The Narrow Road to the Deep North: A War Book You Should Read

Review of The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

This novel is, in many ways, traditional military fiction, and sometimes I get a little tired of this genre. Horrors, emotional traumas, tragedies—these elements can make war novels hard to read and process. Yet great literature like this is worth reading regardless of whether we gravitate towards the genre, and this book deserves the praise and awards it has earned.

This novel contains very few descriptions of fighting for being military fiction. Instead of combat, the story focuses on an Australian POW camp on the Thai-Burma Death Railway. While the story pivots around the main character Dorrigo and his time spent in the POW camp, the novel also spends a lot of time on the preceding years, including a love story, as well as examining how the aftermath of the war affected the rest of Dorrigo’s life. In addition, chapters are often written from other characters’ perspectives, including Japanese soldiers, creating an exploration of events, motivations, and consequences that are complex and resistant to quick assumptions.

What makes this novel stand out is the writing, which is strong, beautifully descriptive, and compelling. My example of his writing comes from Chapter 3: “The smell of eucalyptus bark, the bold, blue light of the Tasmanian midday, so sharp he had to squint hard to stop it slicing his eyes, the heat of the sun on his taut skin, the hard, short shadows of the others, the sense of standing on a threshold, of joyfully entering a new universe while your old still remained knowable and holdable and not yet lost—all these things he was aware of, as he was of the hot dust, the sweat of the other boys, the laughter, the strange pure joy of being with others.”

The only (minor) problem that I had with the writing is that Flanagan’s love of elaborate detail sometimes becomes overdone and florid. There are too many long lists of abstract nouns that give the writing a forced literary quality; but I won’t take off a star for this as it feels more like the excesses of a great writer and not necessarily a detraction from the book.

I read books with an eye for their appropriateness for serious book clubs. This book will withstand multiple readings, one of my measures of a great book, and I easily created pages and pages of discussion questions. I highly recommend this book.

For my discussion questions on this book, go here.

A luscious book to savor: Review of The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

A book like this doesn’t come along very often. Reading this novel was like eating cake after I’ve been on a diet: I wanted to wolf it down so fast! There’s an effortless blend of street language, nerd culture, and literary genius. In the far future, when people read this book to better understand us, readers will buy one of those annotated books that’s twice as long as the novel itself.

In this novel, there’s a hint of the multi-generational, cultural-specific epics like A Hundred Years of Solitude. There’s also the history of a nation intertwined within the story, much like Midnight’s Children. And then there’s the modernity of language and reference of current culture that fixes the novel so firmly to our world. And above it all, there’s the narrator. He’s so present, and his use of language is intimate and causal, yet detailed and beautiful.

I savored this book. While I could have read it in just a few sittings, I didn’t want to. I wanted to keep it around as long as possible. I refused to read it with any distractions because I didn’t want to miss more than was necessary. And it is necessary to miss some with this book. First, there’s all that Spanish which I don’t speak. I picked up on a lot of it, but there’s a bunch I either looked up or glossed over. The second reason I missed so much was all the references to culture, either to classic geekdom of which I got quite a lot, or references to the Dominican Republic of which I was clueless. And finally, there’s some mysteries to this book which the narrator doesn’t simplify. The reader is expected to be smart and attentive. I will someday read this again. I hope to get a little more Spanish in me before then, but I won’t let that stop me from picking it back up.

The example of the writing I’d like to share is from page 41: “Poor Oscar. Without even realizing it he’d fallen into one of those Let’s-Be-Friends Vortexes, the bane of nerdboys everywhere. These relationships were love’s version of a stay in the stocks, in you go, plenty of misery and heartbreak nobody knows. Perhaps some knowledge of self and of women./Perhaps.” The language is sharp and quick, hard to pin down, full of this very world, and so amazing when reading pages and pages of it.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone.

Hint: Do read the footnotes as they are as much a part of the story as anything else.

You can find my discussion questions here.

Review of Harvest by Jim Crace

This is a novel of paradoxes. The writing is, at times, quaint but always edgy, pastoral yet menacing, short but will take time to read. The language and plot are simple, yet the story is sophisticated, ambiguous, and full of unknowns. Descriptions are detailed and realistic while also always on the edge of being surreal. It’s as if this book is a peaceful lake, beautiful and breathtaking, with frightful monsters lurking just under the surface of the water.

Set in a time when agriculture is giving away to other industries, this is the story of Walter Thirsk, an outsider in a peaceful, rural English village that becomes transformed over the course of a week.

My favorite part of the book was the vivid, poetic language. The descriptions are narcotic, as if I was reading a realistic version of a drug-induced vision. I’m not saying that the prose itself is dream-like. On the contrary, the narrative is dense with grounded details. Rather, it’s as if the descriptions are a product of a hyper-realistic, paranoid, visionary trip. I was never sure what would happen next nor what to truly believe.

This is a Great Book and should be read far and wide. This will withstand multiple readings. However, this book is demanding and will ask more of the reader than most current fiction.

One of my book clubs tackled this book, and the discussion was intense and illuminating. Many people did not like the book because it lacks any empathy, especially for the main character, nor does the book have a packaged ending, issues that can turn off a lot of readers. But the book provided plenty of depth for a good discussion, a sign of a worthwhile read.

My example quote from the book comes from page 45 when Walter is walking around the village at night:  “But other gentler odors too. The acrid smell-exaggerated by the rain-of elder trees. The bread-and-biscuit smell of rotting wood. The piss-and-honey tang of apple trees. I navigate my midnight village as a blind man would, by nose and ears and touch and by the vaguest, blackest forms.”

I have trouble recommending this to casual readers—this is not a beach read. I do recommend this wholeheartedly to serious book clubs. Not everyone will like the book, but everyone will like the discussion. I also strongly recommend it to any readers who want a substantial novel that challenges them.

You can find my discussion questions here.

The Harvest by Jim Crace

Discussion Questions

What does the frequent use of “we” tell us about Walter? In what parts of the plot does Walter start going by “I” instead of “we”? Why does Walter so badly want to use the “we” pronoun?

On page 2, Walter insists that “We’re not a hurtful people, hereabouts.” Is this true? Does the village bring about the tragedies on themselves or was this all going to happen regardless? Could Walter have changed any of what happened, if he, for example, told on the village boys at the beginning?

The villagers seems to think that seven days on the pillory is not such a bad fate. Why don’t they think of this as a more severe punishment? Is suffering different for the villagers than for readers? What happens when there is no official law, just the ruling of a landholder?

Madam Bedlam is referred to as “fair game” (pg. 27). What makes her so beautiful to the village men? Is it just how she looks? What else might they find attractive about her? Walter assumes every man, including Mr. Quill, wants to catch the woman in order to sleep with her. Do you think he’s right? If so, do you think the men plan on seducing her or raping her?

The word “deserve” is used on the following pages: 5, 14, 19, 22, 63, 73, 77, 87, 96,161 (twice), 208. And that’s not counting how many times the word “earned” is used. What does the frequent use of these words tell us about the narrator Walter? Do you think the other characters care as much about whether something is deserved as Walter? Do people get what they deserve in the story? How does this fit in with the idea of a harvest?

“Lanterns throw out such deep and busy shadows that my neighbors’ faces are hard to place. They are grotesques, but only for a moment.” (pg. 29). This is a good example of the writer’s ability to generate suspense and foreshadowing. Did you highlight any places that use this kind of word choice for effect? (Read them aloud.) How would you describe the writer’s style?

Master Jordan figures out that Walter Thirsk’s name sounds like Water Thirst (pg. 165). What might the thirst for water mean in this story?

On page 42, Walter calls doves “white consciences on wing.” Does this statement connect with the destruction of the dovecote earlier? What might the doves symbolize to the villagers? What might they symbolize to the reader?

Does it mean anything that this village doesn’t have a church? Is there any danger for them to worship at the pillory instead of a cross? Do they need a religion, and if they do, how to they compensate when there’s no formal religion in the life?

After the older man dies on the pillory, on page 132, Walters has these thoughts: “These are not the customary village ways. Our church ground has been desecrated by our surliness. Our usual scriptures are abused. This body on the cross is not the one that’s promised us.” Are any of their problems to blame on the lack of a church? The large oak tree “is so old it must have come from Eden” (pg. 174). Why does Walter connect the land to Christian symbols? Is this book allegorical?

What does the map tell us about the land? What might it mean that the current map of the land has a face which the map of the future land destroys? Walter believes that Mr. Quill’s map doesn’t capture the true nature of the land (pg. 121). What else does Mr. Quill not get about this place?

Why does he continue to forget how small Madame Bedlam is? What does it say about her that she wears a velvet shawl above her station? What might be some guesses as to what happened to her before she enters the story? Does Madame Bedlam bring an actual curse?

Towards the end, when Walter is doing the last planting on page 205, he thinks: “Wheat—like men and women—benefits from being crushed.” Is this true? Does this play out as true for anyone in the story? Why would Walter think this? Does he believe this for everyone or just the peasant class?

The use of fear by Edmund Jordan is quite deliberate. How are fear and superstition used to control the lower classes? How does a lack of education or wealth make people more susceptible to fear? Does Jordan use fear to control Master Kent? Why does the death of Mr. Quill not bother Jordan?

Who would Mistress Bedlam consider to be the villain in her story? Who is the villain in the villagers’ story? What might be reasons why the author decided to tell the story from Walter’s perspective and not someone else’s?

Why does Walter plow and plant a single line of grain? Why does he think this is a grand gesture? Why does he call it a “scar”? (pg. 204)

The fairy cap mushrooms are described “as cold and high and clammy as a week-old corpse” (pg. 218). What does the description tell us about the mushrooms? What role do the mushrooms play in this story? Why does Walter take them at the end when he’s refused them so many times? What do they symbolize to him? While high, he imagines himself as a seed of wheat. What does that say about him?

What is your best guess as to who killed Mr. Earl and why? What might be the reasons why the story has this mystery?

Review of Johnnie Come Lately

Johnnie Come Lately by Kathleen M. Rodgers

For those people who follow me in Texas, this is a local author.

This novel is an endearing story of a woman struggling with keeping herself and family together in a very modern world. The focus of the book is on the characters, and if you like realistic, good-intentioned but flawed characters, you’ll find a lot to love in this novel.

Johnnie Kitchen has problems, some past, some current. She’s a middle-aged housewife with children who are almost grown up. Bulimia has haunted her teenage years and continues to be a ghost that won’t depart.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of the problems she will face.

The best aspect of this book is the most mundane. The novel excels at the everyday, pedestrian life of a housewife who is struggling to put her life on steadier ground. The author uses small details and little fleeting struggles to deepen Johnnie’s life, making her character a realistic exploration on issues any of us might face today.

There’s a lot to like about this book. The plot, with its unraveling familial mysteries, makes the book easy to read. The writing is clear and detailed without being floral. The suburban Texan town is written in such detail that the setting becomes an integral character itself.

For me, the biggest complaint, and the reason why I took one star from my review, was that things get explained a little too much. Feelings are always laid out neatly, and motivations are always handed to the reader (unless they are part of the mystery). It makes the book easy to read and understand, but also simplifies it too much for me. However, I’m well aware that not everyone shares my like for difficult books, and many people who pick this book up will not have the same problem (and may even like the book more because of it).

I recommend this to anyone, but I especially recommend this to women. Because the book revolves so much around character of Johnnie, I think the people most likely to empathize with her will get the most from it. It would be a good pick for women’s book clubs and church book clubs as well.

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Review of For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

The writing is gorgeous and not at all what I was expecting. I have previously read some of Hemingway’s short stories which had his famous sparse style. The writing in this novel, however, while clear and crisp, has a rhythm and generous beauty that makes the reading almost sumptuous. My only warning for would-be buyers of this book: be patient to get the most from the novel.

The story is set during the Spanish civil war in the 1930s. Robert Jordan, an American professor of Spanish, has come over to help the Republic fight the Fascists as a demolition man. He is sent to blow up a bridge at a specific day and time, creating a countdown where, as a result of the diminishing hours, he spends four intense days with a small guerrilla force, creating tight, intimate relationships.

I’ll be honest. The first half of the book put me to sleep; but I’m not saying this as a criticism, I swear! The language was so mesmerizing, repetitive, and rhythmic, that it created a hypnotic effect that kept making me drowsy. I had to be so patient. I couldn’t read with any distractions and often read only a dozen or so pages at a time to help with my focus.

The second half of the book, in stark contrast, accentuates the countdown to blowing up the bridge. The plot started to fly by, and I found myself going faster through the writing than I wanted to. I had to really focus on keeping my reading at a steady pace to catch all of the narrative and not skip anything. Again, I found I needed all my patience and focus, but in an entirely different way.

There are no bad parts to this book. The characters, language, pacing, plot, everything is well done. Chapters often set aside the plot for a while as characters give us their personal anecdotal histories or conversations, but these asides add so much depth to the narrative that they seem integral to the whole story.

Here’s my example of his writing style on pg. 323, Chapter 27: “Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.” There’s nothing about the style here that’s sparse. Repetitive and clear, but so lovely as the time that I find it captivating.

I was in a book club that read this, and I can tell you the only downside to this book is that we all agreed so well upon it, the conversation lacked any good argument or intensity (although we did understood the novel much better afterwards). I encourage book groups to read this book as there is so much depth here to explore; I easily created pages of discussion questions and could create so many more if I spent more time with the book. This would also make an excellent book for anyone interested in reading classics. Someday I’m going to read this book again, and I know that I’ll get even more out of it then.

You can find my discussion questions on this book here.

A New Twist on the Dead Girl Genre: Review of Everything I Never Told You

Review of Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Review: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a book with big social ambitions captured in a small, intimate story.  The narrative starts with the mystery of a dead daughter, but it unwinds itself around the story of a family who must deal with the impact of discrimination and the fallout of broken dreams.

The language is lovely; the themes are complex and deep. Characters are strong, individual, and full of authentic motivations and issues. But the best aspect for me is the flow of the plot: the story itself changes and evolves with its deft narrative style. With the way this book tackles difficult social issues with complex characters and a quick-reading plot, I think this book would be the perfect book for a high school English class!

For an example of the lovely writing and strong social issues this book tackles, I’m choosing an excerpt from pg. 41: “In Chinatown, the lives of all those paper sons were fragile and easily torn. Everyone’s name was false. Everyone hoped not to be found out and sent back. Everyone clustered together so they wouldn’t stand out.”

I’m docking one point in my review because I didn’t feel like I would get much out of reading this book again. While the issues are complex, the plot isn’t. The characters are fleshed out but not complex enough to offer something more on a deeper read. This has the feel of a one-trick book (although its one trick is a very good trick.)

I would strongly recommend this book as a quick read or as a wonderful book to bring into a classroom. I give this a moderate recommendation to book clubs.

Click here to see my discussion questions on this book.

Review of Lonesome Dove

Review of Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Review: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a truly epic book. The scope, the landscape, the characters, even the length of the book, give this narrative a grandeur in its story-telling.

The story centers on a couple of retired Texas Rangers, Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, who now own the Hat Creek Outfit, along with one of the employees, Call’s unclaimed son, Newt. There are many other major characters that are given depth in this book, but I can’t possibly list them all in my short review. The plot mostly follows an adventure-filled cattle drive when Call decides to be the first person to bring cattle to Montana and start a ranch there.

The characters are fabulously fleshed out. Everyone is a combination of good and bad traits, with plenty of muddy motivations and emotional handicaps. You will be frustrated with your favorite characters at times, and you will occasionally sympathize with the characters you dislike. And be forewarned, your most-liked and least-liked characters have a high likelihood of dying during the book.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the complexity of the characters’ decisions. The characters all seem to have many reasons for their decisions, often expressed at different times, and motivations are rarely cut and dry. I find this so much like real decision making, and I appreciate an author who can bring to life a slew of emotional issues without weighing down the book in unnecessary contemplation.

The writing is very strong as well. Descriptions are gritty and beautiful here. The tone and use of language feels in keeping with the western setting, but with a high enough skill to be labeled literature. An example I’m going to give of this is from pg. 99: “In a flash, as he stood half-through the swinging doors, Dish’s whole conception of woman changed; it was if lightning had struck, burning his old notions to a crisp in one instant.” From this quote, you’d never be mistaken about reading a western, but at the same time, there’s a flow and sharpness to the language.

I am discounting a point from the review because they are just a few too many times where I’m taken out of the story. Either something too coincidental happens, or the switch in character perspective feels awkward. It was a bit of a burr under my saddle. Having said that, this is a truly great book, and there’s a good chance that you will not have my problem in reading it.

I would like to highly recommend this book to anyone who grew up after the mini-series and think it’s only a western. This would make an excellent book for discussion groups. If you’ve never read this, pick it up now. And if you haven’t read it in a while, pick it up again.

Click here for my discussion questions on this novel.

Review of “The Man Who Would Be King”

“The Man Who Would Be King” by Rudyard Kipling

This is a funny and odd short story that I quite enjoyed. I had to read it slow, since I’m not all that great with 19th century writing styles, but it rewarded me with a lot of funny stuff, especially in the first third of the story.

Summary: In India, the narrator, a British journalist, meets up and thwarts the plan of two British rascals, Daniel Dravot and Pechey Carnehan, who intend to blackmail a minor rajah. They find him later and ask him to help them research the area of Kafiristan where they plan on making themselves kings. One of the guys shows up two years later, very screw up, and tells the narrator what happened to them. The story takes a dark turn once their fantastic plan does succeed, but you’ll have to read that yourself.

One of the reasons to read this story is the humor. These guys are hilarious at the beginning. They want to be kings, and to show that they are serious about it, they’ve made a contract with each other vowing to stay away from drink and women. Well, if that doesn’t guarantee kingship, I don’t know what would. But the humor is a lot of underhanded wit and needs a slow, patient read to catch. The beginning description of what happens in the newspaper office is quite funny as well, so it’s worth not skimming over. Here’s an example of the wit in this section of the story: the “Colonels who have been overpassed for command sit down and sketch the outline of a series of ten, twelve, or twenty-four leading articles on Seniority versus Selection.”

I recommend this to anyone who can deal with the floral language and twisty sentences of the 1800s. This would be a good short-story for a discussion group, so I’ve included discussion questions.

Things to know before reading the story: One, this is based on a true story, and the places are real, including the fair-skinned people of Kafiristan. Two, a Martini is a Martini-Henry rifle. Three, the Fellow Craft Grip is a secret freemason handshake. Four, you can differentiate between the two adventurers with this mnemonic:  Dravot has the red beard, hence the V in his name looks like a beard. Carnehan has a long name just like his long single eyebrow.

Click here to see my discussion questions for this story.

Review of End of Your Life Book Club

Review of End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This book is a memoir. When I started the book, I thought it was regular literary fiction and absolutely hated it for the first quarter of the book. I had to put the book down and look it up since I didn’t understand why it was recommended to me. But after finding out the true nature of the story, I then understood the nonliterary aspect of the writing and enjoyed it for what it was: an excellent account of the author and his dying mother using books to communicate and know each other better.

In this book, the author deals with his mother dying of cancer by reading books with her. Along the way, usually during treatments and doctor visits, they talk about the books they read together. While the subject matter may sound dark, the mother approaches her situation with a positive energy and lots of love from her family. Schwalbe extols the life of his mother, who made many, many friends as well as her work with volunteer organizations.

Memoirs are not my cup of tea. I have read the occasional memoir and generally find them irritating and poorly written. This book, though, has a clear, well-spoken quality to it. The author has excellent pace and good plot structure. The people in the story are fleshed out with charming backstories, and conversations feel authentic.

What this book lacks is a literary spark, and the language isn’t especially beautiful or evocative either. But does a memoir like this really need a literary spark? Is it important that the settings are minimal, that the characters are a little too nice, that the language is adequate but not poetic?  Schwalbe is a journalist, and it felt like a journalist wrote it. Everything is described well and accurately, just not poetically. The author is like the best house painter you’ve ever met, but you wouldn’t buy a painting of a house from him.

I bring this up because as a reader of fiction, and with a family very different from his, I don’t think I got much out of this book. The best part, for me, was the love they had for the books, and the way these books brought them together. On the other hand, I found myself intimidated by this overly-wonderful family. They are ambitious, exceptional, positive people. I am not, and their life and what they take for granted is very different from mine, and I constantly felt this difference as I read it.

I would gladly recommend this book to anyone going through a similar situation. For a fiction reader, however, I wouldn’t recommend it. And as for book discussion groups, I didn’t find much here to talk about. It would be difficult to delve into or argue with his mom’s opinions because of the circumstances. There’s no themes beyond the very obvious ones. The best a group could do is talk about their own stories this book would inevitably bring up.