Saturday, October 24, 2015

Darkness Visible by William Styron


Darkness Visible:  A Memoir of Madness by William Styron is a slender, yet profound, exploration of one man’s struggle with depression.  While in Paris to receive a prestigious award, the author becomes increasingly aware of how deeply his depression has rooted itself in his psyche and decides to get help once and for all.  His candor in describing his complicated journey towards wellness lends this a strength few memoirs offer.

Styron is best known for his novels, Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner possibly most of all.  I was curious to see how Styron would describe his personal experience, mostly because I am dealing with several people who seem to be struggling with depression.   It is easy to forget that, even though in our society we talk more openly about mental health issues, there is still a strong stigma attached to a diagnosis of depression. 

Most remarkable for me, was reading Styron’s honest subjectivity.  He never projects his personal experience onto others. He concedes that what worked for him may not be the solution for others, reinforcing the idea that each person’s experience is unique.  It would be easy for a reader to assume that what’s true for the author is true for everyone who has depression but he never allows this false idea to take root. 

I suppose this is what I appreciate most about this book and why I want to recommend it to anyone who knows someone with depression.  While it may not give you insight into the specifics of why the person you know is suffering, it will give you a better understanding, maybe even some compassion, about why this is such a struggle.  If nothing else, perhaps the insight on the pages will build some patience in your heart and, even where you may not be able to fully understand the profound struggle, you can find room to listen to the person living with depression.  At least, I hope that this is what is happening for me, anyway.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson


Bats of the Republic:  An Illuminated Novel by Zachary Thomas Dodson is a cleverly told story that takes place in an America that is both familiar and unique and moves in and through time.  Filled with illustrations from documents, drawings supposedly made by the characters themselves, there is so much creativity used to tell the parallel stories of Zeke Thomas and his ancestor Zadoch Thomas.  The blurb itself suggests a further connection—Zadoch Thomas has been given the responsibility to deliver a secret letter and, three centuries later, Zeke is given that letter when his own grandfather dies.  Things begin to spiral out of control when the letter goes missing.

That’s all in the blurb and it takes over 100 pages for the letter to go missing.  And the cloud of bats, also mentioned in the blurb, don’t appear until after page 300.  Until then, you are supposed to become so enchanted with the men’s stories, and the stories of the women, Eliza and Elswyth, that you can’t help but read on in spite of the constant shifts in story from one narrator to another, into the novel within this novel and all the transcripts and documents that are provided.

It is truly a well-crafted novel and I can’t help but think that the author got caught up in How he wanted to tell the story and What he wanted the reader to take away from the story that he forgot two very important things:  characters and plot.  The characters here are all two-dimensional and nobody has a clear change of heart.  In other words, the bad guys stay bad and the good guys remain boring page after page after page.  Even when the characters were most in peril, I had no problem putting the book down and picking up another book.

Seriously, when reading a memoir about depression and suicidal ideation is more entertaining than a novel, something is wrong.

The plot is thin, at best. There really is no narrative arch whatsoever. I desperately hoped that the conclusion would brilliantly tie everything together but it didn’t.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love novels that have ambiguous endings and/or don’t fall into the neat little package of a happy ending.  I didn’t want something concrete. I just wanted . . . something.  And this novel offered nothing but a few fragments of interesting images and mostly tedious to read text.  (Don’t even get me started on the white font on black paper, which was bad enough without there being grey font on black paper.  FYI, there’s a reason you don’t see a lot of websites that use grey font on a black screen and you’d think someone would have figured out a still clever but more legible way to translate the author’s creative intent accordingly.)

After slogging through the hundreds of pages of disjointed content, the story ends and Dodson inserts a photograph of a bat suffering from White-Nose Syndrome and explains that the bat population is at huge risk because of this fungus.  He shares a link to the BatCon organization.  If you simply must part with your money or merely want to learn more about bats, I urge you to google Bat Conservation International and donate the money you would spend on this book directly to them.  You’ll save yourself a lot of frustration and tedium and still have the pleasure of learning more about bats.  And it’s great to want to draw attention to the plight of bats.  Too bad an author with as much inspiration but more talent couldn’t have bene the one to do it.  Unfortunately, the ones I think best equipped to have done this more effectively are not alive (David Foster Wallace, Terry Pratchett) or have other things to write (Margaret Atwood, Chuck Palahniuk, Joyce Carol Oates).  In the hands of an author who could make how the story is told as important as the story itself, perhaps the bat population would stand a chance.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan


The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan is the first novel in the massive Wheel of Time books.  I began reading these back in 2005 or 2006 but realized I was reading them faster than the author was publishing them and, since I loathe waiting for The Next Book, I stopped reading, planning to read the entire series once all thirteen books were published.  And now that all fourteen books are not only in publication but have been so for a while, I am finally getting around to reading them all. 

In this first novel, we are introduced to Rand al’Thor, his best friends Matrim (Mat) and Perrin, plus the village girl on whom he has a crush, Egwene al’Vere, and Nynaeve, the village Wisdom who is training Egwene to follow in her footsteps.  Other important characters include Moiraine and Lan, whom some readers may have met in New Spring.  Following in the tradition of James Campbell’s hero cycle, Thor and the others are forced to flee their homes.  Along the way, they make more friends (Thom Merrilin—a Gleeman, Loial—an Ogier) and enemies.  At first, the young travelers see everything as a fun adventure but the danger to them all increases and the urgency of their quest forces them to take greater risks. 

Each of the characters is motivated by something different.  Rand, forced from his home, at first only wishes to return but soon realizes that the danger that he faces is following him so returning to his village would only endanger everyone and everything he holds dear.  Mat and Perrin initially go for the adventure but both are, like Rand, changed.  Egwene wishes to follow Moiraine to the White Tower to become an Aes Sedai.  Nynaeve, determined to bring them all home, initially follows them to protect her neighbors but finds other reasons to continue in the journey. 

In the end, each character, having been changed, is forced to make a difficult decision.  Although they are all still together, it is clear that they must go their separate ways if they are to not only fulfill their destiny but do what they each believe they must.  The reader is left gratified but also curious to know what will happen next. 

Unlike George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones, this series is not especially dark, following more along the lines of the High Fantasy tradition of J R R Tolkien, without sounding quite as mythic.  And Robert Jordan creates a complex world, with layers of details that don’t always seem significant but come into play later, sometimes not until a later book.  This is why so many people choose to read and reread these books.  I’m glad I’m finally getting around to finishing the series because I have wanted to know for a long time what happens with Rand and the others.  I have my suspicions but I believe Jordan, and eventually Brandon Sanderson (who was hired to finish writing the series when Jordan was diagnosed with an incurable disease), are sure to surprise me.  If not, I’ll know in thirteen more books. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters


Fingersmith by Sarah Waters is another brilliant novel from a woman who knows how to craft a story that reads like a classic but has all of the modern psychological depth of a contemporary novel.  I loved her book, Tipping the Velvet, so my expectations were pretty high, going into this book.  Isn’t it lovely when you finish a book you hoped you’d really enjoy and find yourself having fallen in love?

The story sounds like something straight out of Dickens. Sue Trinder is an orphan living in Victorian London with a family of thieves.  When a member of the family comes with a scheme to cheat an heiress of her wealth, Sue is enlisted to help, tightening the loose threads of her fate, even as the ties herself more firmly to the loyalty she feels for her family. 

The novel is told in the first person from two point-of-views, in the past and present tense, depending on the narrator.  This two-point perspective manipulates the reader even as the characters manipulate one another, creating sympathy for some and more disdain for others.  And just when you think you know what is going to happen, or believe you couldn’t like a character (or perhaps hate one more), Waters masterfully twists things yet again. 

Can you tell I loved this novel?  I became delightfully lost in the story and had to force myself to put it down when life insisted I stop reading.  Brilliant novel for anyone who loves Dickens or the Victorian Era but wants something more modern, more provocative, yet equally gratifying to read.

I would love to see the BBC production someday.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood


The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood is a dystopian novel from an author who has written frighteningly prescient novels.  I mean, The Handmaid’s Tale seemed impossible until the neo-conservatives started making noise in United States politics. 

In this novel, Stan and Charmaine are living in their car as their lives and society have fallen apart.  The economic collapse has resulted in the couple being jobless, homeless, and facing a violent world where they have no choice but to find a way of surviving.  When they learn about an opportunity to give them a haven, a home and employment, naturally they are willing to do anything to be safe.  And much will be demanded of both as they sign on the dotted lines. 

Although neither Stan nor Charmaine are especially likeable, you do come to care about what will happen to them.  There are many twists and turns, fueled by the desperation to live a “typical” life.  But when society itself has fallen apart, what is typical and how much can anyone sacrifice to escape an ugly reality?

Atwood does a wonderful job of exploring the cost of sacrificing personal freedom for security.  It’s easy to see the implications in our own media as politicians continue to warn us about the dangers of terrorism and illegal immigrants, highlighting how our economy continues to struggle, and we’re on the brink of disaster from within so vote for me and I’ll save you and yours.  Yes, my expectations were very high for this novel because it was favorably compared with The Blind Assassin in the blurb but I don’t think this novel comes even close to being as brilliant as the former novel.  And with all the unexpected twists and turns presented, there were a few that I saw coming a mile away, including the “big shock” at the end of the novel. Nonetheless, it was a compelling read and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Gone Girl and or loves dystopian literature. Also, I was not aware that this was the fourth of a series of novels, and it definitely works as a stand-alone novel.  I may or may not go back and read some of the previous volumes.  So many books, so little time.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Out On The Wire by Jessica Abel


Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio by Jessica Abel is an interesting resource told through Abel’s skillful use of graphic story telling.  She is an author of two textbooks about making comics which I joyfully gave to my daughter because Abel is so talented and able to communicate information that makes even confusing content accessible.

This new addition to her nonfiction graphic resources is no different, giving the reader a behind’s the scene look at how radio programs are produced, carrying reader from the inception of an idea to the final airing of an episode.  I had never thought much about the work that goes into some of the NPR programs with which I am so familiar.  I now have a better appreciation not only for This American Life and RadioLab but I find myself listening to podcasts with more respect for the work that goes into all of them. 

Early in the book, Abel shares an excerpt from a previous publication she made for This American Life called Radio: An Illustrated Guide.  The most interesting part of this is not only seeing how much has changed and/or stayed the same with how the one radio program is produced but even seeing Abel’s own creative process and growth.  The fact is that the rest of this book is actually stronger than the excerpt.  I honestly think it would have worked best as an appendix or even bonus at the end of the main text because so much in production has changed. 

Nonetheless, I found this book interesting, more so the more I read.  Although there are a lot of people who come and go on the page, Abel illustrates each so the reader is not left confused and even gives them a unique voice, evidence of her skill.  Even for someone  without a vested interest in learning how these programs are produced will find themselves, like me, enthralled with the various processes and later, long after the book itself is closed and on a shelf, listening to programs with greater appreciation.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby is a novel about a young woman living in England in the ‘60s.  I’ve enjoyed the movies About a Boy and High Fidelity based on his novels so I was curious to read this one. When the publisher sent this to me by mistake, I wasn’t disappointed because I’ve been wanting to read a novel by Hornby for a while.

This is a light bit of fluff that doesn’t provoke a lot of thought or emotion.  I didn’t care about any of the characters.  The main character, Barbara, has ambitions.  Born in a small town, she wants to go to London and be an actress like her idol Lucille Ball.  I kept waiting for Barbara to change more than her name but the final sentence of this novel proves that she is two-dimensional and doesn’t change.  None of the characters evolve and, although they are pleasant enough, they aren’t especially likable.  Even when the interrelationships change, the characters themselves stay the same. 

Vapid, or banal, or uninspired, or just forgettable, there's nothing brilliant about this novel.  From the characters to the predictable plot devices to the not so surprising conflicts, I just can't think of anything to especially recommend this book except to say it is an adequate beach novel.   I had hoped to laugh and did find myself occasionally smiling but nothing more.  As I was reading, I could see how it would make a charming movie, but there’s a difference between sitting back and watching pretty people perform on a screen and slogging through a book that’s supposed to be entertaining and humorous.  I don’t know if this novel is indicative of the author’s writing. If so, I’ll not read another novel by him. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Skinny Habits by Bob Harper


Skinny Habits:  The 6 Secrets of Thin People by Bob Harper is a follow-up book to his Skinny Rules.  Now I should confess that I am not a fan of The Biggest Loser and I skimmed his other book briefly in the bookstore and tossed it aside because some of the advice is just not that profound or maybe it just seemed obvious.  But when I saw an ARC offered for this book I thought it might be interesting to read because even if I don’t like his show Harper seems like a likable guy. 

I’m actually glad I read this book because it reinforced some of my own perceptions about my weight struggle while also helping me get some clarity about why others struggle.  Some of the things said in the book helped me experience more compassion for some of the struggles I hear others share.  Now, it’s not that the habits are all that profound but I can see where some of them might be difficult if only because they are not necessarily innate.  The habits themselves are explained in the context of scientific research—from neurological to psychological—to explain why each habit is necessary and effective. 

But the real benefit of this book lies in the Habit Homework at the end of each chapter. Harper doesn’t discuss the power of journaling and that is unfortunate.  I would imagine some readers might brush aside the “work” that writing implies, hoping to still benefit from reading the ideas.  However, putting your truth into words is important. It is not enough to recognize yourself in one of the habits, to say “Yes, this is an area I should work on.”  Taking the time to respond thoughtfully to the homework can take the idea from off the page and into a daily practice so that it can become a personal habit. 

I enjoyed this book very much in spite of my personal reservations.  Yes, Harper alludes often to the show and to some of the contestants.  He’s honest about the struggles these people have after they leave the environment of the program and return to their normal lives.  Referencing the show is to be expected.  After all, most of the people who are likely to read this book are probably fans of the show.  But you don’t have to be a fan of The Biggest Loser to enjoy and make practical use of this book.  Don’t just read it; use its ideas to empower yourself.   Truth is, these habits put into practice may not change everything but they certainly can’t hurt and may be the difference between experiencing long-term weight loss success and regaining weight that’s been lost.  I’d definitely recommend this to anyone who has lost and regained weight in the past or is currently struggling to lose weight at all.  Make a commitment to read the book and do the writing and you may break through some resistance and see success at last!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Lord Fear by Lucas Mann


Lord Fear: A Memoir by Lucas Mann is a powerful exploration of memory and meaning, of how addiction ripples beyond the addict, and how we try to make meaning even of circumstances that are beyond rational understanding.  The author was thirteen when his brother Josh died of an overdose and he inherited his brother’s notebooks and other personal papers.  Through interviews with people who knew his brother better than he, Mann strives to know a brother who died before they could truly know one another.

Through interviews and excerpts from Josh’s own books, Mann introduces the readers to a young man who is as complex as he must have been in life.  The author interviews several people from his brother’s past, including his own family members.  Instead of merely transcribing the conversations, he takes his considerable talent to imagine the moments that each person remembers, adding layers of emotional and sensory detail that make the memories palpable.  Not only does Josh become more fully realized with each person’s memory but the person sharing the memories become known. 

It is not easy to sympathize with Josh and yet I found myself feeling compassion towards him and his family.  But Mann’s mastery of content is remarkable. He shares the stories with uncompromising honesty. Josh goes from being fascinating to frightening and, at the end, profoundly fragile.  Mann likewise reveals himself throughout, as he tries to draw meaning from his brother’s life and death.  I ached for everyone whose life was touched by Josh as much as I ached for the addict himself. Anyone else writing this memoir, could have tried to achieve what Mann has in this book but would inevitably fall short if not fail altogether. Not an easy book to read but a powerful and profound one nonetheless.   

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick



Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick is a young adult novel told in the first person by the titular Leonard Peacock who is celebrating his 18th birthday by packing five things in his backpack before going to school—four gifts for some very special people in his life and a loaded World War II Nazi pistol left to him by his deceased grandfather.  Leonard is preparing to say goodbye but, first, he is going to murder the boy who has been bullying him.

Believe it or not, it is almost impossible not to fall in love with the protagonist in spite of his homicidal intentions and his suicidal ideation.  As he gradually tells his story, we meet the four people who have most deeply touched his lonely life—an old man who lives next door, a fellow student, a young girl, and his favorite teacher who happens to be teaching a course on ethics during the Nazi regime. 

Above all else, Leonard is unique, an unforgettable character whose emotional state becomes something the reader can only hope will improve, that he will find healing.  The complex relationships he has with those he cares for most are only overshadowed by his relationship with his mother, a phantom character at best.  This is not unusual for young adult novels where parental figures are often absent or the young characters are removed from their familial home.  Nonetheless, even though there is one young adult trope, I very much enjoyed this novel and found the ending was gratifying.  I only wish I had read the novel sooner.   

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Rumi Day by Day by Maryam Mafi


Rumi Day by Day by Maryam Mafi is a collection of excerpts from some of the numerous poems of the Sufi poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī known for his mysticism.  But this is not just another translation of a prolific writer who is already so ubiquitous even in Western literature that most people will recognize his name. 

Instead of being a collection of some of his poetry, Mafi has taken two or more lines of verse and created a collection that reads less like poetic verse than like a collection of pithy aphorisms.  There are many who avoid reading poetry because it’s too hard, or at least harder than prose.  Instead of work for understanding, they avoid poetry altogether and for those people, who might otherwise never read Rumi’s gorgeous poetry, this book is a worthy addition to the wealth of previous published English translations.

However, I love poetry.  I love the relationship that is created between me, the reader, and the poem and, through the poem on the page, the poet.  By reducing Rumi’s verse to couplets or quatrains of concise text is fine for an introduction but reduces the sublime majesty of his poetry to what someone might find in a meme on the internet.  Nice but no longer magical.  My hope is that Mafi has not merely watered down great literature but has, instead, created a doorway through which those who are afraid of poetry will dare enter with confidence and expectation.  If they like what Mafi offers, they will adore Rumi’s poetry, much the way a child may like baby food but an adult knows the joys of a delicately seasoned meal.   This is my hope, anyway. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Goddess Pose by Michelle Goldberg


The Goddess Pose:  The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West by Michelle Goldberg is an honest look at the life of an extraordinary woman.  If I had read a novel in which a woman experienced half of the things Indra Devi did, I would have found it hard to believe.  And yet, this is no mere fiction and Goldberg writes about Devi, not with devotion but with honesty. 

Born Eugenia Peterson into an aristocratic family, she eventually followed her beloved mother out of their Russian home because of the revolution.  The two travel through many countries, including Germany (and were there during the Beer Hall Putsch, no less). She continued to be in pivotal places during significant times and was determined throughout her life to remain independent even when she was married.

Eugenia was an actress and wife but never settled on anything in particular until she came to yoga and renamed herself Indra Devi.  Even then, she drifted from one teacher to the next, taking what she learned from Indian masters—such as Vivikenanda, Krishnamacharya, and Sai Baba—and fusing it with her western understanding of  health.  She adapted hatha yoga and introduced the practice to women even when yoga was still mostly taught by men to other men. 

The fact is, without Indra Devi, yoga’s presence in America might not have taken root so soon and her life is both a testament to the power of yoga and the human ego for the yogini presented in this book is deeply flawed, often driven by selfish needs that only seemed selfless.  But even someone who hasn’t quite released the ego can be a spiritual leader and there is no doubt that Devi is more influential than many people who do yoga daily are aware.  That she is flawed, makes her influence all the more fascinating.  Her life would make a great movie and even Hollywood would not have to do much to make it dramatically compelling.  Goldberg has done a brilliant job of celebrating a very human woman and bringing her to life on the page. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg


The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg is a novel about George Sand’s life or about her life as Berg has imagined it, which she herself admits.  Because there are so many conflicting stories about Sand’s intimate life, Berg had the creative freedom to choose what would best fit her narrative intention.  Certainly, if even half of the rumors about Sand are true, she led a book worthy life.

I have always enjoyed Berg’s novels for their gentle slice-of-life focus on middle class America, putting ordinary people in not so extraordinary circumstances and just letting them live.  The domesticity of her books is a pleasant surprise and her characters are familiar even though they don’t always do the expected. So I was curious to see what Berg, a contemporary American writer, would do with a character born in another time and place.  Could she write a lovely novel about a very non-traditional woman and make her feel like someone you could meet any day of the week?

Yes, she can, I am thrilled to say.  Berg is not a challenging author but she doesn’t shy away from the more challenging aspects of Sand’s own life.  If you are unfamiliar with Sand’s life, a quick search will reveal that she liked to dress in men’s clothing. She also had numerous, sometimes notorious, lovers.  She was admired in her day, considered to be one of the great minds of her time.  And even if you’ve never read one of Sand’s numerous novels, you can enjoy this novel.  (Perhaps it will inspire you to read one or more for yourself.)

Berg does a good job of picking and choosing the events, and rumors, to use for her novel.  She also chooses to write the novel in the first person, making this larger-than-life character somehow intimate and less foreign. I enjoyed this novel more than I dared hope and am glad that Berg is stretching her creative wings beyond her oeuvre.  She took on a challenge and succeeded in meeting beautifully. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Hidden by Davillier, Lizano, & Salsedo


Hidden:  A Child's Story of the Holocaust by Loïe Dauvillier with illustrations by Marc Lizano and coloring by Greg Salsedo is a graphic novel which takes place in World War II.  Told in a frame of a granddaughter being told by her grandmother about hiding from the Germans, the terrors faced are not too graphic and the illustrations are charming, making it a book I would easily recommend for middle school or older readers.  Like myself.

Dounia tells the story about how one day her father said that the family were now sheriffs, requiring them to wear stars.  The little girl doesn’t understand the implications but quickly realizes that things have changed for her when she goes to school the next day, proudly wearing her badge of honor.  Soon, she is forced to go into hiding, separated from her mother and father. 

While the frame is an effective tool, I was surprised it wasn’t used more throughout the book.  Mostly, it is at the beginning, with one brief interruption from the granddaughter and later, at the very end.  For this reason, the frame seems more an excuse to tell the story and not as effective as it could be if we occasionally experienced the granddaughter asking questions or reacting to her grandmother’s story.  Nonetheless, it is a good story and would be an interesting choice as an introduction to The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. 



Monday, March 16, 2015

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace is justifiably listed as one of the most difficult novels in English literature.  And yet, underneath it all, the story is not very complicated.  There are three narrative threads:  a tennis academy focusing on Incandenza family, a rehabilitation facility dealing with the recovery of various characters, and a secret society seeking a mysterious video tape.  So if the narrative arch is really so simple, why so many pages?

I know I’m not the first to sit in utter awe of Wallace’s writing prowess.  He introduces a large number of characters throughout the book and it takes the first 100 pages or so for the characters to begin intersecting with one another.  It takes a lot of faith to trust that Wallace has the ability to bring so many disparate threads together and to leave nothing dangling.  And I know that a lot of people who finish the book are probably left feeling that the whole damn book is left dangling but I was told, and I tell you who may not have tried to read this book, if you reread the first “chapter,” so much will make sense you’ll wonder how you could not have seen it sooner.  (Albeit, by the time you’ve reached the end of the novel, you’ll have probably forgotten the specific details of the first chapter.  It took me 27 days to read so how could I not have forgotten the details?)

This novel literally has everything from the grotesque to the humorous.  There were so many subtle jokes that I found myself chuckling while a page or two later I would find myself cringing in disgust.  I was fascinated by the characters, even when they disturbed me, enough to stick through all sorts of things.  With allusions to everything from etymology to Shakespeare to pop-culture, I couldn’t help thinking that I was reading a post-modern Moby Dick, a novel encyclopedic in its scope. 

It’s tempting to skip the endnotes and, admittedly, some of them are unbelievably long.  Longer than long.  But you must read them because they add layers of meaning that would otherwise be missed.  And a few of them are sardonic.  I would also recommend keeping a dictionary handy.  I can’t remember the last time I read a book that forced me to look up more words.  Don’t assume your ereader will be able to define all of the words for you.  More often than not, when I wanted to look up a word, my kindle was useless.

I regret not reading this novel sooner.  It is inspired and brilliant and subversive.  It’s also impossible for me to recommend. I cannot think of anyone who would or could easily read it and might enjoy it.  Many of the characters are racist, some of their actions loathsome, and some of the paragraphs seemingly endless.  (I jokingly sent a text to the friend who recommended I read the novel that I wanted to know what is the longest chapter, endnote, paragraph, and sentence (by word count) as well as which endnote has the most footnotes (yes, the endnotes have footnotes!), which chapter has the most endnotes, etc.)   When I told my step-sister that I had just finished it she said she had been thinking about rereading it.  Yes.  Some people are gluttons for punishment.  I'll probably reread it someday too.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Ruby by Cynthia Bond


Ruby by Cynthia Bond is a novel that takes place during the time of the Civil Rights movement but in a town where the changing times do not touch the rural community deep on Louisiana where the titular character was born and eventually destroyed.  The story is a sort of love triangle with Ephram Jennings at the core, caught between the sister who has loved and raised him most of his life and the young girl who has returned to their home town a deeply damaged woman.

Bond’s prose is luscious, gorgeous from page one, evoking mood and tone in metaphors and wish such poetry that I began this novel with enthusiasm.  There are turns of phrases so delicious, I reread them to savor the words.  Then Oprah Winfrey announced it was a book club choice and I cringed.  I gave up on reading her book club choices ages ago because I was tired of the themes which seemed to manifest each and every time.  Mind you, her taste in books is very good and many are well written but there was no real variety and, after a few times, I stopped bothering. 

Which is what I should have done with this novel because pretty prose does not and cannot make up for a story that lacks in substance.  The characters are all two-dimensional and do precisely what you expect them to do.  The only surprises I found on the page are the vulgarities of the abuse Ruby suffers. This is not to say that I don’t think things like this happen in real life but Bond has overlaid the events with a veneer of supernatural occurrences which takes all culpability out of the picture.  In other words, no matter how heinous the events of the novel may be, and they are indescribably so, the characters that commit the worst of the crimes are not entirely responsible.

The paranormal elements of the novel fall flat for me, as flat as most of the characters.  Even Ephram, who can arguably be said changes the most, doesn’t change much at all and the redemption and healing that is inevitably going to come by the novel’s end is unsatisfying.  It is not surprising that this novel is being compared with Toni Morrison no more so than it is for me to say that this novel simply does not and cannot measure up.  What is surprising is that I can honestly say I am interested to see what Bond writes next.  She has an elegance I rarely see in literature and adore.  I only hope that she can learn to create characters that will live up to her other talents. 



Friday, February 27, 2015

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante


My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante is a coming-of-age novel about two friends, Elena and Lila.  The girls are growing up in Naples during the late 50s in a poor community and the novel overflows with a remarkable cast of characters. 

The novel is told by Elena whose relationship with Lila is passionate and complicated.  They are both very intelligent, often pushing one another to strive for more, to be better than the other.  Poverty holds one of the girls back from furthering her education and, as their lives digress, their lifestyles gradually change.  In spite of this, the two girls find an anchor in one another and are really their best with one another. 

The other people who make up the community—the neighbors, the other children in the school, the teachers—all add flavor to the central story.  And there are a lot of secondary characters.  In the beginning of the book is a list of all of the characters, but I never had to refer to it because each stood out on his or her own.  And I want to know more about them.  The conclusion was so good it made me gasp.  It also left me gasping for more. This is the first in a trilogy of novels.  I am adding the next two books to my birthday wish list.  I won’t hold my breath but it would be nice to have the next two books because I do want to know what happens to Elena and Lila next.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Love Volume 1: The Tiger


Love Volume 1:  The Tiger by Frédéric Brrémaud and Frederico Bertolucci is a graphic novel that has no words, except for an epigraph at the beginning and at the end.  Visually the story is beautifully illustrated and is a simple day in the life of a tiger who, upon waking, seeks to find food and protect his territory from other predators.

I found myself rooting for the tiger even as I cringed at the possibility of his capturing some poor creature.  Then again, I also found myself holding my breath as I turned the page, hoping he would not make a kill after all.  There’s something to be said for a wordless story that can evoke so many, and conflicting, emotions.  There are some amusing moments and the story occasionally digresses into side stories about some of the other creatures that inhabit the same area as the tiger.

There are also ironic moments where one prey escapes only to be captured by another, smaller predator.  Ultimately, this graphic novel is a testament to how all things are interconnected.  Yes, this is a circle of life type of story but it’s told with humor (which will appeal to younger “readers”) and honesty (for the adults).  Interesting and worth checking out. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Master Cleanse Made Easy by Robin Westen


The Master Cleanse Made Easy:  Your No-Fail Guide to Feeling Great During and After You Detox by Robin Westen is a well-written discussion of how to properly ease into a fasting cleanse with a focus on the classic Master Cleanse. 

Westen begins the book discussing why one might need to do the Master Cleanse (MC).  She lists the various types of toxins we experience in our daily, from the foods we eat to the air we breathe.  Each of the chapters concludes with a quiz which is not too difficult but will also help the reader determine how well the material is understood.  This is especially important in later chapters.

The chapters then move through what the MC is, how to get ready for it, what to expect, etc.  Each chapter builds on the other and even carries the reader past the 10 recommended days for the cleanse.  I was pleased to read Westen admit that, whatever weight is lost during the MC, you can expect to put the weight back on when you stop doing the cleanse (37).  I’m not sure I buy some of the claims made, such as the one on page 38 about breathing being a means of assimilating protein without ingesting it but this is one of the few claims I found beyond the limits of my belief. 

But Westen does not encourage the reader to use and abuse the MC by doing it for too long or too frequently.  Ten days and ten days only is her recommendation.  In getting ready for the MC, she recommends certain things, from lymph massages to saunas to sugar scrubs.  (She even includes a recipe for making your own sugar scrub.)    Then, during the MC, she recommends gentle exercise, journaling, and other practices that will complement the physical aspects of the MC with mental and spiritual aspects.

Once the ten days have passed, Westen suggests how to gently move back into eating “real” food again and she includes a few recipes.  This is where the full benefit of a cleanse will be experienced as the reader can learn how the body responds, or even reacts, to different foods. 

I was very well pleased with the overall presentation of this book but what about the Master Cleanse itself?  It only makes sense that, to give this book a complete review, I should do the MC myself.  So I’ll be starting the cleanse tomorrow and blogging about my experience in my regular (not review focused) blog.  You'll find that here.  Follow along with me on my ten day journey.  I have a feeling I’m going to need a lot of encouragement!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The New York Stories of Edith Wharton


The New York Stories of Edith Wharton is a collection of Wharton’s short stories that span her entire writing career. Almost all of the stories take place in the titular city and occur at a time when society was in flux.  In these stories, as in her novels, Wharton writes about characters who are stuck in the traditional roles and expectations of the time and those who live outside of society’s approval.  But because society is not static, it is the static characters who seem the most unhappy while the ones who dare throw caution to the wind find pleasure and even acceptance.

It is impossible for me not to compare this collection with Willa Cather’s and the differences are worth mentioning.  While Wharton seems stuck in her themes and stylistically continues to mimic the writing of her time, Cather took creative risks not found in Wharton’s stories.   What Wharton does so well in her novels, seems almost claustrophobic when condensed into a short story.  Perhaps this is because Wharton does limit most of her stories to New York and New York society while Cather wrote about the western expansion.  The two women were practically contemporaries, with the influence of Henry James is especially apparent in Wharton’s works, for better or worse.

Reading about Wharton’s New York is fascinating for me. She writes about neighborhoods with which I am familiar, places I grew up, but generations before my time.  Through these stories, I see the familiar through a new lens, appreciate how much has changed while recognizing how some things haven’t.  The rich get richer and the poor . . . well, not much has changed, really. 

Yet, for women in particular, much has changed and, with the last story in this collection, “Roman Fever,” gives the clearest hint of how things are changing for women.  Perhaps, with more time, Wharton would have found a strong short story voice.  I still love her novels and I liked her short stories well enough.  Enough to want to read more of her novels.   With that said, there are a few I will likely reread ("The Portrait" and "His Father's Son" come immediately to mind). 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Death Cure by James Dashner

The Death Cure by James Dashner is the third book in the Maze Runner series.  Still trying to avoid spoilers on this so forgive my vague review.

The third book carries some of the characters from where they were left in the previous novel into a still larger world.  The dangers remain as real as before, forcing the characters to take greater risks. I found myself getting very frustrated with one of the characters even as my anxiety for all of the characters grew.  Nonetheless, I slowed down my reading pace, which isn’t easy to do with these books.  They really are hard to put down.  It is not as tightly written as the previous two books but it is still a very compelling read.  The conclusion, I confess, was not as satisfying for me as was the final book in the Hunger Games.

There is a prequel to the series and I am tempted to read it.  If anyone who’s read it wants to leave a comment, please do so.  I’m curious. The person who recommended the series to me hasn’t read it. I also apologize for the brevity of this review but, to avoid spoilers, I erred on the side of saying less so I would not say too much. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Serenity: Leaves on the Wind by Zack Whedon and Georges Jeanty

Serenity:  Leaves on the Wind by Zack Whedon and Georges Jeanty picks up where the movie Serenity leaves off and is an essential addition to anyone who is a Browncoat.  But anyone who hasn't watched both the television series Firefly and the film and read Shepherd's Tale as well as the stand alone comic about Wash may be somewhat lost.  You might get away with not reading the final two but if you haven't watched all of the above then too much will be lost.

In other words, this graphic novel is for the fans out there who will love the story, the inside jokes, the references that root this story in the well defined 'Verse of the television series and movie.  Some of the self-referential moments are purely visual.  

I mention that the references are occasionally visual because the thing I liked least about this graphic novel is the artwork.  Don't misunderstand.  It is good.  I showed it to both my daughter and my husband and there was a consensus.  The artwork is good but vague.  It's difficult to recognize the very familiar characters.  Having read a few other graphic novels from the Whedonverse, I can say that most of the characters are recognizable, not necessarily in each and every panel but most of the time.  So it was a bit disappointing to find myself struggling to tell whether Mal or Simon was talking in one panel or even a whole page.

Still, the story more than makes up for whatever lack there is in the visuals. There are familiar characters from the television series, one in particular that thrilled me.  To say anything more, would to give away too much. I'm avoiding spoilers as best I can.  Suffice it to say, fans of the show and movie will have a great time with this graphic novel in spite of its cliffhanger ending. 

ARGH!  All of the previous graphic novels have not been a part of an ongoing story.  So yes, I am disappointed even as I'm sitting on the edge of my seat eagerly awaiting the next collection.  Hurry up, Whedonverse (Zack, Joss, Greorges Jeanty, Favio Moon, et al). Your Browncoats are eagerly awaiting the next installment!

Monday, February 16, 2015

X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabbaz


X:  A Novel by Ilyasah Shabbaz is a fictional account of the early part of Malcom X’s life as told by his daughter.  The novel is specifically targeted for a young adult readership.  I wanted to read this novel, and am so glad I did, because ages ago I read The Autobiography of Malcom X ages ago out of curiosity, having heard so many mixed messages about the man.  This was before the wonderful movie by Spike Lee, just to give you an idea of how long ago this was.  Comparing the two books is inevitable.  Fortunately, this novel lives up to all my expectations, give or take a few flaws.

The novel begins with Malcolm Little, living in Harlem, New York in 1945 and running from the threat of someone who thinks he is owed money.  Almost immediately, there are hints of the poetic moments that pepper the novel.   After the prologue the novel shifts back in time and forward and back again.  Eventually reaching where the novel began, in 1945, and moving even further forward into his story ending in 1948.  By not telling the story in a chronological manner, the author does a brilliant job of showing how the events of the boy inform the actions of the man. 

I was hooked from the beginning.  Although I knew the man’s story, from having read his autobiography, this young adult novel immerses the reader in the emotional turmoil of growing up as Malcolm did, during the Great Depression. Knowing his childhood struggles makes some of his later choices.  The curious reader will want to know why Malcolm is on the run as well as how he moved from Lansing, Michigan to Manhattan.

The final chapters seem to be a bit rushed, the final chapter in particular.  And there is one rather confusing error regarding Seventh Day Adventists but the average reader will not notice it. (They do not worship on Sunday so Malcolm and his family could hardly enjoy a Sunday meal after service.  Instead, they would be there on a Saturday.)

Tragically, so many of the societal issues that dictate Malcolm’s life are still too present in our society.  Reading about how white society uses intimidation and discrimination to keep the African-American community from progressing sounds too familiar and contemporary.  We may have made some progress but we’ve hardly left these things behind, as recent events have proven.  The book has a list of “Further Reading” books that include other young adult novels as well as classic books from Ellison, Wright, and Baldwin.  An excellent novel I hope finds a home in classroom curricula across our still racially conflicted country.

As soon as I finished reading this novel, I wanted to reread the Malcolm X’s autobiography.  If a generation of young readers find themselves wanting to learn more about Malcolm and are inspired to read further, great!  I would love to think a new generation of people will read his own words.  The novel has
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