Archive for the ‘Coming of Age’ Category

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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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.

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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.

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hearts.jpgWhen was the last time you read a book that kept you up late, though you knew you should get to sleep? The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss was such a book for me. Martha Lessen is a sturdy girl with a love for horses. In 1917, when many of the men in Eastern Oregon have gone to war and ranch hands are in demand, Martha sets out to find work breaking horses. But her method is not to ‘break’ them so much as gentle them. She makes an instant impression, standing, as she does, at 5’11” and given to dressing in “old-fashioned cowboy trappings…the fringed batwing chaps…and her showy big platter of a hat much stained along the high crown and the rolled edge of the brim.” She is first hired to work on George Bliss’s ranch. He is so taken with Martha that he introduces her to other locals. Soon she is engaged in a “circle ride”, training the horses by riding them one ranch over, stabling them there and taking the next one on to the next ranch. As the taciturn Martha gets to know the neighbors, she comes to understand who she can trust and who she should avoid. The book is peopled with feisty old-maid sisters who run their own spread, a young German couple suffering discrimination because of the rhetoric driven by WW1 propaganda, a widower who takes in injured animals, a ranch hand who beats horses. Martha begins as an outsider, drifting in and out of the lives and stories people along the way; and, at some point, as you know will happen, she is drawn into their lives and away from her comfortable perch as an observer from the saddle.

caprice.jpgMartha is a wonderful character, shy and damaged by her abusive childhood, but sure of her own self and the way she wants to be in the world. This book reminded me of Caprice by the poet George Bowering. That story is more tongue-in-cheek; a school marm turned vigilante sets out to avenge her brother’s death. She saddles up and chases the perpetrators across the west, circa 1890’s. And then that reminds me of one of my favorite femi-westerns of all time, True Grit, the story of a young girl who sets on out on horseback to find her father. She pairs up with the rapscallion Rooster Cogburn, played by John Wayne in the movie. But I digress. The point is that there are far too few of these stories of the wild west that depict the heroism of women.grit.jpg

There are some hard scenes in this book, including one where a wife watches helplessly as her husband suffers a terrible death from cancer. And there are the classic themes of the Western – the land as an Eden that is slowly being corrupted by the encroachment of man and the yearning for an earlier, more innocent world. I sensed that the author had done her research and had accurately portrayed early 20th cenutry life in Oregon. But finally I can hardly offer higher praise than my mother-in-law did when she finished it. She hugged it to her breast, saying, “now that was a good book.”

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My partner and I visited New York City in the spring, to celebrate his 40th birthday. We stayed in a ‘bed and coffee’ in Alphabet city. Apparently this was a prettyorchard.jpg rough area not that long ago, but has undergone a – is it revitalization, renewal, or gentrification? – I’m not sure. It was great to be in an area of the city where you could actually imagine yourself living, rather than the more touristed Manhattan destinations. We visited the Lower Eastside Tenement Museum and heard about the masses of immigrants who lived cheek by jowl in these tiny apartments. Often this was their first experience of America – straight from the docks into and dingy, crowded room in a tenement. I can’t really explain why I find this little part of history so fascinating, but ever since the visit I have been reading about the lower eastside.

A subject heading search with “lower east side” and fiction lead me to Eleanor Widmer’s book Up From Orchard Street. This is the story of a Jewish family, living in the tenements in the 20’s and 30’s. Bubby is the matriarch of the story. She’s really the only adult who has any sense, so she acts as a parent to her grandchildren, while her son and his wife, Jack and Lil, carry on like a couple of kids in love. Jack and Lil make a spotty living in the fashion industry. They are fond of fine clothes and spend their evenings dressing up like a couple of swells and going to the theatre to spend money they don’t have. Bubby runs a restaurant out of the tiny living room. Her food is famous, but increasingly, she has to compete with the shiny new delicatessans moving into the neighborhood. The story is told from the perspective of Elka, the ugly duckling, and the brightest member of the family. She’s a reader and writer, and learns her craft recounting the stories of her childhood.

This is an autobiographical novel. Either that fact, or the fine writing makes you feel like you know what it would have been like to live on Orchard Street.

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Solar Storms by Linda Hogan. Hogan is a Native American and member of the solar.jpgChicksaw

tribe. This is the story of Angel, an 18-year-old estranged from her people, who has spent her life in foster homes. When she finally returns to her tribal homeland, she is accepted with love and warmth by the women who become her true mothers; her own mother is a woman possessed by demons, whose torment resulted in Angel’s torture as an infant. Angel still bears the scars.

Conversely, as Angel finds her true self and is reconnected with her culture, a devastating war is being waged between the Natives and a government that intends to dam up the rivers on tribal land to produce hydro-electricity. Angel finds her true spiritual home even as it is being flooded out from beneath her. The Natives’ struggle to hold on to their land, and their effort to sabotage dam workers is based on real events that occurred in Northern Ontario and Quebec from the 70’s onward. It’s a painfully poignant story. Angel’s resilience is frequently challenged by the events around her but she still finds a measure of peace. You have to slow down to absorb the language – often I want to plow through a book because I have so much to read. The language here is beautiful and complex, and you just have to adapt – much like Angel does, I suppose. This is a book I never would have picked up on my own, but it was recommended to me by another librarian. I’m glad he told me about it.

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