Gateway Gazette

From My Bookshelf ~ Featuring Elizabeth Strout and Garth Stein

By Lynn Willoughby

The Burgess Boys ~ Elizabeth Strout

Memory is a fickle thing, and childhood memories are often based on stories we are told. What is the thing you first remember – a birthday, a picnic, a broken arm?

This novel is about three siblings – twins Bob and Susan, and their older brother Jim. A childhood tragedy is still the basis of their relationship and how they interact with each other as adults. Jim is still very much the older brother who Bob and Susan defer to, who still calls Bob “slob dog”, and other abusive childhood names, who is the successful lawyer married to the rich wife. Jim is also the one with a secret.

Like “Olive Kitteredge” this is not a thriller, nor a wildly exciting novel It is a character study reminding us it is the gifts of our talents and the gifts of our shortcomings which allow us to grow.

The story gives Strout “…an opportunity to explore the culture of the Somalis who have immigrated to the state (Maine) in recent years…” Like “Olive Kitteridge” the hate crime at the core of this book allows Strout to give us a handful of scenes told from various perspectives – the boy himself, a Somali café owner, Susan, a minister. What startled me the most is how the Somalis see Americans – as arrogant, racist, cruel, but most of all, entitled. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Fourth of July celebrations are wonderful, but they blind us to what other cultures see and celebrate. (I expect the same can be said of Canada.)

The real hero of this story is the elderly Somali café owner who has enough compassion to see past an event and look at the person. He has enough wisdom to transcend cultures and see a boy.

The true sadness is in the Somali woman who is taking her children back to war torn Africa – because she does not want them to grow up as Americans.

  • Olive Kitteridge
  • Abide With Me
  • Amy and Isabelle

A Sudden Light ~ Garth Stein

I very often choose books by the author. Usually I am not disappointed to read a new novel by Amy Tan, Stephen King or Barbara Kingsolver. So, after reading Stein’s last book “The Art of Racing in the Rain”, which was wonderful and I highly recommend it, this was a HUGE disappointment.

This is the tale of multi generations of the Riddell family. We learn about how they made a fortune in the lumber business by clear cutting huge tracts of land in the Pacific northwest region of Washington and Oregon. The story weaves between past and present , but always centres on The North Estate – the family’s 200 acre ancestral home on Puget Sound. The house itself is derelict, but the land is prime real estate. The family is divided and in tatters.
The narrator is Trevor – the 14 year old youngest member of the family. His aunt Serena has cared for her father Samuel, her whole life. But she declares he is senile and now it is too much for her. So Trevor and his father, Jones, return to The North Estate, although Jones has never been back in twenty three years. So we have this tortured and dysfunctional family each with their own agenda.

Add to all of this the supernatural qualities of the house, a 14 year old whose observations are not believable, a cast of characters from several generations. Yes, I’M CONFUSED!

For almost 400 pages we are reading about whether the rotting mansion should be sold or torn down. To quote a Kirkus review: “A repetitive, poorly conceived work of pulp fiction. Frankly, we’re stumped.” Me too.

  • How Evan Broke His Head
  • Raven Stole the Moon
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain

Who Knew?

The Department of National Resources in the USA manages 3 million acres of state land. For $150 one can apply for a timber harvest application and “You could log 5 million dollars worth of wood.”

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