Book Review: The Death of Santini

17857644 Thank you so very much to Edelweiss and Doubleday for the ability of reading The Death of Santini before it’s release later this October. I do have this on hold for me as well at the library, and I’ll keep that hold because there are supposed to be photographs in the book that did not appear on the e-reader.

I have had a lengthy love affair with the writing of Pat Conroy. The Prince of Tides remains one of my all-time favourite novels (NOT the movie!). I can still remember vividly sitting in my room in my late teens reading this with either tears streaming down my face or laughing out loud.  I of course have read Beach Music, South of Broad, The Great Santini, etc. So when I found out that a final book featuring his noted father, aka “The Great Santini” was forthcoming I awaited anxiously.

From the first two sentences of this tale I was all in. You almost have to thank his family, and his father for being so righteously messed up because without it we wouldn’t be treated to the power, glory and wonder of Pat Conroy’s gift. That man can write his way out of a paper bag.

In The Death of Santini, Conroy is writing another memoir of sorts, or a book that will help him try to make sense and come to terms with his family, and, in particular, his father; the subject appearing in many, many of his novels. Of course, writing these novels all began with his father and The Great Santini. This book is written in memory of this great man in attempts to reconcile with the person that, while horrifyingly abusive, is the only man known to him as his father. Unfortunately for the seven Conroy children, their father was a triple whammy of fury: a marine, an air force pilot and Irish.

“The happiest years of my childhood were when Dad went to war to kill the enemies of America. Every time my father took off in an airplane, I prayed that plane would crash and his body be consumed by fire. For thirty-one years, this is how I felt about him. Then I tore my whole family apart with my novel about him, The Great Santini.”

The chapter on his writing of The Great Santini is a very emotional and powerful one. The fictional rendering of this incredibly abusive man that raised him took an incredible emotional toll on him. It caused multiple breakdowns. As well, the fury of which his family unleashes on him is also incredible. (I need a new word.)

 “We’re ruined, son. You stabbed your own family right through the heart.”

“But the story kept rolling, and I could not stop or impede its toll. I thought I was telling a story that had never been told in the history of American literature.”

Aside from regaling sometimes horrifying tales of the abuse his father doled out on to his mother, himself and his siblings, The Death of Santini also seems to be more of a cathartic release about his broken down family and his acrimonious relationship with his siblings. The sister that is featured prominently in The Prince of Tides, Carol,  remains a highly dysfunctional relationship filled with hatred. They can go decades without speaking. The youngest brother (whom I’m convinced is The Prince of Tides”) killed himself by jumping off a building. Many of these tales of his family are woven throughout this book that explains how Pat worked to form some kind of relationship with his father. In the end, it was one filled with respect for a great and enigmatic man. The book closes with the eulogy written and spoken at Don “The Great Santini” Conroy’s funeral.

While stunningly written in classic Conroy prose, there are some times that he goes on about himself, and he seemingly glosses over his own role as a father and a husband (3x over) as well as his infidelity. He remains however married and devoted to fellow Southern writer, Cassandra King.

I of course gobbled this book up and can only hope and pray we can receive the gift of at least one more novel from the Great Conroy?

4 stars for The Death of Santini.  Now I have to sit tight until the end of October for the hardcover to come out, which I will more than likely be adding to my permanent collection of Conroy novels, so that I can pour over the photographs and place the faces to the names.

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2013 Man Booker Shortlisted: The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri

The_Lowland

Rating 4
The Lowland
A Novel by Jhumpa Lahiri
2013 /352 Pages

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri was read for the BookerMarks project as it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013.

Lahiri’s novel followed immediately after my closing the final pages of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. There is an obvious and dramatic difference in writing styles between the two, with Lahiri using a much stripped down use of language. I found it to be very refreshing.

I also have to say I was completely engaged from the beginning to the very end. I found that I was wanting to return to The Lowland every chance I was able to. Again,  extremely refreshing, especially for one of the Man Booker choices this year. Many times, the impact of those sharp focused sentences were so arresting they were the cause for me to stop, re-read and think. However, one “star” was removed from my rating as the characters were just as stripped down as Lahiri’s writing. Many times I found them to be flat and one-dimensional. The characters are not as richly developed but for that one flaw it still does not take away the intensity with which I devoured this story. Once I closed the pages of The Lowland I found I couldn’t stop thinking about these people! I ran over their stories over and over again in attempts to understand everyone’s perspective. That, to me, is the hallmark of a good read.

Synopsis from Goodreads: Growing up in Calcutta, born just fifteen months apart, Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable brothers, one often mistaken for the other. But they are also opposites, with gravely different futures ahead of them. It is the 1960s, and Udayan-charismatic and impulsive-finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty: he will give everything, risk all, for what he believes. Subhash, the dutiful son, does not share his brother’s political passion; he leaves home to pursue a life of scientific research in a quiet, coastal corner of America. But when Subhash learns what happened to his brother in the lowland outside their family’s home, he comes back to India, hoping to pick up the pieces of a shattered family, and to heal the wounds Udayan left behind-including those seared in the heart of his brother’s wife.

As the synopsis reads above, Subhash and Udayan are very close-knit brothers sharing their childhood in Calcutta. One of the defining moments for these brothers is their trips over the high-fences of the golf and country club. This property is not welcomed to or opened to them. This is something that changes Udayan’s perspective of right and wrong, rich and poor, entitlement and poverty. More and more Udayan develops a radical passion for a Communist movement called the Naxalite. Subhash however, does not share this viewpoint and continues on his own path of leaving for America to continue his education.

These two separate and individual decisions divide the brothers – Subhash very critical of this party and its objectives – Udayan angered by this disapproval.

After Subhash has left for Rhode Island, Udayan meets and falls in love with an intellectual girl named Guari leaving Subhash to feel greatly replaced. From this point forward, the story frames itself around Udayan and his actions. This one man – a brother, a son, a husband, a father – shapes each of their lives, now steeped in loss and longing for him. We do not hear Udayan’s perspective for much of this novel however until the very end. We see him as they see him, how they long for him, the loss he represents to them individually. It makes for a very powerful and thought-provoking read and ending.

Tragic events lead Subhash back to Calcutta for the first time in many years. Bound by what he feels is his duty, and perhaps as a way to feel the closeness to Udayan he felt as a young boy, he marries Guari and allows for her escape and opportunity to raise her yet-to-be-born daughter Bela, in America.

Therefore, it is Guari that is one character that I struggled with. On one hand, I could understand her pain, her unwillingness in some way to let Udayan and his memory go. But her continued unwillingness to ever embrace all that was gifted to her really, I viewed as cowardly and undeserving. She forsook everything for a brief memory of Udayan. She lost out on so very much, all for a memory of a man that already proclaimed his unworthiness. Guari harbored a lifetime of unhappiness  for all that was offered to her.

“But in this case it had fixed nothing, helped no one. In this case there was to be no revolution. He knew this now.” So consumed with the political fight  – “They were told there was an alternative. Of attending meetings and rallies, of continuing to educate himself. Reading the leaflets of Charu Majumdar, trusting Kanu Sanyal. Believing there was a solution at hand.” (Udayan)

She was unprepared for the landscape to be so altered. For there to be no trace of that evening, forty autumns ago. Scarcely two years of her life, begun as a wife, concluded as a widow, an expectant mother. An accomplice in a crime.”

She was the sole accuser, the sole guardian of her guilt. ” (Guari)

It was heartbreaking as well to see how long Subhash put his life and happiness on hold, forsaking everything in his life for what he felt duty-bound to do for his brother, Udayan. However, no one suffered greater than Bela, a complete innocent to everything in the past. Raised in a home where her two parents showed no love for one another, a mother that abandoned her for a memory, a distant and brief memory of a man.

It was all of this – this longing and resistance to letting go for so very long that had me dwelling on this story well after I closed the final page. I was consumed with sadness that Subhash and Guari would allow for this longing over a lost brother and husband to consume their lives to the point where they waited over 40 years to discover their individual happiness. And for Guari, it came far, far too late for her. I was deeply saddened by her choices and decisions. And although I said the characters were one-dimensional or perhaps “flat” in their development they certainly rented a great deal of space in my head long after finishing The Lowland. 4 stars for one of the best reads of the Man Booker Shortlist I’ve read to date.

NPR featured a review of The Lowland, which you can read here, and addresses what the reviewer considered to be the “clinical prose” Lahiri uses.

This review will be posted simultaneously on BookerMarks.

Book Review: Brewster

Brewster

A powerful story about an unforgettable friendship between two teenage boys and their hopes for escape from a dead-end town.

Thank you to W.W. Norton for sending Brewster our way. Thank you. I read it on a vacation week, which happened to be the first week of school.  The weather was perfect and allowed me to sit outside for much of the time spent reading this book all in the peace and quiet while the kiddies were off at school.  I even threw on the Classic Rock radio station and lost myself in Jon’s world, his 16th year in the summer of 1968. Brewster has been described as a “coming of age in the 60s & 70s” and includes wonderful hits of the music that shaped those eras. However, I would say Brewster is more of a coming in to adulthood more than “of age” as I consider that to me more of a young adult time frame.

The compilation of the blurbs on the back of the book say, Brewster, with it’s “stripped-down prose style” is “instantly mezmerizing”, and filled with “mastery, originality and heart.” Most certainly this is the truth. I was immediately drawn in and remained captivated right to the emotionally charged ending.

Jon Mosher is your central character and he is a deeply flawed social misfit. Sadly marked by an unhappy home, one where his parents, especially his mother, have been unable to overcome the grief of the accidental death of his older brother many years prior. Jon prefers to consistently fly under the radar and often sits alone. He is always aware of the commanding presence of the school’s bad boy, Ray Cappicciano. It is impossible to not be aware of Ray with his angry exterior, he is one tough nut that is impossible to crack and his multitude of bruises, fat lips and bandaged everything only fuels his tough guy image. Ray rides through school on the shoulders of these mythical stories of how he received those many cuts, bruises and broken noses. That Ray and Jon become fiercely close friends always comes as a shock to Jon.

“After the first few weeks I stopped flinching, stopped worrying I’d say something stupid that would show him who I was and not who he thought I was.”

It was here where I began to fall in love with Slouka’s story of Jon and Ray. I loved how he showed their unlikely friendship and the strong bond formed between Jon, Ray and their other friend Frank. It is exceptionally well drawn and powerfully shows Jon’s insecurities and how surprised he was by these friends, especially this enigmatic force that was Ray. I loved how he brought out each of their insecurities and showed the development of their self identities. Slouka also masterfully inserts Karen, a girl that both fall in love with, but one that Jon easily surrenders to Ray. Ray is more important and truly he needs this happiness more than Jon does, or feels he deserves.

Friendships are what greatly shape who we are, what we become. For Jon his friendship with Ray is so highly unlikely but at the same time is the perfect one for him. As their bond strengthens, Jon begins to arrive at some serious realizations about Ray’s home life and the exact nature of those fights and wounds.

Like Jon, my heart bled for Ray. It made me think and reminded me so very much of the family of four boys that lived in my childhood neighbourhood, one of them being my very best friend until we moved away before I turned 10-years-old. It’s funny how walking in to a home, complete with the big, nasty, snarling dog chained to the back fence and one where there are a multitude of holes blasted through doors, walls, floors. You don’t truly understand the casualness when it’s mentioned that the youngest has a bed-wetting problem when you enter his room that reeks of urine and fear and why such panic sets in when their old man comes home from work early and you have to escape through the bathroom window so you’re not found inside.

These memories, well these are things you don’t put together with understanding at that young age. This is something that doesn’t dawn on you until you’re much older. And then you cry for those boys and you wonder what ever became of them? What kind of men did they become? I found these to be the same emotions that gripped me while reading of Ray’s unfortunate home with an aggressively abusive father.

For Jon, the awakening and understanding is one he struggles with. He is struggling with his own issues and is not quite sure of how to be there or help Ray.  His teacher shifts his attention to running track. And it is on the track where Jon can control his environment, his emotions. About his running:

 “it carried me that fall, that winter. I could feel my body changing, altering, my stride extending. ..I didn’t think about how much it meant – or how little. I had this. If I had nothing else, I had this.”

For Ray and Jon, the desire to escape their small-and-dead-end-town increases their clear bond with each other and significant events create a frightening and life-altering change in their lives. This significant event changes everything between Ray and Jon, their futures and above all their friendship.

“It’s been years. I still hear his voice, talking to me out of the dark. It was as close to having a brother as I’ll ever get.”

Brewster is an emotionally charged read that is completely engrossing from beginning to end with many moments of “edge-of-your-seat” intensity. The story always unfolds at a deft pace and is done so with taut and powerful prose. I was left shredded at the end. Brewster definitely earned it’s five-star rating from me. I’m sure you will conclude the same after reading.

Book Review: Harvest

Harvest-225x300From Goodreads: In effortless and tender prose, Jim Crace details the unraveling of a pastoral idyll in the wake of economic progress. His tale is timeless and unsettling, framed by a beautifully evoked world that will linger in your memory long after you finish reading.

But it wasn’t effortless prose.

As much as I wanted to like Jim Crace’s Harvest, a novel that is reported to be his last, I often found myself avoiding it.  Yes, the book’s prose was beautiful.  Yes, it was a tough and interesting premise.  Yes, there is no question that Jim Crace is a respected author who has written another novel that is being widely discussed across literary circles.  It just was not the book for me.

This story is told from the perspective of villager Walter Thirsk, and the entire narrative takes place over just 7 days.  Beginning with two plumes of smoke, Harvest slips the reader into an uncertain time of master and servant, villager and outsider, tradition and change. Walter Thirsk, a widower and the novel’s guide, shares his observations throughout the story and shares his misgivings about the shift that a farming village is facing from grain to sheep.  Change is never easy, and for the inhabitants of this village, fear of it pulses through their veins. This fear leads to everything from poor judgement to finger pointing, both of which smack of the potential to create an utter wasteland.  Clearly, when too much energy is used to resist change, the unintended result can be destruction rather than preservation. This parting message leaps from the latter pages of Harvest, which made the story’s lasting mark a sad one.

During the Bookermarks podcast, I noted that Harvest would be the perfect Literature assignment in High School.  Crace’s language deserves undivided attention, and the story provides multiple layers that can be peeled back for further examination.  Deeper meanings can be extracted from the simplest of Crace’s sentences, which is unquestionably the mark of intelligent prose.  I do not question the merit of Harvest as a literary accomplishment, nor do I wonder why it has its place on the 2013 Man Booker Shortlist.

Simply put, my trouble with Harvest was its pace.  While it was clear that every single word was chosen with great care, I found that the plot quickly became mired in its own language. The descriptions bogged down the emotion.  In other words, it just didn’t flow.  It wasn’t a book that I was anxious to pick up again, and while I will always appreciate beautiful writing, I also like to get lost in a story.  Harvest did not provide this escape. While I congratulate Jim Crace for a novel that this both poignant and complicated, it is not a novel that I will be picking up for a reread anytime soon.

3 Stars for Harvest.

This review was simultaneously published on Bookermarks.