Monday, July 27, 2015

"Go Set a Watchman": The Darker Side of Maycomb, Alabama

I often wondered what happened to all my beloved characters in Maycomb, Alabama.  Who doesn't wonder about the lives of their favorite characters of all time? Because Harper Lee once said, "I wrote one good book and that was enough" I never believed I needed to know more about Scout's life, Jem's life, what happened to Boo, Atticus, Uncle Jack, Aunt Alex, Calpurnia and the rest of the characters of Maycomb.  "To Kill A Mockingbird" with all it's amazingness would do it for me.  I didn't need a trilogy, a movie sequel, nor did I need anything wrapped up in a tidy little bow.  I liked the unresolved ending and didn't need more.  

When Harper Collins announced that they were releasing "Go Set a Watchman" by Harper Lee, my jaw dropped.  I shook my head and emphatically told my husband, "There must be some mistake. Harper Lee didn't want to write another book" as if I knew her and could attest to her feelings on the matter.  Controversy surrounded the release of this book.  Did Lee really sign off on this deal or was it a money grab by the publishers? Was it released only because Lee's sister Alice died and her lawyer Tonja B. Carter took over her estate and just "happened upon" the manuscript that was actually written before "To Kill A Mockingbird"? If she wanted to publish this book, why did Harper Lee wait so long to do so? Did Carter take advantage of an elderly woman and resurrect an unfinished novel just to make money? 

I may never know the answers to all these questions surrounding the release of Harper Lee's second novel "Go Set a Watchman" but I decided to read it anyway even though I read early reviews that said Atticus was a racist in it.  Just the thought of that made me want to cover my ears and say "La la la, I am not listening to you" until everyone came to their senses and explained that he only appears to be racist in one part of the book, but shows his true nature as the book progresses.  I mean how could Atticus, my favorite literary hero of all time change so drastically as a 70 year old man? Surely he must have the same moral code and conduct that he had as a 50 year old champion of equal rights? 

The novel tells the story of Scout's (who now goes by Jean Louise) return to Maycomb 20 years after the close of "To Kill A Mockingbird." She's a 26 year old liberal New Yorker who still loves her hometown even if some of the people there are narrow minded.  She's in love with her father's right hand man, Hank, who is one of her oldest and dearest friends, and she still sees her father as the most amazing human being in the world.  The Maycomb in this novel is similar and different from the 1930s depression era Maycomb, but darker in a way because it is no longer told from the perspective of an idealistic, intelligent child whose father is infallible in his life lessons.  In the 1950s civil unrest, Maycomb fights a different battle than the ghosts that lurk in dark, mysterious houses, it fights the ever present NAACP and traveling racists who spout hate against a potential black uprising or the (gasp) mixing of the races.  In this Maycomb, even Atticus wants the races kept separate.  He, unlike Scout, is not colorblind. 

In many ways Jean Louise still retains the tomboyishness and the idealism of her days as Scout.  She doesn't shy away from confrontation with Aunt Alex (Alex is even more blustery in this novel), nor does she escape the expected traditions of having to do a Coffee session with the local ladies who can't seem to understand why on earth anyone would ever want to live in New York City with all the "Negroes" everywhere.  

Amid the rambling chapters in this novel, the real story is Jean Louise's separation from Atticus.  She becomes her own person by seeing Atticus as a flawed human being after witnessing him at a town council meeting about the preservation of the white way of life.  Uncle Jack takes on a bigger role in this novel and in almost preacher like fashion, he dominates the end of the book telling Scout "you confused your father with God.  You never saw him as a man with a man's heart, and a man's failings . . . You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers." 

There are big flaws in the writing.  Yes, this is Harper Lee, so there are more than a few moments of brilliance, but the narration lacks the vibrancy of "To Kill A Mockingbird" because it is told in 3rd person (and sometimes trails into an awkward 1st person).  The dialogue in some chapters is more like sermons and speeches, and there seems to be unfinished holes all over the place.  

I couldn't love this novel like I love "To Kill A Mockingbird" but it's still a noteworthy novel.  The chapters that flashback to Scout's early dates with Hank were my favorite (especially the part about her falsies), and The Coffee conversations were entertaining as well.  This novel, to me, still felt unfinished.  It contains the seeds of the more innocent "To Kill A Mockingbird" and because this was written first, this might be the draft that Lee never really wanted anyone to read or see - the dark side of all the characters, or maybe what the characters were like before she shaped them into what they became.  To me, this is an unfinished sculpture which has it's own merits, but can't really be compared to what "To Kill A Mockingbird" is.

Regardless of the shortcomings, I'm glad I read it.  I'm glad I got to see a different side of Maycomb, a different side of the South in the 1950s.  It shed light on other issues for me that I need to research and I will most likely read this book again when I am ready to venture back into Maycomb.  I just have a feeling I will reread "To Kill a Mockingbird" first. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

"The Midwife of Venice": 1575 in Venice = Yucky

I'm ruined.

After reading "All The Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr, I don't think any other historical fiction will compare.  My latest foray into the historical fiction genre was a quick read, but not very satisfying.  Compared to "All The Light We Cannot See" which to me is like having the best wine in the world, Roberta Rich's international bestseller "The Midwife of Venice" was like drinking a Coke after the ice melted in it.

Rich's novel seems promising.  It follows the story of Hannah Levi, a renowned midwife in Venice who has a special (and secret) apparatus that aids women in childbirth.  She lives in the Jewish Ghetto of Venice in 1575 which was not the cleanest time to live in a ghetto or the safest time to bring a child into the world.  Plague was rampant, Jews were seen as trash, and childbirth was dangerous as many women and babies died in the process.  The second storyline revolves around Hannah's husband, Isaac who was captured at sea and taken to Malta to be sold into slavery.  Hannah risks her life and the safety of her beloved ghetto to aid in a Christian birth (forbidden for Jews during that time period) in order to earn the money to buy her husband's freedom.  Told in alternating chapters, the stories of both Hannah and Isaac are fraught with danger.  Both are headstrong and unyielding and both escape near death in improbable fashion often.

I need to admit that I was a bit grossed out by the graphic descriptions of Hannah's midwife skills during the Countess Lucia's grueling labor and birth.  I didn't think I was squeamish until I had to read about the bloody birth.  Lucia's weak state along with a large headed baby was not a good combo and Hannah had to try everything in order to save the baby and the mom.  Equally as horrific was the treatment of Hannah by the brothers of the family and Lucia's main attendant.

Isaac's chapters were equally as graphic - near starvation, illness, wretched conditions and prejudice rule his quest to make it back home to his wife.  But, just like Hannah was a gifted Midwife, Isaac was charming even in his weakened and filthy state and he was able to make deals for his life because he was smart.

This novel does shed light on the conditions in both Venice and Malta during this time period, and it shows the disparities between not only the wealthy and the poor, but the Christians and the Jews during that time.  It's graphic because that's the truth of life then.

But, was this a good book that I would recommend to fans of historical fiction?

I rolled my eyes a few too many times.  The writing was just adequate, and the implausibility of the narrow escapes by both Hannah and Isaac became tedious instead of more exciting as the novel progressed.  I wanted to like it, but too many things held me back.  It was a quick read, and a good story idea, but I never got to a point where I could say, "I can't wait to read this book."

I read it.

I finished it quickly, but it was more like finishing a watery coke because there was nothing else to drink at the time even though I really wanted a fine wine.

Monday, July 13, 2015

"Remember Me This Way": A Creepy, Twisted and Slow Burn Thriller

How well do we really know anyone?

Sabine Durrant's dysfunctional marriage thriller "Remember Me This Way" goes beyond the surface of the secrets in a marriage between a sociopath and an introverted librarian that he stalks and eventually marries to show how easy it is to be deceived.

I'm not always a huge fan of thrillers - especially thrillers that show how messy marriages between crazy people can be.  Infidelity, twisted psychotic episodes, abuse - both mental and physical . . . all of these traits seem to mark the "must reads" that deal with dysfunctional marriages.  Just like in "The Girl on the Train" Sabine Durrant gives us a clingy, passive woman as a main character.  Lizzie unlike Rachel in "The Girl on the Train" has some desirable traits.  For one, she isn't drunk all the time, and for the most part, she doesn't tell lies to everyone that she knows.  Lizzie's conflict is her husband's tragic death which happened a year before the book begins.  Due to her guilt over feeling a little bit relieved after his death, she hasn't been able to visit the site of his car accident.  When she musters the will to go there, she finds flowers from a woman named Xenia there already, and she begins to unravel the secret life that her husband, Zach led.

Was anything that he told her true? If he really was a horrible person, what does it say about her that she really loved him? What does it say about her that she often felt responsible for his abusive and erratic behavior?

The narration switches back and forth from Lizzie trying to figure out what really happened to her husband and what he was really up to during their brief and tumultuous marriage.  She also wants to answer the questions that she has about whether or not he even died or if he is just waiting to punish her for the break up letter that she sent to his art studio.  In Zach's chapters, the reader becomes privy to the world of a misanthrope who never really tells the truth to anyone in his adult life, and about how easily he can camouflage himself into the nice guy or the new guy or the artist guy.  It's a dark world that Zach inhabits full of stalking just to see if he can get away with it and a trail of lies and abhorrent behavior with people who foolishly trust and even love him.

Lizzie's story is sad, but Durrant handles her codependent behavior with care.  She gives Lizzie a backbone (even if it isn't a very strong one).  The biggest downfall in this novel for me was the ease that Lizzie excepted the obviously troubled and incredibly spooky teenager, Onnie, into her home.  Although Lizzie felt reservations in allowing Onnie into her life, she caves quickly due to the pity she feels for her.  I never got a true sense of Onnie, and I never really wanted to.  She was more of an annoyance even though her story was integral to the plot.

Overall, I found Durrant's book to be a sly and well crafted thriller that felt perfect for an overly rainy week of summer.  I flew through it, and was satisfied with the outcome.  Something about this dysfunctional marriage rang more true than the relationships in the wildly successful "Girl on the Train" characters and their flawed love lives, or even "Gone Girl" and the sadistic nature of the wife who wants to punish her husband for his infidelity.  The pace wasn't as break neck, but quieter and even a bit repetitious at parts.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed myself while reading it, and recommend it to anyone looking for a quick thriller for the beach.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

"Firefly Lane": Before The Nightingale, this one was considered her best

Sometimes I wonder what's wrong with me that I don't love the books I am pretty sure that I SHOULD love.  I've been called a "book snob" before, and I know that it's true.  In the summer, though, I generally love a good sappy romance, and I thought I would find it with Kristin Hannah's 2008 huge hit "Firefly Lane." This book, touted as her best before "The Nightingale," intrigued me.  It sounded like a perfect summer book - love, friendship, loyalty, loss.  Yum. I LOVED "The Nightingale", so I thought I would be just as enchanted by "Firefly Lane" and I was even more happy that it included nothing about WWII, but I was sorely disappointed by Hannah's lack of writing depth in this straightforward and often cliched book.

To be fair, the story is a good one.  "Firefly Lane" follows the friendship between an unlikely pair - innocent, ugly duckling, Kate whose family bonds are strong and dependable, and beautiful, rebellious Tully who moves next door with her burn out mother for a short span of time in the summer of 1974.  They become TullyandKate, inseparable best friends, and forge a bond that transcends the ravages of time, motherhood, love gained and lost, and jealousy both buried and apparent.

There is much to love in this story of friendship.  The cultural references throughout struck a cord with me.  With each decade came new challenges.  In the 70s, the girls struggled with their own forming identities, but found solace in summer bike rides.  In the 80s, the power struggles of college where Tully wanted them to stick together and enter the world of journalism as a pair, and Kate's ever growing sense of disinterest surfaced.  Tully's quest for t.v. stardom continued to grow through the 90s and early 2000s as she gained more and more fame and notoriety and Kate's priorities shifted to motherhood.  Each of the women long for what the other possesses and each feel pangs of regret over their chosen paths, but always remain friends. I could relate to the changing styles, the changing priorities, and the ability to stick to a friend even after betrayals.

The friendship was sweet at first, but something shifted for me when the girls entered college.  Tully's sense of entitlement and her blind ambition made me sad.  Kate's devoted loyalty to her egomaniac friend made me sad, too.  And that pattern continued their whole lives.  It was hard for me to understand why Kate remained so faithful to Tully who clearly was out for herself for most of the story.  It was just as hard for me to understand Kate's inability to take care of herself EVER. My feelings shifted in the last few chapters of the book when Tully and Kate returned to the sweetness that defined their early friendship.  They needed each other, and loved each other like sisters, frenemies, life-long rivals and besties.

The writing was eye rolling worthy in many instances, and then sweet in others.  I cringed at the cliches and the predictability of the story line.  Some of the dialogue was dreadful and campy.  The thing is, though, that Kristin Hannah is a prolific writer with a devoted following for her 20 novels.  She writes for women who don't want a complex novel, but want something straightforward with conflicts of friendship and love intertwined.

I don't think I'll be reading any of her other earlier books, but I do know that I loved "The Nightingale" and it has many of the same elements that "Firefly Lane" possessed like one driven female character who rebels against society and another who is a headstrong mother. Hannah knows how to craft memorable female characters that modern women can relate to in many ways and she knows how to draw in readers, it just depends on how deep of a read you prefer and now, it seems with her latest bestseller "The Nightingale" that readers have a choice between substance free writing and something with a little more grit.

Monday, June 29, 2015

"I'll Give You the Sun": A Magical and Passionate YA Masterpiece

Love does as it undoes.  It goes after, with equal tenacity: joy and heartbreak. 

There's something about looking at a beautiful painting or sculpture and noticing the fine details, the artistry, the imagination and the mystery that surrounds it.  Sometimes you see something so beautiful that you want to cry, or possess it, or to be the one who created it.  Jandy Nelson's "I'll Give You the Sun" is equal parts beautiful and heartbreaking. This YA coming-of-age novel shows how art transforms the characters and is itself a work of art.

It's been awhile since I've been so moved by a YA novel.  Nelson's gift is her lyrical writing which includes elements of magic and supernatural, but also gives heavy doses of reality.  She also nails what blossoming love feels like and looks like in two very smart protagonists.  The narrators in the alternating (and long but lovable) chapters are Jude and Noah, twins who are so close that they almost smother each other in their quest to curry favor from their artistic mother.  Each of them tries to forge their own paths, but life rarely plays fair.  After tragedy strikes their family and truths, secrets and lies mount, they compete with each other in dangerous ways that drive them apart.

I loved every second of reading this book because of the intricacy of the story line - how the characters intersect and bisect each other's lives. The idea of twins who can sense each other's pain hurting each other purposely, but ending up only hurting themselves was captivating as was the whimsy of the grandmother's character and the unforgiving mother who also needed to forgive herself.

On top of the brilliance of Noah and Jude and their original, artistic voices that realize things about love and life that most people never can quite get, the supporting characters all add to rather than detract from the story.  Noah's "split-apart," Brian and his denial of his sexual orientation hurts to read.  He and Noah are so in love, but it's not okay to be who they are in a world of "surftards" and dads who just want their sons to be normal.  And Jude's transformation from bad ass to recluse to emerging bad ass and truth sayer was not just believable but touching.  She falls for her destiny and doesn't realize it just like she doesn't realize her crazy haired, stone sculptor, mentor is actually more closely tied to her life.

All artistic elements of this book work harmoniously to create a gorgeous inner and outer work of art YA novel that is so original and fresh that it feels like a pop of summer sunshine to read, but the depth of it and the emotional charge that comes form reading it makes me want to meet Jandy Nelson and tell her I am in awe of her passion and talent as a writer.

Looking for a coming of age love story this summer? Read "I'll Give You the Sun" and prepare to be amazed.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

"At the Water's Edge": Literal and Figurative Monsters

I loved Sara Gruen's book "Water for Elephants." In that book she transported me to the inner world of a traveling circus at the advent of The Great Depression when everyone who worked there was lucky to have a job.  Told through the recollections of the 90 year old Jacob, the reader longs for Marlena and Jacob's relationship to grow and cheers for Rosie the elephant.  It was a book I couldn't put down and I was completely pulled into the story.

Sara Gruen's latest novel "At the Water's Edge" possesses an intriguing storyline just like "Water for Elephants." The story revolves around Maddie and,Ellis (who are married) and Hank (their best friend), three socialite partiers who are spared the horrors of WWII in their elitist New York City existence.  Rather than facing the sacrifices that so many need to make, they live a life of excess and fun until Ellis and Maddie disgrace Ellis's rich family one too many times.  Ellis contrives a ridiculous plan to restore his good faith in the family by clearing his father's reputation as a con-artist who set up a Loch Ness monster hoax.  Even though it's wartime, Ellis convinces Maddie and Hank to journey from New York City to Scotland's highlands in search of the Loch Ness monster.

The journey is perilous through stormy, war torn seas, and when they arrive at their destination in Scotland, their reception is chilly at best.  Ellis and Hank reveal themselves as spoiled, rich, ruthless party boys who have no concern for others, and Maddie begins to see the truth of her marriage as well as her own part in a life she hasn't really been living but deadening with anxiety pills.  While Ellis and Hank abandon her to spend time together carousing and fruitlessly searching for a monster that may or may not exist, Maddie realizes the true monster is not necessarily the legendary one in the Loch, but the one she calls her husband.

The best moments of this book come from the genuine friendships that Maddie forms with "the help" at the inn.  Even more than that, the best character in the book is Angus, the mysterious inn keeper who disappears every day, but protects his staff and his community tirelessly from the threat of enemies both from the war and the patrons who frequent the inn.  The relationship between Maddie and Angus builds throughout the novel's second half and culminates in truly touching fashion.

Rife with legends, superstitions, dark and mysterious beauty, the setting of Scotland's Highlands offers much in the way of cold and lonely landscapes, but Gruen doesn't seem able to actualize all the elements that she orchestrates in the novel.  Ellis is a heavy handed bully, and so unlikable that he seems like more of a caricature than an actual person. Although Hank shows some signs of redeeming traits, he ultimately remains a flat character with little to offer in the way of the storyline.  The whole motif of monsters among us set against the backdrop of WWII and the Loch Ness monster are just as heavy handed as Ellis's drunken and drugged abuse.  The theme is fitting and the different components are there for an amazing story to unfold, but instead the narration and the flow of the plot feel clunky and wooden.

The book itself is highly readable.  I was able to finish it in just a day and a half, but the satisfying feeling I get at the end of a great book just didn't materialize at the end of this one.  It's good, but not great. Interesting, but not mind blowing.  With the rain soaked setting, I felt cold reading it and am ready to warm up with a hot summer book.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

"Bettyville": You can go home again

There are simple things in life that make sense.

The first thing that makes sense is that it's important to tell the truth about ourselves.  The second thing that makes sense is that we need a place to call home.  What strikes me as most interesting about these two simple things is that it isn't always easy to face the truth of our homes, but it's important to seek understanding about where we come from regardless of how painful that truth might be.

George Hodgman's memoir "Bettyville" explores his relationship with his 90 something mother in Paris, Missouri.  After losing his job and realizing that his mother who is in early stages of Alzheimer's and living alone needs his help more than she is willing to admit, he moves home to care for her.  He isn't quite sure of this at the outset of his "visit" because George is more New York City than small, Midwest town of Paris "population 1,246 and falling" where life moves slowly and revolves around homemade lemon pie, church piano playing, old shag carpets, and visits to the hairdresser.

But something happens as George, a former Vanity Fair editor and book editor, stays to care for his mother.  He begins to see her for who she is, but even more importantly he begins to understand who he is as well.  George's father, Big George died in 1997, and it is abundantly clear in this book that he deeply loved his father and still loves his mother even with their stoic approach to raising him.  For George, growing up was more than awkward.  At times it was painful because he was a gay man living in a small town where people didn't understand homosexuality nor did they care to even try to be open to the idea that gay men weren't choosing that life.  His parents never discussed his sexuality with him, and never really talked to him about his personal life even when he invited boyfriends to their home.

Ultimately, though, "Bettyville" paints the picture of George's mother, a feisty woman who still retains a sense of her former beauty.  Even in her 90s, she refuses to submit to her dementia and her lymphoma diagnosis.  She cares about remembering how to play her favorite hymns and the names of things that seem to slip just outside her grasp.  And George is there to help her in her twilight years with love and tenderness and often humor and a bit of disdain.

Even with their bickering and disagreeing, he respects and admires his elderly mother.  He realizes  that her inability to face his sexuality stemmed from her belief that she had somehow broken him when he was a squalling baby that she could not soothe. "She was not good enough and then he turned out broken and, after all someone had to be blamed. Someone had to have made her boy turn out wrong.  She thinks she was the one." Although George could blame his mother for many of the turns his life took, he never does, and he gives her the greatest gift by staying and helping her when she needs him most.

In his author's note, Hodgman writes, "My greatest wish is to hurt no one, though I believe we are often the most triumphant when revealed at our most human." In this book he uncovers not only what it's like to grow up gay with parents who don't want to acknowledge it, but also what it's like to come home again after living a fast paced life full of wrecked relationships and self-loathing to finally discover yourself as you care for a dying parent.  It's truth after truth after truth, and it's rarely pretty but it's always human.