Tuesday, June 23, 2009

So Brave, Young, and Handsome - Leif Enger

A couple years ago, I read and loved Leif Enger's first novel, Peace Like a River. I thought it would be a great book for a teenage boy filled with advenutre and family, but also quite touching. I was eager to read Enger's latest novel set in 1915, but sadly, I was sorely disappointed. So Brave, Young, and Handsome, features Monte Beckett, a struggling writer. He passes each day in his Minnesota farmhouse trying to write 1,000 words, but finding he is inspired less and less as the days go by. When he spies an outlaw, Glendon Hale, rowing on the river near his house, he is taken under Hale's spell and compelled to leave his family and travel to Mexico. From there, the book becomes an adventurous Western, filled with outlaws and villains. I am actually a huge fan of Western movies, but have found that I just cannot stomach the stories in writing. They seem boring to me, even when the writing is beautiful - which Enger's often is. I was kind of reminded of Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses. Despite the travels and adventures, I was not getting much more out of the book. I think I needed more personal reflection from the characters. I barely had any interest in finishing this book, and if it hadn't been for my great love of Peace Like a River, I doubt I would have slogged all the way through.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins

A couple weeks ago Jake showed me an article in the paper about the dark nature of recent successful Young Adult fiction. Among those included was Jay Asher's novel about teen suicide, Thirteen Reasons Why, which I read a couple months ago. Other books mentioned featured eating disorders, depression, and murder. One title that stuck in my head was The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins who writes the Gregor Underland Series for 8-9 year olds (I read the first one and had a mixed reaction awhile back). The Hunger Games takes place in a futurisitc United States, where people live in one of 13 Districts. Katniss, the main character, takes care of her mother and younger sister, following the death of her father in the coal mines. Katniss's family is beyond poor and she has learned to survive by becoming an outlaw hunter with her best friend Gale. Once a year, the Capitol hosts the "reaping" - a festival of sorts featuring The Hunger Games. One boy and one girl from each district are chosen at random to fight to the death until only one victor remains, bringing food and much needed wealth to their district. When Katniss's 12-year old sister is chosen, Katniss volunteers in her place. Along with Peeta, the chosen boy from her district, she trains in combat and survival and is ultimately dumped with the other 23 competitors into a man-made landscape. The Games are televised, like a reality "Survivor" for the rest of the country to watch. Young children pitted against each other in a Lord of the Flies situation, is barbaric, and Collins does not hold back in her descriptions of how the kids die away. Katniss struggles with her own participation in the games - she does not want the Capitol to have control over her, but at the same time, she has a strong survival instinct, as she tries to figure out who to trust and which alliances to enter into. There is a great deal of sadness in this book - ideas of loss and control, as well as destiny and love. It is a definite page-turner. Even though I assumed things would somehow end well for Katniss, this did not stop me from being worried everytime a predator was near, or wondering how she would get herself out each successive difficult situation. I was sad to come to the end of the book, but very happy to learn that this is just the first in a series, the second of which comes out in September (Catching Fire). I look forward to hearing more about Katniss, Peeta, Gale, and everyone else in this strange new land. But, I am a bit concerned that this is the direction young adult fiction is taking, and wonder how Collins's target audience interprets the blood-thirsty nature of The Games, and what effects positive or negative this series will have on young readers.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Still Alice - Lisa Genova

Still Alice features a 50-year old psychology professor from Harvard who has just been diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer's. At first, Alice attributes her forgetfulness to getting older and possibly to menopause. But, when the symtoms begin to include forgetting people she has just met, an inability to recall words during her lectures (ironically on the acquisition of language), she knows something more is going on. Following her diagnosis, her husband - also a Harvard professor and scientist, finds it impossibly to accept and sets about to learn as much as he can about the disease and alternate possibilities. Given the genetic link to Alzheimer's, Alice's children as also faced with the possibility of facing a similar future and treat their mother with differing levels of support, denial, and encouragement. The majority of the book is told from the first person perspective of Alice. As her disease progresses, however, the book switches to the third person, as Alice becomes unable to tell her own story completely. Lisa Genova is herself a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard and has a tremendous grasp of the neuroscience and medicine behind Alzheimer's. One of the most touching actions, I found, was Alice's forming of a support group for others in her situation, after finding that all of the organized support at her hospital was for caregivers of Alzheimer's patients. This book has been criticized for its trite dialogue, but I think those reviews miss the point. This is the first fiction book I've ever read about this disease, and I felt it really highlighted for me the torture of going from a wholly independent person to one who knows they will slowly lose the ability to remember the faces and names of the people they love the most in the world. It is a heartbreaking and difficult disease - for those who suffer from it, and for those who take care of the people they love who can no longer remember them or trust their best intentions. While incredibly sad, Still Alice goes a long way in evoking sympathy and understanding for a very complicated and scary experience.

Revolutionary Road - Richard Yates

As a general rule, once I have seen a movie based on a book, I do not go back and read the book (I do not have the reverse rule and often love seeing a movie after enjoying a book). The reason for this is that once I have seen a story play out on the screen, I have a very difficult time imagining characters on my own. I heard that Revolutionary Road was a fantastic book, and quite different from the movie. So, despite my better judgment (and after having found the movie brilliantly acted, but incredibly depressing), I borrowed it from the library. I must have heard wrong because the movie is nearly a verbatim script of the book (though the book has a bit of foreshadowing missing from the movie). And I could not help but hear Leonardo DiCaprio's voice everytime Frank Wheeler's dialogue came onto the page. But, if you have not already seen the movie - this book is quite fantastic. It is the story of a young couple living in suburbia. They lead a seemingly perfect existence. Frank spends his days at a rather mundane job in the city, and April is the consummate housewife. But, of course, there is more under the surface. April, once an aspiring actress, joins a local acting troupe and is disappointed by her performance. Her dissatisfaction in this one area is simply a manifestation of her overall unhappiness living the life everyone else wants her to lead, but which she knows she and Frank never intended. They hatch a plan to move to Paris, but when April discovers that she is pregnant, real life threatens to swallow up her dreams (she reminds me very much of Betty, Don Draper's wife in "Mad Men"). Frank too has a lot of anger and frustration surrounding his job. He has an affair with a co-worker and in many ways finds himself trapped in the role of domestic provider. There are a couple quirky characters along the way - my favorite in the book being the husband of the Wheeler's real estate agent (the role of their schizophrenic son garnered a Best Supporting Actor win from the movie). Like the movie, this book left me with a feeling of great emptiness - of the truth that survival, success, and family, often require choices which leave behind the dreams that brought us so much happiness in younger days. Revolutionary Road is about more than just the typical suburban angst and addresses some pretty shocking choices. It is finely written, but difficult for me to determine what reaction I would have had to it if I'd read the book before watching the movie. Not recommended for anyone looking for light-hearted reading.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Garlic and Sapphires - Ruth Reichl

I have reviewed Reichl's two previous books Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me With Apples. This one is probably my favorite of the three, and the most focused on Reichl's job as the restaurant critic for the New York Times. Early on, Reichl realizes that her photograph is up in every NY restaurant, and that if she wants to have an authentic experience, she will need to adopt various costumes and personas. As she dons wigs and thrift-store clothing, even her closest friends and co-workers can't make her, but without hesitation, her five year old son runs to her everytime. While Reichl adjusts to the fame and power of her new position, and its constraints on her time, I found her nods to her relationship with her son to be some of the most touching, and not overplayed, moments in the book. The incidents with her husband, however, left me a little more worried for the family situation. In each of the chapters, Reichl recounts her experience at a given restaurant, she includes her actual reviews, and a few recipes of her own. At times the book is a bit too repetitious of the actual reviews - though it was interesting to see how Reichl transformed her numerous visits to a given restaurant into one review. At times Reichl seems a bit full of herself, but this actually becomes part of the memoir. When her husband warns that she is becoming the obnoxious person she once made fun of - Reichl is forced to evaluate whether her myriad costumes are meant as a disguise from the restaurant owners or from her own self.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Film Club - David Gilmour

Awhile back I read a touching memoir called Life, Death & Bialys about a father-son pair who take a baking class together and discover new and wonderful things about their complicated relationship. I was hoping that The Film Club would give me an equally warm-hearted feeling. This is the story of a 16-year boy who just isn't quite cutting it in school. He is bored in class and does not seem motivated to do any of this work. His film loving father decides that maybe letting him drop out of school for a bit will create a long-term solution. But, there's one catch. His son must watch three movies a week with him. The shocked son readily agrees. And so the Film Club begins. I then thought perhaps this would be like a book I read and LOVED a long time ago (courtesy of my Aunty Marji) called The Day I Became an Autodidact by Kendall Hailey - about a teenage girl who homeschools herself with a definite plan to
take control of her own education and learn everything on her own. I so wished I could be her - staying home everyday and just reading and reading and reading and becoming an expert on so many things. I thought perhaps Mr. Gilmour had a similarly structured plan in mind for his son - only with movies instead of books. Alas, I was sorely mistaken. Instead of arranging weeks of films by genre or time period or director - and teaching his son what he could about a given issues - Gilmour appears to pick his films at random. He spouts off a sentence or two about each movie (mostly while his son rolls his eyes or gazes off into the distance) and then he just hits play. Gilmour clearly has a great deal of knowledge about film, and I felt like the book was a vehicle for him to espouse his views on the given films, rather than give the reader any insight into how the films may have affected his son - or creating any meaningful dialogue between the two. In addition to the movie watching, Gilmour spends much of the book focused on his son's pathetic love life. His son shares quite a bit with him about the girls who lead him on and break his heart, but who he can't help being unnaturally obsessed with. And Gilmour offers to him quite possibly the world's worst advice, over and over. The two also seem to drink a lot together, despite his son's young age, including a stint in Cuba where the two order beer after beer. Gilmour is then shocked when his son reveals that he uses drugs (perhaps the persistant malaise, lack of interest in anything, and disastrous personal relationships were not big enough red flags?) - and despite Gilmour's stern warning at the beginning of the book that if he finds out his son is using drugs that The Film Club will stop and his son will be cut off - not surprisingly for a father with no boundaries, the incident is brushed aside and Film Club continues in all its pointless nonsense. Along the way, Gilmour is also proud to include stories about his more than civilized relationship with his ex-wife - who strangely appears to have no objections to this weird "educational" situation. There is no doubt that Gilmour loves his son, but he portrays him in this book as one of the biggest losers of all time. It would be nice in a couple years to include an Afterward (hopefully) showing how The Film Club saved his son from an otherwise dead-end high school career, and how his son is now a successful film maker, or something of the sort. I am a big believer that mainstream high school is certainly not for everyone, and that home-school or self-directed learning is a great option for many kids. But, I still believe a semblance of focus and a plan is necessary for learning to actually take place. This book did nothing to prove me wrong, and I found it a colossal and disturbing disappointment.

Palace Council - Stephen L. Carter

Stephen L. Carter is a Yale law professor and the author of two other novels , The Emperor of Ocean Park and New England White. He writes political thrillers featuring characters of the African-American elite. Palace Council begins in Harlem in 1952. Eddie Westley, a controversial but rising star of a writer, stumbles upon the dead body of a prominent lawyer, Philmont Castle. Hoping to stay out of a potential scandal, Westley suddenly finds himself thrust into a world of secret societies and political manipulation. His sister, the only African-American female in her Harvard law class suddenly disappears, and Westley begins a 20 year search for her - a search which uncovers the mystery behind the Castle murder. Along the way, Westley consults with Langston Hughes and has private meetings with Richard Nixon. Like Carter's other books, I found myself immediately engrossed. Carter's characters are larger than life - and even the villains are likeable. Unlike many of the quick mystery writers I enjoy, Carter's prose is complex, and he uses his stories to show off his vast knowledge of the law, politics, and literature (Paradise Lost features prominently, and Lady Chatterly's Lover forms the basis of a key clue). Sadly, like most authors with tremendous knowledge, Carter's novels tend to be a bit longer and more involved than seemingly necessary. But, I still found this to be a perfect bedside-table book - good for a chapter or two before bed - a nice little mystery at the end of my day, and enough 50 cent words to make me feel like I'd learned something.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Montana 1948 - Larry Watson

This is a short book with a 12-year old narrator. I read it in a one hour session on the elliptical. But for the subject matter, I would have assumed this was a young adult fiction novel given the ease of the language and narrative. David is the son of the town sheriff and the nephew of the town doctor. They live in Montana in 1948 near an Indian reservation. Early in the book - and without warning from the book flap - David's uncle is accused of molesting Indian women during their medical examinations. Confronted with this information, David's father is left to decide between justice and family. The simple way in which the story is told is deceptive, as it is clearly a story about the fact that things are not always as simple as they appear. While life on a Montana ranch may seem like nothing more than hard work, there are secrets everywhere, and personalities and politics constantly to navigate. I finished this book feeling unsatisfied. In some ways it was a little too simple (though the ending was a bit of a shocker). I wanted more devleopment from the characters and their relationships with each other. But, given that it was from David's perspective, I thought Watson did a fine job of telling the story of a traumatic event through the eyes of a child who would need years more of life and experience to ever really unravel and understand it all.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Take the Cannoli - Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is a regular contributor to NPR's "This American Life." Her collection of personal essays, in the tradition of David Sedaris and Dave Eggers, has received monumental praise. Her voice is hailed as "moving" and "wickedly funny." But, like so much in this genre, I think it takes just the right sense of humor to really click with a given writer. I just could not make the connection. I did like Vowell's writing - it was not pretentious or overly flowery - but rather straight-forward and casual - in part, I'm sure, a reflection of the fact that many of the pieces were written for the radio. But, I did not find many of her observations particularly clever, and I don't think I ever once smiled or laughed out loud while reading this. Vowell has some touching pieces about her family, and one I particularly enjoyed about the nature of the mix tape. But, mostly I found myself asking, "Who is this person, and why do I care about her daily life and her personal stories?" She did nothing to distinguish herself as someone about whose life I'd want to read. I assume Vowell has a loyal following of fans from NPR - and I'm sure those people would love this book. But for me, it just did not strike the right chord.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Stranger - Albert Camus

The Stranger is the story of a young man (Meursault) whose mother passes away. Following her funeral, he is on the beach with some friends and is unwittingly drawn into murdering a man. His trial then follows, and the focus of the prosecution is on Meursault's lack of emotion or remorse - both with respect to the murder and his own mother's death. Throughout the book, the man is quite apathetic about everything - he considers marrying a woman he is dating, but is certain he is not in love with. He knows he faces the guillotine, but finds no use for a spiritual advisor. Meursault lives a life that "happens" to him, one that is just a series of events that require no reflection or introspection - except for a recognition of the absurdity of his own condition. Meursault's trial is also an exploration of the randomness of the justice system, and the futility of one's participation in it. I feel like this is the kind of book my English professor could have talked about for days, but ultimately, I just found depressing. Camus is certainly a great writer - and captures Meursault's complexity in a simple straight-forward manner. I'm sure I could learn a great deal more about existentialism and the philosophical inner-workings of Mersault's mind, but in the end, I think I'm just not that deep or that interested.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Beautiful Boy - David Sheff

Last month I read Nic Sheff's memoir, Tweak, about his battle as a meth-addict. Beautiful Boy is written by Nic's father, and is his account of the struggle from the perspective of a loving parent. Having already read Nic's book, it was interesting to re-learn about specific incidents and to compare the viewpoints. As a non-addict, I found Beautiful Boy much more accessible, and infinitely more frightening than Tweak. David Sheff is amazingly honest in this book - not just about his powerlessness over his son's addiction, rehab, and relapses, but about his anger - and his wish at times completely to eliminate all memories of his son from his life. Sheff is remarried (to Nic's step-mother), and has two young children from his second marriage - both of whom adore Nic and are both saddened and frightened by their brother's erratic behavior. Sheff focuses on his personal journey to understand rehab, his work in Al-Anon, his attempts to see how his parenting played a role in Nic's addiction, and his own co-depedence on Nic's well-being. But, he also delves into the profound effect an addict has on an entire family. As heart-breaking as it is to read about a parent's desire to both save their child, but also come to understand that sometimes walking away is the best thing, it is even more difficult to see the impact on these small children as they stretch to understand the incomprehensible. Beautiful Boy is scary - it really highlights the reality that addicts come from all walks of life - from families who love them and from parents who have tried their very best. Sheff is a well-read writer and musicophile who peppers his prose with book quotes and song lyrics - all of which I found profoundly appropriate, while also demonstrating the impact of art on our lives, and in Sheff's case the need to create art (his writing) in order to ignite and maintain the healing process. This book amazed me on so many levels, and got me thinking about so many issues surrounding child-rearing, family, and support in our communities - not to mention the obvious issues of addiction and recovery. This book does not profess to have all the right answers, but it has many answers and many roads to finding the answers for families dealing with similar nightmares. I feel like this is one of those books that everyone should read - it would probably help people in similar situations, and for those lucky enough not to be going through the same situation as the Sheffs, it would probably help to cultivate more understanding and sympathy for this enormous problem. I feel blessed to have come across these two memoirs, and know they have spurred me to continue my quest to gain a greater understanding of these incredibly important issues.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Dearly Devoted Dexter - Jeff Lindsay (Book 2)

Like horrible chick-lit, I wonder why I read this trash. But, then I realize, it is pure entertainment, and I do enjoy it, even if I'm not exactly stretching the boundaries of my intellect in the process. Dexter, the serial-killer who only kills bad people, returns in this second installment. As he indpendently stalks a pedophile, Dexter is sucked into a department case involving his sister's boyfriend. The suspect this time actually isn't a killer - instead, he lops off his victim's limbs with surgical precision, ensuring that while awake during the procedures, they are given enough pain killers to prevent actual death. Intrigued by this exteme method of torture, Dexter is paired with his arch-nemesis to track the psychopath. Dexter's method of "solving" this crime did not impress me - he relies too much on intuition and his Dark Passenger - the ominous voice that compels him to think like a murderer. Yet, unlike the crimes he pursues on his own (like the pedophile), not much seemed grounded in actual clues, which doesn't make it much fun for the reader who likes to play along. Dexter continues his sham romantic relationship in this book, inadvertently stumbling into a marriage proposal. And, he even finds himself a potential protege when he discovers that his girlfriend's son has apparently caused the disappearance of the neighbor's dog. I feel like Dexter's character could be so much more complex - if he weren't constantly reminding the reader that he is not quite human, and amusingly simple. I am left frustrated by his 2-dimensions. Yet, compelled to keep reading.