Did you find yourself a prize winning, distinctive writing style, focused on characters more than plot book? Would you say your book was experimental, technically challenging, and/or full of subtle details? If you’ve said, “Yes” to either or both of these questions then you too could have come to our most recent genre book discussion featuring literary fiction!
Maureen: It’s Fine By Me by Per Petterson tells the story of Audun Sletten, a 13 year-old teenager growing up in a working-class village near Oslo, Norway in the 1970s. Audun does not have the easiest life – his abusive and often drunk father has left the family, his younger brother died in an auto accident, his sister married poorly and moved away, and he is being raised alone by his mother in a new town – but he tries to get through each day with determination and hope for a better tomorrow. The book chronicles Audun’s current journey through 7th grade in a new school; his important friendship with schoolmate Arvid (an up-and-coming socialist) and his relationship with his father, who, unfortunately, keeps re-appearing. Though often dark, this book is superbly written, with details that make you feel as though you are growing up right alongside Audun as he finds himself. Translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett.
Megan: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis follows the life of Hattie Shepard and her children. In 1923 Hattie, a young African-American teen, flees Georgia in search of a better life in Philadelphia. Instead of a wealth of opportunities, she finds nothing but disappointment. Her first heartbreak is the death of her firstborn twins. Nine more children follow and she is determined to prepare them for the hardships of life. Hattie’s story slowly unfolds through the experiences of each of her children. This powerful debut novel reads more like a collection of short stories. It is beautifully written, often heart-breaking, but essentially an uplifting testament to a mother’s strength and resilience.
Chris: The Buddha in the Attic tells the story of Japanese picture brides—their journey of sailing the Pacific in the 1920s in hopes of new lives, dream lives, in the States, with nothing more to go on than pictures and letters of their future husbands; almost all deceiving from the very beginning. Their real new lives are revealed as you see them assimilate into the culture in San Francisco, have families who reject their heritage and history, and experience the arrival of World War II and the internment camps. Julie Otsuka’s writing is extraordinary. The refrains make you feel the sway of the ship; that important telling detail covers personalities in a single word, and the images are arresting. Because it’s written in collective first person, it’s everyone’s story. Mesmerizing.
Carol: The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty opens in 1922 when 36-year-old Cora Carlisle, wife to a prominent lawyer and mother of college-bound boys, learns that 15-year-old neighbor; the yet-undiscovered future silent film star Louise Brooks needs a chaperone to attend modern dance school in New York City. Cora jumps at the chance to leave Wichita, Kansas behind for a couple of months to assist the rebellious but talented and beautiful teenager, who shamelessly flirts with every man who looks her way and ignores most of Cora’s motherly advice. Through together for just the one summer, it’s a life changer for both of them—Louise gets her ticket to silver screen fame and Cora’s eyes are opened by the answers that she has found on her own secret mission, her real reasons for volunteering as chaperone. When Cora returns home, she is forever changed, but as an upper-class society woman, she must continue to play that role and hide her many secrets. This page-turner is not afraid to take on hot topics of the era, like women’s rights, prohibition, racism and homophobia, and the need for upstanding citizens to keep their true selves hidden. Make sure to clear your schedule; this novel captivates from page one.
Ann: In Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, Dellarobia Turnbow’s narrow and often unhappy life on a farm in Tennessee is broadened with the discovery of millions of monarch butterflies on the mountainside of the family farm. Are the butterflies a miracle, a sign, or a warning? When a professor of biology and his students come to the farm to investigate the butterflies, before she knows it, Dellarobia is caught up in the scientific research. Her young son, Preston is besotted by the professor. Dellarobia has always known there was more to life than her failing farm, but never saw a path away. The butterflies become the path. Kingsolver always writes novels of strong women characters, and this one is no different. As she describes modern rural life, family and religious entanglements, she also brings us a convincing and grounded novel about the effects of climate change and global warming.
Steve: Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, is the story of Piscine “Pi” Patel, a 16 year old Indian boy, who is stranded at sea while relocating to Canada after the ship he is in sinks. He is separated from his family and is left sharing a lifeboat with various animals, ultimately ending up with a 450 pound Bengal tiger as a shipmate. At first he thinks his best option is to simply outlive the tiger, and let the elements take their toll, but soon Pi changes his thinking. The pace is slow and descriptive, but very thought provoking. At times funny and sad, the story is filled with philosophical, zoological and religious elements. I will caution that it can take awhile to get into, as the story does not grip you from the beginning, but it is worth hanging in there.
Emma: Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka is the story of several Japanese mail-order (picture) brides arriving in San Francisco to meet their husbands for the first time. The women had been married by proxy in Japan while their husbands were in the United States. Life was often difficult for these women for many reasons. The book follows their arrival in America; their first nights with their husbands; their interactions with white people; their children; and their experience of World War II. Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor all people of Japanese descent were eventually moved to Relocation Centers until the end of the war.
Rosemary: A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port William Membership by Wendell Berry is the author’s first work of fiction since 2006. Through 50 years of award-winning writing, Berry has enchanted readers with his stories of the Port William community. The 78-year-old Berry is a farmer and has lovingly tended his 125 acres of land near Louisville for most of his adult life. He knows firsthand the importance of neighbors, country life, community, and sustainability. A Place in Time draws on his intimate knowledge of this way of life. The stories range in time from 1864 to 2008. Many characters from his previous novels appear for a cameo role. We become reacquainted with Burley Coulter, Danny and Kate Helen Branch, and Elton Penn to name just a few. It is a welcome and heartfelt reunion to say the least.
Julie: Ok, I am totally cheating, but after talking with my co-worker Chris about Julie Otsuka’s novel , The Buddha in the Attic, I am jumping on her bandwagon! Otsuka writes about the picture brides who came from Japan before WWII expecting a wonderful new life with the husband they have only met in photographs. A beautiful and heart wrenching novel (thank you Chris!).
Dori: The Yellow Birds, a debut novel by Kevin Powers. Two soldiers, bound together in basic training when Private Bartle promises to watch after Private Murphy, encounter the physical and psychological trauma of the Iraq War. When Murphy is killed, Bartle tries to come to terms with what happened, to figure out what he could have done differently, while trying to heal from his own anguish. Poetically written, this stirring novel captures the experience of war with honesty and compassion.
Stacey: It might be a small book in the number of pages, but there’s a big story inside the covers of Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx. Jack and Ennis haven’t hit twenty when they’re both hired by the Forest Service to watch sheep on Brokeback Mountain. And so begins the best, and most difficult, relationship that either man will ever experience.
Next time? Join us as we discuss suspense and thrillers! If you want to play along this time, you’ll want to find a book that has fast pacing, surprising plot twists, and appeal to your emotions. Suspense books have compressed a lot of action into a short period of time and emphasize danger to a character’s mental and/or physical well-being. Thrillers have a more specific setting like a courtroom, medical laboratory, or government agency, with a focus of a hero defeating the villain. Already I can see the next discussion should be pretty … explosive!?