2/2/2014: I had low expectations for this novel, despite its being the 2013 National Book Award winner. John Brown, while certainly an important histo2/2/2014: I had low expectations for this novel, despite its being the 2013 National Book Award winner. John Brown, while certainly an important historical figure, didn’t appeal to me, and the reviews couldn’t seem to articulate what made the book special. And after the first hundred pages, I was even more skeptical; while Onion’s voice is distinctive and oddly charming, the narration seemed rather linear (and then…and then…).
But I’m glad I stuck with it. McBride built this novel well—the sturdy, broad foundation of the first half supports the brilliant opening up of the complexity of the second half. Onion’s experiences as an orphaned child slave “freed” by John Brown, disguised as a girl, considered light enough to “pass” as white, all of which seem so rather irrelevant and strange at the beginning, come together to create an extraordinarily layered consideration of color, identity, slavery, freedom, family, patriotism, fear and courage and hatred and love and religion. I had foolishly assumed that most of these themes had been explored pretty thoroughly, but McBride brings up so many new ideas, questions, conundrums, ironies and poignant reminders of our human nature that I was blown away.
Not only that, but he takes some incredibly unlikely characters—10 year old Onion and John Brown himself—and makes them vivid, sympathetic, hilarious, poignant, and enduring. I have no idea how historically accurate the story is, though some of its cameos, of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, and place descriptions, of the Kansas territory, Philadelphia, and Harpers Ferry itself, place the story in the historical continuum. But John Brown as a symbol, a catalyst for the Civil War, a white man fighting to the death for freedom for the black man, is flat and (as I mentioned) unappealing. This John Brown, his motivations, his strategies, his fervent faith in the rightness of the cause, his (often illogical) logic, is fascinating. And Onion represents, or at least brings to the fore, so many different facets of the black experience that it ends up being a bit mind-boggling. There are a few sections where McBride loses his light touch and begins to pontificate—he seems worried that we might not “get it”, so he needs to explain. He should have edited that out, it’s unnecessary and almost irritating. But his writing is so good that I was willing to accommodate it. He loves these characters and he believes that THIS is the story that MUST be told. And he’s right. ...more
1/26/2014: Mary Walker is buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, and this biography of her was assigned as the next book for the MAC Book Club.1/26/2014: Mary Walker is buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, and this biography of her was assigned as the next book for the MAC Book Club. I don’t get to it often, but it’s such a great group of people, so I try to read the book whenever I can.
TFAF brings to light a great story: Mary Walker was an escaped slave who ended up in Cambridge, working as a seamstress and caregiver for a number of families. She had left her mother and children in slavery, in Raleigh, NC, and spent much of her time and energy (and that of her protectors/employers) trying to find ways to bring them out of slavery. The biography talks about her life, and also about the historical context, what was happening up and down the East Coast during these important years of 1848-1872. Nathans is a diligent and scrupulous researcher, and does little embellishing, sticking closely to what could be verified through letters and journals. This is a careful and thorough study of Walker’s life, which also brings home what it must have been like to live through this terrible time in American history.
That said, the book is a tough go. It is dry and rather plodding, focusing so closely on the facts and the line of the story that it sometimes loses sight of these people as living beings, and of his readers as curious thinkers. Nathans must have been advised about this; in the second half of the book, he begins using questions about how the characters might have felt, or what their motivations might have been, to try to fill in the gaps in the story that he couldn’t fill with facts. But this falls flat; I would have preferred that he (with all his scholarship) take an educated guess and back it up with why he thought that this or that might have happened. That would have been more thought-provoking and interesting.
Also, his writing is curiously repetitive and stilted. He always refers to the main characters with their full names, even when they are the focus of that chapter or section. Often he includes their identifying characteristics as well, as though we might have forgotten who these people are from one page to the next. (Reminds me of The Odyssey….) He tries to find new ways to say the same thing over and over; Anne Jean Lyman has progressive dementia, and every time she comes up in the narrative, we have to hear again how she is deteriorating even further—which is already abundantly clear. I suppose the book could have used a good editor—it could certainly lose about a third and still tell the full story—but that wouldn’t take care of the feeling that Nathans has serious tunnel vision. He tries to expand his landscape outside these major characters, but he doesn’t have the confidence (or perhaps the breadth of knowledge?) to do so, so his writing is so overly focused on keeping the specifics straight that he loses sight of the larger goal. He simply can’t relax into his own story.
Worth a read if one is interested in Cambridge history of the mid-19th century. Otherwise, probably not....more
1/22/2014: I’m torn about this novel. On one hand, it’s well-written, it moves along quickly, it has great characters, and the plot is clever and well1/22/2014: I’m torn about this novel. On one hand, it’s well-written, it moves along quickly, it has great characters, and the plot is clever and well-constructed. But there’s something odd about it, and the problem has to do with a strange disconnect between the tone and the story, so the message, or desired response, is unclear. Maybe I’m missing something…?
THS consists of three different and entwined stories. Set in contemporary Sydney and Melbourne, it opens with what is happening with the three main characters. Tess hears that her husband and her cousin, with whom she is very close, have "fallen in love". Cecilia, a hyper-organized wife and mother, finds a mysterious letter written by her husband. Rachel, a widow whose daughter was murdered 28 years ago, is still obsessed with the murder and with finding her daughter’s killer. As it turns out, there are multiple connections among all of these characters (and many more), and I had fun going from story to story and seeing these connections as they were revealed. The tone is cheerful from the outset, despite the actual story being told. And for a while, this works.
But as the story gets darker and darker, and the twists of the plot bring more and more upsetting news, the tone starts to sound very odd. Moriarty writes easily and with humor, and her characters are charming, flawed, human, and fundamentally good. But why, then, all these weird tragic happenings? How to make all of this jibe?
It’s hard to tell whether Moriarty is doing this on purpose, or is trying out something new that didn’t work. It felt to me like she’s very good at a particular tone and way of creating character and scene: jaunty, wry, accepting of human frailty, folly and flaws. But then she decided to take the story in a different direction. Is she actually showing that even the darkest secrets about ourselves, that are revealed to ourselves and to others at different times, are just part and parcel of that acceptable human frailty? Is she proving how little control we actually have over the trajectory of our lives? Is she saying something about cosmic justice? (The Epilogue is especially interesting in considering these questions. But no spoilers here!) What the heck is she trying to say?!
Well, whatever it is, I did love the characters, and I loved the way they all learned important things about themselves over the course of the book. Marriage, honesty, truth, human weakness, fear, family, love—all get a turn, and there are some wonderful heart-warming scenes. But still, sadly, I have to say THS simply doesn’t hang together....more
1/3/2014: What a sad, lovely book. Beam writes with such clear-eyed sympathy for the entire cast of characters in the seriously broken American foster1/3/2014: What a sad, lovely book. Beam writes with such clear-eyed sympathy for the entire cast of characters in the seriously broken American foster care system: the children, birth parents, foster parents, social workers, even the policy and government leaders who are trying to bring change to the system. She interviews them, follows them for years, tells their stories with no apologies or excuses, and yet, despite all the awful things she finds, she still sounds firmly optimistic. She knows there is no miracle cure—unless we could begin to find cures for poverty, mental illness, addiction, and myriad other social problems—to the conundrum that is foster care. She understands that even with the child’s best interests at heart, there is not always a right answer to that child’s dilemma. She explains how attachment disorder makes foster children incapable of forming trusting relationships with anyone, which makes it ever harder to find foster parents who will “rock with them all the way” (loosely quoted from the book). She explores all kinds of situations, gets to know all kinds of dysfunction, considers all sides of a story--all the time maintaining a calm, thoughtful balance between being an objective, observant journalist and a frustrated, heartbroken champion of these kids and the families and agencies that try to save them.
The most amazing thing about TTEOJ is Beam’s extraordinary ability to write from the heart without being distracted from her goal of telling this story as fully and justly as she can. So much of this story is so heart-breaking and depressing, it could have spiraled very quickly into maudlin moo-ing. But it doesn’t. It takes something we all know exists but don’t want to think about, and makes it good and noble and important—just like all the people in it, who strive, in their ways, to make something of themselves and to help others. It’s no coincidence that the last line of the book is a quote from a young woman who grew up in foster care, and was back working as a social worker, though she was going to leave that job as soon as she finished her master’s degree, as she had burned out already: “”I want to get old and say to myself, ‘You have treated people well. That’s all.’”...more
12/20/2013: Here it is January 24. Oops. I got derailed over Christmas, and I’m just getting back to the important work of book reviews! Of course, si12/20/2013: Here it is January 24. Oops. I got derailed over Christmas, and I’m just getting back to the important work of book reviews! Of course, since much of the point of writing these reviews is to help me remember what I’ve read, and it’s now a month since I finished this book, I…um…don’t remember everything I should about Hood. So this will be short and sweet. I’ve got to catch up!
I loved Donoghue’s Room, which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2010. And it’s always good to read another novel by an author you think you love, it seems to me. Hood has many of the same qualities as Room. Donoghue creates wonderful characters through first person voice; Jack (the 5-year-old) in Room is an amazing construction. Pen, in Hood, is not quite as sharp or sympathetic, but she is close. Also, Donoghue writes beautifully, with lovely descriptions, memorable scenes, and good pacing, as a rule. Hood could have used more editing, though; although the novel takes place over the course of one week, it felt much longer to me, dragging slightly in places.
But I’m avoiding my real issue with Hood. The basic plot is that Pen, the narrator and protagonist, has just found out that her girlfriend Cara (they are a lesbian couple) has been killed in a car accident. The narrative jumps between Pen numbly going through the motions of shock and grief to flashbacks of her long-term relationship with Cara, and ends with Pen, one week later (the chapters are named for the days of the week, the story is strictly chronological), beginning to make peace with Cara, their stormy relationship, and the local lesbian community (whom she has shunned but Cara was close to). Until Cara’s death, Pen had never considered coming out of the closet, even to Cara’s father, with whom they both lived. So her grieving is all mixed up with her inability to claim the relationship, to be Cara’s “widow”, so to speak. All very intense and interior, which normally I like, but here it ended up feeling stressful. Much as I tried to feel progressive and open-minded, I couldn’t connect with the sex scenes, and the jealous arguments the two women seemed to have often were wearing.
Still, I’m sure Donoghue was quite aware of readers’ potential reactions when she was writing Hood. Provocative, difficult, uncomfortable—not what I necessarily WANT a novel to be, but that doesn’t mean Donoghue wasn’t being all those things on purpose. (Sorry, that was confusing. I think she did it on purpose.) Why? Because issues are important to her. And novels are as good a way of inciting change as manifestos, I think? But novels wishing to bring about change, or to draw attention to social issues, just aren’t as much fun. I can’t say I enjoyed Hood. I’m not sure I’d really like Donoghue if I met her. But I am glad I read it, and I admire Donoghue very much....more
11/22/13: Not much to say about this one; I did not read it for its literary or even entertainment value. Though I did read it cover to cover. Good bo11/22/13: Not much to say about this one; I did not read it for its literary or even entertainment value. Though I did read it cover to cover. Good book to read if you’re interested in building a house. Otherwise? You can skip it!...more
11/17/13: Another memoir? Too bad, as the Bhutan one is tough to follow. Still, even on its own, MWR is weak and inarticulate. I think Ward's memoir h11/17/13: Another memoir? Too bad, as the Bhutan one is tough to follow. Still, even on its own, MWR is weak and inarticulate. I think Ward's memoir has two major problems. First, she has not fully processed her grief and anger about the deaths, in a relatively short span of time, of five of her relatives and friends--all young black men in the South. And second, she seems to be trying to conflate that very personal, intimate (and difficult) story with a much larger tirade against the tragedy and injustice perpetrated upon blacks in the South. This seems an almost impossible task, even for a more experienced writer, one who has managed to process and contextualize her own experience. Ward is not (yet) up to the task.
Oh dear, I feel bad saying this; she has not had an easy time of it. I am sympathetic to her situation, having lost multiple family members in a short time myself. But perhaps this is also why I am harder on Ward; I know how disorienting, uncontrollable, unpredictable, and irrational grieving can be. And I know how hard it is to process that grief, to wrestle it into meaning (which is impossible, though we keep trying), to learn, slowly, how to leave it be, if only for a while. Grief is hard to manage, period. In MWR, I can practically taste Ward's grief, it is so close to the surface; but unfortunately, it is too raw still, and she is still wrestling. So she has no distance, perspective, or acquired wisdom; instead, she must keep telling us about it relentlessly, and her narrative quickly loses its value and power. She keeps revving her wheels, repeating her lament after every death, without ever getting anywhere. Then her grief turns to anger--who is to blame?! there must be someone to blame or this is all too senseless--and we move into the other lament, about the hopelessness of being black in the south. Exhausting, tragic, but in the end not compelling.
One more difficulty with MWR is that Ward decided to tell the story in two directions, alternating chunks of time from most distant (her family history and early childhood memories) to most recent (the last of the five men to die). Thus the two narratives end up meeting, timewise, at the end. I know this is all the rage now, telling a story in some complex chronological order, but for me, unless it's brilliantly done (see Cloud Atlas), it weakens the narrative, making it more confusing, thus distracting from the story. In addition, it lets Ward give in to the temptation to repeat her lament; without a clear narrative arc, it’s easier to end each chapter with that same cry.
Ironically perhaps, the best writing in MWR is about Ward's love of her home state of Mississippi, the bayous, the Gulf, and her home and family. When she can lay down her burden, her prose springs into life. In retrospect, the juxtaposition of these gentle, loving memories with the rest of her story is jarring. But it also gives me hope for Ward. I'd like to read more--and I will start with Salvage The Bones, which won the National Book Award in 2011....more
11/11/13: I've mentioned before how difficult I think it is to write a compelling and enlightening memoir. Memoirs, by their nature, lead the writer i11/11/13: I've mentioned before how difficult I think it is to write a compelling and enlightening memoir. Memoirs, by their nature, lead the writer into more traps and dangers than fiction or non-fiction. Self-consciousness, vanity, and unprocessed experience are just the beginning.
Jamie Zeppa left her family, academic career, and a serious boyfriend--her entire life in Canada—and went off to Bhutan to teach. Bhutan? Where's that? My question exactly. But since I was heading to Bhutan myself, and Zeppa's book came recommended, I gave it a shot.
This is a lovely travel memoir. But it is much more. I learned more about Bhutan, its people, politics, geography, culture, and food, than I would have reading Lonely Planet guides. In every conversation I had with our Bhutanese guide during our visit, something from BTSATE came up and was corroborated, and I noticed and understood so much more having read Zeppa's book.
I don't know whether BTSATE stands on its own for those not interested in travel memoirs (or those not traveling to Bhutan!). But I do think it is also a concise, heartfelt and thoughtful (and well-processed, until the end) meditation on growing up. Zeppa passes through all the stages of travel/culture shock: fear, elation, despair and homesickness, patience, and gradual understanding, turning to love, of her adopted country. She does this with little vanity or pretense. Her writing, while not literary, is pleasing to read. She reflects on her struggle with her waning feeling for her boyfriend, but she never excuses herself or succumbs to navel-gazing melodrama. Her description of Buddhism and her growing interest in the philosophy is both factually helpful and thought-provoking; she is enthusiastic and thoughtful, but never proselytizes or apologizes. Somehow, she has pulled off an extraordinary trick: she's written a memoir--experience filtered through her consciousness--while leaving herself out of much of the narrative. Well done.
It is too bad that she loses her balance and perspective towards the end of the book. No spoilers here, and the book is still worth reading. But it felt like she'd come too close to the present, so she became self-conscious, alternating between prosaic narrative (and then...and then...) and high drama. Zeppa is a strong writer, but even she succumbed, just a bit, to the temptation to justify her actions that is one of the traps of memoir. ...more
10/25/13: A thriller (or sreelah, as a wonderful French friend calls them!) set in Eliot House? How can our book club resist? And I enjoyed it; AS has10/25/13: A thriller (or sreelah, as a wonderful French friend calls them!) set in Eliot House? How can our book club resist? And I enjoyed it; AS has its good points, for sure. My favorite are the wonderfully sneaky touches of fun: the banana bread lady, tutting away in her Cambridge rooming house, hoping someone will come remove the enormous banana crate in her garden; Petronella in her white catsuit; the Situation Room; Philby the cat, abandoned in the airplane. Great visuals. Also, the writing is serviceable and at times even almost good. I judge quality of writing in a thriller by whether my attention is snagged along the way by awkward or bad grammar, excessive cliché (and almost any cliché is excessive!), or general clunkiness. And the writing in AS didn't snag my attention much. Faint praise, I realize, but I was never exactly looking for high literature!
All that said, Kelly needs practice in thriller-writing. What DID snag my attention were all the plot points that either didn't make sense, or didn't follow or get followed up. It's hard to give examples, spoiler-wise, but let's just say that given how smart Alexandra is, even with her general ignorance of international politics and "covert activity", she sure misses a lot of obvious clues along the way, and keeps doing really dumb things. And her backstory is, while believable, neither necessary nor particularly interesting in the context of the story. I'm not even sure why Kelly put it in; it may be heartless to say, but I found her whole life drama only distracting.
A good romp, at best. Never any sense of real danger, so maybe the novel is more tongue in cheek than I'm allowing. Does that make it a better novel, read that way? Eh, no, but more pleasurable. I'm not a huge fan of depressing and bloody spy novels, so the light sense that nothing really bad will happen, combined with the fast-paced "what next?!" sense of urgency, made it an amusing read....more
10/20/2013: Written mostly in the form of answers to questions we would all love to ask people with autism, TRIJ is at once charming, intimate, illumi10/20/2013: Written mostly in the form of answers to questions we would all love to ask people with autism, TRIJ is at once charming, intimate, illuminating, and frustrating. Higashida wrote this "memoir" (what they're calling it, though that doesn't seem quite right) when he was 13 years old, and his aim is to try to explain to "normal" people why people with autism act the way they do.
This is an amazing feat, since the inability to communicate is much of what makes autism so frightening to those who don't understand it. Higashida wants so much to be understood, and he succeeds on many levels. He wants to convince people that he's as intelligent as any non-autistic person; he wants to explain, as clearly as he can, why he does certain things; he wants sympathy, patience, and love as a response to his behavior, not fear, frustration, and exhaustion. He doesn't know how to achieve that last part, but he pleads throughout the book for help in managing himself in the world.
Higashida's articulateness and earnest desire to translate his world to those who have trouble understanding it is absolutely adorable. He talks to the reader directly, trying to express how he feels and sees the world. His best explanations are those where he figures out a good metaphor: in explaining why he asks the same question over and over, he says "I imagine a normal person's memory is arranged continuously, like a line. My memory, however, is more like a pool of dots. I'm always "picking up" these dots--by asking my questions--so I can arrive back at the memory that the dots represent."
But you can see, even from that example, that despite his relatively clear explanation, it's still a bit mystifying what he means, not to mention what "normal people" should do with that explanation. Higashida is sensitive and thoughtful, but he can see his world ONLY from his point of view, so he can go only so far in bridging the gap between himself and "normal" people. And there are many questions he simply can't answer; he has to say, I just don't know why I act that way. The value of the book, for me, is not that it shows me how to act and react when interacting with a person with autism--unfortunately. Instead, its value is in allowing me to get to know this one boy, and through that connection to gain confidence in my ability to communicate with others like him. And to want to try.
It is ironic that the very charm of this young man, and his heartfelt need to communicate, make him seem more "normal" than the way he describes himself. It's hard to imagine, from reading his eloquent and sweet words, that he is also the one who can't maintain eye contact, who flaps his hands, who repeats his questions and then can't listen to the answer. Cognitive dissonance, in a way. Yet also exciting. I understand why Jon Stewart was so enthusiastic about it....more
9/13/2013: As some know, TCC is a whodunit by J.K. Rowling, writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. It was published a few months ago without ac9/13/2013: As some know, TCC is a whodunit by J.K. Rowling, writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. It was published a few months ago without acknowledgment of Galbraith's identity, and after a week of tepid sales, someone spilled the beans. This led to accusations that Rowling herself had leaked her identity to boost sales, but it was then discovered that the wife of a publishing exec had told her best friend…oops. Amusing backstory, I think--especially for a whodunit!
Also important because a) I have to explain why I'm reading a whodunit in the first place; and b) I have to refer to Rowling's previous work in order to write a review. For that matter, c) since I read so little of this genre, I'm not confident of my own judgment. So, that said, here goes:
I read TCC on a long flight and I loved it. The kind of story that you want to tell those friends you just flew across the country to visit that if they don't mind, you just have to go finish a book…you'll be down in an hour or so…. The twists and turns are clever and plausible (mostly); the characters are wonderful, especially the caricatures (Guy Some, Tansy Bestigui); and the writing is pure Rowling--sturdy, energetic, rollicking, but just shy of a really good sense of humor. I do love Cormoran Strike, the PI, though there is so much Hagrid in him that it's hard not to envision him that way. And I assume he will be back, he's just the kind of outsized character (literally) who can sustain a series of this kind. Recognizable, intelligent, self-reliant, but not settled down, lots of emotional drama kept under wraps, so there will always be questions of who his love interest will be, where he will live, etc. Enough loose ends to keep the reader intrigued.
I think I must read sloppily, because even with all the clues given, I would never have been able to figure out the villain by myself. I think that is the mark of a great whodunit: just enough clues, but given with so much other information that it's hard to sift through to find out which info is important, for a clever reader to figure it out. So do I need more practice in reading them, or does Galbraith need more practice in writing them? I'm not sure--nor does it really matter, since people will read her books for other reasons. I do think she's found a good niche for herself, because this kind of formulaic novel matches her strengths: good characters that will return, book after book; lots of action and massive amounts of accrued detail; and clear prose. So keep up the good work, oh rich Rowling pretending to be Galbraith! ...more