Friday, August 26, 2011

Tallgrass, by Sandra Dallas

Tallgrass is narrated by adolescent Rennie Stroud, who finds herself the only child left at home on her family's southeastern Colorado sugar beet farm. Her brother Buddy has enlisted to fight in World War II, and her sister has moved to Denver to work in the defense industry. Meanwhile, Japanese Americans are being brought to live at the Tallgrass internment camp (a fictionalized version of the Amache camp) just down the road from the Stroud farm.

The community of Ellis, Colorado, does not show its best side as the Japanese Americans arrive. Many businesses put up signs saying they will not serve Japanese, people harass the new residents as they get off the train, and a trio of loathsome lay-abouts go farther than mere harassment. The situation gets even worse when one of Rennie's friends is raped and murder, with many in the community suspecting someone from Tallgrass must be responsible.

In contrast to many others in the community, Rennie's father chooses to treat the Japanese Americans as he would any other neighbors. While Rennie and her mother experience some conflict about the family's relationship with the camp, they eventually come around. The family dynamic is one of the book's strongest points.

Tallgrass is a well-intentioned book--Dallas wrote it out of concern that (1) people did not know enough about this chapter in U.S. history and (2) events at Guantanamo Bay forced her to consider that we might be repeating past mistakes. Unfortunately, it is not very effective as a novel--the characters are too clearly "good" or "evil," and the plot is predictable. The novel begins "The summer I was thirteen, the Japanese came to Ellis," suggesting that events are being remembered by Rennie as an adult--but that retrospective view is not used to any advantage. In fact, we are reminded of it so sparingly that when we read a sentence like "Some would live there for three years, until V-J day," it seems out of place.

There are much better books--fiction and nonfiction--about the internment (When the Emperor Was Divine and A Fence Away from Freedom to name just two). I would recommend reading them and skipping Tallgrass.

Favorite passage:
When I was little, I'd told Mom that if there were a fire, I wasn't sure whether Granny would save me or the quilts. Mom had warned me to be careful with matches.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Mystery Binge Continues

I've been continuing my mystery binge, but I thought I had nothing to say about the recent titles until I realized today that the last three books I've read had something odd in common. All feature mystery-solving women who are not police officers, private investigators, lawyers, or pathologists but are married to lawmen. Jan Burke's Irene Kelly (Disturbance) is a reporter; her husband is a police detective. Earlene Fowler's Benni Ortiz (Spider Web) is a museum curator; her husband is the chief of police. Susan Wittig Albert's China Bayles (Mourning Gloria) owns an herb store (although she is a retired lawyer); her husband is a PI and college professor teaching criminal justice. All of the women do things that might be described as, well, stupid, putting themselves in danger before solving the crime at hand (although in this particular title in Fowler's series, Benni is more concerned with a personal mystery than the sniper case plaguing her husband's department--but she unwittingly solves the case anyway).

I can see why a mystery author gives her protagonist a career that is not traditional for sleuths (although I guess an argument could be made for a journalist being a crime-solver)--making China the owner of an herb store, for example, allows Albert to share a lot of information about herbs, in which she is clearly very interested. But why do they give their characters husbands in law enforcement? Is it just to provide a source of conflict? Or is there a more insidious underlying message--an untrained woman is a better crime-solver than a top-notch male investigator? Or are they trying to write an updated "damsel-in-distress" tale? I'm looking for answers!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Bright Before Us, by Katie ARnold-Ratliff

I was surprised to find that Bright Before Us is something of a mirror image of To Be Sung Underwater, which I wrote about in my last entry. Bright Before Us is written by a woman, from the viewpoint of a male protagonist, a man who is caught between his present life as a teacher and husband and his memories of an earlier love. Hmmm.

There are some significant differences, however. Francis Mason is only 23, and he was married to the past love he's pining for only a year or so before the events described in the book. And Francis's issues make Judith Whitman seem like a model of mental health.

As the book opens, Francis, two parent chaperones, and his second-graders are doing a field study at the beach on a Friday afternoon. Then some of the students stumble on a body, and Francis completely loses his composure, screaming and sobbing as the children watch in horror. When Francis gets home that night, he lies to his wife Greta, telling her that the students saw the woman jump from the Golden Gate Bridge; the next day, he tells her the woman was his former girlfriend (Greta doesn't know they were married), Nora. He medicates himself and sleeps through Sunday; Monday, he returns to school, still over-medicated and clearly not long for the classroom--though he manages to do some further damage to the children in his care before he takes his leave.

As Francis drives his present life into the ditch, we also read his recollections of his relationship with Nora, which he managed to destroy just hours after they married. While his childhood was clearly difficult and shaped his adult persona, it's difficult to have sympathy for Francis, who makes bad decision followed by bad decision, often fueled by alcohol or medication. Though on the book's last page Francis claims, "I will change," it's difficult to believe his destructive personality and inability to maintain a relationship will truly change. In fact, one feels dread for his unborn child, who seems almost assured of become yet another generation damaged by his parents.

Arnold-Ratliff writes beautifully. Perhaps I enjoyed To Be Sung Underwater more because the main character was more relatable to me (female, not fresh out of college). Perhaps had Francis been less callow, he would have evoked more (well, any) sympathy from me. I'd be interested to hear if this book resonates more with readers not eligible for AARP membership. Still, I'll definitely read Arnold-Ratliff's next book to see how she follows this debut novel.

Favorite passages:
I secured a job in the struggling district with unsettling ease, and began looking for holes in the prescribed curriculum that I could fill with art, the People's History, the teaching of tolerance. At home, I practiced finger painting, free-association writing, explosive science experiments, a segment on cooking. I swore I would take my students outside no matter the season; we would do a unit on international sports, like jai alai and cricket. I would teach them the silly camp songs of my young--Fish and chips and vinegar, vinegar, vinegar. I stood in front of the medicine cabinet mirror and practiced my enthusiastic lectures, my voice low so Greta wouldn't hear me from the bedroom. I perfected faces to use when they spoke, so they would know that I was really, truly listening to them.

The story for me to know is the one I made, crafted from the raw materials of failure. I pulled at the tethers of my life, resisting them like a child. I built that story with every word I used to wound, every lie I erected.

Friday, August 12, 2011

To Be Sung Underwater, by Tom McNeal

Your first love can have a strong hold on your imagination. And when things go badly in "real life," that first love can start to exert a pull that becomes irresistible. That is the situation in which Judith Whitman finds herself. As a teenager in Nebraska, living with her father after her parents have separated, she fell in love with local boy Willy Blunt in the summer after her senior year in high school. Willy was funny and passionate and introduced Judith to the pleasures of the Midwestern landscape and making love. She even agreed to marry him...but then she went off to Stanford and began to enjoy a different life. Soon enough, she's marrying preppy Malcolm.

Now it's 25 years later. Judith has had a successful job as a film editor, though things are not going particularly well with her current job. She suspects her banker husband is having an affair with his assistant. And she admits that she's never felt as close to her only daughter, Camille, as she thinks she should; now that Camille is a teenager, their relationship is even more troubled. Rather than engaging with these problems, Judith instead starts to think obsessively about Willy. She moves her old bedroom set where they first made love to a storage unit, where she spends more and more time sleeping and rereading the books she enjoyed as a teen (somewhat reminiscent of the crazy mother's retreat to a storage unit in Bee Season).

Finally, Judith reaches out to Willy. Since the Prologue makes it clear that they do meet again, it's not revealing anything to say that she returns to Nebraska to see him. What happen there should be discovered as you read.

As I was reading, I kept thinking "I can't believe this was written by a man," both because Judith is so well drawn in both her teen years and as she approaches middle age (sympathetic without being entirely likable) and because the story is so essentially romantic. Willy and Judith's father are also fully realized characters, though Judith's husband Malcolm is a bit of a cardboard cutout, more foil for Willy than real person.

Can you redeem your life by returning to a simpler--perhaps purer--version of yourself? Tom McNeal invites you to reflect on that question in this well-written and -plotted novel.

Favorite passage:
On these occasions Judith would always wonder whether Patrick Guest had found a place in the world that honored his ability to do things carefully and well, and whether, too, he'd found a marriage that hadn't depleted that secret cache of hopefulness he'd been accruing all the way from adolescence and probably before, Judith guessed, if he was anything like the rest of us.

. . . now, stopped in the center of Main Street, it was deeply quiet, and for that long moment Judith had the sensation of standing within an unshaken snow globe. For the rest of her life, whenever in some thrift shop or somebody's home she would come upon a broken snow globe, one where the snowflakes no longer swirled, she would be reminded of these moments standing in the stillness, staring at the thrift shop, and holding her father's hand.

Monday, August 8, 2011

In Zanesville, by Jo Ann Beard

"We can't believe the house is on fire. It's so embarrassing first of all, and so dangerous second of all. Also, we're supposed to be in charge here, so there's a sense of somebody not doing their job."

This opening paragraph of In Zanesville sets the town for this very funny coming-of-age story set in small-town Illinois (as an Illinois native, I'm thinking Zanesville is modeled on Moline). The narrator is a 14-year-old girl with a family that has serious problems (they're broke, the father is a drunk who disappears regularly) and a best friend named Felicia. It's the summer before ninth-grade, and the girls are babysitting a passel of kids to earn money to buy new clothes for fall. It is the home of their clients that is on fire--although the damage to the house is minimal, the boy who started the fire is severely punished by his father, hinting that the book is not just going to be a comic story.

As the two girls start the school year, they become interested in boys, which leads to some amusing episodes. Trouble comes, however, when they suddenly take a step up socially, being invited to a slumber party at a cheerleader's house. Ten boys show up to hang out with the 11 girls, and when Felicia goes off with a hunk, our heroine feels abandoned. While the description of her experience at the slumber party is funny, it's also poignant, reminding you of how serious everything feels in those early teen years. Following the party, matters get worse when, for some inexplicable reason, the cheerleaders want to hang out with the narrator (her name is never actually stated, although there are hints that made me think it's Jo Ann) but not Felicia. Without their friendship to sustain them, school is painful and the social scene seems surreal (Jo Ann has been hanging out in the artroom, picking up new vocabulary and avoiding the awkwardness of not having a crowd to sit with in the cafeteria).

While the book's undercurrent of sadness makes you think that it's going to have a very serious outcome, in fact the ending is lighthearted. Still, In Zanesville has made me start worrying about my granddaughter's teen years (and she's only 4).

Favorite passage:
I wish my mother wouldn't mention bras in front of my father; I don't know how much he knows or doesn't know about certain matters. My mother's own bras are large quilted things that I used to think were funny. Now when I see them on the laundry table, one cup folded into the other, I have a sense of impending doom. It's like being on your way to the Alps and knowing that when you get there you'll have to wear lederhosen.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

History of a Suicide: My Sister's Unfinished Life, by Jill Bialosky

In April 1990, Jill Bialosky's younger sister Kim committed suicide. For the 20 years between that event and the publication of this book, Bialosky has tried to make sense of this tragedy, by reading, attending meetings of those affected by suicide, talking with experts, reflecting on her sister's life, and perhaps most importantly by writing. In History of a Suicide, she recounts this struggle.

One of the underlying questions for Bialosky is whether she could have helped her sister; if, had she known the degree of pain her sister was in, she could have reached out and made a difference. Even those who have not had this terrible experience can imagine the toll that thinking about that question for 20 years would take. Clearly, no matter how much she reads, thinks, and talks, Bialosky cannot escape a sense of responsibility--even when experts and loved ones tell her that she is not in any way culpable.

As Bialosky describes Kim's childhood and their shared family life, events that caused Kim pain and undercut her belief in her "lovability" are evident. But others have the same experiences and do not kill themselves--something that makes the decision to die even more unfathomable for the survivors.

Bialosky writes well and I feel sympathy for the ongoing pain she has experienced (although I do admit to a bit of impatience as well). One piece that I found unfathomable--and which may account for my overall cool reaction to the book--relates to two other losses she experienced shortly after Kim's death. When Kim committed suicide, Bialosky was four months pregnant. That baby was born prematurely and died shortly after birth. A year later, Bialosky got pregnant again; that baby lived only a few hours. She says that the "trauma of losing my firstborn and the loss of Kim to suicide have forever become tangled like threads in a rope." But she virtually never mentions the two babies again. I find this incomprehensible--and, for me, it also calls into question any psychological insights Bialosky offers. If she doesn't see that her sense of responsibility for her sister (for whom she claimed to be a second mother) might be linked to the devastation of not being able to carry a baby to term, then I have serious doubts about everything she writes.

Favorite passage:
I now lived in two realms: the realm of the ordinary world of getting up in the morning and making coffee, answering the phone, and going to work, the world of traffic and noise and obligations; and the realm of stopped time where my sister was dead and I was shrouded in the confusion of her loss.

What Novel Conversations Is Reading

Here's what Novel Conversations is reading for the next several months:

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese (September)
One Book, One Broomfield Selection (t0 be announced soon--October)
The Borrower, by Rebecca Makkai (November)
The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton (December)
The Paris Wife, by Paula McClain (January)
A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan (February)