Archive for January, 2013

The Casual Vacancy

Monday, January 14th, 2013

By J. K. Rowling

The Short Take:

The prosperous, picturesque English town of Pagford is no Hogwarts. It’s a hotbed of jealousy, discontent, and wars between young and old, rich and poor. In fact, it makesĀ Peyton Place look exceptionally calm and innocent. However, this messy tangle of unhappy individuals makes for one compelling and fascinating read.

Why?

While hardly any of the characters in this well-populated novel are likable, they are all largely understandable. The small lies they tell themselves to justify their behavior are familiar to us all. The same petty grievances and self-righteous smugness are found in every community on any given day.

Rowling has taken those everyday, small-time attitudes and behaviors and brought them to a roiling boil, all brought on by the unexpected death of one man. Subsequent actions have repercussions that reach far beyond their intentions. Small problems are built into mountains. At the same time, individuals facing an impassable mountain range of problems believe solutions are readily in hand.

There are quick moments of humor and wry observations to leaven the darker subjects of bullying, drug addiction, and family abuse. It’s not a joyful read, but it is an interesting one — with the proper amount of denouement.

A Little Plot:

The small town of Pagford is tidy and rather well-to-do. However, it is saddled with financial responsibility for the public housing of the Fields — a development totally at odds with what Pagford is to many on the local parish council.

Barry Fairbrother, who also sits on the council, rose to prominence from his impoverished Fields beginnings and is a strong proponent for giving Fields children the benefit of the better schools of Pagford. His sudden death leaves a council seat open — a casual vacancy. As the adults jockey to finally get rid of (or protect) the Fields, their children find this gives them opportunities to rain down revenge on the parents they despise.

It gets very, very complicated.

If you want to visit J. K. Rowling’s website, click here.

NW

Saturday, January 5th, 2013

By Zadie Smith

The Short Take:

Friends and former classmates from a public housing estate in north west London find their relationships change as they venture into their 30s. Smith changes her writing style dramatically as she moves from one character’s story to the other; just as the lives of her four main characters are dramatically changed.

Why?

There’s a lot of tension in this book. A life-long friendship is frayed by differing economic circumstances. A successful over achiever wonders who she really is after changing so much of her life. A former drug addict is making hopeful, positive plans for his future. There’s also a lot of diversity — in race, ambition, and attitude about the future.

It all creates a rather messy brew. But, that is the very glory of this novel. It reflects life: the changes you go through, the desire to shed your past or avoid your future, the people and things you leave behind, the next opportunity you just can’t seem to grasp.

This world Smith has conjured is also the one she grew up in. One can’t help but wonder which of these characters she identifies with most. Or, if they reflect different aspects of her life now as a successful, respected author whose background was not so different.

A Little Plot:

Leah and Natalie (once called Keisha) have been close friends since they were tiny children. However, that friendship has worn thin as Natalie climbs the socioeconomic ladder. While certainly not a failure, Leah clings to what is familiar and can’t seem to visualize any path forward. Both are in marriages with significant cracks.

Former classmate Felix has overcome his drug addiction and is looking forward with optimism. Unfortunately, other forces could alter that.

Then there’s Nathan. Once the object of Leah’s childhood crush his life has devolved substantially.

These are the four stories Smith explores, with the emphasis on Natalie and Leah.

I didn’t immediately find a website for Zadie Smith, but to read an interview with the author abut his novel, click here.

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