Friday, May 22, 2015

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men is a novella about two itinerant ranch hands working in California during the Depression. The events of the story take place over a few days on a ranch where the two friends have found work, having been forced to flee from their previous job because Lennie, a large man with limited mental capacity, let his penchant for stroking soft things lead him into trouble. His friend and caretaker, George, spends the night before they arrive at the new place coaching Lennie on the importance of staying out of trouble--and the steps to follow if he gets in trouble.

The two hope that they will be able to stay at the new place long enough to get the money together to buy their own place, where they can be indepenent and Lennie can care for the rabbits he loves. When George talks about the little ranch they will buy, the two enter a nearly trancelike state.

At the new job, Lennie and George encounter some interesting characters--Slim, the unofficial leader of the ranch hands; Crooks, the black stable-hand, both integrated with and isolated from the other men; Candy, an older worker with only one hand, who soon joins Lennie and George's dream of being landowners; Curley, the boss's aggressive son; and Curley's flirtatious wife. A sense of foreboding permeates the novel and, when George relaxes his supervision of Lennie, that foreboding is soon proved justified. The novella ends with a final tragic act of friendship.

Steinbeck creates well-developed characters (with the exception of Curley's wife, female characters not being Steinbeck's strong suit) and a strong sense of time and place in a very limited number of pages. Furthermore, he explores significant themes--the power of a dream, the futility of the American Dream for the poor, the beauty of friendship. While I have heard people criticize the book for its violence and raw language, both are intrinsic to the story.

Certainly worthy of the classic designation.

Favorite passages:
“Ain’t many guys travel around together,” he mused. “I don’t know why. Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other."

At about 10 o'clock in the morning the sun threw a bright dust-laden bar through one of the side windows and in and out of the beam flies shot like rushing stars.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son's First Son, by Anne LaMott, with Sam LaMott

Sometimes when everyone likes an author or a book and you don't, it doesn't bother you at all because you are confident in your judgment. Almost everyone in my book group loved The Art of Racing in the Rain, for example--I despised it and had no desire to give the author or book another try. But Anne LaMott has always been a different problem. I've read several of her books and not been wowed by them, but have enjoyed some of her humor and her ability to capture abstract ideas in felicitous phrases. And so many people that I respect love her and find her work uplifting/inspiring that I keep giving her another chance.

With Some Assembly Required, I may have finally crossed over to the point where I will never read another LaMott book, no matter how many of my friends admire her! The book is LaMott's journal of the first year in her grandson's life; interspersed throughout are thoughts from her son, who became a father at 19 (and whose reflections are about what you'd expect from a 19-year-old trying to be very serious). LaMott seems not to have a good sense of the boundaries grandparents should respect (IMHO); of course, her son and his partner open themselves up to her intrusions by accepting her financial support. Somehow her usual openness about her weaknesses, which she generally presents as humorous and endearing, becomes totally and whiningly unappealing. Just one example: She's devastated because the child's Catholic mother might want him to be baptized in her own church? Get a grip, woman!  The book isn't funny or inspiring and, at last, I feel able to liberate myself from Anne LaMott.

Favorite passage:
We aren't a drop in the ocean, but are the ocean, in drops.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Flight of Gemma Hardy, by Margot Livesey

I've enjoyed Margot Livesey's commentary in some of the Thalia Book Club discussions I've listened to, but I had never read any of her work. So I decided to give The Flight of Gemma Hardy a try, not realizing that it was a reimagining of Jane Eyre, set in Scotland and Iceland in the 1950s and 1960s.

Gemma, like Jane, has been through difficult times. Her parents died and she had to leave Iceland as a  young child to live with her uncle in Scotland. Then her uncle dies and her hideous aunt sends her away to a boarding school, where she is a "working girl"--she attends class, but she also has to do various housekeeping chores. She is bullied and her one friend dies. Then, just before she takes the exams she must complete to attend university, the school closes and she must find a job.

She gets a job as a nanny in a remote location in the Orkney Islands. Here, the Jane Eyre comparisons become very obvious, as she and the lord of the manor (her charge's uncle, who is 40 to her 18) fall in love. Then she learns something upsetting about her fiance and she runs away. After some terrible experiences, she lands another job among people who are very kind to her. But, evidently, she can't deal with good times, as she ends up hurting her new friends and takes off to see if she has any relatives still alive in Iceland. Happier times ensue.

I found this book unbelievable and unrewarding. First, the love story makes no sense. Second, Gemma is supposed to be a bright girl but continually makes dumb decisions--including many decisions that hurt other people despite her alleged sensitivity. In fact, the more I think about her, the more irritating she becomes. Furthermore, I couldn't see that the book made any larger point, though I suspect it was supposed to be something about running away from emotions of all kinds. The author has said that reading Jane Eyre was transformative for her, so perhaps those who love Bronte's book will find The Flight of Gemma Hardy more meaningful than I did (to be honest, I barely remember Jane Eyre).  Although Livesey's writing is sometimes quite lovely, it's not enough to convince me to recommend this book.

Favorite passage:
No one within 50 miles knew my name, or my whereabouts. I too could disappear, blown away like the dry leaves I saw skimming down the tracks.

Monday, May 11, 2015

If This Isn't Nice, What Is? by Kurt Vonnegut

This slim volume includes nine speeches, most college commencement addresses,  given by the writer Kurt Vonnegut. The speeches are often quite funny and, while despairing of much about humans--from believing that computers and television do anything to advance culture to the lack of puberty rituals in so-called developed cultures--are also at heart optimistic. After all, the book is titled in a nod to Vonnegut's uncle who was known, in the midst of a family gathering or other mundane activity, to  stop, look around, and say "If this isn't nice, what is?" Vonnegut recommends the practice to the graduates hearing his speeches--and I believe he may be on to something. The speeches aren't earthshaking in their insights, but they are a pleasant read, especially while on a bus riding from Rockford, IL, to Midway Airport.

Favorite passages:

Don’t give up on books. They feel so good—their friendly heft. The sweet reluctance of their pages when you turn them with your sensitive fingertips. A large part of our brains is devoted to deciding what our hands are touching, is good or bad for us. Any brain worth a nickel knows books are good for us.

In time, this will prove to have been the destiny of most, but not all of you. You will find yourselves building or strengthening your communities. Please love that destiny, if it turns out to be yours--for communities are all that's substantial about the world. All the rest is hoop-la.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Preparation for the Next Life, by Atticus Lish

Zou Lei and Brad Skinner have found their way to New York City independently. She is a Uyghur woman (a minority group in northern China), an unauthorized immigrant who is living at the fringes of society. He is a recently demobilized serviceman, who though seriously injured and suffering from PTSD, learns he has not been awarded disability.  The two meet on the street and begin a relationship, which at first gives them hope but the unremitting challenges they face soon overwhelm Skinner particularly, while Zou Lei struggles on, trying to draw him out of his depression while eking out a living working at Chinese noodle carts and restaurants.

Then Jimmy, the felonious son of Skinner's landlady, enters the picture. He enter Skinner's room when Skinner is out, stealing small objects and displacing items around the room; he watches Skinner and Zou Lei while they are in bed together; he threatens Zou Lei when she comes to the door looking for her boyfriend. The mix is volatile, and Lish builds a sense of foreboding that is not misplaced.

Preparation for the Next Life got a rave review in The New York Times, which praised Atticus Lish for his superb job portraying "life at the margins" and for its "encrusted detail."  The praise is well-earned, but I don't know that I would recommend the book to very many people. It is so unrelentingly dark (and I can tolerate a pretty high level of darkness) and the male characters so clearly destined for violent confrontation that I started to dread returning to the book. Zou Lei is a compelling character and I enjoyed the parts of the book abouther, but Skinner and Jimmy were so sociopathic that they were difficult to read about.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Other Wes Moore, by Wes Moore

On the day that an announcement of the author's becoming a Rhodes Scholar appeared in his home-town newspaper, another item announced that a man of the same name had been sentence to life in prison for his part in a robbery/murder. The author found himself nearly obsessed with how two people with the same name, from the same town, of the same age, and with similar backgrounds could have had such radically different outcomes. Eventually, he met the imprisoned Wes Moore and began researching his story. The book recounts the two men's childhoods, adolescence, and young adulthood (the author is quite an accomplished person).

I can understand why the author found this question so intriguing, but the conclusion that, with different breaks, either of the men could have gone the other direction, does not seem all that helpful or insightful.  (And I am loath to think that military school, which is where the author ended up for an extended time, is the solution for the problems of young men who get into some trouble at traditional school.) Overall, I found the book well-intentioned but disappointing.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Flight, by Sherman Alexie

Flight is somewhere between a novel and novella. It is narrated by a teenage boy known as Zits (for the obvious reason). Zits is a foster child whose white mother died when he was six and Native American father abandoned him even earlier. Zits has all the issues you would expect in someone with that profile. When he ends up in a cell with the "United Nations of juvenile delinquents," he falls under the influence of a violent white teen called Justice. When the two get out of detention, they live together in a Seattle squat, learning how to fire guns, engaging in philosophical and political conversation, and venting their anger toward all those who have victimized them. Soon, Zits finds himself in a bank with two guns in his pockets, ready to kill as many people as he can.

The book then takes a turn for the surreal, as Zits is suddenly time traveling--first he is in the body of an FBI agent in the 1970s, part of a plot to assassinate Indian activists. From there, he finds himself a mute Native American boy in the encampment of warriors preparing to take on Custer and his men. In rapid succession, he becomes an Indian tracker in the mid-18th century, a flight instructor who taught a terrorist to fly, and Zits' own derelict father. When he reenters his own body, he finds himself staring at a small boy in the bank. Having seen violence in a variety of repulsive forms in this-traveling, he leaves the bank and turns himself into Officer Dave, who has shown interest in him in the past. Dave sees that Zits gets therapy and then arranges for him to live with Dave's brother and his wife. In this nurturing environment, Zits reveals his real name--Michael--and begins to hope that he has found a family.

Sherman Alexie has a gift for developing male characters, and Zits is no exception. Flight is thin on plot, but I was somewhat intrigued by its look at why the male adolescent might see violence as a solution when he feels betrayed and abandoned by every societal institution and how that view might be altered by a visceral experience with the effects of violence in different forms. The ending feels a bit too pat, though it's certainly comforting to think that solutions for young people like Zits are that easily achieved.  This is definitely not my favorite Sherman Alexie work, but not without some rewards.

Favorite quotes:
What kind of life can you have in a house without books?