A Quick Catch-up Post

ATWIB 2013 Well, I’m reading a lot, but I’m not doing a very good job of filling you in on what I’m reading. Work is winning in the battle for my time. So this is what I’ve been doing, other than reading The Grief of Others, the only book I’ve managed to review in ages. Don’t expect very thorough reviews…

The End of the AffairThe End of the Affair by Graham Greene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I became aware that our love was doomed; love had turned into a love affair with a beginning and an end. I could name the very moment when it had begun, and one day I knew I should be able to name the final hour. When she left the house I couldn’t settle to work. I would reconstruct what we had said to each other; I would fan myself into anger or remorse. And all the time I knew I was forcing the pace. I was pushing, pushing the only thing I loved out of my life. As long as I could make believe that love lasted I was happy; I think I was even good to live with, and so love did last. But if love had to die, I wanted it to die quickly. It was as though our love were a small creature caught in a trap and bleeding to death; I had to shut my eyes and wring its neck.”

This novel initially appears to be about the usual love triangle between husband, wife, and other man, but soon it becomes about something profoundly deeper. While it certainly grapples with very human tendencies in relationships, as is clear in the quotation above, it is also about belief and unbelief and the struggle over obligations to God. It continues to be very clear to me why people call Graham Greene a Catholic novelist. I actually feel almost guilty reading him at this point, because I feel like I am cheating on the Jewish tradition that I have converted to when I read his work. I don’t know what it feels like to read Greene if you’ve never been Catholic, but for me, reading him taps into a deep spiritual vein from my former tradition.

Related to this, I wonder if Greene’s novels feel heavy handed if you are not a fairly spiritually oriented person. So much of the richness of his novels is in the religious struggles of his characters. What does this feel like if you read it as an atheist? I’d be interested to hear what others have to say on this.

Pereira MaintainsPereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Pereira maintains he met him one summer’s day. A fine fresh sunny summer’s day and Lisbon was sparkling. It would seem that Pereira was in his office biting his pen, the editor-in-chief was away on holiday while he himself was saddled with getting together the culture page, because the Lisboa was now to have a culture page and he had been given the job. But he, Pereira, was meditating on death. On that beauteous summer day, with the sun beaming away and the sea breeze off the Atlantic kissing the treetops, and a city glittering, literally glittering beneath his window, and a sky of such blue as never was seen, Pereira maintains, and of a clarity almost painful to the eyes, he started to think about death. Why so? Pereira cannot presume to say.”

In this fascinating little book, a pudgy widower and culture page editor is drawn into a political awakening by a young student he hires because of a thesis about death, a subject which turns out to be of much more concern to the editor than to the student himself. Set in Portugal at the time of the Spanish Civil War, it evokes the climate of the era and the degree of suspicion in the air in Lisbon.

The Story of Lucy GaultThe Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“As the surface of the seashore rocks were pitted by by the waves and gathered limpets that further disguised what lay beneath, so time made truth of what appeared to be. The days that passed, in becoming weeks, still did not disturb the surface an assumption had created. The weather of a beautiful summer continued with neither sign nor hint that credence had been misplaced. The single sandal found among the rocks became a sodden image of death; and as the keening on the pier at Kilauran traditionally marked distress brought by the sea, so did silence at Lahardane.”

This is a novel in which small events have devastating consequences. The tale is set in motion by an unsuccessful attempt by Irish youths to set fire to the home of a wealthy landowner and his English wife. Captain Gault, the landowner, accidentally shoots one of the boys in the shoulder when trying to scare them off. After his overtures to the family of the injured boy are rejected, Evert and his wife decide it isn’t say to stay in Ireland, so they prepare to close the house and go abroad. Their young daughter Lucy, not wanting to leave, runs off to be with the one of the staff who has been let go, but twists her ankle in the woods on the way. A dog in the area has stolen items of her clothes in the past when she has been swimming, and has buried them in rocks near the edge of the sea. When Lucy doesn’t come back from playing and her father finds the clothes, she is assumed to have drowned. Eventually the bereft parents go abroad, haunted by grief, and only once they have left, is Lucy discovered in a fallen down vagrant’s hut in the woods, almost dead from starvation.

The tale follows Lucy, her parents, and the boy who was shot in the shoulder as their various destinies play out. It is a story about loss, faith, loyalty, the prison of preconceptions, guilt, forgiveness, and gratitude. It is a beautiful and haunting novel.

Execution Dock (William Monk, #16)Execution Dock by Anne Perry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fun, quick read. Monk is back on the police force, but this time the River Police working the Thames.

Oryx and Crake (MaddAddam Trilogy, #1)Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Selected quotes:

“All it takes,” said Crake, “is the elimination of one generation. One generation of anything. Beetles, trees, microbes, scientists, speakers of French, whatever. Break the link in time between one generation and the next, and it’s game over forever.”

“When they’re gone out of his head, these words, they’ll be gone, everywhere, forever. As if they had never been.”

“He doesn’t know which is worse, a past he can’t regain or a present that will destroy him if he looks at it too clearly. Then there’s the future. Sheer vertigo.”

Oryx and Crake is the first book of the MaddAddam Trilogy. It is a funny, dark, marvelous introduction to a dystopian world. When brilliant geneticists have invented things like pigs that grow bunches of transplantable organs and weird animal hybrids like a skunk/raccoon mis or a vicious dog/wolverine mix, when the profit potential from curing stuff has petered out cause folks can cure every current disease, what happens next? Margaret Atwood gives us the outcome in this novel, where the apocalypse isn’t an explosion, but something much more insidious.

Snowman is wandering what’s left of New England, looking for resources, hiding from creepy hybrid animals, creating a belief system for s strange group of humanoids, engineered by his boyhood friend Crake. We learn of the world before the crisis through his memories of the somewhat bizarre culture in which he was raised.

I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

The Eye in the Door (Regeneration, #2)The Eye in the Door by Pat Barker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A wonderful continuation of the exploration of war, psychological functioning, and sexualtiy in the Britain of the early 20th century that began with Regeneration. Pat Barker is a brilliant author, and she has chosen powerful characters from British history to work with. Regeneration centered directly on PTSD, or shell-shock as it was called at the time, the ways of treating it, and the moral dilemma of doctors making people well so that they could return to the very war conditions that had made them ill. This novel focuses more on both the complex moral relationship between soldiers and pacifists in wartime and on the situation of gay men in Britain during this era. This is the book of the trilogy which has received the least critical acclaim, but it is still a very strong book. It continues the very powerful therapeutic relationship between Dr. William Rivers and Billy Prior, which brings up powerful issues and questions in both men as it unfolds.

The Ghost Road (Regeneration, #3)The Ghost Road by Pat Barker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“We are Craiglockhart’s success stories. Look at us. We don’t remember, we don’t feel, we don’t think – at least beyond the confines of what’s needed to do the job. By any proper civilized standard (but what does that mean now?) we are objects of horror. But our nerves are completely steady. And we are still alive.”

“Ghosts everywhere. Even the living were only ghosts in the making. You learned to ration your commitment to them. This moment in this tent already had the quality of remembered experience. Or perhaps he was simply getting old. But then, after all, in trench time he was old. A generation lasted six months, less than that on the Somme, barely twelve weeks.”

I truly loved this series. This novel is a powerful blend of letters about life at the front in France during WWI, scenes of a psychiatric and medical hospital in London where the physical and mentally wounded are being treated, and memories of Dr. William Rivers’ time with a tribe of headhunters in Melanesia. It is beautiful, thought-provoking, and heart-rending.

The Sorrows of Young WertherThe Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Wow, I hated this book. Apparently it was Harry Potter like in its ability to create a fan base at the time. People dressed like Werther, imitated Werther, even committed suicide like Werther. Napoleon claimed to have carried it into battle in his jacket pocket. Well, fortunately, I guess, I don’t feel any desire to jump on that bandwagon. Guess I’m not into German Romanticism. My main reaction as I listened to this one was “OH MY GOD, SHUT UP!!!!” And even worse, “get on with killing yourself, already, you insufferable drama queen!”

My main association was to the younger sister in Sense and Sensibility who is a little too into the drama of love, at the expense of common sense and her own well-being. This novel is a huge argument in favor of the sensibility side of that little pairing.

At the beginning of the book, Werther was somewhat less annoying, because while extravagant, he was not yet severely depressed. He spoke of the beauties of nature and waxed rhapsodic about the wisdom of children. I felt like I was getting a bunch of illustrative examples from a humanities course of the themes of German romanticism thrown at me rapid fire. But once Werther got depressed over the marriage of the woman he had been WARNED BEFORE HE EVEN MET HER NOT TO FALL FOR BECAUSE SHE WAS ENGAGED (no, I’m not annoyed at this twit of a character at all…), he became completely unbearable.

I feel a little less guilty for hating this novel because Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wasn’t real into this one in retrospect either. He also soured on Romanticism by late in his life. He didn’t get why everyone was so nuts for Werther, because he felt his portrayal had been pretty critical. I’m hoping I will like his other works better based on this.

I’m in the middle of two fun ones now: Trapeze, a novel about a woman spying in France in WWII, the The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Reviews to follow!

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On the banks of the Hudson, with Echoes of Wellesley

sunset wellesley


I have leap-frogged over a couple of reviews to discuss this one, because I found myself composing this post in the time remaining in my commute after the novel stopped playing. Something in Leah Hager Cohen’s writing made me long to capture my reactions in my own prose with an intensity I don’t always feel, even after finishing many works of truly amazing literature. And this is definitely a work of literature. I have been reading recently, as part of a research project I hope to do, about the impact of reading literary fiction on various psychological variables. It turns out that reading literary fiction (as opposed to other sorts of fiction and non-fiction) has a measurable effect on the reader’s capacity for empathy. If numerous critics and the Orange Prize list-makers had not singled this one out as a piece of “lit-fic,” my experience of reading it would certainly have told me The Grief of Others fits securely in that category. Literary fiction makes you work, connects you to deep important threads in yourself. Sometimes it does this in hard, complicated, not entirely pleasant ways, but in this case, the same end was accomplished with grace and beauty and gentleness none of which detracted an iota from the novel’s power.

I didn’t find this novel through its great reviews or through the Orange Prize longlist (I don’t tend to focus on prizes til they reach the shortlist stage), but because of a long past connection to the author. I knew Leah Hager Cohen back in the 1980s when for a couple of magical summers I worked for a wonderful summer program known affectionately as Explo on the Wellesley College campus. It brought high school kids from around the country, as well as day students from the local Boston community, to Wellesley for a combination of classes taught by a few young professionals and a larger number of undergraduates from colleges like Harvard, Yale and Brown and fun activities and field trips led by the same absurdly talented motley crew. I was one of the very minor stars in this remarkable night sky. Some of those briefly snatched from the trajectory of their lives for an idyllic summer of languorous afternoons on the lawns and moonlit skinny-dips in the lake included in addition to Hager Cohen, Joe Bowie, who danced professionally for years first with Paul Taylor’s then Mark Morris’s modern dance companies and then retired to a second career as a Culinary Institute-trained baker, Michael Dorf, a constitutional law scholar and faculty member at Cornell University’s School of Law, Cathy Livingston, also an attorney and a leading authority on the Affordable Care Act, and Dimitri Christakis, a professor of pediatrics at University of Washington and expert on children and media whose TED talk is available here The sparkle of the memories from those summers has its source not just in the beautiful setting or the remarkable company in which I found myself, but also in the nature of that unique developmental moment: we were at once fully-formed selves and yet still paradoxically incipient versions of those selves we have since become. There is something of that transitional quality to the identities of the characters in The Grief of Others, despite the range in their ages. Each is a fully developed character with a clear and nuanced essential core, yet each is also on the cusp of becoming something more. I am tremendously grateful that social media’s capacity to reconnect us to dropped threads from the fabric of our earlier lives has brought Leah Cohen back into my world through her writing. Her adult self is possessed of both wisdom and a lyrical voice with which to convey it, and I look forward to her next novel, due out this spring.

The Grief of OthersThe Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When he was born he was alive. That was one thing.
He was a
he, too, astonishingly–not that anyone expected him to be otherwise, but the notion of one so elemental, so small, carrying the complex mantle of gender seemed preposterous, the designation “male” the linguistic equivalent of a false mustache fixed above his infant lip.
His lips, how barely pink they were, the pink of the rim of the sky at winter dusk. And their curl–in the way that the upper lip rose to peaks and dipped down again, twice, like a bobbing valentine; and in the way the lower bowed out, luxuriant, lush, as if sated already from a lifetime of pleasures–how improbably expressive were his lips.

Leah Hager Cohen begins the beautiful and poignant tale of family and loss which is The Grief of Others with this passage. It is the start of the description of a tiny child, destined from long before birth to the only the briefest of time with his family. Cohen’s novel is a gorgeous, yet simple and direct, tale of the simultaneous strength and fragility of human connection. It is told from the varying perspectives of the members of the Ryrie family and of a recently orphaned college student whose path accidentally crosses with theirs at a key moment in their lives. To immerse yourself in this novel is to face questions not only of the mortality alluded to by the title, but also of one’s own capacity for emotional fidelity, honesty, and responsibility. To engage with Cohen’s beautiful prose is also to face the devastating reality of the many paths we must choose in the small moments which make up our lives, some of which may carry us far afield, even as we may only be beginning to recognize the destination to which we want to direct our journey. Cohen doesn’t provide a pat and simple closure either, but openly admits that to anticipate with too much certainty where the paths we choose will take us is an act of hubris, and so we are left simply with open questions and a quiet glimmering of hope to connect us to the characters as the book draws to a close. And this makes the gently devastating novel all the more satisfying, somehow.

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Facing War Trauma in Edinburgh

Around the world in books!For one the challenges in a Goodreads book group, I finally got started on the Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker. The books in the series are on the 1001 list, have received awards and huge critical acclaim, but I was having trouble getting excited about starting them. Once again I have learned that I irrationally fear historical fiction, but love it once I begin to read. This book was particularly interesting to me as a psychologist and faculty member teaching psychology. I am far from psychoanalytic in orientation, but this novel does a marvelous job of illustrating how some of the techniques of psychoanalysis can be tremendously useful in understanding psychological phenomena. The novel also beautifully illustrates the many potential psychiatric manifestations of war trauma. It is written with tremendous compassion for the men whose lives it portrays, soldiers suffering shell shock in the first world war and the doctors treating them. Here’s what I wrote on Goodreads:

Regeneration (Regeneration, #1)Regeneration by Pat Barker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a very moving account of the impact of combat in WWI on both the men at the front and those who treated them after the psychologically traumatic events they lived through. It’s based on real people and real events. It is beautifully written, combining some of the real poetry written my soldiers in their time convalescing in a military psychiatric hospital with the author’s own equally well-crafted prose. The novel, which is the first of a trilogy, explores questions about the morality of war, about the ways in which the military and political aims of those safe and in power are played out at great cost by those who actually do the fighting, about the morality of returning psychologically traumatized individuals to relative mental health only to send them back into the trauma. It juxtaposes two very different ways of treating conversion symptoms which translate conflicts about returning to combat into debilitating physical symptoms, and provides excellent examples of psychodynamic psychotherapy complete with analysis of dreams. I used it to teach my personality theories course the day I started reading it, because it was so perfect for illustrating some of what I was teaching about. I am really looking forward to the rest of the series!

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Grenada and Sweden on the Edge of My Seat

Around the world in books! I just finished up the second of Stieg Larsson’s suspense novels, and I am going to keep this brief so I can start the third one! The novel definitely captured my full attention, and I was really glad to have a physical copy of the book as well as a copy on audio, since I didn’t want to put it down for the weekend, and also didn’t want my 6 year old daughter to hear it. I’m counting this novel for Grenada, since that is where the action begins, but it takes place mostly back in Larsson’s home turf of Sweden. Here’s what I said on Goodreads:

The Girl Who Played with Fire (Millennium, #2)The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another gripping episode in the Swedish series by Stieg Larsson, this novel focuses on the international sex trade and a complex web of relationships the nature of which takes most of the novel go become clear. Blomkvist and Salander, the main protagonists of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, are back, but because of quirks of both their personalities, they are estranged from each other at the opening of the novel. It is hard to write about this one without spoilers, so I won’t get into plot, but I can tell you that the novel doesn’t provide a lot of breaks in the tension as this one develops. I should go to bed right now, but instead, I am going to make a quick dent in the final book of the series.

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February Plans

8274999Since I’m currently about four commute days away from finishing my next chunkster (The Girl Who Played with Fire), I’m not going to have reviews to post for a bit. I decided to share with you the results of my crazy strategizing about February challenge reads while we wait. There are a couple fun ones happening in a group I participate in on Goodreads. The one pictured here is from the You’ll Love This One group’s TBR Toppler, which is a crazy group read thing that we do for different periods of time (24 hours or a week), sometimes in teams. This one involves teams competing to win at BINGO. There are a variety of rules about who can read what, so that the ravenous readers don’t just take over and dominate, but the basic idea is that each person on a team reads a different genre to complete a row, column or diagonal. Then we see who collects the most BINGOs in a week of reading. I have been assigned classic, crime, and dystopian for the group. Classic is defined as a book likely to stand the test of time and at least 20 years old. I’m sneaking in with the second book of the Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker (copyright 1993) because I’m reading the first book of the trilogy for a different challenge in the same Goodreads group. I’m figuring that I will knock off one of my TBR pile challenge books, Execution Dock by Anne Perry, for the crime option (should earn me a bonus, since the author herself was convicted of murder as a kid(!), but there is no such bonus). My dystopian novel will probably knock off a 1001 Books selection (as do the Regeneration books), as I am leaning toward Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. I generally like Atwood, so that will be fun.

The other challenge that I’m reading Regeneration, the first book of the trilogy, for is the February Monthly challenge in the YLTO group. It is Olympic themed, and the rules are as follows:

“The YLTO (You’ll Love This One) Olympic Committee is proud to host the 2014 Reading Olympics, sponsored by Goodreads, where you’ll find all your reading needs.

Your first task is to determine which country you are representing. The book you read will either be set in that country, or written by an author born in that country.

The next task is to decide which sport you will be participating in. In addition to your country criteria, your book will also have the following criteria based on your sport:

1. Alpine Skiing – Your book will reflect this sport by being set in the mountains.

2. Biathlon – Being a superb shot with a rifle is mandatory in this sport. The book you choose will have some kind of weaponry in it. There is one restriction in this category. The theme of the book may not be about war.

3. Figure Skating – Your book must involve the creative arts (dancing, art, singing, etc).

4. Curling – Rock it out, people! Anything to do with rocks (archeology, diamonds, rock music, etc.)

5. Ice Hockey – This sport can be all out war! Your book choice must have a war theme (and now you know why you can’t use it for Biathlon).

General Rules:

1. The book may be in any format – paperback, ebook, audiobook.
2. The book may be in any genre.
3. The book may NOT be combined with the Year Long Chunkster Challenge.
4. The book must be read between February 1 to February 28, 2014 (based on your own time zone).
5. The challenge is for one book. You may read more books if you chose, but only the highest scoring book will apply.
6. The book must be 150 pages or more determined by the issue you read. If reading eBook or audiobook page numbers will be deteremined by the issue that comes up on a Goodreads search.

Scoring: (Count all qualifiers that apply)

10 points if book is set in the country you represent AND the author is born there.
5 points if the book’s theme is any of the winter sports listed here.
5 points if the book’s theme is the Olympics.

5 Points – Olympic village: If there is a village in your story
4 Points – Orange on the cover
3 Points – Author’s last name starts with O

5 Points – Length is between 300-400 pages long (based on the edition you read or as per rule #6).
4 Points – A Lake is in the story. (Specify)
3 Points – A Lady is on the cover. (Count only once.)

5 Points – Young Adult genre.
4 Points – Yellow sun is on the cover
3 Points – Year setting is between 1900 and 2000.

5 Points – Title starts with the letter “M”. It may be proceeded by “the”, or “a”.
4 Points – Male author
3 Points – Memoir

5 Points – Poetry is included in the story.
4 Points – Author’s first name starts with “P”.
3 Points – Pink on the cover.

5 Points – Initials in Author’s name
4 Points – Informational (aka non-fiction)
3 Points – International – set in 3 or more countries.

5 Points – Cold – set in Winter
4 Points – Main character is non-human
3 Points – Calligraphy – Title or author’s name is written in script on the cover.

5 Points – Series title is same as book title (eg The Shining, The Shining 1)
4 Points – Shakespeare is mentioned.
3 Points – Science Fiction genre.”

Not sure exactly how many points Regeneration will give me, but it seemed to fit enough options without me giving it a ton of thought, and will be a relatively quick listen in the car.  In fact, all the books I’ve lined up so far are pretty short–long enough to meet minimum requirements for the challenges, but quick enough to help me get a bunch of books done without having to extend beyond commuting time much. I’m sure I will also get another chunkster or two in after the Toppler week, or before and after, depending on how the timing works out. I still have to finish the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, after all, and since they are just sooooo boring (NOT!)…

Hope you have enjoyed this sneak peak, and let me know if you have read any of these!

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Traveling Back to East Texas in the 1960s

IMG_20120904_131924This summer I moved to Houston to take a job teaching in the psychology department of Lamar University, which is located 100 miles east, in the heart of East Texas. East Texas is a place you have to learn to love. I interviewed on a couple of grey days, and the oil refineries, flat landscape, and often run-down looking neighborhoods had me sure I would want to turn the job down. Yet I found myself drawn to the people, and reassured myself that I have loved everywhere I’ve lived (except Rochester, NY when I was 3-4), so why not East Texas? Six months into the job, I can’t say that East Texas is beautiful. It is still often pretty bleak, although I have come to love the sky above the open grassland on my commute, and the rivers and estuaries and farmland with all sorts of hoofed creatures that I pass on my drive. And I love the people here. They are kind, and real, and full of heart.

Early in my time with my students, they learned what a ravenous reader I am, and started making recommendations. The book I just finished was one of them. This memoir is set in “Leechfield,” a stand-in for Groves, TX, which is actually where I get my hair done now. The book does a wonderful job of evoking all that is good and bad and simply true in East Texas. I love being able to picture it 50 years ago through hearing Mary Karr narrate the audio. I feel like I have done a good job with my Texas book for the Around the US tour. This one really is about place.

The Liars' ClubThe Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the house, Daddy slipped his jean jacket over a kitchen stool. We were fixin’ to eat, he said. Leica unstacked the white melamine picnic plates on the plywood bar. They looked crude as Flintstone plates after our Colorado china. Each had 3 plastic compartments so you could keep your butter beans out of your greens and the greens’ potliquor from soggin’ up your cornbread. Daddy stood at the stove working with a long wooden spoon inside a pot of something muddy. He dribbled water from the silver kettle into the pot, and I heard it loosen up. In a few minutes you could smell garlic and pork back and then came the idea of sheer celery slices in a mess of red beans and rice.

Like the selection I have excerpted here, this memoir as a whole does a great job of capturing the ethos of small East Texas towns in the 1960s. They are hard places, dominated by oil refineries and muggy heat. The children play by “slow racing” their bikes behind pesticide trucks spraying DDT to kill mosquitos that bring sleeping sickness. The men are hard-drinking, tall-tale telling, bar brawling working men, but this doesn’t make them bad fathers. The story of Pokey and her older sister is the story of this life, and of the dramatic swings it takes because of their mother’s drinking and attacks of “nervous” which can turn dramatic with little warning. Mary Karr’s narrative style is relaxed, at times funny, always evocative. If you want a taste of East Texas life, this isn’t a bad way to get it.

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The Journey of A Glass Church in New South Wales

Around the world in books!Without intending to, I have immersed myself in mid-19th century Oceania with my most recent reads. This one was across the water in the marginally more settled New South Wales. The narration begins in the present day, with a narrator telling us the story of earlier generations and the strange church which is central to their history. Here is my Goodreads review:

Oscar and LucindaOscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In order that I exist, two gamblers, one Obsessive, the other Compulsive, must meet. A door must open at a certain time. Opposite the door, a red plush settee is necessary. The Obsessive, the one with six bound volumes of eight hundred and eighty pages, ten columns per page, must sit on this red settee, the Book of Common Prayer open on his rumpled lap. The Compulsive gambler must feel herself propelled forward from the open doorway. She must travel toward the Obsessive and say an untruth (although she can have no prior knowledge of her own speech): “I am in the habit of making my confession.”

This novel is the story of these two fascinating characters, a headstrong heiress ahead of her time and an odd, socially and physically awkward Anglican priest, both addicted to gambling, both ill at ease in the mid-19th century Sydney where they find themselves trying to build their lives. Peter Carey has crafted a tale of frontier society full of colorful but flawed individuals thrown together, all angling for something to fulfill their various ambitions, many ruthlessly opinionated or judgemental, aping the landed gentry of home whom they hope to be like in this new land.

Going into this book, I was not a big fan of Carey, who has won multiple prizes for his writing. I had read True History of the Kelly Gang a number of years back. Oscar and Lucinda did a better job of winning me over. While Carey is still not an author I will rave about, I will likely look forward to the next book of his I read much more for having taken a journey to Australia with this odd pair of protagonists.

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