Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Reading No Poetry in Poetry Month

For poetry month, I tried a poetry challenge--write a poem every day--and I actually wrote 28 (bad) poems. It was fun and worthwhile and I might do it again, just for the mental exercise of playing with words. Being an actual poet is not in my future, however, and my poor record of reading poetry, sadly, continued despite its being poetry month!  But on to what I did read.

I See You, by Clare Macintosh
All Is Not Forgotten, by Wendy Walker
Man Overboard, by J.A. Jance
Alibi Man, by Tami Hoag
The Front, by Patricia Cornwell

I See You is based on an interesting concept--someone is stalking women, compiling data on their habits, and then including photos of them in the classifieds of a free newspaper; soon after a woman's picture appears in the paper, she becomes a crime victim. Sadly, the execution of the novel is deeply flawed--too many red herrings, female characters (a potential victim and a police officer) who act in an unbelievable manner, and more. There is a chilling twist at the end that came as a surprise--but only because the character involved was so poorly developed that we had no previous insight into the character's thinking. This was entertaining enough to listen to while walking, but it could have been a lot better.

Similarly, All Is Not Forgotten has an interesting premise--a teenager subjected to a brutal rape and a veteran who feels responsible for the deaths of his comrades are given a drug that makes victims of trauma forget what happened to them. They still feel the emotional effects, however, creating difficult psychological problems--and their ability to help law enforcement is limited. Again, however, the execution is flawed. In the first part of the book, the narrator is unidentified--but is very fond of explicating psychological theories. In fact, the book feels like an excuse for a discussion of trauma-related mental problems. Then we learn who the narrator is and some stuff actually happens, but the characters still feel like paper dolls created to make a point.

Man Overboard is the latest entry in J.A. Jance's Ali Reynolds series, but it's not one of her best.  Alibi Man and The Front feature relatively new (at least to me) characters from authors Hoag and Cornwell, and both books were pretty bad.

Our Short History, by Lauren Grodstein
The Good Luck of Right Now, by Matthew Quick
The Painter, by Peter Heller
Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, by Lisa See

Our Short History is the second book I've read recently that is structured as a mother writing to her child(ren), and it's vastly superior to the first (Tomorrow).  The protagonist is Karen, a political consultant and single mother who has been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer; she has created a plan for her son Jacob to live with her sister's family and is writing a book for him, explaining her life and expressing her love for him. Then her son becomes persistent about finding his father, a man Karen loved but who did not handle well the news that she was pregnant. When she finds him, though, he wants to be a father to Jacob, and Karen is not happy. While the reader cannot help feeling sympathy for Karen, I also occasionally just wanted to smack her. Still, it's a book that makes you think about what you would want your children to know about your life if you were dying and whether you could rise above past hurts to help your children.

Matthew Quick (also the author of the Silver Linings Playbook) seems to specialize in 30-something male narrators with mental health issues. In the Good Luck of Right Now, the protagonist is Bartholomew Neil, a developmentally delayed man who lived with his mother until her recent death. Struggling to figure out how to make sense of his life in the wake of her death, he makes a friend at a grief therapy group; lets his former priest, who has left the priesthood and seems to be suffering from depression; and begins to write to Richard Gere, his mother's favorite actor. The story is quirky and ends in an upbeat (and slightly unbelievable) fashion--a pleasant read that offers some insight into the thinking of those with mental issues.

Peter Heller is a fine writer--his The Dog Stars was a compelling post-apocalyptic story. The Painter focuses on Jim Stegner, a talented painter with a troubled personal history that includes alcoholism, violence, and jail time. When his life seems to be going well, he sees a man abusing a horse and what starts with good intentions--protecting the horse--quickly spirals into a series of increasingly violent events. While the violence in The Dog Stars seemed purposeful, here the violence is pointless, the outcome of a man's inability to control his baser instincts. Although the writing is strong, I can't recommend the book.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane focuses on the Akha ethnic group from the mountains of China's Yunnan Province. The group was isolated until the late 20th century, and reading about young Li-Yan's life in the late 1980s and early 1990s feels like they must be occurring much earlier. The Akha follow cultural mores that feel primitive--twins are seen as "human rejects" and must be killed by their father at birth. When Li-Yan becomes pregnant and cannot locate the father, who has gone to Thailand to try to earn money and, thus, her parents' blessing for their marriage (one of the reasons for their opposition has to do with the days of the week on which the lovers were born), her daughter is also regarded as a "human reject." She and her mother plot to save the child's life--and the daughter is adopted by an American couple. The ongoing narrative of Li-Yan's life (which teaches the reader a lot about tea) is intercut with documents from her daughter's life--doctors' notes on her condition, her mother's emails, school reports she has written, etc. I thought the ending was unrealistic, but overall I enjoyed the book, its insight into ethnic minorities in China, international adoption, and some of the ramifications of increasing wealth in China. Definitely recommended.

Young Adult
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L'Engle
Wind in the Door, by Madeline L'Engle

Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time series is so well known I hardly need to describe anything about the books--you've probably either read them or don't want to. I decided to read them because my granddaughter wanted a set for her birthday last year.  I enjoyed the first book but found the second book in the series a bit overwrought. Don't think I'll venture on to volumes 3-5.

Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan
Medium Raw, by Anthony Bourdain
In the Darkroom, by Susan Faludi
A Truck Full of Money, by Tracy Kidder

As a 24-year-old reporter in New York City, Susannah Cahalan suddenly found herself plagued by an array of inexplicable mental and physical problems. After suffering an apparent breakdown, she was lucky to eventually find a doctor who could diagnose and treat the rare condition that was causing her problems--an autoimmune disorder that caused brain inflammation resulting in paranoia, loss of verbal ability, seizures, and more. What made Brain on Fire particularly interesting to me was that Cahalan actually remembers very little of what happened during her illness; she had to approach the book as a work of reportage. Although her illness is a rare condition, it does make you wonder how many people with mental health issues might actually have pathogen-caused diseases. Definitely a thought-provoking read.

Based on Kitchen Confidential and some television appearances, I always thought Anthony Bourdain was something of a jerk, a funny jerk who can really write, but a jerk nonetheless. After reading Medium Raw, which I enjoyed immensely, I've changed my opinion. In the essays in this book, he his much more self-effacing, although he still pulls no punches whether he's talking about his years as an addict or the venerable (but annoying to Bourdain) Alice Waters (he criticizes her pretty roundly, but softens at the end of the essay). Some pieces missed the mark for me, but I loved enough of them--his ode to pho, his loving description of the man who cuts fish at Le Bernardin, basically anytime he was writing about food, its preparation, and consumption--to give the book a strong recommendation for foodies. Warning: His language is extremely coarse, which doesn't bother me but would turn off some folks I know.

Feminist writer Susan Faludi was estranged from her father for most of her adulthood--until, in his 80s, he emailed her to let her know that he had transitioned to become a woman. This event (in ways I don't understand) brought about a reconciliation, and Faludi made efforts to get to know her father (she still used that appellation while using feminine pronouns) in the last 10 years of  her (Stephanie--not Susan) life. Her father had repatriated to Hungary some years before, and In the Darkroom is full of not only Steven/Stephanie's life story but the history of Hungary and transgender people.  Faludi's father clearly struggled with issues of identity through a long life, including not only gender identity but being Jewish and being Hungarian. The book is long and I found some of the history tedious, although the description of politics and anti-Semitism in Hungary in recent years revived my interest. I can only imagine how difficult writing this book must have been for Faludi, but I can't fully recommend it despite some interesting content--a tighter edit would have been greatly appreciated.

I think Tracy Kidder is a genius of nonfiction writing. His early books--House, The Soul of a New Machine, and Among Schoolchildren--hooked me, and I was excited when I saw he had written a new book about someone in high-tech--Paul English, co-founder of Kayak. Subtitled One Man's Quest to Recover from Great Success, the book purports to be a look at how English dealt with suddenly becoming immensely wealthy when he sold Kayak. Certainly, it does treat that event as a turning point in English's life, but I didn't find the recovery from great success to be the real focus of the book, which is a profile of English, an incredibly intelligent, charismatic (in an interesting nerdy way), and energetic person who also deals with bipolar disorder. The way in which English churns out ideas was fascinating to me although, overall, the book is not one of my favorites by Kidder.

Pick of the Litter: Medium Raw and Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

Favorite Passages: 

To have a child is to give fate a hostage.

Frightened people become angry people--as history teaches us again and again.

We know, for instance, that there is a direct inverse relationship between frequency of family meals and social problems. Bluntly stated, members of families who eat together regularly are statistically less likely to stick up liquor stores, blow up meth labs, give birth to crack babies, commit suicide, or make donkey porn. If Little Timmy had just had more meatloaf, he might not have grown up to fill chest freezers with Cub Scout parts.

Anthony Bourdain, Medium Raw