Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Wishing Trees:

The Wishing Trees, by John Shors

I'm a huge John Shors fan, having now read four out of the five novels he's published. I feel an affinity for Shors, since he got engaged to his wife while they were teaching in Japan (similar to my situation with Mike). I especially loved Beneath a Marble Sky and Beside a Burning Sea, and I've recommended those books to (and purchased them for) many friends.

When I began this book, I felt emotionally affected and a bit drained by it. Ian is an Australian businessman living in New York, and he has recently lost his beloved wife Kate to cancer. Like the author and like me, Kate and Ian met while teaching in Japan and traveled throughout Asia. Several months after Kate's death, Ian reads a letter Kate had written for his birthday, in which she urges him to take their 10-year-old daughter Mattie on a journey back to the countries where they had traveled together. It made me think about my own life and how blessed I am to have an intact, healthy family. Mike and I have always talked about returning to Japan and other Asian countries someday and hope to show our children some of our old haunts, so it felt more than a little bit eerie to read about someone who had died and never got to make the return trip with her child.

Ian and Mattie travel to Japan, Nepal, Thailand, India, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Egypt, and open messages from Kate along the way. They meet local people, helping some along the way (such as a Thai sex worker and an Indian orphan in Varanasi). I enjoyed the descriptions of Japan, India, Hong Kong, and Thailand the most, as those were the countries we also visited. I remember visiting the picturesque, nearly abandoned island of Koh Samet and spending a few luxurious, idyllic days on a beach. (I'm sure it's changed dramatically since 1987!)

In a nutshell, here are my criticisms of the book: Ian and Mattie (and in fact, Kate) are far too perfect. They didn't seem like realistic people to me. They are absolutely soaked in grief, which I know is very real when you have lost a loved one...but at times it got excessive. Ian is furious at Kate for asking him to return to the places they'd traveled with Mattie, and he goes on and on about that. I would think he would want to honor his beloved wife's last dying wish. Also, Ian's Australian lingo was over the top. I am married to a Brit and I know a lot of Australians (including my sister-in-law), and they don't talk like this, saying "good onya," "bloody," "fancy," "ankle biter," and "walkabout" constantly. Ian's expressions got bloody annoying after awhile.

Shors is an excellent descriptive writer, and he evokes the senses as he describes each of these different countries. He also writes sensitively about profound grief, especially from a man's perspective (feeling like he took his wife for granted and spent too much time at the office). I enjoyed reading about the interactions Ian and Mattie have with the locals, such as a Japanese teacher and Peace Corps workers in Nepal. The story of Rupee (the Indian orphan) seemed a bit unresolved--why was the orphanage director not responding to Ian's e-mails?
The ending was patently predictable, so don't read this book if you like to be surprised at the end.

In conclusion, The Wishing Trees was not the best of Shors' books, but I'm glad I read it. It brought back wonderful memories of my own travel and it gave me a renewed appreciation for my own loved ones.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

How to start a great book group

Okay, so I guess that sounds pompous, since I helped start our book group...but it is great! Here's how we started our great book group:

A little over a year ago, my friend Kristin had the bright idea to start a book group and it didn't take too long to convince me. Mike and I were in a book group before we had children, and although I enjoyed it, I often felt that I had to shout to be heard. (It was a coed group.) Also, it seemed like the loudest people had their books chosen to be read.

So we each selected three female friends who were fun, vivacious readers and fully interested in engaging in lively conversation. We did not consider anyone who might hog the conversation or be pushy.

On the first evening we gathered, we discussed the following:
  • Personal introductions (name, hometown, family, occupation, hobbies, favorite types of books)
  • What each person hoped to get out of the group
  • Previous experiences with book groups, positive and negative
  • Frequency and time and place of meeting
  • Food and beverages
  • Book selection process
  • Book discussion (would we have someone lead the discussion or do reseach?)
  • Group size
  • Other items to consider (e.g., what to do if someone hasn't read the book, or should we have a name like my friend's group, the Wild Women's Literary Society?)
I know everyone made fun of me that first night, because I arrived with my list of questions for us to discuss. I like to approach such things in an organized way! (If you are wanting to start your own book group, you can e-mail me and I'll send you my detailed list of questions.) Last December we had our first holiday book exchange, and we did it Yankee Swap style.

We've been meeting for over a year now, and we've lost a few members along the way who were not able to make the commitment because of other things in their lives. We recently added three new members. Last night we had all of us here for the first time, perhaps ever, plus our three new members! We're all moms (of at least two kids), and one of us is a grandma. Two are married to Brits and one is a Brit. We are nursing professors,  lawyers, and marketing or publications professionals.

December's book was Bel Canto, which led to our best book discussion so far--first, because of the richness of the story and the writing, and second, because more people mean more perspectives. I had a much better appreciation for the book after hearing how others interpreted various plot elements. I love lively, illuminating conversation about books!

At the end of the evening, we exchanged our books. This year we drew names at Tina's suggestion, allowing us to tailor our choices to fit the recipient's taste. This proved trickier than initially thought because of our three new members. (The rest of us have gotten a pretty clear idea of each other's preferences.)

Caley opening her book

"I've never read this!"

The best part of our book exchange was that not one of us had read the book she received. Not one! And we are a prolific group of readers!
Here's what we received:
Tina: The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs (Kim didn't know if she'd read it or not, so she brought a backup: Breaking the Cycle of Low Self-Esteem!)
Nicola: The Closed Circle by Jonathan Coe
Michelle: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by JK Rowling (Caley took a calculated risk in choosing that one, but Michelle--whose first book group meeting was last night--was one of only three people in the group who have not read HP!)
Kim: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Kristin: Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
Gitte: Room by Emma Donoghue
Jolie: Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
Caley: All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriott
Me: The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food by Judith Jones (Kristin, who drew my name, very cleverly searched my blog to find out if I had read the book)
The Slipper Muses with our books
Until we come up with a better name...how about the Slipper Muses? The inspiration for that name--taking off on the Tenth Muse--is the fact that many of us bring our slippers to our meetings, making ourselves at home!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Bel Canto: Lyrical and poignant

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

Based on a real terrorism crisis in Peru in 1996 and 1997, Bel Canto takes place in an "unidentified South American country."

American opera diva Roxane Coss is invited to sing at the birthday party of a Japanese company president, Mr. Hosokawa. As the dignitaries are socializing after dinner, a group of terrorists storm in and take the guests hostage. Over the next few months, the terrorists relax their harsh grip and the hostages become complacent. Some of them actually begin to believe they could live together forever. Some fall in love across nationalities, and one romance takes place between terrorist and hostage.

Apparently Patchett knew nothing about opera before writing this book. I'm not necessarily an opera lover, so at times I found it a bit far-fetched that people would put aside all rational thought when they listening to a gifted opera singer. I also found it difficult to believe how two people who cannot communicate at all verbally would fall in love with each other. When I lived in Japan, I had one ill-fated date with a young Japanese surfer, and the language gap was impossible. Yes, with love we can conquer great things, but is it really possible to fall in love with another person if you are unable to use words at all? I found that difficult to swallow.

I found the book's other romance to be more thoughtful and inspiring...a bit of Stockholm Syndrome perhaps, but in this book some of the terrorists are presented as flawed, sensitive human beings, prone to wanting a little bit of love and affection.

Patchett handled the Japanese culture well...for example, Gen's difficulty in saying "I love you," even while just translating it for someone else. It's not done in Japan to proclaim one's love or show romantic feelings in public. Even though Gen was a cosmopolitan man, he was still Japanese at his core. In addition, Mr. Hosokawa's ending up in a loveless marriage...feeling like he was just going through the paces of his life without feeling anything. I believe that many Japanese businessmen feel this way.

Even though the house contained many hostages, we only get to know a few of them. That, perhaps, was a weakness of the novel. I wouldn't have wanted her to spend more time on individual stories, but it might have helped to have a greater sense of what others were experiencing during those several months of captivity.

The ending is...well, disappointing, especially if you're a true romantic. It's clear that the book is not going to end well but instead, it ends weirdly. I don't really understand why Patchett chose to end it the way she did.

Bel Canto is Ann Patchett's most famous and highly regarded book. It is a beautifully written novel, but at times I found my attention wandering a bit. All things being equal, I think I enjoyed State of Wonder more.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

You Believers: Inspired by true story

You Believers, by Jane Bradley
Chilling, but moving

I didn't realize that You Believers was based on true characters until after I'd finished the book. It's about people who are lost and people who seek: damaged souls who take revenge on other people for their own hurt...grieving ones who lose their loved ones...and generous, dedicated people who dedicate their lives to finding the lost ones.

Shelby Waters is a professional seeker--she runs a volunteer organization that finds people who are lost. Livy's daughter Katy Conner gets nabbed in a parking lot by two young punks who met in juvenile hall. Jessie is a psychopath, and he's recruited his less intelligent friend, Mike, to help him. Jane Bradley has an uncanny ability to give us a glimpse into the psychopath's twisted mind, and even give us a tiny bit of sympathy for him (that's until we realize what he's done).

The characters all have their flaws and are battling their own demons, including Katy, who was drawn to the bad boys and the wild side of life.

Warning: this book contains a disturbing rape scene, although it's handled in a way to show the strength of the victim.

After I finished reading this moving story of loss and redemption set in the south, I looked up Jane Bradley online and was fascinated to discover that she was compelled to write this book after she met the people who inspired the characters of Livy (the mom) and Shelby (the seeker). Livy was reeling after the abduction of Peggy Carr, who was abducted in broad daylight from a shopping mall parking lot in Wilmington, North Carolina. Monica Caison, a volunteer seeker, found Carr's body 7 months after she went missing.

Bradley was compelled to write Peggy Carr's story (and that of her mother and seeker), and her novel is a beautiful memorial in honor of all three of those women.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Up the Capitol Steps: A Woman's March to the Governorship

Up the Capitol Steps: A Woman's Guide to the Governorship, by Barbara Roberts
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

A few weeks ago I heard Barbara Roberts on Oregon Public Broadcasting's morning show, Think Out Loud, talking about her new memoir. In her lively, genuine way, she spoke about the highlights of her time as governor and also discussed her upbringing. I knew I wanted to read her book, so I put it on hold at the library.

Roberts is a fascinating woman. Raised primarily in a small Oregon town (Sheridan), she grew up in a blue collar family filled with love and respect. Unlike many women of her generation, she never received the message that she was anything "less than" as a woman. However, even though she was very successful in high school, it never occurred to her (and no one encouraged her) to go on to college. She got married before she graduated from high school, and soon she found herself living and lonely in Texas (married to a soldier) and pregnant.

When her older son Mike was five or six, she began to realize something was wrong...she took him to a specialist, who pronounced him to be "extremely emotionally disturbed" and recommended that he be institutionalized (he is autistic). She refused to accept this label, but because no services were offered (much less required) for these types of kids, she ended up admitting him to a residential school, the Parry Center, where he stayed for three years. When they brought him home, she was able to get him into a special ed program in the Parkrose School District (which was being offered via a three-year grant). When the grant was going to expire, Roberts became a lobbyist to fight for the program to be extended. Oregon was the first state in the country to offer special ed services to kids who need them. A federal law was not passed until four years later. After achieving success, she joined the Parkrose School Board and eventually the Multnomah Community College Board. At the same time as her political ambitions began to grow, her young marriage began falling apart.

Frank and Barbara Roberts sailing
Soon she was a single mother raising two sons and working full-time as a bookkeeper, and working on the school boards at the same time. She got to know Oregon state senator Frank Roberts and soon married him, even though he was 21 years her senior.

She was elected as state representative, then secretary of state, and then finally governor; she was the first democratic secretary of state Oregon had seen in 100 years, and she was the first woman governor in Oregon ever. She came from behind to defeat well-known and popular candidate, Dave Frohnmayer.

What amazed me the most about this book was how much tragedy and angst was behind Roberts' cheerful exterior. Her sister lost a 2-month baby in a car accident. When Roberts became secretary of state, her husband was healthy. By the time she ended her term, he had survived two bouts with cancer and a heart attack and lost use of both legs (because of the chemo damaging a nerve in his spine). Her beloved father died just scant months before she was elected governor. Two and a half years into her governorship, her husband's cancer returned and he was given 1 year to live. He wanted to keep it a secret so he could finish out the legislative session, so they carried on as best as they could without people knowing. He died in the last year of her term. At the same time, her sister was diagnosed with cancer. Later her mother died, her son nearly died in a motorcycle accident, and her beloved best friend died of a brain tumor. Throughout it all, Roberts worked hard and showed a cheerful face to Oregonians. I don't know how she did it.

I couldn't help but think of Barack Obama while reading this book. Like Obama who has been saddled with a failing economy, Roberts was handed two huge burdens on the day she was elected: Ballot Measure 5, which was the first property tax measure to gut Oregon's economy and services, and a split legislature. As she tried to cut spending so that they could pass a budget, she took crap on every side. People blamed her for not getting more done, but she was fighting uphill battles, just like Obama. I won't go into the details of what she accomplished in office, but given the hand she was dealt with, she did many great things as governor.

Current governor John Kitzhaber does not come out very well. Kitzhaber, then the head of the Oregon senate, announced he was challenging Roberts for governor while her husband--and his colleague--was dying of cancer. In his characteristically "icy" way, he announced his decision and didn't stay to discuss it or ask how her husband was doing. He just walked off.

Two other things struck me about this book:
  • Barbara Roberts is unfailingly honest, direct, and ethical. She does not shy away from admitting her mistakes or fighting for a controversial issue...whether if be the Spotted Owl, gay rights, feminism, abortion rights, AIDS, social justice, the death penalty, or any other topic. I admire her honesty and courage in standing up for what she believes in.
  • She did it all without a college degree. After she retires from politics (again)--right now she's serving on the Metro council--she plans to finish her education. Clearly, she is extremely bright, articulate, and a natural leader to accomplish everything she has without a degree.
I was tempted to give the book four stars, because as a woman and a leader, Roberts is inspirational and amazing. But as a book, it is not the highest-quality memoir. Roberts' writing is a bit pedantic, and she uses the passive voice a lot. She also seemed to want to document every detail of her political life, and at times she should have left some of the details (and names) out for the sake of her (non-political junkie) readers.

But I'm glad I read this book. Roberts was a trailblazer in so many ways...from advocating for her special needs son when no one else would...to believing she could be governor and making it happen.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Reading with boys...there must be more to life than battles!

As I was snuggling up with Kieran on the couch this evening, reading The Ruins of Gorlan, the first book in The Ranger's Apprentice series, I began wondering what my reading life would be like if I had girls instead of boys. Last night we finished the last in the Percy Jackson series.

This reading life with boys is filled with battles, heroes, and bravery. Sometimes it's a little quirky, such as the Lemony Snicket series, or focused on the life of a "geek," such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I also read more than my share of Captain Underpants. (Kieran didn't get into those quite as much as Chris, thank God.) I really enjoyed the Boys Against the Girls series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, because then at least half of the characters were girls.

Then of course, there's Harry Potter, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading--both on my own and with the boys. I'm looking forward to reading them all over again with Nicholas. It's been fun to rediscover those stories over and over again with each boy.

I tried to read my childhood favorites Little House on the Prairie and Harriet the Spy with the boys, but they just didn't get into them like I'd hoped they would.

Perhaps I'd end up reading sappy stories about unicorns and princesses...blech. I cringe every time I see an ad for "Pinkalicious," now playing at the Oregon Children's Theater. I'm just not a girly girl like that. Before we had kids, Mike used to joke that if we had a girl, I'd be shoving Ms. Magazine at her while she hid her copies of Cosmo under the mattress. I'll bet he's right. If I had girls, they'd probably be far too girly for my taste!

But I see Mike reviewing great-sounding books for girls on his Middle Grade Mafioso blog...it's making me wonder what I'm missing, being stuck in boyland with all of the battles. I'd love to expand my reading-to-the-kids horizons a bit, but you've got to cater to their interests...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Jesus Boy: Gave up on it.

Jesus Boy, by Preston L. Allen
My rating: 1 out of 5 stars

This book wasn't horrible, but I'm giving it only 1 star because I gave up on it when I was a little more than halfway through. I just didn't care enough about the characters or what would happen to them, and I figured...life is too short to read a book you're just not that into. I've done it before and regretted it, so I put the book down.

Jesus Boy is about Elwyn Parker, an African-American teenager in Florida, who is a member of the Church of Our Blessed Redeemer Who Walked Upon the Waters. Elwyn is a devout Christian who, after the object of his affection marries someone else, takes up with Sister Morrisohn, a fellow churchgoer who is 26 years his senior. I have to wonder about the author's upbringing, because he seems to be writing about charismatic Christian culture as if he truly knows. But what's also clear is that he has a dark, deeply cynical view of such right-wing religious types.

One moment they are spouting about sin and the next moment they are going at it like rabbits...not only the 16-year-old and the 42-year-old, but just about everyone is having sex--whether it's incest or extramarital affairs. It just got old after awhile. The author writes a lot of erotica, and I think he was going for the shock value. I'm certainly no bible thumper myself, but Allen really goes overboard on the hypocrisy and shallowness of these characters.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Ruins of Gorlan: Not my typical pick

The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I tend to shy away from fantasy and science fiction, but I read The Ruins of Gorlan (the first in the Ranger's Apprentice series) for my book group. One of the members loves fantasy, and she chose this one as an accessible fantasy series. I had a difficult time getting into the book at first, but it didn't take too long. I get impatient with different (fictional) worlds, lands, and breeds...I'm not sure why. I'm also not particularly drawn into stories filled with constant battles.

My nephew Ryan loves these books and dressed up as the ranger's apprentice this year for Halloween. He was delighted to hear that I would be reading it, and I'm also reading it with Kieran. I decided to read ahead so I'd be prepared for my book group on Wednesday.

Young Will always wanted to be a warrior, but when he reaches the age to be apprenticed to a craftsperson, he is selected to train with a mysterious ranger. Soon he learns the important role of the rangers, or protectors of the kingdom. The exiled Morgarath, Lord of the Mountains of Rain and Night, is gathering his forces for an attack on the kingdom. As typical in fantasy for young people, Will is soon called to apply the skills he has learned as a new apprentice and gets drawn into heroic conflict. The book reminded me a bit of The Lord of the Rings, but I found it to be much more accessible.

I know that Kieran is going to love this book and will want to read more of the series. I decided to give this book three stars because I enjoyed it but wouldn't necessarily read more without Kieran (unlike Harry Potter). Kieran tends to be gung ho about series until the end, when he loses steam. We are 3/4 of the way through the last Percy Jackson book, and now we've started this new book. We also made it nearly all the way through the Lemony Snicket series before he lost interest. We'll see how this one goes!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Hardball: VI, I've missed you

Hardball, by Sara Paretsky
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I wouldn't call myself a lover of detective novels, but I have a few favorite authors: Sujata Massey (who wrote the Rei Shimura series) and Sara Paretsky. I've been reading Paretsky since she wrote her first V.I. Warshawski novel, Indemnity Only, in the early 1980s, and I've read all of them until this one. She took a four-year break between #12 (Fire Sale) and #13 (Hardball), and during that time she wrote a nondetective novel, Bleeding Kansas, which I also enjoyed. Somehow I missed the fact that she's written two more V.I. Warshawski novels in recent years, so I'm catching up now before her next one comes out in January.

Having never been to Chicago, I feel that I almost have a taste of the city by watching "ER" and reading Paretsky. It's clear that she loves her city, gritty and hardboiled as it can be.

In recent books, Paretsky's political stripes have been showing a bit more, which is fine with me because our stripes are similar. She began working as a community organizer in Chicago when Martin Luther King Jr. was there, and that's where she bases this story: in that violent era of racial conflict. She explores themes of subtle and outright racism and even torture through her characters.

V.I. is engaged to find a man who went missing 40 years ago. Soon the case gets much more complicated than she expected, around the time that her clueless young cousin, Petra, shows up. When Petra goes missing after V.I.'s office is ransacked, the search expands to the present day. Soon she begins to uncover deep-seated family secrets and corruption in the Chicago police force.

I found Petra to be far too ridiculous and insensitive, and her father (V.I.'s uncle) was particularly awful. Because I like happy endings, I want V.I. to be romantically involved with someone who is good for her...but how many detectives ever end up happily married or in a successful long-term relationship? It just doesn't work.

I enjoyed this story and the return of V.I. Warshawski, and I look forward to catching up with the series again. Most other detective/mystery authors I get tired of (e.g., Sue Grafton, Patricia Cornwell), but Paretsky always keeps me coming back. She's the great queen of female private investigators!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Drama: An Actor's Education

Drama: An Actor's Education, by John Lithgow
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Third Rock from the Sun

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

As I posted last month on my regular blog, I adore John Lithgow. We saw him perform in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" on Broadway a few years ago, and we both laughed out loud during every episode of "Third Rock from the Sun."

Lithgow had me tearing up during the introduction to his memoir, when he shared a poignant tale about taking care of his elderly father during an illness. His love and admiration for his father, who was a Shakespearean director and teacher, created the impetus for this book and Lithgow's one-man show, Stories by Heart.

He takes us through his actor's life, starting with childhood and up through his recent experiences. Much of the book centered on his formative years as he was just starting out as an actor in plays directed by his father. Articulate and funny, Lithgow is a wonderful storyteller. I could not put this book down.

I found this book especially fascinating given the period of my life, as my 8-year-old is rehearsing for his first professional theater performance. One evening I read the book while waiting in the theater lobby for Kieran while listening to the shouting and singing overhead.

Lithgow actually wanted to be an artist, but acting chose him. This line particularly resonated with me during this time in my family's life: "If you hear enough applause and laughter at a young enough age, you are doomed to become an actor. After my performance as the young damsel-in-distress, my fate was probably sealed."

Even though Kieran's worn out at the moment from play rehearsals five days a week, I have a feeling that his fate will be sealed, too, once he starts performing five shows a weekend beginning next Friday. That applause and laughter will seal his fate.

Another time I cried while reading Lithgow's book was when he shared that he and his first wife had a premature baby who died shortly after birth. I am deeply touched each time I read about someone who has had a preemie or a medically fragile child. "I experienced the first genuine tragedy in my life. Jean gave birth to a son nine weeks early. For a few hours the little boy struggled for life and then gave up the ghost. It was a devastating loss for both of us."

Lithgow wrote about how his father found it too difficult to comfort him. "My mother was deeply comforting. My little sister wept compassionate tears. Actors in the company clasped me in long, heartfelt embraces. I honestly cannot remember my father registering the slightest reaction." I remember people in my own life who could not fathom what to say to us while we endured our own premature baby crisis (even though in our case our baby lived)...or later lived through repeated miscarriages. As our dear friend Doug says, "Grief reorders your address book."

Another thing I admired about this book was that Lithgow did not use names when he had less-than-pleasant reports about any of his theater colleagues. Gracefully, he used pseudonyms to protect people's reputations.

He writes about the mistakes he made...for example, getting married too early and suffering through adolescence in his 30s, leading to the death of his first marriage...and starting up a theater company without knowing what he was doing...and throughout it all, he weaves through the themes of family and lifelong learning and growth.

I would dearly love to see Lithgow on stage again someday. In the meantime, I'll have to satisfy myself with rewatching some of his old movies, and perhaps some of his new roles as well.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Midnight at the Dragon Cafe: Chinese girl in small Ontario town

Midnight at the Dragon Cafe
by Judy Yong Bates

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

As a small child, Su-Jen arrives in a small town outside of Toronto to live with her father, whom she has never met. She and her mother have immigrated from Hong Kong, much to her mother's dismay. Su-Jen (or Annie, her Canadian name) feels completely caught between cultures as the only Chinese child in her small town in the 1960s (her parents run the one Chinese restaurant). She's constantly walking the fine line between being a good Chinese girl and growing up as a Canadian.

Bates based her story on her own life experience...she too came to Canada as a girl. As she drove through Canadian small towns, she couldn't help but wonder what life would be like as the only Chinese family in town.

When Su-Jen's brother comes to stay, the family's staid but settled life gets thrown into disarray. Her mother's deep unhappiness comes to light, in addition to her father's willingness (and the Chinese cultural approach) to overlook unpleasant things to maintain peace and face.

Bates beautifully describes the life of an immigrant child who is always caught in the middle, feeling as if she never fits in anywhere. She desperately wants to try out for the lead role in a school play until one of her friends tells her that a Chinese person would never get the lead role. She opts to be in the chorus instead of trying out.

Su-Jen's mother is a woman trapped by her beauty, bitterness, and lack of choices. A woman with a child in the 1960s--either Chinese or from another country--did not have many options beyond finding a man to take care of her. Stories about people feeling trapped in their lives, deeply unfilled and unhappy, make me sad.

Ultimately, the secrets fall out, as they always do. Su-Jen realizes that secrets can cause anguish and pain, but so can revealing them.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Wild Ride Up the Cupboards: A family torn apart by loss

A Wild Ride Up the Cupboards, by Ann Bauer
My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Goodreads doesn't allow half stars, but I can do whatever I want on my blog, right? I love the title of Bauer's debut novel. It is a term used to describe the protagonist's uncle and the way his older brother would play with him until he died suddenly of scarlet fever.

At the center of this book is Edward, a boy who begins to withdraw at age four. His mom, Rachel, and dad, Jack, try to figure out what is happening to him...it seems like autism, but it isn't...and they resort to extreme lengths to try to help him.

Rachel also discovers that her uncle, Mickey, who died before she was born, had similarities to young Edward. Bauer alternates her chapters between Rachel's story and that of Mickey, whose life changed dramatically when his beloved older brother died.

Many readers have found it jarring to go back and forth between perspectives, and often I dislike that as well...but I didn't have a problem with it in this book. In fact, I liked the parts about Mickey.

My qualms about the book were that I found it difficult to relate to the parents and their choices...I found their anguish about their son's situation to be touching and tragic, but at the same time I felt that Bauer skimped on describing what drew them together and what they were like as human beings. This story is apparently based on Bauer's own life (one of her sons went through a similar type of withdrawal, and she too was scammed by the Israeli mafia!), and she writes of great fondness for the character Jack. However, I've never known anyone like Jack and I found it hard to understand how someone could be in love with such a person.

The end felt vaguely unsatisfying. Whatever became of Edward (and Bauer's own son)? Did they ever discover what was wrong with him? Did Rachel even care about her marriage? (For even though Bauer says Jack was her favorite character, I didn't sense that with Rachel.)

Bauer effectively describes the anxiety and feelings of loss for a parent who has a child with special needs. I could relate when Rachel became angry and envious at the easy success of "normal" children, or when her best friend's cat dies and the friend compares that to the loss of a child. This novel contained many moments of poignancy and effectiveness. I wish I had felt more fondness for the characters.

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee
My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

First of all, Charles J. Shields deserves kudos for tackling such an elusive subject. This is not an authorized biography of Nelle Harper Lee, because of course Lee would not respond to any of Shields' many requests for interviews or information.

He admits in his introduction that he had to rely heavily on the internet, library archives, and unorthodox methods (such as pretending to be one of Lee's college alums and obtaining a mailing list of her classmates). Consequently, I found myself pondering at some of his editorial choices and questioning why he included some of what he did. At times, it seemed like filler. As a result, as far as biographies go, I've read better.

Given the fact that we know so little about Lee's life and motivations, however, this book is a great addition to the Mockingbird canon. Shields, a former English teacher, writes extensively about Lee's friendship with Truman Capote and her childhood in Alabama. The only Capote work I've read is In Cold Blood, although I wasn't aware at the time that Lee assisted him so extensively in the research and writing (and did not receive any credit...apparently because he was envious of Lee's award of the Pulitzer prize).

Shields speculates about Lee's strained relationship with her mother and the fact that she never wrote another book. Again, he must rely on word of mouth, news articles and rare interviews, and guesswork. As a result, I found myself questioning the accuracy. I thought it was tacky and disrespectful that he revealed the name of the Monroeville, Alabama, restaurant where Lee and her sister Alice enjoy eating on a regular basis. We all know she is a woman who values her privacy.

In the end, this book is a fond remembrance of Lee--clearly, Shields has immense respect for his subject. She seemed exceedingly uncomfortable with the trappings of fame and the expectations of writers (to continue to produce). But Shields concludes that Lee has come to peace with her life. Soon after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, Lee wrote to friends, "People who have made peace with themselves are the people I admire most in the world." Shields, too, had to make peace with the lack of his personal insight about Lee, because of her reclusiveness.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I believe I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school or college, and since that time the iconic images of the movie with Gregory Peck have replaced my memories of the book.

My book group chose Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee as its October book, and I thought my reading would be enriched by rereading the great classic that rocketed Harper Lee to fame...especially since last week was Banned Books Week (and To Kill a Mockingbird is always on those lists).

Now that I'm older and wiser, I have a greater understanding for how remarkable this book is. First of all, the fact that it was Harper Lee's first novel (and only one, as it turns out). Second, the fact that Lee grew up in a small, insular southern town and had such vision and empathy for the underprivileged. As most people know, many of the characters are based on her own life...she based Scout on herself, Dill on her best friend Truman Capote, and Atticus on her own father. Many of the minor characters, too, are based on people she knew in small-town Monroeville, Alabama.

After reading The Help so recently, I couldn't help but compare the two novels...both are Southern stories told from the white perspective, although Mockingbird was based in the 1930s rather than the 1960s. In spite of the 30-year time difference, the incidents and environment didn't seem all that different. A black man in Alabama wouldn't have gotten a fair trial in the 1960s either, as we know. Somehow, I found To Kill a Mockingbird so much richer and genuine than The Help...perhaps because Kathryn Stockett was trying to write a story in the viewpoint of a white person, yet came off as condescending and one-dimensional (certainly not her intention). As Lee writes in Scout's childish viewpoint, it's clear that she's naive and is learning the ways of the world.
The film Scout and Atticus
I love Scout's character, in particular because she was such a great feminist at such an unlikely age and place. She simply did not get why girls had to be all prissy and proper when it was more fun to climb trees, read books, and play outside. To Kill a Mockingbird is a great novel on so many levels: it's a loving portrait of the American South, in spite of its evil side. It's a story of deep childhood friendship and sibling relationships, and it's a tale of justice, wisdom, and acceptance of people who are different from ourselves.

One thing that stood out to me: early on, Scout describes the fact that she has no mother, and says "Our mother died when I was two, so I never felt her absence." Harper Lee had a strained relationship with her own mother, partly because she didn't fit the feminine archetype and partly because her mother suffered from what appeared to be mental illness (possibly bipolar). To cut the mother out of the story was a convenient choice, and to say that she never felt her absence because she died when Scout was two is an interesting (and unrealistic) thought. I'm not sure whether Lee honestly did not think that this kind of death would not have an impact on a child, or whether she was conveying Scout's ignorance. At any rate, this seemed off to me. Clearly, the family's African-American maid, Calipurnia, filled that motherhood hole for Scout and Jem, and fortunately they had a wise, loving, and attentive father.
Scout, Jem, and Boo (movie)
Knowing that Lee's mother suffered from mental illness, it makes me view the character of Boo Radley differently as well. Perhaps Lee was trying to portray mental illness in a sympathetic way because of what her own mother experienced?

I will most likely have more observations about this novel as I make my way through Mockingbird. I greatly enjoyed my rereading of this classic, and now I want to see the movie again!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Mink River: Interesting piece of Northwest Prose

Mink River by Brian Doyle
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
This was another one of those Multnomah County Library's books labeled "Lucky Day! Hot titles! Available now--2 at a time for 3 weeks." It's the second time in recent weeks I've been lured in like that (the other was the Pat Conroy novel, South of Broad). I guess I am suckered in by thinking I'm the fortunate timing that finds me at the library when these books happen to be available. Pretty funny, eh? I have heard of Brian Doyle--he's the editor of Portland Monthly and has even spoken as a guest speaker at our church--and I like reading literature by Northwest writers, so I thought I'd take a look. Goodreads reviewers give Mink River 4.33 stars, and my friend Jeannette gave it 4 stars. After I read endorsements on the front and back of the book by David James Duncan and Molly Gloss, I had to dive in.

Doyle is a gifted writer, and without his lyrical gifts and the fact that he's well known in Portland literary circles, this book might have had a difficult time finding a publisher. Mink River is a story of a coastal Oregon town, Neawanaka, and its quirky inhabitants. Think "Northern Exposure" in Oregon rather than Alaska (even though that priceless TV series was actually filmed in Washington).

The book begins with a grandfather oral storytelling into a tape recorder for his grandson, and that's the style throughout the book. We follow the richly detailed characters' loves, losses, and lives. Some are known only as "the doctor," "the nun," "the priest," and "the man who sold boxes." The Irish and Native American people's lives are woven carefully together, along with their traditions. Crows and bears speak.

At the beginning of the book, I reveled in the poetic writing and colorful descriptions of the people and the town. I found myself cheering for Worried Man, Cedar, Daniel, Owen, No Horses, and Maple Head. I thought that Mink River would be a suitable modern replacement for Sometimes a Great Notion as the great Oregon novel. But then I got to the middle...and I actually thought about giving up on the novel.

The middle sags with near-complete lack of plot. At best, the plot is secondary to the setting and the characters. But I need a plot in a novel, even a poetic one. Fortunately, he gets back into the loosely plotted story toward the end...just in time to deliver a satisfying ending to these characters' stories.

As the Oregonian put it, "Doyle's storytelling style is one a reader needs to accept, trust, and ride--he has a penchant for quick takes, long sentences, short chapters, and an interjecting narrator. Words are occasionally welded together to get toward something, like the 'bittersweetorangeyellowacidic' taste of a salmonberry. The strength of the novel lies in Doyle's ability to convey the delicious vibrancy of people and the quirky whorls that make life a complex tapestry. He is absolutely enchanted by stories, with the zeal and talent to enchant others."

A few pages from the end of the book, Doyle seems to acknowledge the eccentricity of his writing style...through the words of Moses, the talking crow: "Human people...think that stories have beginnings and middles and ends, but we crow people know that stories just wander on and on and change form and are reborn again and again...stories are not only words, you know. Words are just the clothes that people drape on stories."

Mink River is like a crow story--perhaps that is why Moses the crow is featured on the cover. It's an excellent addition to the Northwest canon, but truth be told, I'm ready to move on to a more traditionally written book!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Celebrate Banned Books Week!

Yes, it's that time again...Banned Books Week started on September 24 and ends on October 1.

According to the American Library Association, 348 books were challenged at the Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2010, and many more go unreported. Here are the 10 most challenged titles of 2010:

And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
Reasons: homosexuality, religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
Reasons: offensive language, racism, religious viewpoint, sex education, sexually explicit, violence, unsuited to age group

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Reasons: insensitivity, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit

Crank, by Ellen Hopkins
Reasons: drugs, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit

The Hunger Games (series), by Suzanne Collins
Reasons: sexually explicit, violence, unsuited to age group

Lush, by Natasha Friend
Reasons: drugs, sexually explicit, offensive language, unsuited to age group

What My Mother Doesn't Know, by Sonya Sones
Reasons: sexism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich
Reasons: drugs, inaccurate, offensive language, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint
I read this in 2004--it's been around for awhile--why all the fuss now?

Revolutionary Voices edited by Amy Sonnie
Reasons: homosexuality, sexually explicit

Twilight (series), by Stephenie Meyer (10 Reasons I Hate Twilight)
Reasons: sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, violence, unsuited to age group
Even though I hate Twilight, it still shouldn't be banned. Really.

In honor of Banned Books Week, I'm going to read To Kill a Mockingbird (one of the most frequently banned books) and wear the Banned Books bracelet I bought a couple of years ago:

The artist I purchased this from has a necklace now, too!

  How will you celebrate Banned Books Week?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Laughing Without an Accent: Funny in Farsi Part 2

Laughing Without an Accent, by Firoozeh Dumas
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Firoozeh Dumas is an Iranian-American married to a Frenchman, and now a writer, speaker, and mom of three. A few years ago, I enjoyed reading her first book, Funny in Farsi, a collection of stories about moving to the U.S. as a child and viewing life through an immigrant family's eyes. Laughing Without an Accent is more focused on Dumas' recent years in the U.S.

Dumas shares stories about the difficulties of getting her first book translated into Persian (in Iran, the author has no quality control over translations of their work; her courtship with her husband, who she met in college; a Tina Fey moment, when she berated a woman for allowing her dog to poop in her front yard, only to find out later that she was her children's new school principal; the stories of mother guilt (not confined to Jewish mothers) and the difficulty of turning down a parental present, even if it's awful; her decision to get rid of her family's TV (and her son's ignorance about Toys 'R Us--not a bad thing!); a funny Christmas when her husband tried valiantly to please her parents with a gourmet Christmas meal; and her view of farmers markets as near-religious experiences.

I enjoyed reading about attending an office clearance sale with her resourceful-to-a-fault, thrifty dad, who insisted on buying a few enormous desks without regard to how they were going to get the desks home, much less into the house.

Some reviewers have criticized Dumas for lumping all Americans together. I say hogwash and they need to lighten up. She writes about the independent, outspoken Iranian women she knows who are hidden under hijab, contrasted with the over-the-top skimpy attire in American culture: "I wish to see the day when no woman is forced to wear a hijab, chador, or burqa, but let us not discount the women underneath those mandatory coverings. If empowerment were as simple as being able to show skin, Paris Hilton would be the most enlightened woman in the United States. Having freedom does not automatically mean we all make good choices. Freedom is a rope; some make a ladder out of it and climb out of the box they're put in; some make a noose; and others make a stripper's pole." Yes, she's opinionated about the likes of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, but she's not saying all Americans are like them.

As an avid library lover, I adored the story about how Dumas grew up in a family without books and only got to visit the library when a teacher advised it (her parents always obeyed teachers!). She could not believe that she would be able to take out books for free, so she took her purse with her, ready to pay for the book. “Ever since we had arrived in the United States, my classmates kept asking me about magic carpets. They don't exist, I always said. I was wrong. Magic carpets do exist. But they are called library cards.”
At times she does contradict herself a bit, such as when she talks about how great Iranian schools are (were), yet how the first time she ever had a nurturing teacher was in the U.S. I would have liked to have read more about her relationship with her husband: how do they merge their French and Iranian cultures, traditions, and religions?

Most touching were stories about how tough it was to be an Iranian-American in 1979 during the hostage crisis, constantly hearing the "Bomb Iran" parody on the radio, and how recently she got to know Kathryn Koob, one of the female hostages. She ends with a story about how Koob took her all over her Iowa hometown, embracing her as a friend. And she ends with these thoughts, on the subject of reconcilation (one of my favorite topics):

"The bible is foreign to me, but its concepts are not. My father always said that hatred is a waste and never an option. He learned this growing up in Ahwaz, Iran, in a Muslim household. I have tried my best to pass the same message to my children, born and raised in the United States. Ultimately, it doesn't matter where we learn that lesson. It's just important that we do." Amen.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Portland top city for book lovers!

Not that it's a surprise, but livability.com just named Portland, Oregon as #1 in its Top 10 Cities for Book Lovers! Portland has 139 bookstores, arguably the most per capita in the nation (I've seen a few competing statistics). We also have the largest new and used bookstore in the world, the almighty Powell's City of Books.


Our local bookstore, Annie Bloom's

It's a little more manageable than Powell's, and equally as fun for browsing
Then there's the Multnomah County Library, which has the second-highest circulation rate in the country, second only to the New York Public Library. According to this news release, "For the ninth year in a row, Multnomah County Library patrons have checked out and renewed more items than patrons of any other U.S. library serving fewer than one million residents. With a population of about 735,000, that’s an average of about 31 items checked out or renewed for every man, woman, and child in Multnomah County."

The historic Central Library downtown
Sheer coincidence that this English major/writer-editor/book lover was born and bred in Portland (well, actually, a suburb)...I think not!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Faith: A family torn in half by the Catholic church

Faith: A Novel, by Jennifer Haigh
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Sheila McGann, a lapsed Catholic daughter, returns to Boston to try to figure out what has happened to her fractured family. Her beloved older brother, Art, has been accused in the Boston archdiocese priest sex abuse scandal. Her younger brother, Mike, is convinced he's guilty, while her mother is in denial and her father is too far gone as an alcoholic to understand what is going on.

Faith is one of those books in which you do not necessarily identify with any of the characters, but you care what will happen to them. We know very little about Sheila, the narrator, except for the fact that she's a damaged soul and unable to form long-lasting attachments. She describes her entire family as detached and undemonstrative, perhaps because of her angry drunk dad and her detached, bitter, and stubbornly Catholic mother. None of these characters lead fulfilled, happy lives, and they are unable to reach out to embrace one another in their deep sadness and grief.

I am not a Catholic but am married to one. This book is soaked in the traditions and culture of the old American Catholic church. In that culture, priests were (are?) not to be questioned...they were to be revered.

Faith has all the complications I expect in a great book. None of the characters are inherently good or bad, and the truth is far more complex than one would expect. Haigh does an excellent job of peeling back layer by layer of Sheila's complicated family structure and exposing the grave weaknesses and loneliness inherent in the whole idea of Catholic priestly celibacy...and the underbelly of the Catholic church, which has continued to ignore the devastating acts done in its name.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Ex-Boyfriend's Handbook: Not-so-Chick Lit

The Ex-Boyfriend's Handbook, by Matt Dunn
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I don't know why I did it...read this book, that is. It caught my eye at the library, and I was interested in the British setting (Brighton) and a supposedly "chick lit" type of story written by a man. As I've said before, I don't like the term "chick lit," because I find that title denigrating to novels written by and for women. However, it is a certain type of genre, and this novel fits into that category. My husband says I should call it "dick lit." I like it. :)

Here's the plot in a nutshell:
  • Nice, overweight-and-out-of-shape, and somewhat clueless doormat Edward's girlfriend of 10 years, Jane, moves out and leaves behind a note saying she's off to Tibet for 3 months.
  • Edward determines to reinvent himself during the time Jane is away. He's assisted by his ethics-lacking, philandering, and shallow friend Dan...who is really not very nice to Edward (or other people). 
  • In addition to makeovers to his wardrobe, flat, car, and lifestyle, he starts working out with a cute, peppy trainer named Sam (female).
  • Edward works for an IT recruiting firm, and his boss sleeps with her clients to get new business and treats him like crap. Really? Talk about a stereotype of a successful businesswoman. We're not all like Anna Wintour.
  • Of course, we don't ever really understand why in fact Edward wants Jane back or why he is friends with Dan.
You can guess where this story goes. It wasn't horrific, but when I dove into my next book (Faith by Jennifer Haigh, which I'm almost finished with), I realized how much I wasted my time on this one.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

South of Broad: Sadly, overwritten

South of Broad: A NovelSouth of Broad, by Pat Conroy
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I have enjoyed some of Conroy's previous novels (The Prince of Tides and Beach Music), so I was looking forward to reading South of Broad. Conroy can tell a sweeping saga and draw the reader in, and this story was no different from his other books.

It's the story of Leopold King (known as "the toad" by his friends--isn't that kind of them?), who finds his 9-year-old brother dead in the bathtub when he is only 8 years old. This tragedy shapes his life from then on. One day in late summer, right before he is to start his senior year in high school, he discovers that his ultra-serious and severe school principal/Joyce scholar mother used to be a nun. He also meets a motley crew of friends, including Charleston snobs Molly, Chad, and Fraser; mountain hillbillies Niles and Starla (yes, a novel with both of the names Niles and Fraser!); tragic figures Trevor and Sheba Poe; and African-American heroes Ike and Betty (who integrate the high school all too easily).

Where do I start with what was wrong with this novel? First of all, the writing--terribly overwritten. I didn't find the characters to be believable at all, and furthermore I couldn't understand their attraction to each other. In spite of the length of the novel, some of the characters fell flat because we don't really get to know them very well. Others are too purely evil or malicious. Some of them I flat out did not like and could not understand what anyone else saw in them (i.e., Chad). Conroy has several of this group of friends marry each other, but I wasn't convinced that most of them really loved each other (with the exception of Ike and Betty). Potentially difficult situations were glossed over (such as the integration of the South Carolina high school and the toxic racism of the late 1960s).

Conroy seemed to pull in every possible salacious and shocking plot element he could think of. Some reviewers have commented that it was a much lower-quality repeat of the Prince of Tides.

In addition, I found a number of editorial errors, one of them a quite surprising timing mistake in the first chapter (first it's 3:00 p.m. in one chapter, and then it's lunch time during the next chapter...on the same day). The book needed an editor with a heavier hand...especially to fix a lot of the unbelievable dialogue...not to mention the lack of chemistry between the characters. (For God's sake, why on earth did Molly stay with Chad??? At one point, she is furious when he discovers he's having another affair...and then suddenly she doesn't care any more??? Really? And why did Leo stay with Starla?)

However, I agree with writer Chris Bohjalian's review in the Washington Post:
"I should note that even though I felt stage-managed by Conroy's heavy hand, I still turned the pages with relish. Conroy is an immensely gifted stylist, and there are passages in the novel that are lush and beautiful and precise. No one can describe a tide or a sunset with his lyricism and exactitude."
Conroy makes the city of Charleston come to life, and he describes the terror of experiencing a hurricane. At times, he gets close to describing what it's like to have friends for life. Too bad I didn't like or believe in half of the characters.

I expected so much more from a talented author. Let's hope the next one will be better.

Friday, September 2, 2011

That Day in September: 9/11 up close and personal

That Day In SeptemberThat Day in September, by Artie Van Why
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Artie Van Why worked right across from the twin towers on that fateful day in 2001. This book is his personal account of September 11 and its aftermath on his life.

Written in a very simple style and self published, the book describes Artie's life in New York (how he ended up there and got discouraged while pursuing his dream to be an actor). He worked in a law firm's word processing center across from the World Trade Center, and on the morning of 9/11 he heard a horrifically loud boom above him. When he and his coworkers rushed out into the street, they saw people falling through the skies.

Van Why's personal account of his love for the World Trade Center and its surrounds, and the description of how the events of 9/11 affected his psyche, is touching and very personal. He speaks about going to an AA meeting at noon on that day and feeling so comforted and at home with others who had experienced similar trauma.

September 11 served as a wake-up call for Van Why. He realized that life is too short to work in an unrewarding job, coasting through life. He writes of how he tenses each time he hears an airplane overhead...or a siren.

I always think of 9/11 when I'm at the airport, particularly when I'm being dropped off by my family for a business trip. I was on my way out of town that morning and first learned about 9/11 in the airport lounge, as everyone was glued to the television overhead. Now when I fly away from my family, I always think of those people on United Flight 93, whose goodbyes to their loved ones were their last ones forever.

Artie Van Why now lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and works at a small theater. He moved to be closer to his parents. Take a look at this BBC News article to read an excerpt of the book--and view a slide show with Artie's memories. He found that writing about his experiences--and speaking about them live in a play--helped him process his profound, painful feelings and memories.

*Disclosure: I received a copy of this book to facilitate my review.

State of Wonder: A female Heart of Darkness

State of WonderState of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ann Patchett's latest novel begins in Minnesota and travels to the jungles of Brazil, where a naive and emotionally stifled researcher, Marina Singh, hopes to discover what happened to her research partner, Anders Eckman. The pharmaceutical company Marina and Anders work for, Vogel, is funding the research of a new fertility drug in the Amazonian jungle led by her medical school mentor, the brilliant and chilly Dr. Annick Swenson.

Marina and Vogel CEO (and Marina's lover) "Mr. Fox" receive a sketchy aerogram from Swenson, informing them almost as an afterthought that Anders has died in the jungle. Mr. Fox asks Marina to go to Brazil to find out what is going on with the drug development (since Dr. Swenson is nearly completely incommunicado) and Karen, Anders' wife, wants her to find out how Anders died--if indeed he really is dead.

When Marina arrives in Manaus, Brazil, she must get past the Bovenders--the couple who live in Dr. Swenson's apartment while she's in the jungle. No one knows how to get to the research station, deep in the heart of the jungle, where Dr. Swenson is studying the Lakashi tribe--whose women bear children into their 70s.

With the exception of Easter, Winston, Rodrigo, and a few tribal members, this book focuses on the antics of the foreigners. I'm not sure whether leaving out the Brazilians' perspectives and personalities was intended. It would have been nice to have understood the Lakashi more, but perhaps this is another point of the book: even though Dr. Swenson had been living among them for years, she still viewed them with a sense of privilege and distance, just as the reader is forced to view them.

Marina constantly makes questionable decisions (such as packing her very expensive, irreplaceable phone in her checked luggage, only to lose it) and it's difficult to understand her alliances. Why on earth is she attracted to the boring Mr. Fox? And does she have any friends or anyone else who will miss her while she is gone? It would appear not. Why was she concerned about taking the others down the river but not be concerned about her beloved Easter (the native child)? I found her difficult to relate to and understand, although sympathetic at the same time. She's haunted by a traumatic experience in her medical training and feelings of abandonment, made only worse by the anti-malarial drug Lariam. (It made me feel fortunate that I took Lariam in my 20s a few times with no ill effects!)

Perhaps that's Patchett's best talent as a writer: her main characters are multidimensional and full of layered depths, although the lesser character development can suffer (for example, Mr. Fox). Even though Annick Swenson can be heartless and emotionally cold and possessing highly questionable ethics, she was a fascinating character. Ultimately she attempts to sacrifice her own health for what she believes is greater good in the world. This is a book pondering ethics and colonialism, just like the Heart of Darkness.

The book passed one of my biggest tests: I thought about it while lying in bed at night and I got up early to finish it. It stuck with me. Well done, Ms. Patchett.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Touching the Void: Surviving the Unsurvivable

Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man's Miraculous SurvivalTouching the Void by Joe Simpson
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I started reading this book at Holden Village in July and didn't get back into it until last week (I had to get it out of the library in Portland). Mike went to prep school with Joe Simpson in England (although Simpson's a few years older than him), so I've often thought about reading this book before it called to me from the Holden Village library.

Joe Simpson and his climbing partner, Simon Yates, climbed a mountain peak in the Andes--the 21,000-foot Siula Grande. While ascending, Joe broke his leg...which can be an immediate death sentence for mountain climbers. However, Simon risked his own life to lower Joe 3,000 feet down the mountain while Joe kept digging "belays" into the mountain, allowing Simon to stretch out the rope once more. When the rope did not go slack (allowing him to affix a new hitch), Simon had no idea what was going on. He had no choice but to cut the rope, knowing that by doing so Joe would die. If he hadn't cut the rope, they both would have died on the mountain. When the rope was cut, Joe fell into a very deep crevasse.

The amazing piece is that Joe did not die--in fact, he survived. Over the ensuing three days, somehow he was able to crawl out of the crevasse and all the way down the mountain, and then 6 miles to base camp, just before Simon left to return to civilization. Joe writes about the deep loneliness, exhaustion, and terror that beset him on the mountain. He did not give up when most people would have. Not only did he survive with a horribly broken and painful leg, but he also did not have food and water for several days. The only thing that kept him going was a voice in his head--prompting him to keep moving and surviving.

Meanwhile, Simon was being tormented with guilt, even at the same time as he realized he had no choice in the matter. Joe writes from Simon's perspective as well (in italics), giving us a more complete picture of what was happening in both men's minds.

I woke up at night thinking about this book--it will stick with me for a very long time. It's clear that Joe is a mountain climber first and a writer second, because I often had difficulties following the technical descriptions of climbing and picturing everything in my mind. I didn't discover the glossary in the back until I was 1/3 of the way into the book. But even the glossary couldn't really help me understand fully.

Joe includes an afterword in the edition I read. He writes about returning to Siula Grande to film the documentary and experiencing post-traumatic stress (previously he had not even believed in its existence). It's the second book I've read recently where a British person discounts the value of psychotherapy--thinking it to be an American whim. When he calls the National Health Service to make an appointment with a therapist (realizing he needed to deal with his PTSD), he doesn't receive a call back until six months later. At that point, he's too disgusted to go forward with it. Instead, he realizes the healing, therapeutic power of telling one's story...and that's how he works through the stress and the trauma. At least he did come to realize the importance of working through it and the downsides of the British stiff upper lip.

He also writes about traumatic emotions and terror traveling hard-wired neural pathways in the brain...that's why what we think will be an easy task or experience can bring up all sorts of PTSD effects if we've experienced a trauma. I've experienced this phenomenon a few times myself.

Touching the VoidNext I plan to watch the documentary, and I'm sure it will help me have a better understanding of what exactly happened to Joe and Simon on the mountain. Joe Simpson wrote this book partly to defend Simon Yates' actions on the mountain. From the very beginning, he understood that Simon made the only decision he could have at the time. He's truly grateful to him for doing everything he could to save him--most other climbers would have left him on the mountain without even trying to save him.

A therapist friend of mine used to show this movie to the boys he counseled: they were sex offenders in treatment. It was chosen as a testament to the power of the human spirit and the ability to conquer seemingly impossible odds.