The Free World by David Bezmozgis

It’s 1978. The Krasnanskys, Soviet-Jewish refugees from Latvia, are stuck in Rome. Samuil, the patriarch, is suffering from arthritis and the effects of war wounds and tuberculosis. He has been denied entry to Canada, and the family is in limbo. As they wait for a reprieve (or worse) they must adjust their expectations and adapt to life as refugees in Italy.

At the heart of the novel is a clash of cultures. When I picked the book up, I expected this to be a clash between Soviet and Italian lifestyles, but instead the real conflict was between the Soviet-Jewish family members – some (well, one) loyal to the Communist Party, others staunchly Zionist, and the rest rejecting either form of orthodoxy and really just wanting to get to Canada.

Alternating between three narrators and multiple locations and periods in history, David Bezmozgis’ The Free World is an intriguing look at one family’s history, and the effect of world history on their path.  While I enjoyed the changing narrators and looking back at each of their lives, flashback upon flashback (and sometimes, a flashback within a flashback) made for confusing reading. Slow yourself down. Flip back a few pages to make sure you know who is speaking and what year it is. Know your Soviet history (or keep Wikipedia handy if you don’t.) The story is fantastic, and worth the extra effort.

Note: I received a review copy of this novel from HarperCollins last fall, when I was struggling to read all Giller short-listed books before the award ceremony. I did not reach that goal, and then put the book aside to finish my 2011 TBR list. I was pleased to finally get back to it in January.

Hardcover, 384 pages

HarperCollins Canada; $32.99

ISBN: 9781443403993

 ISBN10: 1443403997

2011 Governor General’s Literary Awards Finalist – Fiction. Shortlisted for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize.


The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

As they plummet from the sky following the explosion of the jetliner carrying them to London, Indian actors Gibreel Farista & Saladin Chamcha experience revelations, vivid dreams and startling metamorphoses. Miraculously surviving the crash and awaking together on an English beach, they discover they have been transformed into the Angel Gabriel and a horned demon/ half-devil. What follows is a fantastical, over-the-top, often hilarious and occasionally blasphemous study of the nature of good and evil – and the art of a good Bollywood movie.

I quite honestly had no idea what to expect from this novel. I first heard about in 1989 – from my Catechism teacher, of all people – when we discussed the banning of the book and the fatwa or death sentence placed on Salman Rushdie by the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini. (Side note: that was easily the best year of Catechism classes. Along with this, we discussed relics, exorcism and haunted houses!)

The death sentence was a reaction to Rushdie’s portrayal of the prophet Muhammad, who Gibreel visits in two of his angel dream sequences, describing the origin of the satanic verses. (Explaining this would take forever, and not be particularly relevant to the review, so if you are interested, follow the link provided.)

The Satanic Verses was on last year’s TBR reading list, and I confess I was so intimidated by the book, I left it to the very end, only picking it up mid-December. While not a long read, it is heavy, and I did not finish by the end of the year. Rushdie uses elements of “magical realism” (think Like Water for Chocolate or 100 Years of Solitude) to skillfully weave the dreams, the metamorphoses and the miracle survival into an otherwise modern tale of Asian immigrant life in London. Along with troubling magical events, the characters are dealing with everyday life, including racial tension and rioting, marital woes, teen sex and career crises.

I admit it took a while to get into it – part of why it took about four weeks for this speed-reader to get through. But by the time I was about 100 pages in, I was hooked. Gibreel & Saladin are charming yet frustrating characters, as are their friends, rivals & family members. It is well worth the read if you have the time.

Paperback: 576 pages

Publisher: Vintage Canada; 1 edition (May 27 1997)

ISBN-10: 067697063X

ISBN-13: 978-0676970630

11/22/63 by Stephen King

Guest Post by Renee from Rambleicious.

In 11/22/63, King sends Jake Epping, a high school teacher, on an extraordinary journey through the past to stop the assassination of JFK.

JFK’s assassination is still a big topic of discussion, rife with conspiracy theories, doubts, and a strange lack of solid facts. Given that JFK was also a popular president (young, handsome, appealing to both young and older voters etc.) it’s unlikely that discussion will stop. Add to that already mysterious and intriguing subject the idea of time travel, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a good story.

There are any number of questions and theories on what might happen if you could go back in time, and there are probably even more about how America – and, indeed, the world – might have turned out if Lee Harvey Oswald had missed his mark that day. King handles both questions in a way that will have you turning out the lights and lying wide awake in the wee hours of the morning.

Jake Epping begins his journey in the pantry of a diner where there is a “rabbit hole” that leads from 2011, to a warm September day in 1958. Once Al, the diner’s owner, convinces Jake that the rabbit hole is real, and that America’s salvation lies in saving JFK from his date with Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet, Jake goes into the past armed with a few facts of the future (including a list of all the major sporting event outcomes – a man has to eat after all) and tries to avert one of the most talked-about presidential assassinations.

King’s own theory about time-travel and changing events is interesting – in 11/22/63, no matter how long you stay in the past (days, months, years…), only two minutes will have gone by when you return to the present. This makes time travel tricky on the other side of the rabbit hole: how do you explain aging a few years over the course of two minutes? And, when you’ve returned, if the world and the people you know in it, are irrevocably changed because of what you did – do you fix it (there’s a reset function in this version of time travel so you can undo your mistakes) or do you leave it alone and live with it?

In an effort to not spoil the ending, I won’t comment on the other theories and ideas regarding time travel and changing past events – it’s enough to say that you’ll enjoy reading it and you’ll be thinking about it long after you’re done.

The book did, for me at least, have one weak spot in the beginning when Jake passes through the fictional town of Derry, Maine and happens upon two characters from King’s earlier novel, It. I still re-read It from time to time, because it’s a damn fine story, but I felt that the interlude there, with those characters, was more about the author than Jake Epping’s journey. For me, it didn’t fit.

I also came to feel a little sorry for King’s version of Lee Harvey Oswald – what a mixed-up, sorry excuse of a man – and his family. I’m not sure how much liberty King took in the writing of Oswald’s thoughts and the things he said, but it was hard to not feel something like pity for him. Oswald is despicable (he’s a terrible father and an even worse husband) but he’s also pathetic (he’s got a slightly crazy, very over-bearing mother, no self-confidence at all, and he’s full of fear and self-loathing).

Jake, of course, isn’t simply waiting around twiddling his thumbs between 1958 and 1963 either; he’s planning, he’s gathering information, he’s confirming the things that Al knew about Oswald (or at least verifying the assumptions about him made after his death), and living as a regular citizen among good and decent people that he comes to care about. He has to deal with being a stranger out of time, and the guilt of deceiving the people he must live among. He handles it with a fair bit of grace all things considered, and he becomes part of the community in ways that impact a lot of lives in a time that is not his own.

If you’re looking for a good, long story, a well-written, believable, and even slightly scary story, to wile away the cold winter nights – this is the story you want to pick up (and possibly in Kindle format, as the hardcover is very large and rather heavy).

Hardcover: 849 pages
Publisher: Scribner; First Edition/First Printing edition (November 8, 2011)
ISBN-10: 1451627289
ISBN-13: 978-1451627282

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

The summer is hot and humid, a den of coyotes has moved into southern Appalachia, the moths are dancing their mating dance, and very few of the regions human inhabitants take any notice. Yet we are not as disconnected from the natural world and its cycles as we may think (or wish) that we are. In Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver weaves together three parallel love stories, each triggered or affected by the protagonist’s natural surroundings.

Reclusive biologist Deanna is caught off guard when a young hunter appears at her reclusive mountain outpost, but invites him into her home and her bed despite the fact that he intends to destroy that which fascinates her most. Meanwhile, on a farm not far away, newly widowed entomologist Lusa struggles with her discomfort over inheriting her husband’s family tobacco farm, and to win the respect of her five sisters-in-law. And just a little further down the way, elderly gardener Garnett Walker dreams of reestablishing the near extinct American Chestnut tree, while feuding with his neighbor over her refusal to use pesticides.

Having discussed this book often with family and friends, and suggesting it to my book club a number of years ago, I have discovered that it is a story you will either love or hate. There are very few mediocre reviews. As someone with a background in biology & behavioural ecology, I find it fascinating, even necessary, to compare the mating rituals of animals or insects with those of humans. After all, we are animals too, no? Still, intimate descriptions of animal behavior are not everyone’s “thing” it would seem.

Luckily – this is my blog, and I loved the book. At once a heartwarming love story and an argument for sustainable farming and ecological conservation, Prodigal Summer is easily one of my favourite books of all time – and I do not say that lightly.

Hardcover: 464 pages

Publisher: Harper; 1st edition (October 17, 2000)

ISBN-10: 0060199652

ISBN-13: 978-0060199654


The year in review, and the year to come

What a year it has been. With a total of 59 posts, I still did not quite make my goal of reviewing “one book per week.” I was also perhaps a bit over-confidant at the beginning, reviewing the three Emily books, the Sevenwaters trilogy and the Hunger Games trilogy in single posts. It made sense at the time, as they were easier to review together. But I then missed 11 weeks though the year, three in a row while sick in March, and the others while reading the two killer books of the year: Moby Dick and Anna Karenina. Suddenly, the idea of banking a few reviews on books like those seemed smarter, and would have left me only five reviews short of my goal.
The most popular reviews of 2011, in order of popularity, were:
  1. Review: Barney’s Version
  2. The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follet
  3. Book Review and Giveaway: The Nymph and the Lamp
  4. Jane Eyre: book & film review
  5. Review: The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre
  6. Drive by Saviours by Chris Benjamin
  7. Come Thou, Tortoise
  8. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
  9. Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen
  10. A Storm of Swords by George R R Martin

I will again be attempting to post one book review per week through 2012 – with a better appreciation for how difficult it can be when other factions of life get busy. I have also taken the #50BookPledge through Harper Collins – which is exactly as it sounds, a pledge to read 50 books through the year.

To help me out with the blogging side, I am hoping to recruit a few guest bloggers. If you are interested in submitting a book review (or a few) please leave a comment below. You can do it right away, on a book you have already read or are currently reading, or set a deadline for yourself later in the year. I am happy to link back to your blog, if you have one.

Cheers, and happy new year!