The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

The Undertaking by Audrey MageeGutted. That’s how I felt while reading The Undertaking by Audrey Magee. And I mean it in the best way possible. I’d give this book 4 out of 5 stars if I were one to give stars, but it is not an easy read. It’s about a Nazi soldier on the Russian front in WWII and his new wife back in Berlin. So yeah, it’s a pretty horrific war story and Magee’s writing style makes it ever so real. There is not one word to many or out of place. That’s what leaves you feeling gutted. Continue reading

O, Africa by Andrew Lewis Conn

O AfricaYet again, I should have read the blurb more carefully when I picked this book. True, O, Africa by Andrew Lewis Conn is partially set in Africa in the 1920’s, but it was still not what I’d envisioned (ie/ Out of Africa). I should have read the comparisons to Chabon’s Cavalier and Clay and Doctorow’s Ragtime to know that this was not the book for me. Continue reading

Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

summerhouse-with-swimming-poolThe Dinner by Herman Koch (review) was one of my favorite books of 2013. It was controversial and had me on the edge of my seat the whole time I was reading it. I was recommending it to everyone and anyone who would listen. So it should come as no surprise that I went into Summer House with Swimming Pool with pretty high expectations. It was good. It wasn’t great, but it was a solid good. Continue reading

Cascade by Maryanne O’Hara

Cascade (1)Cascade is Maryanne O’Hara‘s first novel. It does not, however, read like a first novel. This is a rather big and bold debut, confronting many of the themes that define the era between the two World Wars. The story of Cascade focuses on Dez, a woman born before her time. Due to the financial peril she and her father are put in during the the Great Depression she marries a man she does not love and seemingly foregoes a career as a painter. Running parallel to the quotidian concerns of Dez is the broader issue of the creation of a reservoir that would flood Cascade, her home town. In protest Dez paints a series of postcards depicting Cascade before and after the flood, which launch her into nation wide notoriety and present her with the opportunity to move to New York. All of this is set over the framework of a Shakespearean tragedy.

One of the most interesting facets of the novel for me was looking at how a town ceases to exist. Cascade, once a prosperous holiday destination, is hit hard by the Great Depression. With news of the impending reservoir, it literally ceases to exist. By the end of the novel the town has vanished under the rising waters of a lake and the inhabitants have scattered. How does one say good bye to a place that will cease to exist?

Who would like this book? I suspect that Cascade will become a big book club pick (maybe even a Heather’s pick), and it would certainly be a good choice. There is a lot to talk about in Cascade. Certainly, for one more versed in Shakespeare than I, I think the parallels would be worthy of much discussion. Most of my knowledge of Shakespeare comes from high school and seeing some of his big plays, but even with those fragments I detect that something much bigger was going on. Cascade will also appeal to those interested in issues of equality in the period between the two world wars. First, there is the issue of women’s rights: the politics of working outside the home and what it means to eschew a traditional marriage. Second, there is also the plight of Jews in a world that is becoming increasingly antisemitic.

Due to the focus on water, Cascade reminded me of The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan. The human endeavor to try to control such a powerful force of nature, namely water, is fascinating (and perhaps foolhardy). And yet, time and time again we try to change the course of nature, with consequences that may not be realized for decades to come.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

9781443410762If you have not yet heard if Ayana Mathis, get ready, because you are going to see her name everywhere. Her first novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, has been chosen as the latest book for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. And that means Mathis has shot to  literary stardom with unprecedented speed and she deserves it. Mathis is a brilliant writer and has heavy weights like Marrilynne Robinson backing her to prove it.

The problem is, I didn’t like The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. It is basically the story of Hattie’s twelve children and their lives in Philadelphia as part of the Great Northern Migration of African Americans. Each chapter is devoted to one of her children and the stories span from 1923 to the 1980s. Some of the chapters were absolutely breath taking. I especially liked the voice of the character in Vietnam. But for the most part, they were also overwhelmingly tragic. When the characters are down on their luck Mathis continues to plague them with more and more personal tragedies. These tragedies were even more painful because they were likely based in reality to a certain extent. It was one kick in the stomach after another. Reading it made me feel drained and listless.

In spite of dislike of the novel, I can see that it is an important novel. Like Toni Morrison, Mathis delves into and exposes important aspects of the African American experience in twentieth century America. It would not surprise me in the least if it became one of the great American novels.

Who would like this book? Obviously, Oprah’s loyal legions of followers will buy this book regardless of what I say. And buy it they should – it is an important novel. For those who like to read hefty tomes of great importance, then this book is for you. I like to read to escape and for that reason this book was not for me. It did not provide a happy escape or one iota of hope. But Mathis is a great writer, so lovers of finely crafted prose may also find this novel agreeable.

Tigers in Red Weather

tigersIn late summer I started to hear a lot about Liza Klaussman – and not just that she was Herman Melville’s great-great-granddaughter (that may not be the right number of greats, but who’s counting, really?). Tigers in Red Weather is her first novel, though she has worked as a journalist for some time.

Reports surrounding the novel put it somewhere between a good beach read, a murder mystery and the next great American novel. And though there is not much resembling Melville, comparisons to F. Scott Fitzgerald would not be unwarranted.

It is set primarily at a summer house in Martha’s Vineyard, though there are brief forays to other American locales. Tennis, parties, and cocktails abound. And although Tigers makes a great summer read, I would wager that it is more than just a beach read. The story of family dysfunction is told in five parts and five different points of view. Klaussmann juggles the interweaving family relationships beautifully. A key theme is the lengths people will go to to protect the ones they love, especially when a dead body is involved.

Who would like this book? This book would be a great choice for a book club – lots to discuss. I also think it would appeal to anyone looking for a good literary page turner. It does focus largely on the thirty year friendship of two women, so it may have less appeal to men.