Monday, August 31, 2009

The Spiral Staircase - Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong spent seven years as a Roman Catholic nun. Unsure of her faith, she decided to leave the convent and reenter mainstream society as a graduate student. Despite obvious aptitude for her studies, she is plagued by panic attacks and an inability to assimilate back into the culture from which she once sought refuge. As she struggles to find her place, she battles debilitating bouts of depression and suffers disconcerting memory loss. At one point, her despair becomes so great that she attempts suicide. With nowhere to turn, she goes back to the convent and asks for help. Yet, once she reveals her suicide attempt, she is turned away and left with nothing. Armstrong's battle with mental illness is almost nothing compared to her battle with her faith - and her inability to understand the people she once thought she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. Eventually, Armstrong is diagnosed with epilepsy, and this medical understanding helps bring her back to the world of the living. In doing so, she confronts her questions of faith, and delves into not only Christianity, but also Judaism and Islam. Armstrong's intense personality lends itself to deep study, and she becomes consumed with religion. Given Armstrong's education and obvious talent for writing, I expected more self-reflection or a better understanding of how she became who she is once she learned of her diagnosis. Instead, I felt like she almost went completely off the deep end with her research. Her thoughts on religion became almost inaccesible, except perhaps to other scholars of religion, and it was unclear to me what audience she was trying to reach with this book. By the end, instead of being amazed by her religious aptitude, I wondered whether the epilepsy affected her brain in such as a way as to make her more suscpetible to religious rantings (it has been noted that many epileptics exhibit hyper-religiosity as a result of their condition). Armstrong has since published a number of books about religion and is widely revered as a religious scholar - so this is not to say that her writings in this book are nonsense or simply the rantings of a crazy person. Just that I did not quite understand the point of her memoir.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Believers - Zoe Heller

The Believers is the latest from the author of Notes on a Scandal (which I haven't read, but have heard good things about). This is set up like a lot of books I read and enjoy, and reminded me of Zadie Smith's novels. The Believers features the Litvinoff family i nNew York - headed by socialist lawyer Joel and his British wife Audrey. They have three children: Rosa, who has become disillusioned with her work at a teen program in Harlem and is discovering Orthodox Judaism, much to her mother's dismay and ridicule; Karla, who while battling her poor self-image, fertility issues and a controlling annoying spouse, finds herself falling in love with the owner of a newspaper stand outside her office; and Lenny, a foster child turned drug addict, who needs to escape his mother's codependence to find his own sobriety. Joel unexpectedly suffers a stroke that leaves him in a coma, and every one else in the family is left to question their life choices, and the impact his life choices have had on them. This book is filled with the idiosyncracies of family and what we all put up with in the name of love. There were times when the characters were a bit too ridiculous for me to handle. Audrey, who prides herself on her non-warm and fuzzy demeanor is so "brutally honest" with her children that it is painful to read. And Karla's husband is the most self-centered jerk, I wanted to excise all the pages on which his character appeared. This is one of those books that proceeds without resolution, but the glimpse into the varied lives of these individuals made for quite a read.

Brooklyn - Colm Toibin

The long-list for the Man Book Prize 2009 was annouced a few months ago: I was disappointed in myself that I had not read any of the books on the list. I decided to start with Brooklyn as I truly enjoyed Toibin's fictional biography of Henry James, The Master. Brooklyn tells the fairly common story of a young single girl in Ireland who is sent to America in the early 1950s in search of a job and a better life. I wasn't sure I would be that interested in reading this story yet again, but I was immediately taken in by Toibin's writing. It reminded me of James Joyce's short story "The Dead.". I particularly enjoyed the scene of Eilis's first Christmas in New York. She has no family, and so she agrees to help out her local parish and serve meals to the poor and elderly Irish in the neighborhood. The group sings old songs from the homeland, and Eilis is both homesick and content in her new surroundings. Toibin captured the scene perfectly. I almost ripped the pages out of the book to save in a scrapbook. As expected, Eilis ultimately meets a man in Brooklyn. This doesn't happen until about two thirds of the way through the book - no longer is Eilis making her way in this strange land - earning a living, going to school, getting lost and finding herself - instead she is becoming subservient once again, subject to the whims and desires of another (which is how she found herself in Brooklyn in the first place). I thought the book took a turn for the worse as this point, making me wonder if that was the story Toibin wanted to tell - that in this land of promise and hope, in the end all a young woman had was one choice - a choice that meant leaving her family and all that is familiar behind to please another. It left me sad, but it stayed with me. And that, I think, is a testament to Toibin's well-deserved Booker nomination.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dark Places - Gillian Flynn

Over 20 years ago, when Libby Day was 7 , her mother and two sisters were brutally murdered in their home. Libby's eye-witness testimony was used to convict her older brother, Ben. The passing years have not been kind to Libby as he found herself shuffled around from relative to relative, living off money donated by people who felt sorry for her, and never quite able to hold down a job or get her life together. Desperate for cash, she makes an appearance at a true crime fan get together, only to find herself ambushed by people supporting her brother's innocence, and pressuring her to recant her obviously coerced testimony. Startled, but skeptical, of the possibility that she has believed a lie for so long, Libby takes it upon herself to reinvestigate the events of that night. I read Flynn's novel Sharp Objects awhile back. I liked her flair for suspense, and feel like it only got better in this book. I was sufficiently creeped out by the description of the crime, that while reading in bed late a night, strange noises were definitely freaking me out. I felt the little twists and turns held together well for a mystery, and I kept me guessing throughout. Definitely a worthwhile whodunnit.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Dexter in the Dark - Jeff Lindsay (Dexter #3)

In the third installment of the serial killer who only kills more horrible serial killers, Dexter finds himself planning a wedding far outside of his budget, and trying to solve a couple of decapitated and burned ritualistic murders. The difference is that this time, Dexter finds himself without the Dark Passenger - the voice/feeling/being inside him that cues him to all his unsavory hunches. Dexter's sister, Deborah, is the lead dectective on the case - and I found myself increasingly irritated with her stubborness as an investigator. In the previous books, she has always needed Dexter's help to move her along on a case, but in this one, her tunnel vision and willingness to jump to conclusions about suspects was really a strong comment on the ineptitude of police officers, and the danger of being caught in their accusatory cross-hairs. While Dexter laments the loss of his inner demon, he also begins "mentoring" his soon to be step-children in the ways of altrusitic killings - the first rule being "Don't get caught." Cody, the step-son proves to be quite Dexter-like, though uncharacteristically, it is Dexter himself who ignores Cody's warnings about the murders. As with the previous two books, Lindsay does not exactly wow with his prose, his mysteries, or his dialogue, but he has still managed to create a very interesting semi-protagonist, endearing enough to keep me checking out his books. I thought this was the final book in the series, but I was quite happy to discover that a fourth will be released in September (Dexter by Design).

Lakota Woman - Mary Crow Dog

Mary Crow Dog is a half-Native America woman who grew up in the poverty of a South Dakota reservation, near Pine Ridge. Without a father, and uncertain of her identity, Mary Crow Dog tells the story of being a woman in a fiercely macho society intent on raising warriors. She tells of the historical struggle of her people - the Oglala Sioux - against the United States government, and the abuse she suffered in Catholic schools. Mary Crow Dog provides insight into the hopelessness and helplessness of Native Americans in the United States, and how those feelings translate into such high rates of alcoholism and suicide, and what such an identity among a people does to its women. Mary Crow Dog becomes part of the militant American Indian Movement (AIM), immersed in political action. She speaks with pride about the Ghost Dance and her experiences in sweat lodges and the power of her people. Her story is simply told, and while she explains her experiences with some insight - in terms of individual and group psychology - at times it seems a bit too simplistic. What is clear is that Mary Crow Dog has witnessed and survived unspeakable trauma - and she has told a version of her story. While she is a strong woman who wants to speak out against the abuse suffered by Native American women, she is also clearly loyal to her husband and to her tribal way of life. She feels different because of her half-breed status, but other than stating that she is at all times at outsider, she did not adequately articulate the treatment she received because of this. Lakota Woman is an important window into the lives of Native Americas - into their culture and all the traditions that merit so much pride - but also into the destruction and terror caused by the United States government. The book left me with many questions about the Pine Ridge reservation and the Sioux people, and I hope to find other books that will help me to better understand these myriad issues.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Between the Covers - Ellen Heltzel and Margo Hammond

I can never get enough book recommendations, and the one thing I love even more than reading books is reading a book about books I should read. The authors of this one are book critics, book bloggers, and good friends who have come together to suggest over 600 titles for women and our complicated lives. They have suggestions for women of every age group, and for all aspects of life - from childhood, to working years, to retirement - and for all the phases in between - books about having children and careers, books about being caretakers for elderly parents, books about all the phases of love, books about dreaming big and moving on, books about friendships and mother-daughter relationships, books about struggling with our inner demons, books about cooking, books about inspirational women - both non-fiction and fiction the lists are endless. There are some obvious favorites in here like Maya Angelou and Amy Tan, but also lots of hidden gems. The books are grouped by category, with the authors' 10 suggestions in each genre. Each book has a short description. I kept a pad of paper with me as I read through the entries, and by the end had a list of 50+ new books to add to my to-read list! The more of these kind of books I read, the more convinced I am that I just need to retire and become a volunteer book reader. And it makes me happy to know that my excitement for reading and all the books out there will probably never end.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

French Women Don't Get Fat - Mireille Guillard

I have developed a taste for Veuve Clicquot - the French Champagne. Having seen this book all over the bestseller lists, and then learning that that it was written by the CEO of Clicquot, I decided to add it to my to-read list. This starts out as Guillard's story growing up in France, coming to America for school, and leaving 20 pounds heavier. I anticipated a memoir, but as the title suggests, this is more of a how-to diet book, filled with suggestions and recipes for eating delicious Parisian food while maintaining a size 2 waist. In that respect, I found the book pretty boring - it didn't offer much new in the dieting world from what I can tell - eat smaller portions, walk, drink lots of water...No real secrets, just some discipline. I haven't tried any of the receipes, but Guillard suggests that one of the secrets to staying thin is to introduce more variety into your diet...perhaps I shall try a couple, along with a few more glasses of champagne.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Between Here and April - Deborah Copaken Kogan

This book is a reminder to me that I need to keep better track of the sources of the recommendations I receive. I am certain that there are some sources that always pan out - and others, like the one this book came from - that I need to just say no to. Between Here and April is told from the first-person perspective of Elizabeth Burns, a journalist mother of two. When she was a child, her best friend April suddenly disappeared. She simply stopped coming to school and despite the rumors buzzing around class, Elizabeth never quite put together in her head what happened to her playmate. Years later, certain triggers cause Elizabeth to pass out - and as she sorts out her feelings with a psychiatrist, she is compelled to investigate April's mysterious disappearance. The story sounds quite compelling. The problem is there is just too much going on in Elizabeth 's life and simply no focus to the story. Elizabeth's marriage is falling apart, her husband has a curious S&M obsession. Elizabeth's mother is emotionally unavailable. An ex-boyfriend of Elizabeth's is back in the picture - while at the same time Elizabeth is uncovering rumors of infidelity by April's mother and father - and Elizabeth revisits traumatic events she experienced while covering a story in a war-torn country. While a couple of these story lines may be necessary to illustrate the complexity of Elizabeth's life and the difficulty in sorting out her feelings with respect to April, mostly it just felt like too much of an attempt to shock the reader, with a lack in sophistication in terms of explanation. While the premise was a good one, the book itself was sorely disappointing.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

A Reliable Wife - Robert Goolrick

Every six months or so, I receive a package from Powells Books as part of their subscription club called Indiespensable. I get a new and noteworthy book, along with other little treats - some times chocolate from a local Portland artisan, seeds to plant in a garden, little notebooks for joting down thoughts, or short stories published on fun fine paper. It's like have a literary Christmas and I'm so excited everytime I open up the box. I get my book recommendations from a variety of sources, but sometimes it's nice to just have someone send you something and say "Read this. We thought it was good, you should too." In A Reliable Wife, Ralph Truitt, a wealthy widower in 1909 seeks a reliable wife through a newspaper advertisement. Catherine appears by train from Chicago to marry him, pretending to be a simple but loyal companion. But, both Ralph and Catherine have ulterior motives. Ralph wants Catherine to lure his estranged son back home. Catherine hopes to murder her husband and inherit all his wealth. As their pasts catch up with them, the two share secrets and hide even more, as they learn to survive together in the bitter rural Wisconsin winter. A Reliable Wife is finely written, and the story moves at a compelling pace. It would be a great book club book - lots to discuss about relationships and the nature of love, obsession, and the need for control. A very welcome gift from Powell's - I look forward to review a couple others I have on my nightstand, and to receiving a few more of these literary gifts in the mail!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's - John Elder Robison

Earlier this year, I read Augusten Burrough's memoir A Wolf at the Table. I wondered in my review about the life of Burrough's brother who was briefly mentioned in the book - and an anonymous reader of the blog informed me he actually wrote his own memoir - this book - Look Me in the Eye - about his life growing up with Asperger's. Robison's book is interesting from a number of perspectives. The first is that he is Burroughs's brother, and lived through much of the same abuse and turmoil. But, at 8 years older, he also has many memories of life before Burroughs - as he attempted to navigate the world recognizing that something about him was different, but never being able to figure it out. Decades before the Asperger's diagnosis existed, Robison went through life being yelled at for his inability to look people in the eye. Unable to read facial cues or understand the give and take of a "normal" conversation, he was labeled a deviant or sociopath and consistently told that there must be something wrong with him and that he would end up in prison. The more people pushed him away, the more Robison retreated into his own world. Despite this, Robison found that he had an interest in and an aptitude for electronics. He loved to tinker with things, break them apart and fix them again. He also had a fascination with music. So, after dropping out of high school, he went on the road with a variety of musicians, including KISS, maintaining their equipment and designing elaborate pyrotechnics for their performances. As Robison tells his life story, he points out the areas he was able to succeed in, and those in which he experienced failures, because of the limitations of Aspergers. In the 1990s, a friend of Robison's informed him of this diagnosis. With a whole new explanation available to him, Robison began to better understand the way his mind worked, why he behaved certain ways - but most importantly, why it didn't make him a bad person. With the help of supportive friends and determination, he in a sense trained himself to minimize actions that made him appear awkward to others in social settings, and he allowed himself to take pride in his abilities. There is a common perception that people with Asperger's lack the ability to express empathy - and because of this that they must be inherently devoid of emotion. Robison expresses, often painfully, the real truth about himself - that while empathy may be difficult to express, he was never diminished in his ability to feel, to hurt, and to love. Robison's insight into his own experience is remarkable - his desire to make connections in the face of rejection is heartbreaking, but eye opening. While Robison is clearly an incredibly intelligent individual, often times his observations and his conclusions are childlike in their simplicity, but refreshing in their honesty. Because I am not into electronics myself, much of Robison's description of his work throughout the book was not the most interesting to me - but his self-analysis, especially with respect to his relationships with the people in his family, more than made up for it. I'm eager now to read the rest of Burroughs's books, and many books recommended by Robison written by other Aspergians (his word for those with Aspergers).