Friday, July 29, 2011

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is an incredible novel, told with a lyricism that is at once evocative and provocative.  Because of the way she tells the story, in a nonlinear manner, the narrative peels spirals around itself, returning to the same moments, repeating the same memories, but always with slightly deeper meaning.

The first time I read this novel I waited eagerly for her next novel.  It never came.  So when the Banned Books Club on goodreads chose to read this novel I couldn’t object.  I was worried that it might not live up to my memories of its being a glorious story told perfectly.  Even upon a second read, I appreciate the beauty of this novel.  In fact, I honestly think I appreciate it even more.

In the first few pages, we are introduced to a large cast of characters but the primary ones are Estha and Rachel, dizygotic twins, and their mother Ammu.  There is a tragedy about to happen; we know this too from the very beginning of the novel.  The reader thinks it is one thing but the final tragedy is something else altogether.

And yet . . .

This novel is about love and redemption and how love heals.  I remembered thinking that the last chapter in the novel was the most perfectly romantic and erotic piece of writing I had read in a long time.  I confess I hesitated to reread it because I knew it would not stand up to the test of time.  I was mistaken.  It persevered and I was swept away, once again, by the events leading up to that final chapter.

Can you tell that I love this novel?  It is a rarity to find a novel so perfectly crafted with a prose that is highly stylized that, upon rereading, doesn’t seem prosaic or ponderous.  This novel is a jewel, a rare and rarified treat.

And still, I wait for Roy to write another . . .

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr is a young adult novel about a girl, Jenna (aka Jennifer) Vaughn and her best friend Cameron Quick.  In grade school the two were inseparable.  Then one day, Cameron doesn’t come to school and Jenna is left alone to face the often vicious world of her peers.

When Jenna buries her friend, she buries a part of herself and that part eventually must be healed.  But on the surface things seem okay.  She is surrounded by friends and even has a boyfriend.  Her home life has also improved with her mother not juggling two jobs and a step-father who is obviously sympathetic.  New school.  New life.  New outlook.  What can possibly go wrong.

The first person narrator, Jenna, is a good choice for this novel but I think it may be limiting.  While it allowed Jenna’s insecurities to shine forth, it left every other character in the novel as they were–two dimensional and unchanging. The strength of the novel lies in its focus of Jenna’s past and how it informs her present.  Full of doubts, she finds it hard to believe she’s come so far and it is not until she sees herself through the eyes of others that she begins to see her own strength.

Is this a message we necessarily want our daughters to read?  I don’t know.  A part of me would like to say that self-identity must be deeply rooted in the self because people come and go, as Cameron proves early on in the book.  But as an adult I also know that external validation can help uproot poor self-image as well as plant seeds of greater self-worth.  Jenna is certainly not alone in needing to see her strength reflected for it to be appreciated.

Had this novel been peopled with other characters that evolved and learned, that changed and became more actualized on the page, I’d probably have liked it.  Unfortunately, Jenna cannot see inside the heart and soul of others and it almost seems as though her narcissistic insecurities prohibit her from seeing anyone but herself as three dimensional.  If this is who she is as a person, as a character, then that hardly makes her sympathetic or even likable.  My guess, however, is that this is a weakness on the author’s part and that she didn’t know how to write a first-person story that allowed anyone else to be more than what they were the first moment they walked onto the page.

I will, however, say this: I liked the ending.  It fit the novel perfectly and Zarr didn’t go for the neat and nice conclusion that belies real life.

This book is one of the three chosen by Iggi & Gabi.  As with Tangled, I would never have chosen to read this novel.  After having read the former, I had high expectations for this one and that may have precluded my fully appreciating it as it certainly pales by comparison.  There is a third novel chosen and I will review it as soon as I read it.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery

This book is part of both the BISHRBY Challenge and the Classic Bribe Challenge.  


Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery is the last of the Anne of Green Gablesbooks and tells the story of Anne’s youngest daughter.  From the very first pages the tone of this novel is different from the others, making reference to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.  World War I is on the horizon and any question that Rilla’s life will be affected is quickly set to rest as war is announced and her eldest brother enlists. 

Some of the events of this novel are foreshadowed in Rainbow Valley and Rilla is now a young lady who has romantic aspirations with no desire of being a mother.  Her distaste for small children amused me so much that at first I thought I would love this book as much as any of the Anne books.  Love it in spite of its Victorian tone and predictability.  After all, one hardly reads seven Anne books and doesn’t know that the prose will be old-fashioned and flowery.

Unfortunately, the novel is also guilty of romanticizing war as the women who stay behind, keeping the home fires burning and keeping an ever stiff upper lip in the face of fear and loss.  I do not suggest that Montgomery is irresponsible or disingenuous for writing a novel that glorifies war, and it is a testament to her confidence that she would take on such a serious subject in her typically light novels.  It is not inappropriate to the times.

But we’ve come a long way and there are things that are said and done that made me sad as I read the novel.  I didn’t feel inspired to heightened patriotism or even take pride in my gender for being strong in the face of such profound sacrifice. In fact, at one point I became angry and even horrified.  At first I thought this novel would be as much loved by me as the second or third novel of the series.  About halfway through, I thought maybe I would like it as much as the one I liked least.  But by book’s end, I was just too sad that we ever celebrated the so-called glories of war.  It’s nearly as vulgar as war itself has ever been.   

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han

The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han is about a young girl, Belly (Isabelle) who spends every summer at a beach house with her mother and brother (Steven), her mother’s best friend (Susannah) and her two sons (Conrad and Jeremiah).  The three older boys have left her out of things for years but this year things are different.  She’s fifteen and feeling pretty, pretty enough to finally attract the attention of one of the brothers.  There are other things that are different as well and, as truths are revealed, Bella faces some things about herself and those she loves.

Okay.  Anyone who knows my taste in novels can probably guess I did not choose this novel of my own accord.  It I the first of the young adult summer reading novels that was selected by Iggi & Gabi.  What can I say?  There is nothing about this novel—from the cover image to the title to the summary—that would commend this novel to my liking.  It is well written. In fact, I think it is very well written.  Han does a lovely job of weaving flashbacks throughout the novel that help lend meaning to the contemporary part of the story.  The big secret to be revealed is hardly surprising and the denouement was terribly disappointing to me.  I had hoped for something less typical, maybe even something unexpected.  In other words, I hoped it would end the way I hoped it would and not the way I suspected it would.

Oh well.  Clearly I can’t win them all.  The gist of the novel is:  Who will Belly choose?  Will it be the older brother Conrad, belligerent and moody?  Will it be Jeremiah, the younger and sweet brother?  Or will it be someone else?  (I’ll leave you to decide what I would have preferred for Belly because those who know me will easily guess anyway.)

I found one aspect of this novel ironically distasteful.  Susannah has had cancer and through most of the novel we read time and time again how the narrator is sunbathing, working on her tan, so dark she’s the color of toffee.  I think it’s safe to say that the author realizes that sunbathing is directly linked with melanoma (skin cancer) and this left a distaste in my mouth that I did not expect.  I think that if the mother’s friend had not been living through having breast cancer, I would have sighed and rolled my eyes in disappointment as the narrator baked her way into health hazards but I wouldn’t have found it . . . well, rather vulgar.  The kind of poor taste that leaves me feeling sad about what young adults read.

Let me now reiterate that Han is a good story teller and the narrator’s voice is very strong.  As Belly tells the story, the memories are interwoven with a surprising seamlessness.  The reader never wonders why some element of the story is being shared because it all fits so perfectly together.  So well written but disappointing novel.  One I would prefer my daughter not have read when she was a young adult and I hope my granddaughter doesn’t read when she is old enough to do so. 

(I look forward to the day when pale skin is considered beautiful once again and we stop brainwashing young girls into thinking that their natural skin tone is anything but lovely.)

Apparently, this is the first of a trilogy so if you like romance novels or can ignore the irony I found so distasteful, then you'll probably want to read It's Not Summer Without You and We'll Always Have Summer.  I will not be reading either of the sequels.  

Monday, July 25, 2011

Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Lessons by Siegried Engelmann, Phyllis Maddox, and Elaine Bruner

Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Lessons by Siegried Engelmann, Phyllis Maddox, and Elaine Bruner is a disappointment.  In my search to find a book that will help my son and his wife teach my grand-daughter to read, I first sought the book I used to teach my children to read.  Unfortunately, it is out of print and so I looked into whatever books I could find in the public library.  This one is recommended on amazon.com so I began with it.  I looked it over before passing it onto my son to allow him to decide for himself if he might find it useful.

My reservations are simple enough.  The use of macrons and breves to designate long and short vowels is less useful, in my mind, that teaching a child that when vowels are paired the first vowel becomes a long vowel.  This is further confused because the editors make the second vowel physically smaller than the first which, I suppose, is meant to show the child it is silent or merely there for support. 

Last time I checked, outside of a dictionary a child is not likely to have these aids to pronunciation and teaching a child to rely on such tools is not only unnecessary (I certainly didn’t use them to learn to read nor teach my children myself) but I would suspect downright crippling.  A crutch is useful when needed but can and will weaken the body if used beyond the point of its usefulness. 

In spite of my misgivings, I passed the library copy off to my son and was relieved when he and his wife both said that they were not thrilled with it.  Confusing is one word that was used and I concur.  There is a lot of text on the page and you are not told to write the words in a notebook or anywhere else.  Rather, as the cover would suggest, you teach the child from the book itself.  But if you use the Look Inside feature on amazon.com and choose “Surprise Me” you’ll get some idea of how much is on the page, including what the parent reads aloud to the child and what the child is supposed to focus upon, apparently ignoring all of the other text.  Now, I am sure there are children who could do this, ignore everything but the big and bold letters but I know my children and at least one of them would have been looking to read all of the words on the page.  (And if your surprise page includes 218, you will see what I mean about the different sized letters and, what I didn’t mention before, how they ignore capitalization rules.  Frankly, this is a habit that texting will teach them.  I don’t think we need to start teaching children not to capitalize the first letter in sentences before they even know how to read.  Nor do you have to emphasize the necessity of it.  Children are remarkably capable of grasping this concept on their own without anyone really pointing it out to them.)

So our search continues for a book that we like, that we think Bibi will like and my son and his wife will enjoy using.  This book is simply not in league with the one that is out of print.  

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Pollyanna by Eleanor H Porter

I read this book as part of both the Classic Bribe and BISHRBN Challenge.

Pollyanna by Eleanor H Porter is a children’s classic which, for whatever reason, I never read as a child.  I never even saw the Disney movie so I didn’t know what to expect except that I’d heard about the novel and knew that being called a “Pollyanna” was mean to be a derogatory statement which, so far as I could see, didn’t make much sense.  Why would seeing the bright side of things be a thing worthy of derision?  I was determined to someday read the novel.

That someday obviously came and I borrowed the book and sat down to finally read it.  To be honest, it’s a sweet book, bordering on the precious, with an old-fashioned sensibility not unlike A Little Princess or Anne of Green Gables.  This is not a bad thing.  And I found it remarkable that Rob not only remembers reading this in grade school but he liked it.

Really?

Well, all contemporary cynicism aside, this story is just enchanting and, for all that it’s unrealistic and peopled with stereotypes, and that the story itself is cliche, it is still a charming story of a young girl whose ability to find something to be glad about whatever the situation touches everyone she meets.  Of course, this means that everyone is changed for the better and lives happily ever after because this is the sort of stuff Frank Kapra movies are made of.  Yes, it is all saccharine and maybe even trite but I was caught up and I am glad I finally got around to reading it.  Very glad indeed.

(On a personal note, it didn’t take me long to realize that even if I wanted to hate the novel I couldn’t because, without even knowing about Pollyanna’s game I’ve been playing it most of my life.)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Room by Emma Donoghue

Room by Emma Donoghue is a novel about a five-year-old boy and his mother who are being held captive in a shed.  The mother does her utmost to provide her son a normal life while confined to this 11x11 space.  For Jack, her son, this room is his entire world and his mother his only relationship and their captor, who brings them food and takes away their trash, is barely more than a ghost that comes in the night.

I didn’t want to read this book because of the story’s context.  I didn’t want to read about a young woman being kidnapped and held captive with her young child nor did I want to read about this poor child being locked up in a room for the first five years of his life.  I didn’t want to read it but some strange whim, a recommendation from a couple of people whose reading preferences I respect, invited me to reconsider.  In the past, highly popular books like this have let me down tremendously (Memoirs of a Geisha, The Girl With the Pearl Earring, Twilight) so I wasn’t eager to be sucked in yet again.  On the other hand, occasionally a popular book proves to be a pleasant surprise (Harry Potter, Life of Pi). 

I’m glad I gave this book a chance.  It is an utterly compelling read, refusing to be put down.  Jack’s voice is so pure, so well written, that I caught myself thinking in his syntax when I was able to close the book for a little while.  The choices the mother makes in caring for and protecting her son are heart rending.  And as unbelievable as the story is (although why it should be so when we have new stories about abductions and such all of the time peppering the media is beyond my comprehension), Donoghue manages to make every decision, every moment, absolutely believable.  Slamming the reader in media res, she pushes the story along at a pace that never lets up and I found myself aching for Jack to be okay, caught myself holding my breath in certain moments, wanting to tell the mother “no” in one moment and to wrap my arms around her in the next.

It isn’t often that I find a book that grips me the way this one does.  It is not brilliant by any means but it is so interesting and told so well that it is quite likely unforgettable.  Of course, I only just finished it so maybe a year from now I will have forgotten much of what I read.  



Edit: I was unaware that this novel is based on a true-life story. Had I known I absolutely would not have read it.  Although I realize that almost all fiction is somehow rooted in truth or it lacks any cathartic relevance, I find it disturbing when one person’s traumatic reality is used for entertainment and/or voyeuristic purposes.  This does not discount the merit of this novel; although Donaghue did not draw solely upon her own imagination for the framework of the novel, there is enough she brings to the story that makes it her own.  And this discomfort is a relatively new experience on my part, something that has come upon me with age.  I still end up reading fact-inspired fiction or fiction that takes place during traumatic times but I am increasingly unable to do so as I get older.  I don’t know why.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Jean Rhys by Sylvie Maurel

Jean Rhys - Women writers
Jean Rhys (Women Writers) by Sylvie Maurel is one of those academic explorations of an artist’s body of work and, since I recently read through Jean Rhys: The Complete Novels, it only made sense that I should read a book in which a discussion of her work would be presented.

The book is organized by the order in which Rhys published her novels and this affords an opportunity to see how she, as an author, progressed from third person point-of-view to first person.  I had noted in reading the collection of these novels that I felt her first person narratives were stronger but the editor of the collection chose to organize them not in order of publication but in a more “logical” order, having the protagonists move from the young woman to middle aged with Rhys’s most lauded novel put at the end.

I had hoped to read more of a comparison/contrast exploration of the characters and themes between each novel and while Maurel does occasionally touch on these things, she never delves into them.  Rather, she focuses on each piece separately barely looking at the body of work in toto.  Because the characters themselves are never discussed in relationship to one another, how one reflects certain qualities of another or how one advances emotionally away from the rest, the over all text lacked a certain literary cohesion that I typically expect from a single person volume.  Had this been an anthology of essays about Rhys’s work with a variety of different contributing perspectives, I would not have sought for more relationship throughout.

Nevertheless, for anyone who is interested in Rhys’s novels and would like to see one woman’s interpretation of the relevance found within her writing, this is not a bad choice.  Not brilliant or necessary to appreciate Rhys’s works but an intriguing peek into one woman’s psyche.  Although I confess it left me feeling I understood more about Maurel after reading her thoughts on Rhys than I did about Rhys’s writing.  And perhaps that is the inevitable flaw in reading a book like this.  While some insight into the artist’s efforts may be gleaned, more often than not it is the critic’s efforts that ultimately shine forth.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Tangled by Carolyn Mackler

Tangled by Carolyn Mackler is a young adult novel that I honestly would never have read had I seen it in a bookstore or on a library bookshelf.  One look at the cover would have turned me off but, let’s pretend, I picked it up to see what I thought of it, I would have read the blurb, yawned, and moved on.  But I thought it would be fun to do an online young adult summer reading thing and they chose this book so I gave it a try.

Boy am I glad I did.  As soon as I read these sentences, I was hooked:

I’m obsessed with quotes.  You name the person—Albert Einstein (smart), Toni Morrison (very smart), Nicholas Sparks (pure genius)—and I’ve got one of their sayings. 

I mean, what a ridiculous thing to say for obviously, while it may be debatable whether Morrison is smarter than Einstein, obviously Sparks is nowhere in the same category and is an insult to anyone’s intelligence.  But this is how a teenager probably would feel.  I doubt anything Einstein would say could make a young girl cry or sigh while Sparks can obviously do nothing more.  Later this same character, Jena, tells the reader that her brother, who is in college, recommends she read The Catcher in the Rye  and Dandelion Wine together, to get a gist of what 1950s America is truly like.

I can’t stop thinking about what a brilliant way it is to approach these two young adult novels, a particular era, and this was all in the very start of the novel so I was, if not hooked, at least intrigued.

Gradually all four characters are introduced.  Jena, who has the first voice of the novel, is insecure and typically adolescent, preferring to read The Bridges of Madison County and hoping for that first real love of her life.  Dakota, whose path crosses Jena’s while on vacation, and is struggling with his own selfish tendencies as he takes responsibility for his choices.  Skye, Jena’s sorta friend, who is the daughter of her mother’s friend from her own college days; a beautiful young actress who is struggling with issues she cannot reveal to anyone.  Perhaps not even to herself.  And last but not least, Owen, who is Dakota’s younger brother and a blogger, an adolescent who is not quite ready to face the world and successfully avoids it in spite of his mother’s intrusions.

As the title suggests, the four stories weave together, become “tangled” together.  And although the stories are dreadfully predictable, they are told in a quartet of first-person narratives that is interesting.  While not quite brilliant, it is effective.  I enjoyed this book.  I didn’t love it but I don’t resent having read it and, given some of the books I’ve read for book groups, is pretty close to praise coming from this reader.   


(No doubt some observant reader of this review blog can't help but notice that I too collect quotes in my other blog which I typically post on Fridays.  What?  You didn't know I did this?  Then you must have a life and not enough time to read both of my blogs.)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton is a very short novel, the classic story of conformity and consequences.  In some ways it doesn’t explore different themes from most of Wharton’s novels but this one is set outside New York City society, which is why I wanted to read it. 

I’ve always enjoyed Wharton’s novels but I never knew why.  Was it because I enjoyed reading about turn-of-the-century Manhattan or her writing technique?  I can’t say that this novel necessarily resolved this question for me.  Told as a frame story, a technique that I rarely truly like, it takes place in a small town during winter. The narrator, an engineer who has been sent to the town to do some work for them, sees a man limping along and his curiosity about the man is piqued.  The novel then shifts into what one can presume is the story behind the crippled man, Ethan Frome.  However, there is an ambiguity in how the story is framed and it leaves the reader to wonder just how reliable the story is.

The story itself is interesting.  You know a tragedy is coming and that Ethan will be hurt somehow.  You know that, although he always desired to get away from the small village, he never will.  Knowing these things, one is still left curious.  How will Ethan be hurt?  Frankly, I thought I saw the final tragedy coming before it did but I was not fully prepared for it.  If I suspected I knew how he would be crippled into staying in his miserable life, I could not anticipate the full brutality of it. 

For me the ultimate question is whether or not Ethan Frome creates his own misery or if it is truly forced upon him.  He conforms to community expectations when his family needs him, giving up a potentially promising future.  He then marries a woman who becomes increasingly sicker.  Does she become sick because this is Ethan’s self-identity as a long-suffering martyr?  By the novella’s end, it is all the more complicated.  I can easily imagine feminist interpretation of this novel.   Heck, I could write it.  But it’s probably already been written and I am simply too lazy to find an article that analyzes Wharton’s writing at the moment. 



This novel is part of the Classic Bribe Challenge in which I'm happily participating.  After reading this novel(la), I'm adding Edith Wharton's Summer to my reading list.  You know, because I need to add lists to my already endless list of books to read.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Temple Bombing by Melissa Fay Greene

This book is another of the BISHRBN Challenge books and is also one of my Fifteen in 2011.

The Temple Bombing by Melissa Fay Greene is about the bombing of Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple in Atlanta, Georgia which occurred October 12, 1958, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement.  This is the same bombing that appears in Driving Miss Daisy and the Rabbi, Jacob Rothschild, was a strong supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Rabbi Rothschild came to work in the reformed temple in 1946 and led his congregation with a conviction drawn from the words he read in the prophets, a call to seeing justice brought to everyone and daring to speak out for desegregation.  An intellectual, he had the sort of self-deprecating humor and a down-to-earth quality that allowed him to be a part of the community. 

Through Greene’s superior ability to tell a story, the reader cannot help but see Rothschild as a flawed yet heroic man, one who lived by the powers of his convictions and did what he believed his God would want him to do.  Greene’s research into the events draws heavily on primary sources—from face-to-face interviews, articles, and more.  It is chilling for me to imagine her sitting in the room with some of the men, the ones who were accused of placing the bombs.  It’s hard to imagine her listening to anti-Semitic vitriolic rhetoric and maintaining any semblance of grace. 

The story is a powerful one, a harsh reminder of the brutality of hate, how racism rarely begins and ends with a single people and how it can manifest, explosively, in appalling ways.  In spite of the painful history Greene tells, her prose is easy to read and compelling.  Furthermore, she manages to maintain an objective dispassion throughout the text, never indulging in speculation or pointing fingers without evidence to support her contentions. It is her ability to maintain an emotionless balance, to not make accusations where there is no clear evidence, that gives this book its merit.  It’s her prose—engaging, interesting, and more—which makes this book difficult to put down.

(On a personal note, after reading Gone With the Wind, I was reminded of the anti-Semitism that was part and parcel of Atlanta’s history but I knew very little of it.  Greene goes into great detail explaining how the Jewish community became a marginalized part of the community.  Rich’s department store, after all, was a mainstay of Atlanta business and was founded by a Jewish man.  Nevertheless, I am not naïve enough to think that a Jewish presence means there is no anti-Semitism.  It was especially interesting to me to read about how the different communities within the Jewish community responded to the times—the truth about the Holocaust coming to the forefront of American awareness after World War II, how the Orthodox responded to the Reformed, how the immigrant Jews from Russia felt towards their American brethren, how the Zionist movement and the establishment of the Israeli nation influenced the politics of the community.  And all of this in the midst of the Civil Rights movement.  It was, for me, a very interesting book to read.  Not sure why it took me so long to get around to it.  I think I expected it to make me angry.  It didn’t.  Sad, perhaps, to know we have come a long way but never seem to have come far enough.  What is that saying?  The more things change, the more they stay the same.) 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Among the Ghosts by Amber Benson

Among the Ghosts by Amber Benson is a cute novel written for tweenagers about a young girl called Noh (real name Noleen-Anne Harris Morgan Maypother) who goes to live with her aunt Sarah at the New Newbridge Academy for the summer. She is virtually an orphan—her mother having died before the novel begins and her father too often traveling with his own scientific research to give his daughter the attention she needs.  Shortly before she arrives, Noh discovers that she is able to not only see but communicate with ghosts.  And the ghosts are disappearing.

Benson tells a good story and I love her use of metaphor.  This is not a sophisticated story and there are flaws within the text.  (Had I read the manuscript, Benson would have received notes about how can a ghost that cannot feel be scratching a sore spot that doesn’t really hurt? (35)  Does she mean that the sore doesn’t hurt? If so, don’t call it a sore spot because now it is a spot that is sore and either it hurts or doesn’t.  And I’m not sure how Trina, on page 141, can follow ghost footsteps even if they are her own.  Are ghosts in the habit of leaving physical impressions in the ground?  Does that make any sense?  And Catherine Anne is said to “break the code” on page 175 when, really, she broke nothing; all she did is reveal the writing.)

But the target audience will probably not notice nor care and I am being nitpicky.  Blame it on the fact that I am working on editing a manuscript for someone and am in editorial mode.  In spite of these flaws, none of which are weighty enough to devalue the novel as a whole, it is a well told story and Benson does a good job of offering the type of open ended closure that is both satisfying without being too much of a cliff-hanger.  I think it’s a safe thing to say that, should the novel sell well, there will be more novels to follow as Noh explores her new powers, as she meets new ghosts along the way, and hopefully as she fulfills a promise she makes in this one.  Certainly, Benson makes a promise to her readers on page one that she meets with grace and ease.  I enjoyed this book.

(On an aside, I found the ants, although relevant to the story, annoying and distracting.  Mostly because I have a phobia and even tiny ants drawn on a page make me itchy.  I found myself scratching as my skin constantly crawled with imaginary insects.  Hopefully, if this is the first in a series of books, the ants won’t play so large a role and won’t appear on so many pages.  Ick.) 

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Last Samurai by Helen Dewit

The Last Samurai by Helen Dewitt is a metafiction novel told in the first person through the voice of a single mother and her prodigy son, gifted with an insatiable curiosity for languages among other things.  There are so many threads in this novel that I was worried they would still be dangling loosely at the end but, in spite of its enigmatic ending, all of the narrative is so tightly woven that I am blown away.  (And let's be honest, shall we?  Those of you who follow my reviews are fully aware of the fact that I prefer an ending with no neat closure than I do one that forces a happy ending down my throat.)

All reviews are subjective, obviously.  Nevertheless, I wish to approach this novel in a manner that will attempt to do full justice to the text.  The truth is, I cannot possibly hope to succeed.


One:  The Self as Writer
I could never have written this book.  I doubt many of us could.  Thank goodness Dewitt has already written it because now the pressure is off the rest of us.  This novel weaves together literature and languages, from The Odyssey to the Old Testament, from Mozart to Kurosawa to Lord Leighton, and throughout The Seven Samurai and so much more.  The story unfolds slowly but is compelling nonetheless.  Just when you think, “Why is this here?  Why didn’t Dewitt edit this out?  I don’t understand.”  The story continues and you say, “Oh wait.  Now I get it.  Wow.”  The things that seem redundant serve a purpose, the way a childhood memory plays itself over and over again, roots digging deep within the psyche. Dewitt isn’t writing an easy novel and her characters are complex, inspiring both compassion and criticism.  I am in awe and grateful I never aspired to such greatness as is contained within the pages of this amazing book.

Two:  The Self as Daughter Raised by a Single Mother and De Facto Single Mother Herself

Sibylla is a single mother raising a remarkably brilliant child whom she calls Ludo.  It’s hard to say she is a good mother but she is without a doubt a well-meaning one.  Homeschoolers will delight in her choice to educate her son who, by the time he is six, is multilingual and knows mathematics beyond anything his peers are doing in the classroom.  But to praise her with excess ease is impossible.  She watches The Seven Samurai every day for weeks, months, and even years.  When her son reasonably asks to know more about her father, she refuses to give him a simple answer, demanding that he prove a readiness to know the truth.  When he is old enough, naturally Ludo seeks his father with whatever information he can scrounge up.  I tend to avoid any television shows that include some sentimental crap in which children are reunited with their long lost fathers, whether it’s one of those (wretched) daytime talk shows or a sitcom that wants to use emotional manipulation to teach a moral lesson, I typically find this programs insulting and disingenuous.  I did not feel this way for even one moment as Ludo strives to find his own answers.  I hesitated to hope and also didn’t want to despair that he would succeed. 

Three:  The Self as Literature Lover
This book is such a treasure and the type of book that many people will hate the moment they try to begin it.  If you need a clearly linear novel and if you need quotation marks to distinguish dialogue then this novel will be distasteful.  I am of a postmodern bent when it comes to such things and respect novels that can do these things and do them effectively.  I do not deny that in the hands of unskilled writers and editors, the end result is a mess but Dewitt is far from unskilled.  She is a master, the type of talent who makes the complex seem so easy, so very easy.  The layering is glorious with so many surprises at each turn of the page that I found myself not wanting to read too quickly when I came close to the end. 

Four:  The Remembered Self
At one point, Dewitt makes reference to Carl Friedrich Gauss and a possibly apocryphal story of his adding a sequential series of integers using a simple formula.  One time my step-father (although he and my mother were not yet married), while we were driving somewhere, asked myself and his daughter “What is the sum of all the numbers from 1 to 100?”  I pondered it for a few moments and then said, “5050.”  When he asked me how I had come up with the solution, I explained that I realized 1 + 99 equals 100 and 2 + 98 equals 100 so it was simply a matter of knowing that I would add them all and have to add 50 more.  This is not quite the same as what the novel says one should do but the end result is correct.  (You would multiply 100 by 101 and then divide the product by 2.)  That I had done this in my head surprised him.  That I out thought my (future) step-sister was only due to my being seven years her senior.  It wasn’t all that impressive but I can’t help wondering if maybe some of my intellect did not go overlooked.  I know I found school dreadfully dull although I liked interacting with other people.  I probably still favor a more social work environment than one in which I am expected to fulfill my role without thought, moving by rote from task to task.  And perhaps that is part of what I loved about this book because there is nothing rote about it.  I don’t expect to read another book quite like this one, with its dark humor (There is a strange taboo in our society against matricide.  (253)) and curious observations (The fact is that most people are illogical out of habit rather than stupidity; they could probably be rational quite easily if they were properly taught.  (363-364)),  I found myself chuckling, even guffawing, and I don’t frequently find books that give me so much pleasure.

Five:  The Self as Reviewer
I said at the start that I doubted I’d be able to write a review that would adequately reflect what a remarkable book this is.  I could only try to share how I think I approached reading this novel from a variety of perspectives to give some idea of why I appreciated it so very much.  I couldn’t possibly prepare myself for the story because even when I thought what could happen, something else entirely different would happen and it never seemed wrong, contrived, manipulative, or any of the things that I usually feel for novels that deeply disappointing.  This is, needless to say, a thinking person’s book and not an easy escapist bit of fluff. There is nothing wrong with escapist fluff.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Julian of Norwich Showings

Julian of Norwich Showings by Julian of Norwich is a spiritual classic written by a 14th century mystic in which she shares sixteen “shewings” she has from God.  She is most famous for her emphasis of God as Mother, several lovely metaphors (including how all of creation is but a hazelnut in the palm of the creator’s hand), and for the often quoted phrase “All shall be well and every manner of thing shall be well.”

I’ve read this book before because I wrote a paper on it for a medieval literature course on the Platonic influence evidenced in the mystical experience of Julian of Norwich.  (For the curious, I received an A for the paper and submitted it to a scholarship competition which I won and received a $1,000 stipend to pay for my education.  I used that money to pay bills.)

The book is divided into three parts.  The first is a very long introduction in which the editor expounds upon the two versions of Julian’s writings: the short and long text.  The introduction is followed by the short and then the long version. Frankly, I think most readers would benefit from just reading Julian’s own words and then reading the introduction.  Draw your own inspiration or conclusions about the text before inviting another voice to give it meaning.  Or read at least the short text before reading the long one.  (Actually, it is also interesting to read the short text and  long text parallel to one another:  short version of the first “shewing” and then the long version of the same showing, after Julian of Norwich had spent time meditating upon her experience fleshing out the details and offering her own interpretation of the experience.

Much of her writing is organized in typical hierarchal patterns, a rhetorical device common to medieval literature so things are often listed in numeric order or reiterated in a cantatory manner.  Because she is a woman, she also apologizes frequently for her “unlettered” abilities, sharing her humility in a near ecstasy.  There is even a passage in which she blames the Jews for the crucifixion of Christ, a typical belief I profoundly anti-Semitic belief in medieval England.

I enjoyed the text almost as much as I did my marginal notes.  Underlined passages I obviously meant to use for my paper highlight especially the visions that included discussions of the Motherhood of God, Mary, and Jesus as Mother.  Obviously, I changed the theme of my final paper but I hadn’t realized how much work I’d already done towards my initial paper idea.  There are also citations I put in the margin of Bible verses, chapter and verse suggesting relationship between what Julian says and what the Bible says. 

I would like to type out everything I highlighted and noted the first few times I wrote it, along with the Biblical references I added but I don’t have the time to do it right now and I’m not sure that it would matter.  The poor book I have is falling apart so I’m going to throw it away after I do record a few of the quotes I highlighted this time.  I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in women mystics, Christianity, or medieval literature. I hope Saila will someday read it, if she hasn’t done so already.  I thought I would buy a new copy to send to my mother but after reading it this time I don’t think I shall.  Instead, if I can dig it up, I’ll send her a copy of the paper that earned me that scholarship.

As an aside, the day I finished reading it this time, I was sorting through a box and I came upon a folder I thought I had lost in a flood that damaged things I had stored in a closet in my old apartment.  In the early weeks of the medieval literature course I went to a one day seminar on Julian of Norwich, complete with breakout workshops and such.  My friend Beth, the same one who also gave me this book to begin with, and I both participated but we chose different workshops, mostly because I was looking for intellectual content that might help me with my paper and she was looking for a more experiential outcome, participating in a labyrinth walk and listening to a lecture on Julian’s writings and their influence on such writers as Annie Dillard and T S Eliot.  I filed the folder away without looking at it because I was trying to organize things and once I allow myself to be distracted by resources I’ve rediscovered, I can easily lose hours of progress to intellectual distractions.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Woe Is I by Patricia T. O'Connor

Woe Is I:  The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Connor is a delightful look at the basic rules of grammar.  This new and expanded edition includes a chapter on email.  The rules have examples which are amusing and slightly off-beat, full of cultural references from television shows to literature.  I often found myself chuckling.  (I even guffawed at one sub-chapter title:  Metaphors Be with You.) I also often found myself having to reread the examples because I automatically corrected the wrong examples as I was reading and when O’Connor declared them to be incorrect, I would be confused and then realize, upon rereading, what I was doing.

I suppose this says much about me as a reader and grammarian.  I certainly don’t claim to be disciplined or even conservative with my own writing, as is evident by many of my blog posts.  Do I get a cookie for knowing the difference? 

The truth is, I don’t especially like reading about or even studying grammar rules so I am always pleased when I find a book like this one that makes reading the rules engaging and occasionally amusing.  I like it so much that I am inclined to recommend it to everyone.  My favorite grammar book is no longer easily available but it remains my favorite.  Unfortunately, I have a habit of lending it to people only to have them keep it.  It gets more difficult for me to replace an out-of-print book. Now I’m considering buying Woe Is I and lending that so that I can hold onto the other book.  But first I need to replace the other.  *sigh*

Oh wait!  The Transitive Vampire is not out of print after all.  I remember trying to order it through a bookstore and either they mislead me when they said it was out of print or it was and it's back.  Not sure which.  It doesn't matter.

Truth is, I would recommend either book.  If you like your examples a little gothic twist, then you'll love Karen Elizabeth Gordon's book.  If you want to read examples that include characters from The Honeymooners and The Flintstones and others then you'll love O'Connor's book.  I didn't mention that she also has the audacity to list those traditional (conservative) grammar rules which simply are no longer relevant or required.  That chapter alone is worth the time and energy of reading.  And I wish everyone who emails me would take the time to read the chapter "E-Mail Intuition" because I do get tired of trying to decipher other people's meanings between the acronyms, emoticons, and endless lists of forwarded email addresses.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Jean Rhys The Complete Novels


Jean Rhys The Complete Novels is really more a collection of novellas for they all are quite short.  The first four novels, in my mind, are the most powerful.  How often does an author draw inspiration from her own life well enough to pull out four different stories?  She admits that the first two novels are very close to her life but the next two are less so.  She denies that they are at all inspired but it is hard to ignore how smoothly the four novels flow one into the other, the female protagonist practically interchangeable from one story to the next. 

In Voyage In the Dark is about a young chorus girl who finds herself drawn into an affair with an older man, a relationship that is obviously doomed.  The story takes place in ParisIn Quartet, the older but still young woman becomes the mistress of a married man when her husband goes to jail with the blessing of the man’s wife.  After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is the first novel that is supposedly not drawn immediately from her own life and yet the story feels like a continuation of the previous two.  A now older woman is cut off from the financial support of a former lover and she leaves Paris and returns to her family in England in hopes of getting her life back together.  Then in Good Morning, Midnight a woman approaching her forties, aware that her sexual attractiveness is fading, is losing herself in alcohol and pointless flirtations as she tries to avoid her reality, unable to return to her home in England or go on in as she has been in Paris.

Can you see how easily these four weave together as though they are a continuing narrative?

The final “novel” in the collection is Wide Sargasso Sea which I like the least.  The gradual, emotional decline that Rhys explores so effectively in the other four novels is glossed over although it could be all the more realized in the character of Antoinette.  And there is the potential to fully delve into the journey from stability to instability.  Or to even suggest that Antoinette was not so much fated to be mad so much as driven to it.  I don’t know if Rhys lost faith in her ability to use stream-of-consciousness to its full effect or if, because she was not writing about herself or Paris, she didn’t know how to be honest with the character.  

I will say that I’m glad that Gina gave me this book because I’d already read Wide Sargasso Sea and was not impressed or excited by it.  My mind was not changed upon reading it a second time.  But after reading the other four novels, I could definitely appreciate the common themes to which Rhys returns again and again.  I’m glad I read the novels in the order I accidentally did because I might have been even more disappointed by the final novel if I had read the first four before I ever read anything else by Rhys.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

This book is yet another in the Books I Should Have Read By Now Challenge and one of my Fifteen in 2011 list.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.  The novel begins when Antoinette is a child, living in the Caribbean after slavery has been repealed.  Her family of former slave owners has fallen into financial difficulties and her mother’s erratic behavior further isolate the child from the community. 

This novel was chosen by my banned book group because it is listed on the American Library Association as one of the 100 classic novels that is most frequently challenged.   Why?  I can only assume it’s because of the use of the n-word.  Frankly, I am tired of the word.  I’ve read too many novels lately that use it and I am ready to escape its energy altogether. 

This is also my second time reading this novel and I have to say that I didn’t like it any better this time than I did before.  In fact, I would not have read another Jean Rhys novel  because I found this novel so underwhelming.  Many of the same themes that I enjoyed in her previous novels—the ideas of alienation, isolation, sexual politics—are all explored here but less effectively in my mind.  This novel  is its most powerful when Antoinette is telling the story but the first person narrative is given over to one character in part two and very briefly to a third in the final part.

I don’t dislike this novel not to recommend it but I don’t like it enough to do so either.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson

I offer the following word of caution for parents. This book is truly a delight.  However, given the theme of flooding and natural devastation, I would recommend this book with reservation given the floods and other water related disasters that have occurred.  A child who is sensitive to these current events or especially one who has survived the loss of home and even loved ones might find this book alarming and frightening.


Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson is the fourth book in the Moomin series but I’m clearly reading them out of order.

I found this book utterly enchanting.  Unlike Tales from Moominvalley, this book is a novel, with all of the lovable quirky characters one would hope to find.  For me, Snuffkin’s entrance was the one for which I had been waiting.  The story is a simple one–the valley is flooded and the Moomin family are stranded, finding shelter in a theater that floats by.  Silliness ensues because the Moomin’s are oblivious to what a theater is and cannot understand the purpose of the curtains, the scenery, and the props that purport to be food and such but clearly are not.

There is something delightful off kilter about these characters.  On the surface, the stories are rather warm and fuzzy but there seem to be some themes that, as I’ve said before, are probably beneficial to the maturing reader.  I think that because the characters are, for the most part, more like creatures than humans, there is a child-like safety in them but the stories suggest more sophisticated themes.  I’m specifically thinking of Snuffkin’s part in this particular story as he thwarts authority.  I couldn’t help but see some relationship between the typical educational system and how creativity and the innate love of learning is inevitably stifled.

As I said, for the thoughtful and questioning reader, these books are bound to stir up some ideas which is why this book is perfect for that not yet pre-adolescent who still wants the security of something cute but is ready for something that is also clever.
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