narfna’s #CBR5 Review #84: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

guernseyMy sister gave me this book as a gift two or three Christmases ago. I put it on my shelf and forgot about it until a couple of months ago when she guilted me about not having read it. And really, she had a valid point. I’m usually the one who recommends books, and she always reads them, so when she does bother to give me a book I’ve never read before, the least I could do is return the favor. Unfortunately, I had somehow lost my copy, possibly in one of my several moves, possibly due to other unknown factors. So I had to go out and buy a new copy, and that fucker was $15.

Publishing industry, if you’re listening, $15 is too fucking much for a little 200 plus page book.

Guernsey is an epistolary novel that takes place post-WWII on the island of Guernsey, where an impromptu “literary society” popped up in response to the German occupation there. The main character is an author who is corresponding with the island’s inhabitants for research purposes, but she soon finds herself directly wrapped up in their lives.

Anyway, I was a little lost at first, what with the epistolary style and the fact that it just kind of jumps right in. I was just like, “huh?” for about the first ten pages or so, and then BOOM I was kind of in love. That feeling didn’t last all the way through the book, sadly, as the ending did feel a bit contrived and the main character felt a bit shoehorned in, but it was just such a happy little book I don’t even care. If you don’t like emotionally indulgent books, you probably won’t like this, but if you like a little sap and cheese with your steak (I don’t know, it’s late), then you should probably pick this up. The parts where they recount their war experiences were fascinating, and the members of the literary society made me want to move there and join just so I could hang out with them, the weirdos.

All in all, good rec from my sister. God, it’s only taken her twenty-six years to prove useful to me. JUST KIDDING. (That last part was a test to see if she’s reading this. Go about your business.)

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #40: Postcards by E. Annie Proulx

This first novel of Proulx, author of the more famous “The Shipping News,” is a sprawling saga of post-WWII America that extends from the farms of Vermont to the factories of Chicago, the mining towns of Colorado, the forests of Minnesota, to money-rich Miami. It is the story of the Blood family, whose eldest son Loyal commits an unexplained murder at the opening of the story and flees the debt-strapped family farm into self-imposed exile, leaving a rage-filled brute of a father, a downtrodden mother, a one-armed brother desperate for something to give his life meaning, and a young sister determined to escape one day.

Although Loyal learns many trades in his decades of wandering, from trapping in the wild to logging, from gold and uranium mining to dinosaur hunting, even building an amateur observatory, he is unable to find solace in exile. He has perpetual bad luck—getting robbed, getting beaten, getting trapped in a mine, cheating death any number of times—and remains ever allergic to a woman’s touch, a self-inflicted penance for the murder he committed. All the while, he sends postcards home to his family, postcards which never give a return address but which mark his lonely odyssey across America and his own guilty conscience. He remains forever ignorant of the tragedies which stalk and ultimately decimate his family, even as he is a walking tragedy until the end.

Proulx touches on a great many issues in her dramatic tale of the Bloods, from the condition of women to the destruction of the family farm, from the after effects of war on returning vets to the plight of the Native American and the corruption of money. Her writing can be lush or, when necessary, painfully stark, but Proulx brilliantly conveys the sights and smells of America, and both the hopes and, as often, the despair of the people who live here.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #27: Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

This raw and violent tale of color and gender bigotry in post-WWII Mississippi is a fine debut novel , and despite the predictability of much of the plot, is worth the read, as much for its social conscience as for its well-crafted format of using six different narrative voices to tell the story.

Laura is a college-educated schoolteacher from Memphis, living at home and considered by many to be unmarriageable at the ripe age of 30. Construction engineer Henry McAllen, a calm well-meaning bachelor in his forties, appears on the scene, marries her, and they have two daughters while Laura revels in motherhood and marriage. Eventually he takes her off to farm country in the Mississippi Delta where he has bought a farm complete with sharecroppers, and rented a lovely house in town for his wife and two daughters. Due to Henry’s naiveté, the house is sold before they arrive, and they end up having to move—together with Henry’s racist and woman-hating pig of a father–to a crude shack on the farm, where constant flooding, perpetual mud, miserable isolation, and an oblivious Henry set the scene for disaster.

Soon returning from overseas are two traumatized WWII soldiers: Henry’s younger brother Jamie, a handsome rogue who attempts to charm his sister-in-law while attempting to hide his war-induced breakdown with alcohol, and Ronsel, the war-hero son of black sharecroppers Hap and Florence who live on the McAllen farm and who have dreams of owning their own land someday.  Ronsel has grown accustomed to being treated like a man in the environs of war-time Europe, and refuses to bow and scrape to racist whites like “Pappy” McAllen and his KKK buddies. Instead, he and Jamie become friends in a place where the very act of a black man riding in the front seat of a truck with a white man is considered a hanging offense.

As Laura grows increasingly disillusioned with her life and her marriage, Jamie sinks deeper into depression and alcohol addiction, and Ronsel dreams of escape from a dead-end existence with his parents, their frustrations and anger are authentically voiced in alternating chapters–all of which raises the tension levels of the novel to a fever pitch. The climax, when it comes, is perhaps a foregone conclusion, but nonetheless gut-wrenching and it stayed with me for days. Jordan’s storyline has a few weaknesses, but her writing is powerful, her characters and setting are genuine and compelling, and her moral outrage needs to be heard.

For those looking for a brilliant read which packs the same punch, try to find a copy of “Freedom Road” by Howard Fast. You won’t be sorry.