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.

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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.

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 All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Review: 4 out of 5 stars

The history and settings of this book alone makes it a worthwhile read. The author has a gift for bringing places to life and rendering this time period authentic in both beauty and ugliness. I often dislike historical fiction, finding the writing often stilted and awkward, but this novel combines the history and setting flawlessly into the story line.

This book alternates between two lives of the blind French Marie-Laure and the German Werner Pfennig (although the occasional extra character will get a chapter here and there). The time period of the story starts a few years before WWII and goes through the end of the war, with a few chapters looking even farther into the future (this is not a spoiler as the chapter titles have dates in them.)

I love the language and the detail. Many historical fiction books put in researched detail, but it usually feels forced and obvious. This book doesn’t feel like history at all, yet so much history is in here. The settings, whether it’s a house or a camp or a little tiny room under the rampart, feel immediate and sharp.

The characters are strong, complex, and feel mostly authentic. There are some periods where the characters’ actions and motivations seem a bit stretched, but the novel never gives them easy choices or easy consequences.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is on page 63: “Radio: it ties a million ears to a single mouth. Out of loudspeakers all around Zollverein, the staccato voice of the Reich grows like some imperturbable tree; its subjects lean towards its branches as if towards the lips of God. And when God stops whispering, they become desperate for someone who can put things right.”

The one thing I really didn’t like about the book was the extremely frequent flipping between characters. During every one to three minutes of reading, the book flips characters and scenes. I quite like how the story followed these two very different people, but the changes happened much too fast and much too often. I never had a chance to settle into the scenes. It made it hard to read for long periods of time, and it separated me emotionally from the book, which may or may not have been intentional. This remains a worthwhile book in spite of this problem, but it’s worth a warning to anyone picking it up.

For book groups, this book is average in discussion potential. While I struggled finding good, complex questions, I ended up with enough to give this a recommended status.

Click here for my discussion questions on this book.

Review of We Are Completely Beside Ourselves

We Are Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Review: 5 out of 5 stars

When I read the summary of this book, I didn’t want to pick it up. A girl raised with a chimpanzee? Well-intentioned but heart-breaking consequences? It sounded like some young adult book that people like because it’s easily digestible. But thank goodness this is not that kind of book. This book is a smart, sometimes funny, often hard look at the underpinnings of living life as a flawed human being.

Any gist of this novel will fall short. I’ll tell you what it’s about, but with this fair warning: the description will not do justice to the gripping narration or the intense philosophical and psychological undertones. On the surface this is a story told by Rosemary, a young woman who was raised alongside a chimpanzee when she was a very young child, and she now struggles to fit in with her family and society. But on a deeper level, this isn’t a book about a chimpanzee at all. Rather the story is about how the complexity of guilt, memory, humanness, and identity affect the ability to live a normal life.

I immensely loved the narrator. She funny, sharp, and broken. In an example from early in the novel, on pg. 14, Rosemary describes her mother as “an infamous bridge hustler—I’m amazed there are still people who’ll play with her, but that’s how desperate for bridge some people get; it’s like a drug.” The tone is flippant and yet accurate, silly yet authentic. The narration pulled me in and kept me through some very tough issues that arise in the middle of the book.

The issues this book explores are both plot-based and theme-based. Plot issues center around Rosemary dealing with family issues that are so painful and perceptive I couldn’t help but live them with her. The story then dives into the deep end of issues on themes like the use of animals in scientific experiments. You will feel like you can’t breathe during these parts.

There’s also a lot of playing around with psychological theories and real social issues. Nothing heavy handed, but the book creates places where we need to stop and really think about what was just written and how it applies to the world.

My favorite parts of the novel centered around the tenuous nature of memories. (After I wrote this, my husband read it and asked me if the chimpanzee turns out to not be real. This is not what I’m hinting at. There is no cheesy gotcha moment like that.) The author did a bang-up job on capturing how memories shape our world, make us who we are, and yet completely fail us at the same time.

Here’s a favorite quote of mine on pg. 48: “Language does this to our memories—simplifies, solidifies, codifies, ,mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph i a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.”

Click here to see my discussion questions on this book.

Review of Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Review: 3 out of 5 stars

This is a charming book in a very young adult novel kind of way. It’s a very easy and quick read, character driven, and a nice balance of angst and growth.

This novel is a story told by fifteen-year-old June in the 1980s, where the death of a beloved uncle from AIDS sends her on a life-changing, soul-searching journey.

There are so many reasons why this should have been classified as young adult. The narrator is only fifteen, with distinctly youthful language and adolescent thought processes. She finds herself grappling with tough life issues without parental help (so typical in YA novels) because her accountant parents are in the middle of tax season, and her life has led her to be estranged from her older sister as well. She struggles with self-esteem and other typical coming-of-age problems like boys, self-identification, and fitting in. Plus, like most YA books, there’s this certainty while reading that everything is going to work out in the end, that the narrator will lose some innocence but gain some wisdom. This let’s us feel safe in following the main characters twists and turns. It’s all just so typical of every other young adult novel, I don’t understand why it isn’t classified as such.

The language and themes are good. Not great, but good. Rarely was I ever taken out of the book, but rarely did I re-read a passage for its beauty either. There’s a nice level of complexity to the characters, but it has its fair share of coincidences, along with a feel that the characters make choices that no one would actually make but which turn out all right in the end. The ending was rather hard to swallow but fit well with the rest of the book.

One of my favorite quotes from the book: “If you think a story can be like a kind of cement, the sloppy kind that you put between bricks, the kind that looks like cake frosting before it dries hard, then maybe I thought it would be possible to use what Toby had to hold Finn together, to keep him here with me a little bit longer” (pg. 78).

Young adult literature can still be excellent reading, and this book is like that. If you looking for a light read, do grab this.

While I have included discussion questions, I found that my questions felt rather simple. Unless you have a book club geared to young readers or you attend a book club that likes to drink a lot of wine, I would pass on this book for most discussion groups.

Click here to see my discussion questions.