Tag Archives: Harper Books

Review: Goat Mountain by David Vann

9th September 2013

pg1*This book was sent to me by the publisher Harper Books in exchange for an honest review.

A man recalls his 11th year in 1978, the year in which he makes his first kill. Family tradition has his father, his grandfather, and his father’s best friend Tom setting out across their land – Goat Mountain. The terrain is rough, but these men are rougher, as is evidenced when they set out for the three-day trip, spotting a poacher and sighting him in the scopes of their guns. When the boy takes his turn, coolly and without thought, he pulls the trigger.

What you want to read, what you want to see is the boy’s remorse. You want to understand that it was a mistake, that it didn’t happen, couldn’t have happened on purpose. But what the boy’s father, grandfather, and Tom see is a boy so little affected by the act that he readies himself to go on with the hunt immediately. Appalled, the three grown men are forced to deal with the aftermath and the effects of the death and the boy’s nonchalance, each wanting reparation but unable to do what it takes to make that happen.

It is evident that a man is remembering these events in moments when he examines what the men must have thought and ties his own actions to Biblical stories, yet the purpose of the recollection isn’t at all evident. Grim and horrific at times as he describes the dead man’s body and the manner of its disposal as well as his later kill – a buck, this time – the book waxes on about the human condition, sometimes eloquently; other times in excess:

The great flood. Think of how many lost. Drowned like rats, no burials, no apologies, no reparations….Imagine that wall of water coming over a hill, the sheep scattering, and you feel the cold breath of it, a thrill in that dry heat, the sudden change, and the sun is underwater, pale shafts of light reaching through the blue, and that can only be beautiful, the moments right before annihilation can never be anything less than the very best moments, held suspended.

The narrator dissects the Bible but in such a way as to divorce God from it, to explain our natures differently:

The Bible has nothing to do with god. The Bible is an account of our waking up, an atavistically dreamed recovery of how we first learned shame in the garden and first considered ourselves different from animals, and Cain was the first to discover that part of us will never wake up.

And in this exploration, he also examines family ties between him, his father, and his grandfather, and his inability to know them, especially during the hunt. At times, they understand one another’s intentions or gestures without at all understanding the person.

The book is disturbing, and I cannot say it was a pleasure to read, though there were moments of beautiful writing. However, for those who enjoy Cormac McCarthy or, going back further, Frank Norris or Stephen Crane, I’d recommend it. The depiction of the land and of those tied to it is stark and brutal but with good reason.

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Review: Loteria by Mario Alberto Zambrano

9th July 2013

pg1*This book was sent to me by the publisher Harper in exchange for an honest review.

Mario Alberto Zambrano opens his novel with a description of lotería, a game similar to bingo. As he says, there “are fifty-four cards and each comes with a riddle, un dicho. There is a traditional set of riddles, but sometimes dealers create their own to trick the players.” When the listeners determine the card the caller describes, they cover it.

As the title of the novel and each chapter is representative of an aspect of the game, it’s relatively easy to link the chapters and the story they tell to the card, yet the “riddle” aspect of the game becomes much more complicated as Luz, the main character, tells her story.

Her sister Estrella is in ICU; her father is in jail, and Luz doesn’t know where her mother is. A ward of the state, she begins her journal with a sketch of la araña – the spider – describing the spiders that crawl up the walls of the room where she is staying, a place away from her family. Though it’s evident that something traumatic has happened (Luz won’t talk to anyone but her journal), Zambrano doesn’t let on, only revealing more of Luz, her family, and her tale as each card is called at the start of a chapter.

My only complaint is that Luz, writing in her journal, doesn’t tell her story in linear fashion. At times, it’s difficult to link when and where a specific event took place, and thus I felt distanced from her story. The big reveal is also confusing in the telling, yet the significance of what is happening and its effect on Luz is all too clear.

Several people on Goodreads complained that the use of Spanish was a stumbling block for the story, but I loved it. This is the story of a young Mexican American. How else could her story be told? She isn’t fluent in the language of her mother and father, but she knows the language of lotería.

Mario Alberto Zambrano’s debut novel is a quick read, and the format dares the reader to read just one more set until the final card is played.

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Review: The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

20th June 2013

pg1*This book was sent to me by the publisher Harper in exchange for an honest review.

Perfume should tell a story – the story of who you are, who you might be, perhaps even of who you fear becoming…all of these things are possible. It’s a very intimate element of a woman, just like her signature or the sound of her voice.

This quote describes Grace Monroe perfectly. A newlywed in 1950s London, Grace isn’t sure she likes the life she signed on for when she married her husband, a man she’s already aware is cheating. Grace really doesn’t even know who she is or what she wants from life. When a letter arrives notifying her of a large inheritance from someone she’s never heard of, she flees to Paris in part to meet the instructions in the will of the enigmatic Madame Eva d’Orsey and in part to escape.

Grace, perhaps in an effort to distract herself, must know more about Eva before she signs for the money and begins to track down information with the help of her attorney. As Grace discovers, Eva was just as cryptic in life as in death, a muse to a legendary perfumer and a fiercely independent woman with a gift for scents. As a famed perfumer describes her:

…people assume that a muse is a creature of perfect beauty, poise and grace. Like the creatures from Greek mythology. They’re wrong. In fact, there should be a marked absence of perfection in a muse – a gaping hole between what she is and what she might be. The ideal muse is a woman whose rough edges and contradictions drive you to fill in the blanks of her character. She is the irritant to your creativity. A remarkable possibility, waiting to be formed.

And learning about Eva’s imperfections and escapades in the 1920s through New York, Monte Carlo, and Paris helps Grace unravel who she is as well. The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro is an interesting historical novel that highlights the women who were misfits, bound by society but unwilling to stay within its limits.

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