Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Peace Like a River

If you are like most readers, one of the joys of reading is being swept away to another world for a few hours at a time.  Reading can be an escape from the mundane activities of our daily lives, and it can be a doorway through which we enter the heart and soul of people and places we might never experience in real life.  Some authors transport us through plot-driven stories of action and reaction.  Some authors invite us to dive into rivers of language that speak not just to our intellect, but to our own deepest souls.  And sometimes, an author achieves both in a single work-a book with an engaging plot that motivates us to keep reading, written in language so beautiful that it sometimes approaches poetry.

Such is the case with Peace Like a River by Leif Enger.  As one reviewer put it, this is a novel that almost begs to be read aloud (and in fact, I listened to much of it in audiobook form while on a road trip).  Peace Like a River tells the story of what happens to the Land family when the oldest son, Davy, murders two other teens in retribution for terrorizing his seven year old sister, Swede.  The narrator is 11 year old Ruben, the middle child, who tells the story as an adult, but with the same sensibility that you'd expect of a young boy growing up in the American heartland during the middle part of the 20th century.  After the two young hooligans who meet such a violent end are interrupted in the act of raping Davy's girlfriend by the Land family patriarch, Jeremiah, they begin to terrorize the family, kidnapping Swede and taking her on a joy ride, before dropping her off again as a warning.  When the two boys break into the family home, Davy takes matters into his own hands.  He is charged with murder, and during his trial manages to escape from the jail where he's being held.  Jeremiah decides to take the family cross-country during the bitter Dakotan winter to find his boy, and Ruben and Swede are along for the ride.

In a way, the road trip the family embarks on feels like a backwards Odyssey.  Instead of journeying home after a long war, Jeremiah and his children leave their home behind, searching for Davy and encountering magic and miracles along the way.  Jeremiah is a deeply religious man, and miracles seem to follow him wherever he goes.  Ruben recounts the many miraculous events associated with his father throughout the course of the novel, from his being saved from a tornado as a young man, to literally praying breath into Ruben's cold tiny body at the moment of his birth, to healing a man of his disfiguring facial boils.  Enger uses this plot device to create a sense of possibility throughout the novel.  There is no reason that Jeremiah should think he can find his fugitive son, but he drives across the frozen plains of the west as though a beacon is beckoning him forward.  Ruben and Swede both believe that their father is right in all things, as many young children do, and Swede especially clings to her father's belief that Davy can be found and brought to safety as a touchstone during what would be a scary and unsettling time for anyone, much less a seven year old girl. 

Enger's use of language is rich and full of poetic moments.  Swede, a precocious writer and lover of westerns, spends much of her time in the book writing about Sunny Sundown, the cowboy hero she creates, and her stories mirror much of what happens in the book.  Ruben freely admits that he is not the wordsmith that Swede is, but he certainly speaks with a certain down-home lyricism that is impossible not to be drawn into.  Through his careful descriptions and self-deprecating observations about himself and the events he is drawn into, we learn to love the characters in this novel as though they were in fact members of our own family.  Which makes the tragedy of the story have an even greater emotional impact than it might otherwise have held.  

Ordinarily I would not recommend the audiobook version of a novel over the ink-and-paper version, but Chad Lowe, who narrates the audiobook, does such an excellent job of embodying Ruben, and Enger's language deserves to be heard aloud.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood

Any regular reader of this blog knows that I credit Margaret Atwood with making me understand exactly what feminism is.  When I read The Handmaid's Tale in college, I was finally able to see clearly how high the stakes for women are in a society that oppresses and controls them.  But Atwood is more than just a feminist author.  Many of her works also address environmental justice, and indeed how issues of environmental Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, and culminating in her latest book, MaddAddam.
justice are linked to forms of oppression such as classism and sexism.  None of her work displays this as strongly as the MaddAddam trilogy, beginning in

MaddAddam picks up the stories of both the MaddAddamites and God's Gardeners-one, the scientific and technological geniuses behind both the new humans known as Crakers, and the plgue that wiped out most of the population; the other, the eco-cult started by Adam One to teach people how to live without the technology that was invading their lives and ruining the planet.   In the wake of the plague, the two groups have come together in an attempt to create a sustainable existence on the remnants of the world they knew.  Their survival is threatened by a couple of ultra-violent psychopaths whose humanity has been drilled out of them through painballing, a "sport" where criminals were given the option to fight to the death rather than be locked up in prison.  Surviving the painball arena meant becoming a cold blooded killer, and survival at any cost became the only goal.  The survivors must be constantly on the lookout for these men, not just for their own sake, but for the safety and survival of the Crakers, the not-quite-human creations of Crake, who were genetically designed to have no need of or desire for violence, and would be wiped out by contact with the painballers.

I see the painballers as a symbol for all of the violent and soulless influences of modern society that Atwood writes about with such disdain and horror.  Atwood has set up an interesting duality within the book, between the non-violent Crakers, and the ultra-violent Painballers.  The other survivors find themselves existing somewhere between these two extremes.  In killing the painballers, the survivors are in essence killing off the last vestiges of the old, violent world they lived in.  This frees them to define how they will choose to live going forward.  Will they revert back to old ways of gaining and keeping power over others, or will they create a more egalitarian way of living.  And where do the Crakers fit in?  With most of humanity gone, are they now free to live an populate the world with their kind?

To be honest, while the Crakers are certainly endearing, there is much about their existence that would be unsatisfying.  Controlled by strong biological urges for mating, lacking in art or intellectualism, their lives read more like the lives of animals than humans.  I believe that Atwood uses the Crakers to show that while there is much about human behavior that is concerning and possibly dangerous, taking away those same qualities would be to take away what it is that makes us human.

I found it interesting that so much of the book dealt with Zeb, and how he came to be a part of God's Gardeners.  Zeb is introduced in The Year of the Flood, and never really seemed to fit in with the peaceful, gentle God's Gardeners.  But Zeb's story clears up some of the unanswered questions from both Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, namely the connection between Adam One and Crake.  MaddAddam brings a satisfying completeness to the story, but it does not leave the reader without some questions.  Three of the women were pregnant with Craker babies.  How would those children, provided they survive, change the dynamic of the group?  And is that the future of humankind?  By the end of the book, the Crakers are beginning to evolve intellectually and socially, and I couldn't help but wonder what their future society might be like.  Will they be able to keep their innocence and peacefulness, or would the old human traits of greed and the desire for power creep back into what is left of humanity. As usual, Atwood has delivered a provocative story highlighting some scary possibilities for the future of our world.  

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Silent Wife

The description for The Silent Wife makes it sound a lot like your average women's fiction.  Boy meets girl, boy cheats on girl, girl pines and pines for boy, girl eventually finds a way to move on.  What makes The Silent Wife different is that the moving on is more hitman and less gallon-of-ice-
cream-on-the-couch.

Jodi and her common law husband Todd live a charmed life.  Todd, a successful developer, and Jodi, a part-time therapist, live in a luxury condominium right on Lake Michigan in the Chicago Gold Coast.  While from the outside their marriage looks charmed, within the relationship there is nothing but coldness and a lack of true connection.  Todd is a serial philanderer, and in order to keep their lives from completely falling apart, Jodi chooses to live in the state of denial.  But soon, Jodi realizes that Todd is not content to play the part of loving husband.  He is looking for a way to leave her, and as he slips away, so too does her sanity, until finally she makes her way inexorably towards a decision she can never take back.

The story is told from alternating perspectives, first Jodi's, the Todd's.  The voices change chapter to chapter, so unlike Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (to which this book has often been compared), you are reading about all of the events in real time in the story.  This book is defintely no Gone Girl.  It does not rise to the leve of dark and twisty that Flynn's book portrayed.  Honestly, the female character in that book was just evil.  Jodi is not evil, nor is she a sociopath, but she is someone who has been deeply scarred in the past, so deeply that she doesn't even remember what happened to her that created this ability to compartmentalize to such an extreme.  Once her inner boundaries start to fall, however, she begins to realize just how big a lie she has really been living.   The Silent Wife starts out slowly, and the writing style and plot stay rather understated.  But despite the sometimes clinical feeling of the writing, especially the parts narrated by Jodi, the ending has a satisfying emotional jolt that made the effort to read it worth it.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Eleven Minutes, AKA Sexy Sexiness of Sex

A few years ago I made a list of authors that I thought I should read...mostly male writers, because I found that I was reading almost exclusively female writers, and authors of literary fiction, because I found I was reading quite a bit of women's and other genre fiction.  At the time, The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho was all over the blogosphere, so I added that to my list.  I still haven't gotten around to The Alchemist, but I found one of his other books, Eleven Minutes, in a take-one-leave-one library.  I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn't the treatise on the sacred nature of sex that I ended up getting.

Eleven Minutes chronicles the story of Maria, a young Brazilian woman who spends a year of her life working as a prostitute in Geneva, Switzerland.  During her time there, she spends lots of time reflecting on the nature of love and sex and the intersection of the two, as well as how pain and suffering play into the whole equation.  The stakes are high-the path she chooses, between empty sexual pleasure or the possibility of love, will ultimately determine the fate of her soul.

Turns out the book is based, in part, on the true story of an acutal Brazilian prostitute, which helped me understand where on earth he got the idea.  And he's certainly not the first author to examine the nature of sex and sexuality.  But the subject doesn't feel old in Coelho's hands.  Maria is a woman who feels trapped by her background, and by the prospects for her future.  Her thoughts on love are remarkably cynical for her age, deciding early that love is pain, and that in order to secure a comfortable future she needed to manipulate the feelings of others.  And when it comes to men, the best way to do that is with sex.  But in the end, what she finds is that sex without love is incredibly lonely, and that ultimately the only way to be truly free is to surrender yourself to love.

There are some graphic descriptions of sex in the book, though it never felt gratuitous to me.  I did feel as though the prose was occasionally overworked, but there were some really great quotes about life and love scattered throughout.  Ultimately, Maria, and therefore the reader, are drawn to the conclusion that sex is more than the eleven minutes of physical pleasure that might occur, but the merging of two souls in a sacred embrace.  Not a bad lesson to be learned.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Back Roads, Which Should be Titled All Things Dark and Twisty

Let me start by saying that I am not usually squeamish about dark and twisty stories.  I have the stomach to read about things like incest, sexual assault, murder, etc...Not for me just the books that are full of sweetness and light-I like a book with a dark side.  That said, I usually want there to be some sort of redemption involved, or justice being done, or something to resolve the story such that there is a larger message about this experience of being human we are all going through.  Apparently, author Tawni O'Dell didn't get the same memo.

Back Roads is about as dark and twisty as a family drama can get.  The description on Goodreads makes the book sound a bit like an overblown Lifetime movie.  Harley is a 19 year old who suddenly finds himself looking after his three sisters after his mother is convicted of killing his abusive father.  The pressures of working two jobs to make ends meet, and dealing with the emotional fall-out of their father's murder, takes a toll on Harley.  Looking for an outlet, he begins a relationship with a mother of two from down the road.  He becomes obsessed with her, and his obsession sets off a series of events that ultimately tears his family apart.

I remember when I wrote my review for the novel Push, which I actually really appreciate as a work of literary art.  My one criticism of it was that I felt the author, Sapphire, had gone overboard on the tragedy, giving her main character every single problem that a person of her race, gender, and class might be expected to ever have.  At least in that book, however, the problems were, if not resolved, improved throughout the course of the book, and it felt as though Sapphire was trying to highlight the specific issues of racism, sexism, classism, and gender violence that many people living in urban poverty experience.  O'Dell's book also throws pretty much every family problem at her characters-incest, alcoholism, domestic violence, sexual assault, poverty-but in the end I was left wondering what the point of it all was.  Almost none of the characters were that likable or relatable.  They were all deeply flawed, which would be fine except that they never developed past them.  I felt as though just about every character left the novel in exactly the same state as when the book began.  And the serious issues presented about toxic family dynamics were sensationalized rather than examined critically.

Given all of that criticism, you might expect me to pan this book completely.  But I still gave it three stars on Goodreads.  Because despite my dissatisfaction with the ending, the story was engaging enough that I wanted to keep reading.  Granted, I wanted to keep reading because I was sure that O'Dell was going to eventually offer a moment of redemption for at least one of the characters, but it was well written enough that I didn't want to give up on it.  So if you don't mind dark and twisty for the sake of dark and twisty (and based on the number of true crime shows out there that do nothing but highlight dark and twisty there must be lots of you), then you would probably enjoy this book.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Joyland, Stephen King

King has tackled a lot of supernatural creatures over the years-mind readers, fire starters, vampires, werewolves, and really, really, REALLY creepy clowns.  But there is nothing he does as well as an old-fashioned ghost story.  He's written quite a few over the years (Bag of Bones being one of the better examples), and Joyland continues his tradition of creepy goodness!

Joyland is set in an amusement park, and the main character Devin comes there as a college student to work for a summer.  Heartbroken after losing his first love, he throws himself into the carny life.  While working at the park, he is drawn into a mystery-a young woman was killed on the haunted house ride.  People claim to have seen her ghost haunting the ride, and Devin's best friend has his own close encounter with the apparition.  Devin also befriends a dying boy who has the power to see things that most people can't see.  He tells Devin that the girl will not be at rest until her killer is found.  Devin is drawn into both the search for the murderer and a relationship with the boy's mother.

King does his usual masterful job of creating characters that almost leap right out of the pages into real life. There is a nostalgic feeling to the story, which is told as a long flashback from Devin's point of view, and which I've noticed in more of his books the older he's gotten.  King must have also done quite a bit of research into the world of carnies, which has its own culture and language. Like in many of his books, the character with a disability has some sort of special ability, which sadly does not keep them from tragedy.  As ghost stories go this one is less scary and more sad, given the circumstances of the girl's death.  As mysteries go it's pretty well done, with a noir feel that suited the setting perfectly.  On a scale of one to The Stand, I'd say this one is about an eight.  Easy to read, entertaining, and perfect for a lazy day at the beach, which is exactly where I read it.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Boy's Life, by Richard R. McCammon

I suppose it is human nature to idealize our own past.  As we age, we recall the good ol' days when things were simpler.  Nothing beats the nostalgia of our remembered childhood.  A certain toy or a snippet of a
song can transport us back to an earlier time, when the biggest thing most of us had to worry about was our little league team's record, or when the next installment of our favorite comic was coming out.

Ok, I know that the past was not nearly as idyllic as "Leave it to Beaver" or "The Brady Bunch" would have us believe.  There was ugliness-child abuse and alcoholism and racism and poverty are not exactly new phenomenon in human history.  But if you were lucky, and you grew up in the 60s and 70s in America, your dad had a decent job in a mill or a factory, mom was home to greet you after school with a snack, and your summer was full of bike-riding and swimming and catching fire-flies.  It is that America that exists in Richard McCammon's Zephyr, Alabama, the setting of his novel Boy's Life.  The main character, Cory, is a 12 year old boy, in that awkward phase we now call the 'tweens.  His dad was a milkman, his mom a stay at home mother, and he and his four best friends loved comics and baseball and looking for arrowheads.  But, just as we know that the good ol' days weren't always that good, Zephyr has its secret horrors hiding below the surface.  One morning, on the way to school, Cory and his father see a car go over the guardrail and into the lake.  Cory's dad jumps in to save the driver, only to find that he is already dead-his face unrecognizable, a piano wire wrapped around his throat, handcuffed to the steering wheel.  This incident haunts Cory's father, and throughout the course of the novel we find out what happened to the man in the car.  The novel takes place over the course of a year, and is chock-full of magical happenings, culminating in the resolution of the original mystery.

The novel is written very much in the style of "Stand By Me" by Stephen King, and there appeared to be a few send-ups to the great man himself-a pet that comes back from the dead, a ghost car that prowls the roads.  McCammon sets a scene about as well as King does, with evocative descriptions and creative turns-of-phrase.  Perhaps it was my own summers spent in rural southern Alabama as a kid, but the characters and story felt very authentic to me, even as the magic strains belief.  While reading the novel, one can take the story literally as a supernatural mystery, or one can see the magic as a metaphor for the magical thinking we all have in childhood, when monsters under the bed are real, and riding our bikes really does make us feel like we've sprouted wings to fly.  It is also very much the story of one boy going from child to not-quite-a-man, and realizing that the adults in his life are not entirely what he thought them to be.  Cory learns some hard lessons the year he was 12, but they are lessons that all of us learn at one point or another.  Most of McCammon's other novels sound very much like lurid monster fiction, but they are on my to-read list anyway, because I have to believe that the man that wrote this thoughtful, nostalgic book handled those stories with the same finesse he used writing Boy's Life.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Horns, Joe Hill

I was excited to find a copy of Horns at my local Big Lots (a store that sells odd lots and overstock from other stores).  I read Hill's fist novel, Heart Shaped Box, and thought it was a pretty good effort for a first novel.  I will admit to being predisposed to like it-Joe Hill is the pseudonym used by one of the sons of my favorite horror writer Stephen King, after all.  But still, I thought it showed promise.

Horns, while far from being perfect, definitely shows Hill's development as a writer.  The novel tells the story of Ig Perrish, a young man who had everything going for him, until the night that his girlfriend Merrin, the only woman he's ever loved, is brutally murdered.  Suspicion immediately falls on him, but with no evidence he is eventually released.  But in his small town, everyone assumes he did it, and his life becomes an endless series of accusatory glances and awkward interactions.  One night, around the anniversary of Merrin's death, he got raging drunk and blacked out.  When he awoke, he had more than just the worst hangover of his life-he had grown a pair of horns.  People suddenly start confessing their deepest, darkest desires to him, and he discovers that he can nudge people into acting on those desires in a way they would never have dreamed.  One of those people is his brother, Terry, who confesses something that starts a chain reaction of revenge that almost destroys Ig and everyone he cares about.

I thought that Horns felt more mature than Heart Shaped Box.  There was no real explanation of where the horns came from, but like his father he wrote a story that hooked me enough that I didn't really care.  I thought that sometimes he was a little too on-the-nose in his devil references...Ig's name being so close to the word for a church community, the blue skirt he ends up in later in the book (Devil in a Blue Dress)...I felt like these little flourishes weren't really necessary.  But Ig himself is pretty well written, and Hill did a good job making you feel what he was feeling when all of these things started happening to him.  And the premise itself is interesting.  What would it be like to hear everyone's most base desires, or to touch them and see all of the bad things they've ever done?  Frankly, if that's the Devil's job description, he really is living in Hell.


Monday, July 15, 2013

And the Mountains Echoed

Like many serious readers, I hate the "what's your favorite book" question.  Neil Gaiman recently said (and I
am shamelessly paraphrasing here) that trying to pick your five favorite books is like trying to decide which five limbs you don't need.  I can tell you books I've loved recently, or books I loved at various stages of my life.  I can tell you I loved a book I forgot I even read if you remind me what it's about!  My "favorite" book is a function of who I am today, and tomorrow that could change.

There are, however, a few books that moved me so profoundly that they are permanently fixed in my "favorites" category.  I prefer to call them "book you should read before you die". One of those books is A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.  It is a true masterpiece, raw and powerful, a master class on creating rich settings and authentic characters.  Now, Hosseini is back with another story about the history and people of Afghanistan.  This time, he explores not just Afghan culture, but how the intersection of Afghan and Western culture affects his characters.

And the Mountains Echoed begins with an Afghan folktale about a father's love for his daughter.  That theme runs throughout the novel, with characters finding these familial relationships tested by poverty and secrets and history.  The book highlights the many ways that families can nurture or hurt each other, and the many sacrifices that we make in an effort to give our children the best possible chance in life.  The narrator changes at different points in the story, as the action moves from the Afghan countryside to Kabul to Europe and America.  The characters are all connected to each other in a delicate web of relationships-parents, children, siblings, spouses.  The plot is intricately crafted, with each section picking up from the one previous in ways that show the interconnectedness of us all.

The most poignant part for me was the relationship between chauffeur Nabi and his rich employer.  Despite the fact that Nabi is the catalyst for one of the most heart-wrenching betrayals in the book, through his story you are able to see his inherent goodness and compassion.  When his employer's wife deserts him after a sudden illness, it is left to Nabi to stay and take care of him, and the relationship that develops shows how deeply Hosseini understands the ties that bind us to the people we love, even outside of blood relations.

Hosseini does his usual good job exposing the inequalities of men and women in Afghan society, in a way that is not politicized or overly dramatic.  Each of the female characters in forced by circumstance to either conform to the gender roles assigned to them, or to escape.  Parwana is bound to her village in order to care for her disabled sister, and lives a desperate life of unfulfilled dreams of love.  Nila Wahdati, spoiled daughter of a wealthy family, writes poems about love, desire, and sex in 1950s Kabul, and is ultimately driven away from her husband and her country to escape the beautiful cage she felt she was living in.  Though she is by no means a sympathetic character, you can't help but feel sad for her desperate attempts to find love and happiness outside of herself, since she never finds it within.  Even the female characters who never lived in Afghanistan, the daughters of the original main characters, struggle to meet the responsibilities that their parents place on them as good Afghan women.  And the Mountains Echoed is not on my "read before you die" list, but it is definitely one of my favorites of the moment.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Lion is In, Delia Ephron

Some families are gifted with a creative streak that seems to be encoded in the DNA.  That is how artistic
dynasties such as the Barrymores and the Fondas are born.  While both of those famous families shared their gifts mostly in front of the camera, they would be nothing without the efforts of people like the Ephrons.  Delia Ephron, author of The Lion is In, is one of four sisters born to a Jewish family in Beverly Hills.  The most famous of the sisters is probably Norah, who was nominated three times for an Academy award for Original Screenplay, and who won the BAFTA for her movie When Harry Met Sally.  Sadly, Norah died of complications from leukemia in 2012, but her sisters-writers all-are carrying on the family tradition of excellence in screenwriting and journalism.

Delia Ephron is probably best known for her screenplay for You've Got Mail, but she has also written several books for both adults and young people.  Her 2012 novel, The Lion is In, is a quirky novel, part Boys on the Side, part Thelma and Louise, that showcases the usual cast of lovable, flawed female characters.  We start with Lana and Tracee-Lana, a recovering alcoholic with an anger problem, and her best friend Tracee, runaway bride (at least, she convinced herself she was going to be a bride) and kleptomaniac.  On the run from the police, they pick up Rita walking along the side of the road.  Rita is running away from her Holy Roller husband and stifling life.  When their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, they are forced to find shelter in a run-down night club, where they meet Marcel.  Marcel will have a profound effect on all of their lives, helping each of them figure out something important about themselves that allows them to find the strength to take control of their lives.  Oh, and for what it's worth, Marcel is a lion.

In true female buddy story style, the plot plays out like a comedy of errors, with lots of slightly ridiculous situations interspersed with moments of insight.  The most moving of the storylines is Rita's.  While Tracee and Lana both created a lot of their own problems through bad life choices, Rita's life was the result of falling into a bad marriage, and being bullied into submission by her domineering husband.  This very short novel is not long on substance, but it is an enjoyable read, with enough quirks to make it interesting, despite the somewhat cliched themes about women finding their own power.

Friday, July 05, 2013

The Gargoyle

For our book club selection last month, a friend offered up the book The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson.  She had read it earlier this year, and she was curious to see what the ladies in my book club thought of this rather unusual story.  The narrator, who is never named in the book, is a fast living former porn star and current porn producer.  He's basically lived his entire adult life drinking heavily, driving fast, and having lots and lots of sex.  All of that changes one night when he starts having hallucinations (visions?) of archers shooting at him as he drives down a winding mountain road.  Before he knows it, he is trapped in his car at the bottom of a steep ravine, slowly burning to death.  When next he is conscious, he discovers he is in the burn unit at a local hospital, a place that will be his home for the better part of a year.  A couple of months into his recovery, a stray psych patient walks into the room and acts as though she knows him.  Her name is Marianne Engel, admitted for delusions related to schizophrenia.  An artist by trade, she carves large, menacing gargoyles.  And as she explains to our narrator, she's been in love with him for 700 years.

Davidson knows well how to use descriptive language-perhaps too well.  The entire first third of the book is a bit hard to get through-not because the story is bad, but because he describes, in great detail, the gruesome and violent acts perpetrated on the narrator's body, first by the fire itself and then by the seemingly barbaric but ultimately effective treatments he requires to heal.  The whole novel has a gloomy air, which suits the rather dark story perfectly.  Marianne believes herself to be a 14th century nun, who has lived for so many years because she must pay for sins she committed for and on the narrator's character.  Over the course of the book, as their modern day relationship progresses, we are treated to flashbacks told by Marianne that explain how she knew the narrator in a previous life.  Moral emptiness and redemption are ideas explored throughout the novel, both through the narrator's cynical views on his previous and future life (he has an especially elaborate and violent end at his own hand all planned out for himself) and through the contradiction that is Marianne's character.  She actually creates ugliness, in the form of the grotesques that adorn both her workspace and churches all over the world, in order to undo the evil she feels she has done.  Is she truly a 700 year old nun, or are the voices that she hears coming from the stone a function of mental illness?  Ultimately, the reader is left to decide.  Whether she is "saving" herself, or merely delusional, the impact she has on the narrator is profound, and he finds himself feeling more whole in his ruined body than he ever did when he was beautiful.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Those Quirky Swedes!

Our book club pick this past month was The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared.  Hailed as a Forrest Gump-like story, the book follows Allan Karlsson, a 100 year old man who decides he's had enough of the old folks home where he lives, and runs away by climbing out his
window and disappearing into the countryside.  What follows is a novel told alternately in flashback and present day.  As Karlsson and the band of misfits he gathers travel around Sweden to avoid a motorcycle gang that is chasing them (Allan stole a suitcase full of money on a whim in a bus station), the author tells us about his very interesting life prior to his arrival in the old folks home.

I will admit that I only got 50% of the way through this book.  Most of the women in my book club either didn't finish it, or reported liking the modern day story much more than the flashbacks.  I's have to agree.  The vision of this elderly man on the run with a petty criminal, an almost-doctor, a retired nurse, and an elephant was pretty amusing.  And the writing style was very quirky.  In truth, the writing style reminded me a bit of Jospeh Heller in Catch-22, only with way less nonsense and absurdity.  Karlsson's character, an explosives expert by trade, managed to get pulled into almost every major political event of the 20th century, from being at Los Alamos during the building of the atomic bomb, to being hired to blow up Winston Churchill after World War II, to having dinner with Truman...and that's as far as I got, because frankly everything that happened to him was so far fetched I was unable to sustain my suspension of disbelief.

I didn't stop reading because I was hating the book, however.  It was more that I found myself completely apathetic about the characters and what happened to them.  I found there to be very little emotional impact in this book, and it made it difficult for me to really care about what happened to any of the characters.  It was mildly amusing, but not enough so that I felt compelled to keep reading.  That said, the book has a four-star rating on Goodreads and Amazon, and it's been a best-seller, so obviously lots of people do like it.  I guess it's just not my cup of tea.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Cross-blog Pollination: Dante and Aristotle Discover the Secrets of the Universe

This year, for the first time, the school district where I work included the winners of the Stonewall book award in its announcement of the American Library Association Awards, which includes the Caldecott and Newbery Awards for children's literature.  The Stonewall award is given to those high-quality books with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender themes that are aimed at younger readers.  This was a huge symbolic milestone for me.  I was, to my knowledge, the first openly gay teacher in my school district when I came out 13 years ago, and the acknowledgement of books for children and young adults with LGBT themes felt like official acceptance.  I'd read from this genre pretty extensively for a diversity project during my master's degree in reading, but since then I have not always kept up with new books with LGBT themes.

Dante and Aristotle Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz was a Stonewall winner for 2013, and within a month of the announcement I had seen it referenced, or had it recommended to me, at least a dozen times. And it deserves the praise!  It tells the story of 15 year old Ari, a loner living in a Mexican neighborhood of El Paso, and Dante, the quirky, outgoing young man who becomes his first true friend.  Both Ari and Dante are dealing with the usual host of adolescent issues-redefining your relationships with your parents and family, navigating the treacherous waters of the high-school social strata, transitioning to adulthood, and, of course, dating and first loves.  With Dante, Ari finds an unexpected friend; effusive where he is reticent, affectionate where he is reserved, outgoing where he is taciturn.  For some reason, this friendship works for both of them, and the boys share many secrets with each other over the course of their friendship.  Ari finally has someone to talk to about the brother in prison that his parents won't even acknowledge exists, and Dante finally has someone to whom he can admit that he would rather kiss boys than girls.  Ari's feelings about Dante are confusing and unsettling, and their friendship is not always smooth sailing, but in the end both boys find comfort, a deep kindness, and love.

One of the wonderful things about this book is that while it has strong LGBT themes, it is not just a "gay" story.  Like any "real" person, Ari and Dante are both more than just their sexual orientation, and Saenz does an excellent job of showing the intersection of things family connections, ethnic identity, and sexual orientation in creating identity.  To be honest, while I was certainly drawn into the story of Ari and Dante's friendship, the part of the story that was the most touching to me was Ari's relationship with his father, a Viet Nam veteran who never left the war behind.  Their interactions, and Ari's longing for meaningful interactions with his distant father, are a large part of the emotional engine that drove this story.  Saenz also takes on the issue of gay bashing, which despite the improvement of the general climate for LGBT people in our country is still too often occurring.  The fact that the novel is set in the late 80s, when I myself was about the age of Ari and Dante, gave it a certain resonance for me that a young adult reader wouldn't have, but Saenz did a good job creating an authentic setting that any reader should be able to appreciate.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Session, by Judith Kellman

Meh.

OK, I guess that's not really a review, though that is pretty much how I felt after finishing this mystery/thriller. The premise sounded promising.  P.J is a psychologist at Rikers Island women's prison.  During a "wedding" that she approved between two inmates, one of the "brides" was killed.  P.J. is blamed, and fired as a result.
She thinks that her biggest problem is making her rent, until she gets a call from one of her former patients at the prison, who is sure that she saw the victim's husband, a known batterer and sociopath, at the prison the day of the murder.  When P.J. can't get the police to act on the word of a schizophrenic inmate, she decides to investigate on her own.  Chaos ensues...blah blah blah.

Here's the deal.  P.J. as the narrator is self-deprecating and funny-or at least, Kellman tries really really hard to make her that way.  Too hard, in fact.  The one-liners and sarcastic rejoinders (both internal and between characters) felt forced to me.  And I didn't really buy the story.  As an Alex Delaware fan from way back, I'm willing to go with the "mental health professional turned investigator", but in this case I couldn't really figure out P.J.'s motivation for getting involved, nor did I really believe the path her investigation took.

There were some things that worked in this book's favor.  P.J.'s relationship with her extremely successful deaf sister was interesting, as was her complicated relationship with her ex-husband, who just happened to be (you've probably guessed already) a district attorney.  And there was a sub-plot involving P.J. and her brother Jack that was sort of interesting on its own...at least, it was until it became completely predictable.  But Kellman did a decent job of doling out information in such a way that I kept reading until the (unsatisfying) end.  So, in the final analysis-not awful, not great.

Meh.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

I Hunt Killers, A Not So YA Young Adult Thriller

As a long time reader of mysteries and thrillers, it can be hard for new authors to hook me.  There are so many series that I love, from Jonathan Kellerman and his wife Faye, to Sue Grafton, Harlan Coben, and Dana Stabenow.  I've read various iterations of the female private eye, the mystery-solving psychiatrist, or the gruff police detective, and it is rare that an author brings anything truly new to the table.  So imagine my surprise when I discovered a something novel and, frankly, really fascinating in a young adult thriller.

I Hunt Killers is the first novel by Barry Lyga, and I discovered it while attending a reading conference with my best friend.  As good as the workshop sessions are, the best part of the conference for me is the exhibit hall.  It is full of books and people (mostly teachers) who love books, milling around, flipping through pages, sometimes getting so engrossed that you realize you've already missed that session you were planning to go to.  I discovered this title at a booth for a small, local bookseller that deals primarily with schools.  It was hard to miss...the cover art if pretty striking and frankly I was a little surprised to find it with the other young adult books.  But after reading the blurb my friend and I both decided that we had to have it.  The premise that Lyga puts out is pretty simple, but ripe with possibilities.  The main characters, Jazz, is the son of a notorious serial killer.  Raised in the "family business", Jazz is now 17.  His father has been in prison for four years, and on top of the normal travails of adolescence, Jazz is trying to figure out whether he has become the things his father always wanted him to be-a sociopath.  When murders start happening in his hometown, murders that are eerily similar to his father's, he gets drawn into the investigation, and realizes that his horrific upbringing makes him uniquely qualified to help the police.  Jazz doesn't need some fancy profiling course from Quanitco-he finds he can think like a serial killer.  While this is a pretty great skill for solving the murders, it raises a whole host of questions for Jazz about his own identity, and his own capacity for violence.

I find this whole idea of the child of a serial killer becoming a hunter of serial killers fascinating.  I think that one of the reasons I read books about fictional serial killers, or watch documentaries about real-life ones, is because I want to figure out what it is that creates these human monsters.  As a person who believes people are inherently good, I want to know what went wrong along the way that created personalities with no remorse, empathy, or basic human emotion.  Brain research is coming up with clues as to what makes a person become this very specific kind of killer, but so far there is nothing definitive.  At the very root of Jazz's story is the while nature/nurture debate.  How much of what we become is a result of our genetic make-up, and how much is the environment we grow-up in?  And what about free will?  Increasingly, the answer is that what makes us who we are is neither one nor the other, but both/and.  Our genetic make-up may predispose us towards a certain path, but the interaction between that and our environment is too complex and sophisticated to tease out easily.  Reading the book, I got the strong sense that Jazz is a moral person, but when he questions himself, as a reader I found myself doing the same thing.

This book was classified as young adult by the booksellers, and I have found it on young adult reading lists since.  The main characters is a teenager, which is often a pretty good indicator that the book was written for that age group.  But the book is pretty gory.  Violent acts are described in some detail, and there is a sinister air about the while story.  While it was an easy read, I was completely drawn into the story, and I didn't feel any of the disconnect that I sometimes feel when I read young adult books.  When an adult reads books meant for a younger audience, sometimes the connection that we feel with the story or the characters is more of a remembered connection than an authentically current one, if that makes sense.  Reading a book about first loves brings back my own, but I don't have the same emotional response to it I would have had 25 years ago.  But with this book I was completely engaged the whole time, not just in the plot, which is in the end is fairly formulaic (it is essentially a procedural, after all)., but with Jazz as a character and the emotional roller-coaster he is on.  Perhaps what makes this story universal is that the journey of self-discovery and the creation of identity doesn't end in adolescence, and I suspect (and hope) that it continues as long as we live.  We might not be wrestling with whether or not we are a sociopath, but I think that each of us wrestles daily with being the best person we can be, which created a connection between Jazz and myself as the reader.

This is the first book in a series, which I could tell would be the case about half-way through the book.  I've already bought the second, Game, and I'm looking forward to seeing where Jazz's journey takes him-and the reader-next.


Tuesday, April 30, 2013

In Defense of Reading Young Adult Literature

I've always considered myself an equal opportunity reader.  I love a good literary novel, and I'll occasionally read some non-fiction, but I also enjoy lots of genre fiction.  Not that genre fiction can't be literary...see, this is where I start to have problems with the "experts" of the literary world.  I want my reading selections to
have some substance-for mindless distraction I go to reality television (though usually of the "talented people doing things I can't do" variety a la Top Chef or Project Runway).  But who's to say that high fantasy or a procedural thriller can't have substance?

Nowhere is this bias more obvious when reading the more "serious" book bloggers I know than when it comes to young adult literature.  I've seen adults who read young adult literature described as everything from immature to unintelligent (a much nicer word that is occasionally used).  As a teacher and literacy coach, it is actually part of my job to keep up with what's new and good in children's and young adult literature (and if you'd like to see what I've been reading, you can visit my other blog, Second Childhood Reviews), but that is not the only reason that I enjoy-yes, actually enjoy as a reader-books written for middle grade and adolescent readers.  These types of stories can bring me back to my own childhood, or help me make sense of what the children and youth in my life may be going through, but they can also have something profound to say about the human experience and our relationships to each other that is just as eye-opening and thought-provoking as the best of "adult" literature.

Obviously, not all children's and young adult literature is created equal-just as not all adult literature is equally meritorious.  Good writing is good writing, and bad writing is bad...sometimes very bad.  While I got sucked into the Twilight phenomenon when my daughter read them in middle school, now that I have recovered from my vampire/werewolf fog I can recognize how badly those books are actually written.  But at the same time, the Harry Potter series or the Hunger Games trilogy point out how good writing and powerful storytelling can transcend the labels and sometimes arbitrary decisions we make about what book goes where in the literary pecking order.

If you'll forgive me for a moment, I'm going to take you into the world of leveling books.  If you are not a teacher or a parent, you may not even realize that books are leveled according to readability and subject matter for the purpose of matching readers in schools with appropriate books.  There are various leveling systems that publishers and teachers use to determine what "level" a book is, but the one that is getting the most press at the moment is lexile levels.  The new common core standards that most states in the US have adopted to drive instruction for elementary and high school students use lexile ranges to place books in a continuum for guiding instruction.  The reason I bring this up is because what a lexile really measures is readability-in other words, at what point in their development as readers should a child be able to actually read and have basic understanding of the words in a book.  There are some literary types who would have you believe that in order for a book to be substantive and achieve that coveted title "literary fiction", it needs to be difficult to read.  Being an "easy read" is somehow seen as a negative.

But let's look at the lexile level of some classics, books that are considered examples of the best of English language literature.  A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, is admittedly one of his shorter, more accessible titles.  But even so, it has a lexile level of 460L.  Roughly, that equates to a 3rd grade reading level.  Yes, you read that right, third grade.  Does that mean that the issues raised in the book are accessible to a third grade student?  Of course not.  But it does raise the question of whether "literary" and "difficult" necessarily go together.  Huckleberry Finn, at 850L, is roughly fifth grade level, The Iliad is fourth grade level, as is The Handmaid's Tale and The Grapes of Wrath.  Given that the readability of these classics is so low, it is obviously more than the relative ease or difficulty of reading them that makes them remarkable.  So why is it so hard to imagine that literature written specifically for young adults, literature that might be "easy" for a skilled, mature reader to read, might have value?

I don't really care whether other people judge my reading habits because I happen to read a lot of children's and young adult titles.  I choose the books I read mostly for my own selfish reasons, as I assume most avid readers of any kind do.  But I think that this strict admonishment against reading young adult literature as an adult is silly, and cuts us off from some really excellent works of fiction.  Maybe you like all of your books to be a mental workout to read-if Ulysses and Gravity's Rainbow are your favorite books, then maybe young adult books or most genre fiction are not for you.  I myself read almost no romance or chick lit-those stories just aren't my cup of tea.  But I don't judge people who do, and that it is the point.  There are so many wonderful stories out there to discover-why make people feel as though they have to limit themselves based on the sometimes somewhat arbitrary classifications that the hoi polloi of literature and publishing have created?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Cross-Blog Pollination: Graceling, by Kristin Cashore

Regular readers of this blog will know that I also write a blog devoted entirely to children's and young adult literature.  As a literacy coach, it is part of my job to keep up with the best in literature for young people, so that I can guide students and teachers in the right direction when it comes to what to read.

Occasionally one of the young adult books I read seems like it would also be enjoyable for adults, and when that happens, we get cross-blog pollination!  I think that adult readers who deny the enjoyability and relative value of books written for children and youth are denying themselves some very pleasant reading experiences-experiences that just might help them understand the world of children and youth, and the way that children and youth see the world.

This particular cross-pollination comes in the form of a fantasy novel called Graceling, written by Kristin Cashore.  Graceling tells the story of Katsa, a young woman born with a remarkable gift.  She has a Grace-a special ability that is innate, and that sets her apart from other people.  And Katsa's Grace requires her to keep people even more at a distance than usual, for her Grace is killing.  Her uncle, the King of Middluns, uses her to bully and threaten people who oppose him, and to get his way with the other kingdoms.  Katsa hates being his slave, but she considers herself to dangerous and flawed to do anything else.  That is, until she meets Prince Po of Leinid, another Graceling who is gifted with fighting ability.  His grandfather has been kidnapped, and Katsa is part of a team that rescued him from his captors. But even after he is safe, the question remains-why would someone kidnap an old man, even if he is related to the King of Leinid.  Katsa and Po will travel across the seven kingdoms to discover what nefarious plot is afoot, and along the way Katsa learns new things about herself, her Grace, and her ability to choose her own path.

Despite the fact that the "seven kingdoms" of Katsa's world immediately make me think of A Song of Ice and Fire, Cashore has created a fantasy world that is all her own.  The story moves at a good pace, and the emotions of the characters and the events as they unfold feel authentic within the mythology of the fictional seven kingdoms.  And there are some big questions addressed by the story-the nature of violence and freedom, the use of torture, naked power wielded cruelly, exclusion, the responsibility to use our "power" ethically, and the right to self-determination.  But what makes this a book I couldn't put down was Katsa's strength, determination, and unwillingness to be used as anyone's pawn.  Katsa is a hero, not in spite of being female, or because of being female...she is entirely her own person, operating almost completely outside of any gender roles.  There is a love story hidden within the action, but it is not what drives  the story; rather, the love story enhances the emotional impact of the true task of the characters-to save a princess, and in doing so their entire society, from an evil king bent on world domination.  This is a book that I will give to my daughter, and to the young teens I work with as a youth advisor, because Katsa is an example of a heroine that we can look up to, even when we may not agree with her every decision.  Because despite the violence of Katsa's Grace, what we see in her is the struggle all of us engage in every day to act in as moral a way as possible, even when people and events seem to conspire against us.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Least Depressing Book about Death I've Ever Read

Occasionally my book club forces me to go outside of my regular reading comfort zone and try something that I would never have picked up on my own.  I remember thinking that I wasn't really interested in reading The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe.  It's non-fiction, for a start, though it is memoir, which I find much more enjoyable than other forms of that genre.  But I will admit to having some prejudices.  I imagined a book full of discussions about "how to deal with death/dying" books, and I was prepared for something akin to The Five People You Meet in Heaven (not that there's anything wrong with that-just not my cup of tea).

What I got instead was a smart, thoughtful, thought-provoking look at the end of a remarkable life.  Will Schwalbe's mother, Mary, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007.  She was a strong, confident, socially conscious woman who had worked for years supporting refugees in war-torn parts of the world.  She had traveled to some of the most dangerous places in earth, and when she came back from a trip to Afghanistan feeling ill, at first no one thought too much of it.  But what her doctors thought was a form of hepatitis was soon revealed to be tumors in her pancreas, which had already spread to her liver.  And while treatment could extend her life, the illness was terminal.  This left Mary with the task of living while dying, and her family the task of figuring out how to relate to their spouse and mother knowing her time was limited.

Will would often accompany his mother to her chemo treatments, and it was in the waiting and treatment rooms at Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York that they started what was to become a two-person, mother-son book club.  Both Mary and Will had always been avid readers, and the books they chose to read were either old favorites or new stories they discovered with and for each other.  The chapter titles are the titles of the books they read together, and each book frames a different part of their experience.  Some of the books had new meaning reading them while in the process of dying.  Some of them reminded Mary or Will about the things that were important in life, and all of them were high-quality literature.  My fears of a book full of trite, sentimental soundbites and self-help advice were unfounded.  In fact, as I read I found myself drawn more into the books they were reading than the story of their relationship.  I got a new reading list out of it, in fact.

That's not to say that the story was moving and emotional on a personal level.  Will and his mother had the enormous privilege of having the means and opportunity to spend this time together.  At several points in the book, Will or Mary points out how lucky they are to be in a position for her to get the best possible care, or for Will to quit his job and take on a new venture without worrying about losing his house or feeding himself. But ultimately, all of the money and education and connections in the world could not stop the inevitable progression of her disease.  Rather than railing against his mother's fate, Will is grateful for the time they were able to have, memories that will now forever be associated with the many wonderful books they read and loved together.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Afterwards, Rosamund Lupton

Last week, I was at a conference for reading teachers in Springfield, IL.  One of the vendors in the exhibit hall, Anderson's Books (a great independent bookstore in Naperville, IL, in case you happen to be local), had some reader-centric t-shirts in their booth.  I came home with these two...





But there was another one that I plan to get, that expresses a sentiment I have always felt.  Namely, that authors are my rock stars.  I never ceased to be amazed at the ability of good writers to create whole new worlds, or to shine a light so starkly on the world we already live in.  After thousands of years of the written word, the fact that there can still be anything literarily new or original is mind-blowing.  

In this spirit, I eagerly picked up Afterwards, by Rosamund Lupton, in preparation for my book club last month.  We had already read her book Sister, which engendered a great discussion about whether we agreed with the use of the literary device she employed.  In that book, the story is told in what we think is a letter to the main character's sister, only to discover that the while conversation is taking place in the main character's mind.  Lupton tried out a different narrative structure this time.  For Afterwards, which is essentially a mystery just like Sister, she placed the narrator and her daughter in a limbo state, stuck between life and death, able to observe what was happening to them and their loved ones without really being able to interact with them.

Afterwards begins with the narrator, a 40ish year old mother named Grace, realizing that her daughter is trapped in a burning school.  She rushes in to save her...and the next thing she is aware of is being in the hospital, looking down on her own comatose body lying in a hospital bed.  Her 17 year old daughter Jenny, who was horribly burned in the fire, is also in a coma, and together they start wandering the hospital, trying to find out what has happened to them.  It soon becomes apparent that each woman is in critical condition.  It also become apparent that their injuries are not the result of a tragic accident, but arson.  Grace and Jenny spend the rest of the novel alternately dealing with their own rather bumpy relationship, or tagging along with other characters who are actually living in the world as they try to solve the mystery.

And that is where Lupton lost me a bit.  Because was seemed like an interesting plot device at the beginning soon got rather tired.  Because the fact is that as much as Grace may follow her husband as he tries to keep them safe, or her sister-in-law the police officer as she investigates the fire, she can't actually DO anything.  Except have conversations with people that they can't hear, or discover clues that she can't tell anyone.  And as the book progresses, it becomes more and more sentimental, to the point that I was actually slightly annoyed by the resolution not of the mystery, which had be guessing until almost the end, but of the novel's other major plotline, that of whether Grace or Jenny can be saved.  I won't say that I didn't enjoy reading this book, because it kept me engaged throughout.  But I found myself reading faster and faster as the end approached, and not necessarily because I wanted to find out whodunnit-I was ready for it to be over.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Take One Candle, Light a Room

Many years ago now, I read a book call Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots, by Susan Straight.  It's the story of a black woman living in poverty, doing whatever she can to raise her son in  violent neighborhood.  It is richly detailed, with an emotional honesty and depth of experience that you really are transported into the character's life.  When I finished the book, I was almost stunned to find that Susan Straight was a middle-class, middle aged white woman.  Not that it isn't possible for authors to write convincingly from a cross-racial viewpoint, but the book was so raw and the emotions felt so authentic I could only imagine someone who had been in similar circumstances to be able to articulate the story so well. When I delved a little more deeply, however, I realized that living in the racially and socioeconimcally diverse city of Riverside, California, and working in the struggling public schools there, gave her an insight that truly comes to life when paired with her remarkable facility with language.

So I was very pleased to get Take One Candle, Light a Room as a gift earlier this year.  It had been years since I had read one of Straight's books, and I was looking forward to what she could bring to her new subject-mainly, the inner struggle that comes from being of mixed-race, and how the legacy of slavery can affect the descendants of slaves even today.  The narrator of the book is Fantine Antoine, daughter/sister/niece/aunt of a mixed-race family originally from the Louisiana coast, now living in Rio Seco, California.  Fantine, who goes by FX in her professional life, is a travel writer-a profession which forces her to disappoint her mother on a daily basis, since it means that she has deserted the family compound for L.A. Fantine, just back from a trip to Switzerland, returns home to find her nephew on her doorstep-with two of his gang-banger friends.  Victor is a gentle, intelligent, creative type, scarred emotionally by his mother's murder five years before.  Tired from her travels, Fantine sends him away, promising to spend time with him the following weekend.  But when he and his friends are involved in a shooting that leads to the death of a rival gang member, Fantine embarks on a very different kind of trip, cross country and back through time and history to find him and bring him home.

Straight does a beautiful job of getting into the head of Fantine and her family members.  The family's history is firmly rooted in racial violence-her grandparents left Louisiana because of a white man who was preying on the young black girls in the parish.  Since coming to California, the family has stayed mostly in the small town where they settled, running an orchard and keeping to themselves.  Fantine was raised on the stories of the women who came before her, the slaves and former slaves who struggled to survive so their children and grandchildren could have a better life than the one they had.  Straight explores issues of revenge, belonging, guilt, redemption, and the invisible threads that keep us connected to our past, even as we try to run away from it.  Fantine's journey takes her back to Lousisana, and Straight uses Hurricane Katrina as a backdrop for the final climactic scenes of the book.  It's a story of second chances, for another shot at doing the right thing, and about the resilience of a people who refuse to give in to the titanic forces trying to tear them apart.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Red Hook Road

For most people, their wedding day is one of the most joyful days of their lives.  For me, even though my first marriage ended in divorce, I still have fond memories of the wedding that brought us together as a family for the short time we lasted.  But for Becca and John, the young couple who get married at the beginning of Red Hook Road, their happy day becomes a nightmare when they are killed in a car crash on the way to their reception.

For a marriage that only lasted an hour, Becca and John's union had a lot of power over the other people in their lives, which becomes evident as the story follows Iris (Becca's mom), Daniel (her dad), Jane (John's mother), Matt (his brother) and Ruthie (Becca's sister) in the years following their deaths.  Set during four summers in the small coastal Maine Town of Red Hook, the book details the way that each person struggles to deal with their loss.  Iris is an East Coast intellectual a professor of English literature who lives in New York most of the year, but who strongly identifies with her family's connection to the old beach house where they have summered for three generations.  She is like a force of nature, strong and willful, and her sometimes overwhelming personality causes her children, her husband, and the other people she loves to be at once awed and intimidated by her.  Daniel, who has always found it easy to let Iris plot the course of their lives, suddenly finds himself frustrated and resentful at her attempts to control everything that happens in the aftermath of the tragedy.  Jane, John's mother, is a local woman who was never comfortable with her son's relationship with a privileged daughter "from away", and resists any attempt my Iris to continue their families' connection after the young people are killed.  Ruthie and Matt each try to live up to their older siblings' examples in their own ways, but find following in the footsteps of those who have passed on before their time more difficult than they anticipated.

The book examines issues of death and loss, dealing with grief, and privilege.  John was a shipbuilder, and the old boat that John was restoring at the time of his death, which Matt takes over afterward, becomes a symbol of the group's collective experience-mainly, that of being stuck, unable to move on with the task of living their own lives, so mired are they in trying to honor and remember the dead.  Each character must go off the the trail a bit to eventually find their footing-Iris, through a young musical prodigy; Daniel through revisiting his young adult self; Ruthie by re-examining her assumptions about what her own path should be; and Matt through coming to grips with his feelings of guilt and inadequacy.  The relationship between Iris and Jane highlights the differences between two very different kinds of mother, but in the end their strong love for their children brings them together, if not into an easy friendship, at least into mutual respect.  Red Hook Road is not the best family drama I've read, but it does have an easy readability about it that makes is accessible to even the casual reader.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Subterranean, James Rollins

While is enjoy great literature, I am not averse to a romping action story.  And when I listen to audiobooks, which I only do when I drive or exercise, I need something that will keep me from being bored without taking attention away from what I am doing-especially when operating a 2000 pound piece of machinery at high speeds.  It is in this spirit that I downloaded my first James Rollins novel a couple of years ago.  Rollins is best known for his Sigma Force novels, where the dashing Commander Gray Pierce and his crack team of geniuses with black belts race around the globe averting catastrophes and solving historical mysteries.  They are basically The Da Vinci Code on steroids.  I've listened to a couple, and while I can't exactly speak to the accuracy of Rollins' historical or scientific research, the stories are plausible enough not to trigger my "yeah, right" meter.

I decided for my latest audiobook to download one of Rollins' stand-alone novels, called Subterranean.  The plot is like a mash-up of Jurrasic Park and Journey to the Center of the Earth, in that it had both human arrogance and greed,  and big, scary monsters from the past.  A team is sent below the surface of Antarctica to explore the remains of what appears to be a human settlement in caverns that have been recently discovered.  Also discovered-a solid diamond statue that has aroused the interest of scholars and businessmen alike.  The team includes an anthropologist, a geologist, an expert caver, a biologist, and a few Marines along for security.  What the team doesn't know is that the previous team that had been sent in to explore the series of tunnels and caverns had disappeared without a trace.  As they delve more deeply into the earth under the "uninhabited" continent, they discover fierce marsupial predators, unknown species of sharks, predatory snails as big as a basketball, a luminescent fungus that emits a powerful knock-out drug, and a tribe of intelligent marsupial "people" living in a village and growing a wheat-like plant...

Which is exactly where he lost me.  For about half the book, the plot, while incredible, did at least seem to have some basis in solid science...the semi-reptilian, marsupial predators did tweak my suspension of disbelief, but I went with it because humans running away from something trying to eat them is basically the basis of every monster-movie, ever.  But an entire race of beings, not human, developing human qualities and human-like behaviors and societal structures, despite having no contact with humans-sorry, nope, not gonna happen.  Had this novel been billed as fantasy, or had the setting been another planet, I could have gone there.  But not in a supposedly scientific thriller.  I did what I almost never do-I abandoned the story, choosing instead the download Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, which at least has the decency to call itself a fantasy novel.

So, if you're not bothered by scientific inconsistency and completely implausible storylines, then give this book a try.  But for myself, I'll stick with Rollins' historical mysteries, which for all I know may only sound well-researched, but which allow me to listen without rolling my eyes.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Eye Contact, Cammie McGovern

America seems to have an obsession with autism at the moment.  Every time you turn around there is another  special news segment, heart-warming story, video of someone with savant abilities, or slightly goofy sit-com character that either explicitly or implicitly is identified as having autism.  And really, while the effects of autism can be devastating for those living with it and their caregivers, it is a pretty fascinating condition.  Autism brings up all of the things that we don't understand about the brain, and the ways in which a brain affected by autism works can be as intriguing as it is impenetrable.

In Eye Contact, Cammie McGovern uses autism as the framework for a murder mystery.  A young girl is killed when she wandered from the school playground.  The only witness to the crime is another student, a boy with autism named Adam.  He doesn't speak for says after the murder, but his mother Cara is sure that he knows what happened.  She begins to work with him on expressing what he saw, and in the process discovers that the murder may have connections to her own life that she never expected.

The story goes back and forth between the present-day mystery and Cara's past.  We discover her tumultuous relationship with her best friend, and the relationship that led to Adam's conception.  The mystery did keep me guessing, but what really kept me engaged was the relationship between Cara and Adam, and the very authentic descriptions of living with autism.  McGovern has a son with autism herself, and her intimate knowledge of caring for a child with special needs made the story feel very real.  I was not 100% satisfied with the resolution of the mystery itself, but not so dissatisfied that I was disappointed in the book.  Overall this was a good popcorn book for my Christmas vacation!

Monday, January 07, 2013

I'm Perfect, You're Doomed: Growing Up JW

As a school teacher, I am intimately familiar with one aspect of Jehovah's Witness theology-the prohibition against celebrating holidays.  Every year there was at least one child in my class who would have to sit out during our Halloween, Christmas, and Valentine's parties.  Occasionally they would also have to leave the room while birthday treats were passed out, and of course, alternate assignments had to be given for any holiday themed project.  Other than their apparent aversion to party food and paper hearts, I knew very little about their actual beliefs.  To be honest, I wasn't even sure if Jehovah's Witness fell under the umbrella of Christianity.  I gleaned a bit more over the years, and as a Unitarian Universalist I felt strongly that I should respect the right of everyone to follow whatever religious path they wanted, as long as it wasn't hurtful to anyone else.

Well, I can't speak to how most Jehovah's Witnesses practice their faith, and whether they find it oppressive or painful, but I know of at least one who did.  In I'm Perfect, You're Doomed, Kyria Abrahams shares stories from her childhood in a religious JW family (an abbreviation that I use because she did).  They are alternately hilarious and horrifying-like the meetings her mother would have with her teachers at the beginning of the year to discuss the many benefits having a Witness in class will bring, or the fact that according to the elders the Smurfs were actually little blue demons that could steal your soul for Satan.

The book opens when Kyria is in elementary school, and she tells the quirky, sometimes crazy stories about her family and their Kingdom Hall with self-deprecating wit and an ability to laugh at herself.  As she gets older in the memoir, however, her stories take on a dark tone that made me realize just how difficult it was for her to live up to the pressure of living up to the almost impossible standards of the only "true" Christians.  As her life spirals out of control, the true dangers of any fundamentalist upbringing becomes clear-Kyria has no idea how to deal with anything that contradicts her very rigid belief system , and no idea how to function in the real world.  By the end of the book, I'd gone from laughing out loud to gasping in horror.  And I can honestly say that the more I learned about Jehovah's Witness the more I became convinced that no matter how much my Unitarian Universalist heart wants to respect other people's faith traditions,  the inherent problems with the judgmental, rigid theology of the Jehovah's Witness seems more problematic than redemptive.