Friday, November 9, 2012

Fiction Friday (13)

Over the course of the past two weeks, I've read a number of books, due in no small part to the blackout post Hurricane Sandy. It's amazing how much faster one can read without the distractions of television or internet. With nothing but a flashlight by the fireplace, I tore through four books in three days. As a result, I now have quite a backlog of reviews to share and decided it was time for another installment of Fiction Friday. Today I've picked two books that couldn't be more different. However, I've always thought it important to stretch one's tastes in matters of art. Enjoy.

Dovey Coe by Frances O'Roark Dowell
(Simon & Shuster, 2000)

There are a lot of familiar elements in this book, the sum of which left me with the sense that I had read it before in various pieces in other novels. There are certain tropes which work well in Middle Grade fiction, particularly books geared to get the attention of librarians, and subsequently, awards committees. In that way, this book felt a little like those movies that are made with Oscar hopes in mind.

The novel follows Dovey, a spirited young girl defying social conventions and speaking her mind, in a southern accent, all things that award committees can't seem to resit. She lives with her family in the hills above town where she takes care of her deaf brother. More award bait. During the course of the story, the son of the town's wealthiest family establishes himself as Dovey's antithesis, though to be honest, that entire line of reasoning felt a little flimsy to me. As events transpire, the story turns into a slight mystery. The subsequent trial gives a nicely presented look at justice disparity between rich and poor, though once again, I couldn't shake the feeling that somehow I'd encountered all of these events before, most notably in To Kill a Mockingbird.

All in all, a very solid book for Middle Grade readers. Everything is well done and the story's themes are strong. It's a fast read and I enjoyed just wasn't all that unique or original. 

The Counterlife by Philip Roth
(Penguin, 1986)

One of the things that always strikes me about Roth's work is the meticulous detail he pours into a story and its characters. The world in his novels is so fully realized and researched that they become immediately engrossing. The Counterlife is no different. It follows the lives of two brothers, one a successful novelist living in New York and the other a dentist from the New Jersey suburbs, both dealing with their Newark Jewish heritage in very different ways throughout the course of the novel. In many ways, this is a book about the changing identity of the American Jew and how that role relates to the Israeli view of Judaism. While the political and social investigation is fascinating, I found the books other theme to be far more intriguing.

As much as anything else, this is a book about how the novelist tends to write his or her own life, coloring the events of reality with fiction. This theme invades the narrative so effectively that several passages within the novel are immediately discounted later as the imaginative interpretation of the novelist character. By the end, the book shows how the writer's way of life affects those closest to him.

While this is a strong book, with many exceptional qualities, it wasn't a favorite of mine. At times it seemed to be weighted down by its own attempts at undercutting the narrative. And perhaps had the lives of the characters been more immediately relatable to me, I would have felt closer to it. Still, it's a fascinating and informative read.

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