May 1, 2012

April Reading Recap

This month I read three of the four books on my reading list:

HOUSE OF DOORS by Chaz Brenchley - As I mentioned, Chaz is an acquaintance, but I believe my recommendation of this book is based only on how excellent is. The writing style and the main character drew me in immediately, and I was reminded once again that I shouldn't avoid books based on my preconceptions about their genres.

Ruth is a nurse working in London during World War II. Her husband was recently killed in action, and Ruth would like to be transferred to the front in the hopes that a stray bullet might end her life as well. Instead, she's sent to a large estate in the English countryside that's housing a military hospital with a mysterious purpose. While Ruth tries to understand what she's doing there, she finds herself haunted even more strongly than before by thoughts of her husband and his fiery death.

HOUSE OF DOORS is a horror story, so the haunting eventually becomes more literal and horrific. But if you're like me and wouldn't normally read horror, don't let that stop you from picking up this book. I was interested to realize how few pages were devoted to supernatural occurrences, even though these events end up driving the plot. This novel is suspenseful and creepy, but it primarily reads like a work of carefully researched historical fiction in which some strange things happen.

Ruth is a great, complex character who is struggling with a variety of internal conflicts. She's highly adept at reading people and situations, sometimes with an almost Sherlock Holmes level of insight, but she's far from perfect. Ruth is very conscious of etiquette and appearances, and her behavior seems very of the time, but she's full of surprises, too. I was glad to have her as my companion through this unnerving HOUSE OF DOORS.

THE GILLY SALT SISTERS by Tiffany Baker - Jo and Claire Gilly grew up farming a Cape Cod salt marsh that has belonged to their family for generations. Harvesting sea salt is hard work that doesn't pay off as well as it used to. After a series of tragedies, Claire abandons the salt marsh to marry the richest man in town, while Jo stubbornly continues the family business alone despite encroaching financial realities. The story moves through past and present to reveal the dark secrets of the Gillys and how their fate is tied up with the town's most established family and with the life of a young newcomer.

I'm sorry to say that I didn't like this book as much as I wanted to. Stories about families and secrets generally appeal to me, but I found this one uneven and not especially compelling. I preferred Baker's first novel, THE LITTLE GIANT OF ABERDEEN COUNTY, a more successful tale of sisters, outsiders, secrets, and love.

THE BUDDHA IN THE ATTIC by Julie Otsuka - This novella follows a group of Japanese women who arrive in San Francisco as "picture brides" for earlier immigrants whom they have never met. The women find that their new husbands are farmers and laborers, rather than the successful businessmen they claimed to be in their letters, but they make the best of their new American lives, work hard in the fields and laundries of California, and raise children who understand the language and culture better than they ever will. When Pearl Harbor is attacked, they suffer humiliating persecution and are sent away to internment camps.

The best way to explain the unusual style of the narrative is with an excerpt:

We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 113-degree heat. We gave birth beside woodstoves in one-room shacks on the coldest nights of the year. We gave birth on windy islands in the Delta, six months after we arrived, and the babies were tiny, and translucent, and after three days they died. We gave birth nine months after we arrived to perfect babies with full heads of black hair. We gave birth in dusty vineyard camps in Elk Grove and Florin. We gave birth on remote farms in the Imperial Valley with the help of only our husbands, who had learned from The Housewife's Companion what to do. First you bring the pan water to a boil...

Not all the sentences have the same structure, though there are long stretches when they do, but the entire book is these lists of different experiences. No individual characters emerge, and there isn't much more of a plot than the summary I presented. It's a story composed entirely of details and emotion. The style probably couldn't be sustained for a longer work, but for 129 rather small pages, it works.

I found BUDDHA IN THE ATTIC very moving. It's sad and beautiful and effective, and I recommend it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Colin Nissan offers The Ultimate Guide To Writing Better Than You Normally Do: "Don't Procrastinate: Procrastination is an alluring siren taunting you to Google the country where Balki from Perfect Strangers was from, and to arrange sticky notes on your dog in the shape of hilarious dog shorts. A wicked temptress beckoning you to watch your children, and take showers. Well, it’s time to look procrastination in the eye and tell that seafaring wench, 'Sorry not today, today I write.'" (Thanks, Louise!)

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