CLOUDSTREET by Tim Winton

I read this quite a while ago and couldn’t find my review to link to and darn if it was nowhere to be seen!  I now have a fuzzy recollection of writing it, and something happened and my entire review got erased before I could post it, so here I am trying to put together another post of a book I read maybe a year ago.  I can’t remember what I had for breakfast, let alone dredge up a sprawling plot (I do remember that much) of a story from the dim annals of my mind.

Official Plot Description:  Struggling to rebuild their lives after being touched by disaster, the Pickle family, who’ve inherited a big house called Cloudstreet in a suburb of Perth, take in the God-fearing Lambs as tenants. The Lambs have suffered their own catastrophes, and determined to survive, they open up a grocery on the ground floor. From 1944 to 1964, the shared experiences of the two overpopulated clans — running the gamut from drunkenness, adultery, and death to resurrection, marriage, and birth — bond them to each other and to the bustling, haunted house in ways no one could have anticipated.

The book chronicles the aching, bitter, crude, and sweet fortunes of two Australian families, the Lambs and the Pickles, from 1944-64. Brought together by need, greed, tragedy and a mysterious Other, the families’ stories collide and spring away over the years. They live in the same rotting mansion, separated by thin walls and different ambitions. The families’ regard for each other alternates between disgust and wonder, passion and forgiveness as their children and their backwater state of Western Australia grow up and away. T he universality of his themes and the recognizable nature of his characters give us  working class families who would be at home in Appalachia, the timber forests of Oregon, the fishing villages of the north Atlantic Coast.

But in spite of all this down to earth-iness of his characters, they all carry that whiff …. no, make it a snortfull … of the surreal, the comic, the very, very strange, and that’s why you keep turning the pages. Not only to find out what happens next, but to answer the question you keep asking yourself:  WTF?

I loved this book.  Wish I hadn’t lost my first review.  It was ever so much better than this one.

 

DIRT MUSIC by Tim Winton

One morning Luther Fox is observed poaching by Georgie Jutland. Chance, or a kind of willed recklessness, has brought Georgie into the life and home of Jim Buckridge, the most prosperous fisherman in the area and a man who loathes poachers, Fox above all. But she’s never fully settled into Jim’s grand house on the water or into the inbred community with its history of violent secrets. After Georgie encounters Fox, her tentative hold on conventional life is severed. Neither of them would call it love, but they can’t stay away from each other no matter how dangerous it is, and out on White Point it is very dangerous.

Set in the dramatic landscape of Western Australia, Dirt Music is a love story about people stifled by grief and regret; a novel about the odds of breaking with the past and about the lure of music. Dirt music, Fox tells Georgie, is “anything you can play on a verandah or porch, without electricity.”

Fox lost all his family — a brother and sister-in-law, and their two kids — in a car accident the year before.  Georgie, a nurse, feels she has always been a savior of broken men.  Her SO is a widower of only a few years.   Georgie is the black sheep of her wealthy family.

Filled with poetic descriptions of Western Australia, the landscape is almost a character in its own right, but the real story, not even the love triangle around which this is told, is a story of the town and its attitudes toward others, and its violent history.  It is, in part,  a story of redemption.

Winton is one of the foremost Australian writers, and it is easy to see why.

 

THE STAGES by Thom Satterlee

He trusts everyone, when he shouldn’t trust anyone.

How does a man with Asperger’s Syndrome step out of his office, leave behind the safety of his desk and books, and embrace the world he’s always kept at arm’s length?

All his life, Daniel Peters has hidden behind his reputation as one of the world’s best translators of the iconic Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. When his beloved ex-girlfriend and mentor dies under odd circumstances and a priceless Kierkegaard manuscript goes missing, Daniel turns out to be the last person to have seen her alive. To clear his name, he must leave the safety of his books and venture out into the streets of Copenhagen.

A murder mystery, a fine description of life as a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, periodic interesting descriptions of how a translator works, and a story about family secrets.

Lots of fun, interesting, and I learned that Danes eat potato chips with a fork!  Gadzooks.

The title is from Kierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way.

 

THE WEIGHT OF INK by Rachel Kadish

Set in London of the 1660s and of the early twenty-first century, The Weight of Ink is the interwoven tale of two women of remarkable intellect: Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam who is permitted to scribe for a blind rabbi, just before the plague hits the city; and Helen Watt, an ailing historian with a love of Jewish history.   

As the novel opens, Helen has been summoned by a former student to view a cache of seventeenth-century Jewish documents newly discovered in his home during a renovation. Enlisting the help of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student as impatient as he is charming, and in a race with another fast-moving team of historians, Helen embarks on one last project: to determine the identity of the documents’ scribe, the elusive “Aleph.” 

At almost 600 pages, you would think you would get bored slogging through all those pages.  You would be wrong, ever so wrong.

It uses the structure of alternating plotlines from an historical period and from the current time period.  In some books,  this technique is annoying and doesn’t seem to quite work, but in The Weight of Ink, it surely does.  Its two stories, OK three stories, are about London right before and during the plague years of the mid 1600s, the historical issues of religion and its kings, some of which kicked out all the Jews, and others of which welcomed them back, and what it was like to live there as a Jew in that era, and what it was like to be a woman in that era, and about the modern day world of academe and how historians think about and treat historical literary finds, and about the private lives of two modern day people, a young male post grad trying to find himself, and an about-to-be-retired historian of some note, and what has gone before to make her who she is.

Fabulous book.  The title is from a musing of the 17th century blind rabbi, who mourns the now lost ability to write his thoughts, “I came to understand how much of the world was now banned from me — for my hands would never again turn the pages of a book, nor be stained with the sweet, grave weight of ink….”

The phrase also represents the weight the written word has to bring to live historical times and the lives of those who lived them.

INLAND by Téa Obreht

In the lawless, drought-ridden lands of the Arizona Territory in 1893, two extraordinary lives unfold. Nora is an unflinching frontierswoman awaiting the return of the men in her life–her husband, who has gone in search of water for the parched household, and her elder sons, who have vanished after an explosive argument. Nora is biding her time with her youngest son, who is convinced that a mysterious beast is stalking the land around their home.

Meanwhile, Lurie is a former outlaw and a man haunted by ghosts. He sees lost souls who want something from him, and he finds reprieve from their longing in an unexpected relationship that inspires a momentous expedition across the West. The way in which Lurie’s death-defying trek at last intersects with Nora’s plight is the surprise and suspense of this brilliant novel.

In long alternating chapters, Obreht tells the stories of the outlaw and Nora and, through them, tells a greater story of the settling of the West, the land of the Indian tribes and former Mexican territory, prospectors, farmers, ranchers, outlaws, lawmen, soldiers, the women who raised families or tried to.

Although many reviewers refer to this work as a ‘western’, it did not seem to be that so much as a historical novel set in the American west, complete with camels!  It has a lot of the earmarks of Obreht’s first work, The Tiger’s Wife, which you can read about here.   I think it is the kind of book you either love or hate.  I loved it.

DEPT. OF SPECULATION by Jenny Offill

Jenny Offill’s heroine, referred to in the book as simply “the wife,” once exchanged love letters with her husband postmarked Dept. of Speculation, their code name for all the uncertainty that inheres in life and in the strangely fluid confines of a long relationship. As they confront an array of common catastrophes – a colicky baby, a faltering marriage, stalled ambitions – the wife analyzes her predicament, invoking everything from Keats and Kafka to the thought experiments of the Stoics to the lessons of doomed Russian cosmonauts. She muses on the consuming, capacious experience of maternal love, and the near total destruction of the self that ensues from it as she confronts the friction between domestic life and the seductions and demands of art.

The style is an offering of brief snippets of life-as-lived that build a beautiful collage of the narrator’s existence. Sprinkled with scientific facts, philosophical quandaries and literary quotes,  it avoids a straightforward surface telling of the story that instead progresses through abstract connections to better occupy the mind and soul of her narrator.  It is a kind of literary scrapbook of musings, quotes and insights which took me a while to submerge into, but once there, became compelling in its own way.

 

 

ONCE UPON A RIVER by Diane Setterfield

On a dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the river Thames, an extraordinary event takes place. The regulars are telling stories to while away the dark hours, when the door bursts open on a grievously wounded stranger. In his arms is the lifeless body of a small child. Hours later, the girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can science provide an explanation? These questions have many answers, some of them quite dark indeed.

Those who dwell on the river bank apply all their ingenuity to solving the puzzle of the girl who died and lived again, yet as the days pass the mystery only deepens. The child herself is mute and unable to answer the essential questions: Who is she? Where did she come from? And to whom does she belong? But answers proliferate nonetheless.

Three families are keen to claim her. A wealthy young mother knows the girl is her kidnapped daughter, missing for two years. A farming family reeling from the discovery of their son’s secret liaison, stand ready to welcome their granddaughter. The parson’s housekeeper, humble and isolated, sees in the child the image of her younger sister. But the return of a lost child is not without complications and no matter how heartbreaking the past losses, no matter how precious the child herself, this girl cannot be everyone’s. Each family has mysteries of its own, and many secrets must be revealed before the girl’s identity can be known.

Well, this was a nifty read,  something of a historical mystery told like a fairy tale with magical realism. Everything straddles the line between reality and the supernatural, and sometimes it steps over into the fantastical.  Yeah, a deeply mysterious, hypnotic and fantastical Gothic yarn.

Setterfield is also the author of the acclaimed The Thirteenth Tale, and my thoughts on that are here.