Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sisterland, by Curtis Sittenfeld

Daisy and Violet Schramm are twin sisters who had a difficult adolescence, in part because their mother rarely got out of bed after they turned 11 and in part because they were mocked by classmates for having "senses" (essentially ESP). The two reacted differently to these experiences--Violet became a professional psychic while Daisy changed her name to Kate and attempted to "destroy" her powers and disappear into a conventional life with her perfect husband Jeremy and their two toddlers.

As the book opens, a small earthquake has hit St. Louis, where both twins still live as adults. Violet soon thereafter predicts that a major earthquake will hit the city on October 16, and her prediction becomes the talk of the nation. Jeremy, who is a geoscientist, believes Violet is wrong but seems to tolerate his sister-in-law's foolishness, in part because he doesn't think Kate believes Violet's prediction. The first two-thirds or so of the book is about how Kate tries to "help" Violet (always as a way of controlling her) and their widowed father. This part of the book, despite the more boring twin getting most of the attention, is somewhat interesting--I enjoyed the exploration of the twins' relationship and the media response to a sensational story. But then the book suddenly shifts and becomes about something else entirely--I won't say what happens to change the focus so as not to be a "spoiler." Suffice it to say that the last third of the book is ridiculous and predictable and ruins any enjoyment one might have found in the book.

Not recommended!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

Wrapping up World War II week at my house is All the Light We Cannot See, the book Novel Conversations will be discussing on Monday. This book is the story of two children, one French and one German. Marie-Laure is a blind child who goes to work every day with her father, the head locksmith at the National History Museum in Paris. Her father has constructed a tiny model of the city to help his daughter find her way around the neighborhood. When the Allies begin bombing Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee to his uncle's home in Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure feels entirely cut off from the world. Her uncle, damaged from his experiences in World War I, never leaves the house and her father is preoccupied with matters she does not understand (and he soon disappears), so she finds herself under the wing of the housekeeper, who eventually becomes involved in the Resistance.

Meanwhile, Werner and his sister Jutta live in a German orphanage. He faces a life consigned to the coal mines, but then his gift for building and repairing radios brings him to the attention of officials, who send him to a military training school with a brutal regimen. He eventually ends up in Saint-Malo looking for a radio that has been sending messages from the Resistance. Werner and Marie-Laure's lives briefly but significantly cross, and the two then go on to their own fates. 

Marie-Laure and Werner are well-drawn characters, and the book's depictions of their war time experiences are grueling--yet somehow Doerr didn't quite succeed in making me care very much about them. And it isn't just me--two other members of Novel Conversations shared a similar response with me. In addition, there is an entire subplot about a huge blue diamond that; while it seems Doerr intends the diamond and the myths surrounding it to be symbolic of something, this subplot left me completely cold. All the Light We Cannot See recently won the Pulitzer, so obviously those in the know disagree with me, but overall I found the book a disappointment.

Favorite passage:
When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don't you do the same?

It's embarrassingly plain how inadequate language is.

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

A God in Ruins is a "companion" work to Atkinson's wonderful Life After Life, picking up the story of Teddy Todd, the lovable brother of Life After Life's protagonist, Ursula. A God in Ruins does not adopt the same conceit as Life After Life, but it does play with time, moving from Teddy's wartime experiences as an RAF bomber pilot to childhood experiences and his post-war life. (Since my dad was a bomber pilot in the Pacific Theater, I found the descriptions of bombing runs both fascinating and harrowing.) We also see some events from the perspectives of Nancy, Teddy's wife (and "childhood sweetheart"--a descriptor he despises), their execrable daughter Viola (an author described as "almost as good as Jodi Picoult"), and their two damaged grandchildren Sunny and Bertie.

The war years were central to Teddy's life, and Atkinson manages to laud the courage of the bomber crews (a large percentage of whom did not survive the war) while raising questions about the brutality of the RAF bombing attacks on civilian targets in German cities. While Teddy was a leader who won numerous medals for bravery in his military career, his post-war life is small. He marries Nancy, whom he loves but is not in love with, never experiencing great passion. He retreats to York and has a quiet life as a journalist, writing a homey nature column. When Nancy dies, he struggles to be a good father to Viola, though the two are never close and Viola is more of a trial than a blessing. Her own children, especially her son Sunny, are damaged in ways so incredibly sad as to be nearly unbearable. That Teddy might have been a different person had the war not intervened seems both obvious and unclear.

Atkinson refers often to events in Life After Life in ways that are sometimes funny, sometimes perplexing. At various points throughout the book, I tried to figure out which of Ursula's many lives was reflected in this narrative, but in her Author's Note, Atkinson describes it as an "unwritten" life, which relieved my anxiety (while simultaneously somehow irking me--with all those lives, you had to create still another?). The Author's Note, by the way, is the most interesting such appendage I can remember reading, with Atkinson talking about the writing of this book and about fiction broadly (not everyone agrees: New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin called the note "churlish"). I've already listened to it twice and am thinking about giving it another go before taking the book off my iPod.

A God in Ruins has a surprise ending that will likely enrage some readers; however, it allows Atkinson to nudge readers into questioning their assumptions about fiction, which is her intent (I think). Although I didn't love the surprise, the ending was still redeemed by the book's last line: "But please stop reading now" (Teddy to Ursula, who is reading aloud from one of their Aunt Izzy's Augustus books, in which the main character is based on Teddy). I could quibble about a few things in this book, but overall I enjoyed it immensely.

Favorite passage:
There was a hand-written sign attached to the shelf that said, "Please, dear friend, leave these books in the condition that you found them," which was ridiculous as no book could ever be left in the condition that you found it in because it was changed every time it was read by someone.

Literature had fuelled her childhood fantasies and convinced her that one day she would be the heroine of her own narrative.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America, by Helen Thorpe

When Just Like Us opens, the four girls of the title--Marisela, Yadira, Clara, and Elissa--are seniors at a Denver high school. The four have been friends for years, but now their friendship is being tested by the fact that Clara and Elissa are applying for scholarships and their preferred colleges while Marisela and Yadira, because they are unauthorized immigrants and lack papers needed for many aspects of the college and financial aid application process, are struggling to figure out what they are going to do after graduation. The two are fortunate to be helped by a number of people who manage to get the money together for them to attend the University of Denver, along with Clara; Elissa heads off to Regis University, also in Denver, where she mostly falls out of contact with the other girls.

Thorpe follows the four (with more attention to the three at DU than to Elissa),  from the end of their senior year until nearly a year after their college graduation, going to classes and clubs with them, spending long hours hanging out in their dorms with them, getting to know their parents, siblings, and boyfriends. The girls are smart, hard-working, motivated, silly (they're teenagers after all), politically active, social--everything wonderful young college women are. But the two without documents are also subjected to unbelievable stress. In part, the stress stems from the fact that their families are constantly facing financial and legal problems. Yadira's mother, for example, returns to Mexico to escape prosecution for using a stolen Social Security number, leaving Yadira with huge responsibilities for her teenage sisters. The girls keep their status secret from most of the people they know at college, another stressor, since they have to make up excuses for why they can't study abroad, do work-study, and take part in countless other activities people take for granted. They also know that, when they finish college, they may not be able to get jobs suitable for educated young women.

Thorpe intertwines the girls' stories with the larger narrative about immigration occurring in Colorado, focusing on Tom Tancredo's abortive run for the presidency in 2008 and the killing of police officer Donnie Young by an unauthorized immigrant who happened to work in one of her husband's restaurants (at the time she was married to John Hickenlooper, then-mayor of Denver). She weaves these narrative threads together skilfully, depicting a systemic problem that is negatively affecting many lives--a problem recognized by virtually all policymakers, who are incapable of finding a solution.

The wisdom of hindsight (Thorpe and Hickenlooper are separated--perhaps divorced, I'm not sure) makes the discomfort Thorpe clearly felt in the role of political wife seem like foreshadowing--and makes me almost as sad as the challenges faced by the young women Thorpe writes about.

Just Like Us is a very good book; the girls' stories aren't resolved at the end and, of course, neither is the immigration question. Like life, things could go any way.

Favorite passage:
Did the idea of a country--an abstract concept, really--truly matter more than the sum happiness of all the individuals living within its boundaries? No, I thought. People mattered more than governments. In fat, this country was founded on that very idea.

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?