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In a hotel in London, three stories play out over the years. The first is the story of a successful but jealous woman who covets her sister’s life, so much so that she sleeps with her fiance and must live with the repercussions of that act. The second is the story of the fiance’s mother who worked as a chamber maid in the hotel years before and who becomes the muse to an ill-fated rockstar. The third is the story of Lucy, a young girl who inadvertently becomes involved in a love triangle, and is damaged by what she sees.

I’ve been reading Alice Hoffman for many years now. I think what first attracted me to her writing was her use of magic realism – little bits of the surreal floating through everyday lives. I remember a character who was so desperately in love that, when she leaned her elbows on the counter of the local greasy spoon, the heat from her ardor melted the counter top. In later books she seems to have moved away from this somewhat, but her female characters are still compelling. I began The Third Angel with high hopes. The first few chapters just weren’t hitting the mark for me. Though there were some elements of myth and fairy tale interspersed with the story, I just didn’t fall in love with the people walking through this book. It isn’t until later on when Hoffman introduces the intriguing Lucy. Lucy is a 12-year-old who’s a bit too precocious for her own good – that is, she knows just enough to get involved in the affairs of the often screwed up adults around her, but not enough to extricate herself. When she witness a tragic accident, she’s left with the philosophical battle of finding meaning in life. What’s endearing is Hoffman’s ability to create a character who is naive and idealistic and not then condescend. Through Lucy she brings all of the bits of the story back together so we can view them in a different light. It’s one of those books that makes you want to go back and reread in the light of later revelations.

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June thinks of herself as lucky. She’s married to an attractive man, a chef at one of the more upscale restaurants in her small town. Every day she goes to work at the cafeteria at the elementary school, where she enjoys and understands the kids. She comes home to eat a meal her loving husband has prepared for her. Her internal dialogue is engaging – she seems like just the person you’d like to have as a friend. Pondering her place in the world she thinks “June had people who loved her too. She had Bill. She had people who depended on her. She meant something to the kids at school anyway….insurance companies had a way to rate someone’s monetary value so when there was an accident they knew how much money to pay out. June wondered if you could devise a rating system for someone’s true value and if so, what things you would measure.” June’s sense of herself, her sense of what is right and good is challenged when a man with whom she has a brief encounter goes on to rape and murder a woman who looks very much like her. She can’t shake her sense that she was incredibly fortunate and that she owes someone something for her survival. So she begins a relationship with the daughter and brother of the dead woman, telling them that Vernay, the victim, was a good friend. They accept her into their lives without reserve and Cindy, the young girl, immediately makes June her confidante and surrogate mother figure. Though June feels involvement with the family is right and necessary, she doesn’t tell her husband Bill the whole story. She can’t square her sense of herself as a righteous person with her more and more complicated deceptions. Then she stumbles on a piece of information that changes everything.

It’s uncomfortable for a reader to share an affinity with a character and then to be shown that character’s inconsistencies and frailties. Clement does a beautiful job of writing June and of having her move towards self-realization, all without alienating the reader. She also writes convincingly of working class people without condescending. This would make a compelling book group book.

Alison Clement is an Oregon author and a school librarian, which explains why she has such fine insight into children’s minds! She also has a blog at http://leftedgesuzy.blogspot.com/

To me, childhood is this vast shadowy land that only begins to make sense the further you move from it. And by then, if you have a memory like mine, you probably only remember bits and and pieces. It’s a problem if you believe that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Maybe that explains my predilection for coming of age books. I’ll let someone else do the hard work and see if it speaks to me.

But it isn’t quite fair to describe Out Stealing Horses as a bildungsroman. That seems too constrictive a label. It’s more like a three dimensional sculpture of different times and places, all fitting neatly onto each other. Sorry, that’s a bit labored. If I think of a better metaphor, I’ll let you know.

Petterson tells the story of 15 year-old Trond, who spends the blissful summer of 1948 with his father at a rustic cabin in the Norwegian woods. To Trond it’s an escape from Oslo. To his father it’s more – the villagers know him from his resistance work there during the war. Alongside this is the story of 67-year-old Trond, who has retreated from past sorrows and has returned to the woods, to try to regain a sense of himself as he was during that revelatory summer. It’s a complicated story to describe, and yet so sparsely and beautifully written I felt that I was not so much reading it as floating through it.

At one point Petterson pulls off the amazing feat of walking the reader through several places, from the perspective of several characters, all in the space of a couple of pages:

“Lars. Who says he did not think of his brother during the years Jon was at sea, but remembers the towns and the harbours he visited and what was printed on the envelopes he sent home and the names of the ships he signed on with and signed off from, and who followed with his finger in the atlas the routes the ships took. Already thin and slouching, Jon stands on deck close to the bows of M/S Tijuka grasping the rail tightly, peering defiantly with narrowed eyes at the coast they are nearing. They come from Marseilles, and Lars’ finger has followed the boat past Sicily and the tip of Italy’s boot, and diagonally, past the Greek islands and southeast of Crete something new is in the air, with a different consistency from only a day ago, but Jon does not realise yet that this new element in the air is Africa. And then Lars goes with him on the way in to Port Said in the innermost Mediterranean … all the time in the wake of the young poet Rimbaud, who sailed here nearly seventy years earlier to be another person from the one he was before and put everything behind him like a desert diver on his way to oblivion and later death, and I know this because I have read about it in a book. But Lars does not know, sitting with his atlas in front of him on the kitchen table in the house by the river, and Jon does not know, but in Port Said he see his first African palm under the low and violently blue sky.”

I read that passage and then reread it when I realized that I mind’s eye had smoothly clicked through these images: three men, one at a kitchen table, one sailing the world, and one by the fire reading a book about Rimbaud. What genius. And what an amazing job Anne Born must have done in translating the book from Norwegian.

The book has won international acclaim, and is the winner of the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Authors for the award are nominated by libraries across the world. Though Out Stealing Horses was not one of Multnomah County Library‘s nominations, it is a fitting winner. The library owns 29 copies of this book and there are currently 65 people in the queue, but it’s well worth the wait.

What comes around goes around, and while I spend a lot of time at work trying to find good reads for people, on occasion they return the favor and suggest one that I might like. This book came highly recommended by one of my (or should I use the collective “our”) patrons; she raved about it. I had recently finished Divisadero, a book I found a bit scattered but which captured my imagination – I’m still thinking about the opening setting of that book.

But I have to confess – I didn’t get this book. I didn’t read it closely enough, or slowly enough, or I’m just not smart enough. It’s the story of…well, I’m even having a hard time describing that…passionate love affairs, working class people struggling to get by, Ayn Randish characters driven by visions of great metropolises, immigrants, thieves. I think he’s telling me something about how mythologies are created out of the meanest of circumstances – backbreaking labor, poverty, and petty, every day defeats. I kept reading it though because so much of it felt like home. I recognized the sort of hard bitten, taciturn people Ondaatje described, even though I wouldn’t inhabit that same Northern Ontario geography until many decades after these characters would have – and yes, I understand that they are fictional! Ondaatje seems to have a real grasp of the psyche of these early Canadians, even though he was born in Sri Lanka. But mostly I kept reading because of the beautiful writing. In one passage, a boy wakes up in the dead of a winter night thinking that he sees fireflies flickering through the woods. He goes out into the snow to investigate and discovers loggers from a nearby camp playing on the frozen river:

“Patrick was transfixed. Skating the river at night, each of them moving like a wedge into the blackness magically revealing the grey bushes of the shore, his shore, his river. A tree branch reached out, its hand frozen in the ice, and one of them skated under it, crouching – cattails held behind him like a flaming rooster tail.”

There are so many of these passages that have an almost cinematic quality, and they come reliably enough that I couldn’t put the book down. I think I will remember these scenes long after I stop puzzling about this book.

I do like Cormac McCarthy, but can you imagine living with him? His vision of the world is unremittingly grim. His characters are are either sociopaths or simply motivated by greed or any number of unenviable human traits. I’ve read Outer Dark and The Road and recently watched and then dreamt about the film No Country for Old Men. I certainly enjoyed The Road – there’s nothing like a good post-apocalypse story – but after reading McCarthy you need an antidote to remind you that this is only way of looking at the world.

tolstoy.jpgI was recently reminded of one of these antidotes, a gentle read by Sonny Brewer called The Poet of Tolstoy Park. Henry, a 67 year-old, retired professor and widower is told that he has a terminal illness. Determined to make the most of his last days, he sells everything and moves to a Utopian town in Alabama. There he tends to his soul and is surprised at the many lessons he has left to learn.

The book falls into the nebulous genre of self-improvement fiction (for the character, not necessarily for you), or maybe, if you will, epiphany fic. And with any fiction in which the character comes to a greater understanding of himself and his place in the world, it can be very corny or incredibly good reading. I found Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist to be a bit on the maudlin side, though I enjoyed the story of a young shepherd who is dissatisfied with his life and leaves his home in search of a treasure. The story has a fable-like quality.

I found Philosophy Made Simple, by Robert Hellenga, to be a more satisfying and complexpms-galleys.jpg read. Rudy, an avocado dealer in Chicago, is adrift. His wife has passed away, his children have moved away and he’s at an age when he should be contemplating retirement. Instead, in a move that stuns his children, he sells everything and buys an avocado farm in Texas. His only road map is a book given to him by one of him by one of his daughters – Philosophy Made Simple. As he reads about the great minds of philosophy he tries to apply the lessons he learns to his new life, which now includes the care of a painting elephant named Norma Jean. Hellenga’s talent lies in his character development. He creates living and breathing characters and is able to show them in all their complexity and humanity.

sophie.jpgBut self-realization isn’t just reserved for the oldsters. Back in 1994 Jostein Gaarder wrote a book called Sophie’s World, in which a young girl receives a series of mysterious messages that lead her on a journey through the subject of philosophy. Kirkus criticized it for being an elaborate text book, but many were charmed by it.

And now I realize that I can mention two of my favorite reads in the category of ‘philosophy of the self’. illuminated.jpgEverything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer is the story of a young man, strangely enough, also called Jonathan Safran Foer, who sets out to research his family story, starting with finding a Ukranian woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He is accompanied on this journey by the ego maniacal Alex, his blind Grandfather and his grandfather’s neurotic dog. There are elements of mythology and magic realism thrown into the tale of the protagonist’s ancestors, along with a lot of humor. I can also heartily recommend the movie.

And then there’s the brilliant Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Pi is the son of a zoo keeper and has an insatiable curiosity about animals and also about the philosophy underlying Hinduism, Christianity and Islam – all three of which he tries to practice simultaneously. The family sets out on a great adventure when Pi’s father decides to pack up and move to Canada from India, by boat of course, because the animals are coming with. A terriblepi.jpg storm results in the sinking of the ship and leaves Pi in a lifeboat accompanied by the only other survivors, the most formidable being Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger. One of the most absurd and funny passages I have ever read has to do with Pi encouraging Richard Parker to save himself by swimming to the life boat; and then coming to the sudden realization of what it will mean to share a life boat with a tiger.

I can think of a few other antidotes to grim reads – Tom Robbins, Duncan’s The River Why, and The Uncommon Reader would all do nicely. I’ll remember to keep one handy the next time I’m compelled to read McCarthy.

Based on the books I’ve read and liked, Librarything suggested that I might like The God of Animals. I’ve just finished and I have to say, I really loathed this book.

god.jpgIt is a well-written, compelling story of a girl growing up on a barely-making-it horse farm in a desert valley. She has no friends and spends all her time at home tied to the work of caring for horses. Her father has great ambitions to attract a better class of people to come to the ranch for show lessons; but when he can barely make ends meet he boards the horses of the well-to-do from the other side of the valley. Alice has unavoidably absorbed her father’s brutal view of the world. When mares are separated from their foals, when wealthy clients are taken advantage of, or beloved horses sold, it’s all “just business”. This grim view of the world, along with themes of abandonment — Alice’s lively sister Nona elopes with a rodeo rider, Alice’s mother leaves them all, even if she’s only retreated to her bedroom — leaves Alice with little choice but to create a more interesting world for herself. A classmate has been found dead in the local canal. In Alice’s fantasy, she and the girl were best friends, and she is now inconsolable, except when she receives attention from a teacher who seemed to have a special connection with the dead Polly. Alice and Mr. Delmar talk every night on the phone. He seems to be the only person in Alice’s world to recognize her as anything but a shallow middle-schooler, and her infatuation with him is the only thing she can cherish as her own.

I appreciated the fact that Kyle understands the depth of knowledge a young girl can have about the world around her. She refuses to play the “isn’t she so sweet” game that some authors indulge in when they portray adolescent girls, instead creating a complex character who is precocious and scheming, and sometimes unlikeable.

So why did I feel like throwing the book across the room if it was well-written and engaging? In Kyle’s created universe, people who appear good on the surface have dark secrets, brutality and self-interest override altruism, there is no such thing as innocence, men always cheat, we destroy what is beautiful and it’s all just human nature. People who finally seem to find some joy in life are punished and the one character who is an idealist, a wealthy girl who is taking lessons at the ranch, is portrayed as unbearably naive. In this world, the only redemption is in leaving; with the understanding that you can never leave behind the truth. And there is a lot of painful truth in this book, but it isn’t a version of the world I’m willing to embrace. I’m sure this book will find its die-hard fans, but I am not one of them.

It’s unfortunate that I love to read but can rarely remember the details for very long afterwards. I really should have blogged about this book as soon as I finished it. Perhaps that’s because I didn’t enjoy this title as much as Year of Wonders by the same author. That’s not to say that this wasn’t a good read.

The subject of the People of the Book is a Hebrew codex called the Sarajevo Haggadah, an elaborately illustrated work dating back to medieval Spain. Hanna is a book conservator who gets the opportunity of a lifetime. She is asked to restore the book when it is discovered in post-war Bosnia. As she examines the book she finds clues about the provenance of the Haggadah – a blood stain, a white hair, an insect part. We follow Hanna’s story as she tries to untangle the path that the book has taken, falls in love with the keeper of the book and struggles with her harshly critical mother. Interspersed with Hanna’s story is the tale of the book, beginning with its origins in medieval Spain and following it through major events in European history. The Haggadah inspires heroic acts of protection as well as greed.

I do love a story with a mystery to be unraveled – all the better if the mystery requires someone to spend some hours in a library searching through old archives and papers. Add the evocative place descriptions and the stories about how each character is affected by the Haggadah, and you have a pretty good package. There was something about the protagonist that was little off-putting though. For someone who travels the world and works in a demanding and sanctified field, she seems a little… I guess I want to use the word jejune. Her relationship with her mother in particular reminded me of something from a teen novel. But that may be unfair. After all, I know plenty of 30 and 40 somethings who still struggle with their family relationships, myself included!

Still, it was well worth the wait for this book. Those who enjoy the literary themes, historical mysteries and descriptive settings in this book might also like The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova and The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. These might even hold some appeal for Da Vinci Code fans.