Sunday, April 13, 2014


We are all completely beside ourselves
Karen Joy Fowler

Until she was five, Rosemary Cooke had a sister. Fern, her almost-twin. The two girls were inseparable: they jumped and sang and cuddled and competed for attention. They were joined at the heart with a love that was bigger than even they knew at the time. And then, without even a good-bye, Fern was gone. No one in the family talked about her disappearance--Rose ached; her mother crumpled; older brother Lowell lashed out.

But this isn't a crime novel. Fern wasn't kidnapped or murdered. She was sent away to the research lab of a Dr. Uljevik in South Dakota. You see, Fern was a chimpanzee. The girls' father, a psychology professor, wanted to study learning theory and intelligence by raising a chimp child alongside a human child. And so when Rose was one-month-old, three-month-old Fern became her sister. And for a time it worked. Grad students ran test after test on both girls; Dad published scholarly papers and prospered. The girls were featured in a New York Times story. Mom kept detailed journals--baby books for both human and chimp. There was love.

Twenty years later Rose's memories of Fern were still as clear as if they happened yesterday: corn-on-the-cob kernels stuck in her stubby little teeth, the hairs on her chin, her strawberry smell after a bubble bath. And how, while playing a game of Same/Not Same with the grad students, Fern always gave Rose a red poker chip ... for same.  Rose misses her sister with a longing that all but pulses on the page. And Rose also misses the family they were with Fern. Lowel, now a member of the Animal Liberation Front, is wanted by the FBI for fire-bombing a research laboratory. (Some readers will cringe when Lowell relates some of the horrors he encountered in research labs, but Fowler approached the atrocities guardedly.)  Dad frequently loses himself in alcohol, and Mom (who had loved Fern best, Rose thinks) has fended off her depression in a bustle of bridge games and tennis.  The novel is the story of Rose trying to make sense of her loss and find her way back to her sister and brother. What did she remember and what really happened to provoke Fern's leaving?

I read so much mid-list fiction, that sometimes plots and characters run together. But author Karen Joy Fowler created a story so original, I'm still peeling off layer upon layer. Is it a story about family love? About our love for non-human animals? Is it a treatise for living vegan? Or maybe how our memories are such fragile, imperfect glimpses into our past? An undercurrent of pathos ran through nearly every scene and so while my heart was heavy, I raced through the pages as if it was a thriller. I can honestly say I will remember Fern and Rose for quite some time.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

I don't read Stephen King

Stephen King

Let me start out by saying I don't do Stephen King. Really, I don't. I've never seen Carrie, even though the original came out my senior year of high school. I also haven't seen Cujo or or Pet Cemetery or The Shining. I just don't do horror. Really. Or anything violent or scary or icky. (Believe me, I've watched quite a few movies through my fingers: "Tell me when it's over!") Of course I have seen Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me, but who hasn't? They're not "real" Stephen King. Oh, and I've read The Green Mile, but I put that in the Shawshank category. And then there is Full Dark, No Stars, but I didn't have a choice: book club. Oops--11/22/63. Ok, so maybe I do read a little bit of Mr. King. But only a little and just enough to make me drag my feet reading Joyland, lent to me by my son, who, it must be said is a King reader bar none (I mean, he's read the Dark Tower series a gazillion times). Then he promised me I'd cry at the end, so I flipped the King-O-Meter over to the Shawshank/Green Mile category and it was off to the races amusement park!

Dev Jones has little money in the bank and can't face another summer of work study custodial duty on campus. A little adventure wouldn't hurt, either. So after sophomore year at a Maine state college, he takes a job at Joyland, an amusement park in North Carolina. (Dev is also soon to suffer a broken heart, but that goes with the territory when you're twenty.) He's a greenie--in carnie talk, a part-timer who's asked to do all the jobs the regulars don't have time for: mopping up vomit, cleaning out trash, and wearing the fur. Dev happens to have a knack for the fur, which is carnie for playing the mascot. In Joyland's case, that's Howie the Happy Hound, a kind of a cross between Clifford and Huckleberry Hound. Kids love Dev's Howie and Dev loves the kids. In fact, while playing Howie, he saves a little girl and becomes an instant hero.

King's cast of characters carry the story for the first two-thirds of the novel. There's fellow greenies Tom and Erin, good kids both. There's the motherly land-lady Mrs. Shoplaw, the psychic (or was she?)  Fortuna, the Bela Bugosi lookalike owner Mr. Easterbrook, the all-around-good guy carnie Lane Hardy. Throw in an aloof (and drop dead gorgeous) single mom Dev meets on the beach and her young son with muscular dystrophy, and you've got a great story right there.

Except this is a Hard Case Crime novel. The series promises to bring "the best in hard-boiled crime fiction, from lost pulp classics to new work by today's most powerful writers." Enter an unsolved murder at Joyland four years earlier and the "crime" part of the novel comes into focus. Add the fact that a ghost that haunts the Horror House where she was killed and the little handicapped boy has "the sight" and sees and knows far more than any ten-year-old should ... and the Stephen King becomes clear.

So while I'll still insist I'm not a Stephen King reader, I loved Joyland. Give me tender and sweet with a pint-sized Intuitive, and I can ignore the slit throats. But I did cry at the end, thank you very much.

Monday, April 7, 2014

A little gem

The Frangipani Hotel (NetGalley)
Violet Kupersmith

Our muddy patch of the worlds was already shadowy and blood-soaked and spirit-friendly long before the Americans got here. There's ancient and ugly things waiting to harm you in that darkness. 

Writer Violet Kupersmith gives us a peek into Vietnam in her short story collection, The Frangipani Hotel. A little bit Peony in Love, a little bit Tiger's Wife, this debut work is gem. I sometimes find
magical realism a stretch, with its emphasis on lyricism over plot and character. But Kupersmith serves up both. Centered around a hotel that has seen better days in a run-down Saigon neighborhood, her stories brush up against each other, but never collide. The characters are complex, if not always likeable: the self-important uncle who runs the Frangipani, two sisters who (reluctantly) are sent off to explore their heritage one spring break, an old man who turns python, an American expat who leaves Vietnam with more than she arrived, and a nursing home resident whose war terrors materialize.

Novels of China and Japan have long been popular with American readers--think Pearl Buck and Lisa See and Amy Tan and James Claval. Other Asian countries are not so well-represented and I'm left to wonder why, considering the United States has had her fingers in so many Asian pots. The only other book I've read about Vietnam was Stealing Buddha's Dinner, a refugee's memoir by Bich Minh Nguyen. One review I read said that Frangipani Hotel was little more than a graduate student's writing project; another said the ghosts stories were chilling. I couldn't disagree more. It was a satisfying read, told in a fresh voice with just enough magic to reveal a Vietnam I wouldn't have otherwise known.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Who but thou?

Under the Wide and Starry Sky (NetGalley)
Nancy Horan

Take thou the writing. Thine it is. For who/Burnished the sword, blew on the drowsy coal/Held still the target higher ... who but thou? 

I loved Nancy Horan's first novel, Loving Frank--I got a glimpse into the life and loves of a woman I
knew nothing about, Frank Lloyd Wright's murdered lover Mameh Borthwick. It was an engaging novel that kept me turning the page. Horan's latest novel about Fanny Stevenson was not nearly as captivating.

Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne Stevenson was author Robert Louis Stevenson's American wife. Ten years his junior, Fanny was separated from her husband when the two met in Europe where Fanny and her children were in exile of sorts--Fanny had spirited the children away, finally leaving her philandering husband so that Fanny and daughter Belle could attend a school of drawing and painting in Paris. Louis and Fanny meet after she suffers a personal tragedy and Louis is smitten, despite the fact that she was ten years his senior and married with children. In fact, when Fanny returned home to take up again with (or put off for good) her husband, Louis followed her to San Francisco, traveling at great cost to his delicate health.

We travel with the Stevensons to Scotland and London and Samoa--and I waited for the magic to begin. I had listened to Nancy Horan's interview on the Diane Rehm show in January and was intrigued with their life. But for some reason, the book didn't measure up to the interview or Loving Frank. The characters were well-researched, the plot didn't stray from the facts of Stevenson's life, but it just fell flat. I am somewhat ashamed to admit (avid reader that I am!) I skimmed the second half of the book after diligently sticking with the first. I skipped to the last few chapters of their life in Samoa and was there when Louis died; the last chapter which covered Fanny's life after Louis' death interested me more than many of the earlier chapters.

That said, do I want to re-read some of Robert Louis Stevenson's work? Yes. Will I think of his life and loves while I read him? Yes. So maybe Horan's work was successful after all.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sam I Am

Ham (NetGalley)
Sam Harris

I never meant to read this book. Quite frankly,when I was choosing books for my e-Reader I saw the cover, my eyes glanced over "David Sedaris" in the first line of the blurb--and thought I was getting an ARC of Sedaris's newest. So when I opened the book on my Kindle and saw author "Sam Harris", I was like,
"Who the heck is Sam Harris?!" But now I know and Mr. Harris had me from at least Chapter 3 when he dished out what I first thought was some delicious celebrity gossip--and later realized was an endearing snapshot of his long friendship with Liza with a Z. And by the end of this memoir, he had me in tears.

Sam Harris won Star Search in 1984 with his beautiful rendition of "Over the Rainbow." (I only know because I had to look it up (link) on the Google.) In his memoir Ham, Harris recounts the fits and starts of his career, his upbringing in Oklahoma, his life as a gay man, and (most tenderly) his love for husband Danny Jacobson and their son Cooper. Harris was especially transparent about his distant relationship with his father and his recovery from alcohol addiction--and I always thought his honesty was without guile.

To be fair to myself, Harris is known predominantly for his Broadway roles and I've never set a foot on Broadway, and his appearances on television variety and talk shows in the nineties with which I also have little familiarity. (In a funny aside, when I first searched for Sam Harris after that "who-the-heck" moment, I went to this link; wrong guy--definitely, the wrong guy!) Here's one of my favorite (yes, I have a favorite already after only just "meeting" him!) of his songs (link) from the rock opera Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

This memoir was told with such sardonic wit and sweet tenderness I'll remember it Sam Harris for quite some time.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Listmania: Teens

What to do when a young person "graduates" from YA novels and wants to read books with themes and plots that are more complex? So much contemporary fiction today has situations and language that many parents wouldn't find appropriate--for young teens, especially. (Imagine my shock one day at school when I saw Fifty Shades of Gray stacked casually on a freshman girl's desk!) So I thought going through my own stacks from the past couple years might give both teens and parents some ideas for great reading. Most of the books I chose featured younger protagonists; I also noticed that many convey the idea that our world, difficult though life may sometimes be, is one where hope triumphs over despair, and healing over pain.

From my blog: 
Orphan Train ! Christina Baker Kline
The Rooms are Filled Jessica Null Vealitzek
Any of the Flavia de Luce books by Alan Bradley (I've got posts for four of his books) !
Forgive Me Leonard Peacock *! Matthew Quick
Noah's Rainy Day Sandra Brannan
The Lavender Garden Kate Morton
The Dressmaker Kate Alcott
The Silver Star ! Jeanette Walls
Dear Lucy Julie Sarkissian
Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots Jessica Sofer
15 Days Without a Head * ! Dave Cousins
The Forgotten Garden ! Kate Morton
Blind Sight Meg Howry
Age of Miracles* ! Karen Thompson Walker
Miss Peregrine's Home for Misfit Children Ransom Riggs
The Fault in Our Stars* ! John Green
If I Stay* ! Gayle Forman
Sarah's Key Tatiana De Rosnay
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet ! Rief Larsen
The Help Kathryn Stockett

*indicates this is a YA novel--I must say, I love 'em!
! my absolute favs

Lost and found

Orphan Train
Christina Baker Kline

Vivan Daly and Molly Ayer were both tossed and tumbled as young women. Orphans (at least for all practical purposes in Molly' case) they endured long, lonely years before they came to rest. Abused in a series of foster homes where conditions ranged from abuse to neglect, they bore the scars: Vivian, aloof and haughty; Molly, rebellious and angry. Although separated in age by over seventy years, they find in each other the sister-daughter-mother they never had. And in discovering each other, they find themselves.

Niamh's arrived in New York as many Irish did--sick and poor. When a fire raced through their tenement, Niamh found herself in the care (and I use that word loosely) of the Children's Aid Society, bound for the West on an orphan train. Re-named Dorothy because her name was so difficult for Americans to decipher, she became indentured labor for two families--thrown out of one in a blizzard, boarding with a sympathetic teacher for a time, and finally finding security with the Nielsens, who owned a small grocery-dry goods store. From there, life did get better, but Niamh-cum-Dorothy-cum-Vivian always carries with her the pain of her lost family.

Molly was as combative as Vivian was constrained. Shuffled from foster family to foster family, she carves out her identity with piercings, tattoos, and outrageously dyed hair. In her latest situation, she finds herself excelling in school; her boyfriend anchored her and life was tolerable for a time. That is until she tries to smuggle  a copy of Jane Eyre out of the public library. And that is how Molly came to serve fifty community service hours helping Vivian sort through, clean, and organize her memories attic.

Orphan Train was a quick and satisfying read. If the plot was a bit predictable at times, author Christina Baker Kline did manage something of a twist at the end and I don't think many readers would be disappointed. I found myself wanting to know more about this historic relocation of over 250,000 children--again, always a sign of a good book, in my view. Check out this short clip if you, too, want to know more (link).

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Leaving home

The Rooms Are Filled (NetGalley)
Jessica Null Vealitzek
release date: April 2014

Michael Nygaard must leave the only home he's ever known, an iconic Minnesota farm with a milk cow and chicken house, a white farmhouse surrounded by pines and oaks, a long gravel driveway. Michael and his dad shared early morning walks in the woods, watching and tracking local wolf packs, sometimes even disarming traps other farmers had set for the creatures. But after his father's sudden death, all that is over and Michael and his mother Anne must move to Illinois where she can find work in her brother's bar.

Rose and Julia have been inseparable since kindergarten. Wherever there was one, there was the other--"Kindred spirits are always kindred spirits. It can't be helped," said Rose. Even after college the girls were
roommates, and then they were more. Julia accepts a job as a teacher; Rose, a journalist, and together life's possibilities seem limitless. But after an uncomfortable lunch date with Rose and  one of her student's family, Julia yearns for freedom and anonymity, no longer certain whether she can live with a love not-yet-accepted. And so she leaves.

Their lives merge in small town Ackerman, Illinois. Michael's mother struggles with her job as a waitress, while Michael adjusts to after school snacks at the bar instead of the kitchen table, sidewalks instead of wide-open fields, and their small, cramped house instead of the light-filled, breezy farmhouse. Julia breathes a little more freely in her apartment over the lunch counter; she starts a job teaching and Michael is her student. But like knows like and  Julia recognizes in Michael another fragile soul who just doesn't fit. Even as she tries to protect him from school bullies, she faces a bully of her own.

The Rooms Are Filled is a tender story and there is much about this novel I liked. Writer Jessica Vealitzek captures the beauty of small moments well and some of her description was crystalline. Parts of the plot (especially the story of Rose and Julia) felt uneven. Since the novel was set in the early 1980s, their story was inevitably more closed because of attitudes at the time. But I couldn't help but think the story would have been richer if she had explored that relationship more fully.

The wreck of time

The Goldfinch
Donna Tartt

I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next. 

Theo Decker loved his once-a-model mother above all else. He loved her heels kicked off in the living room, her sandalwood perfume, her glossy, black ponytail, her hand in his, the case of the wobblies she got on cab rides. In fact, even his father's leaving them only registered as a blip on the screen of Theo's life--because still there was Her. 

And then one day she wasn't. Theo survives the horrific act of violence that kills her, but not before he holds a dying man in his arms and receives a ring that will change his life. Theo also leaves the scene with The Goldfinch--that now iconic image that has captivated the hearts of so many Americans (link). 

Theo's life, then, becomes one he never expected. Something like the cloud that envelopes the Peanuts character Pigpen, a cloud of love lost and found, of violence and death, follows Theo everywhere. Social services barges into his life; family friends rescue him. Long-lost Dad reappears--and disappears just as easily. A street-wise Russian teen becomes his best friend. Theo comes to love exquisite antiques. He loses himself in a foggy haze of drugs and alcohol. And all the while there is The Goldfinch, the treasure he can't relinquish, that ties him forever to his mother. 

I don't do well with teenage angst (probably because as a high school teacher, I live with it day in and day out) and there's plenty of it in this novel. I also don't do well with drugs and violence. My distaste for the TV series Breaking Bad is considerable--and there's a lot of Breaking Bad in The Goldfinch. But still I plowed through the novel, all 771 pages of it. There's an incredible loop-the-loop at the end that kept me going, hoping for Theo's redemption. Author Donna Tartt ends the novel with what I sometimes call "blah blah blah"--a character's ontological reflection on life and the nature of being--that in this case was so beautiful and compelling I didn't roll my eyes. And while I'd find myself at once disappointed in Theo's abject nihilism, I am forever drawn to his Goldfinch-like resilience and bravery, "refusing to pull back from the world."

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A promise unfulfilled

The Making of the Lamb
Robert Harley Bear
release date: April 2014

The plot line of Robert Harley Bear's novel The Making of the Lamb was juicy and full of promise: that  Jesus of Nazareth traveled to the British Isles during the eighteen years that are "lost"--or at least not mentioned in Scripture. I'm familiar with the lost years tale of Christ in India, but this I'd never heard this legend. William Blake even asks "And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon Englands mountains green" in a poem, now the lyrics of the hymn "Jerusalem". How rich a story this could be, I thought, expecting something along the lines of The Red Tent or The Robe. Something that would give me a glimpse of the man Jesus in a way I hadn't seen him before. Something revealing.

Bear begins the novel with the twelve-year-old Jesus, dressed in rough clothing, teaching in the temple. Even as a boy, in Bear's take, the high priests were suspicious of his arguments and understanding of Scripture and feared revolution. Knowing he was being watched, Mary implores her uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, to spirit Jesus out of the country on one of his trips. Uncle Joseph was a wealthy tin trader and his son Daniel, Jesus' cousin, sometimes accompanied him. And so with Romans chasing them, uncle, son, and nephew manage a too-close-for-comfort escape.

And finally land in England. But not before Bear introduces a present-day boy who becomes curious about a tunic he comes across in an old church  while traveling with his family. And along the way we visit 73 AD when the cross was first carved. Then Jesus, again, who is learning swordsmanship from a young Celt and studying with the druids and rescuing a slave who is really a captured Roman and sometimes conversing with God his Father ... you get the picture. Maybe Jesus' story would have been quite enough. But unfortunately, Bear had most of the characters speak in contemporary vernacular and the dialogue fell flat. This is Jesus, speaking to Mary, "Oh, Mother! What a wonderful way you have of putting things. You have brought that memory close to my heart, and I can relive it now forever." Ouch.

There are a few glimpses of this Jesus that I found thought-provoking. As a boy, he knew God was his Father, but little else of his mission, other than it would someday be revealed. He had some incredible gifts--being able to speak a language fluently after only hearing a snippet of conversation--but didn't perform miracles. He did, sometimes, see images or dream dreams that were intuitive and often got out of some tense situations by sharing what he saw. I was intrigued by Jesus' curiosity about the druids, although, again, the dialogue got in my way.

Such great possibilities ... but short on delivering anything divine.