Thursday, December 04, 2014

Help for the Haunted, John Searles

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Midwife, Jennifer Worth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Stereotype Busting in Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh

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

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

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


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Saving Fish from Drowning, Amy Tan

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 08, 2014

Burial Rites, Hannah Kent

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Forgive Me, by Amanda Eyre Ward

Nadine Morgan is a journalist.  She travels the world looking for dangerous assignments, living in exotic locales and covering wars, genocide, and crime rings.  When an assignment to report on the drug gangs in Mexico goes sideways, Nadine ends up back in her hometown on Cape Cod.  Desperate to escape, but still healing from wounds both physical and emotional, she passes up a chance for love with a local doctor to pursue a story in a part of the world she thought she would never see again, South Africa.  She goes back to report on a story about a young man from her own small town who was beaten to death while teaching in the black townships.  His killers were being brought before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose job it was to determine whether people convicted of political violence during the years leading up to Nelson
Mandela's release from prison should continue to serve their sentences.  She is forced to confront her own personal demons from her time in Cape Town, and the reasons that she will do anything, including putting herself in harm's way, to avoid making the kind of connections that would tie her to one person or place.

I really enjoyed the other book by Amanda Eyre Ward that I read, Sleep Toward Heaven.  Like that book, Forgive Me deals with forgiveness and redemption.  The book is told alternately from Nadine's perspective and the diary of a young boy who, like Nadine herself, is desperate to leave his small town life behind for fame and fortune in the wider world.  Nadine's story is told through a series of flashbacks to her first time in South Africa, and how it affected her in the present.  At times it was really hard to like Nadine.  She used her journalistic liberalness as a shield for her own selfishness.  After all, how angry can you be when you have offered a person your house on Nantucket Island as a refuge when they leave with no notice to pursue the story of bringing a young man's murderer to justice.  Being a journalist allowed Nadine a certain distance from being personally connected to the things that were happening to the people around her, including the people that she considered friends.

Some of the characters were pretty one dimensional, especially Nadine's stepmother, and both of her love interests.  To be honest, I'm not sure if this was lazy storytelling or purposeful.  After all, Nadine didn't really see other people except as they related to herself.  The boy whose journal we are privy to was much more real than any of the other characters in the book, but I spent most of the book wondering what connection his story had to the rest of the narrative, other than his intense desire to get out of his small Cape Cod town. Once I realized who he was, it made a little more sense, but I feel like Ward never really connected the dots between Nadine and the other mothers.

The strange thing is that despite all of the flaws I found in the writing, I still really enjoyed the book.  It was an easy read, and the story of what happened to the people during the struggle to end apartheid and the aftermath of Nelson Madela's election as president were engaging enough to keep me reading.  The story was billed as one about motherhood, which I didn't really get.  To me, it was more about gaining forgiveness, both from the people that you have wronged and yourself.  After years of running away, Nadine needed to stay somewhere long enough to see the ramifications of her own choices, and to fulfill commitments she made to people in order to help them find justice in an unjust world.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Metaxy Project

Layton Green is an author that I discovered when he reached out to me about reviewing a new series he was writing, the Dominic Grey series.  That series now has three titles (The SummonerThe Egyptian, and The Diabolist), and I found them to be a delicious combination of well-paced action and interesting information about cults, the occult, and the psychology surrounding them.

Green is back with a new stand alone novel, The Metaxy Project.  Like his previous books, Green explores the supernatural from the point of view of a skeptic.  In this case, the skeptic is a young man named Derek Miller, a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks who had the good fortune to start a friendship with a rich kid from an influential family.  When his friend is killed in a car accident, his father (a wealthy, well-known professor and researcher) takes Derek under his wing and helps him get into and through law school.  Derek is just at the beginning of his career, and he has scored a plum job as an associate at a "biglaw" firm.  But when the professor is murdered, Derek is drawn into the search for the killer.  He discovers a super-secret government project related to the supernatural.  The government was experimenting with telekinesis, telepathy, and remote viewing in an effort to weaponize them.  Derek puts his life and sanity in danger to bring down the conspiracy and avenge his dead mentor.

This is going to be a strange connection, but Derek reminded me very much of the main character from the USA series Suits.  Both are young, down-and-out kids who are given a break by powerful men; both are whip smart and underestimated by those around them; both are prone to pretty women in distress.That's pretty much where the similarities end, but it did make me like Derek's character pretty much from the beginning, since I like that show so well.

As a skeptic myself, one of the things that I like about Green's writing is that he tries to make some connection between seemingly inexplicable phenomenon and actual science.  While the story in The Metaxy Project is very definitely in the realm of fantasy, it is not such a stretch, even for a confirmed atheist and realist like myself, to go along with the events of the plot.  Green's work is reminiscent of James Rollin's books, only smarter.  Whereas I sometimes read Rollin's stories with a good deal of eye-rolling at some of the more fantastical plot points, Green's stories sweep me up completely as a combination of reality and possibility.  While I certainly don't believe that things like mediums and ESP are evidence of some larger force at work, who's to say that science won't someday have an explanation for the seemingly supernatural experiences people have reported experiencing over the decades.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The House Girl, by Tara Conklin

The subject of reparations for slavery is a controversial one.  There is no question that this country was built on the labor of African slaves and the bonded laborers from Europe and Asia that came here in the thousands in the 18th and 19th centuries, and there is even some agreement about how to quantify the stolen wages and physical and emotional suffering.  But to whom would the money go?  How does one prove their ancestors were slaves, with so many records incomplete or lost?  And where does the money come from?  So many generations removed from the plantations, how would we even begin to trace where the present wealth came from, and is there any amount of money that can even begin to make up for the tragedy that was the trans-Atlantic slave trade?  Conklin uses this issue as the framework for her novel, The House Girl.

Set alternately in the late 1800s and the present day, the book tells the story of Josephine Bell, a house slave on a declining Virginia plantation.  Her mistress, Lu Ann Bell, is an aspiring artist.  She is also a high-strung woman, with an anxious temperament and poor health.  In a move that is unusual, and indeed illegal, for the time, Lu Ann taught her young house girl to read, and allowed her to draw and paint in her studio when she was feeling generous.  Lu Ann Bell is a capable artist, but Josephine's portraits and landscapes are luminous, capturing the inherent humanity of her fellow slaves while showcasing the lush beauty of the rural south.  Josephine is desperate to run away, has in fact tried to run away before, but she is conflicted about leaving her dying mistress, and her paintings.

The present day story follows lawyer Lina Sparrow.  Lina is tasked with working on a suit, to be brought against the federal government and many major US corporations, demanding reparations for slavery.  In researching a primary plaintiff for the suit, she is introduced to Lu Ann Bell and her art through a controversy brewing in the art world-was the work really done by Lu Ann Bell, or by her house slave, Josephine.  Bell's family is desperate to prove that she painted the works attributed to her, but others in the art world aren't so sure.  Lina discovers a possible descendant of Josephine's who would make a great plaintiff, but while preparing the case she is forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about her own past.

A story like this one could become little more than political speech as narrative, but Conklin manages to write an engaging story that highlights the many injustices of slavery, as well as present day controversy surrounding reparations, in a way that does not feel preachy.  I've read plenty of other books about slavery, but the art angle makes this one unique. And it is not just a slavery narrative, not that those aren't important and engaging, as well.  This story is about family connections, loss, motherhood, and identity in a more general sense.  Josephine and Lina both come alive on the pages with an emotional impact that draws the reader in.  The book will appeal to anyone interested in the legacy of slavery, or art, or the modern day reparations movement.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Uncle Stevie Learns a New Trick

There are few writers as prolific as Stephen King.  While is is primarily known as a writer of horror stories,
he has also written science fiction (Under the Dome), a series of books with women's themes (Rose Madder), realistic fiction (Misery), and magical realism (The Green Mile).  And, of course, his epic fantasy series The Dark Tower.  Readers of this blog know that he is one of my very favorite authors.  I think that he is sometimes overlooked by critics of "serious" literature, because of his reputation as a horror writer, but as far as I'm concerned The Stand is one of the best novels of the 20th century.

But as far as I know, King has never written a traditional thriller-until now.  Mr. Mercedes, his latest book, is your basic serial killer story.  Bill Hodges, a retired detective in a Midwestern city, is haunted (though not literally, this time) by his last unsolved case.  Someone drove a Mercedes sedan into a crowd of people lined up to apply for a job in the early morning hours, including a mother and her infant.  Bored, overweight, and lacking purpose, he considers suicide.  Until he gets a message from the Mercedes killer, suggesting that he should eat his own gun.  The killer may have hoped to push Hodges over the edge, but the message the message does the opposite, creating purpose in an otherwise meaningless life.  Bill investigates the case with the help if his teenage neighbor, and a mentally ill woman who is tangentially connected to the case. A more unlikely team doesn't come along much in detective novels, but these three are mighty when chance throws them together.

Regardless of the genre, King's books have extremely well-written characters.  Even the supernatural villains are believable, which I imagine is what makes his scary books so terrifying.  King uses his books to explore the human psyche, the things that people are willing to do, or to sacrifice, for love, power, or greed. And his plots are always well constructed and well-paced.  He's written books that would work as well doorstops, but despite their length they never feel too long.  Mr. Mercedes is no exception.  As I was reading, I was thinking why it took so long for King to write a thriller.  Everything about it suits his strengths so well. Intricate plot, "real" characters, and the darker side of humanity.  If this were any other author, I might say this is the first in a new detective series.  The characters are certainly series-worthy.  But with Uncle Stevie, one never knows. This could be the first in a series, or it could be a one-off detective story from an author who's tried just about everything else.  Maybe there is a little bit of Hodges in King himself.  Maybe trying out a new genre is akin to the message from a serial killer that gives his life purpose.  Whatever the reasoning, and whatever the future of Bill Hodges and the other characters from Mr. Mercedes may be, fans of Stephen King and hard-boiled detective stories alike will enjoy Mr. Mercedes.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the Bones takes place during the twelve days leading up to Hurricane Katrina.  Esch lives in the small Louisiana town of Bois Sauvage with her alcoholic father and three brothers.  The oldest dreams of being a basketball star, the youngest is just six years old, and his birth brought about the death of their mother.  Esch is the only girl surrounded by men-her father, her brothers, and their friends.  She learned early that sex was something she could give away for some time and attention from the other boys in their group, and now she is 14 and pregnant.  As the storm grows in the Gulf, so too do the tensions in the family.

Esch is the main character and narrator, and Ward uses her to show the desperation in which she and her family live.  No one in the family has regular work, though they all have schemes for how they can improve their future.  Her oldest brother has his sights set on a basketball scholarship, with scouts coming to visit during the summer league.  Her closest brother, Skeet, breeds his fighting dog and plans to sell the puppies.  Esch herself has no real idea what her life can be, but she would just be happy if Manny, the father of her unborn child, would ditch his pretty girlfriend and choose her.  Their father is mostly absent, only paying attention to the children when he wants them to help him get ready for the storm that none of them actually think is coming.  Many of the choices that the family makes are questionable, but the reader can't help but root for them.  Underneath all of the poverty and desperation, there is a lot of love between Esch and her brothers.  They have taken care of each other for so long, and in such dire circumstances, that they function as parts of one machine.

Ultimately, nothing works out the way that anyone hopes.  Esch is a big fan of Greek mythology, and the story of her family follows the basic rules of a Greek tragedy.  It does seem as though the fates are against them, regardless of what they do or think will happen.  When the storm finally breaks, the family faces the loss of everything they have, except each other.  In the end, it is their love for each other, and their perseverance that proves that the human spirit can be amazingly resilient.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

The Reason I Jump, Naoki Higashida

For the first 20 years of my teaching career, I taught self-contained special education.  I chose special education as a career for two reasons.  The first was the book A Circle of Children, by Mary McCracken.  It is a memoir of McCracken's time teaching in a school for children with severe social/emotional disabilities. The second reason was my experiences volunteering at a day camp for children with special needs in the south suburbs of Chicago as a teen.  Not only was I fascinated by the puzzle that these children presented to educators, I was deeply moved watching them grow from year to year, and I knew that I wanted to be a part of that process.

During those years, I met and worked with many, many children.  Quite a few were diagnosed with autism, both the more stereotypical "hand-flapping, spinning-objects" kind, and the varied forms that we have come to recognize today as part of a spectrum of symptoms.  Some of the children were non-verbal, some of them talked non-stop, though usually only about whatever obsession they were currently stuck in.  I learned all about the difference between asphalt and concrete from Keeler, and more about Uh Gi Oh than I would ever need to know from Nick.  Kameron mostly just repeated what other people said to him (called echolalia), but when he did verbalize his own thoughts they almost always had to do with basketball.  I knew children with autism who didn't like to be touched at all, and some who wanted nothing more than deep pressure all the time.  I knew children with autism who never demonstrated self-stimulation, and some who would bounce on their toes or flap their hands non-stop without intervention.  And no matter which child I was currently working with, I always, always wondered what they were thinking about.  Were they content to be left alone?  What made them suddenly take off running?  Why did they insist on wearing the same clothes, day in and day out, regardless of the weather?  Why could they echo whatever was said to them, but not tell us their own thoughts and dreams.

We know so much more about autism than we ever have before.  We know that the issues people with autism have with touch and sound and light has to do with differences in their sensory integration.  We know that people with autism can exhibit different behaviors based on where they fall on the spectrum, and that some disorders that we called something else previously are in fact related to autism spectrum disorder.  But there are also still lots of mysteries.  No one knows the cause of autism (but we know it is NOT childhood vaccines, in case you've heard that in the media).  No one is entirely sure why the repetitive and obsessive behaviors exhibited by many people with autism are so comforting to them, nor do we know why not every person with autism has these behaviors.  But we may now have a better idea about what people with autism may be thinking about, thanks for a remarkable 13 year old Japanese boy.  Naoki Higashida shares his thoughts and experiences as a person with autism, and takes some guesses about how things may be with others who have autism, in his bookThe Reasons I Jump.  He gives us insight into the internal life of people with autism in a way that I have never seen before.

 There are many noteworthy things about this book.  It has an interesting format, in that Higashida starts each section with a question that neurotypical may ask about autism (and probably have asked), and then proceeds to answer the questions according to his own experience.  The book is also interspersed with short stories that demonstrate some aspect  of Higishida's inner life.  But the thing that makes this book truly amazing is the fact that Higishida is non-verbal. He can speak, but the process is so difficult for him that he uses a communication grid he devised himself, or a computer, to write what he wants to say.  Without those adaptions, he would most certainly be trapped inside his own head, unable to communicate at all.  No one would ever have had access to his insight into living with autism, and that would be a tragedy.


Essentially, his message is one that I think probably resonates with anyone who has a physical or mental illness.  Have compassion, have patience, and have understanding, because people with autism or other disabilities don't have control over that disability.  He acknowledges over and over that he knows it can be taxing and frustrating to take care of people with autism.  He knows that having to say the same things over and over again, only to have the person with autism forget what they were told is difficult.  He knows that it worries his parents when he suddenly runs away from them, or when he doesn't notice the world around him and its many possible dangers.  But he tries, and he wants to be recognized as a person with needs, a person who does not always live up to his own expectations for himself, but who is honestly, truly trying to understand how to live in a neurotypical world.    He also reveals a deep sense of self-awareness and insight that I think many people working with people on the autism spectrum would find unbelievable.  Some people living with autism are so distant emotionally and cognitively from the world us neurotypicals live in that it is hard to believe that are thinking about much of anything at all.  How many times have I heard the words, "He's in his own world" used to describe someone with autism?  I've thought it myself often enough over the years.  And for some people with autism it may be true that their experience of the world are so different than mine that it really is like another world, but I suspect more often people with autism are looking for the same things all of us are-safety, comfort, and meaningful human connection.


Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Most Terrifying Book I've Read All Year...

...is about a corporation.  That's right-not zombies or vampire or werewolves or serial killers.  The most frightening book I've read all year-in fact, in the last several years-is about a technology company.  Now, plenty of people are scared of technology, in the "I don't know how to work this" sort of way, but this fear goes right to the heart of so much of what is happening in our world right now regarding internet safety, social media, and privacy.  This particular nightmare is brought to us by Dave Eggers in his 2013 book, The Circle.

The titular Circle is the largest and most powerful corporation in the world.  Calling it a technology company
is a little like describing the Louvre as a building with some paintings on the walls.  The Circle has their fingers in everything.  Imagine if Mark Zuckerburg suddenly owned not just Facebook, but also Instagram, Ebay, Amazon, Twitter, and Google.  The Circle has access to every post, comment, like and dislike (which they call smiles and frowns), customer review, photograph, document, and piece of electronically collected health information in the world.  They also control most of the country's surveillance feeds, with an eye to attaining the information from every country in the world.  They built this empire one piece at a time, adding features and combining services with the aim of making things more safe, efficient and convenient-at least, that's their stated aim.  Their goal is something they call "completion"-that moment when every person on the planet is connected with every other person on the planet, and everyone on the planet knows what every other person in the planet is doing and thinking, all in real time.  (Scared yet?)

The main character is Mae Holland, a young woman in her 20s who at the start of the novel is working at the utility company of hometown.  Feeling discouraged, like her life essentially has no meaning, she is thrilled to be recruited by The Circle. After all, with their beautiful corporate campus, gobs of cash, and prestige, who wouldn't want to work for them.  She goes to work in their customer service department, and quickly begins working her way up through the ranks of the company.  Her friend Annie-a very important executive at The Circle-gives her a leg up whenever she can.  As she takes on more responsibilities, she is given more and more "screens".  She is expected to communicate with customers, answer/comment on people's posts and comments on The Circle's social media platforms (the Inner Circle and Outer Circle), answer endless survey questions designed to gauge consumer habits, and attend on-campus social events, all with the goal of increasing her participation rank, so that she can be given more responsibilities and more screens.  (How 'bout now?  Scared now?)

At one event, she meets a mysterious stranger named Kalder, who says he works for the company, but she can't find him in the staff directory, nor does she ever see him working on any projects.  She feels very drawn to him, but there is something about him that she senses just isn't right?  Is he a corporate spy?  Will she get in trouble for being seen with him?  Her life becomes less about her, and more about they ways in which she can help the company attain "completion".  When strange things start to happen to her friends, she is troubled, but is always able to push away her doubts-usually by what I would call hypnotizing herself by spending hours on social media, "smiling" and "frowning" and "zinging" (their equivalent to tweeting).

Essentially, what makes this book terrifying is the fact that it is not at all implausible.  This may technically be science fiction, in that the technologies that make The Circle's complete domination of every aspect of life have not all been developed yet, but they are all technologies that could exist.  It would not surprise me if there are companies around the world experimenting with some of the very same concepts that The Circle has perfected in this book.  And the arguments that The Circle used to infiltrate the private lives of every person, regardless of whether they use The Circle's social media or not, are ones that I can see swaying Americans now-in fact, they are arguments that do sway people now, arguments about curtailing civil liberties to "keep us safe" or to "expand human knowledge".

The most frightening part for me was the complete erosion of the separation of private and public spaces.  The masterminds behind The Circle were able to convince the world that everyone has the right to ALL knowledge-even things that people would traditionally keep private.  So not only can The Circle access the feeds from cameras placed all over the world, but so can everyone else.  In true Brave New World fashion, they come up with some slogans for what they believe, the most pertinent one for this conversation being Privacy Equals Theft.  People begin to feel that they have the right to know what everyone is thinking all of the time, because according to The Circle Secrets Equal Lies.  It creates a society where everyone is constantly reaching out to everyone else, but no real connections are made.  Personal communication and private relationships are replaced by smiles and frowns and comments on a newsfeed.  And what does The Circle get for all of this knowledge?  A way to monetize everything, a way to keep tabs on what people buy, who they spend time with, where they go...I sincerely hope that we NEVER end up living in the world of The Circle.

Friday, May 02, 2014

A Visit from the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan's book A Visit from the Goon Squad was all over must-read lists last year.  I am usually so behind in my never-ending quest Someday!"
to get through my to-read list (this will never actually happen, but hope springs eternal) that I'm just getting around to the Best of  Two Thousand Whatever two (or three or five or eight) years later.  Thank goodness for book clubs!  Without the lovely ladies of the Unitarian Universalist book club, I would probably still be looking wistfully at the cover of this book every time I went by my bookcase, thinking "

A Visit from the Goon Squad uses the music business as a metaphor for modern society, telling stories of loss, betrayal, love, and family through a series of vignettes from the perspective of different characters. They are all connected in some way to each other, and to the music industry in Los Angeles.   The novel goes back and forth through time, jumping from decade to decade, highlighting all of the modern pressures that people feel to fit in, be connected, create meaning in life.

Not only is the non-linear structure of the narrative unique, but each vignette has a distinct personality, a different way of storytelling from the others.  Time and again, the characters show that despite all striving to the contrary, most of them (us) are never able to live up to the image of themselves that they have created in their own minds.  Often, the things that the characters do to try and make-up for their previous shortcomings make things worse instead of better, and there are plenty of unintended consequences throughout the book. Egan spends most of the book demonstrating how difficult it can be to have truly authentic relationships in the modern world in which we live, where it is theoretically possible to stay connected with everyone all the time through social media, but where in reality most people are living shallow public lives, keeping most of their deepest selves hidden.

The last part of the book describes a future New York where infants and toddlers drive consumer tendencies through the use of social media, and where trends are determined artificially through people whose job it is to promote brands they may have no real experience with or knowledge of.  This topic, the false reality of social media and the lack of privacy in the digital age, is reflected in others books gaining popularity recently, most notably Dave Egger's The Circle (review coming soon!).  I hesitate to say that what it means to be human is changing so drastically that humanity itself may be high unrecognizable in the next 50 years, but I do hope that gifted writers such as Egan continue to raise questions about how our relationships to each other and to the world in general will change when all of human knowledge is available with a few keystrokes, and whether the seemingly endless ways we now have to connect with other people really deepens our connections to each other and our own best selves.

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.


Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Hangman's Daughter

A witch trial, torture, murdered children, the devil, and buried treasure...doesn't exactly sound like a pleasant way to spend the afternoon, does it?  But when these elements come together in Oliver Potzch's novel The
Hangman's Daughter, that's exactly what you get.  The main character is Jakob Kuisl, the executioner for a small town in Germany in the 1600s.  As executioner, it is also his job to torture suspects to gain confessions that could be used by the powers that be to justify the executions they ordered.  In this story, the accused is a midwife who is charged with witchcraft.  A young boy has been murdered, and he appears to have a symbol of witchcraft tattooed on his shoulder.  The woman is captured by a mob, and taken to the hangman to be questioned.  He does not believe in her guilt, however, and does whatever he can to put off the torture and eventual burning at the stake that inevitably follows such an accusation.  He works with the son of the town doctor, Simon, and grudgingly with his oldest daughter, Magdalena, to find the real killer and save the woman from a gruesome fate.

The main character's profession is only one thing that makes this book different from other historical mysteries I've read.  It is set in Germany during the middle ages, and there is sufficient detail about the daily life of the average person of that time that I can only assume the context is well-researched.  It highlights much of the backward thinking of the day, from the existence of witchcraft itself, to the severe class distinctions, to the political structure of small towns of the era, to the completely unscientific practice of "medicine" during that period in history.  This in itself makes for interesting reading.

But there is more than just a well-researched setting.  The mystery itself is sufficiently developed that I was kept guessing until pretty much the end of the story.  Potzch finds a good balance between exposition and action, and while the description of the torture inflicted on this poor woman is detailed enough to make you squirm, it is not gratuitous, and definitely does not glamorize it at all.  In fact, one of the things that I loved about the character of Jakob Kuisl is how conflicted he is about his profession.  It was never something he wanted to do, but the rigidly enforced class structure meant that he had very few options-his father and his father's father were executioners, therefore he must be as well.  But being a principled man, he wants to ensure that his torture does not lead to the death of anyone who is not well and truly guilty.  He is also in intellectual, which is what draws the physician's son, Simon, into his orbit.  It is socially unacceptable to be friends with the hangman, but Jakob has books that a scholar like Simon can only dream of, and together their combination of intellect and experience make them a very effective, if very unorthodox,  detective team.  This book is the first in a series, and I look forward to spending more time in 17th century Germany uncovering the truth about murder and mayhem.

Friday, January 10, 2014

A Bitter Truth, by Charles Todd

Charles Todd, the mother-son writing team of Caroline Todd and Charles Todd, first introduced nurse and accidental detective Bess Crawford in A Duty to the Dead.  Ms. Crawford's world is World War I England. The daughter of a British colonel who grew up in India, Bess felt compelled to do her duty to her country by becoming a nursing sister in France.  During her leaves, she often comes home to England, where she shares a flat in London with some other nursing sisters.  When not in London, she visits her parents in the English countryside.  Given the diverse places she find herself (battlefield, gritty London street, or bucolic English field), she has plenty of opportunity to get drawn into drama and mystery.

In this particular story, Bess is home on leave during the winter of 1917.  Struggling from the train station to her flat in London through a frigid rain, she discovers a bruised young woman shivering on her doorstep. Being incapable of ignoring the suffering of any poor soul, she invites the woman into her flat to warm up and dry off.  She learns that the woman is the wife of a wealthy landowner from Sussex, who has run away from her husband after he struck her during an argument.  She wants to return home, but it afraid of what her husband will do.  She asks Bess to accompany her to Vixen Hill, the family's country estate.  Bess, who desperately wants to see her own family, cannot refuse the terrified woman's request.

Vixen Hill proves to be a brooding manor house, surrounded by harsh, windswept countryside.  Bess is grudgingly welcomed by the family, who are mourning the loss of the oldest son in the war.  When a guest at the memorial service is found murdered, Bess and everyone in the house become suspects, and family secrets begin to come out.  Bess' quest to identify the murderer and help the family takes her from England to the devastated villages of France.

I enjoy the Bess Crawford novels for a variety of reasons, from the setting to the strong-willed main character to the rather intricate plots.  Of course, I like all things British, and the fact that the setting of this series closely resembles Downton Abbey doesn't hurt.  I have to say that for the most part I didn't really like any of the characters in this book, other than Bess and the other recurring characters in the series.  But that strangely didn't make it any less enjoyable to read.  Despite their rather selfish behavior, and downright snobbery, I couldn't help but be drawn in emotionally, and found myself empathizing with the grief and sadness that was just below the surface of their family life.  I did feel as though the middle section dragged a bit, but the ending was dramatic enough to make up for it.  If you are a fan of period mysteries a la Agatha Christie, then I think that you would enjoy Bess Crawford's investigatory capers!