The Book Haven

Salida's Independent Bookstore

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Past Book Reviews

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The Cat's Table
by Michael Ondaatje

Booker Prize–winning author of The English Patient

The Cat's Table  by Michael OndaatjeMy family immigrated to this country in 1957 aboard the RMS Queen Mary ocean liner. I was eight years old and remember it clearly. My younger brother and I explored every inch of the vessel. We ran everywhere and were little rascals. It was a rite of passage that I did not acknowledge until I was much older. I recall feeling that the ship was my new home and I liked it. Reading Michael Ondaatje's newest novel brought all the emotions from that time in my life up front and center.

Before I discuss anything else I must tell you that this is a beautifully written book. The author's descriptive observations are remarkable. The insight he shares with his readers is a journey in itself.

The novel takes place in the early 1950's aboard the Oronsay, an ocean liner travelling from Sri Lanka to England. It is a three week journey. It includes the Suez Canal done at a snail's pace. There are mishaps and intrigue. There is a prisoner in chains that is only let out at night. The title refers to the table where meals are served to a group of misfits. It is the farthest from the captain's table. It includes the narrator who is an 11 year old boy who is travelling alone to live with his mother. She is waiting for him in England. There are two other boys doing the same at the table of 'ragamuffins' and they are the eyes through which we see all that happens. A lot happens.

The author contends that this is a work of fiction but it coincides with his own timeline of immigration and I am not completely convinced it is not 'somewhat' autobiographical.

We are given a special gift from the author since we not only experience the journey but what happens later in life. We seamlessly slide back and forth through time with the reflections of the narrator. It is perhaps this perspective that intrigues the reader. It certainly held my attention.

By Eliza Collins

All The Pretty Horses
by Cormac McCarthy

all the pretty horsesThis novel is the first volume of McCarthy's, The Border Trilogy. The second and third volumes, which I'll cover in subsequent reviews, are: The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain.

After the funeral of his grandfather, John Grady Cole's mother decides to sell the family ranch, which leaves her son rootless. Cole saddles up his horse and, along with his friend Lacey Rawlins, rides south from San Angelo, Texas, across the border into Mexico. They eventually cross paths with a group of vaqueros, and get hired-on at the ranch where they work.

As these things happen, the owner of the ranch has a daughter, Alejandra, well-bred and beautiful, with whom Cole falls in love; and she, with him. Meanwhile, Alejandra's father places Cole in charge of the care and breeding of a stud stallion he's recently purchased, unaware of the illicit romance brewing between Cole and Alejandra. But his aged aunt sees what's happening, and begins her efforts to keep them apart. It is because of her that Cole and Rawlins are arrested, and subsequently thrown into a Mexican penitentiary. It is here that the novel, already spare and harsh, takes on fully the brutal qualities McCarthy is known for. However, McCarthy also writes evocatively, and with poetic depth.

There are ample and obvious reasons All the Pretty Horses received both the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award.

As with any proper western, there is the overcoming of extreme hardship, murder, redemption, not-quite-homecoming, and the main character who remains, through to the end, an island unto himself. In the novel's closing scene, McCarthy even has John Grady Cole riding into the sunset.

By Eduardo Brummel

the dovekeepersThe Dovekeepers
by Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman is a prolific author who has explored women's subjects and feminist themes with the occasional dabbling into witchcraft. Many of her books have been bestsellers and I have enjoyed my share of them. Others have been well, let's say a bit silly. The Dovekeepers is definitely not of the latter.

The novel is set in ancient Israel and deals with the Roman siege in 70 C.E., when 900 Jews held out on Masada, a fortress in the mountains. The Romans camped below for months while constructing a ramp that would enable them to break through and capture the holdouts. According to the historian Josephus, the Jews committed to mass suicide rather than being killed or enslaved by the Romans. This "death before dishonor" has echoed through history with a chill.

Two women and five children survived. Hoffman has chosen to tell the story of these two women and two others. They are the dovekeepers. Their lives and how they came to find themselves together is the story Hoffman gives us.

These women each have their own story from their conception to this end at Masada. There is Yael, an assassin's daughter pregnant with her dead lover's child. Next is Revka, a grandmother in charge of her two grandsons. She has lost everything else. Then we have Shirah, a bit of a witch who is the leader's lover and finally her daughter, Aziza who was raised as a boy and became a warrior. Whew.

Each woman is compelling. I found myself pulled along by their individual stories and how they had to sort it all out while they worked with the doves. They formed an unlikely bond that was initially founded on survival. It evolved into much more.

Hoffman manages brilliantly to convey the likely history of this event. There was much research done but it is her particular brand of embellishment that soars.

AND the doves, who knew?

By, Eliza Collins

Trying to Save Piggy Sneed
John Irving

piggy sneedThis isn't the tome-producing John Irving we justifiably expect. Rather, it's a collection of his shorter works, each of them previously published, and each of them worthy of being published again - this is, after all, John Irving. It's divided into three sections: "Memoirs," "Fiction," and "Homage." The first and last sections each have three pieces, sandwiching Fiction's six short stories between them.

And those six stories are quite well-written. In fact, Irving's editor criticized one for being, "much too good." But, they also show why he stopped writing them: His writing becomes far better with the expanse of hundreds of pages with which to lay out and play out his themes.

As these things happen, it's the memoirs that struck me as the better, and more enjoyable, writings. There's a playfulness, a looseness that's not always so easily evident in Irving's novels. The book's title essay tells of a garbage collector who's somewhat responsible for Irving becoming a writer. "The Imaginary Girlfriend," is about the role of wrestling in his life. And, "My Dinner at the White House," is the humorous story of Ronald Reagan's inviting him to just that - a White House state dinner.

In the final section, Irving pays homage to two writers: Charles Dickens and Günter Grass. (Since the middle essay is about, A Christmas Carol, Dickens receives double-homage.) While the writing, here, leans toward didactics, there's enough humor included, oft-times zingingly snarky humor, to soften and forgive his teaching-preaching.

At the end of each piece, Irving offers his current comments regarding it. This collection is already a gracious gift, especially to his fans. These closing comments seal the deal, tighter still.

By Eduardo Brummel

No Great Mischief
by Alistair MacLeod

No Great Mischief  by Alistair MacLeodAlistair MacLeod is a noted Canadian author and retired professor of English at the University of Windsor. He was brought up on a farm in Dunvegan, Inverness County on Novia Scotia's Cape Breton Island. This wonderful novel is the story of the MacDonald clan that settled on this island. The MacDonalds are a proud family compelled through life by their ancestry.

The novel's title is from a quote by General Wolfe, who fought against the MacDonalds in an earlier conflict but relied on the Highlanders fighting alongside him to take the Plains of Abraham. "They are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country and no great mischief if they fall." Here then lies the rub. This clan has its own sense of fairness defined by their heritage but along with that they expect betrayal.

The author relates his story through memories and reflections while travelling and attending to his near death brother. This memoir of everyday life "now and then" is remarkable. It enables the reader to feel the rhythm of the clan and the bond within. The relationship with their environment is especially poignant. The ice has its own voice and speaks to them. Their animals, especially dogs are a part of the clan and seem to behave accordingly.

MacLeod has a voice that can speak violence and break your heart at the same time. He leads you down a path that is so involved but he does it an inch at a time. With the author's direction we are able to see and understand this family. We see their deeds and devils.

America is a country of blended nationalities; the melting pot. Over time we have lost some of our neighborhoods that had distinct ethnic influences. It becomes difficult to remember our "clan" with an identity all its own. The MacDonalds do not feel this. The "red-haired and black-eyed" cannot be diluted. They keep their identity and history. Their belief is that strong. It is certainly something to consider. Let's see I have red hair and blue eyes. Hmmm.

Review by Eliza Collins

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks

The Social animalDavid Brooks is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times and a weekly commentator on PBS NewsHour. He says that he has had a particular interest in research about the mind and brain since college. Brooks has undertaken quite an endeavor with his newest book. He shares in his acknowledgements that "It is an attempt to integrate science and psychology with sociology, politics, cultural commentary, and the literature of success."

The author introduces his novel with: "This is the happiest story you've ever read. It's about two people who led wonderfully fulfilling lives. They had engrossing careers, earned the respect of their friends, and made important contributions to their neighborhood, their country, and their world.

And the odd thing was, they weren't born geniuses."

Brooks delivers an enormous amount of scientific information through his fictional characters, Harold and Erica. We follow Harold's life from conception to his death. Erica is there for contrast. Brooks does accomplish making his scientific research palatable through the lives of his characters-----but he is not a story teller. I found I had no empathy for Harold or Erica and I do question the "happiest story" part. Brooks skimmed over this couple's major issues. They had problems which were just ignored although the everyday was fused neatly with science.

It seems that at the core of this book is the premise "that the human mind can take in 11 million pieces of information at any given moment. The most generous estimate is that people can be consciously aware of forty of these." How then are we shaped? Brooks contends that the conscious mind is not at the center of who we are or how we behave or how we are able to acquire the skills needed to thrive. He brings the unconscious front and center.

Brooks also manages to slide in a few personal views that I had to stop and sort out. One example is that through Harold he contends that all men really want is recognition. It is a lovely thought but I believe that our species is a bit messier than that.

Another point I feel needs to be made is that he barely touches on spirituality. It seems somewhat difficult to imagine tapping into the unconscious without any spirituality.

Ultimately, Brooks contends that research suggests that "the unconscious mind does virtually all the work and that conscious will may be an illusion." Holy Toledo.

By Eliza Collins

Kirkus Review Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Major Pettigrew’s Last StandSet-in-his-ways retired British officer tentatively courts charming local widow of Pakistani descent.

Shortly after being informed that his younger brother Bertie has suddenly passed away from a coronary, Maj. Ernest Pettigrew answers his door to find Mrs. Ali, proprietress of his village food shop. She's on an errand, but when she steps in to help the somewhat older man during a vulnerable moment, something registers; then they bond over a shared love of Kipling and the loss of their beloved spouses. Their friendship grows slowly, with the two well aware of their very different lives.

Though born in England, Mrs. Ali is a member of the Pakistani immigrant community and is being pressured by her surly, religious nephew Abdul Wahid to sign over her business to him. The major belongs to a non-integrated golf club in their village and is girding himself for a messy battle with his sister-in-law Marjorie over a valuable hunting rifle that should rightfully have gone to him after Bertie's death.

Unexpectedly entertaining, with a stiff-upper-lip hero who transcends stereotype, this good-hearted debut doesn't shy away from modern cultural and religious issues, even though they ultimately prove immaterial.

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

The Postmistress review"What would you think of a postmistress who chose not to deliver the mail?"

"Don't tell me any more," a woman from the far end of the table cried in delight, shining and laughing between the candles. "I'm hooked already."

This is how Sarah Blake's second novel opens. It is on the first page. After this introduction I naturally settled in for all the drama and mishaps this premise might offer. Being a woman who is fond of a good romance I couldn't help but think of unrequited love.

I now chide myself for such silly notions. This novel is anything but simple. It is a powerful testament to this country's ambivalence concerning WWII. Why did this nation take so long to see what all of Europe and most of the world already knew. The United States was not paying attention to anything beyond its borders.

The heart of this book takes place overseas with the voice of Frankie Bard. She is a reporter who works with the CBS correspondent Edward R. Murrow. This is an era where reporting avails itself to new technology and begins the subtle "nudging" of its listeners to a particular way of thinking. Frankie reports the facts but lets her voice and detail to a story influence the way it is perceived. Her random interviews of people who are finding their way to safety across Europe is especially poignant. Sometimes it was heartbreaking.

Iris James is the postmistress in Franklin, Massachusetts. She is serious about her job and her virginity. There is a boyfriend who is also obsessive about his job. There is a doctor with a young wife there. He goes overseas to help with the cause for his own reasons. Frankie becomes involved with all these characters and finds her way to a beach house in Franklin.

The postmistress and the letters and the stories they hold are the "bookends" of the novel. There are interesting twists and turns but the true story is certainly not one that would delight your dinner guests.

By Eliza Collins

Guest Book Review
An Elevated View - Editor W.C. Jameson

An Elevated ViewColorado is called the "Mile-High State," but many of us living here snicker at the supposed grandiosity of a mere fifty-two hundred feet. In ways simple and sublime, life in Colorado calls for an elevated view. In his introduction, editor W.C. Jameson says, "I invited each of the authors to write the essay they always wanted to craft…but were never provided the opportunity until now. I wanted this to be an opportunity for them to express what they wished to share about their art and their life." In reply, he received: an essay regarding the dark and deep ties one author feels to a ghost settlement now nearly impossible to find; a poet telling of life falling apart, then recombining into something undreamt of; how one writer was led to vampires; and how another writer discerned it was more than a particular state or landscape that defined home—it was a specific neighbor. Rather than starting with the anthology's titled essay, in an inspired move, Jameson saves it for last. By coming at the close of the collection, Laurie Wagner Buyer's essay brings the previous writings together, illumining the common threads wafting and warping this tapestry of thirteen writers.

By Eduardo Brummel

A mountain in TibetBook Review - To A Mountain In Tibet by Colin Thubron

Colin Thubron is a British travel writer and novelist. In 2008, The Times ranked him 45th on their list of the 50 greatest postwar British writers. He is a contributor to the New York Review of Books, The Times, The Times Literary Supplement and the New York Times. His books have been translated into more than twenty languages. Thubron was appointed a CBE in the 2007 New Year Honors. He is a Fellow and, as of 2010, President of the Royal Society of Literature.

"The sun is rising to its zenith. Silver-grey boulders lie tumbled along the track among mattresses of thorns and smoke-blue flowers. The storm clouds that hang on the farther mountains do not move. There is no sound but the scrunch of our boots and the clink of the sherpa's trekking pole. Underfoot the stones glisten with quartz."

The above is the opening paragraph of Thubron's latest book. It reminded me of a line from a movie, "You had me at hello." (Jerry Macguire) I was already hooked and had nestled into the mood of the book. Where is my Sherpa?

This is not only a travel book but a personal and grueling pilgrimage to Mount Kailas, a mystical peak in Tibet close to the borders with Nepal and India. No one has ever climbed it. The author's reasons for attempting this sojourn are complex. He is grieving the loss of the last of his family. He is now the sole survivor. He cannot quite contain his grief. He slips easily into distracted thought. It is personal and I was glued to his side for the journey.

I see what he sees through his beautiful and austere prose. I feel what he feels through his emotional rawness; his mortality. I was also educated and enlightened by his clear and precise observations on Tibet's spiritual and political messiness.

This is a crystal of a book. Sparkling and alive.

By Eliza Collins


Deadly CurrentsBook Review - Deadly Currents by Beth Groundwater

Groundwater (A Real Basket Case, 2007) launches a new, action-packed series featuring white-water guide Mandy Tanner. Mandy, a river ranger at her uncle's white-water rafting business, pulls a man from the river as part of her first day on the job. The man dies, but he did not drown. The victim, Tom King, was a real-estate developer with lots of nasty rivals. He also cheated on his wife and refused to support his son, an avid kayaker. He managed to make many environmentalists very unhappy, too. When Mandy's uncle dies suddenly, she suspects something more than a heart attack and wonders whether the two deaths are related. Her independent investigation leads her through some very rough water. Readers who enjoy fast-moving stories and wilderness environments will keep turning the pages of this promising series debut.