Posts filed under ‘January 2014 reads’

Yelling Timber before Ke$ha – “Serena” by Ron Rash

books“Serena” by Ron Rash, Published in 2008

This novel is stark storytelling but it has a weight to it that is hard to convey. Rash’s writing is excellent but truly rough and has a disconnect that can be disturbing.

George Pemberton owns a timber empire in North Carolina.  Around the time of the 1929 stock market crash, Pemberton returns from a three-month trip to Boston.  He brings with him his new bride, Serena.  At the train station in North Carolina, Pemberton and Serena are met by not only his business partners but also a very pregnant 16 year old Rachel and her father, who is planning on making Pemberton take care of his daughter and Pemberton’s unborn child. Pemberton’s bride hands Pemberton a knife and tells him to take care of it.  This scene ends with Pemberton gutting Rachel’s father and Serena telling Rachel that going forward they would have nothing to do with her or her unborn child. And thus the stage is set for the cold, calculating greed that is the Pembertons’ marriage.

Pemberton brings Serena to his timber camp where she quickly settles into the spartan environment.  In fact, it seems to fit her too perfectly.  She knows everything about timber, she is able to ride her white horse through the mountains seamlessly.  When too many workers are killed by rattlesnakes and work is threatened to slow she orders a hawk and trains it to kill the snakes.  She is a force.  She controls everything around her, including Pemberton.  But Serena can’t control her body and when she finds out that she cannot have a child, she is determined that Pemberton’s child with Rachel must be killed.  Apart from Rachel’s child, Pemberton and Serena are fighting the Rockefellers and other local aristocrats who are trying to get the timber land and convert into a park.  To Serena this type of action, that would interfere with her economic wellbeing, is worth killing for.

Rash brilliantly uses one of the lumber crews as a Greek chorus of sorts.  As the storyline progresses the men’s conversations, while felling trees, fill the reader in on anything that might have been missed. The men also serve as the moral compass of the story. Quite frankly, with characters like Pemberton and Serena you need a moral compass.

And the story is compelling but perhaps even more interesting is the awfulness that was the timber industry in the 1930s. It was dangerous and deadly.  Men were maimed daily and many died but new workers kept coming,  because it was the American Depression and they needed to feed their families.  Rash uses the character of Serena to illustrate the simplicity of the Depression, it was truly a win or lose proposition – life or death. And to Serena it is that simple.  She will kill, maim, belittle, blackmail, or chop down everything of beauty if that is what it takes to be successful.  She is a specimen. And through her, Rash has found the perfect way to quite clearly, though skillfully, say that the economy is truly a b*tch.

Other reviews to check it out:

From The Schleicher Spin

From Reading Good Books

From Book Urchin

January 24, 2014 at 9:21 pm Leave a comment

Water, water everywhere – “We are Water” and “Beach Music”

IMGP0432By some very odd twist of fate I read “Beach Music” by Pat Conroy and “We are Water” by Wally Lamb one after another.  They are both fairly long (500+pages) books but more importantly they are extremely tough but meaningful examinations of our lives with our families and how they torment us, break us and heal us.

I have been thinking a lot about Pat Conroy lately, I think because he just published a memoir. I read two of his books in high school or early college (my feeble mind is not as accurate anymore) but I don’t think I really understood the depth of his writing.  “Beach Music” is extremely well written. Conroy’s main character Jack was born and raised in a small South Carolina town.  He marries the girl next door, quite literally, and they have a child. But his wife struggles with mental illness and ends her life by jumping from a bridge.  In response, Jack has a nervous breakdown, recovers, packs his very young daughter up and moves to Rome cutting off all ties to family and friends. It is four years later when Jack receives a call from one of his brothers that their mother is dying from cancer.  So Jack, who has left all his painful memories in South Carolina, has to return home to face all kinds of things he has been avoiding.

In Conroy’s usual playbook style, Jack’s story is not simple.  The things that led to his wife’s suicide are plentiful and have many players.  There are deep betrayals and harrowing stories to tell. And then there is Jack’s mother – she carries secrets that she must face now that she is dying – these secrets become a part of Jack’s story as well. This book is so full of different stories it truly could have been two novels or even a compilation of short stories. But what I like about that is in reality our lives are just that complicated. I am the combination of my father’s life, my mother’s life, my siblings, the friends I have had, the choices I have made. There are lot of stories that touch my life- some terribly boring but still there they are.  This novel is the perfect example of that.  I will say I can’t quite wrap my head around the point of some of the stories. I get that Conroy is telling us that home is where the heart is – like sea turtles we will always come back home even if home is a tough place to be, etc.  But I think I might need more time to think about the book because I think I may have missed something.

Lamb’s “We are Water” is equally complex, though has a bit of a more narrow focus.  Orion and Annie were married for 27 years with three grown children when Annie dropped the news that she was leaving him for a woman.  That woman happens to be Viveca, Annie’s art dealer – she is the one who took Annie’s art and made her a success.  What follows is an interesting narrative of each person’s, in Annie’s family, reaction to her impending marriage to Viveca. It is not quite that simple and the narrative does include some other voices but that is the essence of it. Annie has a lot of secrets and pieces of her life that she has not shared with anyone.  As her wedding day approaches it becomes clear that keeping these secrets is no longer possible and the fall-out changes the dynamics of her family forever.

SPOILER ALERT – In order to really share my thoughts about this book I have to say  a large part of it focuses on the fact that Annie was molested by her cousin. It started when she was five years old and continued for 2 years.  Though you find this out early on, it still is something you have to piece together, at least until her cousin because the narrator.  I found this book extremely hard to read.  It was disturbing and very real.  I struggle a bit with this topic because I think is it overdone. There are very few modern books I read anymore that don’t have a character who has been raped or molested. But that said, Lamb takes a hard look at incest and the way he tells the story through Annie’s brokenness but also through her cousin’s point of view makes it more meaningful and not just fodder to gain reader empathy.  As an aside, I really enjoyed all of Wally Lamb’s other books more than this one.

While it is Winter and long books are likely fitting, I think I am on to something short and sweet. And maybe not with any water symbolism.  I can only handle so many “ripples causing ripples” analogies in one month.

Other reviews to check out: 

From Maurice on Books 

From Turn the Page

From thevoiceofoma

January 14, 2014 at 8:17 pm Leave a comment


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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.

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