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Thursday, September 8, 2011

What I'm Reading: Centuries of June

Centuries of June: A NovelI first encountered Keith Donohue when I read the wonderfully original and thought provoking The Stolen Child.  It was a book that stayed with me for a long time after I closed it.  I have since found ways to incorporate it into displays and even got my book club to read itClick through to see Donohue himself comment on our discussion.

I was hotly anticipating his new book late this spring, as I wrote about here.  I had heard that Centuries of June was a departure from his other work, but I was not daunted by this because I trusted Donohue's interesting imagination and technical skill as a writer.

Having finish Centuries of June (CoJ), I agree it is a bit of a departure on the surface, but when you really think about it, CoJ hits at the same themes-- what makes a life, who are we, why are here, what is love-- that The Stolen Child looked at, just from a different point of view.

This is an unconventional book in terms of how the story is told which makes it fun to booktalk.  You see the plot as it involves our protagonist, Jack is very simple.  Jack wakes up at 4:52 am, goes to the bathroom, is smacked on the head, and dies.  The end. Literally, that is it.  I am not holding back on you here.  But then why is it 352 pages? Ahh, it is in figuring out that "why" where one finds the appeal of this book.

If you read for plot, do not pick this book up.  But if you like an entertaining, slowly meandering story that will smack you in the head  and make you contemplate what it means to live a life to its fullest, this is the book for you.

After Jack gets hit in the head, all of the clocks in the house stop and he meets his guide, an elderly man who appears familiar to him.  And then, over the course of the night, Jack is visited by 8 women, who one by one come into the bathroom, try to kill him, and then tell their stories.

The title "Centuries of June" comes from the fact that each of these women has a story from the past.  Their lives span over centuries, from a pre-European Native America, to a woman from the Salem Witch Trial Era, to the Gold Rush, and up into the present.  The point of the book is these stories.  We sit back with Jack in his disoriented state and become entranced the by these women and the tales of their lives.  While each is telling her tale, there are breaks where fo one reason or another, the reader and Jack are snapped back into the "present" and the old man, Jack, and the gathered sisterhood comment on what was said.

These women all have a tale to tell of how a man let them down.  Some live long lives, other short one, but they all are able to tell us of their death too.  They have anger for men and Jack in particular (remember I mentioned they all try to kill him).  This point is key to the book's conclusion.

Speaking of the ending, this is an open ended book.  We do find out what has been going on and why, but the novel is all part of a larger cycle that concludes and begins anew on the final page.  It is a philosophical but satisfying ending.
This is not a "hard" book to read once you get into the flow, but for some readers, the style may be too distracting.  I found it enhanced the story, but for others the unconventional nature of the storytelling will overshadow the story. For still others the lack of a single plot beyond what happens to Jack, will also be frustrating.

But on the other hand, fans of magical realism or historical fiction or even historical women's lives would all find something to enjoy in this book.  It could be enjoyed by a large audience as long as they were warned upfront about the unconvetional style.

Personally, I loved this book.  I was absorbed in the women's stories as much as in the "present" tale of Jack.  I inhaled this book while I was reading it, and then pondered the larger issues it brought up after stepping away.  This is a book that you are meant to sit back, relax, and just experience.  It is beautiful storytelling.  And the ending alone is thought provoking enough to justify reading the book.  Without giving anything away, I will say again as I said above, this is a book that asks what it means to live your life.  When does it begin and when does it end?
Readalikes:  Keith Donohue is a hard author to find a readalike for in that his work does not fit a specific genre; in fact, he writes across many different genres.  With CoJ you could easily classify it as literary fiction, historical fiction, women's lives, or fantasy and have a valid argument for all.

Two authors I have linked to Donohue in the past are Kevin Brockmeier and Steven MillhauserClick here to see a full reason why these authors are great readalikes for each other, but also here is an excerpt:
They all have a level of fantasy in their work. It is a bit more speculative than magical realism, but not really straight fantasy. They also all use their speculative elements to raise thought provoking questions about our world and the choices we make. If you laid out the plot summaries of they work side-by-side, however, you would not be able to see any similarity between their books. Their similarity lies in the tone, mood, characterizations, and style of their work. Things that are harder to assess.
Another author who fits this above description on a regular basis is Neil Gaiman.

As I mentioned above, my book group read Donohue's Stolen Child before and I have a huge list of readalike options there too.

Two books I read recently which would also be great suggestion options here are Swamplandia! by Karen Russell and The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff.  Use the links to see my full reports on those books which also have readalike options listed.  Read and decide if any of the books listed would work for you.

Finally, some readers may have enjoyed the novel in stories style of this book so much that they want to read more books with this format.  For these readers I suggest Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, and Away by Amy Bloom both of which also deal with "women's lives.  Or Hearts of Atlantis by Stephen King, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, or The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse for solid "novel in stories" offerings sure to be owned by most libraries.

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