Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Review: Small Island

Small Island tells the tale of two couples, one English, one Jamaican, whose lives interweave in surprising ways during and in the years following WWII. Queenie and Bernard Bligh are Londoners; Queenie is left behind when Bernard leaves to fight in India. Gilbert and Hortense Joseph are Jamaican. Gilbert comes to England to fight with the RAF, and in Gilbert prim and proper Hortense sees a ticket to the life in England of which she's dreamed. Fate first brings the two couples together, but this chance meeting cements their lives forever. Levy's novel switches among its four main characters in a series of chapters that span three continents. We hear from Queenie, Bernard, Gilbert, and Hortense. All of the characters find themselves dealing with the effects of war: Bernard and Gilbert as soldiers, Queenie in the midst of the London bombings and possible widowhood when Bernard disappears. For Hortense wartime cements her desire to create an English life and identity. But war also brings significant lessons on racism, empire, and what it means to live on a "small island," whether British or Jamaican. Levy does a good job portraying the horrors and deprivations of war. She moves easily among four very different characters, in different places. This is an accomplished saga of two families and their wartime experiences.
Andrea Levy, Small Island (Picador, 2004) ISBN: 0755325656
Orange Prize, 2004

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Review: Dancing Girls

In this short story collection Atwood explores the mindset of women in a variety of situations. From an isolated grad student to an expectant mother, to a severely disabled girl at summer camp, these stories find women in deceptively ordinary situations, each with a slight twist. This collection is comprised of stories written early in Atwood's career, and that is clearly reflected in the details. Several stories focus on academic environments, with graduate student characters. The protagonist in the collection's namesake, "Dancing Girls," a Canadian graduate student in Cambridge, certainly brings to mind Atwood's own time at Harvard. Together this collection explores the expectations that follow young women in the late-1970s: sometimes restrictive, sometimes depressing, always present.

Margaret Atwood, Dancing Girls, (Bantam, 1985) ISBN: 0553341154

Friday, May 22, 2009

Review: The Tricking of Freya

Every summer of her childhood Freya Morris travels from her Connecticut home to the Manitoban resort town of Gimli. Gimli, an Icelandic-Canadian settlement, is home to Freya's entire maternal family. In Gimli Freya is immersed in the Icelandic culture her mother has neglected in their Connecticut life. Most appealing to Freya is time spent with her eccentric and troubled Aunt Birdie. As Freya grows older she learns Icelandic language and culture from Birdie. She also learns that Birdie is mentally ill, and can hurt those she loves on a whim. I wasn't really sure what to expect from this book. I knew nothing about Icelandic literature and myth, and I learned a great deal from this book. I also knew very little about Iceland, and Sunley's descriptions of the landscape are rich and evocative. She clearly illustrates Iceland's primordial landscape-- one of volcanic plains, geysers, and glaciers. Sunley also does an excellent job creating an Icelandic community in Canada. Again, I knew nothing of Icelandic migration to Canada, or of Icelandic enclaves in the prairies. While I was able to predict the plot's twist long before it was revealed I still found the book to be both engaging and enjoyable. It brought me into a world of the unknown.

Like I Need More

I need to add more reading challenges to this blog approximately as much as I need to receive a kick in the teeth, but I'm easily tempted. I can be swayed to add on a reading challenge for all reasons including: sounds cool, I need to read more books on that topic, and my personal favorite: that's a mighty pretty icon. Thus, I am pleased to announce my latest reading challenge: the Southern Reading Challenge, hosted by Maggie Reads. To quote the host:

You may choose to read any style of Southern book such as Appalachian tales, Civil War sagas, Gothic myths, Grit lit, and heart-wrenching biographies. Click here for ideas. Just as long as you read three (fiction or nonfiction) between May 15th and August 15th.

So, three southern books by August 15. Got it. I lived in Virginia for seven years, and it definitely occupies a special place in my heart. Right now I'm considering:

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (Florida)
Rita Mae Brown, Outfoxed (Virginia)
Gail Godwin, Evensong (North Carolina)

This is, of course, all subject to change.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Review: Outcasts United

Clarkston, Georgia: an Atlanta suburb, and a resettlement community for thousands of refugees from some of the most war-torn parts of the world. Outcasts United is the story of a youth soccer team (three teams, really) comprised of Clarkston's newest young residents. The teams, the Fugees, face nearly insurmountable odds. The players and their families have found themselves torn from home, in a foreign environment, with few resources. Backbreaking work schedules, few resources, and shell shock all haunt the resettled families of Clarkston. But many of the children from these families share a love of soccer. Under the direction of a dedicated coach, Luma Mufleh, a Jordanian woman looking to find her niche in the United States, the Fugees create a team, against seemingly insurmountable odds. The Fugees lack equipment and practice space, they also face significant opposition from the longtime residents of Clarkston, including the mayor and city council. Clarkston is clearly a town in transition, and one that is having a hard time handling that transition. In telling the story of Clarkston and the Fugees, St. John has crafted an engaging narrative that wraps hope and seeming hopelessness into a story in which its nearly impossible to not root for the kids. Throughout the book St. John remains sympathetic to all of the parties in the book. It's easy to cheer on the kids; the longtime residents of Clarkston are less sympathetic. Still, St. John does an admirable job of trying to understand the myriad of problems Clarkston's mayor, in particular, tries to manage as he deals with a growing population with diverse needs. This is a story about a community, but it is also important to note that this is a story about a soccer team too. For those who are not terribly interested in soccer (such as myself), I did find there to be quite a bit of discussion of the sport- the plays maneuvers used during the games. This I did not care for quite as much, and found myself thumbing forward a few pages for most of the in-depth discussions of game time. That said, there is still much here to interest the general reader of literary non-fiction. I was taken with the Fugees' story, and I am certain many other readers will be too.

Warren St. John, Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town (Spiegel and Grau, 2009) ISBN: 0385522037