Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Stephanie Dowrick delights in Elizabeth Strout's The Burgess Boys

Prize-winning writer, Elizabeth Strout
There are few pleasures, I believe, to rival that of reading a truly intelligent, absorbing novel. I feel such gratitude to the writer whenever I find such a novel, and Elizabeth Strout's quite brilliant The Burgess Boys absolutely hits all the right notes. This is not only my "book of the month"; it's the finest novel I have read this year.

The "boys" - Jim and Bob Burgess -  are both lawyers, living in Manhattan, but practising law and living life very differently one from the other. Jim is harsh, cynical, relentlessly even tiresomely ambitious. Bob is a legal aid lawyer, lonely, self-defeating, perhaps adoring of his brother, perhaps not. Back home in Shirley Falls, Maine, their sister Susan struggles with being a single mother and more endemic feelings of being left behind. Susan's son Zach is an unconfident, fairly aimless boy who nevertheless does something stark and frightful that has tremendous consequences. Without much thought, and certainly without any real recognition of the seriousness of his insult, Zach throws a pig's head into the makeshift mosque that serves the Somalis who have sought refuge in his quiet home town.

This is the second of two cataclysmic changes that drive this novel. The first happened decades before when one of the Burgess boys (but which one?) released the handbrake on the car in which all the children were sitting. The car ran down a driveway. Their father was killed instantly.

Strout's writing - Strout's thinking - is brilliant in many ways. In life, she shows, things happen. And some of the things that have most consequence happen "instantly" - hurtling us into a future that is often very different from our dreams or planning. The inner and outer narratives of each of these "boys", their partners and families, and of Susan and Zach, are all utterly absorbing, both in their individuality and in their relationships - always shifting - to one another. What is also fascinating, and is shown with consummate skill, is the very different relationship between "life" in Manhattan and the far more "backwater" life in Maine - both as it is conceived and actually lived. The flaws of both are evident, but so is the stimulation, the richness of community. Jim is a particularly "difficult" character yet Strout likes him at least as much as she does the others and wants us to care. We do.

 But what makes this an even more exceptional novel, and adds to its value as a keen commentary on contemporary life, is Strout's subtle evocation of the lives of some of those who have left (with anguish and reluctance) their Somali homes, fleeing war, drought, starvation, and are now living in small-town Maine.

A Somali boy, not "just" a refugee

I have read that Strout took many years to complete this novel. That doesn't surprise me. There's a quiet control and a rare depth of psychological insight here that belie the "messiness" of her characters' lives (and of life). There is also a very welcome capacity in this wise writer to step way beyond any neat conclusions or stereotyped thinking, especially in relation to the internal or external upheavals that cause people to leave their homes - whether Shirley Falls or a Somali village - that caused Zach to do this desperately stupid and unkind thing, and that cause the people of Shirley Falls (so recognizable in their variety) to welcome - or not - the "strangers in their midst". These are big, profound concerns in 21st-century life, where millions are on the move, not always voluntarily. This is a novel that does justice to its brave themes. I hope you will read it with all the pleasure that I did.

To purchase The Burgess Boys, or any book we are recommending or you are seeking, visit our bookstore links (above right). The small % returned to us supports the Universal Heart Book Club. As do your visits and engagement! This is a book club as well as a book journal and we treasure your comments and responses. You can easily post your comments below. If you don't have a Google email, just use "Anonymous" (and do put your name in the text box if you would like to). Follow the “captcha” instructions noting that it’s always two "words" with a space between. This will save us from spammers. Should be easy!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Universal Heart Book Club Episode 9. May 2013

Welcome to the May 2013 video discussion from the Universal Heart Book Club - where we, your co-hosts Stephanie Dowrick and Walter Mason, discuss our special finds of the month. Here we talk about Kate Forsyth's wonderful Bitter Greens and Pulitzer-prize winner Elizabeth Strout's immensely accomplished new novel, The Burgess Boys. Do enjoy this short video - as well as the many articles we have below, posted this month and earlier.

Your comments are always welcome. This is a book club as well as a book journal, and we treasure your comments and responses. You can easily post your comments below. If you don't have a Google email, just use "Anonymous" (and do put your name in the text box if you would like to). Follow the “captcha” instructions noting that it’s always two "words" with a space between. This will save us from spammers. Should be easy! To purchase any book we are recommending or you are seeking, visit our bookstore links (above right). The small % returned to us supports the Universal Heart Book Club. As do your visits and engagement!

Walter Mason reads Kate Forsyth's Bitter Greens

We live in states of constant busy-ness, and often even our reading lives fall victim to our need to prioritise. Work-related books, things we simply have to read, magazines, journals, newspapers, blogs and websites. I can easily reach the end of a busy month and discover I haven't given myself a single page of pleasure reading.

It was in the state of such a realisation that I picked up Kate Forsyth's exquisite novel, Bitter Greens, and fell instantly in love. From the very first page Forsyth absorbs the reader in this rich and constantly surprising story, a re-telling of the fairy tale of Rapunzel that has all the elements of a good read - mythic archetypes, wicked stepmothers, religion, sex and lots and lots of historical glamour.

Until now I had never read one of Kate Forsyth's books. I  honestly never imagined I was the target market. But having read Bitter Greens I realize I am hooked for life, and have already started her brand new novel, The Wild Girl, a wonderful tale about the woman who inspired the Brothers Grimm.

Bitter Greens - UK cover
In Bitter Greens the reader is transported to the court of the Sun King via an austere nunnery were mouthy young courtesans are sent to rot. While here we begin to hear the older story of Margherita, a beautiful young red-haired girl who has been promised to a witch and who winds up imprisoned in a high tower with nothing to do but brush her beautiful hair as it gets longer and longer. You know the rest....

Or do you? This is a big book, and Forsyth has filled it with page-turning action and lots of lovely detail. I wasn't bored for a single minute, and gloried in her use of language. The novel is both sophisticated and couched in a wonderfully unpretentious idiom, and her use of plot is quite brilliant and deliciously old-fashioned.

If you've ever felt you had a past life in a Renaissance nunnery then Bitter Greens is the book for you, and it is for these scenes alone that the book is worth buying. This is fantastic escapism wrapped  up in a mysterious story laced with so many layers of meaning and intrigue. Forsyth is in fact an academic in the field of fairytale and folklore, but she wears her learning lightly, turning it into rich, fascinating and intriguing detail.

I can promise that you will absolutely love Bitter Greens. But be warned - it's addictive!

Let us know if you enjoy this review - or Kate Forsyth's writing. Your comments are always welcome. This is a book club as well as a book journal, and we treasure your comments and responses. You can easily post your comments below. If you don't have a Google email, just use "Anonymous" (and do put your name in the text box if you would like to). Follow the “captcha” instructions noting that it’s always two "words" with a space between. This will save us from spammers. Should be easy! To purchase Bitter Greens, or any book we are recommending or you are seeking, visit our bookstore links (above right). The small % returned to us supports the Universal Heart Book Club. As do your visits and engagement!

Lynne Leonhardt on childhood landscapes

Novelist Lynne Leonhardt, author of Finding Jasper, writes for us on stories of childhood and memories of the country
Final stages of grape crop, Mandalay Wines, Donnybrook
Lynne Leonhardt:   Growing up as a child in the country, I became quite accustomed to the idea of travel. For me, venturing outside my pretty little hometown usually involved longish periods looking out of a bus or car window. Though the journeys were often familiar ones, the changing landscape always engaged me because it was different from home.

To pass the time travelling between the various towns I would sometimes keep a mental count of the horses I spotted in the passing paddocks. If they were absent or acting shy, there was always something fresh to spark my imagination: the way the light fell and cast its shadows, defining the bush and the paddocks with their transient hues. Not surprising then that a pencil or paintbrush was never far from hand at home. The subject matter rarely differed: lots of horses (oh, how I longed for a horse!) but mostly landscapes from out of my head, which I would try to replicate on sheets of butchers’ paper spread out on the kitchen table.

Books I relished at the time were the Billabong series by Mary Grant Bruce and Joan Phipson’s Good Luck to the Rider, which was named Australian Children’s Book of the Year in 1953. All girls’ adventure books set in the outback, which in turn I passed on to my daughters to read.

Despite a healthy childhood diet of Australiana, my literary tastes widened dramatically with my impatience to leave home and country for the wider world. Having long since returned, I love nothing better now than a story that takes me away from the “city” back into the Australian “bush”.

Gillian Mears certainly does that in the most moving and confronting of ways. It is well over a decade ago since I first read the author’s earlier award-winning works. Ride a Cock Horse, Grass Sister, and The Mint Lawn are semi-autobiographical stories set around the town of Grafton in northern New South Wales, evoking the wild fresh sensuousness of adolescent experience.

Gillian Mears writes like an angel,” said one critic back then. But nothing could prepare me for the author’s latest novel set yet again around her childhood landscape. So raw and grim, so tough and earthy, it shocked me to the core. And yet behind the toughness, the frightening boldness, there is immense power, beauty, astonishing insight and understanding in her writing.

Foal's Bread is the title of this story, as well as being a talisman in lieu of angels.  Presented to fourteen-year old Noah by her soul mate Roly, this curiously named piece of horseflesh and good-luck charm unites the two in love and livelihood, fueling their desires as they battle the hardships of country life together in the 1920s and the Depression. The obsessive world of showjumping with its inherent risks is already in their blood.

We can only hold our breath and grit our teeth as it intoxicates them like a drug, propelling the couple higher and higher in search of fame and fortune. And for a while luck is on their side.  Horses and riders remain as magically connected to each other as they are to their surroundings, until suddenly a bolt of lightning strikes one down.

Going against the current of the sexual electricity that runs between Noah and Roly is the young woman’s ongoing guilt. The memory of the “little butter box baby” in its “butter box boat” persists in resurfacing time and again in search of restitution.

Only someone with a very deep connection to a place could write such a story, someone with an acute understanding of the dreams and aspirations of its people, their pain and daily struggle to earn their bread and butter out of horses. Only someone who has had to suffer personally the physical and mental torment of being similarly “struck down”, who in spite of it all, is still able to appreciate the benefits of taking a risk.

“Our veins grow in the landscape of our childhood”, says Kate Llewellyn in her poem 'Australian Childhood Landscape'.  The place where I grew up in the Preston Valley near Donnybrook used to be predominantly apple orchards and natural bush; “Granny Smith country”, it was famously called. Since then the population of the town has grown and diversified and so the landscape and its patterns too have changed. Orchards still flourish, but these days many vineyards can be seen on the once timbered hillsides rejoicing now in their rich autumn colours.

Although I have lived most of my life in the city, my connections to the south west corner of Western Australia will always remain. When I return there I feel comfortable – at home – despite the many changes, yet there comes a point in time when I feel a yearning to be back in that other place where my family now belongs.

Lynne Leonhardt's novel, Finding Jasper
Lynne Leonhardt was brought up on an orchard in Donnybrook in the South West of Western Australia. She earned a PhD in Writing at Edith Cowan University and her debut novel, Finding Jasper, was published by Margaret River Press in 2012.

Susanna Freymark on the words we want to keep

Novelist Susanna Freymark writes for us about books, reading and especially about poetry and the words we may want to remember forever
How many books do you reckon a person reads in a lifetime? If I 'do' a book a week and live to 100 years, that will make about 5000 books as a generous estimate.

I consider myself a time-poor, avid reader. Usually I have several books on the go, there is always a pile of six or more sitting on my bedside table. Like a living, literary sculpture they whisper — pick me, pick me —when I climb into bed at night.

There are thousands of new books to choose from each year — books to re-read from my childhood,  recommended books, books to read before I die and books cast aside part way through because, well, life is too short to read bad books. Currently I am pushing my way through Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton.  I’ve stuck with the heavy memoir tome (636 pages) despite some long, plodding passages because he delivers moments of beautiful writing. Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver is next in line. But I daren’t even read the opening line in case I become entranced and leave Mr Rushdie behind.

And then there is poetry. The Cinnamon Peeler by Michael Ondaatje is dog-eared on a poem I have read hundreds of times.
If I were a cinnamon peeler
I would ride your bed
And leave the yellow bark dust
on your pillow.
It is poetry that puts me into a writing space. I take my busy mind to my desk with a coffee and after a quick read of Shakespeare or a verse of a poem, my own words pour onto the page and ward off the mind's daily clutter of work, shopping lists and things to do.

Listen to the music of these words.

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air -
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music – like the rain pelting the trees – like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds -
A white cross
Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings
Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?
'The Swan' by Mary Oliver.

And this by an 80-year-old American poet,

It's the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.

an extract from 'Failing and Flying' by Jack Gilbert

And then there are the special moments in life like, weddings, funerals and christenings when you want special words that you will remember forever. Words that will bind the memory of the occasion.

I was married four months ago and instantly knew the poem I wanted read at our ceremony.

In a small country church, reclaimed by the community, my sister and her husband read aloud 'The Invitation' to family and friends. It is a beautiful, anti-romantic poem and its stark, honest message struck a chord and made the guests cry.  Here is an extract.
It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living.
I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.
It doesn't interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.
It doesn't interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life's betrayals or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain.
I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand at the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, 'Yes.'
I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.
by Oriah Mountain Dreamer.

I can't write any more! I have books to read and words to love.

Susanna Freymark

Susanna Freymark works full time as a journalist. Previously, she was a primary school teacher at Amata Aboriginal School in Central Australia and years later, owned a children’s bookshop and learning centre in London. She holds a Master of Arts in creative writing from UTS and her short stories have been published in the UTS Anthology and numerous other publications. For ten years, she lived with her children in the Byron Bay hinterland where the lush landscape and twists and turns of life inspired her first book, Losing February.