Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Family Ties: Lucky Us (review)

Lucky Us
by Amy Bloom
Random House

I judged a book by its cover. I did. When I saw the tightrope-walking zebra and lion, the stage and red-I'm-assuming-velvet curtains on the cover of Lucky Us, I had visions of Water for Elephants, for some reason. The blurb sure didn't give me that impression, though--two sisters, a "hopeful star" and a "sidekick", a cross-country trek, promises of fame ... that was my kind of story and it sat in my queue, waiting. About the time I was ready to start my next book, I caught a bit of The Diane Rehm Show (link) featuring author Amy Bloom--totally missing the title of her novel--and liked what I heard about two sisters, their escape to Hollywood, love lost and found. Imagine my surprise when I opened Lucky Us the next day on my Kindle--same book!

Iris and Eva are separated by several years and two moms--it is their flimflam father who joins them, but still a pretty pitiful excuse for family. Dad isn't really the English professor he's fashioned himself to be in a small Ohio college town--he's just a Shakespeare quoting hustler who has his cover blown when Iris's mother dies. Desperate for fame and fortune, Iris enters elocution contest after contest, stashing her prize money so she can make a getaway--the sooner the better. Dad steals the money, but the girls still make it out on a Greyhound and are California bound.

From first Hollywood and then New Jersey, Bloom surrounds the girls with characters who could be straight out of John Irving novel--the Mexican makeup artist Francisco and his beautician sisters; the Torelli's, a nouveau riche family of Catholic Italians; Rose Sawyer, the cut-throat lesbian actress; Gus, an innocent German-American imprisoned as a traitor; Danny, the stolen orphan; Clara, the Black jazz club singer. But this cast of characters didn't just move the plot along. Eva and Iris piece together a rag-tag family of sorts to replace the one they'd never had.

I liked that. Eva's family wasn't modeled on Leave it to Beaver. It was messy and patched together--but it sustained them.

And isn't that what family is meant to do?



Monday, August 11, 2014

The Wild, Wild West: Painted Horses (review)

Painted Horses (NetGalley DRC)
by Malcolm Brooks
Grove Press
release date: August 13, 2014

Standing by the side of the road the first time I drove through North Dakota and into Montana, the Earth's curve domed overhead. I recognized it at once--that wide expanse of sky so often described by McCarthy and McMurtry and Cather. Breathtaking. (I also caught a shiver, suddenly understanding why so many women fell to prairie madness.)  Malcolm Brooks' new novel Painted Horses is in just that tradition--the West with a capital W, brutal and beautiful, stark and lush at the same time.

Brooks follows the story of Catherine Lamay, a young archeologist riding the high of a dig in post-war London, now sent by the Smithsonian to find and document any relics that might influence the outcome of a dam project proposed by Harris Power and Light. It's the early fifties and, only twenty-three, Catherine isn't necessarily buying the prevailing attitude that women (even educated ones) should center their lives around house and home. She's had a taste of independence and felt the adrenaline rush of fame and it's that heady mix that fuels her decision to leave her fiance of three weeks at home to work in Montana for the summer.

John H. rescues Catherine on her first day in the canyon--a mysterious man of few words, he literally rides off into the sunset. His life has been as bleak as the landscape that called him: orphan, run-away, soldier, fugitive. In a story that relies on archetypes, John H. is the Outcast, the almost-Hero. Their two stories intersect, of course, and while John H. could have saved the day I found myself hoping they wouldn't succumb to cliche, the cowboy and his lass.

Brooks language is rich, his description spot-on. As sometimes is the case with me, I did get impatient with the bent grass and the canyon strata and rutted paths and glyphs and ... you get the idea. (When I confessed my quick thumbing through those passages to a friend today, I also told her I was just then slowing down for the sex--so there goes my credibility as a Discerning Reader!) I'm also not a fan of horses, truth be told. They're too big for my taste in animals. I'm suspect of any animal whose head is a large as a small child--and there are a lot of horses in this novel (it is Painted Horses, after all). But I was drawn in by the publisher's blurb and the novel's advance praise. And I'm glad I was.

Read Painted Horses as American Myth. Read it to savor the beauty of the West. Read it to remember a time when our lives were more bound by convention--but also, perhaps, more easily transformed by a country still wild and untamed.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Big-hearted: A Man Called Ove (review)

A Man Called Ove (NetGalley DRC)
by Fredrik Backman
Atria Books

Time is a curious thing. Most of us only live for the time that lies right ahead of us ... One of the most painful moments in a person's life probably comes with the insight that an age has been reached when there is more to look back on than ahead. 

There isn't much Ove likes--not Volvos (Ove is a Saab man) or handbag dogs or lead-footed drivers or recycling bins or rule-breakers or cell phones or espresso machines. And Ove isn't likely to keep his opinion (or his temper) to himself. He is, in a word, the quintessential Grumpy Old Man. The only tenderness Ove admits to is for his wife Sonja--beautiful, smiling, long-suffering Sonja.

For nearly forty years Ove has made daily inspections of his neighborhood every morning at five minutes to six. Not one minute more or less. The terraced homes were still dark, the street silent, but there was the traffic sign to check, garage locks to scrutinize, rubbish bins to sort. On this particular morning he meets a stray cat--tattered tail, patchy fur, one ear--which he quickly stomps away. (Ove didn't like cats. Sonja did, but not Ove.) And before he can get back to his one cup of coffee (no more or less) he meets new neighbors moving in across the street--pregnant mom (a foreigner!), two young daughters, and a husband who crashes Ove's mailbox and overruns his flowerbed with the moving trailer. Perhaps because Ove is at loose ends this particular morning, he takes matters into his own hands and maneuvers the trailer into their driveway himself.

The day before, Ove was sent home from work with a jolly "slow-down-a-bit" and "take it easy". Sent him packing was more like it. Sonja was the only one who would listen, but these days Sonja doesn't have much to say because Sonja waits under the frozen ground for his visits, under the boulder around which Ove plants flowers weekly. So Ove, now without even the work he lost himself in, is determined to join Sonja--a deed he approaches methodically, first checking weight bearing walls, then tailpipes--careful to spread plastic sheeting or newspapers accordingly--then turning off the furnace and unplugging electrics so everything is in order when he goes.

But Parsvaneh and her family, the cat, a stray letter carrier, a journalist keep interrupting, and slowly, Ove is pulled back. By love, of course, but he doesn't quite know it yet. While Ove fusses and fumes about the intrusions, we learn about Young Ove, who while always reticent was not always so curmudgeonly, and his love for Sonja. We learn that after Ove and Sonja's great loss, pushing others away is just one way to keep his heart safe. Ironically, it's Ove's heart that finally trips him up--a heart too large, too full.

A Man Called Ove is a tender story, with the sweetness of The Misremembered Man and perhaps the poignancy of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. I can't imagine you'd be disappointed.  

Dirty Secrets :The Dinner (review)

The Dinner
by Herman Koch
Hogarth (Crown Publishing)

Brothers Serge and Paul Loman meet for dinner with their wives Babette and Claire. You could cut the tension with a knife: Paul resents the choice of an expensive (and pretentious) restaurant and his brother's celebrity (Serge is running for prime minister); Babette, red-eyed, has obviously been crying and Paul distracted by a message he read on his son's phone while snooping in the boy's room. Still, there's the required small talk about the new Woody Allen movie and summering in France. And then the women excuse themselves after Babette breaks into tears again. And Paul leaves to meet son Michael to return his cellphone.

But before handing over Michael's phone, Paul pokes around it again. Listens to a voice mail, opens a video--and now we know the that these two upstanding families are shadowed by first one and then another horrific act carried out by their sons. There are dirty secrets all around. "Come!" author Herman Koch seems to say. "Take a peek into the twisted psyche of one character and then another. And another."

I don't know whether or not Koch's novel should be labeled a mystery or a thriller, but it is riveting. While the plots are not similar, the only thing I could compare the book to is Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl--I read The Dinner in the same frantic way, finishing it in the space of a day. There's not a single likeable character in the novel, nor anything redeeming about the outcome, but I'm guessing you won't care. You'll just want to get to the end.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Who knew?: Crunchy Cons (review)

Crunchy Cons
by Rod Dreher
Crown Forum, 2006

For the past year, I've been reading Rod Dreher's posts on American Conservative. I came to Dreher's column after I read the account he wrote of his sister's battle with cancer in The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming which I wrote about on this blog  nearly a year and a half ago. He was honest. He held himself accountable. He put family first. Faith was the center of his life. What was there not to like?

Of course, there was the small fact that he was a conservative. And I don't really cotton to conservatives. Or was this the bane of life after fifty, I thought? You get old. And stodgy. And, well ... conservative. But still I returned to read (sometimes two times a day because Dreher is just that prolific) about Iraq and welfare moms and gay marriage and the Catholic sex abuse scandal and education and Pope Francis and Dante's Inferno and just about any other contemporary cultural and political issue you could name. (When you read his column, be sure to stop the comments, as well--they're often every bit as engaging as Dreher.) What else was left, then, but to order his other book, Crunchy Cons, written several years earlier? I was a bit surprised that a hard copy was only available used, but my book (excellent condition! like new!) arrived a week later from a Goodwill store somewhere out East.

Crunchy Cons begins with Dreher's Crunchy-Con Manifesto, ten tenets for this new breed of conservative. The principals cover materialism, economics, culture, the environment, aesthetics, education, religion, family life and go something like this: "We believe that modern conservatism has become too focused on material conditions, and insufficiently concerned with the character of society. The point of life is not to become a more satisfied shopper." I found little to disagree with (except the homeschooling emphasis, but that's just because I'm a tetchy public school teacher, I'm guessing, and I could easily modify the "homeschool" part by substituting "parents' direction and involvement in all things schooling") and I'm guessing many of my liberal friends would agree with Dreher's view of our world. This is the world of reading families, nursing moms, and foodies. Of turning off the TV and church on Sunday and eating organic. My world.

My husband, ever the philosophy student, would point out that this is conservatism in the true sense, with a small "c"--the conservatism that promotes tradition and community and the greater good. Not the Conservatism-with-a-capital-C that plagues informs public discourse today with its emphasis on big business and trickle down and tea parties. And I'd probably reply I don't care about all that--I just like Dreher's thoughtful probing of American culture, our shifting values, and his discussion with readers on how we can right the ship.

Good gosh! A conservative? Who knew?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Listen to the Mockingbird

Nearly ten years ago I was captivated by Charles Shields unauthorized biography of Harper Lee, the legendary author of To Kill a Mockingbird. To write Mockingbird: A portrait of Harper Lee, Shields spoke to Lee's friends and some friends of friends, piecing together a fascinating glimpse of a writer who had became all but a recluse. But here's the thing. Shields gives us a Harper Lee who was anything but solitary. She entertained closed friends, went out to dinner with her sister Alice Lee, visited high school students, stopped at the casino--in short, she was a woman of a certain age going about life in a quiet Southern town.
Medal of Freedom recipient: 2007

What Lee did withdraw from was the literary life and all things Mockingbird. She never published another book (her second one was supposedly stolen in a burglary) and was disillusioned after Truman Capote snubbed her contribution to In Cold Blood.  Lee reportedly told a close friend, "I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again."  Lee didn't even participate in the 50th anniversary of her ground-breaking novel, nor did she condone the Disney-fication of her hometown Monroeville with its Radley Fountain grill, tote bags and tee shirts, and Calpurnia's Cookbook. There was no Larry King or Oprah for this legend (although she did meet with Oprah once for lunch in a private suite at The Four Seasons). Some think Nelle Harper Lee eschewed the public eye because her novel was too frank, that she spilled too many family secrets and lived with that regret. Readers tend to take the novel's young narrator, Scout, as Lee's own voice--an irrepressible, sensitive tomboy bursting with enthusiasm for life. But she told Oprah during that lunch, "I'm really Boo", the mysterious town lunatic (link).

Earlier this month The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee written by Marja Mills--and supposedly authorized-- was released to a kerfuffle. Lee's sister Alice confirmed the book's authenticity; her lawyer refuted that the sisters' agreed to the interviews, insisting that when Mills moved next door to the Lees and befriended them, she did so under false pretenses. You can read the flurry of letters back-and-forth here (link). What most reviewers agree upon is that Mills' Nelle Harper Lee is fairly close to Shield's and we readers will probably read little that's new. But despite the book's controversial publicity (or perhaps because of it), The Mockingbird Next Door is sure to find its way to the top of bestseller lists just like its predecessor.

 Writer Garrison Keillor said about Lee's early aversion to public attention, "Here is a woman who knew when to get off the train" (link). Maybe we should respect that woman's decision and let her walk away with dignity.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Namaste, Ms. Elliott: Zen Under Fire (review)

Zen Under Fire 
by Marianne Elliott
Sourcebooks 2013

 Marianne Elliott documented human rights violations in Afghan prisons and police stations and trained local law enforcement officers and prosecutors about human rights and Afghan law. Her life, first in Kabul, and then in Herat, was one of contrasts. Rules and procedures narrowed her freedom: she needs a driver or security officer with her whenever she travels outside her UN guest house, she can't walk alone on the streets, her dress and demeanor must at all times show respect for Afghan culture. But in countless other ways, Elliott's circumstances open her to rich experiences: the camaraderie of UN and NGO workers from around the world, the priceless friendship of her Afghan co-workers, and the indelible mark the Afghans she served left on her heart. Sometimes frightened, often edgy, occasionally endangered, and always driven, Elliott struggles to maintain balance in her life--she knows that a shell-shocked, stressed out aid worker would be less than effective.

Before arriving in Kabul, Elliott practiced yoga and meditation in her native New Zealand, and she continues during her time in Afghanistan. At first, her practice is almost mechanical. Unnerved by a phone call or a meeting, she'd head to her mat, do some simple breathing exercises and several sun salutes. While the stressful situation was often the same, it was Elliott who was different. Yoga becomes both her refuge and strength: "Yoga is helping me little by little to trust my breath and my body, and to loosen my tight grip on control. I am starting to get glimpses of what yoga might be able to teach me ..."

What I like so much about Zen Under Fire was the author's transparency. As an American who only hears about aid workers on the news and has no experience with life in a war zone, it can be easy to elevate those who serve to sainthood. But Elliott struggles with jealousy and anger and helplessness
and self-doubt. Through fits and starts, she gives herself permission to sit with those feelings, acknowledging them instead of repressing them, and realizes "it is a kind of yoga, this approach. It is transforming my ability to be in the presence of profound suffering without closing my heart or leaping too quickly into action." Maybe most important of all, she learns that sometimes it is more important to be a heartstrong woman than a headstrong one.

Yoga and meditation can sometimes seem like an "add-on" to our modern lives--something that might be nice to have, but certainly isn't a necessity. But Marianne Elliott teaches us that living the mindful life allows us to experience the true depth and breadth this life has to offer. Even in a war zone.


Saturday, July 12, 2014

Love wins: Small Blessings (review)

Small Blessings (NetGalley DRC)
Martha Woodruff
release date: August 2014

The worst thing you can do in this life is turn away from it, my dear. 

Professor Tom Putnam has patiently cared for his wife Marjory for twenty years; suffering from
disabling anxiety and depression, Marjorie rarely leaves their home except to visit her psychiatrist. When Tom must teach class, his mother-in-law Agnes watches over Marjory at home. The idyllic setting--a small Virginia college with its elementary school, book shop, cottages for staff, and homes for faculty--contrasts the chaos that is the Putnam's home life. To this sad little scenario, add the college's new Book Shop manager whose tender spirit draws people (including Marjory) to her like moths to a flame, a displaced orphan arriving on a train unexpectedly, then toss in a tragedy that brings them all together and you've got a lesson in appreciating the small things in life.

Martha Woodroof's panoply of minor characters was distracting at times: warring faculty members, a peevish probate lawyer, stand-offish college president, bumbling village constable. I found their stories distracting at times and unnecessary. I mean, do we really need the backstory of two alcoholics? The plot took unexpected twists and turns, if you like a meandering sort of tale. But in the end, Woodroof's first novel with its message of hope and redemption was itself a small blessing.

Martha Woodroof has been an arts and culture contributor at NPR. You can read more about the writer at her website (link).

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Stopping the story: WBN and me

I woke up this morning to the sad news that World Book Night had suspended operations because the event was too costly to continue, this despite "significant financial and time commitment from
WBN 2012: Glass Castle
publishers, writers, booksellers, librarians, printers, distributors, shippers." It seems that the book community and individual donors had come together to support WBN, but that the organization lacked "significant, sustainable outside funding."

For those of you who aren't familiar with World Book Night, it is was an incredible event. Writers and publishers agreed to donate titles that were specially printed for WBN and distributed by "Book Givers" on April 23 all over the country--over one and a half million books in since 2012. A-maz-ing.

I am a high school English teacher in a very small (traditionally) blue collar suburb outside a moderately-sized city in the Midwest. Pretty much middle America. But I feel as though every year I must dangle some sort of carrot to get my kids to read literature ... and then I ask them to read some more. Sometimes it's incredibly rewarding, but other times not so much. So when I heard about World Book Night three years ago (thank you, Denice!) I worried whether or not giving at school was really a good idea. After all, maybe the folks downtown at the soup kitchen where I volunteered would be more appreciative. Or maybe even at the bus stop at the end of my street? But books and teens and I have walked this readin' road for over twenty years and we'll be walkin' it several more, so despite my hesitation, it seemed like a good fit.

WBN 2012: Glass Castle
Because everyone needs a book of their own. (Or, if you're me a couple thousand books of my own, but that's another story.) A book to smell and riffle through and maybe mark in and dog ear and--most important of all--write one's own name in the front cover. I fussed and fretted over the titles, but, in the end, trusted the Universe to get the non-fiction books I chose into the right hands. And maybe the kids would read the book, and maybe they wouldn't. At least not right now. But some day, that title might speak to them.

The over 600 comments on Facebook are down-hearted; I'm guessing most are former Givers like me.  More than a few have suggested Kickstarter. (If Lavar Burton can do it for Reading Rainbow, why not someone for WBN?!) The organization will remain staffed through the summer to continue social media, so you can still check them out here.

Frank Herbert said it perfectly (my husband will appreciate this reference!): "There's no real ending. It's just the place where you stop the story." So World Book Night might be stopping the story but with over one and a half million books out there, "there's no real ending."


Saturday, June 28, 2014

Little People Big World: the Original

The Remarkable Courtship of General Tom Thumb (NetGalley ARC)
Nicholas Rinaldi
release date: August 2014

I know little of freak shows or P.T. Barnum, other than the circus. My exposure to little people came first from The Wizard of Oz as a child--pretty exploitive, I'm guessing--, and, more recently, the reality show Little People, Big World. So a historical novel about General Tom Thumb of P.T. Barnum's great museum in New York City sounded interesting. Author Nicholas Rinaldi alternates the voice of Charles Stratton (aka Tom Thumb) and his wife Lavinia Warren.

We meet Charles Stratton at age five when P.T. Barnum approaches his parents, wanting to exhibit the little boy at his American Museum. With few prospects--no special education, no Americans with Disabilities Act--Charlie's parents sent him off with Barnum, father in tow as chaperone. Stratton has a
tutor, Mr. Kwink, and he finds another family with the Snake Charmer, the Albino Lady, Nellis, the man without arms, Mary Darling, the house magician. Barnum teaches the young performer, now dubbed General Tom Thumb, how to sing, dance, and mime. And life for this little person revolves around Barnum, his museum, touring, and performing with the other "exhibits". Lavinia enters the scene when Charles is twenty-one, the attraction is immediate, and the rest, as they say, is history. In many ways, the Strattons' lives were the original reality show, pre-dating Matt and Amy Roloff (link) by well over 150 years.

The conceit of Nicholas Rinaldi's novel is that Charles Stratton, as Tom Thumb, acted as a Union spy during the civil war. Tom Thumb's extensive travels (one tour was estimated to be over 55,000 miles by land and sea) provided the perfect cover. So in Rinaldi's world, Tom travels, meets and greets his admirers, and every so often is given an envelope with the pass word, "Greenwood" and then passes it along to a courier. Interesting idea. Totally fiction from what I could read online. But perhaps most disappointing of all, never really explored by Rinaldi, other than the pick-up and drop-off.

The novel is full of walk-ons by an incredible number of important people in the 1860s: Walt Whitman, John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln. But the writing reads more like a history book or encyclopedia than a novel, and the incredibly colorful characters remained wooden and flat. For charming, read this account of Tom Thumb and his wife, Sketch of the Life. Personal appearance, character, and manners of  Charles S. Stratton, the man in miniature, known as Tom Thumb (link) written in 1874. It's the "account of Remarkable Dwarfs, Giants, and other Human Phenomena, of Ancient and Modern times". I think you'll be just as satisfied as reading this novel.