The Other – David Guterson

With all the books many of us are fortunate enough to have access to, I’m always interested in how we come to choose our next book to read. Up until a few weeks ago I hadn’t heard of David Guterson, I was aware of the acclaimed Snow Falling on Cedars but not who had written it or what it was about and I’d never really felt the need to find out. Now it’s right at the top of my wish list and I’m hoping to read it soon. It’s amazing how one little thing can lead to another and all of a sudden a whole new literary path is opened up. That’s one of the things I love about books – exploring and learning new things.

I’ve been attracted lately to the idea of reading books set in nature and the idea of simplifying life. I’m also keen to read some US authors and learn a bit about the different US states. The Other fits the brief perfectly as well as being set in the Washington/Portland area where my husband is likely to travel to for work in the future.

So that’s how I came to choose The Other and despite it being a month since I last posted, it hasn’t taken quite that long to read it! 272 pages sounds small but it felt more like 500 reading it. The pace is slow, totally appropriate for the theme of the story but about 20% too long I thought. I didn’t find it a labour to read but I can imagine some people might. This is a story that needs to strike a certain chord, if it does it’s very good. If not, it could seem too much like hard work.

Starting in 1972, two college boys meet as competitors in a track race. They strike up a friendship, based on a love of the outdoors, mutual respect and several coming of age type experiences. Narrated by Neil Countryman, one of the boys, the face of the story is his retelling of his friendship with John William Barry. Both boys are drawn to the idea of rejecting consumerism and living in the woods – following the teachings of Henry Walden. Neil Countryman remains interested but carries on to live a fairly conventional life. He begins his narration as a married man with a son and working as a high school teacher. John William Barry’s interest becomes a staunch commitment as he withdraws further from society but maintaining contact with his closest friend throughout.

I knew I was reading a book set in America in a different time. David Guterson is a descriptive writer, he explores deeply the physical environment and actions of his characters. I especially liked the feeling of expanse, the wide open spaces he uses as his setting and it seems nature also features prominently in his other novels – I like the idea of this.

272 pages, 2009

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Swimming to Ithaca – Simon Mawer

The concept of a dual timeline or narrative in fiction fascinates me. I often write about it not being my favourite way of reading a story but it seems every second book I pick up does exactly that! Either it’s a very common choice for an author or on some level I am attracted to books that delve into the past – a message of sorts in that no doubt but I think I’ll leave that be for now.

The main part of Swimming to Ithaca is set in Cyprus during the 1950’s. Dee is an army wife, stationed with her husband and small daughter Paula while her son Thomas has remained in England at boarding school. Thomas is a central character in the story, the current day story focuses on his life and his attempts to uncover his mother’s past. In the 1950’s he visits from boarding school and picks up on subtle shifts in his mother’s behaviour. Dee’s husband is almost a non character in the novel, away a lot, leaving Dee alone to find her feet and to develop a relationship of sorts with three different men. These men are all involved in the rising tensions between the Greek Cypriots and the British army.

The 1950’s was a time when Cyprus was under British rule, and saw the emergence of EOKA – a Greek Cypriot nationalist movement – fighting for independance. Dee finds herself reluctantly becoming involved in this fight. As he did in The Glass Room, Simon Mawer uses an aggressive setting for his story which contrasts beautifully with the gentle way he allows his characters and their relationships to evolve. I liked this aspect of Swimming to Ithaca very much and would have been happy if the whole book had been set in this time frame. The soldier, the freedom fighter and the spy’s relationship with one woman made for intriguing reading.

By contrast I found the present day story of Dee’s son Thomas quite ordinary and uninspiring. Years later and shortly after his mother’s death, Thomas comes across some papers and tries to make sense of what happened to his mother all those years ago in Cyprus. He is able to speak to those who are still alive, and also analyses the reliability of his own memories. Running parallel to this is his blossoming relationship with one of his students and her daughter. I should say though that there wasn’t anything really wrong with this story, it just didn’t appeal to me. There was also a twist at the end of the book which was a bit of a shock – it seemed to come out of nowhere and didn’t quite fit in somehow.

Putting aside the part of Swimming to Ithaca that I wasn’t so keen on, I’m really pleased to have discovered Simon Mawer. There is something about his style I really like. He is not afraid to take risks with his characters and throw in the odd unorthodox scene or opinion. The settings of his books are important and affect the actions of his characters but don’t overshadow them – clever writing, and I look forward to reading more of his books.

What do you think of a book cover that has a fairly clear picture of the characters? My imagination and the cover of the version I read definitely didn’t match!

2006, 352 pages

Twelve Minutes of Love – A Tango Story by Kapka Kassabova

March is New Zealand book month. I was looking for something authentically kiwi to read and failed miserably! I’m not sure that Kapka Kassabova would even describe herself as a New Zealand author or an author from anywhere specific at all. That sense of not belonging anywhere, and of searching for that metaphoric place that feels like home is really what Twelve Minutes of Love is about – that, and of course, Tango.

Kassabova is a Bulgarian who immigrated to New Zealand as a teenager with her family in the 1990’s. Despite escaping turbulent times in Eastern Europe and describing New Zealand as the most beautiful country in the world, it wasn’t home. Neither sadly was Sofia when she returned there years later. I found this aspect of her story especially powerful and I really understand how someone in this situation could find themselves constantly looking for something that feels right.

Twelve Minutes of Love is a non-fiction, memoir/travel journal of a decade of Kassabova’s life as she travelled the world writing and searching for the next tango fix. Her travels took her from New Zealand to Buenos Aires several times, to Berlin, Paris, New York and eventually Scotland. Personal, honest, funny and fascinating – a story that will appeal to all the restless souls amongst us.

The twelve minutes referred to is the average amount of time spent dancing a set of tango dances (a tanda) with the same person. Kassabova tells us early on that twelve minutes of sheer bliss on the dance floor does not usually translate to much bliss off the dance floor – leading to inevitable heartache for those fooled into thinking it could be otherwise.

The first thing to say is that Kassabova is a very good writer and the second is that it is not essential (I don’t think) to know much about Tango to enjoy her story. For anyone who does love Tango, or is even a touch interested, I would think this book is a must read. There is a plenty of tango talk, history, music and passion. A great reference and I’m tempted to re read it slowly, a lot of knowledge to soak up.

For me as a New Zealander living away from home I found it especially poignant that the things about New Zealand that seem so boring and unappealing when living there and to Kassabova as an immigrant, are exactly the things that I would choose to return for. It’s all about the concept of home. The ending of the book and that chapter of Kapka Kassabova’s life leave the reader with the hope that she is on her way to finding a place to call home as well. I sincerely hope she finds it.

A great read, not easy to put down!

2011, 324 pages

Triple Choice Tuesday at Reading Matters

Today I am featured on Triple Choice Tuesday over at Reading Matters.
I have always really enjoyed this feature of Kim’s blog and was delighted when she asked me to participate. Pop on over to see my answers to these questions:

A favourite book

A book that changed your world

A book that deserves a wider audience

Thanks again Kim!

The Painted Veil – W. Somerset Maugham

I saw the film of The Painted Veil a few years ago and was very impressed. Stunning scenery and photography with gorgeous costumes but most of all it was the simplicity of the dialogue, pure quality with not a wasted word. I enjoyed the crispness of the characters and thought Edward Norton was especially wonderful.

So I had high expectations of this little book and have to admit that my experience of reading it was heavily influenced by memories of the film. From memory I think the film had a more romantic angle than the book – I enjoyed that at the time but especially liked that the book wasn’t neat and tidy – there is resolution of sorts between the characters but the outcome of the story wasn’t especially predictable.

Kitty marries Walter Fane and they set off immediately from 1920’s England for Hong Kong where Walter is posted as a bacteriologist. Walter is a person of integrity and is in love with Kitty, a love she does not return. She finds him dull and soon after arriving embarks on an affair with one of Walter’s colleagues Charles. The book starts with Kitty in bed with her lover staring in horror as someone tries the door handle and then the window of their room. It is immediately obvious that Kitty is a shallow and spoiled woman and she has attracted in Charles a man of similar character.

Fast forward a few tense chapters and Kitty and her husband make the arduous journey across China to assist in an area stricken with Cholera. Walter has volunteered to go and help – Kitty views this as a certain death sentence.

What follows amounts to the beginning of a spiritual awakening for Kitty.

The writing is wonderful, insightful and with a good level of suspense – it’s a short book and now I want to read something else by Somerset Maugham straight away. I’m tempted by Up at the Villa – another slim book, but also the much longer Of Human Bondage. I’m a complete novice when it comes to this writer, coming to him with no preconceived ideas at all which is great I think.

Stories of travel and transformation are one of my favourites and The Painted Veil reminds me in that vein of The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles – a story that didn’t completely win me over at the time but one that I’ve thought about quite a bit since. I’m also keen to read another of Bowles’ books soon too – perhaps Up Above the World.

It’s a beautiful sunny morning here and I’m going to go for a walk and come back to some comfort reading later on. I’ve just started The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas – another travel and discovery type story – set in India. It looks good so far.

Wishing everyone a happy day of reading.

1925, 240 pages

The Glass Room – Simon Mawer


I have just loved reading The Glass Room this week. It’s a book to be read slowly if possible although it’s tempting to rush ahead, the chapters are short, the writing elegant and understated as well as sensual, gripping and tragic.

Simon Mawer’s eighth novel was short listed for the Booker prize in 2009 – the winner being Hilary Mantel with Wolf Hall. My thoughts after finishing The Glass Room are that Wolf Hall must be absolutely fantastic to have taken the prize. Not that I have any book judging credentials and of course it’s all subjective but I’m going to make the effort to read Wolf Hall to satisfy my curiosity. I have it on kindle but have been a bit intimidated by the size of it.

I first heard of The Glass Room with this excellent review by Tom at A Common Reader. I thought then that it sounded wonderful and it really is. So much so that I knew after the first couple of pages I would love it and so much so that I gave up trying to remember things to write about it later and just fell into reading it.

Set mostly in 1930’s Czechoslovakia, the Glass Room is the name of a house and the term is used loosely and is open to interpretation depending on the language used (Czech or German). There is nothing loose about the actual house and it is in fact the anchor for all that happens to its various inhabitants throughout the following years. It is the one constant in a time of upheaval and devastation in Czechoslovakia and throughout Europe, reflecting the changing times and attitudes of the people that pass through it.

Viktor and Liesel Landauer are honeymooning in Venice in 1929 when a chance meeting with a German architect results in a commission. He will build them their dream home, a forward thinking functionalist style building, without conventional walls, filled with glass and a stunning onyx wall. A house for the future; minimalist, free of ornament and association with the past. This house whilst ridiculed at first is soon claimed a masterpiece, the Glass Room becomes host to gatherings and recitals – the Launder’s are a wealthy family and for a time life seems good although times are changing.

Viktor is Jewish and eventually the Landauer’s are forced to flee their home, friends and family to seek exile abroad. They must leave their precious home to its fate and await their own. The fate of the characters, of their home, is such that by the end of the book it really does seem like many years have passed and much has changed.

Just a beautiful book on so many levels. There is a lot I have left out including some factual details about Mawer’s inspiration for The Glass Room and other crucial characters and details. Plenty to discover. As the saying goes ‘read it and weep’ – it had that effect on me.

2009, 404 pages

The Sentamentalists – Johanna Skibsrud

I’ve been thinking for a while that it would be good to try some Canadian authors. I’m not 100% sure but I think I may have read only one book so far and that was Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay, winner of the Giller Prize in 2007, which although a little slow in places, was beautifully written and I enjoyed it.

With her debut novel The Sentamentalists, Johanna Skibsrud also won the Giller prize – in 2010. I had heard of it and was attracted by the tranquility of the cover, the slimness of the book and my expectations of a gentle and emotional read.

The book is written in a heart felt way about a daughter’s attempt to care for and understand her father as his health declines in his later years, an attempt to make sense of his time in Vietnam and how that experience affected his life and his ability to fully engage as a husband and father. It is obvious early on that her father has experienced post traumatic stress, has been an alcoholic and had deserted his family at one time. Towards the end of his life, his daughters move him to the home of an old friend, a place that had been like a second home to the family years earlier. As the narrator looks back on her childhood, she tries to fill in the gaps of her life and that of her father, mother and sister and that of Henry, whose house they share.

I’ve read a few books about older men trying to find peace in remote settings and for the most part I’ve enjoyed them. I can relate to the concept of nature and time as healers. Two books that spring to mind are Evie Wyld’s After the Fire, a Still Small Voice (also about the effects of the Vietnam War on a man and his family) and J.M Coetzee’s Disgrace,. I found both of these to be excellent.

I really wanted to like The Sentamentalists. Johanna Skibsrud has written a sensitive story on a topic she has personal experience of and I could feel where she was coming from but unfortunately the pace was way too slow and the narrative disjointed. It just didn’t work for me. I persevered hoping it would click into place but on the whole it didn’t. I’m pleased I read it all though – it would have seemed almost disrespectful not to and there are two passages which made it worthwhile to keep going. They both related to the father Napoleon’s time in Vietnam, his sense of disorientation in particular and the horrors that he, as little more than a boy, experienced, were written very well.

Luckily not everyone agrees with my view of this book. One of the Guardian’s reviewers was ‘moved to tears’ and the Giller panel obviously found plenty about it to like.

Winner of the Giller Prize 2010

2009, 210 pages