Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Marriage Plot


Every once in a while my husband and I muse upon what we think would be the best job ever. He supposes a third string NFL quarterback would suit him just fine—as long as QB A and QB B would remain injury free...allowing the third-stringer to stay on the sidelines, keeping stats and collecting a nice salary. I, on the other hand, fancy myself a movie critic…a regular ole Siskel or Ebert, using that most sophisticated analytical metric: thumbs up or thumbs down. I'd only have a slight hesitancy to sincerely critique. That's not true. I'd have an enormous hesitancy to sincerely critique. It's just not my forte, bringing me to my point. (Sorry, to take such a circuitous route to get here.) I agonized whether to write a book review of The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. Because despite the rave reviews of this Pulitzer Prize winning author, I didn't love the book.

I imagined what I’d say if I ever met Mr. Eugenides–if he asked me his opinion of his book. First of all, I doubt he’d care about my lowly opinion. But, if he did, here’s what I’d say.

“Well, Jeff, (May I call you Jeff? Or, do you prefer Jeffrey?) you’re obviously a bright man, well-read in a miscellany of subjects. As a matter of fact, I think your scholarly disposition might precisely be the reason why I couldn’t connect to any particular character in the story. Blame it on my blue-collar upbringing. But I assumed I’d relate to a few characters, since I was, after all, an English major. But no. I actually found most of the players...tedious–even those in the infamous love triangle–Maddie, Leonard, and Mitchell. (And believe me, I really adore a good love triangle. Who doesn't? As a matter of fact,I think a person's obsession with a love story might actually be a premise for this novel.) Anyway, I need to temper my comments a bit. No one with a name like Mitchell Grammaticus can be too uninteresting! Gosh, I hate this critical hat.

"Anyway, Mr. Eugenides, within the first couple of pages I have to admit that I was enamored by the literary references. Then I began to feel a bit intimidated about the holes in my knowledge. Perhaps I was the dumbest English major to ever graduate, despite my relatively high GPA. (Oh, you say, it's because I didn't attend Brown? I'll try not to take offense...) Or, perhaps one needs to be indelibly erudite to truly enjoy the novel.

“Anyway, Jeff, the story was still compelling. You're obviously masterful in creating believable characters, moving a plot and intertwining contemplative themes. I think I would've enjoyed the prose if I could've just cared more about those characters. (I should've felt sympathy toward Leonard and his mental illness, but I simply didn't! Typically, I'm not so insensitive.)

"Ultimately, I felt the the denouement of this novel was strange, yet I gather this was a grand design that perhaps was over my head. I didn’t feel a sense of closure at the end. Maybe I was too dull to comprehend it. Either way, I think I might've liked the ending better that was perhaps more...I hate to say it...romantic, as opposed to realistic. I know, some probably would argue that it did end romantically...and real! But, somehow I wasn't quite satisfied...”

(By this time, J. Eugenides probably would've have walked away from me.)

I bought this book because I had read many great reviews of the novel. Quite honestly, the title captivated me. "The Marriage Plot." Brilliant.

I found this interview with the author and found him to be quite engaging and...modest! ButI tend to think he writes in a different sphere as me.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Lean on Pete

Pictures of Hollis Woods. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The Book Thief. To Kill a Mockingbird. Number the Stars. Did those titles make your throat tighten a bit? Or perhaps make your heart palpitate?  Each of those coming-of-age novels has a special place in most everyone's bookshelf–except the occasional pretentious scholar. I believe it to be a rare and precious find when an author can create a credible, yet distinct, young adult book that resonates themes beyond the shallow. I believe those aforementioned books conjure brilliant imagery while spinning poignant narratives–and I wondered when I would once again hit upon a YA book that resides in that category. I was pleasantly surprised to find it in my most recent read: Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin.

Charley Thompson is a fifteen-year-old kid being raised by his shifty father in the setting of Portland, Oregon. Together, they barely scrape together enough to eat–and that's kind of tough for an athletic boy who is "hungry all of the time." Charley ends up finding a job at a racing track nearby, and naturally feels a connection to the race horses who don't always have it so easy–much like himself. Then tragedy strikes and sends the young boy on a dicey journey with...one of the horses named Lean on Pete. The adventure is fraught with strange characters–some despicable, some relatable, and some comical.

Throughout the novel, of course, I wanted to advise the poor soul on his choices which didn't always pan out so well. But the tale is about a boy who'd been brought up so independently, he had no one but himself to rely upon. I, myself, forget that there are teens who aren't connected via the Twitterverse or their precious cellphones. Yes, there are children in our great country who are hungry–so hungry they must steal for food. The story made my heart ache. Great fiction does that.

While this underdog story is heartbreaking in many ways, the ending doesn't disappoint. And as I noted above, the novel–with its voice, pace, and sensory details–compared to some of the greats as I listed above, paving it's way into an eventual classic.


Sunday, August 5, 2012

Learning from History

It's August and my stack of intended summer reads still sit on my buffet. As I scratched my head wondering what I had been doing with my time, I remembered. I got distracted by a whole other group of books that weren't sitting on my shelf. Three were from my lunch and library group (Charles Dickens, Bill Bryson, Scott Turow). One was required reading from my son (Rick Riordan). And one was required reading from my boss (Jim Collins). Most recently, I needed to indulge in some history. So, I just finished Killing Lincoln. Well, I just finished reading Killing Lincoln. Not actually killing Lincoln.

The other night at my husband's twenty-fifth class reunion I was visiting with one of his classmates about David McCullough's amazing series of history books (1776 and John Adams). We both commented on how history has become so much more fascinating as we've grown older. (Perhaps everything becomes fascinating as you grow older. My mother informed me that she just bought a book about the development of our nation's road infrastructure. That even seems a little dry for me.)

My husband read Killing Lincoln first. Normally, I don't like him to read books first, because he has a tendency to be an incredible spoiler. However, I didn't think it mattered so much for this one. After all, I know how it ends. What surprised me is how compelled I became by the story. Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard weave history into a thriller, writing in present tense, so you feel as if you are living through the surrender of the Confederacy and actually grasp the patriotic sentiment that either embroils or elates the nation. The rise of John Wilkes Booth maniacal plan to ambush four of Washington's most influential politicians reads like a story from fiction. I've read a few reviews that have disputed some of the fact checking and bits of the conspiracy theories. But there is one fact that is wholly incontestable: Once of our greatest presidents of all time was assassinated by a pompous madman, leading a conspiracy of Confederate sympathizers.

Admittedly, I became teary-eyed as Lincoln lay on his deathbed. Now, when I learned about our 16th president's assassination in school, I'm not sure I was over-emotional. Of course, we gave tribute to Lincoln for abolishing slavery. I even remember memorizing the Gettysburg Address. But it was all very mechanical knowledge. I wonder if history should be taught a bit differently...with stories...to discuss lessons learned. Would sophomores be more excited to understand history if they were required to read Killing Lincoln? When my daughter was in middle school, I had to sign a release for her to watch The Patriot. And she still talks about The American Revolution with a great deal of fervor.

I'm not a strong believer that learning needs to equate to entertainment. However, I do believe that lessons can be learned from great story telling. Because what's the use of talking if no one is listening? Killing Lincoln will definitely keep you reading...and it's a great book for discussion.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Glass Castles

I haven't written any book reviews lately, because I've been waiting for that "ohmygoshyouhavetoreadthisone" to come along.  Found it. And for the uppity-up readers, I know I'm behind the eight ball. (When I brought it up at lunch and library as a possibility, everyone looked at me like, "Oh yeah. Read that one eons ago.")

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls might make a few of you say, "Maybe my childhood wasn't so bad after all." Then again, maybe not. I'm sure there are more horrific childhoods fettered with tragic events. But Walls certainly had some stories to tell. And she does it so well.  She certainly has fodder–an alcoholic (and revered) father who used his genius to gamble, an artistic and unstable mother whom felt indelibly trapped by maternal responsibilities and four brilliant children who happened to be as tough as nails. And boy did they understand self-reliance. At one point in the book, Jeannette's father puts her at risk of being raped by a no-good barfly. He needs her to help win money in a pool scam. Luckily, she isn't harmed, but her father shrugs off the incident. He likens it to a "sink or swim" analogy. Like I said, tough as nails.

While the family was strangely dysfunctional, I was rooting for The Walls–every single one of them. Obviously, I didn't agree with their parenting techniques. Jeannette's mother could hardly stand to utilize her teaching certificate in order to provide food for her kids. She knew in her heart she was really an artist. So they starved instead. And Jeannette's father? Well, you'll have to read the book. He was really smart though. I loved reading about his ideas and what he knew. Catching up on chaos theory...really? (Perhaps there is some metaphor in that?) Mme Walls wrote about the family's history and their nuances so that you always understood the bond and the love that existed amidst the clan.

By the end of the memoir, we see how the accomplished writer has come to be who she is–and how she has come to terms with her past and the present. The last scene ends on Thanksgiving with her family. Her mother gives a fitting toast, saluting Jeannette's father, who is now deceased, about life with him never being boring. It's lovely. Just as is the book.

I didn't grow up with much money. We drove clunky cars. Lived in an extremely modest house. I always thought to myself, "I'm going to have a mansion someday." Perhaps a glass castle! As I read this book about the Walls' childhoods, I realized something. I had the glass castle. And truly, I still do.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Little Bee

Little Bee. Sound like a children's book? This novel by Chris Cleave (which has been sinfully collecting dust on my shelf for that last couple of years) is anything but. Even the title and cover design seem to imply a lightness. But the story isn't light. It's fairly heavy. And I found it deeply compelling–and irrevocably eloquent.

The story involves a young Nigerian refugee girl who escapes the horror of her homeland as big oil companies are uprooting villages. Her fate becomes bound to a recently widowed journalist who is dealing with her own complex issues. Her husband took his own life, leaving her with a four-year old super hero who refuses to take off his Batman suit. When Little Bee shows up at Sara Summers door on the day of her husband's funeral, secrets and histories become disclosed.

There were many aspects that struck me about this book. The beautiful dialect of Little Bee. Maybe it's because I have an African friend, but I loved the voice. I could hear her lovely idiom, as she so formally used the "Queen's English." And while by definition prose is not poetry, Mr. Cleave's writing is undeniably elegant. Beautiful.

At the heart of the novel is a moral conundrum that would make for an excellent book discussion. I won't ruin the plot for you, but I bring it up because it made me consider how I rate books/characters. Typically, if a protagonist had done something that I am morally opposed to, I repudiate the book. (Not always, but often.) And not this one. The story was too compelling. The writing was too good. And obviously, the plot was too clever.

Oh and one more thing. While it was fiction, it certainly brought to light more social injustice in the world. And once again, it reminded me to thank God for my warm bed every night.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Left to Tell

In 1994, I had the world by the tail. Fresh out of grad school with a job that was full of promise. Newly-engaged to the man of my dreams. But while I was consumed by advancing a career and planning a wedding, there was something incredibly sinister occurring across the globe. A holocaust was taking place. Approximately a million people were slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide.

ImmaculĂ©e Ilibagiza is a surviving Tutsi from Rwanda. And she recounts her amazing story in the book Left to Tell.  If you haven't read it, please do. I'd also recommend renting Hotel Rwanda. It's an important piece of our modern history. And it still befuddles me.

The young beautiful Rwandan poignantly takes us through the story of the Civil War through her innocent, faithful eyes who grew up in a peaceful village of Hutus and Tutsis. She, herself, didn't even know her lineage until the "ethnic roll calls" begin. Then we see how the world turns upside, seemingly, overnight. And ImmaculĂ©e loses almost everyone in her family–in the most unthinkable ways. While she (and seven other women) are kept alive by a minister in a secret bathroom, she is really saved by her faith in God.

There won't be a part of the book that you won't continue to think about. But I will tell you this–the ending will resonate with some force. The survivor is not only delivering a message of tolerance. She's delivering a message of faith...and forgiveness. Forgiveness. Now that's grace.