Christie Burke's Infinite Booklist

The Lacuna January 20, 2010

Kingsolver, Barbara.  The LacunaThe Lacuna, cover image via HarperCollins, 2009.

I’ll tell you what the jacket says this book is about: “Harrison Shepherd finds precarious shelter but no sense of home on his thrilling odyssey.  Life is whatever he learns from housekeepers who put him to work in the kitchen, errands he runs in the streets, and one fateful day, by mixing plaster for famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. … With deeply compelling characters, a vivid sense of place, and a clear grasp of how history and public opinion can shape a life, Barbara Kingsolver has created an unforgettable portrait of the artist – and of art itself.”  And that’s, you know, sort of true.  It is vivid, and the characters are more or less real people… but this book just didn’t grab me like some of Kingsolver’s others have.  I’ve read Animal Dreams a dozen times because it speaks to me so loudly about where home is and who family turns out to be and why our hearts sometimes get broken.

I wish I could say I loved this book.  Barbara Kingsolver is one of my very favorite authors, and I was excited when I heard she had a new book coming out this past fall.  The thing is, I think she writes two kinds of novels.  There’s a Prodigal Summer/Animal Dreams kind of book, where the protagonist is living a more-or-less current kind of life with a great story in it, and there’s a Poisonwood Bible kind of book, which is more historical fiction and based in social awareness.  This book is more in that second vein.  I know a lot of people loved The Poisonwood Bible — I liked it quite a bit myself, until it stopped being about Ada and started being about Congo — and I think it’s important and interesting for books like that to be in the world, but it isn’t my favorite kind of reading and I have to confess that I didn’t finish The Lacuna.  Bad, bad Christie.

So… my verdict here is that Kingsolver’s latest is well written and high quality, but not the book for me.  If you liked Poisonwood Bible, you should give this one a try.  If you didn’t, you should give it a try anyway, because you never know.


Atonement June 13, 2009

Atonement, by Ian McEwan.  Anchor Books, 2001.

Some time ago, I happened to catch the end of the movie Atonement – it was haunting and a little distressing, but completely intriguing even in the small snippet that I saw.  When I found Ian McEwan’s book on the gigantic list, I considered that a good omen and picked it up eagerly.

This is the story of an English family in the time before and during WWII, of a horrible and damaging mistake that there’s no room to correct and the events that follow from the error of someone who’s young and… well, I was going to say foolish, but maybe youth is her biggest actual problem.

I don’t know why I was surprised that Atonement is a literary novel.  (Maybe something about reading a string of high-school romances?  I sorta forgot there was such a thing as literature.)  It took me a long time to get involved with the story, which is unusual for me.  I was prepared to put it down after 100 pages, but Something Happened about 70 pages in, and I was hooked. McEwan handles the details of war beautifully; it’s appropriately horrifying without being desperately graphic.  Other settings are similarly detailed and distinctive. I’m glad the story finally caught me, because the work itself – the actual arrangement of the words on the page – is so carefully done that it would have been a shame to miss it.  (Can you tell I’m a little geeky about language?)

My take: I’d recommend this book to war buffs (though it is not an action book), readers of romances, and anyone who appreciates literary irony – but only if they have the stamina for careful reading.  Atonement was a good read despite the slow start, finely crafted and thoroughly researched.  I appreciate the way the loose ends are (not exactly) tied up at the novel’s conclusion – the inconclusiveness feels like an appropriate feature of the story rather than a cutesy author ploy.  McEwan is such a master of his writing that the writing disappears, and only the story is left.  I’ll look for more by this author.


Author’s website at

A blog featuring all manner of McEwan news.  Kind of interesting, if you really like this author.  (Please note that the blog keeper’s identity is not clear.  Publisher, I’m guessing, but who can tell?)