Gifted by John Daniel

GiftedFrom early on, Henry Fielder is different.  Although somewhat social with other kids, he is solitary by preference and has an unusual way with animals.  His mother recognizes Henry’s unique approach to the wild, and encourages him to engage with it as much as he can by hiking long jaunts near their home in Oregon’s coastal range.

His father is less empathetic to Henry’s affinity to nature, but even he understands the need to get out in it.  Henry grows up learning from his dad how to fish, hunt, and otherwise appreciate the practical sides of the natural world.

After his mother dies of cancer, the father/son dynamic between teenage Henry and his dad changes for the worst.  His father is working harder hours and trying to homeschool his son, but, as Henry is in his rebellious years, he creates some trouble.  His dad’s ideas of discipline soon turn towards physical abuse, and beyond.

Forgiveness from Henry is elusive; this is fateful, when a storm of horrendous power destroys their house, kills his father, and sends Henry on a journey of self-discovery that uncovers his wildest fears and forces him into remorse and maturity.  After his return, Henry finds forgiveness from other people in his community and acceptance from an older couple who have befriended him.  He also maintains a close contact with Raven, a member of a rural commune who helped Henry towards the end of his journey.

As a character, Henry is likeable, but pretty flawed.  He does quite a bit of crazy things, including drugs and petty theft, and there are times here where one can see how he tries his old man, who is trying, in his own flawed way, to make a home for the two of them.  Unfortunately, the dad does something unspeakable, and Henry can’t forgive him soon enough.

I’d almost call Gifted a young adult novel, but it is easily accessible to adult readers.  The book is written from the perspective of a much-older Henry, as he reflects on his teenage life in 1990s Oregon, when environmental groups and logging interests clashed.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

Amy Tan’s first novel, The Joy Luck Club, was a resounding success, but I liked this, herkitchen gods wife second novel, even better.  It’s based on the life of her mother, who criticized it with such statements as, “I never knew a person with that name,” and “I never went to that place.”  And her mother was correct, since this is fiction, not biography.  However, the story follows the basic outlines of Amy Tan’s mother’s life: abandonment at the age of six, when her mother disappeared and her father sent her to live with her uncle and aunts, marriage to an abusive husband, and, at last, a loving second marriage.  The Kitchen God’s Wife gives a glimpse of life in China before, during, and immediately after World War II.  You’ll be turning pages as you cheer for the main character every step of the way!

The character based on Amy’s mother is called Winnie, and her first husband is named Wen Fu.  In real life, Amy’s mother never told Amy this cruel man’s name, calling him only “that bad man.”

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

swimming lessonsGil Coleman, aging has-been writer, finds a letter addressed to him within a book in a second-hand bookshop, and then sees a woman outside who he could swear is his wife Ingrid, gone for twelve years and presumed dead.  Gil then nearly kills himself following her through the rain when he falls over the edge of a beach promenade.

His daughters, pragmatic Nan and free-spirited Flora, come back home to his seaside home in southern England to take care of him during his convalescence.

Ingrid Coleman’s disappearance was open-ended.  The assumption was that she had drowned during one of her many lengthy ocean swims.  As we find out the family’s back story, it isn’t that simple.

The back story is told in the form of letters that Ingrid wrote to Gil and stuck inside various books in his vast collection.  Considering that Gil was a book hoarder, the chances were little to none that he’d ever read her letters, hidden among the thousands of books in his house.

In the latter-day, Flora and Nan, helped by Flora’s boyfriend Richard, take care of Gil and piece together their own memories of Ingrid.  Flora, a little hellion in childhood and a daddy’s girl, finds out some hard truths about her father as she and Nan come to terms, rather abruptly in places, with their family’s past.

Swimming Lessons was a slow start for me, but once the structure of the book kicked in (alternating chapters of narration and time changes) I didn’t want to put it down.  The main characters, I found, were hard to like, although I gained a fair amount of sympathy for Ingrid as the book progressed.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World by Brian Doyle

Robert Louis Stevenson resided in San Francisco for a few months straddling john carsonthe years 1879-1880, at which time he lived in the boarding house owned by Mary Carson.  There Stevenson recovered his health and awaited the finalization of a divorce between his fiancée  and her first husband.  His finances were meager, as Stevenson was at this time struggling to make a living as a writer.

During his stay, Stevenson was enthralled by the stories of Mary’s husband John, a former seamen who had traveled much of the globe.  Stevenson supposedly wanted to write a book about Mr. Carson’s experiences, and this book is an imagining of what Stevenson might have written.

The stories that John Carson tells are fanciful but possible, as far-flung as Borneo, the Canadian Northwest, Australia, and western Ireland.  He tells of stern tribal chieftains and noble shipmates, all with stories of their own.  The most intriguing story is about Carson’s encounter with a feral girl living in a deserted stone village; her future takes her far away from her solitary existence, and she and John are destined to meet again.

One might wonder what kind of influence Mr. Carson’s stories had on the future renderings of  Treasure Island or Kidnapped, or whether Stevenson chose his final home of Samoa, notwithstanding his health problems, as a nod to John Carson and his wanderings.

Brian Doyle is obviously a great admirer of Stevenson’s, and I think he got the rhythms of Stevenson’s prose fairly well.  Doyle’s lively descriptions of pre-1906 earthquake San Francisco the bring the city wonderfully alive; the town is practically a character itself.  The Adventures of John Carson… is also a deep study of the natures of connection and friendship.

The preface and afterword (and the Thanks & Notes!), although fairly brief, are rich in back story and recommendations for further reading.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

PachinkoPachinko chronicles a fictional Korean family’s life in Japan before World War II to the late 1980s.

Sunja is the lone surviving child of a couple who, in the early years of Japan’s colonization of Korea, manage to make a spare but decent living farming and taking in boarders.  While she is still a teenager, Sunja is smitten by a mysterious businessman and becomes pregnant.

Her situation as unwed mother would doom her to shame and poverty.  Her savior is a sickly minister who boards with them; when he recovers enough to travel, it’s his intent to move to Japan to help with a church there.  As he is kindly, Isak offers to marry Sunja and take her with him to Osaka to stay with his brother and sister-in-law.

So begins the family’s saga, in which their adopted country looks down on Koreans, and they are limited to the most menial and dangerous jobs.  Sunja and Isak’s sons, even though they are born in Japan, inhabit half-life identities and struggle to have successful lives in a system that is stacked against them.

Pachinko is a rambling story of struggle and perseverance, love and hate, discrimination and ignorance.  The main character Sunja thinks of herself as a plain country woman, but even she has amazing moments of clarity when survival is the main issue.  And survive she does, even when her family and circumstances cause her great heartbreak.

The novel offers outsiders’ perspectives of the societal upheavals that occurred in Japan from the post-war times through its economic boom years, and the harshness of never quite fitting in, even in the country of one’s birth.

The term pachinko refers an upright pinball type of machine that gained popularity in Japan in the 1940s, and is still popular.  Here’s an interesting article from the BBC about pachinko.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Kingmaker’s Daughter by Philippa Gregory

If you enjoy the TV series “Game of Thrones,” you may like The Kingmaker’s Daughter, set during kingmakers-daughterEngland’s War of the Roses, the historical period that’s most like the fantasy world of the series.  There are even online comparisons of the TV show’s Sansa Stark with the real-life woman who’s the main character of this book – Anne Neville, the wife of Richard III.

If you are familiar with Shakespeare’s play “Richard the Third,” you’ll find this portrayal of Richard much more favorable than Shakespeare’s.  Shakespeare followed the Tudor era’s view of Richard as a monster, blaming him for multiple murders, but Gregory’s Richard comes closer to the opinions of modern historians.

Anne was the daughter of the Earl of Warwick, a power behind the English throne in the 15th century.  During the War of the Roses, many people changed their allegiances from one royal line, the Yorks, to the other, the Lancasters, or vice versa.  This was true of Warwick, whose goal was to put in power the king of his choice and to become his major adviser.  He used his daughters as pawns in his ambitious schemes.  When Anne was only fourteen years old, Warwick arranged her marriage to the Lancastrian heir.  After her husband’s death in battle, Anne married Richard.  Part of the plot involves the tale of the young princes in the Tower of London – their fate is, to this very day, a cold case!  Elizabeth Woodville, wife of King Edward IV, is also a character in the novel; contemporaries believed her to be a witch capable of causing storms and bringing death to her enemies by supernatural means.

This dramatic tale is a fascinating glimpse into English history, seen through the eyes of a queen.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler

perfume-riverRobert and Darla Quinlan met and married after he had served a stint in Vietnam.  His experience forever cemented his anti-war convictions.  At the same time, Robert’s younger brother headed to Canada to avoid conflict.  This led to him being written off by their parents, especially their father, a hardened World War II veteran.

In the present day, Robert and Darla are both tenured professors at Florida State University, comfortable with their steady careers and encroaching age.  They have a quiet familiarity of routine, which is soon interrupted when Robert meets a middle-aged homeless man at the co-op where they often eat.

Bob, as the homeless guy calls himself, is, if not a war veteran, a veteran of the aftermath of war.  He recalls his own father’s directed scorn, and in his unhinged mental state, his father becomes all too present.

Bob appears again in Robert’s life over the next few days, the final time tragically.

Things change abruptly when Robert’s father breaks his hip and then dies of complications.  This forces Robert to reassess things – his relationship with an overbearing mother, his tenuous to nonexistent dealings with his brother, and the fragility of his own marriage.  He also has to examine his past during the war.  Telling the partial truth about it leads to a rift between Robert and his father right before the father’s death.

Perfume River is a quiet exploration of bitter truths told from several viewpoints.  Its characters are all broken in their own fashion; all manage some kind of existence in their fragmented states.  There is an abrupt climax, but the book does not resolve into a tidy ending.

The book is very much an interior one – that of individual musings rather than driven by plot.  There is action and violence, and these certainly influence the course of the narrative, but the book is more about the effects of war, half a century later.

(William Hicks, Information Services)