Monday, February 28, 2011

Book #23: Luck of the Draw (Whitney Book #5)

Luck of the DrawTitle: Luck of the Draw
Author: Rachel Renee Anderson

If you look at the cover of Luck of the Draw and read the blurb on the back of the book, you'll expect that the book will be about all of the sticky situations Brighton Andrews finds himself in once he takes on the slightly slimy challenge of dating three roommates at the same time. However, less than 1/4 of the way through the book, Brighton has zeroed in on Dani, the guarded, slightly crusty roommate. The rest of the novel is the story of Dani coming to terms with her prejudices and her ability to love. I also felt like the jumps in time were a weakness in the story-- the first few chapters take place over the course of a month, then there are jumps of years in there, which made it feel like the story was losing its intensity and momentum.

If you can overlook not getting what you think you're getting out of the book, then you'll probably be satisfied by the story. Yes, it's the second book I've read in two days where the protagonist unexpectedly comes into big money and wants to spend it to do good instead of to live it up (Dani has strong aversions to living it up), but I guess that may be a common theme for Mormons who find themselves struggling with the blessings of material wealth. I felt like the true strength of Luck of the Draw was Dani's character. Brighton was a fairly straightforward nice guy, but Dani was complicated and contradictory. If you give Anderson credit for Dani's contradictions, then I think they make her interesting (for example, she doesn't want to be rich, and hates the idea of marrying a doctor because her dad is a materialistic doctor, but when Brighton shows up in a rusty pickup, she recoils at that too). I wish Brighton and Dani luck in their fictional future together, and I think Brighton is going to need it.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Book #22: On the Jellicoe Road

Jellicoe RoadTitle: On the Jellicoe Road
Author: Melina Marchetta

I read On the Jellicoe Road as part of my multiple narrator project because I knew it was a good example of using multiple narrators in a Young Adult piece. What I didn't know when I downloaded the audiobook is that it uses almost exactly the same technique I used in the first draft of the YA manuscript I wrote last semester. In both books, there are two stories that take place about 20 years apart. While the main thrust of the story takes place in the present, at the beginning of each chapter there's a snippet of the story from the parents' generation. My professor in the YA novel seminar didn't really like the technique in my book (I used segments from the mother's journal to open each chapter), but I've been reluctant to give it up. In On the Jellicoe Road I think the technique really works, and in future drafts of my manuscript I hope to figure out how to make the mother's story work better.

On the Jellicoe Road takes place in Australia, on the most beautiful road anyone has ever seen. Several years earlier, Taylor Markham's mother abandoned her at a 7-11 on Jellicoe Road, and she's spent her adolescence in a boarding school where Hannah, the house mother, looks in on her from time to time. Taylor feels a special connection with Hannah, but she's not really sure why. And when Taylor is elected head of the school, she's thrust into leading her housemates in a decades-long battle against the kids from the local high school and the kids from the military camp down the road. As the battle wages on, Taylor discovers that the hole in her life created by the absence of her parents can be filled with answers she finds on the Jellicoe Road and through her relationships with the other kids and with Hannah. The book moves a little bit slowly, and there are times where the plot seems a little too neatly tied together, and the denouement takes longer than it should, but overall, I really liked the book, and I finished it feeling that I had a better sense of how I'd apply the multiple narrator principle to my manuscript, which is a very good thing.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Book #21: Wrong Number (Whitney Book #4)

Wrong NumberTitle: Wrong Number
Author: Rachelle J. Christensen

Aubree is having a bad morning. She has morning sickness. She can't find her phone. And when she borrows her husband's phone, she gets a strange phone call about a dead body. It prompts her to call the police, and pretty soon Aubree learns that her husband was murdered (in sort of an anticlimactic way) and she needs to move to an FBI safe house.

The FBI isn't very good at keeping Aubree safe, and no one's quite sure why. She learns that the mysterious call and her husband's murder are part of a big plot to assassinate the Secretary of Defense, but no one can figure out how they're related. And people make numerous attempts on Aubree's life, including a near-poisoning while she's in the hospital giving birth. She eventually breaks out of FBI care and solves the mystery herself (with the help of a hot park ranger).

I thought Christensen did a good job of getting the novel started with a bang. With two murders in the first few chapters, I wanted to read more. But then there are weird gaps. Six weeks, then a couple months, then six more months, and the action of the story loses some of its momentum. I also feel like Aubree and Wyatt (the park ranger) are relatively one-dimensional characters. Finally, the huge mystery seems to revolve around a poorly-explained element of technology, which feels like too much of a brush off to work effectively.

Wrong Number had a lot of potential with its engaging beginning, but it felt like all the steam went out of it after the first few chapters. While I love the idea of a woman with a newborn kicking butt, breastfeeding, and solving crimes, I wish the story had held together a little better.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Book #20: Lucky Change (Whitney Book #3)

Lucky ChangeTitle: Lucky Change
Author: Susan Law Corpany

Last year at this time, I was on my way to Hawaii with a suitcase full of books. This year, I holed up in my bedroom for the four-day weekend and read as much as I could (and plowed through 2 1/2 books in one day!). Lucky Change was a really quick read, and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Karen Donaldson is a single mom in her forties, with two grown children, a grandchild she's raising, and a job as a checker at Smith's. Her kids, Austin and Dee, have struggled with being the ward service project, with wearing the hand-me-downs from their peers at Mutual, who sometimes made them feel awkward about their relative poverty. A friendly gas station attendant encourages Karen to buy a lotto ticket, and suddenly she's in the money, with a $230 million jackpot. She decides to use the money to do good-- to help the lives of the people around her, many of them the outwardly wealthy women who shunned her for years. And through her endeavors, she's able to heal her family and also some of the people who struggle around her.

While Corpany's book doesn't really push any boundaries, I do feel that it makes some gentle pronouncements about some of the pitfalls in Utah Mormon culture, especially when ward members live right on top of each other and are all in each others' business. But in other ways she reinforces the same aspects of the culture that she criticizes. For example, Austin is twenty-two and hasn't served a mission. At first his family couldn't afford it and he didn't want to take charity from the ward, and then he got a job and bought a truck and felt bound to paying it off. He's stopped going to church because he feels that people judge him, and the girls he dates don't want to get serious because he's not an RM. I feel like these are all serious issues for young men living in the Mormon corridor, and Corpany solves the problem by having him go on a mission.

While the book is light and funny, I do feel like Corpany did a pretty good job with characterization, particularly with Karen and with the other women in her ward, and I liked seeing them humbled and transformed by Karen, forced to examine how they would have walked if they had been in her shoes. It's a quick, fun read, and while I feel like the ending is too predictably happy, with all the lose ends tied together, it was still a fun book. I'll definitely pass it on to my mom and I think she'll like it a lot.


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Book #19: The Cross Gardener (Whitney Book #2)

The Cross GardenerTitle: The Cross Gardener
Author: Jason Wright

When I was an undergraduate, I learned the hard way to pay attention to the external details of a text (there's a fancy English teachery word for those external details, but I don't remember it now). I had a professor who told us we'd have reading quizzes for each of the major texts in class. On the first quiz, he asked us only one question: who was the book dedicated to? At the time, I thought it was an unfair trick, but ever since then I've paid careful attention to things like dedications and cover designs and acknowledgments.

Mitch Albom-esque small hardcover format: Check.
Overly inflated price ($22.95) for 280 small pages of text: Check. (So you can give it to your Grandma for Christmas)
Shout out to Glenn Beck: Check.

Based on these criteria, I'll admit that I went into reading The Cross Gardener with a certain degree of prejudice. While it's the only book in General category published by a national publisher (Penguin), based on what I'd read from the extratexual clues, I had a feeling that The Cross Gardener was going to be dripping with sentimentality, conservative in viewpoint, and not all that well written. It was all of those things. The Cross Gardener is basically a fable-- poor John has lost everyone he's ever loved: his teenage mother, his brother, his saintly father, and then his perfectly chaste, smart, beautiful and one-dimensional bride, Emma Jane (think Eva from Uncle Tom's Cabin) and their unborn son. Consumed by grief, John gives up on life, ignores his heartbroken daughter, and spends his time at the site of the car crash that took away half his family. There he meets the Cross Gardener, a mystical figure who resembles John, lives in some undisclosed location with his mother, and helps the broken man look beyond himself so he can start to live again. The end is oh-so-sappy that it even puts The Five People You Meet in Heaven to shame. I felt like I needed to brush my teeth to get the saccharine out of my mouth after finishing the novel.

One thing that I thought was really, really interesting about The Cross Gardener is the way that Wright writes a book with very strong religious overtones, but he writes about religious Christians who are not Mormons. Instead, he seems to place the book in the religious traditions which predominate in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia (where Wright lives and where the book is set). While Emma Jane and John keep themselves pure until marriage (therefore earning her the right to wear white, as Wright says), she and her parents seem much more like evangelical Christians than Mormons. I don't know whether to admire Wright for exploring the traditions of his community or to feel like he's moving out of his own faith tradition to make the book more marketable.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Book #18: Held at a Distance

Held at a Distance: A Rediscovery of EthiopiaTitle: Held at a Distance: A Rediscovery of Ethiopia
Author: Rebecca G. Haile

Another day, another book about Ethiopia. This time it's not an adoption memoir, but the story of a woman who was born in Ethiopia in the 1960s and escaped with her family in the mid-70s after her father, a university professor, became a political target and was nearly killed in an attempt on his life. Haile returned to Ethiopia in 2001 and writes about her experiences as a young child in Ethiopia, growing up as an immigrant adolescent in Minnesota, and finally returning to Ethiopia as an adult.

More than anything, Held at a Distance is a story of family. Haile spends most of her time in Ethiopia visiting relatives and ruminating on how these visits reflect how she sees herself as an adults straddling two cultures. As a child, she'd been a part of the upper class, attending an American school and living in a compound near the university. After her family fled to America, they were poor. But when Haile returned to Ethiopia, it was to a family that still had power, wealth and influence. Drivers, cooks, and other servants just seemed a matter of course in her discussions of place, and quite frankly, it shocked me that in a book about Ethiopia written in 2001 there was not a single mention of AIDS.

Overall, I enjoyed reading about Haile's experiences, and she did a good job making the tourist attractions she visited sound interesting, but the most powerful part of the story had not as much to do with a place, Ethiopia, as it did with love and family. Haile was drawn back to the land of her birth because she had family there to embrace her. For those children who are adopted from Ethiopia as babies and have no connections to the families they left behind, I wonder how strong the draw to their culture of origin may be.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Book #17: From Ashes to Africa

from ashes to africaTitle: From Ashes to Africa
Author: Josh and Amy Bottomly

I came home from school on Wednesday to find that a bunch of books I'd ordered about Ethiopia had arrived, so I decided to delve into the one that interested me most: From Ashes to Africa, Josh and Amy Bottomly's story about adopting their son Silas from Ethiopia in 2007. An hour or so later (yes, the book is about 183 pages, but it's such a quick read) I got up from my chair feeling disappointed. Maybe it's unfair that I read From Ashes to Africa so quickly after finishing Melissa Fay Greene's fantastic There is No Me Without You, but From Ashes to Africa felt lightweight by comparison. The most compelling part of the story comes when Josh and Amy write about how they married after a whirlwind courtship and found themselves deeply unhappy after a few months of marriage. Instead of giving up, they went through years of counseling and emerged closer than ever and ready to have a baby, only to discover that they couldn't conceive a child. About halfway through the book, they turned to international adoption, and the last quarter of the book is about the actual journey of traveling to pick up Silas.

I don't know what I wanted in From Ashes to Africa, what I thought the Bottomlys' book would deliver that was different from what I'd already read on their blog, but I just wanted more of a story. I also put the book down wondering if people who adopt internationally and aren't part of the Southern Christian community feel like outsiders, because much of the book (including the foreword from Tom Davis) felt directed at a specific audience of evangelical Christians, and since I come from a religious background that often finds itself at odds with people from that religious persuasion, I wonder if I may potentially face some prejudice because of my faith. Regardless, I'm glad that Josh and Amy told their story and that they've paved the way for people who want to take this path toward becoming a family.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Book #16: As I Lay Dying

As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text (Modern Library)Title: As I Lay Dying
Author: William Faulkner

I read a lot of Faulkner in college and graduate school (the first time around) but somehow never managed to read As I Lay Dying. Since it's basically the seminal work where a story is told from the viewpoint of multiple narrators (well, except for The Canterbury Tales), I figured I needed to read it for my Creative Writing Theory class where I've chosen to study works of fiction with multiple narrators. It was kind of a no-brainer.

As I Lay Dying tells the story of the Bundren family. Addie Bundren always said that when she died, she wanted to be buried with her kin in Jefferson, a day's journey from the rural Yoknapatawpha County home where she's lived out her days in misery, raising five children. Addie kicks the bucket in the opening pages of the novel, during the rainiest rainy season Northern Mississippi has seen in a generation. Anse hasn't been much of a husband, but he decides that he'll honor Addie's wishes, even though the journey may be rough. Addie's five children accompany him on the journey: Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell and Vardaman. All seven members of the Bundren family tell portions of the story, along with neighbors and others who help them along in their journey.

I feel a little bit like I cheated when reading As I Lay Dying. In order to allow me to get the reading done quickly, I ordered it from Audible and listened while I drove to and from school. This particular version of the story had a different narrator for each character, which made it a lot easier to tell the characters apart and didn't force me to rely on Faulkner's ability to differentiate between characters by words on a page. However, from what I could tell in the audiobook, it wouldn't have been too difficult for me to differentiate between the characters. There are a lot of things Faulkner does well in As I Lay Dying, and creating unique voices for each character is one of his strengths. Darl, Cash and Anse all had distinctive patterns of speech (particularly Darl's thoughtful, metaphorical meanderings, which were really interesting, but I had a hard time believing an uneducated farmer from rural Mississipi would be preoccupied with symbols and metaphors). However, his efforts with Vardamon were less successful. Vardamon is Addie's youngest son, a child when his mother dies, and it was extremely difficult for me to tell if Vardamon was an unusually skilled six-year-old or a mentally compromised twelve-year-old. In the chapter when he repeats "my mother is a fish" a dozen times, I wanted to send him to his room and tell him to shut up.

I learned a lot about how characters can move a single story forward, each telling their tangential part, without the story as a whole going off track. The momentum of As I Lay Dying always moved forward, even as the different narrators got caught up in their thoughts. I'm not sure there was as much action as I'd be accustomed to seeing in a more modern novel using the same techniques, so in some ways As I Lay Dying feels a bit like a scholarly exercise. But I was surprised and laughed out loud at the actions in the final chapter, so even though I wanted to wring the necks of individual characters along the journey, I realized by the end that I'd come to care about these people and their sometimes conflicting desires and goals.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Book #15: I am Number Four

I Am Number FourTitle: I am Number Four
Author: Pittacus Lore

I wonder if I would have liked I am Number Four better if it had fallen into my hands during a less intense time of my life. Right now, with the Whitney Awards, and books I'm reading for school, and books I'm reading on another area of interest (if you've been following the blog and connecting the dots you can probably figure out what that is, but I'm still too much in the superstitious "fingers crossed" stage to come out and say anything), that I'm really not doing a lot of reading that's purely for pleasure. But my good friend Blue busted through I am Number Four when she was flying for work a few weeks ago, and she dropped it off at my house because she knows I'm a sucker for a good read.

Unfortunately, I didn't think it was a good read. I'm not much of a sci-fi girl, so I'm not really a good judge, but the book read like it wanted to be a movie (and surprise, surprise, the movie version came out this week). I am Number Four tells the story of John, one of nine children sent from their planet Lorien along with a guardian for each when the planet was being destroyed by baddies from a third planet. Lorien and Earth are remarkably similar, and the life-forms look indistinguishable, but as these Lorien children reach puberty, they all develop special powers. Also, the baddies are out to get the Lorien kids, but they can only kill them in a certain order. Numbers Three dies in the novel's opening scenes, and John, arriving in Ohio after a decade of transient life, is Number Four.

There was too much butt-kicking and not enough character development (like, for example, how did the main baddie come over to John's side? The transformation seemed too swift). I could definitely see Ed and Bryce enjoying the movie, but when hardly believable sci-fi teams up with cheesy romance and overblown action, and it's all presented in a package of a fictional author, it's too much for me to swallow. Good thing it was a quick read. And know I know one movie I won't be rushing off to see.

(Sorry, Blue!)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Book #14: Paranormalcy (Whitney Book 1)

ParanormalcyTitle: Paranormalcy
Author: Kiersten White

What teenager doesn't feel misunderstood and different from everyone around her? In Evie's case, she really is different: after being tossed around the foster system for a few years, she's picked up by the IPCA (think Interpol for paranormals), who put her up in an apartment, homeschool her, and use her ability to see through a paranormal's glamor to the creepy thing underneath to help them find and catch vampires, werewolves and hags all around the world. She's never met anyone else with her ability, and isn't even exactly sure if she's human or not.

Then, paranormals, who are notoriously difficult to kill, start turning up dead all over the place. A teenage boy breaks into the IPCA and ends up imprisoned there (and Evie, of course digs him big time), and she meets the paranormal killer-- another girl who looks just like Evie and claims to share her soul. And then there's the problem of the fairies, specifically the one who says he's hers.

The most distinctive thing about Paranormalcy is Evie's voice (I wonder how this would translate to reading the book, but the audiobook reader was very expressive, very Buffy). In the beginning, Evie seemed like a lonely teenager who tried to fit in by aping the pop culture she saw in the outside world, but as she gained a greater understanding of the outside world, her love of all things pink became less important in the narrative.

I breezed through the book, finishing it in two days (it's about nine hours long, so that's a lot of listening) but I thought it was really fun. It wasn't perfect, and I think people might have some problems with the antagonists and the major struggle and the idea that teenagers can find true and sustaining and eternal love. Others might not like Evie much, but I liked both the story and the character. I hadn't heard any of the hype surrounding the book until after I was finished reading, so I didn't have high expectations going into the novel. I think White's debut shows that she has a good understanding of character, and I look forward to the next installment of Evie's story.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Book #13: There is No Me Without You

There Is No Me Without You: One Woman's Odyssey to Rescue Her Country's ChildrenTitle: There is No Me Without You: One Woman's Odyssey to Rescue her Country's Children
Author: Melissa Fay Greene

There is No Me Without You tells the story of Haregewoin Teferra, who was a fiftysomething widow, mourning her daughter's death in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia when the local Catholic church called her about 10 years ago and asked if she could take in a teenage orphan. Teferra, with an extra bedroom in her house, said yes. Within a few months, the house was overtaken by orphans and abandoned children: babies, toddlers, teenagers and everything in between. Teferra, who had fallen into a deep depression following her daughter's death from AIDS, gained a sense of purpose again, and found new life, as well as praise from others, in mothering these children.

But as the numbers of children increased from a dozen to a hundred (many with HIV and AIDS), and she gained an income from private donations, and families from Europe and America came to her homes to adopt the children, her operation came under scrutiny, and many questioned her motives. Teferra comes off as caring but complicated, but also pretty heroic, hopping in a taxi to rescue children off the streets as their parents lay dying on the sidewalks.

I started reading There is No Me Without You hoping to gain a little bit of insight into adoption from Ethiopia. While Greene, who has adopted four children of her own from Ethiopia, does talk quite a bit about the state of Ethiopian orphanages and follows several children from their time in Teferra's orphanage to their new homes in the United States, what surprised me most about the book was Greene's emphasis on the problem of AIDS in Ethiopia (which is one of the poorest countries in the world, much poorer even than many of its sub-Saharan African neighbors), and the ways that Americans and other rich nations tend to ignore what is happening. Now that drugs can reduce HIV/AIDS to a chronic disease like many others (diabetes, hepatitis), Greene maintains that we in the first world are too motivated by greed and profit to get these lifesaving drugs to the people who need them, a move which would control the epidemic and leave far fewer motherless babies in Ethiopia. International adoption, she argues, is just a tiny drop in the bucket of a much larger problem.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Book #12: Parrot and Olivier in America

Parrot and Olivier in America [Hardcover]Title Parrot and Olivier in America
Author: Peter Carey

I read Parrot and Olivier in America for my Creative Writing Theory class; we were asked to compile a list of five books that employed some kind of technique that we wanted to study further, and I chose books that presented multiple points of view. The novel, a 2010 National Book Award finalist by Australian author Peter Carey (he won for The True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001 and Oscar and Lucinda in 1988) is based on Carey's approximations of Alexis de Tocqueville's experiences in America in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Oliver de Garmont represents de Tocqueville, and Carey paints his first protagonist (can a book have two protagonists if they narrate alternating chapters of the narrative? I guess that's what I'd call them) as a coddled conceited brat, spirited out of France against his will because his mother worries that if he stays, he'll face the same threats of execution that befell the rest of her family a generation earlier. He's sent to America in order to study the prison system, but his family finances the expedition and his title of French Commissioner sounds fancy, but doesn't mean much.

John "Parrot" Larrit is de Garmont's manservant, scribe, and general protector, assigned by Maman and her friends to take care of the fils and make sure he doesn't get into too much trouble (like marrying an American girl). Larrit, an Englishman about 20 years older than de Garmont, initially balks at working with the spoiled younger man, who treats him badly. But once the pair (and Larrit's common-law wife and her mother) arrive in America, they realize that the conventions that bound them in the Old World don't apply in America anymore: while de Garmont falls in love with a commoner and starts to soften, Larrit, a servant all his adult life, finds happiness and fortune.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook of Parrot and Olivier, so it was easy for me to tell who was speaking (even though one person narrated both parts-- and did a fantastic job), but I think that Carey differentiates the voices of each character well enough that it wouldn't be too difficult to tell them apart anyway. Their difference in social class is evident in their diction-- Olivier speaks formally and Larrit uses lots of slang. However, the audience empathizes with both characters-- Olivier because he's been raised in a sterile environment, kept as a possession by his parents, and Larrit because he was first orphaned and then mistreated by his guardian. Carey does a beautiful job moving the novel forward chronologically while filling in the backstory through extended flashbacks. At the end of the novel, we're happy that both men seem to be on the road to a successful American life, but also may feel surprised by which man has a richer life in his adopted home.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Book #11: For the Love of a Child: Stories of Adoption

For Love Of A Child: Stories Of AdoptionTitle: For Love of a Child: Stories of Adoption
Author: Lisa Meadows Garfield

My friend Lisa Garfield recently sent me a copy of her book For Love of a Child: Stories of Adoption, which includes at least a dozen stories from across the spectrum of adoption. There are stories from birth mothers and fathers, from adoptive mothers and fathers, from birth grandparents, from adoptees in open adoptions, closed adoptions, international adoptions, domestic adoptions, adoptions by a stepparent, difficult adoptions and easy adoptions. The book does a great job setting up the triangular nature of the adoptive relationship (birth parents, adoptive parents, adoptee), and presenting many of the rewarding complexities of adoption. While some of the stories in the collection are written better than others, I feel like critiquing the prose is kind of beside the point here-- Garfield's motivation seems to be to present experiences and stories, and not necessarily in looking for people who can tell their stories perfectly.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Book #10: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Battle Hymn of the Tiger MotherTitle: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Author: Amy Chua

Yes, of course, I succumbed to Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. After being linked to Amy Chua's WSJ article about five times the day it was released, and reading the inevitable spinoffs comparing Mormon mothers to Chinese mothers (I know that I, for one, bear no resemblance whatsoever to a Chinese mother), I had to read the rest of the story myself. Like most people who have read the book, I was occasionally in awe of Chua's dedication (when my kids practice the piano and the clarinet, I try to find things to do so I don't have to be in the room; I certainly don't practice with them for four hours a day) and sometimes aghast at the lengths Chua went to enforce her maternal superiority (bringing the violin on trips and taping music to the tv screen in the hotel, for instance). But every time I'd get so worked up that I'd read a passage to Eddie, he'd always say, "It sounds like she's pretty self-deprecating." Keeping that in mind gave me a softer impression of Chua. For all her bravado, I think we need to read between the lines. She's been with the same husband for 25 years. She loves her parents and siblings (the passages when her sister is fighting cancer are particularly heartbreaking). And her daughters still seem to love her for all she's put them through. I think Chua pushed her girls hard, but she also did a great job creating a persona for the memoir. And it works. The book is selling like crazy. Which is a good thing, because Julliard is expensive.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book #9: Matterhorn: A Novel

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam WarTitle: Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War
Author: Karl Marlantes

As a rule, I don't like war stories. Too much fighting, too much swearing, too much violence. And there was a lot of fighting, swearing and violence in Matterhorn. I'd heard great things about the audiorecording of the novel (Bronson Pinchot of Perfect Strangers fame won some big award for best narration of last year), so I stuck it out when I felt like throwing in the towel. The recording is about 20 hours long, and even 15 hours into listening, I wasn't entirely sure I was going to finish the story. But eventually I grew to really care about Lieutenant Waino Mellus. I wanted to see if he was going to die. At first, I didn't think it was possible for Marlantes to kill him off, but as everyone around Mellus succumbed to the jungle (one got eaten by a tiger!) or the Viet-Cong, I started to think it might not be possible for Mellus to get back to civilization alive, or at least get back undamaged. Once I started to love and understand and root for Mellus, I was terrified that he would die. There were many days when I flew down I-15 with tears streaming down my face because someone had met a bad end or because I was scared for the characters. Although the story itself is great (but if you're at all sensitive to bad language, don't bother picking this one up), the best thing about the story is the way that Pinchot was able to adapt his voice to represent more than 20 characters-- white, black, southern, northern, Vietnamese, educated, poor-- he captured them all.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Book #8: The Lost Daughters of China

The Lost Daughters of China: Adopted Girls, Their Journey to America, and the Search for a Missing PastTitle: The Lost Daughters of China: Adopted Girls, Their Journey to America, and the Search for a Missing Past
Author: Karin Evans

In 1997, Karin Evans, a journalist in her forties, and her husband Mark traveled to China to adopt Kelly, a baby girl. Several years later, the family returned to adopt Franny, a toddler. In The Lost Daughters of China, Evans talks about her preparation for the journey (the memoir part), the history of adoption in China (the historical part), and the story of how Kelly and Franny became integrated into the family and into life in America (the adoption-how-to/parenting part). In the 2008 update, Kelly and Franny were entering adolescence and beginning to ask more questions about their pasts.

I whipped through The Lost Daughters of China in a few hours, engrossed in the story of Karin and her girls, and eager to see how they went from strangers to family. I was also interested in following the technical story of Karin's adoption process: the paperwork, the angst that comes with waiting, the eager anticipation Karin and Mark felt on their way to meet their daughters, and the transitions after the papers were signed and the four became a family.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Book #7: Just Kids

Just KidsTitle: Just Kids
Author: Patti Smith

In contrast to A Visit from the Goon Squad, Patti Smith's Just Kids also takes place in and around the art and music scene in New York City, but it has all of the heart and soul that Egan's novel lacked. Smith writes about her years with Robert Mapplethorpe. The two came together on Patti's first day in New York, where she moved with about five bucks in her pocket after she placed a baby for adoption and quit her dead-end job in a New Jersey factory. When she arrived at the apartment where she thought her friends lived, Mapplethorpe answered the door. For the next decade, the two lived as soul mates, sometimes a romantic couple, sometimes not (Mapplethorpe eventually decided he preferred male sexual partners), and dedicated themselves to their art and to each other. It was a touching story of two young people who wanted to make their marks on the world and who genuinely cared for each other, and those two objectives occasionally came into conflict with each other. Smith writes in an early chapter about how they both struggled with their demons, but they were careful not to allow themselves to be "down" at the same time so they could be there for each other. Eventually, both found fame (Mapplethorpe as a photographer, Smith as a performance artist), Smith married and moved to Detroit, but they remained close until Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Book #6: A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon SquadTitle: A Visit from the Goon Squad
Author: Jennifer Egan

Ah, I had such high hopes for A Visit from the Goon Squad. It was one of the best-reviewed books of 2010. I've read a lot of interesting books lately, including Julia Glass's The Widower's Tale and Alison Weir's Innocent Traitor, that employ multiple narrators, and I was eager to read Egan's tale about the music scene in New York. The story opens with Sasha, assistant to music producer Bennie Salazar, stealing a wallet from an unattended purse in a Manhattan restaurant bathroom. I was hooked, and wanted to hear more about Sasha, her job and her life in the city. But the Sasha's story ended, and suddenly we were with Bernie, several years earlier. From there, the narrative flits wildly, from Sasha to Bennie to a half dozen other characters, from the East Coast to the West Coast and back again, back and forth in time, from the 1970s to the 2020s.

Publisher's Weekly says that "Readers will be pleased to discover that the star-crossed marriage of lucid prose and expertly deployed postmodern switcheroos that helped shoot Egan to the top of the genre-bending new school is alive in well in this graceful yet wild novel" I appreciate the multiple voices, and think that Egan does an admirable job creating clearly defined characters. Sasha sounds nothing like Bennie, and the 18-year-old Sasha sounds different from the 32-year-old Sasha sounds different from the 45-year-old Sasha. Although I thought it sounded hokey when I heard that Egan included a PowerPoint presentation as part of the book, it actually turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the story, because Sasha's daughter and son were characters I could identify with (but that part of the story took place about a decade in the future, and I'm not convinced that using a technology that is part of today works well in a section of the book that takes place in the future, especially since technology changes so quickly now).

Ultimately, although I felt stupid when I was reading the story because it often took me a page or two to figure out who was talking (the character switches aren't clearly marked) and then another few pages to figure out the time period, the thing that made me really dislike A Visit from the Goon Squad was that the characters were so unlikeable. When I read Jonathan Franzen's Freedom earlier this year, it took me forever to finish the book because I couldn't identify with anyone and there was no one to root for in the story. In A Visit from the Goon Squad, I felt like Egan did a much better job with the "Oh look at me"-ness of postmodernism. The techniques are cool, but I never grew to like a single character-- not kleptomaniac Sasha, not cheating Bennie, not the old boyfriend who rats Sasha out, nobody. Reading the book felt like experiencing the emperor's new clothes. There was a whole lot of hype, and some genuinely cool techniques, but the book, as a whole fell short on an emotional level.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Book #5: A Hole in My Life

Hole in My LifeTitle: A Hole in My Life
Author: Jack Gantos

I thought I'd blogged about this book back when I read it (when was that?) but I couldn't find a report of it, so I guess not. Anyway, here goes;

Jack Gantos an American kid, living on a Caribbean island with his family, trying to earn money for college by working construction. When political unrest overtakes the island, Gantos decides, against his better judgment, to help a dealer move a load of drugs up the Atlantic to New York. The trip is rough-- neither man knows how to sail, and by the time they arrive in Manhattan, they're exhausted. And the police are waiting for them. Gantos spends the next few years in federal prison, and by the time he's released, he's reformed his life. Gantos, an acclaimed author of YA fiction, writes honestly about his shortcomings and his struggles in prison. The narrative is quick-paced and entertaining, and I think it would be a good read for anyone who feels that some doors in their life has closed and they're not sure how to open them again.

Book #4: Shopgirl

Shopgirl: A NovellaTitle: Shopgirl
Author: Steve Martin

"Oh you're reading Shopgirl? I read the first few chapters of that in Barnes and Noble a few years ago and thought it was the worst thing I ever read." My husband peered over my shoulder as we lay in bed reading this morning. It's true that the first few chapters of Shopgirl are a little slow, and I didn't really identify with Mirabelle, a woman whose life has grown small. She works behind the glove counter at Neiman's, and returns home at night to her tiny apartment and two cats. Mirabelle is beautiful and has her needs, and eventually men enter her life. The first, Jeremy, satisfies her body but not her mind, and eventually she meets Ray, an older man who engages her in a no-strings attached relationship. It was interesting to read Shopgirl shortly after reading An Object of Beauty. Mirabelle felt like a quieter, less self-assured version of Lacey, and even though the characters at time felt vacuous, the ending was much more hopeful than Martin's later work. Next up? Renting the movie. I think it's a book that will translate very well to film.