Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Review: Jon Clinch's Kings of the Earth

Set in the upper east coast, Jon Clinch's Kings of the Earth meanders through the years and lives of the Proctor family and their close neighbor Preston Poole. Though not a play, I can't help but think about The Death of a Salesman and Wily Loman's predestined fate preventing him from ever realizing his dreams. Clinch does not take that romantic of a view of the agrarian life; rather, he shows just how difficult farming is and how the modern world seems to advance right around farms the way freeways will snake around, under and over towns.

If you prefer character driven novels, then this is for you. Clinch weaves between past and present, near and far recollections to tell the story of how the oldest of three brothers dies in his sleep and how his two brothers are implicated in his death. The Proctor family lived a simple life at the turn of the twentieth century and progressed very little when the approached the turn of the twenty-first century. One might call this novel the one hundred year struggle.

The primary plot line is that of the investigation into the death of Vernon Proctor, the eldest brother, and how his brothers Creed and Audie were involved, if at all. Clinch draws parallels between characters of the past and present, primarily focusing on their late drunken father, Lester, and weakened mother, Ruth, who serve as touchstones for the family as few go very far in their lives past their parents' agrarian struggle. Except for Donna. She is the boys' only sister and is the only one who makes it off the farm.

Clinch narrates with an eye toward physical atmosphere, symbolic images, and irony. Each passage, all averaging about 1,000 words, many of them even shorter, paint vivid pictures of poor farm life, close family life, and loyal bonds between neighbors. Take the Proctor's names for instance. Vernon comes from the root “Vern” which means alder, like the tree. Vernon is like a towering tree for his family: strong, safe, secure, giving. Creed, is like its meaning, believable. The most “ordinary” of his brothers. The one who goes off to fight in the Korean War and who is the only one who pursues a love interest. Audie, the most sympathetic of all the characters, is the middle brother and is born with disabilities in speech and general intelligence. But he “hears” every audible sound from the whining of the wind to the strained breathing of his ill brother, Vernon.

This is a book for patient readers. For those who are willing to invest time in the slow development of characters and in the careful characterization of setting. The sub plots of a Donna's son Tom, a low-level drug dealer, adds to the novel rather than detract from it as some sub plots will do. I'd recommend this book for a long car ride, a leisurely vacation, or any other time when you can invest lots of time reading as each of the small passages are best enjoyed in large chunks at a time.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Now reading Kings of the Earth

I'm reading Jon Clinch's novel Kings of the Earth. He previously wrote the highly acclaimed novel Finn. Very promising thus far and a review to follow soon...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Review: The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

I am a big fan of Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, and I decided to read The Cellist of Sarajevo when Yann mentioned it as one of his favorites in an interview he once did. I think I see why Yann would have been attracted to this story as it does have some parallels to his works, especially Life of Pi.

In Cellist, Galloway is exploring the the thought processes of citizens who try to understand what it is like to live in a country that was once yours but now belongs to no one. Yann's Piscine went through a similar self-exploration as he tried to find who he was after losing everything he knew except for a few zoo animals. In Pi, a man is adrift at sea. In Cellist, citizens are adrift at war.

Galloway was inspired by the story of a Cellist, Vedron Smailovic, who played his cello for twenty-two days in dangerous grounds to honor the twenty-two people he saw massacred during the actual siege of Sarajevo. The story Cellist, follows three fictional characters: Kenan, Dragan, and Arrow. They are all native Sarajevans who survive the siege in disparate ways. Kenan is a young man who must go on a long hike every four days to get water for his family; Dragan, an older man whose family has fled to Italy, works at a bakery which the citizens depend on for survival; and Arrow, a female sniper whose skills are superior to anyone else and is sought out to do other people's dirty work. All three characters find themselves drawn to hear the the cellist play for the same root reason: he is a symbol of hope that Sarajevo will return once again just as he returns to play day after day despite the risks he may face.

While I enjoyed reading this story, I found myself primarily motivated to see how the characters would each be connected to the cellist in the end, as that is the purpose of the story I inferred as I read. I was most intrigued by Arrow who seemed to go through the most transformation throughout the story from cold-blooded killer to repented fugitive. The characters' connections to the cellist were mostly figurative as the three characters all called on his image as a source of strength to persevere their respective circumstances. The reader learns that no one has any real connection to the cellist. He just simply comes and goes like clock work.

I would recommend reading this book as it is a quick read and gives you an idea of what a country under siege is like--the longest a country has ever under siege in modern history--and how thankful we all can be for our freedoms and perhaps a respect for just how fragile they truly are.