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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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 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.

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.