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The Sentimentalists [Paperback]

Johanna Skibsrud
2.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Oct. 1 2009 1554470781 978-1554470785 Canadian First

Johanna Skibsrud’s debut novel connects the flooding of an Ontario town, the Vietnam War, a trailer in North Dakota and an unfinished boat in Maine. Parsing family history, worn childhood memories, and the palimpsest of old misunderstandings, Skibsrud’s narrator maps her father’s past.

Napoleon Haskell lives with Henry in the town of Casablanca, Ontario, on the shores of a man-made lake beneath which lie the remains of the former town. Henry is the father of Napoleon’s friend Owen, who died fighting in Vietnam. When her life comes apart, Napoleon’s daughter retreats to Casablanca and is soon immersed in the complicated family stories that lurk below the surface of everyday life. With its quiet mullings and lines from Bogart, The Sentimentalists captures a daughter’s wrestling with a heady family mythology.

“The real beginning of this story,” says Skibsrud, “was a summer that I spent working on Flagstaff lake, a lake that covers four now submerged townships in northern Maine, and served as the inspiration for the lake and the buried town in my book. That fall, with the beginnings of a story in my head, my father began to speak for the first time about his experiences in the Vietnam War. I am still not sure exactly why he told me his story when he did, but I think it had to do – it was 2003 then – with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which had been for some time stirring in him a deep anger toward a government willing to repeat the mistakes of the past at the expense of innocent people; soldiers as well as civilians.

My mother thinks that my father told me his stories because he knew that I would do something with them – what I did write, though, was not my father’s story, but my own. And it is not a true story. At its root, though, there are two true things. One is my father’s testimony following Operation Liberty II in 1967, in which he spoke out against the murder of a civilian woman by the Captain of his squad. The other is the feeling I got floating over the buried towns of Flagstaff Lake: a feeling of the way that everything exists in layers, that nothing disappears; it just gets hidden sometimes.”

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"a solid debut and a beautiful tribute to a father-daughter relationship." (Globe and Mail 2010-10-15)

"Skibsrud knows what she’s doing: The slow fuse of the novel’s first half turns out to be a very effective setup for the explosive second." (National Post 2010-11-13)

"The writing here is trip-wire taut as the exploration of guilt, family and duty unfolds." (Giller Jury 2010-11-09)

"[Skibsrud's] book is an affirmation of why we still try -- why we still use words to reclaim history, to imagine another's pain, to hold onto what is human in the face of violence and chaos. The Sentimentalists may be profoundly sad, but Skibsrud also reminds us that sadness is not the same as hopelessness." (Winnipeg Review 2011-01-06)

"The Sentimentalists beautifully examines the profound affect memories can have not only on an individual, but on all those close to him...The poet's touch is evident throughout...Skibsrud approaches the English language more like an art form, and less like a science. Her carefully composed passages use a sort of philosophical prose to understanding her topics of memory...The Sentimentalists, with its poetic elegance, eloquently describes the never-ending struggle to remember, to simplify and to understand." (Critics at Large 2011-03-02)

"Napoleon Haskell's life has always been a mystery to his daughter -- he was a drifter, an alcoholic and an ex-marine who has never spoken about what happened one night in Vietnam. As he slips into senility, his daughter tries to pull together the crumbling fragments of his memory into a narrative that will explain their dysfunctional family." (More Magazine 2011-06-01)

"A hypnotic meditation on memory, it reaffirms the potential for storytelling to offer clarity and redemption." (Hirsh Sawhney New York Times 2011-07-01)

"This is less a novel with a single plot than the stories of three characters and their layered, intersecting identities...I recommend it for the book it is rather than the story it's become." (Geist 2011-07-01)

"This novel takes a quirky and lyrical look at the long-lasting effects of the Vietnam war on a family and their friends across both the American and Canadian borders." (Winnipeg Free Press 2011-08-13)

"...a slender but deeply contemplative novel..." (NOW Magazine 2011-10-20) --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

About the Author

Johanna Skibsrud’s first poetry collection, Late Nights With Wild Cowboys, was published in 2008 by Gaspereau Press and was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award. She has also published a novel with Gaspereau Press entitled The Sentimentalists. Originally from Scotsburn, Nova Scotia, she now lives in Montreal.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Why all the fuss? Jan. 7 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The publicity this book has received, and the fact that it is award winning, reminds me of the accolades received by many academy award winning movies. It is evident that literary scholars find this book a wonderful read. As an individual who reads books for entertainment, I found this book to be slow and without flow. Half way into the book I found myself reading the back cover to ensure that I had purchased the book whose description I had read - the synopsis on the back sounds very intriguing, but the book seemed aimless. Again, this may be because I am just a `lay person' and as such am unable to fully appreciate the author's literary genius. Similar to leaving some Oscar award winning movies, after completing this book I am left asking myself what all the fuss is about.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Boring and irritating Feb. 6 2011
The Sentamentalists: I only managed to get about 1/4 through this book before giving up. If an author can't capture my attention in the first part, then the book has a problem. I found the book boring and mundane, and the style of writing irritated me so much that my attention to the story was lost. The paragraphs are long, with misplaced phrases and abundant commas. I found this so distacting that I started looking for these commas and phrases instead of paying attention to the story which was not captivating in the least.
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37 of 40 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars too-great expectations? Dec 17 2010
I was anxious to read this book, mostly because of the Giller prize but also because the author is originally from the Maritimes. As well, I liked the backstory with Gaspereau Press (how they negotiated with other publishers to make more copies of the book available without sacrificing their principles too much). I was a bit disappointed with the book itself though, but maybe it's only because I was expecting too much. The writing style was like some poetry I've read: precise (excessively?), analytical, and a bit choppy, with contorted sentences. Lots of clauses, commas and dashes, but instead of assisting the story it felt like the author was perhaps trying too hard (maybe that was the point, and I just missed it?). On the other hand, the author exhibits real awareness and insight regarding the psychology of the characters and their relations with each other.
With respect to the novel's overall plot, I've read reviews where the reviewer praised the slow build to a big finish, but that wasn't my impression. The father's experiences in Vietnam are descibed in such vague terms (deliberately, of course) that it isn't really clear what took place or how these events subsequently influenced the rest of his life. That's not necessarily bad, as it does say something interesting about the nature of memory and about how we construct a narrative after something happens that may be linked to "what really happened" only indirectly. And about how hard a person's life is to figure out, let alone to describe in a novel. I just don't know how successfully this strategy was used in The Sentimentalists.
Overall, not a bad book at all, but I think the fact that it was awarded the Giller might say more about the people who made up the jury this year than it does about the book itself.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The Sentimentalists April 17 2011
Had I paid more attention to the reviews at this site rather than being influenced by the fact that the book won a Giller prize I would not have bothered to read it. I managed to make it through the first chapter before giving up. I found myself paying more attention to the number of commas per page than to the content. The record was 37, 10 in one sentence.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing.... Feb. 14 2011
By I.M.N
Perhaps her writing style is just not my cup of tea.. I couldn't even finish the book. Like many others, I'm surprised it won the Giller,...
maybe I was expecting too much? I don't know...I find the story just didn't flow well...sentences were wayyyyyyyyy too long.
It felt like this (example): "so we went into the kitchen - which my father had built back in 1951 with some wood he had found at the bottom of a lake we used to always bathe in in the summer - and the heat from the sun had melted all the chocolate on the new oak table - which i assumed he left there on purpose - and I was wondering if my mother would find out, would she finally divorce him? " WHAT? I found myself loosing focus way too often to the
point where I just gave up.
Not to mention the NUMEROUS punctuation mistakes and grammar errors. Someone told me the publishing house ran out of stock so they had to rush
to get more printed...not sure if it's true, but it would explain the punctuation and grammar errors, but still...not excusable.
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82 of 96 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Archeology of the Emotions Nov. 10 2010
By sean s. TOP 500 REVIEWER
Johanna Skibsrud is a 30-year-old Montreal writer, who is currently completing her PhD at l'Université de Montréal. She now also has the distinction of being the youngest author ever to have won Canada's most prestigious literary award, the Giller Prize.

An early version of this novel served as Ms. Skibsrud's Master's dissertation at Concordia University.

The Sentimentalists is written in an oneiric, poetic style with nuances of emotion that belie the author's young age. The troubling subject matter, gradually uncovered with archeological patience, is based in part on the Vietnam War experiences of Johanna's own deceased father.

The novel opens in the Fargo, North Dakota trailer home of Napoleon Haskell, a Vietnam veteran. A rambling home, because Napoleon, a carpenter, has made numerous additions over the years:

"At the end of the corridor was the room my father referred to as the `second library' - the `first' having reach its limits years before. My father was a great reader and a great rememberer of things, though he never remembered anything in the right order, or entirely, and always had just little bits of all the books and poems he'd ever read floating around in his mind."

As his health deteriorates, Napoleon's daughters move him from his trailer to the town of Casablanca, Ontario, to live out his twilight years with Henry, the father of Napoleon's deceased brother-in-arms Owen.
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Most recent customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Insider help to win it's Giller?
Sorry, but this book fell far short of my expectations for a great read. At best I would rank it 'okay.'
Published 9 months ago by margotchives
1.0 out of 5 stars Boring
I should have read the reviews before picking up this novel. But I am glad I am not the only one who could not get throught this book. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Toby
3.0 out of 5 stars Probably generous with the three
As I started reading "Sentimentalists," I peeked at some of the reader reviews (which I don't usually do) and was surprised at the low scores. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Chris
1.0 out of 5 stars Unreadable "That"
Given the award and the subject matter it should have been a breeze to read; but the use of the word "that" was overwhelming. Read more
Published on July 18 2012 by Hilary West
1.0 out of 5 stars Very Disappointing!!
Story Description:

Scotiabank Giller Prize Winner in 2010

Haunted by the vivid horrors of the Vietnam War, exhausted from years spent battling his memories,... Read more
Published on March 26 2012 by Louise Jolly
1.0 out of 5 stars Don't waste your time with this one
How this book won the Giller prize I will never know. Where to start with how awful this book is...

- the writing style is terrible. And I do mean terrible. Read more
Published on March 25 2012 by NorthVan Dave
2.0 out of 5 stars Obscure
In 2010 Johanna Skibsrud won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the youngest author to date to take the coveted literary award, for her debut novel, The Sentimentalists. Read more
Published on Nov. 17 2011 by Lorina Stephens
2.0 out of 5 stars Sentimental but sadly disjointed
I was so excited to read The Sentimentalists after all the press and I loved the friendliness that was happening in Canadian publishing because of Gaspereau press. Read more
Published on Oct. 24 2011 by Natalia Toronchuk
1.0 out of 5 stars A TOTAL WASTE OF TIME!
While reading this book I was totally bored and not sure I
could make my way to the end. However, I did manage
to finish it but couldn't make heads or tails of it. Read more
Published on Sept. 21 2011 by Janet Babins
1.0 out of 5 stars Not for me
This debut novel, a sombre story of the unreliability of memory and the emotional ghosts of war won its author the prestigious Scotianbank Giller Prize in 2010. Read more
Published on Aug. 25 2011 by Toni Osborne
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