Monday, July 16, 2012

Books You May Want To Check Out

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe: I have been meaning to get around to this book for years. It did not disappoint. Things Fall Apart is the story of an African man named Okonkwo. He is an important man in his tribe and lives the way he understands a man's life is meant to be lived. To compensate for the weaknesses of his father his main purpose is to demonstrate strength. In order to achieve a greater degree of success he figures he must be more ambitious, aggressive, and domineering. And this is what he pulls off. So long as his place is firmly established in a world that is familiar to him, one in which he understands the rules and what it takes to excel, all is well. But after Christian missionaries arrive in the village we learn that this is not the story of a man, but rather, the chronicle of a way of life that is destined to fall. Okonkwo's gods fail to measure up against the Christian God mainly because ancient ways are always overwhelmed by the march of modernity. The gun is mightier than the machete, science outmatches superstition, and what on the surface appears to be a more compassionate way of life triumphs over barbarism because biblical cruelty is more cleverly disguised. A fascinating novel indeed.

The Warmest December by Bernice L. McFadden: Violent alcoholics beget violent alcoholics beget... Pretty much everybody in this beautifully written novel is in agony. They are each perpetrators and victims, tormentors and the ones suffering from a brutal disease. The cycle appears to be endless, but Kenzie is fighting to break the pattern. This novel, which is told from her point of view, is filled with unfathomable cruelty that it seems nobody would be foolish enough to stick around and take. Surely fleeing for their lives is an option. But instead of running from barbaric cruelty they are each running from their own demons. These demons take on liquid form and exist in bottles obtained from bars and liquor stores. The reader pities them for their hopelessness, urges those being bullied to take a hint and act out of self preservation rather than inexplicable loyalty. But neither Kenzie nor her brother nor her mother listen to the reader, or to friends, or to each other, or to concerned strangers such as policemen sometimes called to the scene of the crime. The jaded officers know in advance that their advice will be ignored, for the story is a sadly common one. The thing about a cycle is that it's extremely difficult to locate an exit point. No matter where you are it looks the same. There are glimpses of small hope, moments of grace, occasions that provide a view of genuine happiness, but eventually the moment to suffer comes back around. As long as Kenzie is consumed with understandable hate, she suffers and requires destructive medication to deal with the pain. She cannot escape by running, but rather, by confronting and figuring out how to forgive. Easier said than done.

The Shipping News by Annie E. Proulx: Annie Proulx has a lovely way with turns of phrase. That said, I expected a little more from this book since it won a Pulitzer Prize. Extra expectations are not the fault of a book or its author though. The story is quite simple and proceeds at a measured pace. It does contain some dramatic events (heartless adultery and abandonment, sudden accidental deaths, murder, beheading, stalking, return from the dead even) but these things happen "offstage" and are described in matter of fact fashion. Far more attention is paid to the smallest of day to day details such as fishing, boat building, house repair, small town newspaper business. The Shipping News is in part a love story, a finding love again after being hurt story, yet this aspect of the tale is largely devoid of heat and passion as well. The story is all quiet observation of a man named Quoyle and those closest to him getting by the best they can. While remaining a decent man and father he learns a new way to live and a new way to love. Along the way he discovers that his worth is greater than he had been previously led to believe, once he finds people better able to appreciate him for who his.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward: Novelists like Jesmyn Ward don't come along very often. Only truly special writers can slip readers beneath the skin of a character, make them feel as if they are experiencing the events happening on page first hand. Reading Salvage the Bones one is drawn into the oppressive summer heat of Louisiana; aches with helpless desire; is burdened by a stifling sense of loss; vicariously goes through youthful yearning to be loved, even if only as much as a treasured pet. Prior to the arrival of Hurricane Katrina, the pace of the narrative is slow and steady. We wait for the inevitable devastation to arrive, knowing far more about what is to come than the family we're observing up close. A motherless girl lets the local boys take what they please from her until she meets one from whom she wants something back. She is a lone woman in a world of men, and it is through her eyes that we pass idle time waiting, watching, remembering, wishing for what is plain will not be, settling for whatever she is able to grab hold of. This girl does not get placed on a pedestal like her brother's prized dog, but like China she is able to nurture when called upon, ready to fight tooth and nail for survival when necessary. Read this novel. Then join me in the wait for Jesmyn Ward's next one.

Penny Dreadful by Laurel Snyder: I had never heard of this book or the author before deciding to give it a shot as bedtime reading for my six year old daughter. From the cover copy I saw it shared traits with books we've read to her so far such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Holes, Half Magic. These books each feature young protagonists and the element of magic. The twist in Penny Dreadful is that by the end we're not certain if magic ever really played a part in what took place or if certain critical events were instead the result of chance. Did Penny wish things into being or did they coincidentally take place shortly after she wished for them? With Penny being such a vague wisher, asking for improved circumstances rather than for something specific to change them with, we can't be 100% sure. The story takes a little while to get going in the eventful sort of manner that children enjoy. I thought my little one might grow impatient with the set-up and ask for another book. But she remained sufficiently intrigued so we kept reading. Once Penny and her parents leave The City and move to the interesting house they have inherited, the narrative picks up steam. In her new home the formerly rich and sheltered Penny learns the value of friendship and using her inner resources to get by in a world where everything is no longer handed to her on a silver platter. Her feisty best friend Luella is the character my daughter was most amused by and related to best. Her pivotal role is basically to introduce Penny to normalcy and childhood experienced the way it ought to be done, with joy and exuberance and curiosity and daring. Before meeting Luella, Penny knows of adventure through books. After, she finds that no adventure is greater than life itself.

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín: To say this book starts off slowly is a major understatement. It lulls you. For 50%+ of the page count the narrative is quite uneventful, a stomach churning journey at sea being as dramatic as it gets. This journey takes the protagonist, a young Irish woman, from the small town she has grown up in and is all she knows to Brooklyn, NY. Once she arrives in a strange land you expect the narrative to pick up steam, but it does not. Instead it quietly moves forward via a writing style that is not at all showy, but simple and straight forward and lovely and easy to be carried along by. Just as we're beginning to seriously wonder if anything dramatic is going to happen, something does, something that returns Eilis to Ireland for a month. I won't say what the event is, not that specificity matters all that much here. What matters is that once Eilis is back in her hometown she comes to realize that life contains a handful of vital choices - some that are made for you and some you make for yourself; some that are well thought out over a long period of time and others that are made in an impetuous flash; some which can be easily undone, some that are tortuous to undo, and some that are irrevocable. Each of us is in charge of our own destiny. Each of us is equally subject to the whims of fate, helpless to do anything about it. Eventually we will look back and see this is where that ended, this is where that began, and we will reflect on the fact that our lives easily could have gone far differently if only. But that is a life unlived. Dwelling on what did not come to be will get us nothing except for a solitary trip down memory lane. This lesson is masterfully laid out before readers who are patient enough to see the story through to the end.

Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving: John Irving is one of my favorite authors. The best of his best (Garp, Hotel New Hampshire, Owen Meany, Cider House Rules) are amongst the finest novels ever written in my opinion. This isn't to say that I'm incapable of finding fault in his books. For example, I found Son of the Circus to be disappointing. But John Irving at his worst is more fascinating to read than many writers at their best. An interesting thing about Last Night in Twisted River is that it is in many ways a meditation on his writing career. It's as if he decided to give a gift to faithful readers who have followed him book after book by tossing in as many familiar elements as possible. The more John Irving novels you've read in the past (I've read them all), and the more you happen to know about his personal life which works itself into his books, the more elements/themes you'll instantly recognize. Some examples are bears, farting dogs, wrestling, loss of a child, car accident caused while sexual activity is taking place in one of the vehicles, abortion, New Hampshire, Canada, and a main character being a writer. That character masters his craft at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. One of his books is adapted into a film and wins an Oscar. Sound familiar? Irving seems to be winking at his beloved long time readers throughout this book, giving them liberal dashes of the old while presenting them with the new. Technically the plot is about a man and his son spending the majority of their lives on the run because of an accidental killing and their attempt to cover it up. But what this book is really about is the process of becoming a writer, a process that never stops no matter how many books one has already written. Each book is a new beginning, a new opportunity to learn how to get from beginning to end, even if this means going from end to beginning. It isn't for everyone, the way I feel some of his biggest successes happen to be. But for John Irving fans it's a must.

R.I.P. Donald J. Sobol. I devoured his Encyclopedia Brown books as a child.

Check out the new excerpt from Patches of Grey

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