The Diving Bell and the Butterfly — Review by Chris

I never would have considered reading this book had I not seen the exquisite movie. I had never heard of Jean-Dominique Bauby before. I never read Elle, I didn't follow the life of fellow journalists — particularly my international jet-setting French counterparts; call it jealousy if you'd like, but I didn't really care.

Until now.

The story is horrifying yet intriguing: a 44-year-old man has what once was called a "massive stroke," but nowadays is given the moniker "cerebrovascular accident." Nowadays we can save people from death, but it's their lives that are the challenge.

Jean-Do, as his friends call him, survived this brain trauma and awoke from his weeks-long trauma with "locked-in syndrome." His brain functioned and he was fully aware and alert, but he was completely paralyzed. His right eye was sewn shut to protect the cornea. The only part of his body he could move was his left eye.

This intelligent man was trapped in a paralyzed body — until his ingenious speech therapist found a way to connect with his mind. Using an alphabet arrangement based on frequency of use in the French language, she recited the letters until he blinked on the letter. In this way he made "conversation" of entire words and sentences.

For most people, this would be a fete unto itself. For Bauby, it's the beginning. He has a contract with a publishing company to re-write The Count of Monte Cristo from a woman's perspective, but trades that idea for the writing of his memoir.

Okay, people, see if this boggles your mind as much as it does mine: he wrote his memoir one letter at a time. He memorized his passages the night before, polished them in his head before the publisher's assistant appeared every morning for dictation, reciting letters and staring into his eye.

Bauby admitted this was not as easy as it sounds. Some people recited the letters too quickly or didn't look at him. Such a mistake made the difference between "moon" (lune) and "eyeglasses" (lunette). For others, a string of letters were gobbledygook. Some people wouldn't even venture into his room and see his inert body, twisted mouth and single, keenly gazing eye.

The book is a lovely, touching story with the present and past mixed in a gorgeous palette. It's a thin volume, and for that I am grateful. I do not think I could bear more of his experiences than he shared in a two-month period. (He died within days of the French publication of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a fact that makes the story to me even more poignant and touching.)

I watched the movie before I read the book (though I consumed both within a 24-hour period) and I enjoyed the mix of movie images and the printed word, only if the terrain of Bauby's mind was foreign territory I wanted help navigating.

I recommend both the movie and the book, both strong and poignant in their own rights — and, I think, can each stand on their own strengths. Let me know if you've experienced both, in what order, and what you thought.


When You Can't Go On, Again

I have been plowing through so many books that I am startled when I find a book I do not intend to finish. After all, I have some extra leisure time, so how else will I use it?

Now, some books just must be postponed — such as Ahab's Wife, which Carole reviewed. No matter how absorbing a tale, the voluminous tome was too much for me in my compromised state this summer. Stephanie Plum was more my speed, and I soared through four of those novels without as much as a hiccup.

Then, while waiting for a book from the library, I chose an earlier novel by the same writer to see if I might like her work.

And I had to put it down because it reminded me of the worst parts of my own job.

In Blind Submission: a novel, Angel takes a new job at a book agent's office. In the first paragraph she ponders leaving the office before she even sits down at her (very overburdened) desk, but by the end of the prologue, she accepts the challenge.

As the book progressed, all I could think of was when my job made me feel that way. I couldn't separate myself from the narrator.

Now, don't get me wrong — I love what I do. It's just that some days I wonder if I'm coming back in the morning. You know those days. You've had them, too.

Frankly, the book is good. Ginsberg quickly paints an intriguing picture, and I harbor a few suspicions about Angel's boss. Don't even get me started on Angel's co-workers, and if Angel as an administrative assistant should be working as an editor and reader — is she being properly compensated?

The more I write about Blind Submission, the more inclined I am to hobble upstairs and pick it up again. If I'm this passionate about a book when I'm a few dozen pages into it, then it has hooked me.

Well, I won't decide just yet. If I miss Angel, I know where to find her.


The Garden of Last Days — Review by Chris

When I discovered Andre Dubus III had a new novel, I was of two minds. House of Sand and Fog, the only other novel of his I had read, was one of the most beautiful books I have ever encountered, but it also was one of the most disturbing. Frankly, I don't think I've ever gotten over reading that exquisite book. (I also think Carole has never completely forgiven me for sharing the book with her.)

So I approached The Garden of Last Days with some caution. And while I was not completely disappointed, I also was not completely satisfied.

Dubus has a gift of capturing the inner voice of his characters — but in this book, I found one of his main characters, Bassam, absolutely superfluous to the storyline. Every moment spent inside Bassam's head took away from the "real" story, which was suspenseful and heartbreaking. I understand why the character was introduced and threaded through the story, but his thoughts were not central to the story.

On September 6, 2001, April has a dilemma: her landlady/babysitter cannot watch her young daughter, Franny. Rather than call in sick to work, she decides to bring Franny with her to work that night.

What makes April different than the other women who have done that in a pinch is her occupation: April is a dancer at Puma, a "gentlemen's club" in southern Florida. Franny is young enough to not understand what's going on around her, April rationalizes, plus she'll be kept in the "house mother's" office and away from the rest of the club.

Lonnie is a bouncer who's good at his job, and a little sweet on April. He sees "pockets," problems on the floor, and he is quick to handle them. Without this, he would have to use his aggressive tendencies in less, er, wholesome ways. Lonnie is instrumental in setting the wheels in motion for the tragedy of the evening.

Jean is the lonesome landlady who loves Franny as her own. She has no one else, especially after the death of her beloved husband, and Franny is easy to love. April, not so much, but April has had a life of people not loving her enough, so she's not investing in anyone else at the moment. If April comes with Franny, Jean can cope — if only April will accept the generosity Jean has to offer.

Bassam calls himself "Mike" in the Champagne Room with April. He has a wad of $100 bills he's looking to give away, which will prove to him that he is master of his emotions and desires.

AJ is a conflicted man. He wants to be in his former life as husband and father to Deena and Cole, respectively, if only that pesky restraining order hadn't sent him to his mother's fold-out couch. Yet he finds himself in love with one of the dancers whom he thinks has given him the green light for a relationship. Whether he didn't let go of Marianne's hand soon enough may be in doubt, but not his wounded wrist. He's angry and he is in pain — and someone is going to pay.

There are a few other smaller players whose minds we encounter — Deena and Virginia, for example — and they are fabulous additions to the story. They help flesh out the characters and increase the suspense.

In contrast, Bassam as a major character felt forced. His inner workings were not essential to the main storyline. Frankly, I feel as though Dubus was hellbent on working the future terrorist attacks into this story, no matter the cost. While his interaction with April compels the action of the story, we didn't need to be in his head. Ever.

Bassam's language rhythms were awkward and interruptive to the narrative. I would like to credit this to Dubus' uncharacteristic inability to capture the spirit of translation, but I can't. It's a disconnect and it feels artificial and forced. (So does the brief experience of being Franny, but at least I could understand that interjection.)

What makes Dubus' characters so attractive is their familiarity. Reader are drawn to a particular quality in Dubus' characters, even if they are unfamiliar to the reader. In House of Sand and Fog, Massoud's desire for property and all it brought with it was tangible, familiar and beautifully expressed. It's the same for many characters in this novel: AJ is exquisitely downtrodden, Jean is echoingly lonely, Lonnie is adrift, April is not as clever as she thinks she is. Bassam never has a quality that attracts the reader; his inner self is not interesting to me and his connection to the other characters of the story is tenuous at best — not to mention that if I had to read just one more time about "nuhood" or a "qus," I was going to put down the book.

Let's talk a moment about my "favorite" character, AJ — who was spot-on, transparent. His mind was all over the place, but I could follow him wherever he went. He made sense even when he didn't. Every thought, every action, every rationalization was pure and crystal clear. AJ's desperation and pathetic justifications are perfectly woven into a tapestry of tragedy. His character was consistent and true, and a pleasure to read.

Had Dubus made Bassam a minor character — a chance encounter that affected April in multiple ways and lapped at the edges of one or two other characters in coincidental ways — this would have been a much more successful novel. Instead, Dubus offers a novel that, despite its strengths, is fractured by its weakness.


When Does Caution Become Censorship?

After reading about author Sherry Jones' book being pulled from printing because of possible Muslim backlash, I have to wonder where the line for censorship begins.

According to "A Book too Hot off the Presses" (Washington Post, 8/21/08), the book was slated for the press until Random House
received "cautionary advice" that the fictionalized story of one of Muhammad's wives might "incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment."
Translated: a blurb-writer voiced her opinion (and sued to have her name removed from the book's bibliography). Random House then contacted a few more people, who apparently agreed. The book was pulled — though a Serbian printer published 1,000 copies before a mufti took offense at the material.

Publishing is a business, and every business reserves the right to refuse service. However, when does it become a bad idea to stop publication of a book? With riots erupting after perceived slights by Muslims following the publication of a Danish cartoons, some publishers — American publishers, in this case — will pull the plug.

Do you as a reader think that is right? Do you think it's fair to halt publication because a work "might incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment"? Is there any reason to halt publication?

Going even further: do you think some subjects are "off the table" for authors? Which ones would those be? And what would make them forbidden?

Postscript 8/27/08: Please read Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso's excellent Opinion piece in the Indianapolis Star ("Beware of Lifting Swords Over Words," 8/26/08) regarding this matter.


The Need for Fluff 'n Trash™

I had a pretty ambitious 2008 summer reading list posted previously, and I meant to read the books on the list.

Then I fell ill and discovered a pressing need for Fluff 'n Trash™.

It came after my (one!) afternoon of daytime television. Bruce Springsteen is correct: 57+ channels and nothing is on. (Although I confess that a sanitized version of "Blazing Saddles" can be very seductive and "Nanny 911" is like a car wreck: I can't always look away.) I've put my boxed set of "Planet of the Apes" movies on the To-Watch List, so I'm not a total egghead. (Geek, perhaps, but not an egghead.)

I'm as patriotic as the next person, but I can handle only so much beach volleyball before the Olympics Games start to lose luster.

However, right now I'm consuming light reading. I'm five novels in: One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Dear John, If You Could See Me Now and the mammoth Sheer Abandon. I suppose a 750-page paperback isn't exactly light, but it is a nice distraction. One of three woman had a baby whom she left in a closet in Heathrow Airport, and 16 years later the baby-cum-young-woman and three possible mothers becomes enmeshed in each other's lives. (Think "Lace" with a lot of references to tea and everyone calling each other "darling.")

Not all Fluff 'n Trash™ is equal. I devoured One and Two, as I had Fourteen, but finished Dear John because I thought it would improve. (It didn't.) Sheer Abandon was monolithic, but an interesting ride. Penny Vincenzi leaves no stone unturned and shows us a mini-series in her books. It's a method at which she excels, and I enjoy the ride. Three to Get Deadly awaits me right now, and I can't wait!

Both Carole and Alicia are searching for more Janet Evanovich or Evanovich-like books, Kathy keeps handing me intriguing books (think Susan Isaacs) and Carole has some other good spicy reads up her sleeve, so I'll stay busy with as much reading as my napping will allow.

I would love suggestions for more Fluff 'n Trash™ and can't wait to see what you recommend.


One Year of Getting Our English On!

Chris and I launched Book Lovers, Get Your English On! (GYEO) one year ago. We didn't really know what we were doing--we just knew we loved reading books and we loved talking about books. We decided we wanted to share our talks with more people, so we started GYEO.

Our goal was to post twice a week--we've posted 117 times. That includes 86 actual reviews and 31 random chit-chats about book-related things. So we surpassed our goal. I know that sustainability is a huge problem for bloggers--once you create this hungry monster, you have to keep feeding it. Our decision to launch the blog together turns out to have been pretty clever--when one of us is busy with other life-related matters, the other one has been able to fill in and cover. It definitely takes the pressure off, and it continues to be a joy to post rather than a chore.

My husband was chuckling the other day as Chris and I were talking about the blog on the phone. When I asked him what was so funny, he said, "My wife writes book reports for fun!" I hadn't really thought about it that way before, but he's right. I guess one man's nightmare is another woman's bliss.

As we reported recently, our blog has been visited by people in all 50 of these United States and 51 countries. When we started this, I never really envisioned that someone in Monaco, Namibia, or Malaysia would be reading what we've written. That has been a huge thrill for us.

Another is the fact that many of visitors keep coming back--our visitor loyalty rate makes us very happy. Thank you all, and you know who you are better than we do, for coming back time and again.

Hearing from authors we've reviewed has also been an enormous rush. Having them say kind things about our writing--it just doesn't get any cooler than that for us.

What's next for us? Chris and I look forward to creating a website that will give us more flexibility with our posts. With our current blog format, we can't create the lists we want. Every time we get together, the ideas just keep spilling over, so we are anxious to learn the necessary technical aspects involved so we can turn the ideas into realities.

So please keep reading and commenting. I expect when we reach our second anniversary, we'll have learned more about blogging, read many more books, written lots of reviews, and we'll still be dreaming of what's to come.


The Foundling - Review by Carole

I remember Georgette Heyer's Regency romance books vividly from my young teenage years. They always had painting-like covers showing impossibly beautiful people from times gone by. At that time, the stories didn't intrigue me; I gravitated toward Victoria Holt and Barbara Michaels in those days. But my sisters-in-law are big fans, and they recently discovered that her books are back in print. One of them gave me The Foundling to read. It stayed on my nightstand for a while, but I finally picked it up. I'm very glad I did.

What I didn't recall at all from days gone by was the humor that Heyer injects into her stories. It's like she's poking a bit of fun at the very scenarios she creates. This particular story is full of breach of promise, mistaken identity, besmirched honor, missed communications, and drawing room situations (why don't we have drawing rooms anymore?). I enjoyed the book thoroughly, and I'm taking a couple of more to the beach with me later this month.

All in all, they are not life-changing stories. They are Fluff-n-Trash at their very best. After slogging through Ahab's Wife recently, it was a welcome change of pace. The books are very visual to me--I could picture them as movies. I wonder why that hasn't ever happened to Heyer's books. Maybe now that I've read one, it will. I seem to have that mysterious power--I try to only use it for good. Sometimes I read a book only to hear that a movie is in the offing, and I want to shout, "Noooo!" Feast of Love was a recent example. But if my powers lead to a Heyer book making its way to the big screen, I could live with that. I'll let you know if I hear anything.


Ahab's Wife - Review by Carole

I read one review that described Sena Jeter Naslund's writing in Ahab's Wife Or, The Star-Gazer as lyrical. I won't argue with that, but I do think that there were a few too many stanzas for my taste. I think that Naslund could really have used a strong editor to guide her--200 fewer pages would have been really nice on this one. I felt like I kept reading and reading, and I still wasn't close to finishing.

Inspired by a passage from Moby Dick, Naslund creates a character and then has her tell us her life story. The opening line capured my imagination right away. "Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last." We meet Una in the throes of childbirth, fearful and alone. From there, the book crisscrosses through time to weave the rich tapestry of Una's life.

I read the book for one of my book clubs. I'm a fan of the re-telling of a tale, so it's not that I didn't enjoy the experience, but I found this a tough read. I've been mulling over why that was, and here is what I've concluded:

In a time when most people never travelled more than 50 miles from where they were born, Una was everywhere! Born in Kentucky, raised on a lighthouse island, heads off to sea, Nantucket, back to Kentucky, back to Nantucket. That's a lot of getting around, for a woman at that time, no less.

The other thing is that many, many people in Una's life do not fare well at all. I know that life is harsh, but all of that stretched the limits of my credibility.

I think that Naslund had trouble figuring out how to end the book. She tackled too much and couldn't wind it up. My favorite parts of the book were actually her relationship with Ahab, but if that all told encompassed 100 pages of the book, I'd be surprised. I wanted more of that and less of the Unitarians, Universalists, Transcendalists, Abolitionists, and Suffragists that Naslund kept introducing. I felt like they all got in the way of the real story. Katie, a member of the book club, found Una's encounters a little too reminiscent of Forrest Gump's. Would a little nobody from Kentucky really meet Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frederick Douglass? For purposes of this story, did she need to? I don't think so.

Una's relationships with many people bothered me. Naslund didn't convey Una's grief to me very satisfactorily. I often felt like she was unemotional and detached.

Una was often pretty insensitive to people she supposedly cared for; for example, she ditches her family to go to sea and it isn't until she's older that she can see how cruel that was to them.

To sum up, I would have preferred a shorter, tighter novel that focused on Una being Ahab's wife. Katie pulled out a copy of Moby Dick and discovered that the length and number of chapters were very similar to Ahab's Wife, so Naslund's intent was probably to mirror that construction. An interesting approach, but ultimately one that didn't work for me.