Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

Possibly a tiny bit spoiler-y ahead… just the next few lines, before the first quote.

Chekhov’s gun! Chekhov’s gun!! Seriously. Checkhov’s. Gun. And I almost fell for it, but just kept questioning the device too much to be fully blindsided by the inevitable twist. She’s clever, that Ann Patchett!

But she is up to something far more subtle, startling and painful than that. There is nothing inevitable or fated here, unless it is that actions have consequences, most of which are unintended. A person might seem “unbearable”, but then the narrating mind suggests, “maybe that’s the real problem”, that a person who seems unbearable may rather be “emblematic of what can never be overcome”. When the whole tragic power of her story hits the reader, about two-thirds of the way through, the effect is physically breathtaking. Patchett sucker-punches you, but leaves you feeling you had it coming – whether for underestimating her, or her characters, or humanity, is hard to say.*

Okay. Now that that is out of my system…

About the book (jacket description, from the publisher):

y648The acclaimed, bestselling author—winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize—tells the enthralling story of how an unexpected romantic encounter irrevocably changes two families’ lives.

One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny’s mother, Beverly—thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families. 

Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them.

160906_boork_ann-patchett-crop-promo-xlarge2When, in her twenties, Franny begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another.

Told with equal measures of humor and heartbreak, Commonwealth is a meditation on inspiration, interpretation, and the ownership of stories. It is a brilliant and tender tale of the far-reaching ties of love and responsibility that bind us together.

I love Ann Patchett. So much. I tend to go into her books hoping I will love them, but I do try to keep my expectations in check, and approach each book freshly and with an open mind. of course, as a patchett fan, it was near-impossible to not be excited about this new novel. heck, it’s been one of my most anticipated reads for 2016. And my curiosity (or anticipation) was heightened further through interviews AP has given, noting this is her first autobiographical novel. That did add an interesting layer to the reading, along with the whole meta thing going on — the novel features a novelist who has written a new work of “fiction”, based on the life of the main characters of AP’s book. His novel is also called Commonwealth. Are you with me still? Excellent! This all worked wonderfully for me because I am basically a sucker for any works of fiction which feature writers and writing. (I’m not predisposed to automatically liking them all, but i am predisposed being intrigued by these kinds of books and throwing them onto Mt. TBR.)

What I find Patchett does exceptionally well are the nuances and dynamics of family (She didn’t know how to hate her mother yet, but every time she left her father crying in the airport she came that much closer to figuring it out.), and the excavation of the idea of responsibility. (Actions have consequences.) She’s an insightful writer. she’s also very funny, albeit sometimes it’s a dark-funny (The priest, whose mind was wandering like the Jews in the desert… or …people moved to Brooklyn to fall in love and write novels and have children, not to get old, and she couldn’t go to Holly, though she imagined dying in the Zen centre might come with spiritual advantages.), which I can fully appreciate. And when themes can get heavy or sad, those moments of levity are terrifically welcome moments. I hugely respect how Patchett creates complicated, messy characters. I feel as though she is writing openly and realistically when she creates characters who could be hard to embrace by some readers, but I also feel she has tremendous empathy for those she is creating.

My only real criticism of the novel is that I would have loved a bit more depth/story from each of the members of the Keating-Cousins families. Jeannette, for example, who completely intrigued me. And Albie. Oh, Albie. But, really, apart from Franny who functions as the novel’s centre and presented as a more complete character (save for one thing that was really left dangling), I would have been down for so much more on this whole family. But — that is just my very minor quibble. I was so engaged with the book, and fairly tore through it as I had a hard time putting it down. So, I hope you will read this book, and that you will let me know what you think when you do. I believe this will be a book I recommend to many people.

* — excerpted from Sarah Churchwell‘s uber-gushy (in the best way) review in The Guardian.


Question:

I mentioned that Commonwealth will be a novel I recommend to many people.  I would love to know if you have particular books that serve as go-to recommendations for you – books you never hesitate to recommend, no matter the reader?

Here are 10 books I love to suggest, and feel work for any type of reader:

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Barkskins, by Annie Proulx

barkskins-9780743288781_hrBarkskins, the big, new novel from Annie Proulx, is possibly my most anticipated new release for 2016.  It is out today (14th June), and I hope you will find this as exciting as I do.

Simon & Schuster Canada was incredible enough to provide me with an advanced copy of this novel – I am very, very appreciative.  Since receiving the book, I have been saving it, and the reason will perhaps sound a bit silly: my birthday is coming up this week. Knowing Barkskins was happening (seriously – it’s an event, this book) around the same time, it’s been in my mind as a special birthday treat and I have been fantasizing about completely unplugging and becoming a temporary recluse (though really that’s not much of a stretch) with this book! SO, THANKS, ANNIE PROULX!😀  (The fact I love a chunky novel, and this one clocks in at 736 pages, has really helped amp up my excitement even further!! Nothing like a great epic read in the summer!)

About the book:

From the Simon & Schuster Canada website:

In the late seventeenth century two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord, a “seigneur,” for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters—barkskins. René suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing. He is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures. But Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business. Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years—their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand, under stunningly brutal conditions—the revenge of rivals, accidents, pestilence, Indian attacks, and cultural annihilation. Over and over again, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.

Proulx’s inimitable genius is her creation of characters who are so vivid—in their greed, lust, vengefulness, or their simple compassion and hope—that we follow them with fierce attention. Annie Proulx is one of the most formidable and compelling American writers, and Barkskins is her greatest novel, a magnificent marriage of history and imagination.

Okay, I know that book cover descriptions can sometimes dabble in the realm of hyperbole, but did you catch the bit at the end “…her greatest novel…” ?  If you already know and love Proulx from her earlier works, like Shipping NewsAccordion Crimes, or Bird Cloud, then you are probably also drooling in anticipation of her new work being touted as her greatest!  (I am working so hard to keep my expectations in check!)

In a terrific interview with The Guardian, Proulx says this about Barkskins:

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“It’s kind of an old-fashioned book,” Proulx says. “It’s long; it has a lot of characters; it takes a big theme. It isn’t a navel-staring, dysfunctional-family thing that’s so beloved of most American writers. It’s different, but I think people probably miss those books that were written some time ago – the big book that was written with care.”

Do let me know if this book is on your radar for the summer, or if you have already read it – I would love to hear your thoughts!  To me, and Proulx seems to be touching on this in the quote I excerpted, this book may have broad appeal to fans of literary fiction, historical fiction, and classic literature. Certainly Proulx’s quote called Charles Dickens and his epic works to mind in me.

Happy publication day to Annie Proulx, and happy reading to you all!

Nightfall, by Richard B. Wright

From the the publisher’s website (many thanks to Simon & Schuster Canada for the review copy of this new novel):

nightfall-9781476785370_hrFrom the acclaimed writer of the beloved Clara Callan comes a memorable new novel about first loves, love-after-love, and the end of things, set during summer in Quebec City.

James Hillyer, a retired university professor whose life was evocatively described in Wright’s novel October, is now barely existing after the death of his beloved daughter in her forties. On a whim, he tries to locate the woman he fell in love with so many years ago on a summer trip to Quebec and through the magic of the Internet he is able to find her. But Odette’s present existence seems to be haunted by ghosts from her own past, in particular, the tough ex-con Raoul, with his long-standing grievances and the beginnings of dementia. The collision of past and present leads to violence nobody could have predicted and alters the lives of James and Odette forever.

Nightfall skillfully captures the way in which our past is ever-present in our minds as we grow older, casting its spell of lost loves and the innocent joys of youth over the realities of aging and death. The novel is skillfully grounded in observation, propelled by unforgettable characters, and filled with wisdom about young love and old love. Drawing on the author’s profound understanding of the intimate bonds between men and women, Nightfall is classic Richard B. Wright. 

I found Nightfall to be a very thoughtful and contemplative novel.  I enjoyed the exploration of memory, and the perspective on life offered by both James’ and Odette’s arcs, and the idea that our past and present are never really that far away from one another.   I also found strength in Richard B. Wright‘s portrayal of starting over (and second chances) for his two characters, both who are in their 70s. They have come to their renewed relationship with a lifetime of experiences and hurts (so much baggage!), but also with a hope and optimism for love and happiness at a time when it had not really seemed possible.  (If you have ever experienced the joy of a wonderful summer crush/love, and wondered about that person years later, you might really enjoy the vicarious experience offered by this novel!)

5966127I would love to make one suggestion: if it is not fresh in your mind, or you have not previously read it,  check out Wright’s earlier book October first. It’s a terrific read and very connected to Nightfall!

While Nightfall does totally work as a stand alone read, thanks to the many excerpts from October, I feel I would have had a far deeper appreciation for Wright’s new novel had October been more fresh in my mind. Good intentions, and all that – I had planned a re-read of October, but things didn’t work out to allow me that time near enough to the publication of the new book.

At moments while I was reading Nightfall, I found myself thinking about Elena Ferrante, and her wonderful 4-book series, the Neapolitan Novels, which examines life in various stages, from childhood though adulthood.  It may seem an unusual comparison to some readers, but I feel Wright has the same keen observational skills and heightened sensitivity to the world around him. There are some truly beautiful moments in Nightfall.

Happy reading!

 

The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland

New in bookstores today, The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland.

The TranscriptionistFrom the book’s description: No one can find it. That’s the first thing. The Recording Room is on the eleventh floor, at the end of a rat-hued hallway that some workers at the newspaper have never seen; they give up on the ancient elevator, which makes only local stops with loud creaks of protest. Like New Yorkers who refuse to venture above Fourteenth Street, there are newspaper workers who refuse to go above the fourth floor for fear of being lost forever if they leave the well-lit newsroom for dark floors unknown. In this room you’ll find Lena. She works as a transcriptionist for the Record, a behemoth New York City newspaper. There once were many transcriptionists at the Record, but new technology and the ease of communication has put most of them out of work, so now Lena sits alone in a room on the building’s eleventh floor, far away from the hum of the newsroom that is the heart of the paper. Still, it is an important job—vital, really—a vein that connects the organs of the paper, and Lena takes it very seriously. And then one day she encounters something that shatters the reverie that has become her life—an article in the paper about a woman mauled to death by lions in the city zoo. The woman was blind and remains unidentified, but there is a picture, and Lena recognizes her as someone whom a few days before she had met and talked to briefly while riding home on a midtown bus.

Amy Rowland

Amy Rowland

Obsessed with [understanding the woman’s death], Lena begins a campaign for truth that will ultimately destroy the Record’s complacency and shake the venerable institution to its very foundation. In the process she finds a new set of truths that gives her the strength to shed what she describes as her “secondhand life” and to embrace a future filled with promise, maybe even adventure. An exquisite novel that asks probing questions about journalism and ethics, about the decline of the newspaper and the failure of language. I am so happy to recommend this wonderful debut novel to you.  I had trouble putting it down as I was completely swept into Lena’s world. In our ever more technologically dependent world, human connection has become a more important issue – we are all plugged in all the time, but how much of our time is spent engaging with people in meaningful and important ways?  Rowland explores this theme beautifully in her book, as Lena attempts to solidify her presence in her own life, in an increasingly alienating world.

Amy Rowland wrote a great essay, sharing how the idea for The Transcriptionist came about.

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey

From the book’s description:

In Eowyn Ivey’s magical debut novel The Snow Child, a couple creates a child out of snow. When she appears on their doorstep as a little girl, wild and secretive, their lives are changed forever.

SnowChildpaperback-bannerAlaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for a couple who have never been able to conceive. Jack and Mabel are drifting apart—he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season’s first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone, but they catch sight of an elusive, blonde-haired girl running through the trees.

This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and leaves blizzards in her wake. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who seems to have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in the Alaska wilderness, life and death are inextricable, and what they eventually learn about Faina changes their lives forever.

I first read this wonderful novel at the beginning of 2013. I very much read to both my mood and the seasons, so being in Canada, in January – it seemed like the ideal time to read a book about a ‘snow child’, set in the Alaskan wilderness!   While it was the first book I read in 2013, it stuck with me throughout the entire year, and was one of my favourite reads.

Here we are now, in 2014. I find myself in a fairly pervasive reading slump. But, given my work, and involvement in a few online book groups, a reading slump can be a problematic situation.  Two of my book groups have chosen to read The Snow Child in 2014. One group is reading it now (CBC Books, on Goodreads), and I am leading the read/discussion). The other group will be reading it in March. So…I really had to get going on the re-read of this book.

eowyn-bioLuckily, the second time reading The Snow Child was just was great as the first. Ivey, using inspiration from classic Russian fable (The Little Daughter of the Snow), has created a truly wonderful fairy tale for adults.  Don’t let that description scare you or cause you to turn up your nose. Fairy tales, while beautiful and magical, often tell hard truths and share dark realities.

It is very easy to become swept up in the world Ivey has created in The Snow Child – it all seems so bleak, remote, challenging and nearly impossible. And yet, her characters are so full of life, as is the setting of the story. So much of human survival hinges on the natural world. And the natural world is a marvel. Some may even think mother nature magical. And here is where Ivey really shines as she balances her story between naturalism and the mythical.

There is an sadness that anchors The Snow Child, and Ivey certainly does not romanticize the Alaskan frontier. But the hopes and dreams that have long lured people to Alaska, the mystery of the place, are very present in Ivey’s characters. There is such a life force in this story – I really hope it will capture your imagination and heart, as it has captured mine.

Faina

“In my old age, I see that life itself is often more fantastic and terrible than the stories we believe as children, and that perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees.”