

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Summary from Goodreads:

How far will a mother go to save her family? The Hammond family is living in DC, where everything seems to be going just fine, until it becomes clear that the oldest daughter, Tilly, is developing abnormally–a mix of off-the-charts genius and social incompetence. Once Tilly–whose condition is deemed undiagnosable–is kicked out of the last school in the area, her mother Alexandra is out of ideas. The family turns to Camp Harmony and the wisdom of child behavior guru Scott Bean for a solution. But what they discover in the woods of New Hampshire will push them to the very limit. Told from the alternating perspectives of both Alexandra and her younger daughter Iris (the book’s Nick Carraway), this is a unputdownable story about the strength of love, the bonds of family, and how you survive the unthinkable.

I read Parkhurst’s Dogs of Babel a few years back and it made me a fan for life. I’ll read anything she writes. While not as mind-blowing as DOBHarmony definitely made an impression.

It’s hard to describe what it is exactly I like about Parkhurst’s writing – there’s this strange… authenticity to her characters. Especially impressive is her ability to write in the voice of an 11-year-old.  I’m particularly in touch with my inner child but I find that most writers trying to capture pre-teen or teenage voices come across as unbearable and unbearably self conscious. Parkhurst manages to avoid that completely – the interactions between the sisters are so familiar that I felt like I had been transported back in time to a family trip with my five siblings. In fact, Iris was my favourite narrator – childish but still perceptive.

Unfamiliar to my own experience is Parkhurst’s exploration of developmental issues in children – a subject she tackles with both sensitivity and honesty.

My biggest criticism would be the tragedy and menace we are primed for in the first chapter (which is slowly unveiled throughout the novel) is a bit obvious and, perhaps, unnecessary. I don’t want to say too much more in fear of spoiling the ending!

Fans of familial dramas, look no further. Parkhurst has got what you need. Recommended.

(On a side note: how beautiful is that cover?!)

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

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– You put a spell on the dog, I said as we left the house.
– Just a small one, said Nightingale
– So magic is real, I said. Which makes you a … what?
– A wizard.
– Like Harry Potter?
– Nightingale sighed. No, he said, not like Harry Potter.
– In what way?
– I’m not a fictional character, said Nightingale.

After stumbling upon a ghost witness to a beheading in Covent Garden, Probationary Constable Peter Grant becomes the Watson to Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale’s supernatural Sherlock: investigating crimes involving magic or the uncanny.

Highly recommended for fans of crime, mystery novels, fantasy, British humour, and London.

I’m a bit late in the game to this one. Fairly popular series. Think Terry Prattchet meets Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Although it was recommended by a friend whose taste is diametrically opposed to my own, I didn’t hate it. It has all the elements that my friend looks for in a book: hard and fast with the humour, juvenile but enjoyable. It’ll get a pass from me purely based on the fun factor.

Complaints: the as aforementioned juvenility and brief instances of misogyny. Most women are sexualised quite a bit in the novel. But I can’t nitpick too much – I enjoyed the opportunity to partake in a little harmless nostalgia for London. Overall, a fun, guilty pleasure of a read. That also confirms how fucked up Punch and Judy is.

Transit by Rachel Cusk

 

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The second in the loose trilogy that started with Outline, Cusk returns stronger than ever. After the dissolution of her marriage, Faye moves to London with her two young sons and is forced “to confront aspects of living she has, until now, avoided, and to consider questions of vulnerability and power, death and renewal, in what becomes her struggle to reattach herself to, and believe in, life.” (from Goodreads) It’s hard to give a more solid summary of the book as Cusk’s writing defies traditional description.

Yes, yes, yes, yes. THIS is what I’m talking about. Even better than Outline.

Cusk’s writing is instantly recognisable – beautiful, highly feminine, highly intellectual, detached but weirdly intimate. Although we’re never allowed into the inner world of the protagonist, there’s a wonderful interest and investment in other people’s stories. Just like in Outline, we get these intensely intimate moments between people who are essentially strangers. What should be mundane conversations (with exes, friends, even the builder) become philosophical meditations on life. This one will definitely require a re-read as I’m sure some of it went over my head without me even realising it. How much is biographical? Is Faye just a mouth-piece for Cusk? What’s up with all the fucked-up parent/child relationships?

Strange and unique, Transit is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea but it sure is mine.

Here’s a little taste:

“I like it when you ask these questions… But I don’t understand why you want to know.” (page 227) 

I said I wasn’t so sure it mattered whether the audience knew who we were. It was good, in a way, to be reminded of the fundamental anonymity of the writing process, the fact that each reader came to your book a stranger who had to be persuaded to stay. (pg 114) 

The First Stone: Some Questions of Sex and Power by Helen Garner

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Summary from Goodreads:

In the autumn of 1992, two young women students at Melbourne University went to the police claiming that they had been indecently assaulted at a party. The man they accused was the head of their co-ed residential college. The shock of these charges split the community and painfully focused the debate about sex and power.

Another cultural theory dud for me! Recommended by the same friend who recommended the Solnit (starting to think I should stop trusting the guy) and it hit all the wrong buttons. I love love love Garner’s writing style – she’s incredibly easy to read. Even when she’s writing about really difficult, personal topics Garner’s writing is incredibly engaging.

Buuuuuuuuut, this one might have turned me off Garner forever. She’s of an old school type of feminism that is incredibly critical of the political correctness that characterises “a certain kind of modern feminism: priggish, disingenuous, unforgiving” (page 93). She has a sort of “boys will be boys” mentality when it comes to sexual harassment and has very little sympathy for the women involved. She even mentions what they were wearing at the time of the incident. Ouch.

Any readers out there with more experience with Garner? Should I try again?

 

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

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Summary from Goodreads:

A Field Guide to Getting Lost draws on emblematic moments and relationships in Solnit’s own life to explore the issues of wandering, being lost, and the uses of the unknown. The result is a distinctive, stimulating, and poignant voyage of discovery.

This one was recommended to me by a friend – I’ve had my eye on Solnit for a while. Notable for popularising the idea of “mansplaining,” Solnit seemed to me like the kind of new philosopher/cultural theorist that I could really get stuck into. This is my first foray into her work and I must admit it wasn’t an entirely successful encounter.

I should make it clear, philosophy isn’t really my thing; my review will definitely be tainted by my own ignorance. Solnit’s writing is beautiful, poetic, and meditative:

Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar fading away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing.” (page 22)

Some things we only have for as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.” (page 41)

But despite the loveliness of the above quotes I just couldn’t get into it. Definitely too philosophical for my taste – I found her use of stream of consciousness lovely to read but difficult to follow. This might be more telling of my intelligence (!) than Solnit’s writing.

I was interested in reading a few other essay collections by Solnit but this one has sorta put me off. Should I try again?

 

Just Checking In…

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So I’ve been terribly neglectful of this blog for the past couple of weeks – I do have an excuse though. I was living it up on the North Island of New Zealand where I unplugged for the week. (I stole the photo that you see above but I did see that view! The volcano on the right is Mount Doom! (I think)). Happy to be back home in Melbourne and back online!

If you’re anything like me you love lists. Particularly book lists. So enjoy this one of all the books I’ve read since Hillbilly Elegy. Expect musings on most if not all of the following:

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

The First Stone by Helen Garner

Transit by Rachel Cusk

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan

Flush by Virginia Woolf

The Word Detective by John Simpson

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters

Have you read any of the above? Share your thoughts!