THE STONE ANGEL by Margaret Lawrence

Here’s the not-so-very- helpful blurb for Canadian writer Margaret Lawrence’s most popular book:  ” Stubborn, querulous, self-reliant – and, at ninety, with her life nearly behind her – Hagar Shipley makes a bold last step towards freedom and independence.

As her story unfolds, we are drawn into her past. We meet Hagar as a young girl growing up in a black prairie town; as the wife of a virile but unsuccessful farmer with whom her marriage was stormy; as a mother who dominates her younger son; and, finally, as an old woman isolated by an uncompromising pride and by the stern virtues she has inherited from her pioneer ancestors.”

I really enjoyed this book, but due to my attention span and the memory recall of a gnat, I have already forgotten what it is about, and that blurb did not help one little tiny bit, so let’s see if I can do better for you.

This novel moves back and forth in time, tracing the life of Hagar Shipley, born Hagar Currie in the Canadian prairie town of Manawaka. Hagar is a crotchety 90-year old currently living with her son, Marvin, and daughter-in-law, Doris. As she faces the end of her life, she reflects with some regret upon her relationships with her father, brothers, husband and sons. Although she could be judgmental, stubborn and prideful, her hardscrabble life on the prairie was a gut-wrenching tale at times.

For the reader, the story evokes part pearl-clutching, part horror, part laughter.  Some of the humor comes from her private thoughts of her daughter-in-law, that hard-burdened woman who has spent many years now caring for the grouchy, ungrateful mother-in-law, and some of the humor arises from situations themselves.

Hagar is deeply afraid of being put in a nursing home, and at one point, runs away from home to stay in a vacant lodge by a lakeside she only vaguely remembers.  She manages to survive overnight before her hard-pressed son finds her and brings her home, and we all can’t but be admiring of an independent woman who chooses a daring adventure over prudence.

Her backstory is riveting, and goes far in explaining her attitude and outlook.

What a wonderful book.  Although it is principally character driven, there is plenty of plot action in the back story to satisfy those readers who prefer action over musings.

THE KEEP by Jennifer Egan

OK, you know what a keep is, right?  It is basically a medieval safe room in a castle, but is a whole tower, a type of fortified tower built within castles during the Middle Ages by European nobility.

Now that we have that out of the way, we can discuss this rather strange book.  Here is the official plot:  “Two cousins, irreversibly damaged by a childhood prank, reunite twenty years later to renovate a medieval castle in Eastern Europe. In an environment of extreme paranoia, cut off from the outside world, the men reenact the signal event of their youth, with even more catastrophic results. And as the full horror of their predicament unfolds, a prisoner, in jail for an unnamed crime, recounts an unforgettable story that seamlessly brings the crimes of the past and present into piercing relation.

It is told in First Person — by several different narrators, a conceit that I found terribly annoying, switching without warning back and forth until we Gentle Readers. . . right before we hit the state of the literary version of road rage . . .  finally get the idea that it is different people telling the story.  It is sort of linear, but only sort of,  and frankly, although the general story is enjoyable in its way, I liked it a lot less than the folks who long-listed it for the 2008 Orange Prize for Fiction.  Oh well, chocolate, vanilla, and butter pecan, because different strokes, etc.

THE GUN SELLER by Hugh Laurie

You know Hugh Laurie.  He is Dr. House.  And a consummate performer, writer, actor, musician, etc. etc.  He partnered with Stephen Fry for years in several comedy shows in Great Britain, one of which was Jeeves and Wooster, which aired in the US as well.  Well, he wrote a novel in 1998, a thriller, which was kind of nifty.

OK, somewhat trope-ridden, and a little too cutesy-funsy, leaning heavily on British music hall humor at the beginning, but it got better as it went on.

Typical good guy/bad guys, international conspiracy by the capitalists kind of thing, but enjoyable none the less.  I believe it was his only offering in the novel genre.

Interesting how often a person talented in one genre also is talented in other artistic areas.

CARPENTARIA By Alexis Wright

Here’s the skinny:

Hailed as a “literary sensation” by The New York Times Book Review, Carpentaria is the luminous award-winning novel by Australian Aboriginal writer and activist Alexis Wright. She is from the Waanji people from the highlands of the southern Gulf of Carpentaria.

Alexis Wright employs mysticism, stark reality, and pointed imagination to re-create the land and the Aboriginal people of Carpentaria.

In the sparsely populated northern Queensland town of Desperance, loyalties run deep and battle lines have been drawn between the powerful Phantom family, leaders of the Westend Pricklebush people, and Joseph Midnight’s renegade Eastend mob, and their disputes with the white officials of neighboring towns. Steeped in myth and magical realism, Wright’s hypnotic storytelling exposes the heartbreaking realities of Aboriginal life.

By turns operatic and everyday, surreal and sensational, the novel teems with extraordinary, larger-than-life characters. From the outcast savior Elias Smith, religious zealot Mossie Fishman, and murderous mayor Bruiser to activist Will Phantom and Normal Phantom, ruler of the family, these unforgettable characters transcend their circumstances and challenge assumptions about the downtrodden “other.” Trapped between politics and principle, past and present, the indigenous tribes fight to protect their natural resources, sacred sites, and above all, their people.

A reviewer named Sean Barrs the Book Dragon (credit where credit is due, folk),  writes this:  “Carpentaria is an aboriginal epic; it’s a soaring story full of imagination that gives voice to Australia’s Indigenous population, though it is also horribly uncomfortable to read and even harder to enjoy.

Alexis Wright works directly with oral tradition, with folktale and myth, to interpose her narrative with as much authenticity as possible; she brings tribal legends into the modern space, asserting how important such things are to the remaining members of the civilisations that were almost destroyed. It’s an angry narrative, one oozing with frustration. The Aboriginals have lost their home and are forced to live in the most undesirable of locations in a nation that is rightfully theirs. Their birth-right has been usurped: their land stolen.

And the land is of such vital importance in understanding this novel; the Aboriginals are connected to it on a spiritual level. They understand it and care for it in ways the colonisers are completely dumb to. They speak to it, and it speaks back to them. They use it thwart the efforts of the white man and eventually attempt to destroy him with it. Magic is combined with faith and belief making it very hard to determine what is actually real within the story and what is a mere matter of an alternative understanding of reality.”

Yeah.  Wish I’d said that.  Except for the ‘hard to enjoy part’.  If by ‘enjoy’ the reviewer means have happy feels when reading it.  However, for me, ‘enjoy’ means “to have and use with satisfaction; have the benefit of“, because for non-Australians, it is an entry into the history and reality of the Aboriginal experience.  I suspect for us pragmatic Westerners, magic is not as visible;  we prefer to privilege practicality and prudence over anything smelling even faintly of the fantastical.  More poor us.

Wonderful book.  Just wonderful.




A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrick Backman

Fredrick Backman is an award-winning writer of a number of delightful books.  This one is translated by Henning Koch.  Here’s the plot:

Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.

One reviewer writes “… delightful, predictable, heartwarming, cliched, funny, beautifully written, and worth every minute.”   Couldn’t have said it better myself.  So I won’t.


MISSING PERSON by Patrick Modriano

An award winning work by French author Patrick Modriano, translated by  Daniel Weissbort.

Written in 1972, this book received the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, and the Prix Goncourt i. 1978.

In this strange, elegant novel, winner of France’s premier literary prize, Patrick Modiano portrays a man in pursuit of the identity he lost in the murky days of the Paris Occupation, the black hole of French memory.

For ten years Guy Roland has lived without a past. His current life and name were given to him by his recently retired boss, Hutte, who welcomed him, a onetime client, into his detective agency. Guy makes full use of Hutte’s files – directories, yearbooks, and papers of all kinds going back half a century – but his leads are few. Could he really be the person in that photograph, a young man remembered by some as a South American attaché? Or was he someone else, perhaps the disappeared scion of a prominent local family? He interviews strangers and is tantalized by half-clues until, at last, he grasps a thread that leads him through the maze of his own repressed experience.

On one level Missing Person is a detective thriller, a 1950s film noir mix of smoky cafés, illegal passports, and insubstantial figures crossing bridges in the fog. On another level, it is also a haunting meditation on the nature of the self.

Everybody loved this book.  I didn’t love this book.  I found it dull and tedious, even though it was not a very long book.  Seemed long, though.

I have no excuses for not caring for this book.  Sometimes, a book just doesn’t speak to us.

THE ROAD TRIP by Kyle David Iverson

This is a fairly short account of a road trip in Australia and Tasmania (wait, Tasmania IS Australia) so I guess I mean mainland Australia and the island of Tasmania, taken by some backpackers.  If I were 50 years younger, doing what these folks did certainly would have appealed to me.  It is a thirty-year old guy, and a female friend, (not girlfriend, as she is gay) who set off together to experience Australia.  He had just spent 7 months in Asia, and now they planned on a year long trip in Australia.

They meet other travelers, and it is basically about how hard it is to travel in a small van with four people, how personalities mesh or collide, etc.  Nothing any of us who have ever traveled in an enclosed space for any length of time with more than zero companions have not already learned.

There was no plot, and I am assuming it is non-fiction, more like a diary or blog, really.  They travel, they make endless hikes up endless mountains to see endless views and an indeterminate amount of waterfalls.  The end.