Saturday, September 26, 2015

Neverhome, by Laird Hunt

Ash Thompson is a pseudonym adopted by the heroine of Neverhome, who leaves her Indiana farm to fight in the Civil War because "I was strong and he [her husband] was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic." Anyone who has ever read anything about the Civil War will be unsurprised to learn that the experience is beyond horrific. But Ash is courageous and resourceful--as well as strong--and manages to survive until she is betrayed by a nurse who helped her recover from a battle wound.

That betrayal leaves her imprisoned in an insane asylum; when she manages to escape, she begins the long walk back to her farm. On the trek, she experiences both kindness and brutality, but her arrival home is also problem-laden, leading to a somewhat bewildering conclusion.

I found the latter half of the book very confusing. Often, I couldn't distinguish between Ash's dreams and reality (perhaps that is because she couldn't either?) or understand why certain things happened (why was she confined to an asylum instead of a prison, since the nurse reported her as a spy?). I look forward to deepening my understanding at our next Novel Conversations meeting and/or at various One Book One Broomfield events, since this is the choice for the 10th year of the program. While the language is often lovely, I would not at this point recommend the book--perhaps if my confusion clears, I'll change my mind.

Favorite passages:
Today I pose questions that deepen silence, rather than conclude it. That is the province of literature, not leadership. (said by a Union officer)

There is shelter and then there is the idea of shelter. Shore up under the second all you want. You still get wet.

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Window Opens, by Elisabeth Egan

As A Window Opens opens, Alice Pearse has a good life. Her husband is an associate at a Manhattan law firm, her three kids are delightful, she has an interesting part-time job at a women's magazine, a wonderful babysitter takes care of her kids when she is working, and her father has survived cancer (albeit with his larynx removed). Her best friend owns an independent bookstore and the two help women pick books to read (literary references are numerous throughout the novel).

Then, everything falls apart. Her husband doesn't make partner, throws his laptop across a conference room when he finds out, and hello solo practice and a lot of beer-guzzling. Alice must get a full-time job--and she finds one at Scroll, a high-tech company that plans to reinvent reading just as Starbucks reinvented coffee. To top things off, her father's cancer returns shortly after she starts the high-stress new job.

Yep, A Window Opens is another examination of women's problem of work-home balance. The descriptions of working at Scroll are satiric and effective--given that Egan once worked at Amazon, one can only assume that they are also accurate. Alice herself is a nice balance of sympathetic and obnoxious (e.g., when she checks her work messages while sitting at the hospital with her desperately ill father). Egan doesn't offer any new insights about work and family and much about the story is predictable, but A Window Opens is an amusing and occasionally touching beach read.

Two gripes: 1. How many times do we have to hear/read the joke about the sixty-something parent who thinks LOL means lots of love? Please--let it go already. 2. Epilogues should not go on and on, not only tying up every loose end by putting bows on them.

Favorite passage:
I was down one parent, but I still had a lot to learn from the one I had left.

When I arrived for my first day of work, visible rays of light crisscrossed through the store, turning the shelves into a rainbow of spines: thick, thin, shiny, matte, striped, printed with small pictures and designs, lettered in gold.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand

Most people know the story that is documented in Unbroken: Louis Zamperini was a wild boy whose energy was eventually channeled into running. He won medals at the Berlin Olympics and was a track star at USC. Once the United States entered World War II, Louis joined the Army Air Corps. His bomber ended up in the Pacific Ocean; incredibly, Louie and his pilot survived on a life raft for a month and a half. Rescued by the Japanese, they became POWs, facing two years of deprivation and cruelty. Louie became the particular target of a sadistic guard known as "Bird."

What happened when the war ended is perhaps less well known (and gets many fewer pages in the book): Louie for several years struggled with flashbacks, nightmares, and other symptoms of PTSD, self-medicating with alcohol. He was saved by an experience with Billy Graham, dedicating the remainder of his life to Christianity and operating a camp for troubled boys.

Reading this book took me almost three months. I know it makes me sound like an inhuman and uncaring person but I was bored. The book is meticulously researched but for me it just felt flat. I was more interested in Louie's life after the war, but that phase of his life was not Hillenbrand's primary focus. Several other members of Novel Conversations LOVED this book and it won numerous prizes and accolades, so I am clearly in the minority. . .not for the first time.

Favorite passage:
The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when their tormentors suffer.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, by Jon Krakauer

Jon Krakauer uses Missoula and the University of Montana as a case study of the problem of non-stranger rape in college towns across the United States; he reminds readers, both at the beginning of the book and at the end, that Missoula is typical of such towns--and that is a truly frightening fact.

Within the larger Missoula case study, Krakauer presents in detail the stories of several young women sexually assaulted in that city--what happened on the night they were assaulted, how they decided what action to take in the wake of the assault, how the traumatic experience affected them, how they were treated by the university, the police, the district attorney's office, and ultimately the larger public. Because a number of the assailants were members of the beloved "Grizz" football team, the women were insulted and threatened on fan websites and in person (by people to whom their identities were known).

The handling of rape cases by the Missoula police department and DA's office was problematic enough to prompt a U.S. Justice Department investigation. The police department rather quickly agreed to work with the Justice Department to improve their training and practice. The prosecutor's office resisted, even threatening to sue the Justice Department. If there is an arch-villain in the legal establishment it is Kirsten Pabst, who tried to block publication of the book. Pabst was the head of the criminal prosecutions division of the Missoula County Prosecutor's Office; she often chose not to file charges against accused rapists, claiming insufficient evidence (she also bragged about her conviction rate--but a high conviction rate based on very selective prosecution is nothing to brag about); she even went so far as to testify on behalf of an accused rapist at the university's disciplinary hearing! Pabst then left the MCPO to go into private practice, immediately becoming the attorney for the Grizz's star quarterback, Jordan Johnson, who was accused of sexual assault by a female friend. During the trial, Pabst used all of the attack-the-victim strategies used in rape cases, appealing to the myths common among law enforcement and the public. Following Johnson's acquittal, Pabst ran for and won the district attorney's seat (despite illegal activities on the part of her campaign). It's sad to think she's in that position today.

Krakauer interweaves the stories of these cases with research summaries dispelling many of the myths about rape. Of course, there are people who are unmoved by research or by women's stories and continue to deny that rape on college campuses is a problem. But it is a problem, one fueled by alcohol, a sense of male entitlement, and inadequate education for police, attorneys, and young men and women (I am not blaming the victim, but there are clearly situations young women should not put themselves in--the case studies make that quite evident).

I was going to say you should read this book if you have children or grandchildren approaching college age or work with young people but I think I'll just say: If you're human, READ THIS BOOK.

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, by Ayelet Waldman

Emilia Greenleaf, the protagonist of Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, is emotionally overwrought. Her daughter Isabel died of SIDS on her first day home from the hospital and Emilia holds herself responsible (although the reader isn't told this immediately, it is fairly apparent). She hates walking by playgrounds or anywhere else there are pregnant women or mothers with young children. She can barely tolerate her five-year-old stepson William who, it must be said, is something of a know-it-all and has a penchant for quoting his mother (who, quite understandably, can't stand Emilia). Emilia's husband Jack, whom she adores and firmly believes is her bashert, is frustrated with her inability to return to any semblance of normalcy following their tragic loss. As her relationship with William deteriorates, Jack becomes ever-more concerned until their marriage reaches a crisis point. A not-entirely-believable happy ending ties everything up neatly.

At times, I asked myself if Waldman intended this book as a satire, but--despite some funny moments--the description of the book on her website suggests that she did not ("With wry candor and tender humor, acclaimed novelist Ayelet Waldman has crafted a strikingly beautiful novel for our time"--okay, it's marketing talk, but it's so off-base it's laughable). It is hard to see how some reviewers think Emilia is a self-aware and sympathetic character. If she were self-aware, would she: punish her father for years for leaving her mother and then make a play for her married boss, insisting they were soulmates, or mock the grief of other bereaved parents taking part in a memorial walk while she herself has been rendered nearly paralyzed by her daughter's death. And there are other examples. Certainly, the parent-stepchild relationship can be difficult, but her behavior towards William, who is, after all, only five, ratchets back and forth from trying too hard to not trying at all; it's despicable (his actual mother's behavior is also questionable). 

The effect that loss of a child can have on a parent (I've been there) and the challenges of trying to make yourself love a difficult stepchild (I haven't been there) are good themes, but Waldman invests her ideas about those themes in a character so immature and self-centered that I found nothing to take away from this book.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Life Class, by Pat Barker

When Life Class opens, Paul Tarrant is literally in a life class, painting a model and evidently not doing it very well, as his professor's critique is scathing. Paul, whose working class father was not supportive of his status as an art student, begins to wonder whether he ought to leave his renowned school ("the Slade"). His friend Elinor Brooke, also a student at the Slade, and her friend Kit Neville, a recent graduate, encourage him to keep working. Paul becomes involved with one of the life class models, Teresa, but her mentally disturbed husband, who comes and goes from her life, eventually breaks up their relationship. At this point, both Kit and Paul are interested in Elinor, but she shows them little beyond friendship and a desire to talk about art.

Then the real life class begins--the Great War. Kit joins the ambulance corps with an eye toward painting the war. Paul tries to enlist but is rejected for medical reasons and he, too, joins the medical corps. Just before he leaves, Elinor's behavior suggests she might be interested in deepening their relationship, and he eventually invites her to visit him in the town near the hospital where he is working. This seems like a ridiculous idea and, indeed, does not end well--but it allows them to sleep together, which seems to be a key development in the plot.

Elinor returns to London and, as evidenced through an exchange of letters with Paul, decides to think as little as possible about the war; art, "the work," is all that she cares about and she is successful, winning prizes, selling some paintings, and being taken into a cultural group modeled after the Bloomsbury Group.  Paul meanwhile sees death and horrendous injuries on a daily basis; indeed, he becomes ill from having a cut in his gloves while working on a patient's gangrenous limb. He is creating art based on his experiences, but he does not understand how Elinor can simply ignore what is happening in the world and, more specifically, what is happening to a man she purportedly loves.

After sustaining a serious injury, Paul returns to London to recuperate. There, he meets with both Elinor, who despite his injury remains uninterested in the war, and Kit, whose war paintings have become a sensation in a form of artistic profiteering. Paul is awash in conflicting feelings . . . and the book ends.

There is much to like about Life Class: it explores interesting questions about art, war, and the relationship between the two; Pat Barker's language is descriptive (in the case of the injuries suffered by soldiers perhaps too descriptive); the device of letters between Paul and Elinor is effective in establishing their attitudes and experiences. Less effective is the depiction of the relationships among the three main characters--Kit, Paul, and Elinor. Elinor and Kit are so self-centered and narcissistic that, while we can imagine why Paul initially sought their company, it is difficult to understand why he continued to do so. In fact, the start of the war is what makes the book come to life, ironic as that may be. Even then, however, I found it difficult to take Elinor's philosophy seriously because it seemed to arise not from deep beliefs but from her own self-centeredness.

I have mixed feelings about Life Class, but I found it interesting enough that I'm probably going to look for Barker's second book about these character's, Toby's Room.

Favorite passage:
In bad weather, as now, the rain pelts down on the corrugated-iron roof with the rattle of machine-gun fire. At the moment it's a real downpour. Waking from their half-sleep, the bundles in the blankets began to stir and cry out in fear. One of the head wounds throws off his blanket, clambers to his feet and, naked, runs between the rows of beds. Two of the orderlies give chase and eventually grab hold of him, one by each arm, and hold him like that, his arms outstretched, a blood-soaked bandage slipping down across one eye.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty, by Amanda Filipacchi

The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty is the story of a group of friends who are struggling with the vagaries of creativity and the pain caused by the culture's overemphasis on physical beauty. Barb is a beautiful woman who dresses in a fat suit, an ugly gray wig, and unattractive false teeth because her best friend, a gifted chef, committed suicide in front of her and cited his unrequited love for her as the reason. Although he has been dead for years, she continues to receive letters from him suggesting that one of her friends has a dark secret. The doorman of her building constantly insults her--in graphic terms--whenever she leaves or enters the building.

Lily has an opposite problem. She is so ugly that the man she adores cannot even imagine being romantically attracted to her. A gifted composer, she tries to compose a song that will make her look beautiful in his--and the world's--eyes.

Their friend Georgia is a novelist who questions her talent. Penelope, who was kidnapped and kept in a coffin for three days, makes and sells ugly pottery, discovering she can make money through an unusual gift--the ability to hide the fact that the pottery is broken. When a customer touches a piece and it "breaks," the customer must buy it. Jack is a former police officer who was injured while rescuing Penelope from her kidnappers and now works part time at a retirement home, pretending to break up fights that the senior citizens stage so he will feel useful.

The group of friends engage in a variety of absurd activities, with some fantastical elements thrown in. One of the blurbs on the book's back cover describes it as a "philosophical farce." It certainly does have a farcical air and I think the author probably intended it as a philosophical examination of beauty, love, and creativity--but the examination is not very deep. It definitely did not resonate with me, but I can see girls in the 13- to 15-year-old range finding ideas worth engaging with.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay

In the final essay in this collection, Roxane Gay says, "I am a mess of contradictions"--and the collection reflects that messiness--in a good, thought-provoking way. Although Gay is also a scholar (she teaches at Purdue), these essays are not in the least academic. They are deeply personal, reflecting the author's experience as a black woman of Haitian descent who likes men but feels compelled to call them on their shit, who loves rap music while despising its misogynistic lyrics, who is a feminist but wants men to handle such gendered tasks as taking out the trash. She states unequivocally in one essay that rape is NEVER fun; in the next essay, she admits she has heard two rape jokes that actually amused her. As a novelist, Gay wants the freedom to write from any perspective she desires, whether that of a white racist or a Latina lesbian, but she resents when white authors (The Help anyone?) appropriate the African American experience. She is, to summarize, real.

The first four essays, gathered into a section titled "[Me]" deals with a variety of topics. She discusses the frustration she felt in working with the black student association, whose members while delightful individuals do not take seriously enough the work that being a college student or a member of an organization requires. She also examines the concept of privilege, which she acknowledges as important; at the same time, she calls for us to discuss privilege without accusation. The final two essays in the section are funny, describing her first year as a college professor and her early days as a competitive Scrabble player.

The remaining sections of the book deal with various aspects of gender, race, politics, and entertainment/art. Each reader is likely to find some essays that resonate more than others. I enjoyed her skewering of Tyler Perry, her examination of the conflict between believing in privacy and wanting gay celebrities to come out, her reflection on happiness in literature. I also respected her willingness to share her own experience as a gang rape victim and how that experience has shaped her--physically and emotionally.

Gay is evidently a prolific blogger and twitterer and her essays definitely feel more more social network than academic journal. Her style is conversational and personally revelatory. I got a bit bogged down in the middle, but I definitely think Bad Feminist is worth reading.

Favorite passages:
Happiness is not a popular subject in literary fiction.We struggle, as writers, to make happiness, contentment, and satisfaction interesting. Perfection often lacks texture.

The Hunger Games trilogy is dark and brutal, but in the end, the books also offer hope--for a better world and a better people and, for one woman, a better life, a life she can share with a man who understands her strength and doesn't expect her to compromise that strength, a man who can hold her weak places and love her through the darkest of her memories, the worst of her damage. Of course I love the Hunger Games. The trilogy offers the tempered hope that everyone who survives something unendurable hungers for.

Deep Down Dark, by Hector Tobar

Deep Down Dark is the story of the 33 Chilean miners trapped hundreds of feet underground for more than two months in 2010. Tobar got the exclusive rights to tell the men's stories; they signed an agreement not to individually tell what happened underground--particularly in the nearly three weeks before people aboveground knew they were alive--and all but one held to the agreement. Those first days and then weeks after the mine collapsed are described in excruciating detail. For those of us who have been in the coal mine at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry--or a similar reconstruction--the size and complexity of the mine and the apparent lack of safety precautions are stunning.

Naturally, immediately following the collapse, the miners are frightened; the shift supervisor abdicates his leadership role, and the group flounders until several men step up to provide leadership regarding specific tasks. One small contingent raids the pitifully inadequate food supplies, and only quick action by one of the men saves them all from starvation. As it is, they have almost nothing to eat and lose weight rapidly. While their health suffers from lack of nutrition, the unbearable heat, fungus caused by the damp in the mine, and isolation, the group eventually develops a system by which they manage to get along (for the most part).

After the crews working aboveground successfully drill a hole down to where the miners are trapped, things change. Their physical health improves as they are supplied with food and clean water, but their mental/emotional health and sense of unity suffers, both because they are facing the prospect of being in the mind for several months and because of the tension arising from their sudden celebrity, felt even hundreds of feet below the surface. Contact with family buoys some of the men but seems to sadden others.

Nonetheless, all 33 emerge from the mind alive and considerably earlier than the "by Christmas" they had initially been warned to expect. While the early days in the mine were horrendous, equally sad is how little was done to help the men adjust psychologically after they returned home. Family members often told Tobar that the man who came out of the mine was not the same one who went in. The media attention only exacerbated many of the men's problems. While some were returning to "normal" life when Tobar ends the story about a year after their rescue, others were still struggling mightily.

Deep Down Dark focuses primarily on the men in the mine. Some aspects of their families' stories and the story of the rescue are also covered, but the 33 men are the heart of the book. Because I was listening to the book and I don't speak Spanish, I found it difficult to keep straight who the different "characters" were--but in the end that didn't really matter. While the horrific details of the men's stories draw you into the story, the larger questions keep you thinking: How and why is faith helpful when people are facing terrible circumstances? How do leaders emerge and gain the support of the larger group (one miner saw himself as a leader but was not necessarily regarded in the same way by his colleagues)? How does celebrity affect everyday people who are thrust into the limelight through events out of their control? How do you recover from an experience so devastating?

Sometimes a difficult book to read, but definitely worthwhile.

Favorite passages:
It seems silly to Franklin [a former member of the Chilean national soccer team] for his fellow miners to think of themselves as national heroes when all they've done is gotten themselves trapped in a place where only the desperate and the hard up for cash go to suffer and toil. They are famous now, yes, but that heady sense of fullness that fame gives you, that sense of being at the center of everything, will disappear quicker than they could possibly imagine. Franklin tries to speak this truth to his fellow miners, but he does so halfheartedly, because he knows the only way to learn it is to live it.

If you make a man a symbol of things that are bigger than any one person can possibly be, you risk stripping that man of his sense of who he really is.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm was on my list of books to read for 10 years before Novel Conversations chose it and I finally actually read Gibbons' parody of rural English novels. The heroine of the book is Flora Poste, a young woman whose parents have died and left her with no resources. Although her friend Mrs. Smiling encourages her to get a job (gasp!), Flora instead writes to every relative she can unearth asking if she can stay with them. The only takers are the Starkadder family of Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex, who feel indebted to her because of some wrong done to her father in the past.

She arrives at Cold Comfort Farm to find a bizarre collection of relatives, all of whom she decides she can help to escape the farm or their problems, leaving the farm to the one cousin who really wants to be a farmer. She manipulates the fire-and-brimstone preacher to leave the farm to spread the word in a Ford truck. She makes sure the lovely and fey cousin can marry the son of the local landowner rather than being forced to wed the filthy Urk. She arranges for the libidinous and movie-loving Seth to be discovered by a Hollywood producer. And on and on.

At times, even without intimate familiarity with the books being parodied, Cold Comfort Farm is amusing. But the humor is extremely broad, the plot and characters unbelievable, and the depiction of rural characters somewhat offensive--meaning Cold Comfort Farm wears thing very quickly.

No one at our book group meeting last night really liked the book, although some thought it was funnier than others did (I think the highest grade it got was a C+). While the Brits still include it on Top 100 lists, Broomfielders are less impressed.

Favorite passages:
Flora sighed. It was curious that persons who lived what the novelists called a rich emotional life always seemed to be a bit slow on the uptake.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Hundred-Foot Journey, by Richard C. Morais

I had heard that the movie based on The Hundred-Foot Journey was not very good, but I hoped that the book might--as often is the case--be better. The book is the story of Hassan Haji, a boy whose Muslim family was forced out of India following partition (and an attack on their family home that resulted in his mother's death). Like many Indian emigres, they went first to London but eventually settled in a small village in France, Lumiere. The family decides to start an Indian restaurant right across the street from a French restaurant where a renowned chef, Madame Mallory, rules. The family clashes with Madame Mallory but she eventually realizes that Hassan is a gifted chef and takes him into her kitchen to train him in French cuisine. That starts his rise to the highest levels of the French culinary world.

The part of the book in which Hassan is still ensconced in his family is lively, as the family is full of characters and there is a bit of the classic "stranger in a strange land" plot. When he starts his ascent as a chef, however, the story falls flat. Although Hassan is purportedly passionate about food, the reader gets no authentic sense of passion or excitement. Consequently, whether or not he achieves his third Michelin star is a matter of utterly no concern.

Not recommended.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Killing Monica, by Candace Bushnell

Lesson learned from listening to Killing Monica: Always check the reviews before using an Audible credit on a terrible book!