Monday, September 29, 2014

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, by Chris Bohjalian

Emily Shepherd is a normal high-schooler--she loves poetry, especially that of Emily Dickinson (did you know that much of the work of Dickinson can be sung to the theme of Gilligan's Island?); her teachers chide her for underachieving; she occasionally gets into a modest amount of trouble; she worries about her parents' drinking. Then Reactor One at the Cape Abenaki Nuclear Power Plant in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom melts down; not only are her parents killed, but she soon realizes that her father, an engineer at the plant, is being blamed for the disaster. Afraid that the blame will extend to her, she takes off from the school where she and her classmates have been transported.

Over the next nine months, she lives the hard life of the streets. She stays for a time at a shelter, but when one of the other residents figures out who she is, she takes off. Next she lands at the apartment of an Iraq War vet who sells drugs and runs Emily and other girls as prostitutes; from Andrea, another girl in the apartment, she learns the fine art of cutting herself. When Andrea heads for Boston, Emily leaves the apartment and sleeps essentially on the street. Then she meets nine-year-old Cameron, on the run from an abusive foster family, and decides to take him under her wing. The two spend the Vermont winter in the library by day and in an igloo made of garbage bags by night. The connection with Cameron gives Emily a new human connection to keep her from suicide, but things are hardly rosy for the two.

Bohjalian has always had a gift for creating multidimensional and believable female characters, and Emily Shepherd is all of that and more. She is a combination of self-awareness and teenage insecurity. She recognizes that she is making bad decisions, but she cannot stop herself from making them. Given the opportunity to care for Cameron, she rises to meet the challenge, though the best mothering of a 15-year-old living on the street is certainly flawed. While some of Emily's responses seem extreme, the circumstances in which she finds herself are also extreme.

The title Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is taken from a direction given to children in Newtown, Connecticut, when they had to walk through the halls of their school past the bodies of their dead classmates. Emily recognizes that the words can be inspirational or dreadful, depending on the context--for her, they carry special weight because, once Cameron is lost to her, she believes she has no one's hand to hold. That pain makes the book ineffably sad, yet it also demonstrates the strength of the human spirit. I didn't care for the past couple Bohjalian books I read (or tried to read), but I definitely recommend Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.

Favorite passages:
But for most of the world--for most of Vermont--the Cape Abenaki meltdown is just another bit of old news. Tsunamis. School shootings. Syria. We watch it, we read about it, and then we move on. As a species, we're either very resilient or super callous. I don't know which.

The poetry of a nuclear disaster is weirdly beautiful. There is alliteration: rads and roentgens and rems. To a scientist, those are just units of measurement. To a poet? Lions and tigers and bears. Oh, my.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

After the Quake, by Haruki Murakami

All the short stories in After the Quake are set in the month following the devastating Kobe earthquake in 1995. None of the stories involve people directly affected by the disaster; rather, the characters are among the many indirectly impacted--by watching too much news coverage, having nightmares, hoping an enemy was killed in the quake, or reexamining how they want to live their lives.

My favorite of the stories was "honey pie." The story opens with a man Junpei telling his friend's daughter Sala a story about a bear. The friend, Sayoko, has called Junpei in the middle of the night because Sala has awakened in a panic due to an earthquake-related nightmare; Junpei is the only person who can soothe her. The story then flashes back to the college friendship of Junpei, Sayoko, and Takatsuki. Takatsuki is a more aggressive personality than Junpei and he strikes up a romantic relationship with Sayoko (Junpei is also in love with her, but is too tentative to make a move). Sayoko and Takatsuki eventually marry, have Sala, and divorce--but the three remain friends. Takatsuki encourages Junpei to take his relationship with Sayoko to the next level, but Junpei still hesitates. Only after the earthquake does he decide to ask Sayoko to marry him; he also decides that he wants to write stories different from those he has previously written, focusing more on people who are hopeful.

In "ufo in kushiro,"  a woman spends five days watching earthquake coverage nonstop and then leaves her husband because he is essentially hollow. He decides to take a vacation and agrees to carry a mysterious package to Hokkaido for a colleague. In Hokkaido he meets two women; he tries to sleep with one but is impotent, an event that causes him to begin questioning whether he is indeed an empty man.  In "landscape with flatiron," a young woman and older man whose family lives in Kobe--he does not bother to check on them, however--build bonfires on the beach and talk. At the end of the story, they seem to be waiting to die, how we're not sure. "super-frog saves tokyo" has magical elements that are common in Murakami's work. In this case, a gigantic frog approaches a bank loan officer for help fighting a worm that will cause an earthquake that will destroy Tokyo.

I really don't know what to make of After the Quake as a collection. Murakami's stories offer an indictment of Japanese people as living rather empty lives lacking in meaning; while "honey pie" suggests that an event like the Kobe earthquake may shake people into action, "landscape with flatiron" offers a less positive perspective. And I really have no idea what a couple of the stories mean.

During the spring semester, I facilitated an online book group that focused on a collection of material written in response to the 3/11/2011 disasters in Japan. The stories in that book, titled March Was Made of Yarn (see my review at, dealt much more directly with the impact of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown; although some had fantastical elements, they had a greater impact on me than Murakami's! I should note that After the Quake was reviewed very positively and is often mentioned as an important title in the "literature of disaster"; for me, however, the collection did not work.

Favorite passage:
The short story is on the way out. Like the slide rule.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Removers, by Andrew Meredith

The Removers takes its title from the decade that author Meredith spent working in the funeral business--first driving a hearse to pick-up bodies of people who have died and driving them to the funeral home, and then working in the cremation business. Only a small, but bizarrely interesting, portion of the book is about this work. Instead, most of the book is a memoir of Meredith's dysfunctional family (his father was fired from a university teaching position for inappropriate relations with students and his parents lived together without talking for the next 10 years) and his own inability to commit to anything--a relationship, a career path, his education. This material is unfortunately rather mundane.

Those who have followed my blog know I'm not generally a big fan of memoirs and often think the author should have written an article rather than stretching the material into a book--that criticism fits Meredith's book. Furthermore, the book feels like Meredith wrote narratives for different periods of his life and then cut them up and shoveled the pieces together in a seemingly random order. I'm sure the order makes sense to Meredith, but it didn't help me derive any particular meaning from his reflections.

Not recommended.

Favorite passage:
The thing I discovered in my late approach to growing up is the peace in realizing there is nothing special in the traumas that form us. (And perhaps that's why fewer people should write memoirs!)

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, by Ayana Mathis

Hattie and August Shepherd are teen-aged newlyweds when they migrate from Georgia to Philadelphia in the 1920s. Their first children, twins Philadelphia and Jubilee, die after Hattie has nursed them for ten days, using both Southern folk cures and the doctor's advice. The description of their illness and death is heartbreaking and it should perhaps not be surprising when we gradually realize that Hattie has been irreparably broken, unable to show affection to the nine children who come along later.

We learn of the mother Hattie became--though somehow we can't hate her for it--through the individual stories of her children. Floyd is a 20-something musician touring the South in 1948, covering his attraction to men by sleeping with every woman who is willing. In 1950, teenager Six, who was badly burned in a home accident, is sent South with a Bible after he beat another boy nearly to death; Six sometimes feels the spirit in a way that allows him to touch others with his preaching, but he doesn't genuinely feel a calling and also becomes a womanizer. Ruthie, born in 1951, is the child of Hattie's lover Richard. When August, who has repeatedly cheated on Hattie, learns that Ruthie is not his child, Hattie and August fight and she takes Ruthie and leaves with Richard. Because Richard almost immediately breaks his promise to stop gambling (he has lied to her about how he makes his living), she returns home, chastened.

Ella was born in 1954, at a time when August and Hattie were having severe financial problems; ultimately, Hattie decides to give Ella to her childless sister Pearl, who still lives in Georgia. When Pearl arrives, Hattie tries to change her mind, but ultimately sustains yet another scar when Ella leaves with Pearl. Alice and Billups were close as children, sharing a secret that is not made entirely clear to the reader (perhaps Billups was sexually abused). Alice marries a successful doctor, but her wealth does not bring her happiness; her husband wants children, but she secretly takes birth control pills (it is now 1968). She continues to try to control Billups with their childhood intimacy and freaks out when she finds out he is dating her maid.

Franklin is in Viet Nam in 1969, drinking, using drugs, and wishing his wife (who has just revealed they have a daughter) would take him back--even though he knows he is her ruination. Bell's story takes us to 1975; terribly ill, she has been abandoned by her boyfriend and has decided to die. Ten years ago, she slept with her mother's old lover Richard, and she and her mother have not spoken since. When a friend tells Hattie that Bell is ill, however, Hattie takes her to the hospital and perches in a chair outside the isolation room day and night, waiting for her daughter to recover.

Cassie, mother of ten-year-old Sala, is mentally ill. Convinced that Hattie and August are trying to poison her and hearing voices raging in her head, she throws herself from a moving car. While she survives with minor injuries, her parents realize they must have her committed, leaving Sala in their care. When Sala goes to the altar in church to give her life to Jesus, Hattie stops her, believing that religion is no solution to the difficulties her family has faced.

Clearly, the pain and trauma that the family has undergone is unremitting--yet something about the raw power of the story keeps you reading. While Mathis is clearly writing about the challenges faced by African Americans both in the South and the North to which they migrated, individual decisions also play a key role in the tribulations the family members face. And, though the ending is by no means Pollyannish, somehow, it is possible to feel a small bit of optimism for Sala. Hattie has reflected on her shortcomings as a mother and perhaps she will provide a kinder, gentler brand of mothering to her already damaged granddaughter. Despite her many failings, Hattie is still a character who exudes a certain strength that makes her impossible to hate--even when she might deserve it.

Except for Floyd, Six, and Richard, the men in the book are largely caricatures, which is a shortcoming. It can also be difficult to figure out the order of the children, with the skipping from child to child and year to year--but this is probably not all that important.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a harrowing read but one I recommend for the stout of heart.

Favorite passage:
The lives they would have had are unoccupied, that is to say, the people they would have loved, the houses they might have owned, jobs they would have had, were all left untenanted. Not a day went by that Hattie did not feel their absence in the world, the empty space where her children's lives should have been.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride

Henry Shackleford is a young slave boy living in Kansas, when John Brown enters the tavern where Henry's father works. In the ensuing set-to, Henry's father is killed and Brown mistakes Henry for a girl, declares her free, and sweeps her up to join his ragtag army as something of a good luck charm. Henry is afraid to admit he is a boy (although some people he meets along the way figure that out) and travels with Brown for several years, dressed as a girl and responding to Henrietta (or Onion, his nickname). Onion's adventures rival those of Gulliver--he takes part in raids that end up with the beheading of pro-slavery Kansans, spends months in a Missouri brothel, acting as servant to a beautiful black prostitute; travels to the Northeast and Canada on a fund-raising trip with Brown, meeting Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass along the way;  and is sent ahead to Harper's Ferry to "hive the bees"--recruit slaves and free blacks to take part in the planned attack. All the while, Onion struggles with his identity as a young black man involuntarily freed from slavery and living as a girl. This struggle takes place in the shadow of a man so certain of his identity as the liberator of the slaves that he risks his own life and that of his sons for the cause. Brown is portrayed as a mad man for God and the cause, and McBride's depiction helps the reader understand how delusion and passion mingled in the man.

The Good Lord Bird won the National Book Award for 2013, so it was obviously well-received on some fronts, with many reviewers lauding it for its humorous treatment of a serious subject.  As I think I've said before, I fear that I am losing my sense of humor with age, as the book simply wasn't very funny to me.  I did appreciate the depiction of Brown's complexity, at once admirable and pitiable and respected McBride's attempt to explore issues of racial and gender identity through the character of Onion. On the other hand, I had some quibbles with the writing in the book. Foreshadowing--which, given the historical nature of many of the events, was generally unnecessary--was heavy-handed (there was a point at which I thought if I ever read the phrase "I never saw him/her again," I would scream). Some of the slang terms used seemed out of place for the time (e.g., something was a "hot mess," people "sucked up" to those in authority)--an odd error considering that McBride must have done tons of research for the book. I also did not understand why McBride put the book in an awkward frame: an elderly man died and, in his effects were found interviews he did with Henry Shackleford; the narrative is presented as the contents of the interviews. Through the introduction we do learn that Henry lived at least part of his adult life as a woman, so perhaps that is the purpose, but since we never return to the later years of his life, it seemed like a waste.

The most serious reservation I have about the book is its presentation of Frederick Douglass as a hard-drinking, womanizing (or perhaps more accurately child-molesting) coward. Undoubtedly, Douglass had his flaws, but this characterization goes well beyond what is documentable (at least as far as I know) and, as an admirer of Douglass's better self, I resented it. It concerns me that people who read this book and don't know much about Douglass may go away with a negative view of this important figure in U.S. history--which is one of the hesitations I have about historic fiction in general. When it is vividly written, it can become more real than reality.

Favorite passages:
This is what happens when a boy becomes a man; you get stupider.  (Okay, there were some funny bits.)

It occurred to me then that you is everything you are in this life at every moment. And that includes loving somebody. If you can't be your own self, how can you love somebody? How can you be free?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Delicious! by Ruth Reichl

Billie Breslin has dropped out of college to take a job at the eminent cooking magazine Delicious! Possessed of a remarkable palate--she can identify ingredients in a dish that most people have never heard of--but afraid to cook, she also gets a weekend job at an Italian deli. At both jobs, she builds friendships among her colleagues. Then the publisher closes Delicious! but keeps Billie on to handle the Delicious! Guarantee--if someone tries a recipe from the magazine and it fails, the publisher will pay for the ingredients. With the magazine's former travel reporter Sammy, Billie begins exploring the library in the mansion where the magazine offices were located; the library had previously been off-limits to employees. The two discover a hidden room where old letters to the magazine are filed and become obsessed with the correspondence between a young girl in Ohio named Lulu and the legendary James Beard. Although they only have Lulu's side of the correspondence, the letters are charming. When Billie finally quits her job, she decides she needs to track down Lulu and find out what happened. As all of this is going on, Billie undergoes a makeover from frump to edgy hipster, falls in love with a customer at the deli, and begins to resolve her feelings about a tragedy in her personal life.

And that description leaves out myriad characters, plot lines, and topics, which is one of the problems with the novel. Reichl touches on the problems of print magazines in the electronic world, the challenges of growing up with a more beautiful and accomplished sister, discrimination against gays in the 1950s, World War II, the Underground Railroad, the difficulties of selling historic buildings, and more. There are so many topics/issues thrown into the story that none of them are developed in much depth.

Reichl was the editor of the now defunct Gourmet and the restaurant reviewer for The New York Times,  so she certainly knows the world of culinary magazines and food and she writes beautifully about food and cooking. The letters included in the text--Billie's letters to her sister Genie and Lulu's missives to James Beard--are also delightful. Reichl seems to excel with a specific voice speaking via the informal style of the letters. The straight text is sometimes rather stiff--it sounds to me like a nonfiction writer's early attempts to try fiction (which I guess it is); if Reichl continues with fiction, I expect her writing will become more natural/authentic.

Despite these criticisms, I did enjoy Delicious! It could be more focused and more consistently well written, but it's still a good read.

Favorite passages:
They weren't buying food: They were finding their way home.

. . . sight is not a gift but an act of will.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared, by Alice Ozma

Any reader would want to like The Reading Promise. After all, it's the true story of a single father who, afraid that his 10-year-old daughter would soon stop wanting him to read aloud to her (as her older sister had), started a challenge: he and his daughter Alice would see if they could make time for reading aloud for 100 days in a row. "The streak," as the two called it, ended after 2,318 days, when Alice went off to college.

The book, however, is more a collection of vignettes of Alice's childhood than an in-depth look at the reading promise. Some of the vignettes--especially those about reading and Alice's relationship with her dad James--are charming. For example, when Alice discovers that her father has heavily edited the dialogue in Cynthia Voigt's Dicey Song because he does not want to read aloud about puberty, it is touching and funny and real. Many of the stories, however, are seemingly random events from her childhood that are not especially unique--her fish died, the family visited the Franklin Institute and she became interested in an acrobat who was performing, Alice and her dad ate pancakes to celebrate achieving 100 days of reading, etc.  The author's tone in relating these stories suggests that she thinks they are funnier (and she more amusingly eccentric) than I did. This effect may have been heightened by the fact that I listened to the book read by the author, and she uses a voice that seems designed to sound like her 10-year-old self (at the end of the book, when she reads in her adult voice, it is quite different than the voice in which she reads the bulk of the book).

After "the streak" ended, James retired from his job as an elementary school librarian because he was told not to read aloud to the students. I do not doubt that this actually happened, although in my work with schools, I have never come across an elementary school whose staff did not believe in reading aloud to students. They may no longer be able to afford a school librarian, but they believe in reading aloud. So that piece of the story was a disconnect for me.

The book ends with a list of some of the books that James and Alice read during "the streak," which may be useful to some parents.

Overall, the book was disappointing, although I would recommend it for selective reading--i.e., read the vignettes that interest you, skip those that don't.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Say Nice Things about Detroit, by Scott Lasser

David Halpert has taken a leave from his law firm in Denver to help his aging parents, who still live in suburban Detroit. He learns that his high school girlfriend Natalie and her older half-brother Dirk have recently been murdered, and he calls on her family to pay his respects. He becomes involved with their younger sister Caroline, who is visiting from Los Angeles.

Much to his own surprise, David decides to settle down in Detroit--since his son was killed in a car accident and he and his wife divorced, there is little to hold him in Denver. He gets a job at a Detroit firm, buys Dirk's home in a black neighborhood (David is white), and offers shelter to a young hoodlum whom Dirk tried to help before his death. When Caroline discovers that she is pregnant and a DNA test proves her husband is not the father, she too decides to return home to Detroit with her son.

Lots happens in Say Nice Things about Detroit, but the plot isn't what matters. Rather, it's the exploration of what can go right and wrong in individuals' lives in a racially divided and economically depressed city like Detroit and the search for home, to fill the holes that the trials of life have left in one's heart. I'm always surprised when a male author writes an essentially romantic book, but Say Nice Things about Detroit is also that--indeed the happy ending is a bit too pat, but the issues explored give the book depth as well.

Favorite passage:
He thought that if your neighbors wanted you around, then maybe you were home.

The Secret Place, by Tana French

In each of her titles, Tana French picks a secondary character from a previous book (always a Dublin cop) and makes them the primary character. Two books ago, I predicted that Detective Stephen Moran would be next--and I was wrong, but only by one book. I also mentioned that Stephen did not seem to have the serious personal problems the other members of the Dublin Murder Squad harbored--and he still doesn't (okay, he has a problem with intimacy, but it's not serious compared to what we've seen in the earlier books), which may be one reason this is my favorite French book to date.

Moran is at work in the Cold Case Squad when Holly Mackey, daughter of Detective Frank Mackey from Faithful Place, comes in carrying a clue to a year-old case. Chris Harper, a handsome student at a nearby boys school, was found dead on the grounds of St. Kilda's School, where Holly and her three best friends are boarders. The evidence is a card found on "The Secret Place," a bulletin board intended to subvert cruel websites by giving students a place to anonymously voice their insecurities, worries, dislikes, etc. The card sports a picture of Chris and the line "I know who killed him."

Stephen takes the evidence to the homicide detective on the case, Antoinette Conway, and the two head to St. Kilda's, where they will spend a grueling day investigating the eight girls (including Holly) who had the opportunity to kill Chris. The story of their investigation is intercut with a chronological account of the months before and after the murder, told from the perspectives of the eight girls, who comprised two tight-knit foursomes. French does an excellent job portraying the importance of friendship to teenage girls (and to cops), as well as their profound insecurities and potential for cruelty and manipulation. By focusing on the interrogations of the girls, she also demonstrates the importance of questioning style and intuition, as well as logic and evidence, to police work.

While there are some semi-supernatural elements to the story that didn't seem necessary, I thought this book's exploration of friendship and teenage angst elevated it above French's earlier works. Once again, French's prose sometimes sings and is always readable.

Favorite passages:
The Court [a shopping mall] pulls like a towering magnet and everyone comes. Anything can happen here, in the sparkling slice of freedom between classes and teatime; your life could lift right off the ground and shimmer into something brand-new. In the dizzying white light all the faces glimmer, they mouth words and crack open in laughs you can almost catch through the cloud of sounds, and any one of them could be the heart-stopping one you've been waiting for; anything you can imagine could be waiting for you here, if you turn your head at just the right second, if you just catch the right eye, if the right song just comes spinning out of the speakers all around you. Sugar-smell of fresh doughnuts drifting out from the kiosk, lick it off your fingers.

She hears all the voices from when she was little, soothing, strengthening: Don't be scared, not of monsters, not of witches, not of big dogs. And now. snapping loud from every direction: Be scared, you have to be scared, ordering like this is your one absolute duty. Be scared you're fat, be scared your boobs are too big and be scared they're too small. Be scared to walk on your own, specially anywhere quiet enough that you can hear yourself think. Be scared of wearing the wrong stuff, saying the wrong thing, having a stupid laugh, being uncool.. . . Be scared terrified petrified that everything you are is every kind of wrong. Good girl.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Letters to a Young Contrarian, by Christopher Hitchens

Audible from time to time offers a $10 coupon if you order a certain number of books at once. Then you have to find something that costs less than $10 on which to use your coupon. This is how I came to listen to two Christopher Hitchens works--Mortality, which I found interesting and admirable, and Letters to a Young Contrarian, which was dull enough to put me in a fugue state while listening. Perhaps it is because I am not young or am insufficiently contrary (unlikely) or not well educated enough to understand his allusions or appreciate his name-dropping. Perhaps it was the condescending tone of the narrator. Or perhaps there just wasn't much "there there." 

A few of the letters held my attention. As a civic educator who has spent a lot of time encouraging teachers to engage students in discussion of controversial issues, I enjoyed his appreciation of talking with those with whom you disagree: "Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence." His examination of humor and the notion of living "as if" were also interesting. Overall, however, this collection left me unmoved.

Favorite passage: 
. . . if you really care about a serious cause or deep subject, you may have to be prepared to be boring about it.