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review 2018-04-11 10:31
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Days Without End - Sebastian Barry

Thomas McNulty, aged barely seventeen and having fled the Great Famine in Ireland, signs up for the U.S. Army in the 1850s. With his brother in arms, John Cole, Thomas goes on to fight in the Indian Wars—against the Sioux and the Yurok—and, ultimately, the Civil War. Orphans of terrible hardships themselves, the men find these days to be vivid and alive, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in. Moving from the plains of Wyoming to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. An intensely poignant story of two men and the makeshift family they create with a young Sioux girl, Winona, Days Without End is a fresh and haunting portrait of the most fateful years in American history and is a novel never to be forgotten.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Just after his 17th birthday, Thomas McNulty and his friend, John Cole, decide to enlist in the US Army as a way to escape their bleak home lives. This decision takes them through service during the Indian and Civil Wars. While they may have anticipated great adventures, they had no way of knowing the horrors of war that awaited them. 

 

The first half of the novel focuses on the Indian War years, as the boys not only learn basic soldiering, but also how to survive all the different types of weather and terrain as they march or ride across the country. Mother Nature brings them battles of her own in the form of vicious heat over the flatlands, freezing winters in camps with beyond meager supplies, fever epidemics, and food shortages (even the horses are starving to death). 

 

Racism of the day is another strong theme in this work. Though not written as one of the novel's racist characters himself, Thomas points out to the reader various examples he sees throughout the course of his life. For one, an Army acquaintance of Thomas and John's falls in love with an Ogalala Sioux woman, fathers a son with her. Thomas's response to the news: "I guess love laughs at history a little." Then there's John himself, who is part Native American... apparently that "part" is visible enough in his appearance for him to get a dose of hate speech directed his way.

 

We were two wood shavings of humanity in a rough world.. (Thomas re: him and John)... You had to love John Cole for what he chose never to say. He said plenty of the useful stuff

 

 

There's also the matter of Thomas and his friends working at a theater between tours of duty, a job that occasionally has them doing minstrel shows in blackface. I'd also mention that there is a description near the end of the book where the men remember coming upon 30 black people who had recently been hanged together. I warn you, this description is mildly graphic.

 

In truth, there's a strong dose of graphic material throughout the whole novel. Chapter 2 is mostly about hunting, killing, and cutting up buffalo. Chapter 3 focuses on massacring Indians. The gritty, graphic nature of the writing only increases as you approach the closing chapters of the story. 

 

Chapter 12 starts the Civil War experiences, sending Thomas and John to Boston, Massachusetts for training. There Thomas meets a fellow Irish immigrant. They swap stories of their "coming over" experience on the boats, giving the reader a grim look at the reality of what families risked to get here for the chance at a new life. It is through this meeting that Thomas ponders on the realization of just how often Irish men were treated like total scum... until the Army needed soldiers for their causes. 

 

The story is told in Thomas's first person perspective, but as an older man now retired and living in Tennessee, looking back on his wild youth. Said youth starts in Ireland, but (after he loses his entire family) soon brings him to the US as a teenage immigrant, eventually deciding to settle in Missouri. If you struggle with reading stories written in dialects, I warn you that this one is written in a kind of "country boy" voice that only gets stronger as your reading progresses. There's also a healthy dose of cursing -- some used just as a matter of speech, some as actual intended profanity in the situation. 

 

Thomas also describes what it was like being a gay man -- his lover being his friend John -- in this era, with a penchant for cross dressing. Every so often we also get a glimpse of his sassiness, such as his thoughts on his short stature: "I'm a little man right enough but maybe the best dagger is a short one sometimes." (Meanwhile, John is 6'3.)

 

The plot didn't keep my attention all that well. There is something to Barry's writing that I could appreciate. The verbiage itself is solid enough, Thomas gives the reader a good laugh here and there, there are lots of pretty lines -- such as "our breath is flowing out like lonesome flowers that die on the air" --  but something was still lacking. I just didn't find myself emotionally committing to these characters, as far as their life stories go. What I do give points for are the themes / topics Barry leaves you to ponder on, such as racism of the era, the topic of immigration, or my favorite, the dichotomy that extends to exist within the Irish spirit. The sweetness vs. the hellfire. There's a whole passage on this that really rang true with me and had me nodding in recognition! 

 

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review 2018-04-11 07:04
Touchy Subjects by Emma Donoghue
Touchy Subjects - Emma Donoghue

How do you make conversation with a sperm donor? How do you say someone's novel is drivel? Would you give a screaming baby brandy? In what words would you tell your girlfriend to pluck a hair on her chin? Touchy Subjects is about things that make people wince: taboos, controversies, secrets and lies. Some of the events that characters crash into are grand, tragic ones: miscarriage, overdose, missing persons, a mother who deserts her children. Other topics, like religion and money, are not inherently taboo, but they can cause acute discomfort because people disagree so vehemently. Many of these stories are about the spectrum of constrained, convoluted feeling that runs from awkwardness through embarrassment to shame.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

In this odd little short story collection, Emma Donoghue breaks up her tales into five categories of general life: Babies, Domesticity, Strangers, Desire and Death. A rundown of of the stories:

 

BABIES

 

"Touchy Subjects" (title story) -- a man agrees to be the sperm donor to his wife's best friend. Story gets into general discussion of fertility struggles of women

 

"Expecting" -- a woman lies about being pregnant, the lie gets out of hand

 

"The Man Who Wrote On Beaches" -- a man turns 43 and finds religion, which causes upset in his relationship with his agnostic girlfriend (there is a baby discussion here, if you're wondering)

 

"OOPS" -- James helps friend Neasa through a pregnancy he assumes is unplanned and unwanted, sets himself up as surrogate "uncle" to the child, helping with child rearing over the years

 

"Through The Night" -- Pre-motherhood Una was known for being quite the stoic. Now after giving birth, she finds herself deep in the throws of sleep deprivation and postpartum depression, uneasy with the dark places her mind is drifting. 

 

"Do They Know It's Christmas?" -- A childless couple has embraced their life as dog parents and all is well until the holidays come and they're asked to leave the dogs at home while they attend a family gathering.

 

DOMESTICITY

 

"Lavender's Blue" -- A couple goes near-mad trying to agree on the perfect shade of slate blue to paint the exterior of their house

 

"The Cost of Things" -- An emotional rift develops between a lesbian couple over the medical expenses for their sick cat

 

"Pluck" -- A husband becomes fixated on a single dark hair on his wife's chin

 

STRANGERS

 

"Good Deed" -- A wealthy Canadian man struggles to decide on a course of action over a homeless man he finds laying in the street, bleeding from the mouth 

 

"The Sanctuary of Hands" -- In Toulouse, France, a woman decides to take a tour of underground caverns, but is unsettled by a group of special needs adults joining her tour group. 

 

"WritOr" -- A once successful writer, now struggling with mounting debt, grudgingly agrees to accept a "Writer In Residence" position at a small college, giving writing advice to aspiring authors. 

 

DESIRE

 

"Team Men" -- Teenager Jonathan plays on a football team, with his dad as the coach. His dad is pretty hard on him, when it comes to critiquing Jonathan's athletic ability. When new guy Davy joins the team, Davy quickly becomes the star player. Jonathan feels a little threatened by him at first, but before long they become good friends who progess into secret lovers. Though they think they've been successful keeping their relationship under wraps, Jonathan's father turns mysteriously, progressively angry towards the both of them. 

 

"Speaking In Tongues" -- Ladies Lee and Sylvia fall for each other after meeting at a conference

 

"The Welcome" -- Luce sees one 5-line ad for womens' housing, finds herself triggered by the spelling errors and the political correctness seeping through the choice of wording 

 

DEATH

 

"The Dormition of the Virgin" -- George is vacationing in Italy. The last day of his stay he comes upon a dead body.

 

"Enchantment" -- Pitre and Bunch are two longtime friends living in Louisiana who get competitive with running swamp tours... until Pitre falls gravely ill

 

"Baggage" -- Niniane is in Hollywood .... partly on holiday, partly to find out information regarding her estranged brother

 

"Necessary Noise" -- Two sisters pick up their brother from a nightclub, immediately have to rush him to a hospital when he appears to be extremely ill and under the influence of serious drugs. 

 

 

 

Overall Impressions:

 

I closed the book with a strong feeling of MEH. In a number of these stories, there are definitely intriguing ideas that Donoghue experiments with.. they just didn't really go anywhere. Most of these stories didn't close on strong, impactful moments, instead just kinda .. dropped off... which is one of my big peeves with short story collections in general. I will say though, I enjoyed the second half of the book much more than the first. I was close to DNF-ing after the first few stories but something was telling me to hang in there.

 

I'm glad I did, largely for "WritOr", which ended up being my favorite story in the whole book. After a number of bland bits in the earlier portion of this collection, I was pleasantly surprised to find such humor in "WritOr". Granted, it might be the "you had to be there" brand of humor. Being a writer myself, who worked as a writing tutor in college, a lot of what Donoghue illustrates in this particular story brought back vivid memories of my own experiences in that environment. Perhaps for that story alone, maybe a couple others that made me smile or think for a moment, I'll likely end up keeping this one on my shelves, at least for the time being. But if you haven't tried any of Donoghue's work before, I would NOT recommend starting here. 

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review 2018-04-11 05:24
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
TransAtlantic - Colum McCann

Newfoundland, 1919. Two aviators—Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown—set course for Ireland as they attempt the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, placing their trust in a modified bomber to heal the wounds of the Great War. Dublin, 1845 and ’46. On an international lecture tour in support of his subversive autobiography, Frederick Douglass finds the Irish people sympathetic to the abolitionist cause—despite the fact that, as famine ravages the countryside, the poor suffer from hardships that are astonishing even to an American slave. New York, 1998. Leaving behind a young wife and newborn child, Senator George Mitchell departs for Belfast, where it has fallen to him, the son of an Irish-American father and a Lebanese mother, to shepherd Northern Ireland’s notoriously bitter and volatile peace talks to an uncertain conclusion. These three iconic crossings are connected by a series of remarkable women whose personal stories are caught up in the swells of history. Beginning with Irish housemaid Lily Duggan, who crosses paths with Frederick Douglass, the novel follows her daughter and granddaughter, Emily and Lottie, and culminates in the present-day story of Hannah Carson, in whom all the hopes and failures of previous generations live on. From the loughs of Ireland to the flatlands of Missouri and the windswept coast of Newfoundland, their journeys mirror the progress and shape of history. They each learn that even the most unassuming moments of grace have a way of rippling through time, space, and memory.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

This novel open in 2012 but before the final page ends up spanning two continents and three centuries. Though considered a complete novel, TransAtlantic ends up having more the feel of interconnected short stories, the first being of two former WW1 pilots, Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown, in Newfoundland in 1919, who are attempting the first nonstop transatlantic flight after modifying an old bomber plane.

 

Days of welding, soldering, sanding, stitching. The bomb bays were replaced by extra petrol tanks. That's what pleased Brown the most. They were using the bomber in a brand-new way: taking the war out of the plane, stripping the whole thing of its penchant for carnage. 

 

 

Their destination: Ireland. The project is riddled with setbacks. Just the attempt to fly from London -- when they're SO close to the finish line! --  to Clifden, Ireland causes the plane to basically crumble apart at times, nearly killing them more than once! 

 

From there, the story stays in Ireland but jumps back to the year 1845. Former slave / abolitionist Frederick Douglass is visiting Dublin while on a European tour to promote his memoirs (and thereby his abolitionist message). It is during this time that author Colum McCann paints a picture of what the era of the potato famine might have looked like to someone who had likewise known extreme hardships such as Douglass. 

 

Douglass writes to wife Anna about his impressions of Ireland and its people, initially noting that he finds himself quite at ease, as the people are incredibly friendly and respectful, not an n-word hurled at him once. That, the reader will find, is short-lived. Douglass starts doing joint speaking engagements with "The Great Liberator" Daniel O'Connell. People start calling Douglass "the black O'Connell". As the tour continues, Douglass starts to notice his own publisher (international, that is), Webb, treats him more and more like a specimen or a roadshow attraction. Webb becomes noticeably more stingy with covering Douglass' travel expenses. That slur usage Douglass thought was absent in Ireland ends up rearing its head in Cork as Douglass is simply walking down a street one day. It is during this time that author McCann also works in the storyline of Douglass making plans on how to officially negotiate his freedom while in England. 

 

Douglass (at least McCann's portrayal of him) does describe a moment of PTSD while being fitted for a suit while overseas, a moment in the experience throwing him back to his days as a slave. 

 

The reader is also given a more modern story, comparatively, involving Irish-American senator George Mitchell, based in NYC, who heads to Belfast in 1998 to try to help promote peace talks in Northern Ireland. (Colum McCann himself, per his author blurb, was born in Dublin but now lives in NYC). When it came to this portion of the book, the bits about the senator being so in love with his wife were very sweet but overall I found myself a bit bored by his storyline.

 

Have I mentioned how much this book jumps back and forth between all these different eras? Yeah, if you like your fiction strictly chronological, TransAtlantic might prove to be a challenge for you. Comfortable in that 1990s setting? Too bad! McCann will slingshot you over to Civil War era and back again. A heads up regarding that, if you are a sensitive reader: much of this book is pretty tame (low violence factor), but the Civil War portions do contain some crude, graphic descriptions that may possibly turn your stomach. 

 

Part of what kept me reading was trying to figure out how all these characters were connected ... I assumed there must be at least some link, even a thin one... it wasn't always immediately evident what those connections were. But in the case of Douglass's story, there was a character there that comes back around years later and links stuff up for the reader in Part 2. This character's story, with her connection to Douglass... in a way it saddened me, but there was something there that leaves a feeling of optimism for the future. 

 

In general, the plots going on within the various storylines were mildly interesting, but nothing really deeply hooked me as a reader. Also, the jumping around seemed to lack finesse, instead giving me a bit of a headache trying to keep up and make sense of all the details being tossed about. 

 

_____

 

EXTRAS

 

* In his acknowledgements section, Colum McCann gives a shout-out to Irish actor Gabriel Byrne as part of the "TransAtlantic Crew"... makes me wonder if a movie adaptation was ever in the works? I can't find evidence of this anywhere online... later on he also gives nods to fellow writers Michael Ondaatje (of The English Patient fame) and Wendell Berry.

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review 2018-04-10 15:25
Solid Collection by Pilcher, Just Thought Some of the Stories Didn't Work
Flowers In the Rain & Other Stories - Rosamunde Pilcher

So I read this one after the other collection of short stories by Pilcher. I wish I had waited. Maybe that is coloring my review. I just thought that the majority of the stories in this one didn't work for me at all. Also, I got really tired of reading stories about broken engagements. They could all be summed up as so and so chose this person as second best. I don't think I would run off with anyone that just broke up with someone, so maybe that's my personal bias working. 

 

"The Doll's House" (3.5 stars)- A young boy missing his dead father, goes through with a promise to make a doll house for his younger sister. While that would be enough, he also has to deal with knowing that a local man is interested in his mother to marry and he hopes that she doesn't. Pilcher leaves us with enough to know how the story is going to end when we get finished with this story.


"Endings and Beginnings" (3 stars)-This one read as the longest story in this collection. A man (Tom) goes home for his Aunt Mabel's 75th birthday. He tries to get his girlfriend to come along and she declines. While home, he makes the acquaintance of his cousin or I don't know cousin once removed Kitty. Kitty's life has been a bit of a mess and now Tom seems intrigued by it and her. 

 

"Flowers in the Rain" (1 star)-I really didn't like this one at all. A woman returns back to a place her family spent holidays at. She's there (supposedly) to say hello to Mrs. Farquhar, but really she wants to know about her grandson, Rory. I think it just bugged me since it read as if the main character had put her life on hold for Rory. And though I was reading him as saying goodbye (he won't see her again) I think she was deluding herself a bit thinking he would come back to Scotland. It just read as depressing.

 

 "Playing A Round With Love" (2 stars)-I see this married couple getting divorced eventually. A man who is married acts surprised that his wife would not want him to take a whole day off to go golfing on the weekends. 

 

"Christabel" (1 star)-Another common theme in Pilcher's short stories seems to be young women/men who realize that they shouldn't marry someone like days before their wedding. I didn't see why Christabel or her grandmother were so impressed/loved the character of Sam. He was not developed enough for a short story for me to care about a tall. 

 

"The Blackberry Day" (2 stars)- A woman (Claudia) travels to her childhood friend's home to get away from the fact that a man she has been in a long term relationship with for years does not seem to be any closer to proposing marriage. I hated how this one ended since it just seemed that Claudia was going to choose whatever as long as she wasn't alone.

 

"The Red Dress" (1 star)-I was so confused by this story. I don't know if the main character was angling for an affair or what. She seemed way too intense/involved with the gardener who was married with kids. 

 

"A Girl I Used to Know" (3 stars)-An okay story. A woman finds out she can actually do things that she is scared to do. All of this winds up being about her being afraid her boyfriend will dump her if she doesn't ski.

 

"The Watershed" (4 stars)-I liked this one. A married woman who is about to celebrate her pearl anniversary, is wondering if she and her husband should stay in their big home. She is thinking about downsizing and moving to something small since their children have homes and lives of their own. 

 

"Marigold Garden" (2 stars)-Another broken engagement story.

 

"Weekend" (3 stars)- A young woman is afraid to get married thinking it could mean the end of her ability to be self-sufficient. Or at least that is what I took from this story.

 

"A Walk in the Snow" (3 stars)- A young girl realizes that the young boy she's in love with has moved on from her. The story ends in such a way though you realize she's already thinking of someone else. 

 

"Cousin Dorothy" (5 stars)-My favorite in this collection. A widowed woman trying to do her best for her daughter on her wedding day. I would have maybe shaken my daughter since the girl acted like a brat pretty much the entire story. Her husband's cousin rides to the rescue.

 

"Whistle for the Wind" (2 stars)-Another broken engagement story. 

 

"Last Morning" (4 stars)-A woman prepares for her son's wedding day. 

 

"Skates" (3 stars)- A young girl finally realizes that someone in her family sees her for who she is, not what she can be. It was a pretty weak story (IMHO) to end on in this collection. 

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review 2018-04-10 15:04
Great Collection of Short Stories
The Blue Bedroom: & Other Stories - Rosamunde Pilcher

I decided to go ahead and buy two of Pilcher's short story collections. I thought this one was stronger. That could have been because I read this one first though. The second one was good, but it just repeated themes that I already read about in this one so I found my interest waning a bit.

 

Toby (5 stars)- A young boy (Toby) learns about death. I also liked that there is a side story with his sister maybe realizing that the young man she has known forever would be more suitable to be with than the guy she brought home to her family. 


Home for the Day (5 stars)-I laughed loudly at this story. A married man (James) finds out what it really entails for his wife (Louisa) to keep the household running. Staying home with a cold (side-eye to James) he now knows what it means when his wife says "Nothing much" when he asks her what she has been doing all day. When James acts totally surprised that his wife isn't going to just bring him coffee and have a four course lunch laid out I cracked up. I thought this was very sweet and loved the ending. 

 

Spanish Ladies (3 stars)-A young girl is dealing with the death of her grandfather. Her older sister is about to be married and she pushes away anyone that can give her comfort. The ending definitely made it seem like she was going to be fixed up with a young man she despised until he sought her out and talked to her about her grandfather though. 

 

Miss Cameron at Christmas (4 stars)-This story made me sad. Miss Cameron spent most of her life taking care of her elderly parents which caused her to give up a lot. When her father finally dies, she is able to buy a home that is just for her. She ends up being drawn in by the family next door. 

 

Tea With the Professor (3 stars)-This seems to be a theme Pilcher likes to play with in her short stories, either a widowed man/woman and their children. A widowed woman is dealing with both of her children off to boarding school. She starts to wonder about the professor next door to her who seems interested in her as well. 

 

Amita (3 stars)-I don't know if this story was getting the point across that Pilcher wanted it to. Amita is about a French and Indian woman who ends up marrying a man from England prior to WWII. The story talks about how a young woman talking about Amita (her family was close to the young man's family) and how she realized her mother was racist. 

 

The Blue Bedroom (4 stars)-A young girl who has felt adrift since her mother has died makes a surprising connection to her new stepmother. Also can we say that the father getting married a year later says a lot about him. 

 

Gilbert (5 stars)-I cracked up reading this one. A man who marries a widow with two young daughters finally feels a part of things when he helps set up a possible pet funeral. 

 

The Before-Christmas Present (3 stars)-A married woman discovers feminism. 

 

The White Birds (2 stars)-A mother worries for her daughter who is about to give birth. During important times of her life, birds have come and signaled something wonderful happening. 


The Tree (3 star)-A young family with no money to fix up their home and cut down an unsightly tree get a visit by their cheap uncle which leads to surprising results. 

 

The House on the Hill (3 stars)-I wasn't feeling this one much either. A young boy comes to stay with his sister who is expecting her first child. He gets caught up in fantasies about a man that lives up on the hill from his sister. 

 

An Evening to Remember (5 stars)-Pretty funny story about a woman trying her best to get her home together and cook a great meal for her husband's boss and his wife. Things go sideways when they show up a day early. 

 

I thought the writing was very good in all of the stories though I didn't care for all of the plots. Pilcher has a great way of describing the weather, food, people, and places that makes the stories come alive. 

 

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