Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Jesus famously said "The poor you will always have with you" (Mark 14:7).  Two thousand years later, this statement remains a sad truth about the state of the world we live in.  Poverty is a blight on human civilization, rendering huge swaths of the population unable to do more than work tirelessly for subsistence level existence.  The causes of poverty are many and varied, and fighting poverty is made that much more difficult by the attitudes that people have about the poor.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, there are many people around the world who choose a "blame the victim" mentality when thinking about those who live in poverty. They are lazy, or dissolute, or ignorant.  Obviously they must be making bad choices, or they feel a sense of entitlement to government assistance that keeps them from "working hard", "pulling themselves up by their bootstraps", or "climbing the ladder" of economic success.

While some of these prejudices are stated openly by people who seem to have a dearth of compassion towards their fellow human beings, they are more insidious than that.  Often, well intentioned people who believe it is their "Christian" duty to serve the needs of the poor reinforce these stereotypes in the way that they structure their social action around poverty.  Throughout the history of the United States, there are a multitude of examples of churches, governments, or social service organizations who espoused a particular policy to fight poverty that actually caused more harm than good.  "Indian schools", where Native American children were sent after being (forcibly) removed from their families to be re-educated in the "Christian" way are one example.  Another is the subject of the book Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline.  For a period of about 70 years, trains full of orphaned and abandoned children were sent to the middle of the country, where farmers, factory owners, shopkeepers, and yes, some loving families were able to adopt them by signing a piece of paper on a train platform.  The stated goal was to provide for these children, the products of the teeming, filthy streets of cities in the northeast, a fresh start in a wholesome environment where they could learn the values of hard work and clean living that so obviously escaped their vile, low, lazy parents (please read sarcasm into that last sentence).

Orphan Train is the story of two women-Molly, a Penobscot Indian teenager in the foster care system in present day Maine, and Vivian, a 91 year old woman with an unexpected past.  When Molly volunteers to help Vivian clean out the attic of her large seaside home, she discovers that she and Vivian share a history of being judged by people who do not understand who they are, and of being shunted around from place to place, never really feeling secure.  Vivian was one of the children sent west on the Orphan Train, an Irish girl with red hair and freckles.  The Irish in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in America were looked down upon much like many immigrants of Mexican descent are today (like poverty, this tendency to revile newly arrived immigrants who are coming to "take our jobs and ruin our towns" is always with us).  Her father was an alcoholic who gambles away much of the family's money, and her mother has what would today be diagnosed as clinical depression.  When most of her family is killed in a fire, she is sent from New York City on a train to Minnesota.  Too old to be easily adopted, and her obviously Irish features and name (Niamh), she is not taken into the arms of a loving, Midwestern family, but sent to what is essentially a sweatshop.  The story follows Niamh, who will change her name several times in the course of the novel, through the 20th century and the many times she had to move from place to place, never really feeling as though she belonged anywhere.

The book highlights an important period of American history, and the story is very moving.  What makes it more than just a well-written historical fiction novel is the relationship between Molly and Vivian.  These two women, who have felt alone and misunderstood for much of their lives, find kindred spirits in each other. In Vivian, Molly finds a model of what it can look like when someone decided not to let their past or the prejudices of others define them, and Vivian discovers that family connections can survive despite tragedy, separation, and the passing of nearly a century of time.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Sister, Poppy Adams

Poppy Adams' book The Sister is an odd little novel.  It follows the story of one family from the English countryside-the husband, and entomologist who studies moths; his lonely, alcoholic wife; and their two daughters, Ginny and Vivian.  The novel opens with an elderly Ginny waiting for her younger sister Vivi to return to their enormous country estate for the first time in 50 years.  Ginny, who has become a recluse, is at once excited to see her beloved sister, and anxious about the effect her presence will have on the quietly ordered life she has created for herself.  Through Ginny's flashbacks we learn the troubled history of her family, and the series of events that led Vivi to leave the house, not to return for five decades.

Adams does a great job setting the mood for the novel with her descriptions of the decrepit estate where Ginny now lives.  Once a beautiful, vibrant country house, over time the furniture has been sold off, the grounds allowed to go to seed, and an air of decay lies over everything that is left.  This unsettling mood persists, despite the fact that at first, the story itself seems fairly benign.  However, as Ginny takes her walk down memory lane, it becomes clear that there is something not quite right, both with her and with the things that happened in her family.  Ginny doesn't seem to feel emotion that same way that other people do, and she has trouble reading other people's emotions and social cues.  I suppose if her childhood had been set in the present day rather than the 1950s, we might have said that she has Aspergers Syndrome, but if there was a name back then for her quirks Adams never reveals it.  As the story unfolds, the reader begins to question whether they can trust Ginny's recollection of events, tinged as it is with her own inability to analyze other people's motives and feelings.

This novel ends in such an unexpected way that I actually went back and read the last 20 pages or so again to see if I had missed something that would explain the ending, and to be honest it does feel like there were a few gaps in the story that caused the reader to have to make a few leaps in order to get to where Adams eventually took us.  But if you are looking for a moody, slightly chilling read, then I think that you will enjoy this debut novel.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Sisterland, In Which Psychic Twins Still Manage to Have Screwed Up Lives

People have always been fascinated by identical twins.  Twin studies have shown that often they have a
deeper connection than normal siblings, developing their own language to communicate and sensing when something is wrong with the other.  It is this idea that Curtis Sittenfeld explores in Sisterland, his 2013 novel about two identical twins who end up taking very different paths.

Kate (born Daisy) and her sister Violet grew up in a small town near St. Louis, Missouri.  They knew from an early age that they had abilities that they could not explain, what they called senses.  Their "senses" gave them feelings about things that were going to happen in the future, things that it would be impossible to know. Raised by a mostly absent father and a mother with untreated clinical depression, there was no one that the girls could turn to when it came to understanding the power they possessed.   After a sleep over with some friends during which Kate felt a malevolent presence in the room, she actively tried to ignore and quash her senses.  This became especially true after she married and became a mother. She wanted nothing more than to be normal.  Her sister Vi, on the other hand, turned her senses into a career, which began after Kate and Vi helped find a kidnapped boy while in college.  Vi is a handful-loud, brash, crass, and pushy, she requires almost as much attention from Kate as her own children, or her aging father.  When Vi predicts a major earthquake would hit the St. Louis area, the story is picked up by the major networks, and her life becomes a series of interviews and psychic readings, embarrassing her sister Kate and driving the whole family into virtual hiding from reporters.

Sittenfeld does a wonderful job with the backstory of the sisters, which he tells by alternating between present day and past.  Kate is a fully developed character, though to be honest I didn't find her a particularly likable one.  I found her suburban attitudes about her gifts, her sister's choices, and her family history to be sort of obnoxious, in fact.  Sittenfeld did not do quite as well with some of the other characters-Kate's husband, for instance, is a little too good to be true-but I thought he captured the Midwestern sensibilities of a small city pretty well.  Overall I found the story engaging, and was drawn in enough to ignore my chores for the day and keep reading (though, in truth, this is not exactly hard to do).  In the end, though, I felt like this novel, as engaging as it was, failed to deliver anything truly unique.  For an earthquake does come, thought not in the literal ground shaking sense.  Kate's life ends up being rocked by her own very questionable choices, and while there is a certain symmetry to her getting her comeuppance after all of the years she judged her sister and others, this particular earthquake was entirely preventable.

Friday, February 28, 2014

One Soul, by Ray Fawkes

I'm pretty new to the world of graphic novels.  I might not have ever picked on up at all, except that as a
reading coach at the elementary school where I work I have to keep up with the latest trends in children's literature, and they are very popular there right now.  But I have found that despite the "picture book" format, graphic novels for adults are able to tell very insightful and substantive stories that engage me as a reader in a very different way than more traditional formats.

One of my book clubs recently read One Soul by Ray Fawkes as our monthly pick, and the premise itself is intriguing, even for a graphic novel.  The book follows 18 distinct lives, from prehistoric times through the 20th century, with one panel from each life on each two page spread.  The people come from all different geographic regions and backgrounds.  There is an Egyptian priestess, a Sumerian warrior, a medieval doctor and a 19th century dance hall girl.  There is a mix of men and women, and two of the characters are gay.  As you read each page, the panels are sometimes completely independent of each other, and sometimes when read together they form a longer thought or theme that only has full meaning when read together.  The art work is almost rudimentary, and the lack of color only adds to the general stark portrayal of the lives of the characters.

The overall theme of the book seems to be humankind's search for meaning in a world where oftentimes meaningless things seem to happen.  Each of the characters has their moments of struggle and of triumph.  Some of the characters are sympathetic, and some are violent and hard to love.  There are oppressors and the oppressed, yet despite the sometimes vast differences in their perspectives and experiences, they all go through essentially the same journey-the search for love, the search for self, the search for acceptance, the search for meaning.

The prevailing opinion of my book club ladies was that the book was pretty depressing.  And it is true that there are not too many moments of transcendence.  Most of the people led rather short, sometimes violent, often unfulfilling lives.   But woven throughout the book are glimpses into a deeper meaning, and it is often the characters who have died that provide the deepest insights into the struggles of human life.  In the end, all of the characters in the book meet death, and become one with the universal consciousness that Fawkes must imagine exists outside of our mortal lives.  While I can't say I found the stories hopeful, I did find some comfort in the idea that all human beings are engaged in the struggle together, even while in the end we are each so desperately alone.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Poor Little Rich Girl, Chinese Style

If you are a person who knows anything about Chinese culture, beginning in the medieval period through the 20th century, you probably know that women were not valued in society, except as pawns in their family's quest for wealth or political gain.  Foot binding and female infanticide are the two most horrific examples of this attitude I can think of, but overall the fate of women and girls in China has largely been left in the hands of their fathers and husbands.  Foot binding continued into the 20th century, and even today in China girl babies are abandoned to orphanages at a much high rate than male children.

And, as Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter demonstrates, this sad state of affairs for women and girls crossed class lines, and affected both the rich and poor alike.  But Falling Leaves is more than just a story of a Chinese girl who grows to thriving womanhood in spite of her family's cruelty. It is the story of China's transition from monarchy to communism, both from the perspective of how it affected the daily lives of its people, and how it changed the economic landscape for the wealthy and well-educated. The author, Adeline Yen Mah, is the titular unwanted daughter.  She was the result of her wealthy father's first marriage, but her mother died soon after giving birth to her.  In Chinese tradition, this was the first mark against her-she brought bad luck to her mother, so she was bound to bring bad luck to others.  When her father remarried, to a much younger Eurasian woman, she and her older brothers and sister were shunted from the forefront of family life to the background.  They were forced to watch as their younger half-brother and sister were given every advantage, while they had to beg for even the most basic necessities, such as train fare to get to school.  Her step-mother, Niang, was cruel and manipulative, setting the siblings against each other whenever possible, and eventually beating down her husband's spirit such that he no longer stood up for his older children.  Ma and her siblings were mostly able to escape their step-mother's day to day control, but she held the reins on the family finances and pitted her children against each other until her death.

Despite her lonely, abusive childhood, Ma was extraordinarily privileged compared to most of her countrymen.  Her family was able to escape to Hong Kong before the Cultural Revolution, and was able to keep most of it's wealth along the way, But that privilege did not keep her from being affected by the larger societal forces at work, and it certainly didn't help her beloved aunt, a mother figure for Ma, or her elderly grandfather, who was made to feel like a beggar in his own home.

Ma tells her story matter of factly, without drama or exaggeration.  In a way that makes her story all the more chilling, reflecting as it does the emotional barrenness that Ma lived with most of her childhood. Just relating the events as they happened was enough to make me feel her loneliness, her longing for acceptance, her anger, and, in the end, her resignation.  Ma's story should strike a chord with anyone who has desperately tried to gain acceptance and love from people who were never able to give it, as her step-mother appears not to be able to do.  May as well try to get love and acceptance from a piece of cold, green jade.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Is the Universe Trying to Tell Me Something?

The last book I reviewed for this blog was about a medieval hangman who solved the mystery of a murder supposedly perpetrated by a woman who was then falsely accused of withcraft, The Hangman's Daughter.  I read the last page, looked at my Kindle library, and chose a Robert R. McCammon book that I hadn't yet read.  The first McCammon book I read, called Boy's Life, reminded me a lot of one of my very favorite author's, Stephen King.  I assumed I would get something similar with Speaks the Nightbird.  So imagine my consternation when I found myself reading a mystery, about a murder, that was blamed on a woman, who was falsely accused of, you guessed it, witchcraft.  What exactly is the universe trying to tell me?  Should I refrain from making poppets and potions?  Healing the sick? 

Speaks the Nightbird stars Matthew Corbett, clerk for Magistrate Isaac Woodward, who is on his way to the far flung town of Fount Royal, in the Carolina territory to hold the trial of an accused witch, Rachel Howarth.  The year is 1699, and the Salem witch trials are still a fresh memory in the minds of many.  Fount Royal is the dream of a weathly shipbuilder who will do anything to see his town survive.  People have been fleeing ever since the murder of the minister and Daniel Howarth, husband of the accused.  The town founder had one goal-burn the witch, for the sake of the town!  But things are not as cut and dried as one might think.  Matthew finds himself drawn to Rachel, but more importantly to his sense of honor and justice, he thinks she has been framed, meaning the real killer is getting away with murder, literally.

Well, regardless of the message I was being sent, Speaks the Nightbird and The Hangman's Daughter are not exactly the same.  The Hangman's Daughter takes place in 17th century Germany, and Speaks the Mightbird takes place in 17th century America.  Matthew Corbett, the main character of Speaks the Nightbird, is a well educated man who was rescued from the almshouse as a young man.  The titular hangman of the other novel is an older gentleman who is a societal outcast because of his profession.  But the stories end up being remarkably similar, and both shine a light into the kind of superstition and hysteria that caused innocent men and women to be burned alive as punishment for the supposed witchcraft they hypothetically practiced. 

To be honest, if you had given me both Boy's Life and Speaks the Nightbird, minus the author's name, I would never have guessed that these books were written by the same person.  McCammon's earlier books are mostly supernatural thrillers or horror, but he took about a decade off from publishing, and Speaks the Nightbird was the first book he published in this new genre.  This book is the first in a series, of which there are at least two more.  I'm looking forward to both carching up on McCammon's earlier works, and continuing the journey with Matthew Corbett and 17th century America.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I have a t-shirt that says "Authors are my rock stars".  It features a jaunty picture of Edgar Allen Poe wearing John Lennon-style sunglasses.  And aside from the clever mash-up of depressive, alcoholic 19th century author and free-loving  20th century musician, the message on the shirt is true for me, and I bet is true for many of you.  Sure, it would be cool to meet some of my favorite rock stars (John Bon Jovi comes to mind!), but if you really want to get me excited, tell me I am going to meet one of my favorite authors.

So imagine my delight, excitement, and butterfly-in-the-stomach inducing invitation to the wedding of a friend of mine at the home of none other than Neil Gaiman!  I won't bother to go into the ways in which my friend and Mr. Gaiman are connected...suffice it to say that he and his wife Amanda Palmer had graciously offered their lovely home in Cambridge, MA for the ceremony and reception.  (They have since moved, thereby negating any lingering stalkerish impulses knowing their address may have had.) Obviously I was thrilled for my friend and her fiance, and would have flown cross-country to see them wed regardless of the setting.  But Neil Gaiman!?!  He's near the top of my "prominent people dinner party" list-you know, that list of people that you would invite to a dinner party just to listen to the amazing wonderfulness that falls from their lips in between bites of exquisitely prepared gourmet food.

When I learned I would be meeting him, I quickly realized that it would be in my best interest to read his latest two books prior to the wedding.  Because clearly we would become fast friends and spend the entire evening talking about his amazing work.  (Spoiler alert:  this did not, in fact, come to pass.  I met him, congratulated him on his recent book awards, and then spent the rest of the evening too nervous and awkward to actually try to have a conversation with the man.  And you'll have to take my word for it that any of this actually happened-I was also too nervous and awkward to ask for a photo.)  Mr. Gaiman had two books come out recently.  One, a children's book called Fortunately, the Milk, is still in my to-be-read stack. But the other, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I picked up immediately after getting the wedding invitation.

First, let me say that given the pretty short length and the age of the main character of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I assumed it was another children's book.  Good thing I actually read it before I handed it out to any of the children at my school.  It may be short, and be mostly about children, but it is very definitely not for the under 12 crowd.  The story is told in flashback.  The narrator is a man returning to his childhood home for a funeral.  While there, he revisits places he knew as a child.  He find himself drawn to the farm at the end of the road, and to the pond that stands behind the neat farmhouse.  All those years ago, he met a girl named Lettie Hempstock and her remarkable family there, and as he gazes at the pond (which Lettie called an ocean), memories of the most terrifying time of his life come flooding back.  When a man committed suicide in his family's car, it created a soft spot in our world that allowed something horrible to come through, something that almost destroyed his family, and could have destroyed the world as we know it.  It is up to Lettie and her family to put things right again.

The suicide was the first thing that clued me into the fact that perhaps I had misjudged the intended audience for the book.  The fact that the evil thing that comes through the hole in the world seduced his father in the guise of an attractive nanny made it official.  But despite some very adult events, the book does read childlike.  Gaiman was able to capture what happened in a way that we understand it as a child might understand it, and it reminded me of my own childhood fears-fears about monsters and losing my parents. Those seem to be fairly universal childhood fears, and Gaiman uses them expertly to create a sense of menace, even though much of the book is not, in fact, violent.  And like the boy in the story, we are left wondering about the nature of Lettie and her family as much as we are about this monster and where it came from.  There is basically no back story for those characters in the book, at least not directly stated.  You can infer a few things from the abilities of the characters and the way they describe "crossing the ocean", but there is no grand explanation.  In the end it didn't matter.  The story has an emotional impact and a creepiness factor that are independent of the mythology of the supernatural characters involved.

I enjoyed The Ocean at the End of the Lane differently than I enjoyed some of his other books.  It's doesn't have the intricate plotlines of American Gods or Anansi's Boys, and I guess it comes the closest to Coraline in terms of its overall mood.  But it is truly a story like I have never read before, which I think speaks volumes about Gaiman's talent as a storyteller.  Maybe our paths will cross again someday, and I will overcome my awkwardness enough to have that conversation about his art.  But until then, I'll make do with his always entertaining and thought-provoking books.