Thursday, December 13, 2012

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan: Impressions

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If ever there was a book for book and tech geeks alike, this is probably it. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan follows an out-of-work web designer turned book clerk into a mysterious world filled with cloaked figures and coded texts and ancient artifacts clashing with modern technologies and code-cracking capabilities. It's a laid-back read, if ever there was one, with more caricature characters than fully fleshed out figures, but hey, it's plot driven, and that's okay with me. It's sort of a more modern, nerdier Indiana Jones-esque story. 

Read this if: 
  • You proudly call yourself a book nerd or geek or similar term of choice.
  • You don't know what you'd do without google or the internet or the latest gadget.
  • Your favorite song is by a band I haven't heard of because I'm over 30. Or you're over 30 too but were born a decade too early or too late.
  • You're looking for a fun, fast read. 
  • You enjoyed both the Indiana Jones movies and Snowcrash.
Don't read this if: 
  • You're serious and cranky and cantankerous.
  • You don't have nor do you want a smartphone or tablet.
  • You prefer character-driven novels.
  • You think San Francisco and New York breed the roots of all evil.
  • You're not into that whole suspension of disbelief thing.
PS: even my kitty wants to read it.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver: Impressions

Kingsolver's Flight Behavior takes place in fictional Feathertown, TN, a rural community in Appalachia. The Monarch butterfly community mysteriously roosts in the woods on Dellarobia Turnbow's family's property, instead of the mountains in Mexico as usual. Kingsolver explores the clash of conservative rural beliefs and struggles with the undeniability of climate change, but not in a boring, preachy Ayn Rand sort of way. I enjoyed Poisonwood Bible earlier this year, and was eager to read Flight Behavior - it did not disappoint (well, except for the terrifying, looming consequences of climate change, that is).

It was an eerie read, especially after this past year (these past years) of noticeably strange weather, early springs, late falls, too much rain, not enough rain, strengthening storms and mounting destruction from natural disasters. But it's also a human read, somehow explaining the position of the "non-believers" in a way that almost makes sense.

And so, might you want to read this? I would say yes, though with caveats, because not every book will be the tea-filled cup you're looking for.

Read this if:
  • You adore poetic prose.
  • You don't mind literature with an agenda.
  • You are worried about climate change.
  • You aren't worried about climate change.
  • Your favorite song is "It's the End of the World as We Know It."
Don't read this if:
  • You are lepidopterophobic.
  • You think "science" and "science fiction" are synonymous.
  • You do mind literature with an agenda.
  • You are looking for a romantic comedy.
  • Your favorite song is "Don't Worry Be Happy."
*I received this book courtesy of HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours. See what others thought here.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

List Fun! Book Riot Readers' Top 50

Happy Thursday! 

Over at Book Riot, they've posted their readers top 50 reads, and I thought I'd take a que from What Red Read and see how many I've read! 26 fully (okay, only half the Harry Potter series, but still counting it), with 3 half-completes (only one will I probably not finish - the others I put down because of life stuff getting in the way). And half the rest are somewhere on my TBR list.  Some of the choices were surprising. (The Night Circus? I really enjoyed it, but I wouldn't put it in my top reads.) 

How'd you fare? 

  1. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (126 votes)
  2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  4. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
  5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  6. The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien
  7. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  8. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  9. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  10. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  11. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  12. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  13. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  14. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  15. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  16. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
  17. The Stand by Stephen King
  18. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  19. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  20. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  21. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  22. The PIcture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  23. The Brothers Karamozov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  24. The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon
  25. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  26. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  27. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  28. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  29. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  30. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  31. 1984 by George Orwell
  32. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  33. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  34. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  35. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  36. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  37. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams
  38. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  39. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  40. Ulysses by James Joyce
  41. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  42. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  43. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  44. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  45. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
  46. Dune by Frank Herbert
  47. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  48. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
  49. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  50. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (13 votes)

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Day of the Dead: Gone Girl and Faithful Place

It being the Day of the Dead (and just after Halloween), I thought it an apropos time for finally posting about Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, which was quite the riveting read, and Faithful Place, by Tana French, which I really enjoyed. I finished both about a month ago (I really need to get back in the habit of reviewing immediately, but I kind of wanted to let both stories sort of seep into my psyche before saying much) so the details are not as fresh in my mind as I'd like, but they both made quite an impact.

Gone Girl is the mother of all unreliable narrator tales, at least for a while. As a reader, you really have to trust the writer, who leaves several holes and clues to follow, but just enough so that you know you're not getting the entire picture, and not so much that you can easily jump to the right conclusions. Is that a spoiler? I'm not sure. Either way, it's definitely worth a read. One of my favorite sections was one of the character's definition of the Cool Girl, which is too long to quote here, but it's spot on.

To break it down for you,

Read Gone Girl if:
  • You want to eat the darkness
  • You ate the darkness years ago
  • You hate predictable tripe
  • Your favorite song is “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads
  • You can’t stand Cool Girls
Don't read it if:
  • Your favorite song is “Shiny Happy People” by R.E.M.
  • You read endings first
  • You have to like main characters and must trust your narrators
  • You just got married and are still all gooey-eyed optimistic about your soul mate and your new perfect life together (“Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”)
  • Your favorite flower is a daisy

Now for Faithful Place: I listened to the audio for this one and it was absolutely delightful. The narrator hasn't done too many audiobooks, but he was perfect for this one. No unreliable narrators here, just a nicely paced piece of crime fiction, set in Dublin. Though I'm not entirely sure why, I was very reminded of Dennis Lehane's Mystic River while I read this. It was more related in my mind in setting and tone than in plot, because the stories themselves differed dramatically. 

Listen to (or read) Faithful Place if:
  • You are keen on smart-sounding Irish accents
  • You’re in a cold case kind of mood
  • You’re feeling like winter
  • You are nostalgic about the 80s
  • You have an affinity for Guinness and whisky
  • You like well-rounded characters
Do not listen to (or read) this if:
  • You are afraid of poor people
  • You are looking for a light, amusing read
  • You can't understand Irish accents (it's really not that difficult here)
  • Your favorite sport is synchronized anything
  • You are too impatient to enjoy a good Scotch
  • You are currently planning to elope with your high school sweetheart (it’ll all end in tears)
Have you read either of these? Gone Girls is infinitely discussable, and Faithful Place also has several points to explore. I'd recommend them both, for different reasons, with the caveats mentioned above.

Buenos Dia de los Muertos! 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam: Read This If

Well, then. That was an intense read. I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting - it'd been months since I read the description, and I just dove in. The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam sweeps you along several decades, from the 1940s until the mid 1970s, in Vietnam, from the perspective of a Chinese immigrant. A businessman. A fairly clueless - or, at least, ostrich-like - businessman. From this man's unique (head in the sand) perspective, we learn about the many transitions Vietnam - Saigon - underwent mid-century.

You want history? Check. Love story? Check. Soap opera-like family drama? Ohhh yes. Sex? Drugs? Violence? Check. Check. Check. Classism? Duh. Racism? Check. Politics? War? Power? Loyalty? Betrayal? Of course. Everyone is divided.  From white ghosts to Anamese to métisse (mixed) background capitalist Chinese, everyone is the enemy. And your friend. Depending. When Percival takes a métisse lover, he marvels at her strangeness, comparing her to milk. She responds:
The yellow think I am more white. The white see the yellow. People always see the portion of other more clearly than that of self.
And that, my dears, could easily be the theme of the novel, if it were as simple as that. With so many sides, so many secrets, and so many threats, the battle between self and other is only one of many. The atrocities of war are brought nauseatingly to life - the completely uncalled for cruelty never justified. This is not a read for those with weak digestive systems.

In sum, read this if:
  • You relish learning about history through fiction.
  • You don't read a whole lot, and want absolutely everything packed into your novels to make it count.
  • You do read a whole lot, and love complicated plots.
  • You can remain optimistic in dire circumstances.
  • You know you didn't start the fire. 
Don't read this if: 
  • You are looking for that peaceful easy feeling.
  • The open-ended leaves you dissatisfied. 
  • You are easily offended. 
  • You hate character development.
  • You are looking for something light and goofy.
*I received this book courtesy of the Crown Publishing Group via TLC Book Tours. See what others thought

Monday, October 15, 2012

What the Zhang Boys Know by Clifford Garstang: Impressions

What the Zhang Boys Know by Clifford Garstang is, as you might have guessed from the descriptive subtitle, is a book of linked stories, the link here being the Nanking Mansion, an old building renovated into condos in an up-and-coming Chinatown neighborhood in Washington, D.C. The Zhang boys, around 3 and 6, have just lost their young, blonde mother in the opening story, and their father is having trouble dealing with his own grief at the same time as figuring out how to care for his young sons and deal with their confusion of the sudden disappearance of their mother. The young Zhang boys see everything, the peculiar habits of the neighbors, the comings and goings into their apartments, but are, of course, too young to fully comprehend the obvious conclusions to their observations.

The Nanking Mansion is full of an eclectic bunch of neighbors, all dealing with their own struggles - divorces, infidelities, heartbreak, financial woes - each trying to find a bit of comfort in their lives, if not meaning. The glimpses we get get into each of the characters lives are a bit like walking down a dark street, glimpsing in the scenes behind uncurtained, lit windows, except that all these neighbors interact in a very un-urban like way, possibly due to the limited number of condos in the building. The neighbors are friendly in a way that distantly echoes Melrose Place, sans communal pool and the comparatively easy drama of those early-twenties lives.

The stories compel the reader on, not because the characters are particularly worthy, morally upstanding citizens, but because they are deeply human and flawed, on the precipice of realizing something deeper, but, with few exceptions, ultimately failing to overcome their less-than-honorable character traits. Each of their voices are distinct, their portraits carefully crafted to reveal a darkness contrasted with a thin light, and a striking vulnerability. Though many of their lives seem bleak, and the characters are far from perfect, they do offer a hope of continuing, of moving on towards a richer, fuller life.

*I received a copy of this book courtesy of Press53 and TLC Book Tours - see what others thought of the book.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A PARTIAL HISTORY Giveaway Winners!

As promised, the four giveaway winners will be receiving a copy of A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois, one of my favorite reads this year! (If you missed it, Ms. duBois graciously answered a few bookish questions here.)

And the lucky winners are:
There were 10 items in your list. Here they are in random order:
  1. Jennifer M
  2. Sharon P
  3. Greg
  4. Petya
  5. srenee213
  6. Jeff
  7. Greg
  8. Karen
  9. Kerry M
  10. Beth
Timestamp: 2012-09-25 23:54:40 UTC
I will be emailing the winners in the near future. Even if you were not so lucky this time around, I do hope you'll find a way to snag a copy and read this gem of a novel. Many thanks to everyone that participated, and a warm thank you to all of you that stop by my tiny corner of the interwebs on a semi-regular basis!

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Ghost Painter by Marilu Norden: Impressions

The Ghost Painter by Marilu Norden tells the story of a young artist living in New York, Angelina, who idolized a painter, Adelaide Moran, known for her breathtaking landscapes of New Mexico. Adelaide dies without completing her final masterpiece. While in heaven waiting to meet the Great Spirit (bear with me here), Adelaide decides that she's going to haunt Ramon, her smarmy art dealer, to get him, a weird psychic and a shady shaman to help her find an artist whose body and talents she can possess and utilize to complete her masterpiece.

This novel left much to be desired. The characters were more caricatures: Angelina Bonelli, beautiful, helpless starving artist of Italilian descent; her best friend Gabriella, a gorgeous, black jazz singer; Ramon, smarmy art dealer; and Adelaide, Native American beauty whose talents were never recognized to her satisfaction. Everyone is drop dead gorgeous and the main character, Angelina, is much more of a pawn than a player. Further, too much information is delivered in the first-person inner thoughts of the characters Angelina, Ramon and Adelaide, which interrupts the narrative flow.

However, despite these shortcomings, many of which could be corrected with a few rounds of editing, the plotline itself is actually amusing, especially if one is familiar with magical realism and is willing to suspend a fair amount of disbelief. So... have any of you seen that corny but fun movie from the late 80s, Chances Are? Robert Downey, Jr.? It's possible I'm the only one that watched it on TBS some fateful Saturday afternoon in the 90s. And, of course, Ghost? Those movies worked, for what they were, despite the ghosty, supernatural-type elements. I kept thinking this storyline would be better served as more of a comedic movie than a novel. Or perhaps just as a comedy of errors, in novel form. If the tone had been more goofy than serious, rather than not really picking a tone at all, the story could have worked.

All in all, The Ghost Painter has much potential, but it, like Adelaide's masterpiece, reads as very raw and unfinished.

*I received this book in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Q&A with Jennifer duBois + GIVEAWAY!

If you've stopped by this sliver of the internet recently, you may have noticed that I absolutely adored the novel A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois. I happened to have the good fortune to ask Ms. duBois a few questions, the answers to which I can now share with you.

I also have the particular pleasure of offering you a chance to win the book! I have 4 whole copies of the paperback to giveaway, to 4 different people, so your chances are fairly high. Note that this giveaway is only open to those with a United States mailing address. To enter, simply leave a comment below by 11:59PM Pacific Time on Monday, September 24th. One extra entry for sharing the giveaway on twitter (cc: @zeteticat & note in your comment). I will announce the winner here by Wednesday, September 26th.

Enjoy the interview (and read the book!). Gary Shteyngart is right - Ms. duBois is definitely "too young to be this talented."

Q: I thoroughly enjoyed your novel - it was truly one of my favorites this year. What struck me was both the introspective nature of the story and the characters' impending sense of demise, and yet I didn't find the tone to be terribly melancholy or simpering. What inspired the dark themes and their matter-of-fact treatment?

A: Thank you so much! Most of the darkness—and probably most of the matter-of-factness—comes from my experience growing up against the backdrop of my father’s long decline from Alzheimer’s disease. (He became ill when I was 12, and died when I was 25, just after I’d finished drafting the novel.) The questions that arose for me during that experience—how do you go on when you’re confronting a lost cause? How do you find meaning and sense in a situation like that?—formed the thematic underpinnings of the book.

Q: Aleksandr Bezetov seems to be loosely based on real-life chess champion-turned-political activist Garry Kasparov - was it your intention to write a novel using both chess and Russian social politics as a backdrop?

A: Yes—I thought that the broad arc of Kasparov’s career, from chess champion to political dissident, would be a really interesting through line for a character in a novel. And chess and politics seemed to resonate metaphorically not only with each other, but also with Irina’s journey.

Q: Your post on Powell's site articulated an issue that needs constant addressing, that is, the cultural cues that result in a somewhat broader reading spectrum for women (in the ability that comes from being forced to relate to either gender) but a rather limited one for most men. Going back to a possible bit of inspiration for the post, did you consciously write Irina from the first person and Aleksandr from the third for a gender-specific reason, or did something else come into play?

A: Lots of different variables came into play in making that decision. Aleksandr’s story occupies so much more time than Irina’s does; his journey contains a lot of plot, and he undergoes an enormous amount of change, and all of that seemed better served by the tiny sliver of distance from a character that’s granted by the third person. Irina’s story covers a very brief time period, and her sections are very much driven by her voice, so first person seemed the natural fit for her. But I did deliberately decide to write a female point of view character into my novel (I think of first person and close third person as in the character’s point of view, so both Irina and Aleksandr are point of view characters, to my mind). When I was in graduate school, I usually wrote short stories from male perspectives. I think that was partly because I was afraid that writing from a female point of view would invite speculation that the character was autobiographical (which has indeed been the case with Irina). But I also think there was this weird internalized misogyny going on where I subconsciously felt that writing about men was writing about the universal in a way that writing about women wasn’t. So I’d always write these stories that were about some funny, ornery, misanthropic voice, and, over and again, I’d make that voice male. It’s like I thought that writing about a woman would automatically trivialize the story, or try the readers’ patience somehow, or require the plot to revolve around shoes. It’s very hard for me to believe that I had this stuff in my head—but I think that, as a very young writer, somewhere deep down, I did. And at a certain point I realized there was something wrong with being a female writer who was using the best efforts of my brain exclusively to explore the psychologies of male characters. And I do remember consciously deciding that it was very important for me, just on a personal level, to write a sort of curmudgeonly, smart, ironic, prickly voice and to give it to a woman.

Q: How often do you play chess? Are you any good?

A: I play chess only rarely, and I’m pretty bad at it. People who are really excellent at chess seem to have such particular brains, and part of what was interesting to me about writing the book was getting a chance to try to tackle the interiority of a person like that.

Q: What draws you to Russia? Have you spent a significant amount of time there?

A: I had the chance to travel to Russia as a very small child, just as the Soviet Union was collapsing, and that trip sparked my lifelong curiosity about that part of the world. And I’m really into international politics, so that’s the prism through which most of my interest is filtered these days. I had the chance to return to Russia in 2010, a few months after I sold the book, and it was such a mind-boggling experience to get to go to a place I’d been Googling so committedly for years.

Q: With Pussy Riot's trial and sentence recently in the news, the general mood in Russia under Putin's rule seems especially relevant (though, not surprisingly, it seems the band and the incident received much more press and support abroad than in Russia itself). Were you at all surprised by the outcome of the trial?

A: I wasn’t surprised by the trial’s outcome, though the fact that the band was charged in the first place for a 40 second performance was pretty interesting. It seems clear that Putin is becoming less and less tolerant of mockery; my semi-optimistic view of this is that it’s indicative of a growing insecurity as his grip on power becomes more tenuous.

Q: Why Huntington's disease?

A: My father’s Alzheimer’s disease raised a lot of questions for me—about cognition and personal identity, the struggle against futility, etc.—that I wanted to explore in the book through the lens of a character who knew that she would one day lose her mind and memory. Huntington’s disease fit the needs of the story because it’s degenerative, fatal and, crucially, testable—genetic analysis can tell you not only whether you’re going to get the disease, but also, with some accuracy, when you’ll begin to exhibit symptoms. So I chose Huntington’s because it was the disease that matched the dramatic situation I was interested in.

Q: This may be a ridiculous question, but what became of Ivan's cat? Did I just miss it? (Are you a cat person?)

A: You’re the third person to find this mistake! Poor Natasha got lost in revisions. Maybe she went to live with Elizabeta’s old parakeet. In spite of my misplacing this one, I do really like cats.

Q: Who are your favorite contemporary authors?

A: Don DeLillo, Michael Chabon, Zadie Smith, Grace Paley, George Saunders and David Foster Wallace.

Q: What are you reading these days?

A: Libra by Don DeLillo, This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, O Pioneers! by Willa Cather and The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht. I’m also reading a book of poetry by Brittany Perham called The Curiosities.

Q: Where do you do most of your writing?

A: At my computer in the kitchen.

Q: If we could finagle a Freaky Friday type scenario, is there anyone, living or dead, with whom you'd trade places for, say, a week?

A: I’d like to trade places with Hillary Clinton and be the Secretary of State for a week. But maybe not this week.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

THE LOLA QUARTET by Emily St. John Mandel: Impressions

The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel is another of those novels I picked up because something about the title and the cover (there I go again, initially judging a book by its cover) intrigued me. It turned out to be a pleasure to read - a well-paced mystery exploring all those complicated issues surrounding the juxtaposition of who we are compared to who we thought we'd become.

The novel is named for a high school jazz quartet consisting of most of the novel's central characters, who are pulled back together years later by a dangerous coincidence. Gavin Sasaki is a fedora-sporting, noir-loving, soon-to-be disgraced journalist on an assignment in his Florida home town when his sister informs him that she has come across a young girl who looked exactly like she did when she was that age. They suddenly both wonder what became of Anna, his high school girl friend, who seemed to vanish after his senior year of high school, right before he moved to New York. The picture his sister takes of the eerily familiar-looking child leads to an unforeseeable chain of events as the mystery slowly unravels.

We spend a little time with each of the main characters: the members of the original quartet, and Anna. The story also shifts between past and present, giving us glimpses into how each came to be living a life so far from their youthful, hopeful renderings of the future.
He stopped halfway to look up at the sky. He'd been reading about constelations recently, and had fallen particularly in love with the North Star. It always took him some time to find it in the haze of the streetlight, but there it was. True north, the direction of his second life, New York. He felt in those days that he was always on the edge of something, always waiting, his life about to begin.
Everyone seems to be in some state of flux - and none of their lives have turned out remotely as they'd imagined. Their self-imposed isolation and loneliness doggs them all in varying ways, but they also manage to find solutions to their stases - although whether or not they are good solutions is up for debate. Nevertheless, the novel manages to end on a hopeful note.

I also had the good fortune to meet the adorable Ms. Mandel yesterday evening at Left Bank Books, one of my favorite local bookstores! It was not the largest turnout, but the four of us managed to have a nice time sitting in a circle, chatting about the novel, writing, and musing about life in general. Meet the author events always seem to have a certain level of awkwardness (or, perhaps it's just me that's awkward!), but this one felt more intimate, like a new book club getting off the ground. At any rate, I highly recommend both reading The Lola Quartet and meeting the warm and unassuming Emily St. John Mandel if you get the chance. I've already picked up a copy of her second novel, The Singer's Gun, and hope it won't remain in my substantial TBR pile for too long.

*I originally received this novel from NetGalley & Unbridled Books in exchange for my review, but have since bought a hard copy.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

11 - a day in a life

Eleven years ago, I awoke on a morning much like this one. A cloudless, crisp morning that promised a mild, perfect afternoon. I dressed quickly, perpetually later for work than I preferred, ran out the door onto Bank Street and quickly crossed Hudson Avenue, laser-focused on getting to the subway on 7th Avenue. I did not glance to my right, was not stopped in my tracks by the sight of a smoking tower. So far, it seemed a morning like any other. 

I ran down the platform stairs, just missing both an express and a local train. The platform was nearly empty but quickly started to fill. No trains; strange for rush hour, but not incredibly unusual. More people crowded the platform. The passing time quickly slid into something's not right territory, but only in a some idiot must have pulled the emergency cord kind of way. 10 minutes later, a train slowly chugged into the station. Because I was already late, I sardined myself into the packed car with the rest of them, as what must have been the last uptown train slowly, painfully trekked to 116th Street. 

As I bought my morning coffee in the student building, the cashier said with equal parts worry and excitement, "Did you hear? There's a fire at the World Trade Center!" I immediately thought it must be something along the scope of the bombing in 1993, and tried to call the boyfriend at the time to either pass along the news or see if he knew anything more. Of course, I couldn't get through. By then the phones were completely jammed, but it was Sprint, and it was 2001, so although I was becoming mildly alarmed, I still had no suspicion of the magnitude of what had happened. 

I crossed the quad and headed toward the office, making it all the way to my cube without talking to anyone. My phone was actually ringing - it was my ex. He worked in a building off Hudson Avenue. "I just watched two planes fly into the World Trade Center," he said, panicked and terrified. 

"What?" I said, not full comprehending, still booting the computer. "Wait, WHAT? What are you talking about?" 

"Two planes. Flew into the towers. They're burning. At first I thought it was a horrific accident, but then another plane hit the other tower... There's no way this was an accident." He was just standing in his office, watching from the window less than a mile away, not sure what to do. 

I'd pulled up the paltry, confused news by then. "Holy..." Reading, absorbing the shock. "Um, how close are you? I think you should get the hell out of there. Call me when you're safe." I don't actually know what I said. I hope I said something similar. The rest of the morning was a blur. I crowded with others into the Dean's office to watch the coverage. The towers collapsed. I emailed my family to let them know I was fine, since by then it was impossible to get through on the phones. We all wandered around in an adrenaline-fueled daze, more horrified than terrified. There wasn't much to say. You either knew people likely to be in the towers or you didn't. We located our close friends and family. We tried to find out if everyone was okay. 

The boyfriend had been evacuated from his office's skyscraper location. He emailed from a nearby coworker's apartment. Being an idiot, he planned to try to get as close as he could to watch the chaos. Many of us stayed at the office until mid-afternoon, not knowing what else to do. By then, I decided to make my way somehow back to the west village (where the boyfriend's apartment was), and ended up walking most of the 5-6 miles. I managed to catch a bus at 80th street, but by 42nd, the streets were completely closed to all vehicles. 

Walking through the completely deserted streets between mammoth buildings was probably the most surreal experience I've had to date. It was still a lovely, sunny 74, the juxtaposition with the day's events only adding to the rabbit-hole nature of the experience. I passed a girl who managed to get through to someone on her phone. "Like, I don't know, do you think he likes me? Everyone was, you know, like, so totally drunk last night. I'm still totally hungover. But he was super flirty. I remember that. Do you think I should, like, call him? I mean, I don't know... so where are we going tonight?"  I began to think I somehow got transported into a David Lynch film.

I eventually made it back to the apartment, and a couple hours later, so did the boyfriend. He couldn't get anywhere near the actual scene. "Shocking," I said. He was more excited than anything (a big giant red flag, in retrospect). We wandered around the village that evening, and, even in the west village, the racist blame was already bubbling up. 

The city seemed irreversibly altered after that, especially in the months immediately following. You could walk down 42nd Street in a straight line. Men in camo with machine guns patrolled Penn Station. "Missing" posters were pasted all over the city. Everyone was a little on edge, walking around with varying levels of paranoia seething just below their skin. Levels of paranoia that still seem to dictate attitudes and policy decisions across the country. 

Eleven years later, 1000 miles away, the events of that day are still impossible to forget. Thousands of innocent people, going about their daily activities, lost their lives, senselessly, while the world watched in shock. Eleven years later, I have no new insight to offer, no grand observations or proclamations. Only a wish: to see this country, this world, united one day by compassion and generosity instead of by fear and suspicion.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli: Impressions

The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli isn't my normal reading fare - tragedy, death of a child, cancer - I mean, UGH, how joyless. These subjects have the makings of a book I usually wouldn't even consider reading. But something made me take a second look. Perhaps it was the setting - a California citrus farm - coupled with the fact that I'd meant to read Soli's other novel - The Lotus Eaters - for quite a while. Whatever the case, I'm happy I had the opportunity to read this strange, melancholy tale.

The story opens with the events surrounding the death of Claire's eleven-year-old son, juxtaposed against her birthday party only the day before, during which everything in her family's life seemed to be falling into place, finally. Such contentment never lasting long, the family is shattered after Josh's senseless killing, and Claire's marriage ultimately cannot weather the grief, though they'll always remain connected by the pain they shared:
How to explain that after twenty or more years, a marriage, if it had ever been real, could no longer by sundered by a piece of paper. In two decades--the same time it took to raise a human being--a marriage became its own entity. Life intervened, yes, a decision was made that life together was too painful, but the marriage itself lived on, a kind of radiological half-life. 
We rejoin the family many years later, just as Claire is diagnosed with breast cancer, and her family has moved on, moved away, only Claire remains doggedly attached to the citrus farm. Neither of her daughters is willing to move back to the ranch to care for Claire, nor is Claire willing to leave the ranch. And so a caretaker must be hired. Enter: Minna, a gorgeous, mysterious force from the Caribbean, a spinner of fanciful tales that all seem willfully to believe against their better judgment. After all the family had been through, Claire preferred the comfort of a stranger:
It was impossible to be in [her family's] presence--the undertow of the past was too strong, a constant replaying of some infatuation, some slight. Only with strangers, new acquaintances, could one gage who one was in the present, try on whom one might become.
Minna proves to be both lovable and despicable, showing great warmth and insight mixed with manipulative spitefulness. Only later do we get Minna's backstory, which, though certainly horrific, only partially explains her less noble behaviors and her attachment to the mystery man on other end of her late-night phone calls.

The Forgetting Tree is an imaginative and unique take on the reconstructing of ourselves that must occur after tragedy, belated or not. Claire's blind acceptance of Minna's obvious nonsense could become irritating at times, but irritating the way a parent's insistence on giving his or her child a 173rd chance is irritating. But both Claire and Minna manage to rebuild themselves inside-out as they only could in the presence of an outsider, a compassionate stranger.

*I read this book courtesy of TLC Book Tours (see what others thought) and St. Martin's Press.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson: Impressions

I meant to post this earlier today but work and travel have thwarted my efforts!

THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON by Adam Johnson tells the sweeping tale of Jun Do, an unlikely orphan turned unlikelier heroic figure in North Korea. Jun Do believes his father is the cold, cruel orphan master, hardened from losing his beautiful mother, a singer whisked away to the capital before Jun Do can remember. He endures the pains of the orphanage only to be trained in fighting in pitch darkness, (after suffering through extensive pain endurance training) so that might lead his team in exploration of the tunnels under the DMZ. Fighting through the darkness and enduring pain are exactly the skills one would need to survive life, if you can call it life, in Johnson's rendering of North Korea (i.e. the Democratic People's Republic of Korea).

The key to fighting in the dark was no different: you had to perceive your opponent, sense him, and never use your imagination. The darkness inside your head is something your imagination fills with stories that have nothing to do with the real darkness around you.

Jun Do is requisitioned to kidnap opera singers in Japan, taught English so that he might listen and translate radio transmissions while aboard a fishing boat, fatefully tattooed with the face of a North Korean movie star, made to endure shark bites to make a concocted story believable, and sent to America to aid on a strange diplomatic mission involving a Texan Senator. In America he learns from Dr. Song:

"Where we are from," he said, "stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he'd be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change...But in America, people's stories change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters. Perhaps they will believe your story and perhaps not, but you, Jun Do, they will believe you."

Jun Do is mistaken for an important North Korean figure, which later he uses to his advantage. Just as stories matter more than people, Jun Do falls in love with the story of the actress tattooed on his chest, and becomes a much better version of the man he was mistaken to be.

THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON is a highly engrossing read, though the horrors of life in that mysterious country are hard to stomach. The patriotic messages on the loudspeakers are humorous in their complete juxtaposition of reality, spouting lies to keep their citizens obedient. ("Jun Do understood that in communism, you'd threaten a dog into compliance, while in capitalism, obedience is obtained through bribes.") Johnson's North Korea is vividly imagined, making one wonder how he came to construct such a convincingly awful reality. The story culminates in a satisfying, bittersweetly triumphant conclusion, and is well worth reading sooner rather than later.

*I read this book courtesy of TLC Book Tours, Random House, and my local public library.

Sunday, August 19, 2012


After a long hiatus this summer, I'm hoping the scarcity of posts will be replaced with a wee bit more regularity. The triple digit heat that plagued the midwest, sapping the energy out of me with sumo wrestler insistance, seems to have broken, finally, and I can stay awake to read again, and occasionally even write about what I've read.

We've spent a fair amount of time at the botanical gardens (pictured above) including the Chinese lantern festival.

It was lovely to participate in Rachel's 24 in 48 readathon - though I didn't quite make the 24 hours mark, I did read a book and a half, which is much more than I normally manage to read in a weekend. It's the perfect readathon for readers with lives that just can't be put on hold, as well as readers that cherish their sleep. Hopefully this becomes a regular occurrence.

Coming up in the next weeks, I'll have a couple reviews for TLC Book Tours (The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson and The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli), hopefully some reviews of things I've read this year and never got around to discussing (Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen, Barbara Kinsglover's The Poisonwood Bible, and Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake) and a giveaway of one of my favorite reads this year, A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois.

PS: Oh dear. Just returned from the in-laws with a crazy amount of discarded ARCs from the radio station. What! Danger!

How is everyone else's summer going?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois: Impressions

Let's just start with: I adored this book. It's going on my list of all-time favorites. It was beautifully written, with hilarity and sarcasm etched in to take the sting out of the overall sadness of the characters' situations and the painful, ridiculous decisions made along the way. To be honest, I decided to read A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois because I loved the title and I loved the cover, and the description sounded unique and interesting. I'm obviously glad I did. 

The story is told in chapters which alternate between the perspectives of two main characters: Aleksandr Bezetov, a world champion chess player turned political activist (who must be based in part on Garry Kasparov), and Irina Ellison, a 30-year-old English lecturer with Huntington's disease and a passive interest in chess. I know, I know: sounds fairly dreary, but it's not! More, poignant and sagacious, with artful yet casual wordsmithery and humor tinged with sadness. 

The novel begins with a description of Aleksandr's move to St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) back in 1978 to hone his chess skills, and admittedly, it takes a chapter or so to get pulled into the story, though we get a glimpse of the main theme - and Aleksandr's latent political leanings - right away: 

He didn't care for the billboards and didn't believe in the slogans, but nobody else did, either. He regarded Communism as a kind of collective benign lie, like the universal agreement among human beings to rarely discuss the fact that everybody would one day die.

Here we have the basic themes - Russia's stifled political landscape, the harsher realities of life we pretend to ignore in polite company. And once we meet Irina, with her fatalistic "practicality" dripping with sarcasm and her oh-cut-out-your-whining Harvard Square chess opponent Lars, the story picks right up. Irina admits her faults openly: 

I liked the bitter cold the best; it narrowed the meandering, self-indulgent courses of my mind into a focused dissatisfaction with what was right in front of me. This, I'll be the first to admit, was an improvement. 

Irina's chapters are told in the first person; she is the messier, more relatable character in the book. We get Aleksandr's story in the third person, and he remains somewhat cold, calculating and distant (which makes sense, since he's surrounded and defined by chess, cold Russian winters, and political conspiracies), though eventually shows more humanity by the end of the novel. They are both dealing with their own fallibility, meeting after Irina determines that her father's letter to the chess player, asking him how to fail with dignity, has not been adequately addressed or answered. 

I'm not doing this book justice, but suffice it to say, you should read it, unless dealing with issues of mortality and consequence makes you squeamish. I can't wait to see what duBois comes up with next - it's hard to believe this is her first novel. Also: it's out in paperback next Tuesday, if that puts you over the edge! 

*I read this book courtesy of NetGalley - and my local public library, after my digital ARC expired!

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Forrests by Emily Perkins: Impressions

The Forrests by Emily Perkins is a novel told in a series of gymnastically articulated snapshots, each chapter vividly reflecting a different point in the lives of two sisters, Dorothy and Eve Forrest, who move from New York City to Auckland, New Zealand when they are around 7-8 years old. Though their parents come from money, they have wasted their trust funds, forcing the family to lead stressful and haphazard lives. Dorothy and Eve have two other siblings, Michael and Ruth, that reside on their periphery, but never quite fully engage with the other two.

Admittedly, I had a hard time getting into this book, the first chapter seeming to jump all over in time within a paragraph or two. (I have an obsession with fitting events into a sequentially accurate timeline - I'm fine with jumping around in time, as long as I can place where in time I am.) But by the second chapter or so, the novel began to hit its stride: Perkins' colorful descriptions bringing to life each vignette in a different way. She could precisely capture those moments between childhood and adulthood where everyone else's lives seem shinier than yours:
Eve refused to be the one to bring it up. To ask the question would only make real the ice field between them, the blank that she was left standing in, alone. This was the worst of it - this plunging sense that everyone had got something she had not.
She also manages to capture those bits in which we learn to put on those shiny, everything's-totally-fine appearances (or at least, we believe we're fooling those to whom we're talking):
Flickered with adrenalin, caught out as always at the mention of his name, she told Mike that the last she heard he'd gotten married. Adulthood was like this - your voice calm, your face normal, while inside, turmoil, your heart still seven, or twelve, or fifteen.
Perkins' prose is enchanting, her descriptions uniquely acute. But what the novel gives us in pointed clarity it lacks in depth of field. It's as if in each snapshot, we're given one point of hyperfocus with everything else blurred in the background, darkening at the edges. I never felt I really got a sense of either Dorothy or Eve's separate characters, and their lives seem to be missing a certain fullness that they beg to portray.

Despite a few of its shortcomings, The Forrests pulled me into its glimpses of these women's ordinary but not-so-ordinary lives. Dorothy (and Eve, to an extent) survive but never escape their strange family and upbringing, but manage to find small bits of happiness along the way despite themselves. I'm happy I was given the chance to read the novel, courtesy of Bloomsbury USA, NetGalley, and TLC Book Tours. Check out what other reviewers had to say about the novel here.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

24 in 48 Readathon!

24 in 48 is hosted by Rachel at A Home Between the Pages. Rachel had a lovely idea for what I randomly hashtagged as #readerswithlives: a 24 hour readathon over an entire weekend! (Hence #24in48!) Basically, it's the perfect readathon for those of us who like sleep and also have lives that refuse to be ignored for 24 hours straight no matter how great the book is.

Rachel is starting with Ender's Game, which is a fantastic readathon book, though I haven't read it in years. I have to finish The Forrests by Emily Perkins for a review set to go up on Monday for TLC Book Tours, so this is the perfect weekend for such a readathon. I'm not sure what's on the docket straightaway after that, if/when I finish in time to start another book, but I have 100s of options!

Fortunately for me and my reading time, the coconspirator is working all day long, so he won't be sad that I'm ignoring him in favor of a book.  Unfortunately, I'm on call for 2 long shifts for my volunteer life as well this weekend, so I'm hoping everyone behaves themselves & no trips to ERs are necessary. Also, that will allow for more reading time. But: If I disappear, that's likely where I've disappeared to, unless I've gotten lost in a book.

Either way, check back here (or better yet on twitter) for updates on progress! (I'll most likely just update this particular post.)

Update: finish

Total pages read: 425ish
Total books read: 1.5
Total book reviews written: 1

Though I didn't manage to read for 24 hours (it was just way too nice out), I did manage to read a lot more than I normally do! All in all, great readathon!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon: Impressions

Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon has been compared to Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones Diary and it's easy to see why. Of my own small reading repertoire, I'd say it's a cross between Bridget Jones and Domestic Violets, a story about a middle-aged copywriter wannabe writer going through an early mid-life crisis.

Wife 22 is a modern-day story of middle-age, fraught with family and marital tensions, told in humorous and insightful anecdotes varying in structure from traditional prose and dialogue to mini-plays to google searches to email correspondence to facebook status updates and chats. Alice is 44 with a cranky, self-righteous teenage daughter and near-teen son she suspects is gay, married for 20 years to distant William. She teaches drama part-time at a local elementary school; William is a creative director at an ad agency. There worlds no longer seem to overlap much at all, and unhappy Alice signs up for a study of 21st century marriage that she finds in her spam folder, which assigns her the code name wife22. Researcher 101 is her contact, and he feeds her a few questions a week from the survey. 

Alice finds that the anonymity of the survey lends itself to greater honesty, and she relates intimate details of her life with a humor, frankness, and attention to detail that has been missing in her present. She feels guilty for keeping her marriage survey participation from her husband, and, after her communications with Researcher 101 start to go beyond harmless flirtation, eventually confesses to 2 of her closest friends, who both tell her to cut if off before she does something rash. 

The novel is full of exchanges like: 

"Can we tell people?" asks Peter.
"What people?" I say.
"Zoe's not people. She's family," I say.
"No, she's people. We lost her to the people some time ago," says William.

as well as witty advice such as: 

"Humiliation is a choice. Don't choose it."

Though I found the format a little trying and gimmicky at first, it ultimately worked for me as Alice grew on me. Is Alice imperfect? Of course. Selfish? Definitely - but aren't we all? Trying to figure out how to navigate life with all the gadgetry and online-connectedness we're supposed to be experiencing? Absolutely. But Alice is a very relatable character, even if she makes much different choices than I might make (or think I might make - she has higher meanness tolerance levels than I do). She's goofy and funny and frazzled but not to the point of ridiculousness (like the Bridget Jones in the movie version). She survives her crisis and manages to circle back to herself - the end is satisfying in it's slightly unpredictable obviousness (even if one could see it coming halfway through the book... it's the how that's fun). 

One thing to note, as I was reading the ebook version: The questions to the survey are in the appendix at the end. While reading, it just seemed that the reader was supposed to guess the question, which often was possible, but sometimes annoying. I'm not sure if knowing about the questions would have enhanced or detracted from my reading experience, but there is.

Either way, reading Wife 22 was a pure delight and I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a light summer read with a little bit of depth to it.

*I received this book compliments of Ballantine Books via NetGalley.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Earthquake Machine by Mary Pauline Lowry: Impressions

I had high hopes for The Earthquake Machine. The author has led what seemed an unconventionally interesting life, and the premise of a young girl adventure, a girl learning independence and resourcefulness - in a book for young adults not shying away from topics of violence, sexuality, and spirituality - sounded incredibly promising. 

Unfortunately, this novel fell dreadfully short of such expectations. The story was disjointed, confusing, and contrived to the point of unbelievability - and wholly inappropriate for the young adult age category of 12 and up. Well, I will say that with a grain of salt. It's slightly more explicit than what I remember of VC Andrews novels, and I may have read those when I was 13 or 14. But you don't find those on YA shelves at the bookstores. (For the record, Flowers in the Attic is a very deceptive title. I think I thought I was reading Flowers for Algernon or something classic. I was not.)

I am obligated to warn that this review will be replete with spoilers, as it is the only way I can offer the problems I had with story and the subject matter's presentation. Since I definitely do not recommend reading this book, I do recommend reading this synopsis, if you would like to know exactly why you shouldn't read it. This is going to be long. But I must share my pain.
  • To start, the book treats bipolarism as if it should not be treated with drugs. The first chapter sets us up: Rhonda's home life is boring and torturous - her pharmacist dad is drugging up her "crazy" mother - who it is implied is bipolar - without a proper doctor's prescription, which, yes, is bad, but we are offered no explanation as to why she wouldn't just see an actual psychiatrist. The drugs "flatten" her mother; Rhonda is convinced her mother would be much better without them, in her natural crazy state, it is assumed. This theme of not treating bipolarism is alluded to throughout the book. 
  • Within the first 5 pages, Rhonda is masturbating in the bath, with her head underwater, assumedly having discovered autoerotic asphyxiation at the ripe old age of 14 ("the dizziness from not breathing made the colors brighter"). This is Rhonda who still maintains a boyish figure, and has not developed at all yet, nor started her period. But apparently she has been compelled to figure out the complicated female orgasm before her hormones have even kicked in, along with breath play. Oh, and her mother walks in on her and thinks she's drowning and flips out. Enter: shame, and self-blame for what follows. Really? 
  • Rhonda has one real friend named Jesús, the family's gardener, who is an undocumented worker from Mexico. She has learned fluent Spanish - so fluent that she sounds "just like a Mexican" - simply by listening to him. After Rhonda's mom goes off the deep end, spurred by Rhonda's sexually precocious autoerotic asphyxiation episode, Jesús paints the bottoms of all the trees white. (These events are unrelated.) The neighbors get upset and retaliate by having him deported. And he is sent back to Mexico. Immediately. Because it's that fast and easy. He goes back to living with his mom. Being deported is that inconsequential. 
  • Rhonda overhears her quietly evil father get a gun out of the closet, load it, and lay it on the desk, telling her mother to "do the right thing." Her mother then blows her head off. Rhonda gives us a lovely (read: unnecessarily graphic) description of the inside of her mother's head, as well as the brain matter on the wall. (We are still in the first chapter.) Neither she nor her father have much of an emotional reaction to this incident. 
  • Next Rhonda is set to go on a father/daughter float trip in Big Bend National Park with two of her girlfriends from school. Her father predictably bails at the last second to hang out with his pharmacist mistress. Rhonda goes along anyway. While everyone is asleep, Rhonda approaches the guide with silver in his hair, motions for him to open his knees, and cuddles in between his legs with her back to him. Because that's completely natural. (No, seriously. This is presented as totally normal, acceptable behavior on 14-year-old Rhonda's part, Rhonda who has been described as quiet, thoughtful and bookish.) Then, of course, the dude can't help but feel her... down her pants, and she immediately has "the Feeling." She runs back to her tent. There is much inner talk of her wanting to stab him in the eye with her knife, or hoping he will have sex with her. 
    • Now, I was lucky enough to have not been molested as a child, so I cannot speak to the normalcy of these feelings and do not pretend that I can. However, the book seems completely uncommitted to whether this was molestation or just a normal, totally okay sexual encounter for a 14-year-old to have with some dude that's three times her age. Maybe mid 30s and prematurely greying. But still. Wholly inappropriate, though not made to be so in the book. 
  • The next day she decides she is suicidal and so falls off the raft to try to drown herself in the Rio Grande. (In Texas. In Big Bend. Is it ever deep enough for that to happen there? I didn't think so, but I'm no expert.) Mansk the molester morphs into savior, jumps in the water and rescues her. That night at camp Rhonda waits for everyone to go to sleep, and approaches the molester to solicit him for sex (" 'I want you to do it to me.' "). He laughs at her and says no way, that she's nuts. Rhonda is crushed and violently enraged by this rejection. More talk of stabbing him in the eye and other violence. Instead, she decides to run away to Mexico in the middle of the night to find Jesús, her only friend, who lives in Oaxaca (that's way south in Mexico, btw - and pronounced Wahackah - just fyi). 
  • So she steals some money from one of the dads, who is also less than a stellar human being, surprise surprise, packs some food and clothes in her bag, walks down the river a little way, decides she should strip naked and pack her clothes in her bag too, to prevent them from getting wet, the Rio Grande being so very deep, floats down the deep river with a current, (is my dubiousness coming through loud and clear?) (in)conveniently has to let go of her pack with the clothes because she doesn't have enough energy to swim to the other side after floating for so long downstream (don't worry; she's conveniently tucked the money into her hair) and has to emerge from the river stark naked (REBIRTH!!), with just her sandals (those she left on, it being so easy to swim with shoes) , IN THE MEXICAN DESERT. She then... survives! She doesn't even get thirsty, she survives so fast. Conveniently, she finds some guy sleeping with a pack of burrows, hops on one, and within half an hour she's found a border town! How lucky! And no one molests or kills or even looks with unsavory eyes at the naked gringa. Totally believable, right? 
So I think I'm just through chapter 2 by now. You can read the rest, after all, if you stop here! But I wouldn't recommend it. It doesn't get any better, and just gets more contrived and farfetched after that. Since you're probably not going to read, the highlights: After dressing as a boy, renaming herself Angel, tripping on peyote, taking a bus in the wrong direction than getting out in the middle of the night in the middle of a jungle, starving herself to keep her boyish figure, escaping a bandit-boy circle jerk in the jungle, tricking a smarmy artist dude and his carpenter wife (how offensive, the Mexicans think, a woman wants to be a carpenter?) into driving her to Mexico city, getting abducted by female banditas dressed as men (they weren't taken seriously as bandits dressed as women), having the smarmy  dude's pin word come to her from the Virgin Mary (SLIT), bailing one of the banditas out of jail, and taking a taxi to the town where Jesús lives, she finds Jesús and starts living with him and his mom. 

But he won't teach her how to carve alibrijes, as he'd promised, on the other side (of the river/border): men carve; women paint. That's only, it turns out, because his mom is old and not so good with the painting anymore. So Rhonda learns to cook and paint, befriends an elderly American woman in the neighborhood, reads a book about an old fashioned vibrator - great for curing hysteria, finds an old-fashioned vibrator ("the earthquake machine" - yup, this young adult novel is named after a vibrator), has "the Feeling" and feels less hysterical  (because, you know, nothing cures an overly depressed or emotional woman/girl like a good lay... or orgasm... and this is definitely a message we want to give to young, impressionable girls), shares it with the neighbor elderly lady and watches her use it (um, what?), then travels with Jesús and his mama to Mexico City to sell their alibrijes. There, Jesús and the mom are crushed in the hotel after a massive earthquake, forcing Rhonda to return to Texas. Rhonda is devastated and angry and wants to grind away  her pain. No really. With her hips. Because she's still totally and completely obsessed with sex and The Feeling. 

On the way back home, she easily finds Mansk the molester, determined to stab him, or something vicious, but instead they have some violent, bloody but totally consensual sex (she's 15 now, so, very mature and in control), and then part ways. She bribes her dad into supporting her and her education while going to live with her fun-loving godmother. The end. 

I've spent way too much time summarizing, but I didn't know how to explain my criticism otherwise, and I haven't even begun to explain how put off I was by this book. The feminist message is so weird and skewed and misguided and unabashedly in your face that it's completely lost in the preposterous ridiculousness of the story. I can see what the author was trying to accomplish; but the novel utterly fails on that point, especially with the violence with which sex is presented. I strongly believe girls can have non-harlequin, non-crazy-violent adventures that actually explore maturing and independence in a healthy way. This is just not that story. 

I am not the last word - most reviews I found out there were gushing and raving about how fantastic this book is, or at worst lukewarm on the subject. Goodreads, normally a good  like-ability barometer for me, averages the ratings at a 3.8. I am the sole 1 star, and I rarely rate books 1 star. Lowry herself seems like a really interesting and lovely lady; I just did not enjoy her book, nor do I think it's remotely appropriate for younger audiences. She kindly provided the book to me in exchange for my honest review. I hope I wasn't too harsh. 

Some disclaimers about myself to help you decide whether or not my opinion or where I'm coming from might jive with your own tastes: 
  1. I was raised Catholic, and attended Catholic school from kindergarden to 8th grade.
  2. I am no longer Catholic; have not been since I was a teenager. 
  3. I do volunteer work with victims of sexual violence on a regular basis. 
These factors may come into play more for myself than others when judging the violent nature of sexuality's portrayal in the book.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Q & A with Slant of Light Author Steve Wiegenstein + Giveaway!

I recently read Slant of Light by Steve Wiegenstein (review here - it was a great read) as a part of TLC Book Tours (see what others had to say about the novel here), and the author was gracious enough to answer a few questions about the book and his own reading habits and influences! Be sure to enter below for a chance to win a copy of the book (US & Canadian residents only).

1. How did you originally become interested in the utopian communities that were attempted back in the 1800s? It looks like there's quite a history there. Is Daybreak based on any community in particular?
Years ago, I was teaching "The Communist Manifesto" as part of a Great Books sequence in a class, and I noticed a disparaging reference in it to "Icaria." Curious about that reference, I looked up the term and discovered that a colony of pre-Marxian communists had existed in the American Midwest from 1848 to 1898. I was fascinated! And that's how historical research goes....you pull one little thread, and the next thing you know you've spent thirty years reading original documents and tracking down obscure sources. I based Daybreak on the Icarians in a general sense--a charismatic leader, a lot of internal dissent, a Midwestern setting. The original Icarians were mostly French, though, so I recast them as Americans to heighten my specifically American themes of Transcendentalism vs. realism, optimism vs. fatalism, and opposing views of nature. Emile and Marie Mercadier are disillusioned former members of the Icarian settlement, though. 

2. I understand that you grew up in the general area where the story is set. How did you choose that particular stretch of land for the Daybreak settlement?
When I was very small, my dad, who was a tractor mechanic, took me along on a repair trip to a farm on the St. Francis River in southwestern Madison County, Missouri. While he worked on the machinery, I fooled around in the fields, and the farmer showed us through some old saltpeter caves that had been worked there since the early 1800s. That combination--a rich valley, a steep mountain behind it, and some deep mysteries in the landscape--stuck with me, and for some reason it has stuck with me ever since.

3. In which of the characters do you see the most of yourself?
Oh my! I think I'm in all of them, a little bit. I'm optimistic to the point of foolishness, a little like Turner; I have a rather grinding sense of moral obligation, something like Adam; and I'd have to say, I have Charlotte's dogged persistence. But maybe John Wesley Wickman is my nearest stand-in.

4. Do you think self-sustaining, egalitarian communities such as Daybreak could ever have worked back then? In today's society? Why/why not?
Interestingly enough, they did, and still do. There's a commune north of where I live now that's been there for 25 years or more, and there are others across the country that have been in existence for just as long or more. I think the trick is to keep the size manageable and the principles simple. When you read the history of the utopias of the 19th Century, a lot of them had such eccentric ideas for daily life that it isn't hard to predict their demise in hindsight. The ones that have lasted tend to have a religious basis, like the Amish and the Hutterites. 

5. What was the inspiration for making Charlotte such a strong character? Did you always intend to portray her as a feminist and a leader?
Charlotte just kept growing and growing on me. The more I wrote, the more I loved writing about her, and she gradually took over the narrative. I have been fortunate to have had powerful, positive women in my life, and I guess Charlotte grew out of that experience. I always intended for her to be a strong counterbalance to Turner's impulsive charm, but her character developed way beyond that. 

6. If you could travel through time, where and when would you go?
Oh, the future! Like I said, I'm an optimist. Not too far ahead, because I'd like to be able to recognize things--say, ten or fifteen years. And I'd be right here.

7. Who are your favorite authors? Which do you think has most influenced your writing?
The great American Romantics are the ones I return to read again and again--Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville. But in terms of influence, I think later American writers have a stronger pull on my style. Fitzgerald is one, John Williams (author of Butcher's Crossing, Augustus, and Stoner) is another. Both classical stylists who avoided too much ornamentation but could pull out a beautiful figure of speech when the moment was right.

8. What are you reading right now?
One of the joys of being published by Blank Slate Press is that I get to be on the reader's panel for the next batch of books they are considering. So I've been looking over manuscripts that the Blank Slate people have identified as finalists. That's great fun! I'm also working on the sequel to Slant of Light, so have been upgrading my knowledge of Missouri after the Civil War--David Benac's Conflict in the Ozarks is an academic history of the logging boom that occurred in the late 19th Century, so it will come into play in the third book. There's also Missouri's War: The Civil War in Documents, which is a great resource for language and insights of the time.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Alias Grace: Final Thoughts

**First, to be fair: Spoilers are fair game today, so if you have not read the book and have any intention of doing so in the near future, you may want to stop reading now, just to be safe.**

As most of you know, this is my second time around with Alias Grace, and I've been surprised at how much I had forgotten in the 8 years since I've read it, as well as how much I must have missed the first time around. For example, I completely forgot that she meets up with and marries Mr. Walsh in the end and that Jerome DuPont was actually Jeremiah. I only vaguely remembered the indication that Grace had a split personality, but then remembered that even then I wondered if Mary Whitney had ever existed at all or if she was just a figment of Grace's imagination - perhaps she saw the headstone in the cemetery one day and all developed from there.

The quilt motif does not disappoint, either. All the sections are cleverly named for quilt patterns, names that reflect the contents of the section. Broken Dishes lays out Grace's early family history; Secret Drawer describes her happy times with Mary Whitney; Snake Fence depicts her dealings with two-faced Nancy and the general foreboding lurking around Kinnear's house. It also wraps up the novel nicely at the end, with pieces of the three women's dresses stitched into Grace's own modified Tree of Paradise - as I suppose we all have to modify our ideas of contentment as life normally fails to live up to - or at least fails to match - our childhood hopes and aspirations.

Simon, of course, turns out to be the foppish philanderer I thought him, though I believe his affection for Grace was genuine, although not strong enough ever to bother explaining his sudden disappearance. And, at least he uses his medical training to help out in the war, having a few noble streaks left in him, and not being all bad, just weak in certain bits of his character. His judgment of MacKenzie was humorous, though I thought the lawyer summed up our wonderment as to Grace's reliability as a narrator quite neatly:
"Lying," says MacKenzie. "A severe term, surely. Has she been lying to you, you ask? Let me put it this way - did Scheherazade lie? Not in her own eyes; indeed, the stories she told ought never to be subjected to the harsh categories of Truth and Falsehood. They belong in another realm altogether. Perhaps Grace Marks has merely been telling you what she needs to tell, in order to accomplish the desired end."
And, though there are many instances when Grace admits to holding back certain facts while relating her story to Simon or others, so as not to offend, or to be misunderstood, she always seems to be letting the reader know that she's doing so. I always found her to be telling the story that she herself believed, as none of us remember every detail exactly as it happened but only what we can recall through the passing of time and viewed through our own limited perceptions. She knows her place, and her predicament, and does as much as she can to make her situation as bearable as possible. As she herself muses:
When you are in the middle of a story it isn't a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.
Did anyone else notice that Grace's grammar suffered when we heard her story through Simon, rather than from her own mind (Chapter 35)? I found that rather interesting. Does she hear herself as better spoken because that's how she perceives herself, or does Simon hear her as less educated because that's how his perceptions color her story? The play on perception in the novel is fascinatingly well-done, from the filling in the gaps in the famous story to the views and opinions of each of the characters - and they all have strong opinions of Grace's innocence or guilt, of her fragility or cunning.

I have to wonder if Jamie Walsh was a figure in the original history, or if he has been added - the afterward in the back of the novel does not mention him. I do like that Atwood gave Grace a happy ending - did others? I felt it was a believable end to a mostly depressing tale. I also found myself constantly hoping events would turn out differently, that Grace would go away with Jeremiah, or not take the position at Mr. Kinnear's, or run away from McDermott when she had that chance.

Alias Grace held up for me on a second read, and I found it very enjoyable to read with others - I hope Brenna and Beth - and Jennifer - and others enjoyed the read as well.

Be sure to check out everyone else's thoughts:
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