Monday, June 30, 2014

Dibble Dabble

I start in on a bunch of stuff and get distracted.  I won't say that my awesome streak is broken, but we're dialing it back to normal with a few duds among all the delight.  So, a quick spin through the thanks-but-no-thanks list, with a stop in charming-and-delightful land to freshen up in the middle.

Misdiagnosed: One Woman's Tour of--And Escape From--Healthcareland, by Jody Berger. Didn't get much past the first chapter of this one--the problem with a memoir is that the narrator and the protagonist and the author are generally the same person, and if you don't like them, it's not worth going there.  I rather like medical memoirs (though admittedly I've read more from the doctor's POV than the patient's), but from the very beginning the author just doesn't know how to handle the health care system.  She doesn't ask good questions, gets annoyed when she's given a tentative diagnosis instead of a real one, insists that she doesn't take drugs (as in, I won't take aspirin), and clearly has trouble prioritizing her health and her travel appropriately.  I understand that the system can be confusing, and that dealing with your health is scary, but she seems to bring the chaos with her, even by her own account.  Pass.

Danny the Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl.  Read this one out loud to Adam, and I was surprised at what a hit it was.  I've often heard Danny's dad mentioned as one of the best parents in literature, so I was a little surprised that the story turned out to be all about poaching--kinda criminal, plus hunting which is not always embraced nowadays.  I wasn't thrilled how the poaching was justified by how awful the victim was (Adam really liked saying "Mr. Victor Hazell," though), but it's true that it was a charming story, and Danny and his dad are just a great couple of characters.  This was just a lovely book, and Adam really enjoyed it.  I think he's old enough to follow Charlie & the Chocolate Factory now, and I'm excited to dive into more Dahl.

The Mind of Winter, by Laura Kesischke.  Whoa, nellie, never you mind.  Someone (Booksmugglers, maybe?) put this book on a list of anticipated releases ages ago, so when I saw it at the library I picked it up.  When I read the blurb to Mike, he shook his head sadly.  And I can see that--it's a thriller about a mom of an adopted Russian (adopted as a baby, now a teenager) who, trapped at home with her daughter in a blizzard, suddenly becomes obsessed with the idea that "something had followed them back from Russia."

Here again, though, we have a super unlikeable protagonist.  To be fair, that was her thing--the author was clearly writing an unlikeable narrator. But there's a difference between observing that someone is superstitious and asking "what's wrong with them?"  Your in-laws are not judging you every time they ask how you're doing.  If you're that paranoid, a) I don't want to hang out with you for a whole book, and b) I don't feel a lot of sympathy when you start to feel persecuted by something you can't put your finger on.  You clearly felt plenty persecuted before.

 So that's the round up of late.  More to come, though, because I also read a couple of interesting comics and a FABULOUS novel.

*Disclosure: I got a free advance copy of Misdiagnosed from the publisher. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Little Gems

It's so often surprising where the good ones pop up from.  I mean, random shelf browsing has a pretty reliable 25-45% return rate (in my completely made up statistical experience), but when it comes to a category--nun books, Regency romance--a random choice is not necessarily the best way to get the job done. 

The world of Jane Austen follow-ups is a big one, ranging from retelling her original stories from alternate points of view to sequels or spinoffs of minor characters.  Roaming the aisles at the library, I saw something called A Visit to Highbury by Joan Austen-Leigh, and the author's name caught my eye.  The fact that it was actually Jane's great great grand-niece didn't actually promise a good book, but I liked the notion of the owner of Harriet Smith's boarding school having something to say.

And somehow, this book is incredibly charming.  At first I was waiting for it to get all modern--for one of the new characters to turn out to be a hustler of some sort.  But no, it's just a really nice little story, told in the form of two sisters who haven't seen each other in years corresponding.  Mrs. Pinkney is unhappy in London with her new husband, who is not sociable enough for her tastes, so takes up writing to Mrs. Goddard, the schoolmistress who is watching the events of Emma unfolding in her village.  Mrs. Goddard relates village gossip; Mrs. Pinkney tries to get to know her husband.  Mrs. Goddard has servant problems; Mrs. Pinkney befriends a young neighbor.  People are cranky and selfish and shy and whatever other flaws people have, but they stretch themselves and become better. 

This is just one of those books that is lovely.  Just lovely and charming and dear, in its small and domestic way.  It makes me very happy to be reading it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The End, The Middle, and The Beginning

I didn't read Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists--I will add a 'yet' here, because at this point, I most definitely will--but I heard enough great things that I was pretty excited about The Rise & Fall of Great Powers.  The synopsis is pretty cool, too--Tooly was raised by a mysterious bunch of bohemians but hasn't seen them in years, when...

The Rise &a Fall of Great Powers hinges on a mystery, but it's not a mystery novel.  The story is told back and forth between three different times--1988, when Tooly is 10, The End; 1999, when she is 21, The Middle; and 2011, when she is in her early 30s, The Beginning.  We learn slowly about her life, which is unorthodox; her personality, which is charming; and her history, which is mysterious.

The strange thing about the mystery is that she's living it, but seems incurious about it; for the longest time I couldn't figure out if she knew more than I did (it didn't seem like it) or if it was a part of her character, a part of her story.  At The Beginning, she's running a failing bookshop in a small Welsh town, skimming along on the surface of things.  Her past is in the past and her present barely exists; it's like she's waiting for something.  And she is, I suppose, because she gets a Facebook message out of the past, and she ventures off to see what's going on.

At The Beginning, Tooly is ten, and she's living a life on the move.  She and Paul--fastidious, awkward, upright Paul--move to a new city each year--Sydney, Bangkok, Jakarta--for his IT job.  It's clear that her existnce is a secret, that he has no idea what to do with a child, and that there is nothing untoward about their relationship.  We are left to wonder.

And in The Middle, Tooly is turning 21 in Manhattan, wandering around, scoping people out, looking for opportunities to take to Venn.  It's unclear if she's a burglar, a con artist, a great observer of humanity, or all three, but when she talks her way into a random apartment and meets law student Duncan and his roommates, she has an encounter with "normalcy" that she's not quite sure what to do with.

I can't say for sure that I loved this book as I was reading it--I liked it a lot, and I found it compelling, definitely.  There were moments when it felt very much like a Minute Observations book, but it was saved from my distaste for that genre by a few things--1) Tooly is quite lovable, in naively cynical way; 2) the full cast of characters in each period and the burning question of how they relate to each other; 3) more "aha" moments of observation than I've literally ever read in a book.

Seriously, I don't highlight except for book club, and I was highlighting all over the place here.  The language is deceptively simple--it's not about flowery phrasing, but rather about observations that are exactly how I've thought of things but never heard them expressed.

Fogg formed opinions as he spoke them, or perhaps afterward, requiring him to ramble at length to grasp what he believed.  This made speech an act of discovery for him; others did not necessarily share this view."  Dude, that's me!  Sarah suffered from "the intractable lifelong argument between what [she] knew and what [she] felt."  Yes, I know that!  And have you seen my house?  I need to be reminded that, "eventually, you must do things with things."  Not only is that distressingly true, but the context of the phrase in the story bears all the same weight that it does in my mind--things, almost no matter how trivial, have people and memories and implications attached to them, and so doing things with them, or not, is fraught.  Or at least, to a clutterbug like me.

Anyway, the point is that this book is full of feelings I recognize, a lot, and a straightforward way of discussing them.  And so, if there are long passages in which someone putters around their apartment thinking about life and what to eat, I'm with them, because eventually I'll figure out what Sarah has to do with Humphrey, or where Venn went.

Is the ending too pat?  I don't know.  I like an ending with some hope and some completion; I'm more likely to be frustrated if something isn't neat enough than if it ties up too neatly.  But I think it's important that Tooly figure out the things that I've figured out, and so I'm glad she comes to where she did.  There's enough sorrow here for me, and even enough unresolved bits.

Finally, one other point in its favor that I'd like to point out: I tend to be really fussy about male writers with female POV characters.  This is really, really impressive.  Tooly felt like a woman to me,  not like a "person who happens to be a woman."  She is naive and tough and odd, perhaps childish, but not specifically because of her femininity.  I think you could have convincingly written her character as a male, though the implications would have been different, which says to me that she's not naive because she's a girl.  In some places, her "female speak" might have been a bit stilted--started comments with "I think" is definitely something women do, but it felt very noticeable in some places--but in most places, she just talks like someone I believe is a real person, a real woman.

So yeah, highly, highly recommended. 

(Oh, yes, Netgalley.  Got it free from Netgalley.  Sorry, disclosure!)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Highest of High Fantasy

Is there anything more seminal than Tolkien?  Is there anything more definitive, watersheddy, than The Lord of the Rings?  I've seen the movies, I've read The Hobbit, I've tried to read the series before.  But this time--this time I am taking it on!

Today I finished The Fellowship of the Ring, an audiobook version read by Rob Inglis.  It was a great performance--a mellifluous voice, distinct characters, and he even sang the songs!  I'm incredibly glad to have done it this way--there's a lot of rambling, and I'm a bad skimmer, so I get more out of having a reader's performance to bring some drama to the more pedestrian--in this case, literally--parts of a story.

So, some observations from a LOTR newbie--well, a newbie who knows the whole plot from the movies.

(You'll have to forgive all my list-based posts lately; it's just so much easier than trying to organize my thoughts coherently.)

1) While I understand why they cut him from the movies, I was quite fond of Tom Bombadil.  I actually really liked how he spoke in verse, even when he wasn't singing.  Also, his songs are the ones Inglis performed best.  And those poor, put-upon hobbits needed a break just then, needed someone to help them out. 

2) The whole "whoops, the ring slipped on my finger in my pocket by accident" thing could have been prevented if they'd taken a cue from Lyra in The Golden Compass and welded it shut in some sort of tin.  Honestly, all they needed to do was put it in some kind of box, or tie it up tight in a handkerchief.  Anything so it couldn't be put on impulsively or "accidentally." 

3) OMG so much walking.  I could almost tell you which days they crossed hedgerows and when they turned right to go uphill and follow the ridgeline, versus turning away east to go across a small river and then back up along a lane around a blackberry hedge.

4) Related, I think this is less an adventure novel than a travelogue.  I'm picturing Bill Bryson as, say, Pippin Took, and how he would have written about the journey.  Tolkien clearly had this world fleshed out, and he was mostly looking for an excuse to walk through it.  And to tell us the words for a lot of different places in several languages.  Let it never be said that this man needed to get a hobby--dude had one.

5) Is there anything an elf can't do?  I mean, seriously, why do other races even exist except possibly to admire the cloaks and boats and armor and weapons and archery and music and magic and beauty and dignity and longevity and delicious cooking and restorative beverages and woodlore and probably their cleaning products and the aroma of their morning breath and their advanced basket weaving skills?  How are the elves not invincible?  Seriously, it sounds like it must be boring to be an elf, just wandering around being perfect.

6) OMG, so many songs.  I have been wondering if the tunes that the reader used were canonical from somewhere or interpretations that he and/or his production team came up with.  That seems like some pretty cool prepwork.  Some of them are actually quite lovely, and some are just forgettable and interminable. 

I will always have lots of patience for them, though, because of the music from Rankin/Bass's animated version of The HobbitMany, if not all, of the songs are directly from the book, and I can still sing pretty much all of them by heart.  I'm pretty sure my singing is better than the incredibly cheesy orchestrations, but still--there are some things that will live on in your heart.

Anyway, I'm diving into The Two Towers as soon as I get it downloaded to my phone.  19 hours down--34 to go!

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Book Club: Transatlantic

Dateline: book club, June, 2014.  After several months of wobbly meetings in which book discussion was low, the streak was broken with an excellent meeting around a book that garnered mixed reviews from our membership: Colum McCann's TransAtlantic

Before we get into the questions, let's first cover my own pervasive ignorance.  Colum McCann is not (as I initially thought) Cormac McCarthy, so this book is nothing like The Road.  Nor is he (as I think though), Colson Whitehead, so this book is nothing like Zone One. It also isn't, as kept accidentally telling people, Transamerica, which is an excellent and completely unrelated movie starring Felicity Huffman as a MTF transsexual woman on a road trip.  Totally unrelated to any of these things.  So my expectations were--well, all over the map, which turned out to be the wrong map.

No, this is a book about...well, I'm not sure what it was about.  I can tell you what happens--two pilots fly from Canada to Ireland at the dawn of human flight, before the Great War.  Frederick Douglass visits Ireland to lecture on slavery and raise money for the cause of abolition.  A modern politician brokers peace in Ireland.  An Irish maid makes her way to America and starts a new life.  An American woman becomes a reporter, and her daughter a photographer, and they report on that trans-Atlantic flight we mentioned before.  A young man is killed in the Troubles, and later his mother mourns him. 

These stories are tied together by characters who move through their lives--the reporter's mother was the maid, and her great grandson, long after her death, was the murdered young man.  The photographer daughter meets the modern politician; the maid met Douglass.  You can't say they're not "tied together."

And there are other ties--you kind of want them to be themes, but they're really motifs.  You want the book to be about Ireland, about the character of the country, its politics, its division, it struggles, but really, it's just there.  There's a lot of telling, and there's even a decent amount of showing when it comes to the streets and the buildings and the bushes and...just, stuff.  But I can't say I felt shown anything about the people, where the anger comes from, why the fight is going on.  The strokes were all too broad.

Almost all of the women in this book had children out of wedlock--not all, but many.  Given the time periods covered, this wasn't a coincidence.  Motherhood?  A woman dividing her life between her personal goals and her parenting?  Losing a child?  I mean, all of these happen repeatedly, but I'm not sure if anything is being said about them here.

So--either this book succeeds only on the level of observing its immediately environs with pretty, pointed language, or I don't get it.  On to the questions!

1) Two of the stories focus on characters who are/were real people.  One of them, George Mitchell, is still alive; the other, Frederick Douglass, is a well known historical figure.  What do you think about how their stories were addressed?  Did you find them convincing?  Presumptuous? Authoritative?  Bonus points if you know enough about Douglass or Mitchell to see places that are particularly accurate or questionable.

2) As I said, there are plenty of motifs in the book; parenthood, the loss of a child, race, the Ireland-American connection.  But what do you think the theme of the book was?  What points was it trying to make?  Why did the author choose to tell these stories?  How was his point (whatever that was) strengthened by the connections between the characters?

3) What was up with that letter?  Did that seem overblown to you?  I mean, a letter from a random person TO a famous person can be very meaningful for the writer, but I don't think the addressee's importance necessarily makes the letter historical, do you?  Or was there something else there that I missed?

4) Many of the central characters in this book were women, and they were all directly descended from each other.  I'm kind of impressed to see that from a male author (which seems pretty condescending of me, but there you are), but I'm not completely sure how I feel about how this was done.  All three of the main male characters are Big, Important Men who do Big, Important Things, while the women are mostly living their low-key lives.  How do you feel about the handling of female characters in this book?  Do you think the men being Historical Figures vs. the women being Just Folks is deliberate?  Significant?

It's possible that if I'd understood the book better, I'd have more questions for you.  So I guess question 5 would be: what questions would you ask about this book?  Good questions are often better than answers in situations like this one.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Twelve Is a LOT of Princesses

Fairy tale retellings are somewhere between tempting and anathema to me, and for the same reason--fairy tales rarely make normal human sense.  People do seemingly nonsensical, random things, answers fall out of the sky, and I never understand--can't even imagine--what the characters are thinking or feeling.  So I'm simultaneously skeptical and eager when someone claims or attempts to wrap an emotionally accessible narrative around one of these structures.

For some reason, the Twelve Dancing Princesses is one of my favorites.  It's probably just because my sister and I used to act it out for our little brother, repeating all our actions until each move--sleeping, dancing, sneaking--had been done twelve times.  But there's also something particularly impenetrable about this one that I think makes it very hard to tell.  I read Heather Dixon's Entwined ages ago, and in spite of its flaws I really enjoyed it

And so my path was crossed by Genevieve Valentine's The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, and I had to jump on it.  Twelve Dancing Princesses in '20s NYC?  Entwined meets The Rules of Civility? Sign me up!  Twelve sisters sequestered at home by their father (who had been waiting impatiently for a male heir), and their only joy or freedom is sneaking out to go dancing.  They live trapped in an oppressive house, and dancing is their only freedom. 

Okay, first I want to say that this was just such a good read.  Now that I'm at the end, especially, it's absolutely thrilling and heartbreaking and satisfying.  And if the rest of this post ends up talking about all the things that are hard about retelling the Twelve Dancing Princesses story, please believe that it reads that way because this book made me think and feel--about everything from the structure of the story to the lives of women in the '20s.

I think the weakest point of the book can be stated up front--the domineering, oppressive father is not set up as thoroughly as he needed to be.  The sense of being trapped is caught perfectly, and oppression comes through on every page.  But for the first half of the book, I could not have told you what was at stake, what was the risk.  An intimidating man, sure, but what do these trapped girls have to lose?  What's so bad about his anger? 

I can explain this--there is a big moment in the second half of the book where we become aware of what his anger really means--but I think the first half needed that impact.  We need to understand why these girls are trapped, especially as they grow older, more impatient, and more competent.  One thing the book does very well is explore the prisoner mindset--Jo, who takes care of her sisters, but at the expense of being seen as a collaborator, even by herself; Lou, whose longing to be free is stronger than the others, and more dangerous; Lily and Rose, who barely know themselves or each other--but I think it would have helped to be a bit more explicit about how many of the limitations on their options were truly external, and how many had grown only around a lifetime of being trapped.

Really, this is a story about women's secret rebellion; the story only works because the princesses are locked up.  If they were dancing publicly, legitimately, it wouldn't be an issue.  Constructing that prison is one of the big tasks of telling this story.  The Kingfisher girls' prison was well constructed, but I wasn't able to see it clearly for too long.

The other really hard part about telling this story, I think, is that twelve is really just too many sisters.  When you have twelve characters, they're a crowd, a gang.  Each one may have a name and a personality, but the fact is that a couple of them have adventures, and the rest of them are along for the ride.  This is Jo's story, which I think was a major strength.  Jo is their General, and they are obedient, but is she using her power toward the right goals?  Is she doing more harm than good?  And what has it cost her--oh, the answer to that one is long.  Really, the summary can be boiled down to that: what does it cost Jo to protect her sisters?

I'm quite impressed at how well they are all portrayed.  Right now, I can name all twelve sisters and describe their personalities--not just traits, but characteristics.  Araminta is haughty, because it protects her from her fear.  Rebecca is practical, and smart. Hattie and Mattie have each other, and that makes them both fearless and careless of people, but Hattie might be a little less fearless than her twin.  There's a wonderful point near the end where the narrative splits and follows different sisters, and this brings so much together--they cease to be a gang and become the owners of their own stories.  It's lovely to watch.

I think what I'm saying, as I write all this out, is that the second half of the book is much stronger than the first.  Really, I enjoyed the whole thing, but what it comes down to is that the second half hangs together, delivers a combination of writing and characterization and story and setting, that makes me absolutely swoon.  For the first half, I was reading a good book; by the end I was reading one I loved.