ETTA AND OTTO AND RUSSELL AND JAMES, by Emma Hooper

21412221Etta and Otto and Russell and James
By Emma Hooper
Simon & Schuster – 20th January 2015
ISBN 9781476755670 – 320 Pages – Hardcover
Source: NetGalley


 At 82 years old Etta gets up one morning, packs some supplies, and heads out on a walking trek to fulfill her unfulfilled dream of seeing the sea, thousands of kilometers away from the Saskatchewan home she shares with her husband Otto. As Etta makes her gradual journey step by step, Otto remains at home reminiscing over the past that he has shared with Etta and their neighbor and long-time friend Russell.
Starting off toward her goal solitary, with no fanfare, Etta begins meeting people who have heard of her walk and lend her some support and companionship as she passes through towns. In the empty Canadian wilderness between she becomes joined by James, a talking coyote. Meanwhile the reader discovers through the reflections of Otto’s and Russell’s past that love and passion exists both between Etta and Otto, and between her and Russell. Amid the tides of war and the expectations of society Etta, Otto, and Russell experience difficulties and tenderness alike.
There is a lot to appreciate in this gentle literary novel. The elderly are not frequently featured or explored in novels in any serious way, and in film/TV they are mostly used for jokes. Having protagonists who are elderly – and one who is female and actively doing something amazing that even the young would be hesitant to attempt – is refreshing. The three human characters of the novel, both at their present old age and in the recollections of their younger years are well fleshed out, and really interesting, beautiful.
Etta and Otto and Russell and James is also marked by a distinct lack of conflict. Despite the love triangle featured here, there is nothing disastrous that comes about. The hardships, the longing and the guilt over having given into some of these are viewed in the novel through the long stretch of decades that have passed. In their old age the characters have become much more wise, patient, and forgiving to themselves. Having characters that are largely at peace, non-resentful, and appreciative of the life they have gotten to live even with its notes of sourness makes the novel feel similar, slow and optimistically contemplative despite that sadness over missed opportunities, unfulfilled desires.
It is Etta’s journey in the present – an attempt to satiate one desire that still remains possible – that creates some of the largest tension, in the worry of whether she will be able to make such an arduous journey without her health failing, physically or mentally. The appearance of James, a talking coyote companion injects the ‘magical realism’ into the novel. If merely a construct of Etta’s mind, is it something beneficial akin to a spirit guide, or a sign of danger? The line between real and fantasy blurs more as the novel reaches its conclusion, leaving an ending that can be interpreted in unique ways depending on the reader.
For readers who don’t mind the oddity and openness this novel contains or a lack of action, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a meditative, emotionally complex novel that invites reflection and discussion. Even accepting the type of novel this is, I’m most uncertain how vital James is as a character, but rereading it with everything in mind with the coyote as an aspect of Etta’s mind may reveal more here than a first read was able to pick out. A good length for a book club, the novel would certainly be an ideal consideration for one.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Simon & Schuster via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Steady Running of the Hour, by Justin Go

The Steady Running of the Hour,
by Justin Go
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 1476704589
480 pages, hardcover
Published 15th April 2014
Source: Goodreads

Recently graduated from college, American Tristan Campbell is in a directionless limbo when he receives a formal letter from a firm of British solicitors asking him to contact them about an important matter. The solicitors explain to Campbell that he may be heir to a sizable estate left by a former mountaineer and World War I officer named Ashley Walsingham.

Since Ashley’s death during an attempt to ascend Mt Everest, the firm has managed his estate, which was never claimed by the woman to whom Ashely left it, his former lover Imogen Soames-Andersson. The solicitors have established Tristan as the last living blood relative of the Soames-Anderssons, but whether Imogen is a direct ancestor is uncertain, a secret hidden in the shadows of a doomed, illicit affair between Imogen and Ashley.

Tristan finds himself drawn into a personal research quest that spans across Europe from Britain through France into Germany and Scandinavian lands to discover whether his grandmother was really the bastard child of Ashley and Imogen rather than the legitimate daughter of Imogen’s sister as had been officially recorded in time.

Justin Go writes Tristan’s genealogical quest  with contrapuntal chapters that reveal the events in the lives of Ashley and Imogen from their meeting until Imogen’s disappearance. With this plot and structure the novel suggests categorization as part mystery, romance, and historical novel.  Though containing these elements, The Steady Running of the Hour never actually fulfills the promise of any of these genres, leaving its purpose more in the field of general literary fiction. While Go’s debut novel shows a great deal of promise and an artistic mastery of the cadence of writing, I didn’t see it as a success.

The difficulty for the novel comes from its size and scope. The Steady Running of the Hour is really material enough for two novels, Tristan’s modern-day search for ‘treasure’ and the historical romance of Ashely & Imogen set against the backdrop of The Great War. Go uses these two separate stories to draw parallels between them and cover one all-encompassing theme of the effect that history and events have on personal relationships. Personal both in the decisions of individuals and the connections between people, connections that are fighting to be maintained against forces that try to rend them asunder.

The surface of the novel’s plot is that Tristan is searching for his claim to the inheritance. A ticking clock is even provided in that Tristan has limited time to uncover evidence for his claim before the stipulations of the will force the solicitors to divide the estate between charities. Yet the ‘treasure hunt’ for Tristan isn’t about obtaining wealth, but more a discovery of self, of identity and of past. His growing obsession with this hunt begins to interfere with the opportunities that appear in Tristan’s life, most notably a relationship (perhaps platonic, perhaps more) with a young French woman he meets.

The situation of Tristan ends up paralleling the star-crossed lover situation faced by Imogen and Ashley. Ultimately it is not Imogen’s family or the scandal of illicit relations that separate the lovers, but Ashley’s conflicting desires to live on the edge, whether as an Alpinist or as officer in the War, his pursuit of a life different from alternatives available with Imogen.

Ultimately, it becomes hard to manage this grand comparison across time and setting while still leaving the reader satisfied. Go does please the reader with the style of his writing. From the opening of the book I loved how the text flowed, and the careful poetic choice of words and sentence structure makes the grandiose novel enjoyable to read. The emotional strengths of this writing are most clear in the passages describing Ashley’s experiences during World War I. These horrors are handled so very well.

Unfortunately, The Steady Running of the Hour is not just a historical novel about World War I , or of a doomed Mt. Everest expedition (a subject that Go clearly researched deeply). It also tries to connect to the present life of Tristan, and his inclusion as protagonist demands some sort of reason or purpose to drive him – hence the quest plot and an additional ‘romance’.

Yet, the novel doesn’t really feature a romance angle as much as an unfulfilled romance. Ashley & Imogen’s relationship is brief and actually never particularly believable. Go seems more concerned with their individual personalities and the aftermath of their liaisons than their actual connection. Likewise, Tristan and the young French girl demonstrate an attraction (somewhat inexplicably) that is just as unfulfilled – leaving the novel to climax around the issue of whether Tristan will choose a life devoted to his quest as Ashley did, or if he will choose ‘the girl’.

The conclusion of the novel seems to have left many readers dissatisfied at aspects being unresolved clearly, most notably the truth of whether Tristan is a direct blood relation of Imogen and Ashley’s relationship. But this quest was never the major point of the novel, just the excuse for character motivation, a MacGuffin of impetus and a way to divulge the history to the reader incrementally.

The problem is that this unresolved motivational plot makes the novel feel rather fabricated. That sense of fabrication can also be seen symbolized in the solicitors’ behavior. They seem over-eager to push Tristan towards his search, yet keep secrets from him and stay rather aloof, giving you the sense that they aren’t being completely forthcoming with the terms of the estate, that they are fabricating this all to get Tristan to do something for them that they otherwise could not. That this is all a scam and Tristan is being duped. Just like the novel shows signs of authorial fabrication to try to achieve its goals.

And the reader can easily thus end up feeling duped. I think many readers have entered this novel full of false expectations of what kind of story and what kind of resolution (or lack thereof) they are going to get from the different elements of this sweeping literary novel. While some readers could easily bear guilt for this, it is also a result of an ambitious work that can lead the reader astray, that has difficulty in keeping control between its central literary goal and the elements of plot and character used to create it. Fans of rich literary fiction could still find this a notable, pleasing read, or those with interest in WWI. Casual readers desiring complete resolution should probably avoid it and wait for a more suitable showcase of Justin Go’s writing talents.

Two and a Half Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the Simon & Schuster through the Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.

No Country, by Kalyan Ray

No Country, by Kaylan Ray
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ASIN: B00GEECHIO
544 pages, Kindle Edition
Publication Date: 17th June 2014
Source: NetGalley

I quickly became enraptured by “No Country” and continued to enjoy its lush backdrops and interwoven stories of humanity until the bittersweet ends. The novel is aptly named because at its center the novel is about the human condition of being born, growing up, living, and dying, in various nation states of this Earth that are each indistinguishable in their basic challenges and joys.

Starting in Ireland, the novel follows two young friends that are forced to leave their village and country due to different social and political circumstances, ending up on opposite sides of the world. They struggle to make their journeys, whether alone, or with dear friends. Once at their ‘destination’, immigrants in a new home, they find new challenges including the basic challenge of belonging, but not belonging, as a foreigner in a new homeland. The two Irish founders live in their new homes and give birth to new lines that go through their own struggles as the waves of history carry them to their own procreation and death. As time passes, more and more of the stories of their ancestors, and their traditions, begin to vanish into an amalgam of something new, but always full of hope and desire and dreams. And sometimes ugly tragedy.

The most impressive element of Ray’s novel is its language and tone. Written in the first person throughout (obviously from various viewpoints), the voice changes from section to section based on the characters, as one would like. The early portions of rural Ireland are filled with a vocabulary and syntax that evokes the setting truly. Portions in India or the New World are suitably distinct and true themselves. Whether shifting in space, or in time, the writing shifts as well. I almost didn’t even notice this fact as I read the novel, as the story swept from place and time. But the biggest shifts at the end of the novel really made it clear as the reader is introduced to characters that are far from the heart and mind of the ancestors we’d been getting to know, reminding us that for all we may strive to make this world a greater place for our offspring, we have no control over what offspring will end up inheriting our legacies, nor of what future history can shatter all we build and value.

Rather than being depressing as I may make it all sound, the novel still manages to resonate with measures of love and hope, and beyond anything, the sense that all we humans that are on this planet are a bunch of intermingled mongrels, with shared backgrounds and ancestors. It is a reminder that though we may have our nationalities, we are each of us born of immigrants who in turn came from other immigrants, unfamiliar to our current land, stuck in their ‘ethnic ways’, destitution and dreams not unlike the newest batches of immigrants we see around us today. A beautiful novel.

Five Stars out of Five

The Price of Politics, by Bob Woodward

The Price of Politics, by Bob Woodward
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 1451651112
480 pages, paperback
Published September 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

I made it through this book faster than I ever expected given its topic and my own aversion to things involving economics. Detailing the attempted, and mostly failed attempts of the White House to direct negotiations over US economic policy regarding the debt limit and related matters, the book actually proceeds rapidly and easily, though also rather depressingly.

Woodward tells the story with fine detail and coverage, including multiple points of view and accounts of events when they occur. While he occasionally passes a judgment, and gives his overall point of view conclusions at the close (within a new afterward for this addition), he relates the story in a relatively unbiased fashion.

The book certainly informed me on the events leading to the sequester, the government shutdown, and the budget battles that still continue today, and it paints a picture where many tried to get something done, but all failed, largely due to inflexibility, overconfidence, and lack of trust. These sorts of ‘recent history’ books are important, because they give one a more complete look at a complex process, unlike the uninformative and intentionally spun outlets of media soundbites. In general, the events here are horrifying and frightening for many reasons, and show how ineffective the Obama administration has been at leading in this realm, and how dangerously ignorant and stubborn many of the Tea party-elected are. What is interesting is that while the Tea Party affiliated remain in the background of this history, never taking an active role in negotiations or attempts to actually govern, they exist in the background as the ultimate menace, and unspoken source of the Republican leadership’s repeated abandonment of talks at the slightest excuse and a rigid inflexibility on a host of issues.

The limits of this book are perhaps obvious. It is focus on the events of a political process. There is very little information on the actual political issues, or the origin of party positions. These topics are touched on, but not analyzed or reviewed in any great detail as much as the specifics of events involved in trying to come up with legislation. It also avoids the question of how this process can be improved, or if the system in general is now failed and needs a complete overhaul. All of these are beyond the scope of the book though. Finally, the book reads as somewhat incomplete for it is just that. This history, the process of trying to deal with these issues politically, is still in motion as I write this. So by the end of the book, the story still isn’t quite over, an inherent problem with this sort of work.

Three Stars out of Five