The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell

Two alternating narratives, one taking place in bohemian London, mainly set in Soho during the fifties and sixties, the other mostly in North London in the present day. Seemingly unconnected at first, the trajectories of the parallel stories will arrive at the same point.

Lexie and Innes are living in Soho, trying to get a fledgling magazine on its feet. They are captivating and compelling characters, as is the time in which they live. We watch them meet, court, work together, grow as individuals, and make what mark they can on London and on history. We get drawn into their lives, but then, just as we’re feeling pretty cozy with them, we switch to the story of…

…Elina and Ted in present day North London. Elina has recently given birth to Jonah, and evidently it was a horrific experience that she almost didn’t survive. I’m not sure what relevance that has to the story (something your book club can discuss!), but we spend quite some time worrying with Ted over Elina’s well-being and stability. We experience the daily reality of new motherhood with her, and see the impact the new baby is having on her and Ted’s relationship. It takes us awhile to realize that it is Ted we should be worrying about, not Elina. What is wrong with him? What are the flashes of memory he’s experiencing? What has he been through that we don’t know–that he doesn’t know?

Eventually the mystery starts to clear, and we can work out what the connection between the two narratives is. I don’t know if I was slow or spot on at this, but even when I was fairly certain I had it all worked out, I still wanted to read on, to find out the whys and the hows and the what nexts. And I think I just wanted more of the characters. I really liked them. In fact…

I quite enjoyed this book. Although let me say up front that the same things I liked about it also annoyed me a tiny bit.

The writing, for instance. Maggie O’Farrell is a terrific writer and some passages were fabulous, really fabulous; I especially liked when she would rewind a scene, taking the reader through it as though we were actually viewing it. I felt like I was watching a screen. She also built a good deal of suspense into the story, and I was sucked into reading late into the night, needing to know more.

But–paradoxically–I found the pace of the novel somewhat slow at times. I only say this because I can imagine some book group members getting frustrated, and, after giving it some thought, I feel any reader of The Hand That First Held Mine has to…just succumb to its timing and rhythms–they are part of the beauty of the book.

Another book group frustration I’m anticipating: the characters aren’t deep enough. Well, I loved these characters, every one. Did I want more of them? Yes. Could I have appreciated more depth? Yes. But these characters are so interesting, I think each one could stand his or her own novel. Again, this is something your book group can discuss.

All in all, this is a worthy novel (it did just win the Costa Award!), and one that I think is good for a book group discussion. If you want “Points to Ponder” for this novel, contact me!

How Not to Act Old by Pamela Redmond Satran

This book is hilarious! A friend gave it to me recently (hmm…was she hinting at something?) and I have been laughing ever since. Comprised of 185 tips on how not to act old, this little gem was written precisely with me in mind, I am sure. Its aim is for anyone over the advanced and senile age of 40, but I swear, it really was written just for me.

Take, for instance, tip #52: don’t yell into your cell phone. How many times have my children accused me of doing just that? Well, every time I’m on my cell phone, actually. And what about tip #32: don’t be proud of being befuddled by technology. Right, I’m going to stop referring to myself as a luddite immediately. Just using the word “luddite” is probably old.

As I was gobbling down each tip as if it were a rejuvenating vitamin sure to reverse the decay and decline that has already set in, I kept thinking, yes, that’s true, that’s right, that’s exactly how it is. I must be old!

Satran has a razor sharp eye and wit to go with it, and I thoroughly enjoyed her book. She also has a blog–from which the book was launched–you can access it at You can access it? I’m sure there’s a younger way to say that.

Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson

Written in 1947 by Hans Keilson, this German novella, translated brilliantly by Damion Searls, is a quick little read that will stick with you for quite some time. The story is simple: Wim and Marie, a Dutch couple, take the decision to hide a Jew called Nico in their home. Although the trio is faced with an extraordinary situation, they endeavor to keep life as ordinary as possible.

Until Nico unexpectedly dies.

I didn’t give anything away there; you find out about his death in the first few pages. But Wim and Marie must now deal with his body, and therein lies the ‘comedy’ mentioned in the title. I must warn you, though: you’ll only laugh if you find the cosmic sense of humor funny.

There’s a lot in this novel for a book club to discuss, but most of it will be quite heavy. If your group is up for an existential journey, then it could be a good choice. If not, I still highly recommend this book for any individual reader–it really makes you stop and think about life and its meanings, or lack thereof. For a more in-depth and wonderful review by Francine Prose of this and Keilson’s other work, The Death of the Adversary, click here:

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker first came to my attention as I sought recent prize-winning novels for my Literary Masters book groups to read. The Twin won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for 2010. I read a couple of bloggers’ reviews and the book sounded a tad slow and dull, not something that would appeal to my members. My library doesn’t carry it, and I never saw it in any book store, so it sort of fell off my radar.

Then one day recently I visited a local school’s book fair and there it was. And it just looked so…inviting. I know that’s silly. I mean, I’ve blogged about whether one should judge a book by its cover, but there was something about the aesthetics of this book that compelled me to buy it.

I’m so glad that I did.

I felt like I escaped into a different world while I read this book. The prose is spare but so captivating, I had a hard time putting the book down and looked forward to curling up with it whenever I had the chance.

The setting is a farm in Holland that seems to have escaped the progress of time. Helmer, the narrator and son who lives on the farm with his now dying father, seems to have missed the progress of time, but not of his own choosing. We find out that Helmer is the surviving twin of Henk, who died twenty years previously in an accident caused by his then fiance, Riet. Banished from the family, Riet hasn’t been heard from in twenty years. Out of the blue, she contacts Helmer to ask if he will take on her somewhat troubled son, also named Henk, as a farm-hand. Young Henk comes to stay for awhile, and the reader now not only spends time with Helmer, his dad, and the young Henk, but also encounters the many ghosts that Helmer conjures as he shares his memories.

The thing about this book is that the writing makes it seem like there’s nothing going on; the daily life as described by Helmer, the narrator, isn’t exactly exciting. He tells us about his redecorating the house, taking care of the farm animals, interacting with the few people he comes in contact with.

And then every so often, something happens–something significant–and the reader realizes that there is a whole heck of a lot going on. The writing is so subtle, though, the depth of the story as well as the depth of the characters can be missed. You know by now that when I read a book I always have my book groups in mind. Will the members find it fascinating? Does it lend itself to a good discussion? Well, I can’t say the tone and pace of the book are for everyone, but there is plenty there to “dig deep into.”

There is emotion and feeling pulsing beneath the restraint of the surface–of both the writing and the characters. And there’s plenty of metaphors sitting there just waiting to be ‘dug into’ by a book group. Clocks, crows, the rooms of the house and other spaces, are just a few.

I look forward to reading this book again so I can glean more than I did the first time. And I know I’ll enjoy re-reading it; it’s just that pleasurable.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

I loved this book! I sat down and practically finished it in one reading. Written in 1955, it tells the story of Judith Hearne, a woman with a limited life view, a rigid code of behavior, an imagination that often supplants reality, and a wicked secret that threatens to destroy her.

Judith has done the right thing, much to the detriment of her own happiness. Caring for her dying aunt, Judith has missed out on life. No husband, no job, no opportunities. But she has a way of coping. Well, more than one way, but I don’t want to give too much of the story away. Suffice to say, and this is what I loved about this book, one way she copes is by imagining an alternative reality. And she does it so subtly (Moore’s writing is so brilliant) that you go along with her, thinking it’s real until you realize, hold on, she’s got it all wrong. However, by that time you can see just how and why her fantasies would have carried her so far; after all, you’ve been carried along as well. Moore makes Judith such a pitiable character, not only do you allow her those fantasies–you wish for them to come true.

I finished this book and put Brian Moore on my list of authors that I must read more of. His writing immediately carried me to a place and time that I now feel I know intimately. This book is a winner–run, don’t walk, to your bookstore and enjoy it!

Great House by Nicole Krauss

Thanks for all your emails and phone calls; I am doing just fine, thanks. The reason I’ve not blogged in a while is that I’ve been reading! As you know, my Literary Masters Book Groups’ selected book for this coming February has not yet been announced. I purposely left that month open so I could choose a red-hot-just-won-the-award prize-winning novel. After all, this time of year is quite exciting; we have the Nobel in Literature, the Man Booker, and, days away, the National Book Award.

The book I’m blogging about today–Great House by Nicole Krauss–is a finalist for the National Book Award. I read a great review of this novel, and I love last year’s National Book Award Winner, Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. You know I love that book–it’s this month’s selected novel!

But back to Great House. I am so torn about this book. I feel like the author wrote the book on a pile of cards, shuffled the cards, dropped the cards, picked them and shuffled them some more, then published the book. I get the post-modern literary thing, really, I do, but I just kept thinking while reading this book, did she have to make it this so bloody difficult to follow? Is the structure carrying some meaning to me as reader?

The different chapters or sections of the book are mirror-imaged against each other, with the center (or roof if you like an image of a house) being “Lies Told by Children.” The chapters are tied together through the seemingly disparate characters and a certain significant desk, although I can understand an impatient reader missing the connections altogether. I confess, I finished the book–and believe me, I read this book carefully–and I am still wondering who was related to whom and who did what. I think the lies (referred to above in the chapter title) are actually told by the father, not the children, but I’m not sure.

There are certain books with a complicated structure whose writing is so beautiful it pulls you through the difficulty of the plot and in the end you realize that the structure of the story is indeed perfect to its whole. I’m thinking of The English Patient, for example. And Let the Great World Spin, while not having an extremely complex structure, still demands a certain amount of attention from the reader to make all the wonderful connections between the ostensibly separate chapters. But McCann’s writing is so poetic, the effort that the reader makes is a pleasurable one.

I’m sorry I can’t say the same for Great House. Perhaps a second reading with illuminate a lot for me, but I’m not sure I want to spend my time re-reading it. On the one hand, I’d like my book groups to read it, so we can all figure it out. On the other hand, I’m not sure I want to subject my members to such a task.

I’m going to wait for the National Book Awards announcement this week. Should Great House win, I’m sure lots of people will write about it, and perhaps I can glean something from what they say. Perhaps even Nicole Krauss will shed some light on her work. So, stay tuned. Perhaps there’s more to come.

Wrapping Up The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Well, this was not an easy read, and some members couldn’t stick with the book; I understand–Kingsolver is not for everyone. However, most of us loved The Lacuna. We liked that it is such a rich novel–there are so many layers to it and so much to discuss. And we even made an attempt to look at the novel through some lenses of literary theory: New Criticism, Cultural Criticism, and Post-colonialism.

Some of the members’ insightful comments that I want to highlight here (these are almost bullet points because I am short on time–I have to move on to The Picture of Dorian Gray–and go to the grocery store!):

A big part of what this book is about is voice. Harrison has to find his and he does so by giving a voice to the “mute culture” of the ancient Mexicans. However, his own voice is then silenced by the howler monkeys–the press–as he refuses to answer or respond to their claims of ‘fact’ and their allegations against him. His silence here got us talking about the public vs private person of a writer or other notable. Just how much does a writer owe his/ her readers? Harrison’s voice, through his words, are refused an audience as the public turns against him, but in the end, his voice, through the words of Violet Brown, are written down–and survive.

Voice leads to words and language and we all talked about the power of language and how it can create a ‘reality’ that is then taken for fact, but isn’t necessarily ‘real’ or ‘true.’ Or perhaps isn’t the entire story. This led into a discussion of perspective.

Even the structure of the book, a mix of journal, memoir, clippings, and more, seems to shout out that there are different angles from which to view something or someone. Which led us into a discussion about what truth is–is there such a thing, or is it just a perspective? Or is it a consensus of perspectives?

This led us into a discussion of the lacuna–the missing part to the story. Well, there were a lot of lacunae that we discussed. For example, one member saw the lacuna as an empty space to be given definition by others. And tied this to the identity of Harrison.

Other members saw the lacuna as a void or abyss. A scary, potentially fatal place to pass through and come into a sort of rebirth on the other side. We tied this to the birth of identity of Harrison when Frida sent him his notes and papers–when he could then become a writer.

Some members saw the lacuna as a gap to be filled–the missing part of the story–and tied this to what the press does when they don’t know the full story–they just fill it in with whatever they want.

Which then got us talking–isn’t there always more to the story? Can we ever know all there is to know about someone or something?

We also talked about the gap as what we fill in as readers–it’s the space of interpretation between what is said and what isn’t.

We all loved the howler monkeys–and we talked about the game of telephone–one person tells another who tells another and by the end of the chain–gossip, rumor, innuendo becomes fact, becomes reality, becomes truth and history.

One member brought up the fear that is pervasive in the book–Harrison’s fear, the public’s fear, the fear of those times, the fear of our times.

And we talked about history. Everyone agreed that the book was saying that history repeats itself–so watch out! Many of us found this to be depressing, but one member said, no, there is a hopeful message that we can get off this runaway train of history through art. I really love thinking about this…

We talked about art and politics and I look forward to more discussions about art as the season progresses. Does art, and this includes literature, have an obligation to be political? Or is it political without even trying to be? Can you separate politics from art?

Many of us agreed that this novel is an indictment of the press and of group-think. An indictment of taking what others have told us for fact and not looking deeper ourselves for the missing parts. And then, interestingly, we talked about how this novel is just another source of information that we need to consider in the context of its missing parts. Kingsolver can be pretty heavy-handed politically, and isn’t she doing the exact same thing that she is criticizing others for doing? Isn’t she only telling part of the story, her version of the story? Yet again, can you ever tell the whole story? Isn’t there, as we asked above, always more to the story? Isn’t there always another lacuna?

We talked about flatness of the characters, especially Harrison, and agreed that he is really a vehicle to get the points of the story across to us, and to take us on a journey through history. Many didn’t like the book because they couldn’t warm up to the characters, and one member said she absolutely hated the novel and thought it was absurd. Most everyone enjoyed reading about Frida and Diego–how could you not?

We talked about lots more, but I’m going to wrap this up right now and let YOU weigh in and POST A COMMENT. Tell me what I’ve forgotten, tell me your thoughts, tell me whatever you like!

I’ll Read These Books ‘Cuz the Movies Were Great!

Okay, I think I’m a tad behind everyone else here, but I recently watched two films that blew me away, and now I want to read the books they were based on. The first film, Touching the Void, was so good, I did something I never do–I watched the special features about how the movie was made. And I loved that part, too!

Quick plot summary: It’s 1985 and two climbing partners, both from England, head out to the Peruvian Andes to climb the 20,813 foot Siula Grande. As yet, no one has been able to do this, but that doesn’t stop Simon and Joe.

The film alternates between Simon and Joe facing the camera, telling their story, and movie actors reenacting the expedition. It sounds sort of cheesy, but it works–I got so sucked in, even though I knew I was watching actors, my heart was racing as I worried for them!

I’m not giving anything away–you must know that the climb goes wrong, because there wouldn’t be a film about it otherwise, right? So, anyway, the two climbers make it to the summit. It’s quite dramatic along the way, and we cheer for them at the top. However–did you know that 80% of mountain accidents happen on the descent? I didn’t know that, but Simon and Joe do–and they realize that their job is not even close to being over.

So, down they climb.

And things are going quite well. Until Joe breaks his leg–badly. At this point, Simon could ditch Joe, but he doesn’t; instead he engineers some sort of knot and pulley system that will allow him to lower the two of them down the mountain. A brief side note here: never, ever underestimate the importance of knowing how to tie knots. I wish I had been a boy scout. Or a sailor. (I was a girl scout for a short while, and I did earn a cooking badge. No jokes, those of you who have experienced my cuisine.)

Back to the story: things are going quite well. Simon lowers Joe down via the rope, waits for his signal–a tug from Joe–and then Simon can rework the pulley system and lower himself. The system is working until, all of a sudden, things go disastrously wrong.

Joe goes flying over a precipice and is literally dangling in mid-air.

Simon, waiting well up the mountain for his signal, has no idea why Joe is not tugging. As he begins to fear the worst, Simon waits and waits. He is seated precariously on a slope, holding onto the rope, and he sees a storm blowing in. Eventually it is clear: either Simon has to cut the rope, sending Joe to a certain death, or he–Simon–will be pulled off his perch and the two of them will die.

Well, what would you do?

Simon cuts the rope, Joe plunges, and then the story really gets good. Because Joe doesn’t die. And what he goes through, what he survives, what he does in his situation, is beyond astonishing. From a psychological viewpoint, I found it fascinating to listen to him speak about being so close to death–almost going through it as it were–and then finding life on the other side.

What or who do you turn to when faced with almost certain death? God? Your wits? Fate? And can there ever be something good to come out of such a harrowing experience? These and other questions are answered by Joe, but I wonder, how different would the answers be coming from someone else? How different would my own answers be? I don’t want to know!

What Simon goes through is a whole other story. I’m telling you–if the book is even half as good as the film, it would be fantastic for a book group!

Okay, moving on: the next film is Revolutionary Road. First of all, can I ask, is there anything that Kate Winslet cannot do? She is extraordinary! I was reading a lot and not going to the movies the year she was nominated for two Oscars, one for The Reader and one for Revolutionary Road. It took me awhile to rent the dvd’s and I must say, I really disliked The Reader.

However, I loved Revolutionary Road. Quick plot summary (really, this time I will be quick): a married couple in the 1950’s thinks they are special. They have an idea of an ideal life, one that doesn’t contain middle-management jobs, mortgages, and children. In other words, one that isn’t exactly like the life they are living.

So they decide to throw it all in and move to Paris. The passion that Kate Winslet’s character displays drives them, but will it be able to surmount all the obstacles, both societal and personal, that are thrown in their way?

Again, from a psychological viewpoint, this portrait of a 1950’s marriage is riveting, and its insight into human nature and human needs grabs one by the throat with its bold truth.

I loved this movie, and cannot wait to get my hands on the book. What about YOU? Have you read either of these books? Are they as good as the films?