Friday, June 28, 2013

Review: Schroder by Amity Gaige

When you were little, did you create alternate lives for yourself? I did. I had an entire imaginary world where I played a completely different person than I was in real life. I thoroughly enjoyed make-believe. But these imaginings were harmless and never permanent. In Amity Gaige's thought-provoking new novel, Schroder, the main character goes far beyond my childhood pretending and creates a completely new identity, slipping into it nearly seamlessly, and wearing it more comfortably than his actual identity.  So who is he really?  Is he the new created persona or is he the person whose skin he's trying to shed or will he forever uncomfortably and uneasily carry both of these people together in himself?

At the outset of the novel, he is in jail awaiting sentencing for the kidnapping of his beloved six year old daughter, Meadow, while in the midst of a heated custody battle and a prolonged divorce. Writing a letter to his estranged wife to explain his actions and in the hopes that offering his version of the truth will mitigate his punishment, the novel is his explanation of his life, the reason behind the assumption of his new identity, and what ultimately made him take Meadow and keep running. And as his story unspools, despite the fact that there's no doubt that he did in fact steal away his daughter, the reader feels sympathy with his desperation over the dwindling amount of time that this former stay at home dad now gets to spend with the child who was once a focus of his days. But just as his actions start to seem, in some small way, understandable, and his sadly naive ignorance of the impact of his separation becomes clear, just as these things strike the reader, tiny cracks start to show in his story and doubts start to creep in.

When Erik Schroder was five, he held his father's hand as they walked out of East Germany forever. They made their way to the US where he was tormented by the other kids in his working class neighborhood. It was as a young teenager escaping from this unfortunate background that he first created the persona of Eric Kennedy, a shirt-tail relative of "those Kennedys" and hailing from a quaint seaside town in Massachusetts in order to fit in to a summer camp. And because of the different way in which he was treated as the all-American Eric than as the German refugee Erik, he continued the ruse, applying to college and for a Pell Grant as Eric Kennedy. And it is as a Kennedy that he meets and woos future wife Laura. It is Eric Kennedy who she thinks she's married and with whom she has daughter Meadow. And it is Eric Kennedy who steals Meadow away.  But it is Erik Schroder, unmasked and exposed, who is the fugitive and finally the felon awaiting trial and sentencing.

He manages to conceal the truth of his background and his identity as Erik Schroder from everyone around him, as truly becoming Eric Kennedy as he possibly could. Is he truly misunderstood or is he a master manipulator? It is his complete and total subterfuge that will compound the terrible error of his claimed spur of the moment decision to flee with Meadow. And this is where the reader must question his account of events. If his entire life and identity is based on lies and fraud, is a completely artificial construct, just exactly how much of his story and his justifications for the otherwise reprehensible action of kidnap can be believed? Is his week on the run with Meadow truly spur of the moment or was it calculated? Is he a distraught doting father, desperate for more time with his daughter like he claims or is there something else behind his flight?

It's hard to write a convincing unreliable narrator but Gaige manages to do just that and to do it beautifully. Eric seemed so sincere and even surprised by his own actions in the beginning, and yet... Despite the terrible crime he's committed, he never stops being at least a little convincing, a little charming, always a tiny shred of victim to him. And that's an impressive accomplishment for sure. Eric/Erik's letter to Laura can be meandering but the format offers an insight into the random and unfinished way in which his mind works and which, at least according to his truth, is one of the reasons she left him, so it ends up working despite the digressions, academic interjections, and footnotes. A fascinating look at the issue of identity and just how much of ourselves we can create for others before we've crossed a line, this novel will keep the reader thinking and still deciding on the extent of Schroder's guilt long after the end.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Review: The World's Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne

I have several friends who have a child or children with Tourette's Syndrome. Before I met them, I had the same concept of this neurological disorder that many people do: the image of a person uncontrollably spewing obscenities that tv and movies would have you believe are the hallmarks of this disorder. In actual fact, I've never yet heard my friends' kids cursing but I have seen or heard small and not so small tics. And I've talked with them about the ways in which they try to control these outward manifestations of the disorder. It sounds perfectly horrible, not only because of the involuntary twitches and vocalizations but because of the social repercussions, especially among children, and the feeling of powerlessness over the disorder itself. And that is just one of the reasons why Josh Hanagarne's memoir, The World's Strongest Librarian, is so fascinating.

Hanagrane is a 6'7" weight-lifting librarian, a Mormon who is uncertain of his faith, and he has battled a severe case of Tourette's Syndrome since he was a small child. His family is a loving and supportive one and they took Josh's constant blinking, the initial manifestation of the disorder, in stride, accepting him as he was and backing him when his finally diagnosed Tourette's caused his life to veer off the course he (and they) expected it to take. As Hanagarne details his struggles with the disorder he nicknames Misty, he also speaks of his crisis of faith, his love of books, the sometimes unbelievable craziness of his job, the amazing and understanding people who entered his life as teachers and coaches, his and his wife's struggle to conceive and/or adopt, and eventually his discovery of weight-lifting and the way in which is temporarily quieted Misty. Every aspect of his life is touched and invaded by his Tourette's. There is nothing that escapes the tentacles of this tenacious disorder.

Hanagarne does a good job recounting his struggle to calm the tics and quiet the outbursts as he also wrestles with so much else in his life. He tells his story with strength, honesty, and heart. He's conversational and entertaining (he clearly inherited his mother's story telling abilities) and his struggles to accept himself, doubts, tics, and all is wonderfully presented. The pacing and weighting of his story is rather uneven though. The bulk of his tale focuses on his adulthood and the weight lifting that offers him some relief from his symptoms but it's the emotional rather than the physical aspects of his challenges that are more interesting. His recounting of his family and his wife's acceptance of his loss of faith is touching and the crushing, soul destroying journey in the adoption world will break your heart. Although there is some drag here, this is a ultimately a quick and rewarding read.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Review: A Dog Walks Into a Nursing Home by Sue Halpern

My grandmother lives in a nursing home and we've been visiting her there for years. She's been in just about every level its possible to be so we've seen the gamut of people living there with her: very engaged, lonely, chatty, angry, happy, depressed, curmudgeonly, mentally agile, living in the past, and just about every other state of being imaginable as well. I don't know if there are any therapy dogs making rounds at my grandmother's home but my mom occasionally takes her dog to visit my grandma and the other residents adore it when Docker visits. Unlike many people, dogs can look beyond the wrinkles, the arthritis-crippled hands, stroke-drooped cheeks, sparse hair, hunched backs, wheelchairs and walkers and into the unchanged heart of an elderly person. They carry no preconceived ideas and the only judgment they offer is over whether a person likes them or not. And this is why some dogs make such wonderful therapy dogs, offering so much love and healing to people, especially those living out their last days, months, years in a home.

Sue Halpern's A Dog Walks Into a Nursing Home details her journey with her lovely, calm labradoodle, Pransky, as Pranny gets certified as a therapy dog and the two of them start visiting the residents at the local county nursing home. Halpern's daughter leaves for college and her husband is often on the road, ushering her into a new phase of life.  Just as Halpern is looking for a new direction to go with her much expanded free time, her dog is also suffering from serious boredom.  Both of them need a new sense of purpose. Halpern stumbles across it in the description of therapy dogs, recognizing Pransky in that description. And then she discovers that there's more to being a therapy dog team than just being willing; there's serious training and a certification process before they can start visiting and helping others.

The first portion of the book is very much centered on Pransky's background and the training and certification that they do together while the second addresses their work in the home. In both halves though, Halpern offers reflective musings on the seven virtues of a good life: courage, wisdom, justice, restraint, love, hope and faith, and the ways in which their experiences embody these virtues. As an ethics professor, she waxes philosophical, quoting other writers and numerous studies on aging and the benefits of therapy animals. She ponders the reality of aging and our society's tendency to stop viewing the elderly as unique individuals with fascinating life experiences behind them and instead see them as passive and probably uninteresting old people. She examines the reason for the proliferation of nursing homes and the need for such places not only for the elderly but also for disabled young people as well.

The book is very well written but the philosophical digressions overshadow the personal aspects of Halpern and Pranny's experiences, which are likely to be the bits for which the majority of readers are looking. There are some stories about the people she and Pranny meet and their interactions but even those that are included don't fully share who these men and women are. This may be a privacy issue but it definitely causes the narrative to lean much heavier towards the drier research and philosophy angle than the sweet and heartwarming human/dog interest angle. But if a reader goes into it knowing that, this a thoughtful, compassionate, and thought-provoking story for anyone interested in the elderly and the question of dignity in our own mortality.

Thanks to the publisher and LibraryThing Early Reviewers for sending me a copy of this book for review.

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme is hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on.

Mother Daughter Me by Katie Hafner. The book is being released by Random House on July 2, 2013.

Amazon says this about the book: The complex, deeply binding relationship between mothers and daughters is brought vividly to life in Katie Hafner’s remarkable memoir, an exploration of the year she and her mother, Helen, spent working through, and triumphing over, a lifetime of unresolved emotions.

Dreaming of a “year in Provence” with her mother, Katie urges Helen to move to San Francisco to live with her and Zoë, Katie’s teenage daughter. Katie and Zoë had become a mother-daughter team, strong enough, Katie thought, to absorb the arrival of a seventy-seven-year-old woman set in her ways.

Filled with fairy-tale hope that she and her mother would become friends, and that Helen would grow close to her exceptional granddaughter, Katie embarked on an experiment in intergenerational living that she would soon discover was filled with land mines: memories of her parents’ painful divorce, of her mother’s drinking, of dislocating moves back and forth across the country, and of Katie’s own widowhood and bumpy recovery. Helen, for her part, was also holding difficult issues at bay.

How these three women from such different generations learn to navigate their challenging, turbulent, and ultimately healing journey together makes for riveting reading. By turns heartbreaking and funny—and always insightful—Katie Hafner’s brave and loving book answers questions about the universal truths of family that are central to the lives of so many.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver

A friend of mine from college horrified all of us at one of our reunions with her tale of sitting on a jury in a capital murder case. She mercilessly skewered clueless fellow jurors, the defendant with his earnest but undeniable lies, the entire process really, finishing with the comment that her experience with our legal system has left her very jaded and disappointed. I want to forewarn her to never read Elizabeth Silver's debut novel, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, a story of the unreliability, corruptibility, and bumbling incompetence in the US legal system. It will further erode her confidence in people finding justice through our court system, not because Noa P. Singleton didn't shoot Sarah Dixon, the crime for which she is incarcerated (she did), but because there's so much more to the story than just this simple, unequivocal verdict and it's the "more" that changes everything as my friend found when sitting as a juror.

Noa P. Singleton is a broken woman. Ten years ago she was convicted of murdering Sarah Dixon and sentenced to death. She sat through the trial without saying a word in her defense and in her decade on Death Row, through countless appeals, and under the representation of young (incompetent) lawyer after lawyer looking to make their own reputations through her notoriety, she has never told her side of the story. Six months before her execution date, another young lawyer comes to see her at the behest of Marlene Dixon, the mother of the young woman Noa shot. Oliver tells her that Marlene has changed her opinion on the death penalty, has created an organization--MAD or Mothers Against Death--to further her new aims, and wants Noa to be granted clemency. Despite the fact that Marlene is herself a very high powered, ruthless attorney, she has Oliver Stansted, a junior lawyer at her firm, doing the pro bono work and meeting with Noa. All that Marlene asks of Noa in return for her legal intervention is that Noa finally explain why she shot Sarah. Noa contends that Marlene already knows without acknowledging that she knows and she must decide if Marlene deserves the comfort or exoneration of hearing anything further from Noa. And yet she starts writing down her version of her life and the events that are marching her inexorably towards November 7, the date she is scheduled to die.

Narrated primarily by Noa with short supplemental letters from Marlene written to Sarah which change the reader's view of Marlene's motivations and a few other semi-problematic point of view shifts, this is a slow, contemplative and philosophical novel. Noa tells of the neglect in her childhood and the tragedies in her young life that formed the woman she grew into. And her background should be one that inspires some sympathy but she narrates all of it with a rather flat affect leaving the reader strangely unmoved as well. Woven in with Noa's life story are her thoughts on the prison system and the ponderings of an inmate on Death Row. There are long lists comparing others' last meals and last words as she wonders what hers will be and why. And there are many reflections on Noa's arrest and trial. The portions of the novel that focus on the legal system were less interesting than the events that led to the arrest in the first place. The writing was sometimes overblown and the plethora of similies and metaphors needed to be pared down. The narrative tension was a bit uneven with it substantially increasing in the second half of the novel as new revelations came out in Noa's account which alter the reader's idea of just what the truth is in this case. But the novel as a whole did pick up as it went on, becoming more compelling reading further into the narrative.

In a perfect world, we punish the guilty but sometimes guilt and punishment are only tangentially related. And teasing out this relationship is one of the things that the reader is asked to do here. A dark, occasionally surprising tale of manipulation, subterfuge, and culpability, ultimately, this novel asks, what is the truth and what would justice be for that truth? I felt a drawn out, tightening, squeezing suffocation as I read this which wasn't the world's most comfortable sensation but it certainly raises disturbing questions about guilt and innocence, the role of our upbringing in forming our moral character, and our justice system as it stands now.

For more information about Elizabeth L. Silver and the book, check out her website, her Facebook page or follow her on Twitter. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Review: Our Love Could Light the World by Anne Leigh Parrish

Short stories are not usually my favorite. It seems just as the story gets started, it's finished. So I don't read many short stories without a very reliable endorsement. Linked short stories, though, are another creature entirely. I have a real attraction to interconnected short stories. When each story builds on previous stories and furthers the reader's understanding of the collection as a whole, it works for me. Anne Leigh Parrish's collection, Our Love Could Light the World, is one such story collection, centered as it is on the members of one hard luck family in the Finger Lakes region of New York.

The Dugan family is the Bad News Bears of families. The odds are stacked against them in so many ways and yet over the course of the collection they will mature and show at least small signs of goodness. As the collection opens, mother Lavinia is preparing to leave for a business conference. She's in sales for a small company that sells manufactured homes. Husband Potter is out of work because of an injury and he's well on his way to depressed alcoholism. The five children run wild and are the source of some petty unpleasantness in the neighborhood. They come across as minor hooligans, cursing and treating the neighbors and their property with no respect. Teenaged Angie is the oldest Dugan child and is a cross between a goth and a punk. Then comes Timothy, twins Marta and Maggie, and finally Foster, the happiest and sweetest of the bunch. They are a messy, weary, broken and dysfunctional sort of family.

The stories contained here address abuse, neglect, divorce, parent and child dynamics, frustration, and surprisingly enough, love. The characters are three dimensional and completely realistic, if not always terribly honest, likable, and appealing. And each story is narrated from the point of view of or centered around a different character so that the eventual picture drawn here is a complete and rounded one. Each new story also moves the Dugans forward in time so that ultimately the collection spans many years in the lives of this family showing clearly the ways in which they have changed and matured, or, conversely, didn't. Chronicling their setbacks and small kindnesses, the stories seem to show that there's not much joy to be had with this clan but eventually there does seem to be a quiet kind of contentment and acceptance of where they all are in life. Despite the lack of shiny happiness, this was a wonderful and touching read.

For more information about Anne Leigh Parrish and the book, check out her website. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book. Or buy the book at the Seattle Book Company.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

As I get ready to start my summer travels, first to my daughter's dance competition and then to our family cottage, I have been reading and reviewing quite a bit.  I know that I won't be caught up on my backlog before I leave (and reading books faster certainly doesn't lighten the load of books I'll take with me both places because I'll just add new options into the pile instead, of course) but it will mean I have fewer books to bring in order to review them and that's a good thing all the way around!  This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

David by Ray Robertson
The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell
Sinners and the Sea by Rebecca Kanner
The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Better Than Fiction edited by Don George
Together Tea by Marjan Kamali

Reviews posted this week:

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver
Ready Player One by Ray Robertson
Nowhere Is a Place by Bernice McFadden
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeannette Winterson
Replacement Child by Judy L. Mandel

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

A Dog Walks Into a Nursing Home by Sue Halpern
Schroder by Amity Gaige
The World's Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne
Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall
Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck
The Book of Someday by Dianne Dixon
Someone by Alice McDermott
Surprising Lord Jack by Sally MacKenzie
Love All by Callie Wright
David by Ray Robertson
The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell
Sinners and the Sea by Rebecca Kanner
The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver

Monday Mailbox

More goodies in the mailbox for me and for my youngest child who has fallen in love with a new series. Is there anything cooler as a reading mama than to have your child so immersed in a book that he not only doesn't turn out the light at night but he doesn't grab the iPad during the day and he runs backs inside the house as you leave for his soccer practice to make sure he has his book to read on the 10 minute drive there? I am surely raising this one right! This past week's mailbox arrivals:

Together Tea by Marjan Kamali came from Ecco and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

I am fascinated by other cultures' attitudes towards marriage and finding an appropriate spouse so this novel about an Iranian American young woman and her mother who clash over the mother's matchmaking is right up my alley.

Edge of Heaven by Eva McCall came from me for me (because if I buy books for someone else, I can't very well leave myself out, now can I?).

This one has been on my wish list for too many years to count and I thought it was time to finally find a home for it on my shelves. Plus the story of a young half Native American woman who is given to a man by her father and suddenly finds herself a wife and mother to 13 children in the North Carolina mountains sounds haunting.

The Wolf Tree by John Claude Bemis came from me for my youngest son.

The second book in Bemis' folk tale series, my son is now addicted to these books.

The White City by John Claude Bemis came from me for my youngest son.

And the third book in the series.

Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt came from Algonquin Paperbacks.

Neighborhood dynamics are curious things, aren't they? This novel of a single Jewish mother and her son who are not welcomed into their new neighborhood and are further ostracized when one of the only other fatherless children in the neighborhood, and one of the few to befriend little Lewis, goes missing, promises to be uncomfortable and complex but definitely worthwhile.

Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel came from Harper and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

Aside from the fact that I am a sucker for books with the water related words in the title--in this case "sea," a plot where a mother must choose between her husband and her son promises to be riveting.

If you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Dolce Bellezza as she is hosting this month's Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Review: Replacement Child by Judy L. Mandel

Imagine if you spent all of your life knowing that the only reason you were born is because your parents had lost a child, suddenly and tragically, long before you were even thought of. In fact, imagine that if your oldest sister hadn't died and your surviving sister hadn't been terribly injured, your parents would never have considered having a third child. Imagine that you've always been the replacement child, living in the shadow of a much loved and missed perfect older sister. Judy Mandel was that replacement child, conceived only in the wake of a plane crashing into her family's apartment which killed 7 year old Donna Mandel and badly burned 2 year old Linda Mandel and she tells her story in the memoir Replacement Child.

Three different narratives thread throughout this memoir. There is an account of the day leading up to and culminating in the crash that killed little Donna Mandel; there is the story of Judy Mandel's childhood in a family so marked by tragedy; and there's the present day (2005) account of Judy as an adult, mother, and writer tackling this very memoir. Each of the narratives are designed to show the devastating and lasting effects of the tragedy on the Mandel family and to help Judy understand how the death of one sister and the disfigurement of another years before her own birth shaped her experience and made her the person she is today.

The tale of Judy's childhood is a heartbreaking one of understandable but dysfunctional family dynamics. She was always unable to live up to Donna's memory, especially in her father's eyes and heart, and she was forever cognizant of her parents' very guarded love for her and their inability, due to fear, to let her experience everything in life she wanted to experience. She lived with and understood the family's focus on Linda and her frequent hospitalizations to try to ease pain and to make small repairs to the massive damage done to her by the fireball but Judy Mandel herself suffered the emotional hurts of being shunted to the side and never being talked about positively in a way that might have drawn attention to Linda's disfigurements, an unacknowledged victim of the crash as well.

Mandel weaves her need to write this story because of the looming impact of Donna's absence she always felt in her own life with the events of that terrible life-changing, family-destroying day. And this weaving together is interesting in the beginning and in her dawning understanding of its impact on her personality and relationships but towards the end of the memoir, Mandel seems to lose the thread and start repeating herself, which made the later portions tedious. Somehow, despite the telling of such a horrible story, there's also an emotional distance maintained, perhaps intentionally, but one which makes it a little difficult for the reader to connect with Judy and with the sadness and suffering that must have pervaded the family always and forever.  She tells the reader of her conclusions with regards to her family and marital relationships but doesn't always convincingly show how she reached them.  So although the premise of the memoir was interesting and compelling, the reading itself was, unfortunately, not nearly so.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

Sunday Salon: Update on the summer reading

Just before Memorial Day I wrote up my list of summer reading. A month into my version of summer (and now just past the official first calendar day of summer), I thought I'd check in and see what I've accomplished towards my goal so far. And because I'm not one to rest on my laurels, I'm adding the goal of getting those that I do read all reviewed in a reasonably timely manner. I don't yet have an end date in mind for this additional goal but maybe Halloween since the summer in my version runs through Labor Day. Here's what I've done so far:

Books I've read from the original list:

A Half Forgotten Song by Katherine Webb
A Far Piece to Canaan by Sam Halpern
Big Brother by Lionel Shriver
Out Love Could Light the World by Anne Leigh Parrish
The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth Silver
The Book of Someday by Dianne Dixon
David by Ray Robertson
Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck
The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell
Someone by Alice McDermott
Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall
Sinners and the Sea by Rebecca Kanner
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Surprising Lord Jack by Sally MacKenzie

Books I've read not from the original list:

Love All by Callie Wright

Original list books I still haven't read:

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg
The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy
The Exiles by Allison Lynn
This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakuawila
Race Across the Sky by Derek Sherman
The Purchase by Linda Spalding
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Mary Coin by Marisa Silver
The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls
The House Girl by Tara Conklin
Dancing to the Flute by Manisha Jolie Amin
The Innocents by Francesca Segal
A Summer Affair by Elin Hilderbrand
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
Billy Budd and Other Tales by Herman Melville
Happy Rock by Matthew Simmons
Then He Ate My Boy Entrancers by Louise Rennison
Topsy by Michael Daly
Thursday Next by Jasper Fforde
Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About by Mil Millington
The Reluctant Matchmaker by Shobhan Bantwal

So it looks like I'm doing really, really well with my original list, which makes me happy. Of course, as noted above in one category, I snuck in a book not on the original list and there will probably be a few more of those popping in now and again because while I am mostly a rule follower and a list completer, I do occasionally rebel just to keep everyone around me on their toes. ;-) How are all of you doing with your summer reading? If you made a list, are you following it or ignoring it? If you didn't make a list, are you happy with the reading you've done so far?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Review: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeannette Winterson

Jeannette Winterson is a very celebrated writer. She's won the Whitbread Prize and her fictional account of her bizarre Pentecostal childhood, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, has been dramatized for television. She's been awarded the OBE for her services to literature and she is one of the giants of the British writing establishment. She's been lauded to the moon and back. So her memoir, covering much of the same time period as Oranges, should have been incredibly compelling. But instead, somehow, it totally missed the mark for me.

Winterson was adopted into an abusive, fanatically religious Pentecostal home where she never felt loved or wanted. Her mother spent much of her childhood shaming her and abusing her emotionally so it's no wonder that the tone of this memoir is so incredibly dark, rancorous, and unforgiving. Winterson details the punishments she suffers at her adoptive mother's hand and her own internalizing of her limited self-worth. With such an unhappy childhood, it is no wonder that she is so damaged and emotionally stunted. Starting with a description of Mrs. Winterson, as she calls her mother from the vantage point of her now many years of emotional remove, she speculates on what drove this depressed and rigid woman to adopt.  From there she quickly announces the publication of her much-celebrated novel, a fictionalized look at her own childhood, that could only cast her fanatical mother and the upbringing she suffered under this woman in a very bad light before she jumps into the meat of her narrative.

Much of the early portion of this memoir hews closely to the tale told in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. And although Winterson is detailing the ways in which she was beaten down, belittled, and destroyed as a child and young woman, she also offers up those small acts of defiance and self-preservation that enabled her to weather the dysfunction in her home and to finally, with the help of other sympathetic people, escape the hate. She examines the actions and the reactions that shaped her into the woman and the writer that she's become. But when she goes to move past her successes in spite of her upbringing, she is unable to fill in the blanks of a 25 year intermission, saying that it is too painful to address at this point in her life, which begs the question why she wrote the memoir at all. Is it simply to excoriate the woman who raised her? Was it to lay blame on the young girl who gave birth to her and allowed her to be adopted by the Wintersons? If a memoir doesn't invite self-disclosure and an examination of the whole of a life as it is lived so far, then what does it become?

In this case, Winterson's tale might have been cathartic for her to write (at least as far as she was able to write it), but it was fairly painful to read, dry, emotionally distant, and ultimately rather dull. The writing was intentional and impressive but also scattered and didactic. There was a heavy-handed direction in how the reader is supposed to react to each instance in Winterson's life, from her devastating childhood to her depressed and suicidal adulthood, and yet despite the signposts, the emotional barrenness kept me from reaching the place I was supposed to feel. Although there is still a distinct feeling of her continued suffering and victimization in these pages, she does do quite a good job placing her coming of age and coming out in historical context and that saves this memoir from being simply a rage against both of her mothers, adoptive and biological, and a congratulatory reinforcement of her own professional accomplishments. I came away from this reading extremely grateful that I was finished with the book and incredibly reluctant to read anything else that Winterson has read is this is any indication of her style.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Review: Nowhere Is a Place by Bernice L. McFadden

Last year was the first time I'd ever read anything by Bernice McFadden. I picked up her very different for me, surprisingly engrossing novel Gathering of Waters. Knowing how much I enjoyed that one made me curious to see how I would fare with Nowhere Is a Place and encouraged me to pick it up off the shelves sooner than I might have otherwise. My first reaction to finishing this book was "Wow." Then some of the imperfections came into clearer focus but that initial gut reaction is one I always search for, rare and exciting as it is.

Sherry and her mother Dumpling have had a rather fraught relationship, riddled with misunderstandings and misconceptions, for much of Sherry's life. In fact they are all but estranged as the novel opens with Sherry, embarking on a new, hopefully healthy relationship, unexpectedly pregnant, and living in Mexico far from the judgments of her mother. So it's unusual that Sherry has offered to drive her mother to a family reunion across the country, to willingly trap herself in a car with Dumpling for so many days and hours on end. Except that Sherry is writing a book about her family's history, one that is both ordinary and unique in the past history of Native and African Americans dating back four generations of Sherry's family and into the time of slavery, and it is this history, which she's mining for her book, that will help her to discover who she is in relation to her mother and as a person in her own right and to capture and accept the happiness she is so doggedly pursuing.

The novel jumps back and forth in time from past history as recounted through Sherry's novel narrative to the modern day road trip she and her mother are taking. In both instances, secrets will be uncovered and motivations revealed that changed the trajectory of both Sherry's and Dumpling's lives and allow them to come to an understanding and appreciation, even if it is sometimes a frustrated understanding, of each other. The primary question Sherry has for her mother is why Dumpling slapped her across the face so many years before. And although she works towards this answer, it is not ultimately the driving force of the novel. The historical portions of the tale are. From the young Native American girl named Nayeli captured, sold into slavery, and renamed Lou, through the indomitably brave Suce and the captivating man-eater Lillie, to Dumpling and middle child Sherry, this is a story of endurance and strength, horrors and secrets, mother/daughter relationships, and ultimately, mother love in all of its imperfections.

Although the novel as a whole is well-written, the viscerally written historical portions of the narrative are much more compelling reading than the present day wrangling and silences between Dumpling and Sherry. And the secret of why Dumpling smacked Sherry as she sat in her great-uncle's lap is not even close to the secret it is purported to be, at least to the reader. Why Sherry never figured it out herself, instead of letting it fester and affect her relationship with her mother so badly is curious and then, given the weight of it all through the narrative, too easily remedied in the end after their journey together. Despite these minor missteps, this is a provocative and enthralling read, one that will force readers to think long after the book covers close for the last time.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme is hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on.

City of Hope by Kate Kerrigan. The book is being released by William Morrow on June 25, 2013.

Amazon says this about the book: The heartrending and inspiring sequel to Ellis Island, Kate Kerrigan's City of Hope is an uplifting story of a woman truly ahead of her time

When her beloved husband suddenly dies, young Ellie Hogan decides to leave Ireland and return to New York, where she worked in the 1920s. She hopes that the city will distract her from her anguish. But the Great Depression has rendered the city unrecognizable. Gone are the magic and ambiance that once captured Ellie's imagination.

Plunging headfirst into a new life, Ellie pours her passion and energy into running a refuge for the homeless. Her calling provides the love, support, and friendship she needs in order to overcome her grief—until, one day, someone Ellie never thought she'd see again steps through her door. It seems that even the vast Atlantic Ocean isn't enough to keep the tragedies of the past from catching up with her.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I am exactly the right age to be the target audience for this novel rife with allusions and outright homages to the eighties and the semi-enduring pop-culture of the time. For a normal person who grew up in the late seventies and eighties, just about everything in this dystopian novel will be nostalgia fueled. But I'm nothing if not abnormal. I watched very little tv growing up. The only video games I ever played were Pacman and Frogger and neither one of them captured me for more than a handful of games total. I didn't see the movies of the day (as a matter of fact, my husband, shortly after we were married, made me go through a marathon of eighties movie watching so I'd have at least a smidgeon of the same cultural knowledge references as he does although I maintain they didn't stand the test of time very well). And so this science fiction novel was destined to miss the mark with me. But I wanted to give it a chance when my book club chose to read it for our yearly sci-fi/fantasy choice and I liked it better than I expected (low expectations helped oodles here) but not nearly as much as everyone else seemed to.

Thirty some years from now we have trashed our planet and life is grim for most people. With such an unpleasant reality, many people have retreated almost entirely into a utopian virtual reality world called OASIS, a kind of combination of massive multi-player online game like World of Warcraft, Facebook game apps, and advanced social media. OASIS has become more than just an escape from the famines, wars, poverty, and all other social ills; for some, OASIS has become a quest on a par with the search for the Holy Grail. Just prior to the opening of the novel, the creator of this alternate reality died and left his massive fortune to the first person to collect, unlock, and successfully navigate the tasks behind three special, hidden gates in this gigantic, utopian world.

Wade Watts is a high school senior living with his aunt and her nasty boyfriend, both of whom begrudge him the living space. So he finds his own hidden and secure space in the cab of a car buried beneath a tower of other junk. He is obsessed with finding the "Easter eggs" that James Halliday buried in the game, proudly naming himself a serious "gunter" or egg hunter. But he, like everyone else, has been unsuccessful for the five years since Halliday's death despite becoming expert in 80s trivia and pop culture as he tries to decipher the very first clue to the whereabouts of the first key. When he does finally crack the code and retrieve the key, he is the first person to do so but is quickly matched by several other gunters and the large corporation hell bent on finding the eggs so it can take over control not only of Halliday's fortune but also of OASIS itself.

Wade, who goes by the avatar name of Parzival in the OASIS world, makes virtual connections with his best friend Aech, a blogger named Art3mis with whom he is more than a little in love despite never having met her in the physical world, and two Japanese brothers Daito and Shoto. And although all of these characters, anti-social geeks huddled in their solitary lives, are essentially hunting on their own, they forge a tentative allied nerd herd when faced with the corporate bullying tactics of IOI and their willingness to kill for ultimate control of the game. But Wade is the main focus of the narration and it is his hunt and experiences through the games and movies of the 80s which so captured the imagination of Halliday that the reader follows, all the while knowing the ultimate outcome.

Because Cline spent so much time describing OASIS, it takes a very, very long time, 150 pages or so, before any sort of real action takes place but once it does, the plot becomes entirely a quest plot. This means the story as a whole is in actuality fairly thin, especially when much of the description is of the nostalgia inducing movies, video games, comics, and music which should already be familiar to those who lived through the era (unless they are like me and lived in a bubble). The baddies, called the Sixers, working for IOI are sinister but fairly incompetent, enabling our hero to prevail in every instance, despite his own occasional ineptitudes. The dialogue between the characters is stilted and unrealistic and it is clear that these are people unused to other people, content in their isolation, which perhaps is the big take-away from the novel. We are becoming too reliant on our technologies to the detriment of real social interaction. Living in virtual worlds may be an escape but it can also blind us to connection and to the bigger issues on which we need to focus. Everything about this novel screams movie script although with such reliance on earlier pop culture, the permissions costs to make this faithful to the novel will be steep indeed. For those who lived through the 80s, and specifically boys who lived through the 80s, this will be a grand ride. For others like me, or including those for whom the 80s are ancient, this will probably not wear as well.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Review: Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

The diet industry is perhaps the most lucrative business in this country. Millions of Americans are fat and wish they weren't. In fact they wish it so powerfully that they open their wallets time after time after time to try and shave off pounds. But how on earth did we as a society get this way? We're told over and over again how bad it is for our health to be substantially overweight. We endure the jibes of comedians who can still poke fun at a person's size in ways that jokes centered on sex, race, and religion are no longer tolerated. We blame the person him or herself for lack of self-control and find obesity visually repellent. We are completely and totally size-obsessed and yet we as a society, are heavier than ever. Lionel Shriver, who is known for not shying away from the difficult issues that plague our society, has taken on the obesity epidemic in her latest novel, Big Brother.

Pandora Halfdanarson is a wealthy entrepreneur running a company that makes personalized dolls which parrot people's distinctive and monotonous phrases (in fact the company is called Baby Monotonous). She's married to Fletcher, who handcrafts beautiful furniture that only a few people ever buy, and step-mother to 17 year old Tanner, who wants to write screenplays and is certain that he'll be a huge success without putting in much effort, and Cody, a sweet, kind, and shy preteen who sees the good in everyone. Pandora's also the daughter of a 70s tv sitcom star named Travis Appaloosa with whom she has a very fraught relationship. She's happily settled in Iowa, far from the California of her self-obsessed father and the hip New York of her successful jazz musician older brother, Edison. But then a phone call comes from one of her revered big brother's best friends and Pandora finds herself inviting Edison to come to Iowa and stay with her family for the next two months, a decision that could cost her her marriage.

When Pandora picks Edison up at the airport, she is staggered by his sheer size, hardly recognizing him. He's gone from the attractive 163 pound man he's always been to an obese 386 pounds. His transformation is purely on the outside though and he remains the same narcissistic and unpleasant person he's always been to everyone but Pandora. Fletcher can barely stand his faux jive talking brother-in-law and over the tenure of the promised two months, he becomes even more controlling and prone to ultimatums than he was before Edison's advent in their home. The tangled and tense relationships between all of the main characters only accelerate when, after the agreed upon two months is up, Pandora decides that she has to somehow save her brother from himself, offering to coach him in more than 200 pounds of weight loss (and to lose her own extra padding in the process), to move out of her marital home with Fletcher and the kids straining her marriage, and to focus on healing Edison mentally, emotionally, and physically.

The characters in Big Brother are all terribly flawed and in many ways unlikable. They make horrendous choices and casually hurt each other over and over again. In choosing to have Pandora tell her own story, Shriver allows her to continually justify herself and the decisions she makes even if those decisions are predicated on wrong-thinking. And because it is Pandora who drives this character driven narrative, the conflicts between her responsibility to Edison within the parameters of their sibling relationship and her responsibility to Fletcher within their marriage loom large within the overarching theme of obesity. Shriver doesn't offer up easy explanations for the obesity epidemic. She does delve into what has driven Edison to gorge himself and balloon up to such a weight but acknowledges that each of the assumed "reasons" is in fact not wholly to blame.

The book is an uncomfortable one but there's so much to talk about contained in its pages: society's condemnation of obesity and the laying of fault on the person, the mining of the emotional reasons behind such eating and the toxicity of such a coping mechanism, sibling relationships versus spousal relationships and what we owe our biological and created families, the issue of tight control and addiction, competition--both healthy and otherwise, celebrity and entitlement, self-deceit, self-esteem as tied to a number on a scale, and so much more. Shriver has created characters with complicated relationships to each other and to the food they choose to eat or to shun. Through the character of Pandora, she ruminates on the philosophy of eating and the ways in which we as a society have perverted this basic animal instinct. And while some of these meanderingly philosophical portions started to lose my attention, she also clearly touched a nerve with me as I felt guilty and slightly ashamed of eating anything while reading it even though I typically read through at least two of my three meals daily.   My other quibble with the novel is the sudden and unexpected change of direction at the end of the novel.  Perhaps that revision offers a more realistic ending but it doesn't follow the narrative up to that point at all.  As such, it came off as a sleight of hand not befitting the thoughtful tale that preceded it.  And it was a thoughtful tale, one designed to make us examine our own assumptions about food and love and pride and the conflation of all of them.

For more information about Lionel Shriver and the book find her on Facebook. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Lots of reading and a little bit of reviewing too this week. I'm about to send all of my kids off to be occupied most of the day (camps, rehearsals, and summer school) so I should have some nice uninterrupted time to read and review this coming week. That's what summer's all about. ;-) This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

A Far Piece to Canaan by Sam Halpern
Love All by Callie Wright
Our Love Could Light the World by Anne Leigh Parrish
Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Better Than Fiction edited by Don George
David by Ray Robertson

Reviews posted this week:

A Far Piece to Canaan by Sam Halpern
The One-Way Bridge by Cathie Pelletier
Float by JoeAnn Hart

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

Nowhere Is a Place by Bernice L. McFadden
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeannette Winterson
Replacement Child by Judy Mandel
A Dog Walks Into a Nursing Home by Sue Halpern
Schroder by Amity Gaige
The World's Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne
Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall
Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck
The Book of Someday by Dianne Dixon
Someone by Alice McDermott
Surprising Lord Jack by Sally MacKenzie
Love All by Callie Wright
Our Love Could Light the World by Anne Leigh Parrish

Monday Mailbox

It was a bonanza of a week with both review books and ordered books arriving in the mailbox. And some of the arrivals weren't even for me because I'm just that nice a mom. This past week's mailbox arrivals:

The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay came from Harper and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

About a young girl sold into servitude by her mother and then at the mercy of a brothel which sells the virginity of young girls as a treatment and cure for dissipated men suffering from syphilis, this historical fiction sounds completely engrossing.

The Arrangement by Mary Balogh came from Dell and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

Featuring a blind hero and a country miss who wants to help him but is sent away from her guardian's house as a result, this promises to be a delicious romance.

Stargazey Point by Shelley Noble came from William Morrow and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

A woman who turns to restoring a formerly popular beach resort in order to change her life, this sounds like the perfect summer book to read while I'm sitting in the sun.

This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila came from Kayleigh at Hogarth and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

It's not often you run across anything written about Hawaii but this collection of stories is set there in the non-tourist world. I'm very interested to read about a Hawaii that I probably won't ever know.

The Affairs of Others by Amy Grace Loyd came from Angela at Picador.

With a new woman who comes to an apartment building run by a young widow and upends the lives of all the heretofore carefully vetted tenants, this sounds amazing.

Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall came from Gallery Books.

A southern road trip novel with a runaway little girl in search of her mama, a black woman, and a white baby, this promises to be a moving look at dreams and reality.

Boleto by Alyson Hagy came from me for me. :-)

I run a book club based on the Women's National Book Association Great Group Reads, a bunch of books newly selected every year, and this book about a horse trainer trying to make his reputation with a beautiful filly, having made the list, is coming up in our reading rotation for the group.

The Nine Pound Hammer by John Claude Bemis came from me for my youngest son.

American folk tales really captured his imagination this year after a unit on them in school. He finished this book the same day it arrived and we now have the second and third in the series on order as well.

Mr. Putter and Tabby Clear the Decks by Cynthia Rylant came from me for me (and my daughter).

You can never be too old for the delights of Mr. Putter and Tabby and this one about going out on a boat on a hot summer day is charming.

Mr. Putter and Tabby Ring the Bell by Cynthia Rylant came from me for me (and my daughter).

Again, you can't go wrong with these early readers and this one about how Mr. Putter and Mrs. Teaberry get to go back into school for a day delivers lovely chuckles.

Happy Rock by Matthew Simmons came from me for me.

Even though short stories are not my usual thing, I was a push-over from the moment the words Upper Peninsula were used.

Being Me by Lisa Renee Jones came from Gallery.

The second in an erotic trilogy, I'll have to read the first before I delve into this continuation.

The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti came from The Dial Press.

A story about an elusive piece of cheese, since I can't eat it (I do love me some cheese), the next best thing will be to read about its history and the mysteries surrounding it.

If you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Dolce Bellezza as she is hosting this month's Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Review: Float by JoeAnn Hart

I love to scuba dive. Floating underwater and reveling in the beauty of the ocean is unsurpassed. But it's not all beauty. I have seen plastic grocery bags snagged on coral, waving in the surge, and other detritus skimming along the bottom of the ocean or settled into the sand. Litter is not confined to just what we can see and we are, unfortunately, polluting the great and glorious sea as if what we can't see won't hurt us. But it does, and eventually it washes up on our beaches, forcing us to confront our careless negligence. JoeAnn Hart's newest novel, Float, takes a darkly comedic look at this very serious topic.

Duncan Leland's business, a factory which converts fish waste from the local fishing fleet into commercial fertilizer, is struggling financially and he's having to contemplate a connection with the shadiest citizen in town to save it. His marriage is on very shaky ground and his wife has kicked him out so he's moved back home to live with his nutty mother and oddball brother. His life is not looking or feeling like much of a success. So when he sees the words God Help Us traced into the sand below his office window, he rushes down to obliterate them, fearful of their meaning and the bad publicity. While on the shoreline, he finds a wounded seagull tangled up in a plastic six-pack holder and proceeds to rescue it without knowing that his actions are being filmed and will land on YouTube, turning him and the gull into internet sensations.

Duncan is a rather undirected dreamer and he might just be the most normal character in the novel. His mother is usually three sheets to the wind on homemade wine. She's unwilling to leave her large ramshackle home and directs Duncan's brother's sailing career from the top story of the large house as he enters and fails to win local regatta after regatta. Duncan's best friend, Slocum, is a chef whose seafood-based creations are beyond strange and completely inedible. His employees at the factory seem undecided whether to support Duncan or to undermine his efforts to keep the factory solvent, with one woman, Annuncia, loudly driving business away with her militantly environmental screed.

Each of the characters who make an appearance on the page here is eccentric and kooky and the multiple plot lines are definitely over the top. But there are weighty and important issues buried in the black humor: the human impact on the world's oceans, infertility which might be caused by our careless disposal (and over-reliance on) plastics, overfishing and the economic impact of this, to name a few. The sheer number of plot lines and the too easy resolution of some of them strain the reader a bit and the end revelation about Duncan's father takes the novel into the realm of just a little too much. Still, overall this was an enjoyable read which shines a light on the possible toll our continued inattentiveness to our environment could exact.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book to review.

Sunday Salon: Books: my native habitat

Although the piles may shift and change around me, this is the general view my family has of me most days and nights:

If I'm not at the kitchen table with the laptop behind my stacks, the other sure fire place to find me is curled on the couch looking like this:

And lest you think I have no face, I can also be found in bookstores looking like this:

This week, I was also found between the covers of books that took me into a family trying to adjust to three generations living under one roof after the unexpected death of their matriarch, into an old man's memories of the hill people and long neglected best friend who shaped him into the man he became, into snapshots of a dysfunctional family as they grew, into sibling dynamics as one tried to help the other overcome morbid obesity even at the possible cost of her own happiness and marriage, and into the story of a freed slave facing his own complicated history with the man who freed him. Where have you been in books this week?

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