Thursday, December 04, 2014

Help for the Haunted, John Searles

I love spooky stories.  Some of my very favorite authors write the best ones (I'm looking at you, King and Gaiman).  I am also a skeptic.  I read supposedly "real" accounts of ghosts and spirits and the like and I am completely unmoved.  But a fictional ghost story gets me every time.

I also love mysteries, so I was pretty excited when my mother recommended Help for the Haunted by John Searle.  A murder mystery of sorts, with all of the supernatural, paranormal creepiness I could want.  The narrator of the story, Sylvie, is the daughter of a pair of "spirit hunters".  They make their living giving talks at paranormal conventions, and helping people with hauntings.  After getting a strange phone call one snowy night, Sylvie and her parents leave the warmth of home for a cold dark of an empty church at midnight.  Before the night is over, both of her parents are dead, and Sylvie and her sister are left orphaned.

One year later, Sylvie is trying to deal with her grief over her parents' deaths, and to process her feelings about her own role in the events of that winter's evening.  She feels as though there is something important she is not remembering about what happened in that church, and she desperately wants to remember before the man accused of killing her mother and father go on trial.  Her sister, who is now her guardian, is no help, all anger and indifference and sarcasm.  And, the spooky events that used to plague her family during her parents' work have started happening again-dolls that appear where they shouldn't, lights that appear to turn on and off by themselves.  It's all too much, and Sylvie feels as though she will go crazy if she can't discover the truth.

I really enjoyed the mood of the whole book, up until the very end.  There is just enough creepy goodness to make you a little uncomfortable (in a good way, if you like that sort of thing) while you are reading (probably with the lights on).  But this is also a story about mothers and daughters, about faith vs. skepticism, and about trying to do right by people, even when you're not sure what "right" is. That said, I was disappointed in the ending.  Without giving anything away, I can confidently say that most readers of this book will be completely blindsided by the answer to the riddle of what happened that night in the church, not because Searle expertly crafts such a tight narrative that the clues are only obvious in hindsight, but because the clues are not really there to begin with.  While this isn't technically the right term for what I mean, the resolution to the story had a deus ex machina kind of feeling.  Something comes right out of left field that no one could have seen coming, which annoyed me on a certain level because it made the end feel disjointed, like the ending to another story. Or maybe I was just not paying enough attention (but I don't think so).  At any rate, I'd still recommend this book to anyone who likes a good scary story, or a good family story, or a good mystery story. It's a (mostly) satisfying read.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand

There are no shortage of World War II stories in the world.  The Greatest Generation, fighting perhaps the last truly righteous war, came home from Europe and the Pacific and became our fathers,
grandfathers, uncles, and grumpy old neighbors.  American pop culture has seen plenty of images of D-Day, the liberation of the concentration camps, and the naval battles of the Pacific.  And we've begun, in small ways, to deal with our own shameful WWII history, when tens of thousands of American citizens, who happened to be Japanese, were rounded up and sent to internment camps.

But the story of Louis Zamperini, and the other men held as POWs in Japanese prisoner of war camps, is something new added to the long narrative of World War II and its aftermath.  If Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, was a fictional tale, I would probably say it is unrealistic.  I mean, who would expect anyone to believe a story where survivors of a plane crash in the ocean survive for over 40 days drifting in a tiny raft in the Pacific, stalked by sharks, strafed by enemy aircraft, only to be "rescued" by the Japanese army and sent to prison camps, where the brutality shown them apparently knew no bounds?  Any one of them is a former Olympic athlete?  Yeah, right!

But this story is a true story, under the category of "you can't make this stuff up".  Hillenbrand's book tell the chilling story of Louis Zamperini and his fellow pilots, flying bombing runs in the Pacific theater in planes that were themselves almost as dangerous to the lives of the crew as the enemy.  To be honest, just the experiences of the men learning to fly these early war planes would have made a fascinating book.  I was routinely horrified by the way the US military used these patriotic, enthusiastic young men (boys, really) as fodder for the war machine that sprang to life when Japan bombed Hawaii.  But, of course, the real meat of the story is not about US military policy, but about the incredible struggle for survival that Louis and the other men who were stranded on that life raft endured in order to get back home.

What struck me most while reading this books was the lengths that the human mind will go to to preserve some shred of dignity in life.  Despite the filth, the disease, the hunger, and the impossibly inhuman treatment suffered by the prisoners, each in their own way tried to find some small act of resistance or independence that made them feel as though they were still human, still valuable, still worthy of life and respect.  Not every man was able to find a way to survive with sanity intact, but I  think it is a great testament to the human spirit that even when being treated like animals, Louis and many of the men in the camps with him persevered.  Of course, none of them left the experience without scars, both physical and mental.

Unless you live under a rock, you probably know that there is a movie of this book being released at Christmas.  (I will admit to finding the timing unusual, since it is not exactly the most heartwarming, uplifting story.)  I certainly plan to see it, but I am curious about one thing.  The last quarter of the book examines the effects that Louis' experiences had on his psyche, his physical health, and his relationships.  Will the movie?  Are we so averse as a country to thinking/talking/considering the terrible consequences of making men into soldiers that the movie will end with a triumphant rescue, or will the film explore the deep, lingering pain that these men brought home?  I certainly hope so.  I hope that Hillenbrand would not have released the rights to the book without the part that, to me, speaks the most to what we can do as a society to make sure that no one, not one more American soldier or airman or seaman or marine, has to experience the brutalities of war the way the men in this book did.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Midwife, Jennifer Worth

Ah, the miracle of pregnancy and childbirth.  That beautiful time when glowing women contentedly rub their ever-swelling bellies, whiling away the hours crafting beautiful hand-made works of art for their well-appointed nurseries.  When the time comes for the special bundle to make its way into the world, they execute their meticulously planned labor plans, breathing away the pain without the use of drugs, pushing for all of two minutes before the baby appears, perfectly formed, into the hands of the doctor (or midwife or dula, if they are really going natural).

What?  This doesn't sound like your birthing experience?  Yeah, mine either, but as a culture we have mythologized pregnancy and childbirth to the point that women feel guilty if they haven't had the perfect Pinterest birthing experience (which, if you think about it, is good practice for once the child is actually born, and then they can feel guilty about the non-Pinterst perfect birthday parties and Elf on the Shelf ideas).  The reality?  Pregnancy and childbirth are wonderful, for most women.  But even women with a completely normal pregnancy have to deal with swollen ankles, strange bodily fluids, sore and swollen breasts, constipation, back aches, and morning sickness.  Child birth itself is miraculous, yes, but also messy, and, let's face it, pretty gross.  

If you'd prefer to hold on to the description at the beginning of this post as your mental image of pregnancy and childbirth, then I suggest that you do NOT read The Midwife by Jennier Worth (also called Call the Midwife, depending on which edition you have).  This memoir, upon which is based a PBS historical drama, is the first in a trilogy of books that examine the experiences of a group of midwives in post-war London.  And it is not for the faint of heart.  

London after World War II was battered.  Many buildings had been destroyed by the Germans during the Blitz, and rebuilding plans were stalled due to budget cuts and changes in government leadership. This left many poor families crammed together in tenements that had been slated for destruction, until id became clear that there was no where near enough housing left for everyone in London. Jennifer Worth left her comfortable middle class home to join a corp of midwives working in London's East End, treating women who lived in unsanitary conditions most of us can only imagine, many of whom already had many children.  That close to the docks, the men tended to be hard, and the women tended to be overwhelmed.  This first book tells about Jennifer's early days as a midwife, and is full of fascinating and graphic descriptions of cases she worked on.

If you are not comfortable reading graphic, rather vivid descriptions of other women's lady parts, and the smells and fluids that might come out of them, then you probably want to avoid this book.  Ditto if you can't handle stories about dead and dying babies, or mothers, or both.  The reality for most poor pregnant women in post-war London was that they dealt with their pregnancy living in a two room apartment with their husband and two or five or eight other children, an apartment that had no running water, no bathroom, and was either sweltering or freezing depending on the season.  

If you can handle the content, then you will find a book that is written with what strikes me as typical middle-class English reserve.  The stories are straightforward, with Worth sharing just enough of her own reactions to the situations to keep it from sounding too clinical.  It's an interesting look at the beginning of the National Health Service, founded to provide universal, no-cost health care to the people of the United Kingdom.  It is also an examination of how doctors, who were predominately male, either valued or dismissed the experience and knowledge of the midwives, causing a few tense and adversarial moments for the midwives themselves.  And despite the circumstances of many of their patients, I think that there are things that American health care could learn from the way they provided services to their patients.  The mythologized version of pregnancy might be prettier, but the reality is so much more interesting!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Stereotype Busting in Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

As someone who is engaged in social justice work and peacemaking through youth ministry, I am probably hyper-aware of how various groups are people are represented in media.  Overall, I find that news outlets, especially the less serious ones, tend to play on the stereotypes people have about the "other" (blacks, Hispanics, gays, the poor) when reporting their stories, or even in choosing which stories to cover.  Television comedies get easy laughs from portraying members of various groups in stereotypical ways, and social media memes like "The People of Wal-Mart" appeal to the lowest form of shaming disguised as "humor" to make their posts go viral.  Even as someone who strives to be anti-racist and anti-oppressive in my own language, I sometimes find myself using words and phrases that upon reflection are in fact just the opposite.

Therefore it was refreshing to read Barbara Kingsolver's novel Flight Behavior, set in Appalachia, and see her deftly highlight the very real issues of poverty and lack of education that have historically affected the area without blaming the people of Appalachia for them.  One of the most persistent stereotypes about people from areas of the US south and east of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers is that of "red neck" or "hillbilly".  Given the amount of rural poverty, lack of access to education and job training, and the Bible Belt culture of the southeast, it is easy to look at those living in poverty and assume that they must "want" to live that way, or that they are just too backward thinking to raise themselves out of circumstances that most of the rest of the country thinks are "trashy".  Those who are being the most generous consider them victims of ignorance and superstition, as though the social ills that result in the poverty and poor quality of education there are the result of some natural process, rather than of systems created and perpetuated by other humans.   Kingsolver, in Flight Behavior's main character Dellarobia,  has created a fully developed human person who will make the reader question their own assumptions about the people of the Appalachia region.

Dellarobia is a young mother of two small children, living with her husband in a small house on her in-laws' sheep farm.  She feels desperately trapped by the narrow edges of her life.  A stay-at-home mom, who once had dreams of going to college and leaving her small mountain town, Dellarobia is on her way to an assignation with another man when she stumbles upon the most amazing sight-the forest is covered in millions of monarch butterflies.  Despite the natural wonder of the scene, her father-in-law is determined to log the mountain to pay of his debts and keep his farm.  When scientists arrive in town to discover why the monarchs have strayed from their usual migration pattern, they and some of the more religious townspeople, who see the butterflies' arrival as a sign from God, become unlikely allies in trying to save them.

Through Dellarobia's eyes, we see the quiet strength of a people who are living so close to the edge of survival, and the power of religion to give people hope that the next life will be better.  In her mother-in-law, we see a woman who has grown hard and brittle, rigid in her insistence on conforming to tradition, that comes from a life filled with the constant struggle to put food on the table.  The reactions of the scientists to the lack of education and superstitious beliefs of some of the townspeople holds a mirror up to anyone who has helped perpetuate the negative hillbilly stereotype, though it is the media for whom Kingsolver reserves her scorn.  Dellarobia's naive experiences with the news reporter who comes to talk to her about the butterflies highlight starkly the exploitation of marginalized and vulnerable people in the search for readers and ratings.

And while it was the way Kingsolver's character reflected an inherent dignity and essential humanity that most spoke to me, at its core this is a book about the controversial issue of climate change. Calling the residents of this fictional mountain town climate change deniers is too strong, because climate change as a social problem is barely on their radar.  Those who have considered it only have the opinions of the local conservative radio host to go on, because the science teacher/basketball coach at the local high school spend most of the class sessions in pick-up games with the boys, and the students at the local community college are only interested in learning the bare minimum to get a job with a regular income.  Dellarobia becomes a bridge from that world to the scientists, and through her Kingsolver examines the way that faith, knowledge, and tradition intersect, and the difficulty of changing hearts and minds when what has always been done is what is always expected.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh

In this day and age of instant communication, it's easy to forget that in times past it took people days or
weeks to share their thoughts and feelings with others.  And given the current propensity for over-sharing that has taken over our social media culture, we are used to knowing what everyone is thinking all the time (whether we want to or not).  But in the past, when people were expected to be more circumspect in their personal communication, they had to be creative about sharing their true feelings, especially with someone with whom they hoped to be romatically involved.

The Victorians developed a way to share their feelings of love, desire, and jealousy through the language of flowers.  When it would have been inappropriate to tell a woman that you desired her with words, you could send her a bouquet of red roses, and your meaning would be clear.  Eventually they developed a floral symbol for almost any emotion you can think of.  Some of those meanings have carried over to today, but many have been lost.  Vanessa Diffenbaugh uses this old-fashioned idea as the basis of her novel, The Language of Flowers.  The main character, Victoria, is an 18 year old foster child.  After having lived in group homes for most of her life, she is being emancipated.  Without any family or resources, she quickly finds herself living in a public park.  Victoria describes herself as misanthropic; she disdains personal connection, and wants only to spend her time cultivating the flowers that she loves.  She eventually finds a job working as a florist, and becomes known in her San Francisco neighborhood for having the knack for choosing the perfect flowers for any occasion.  She does this through her extensive knowledge of the language of flowers, which we discover over the course of the novel she learned from the one woman who ever showed her love or compassion as a child.  As she navigates her first year on her own, she is forced to confront the pain and fear that has kept her from having the kind of connections with the people in her life that most of us take for granted.

I loved this book.  I loved Victoria, not just in spite of her prickly nature but because of it.  I loved that there were facts about and descriptions of flowers on nearly every page.  I found myself completely sucked in to the world that Diffenbaugh created, to the point of losing all track of time in the real world.  To me, this is the mark of a truly great story, when you are living so firmly in the fictional world the author has created that it feels more real that the world you are actually sitting in.  After working for over 20 years in the public school system, I recognized students I have known over the years in Victoria.  And I recognized myself and other adults I know in some of the people who try to help her.  Most of the characters-her boss, her boyfriend, the woman who took her in as a child-all walk that fine line between accepting her for who she is and encouraging her to allow others into her lonely life.  Diffenbaugh offers up a hopeful story of love, loss, and forgiveness that completely drew me in.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Saving Fish from Drowning, Amy Tan

I don't usually read other people's review of a book until after I have finished it and written my own review. When I was on Goodreads adding this book to my virtual shelves, however, I noticed that the very first review only had one star.  Given what I know about Amy Tan and her work, that seemed nonsensical.  I have found every book of hers to be well-written, at times both evocative and provocative, and generally moving and emotionally engaging.  As I scrolled down the list of reviews, I found that the first one-star reviewer was not the only one.  I suppose that everyone is entitled to an off day (or book), but given my track record with Tan I decided to go ahead.

Saving Fish from Drowning is in many ways a typical Tan novel, and in some ways something completely different.  Her usual setting and themes are there-China and southeast Asia; the relationship between parents and children, or husbands and wives; culture clashes, and/or trying to navigate two worlds by staying true to tradition while living in modern society.  But the narrator and the structure of the novel set it apart from her other works.  The narrator is wealthy art patron Bibi Chen, who spent her early years in China, and emigrated to the US during the Cultural Revolution.  As a member of the board of directors for an Asian art museum, she has taken on the role of tour guide for other wealthy Americans who wish to travel to Asia and explore the rich cultural heritage in places like China and Burma.  What makes her a unique narrator is that she is dead.  At the beginning of the novel we learn that she was found, throat cut, on the floor of her antique store in San Francisco.  The tour group she was supposed to take to Burma (which has recently begun to open its borders to more foreign visitors), decides to go ahead with the trip.  Things quickly go wrong when the group decides not to follow the carefully thought out and arranged plan Bibi created.  We know this because Bibi herself goes along on the trip, though of course, no one can see her, being dead and all.  After some initial problems, the group makes it to Burma, only to be kidnapped by members of a tribal group hiding out in the mountains, after two of the tribe's members become convinced that one of the Americans is in fact the long, lost savior they've been waiting for.

For me, the strongest aspects of the novel had to do with the cultural misunderstandings that occur between the Americans and the people they come across in both China and Burma.  There is the stereotype of the "ugly" American, someone who visits foreign places, looking for exotic experiences while at the same time expecting the people they encounter to change their own behavior to make the Americans more comfortable.  There is certainly some of that in the book, though the characters themselves believe that they are looking for "authentic" experiences.  But even these supposedly worldly travelers are shocked, dismayed, and judgmental about the conditions in the hotels and cultural sites they visit, exhibiting a basic lack of knowledge of their own privilege.  There is a minor celebrity, who seems rather put out when he is not recognized.  There are a few academics, who are interested in learning about the cultures they are visiting, but in a passive, waiting to be filled sort of way.  There is even a young American who works with an organization trying to aid the people of Burma and dismantle the oppressive regime, who considers herself to be on a sort of spy mission, showing a naivete that is more frustrating than charming or admirable.  And while Tan describes the various native characters as being essentially naive and superstitious in many ways, they definitely come off better than the Americans do in the end.

At the heart of the novel is an exploration of what it means to live life as a person who feels deeply.  Bibi herself admits that she long ago learned to turn off her own feelings, to live on the surface of an emotional life, mostly in response to a demeaning and cold step-mother.  This part of the book felt very much like Tan's other books.  But the concept of emotional connection is explored in various ways through the relationships the American travelers make with each other, both romantic and platonic.  There is a mother and daughter, a father and son, and various couples in various stages of commitment.  And, of course, there are some vacation hook-ups. To be honest, none of the characters was completely likable, except for maybe the two teenagers.  Each person has some flaw in their character that makes it difficult to be completely sympathetic when thing go wrong, which happen quite a lot.  When we discover what really happened to Bibi at the end of the novel, Tan's message seems to be that holding ourselves back from deep, authentic feelings towards others-through selfishness or fear or greed-will inevitably lead to disasters both small and large.

Do I think this book deserves a one-star review?  Absolutely not.  Most people seemed to find either the first-person omniscient narrator problematic, or they were put off by the characters in some way.  Some people didn't like that all of the Americans were so unsympathetic, some felt that there were too many, lots of people complained about the amount of detail Tan provides which they thought was irrelevant.  None of that really bothered me, but I don't think that this novel rises to the level of the Joy Luck Club or The Bonesetter's Daughter, either.  Overall, if you are a fan of Tan's work, it is worth it to read this novel so that you can be knowledgeable about her entire body of work.  If you have never read Amy Tan, don't start with this one.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Burial Rites, Hannah Kent

While support for the death penalty seems to be a forgone conclusion in the United States, most other developed nations long ago gave up the practice.  Regardless of how you as an individual American may feel about the morality and effectiveness of the ultimate punishment, surveys show that many people around the world find it odd that we have such a strong attachment to it.  I don't actually have evidence to support what I'm about to write, but I suspect that the people of Iceland would be among them.  At least, based on the fact that the last person to be executed in Iceland was over 150 years ago.  In her novel, Burial Rites, Hannah Kent uses the real-life case of the last people to be put to death under the death penalty in Iceland as the basis for a book has been labeled a mystery, though I think it could just as easily  be called historical fiction, for its examination of the intersection of religion and law in Icelandic society.  Or women's fiction, as it examines the role of women in a society that I imagine very few American's have much experience with.

Agnes Magnusdottir has been convicted of murdering her lover.  While awaiting execution, she is sent to a remote farm to live with a district official and his family.  Escape is essentially impossible, since no one could survive in the wilderness for long.  While there, she is expected to meet with a spiritual advisor in order to repent and make her peace with God before meeting Him face to face to be judged.  The wife of the district official is at first very resistant, but as Agnes works with the family, and her story comes out, it becomes clear that executing her would be a miscarriage of justice.

Kent uses a combination of third person and first person narrative (from Agnes' point of view) to tell the story.  Agnes' story is revealed both through the comments of the other characters and her own thoughts.  The official documents that were included, and the conversations of the other characters about Agnes, are then  given context when the truth from Agnes' point of view is revealed.

What really sets this book apart from other books in this genre is the setting.  Otherwise it's a sadly familiar story of a woman who was taken advantage of by a man she loved.  But the description of Icelandic culture and the interesting narrative structure help this novel stand out from other similar mysteries, even ones with historical settings.  I look forward to seeing if Kent's future books will continue to offer familiar stories with engaging twists.