Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

A journey of discovery can make for a very satisfying read, with the journey itself normally being more important than the end goal.  I think a boy traveling down a big river with a runaway slave on a raft was my first encounter with the genre; this version is almost the other side of the coin.

Harold is retired, repressed, and for all practical matters alone, even though he still lives with his wife.  He has lived a mostly unremarkable, unnoticed existence when a letter comes from a friend from work who has been gone for twenty years telling him that the friend has cancer.  After writing the lamest of short letters in response, he starts to mail the letter but keeps going to the next mail box, and then the next, ruing his inability to give a better response to one of the few people he could ever think of as a friend.  With the clothes he is wearing when he left the house, including a pair of boat shoes, he decides he can prolong his friend's life by walking the length of England to see her.

The results are a story of discovery about himself, his marriage, his family, people in general and the possibility of redemption.  It is sad to see someone live most of their life in fear and repression and I felt bad for Harold any number of times, yet his growth, which was not always happy, made for a satisfying and ultimately uplifting story. It should only take about 10 hours to finish the book and you'll want to keep coming back to see how he's doing.  I'm glad I met him.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The reading of this book was a family affair, as is the plot of the book itself.  Amanda gave the book to Jackie for Christmas, she loved it and passed it on.  If only such relatively placid family goings-on could have been the case with the book's main character. We meet him as a middle school kid living with his mom in Manhattan.  They love each other and have a nice life, even though dad is out of the picture and other relatives don't care. He has a few minor behavior issues, like most 13 year old kids, and it involves a trip to the school administrators for a discussion.  The events that follow change his life, and what a life.  He moves from pillar to post.  When you think you know where his life is going, circumstances change, often in a big way, and he adjusts, though probably in ways many of us would not choose.  Given the events in his life, he does alright, but more importantly, it opens the reader to worlds outside our purview and a plot that is satisfying in its depth, warmth, breadth, and skill.

When a book can win the Pulitzer Prize and also be a best seller for quite a while, you know you've run into a rare story.  It's a long book (766 pages in hard cover) yet one you can read at 40 to 50 pages at a sitting because it is so well written and the story so compelling.  Critics are now arguing if it's a great book, in the college literature sense of the meaning.  I can't say, but it is a wonderful read and a book I'll remember for a long time.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The Daughters Of Mars by Thomas Keneally

If you are looking for a light breezy summer beach read this is probably NOT the book for you. However, if you enjoy well-researched historical fiction with characters you will like and admire then I highly recommend The Daughters Of Mars. The Australian writer, Thomas Keneally best known for his Booker Prize winning novel, Schindler's List, has written yet another beautiful, poignant and simply unforgettable story.

This is a book about two Australian sisters, both trained nurses, who enlist in support of the Australian war effort during the early days of World War I. Naomi and Sally Durance are both eager to leave rural New South Wales following their mother's prolonged, painful death from cancer and set out on an extraordinary four year journey- from Cairo to Gallipoli and on the Western Front of Europe-where they are propelled onto a course of self-discovery unlike anything they could have ever imagined for themselves.

Whereas most war stories are told from the perspective of the soldiers experience, Keneally opts to tell this one through the lens of the noncombatants- the doctors, the nurses, and the orderlies- who waited behind the front lines ready to treat and comfort the wounded, the dying and the horribly maimed soldiers of The Great War. The new heavy weaponry, poisonous gases and rampant disease, including a pandemic flu in 1918, created widespread carnage that simply overwhelmed the best known and available medical treatments of that time. The writing is descriptive, vivid, masterful and clearly well-researched. This book is a real page turner- it's suspenseful, emotional and utterly inspiring.