Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

A Birthday Party Ruined by Katrina

Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere, by Julie T. Lamana, (Chronicle Books)

Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere is one of those luminous YA reads that bookstores would do well to stock with adult fiction, as well as YA. It’s a “problem novel,” but the problem isn’t a distant boyfriend or a fight with a bestie; the problem is Hurricane Katrina.

Armani Curtis’s family has yielded to her imploring and decided to remain in New Orleans, despite the pending storm, to celebrate her birthday. This is a bad decision. A very bad decision that puts everyone involved through all the worst that we’ve come to associate with Katrina: being stranded on the rooftop of their flooded house, losing (and not always finding once again) family members, traveling across and in badly polluted water, facing the misery and incipient violence in the King Dome, and trying to avoid child protective services, so the family won’t be broken up further.

The pacing of this novel is just right. At first, we see the world simply, through Armani’s eyes. She chafes against some of the restrictions imposed by her parents, but respects the discipline and sense of personal history that they and her grandmother provide. The shift from normality to disaster begins gradually enough; we can see why the family might choose to remain. But when Katrina hits, things change quickly and dangerously.

Yes, this is fiction, but it does a wonderful job of placing readers in the middle of a challenging, devastating disaster that may be beginning to slip out of current memory. This is a book we—adults and teenagers—need to help us grasp the magnitude of natural disaster. We also need it just so we can meet Armani and watch her, sometimes unwillingly, rise to the occasion.

April 18 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Sacred and Profane

The Resurrection of Mary Mabel McTavish, by Allan Stratton, (Dundurn)

The Resurrection of Mary Mabel McTavish is an odd sort of creature, rather like the result of some mad gene splicing experiment combining DNA from Nathaniel West, Carson, McCullers, and Horatio Alger. It is at once innocent and deeply cynical, a romance that litters the road to true love with all sorts of wreckage.

Mary Mabel, stuck with a drunken, uncaring father, and living at the finishing school at which he serves as handyman, is both unhappy and genuine: dreaming of a different life, while seeing both the best and the worst in the world around her.

The characters in this novel are types most readers will recognize, but they’re painted with enough detail that at their best moments they transcend stereotype. Besides Mabel’s father and the woman who runs the school (and later poses as a titled gentry) we have a half-crazed, going on fully crazed revivalist preacher; a sanctimonious con man; a newspaper man who will do anything for a story, and who hides a a streak of decency beneath his opportunism. There’s also the ghost of Mary Mabel’s mother.

The story opens with a resurrection. Mary Mabel impulsively lays hands on and reanimates a boy struck by lightening during a revival held in a tent that was previously the site of an adultery-inspired double murder. And the story goes on from there: complex, ridiculous, mocking.

At its best moments Mary Mabel is humorous and engaging, but at other times (those most West-like) it feels heavy-handed and deliberately provocative. The characters are never quite fleshed out enough to carry the weight of the narrative. Instead the author gets by keeping readers off balance and throwing one knuckle ball after another their way.

This isn’t a book to read when you’re hungering for a narrative you can get lost in, but when you’d like some narrative pyrotechnics you may find it amusing.

April 16 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Worth Buying in Hardback

Be Safe I Love You, by Cara Hoffman (Simon and Schuster)

Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You follows soldier Lauren Clay on her first few days home following a tour of duty in Iraq. There’s a strong arc to this story: unsatisfactory meetings with old friends and family leading to Lauren’s decision to take her younger brother on a survivalist journey through a remote area of Canada in midwinter.

Suspenseful as that narrative is, the real heart of the book is the characters and their wrestling with questions of identity. What makes this book exceptional is what people think, not what they do. Lauren, not surprisingly, has the roughest time of it, unable to drop her vigilance and expectation of command (she was an NCO) as she returns to civilian life. For her, entering the military was an economic, not an ideological, decision and she questions what exactly it was she fought for. In her old church, she redefines the faith in which she was raised:

The stained glass windows were dimly lit and she looked at them pane by pane; the long slow journey of Jesus, dragging his cross from window to window, until the Roman soldiers crucified him. It was a storyboard, she thought, like the kind you have to make and go over with your CO when you get back from a capture or kill. The stations of the cross were so everyone had their story straight, created agreement and uniformity in reporting the event. [...] Insurgent Jesus. [...] The stations of the cross made sense now, one more common war story hiding in plain sight.

The characters around Lauren struggle with their own displacements. Her high school boyfriend has moved on to college and resents reminders of his working class origins. Her best friend’s early motherhood has limited her to minimum-wage jobs despite her outstanding high school record. There are “the Patricks” three brilliant, but failed men and a choir director who lost a promising career to alcoholism. All of these characters are drawn with a detail and honesty that makes them simultaneously sympathetic and irritating.

If I were to call any book I’ve read this year a “must read,” it would be this one. The examination of the price paid by those who go to war on our behalf and of the compromises made necessary by poverty is rich—as is the prose in which it is presented.

April 14 2014 | Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Tales of Survival

Acts of God, by Ellen Gilchrist, (Algonquin Books)

Ellen Gilchrist’s short story collection, Acts of God, is a quick, interesting read that will leave you with lots to turn over in your mind. The characters in these stories face, as the title suggests, acts of God: floods, hurricanes, and smaller, but equally unnerving disasters. These characters aren’t heroic in any grand sense. They’re ordinary—sometimes irritatingly so—individuals faced with immense challenges outside their control. As the publisher’s write-up notes, these people “somehow manage to survive, persevere, and even triumph.”

In so many permutations, this cast of characters and their ability to overcome could lead to unsatisfactory results: sacchrine or histrionic or just plain unbelievable. Gilchrist’s achievement is that she allows her characters to overcome while keeping them human. Some of their triumphs are small, but they ring true. And together these stories build a sense of hopefulness that feels more like realism than like wishful thinking.

This is a good book to pick up when you’re feeling worn down, dissatisfied, and short on energy. It won’t transport you to any magical world—but it will make this world seem a bit less daunting.

April 10 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Emily and Charlotte Go Sleuthing

Always Emily, by Michaela MacColl (Chronicle Books), novel, 288 pages, listed by publisher as for ages 12 and up

Always Emily is another book in the genre of literary figures, in this case Emily and Charlotte Brönte, turned detectives. Although it’s being marketed as a YA novel, this book offers fun reading for any fan of the Brönte sisters’ work.

The usual (though not necessarily inaccurate) characterizations are in play here: Emily is dreamy, unconcerned with others’ opinions, determined to spend as much time as she can wandering the moors, while Charlotte frets about propriety and attempts to direct the lives of others in the household. Their brother Branwell appears, too, playing an unwitting role in the case as he fritters away time and money drinking with friends of dubious loyalty. Charlotte and Emily squabble, but they also have moments when they realize their value to each other. Charlotte can be brave when necessary; Emily is capable of compromising her gruff individualism at necessary moments.

The book has elements one would find in a Brönte novel: a woman unjustly diagnosed as mad; a mysterious, handsome hero who’s been denied his birthright; self-righteous industrial barons. In fact, each chapter opens with quotations from the work of the Brönte sisters, which set the tone for each new stage in the action.

This book offers no great revelations, but it’s a fun read, and one could hope for more in the same vein—including, perhaps, some stories in which Anne also plays a role. Given the sisters’ short lives, this concept will have its limits as a series, but that doesn’t mean another volume or two wouldn’t be enjoyable. And we can hope that this volume will lead a new generation of readers to the works of the Brönte sisters themselves.

April 08 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

When Feral Children Become Debutantes

Savage Girl, by Jean Zimmerman (Penguin USA)

Savage Girl, set in the gilded age, is a fast-paced read, full of surprises. It’s populated by a rather remarkable array of characters including an unstable Harvard student, his precocious younger brother, his wealthy father who “collects” people (a berdache, a Chinese woman, the girl of the title), scions of old New York families, a murderous ex-sheriff, trusty and not so trust household retainers.

The plot is sort of a My Fair Lady/Jack the Ripper mash-up with a feral girl turned side-show performer turned debutante as the chief suspect. Or is it the Harvard student who grows less and less stable as the novel progresses?

Savage Girl is what I think of as a not-quite-five-stars book. It’s a gripping read with the sort of quirky details that bring a novel to life, but it never quite crosses over from good read to truly great read. Partly, I think that’s a result of our narrator, the Harvard student. He holds himself at a distance from most others, including his family, which means the reader walks the book in the sort of isolation he experiences. We can suspect his cynicism isn’t always warranted, but he doesn’t let us get close enough to anyone else to confirm this possibility.

The novel raises interesting ethical issues—nature vs. nurture, Malthusian economics, class struggle, gender—but it poses problems rather than exploring them. One of my favorite types of reads is the novel that makes us agonize over the right course of action in a situation without any clear right course. Savage Girl could have been this, but by time we get to the end of the novel and realize which characters are its ethical core (but its narrative fringes, unfortunately) it’s too late.

I absolutely recommend this book as a satisfying, thick, entertaining read. If you’re longing for something more than entertainment, you won’t get it here—but you’ll nonetheless enjoy every minute.

April 07 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

A Book Book Lovers Will Love

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry: A Novel, by Gabrielle Zevin (Workman)

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is gem of a book: gentle in spirit, generous, intelligent. It’s one of those quick reads that one wishes could last longer because it would be a pleasure to spend more time between its covers.

The central characters are A. J., widowed proprietor of Island Books on Alice Island, just offshore from Hyannis, who has very particular tastes in literature and sells only what he loves; Amelia, the new rep for a minor publishing house; and Maya, a two-year-old abandoned in A. J.’s shop. Based solely on these descriptions, the reader can predict much of the plot of the novel. But here’s the thing of it: even when one knows what’s coming (and there are a few surprises in store) one can still enjoy the journey.

Gabrielle Zevin has a knack for creating quirky, believable characters that extends to those on the periphery, as well as those in the center. A particular pleasure of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is watching the characters grow as readers. Maya moves from picture books to reading on her own. The local police chief not not only moves from reading pot-boilers to more literary fare, he winds up leading the island’s largest book group.

The novel’s chapters are each prefaced by one of A. J.’s brief write-ups about a particular short story or book—the kind of thing you’d find on a shelf card. In this way, readers are invited not just to enjoy Zevin’s narrative, but to reflect on their own reading experiences.

This is a book that will leave you feeling a clear-eyed hopefulness, an understanding that, while many things can go wrong, those that go right can make even the most ordinary life worth living.

April 04 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Images from the Current Cuba

The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba, by Julia Cooke (Seal Press)

The Other Side of Paradise offers a loosely structured, highly interesting portrait of the generation of Cubans currently coming of age. The author, Julia Cooke, has traveled to Cuba a number of times—most of this book is based upon a ten-month visit she paid there in 2009. She entered Cuba for this visit on a tourist, not a journalist, visa, which both aids and hinders her explorations. As a tourist, she’s under less scrutiny than a journalist would be and is able to spend time with a variety of Cuban citizens in a variety of locations—but she also runs the risk of being ejected from the country if it becomes clear her visit is primarily journalistic in nature, which limits the kinds of research and record-keeping she can do.

The Cuba she depicts is contradictory. Yes, literacy rates are high (99%), but college graduates have difficulty securing work appropriate to their educations, and unacknowledged racism exacerbates this problem. Cooke cites Esteban Morales Domínguez, a Cuban economist and political scientist, who found that while the country is populated by almost equal proportions of people of European descent, African descent, and mixed heritage “73 percent of scientists and technicians were white. Eighty percent of the professors at the University of Havana [are also white].” In contrast, Cooke notes Morales Domínguez’s data showing that “Blacks were unemployed at twice the rate of whites, which…led to more blackmarket activities, and therefore jails filled with 85 percent darker-skinned Cubans.”

A significant number of women in this Cuba rely on the support of foreigners euphemistically labeled amigos, and Cooke points out that “there aren’t many pimps or third-party intermediaries in the sex trade…. And few relationships between locals and foreigners are deemed prostitution.” In other words, prostitution is allowed to exist in practice, while being proscribed in theory.

This Cuba has a variety of thriving youth sub-cultures—the equivalent of our punk, emo, and grunge cultures. These groups exist outside the mainstream—clubs rarely play the kind of music they listen to, and clubs that do play such music are often quickly closed down. But the members of these sub-cultures gather nightly on particular streets or in particular parks, sharing their music, dancing, and talking until daylight.

Reading Cooke’s depiction of this modern Cuba didn’t leave me with a clear sense of the nation’s culture or its people—but this is as it should be. No nation is as simple as its archetypal citizen and, if relations between the U.S. and Cuba are ever to move beyond the current rhetoric and political stereotypes, we will need to come to an acknowledgement of the diversity within Cuban culture.

April 02 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Fantasy, Folklore, and the Contemporary Vietnamese Experience

The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith (Spiegel & Grau)

The Fangipani Hotel is an interesting creature—an atmospheric collection of ghost/supernatural stories that are contemporary in their setting, but grounded in centuries-old Vietnamese folklore. I’m not usually a reader of supernatural fiction, but having read a fair bit of non-fiction about the war in Vietnam, I was curious to see what the author would do in creating post-war narratives that drew on both recent and more distant history. The war itself was certainly more horrific than any Stephen King novel—and “our” war was only the latest in a long history of struggles for Vietnamese independence.

These aren’t really stories that will surprise. The tropes of this sort of literature are familiar enough, even to people like me who read very little of it. But these are definitely stories that will unsettle—and in more ways than one. First, they offer that seductive pull of a situation that begins just a little bit off, then takes the reader further and further from reality as she knows it. I found that the added glimpses of contemporary Vietnamese culture and experience (both in Vietnam and the United States) turned the collection into a sort of other-worldly diversity training: this combination of supernatural “real” and “real” real made for an interesting read.

This is Violet Kupersmith’s first book, and it feels like a first book. Some moments are exquisitely presented; others seem a bit flat-footed, as though the writer couldn’t quite move beyond her initial idea to a fuller embodiment of that idea. In some of its best moments, the collection has a thread of humor running through it that illuminates many of the cultural contrasts underlying the stories. In “Guests,” set in Vietnam’s community of European and American ex-patriots we are told about one character, an American teaching at an Australian international university, that “If he ever worried about color it was over whether or not he should spell it with a u.” In the same story, the characters spend endless evenings in bars and clubs that embody the cultural hybridization they experience, including one bar in which “the back wall was taken up by a lovingly rendered mural of Marx, Lenin, and Ho Chi Minh frolicking together in a swimming-pool-sized bowl of pho. Marx was wearing water wings and a snorkel.”

Another story, “Turning Back,” features a Vietnamese-American narrator who works night shifts at a local convenience store while her brother engages in low-level gang activity. This piece is related in first person and opens with the wry observation that “Though one fortunate consequence of my father’s disappearance was that we became estranged from his family and whatever nuptials they might incur, given the size of Momma’s side there are still at least four weddings to attend each year. Weddings of cousins, weddings of second cousins, weddings of people who are most likely cousins because their last name is Nguyen and they live within a sixty-mile radius.”

My hope is that Kupersmith will continue to write—and continue to be published. I expect the imagination she brings to her work will continue to yield interesting narratives and that her prose will become increasingly rich and complex.

March 31 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Forensic Medicine During the Blitz

Murder on the Home Front: A True Story of Morgues, Murders, and Mysteries, by Molly Lefebure (Grand Central Publishing)

I suspect that a year or so from now, the latest British import on PBS will be Murder on the Home Front, a BBC series based on the book I’m reviewing. The book, a memoir, recounts the experiences of Molly Lefebure, who worked as a secretary to a medical examiner during WWII. From a historical perspective, the material is fascinating—though I would welcome even more about the blitz and day-to-day life in London during this time. The forensic cases are interesting, and I was impressed to see how many of today’s best practices had already been established at that time, despite the significant differences in technology.

The author, Lefebure, is a strong, eccentric character, at times delightful, at others very off-putting. Despite strenuous efforts by any number of boyfriends and potential boyfriends to push her into a more ladylike profession, Lefebure, gifted with a strong stomach and endless curiosity, delights in her work. At one point she tells us, “You could spend a hundred years in London’s mortuaries and never be bored.”

My complaint about the book is that Lefebure is also a creature of her time, coming across to today’s readers as deeply callous. Early on, she describes the range of cases she worked on:

[T]he coster’s wife who killed herself because her husband sold his pony, the one creature in the world she had ever really loved and been loved by. There is the baby whose mother left it to starve while she had a good time hitting the hay with American soldiers…. The old lady who put her head in the gas oven because she was sure the wireless had given her cancer. The airman who bailed out and his parachute didn’t open. The bright young thing who didn’t want a baby. The tart who picked up a killer for a client. The pansy who couldn’t face life anymore.

Really? The tart? The pansy? This is the way we want to describe the victim of violent crime and the social outcast? I know I’m being ahistorical, but would it have been so wrong for a modern-day editor to mitigate this flippant unkindness?

She also narrates the case of a young man who kills his girlfriend so that “no one else could have her” because he fears her father will break them up. What I found troubling was how readily the author seemed to embrace this murder as an appropriate, even romantic response to the perceived threat. When the young woman’s father testifies in court, Lefebure tell us “this display of outraged fatherly virtue, sincere and perfectly appropriate as it was, annoyed the court, whose sympathies clearly lay with the lovers.” The young woman had defensive wounds. Her boyfriend strangled her while pounding her head against the floor. Yet a reluctance to classify the crime as murder is equated with sympathy for the lovers?

I am hoping that the television series will be able to build on the more interesting parts of the book and to avoid the book’s lack of empathy. If it doesn’t, I suspect I won’t be watching it–just as I found myself having difficulty reading the book in its entirety.

March 28 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

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