Archive for the 'Fiction' Category

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

Central Library: PR6052.A6657 S46 2011
As I near 50, I find myself re-evaluating my past in ways that weren’t possible even a few years ago. I used to rely on my memory as something solid and real. As memories become softer, less focused, my reliance on their veracity diminishes.

Tony Webster, the sixty-something narrator of The Sense of an Ending, undergoes a similar transformation as he remembers and re-evaluates several relationships from his youth. After receiving notice that he will be inheriting a friend’s journal, he attempts to unravel mysteries and construct a narrative that reconciles his own memories with those of others. It’s no easy task, either intellectually or emotionally, but Webster tackles it with dogged self-assurance,  self doubt, and self-effacing wit.

This book lingered in my mind for days, evoking a sweet melancholy that made me hunger for more books like this—witty,  moving, and profound. This is the first Julian Barnes book I’ve read, but it will not be my last.

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

Central Library: PR9619.3.B7153 P46 2008

The People of the Book is my favorite kind of book—full of suspense and history, overwhelming me with the immensity of time and the intensity of a moment.

The narrative opens in 1996 with book restorer Hanna Heath flying into to Sarajevo to restore an illuminated manuscript that surfaced after the war. The Sarajevo Haggadah, a real book living in a fictional story, had been hidden for protection from the war.

During the course of her examination, Hanna discovers items that form the basis of the proceeding chapters—a moth, a missing clasp, a wine stain, salt crystals, and a white hair. Her research brings her increasing information about the book, but only the readers discover the events that Hanna can only guess at, telling the story of the book backwards in time to its creation in the late 15th century.

This novel engages so many of interests—mystery, history, science, family, myth, culture, and religion. The story is a braid of the entwining lives of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in Europe—through conflict and contentment.  It is the story of how strongly all groups have influenced the other’s culture, philosophy, art, and religion.

The writing is compelling, the characters full and heart-breakingly unforgettable, and the settings rich and colorful. It is a book that has come alive in me, along with its people.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

Central Library (PT9876.22.A6933 M3613 2008)

This book kept me up at night.

Not only did Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo compel me to keep reading late into the night, it also kept my mind running while I attempted to drift off to sleep.

So many mysteries. What will connect the protagonist with the title character? What is her background, and how did she get to be the way she is? What happened to the girl who disappeared? If she was murdered, who did it? Is her disappearance connected to a series of brutal murders which appear to be connected?

But the mysteries, compelling as they are, are not the only attractions. Larsson writes some intriguing characters and proposes some ethical and moral dilemmas that I’m still debating with myself.

And the best news is, there are two more books in this series—The Girl Who Played with Fire (PT9876.22.A6933 F5713 2009) and Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest (PT9876.22.A6933 L8413 2009). The death of the author makes more books unlikely, though I read a rumor that an unfinished fourth book is being finished now.

I heard that the second book ends with such a breath-taking cliffhanger that readers couldn’t wait for the American version of the third book, so they ordered English translations from overseas.

I think I’ll wait to read the second until I have the third in hand.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

This is about the “trilogy,” not just the book. However, UTA is short one of the five* books in the series, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

The full “trilogy” includes Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy (PR6051.D3352 .H5 2004), The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (not available here), Life, the universe, and everything (PR 6051 .D3352 L5 1982 ), So long, and thanks for all the fish (PR 6051 .D3352 S6 1985), and Mostly harmless (PR 6051 .D3352 M7 1992). 

 One word… whimsical.

Why do I love thee, HGG?
I love thy whimsy.
Three times three.

(Or should that be nine times six?)

Arthur then comments, “I’ve always said there was something fundamentally wrong with the universe.”

If this statement scares you, steer clear of this series. If it sounds rather fun to explore strange new worlds with characters named Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian, and Slartibartfast, strap in and take off.

*Apparently, Artemis Fowl author Eoin Colfer and Adams’ widow, Jane Belson, have written a sixth book for the series called And Another Thing…, but it’s not included here as I haven’t yet read it. Also, UTA Library doesn’t have it.

The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss

Central: PS3611.R38 H57 2006

The History of Love moved me. It shoved me, knocking from my comfortable existence. It awakened me from intellectual lethargy.

One of the reasons that I love The History of Love so much is that reading is something of a central character. All of our main characters are transformed by reading. The book-within-a-book (the novel The History of Love that is published in Chile by Zvi Litvinoff) influences the lives of both Almas, Leo, Isaac, both parents of Alma Singer, Zvi himself, and his wife, Rosa. All of these people make major life choices that relate to this book. It connects them all—across time and space, across culture and geography, across war and peace, across want and plenty.

Reading is immensely important, for many reasons. I believe reading transforms the reader (and the writer, as well, but that’s another story). Reading not only transports us to places we’ve never been, it takes us to places and times we can never go—the future, or the past, or places that exist only in our imaginations. It also introduces us to people we will never meet, living in circumstances completely off our radar screen, and with points of view we may never have considered. Reading stretches us, moves us, startles us, and disturbs our comfortable views, while it also comforts us, soothes us, tickles our funny bones, and fills us with wonder.

There are other reasons that The History of Love means so much to me. It is something of a mystery, as Alma seeks her namesake and Leo seeks connection with his son. The narrative draws us in as it whirls around in time and space, sucking us into an eddy of questions and desires. And the characters drew me in. I become very fond of Leo and Alma and Bird. Indeed, when I had thirty pages left to read, I waited three days to finish, so reluctant was I to leave behind these funny, sweet, quirky, lost characters. I need not have feared. They will be with me always.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer

Central: PS3606.O38 E98 2006

Every once in a while I read a book that I wish would not end. This is one of them.

Admittedly, I found the characters difficult to connect with at the start, though they immediately intrigued me. Both of the two main characters—an 11-year-old boy and an aged old man—are out of the ordinary. The narration passes back and forth between them, their stories paralleling for most of the book and finally connecting.

I developed a deep fondness for these two characters, who seem to be polar opposites—old and young, fearless and afraid, strong and delicate, mute and verbose.

The child, Oscar, still mourns his father’s death  some two years before in the World Trade Center attacks. He finds a key, and sets out on a quest to discover what it opens. He desperately hopes to find a pattern, an intention, a meaning that will bring some kind of sense to his suffering.

The old man is on a quest of his own, but revealing that would reveal too much. What I will say is that the book left me with a sweet, lingering sadness and a desire to appreciate every moment.

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini

Central Books: PS3608.O525 K58 2003

This recommendation originally appeared in the June 2005 Connections issue. I’m re-printing it to encourage library staff to participate in the UT Arlington Conversations program. It would be fantastic if all library staff (even better, all staff on campus) reads the book. Even if you never discuss it with a student, reading it could prove to be a meaningful experience. If nothing else, it may give you some insight about a culture new to you. See page 5 to read about the UT Arlington Conversations program.

The Kite Runner provides compelling and enjoyable reading. I read late into the early morning on several occasions. This book is hard to put down.

Set in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States, The Kite Runner tells a story of fathers and sons, friendship, betrayal, secrets, bravery and cowardice, freedom and the prison of the self, love, redemption, and kite flying. The skill of this doctor turned first-time novelist is attested to by his ability to communicate epic themes using such a microscopic story, a story full of the fragility and strength of humanity.

“There is a way to be good again.” This statement, uttered by one of the book’s wisest characters, resonates with me whenever I think of this book.

Sometimes, the most traumatic experiences that haunt our memories are not the terrible situations we have encountered, but our own actions—the ways we damage or fail our closest companions. The Kite Runner captures both the horror of these actions and the sweetness of finding ways to heal.

(Originally published in Connections, August 2006)

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Central: MultiCultural Collection: PS 3563 .O8749 B4 1987

Last month, the New York Times Book Review asked 124 writers, critics, and editors to select the best American work of fiction published in the last twenty-five years. Beloved was selected.

The narrative haunts the reader, evoking scenes of horror, terror, trauma and eventually freedom, strength, and endurance.

The fact that escaped slave Sethe and her loved ones still live in my memory after a decade is testament to the enduring nature of this story, of these characters. Sethe’s mother, Baby Suggs, provides comfort and healing through a new kind of spirituality that transcends the slavers’ imprisoning religion. Denver, her daughter, is haunted by memories of a long-dead sister. They find it impossible to move on as long as their past lingers.

Paul D provides Sethe a momentary safe harbor, but in the end he represents a return to the past, which Sethe must surpass. And there is Beloved; who is she? The answer to that question is one of the central mysteries of the narrative. Whoever she is, in the end she proves to be a catalyst, someone who resurrects the past so that Sethe can choose to embrace or transcend it.

Beloved is not a light, fun read. It will challenge you—emotionally and intellectually. It will challenge cherished notions and fundamental beliefs. It forces readers to face historical grievances that we may want to bury, but that will continue to rise from the grave and haunt us until we face them.

Reading this book could change your life.

(Originally published in Connections, July 2006)

Old School, by Tobias Wolff

Central Books: PS3573.O558 O43 2003

The title of this book did not interest me; I certainly wouldn’t have picked it up at the book store. Haven’t we read enough about mid-century New England boy’s prep schools? But the story moved me in a way that few fiction works have for many years.

I suppose it appealed to the writer in me, as the protagonist is a young writer. But I also identify with many of his other faces—the hider, the competitor, the mask-wearer and the one terrified, above all things, of not fitting in, of not being accepted.

The story pivots around the school’s practice of inviting great writers to speak at the school. Surrounding this visit is a writing contest, the prize consisting of a personal interview with the writer. The boys work furiously before each of these visits, intent to be the chosen one.

Our unnamed narrator’s desire to win reaches a feverish pitch when it’s announced that the next visitor will be his hero, Ernest Hemingway. How he handles this, and what follows, changes him forever.

I enjoyed the book all the way through, but the final chapter brings it home, in more than one way. It seems as though the protagonist changes, or possibly that the real protagonist was finally identified. The shifting works because the story of the student is the story of the teacher, just as the story of the young man is the story of the established writer.

The story is also the reader’s as well as the author’s. In a sense, we are all the prodigal.

(Originally published in Connections, June 2006)

All Hallows’ Eve, by Charles Williams

Central Books: PZ3.W67144 Al4

As is always the case whenever I have just read a Charles Williams novel, I finished All Hallows’ Eve for the nth time and felt the need to share it with someone.

Williams’ writing is obscure enough that encountering someone who has read his work is a delight. When I meet someone who adores his work, I have found a kindred spirit. T.S. Eliot, who wrote the introduction to this novel, similarly admired Charles Williams—both the writer and the man.

Williams was a member of the Inklings—the group of Oxford writers, including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who regularly met to read and comment upon one anothers’ work. Despite this connection, his work is more akin to Chesterton’s or George MacDonald’s, set in the real world yet surrealistic in atmosphere. While immersed in his novels, I am awed by the immensity of eternity and, paradoxically, the significance of a single soul.

All Hallows’ Eve, though published in 1945 and set after WW2 ended, was written before the war ended and so was set in the near future. Our protagonist, Lester Furnival, has led a rather sheltered existence, spending little time thinking of others. But events unfold that stretch her, that afford her the opportunity to right some old wrongs and become a new person, or it might be more apt to say she becomes more like herself.

As with all of Williams’s novels, Hallows’ protagonist is an otherwise ordinary person who must face a dark power, typically someone seeking power over the material world, and often the metaphysical world, as well. A theme throughout all the novels is the redemptive power of love; it is the sanctity of love—not strength or power—that ultimately defeats evil.

In addition to All Hallows’ Eve, Williams wrote six other novels, four of which can be found at Central: War in Heaven (PR6045.I5 W37 1999), Many Dimensions (PR6045.I5 M3 1993), Shadows of Ecstasy (PR 6045 .I5 S48 1950), and Descent into Hell (PR 6045 .I5 D38 1949), The Place of The Lion (not in the collection), and The Greater Trumps (not in the collection). The UTA collection also contains many other Williams works, including poetry, literary criticism, and theology.

(Originally published in Connections, April 2006)