Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Before You Know Kindness - Chris Bohjalian

No matter how many Chris Bohjalian books I read, he always seems to have more.  Like his most famous book, Midwives, this one concerns a single tragic incident (here the shooting of a father by his own daughter), and then builds a story around the question of intent (did the daughter shoot her father accidentally or did she knowingly pull the trigger?).  The question is never definitively answered, but the way each character in the book decides to view the situation affects their interactions with everyone else, and crucial decisions they make about each other and their own futures.  Unlike Midwives and some of Bohjalian's other novels (Trans-Sister Radio and Buffalo Soldier, for example), I didn't find this one as compelling.  I found the behavior of the daughter - while perhaps realisitc - incredibly annoying as she attempts to hide crucial information about the night of the shooting.  The father is also a vegan animal rights activist who is portrayed as a borderline psychotic because of his beliefs - which don't actually seem all that crazy.  So much of what threatens to tear the family apart post-shooting seems focused on this group he belongs to.  While I appreciate a story that points out the ills of working too hard at the expense of one's home life - I thought the negative treatment of vegetarianism and veganism in the book completely odd.  Perhaps this is a result of living in a part of the country where non-meat-eaters are basically mainstream, but I just didn't see it as creating as much conflict in life as this man's choices seemed to.  I feel like most of Bohjalian's books could serve as excellent springboards for discussions among high school students about the difference between right and wrong, and all the gray areas in between.  This one is definitely no different, but certainly not as complex or riveting as others he has written.

Blue Nights - Joan Didion

Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, was written about the loss of her long-time husband.  I thoroughly identified with the book (not in terms of losing a spouse, but in the grief that comes with losing someone very close).  It is a book I feel everyone who has lost a loved one should read at some point - perhaps not right after a loss, but after some time has past and you wonder why the pain is still so real.  In that book, the reader also learns that Didion also lost her daughter, Quintana Roo, to a sudden and mysterious illness.  Blue Nights is the story of that loss, and of Didion's journey to motherhood.  As a new mother who has anxiety about all the possible dangers of the world and of losing my own child, I was reluctant to read this.  And as I write about it on my blog after not quite loving it, I think - how can I possibly critique a book about a mother's loss of her child - clearly it is powerful and raw and absolutely haunting.  Didion is a beautiful writer, but her use of repetition throughout the book - while I'm sure symbolic of the fact that she goes over everything in her mind again and again and again - became tedious for me at points.  It read at times more like a stream-of-consiousness poem than a book (and that's fine if that's what it was meant to be, but I think I wanted more of a memoir-like book).  And I felt like there was a lot of name-dropping and near bragging of how much of a jet-setter lifestyle she and her husband lived with her daughter learning to order off room service menus before age of five.  Perhaps in a time of the 99% and Occupy movements, I found it all a bit obnoxious.  There are some great lines, however - it actually caused me to use the "highlight" feature on my Kindle for the first time.  The one I read over and over was, "Once she was born I was never not afraid."  So simple and clear, but wholly encapsulating of how I feel about motherhood - and then the subsequent need to live and allow your child to live despite that fear.  And then, for Didion's greatest fear to be realized- to actually lose her daughter is truly heartbreaking.  For me this book was more about what it made me reflect on in my life than it was about understanding Didion's loss - mostly I think I am in awe of Didion for using her writing to help cope with such substantial loss and being able to share that pain with the world.

State of Wonder - Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett has written some pretty good books - I consider Bel Canto one of my favorites and I keep meaning to go back and re-read it, but I worry it won't be as good the second time around.  But, she is one of those writers that I am excited about, and eager to read her latest as soon as it comes out.  My mother-in-law let me borrow her hard-back copy, but it took me months to get to it.  The premise of this one seemed a little odd to me.  Marina Singh, a research scientist, is sent to the Amazon to track down the elusive Dr. Swenson who is working on a valuable new drug.  Marina reluctantly goes down, hoping the trip will be a quick one (and we all know it won't be)...once found, Marina still has to take on the awesome task of convincing Dr. Swenson to tell her about the progress of the research, and plans for finalizing the drug for market.  As always, Patchett's writing is immediately engaging and while I found some of the dialogue frustrating and Dr. Swenson in general infuriating (as does almost everyone else in the novel), I enjoyed the story which reminded me a great deal of Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible - not in terms of subject matter per se, but just in terms of the way the story was told.  The ending came a bit to quick and required a great deal of suspension of disbelief, but overall a worthwhile read.

The Magician King - Lev Grossman

The sequel to The Magicians read for me quite similarly to the first. I started out increadibly excited. Quentin and his crew are the kings and queens of Fillory - and all seems to be going well - until a strange interaction sends Quentin and Julia on a quest to the outer islands of their kingdom. Along the way we learn more about Julia and how she came to be the great magician that she is, despite having failed the entrance exam to Brakebills. I found the first thre-quarters of the book riveting and the excellent blend of Harry Potter and Narnia. But then I seemed to lose interest, and I couldn't quite bring myself to care that much about how it would all end. Part of it could just have been my mindset at the time I was reading the book, but I didn't feel as if Grossman carried everything through to the end, and I was left a bit disappointed.

Damned - Chuck Palahniuk

Fool me once Mr. Palahniuk...but seriously, you've basically fooled me five times with your latest few. You have written some of my favorite books and short stories, and then, well, you just haven't. This book takes place in hell, narrated by a spoiled and annoying 11-year old who presumably died from a marijuana overdose. Along with a few other choice characters, she makes her way through the underworld to confront Satan, and perhaps find out why she has been sent to live out an eternity of banality. While there are some clever lines and ideas (I kind of liked the idea that the English Patient plays on repeat in hell), for the most part, the story itself seemed like an exercise in banality. Definitely could have done without this one.

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life - Karen Armstrong

In my mediocre attempts at self-improvement this year, I have read quite a number of books about veganism and living a compassionate life with respect to animals. Of course, idea of compassion should also be extended to fellow human beings, as well as oneself. So, I thought perhaps this book would give me some goods ways to think about doing that on a more meaningful level. Like any good self-help guide, this book is broken down into twelve steps - some more difficult and time-consuming than others. The author doesn't intend the reader to simply skim through the steps and be done, but rather to take the time to master each step before moving on to the next. The steps include mindfulness, self-love, sympathetic joy, and concern for others. While I didn't always agree with the way that Armstrong suggested going about mastering these steps, or incorporating them into everyday life, I am completely on board with the idea that it's not enough to just want to be a good person, or to try sometimes to be a good person. But, that compassion is a purposeful act, and that it is worth working hard at. Of course, this book is frustrating in that it is a reminder that I have a long way to go to becoming a better person, but I like the idea of it and am trying my best to implement some of the ideas in it daily.