Author Archives: eschulenburg

Fatal Light by Richard Currey

Synopsis from the publisher:

A devastating portrait of war in all its horror, brutality, and mindlessness, this extraordinary novel is written in beautifully cadenced prose. A combat medic in Vietnam faces the chaos of war, set against the tranquil scenes of family life back home in small-town America. This young man’s rite of passage is traced through jungle combat to malaria-induced fever visions to the purgatory of life in military-occupied Saigon. After returning home from war to stay with his grandfather, he confronts his own shattered personal history and the mysterious human capacity for renewal.

My thoughts:

It’s not often that the words “horrifying” and “beautiful” are the two words I think best describe
a novel, but that is how I feel after reading Fatal Light. Horrifying because this is, after all, a novel about war. The kind of war where men curse, and use drugs, and find prostitutes, and kill people. Lots and lots of people. There is nothing about this war that is romanticized or glossed over. It is harsh, and brutal, and horrifying.

But also beautiful. There were moments while reading that I almost ached at the pictures Currey painted with his words.

“First look: sandbags and fog. And quiet. As if the fog itself were the carrier of silence easing among us, touching us, loving our faces.”

“Such things live together here, poetry and shotguns. Alive and well in a single body.”

“Once upon a time I had been in love with Mary Meade. Loving her was one of the things that kept me alive in a place where staying alive was hard to do, loving her resonant image, the effigy of our touch.”

This isn’t an easy novel to read. It is presented as a series of short vignettes, in mostly linear order, about the narrator’s life before, during, and shortly after his time in Vietnam. There were times I felt confused, not sure of where we were or what exactly was going on. This is a very internal novel, so while it is about war, there is not a lot of action to move the plot along – mostly we just drift with the narrator’s memory, reading what he chooses to remember. At times I almost forgot I was reading a novel – it seemed SO personal, it was like peeking into someone’s diary.

Fatal Light is, however, the kind of book that will stay with you. Its insights into the horror and mindlessness of war are powerful. This edition is a 20th anniversary reprint, being issued by Santa Fe Writers Project. This is the third book I have read from this independent publisher, and they have each been unique and engrossing. It’s director, Andrew Gifford, is a very cool guy – read more about his story here. His life could probably make quite a fascinating movie. Also, read the new intro to the book written by Richard Currey, specifically for this new edition here. He writes about his novel, “Fatal Light is a novel sheared down to the primary essentials of the story it tells and the spiritual predicament it describes, one that has no resolution, no solution, that joins the texture of a life and, as the unnamed young narrator of Fatal Light says at one point, sticks there “like a photograph on the spine.” “

Finished: 3/4/09
Source: Santa Fe Writers Project
Rating: 6.5/10

Reviewed by: Elizabeth

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Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Synopsis from B&N:
Guy Montag was a fireman whose job it was to start fires…

The system was simple. Everyone understood it. Books were for burning…along with the houses in which they were hidden.

Guy Montag enjoyed his job. He had been a fireman for ten years, and he had never questioned the pleasure of the midnight runs nor the joy of watching pages consumed by flames…never questioned anything until he met a seventeen-year-old girl who told him of a past when people were not afraid.

Then he met a professor who told him of a future in which people could think…and Guy Montag suddenly realized what he had to do!

My thoughts:

I can’t believe I’d never read this novel before. It’s odd to think of all the English classes I’ve taken, and realize that no professor ever thought this would be worthwhile to teach. I’m sure lots of them assumed it had been read before – but that certainly didn’t stop them from making me read Huckleberry Finn 5 times! (But that’s another story…)

There is so much to consider in this short little novel – Bradbury really packed a lot into a small package. His writing style is full of simile and metaphor, which sometimes seem a little over-the-top, but they give the narrative a feeling almost like a dream. It is very visual, giving the reader detail after minute detail in which to see the drama unfolding. When Montag goes to a house to burn books one night, “Books bombarded his shoulders, his arms, his upturned face. A book lit, almost obediently, like a white pigeon, in his hands, wings fluttering. In the dim, wavering light, a page hung open and it was like a snowy feather, the words delicately painted thereon.”

Guy Montag is the focus of the book, and as such the only character who really gets a chance to develop. Mildred, Guy’s wife; Clarisse, Guy’s neighbor; Faber, the professor – we meet each of these people, but never get the opportunity to find out much about them. They are merely catalysts, propelling Guy forward on his journey. Each has their small part to play, and then they are gone, because the author is mostly only interested in Guy.

It is fascinating to read Bradbury’s vision of a world gone mad, written in the 1950s, and realize how similar it is to the world we live in today. In his world, people don’t want to read books, or be challenged by new ideas – they would rather sit in front of their gigantic television sets and be entertained. In his world, no one wants to stand out or be different, but would rather conform to the image that the majority has decided is ideal. In his world, people don’t connect with each other, but spend their time blocking out the world with the earphones in their ears. Does this sound familiar to anyone else? I have to wonder if Bradbury ever feels chilled by his prophetic vision.

Of course, what resonates most clearly with me is the few people in the novel who are trying to save the books. When Montag decides, for the first time, to sit down and read one of the books he has been secretly stashing away, his life is forever changed, and that is truly the moment of triumph in the novel. When he finds Professor Faber, and later the band of men in the forest (Bradbury has referred to them as the Book People), and decides he wants to do something – anything – to keep the books from being lost, it is the flash of hope that lifts the novel from despair.

And Bradbury knows it is not the books themselves that are important. Books are little more than ink and paper, which don’t add up to very much. “It’s not the books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books…Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”

The only part of the novel that really disappointed me was Montag’s meeting with the Book People. They are a group, scattered throughout the land, that are trying to keep the ideas of books alive. Instead of trying to save the books themselves, however – which would be really dangerous – they choose to “become” a book. They memorize the book, word by word, and tell each other the stories. Eventually, they will pass their knowledge on to the next generation. Their great hope is that one day, they will once again be able to commit what they remember to paper, and the books will be born again. I just wanted MORE of this section – I was fascinated by it, and wish his time with the Book People would have lasted longer.

Fahrenheit 451 is quite a magnificent novel. I have no doubt it is one I will be reading again and again.

Finished: 2/27/09

Source: Franklin Avenue Library

Rating: 8/10

Reviewed by: Elizabeth

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The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Synopsis from B&N:

Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn’t live in a sprawling graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts, with a solitary guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor of the dead. There are dangers and adventures in the graveyard for a boy. But if Bod leaves the graveyard, then he will come under attack from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod’s family . . . Beloved master storyteller Neil Gaiman returns with a luminous new novel for the audience that embraced his New York Times bestselling modern classic Coraline. Magical, terrifying, and filled with breathtaking adventures, The Graveyard Book is sure to enthrall readers of all ages.

My thoughts:

It’s almost difficult to put into words exactly how good this book is. I don’t hesitate to say that I’m a Neil Gaiman fan – I believe he is one of the best storytellers of our generation, and I always have high expectations for his work. So when I say this novel exceeded my expectations, what I mean is that I’m not sure I have, even yet, realized exactly how brilliant it is.

Gaiman talks in his introduction about how much he owns to Kipling’s “The Jungle Book”, and the parallels are easy to see – a real, live boy, raised apart from his family by creatures not like himself, figuring out which world he truly belongs in – Gaiman does this sort of thing in many of his novels, and I think it works particularly well here. His characters are interesting, a little creepy, and somewhat mysterious, and he always leaves the reader a little bit of room for their own imagination.

He also doesn’t force a “happily-ever-after” ending – I don’t want to give too much away, but he allows the natural progression of the story, even though it doesn’t end with happiness and joy, and the book is better for it. It is never a light, happy read – it does, after all, take place in a graveyard – but Gaiman’s humor keeps it from feeling like a downer. Bod does his share of silly, impulsive things, and there are beautiful moments, as well, that make reading the book a pleasure.

Each time I think about it, I remember something else I loved. This is a novel I will certainly read again, and I’m sure discover more to enjoy. I’m thrilled for the author that it won this year’s Newbery – I believe it deserves the praise.

Finished: 2/16/09
Source: my sister (Thanks, Carolynn!)
Rating: 9/10

Reviewed by: Elizabeth

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The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block

Synopsis from the publisher:
Abel Haggard is an elderly hunchback who haunts the remnants of his familys farm in the encroaching shadow of the Dallas suburbs, adrift in recollections of those he loved and lost long ago. As a young man, he believed himself to be “the one person too many”; now he is all that remains. Hundreds of miles to the south, in Austin, Seth Waller is a teenage “Master of Nothingness” – a prime specimen of that gangly, pimple-rashed, too-smart breed of adolescent that vanishes in a puff of sarcasm at the slightest threat of human contact. When his mother is diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimers, Seth sets out on a quest to find her lost relatives and to conduct an “empirical investigation” that will uncover the truth of her genetic history. Though neither knows of the other’s existence, Abel and Seth are linked by a dual legacy: the disease that destroys the memories of those they love, and the story of Isidora – an edenic fantasy world free from the sorrows of remembrance, a land without memory where nothing is ever possessed, so nothing can be lost.

Through the fusion of myth, science, and storytelling, this novel offers a dazzling illumination of the hard-learned truth that only through the loss of what we consider precious can we understand the value of what remains.

My thoughts:

This was quite a remarkable debut novel. I’m not sure why I picked it up – probably something about the title struck my fancy – but once I started reading I could barely put it down. There are actually four intersecting narratives in the novel – Seth’s story, Abel’s story, the story of Isidora, and the story of Seth’s mother’s genetic history. I realize it sounds complicated, but the pieces fit together beautifully.

It was really Seth’s story that resonated with me so deeply. A young boy, just trying to figure himself out, suddenly has to deal with a mother who is disappearing. He loves her, and doesn’t want her to leave, and yet feels guilty because he hates visiting her in the assisted living home, where she sometimes knows who he is, and sometimes can’t even remember her own name. Block captures this young man’s struggle perfectly, and I was captivated by his story.

Block also illustrates the devastation of life with early-onset Alzheimers very well. I feel like I am painting this novel as fairly bleak, and while really, really sad things happen, it doesn’t feel like a sad novel. It was quite funny in parts, and lovely in others. Mostly just a great read – I recommend it!

Finished: 2/15/09

Source: Franklin Avenue library

Rating: 8/10

Reviewed by: Elizabeth

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Journey by James Michener

Synposis from B&N:

Gold fever swept the world in 1897. The chance for untold riches sent thousands of dreamers on a perilous trek toward their fortunes, failures, or deaths. Follow four English aristocrats and their Irish servant as they misguidedly haul their dreams across cruel Canadian terrain toward the Klondike gold fields.

My thoughts:

Journey actually started out as a section of Alaska, and was eventually cut and made into its own novel, so it made sense to me to read them together. This was another completely engrossing novel, and I am happy I read these two back to back. At the end of Journey, Michener discusses why he ultimately decided to take this story out of its original place in the novel Alaska, and it makes sense. However, I found it a very compelling read, having so recently finished the first novel.

Because Journey is so much shorter (just over 300 pages), I found it much more difficult to put down. This is not a feel-good novel, as much of what happens to the main characters is quite tragic. I will admit that I am not a fan of Lord Lutton, who would probably be considered the novel’s lead – he was extremely pompous an arrogant, and much of the tragedy is a direct result of his inability to admit he made bad decisions. The other characters were much more sympathetic, which made the events even more sad.

This novel would be a great introduction to Michener for someone who has considered reading his work, but is intimidated by the length of his other stories. It gives a good example of the writing style, but won’t break your shoulder being lugged around in a bag. (Or am I the only one that does that?)

At the end of Journey, Michener talks about his three goals in writing these two novels:

“I wanted to help the American public to think intelligently about the arctic, where large portions of future international history might well focus; I wanted to remind my readers that Russia had held Alaska for a longer period, 127 years (1741 through 1867 inclusive), than the United States had held it, 122 years (1867 through 1988); and I particularly desired to acquaint Americans with the role that neighboring Canada had played and still does play in Alaskan history.”

I feel like he accomplished each one of those goals in the two books, and I absolutely have been converted to a Michener lover! I will certainly be reading more of his novels in the future.

Finished: 2/14/08

Source: Grandpa W.
Rating: 8/10

Reviewed by: Elizabeth

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Review – Alaska by James Michener

Synopsis from B&N:

In this sweeping epic of the northernmost American frontier, James A. Michener guides us across Alaska’s fierce terrain, from the long-forgotten past to the bustling technological present, as his characters struggle for survival. The exciting high points of Alaska’s story, from its brutal prehistory, through the nineteenth century and the American acquisition, to its modern status as America’s thriving forty-ninth state, are brought vividly to life in this remarkable novel: the gold rush; the tremendous growth and exploitation of the salmon industry; the discovery of oil and its social and economic consequences; the difficult construction of the Alcan Highway, which made possible the defense of the territory in World War II. A spellbinding portrait of a human community struggling to establish its place in the world, Alaska traces a bold and majestic history of the enduring spirit of a land and its people.

My thoughts:

I was given a stack of books by my relatives to read and review – they like knowing they are contributing to my reading addiction. *grin* This is the first, loaned by my Grandpa. Wow. It’s almost hard to put into words my reaction to such a vast novel. Michener literally traces the entire history of Alaska – his first chapter deals with the crashing together of plates that formed the region into its mountainous terrain. Next, he introduces us to the animals that would have inhabited the region before humans moved onto the scene. It’s hard to describe his style of writing, because it is very detailed, almost in a textbook sort of way, but it never feels like reading a dry history book. It is very much a novel, with excitement brimming on each page.

Michener must have done an enormous amount of research before writing this novel, and in the front of the book he details, section by section, which characters and situations are historical fact, and which are author inventions to further the action of the novel. He is able to weave the fact and the fiction together so seamlessly that I was never aware of which was which. It is quite an accomplishment to write an 800+ page novel that never feels too long, but I was definitely left wanting more.

I was completely captivated by the characters he created, from the men and women of the native people to the animals who survived next to them. On several occasions he writes from an animal’s perspective, and manages to not make that seem weird. Only after I had put the book down did I think, “Wow, I just read about salmon spawning from the salmon’s point of view – that’s never happened before.” I appreciated that he wrote female characters who were just as strong and capable as their male counterparts – the people who settled Alaska were incredibly brave, and he allowed us to experience their journeys along with them in a completely fascinating way.

One of the best parts of the novel, for me, was feeling like I was learning about the history of our country as I was reading. I know one of the reasons my Grandpa enjoys Michener so much is that he includes so much history and geography in his novels, and in this one particularly there is much Grandpa would be able to relate to. He was stationed in the Pacific Theater during WWII, so when Michener describes the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands, that is something he would have been very familiar with.

Also, when the US government selected Minnesota families to move to Alaska to start a new life during the Depression, they were chosen from the area in which Grandpa grew up. He loaned me his own copy of the novel, and in it he underlined the names of the cities he knew, as well as other events and ideas he remembered from that time. I really enjoyed reading about a part of history that my own family lived through – amazing.

I did have a little bit of trouble with the pacing of the novel – because Michener covers SO MUCH ground, each chapter is essentially about a new era of Alaska’s development, and much of the time would involve a completely new set of characters. I found that prevented me from becoming completely engrossed in the story, since I had to acquaint myself with a new cast each time. However, it would be ideal for someone who reads more than one book at a time – this is the type of novel that could easily be set aside, and resumed a few days later. Also, I felt like it ended rather abruptly – suddenly, we were just done! That’s an odd thing to say for such a long novel, I know, but true.

In general, however, I loved this book. It was a fascinating and encompassing look at a place I would love to visit someday!

Finished: 2/8/09

Source: Grandpa W.
Rating: 8/10

Reviewed by: Elizabeth

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By the Shore by Galaxy Craze

By the Shore by Galazy Craze

B&N Synopsis:

Published to great international acclaim, Galaxy Craze’s best-selling debut, By the Shore, launched a young actress into literary fame. In clear and sparkling prose, her novel evokes a fragile, bittersweet world of youth on the cusp of adulthood and “captures perfectly the hopes and hurts of childhood” (The New York Times Book Review). Twelve-year-old May lives in a less than thriving oceanfront bed-and-breakfast run by her single mother. Her life is filled with the frustrations and promise of youth, complicated by a loving if distracted young mother who strives to care for her two children without forfeiting fun and passion. May puts her faith in the things that elude her – her absent father, the London city life left behind, the acceptance of the popular girls who have boyfriends — and wonders if her life will ever change. When a kindly writer and his glamorous editor come to lodge in the weeks before Christmas, opportunities are in the air. But then May’s playboy father, estranged from the family for years, drops in and threatens to freeze the delicate new possibilities stirring in all their lives.

My thoughts:

I initially picked up this novel because I am slated to review its successor, Tiger Tiger, for CurledUp.com, and I really, really hate to read the second book before the first. (I know, I’m a little anal about that.) I’d read some pretty wildly disparate reviews of the two books, so I didn’t quite know what to expect – I was very pleasantly surprised.

By the Shore captures perfectly the voice of its 12-year-old narrator, May. The prose itself is quiet, almost tentative, much like a young girl taking her first steps into adulthood. May is sweet, lovable, funny, wise, bratty – very much what you would expect of a young girl. She is smart beyond her years, due to her mother’s somewhat haphazard care, and yet still clings naively to the hope that her father will return and create one big, happy family. Eden, her brother, and Lucy, her mother, are both compelling, and the three characters form the strong backbone of the novel.

I was captivated from the first paragraph:

“It can be dangerous to live by the shore. In the winter, after a storm, things wash up on it: rusty pieces of sharp metal, glass, jellyfish. You must be careful where you tread. Sometimes I see a lone fish that has suffocated on the shore and think for days that there are fish in the water waiting for it to return. Then I think, There is nowhere to be safe.”

Something about this earnest, sweet young girl just grabbed me, and I read her story with fascination. Oh, how I wanted her to be happy, and not to learn the hard lessons I could sense would be coming her way.

“When they had gone into the house I pushed myself up off the ground and walked over to the tree where Eden had been playing. There were some acorns, leaves in piles, small stones and twigs: a whole world of something I couldn’t see anymore. When you are six years old you can sit at the bottom of a tree and everything becomes alive around you. The moss is a soft green carpet, the stone a sofa, the hollows of a tree a house. The wind was a low voice around me. It was getting darker out. The kitchen light was on and I could see the yellow walls and the long shadows made when someone walked past the light. I stared down at the base of the tree, but all I could see was a pile of twigs and leaves, and a few stones. This is how I know I’m getting older: a stick is just a stick.”

It certainly has is weaknesses – the romance between Lucy and the visiting writer is predictable, May’s father is, of course, a huge jerk – but the bond between the three main characters, and the voice of May, made me overlook the problems and fall in love with this novel. I’m so happy I decided to read it, and now can’t wait to start the next one!

Finished: 1/23/09
Rating: 8/10

Reviewed by: Elizabeth

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Til Human Voices Wake Us by Mark Budz

“We don’t want to be human anymore. Human voices woke us, but that’s not who we are. We want to forget we were human. We want to wake up to our own future. Not drown in the past.”

From Booklist:

In three different eras, three protagonists struggle with the spectre of death and grasp for a means to survival. During the Depression, an architect communes with mystics for the key to healing. In the near future, a traveller who believes he has found the answer with Jesus broadcasts his story from a church van. Far in the future, a post-human space explorer who has lost vital parts of his programming because of an accident fights to maintain coherence. Each character struggles for truth and life, their fates becoming more closely linked with every passing moment. Discovering the truth behind their fates and choosing the right set of memories constitute the only path to survival for all three. Budz’s fascinating thriller made up of three disparate stories crucially connected and eventually converging on a conclusion perhaps not entirely unexpected satisfies through the exploration of mind and choice that is its mainspring.

I checked this out of the library based on a recommendation from someone (as an aside, I really need to start writing down the source for all these recs….), and am glad I did. This is good science fiction, folks. The three characters introduced separately as the book begins are each interesting in themselves, but as the book progresses and the connections between the three start to become apparent, it really gets fascinating. Because it takes a little while to get into each character’s story, the first part of the book is a little slow-going, but even then I didn’t ever consider ditching it. The exploration of the different facets of personality, and how we chose to hide or express them, was quite interesting. I enjoyed this one – thanks to whomever told me to pick this up!

Rating: 8/10

Reviewed by: Elizabeth

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The Song of Hannah by Eva Etzioni-Halevy

The Song of Hannah, published in 2005, tells the story of the Old Testament prophet Samuel through the eyes of two women – Hannah, his mother, and Pninah, his father’s other wife.  Hannah and Pninah are childhood friends who grew up together learning to read the Torah. Hannah, the beautiful one, is pressured by her family to marry, but feels in her heart that there in only one right man for her. Pninah meets Elkanah when his family purchases the property next door, and quickly falls in love and becomes pregnant. At their wedding ceremony, Hannah meets Elkanah for the first time, and immediately knows he is the man she has been waiting for. When Elkanah takes Hannah as his second wife, Pninah is devastated, but still maintains her hold on him by giving him children. Hannah, who is loved but barren, begs the Lord for a child, promising him to the temple after his birth. Hannah’s son, Samuel, becomes the greatest prophet of the Israelites, but has demons of his own that make him all too human.

The Song of Hannah is told in alternating voices, so the reader is able to see the story from the point of view of both Hannah and Pninah. Etzioni-Halevy does an excellent job of giving each woman her own distinct voice, and each woman has an equal share of admirable and shameful moments. I couldn’t help sympathizing more with Pninah, but that could be my natural tendency to root for the underdog. I think the author is at her best when she is examining the complex relationships between men and women, and women and women, and this novel certainly has many such relationships to explore. Her new imagining of the barely mentioned biblical character of Pninah makes the well-known narrative seem fresh. Again, I would highly recommend this novel to biblical/historical fiction readers. It is excellent.
Rating: 7/10

Reviewed by: Elizabeth

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The Garden of Ruth by Eva Etzioni-Halevy

The Garden of Ruth, published in 2007, takes its inspiration from the biblical book of Ruth. However, Ruth is not the main character – instead, the heroine is Osnath, a young Jewish girl living several generations after Ruth. Osnath travels with her uncle, the prophet Samuel, to Bethlehem. While there, she stays with the family of Jesse, who has several sons. One of his sons, David, is annointed by Samuel to be the next king of Israel. While she is there, Osnath discovers an old scrap of a scroll that appears to be written by Ruth, David’s great-grandmother. When she tries to investigate Ruth’s story, however, Eliab, David’s brother, tries to thwart her interest. Realizing there is a secret to be discovered, Osnath continues to seek out more information about Ruth, while becoming entwined in the lives of David and Eliab’s family.

I was extremely pleased with this novel. Unlike The Triumph of Deborah, where the main characters are based on actual biblical figures, Eztioni-Halevy creates a completely imagined heroine to be the central figure in this book. I felt like this allowed me to believe more fully in the character and her life. Osnath is very likable, and it is easy to find yourself rooting for her as she tries to solve the mysteries of Ruth’s life. Some of her reactions to various events seemed strange, but I think they would have been true to the period in which she was living. The section in which the author finally reveals Ruth’s story was fascinating, and paints a new and interesting picture of the biblical legend. Again, there is quite a bit of romance, but it did not seem to be as intrusive in this novel – it felt more appropriate, because Ruth’s story is a love story, as well. I would highly recommend this novel to historical/biblical fiction readers – you will enjoy it!

Rating: 8/10

Reviewed by: Elizabeth

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