THAT EYE, THE SKY by Tim Winton

In this modern Australian classic, award-winning author Tim Winton tells the story of young Ort Flack and his struggle to come to grips with the forces pulling his family apart. An extraordinary snapshot of boyhood, That Eye, the Sky is also a powerful exploration of the nature of hope and faith.

Ort doesn’t have a bad life. He mucks around with his best pal, Fat Cherry; he wonders what his sister Tegwyn’s so mad about and why his grandma’s disappeared inside herself; he looks up at the sky and thinks it’s like a big blue eye looking right back at him. But when Dad isn’t back from work when he’s supposed to be and a strange car pulls into the drive, Ort’s life is thrown into turmoil. Suddenly, Mum doesn’t seem as strong as she used to, Fat starts saying bad things, and the stranger knocking on the door seems to know an awful lot about the Flacks.

I liked this least of Winton’s books.  He does really captures the eternal boredom and freedom of long summer days spent “mucking around”, and getting into trouble.  The family takes care of the senile and unwell elderly mother of the dad.

However, his dad suffers a terrible head injury in a car accident, and is eventually brought home after weeks in a coma, non speaking, and unable to do anything for himself.

But things take a turn for the strange and peculiar when a mysterious stranger appears at the door. the strange offers to help with the care of the dad, but what the stranger really brings is Jesus, and the family begins to believe.

Our twelve year old narrator begins high school at the regional high where he is bullied abused, both by teachers and other kids.  His teenage sister becomes more and more estranged from the family living situation she hates.

The grandmother dies, the stranger takes off with the teenage daughter, and it seems the father comes back to his senses somewhat, but we are not quite sure.

Another book that doesn’t exactly end so much as drift away.

SO BIG by Edna Ferber

Winner of the 1924 Pulitzer Prize, So Big is widely regarded as Edna Ferber’s crowning achievement. A rollicking panorama of Chicago’s high and low life, this stunning novel follows the travails of gambler’s daughter Selina Peake DeJong as she struggles to maintain her dignity, her family, and her sanity in the face of monumental challenges. This is the stunning and unforgettable “novel to read and to remember” by an author who “critics of the 1920s and 1930s did not hesitate to call the greatest American woman novelist of her day” 

Set in a time before the turn of the 20th century in the prairie farmland outside of Chicago, it is the story of a strong willed woman who marries in to the stolid and basically mirthless Dutch farming community, where she bears one son, Dirk, whom she calls So Big, after the infant game all mothers play with their babies.

Her husband dies, and she is left alone with a decrepit farm which she finally turns into a productive enterprise.  Her son is destined for college, becomes an architect but not a very successful one, changes over to bond sales, and makes a ton of money, but his monther is unimpressed, feeling that he has abandoned beauty for money.

He never marries, being rather involved with the married daughter of his mother’s best friend, while a poverty stricken neighbor’s child, which whom he grew up, developed into a famous and successful sculptor.

There is no real ending, it just peters away,  leaving the reader to determine whether it is each person’s own character which decides whether money or beauty is more important.

 

THE SHEPHERD’S HUT by Tim Winton

In The Shepherd’s Hut, Winton crafts the story of Jaxie Clackton, a brutalized rural youth who flees from the scene of his father’s violent death and strikes out for the vast wilds of Western Australia. All he carries with him is a rifle and a waterjug. All he wants is peace and freedom. But surviving in the harsh saltlands alone is a savage business. And once he discovers he’s not alone out there, all Jaxie’s plans go awry. He meets a fellow exile, the ruined priest Fintan MacGillis, a man he’s never certain he can trust, but on whom his life will soon depend.

The Shepherd’s Hut is a thrilling tale of unlikely friendship and yearning, at once brutal and lyrical, from one of our finest storytellers.

This is a gritty, raw and deeply atmospheric tale about a cruelly abused Australian teen boy, Jaxie, who sets out across the harsh Australian wildlands to escape a mess of a situation at home. In his journey across the brutal and unforgiving landscape of West Australia, Jaxie encounters Fintan MacGillis, an elderly Irish priest living in exile in a tin shack by a large salt lake. They develop a tentative, prickly relationship which leads to a level of mutual respect and trust – which is tough for Jaxie, who has no frame of reference for adult men who are anything but brutal and self-serving. Their story culminates in a intense and haunting ending that transforms Jaxie forever.  Jaxie’s narrative is blunt and profane and is peppered with the vernacular and slang of rural Australia.

A book full of anguish, scorching landscape, beauty, and characters that are damaged, broken, and often irredeemable.

I love Winton’s work.

THE RIDERS By Tim Winton

Fred Scully waits at the arrival gate of an international airport, anxious to see his wife and seven-year-old daughter. After two years in Europe they are finally settling down. He sees a new life before them, a stable outlook, and a cottage in the Irish countryside that he’s renovated by hand. He’s waited, sweated on this reunion. He does not like to be alone – he’s that kind of man. The flight lands, the glass doors hiss open, and Scully’s life begins to go down in flames.

This story is more than a journey in search of a disappeared wife. It’s a study of obsessions, personal relationships, the complexities of commitment—rich explorations of the human condition.

It’s December 1987. Fred Scully – known simply as Scully – is renovating the dilapidated cottage in rural Ireland he and his wife Jennifer have bought on a whim at what was supposed to be the end of two years of living in Europe. Jennifer and their seven-year-old daughter Billie have returned to Australia to sell the family home so that the family can settle permanently in Ireland. Ten days before Christmas, Scully goes to the airport to collect Jennifer and Billie, but Billie arrives alone, too traumatized to tell her father what has happened to Jennifer. Devastated and increasingly out of control, Scully takes Billie with him to Greece, then to Paris and to Amsterdam, desperate to find his wife and to understand what has happened.

Scully is an unattractive, but intelligent and caring man who worked as a labourer in London, Paris and Greece so that Jennifer could pursue her dream of becoming an artist or writer. Then one cold night, in the ruins of a castle near his cottage, Scully sees a group of strange people and horses. The people are dressed and armed for hunting and they apparently don’t see him. These people are “the Riders” of the title and this is the Wild Hunt of European mythology.  That Scully (and the reluctant Billie) are drawn into the Wild Hunt is made clear from other references in the text – the sight of “gypsy” boys riding horses bareback seen through the window of a train, the sound of horses’ hooves on a street in Amsterdam when Scully is at his most unraveled. Having seen the Wild Hunt in Ireland, Scully is drawn into it and becomes one of the Riders in his mad trek across Europe trying to find Jennifer.

The Wild Hunt is a folklore motif  that historically occurs in European folklore. Wild Hunts typically involve a ghostly or supernatural group of hunters passing in wild pursuit. The hunters may be elves or fairies or the dead and the leader of the hunt is often a named figure associated with Odin, but may variously be a historical or legendary figure like Theodoric the Great, the Danish king Valdemar Atterdag, the Welsh psychopomp Gwyn ap Nudd, biblical figures such as Herod, Cain, Gabriel or the Devil, or an unidentified lost soul or spirit either male or female.

Seeing the Wild Hunt was thought to presage some catastrophe such as war or plague, or at best the death of the one who witnessed it. People encountering the Hunt might also be abducted to the underworld or the fairy kingdom. In some instances, it was also believed that people’s spirits could be pulled away during their sleep to join the cavalcade.

Jacob Grimm interpreted the Wild Hunt phenomenon as having pre-Christian origins, arguing that the male figure who appeared in it was a survival of folk beliefs about the god Wodan, who had “lost his sociable character, his near familiar features, and assumed the aspect of a dark and dreadful power… a spectre and a devil.” Grimm believed that this male figure was sometimes replaced by a female counterpart, whom he referred to as Holda and Berchta.  In his words, “not only Wuotan and other gods, but heathen goddesses too, may head the furious host: the wild hunter passes into the wood-wife, Wôden into frau Gaude.” He added his opinion that this female figure was Woden’s wife.

This was a strange and mystical book, which for me seemed to bobble back and forth between the surreal world of the Wild Hunt and a typical story of a guy who has been set up and left by a strange, attention-seeking wife.  Very odd.

THE OLD CAPE MAGIC by Richard Russo

This is the story of a marriage, and of all the other ties that bind, from parents and in-laws to children and the promises of youth.

Griffin has been tooling around for nearly a year with his father’s ashes in the trunk, but his mother is very much alive and not shy about calling on his cell phone. She does so as he drives down to Cape Cod, where he and his wife, Joy, will celebrate the marriage of their daughter Laura’s best friend. For Griffin this is akin to driving into the past, since he took his childhood summer vacations here, his parents’ respite from the hated Midwest. And the Cape is where he and Joy honeymooned, in the course of which they drafted the Great Truro Accord, a plan for their lives together that’s now thirty years old and has largely come true. He’d left screenwriting and Los Angeles behind for the sort of New England college his snobby academic parents had always aspired to in vain; they’d moved into an old house full of character; and they’d started a family. Check, check and check.

But be careful what you pray for, especially if you manage to achieve it. By the end of this perfectly lovely weekend, the past has so thoroughly swamped the present that the future suddenly hangs in the balance. And when, a year later, a far more important wedding takes place, their beloved Laura’s, on the coast of Maine, Griffin’s chauffeuring two urns of ashes as he contends once more with Joy and her large, unruly family, and both he and she have brought dates along. How in the world could this have happened?

That Old Cape Magic is a novel of deep introspection and every family feeling imaginable, with a middle-aged man confronting his parents and their failed marriage, his own troubled one, his daughter’s new life and, finally, what it was he thought he wanted and what in fact he has. The storytelling is flawless throughout, moments of great comedy and even hilarity alternating with others of rueful understanding and heart-stopping sadness, and its ending is at once surprising, uplifting and unlike anything this Pulitzer Prize winner has ever written.

The following is a review lifted in its entirety by a fellow named Will Byrnes, because he said it all so much better than I could.

The title refers to a modification of the song “That Old Black Magic,” a tune sung with verve and hope by narrator Jack Griffin’s parents when they would cross the bridge into Cape Cod every summer for one month of relief from eleven months of misery. Each of the book’s eleven chapters connects to some aspect of Cape Cod in Jack’s life, from summer vacations there as a kid, to his honeymoon to the wedding of his daughter’s friend, and later his daughter’s wedding.

Place is important to the story beyond Cape Cod. Jack’s parents, both from upstate New York, aspired to live and teach in Ivy, or near-Ivy League institutions in the northeast, but their Ivy-League degrees are not sufficient to gain them Ivy-League careers and they are relegated to the “mid-fucking-west.” His wife’s parents, and thus her familial connections, are in Republican, suburban California. Living in Connecticut offers strains to her as well.

Along with Cape Cod as a central image, the relationship of Jack to his parents is a core concern, familiar turf for Russo. How much of any of us is truly our own? How much are we influenced, formed by our parents? How much of them can we set aside, escape, embrace and still be separate people? How much of what we want is really our own, and not a carry-forward of our parents dreams? In career, in marriage, in family? Jack struggles with trying to live his own life. His parents are always in his thoughts. He is even toting his father’s ashes about with him, planning to scatter them in the cape, struggling to actually do the deed.

Jack has been married to Joy for 34 years, and they have had their ups and downs. Once a Hollywood screenwriter of modest accomplishment, he returned east for a college teaching post. His dream or his parents? His dream or Joy’s, who had wanted him to move away from screenwriting to teaching? The pull of LA remains strong, work for him, family for her.

The central action of the story centers on the viability of Jack and Joy’s marriage. Personally, I felt it hitting a bit too close to home at times. Not so much in the specifics. My life has been very different from Jack’s, but we are the same age and have both gone through the deep emotional scarring that long-term relationships can entail. As a veteran of those wars, I recognize the verity of long, silent car rides, uncomfortable silences, changes in how one views one’s mate, old secrets exposed, private tears seen. I suppose it is a good thing that Russo made me squirm with this familiarity. That his writing hits home in so personal a way reinforces the fact that he knows of what he speaks.

There is significant craft at work here, as one would expect from a master writer of Russo’s caliber. He parallels the pining of Jack’s partner Tommy for Jack’s wife, Joy, with that of young (ironically named) Sunny Kim, for his daughter Laura. He offers significant hooks to parental engagement, from the ashes Jack is toting, and never quite getting around to scattering, to the voice of his mother in his head. Water is used for its lachrymose and rebirth purposes. Is it stretching too far to wonder if Jack Griffin was named as he was in support of his dual nature, as part Hollywood guy and part academic? There are bits of humor here, and some are pretty funny, but I found that in the overall feel of the book, most of the humor did not do much for me. Maybe it was just my personal reaction, having been brought back to dark days. For folks who did not vibrate with such feelings it is probably a lot funnier.

This is no Empire Falls or Bridge of Sighs. While Russo offers a multi-generational view of a family here, the story is more individual and less social, less big-picture historical and more how the history of one family affects their descendants today, Richard Russo light. That works too.

 

SHALLOWS by Tim Winton

Shallows is set in a small whaling town in Western Australia, where land-based whaling has been a tradition for over 150 years. When Queenie Cookson decides to join an antiwhaling protest group, she defies her husband, her ancestry, and her community. Winner of the prestigious Miles Franklin Award in Australia, this eloquent and moving novel speaks with immediacy and passion of the conflict between the values of a closeknit, traditional society and the evolving mores of the wider world.

The descriptions of place are, as always in his novels, breathtaking, the dialogue, pitch perfect and the themes—death, loss, family, redemption—are the universal themes that touch us all.

These characters struggle with their pasts and are not always optimistic about their futures. They are common people leading uncommon common lives. Shallows ends on a vividly tragic note, leaving the reader with an image that jolts. But amid the somber and the jolting, there are the comic touches that keep us grounded in this dark retelling of the disassembling of the Albany whaling industry.

Winton’s novels focus on the development of characters, entwining them in the Australian landscape and in the quirks of their families and of the other characters.

So, yeah.  It is about whales.

 

THE BURNED TOWER by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko

A truck driver on a lonely stretch of road, a hitchhiker, and an ancient curse — a brilliant and moving tale, steeped in folklore, by the masters of modern Fantasy. In 1999 “The Burned Tower” was awarded the “Interpresscon” as the best short story of the year on the international SF-convention in St-Petersburg. Now, for the first time, in English.

It’s a creepy, modern folk tale using familiar mythical creatures to tell a thought provoking story of redemption and forgiveness.  I found it meh.