Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Review of The Art of Forgetting, Wherein I Find a Chick Lit Book I Didn't Hate

I tend to shy away from anything that could be considered "chick lit" . As a lesbian in her mid-40s, the stories of young women in search of a man, a career, and the perfect size 2 don't really speak to me much. So when The Art of Forgetting by Camille Pagan appeared as an unsolicited review request in my mailbox, I almost put it right in the donation bin. But something stopped me from sending it back out into the universe to find a more receptive reader. I've always been fascinated by the mysterious workings of the human brain. There is so much that we don't understand yet about how it works, about how much of what makes us "us" is merely structural or chemical in nature. This novel, while not heavy on scientific explanation, does at least present a rather unique take on the friendship story.

The main character and narrator, Marissa, has always played second fiddle to her charismatic best
friend Julia. Ever since junior high, when the popular Julia chose the rather unassuming Marissa as her best friend, the two have been inseparable, but there has never been any question of who is the more dominant in the relationship. Now young adults, Marissa and Julia live in New York. Julia is a talented ballet dancer, and Marissa is an editor at a magazine. Despite her career success, Marissa is still insecure in many ways. She is in a safe, happy, but not super-passionate relationship. She worries about her weight, and her clothes, and she second guesses her instincts at work. One day, Julia is hit by a car crossing the street. While her physical injuries are minor, she sustains brain damage that affects her memory, mood, and personality. Suddenly, it is Marissa who must take the lead in their relationship, causing her to finally deal with her feelings about a long-lost love she gave up in college because Julia told her to.

As you can imagine, said long-lost love shows back up in their lives, Marissa has to decide if she wants to give it a try with him or stay with her loyal but slightly boring boyfriend. She has to figure out who she is without Julia there to define her. She has to decide whether to stay in her current job, or take a chance that could bolster her career. Meanwhile, she is forced to go back home to Michigan, where she also has to deal with her weight obsessed mother and the feelings of inferiority she learned from her. Basically, everything that I usually don't like in a book finds a home in The Art of Forgetting. But for some reason, this time it mostly worked for me. I didn't get annoyed by the constant focus on weight, looks, and size. I wasn't impatient with the "I have to choose between this man and that man, because obviously NO man is not an option" storyline. I felt empathy for Julia, even though she was annoying before the accident left her sort of bitchy. There was enough heart behind the writing that while this book won't make any of my top ten lists, it did keep my attention, and overall I enjoyed it.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The First Thing, and the Last

Katherine Stuart lived every day in fear. Fear that her husband would finally kill her, or turn his abusive attentions to her young son. After a brutal argument and knife fight in their Boston kitchen, Katherine's husband and son both lie dead on the floor.

Hundreds of miles away in Vermont, Lucy Dudley reads the newspaper accounts of Katherine's tragedy, and feels drawn to reach out to her. Lucy, an elderly woman living by herself on a small farm in rural Vermont, feels an immediate kinship with Katherine. She is carrying her own scars, and a secret that she has kept for almost five decades. Despite the two women being complete strangers, Katherine accepts Lucy's invitation to recover on the farm, and a beautiful relationship begins to take shape.

Readers who are interested in issues of domestic violence and their aftermath should find lots to interest them in Alan G. Johnson's novel, The Thing and the Last. Johnson, who was best known to me as the author of The Gender Knot, a non-fiction book about unraveling patriarchy, does an excellent job writing female characters who humanize the travesty and tragedy that is domestic violence in modern American culture. While the first chapter moves at lightning speed, the rest of the action of the book is slow and measured, much like recovery itself. Katherine is so broken by her experiences that she is not sure whether she can ever find a life for herself worth living. Lucy, as constant and stubborn as a boulder, provides both a soft place for Katherine to land, and a strong foundation for rebuilding her shattered life. How can Katherine give up on herself when Lucy never does?

While I have never had the experiences Katherine or Lucy have lived through, I couldn't help but think as I read that EVERYONE needs a Lucy in their life. A person who doesn't judge, but accepts you with all of your flaws. A person who is a constant comforting presence, just by the very fact of her existence in your life. Bit by bit, Lucy helps Katherine manage her grief, providing the compass for getting through the darkness, and finding at least a glimpse of the light. This book is a beautiful testament to the power of friendship and platonic love between women, and the power of forgiveness and redemption.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


Black on black crime.

If that phrase made you cringe, you know how I felt when I started reading Ghettoside, by Jill Leovy. As someone who strives to be anti-racist, and who has been very dialed in to the Black Lives Matter movement, I was immediately put off by the use of this phrase in the forward. Saying that the black community has no place demanding redress for police brutality until they "stop killing each other" is the worst kind of victim blaming. "We (white supremacist power structures and the white folks who perpetuate them) have ghettoized your communities and cut you off from economic and social advancement. We are shocked-SHOCKED-that this might lead to communities in crisis". I almost stopped reading the book without ever getting to the first chapter.

But I am glad I persevered (thanks, Mom-the fact that you read it and sent it to me was the only thing
to get me through). Leovy is not blaming the victims for the systemic racism in law enforcement. She is laying the blame for the high rate of black (and brown) people killing other black (and brown) people squarely on the shoulders of the racist policies of decades of policing in urban centers. Leovy's premise is that through overpolicing minor, non-violent crimes, and underpolicing/under prosecuting assaults and murders, law enforcement policy has encouraged the creation of informal systems of "justice". This "justice" system is predicated on neighborhood affiliation, with respect as currency. In this shadow system, revenge takes the place of criminal prosecution of perpetrators. Leovy explores this idea through the lens of a true story-the murder of the teen-age son of a police officer from South Central LA, otherwise know as Ghettoside by the officers who work there.

Most of the book follows a few dedicated homicide detectives working in the poor black communities in South Central LA.  One of the things that I liked about the book was the even-handed way in which the author portrays both the police detectives and the residents of the community. There is no hero and villain dichotomy, at least not at an individual level. The homicide detectives profiled are all guys who want to do their best to close cases, and the community members the author writes about are shown as multi-faceted people, rather than caricatures of "thugs" and "ghetto rats". Leovy saves her real venom for the systems and policies that have hampered the efforts of the well-meaning detectives to solve cases, and for the deep lack of understanding of the social dynamics of the communities they serve exhibited by the higher-ups who determine policy and staffing levels.

My one criticism is that the story is told primarily through the experiences of the detectives themselves, and Leovy's descriptions of their work ethic and dedication occasionally veered towards the "white savior" archetype (think the teacher from the movie Dangerous Minds), but that did not take away from the impact of her argument. Step by step, she took us through the murder case that frames the book, and through the historical and contemporary circumstances that have led us, as a nation, to where we are today in terms of urban law enforcement. As much as I hate the phrase "state monopoly on violence", that is exactly what is at play in our safer, whiter neighborhoods. As a white resident of a middle class community, I have every expectation that if I were assaulted, or God forbid murdered, that the police and the justice system would do everything in their power to prosecute the perpetrators. People living in poor black and brown neighborhoods have no such expectation. This book is thought-provoking, and provides another piece to the complex puzzle that is racism in America.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Revival, Stephen King

Stephen King's latest novel continues his long tradition of using events from his own life to inform the lives of his extremely well-crafted and believable characters.  Revival is the story of fanaticism and addiction and magic (or science?  Magical science?  Scientific magic?).  The main character is Jamie, who first meets Rev. Jacobs when he is a young boy living in a small town with his parents and siblings.  Rev. Jacobs and his young wife take over the struggling church in town, and turn it into a thriving congregation, complete with an active youth ministry.  All of the young people in town love Rev. Jacobs and his beautiful, talented wife, and they are taken in by his adorable little boy.  When tragedy strikes the Jacobs family, Rev. Jacobs preaches a sermon that gets him driven out of town.

Years later, Jamie is a strung-out rock guitarist who is one high away from being incarcerated or dead. When he stumbles upon the Rev. Jacobs at a carnival, he can barely believe what he's seeing. The former minister has taken his lifelong fascination with electricity and devised some truly amazing optical illusions.  But that's not all Charles Jacobs has discovered.  The man formerly known as Rev. Jacobs thinks he can help Jamie with his little addiction problem, but the help will come at a price that Jamie isn't sure he's willing to pay.

King himself famously dealt with an addiction to pain killers after a near-fatal car accident left him in near constant pain for years as he recovered.  Jamie's drug addiction certainly mirrors his experience to a certain extent, but it is Rev. Jacob's addiction that is the truly frightening part of this story.  While this story is not horror in the traditional sense, there is that element of the supernatural that infuses almost all of King's works in some way.  This time the "magic" is presented in the guise of science that we don't yet understand, and highlights the dangers of playing around with natural forces without really understanding the possible consequences.

The story also explores the nature of faith, both in the opening section when Jamie is a child, and later in the book when the Rev. Jacobs becomes a faith healer.  The power that Jacobs had was terrifying, but couched in the language and ritual of religion people were more than willing to be taken in.  People who are desperately searching for an end to their fear, pain, and despair become easy marks for a con man.  But was it a con?  If people really were healed, did it matter where the power came from? When Jamie discovered that the people who were healed didn't always stay that way, he became determined to stop Jacobs.  Determined, that is, until it was his own high school sweetheart who needed help.  As usual, King shines a light on human nature in all of its flawed beauty.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd

There is no lack of books about the effects of slavery in the antebellum South, and its lingering effects during the Jim Crow era, pre-Civil Rights Movement.  And I've read a lot of them.  So I will admit that when my book club chose this book as its March pick, I was sort of "meh" about the whole thing.  The one thing that made me slightly more enthusiastic was the author.  I'd read The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid's Chair, and I really enjoyed Kidd's style, and the way that she wrote her characters with such care and gentleness, even when they themselves are not caring or gentle, per se.

I should really stop questioning my book club's decisions (with one notable exception-I'm looking at you On Strike for Christmas!), because I got completely sucked into The Invention of Wings. Told from the alternating perspectives of a young plantation owner's daughter and the slave that she is "gifted" on her eleventh birthday, the book explores various types of oppression-based on race, class, gender, and religion-and their effect on both the oppressors and the oppressed.  Sarah Grimke, the daughter of a plantation-owning member of South Carolina's elite, is horrified to be given her own slave for her birthday, and in her naivete tries to free the young woman that has been given to her as her maid.  Sarah is sure that her father, who has allowed her access to his books and has encouraged her to speak her mind about issues in a way usually reserved for boys, will accede to her wishes and allow the young woman her freedom.  When that doesn't happen, she tries to assuage her own guilt by treating Hetty, her slave, more as a friend than a servant, teaching her to read and allowing her to speak her mind freely in her presence.  Hetty, for her part, has no illusions about the true nature of her relationship with Sarah, and despite the fairly kind treatment Hetty gets from her, she carries out small acts of rebellion.  When Sarah's secret lessons are discovered, the consequences are swift and severe, and lead Sarah to contemplate what if anything she can do to dismantle the evils of human bondage and free herself from the stifling expectations of a Southern lady. Hetty, of course, is not planning to wait on Sarah or any other white folks to free her.  She is determined that she will free herself.  As the story unfolds, and both girls grow into strong, independent women, their relationship changes as they both try to find their freedom.

Far from being a typical white savior narrative, this book shows a much more realistic and balanced picture of the relationship between Hetty and Sarah.  Hetty is fierce and outspoken with Sarah about the differences between them, and has conflicted feelings of gratitude, anger, disappointment, and even love towards her.  Sarah, for her part, realizes while agitating for fair treatment of slaves that she herself is suffering oppression, as a woman of a certain class, that keeps her from having the impact on the world that she wishes.  As Sarah becomes more certain that she is meant to fight against the evils of slavery, she also finds that she must fight to be heard, even among other abolitionists. Ultimately, both women end up saving themselves.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Lady and the Unicorn, Tracy Chevalier

I'm a  pretty big fan of historical fiction.  To be honest, I wish that history classes were taught using historical fiction as the hook.  Read Ken Follett, then research the time period to confirm or deny his portrayal. (Of course, I think that literature can teach us just about anything).

For instance, if you were interested in art, say the process of making tapestries, in the 17th century, you could read Tracy Chevalier's The Lady and the Unicorn.  Much as she did in The Girl with the Pearl Earring, Chevalier used a famous piece of art from the past and created an elaborate backstory using characters based on the real artists, artisans, nobles, petty bureaucrats, and common folk who contributed (either in reality or in the fictional world she creates) to the creation of that work of art. In The Lady and the Unicorn, we are introduced to an arrogant Parisian artist named Nicholas des Innocentes (who is anything but).  This womanizer is commissioned by a newly noble patron to design a set of tapestries to be hung in his formal dining room.  Nicholas agrees, though not before seducing the young daughter of his patron.  When he insists on traveling to Brussels to oversee the work of turning his smallish paintings into large tapestries, we meet the weaver, Georges, and his family.  Jumping back and forth between Paris and Brussels, we learn a lot about French society, the social expectations of men and women based on their gender and station, and about making tapestries in the pre-industrial age.

The best parts of the book for me was the descriptions of the tapestry making process.  The process was incredibly painstaking, and could takes months or years to complete depending on the size of the tapestry and the complexity of the pattern.  The plot itself has enough drama to make it an enjoyable read even if you don't care about the art-making parts, with lots of twists and turns.  There is lust, love, betrayal-all of the components of a satisfying read.  The story is old through alternating perspectives, which has become a very common narrative style, and Chevalier does a good job making the story feel cohesive despite the frequent change in narrator.  As historical fiction goes, I suspect this book is longer on the fiction than the history, but either way it is an an enjoyable way to spend a few hours!

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The Honey Thief

This fall I installed a Little Free Library in my front yard.  For anyone who might not be familiar with Little Free Library, it is an organization that promotes and supports small "take one, give one" libraries in yard, parks, and other public places.  To be honest, my reasons for wanting on were not entirely altruistic.  I need somewhere for the "ink and paper" books I've read to go, and I can only give so many at a time to my public library.  But, of course, the universe has other plans for me than neat, orderly, not-stuffed-to-the-gills bookshelves.  It's that whole "give one" part of "take one, give one" that gets me.  Because while its true that the books I read go to good home (rather than my overstuffed bookcases), they are replaced with other books!  Clearly, my house is meant to be a permanent fire hazard.

There are, of course, upsides to this arrangement, like getting to know my neighbors as readers, and
watching the neighbor kids come running to see if there is anything new in the library for them.  But the biggest, without doubt, is that books appear before me that I would never have found on my own. Such was the case with The Honey Thief, by Elizabeth Graver.  It tells the story of eleven year old Eva, a city girl exiled to rural upstate New York after a brief crime spree as a shoplifter.  In desperation, her mother Miriam gives up her job, finds a subletter for their tiny Manhattan apartment, and hightails it out to the country.  Eva spends her days riding her bike down isolated roads, blacktop and dirt, while the babysitter her mother hired sleeps on the porch in the heat of the day.  One day while riding, Eva comes upon a table full of honey, glowing in the sunlight.  Her inner conflict (should she steal it or not) causes her to come back again and again to the small farm, where she gets to know the reclusive bee keeper, and where she learns about the importance of balance and harmony, in the life of the bees, and in the life of her family.

It can be a challenge for authors to write adult novels with child narrators, but Graver manages it pretty well.  There are also chapters told from the point of view of the bee keeper, and of her mother, but it is Eva's chapters where the real emotional pay off is for the reader.  I found myself rooting for Eva, even when she made choices that were not necessarily in anyone's best interest.  Graver also manages the fact that Eva is a girl child and the bee keeper an adult man in a way that is neither creepy nor inappropriate (though there is one scene that verges on ewwww).  All in all, I'd say The Honey Thief is a pretty good way to spend an afternoon.