Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Funny, Creative and Honest: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

I love memoirs more than any other type of book.

When I searched "great new memoirs" Allie Brosh's Hyperbole and a Half: unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened kept appearing.  It looked promising, so I ordered it.  Unlike many of the reviewers for this book, I had never read Allie Brosh's blog titled "Hyperbole and a Half", but I did hear her interview on NPR last week where she started to cry as she talked about her bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts.  I was more than intrigued and did a bit of a happy dance when my Amazon box arrived at my door.

The book reads like a graphic novel because Allie Brosh illustrates her stories.  The drawings are rudimentary, but hysterical (especially the dogs).  I read the whole book in an evening and laughed out loud and reread her chapter "The Helper Dog is an Asshole" to my husband.  He laughed, too, because it is funny and when you read it, you can't help but laughing.

Here's a tip, though - you may want to just check out Allie's blog (which is an award winning blog) since most of the stories in this book are taken directly from her blog posts.  This book really is a compilation of her best blog posts, so you don't even need to buy it UNLESS you are looking to buy a funny (and sometimes sad and disturbing) book for someone this Christmas.  I realized while perusing her blog, that the posters the English teacher put up about the A LOT came from Allie's blog.

Brosh's sense of humor and her ability to show her stories through the pictures is worth reading and discovering and passing along to friends and family members you know won't be offended by the stick figure with the triangle pony tail.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The roots of evil and justice: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

After plodding through the dismal Allegiant by Veronica Roth (the last book in Roth's Divergent trilogy), I picked up The Round House that same afternoon.  I craved a hearty read with substantial characters, breathtaking writing and a storyline that kept me not only engaged, but made me think.  Although I have read some of Erdrich's short stories, and Love Medicine is still on my lists of "must read before I die" books, I have never read one of her novels.  This novel, already adorned with The National Book Award Winner seal of approval, made my mouth water a bit.  I knew little about the story line - only that it was a cross between a mystery and a coming of age story.

The story opens with Joe and father Bazil as they pull tenacious, weedy, small trees from the foundation of their home in 1988 on their Indian Reservation. Unsuspecting and innocently, hours later, Joe's father asks, "Where is your mother?" Joe believes she went to work to pick up a file, but feels uncertain and uneasy.  They discover hours later that Geraldine, Joe's mother, was the victim of a brutal rape that renders her a ghost like whisper of her former self - scared to tell any details of the crime committed against her.

The book, told from the narrative perspective of Joe's adult self, centers on Joe's young detective skills and his need to bring the rapist to justice.  He and his band of friends, all on the brink of adulthood and discovering that the adult world comes with complications of love, sex, violence and justice, work together like the boys in Stand By Me to uncover truths at the scene of the crime, the Round House, a sacred space where there Ojibwe hold spiritual ceremonies.

Erdrich's storytelling left me breathless (just like I wanted to be) with her ability to weave together humor (in the form of the elderly Indian women who have no qualms about divulging the secrets of their past love conquests much to the chagrin of the unsuspecting listeners), and memorable characters (like the tragically beautiful priest, Joe's charming best friend Cappy, and Sonja, Joe's crush who mothers him when his mother is unable to move from her bed). The storyline floats through mystery, and a coming of age summer which is shrouded in discovery and loss.  The boys protect each other and help each other through the darkness and manage some freedom in their summer of discovery as they bike through the reservation.

The magic of Erdrich stems from her ability to enhance the storyline with as much mysticism and spirituality and reality, but make the reader question the nature of good and the nature of evil.  As Father Travis tells Joe, "Every time there is an evil, much good comes of it ---" to which Joe responds by deepening his need for vigilante justice.

Erdrich furthered my breathlessness with the revelation (at least to me) that "tribal governments can't prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on their land." That law (which Amnesty International  called "Maze of Injustice") coupled with the jigsaw puzzle of land laws surrounding Indian territories and federal properties lead to the freedom of the rapist and the eventual outcome of the book as the community seeks justice.

Even with the abrupt ending and the thin wisps of some of the storyline still left unanswered, Joe's narration of his summer of discovery founded in both evil and justice will stay rooted with me for years to come.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Have Mercy . . . It's Over!: Allegiant by Veronica Roth

Ummm.... it's hard for me to know where to start with this one.  The song "Mercy" by Duffy kept playing in my head as I read the third and final book in the Divergent series.  Allegiant by Veronica Roth hurt to read.  I know, I know . . . she has tons of fans.  Girls in the age range of 12-17 probably LOVE this series, and don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the first book, Divergent, but I couldn't enjoy this book at all.  

Not at all (sorry Veronica Roth fans). I can picture my good friend's daughter reading this post and crying because she loves Veronica Roth so much and just met her at The National Book Festival.  And I appreciate this adoration, but I can't say that I appreciate Roth's writing in the 2nd book in her trilogy, Insurgent, and even I possess even less admiration for the writing in Allegiant.  

I rolled my eyes while reading just about every chapter.  Before you jump to the conclusion that I just hate YA literature, please reconsider.  I LOVE YA literature, but not all YA literature (just like not all adult literature) is created equally, and Roth's book Allegiant is a sad attempt to continue and conclude the very intriguing dystopia she developed in Divergent.  The main action of this book takes place outside of the faction led (and crumbling) futuristic Chicago in a secret compound that has been monitoring the city experiment.  In the world outside the city, the dystopia continues but instead of faction fighting faction, it is the Genetically Pure (or Divergent) against the Genetically Damaged (those who aren't Divergent). Beyond this compound there is an even harsher landscape called the fringe which seems just like the factionless sector in the city.  

Although the conflicts are all set, there is little to love about this book. Let's take the characters of Tris and Four (Tobias) for an example of the deteriorating story line.  Their relationship in the first book blossomed during the initiation process, but in the second book it thinned and it almost became a laughable aspect of Allegiant.  Tris huffs and puffs so much at Tobias, and Tobias seems bent on lying to her which seems so different than the very lovable and admirable Four that Roth presented in Divergent.  Whenever a "love" scene appeared in this book, I felt nothing for this couple but an annoyance.  Why does every time that Tobias looks at Tris that she has to question why such an attractive bloke would love the skinny, pale, and plain likes of her?  The murky lack of self confidence even with the plans and bravery Tris shows in every other situation just seems wrong and so sadly misplaced that it grew tiresome. 

I also grew tired of the plans and revolutions.  I know that this too might be a subject for Roth fans to debate me, but almost every chapter presented a new plan involving a new serum of some sort that only some people are immune to or some people have been inoculated against. All of the plans felt contrived and a bit childish rather than well thought out and complex.  

The new characters presented from the compound outside of the city also seemed thin and underdeveloped.  Nita, whose appearance furthers the understanding of the resistance against the Genetically Damaged prejudice is also presented as a love hiccup between Tris and Tobias.  The whole situation is so ridiculous with Tobias accusing Tris of just being jealous, and Tris focusing on Nita's beauty.  Aren't they in the midst of some huge revolution and in mind blowing revelations about the Matrix-esque role of the compound?  In one part after Tris shoots Nita she visits her in her guarded cell.  Tris describes Nita in her powerless state and thinks, "half her body is encased in plaster, and one of her hands is cuffed to the bed, as if she could escape even if she wanted to. Her hair is messy, knotted, but of course, she's still pretty." I had to mark that passage, because I rolled my eyes after I read it.  Really? You visit the rebel in her prison cell after you almost killed her and you are focusing on her still being pretty?

The dual narrative from Tobias and Tris's perspective also got tiresome and didn't offer too much of a different perspective until the end.  

I don't want to be cruel, but I was so glad when I finished this book.  I know that it will still sell, sell, sell, and with the movie coming out for Divergent in the Spring (as well as another collection of stories from Four's point of view), Roth is sure to be given high praise for her trilogy.  My biggest hope was that Roth's Divergent world would improve with each book like J.K. Rowling's writing improved and grew more complex with each installment of Harry Potter. Instead every interesting aspect of the first book dissolved in the second book, and the third book basically ran on empty the entire 526 pages.  

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Stolen: A Kidnapping Tale with a Twist

Lucy Christopher's debut YA novel Stolen (2010) presents a psychological thrill ride in which a beautiful and broken Aussie, Ty, kidnaps teenaged Gemma while she is at the Bangkok airport on a layover and looking for an excuse to escape her parents. After drugging her, Ty transplants Gemma to his home in the Australian desert hundreds of miles from civilization and tries to convince her that they are meant to be together. Ty proves to be a benevolent kidnapper who stalked Gemma from the time she was 10 years old, and wants only to protect her and show her all the beauty of the Australian wilderness. He's beautiful with blonde hair, fire lit blue eyes and rippling abdominals, but something about him repulses Gemma.  It could be the fact that he drugged her and took her 1000s of miles away from the only life she ever knew.  It could be the fact that he created a life for them without her consent.  It could be the fact that he stalked her as she grew up.  It could be that he repeatedly says that he will never let her go.

Maybe since I just saw The Great Gatsby and I have been thinking about To Kill a Mockingbird, something in this kidnapping tale seemed almost romantic. In any other situation, Ty, the pained loner who loves the land and pledges devotion to one woman for his entire life, who only wants to show this woman the beauty of the harsh wilderness around them, who never touches this woman but protects her, who paints and traps snakes during the day, and who seems to know everything there is to know about the Australian desert would be a hero.  In Stolen, however, Lucy Christopher twists the tragic hero and places him at the center of a kidnapping tale. We see Ty's devotion to Gemma, but the connection between the two characters remains uneasy because the motives and the violence of kidnapping underly the entire skewed relationship.  In The Great Gatsby, Jay constructed his lavish empire only to win the love of Daisy and be worthy of her love.  There's a romanticism in that story.  Jay Gatsby endears readers as the tragic hero whose fatal flaw stems from the fact that he did it all for love.  He wanted to repeat the past with Daisy, and he created just the sort of world that would attract her.  In To Kill A Mockingbird, Boo Radley watches over Jem and Scout and protects them from danger, going as far as killing a man to protect them.  In the end, Boo, although creepy and somewhat stalkerish, becomes a hero who overcomes the evil.  Christopher's portrayal of Ty leads even his victim to question him - can she trust him? Should she? Does she have feelings for this man whose motives are twisted and his sense of reality warped? Is he tender or terrifying? Is he calculating or kind? The complexity of the character makes it hard to know which leads to the brilliance of Christopher's work and the well deserved Printz Honor it received.

I loved this book and tore through it in a day abandoning other work responsibilities to be entrenched in the heated story of kidnapper and victim, the wild of the Australian dessert becoming a vivid, living character itself. Gemma's internal struggles, her will to escape, and the overriding seductive nature of her captor, all drew me in from the first page.

It's that lingering question of what really constitutes love? How do we differentiate love from capture? Hero from hunter? Healthy relationships from unhealthy ones? Devotion from deviant behavior? Lucy Christopher presents a character as complex as the Australian landscape he knows so well - dangerous and deadly as well as beautiful and breathtaking.  Ty will make you question your concept of hero and villain and Stolen will make you question what it means to be taken and what it means to be saved.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Lost and Found: Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

Unlike much of the adult fiction I selected over the past few months, I knew relatively nothing about Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple.  I read a John Green interview after I reread his book The Fault in Our Stars in which he named Semple's book his favorite of the year so far.  Semple wrote for Saturday Night Live and for Arrested Development, and Where'd You Go, Bernadette was touted as a one of the year's best books, with glittering praise for the comedic writing and spot on satire from every major news outlet from the New York Times to Vogue.

I chose this book for my Book Club because I needed a change of pace.  Where'd You Go, Bernadette certainly offered something different.  The story revolves around a family living in Seattle - Bernadette Fox, a brilliant architect from Los Angeles whose distaste for the Seattle inhabitants and lifestyle pushed her over the edge and made her a recluse in her run down home; Elgin Branch, Bernadette's genius Microsoft inventor husband who received national recognition for his top rated TedTalk on Samantha 2; and the narrator of the story, Bee, Bernadette and Elgin's gifted 15 year old daughter who attends Galer Street school and asks for a trip to Antarctica for receiving perfect grades.

The story unfolds in a series of letters, faxes, medical reports, interviews, and emails.  The biting satire about families, overzealous Suburban moms, creativity, and the artistic temperament highlight the mystery of what really happened to Bernadette, but brings up the broader question - what happens to all of us as we age, compromise our beliefs, raise our families, recover from illnesses and loss, and try to navigate the world and find out what we can really tolerate.

I loved Semple's style and found myself flying through the narrative.  I especially loved the character Audrey Griffin and her flawed rivalry with Bernadette.  Audrey's letters about blackberry bush removal, parent involvement at Galer Street School, and her unhinging at the Westin Hotel where she realizes how out of touch with her reality she really is parallels Bernadette's unhinging and circle to eventual restoration. The way the story unfolds made me appreciate Semple's brilliance - the truths keep coming in bursts of light through the various clues Bee recovers about her mother's disappearance.

I never laughed aloud as I read the way that I do when I read David Sedaris, but the fresh originality of the dysfunctional world of Bernadette, her husband, and her daughter showed human truths in a way that didn't feel awful and sad.  Yes, there are sad aspects to the book, but all the sadness is tempered with Semple's comedic edge, and the wit led me to smile rather than frown.