7/27/09

Why I'm Not Finishing A Lesson Before Dying

My local library has chosen A Lesson Before Dying as the community book, and I picked up a copy immediately so I could be one of the first out of the chute in discussions.

Now I'm one of the first out of the book discussions.

Grant Wiggins is an angry man. He treats his aunt with visible contempt, and she returns the favor. He's angry at his students, over whom he exercises a ridiculous amount of control and lords his authority. He gets angry at them because he's angry, and he treats them bad enough to make them cry. The only person he doesn't seem to treat like dirt is his married girlfriend — but it's still early in the book.

I'm halfway through the book and I'm still not sure exactly why he's angry.

Oh, I get some of it. I understand why he's mad at the white people who lord their authority over him, and the subtle ways he exercises his rights (the right to correct grammar, the right to choose his humiliations). I understand why he tempers his anger at them, and how he tries to use them to get what he needs for school, for his aunt, for Miss Emma.

I understand why he's mad at the students, most of whom will either never leave this place or will die terrible, violent deaths because of who they are and the poor choices they will make. He sees himself in them, and he hates that he's back in the same school where his former teacher told him to get as educated as possible so he'd have a chance at a decent life. His cruelty to them, especially the youngest ones, is abhorrent, and I don't wish to suffer it any longer.

But his life is a mystery, teeming with anger, and it's a mystery that I'm not sympathetic enough to unravel and anger I'm not interested enough to suffer. Wikipedia notes that Grant's relationship with Jefferson breaks him out of his self-absorbing anger, but I can't suffer any more Grant.

If you have any insights that might make me want to start the book over, I'd be much obliged if you would share them. I will give it another fair shake if, like God, I find one reader who can give me good reason why I should continue.

7/23/09

Astrid and Veronika — Review by Chris


Where does friendship start? In a classroom for a subject at which you do not excel? On a train, traveling to somewhere you've never been before? Maybe in a small village in Sweden, in a rented house where you're recovering from a pain so deep you don't know how it will ever stop?

In Astrid & Veronika, friendship begins in a kitchen in that Swedish village. Astrid Mattson is the "neighborhood witch" who has lived in the same house in the tiny village her her entire life. The globetrotting Veronika Bergman has rented a small neighboring house with the intent of writing her second book. The two houses are within sight of each other, but remote from all else.

Veronika falls easily into a habit of walking, eating, writing (or not) and thinking. From time to time, she thinks she sees a flicker behind the kitchen panes of her neighbor's home, but there's no movement otherwise inside or outside of the house. It's as if no one lives there.

Astrid knows she's viewed as a witch in the village. She doesn't mind that people in the village steer clear of her. She lives alone, and she says it suits her. However, once someone is suddenly not alone, it's hard to keep up the fa├žade. She watches Veronika with more interest than a hermit should, noting her habits and activities. When she does not see Veronika for a couple of days, and it's apparent she's still in the house, Astrid makes a decision: she will go check on her.

This is the beginning, one can say, of a beautiful friendship.

Both women are full of stark and raw emotion. They've had losses and surprises, injuries and indignities. At 78, Astrid has lived a full life — despite the quiet nature of her current situation. Younger by more than half, Veronika had her share of loss and disappointment, and many of the items on her list are quite unexpected.

Author Linda Olsson creates a difficult story full of love and respect. The language is soft and gentle, the characters kind to each other and supportive. They listen when they should, share when they can. No judgment, no horror between the friends — despite some of the shocking details they reveal — which allows the reader to make the same concessions.

Some of the story is told by suggestion. Some is direct. However, it's crystal clear to the readers that these two women need each other at a time when they cannot reach out to anyone else. One hopes that all women have friends like that, and those of us lucky enough with worthy friendships can recognize our better friends (and hopefully ourselves) in these two women.

It's not an easy book to read because of Olsson's women. I don't state that to scare the "gentle" reader, but these women have heartaches, true and deep. Olsson gives it to the reader straight, unflinching as the characters themselves.

If you are brave enough, you will love the characters in the book and find the storyline and its subjects unforgettable. Approach with the open heart these women have and you will be rewarded.

7/19/09

Remembering the Memoir

The passing of Frank McCourt, the 78-year-old author of the wildly successful Angela's Ashes, made me think about the memoir — specifically, what good memoirs I have read.

I will give McCourt his props. His memoir was grand, sweeping and one of the most heart-wrenching books I had read to date. It broke my heart to read about children experiencing such abject poverty, hunger, cold and disillusionment. I watched the movie with Carole the first weekend of its release, and neither of us was a terribly happy camper when we left the theater that night.

Carole and I have reviewed a number of memoirs in our blog, and some of them are worth mentioning (and recommending).

  • If I am Missing or Dead by Janine Latus. A thoughtful and harrowing story of the author's younger sister — but even more so, the story of the author herself. The book jacket starts the story with the disappearance of the younger sister, but the author wisely begins the story at the right place: at her own beginning.
  • The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. For those of us who did not experience it, parental neglect seems unfathomable. Try cranking it up a notch or 12 with Walls' book. I borrowed Carole's copy, tabs and all, and I was floored at the conditions under which these parents kept the children. The author begins her tale with an anecdote: seeing her mother living as a streetperson in Manhattan. Most authors wouldn't know where to go from there. Walls takes us to the right memories, weaving a story of sadness and disappointment that lingers.
  • I Dreamed of Africa by Kuki Gallmann. Africa takes center stage in this memoir of a European woman who escapes to Africa after tragedies in her life. For her, Africa is home and we experience her life in a very visceral way. I cried more than once as I read her tales of hardship and sadness, loss and despair. It was one of the most beautifully written books I had ever read.
  • How I Lost Five Pounds in Six Years by Tom Arnold. I laughed, I cried. It was a sweet, honest and rare story. The persona Arnold presents to his audience as an actor or a TV writer is much different than the love story he writes to his future children. I laughed at his self-deprecating humor. I appreciated the difference between a joke at his expense and being a joke — and never was he the latter. I loved this book so much I purchased a copy to use as a reference guide when I wrote my own memoir. (I will, however, leave out the meat processing plant job in mine.)
  • Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen. It's the story of a hiker who gets lost on his way down from trying to climb Mt. Everest and winds up in a tiny village whose inhabitants tend him back to health. In return, he promises to build them a school. Only he doesn't stop at one school for one village. I mentioned this book to my friend Wayne before his deployment to Afghanistan; he lamented the dove-ish approach of education, reminding me the true responsibility of the military. On his first R&R six months later, he commented that his humanitarian efforts made more difference by far than his military might. I think Greg would have agreed.

What are some memoirs you have enjoyed — or not?

7/13/09

The Strain — Review by Chris

I love the re-telling of a tale. There's a magic to recognizing the familiar amidst the unique and unexpected. I also enjoy the modernizing of a tale: technology and modern sensibilities bring a new perspective to an old story.

Then there's just the coolness of discovering a new way of looking at an old friend.

Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan's new book, The Strain, does not reinventing the wheel. But it does change the way we look at vampires.

When most people thing of vampires, they think of Bram Stoker's vampires: mysterious, exotic and just a little sexy. There's something almost erotic about their feeding. Oh, a few "slasher porn" movies have challenged that and made vampires into monsters that rip people apart and scare you to death, but what sells — and what people think of — is Bela Lugosi.

Get your romance somewhere else. The Strain is, as David put it, "part CSI, part legend."

One of the lead characters is a physician with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ephraim Goodweather leads the Canary project, a group that, much like the name suggests, go into dangerous situations to see just how dangerous it is, disease-wise. When an airplane lands at Kennedy Airport in New York City and, within minutes of touching down, suddenly goes dark and quiet, Eph's people get called in to don their protective gear and test the air, so to speak.

Eph is no romantic. He looks at the slides, the black light, the samples and microbes. He goes cellular.

Neither is Abraham Setrakian. A Holocaust survivor who encountered evil beyond Nazis in Treblinka, the pawnshop owner living in Spanish Harlem knows exactly what is happening. He's rooted in the Old World, but only because of his background as a professor in an Eastern European university. His grandmother's tales open the book, and Bubbeh remains with us as we pick-pick-pick our way through the pages.

The authors introduce us to some interesting characters: Zach, Eph's son and the subject of a bitter custody battle; Gabriel Bolivar, a rock star who is surprised by what he sees when he removes his makeup one day; Joan Luss, a bloodthirsty lawyer (literally) who sees "tort" where others see illness; Fet, an exterminator with a unique perspective.

Hogan and del Toro might have dreamed up what they considered the most inefficient and awkward bureaucracy to respond to this perceived threat, but they weren't too far from the truth. I cringed at the response from the authorities, but it made sense. No one would believe what was happening, not if they were sane.

This is the first of a trilogy. Frankly, I can't wait for the second book, scheduled to be published next year (and the last book will be published in 2011). While reading the novel, I could picture the movie del Toro would direct, and I would be first in line to watch it.

The book was enjoyable, thrilling, compelling and impossible to put down. It is graphic and sad, and there's a scene that will be difficult for pet owners everywhere — but don't let that stop you. Read a new non-romantic vampire book. Expand your mind.

7/8/09

Beginner's Greek — Review by Chris

Beginner's Greek is one of the most satisfying romantic stories I have read in ages — and lately I've read some great love stories (post-marital Darcy and Elizabeth, anyone?). James Collins produces a very complex, enjoyable and tension-creating love story in this, his debut novel.

Peter and Holly meet on a cross-country flight. If there is such a thing as "love at first sight," they've managed to find it in the hours spent talking easily and pleasantly sitting side-by-side on the plane. As they disembark, Holly gives Peter the number where she will be staying, and Peter promises to call. If only he can keep his promise.

The next time he sees Holly, it's on the arm of his best friend, Jonathan. Peter respects his friend and won't stand in his way, and watches silently as the woman of his dreams marries his best friend. When Peter in turn meets Charlotte, he finds a woman with whom he could be happy, and they marry. The four of them — Charlotte, Peter, Jonathan and Holly — will be friends forever. But Fate intervenes.

Fate also brings a cast of fascinating characters that tell the story (their stories, the story of Peter and/or Holly) from their own perspectives. Readers meet Charlotte's father Dick and stepmother Julia, whose stories intertwine in ways one never expects and who tell their parts in the story with honesty and clarity. We meet Graham, Holly's father, in a scene that made me laugh and cry aloud. We meet Arthur, whose part in the story is rather complex and wholly unexpected. Then there's Miss Harrison, who saves the day more than once with a cool detachment that belies her intricate involvement with the tale. We end the story with one last reminder that what we do when we are in this world continue much longer than we realize.

What drives this book is the characters: they are complete and complex, clever and self-aware — and absurdly good people. Would I have the presence of mind to react with Peter's kindness and selflessness? Boy, I hope not. And yet they are wholly believable, whether by our own desire to be so or by the truth of their character.

The story has twists and turns that sometimes are telegraphed and sometimes are complete surprises. It's not wholly unique, but it is original and delightful. There are some moments that ring so true that I would swear the author had been reading my diaries. There is one love declaration scene that made me feel good that some of the most romantic scenes are the most realistic — and are the most wonderful.

From time to time, the language is almost archaic, with, as one reviewer put it, Victorian exclamations. At times, the character and storylines stretch almost to the point of breaking. Would you say what she said or do what he did? Would anyone? Who cares! It works within the confines of this novel.

Read this book. Enjoy this book. Then do what I did: recommend it to everyone you know who wants a satisfying, delightful read.

7/3/09

Books I Would Never Read Again

I have strong feelings about books I have read, but rarely do I assign them to the "untouchable" pile. However, there are a few exceptions, and I will share them with you (in no particular order).

Coincidentally, every single one of these books has been made into movies — and in some cases, Hollywood has taken some liberties — and I can hope that it helped. (Not for myself, but for others.)

  • Plague Dogs by Richard Adams. If he was trying to reinforce the horrors of animal testing, he more than did it. I had thumbed through it once or twice, then I gave a copy to Carole — who, one evening, asked me cautiously, "Have you read it?" Oh, no, I assured her, but Richard Adams wrote Watership Down, so I figured he was trustworthy. When Carole described the story to me, I declared that I would recycle my copy so no one else would suffer through it. Thankfully my reading was superficial, or I fear I would have never recovered.
  • Hannibal by Thomas Harris. The writing was sub-par and the author obviously despised his own character, Clarisse Starling. By the end, I didn't think Harris could lay her any lower — and then he proved me wrong. I had to re-read the ending 10 times before I believed it, and I was so angry. Jodie Foster said she would not reprise her role as Clarisse in the movie based on this book, so the studio hired a different woman (apparently they're all alike) to play the character and changed the ending. (Not enough, from what I heard.)
  • My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult. I probably could have lived with the book if not for the ending. It wasn't bad, and the premise is intriguing. This book is considered by readers one of the most likely to be thrown across the room, and I can see why. Carole also read it for a book club and wanted to throw it across the room herself. Rumor has it the movie has a different ending. Thank heavens.
  • The Last Templar by Raymond Khoury. I chose it for book club and since them apologized frequently and loudly. It had great reviews, which shocks me: the characters were too stupid to be alive and the storyline was beyond absurd. To be fair, the premise is interesting, and in the hands of a gifted storyteller with characters that didn't annoy readers to tears, it might have been good. There's a movie out based on the novel; it's nearly three hours long. For the love of reading, don't do it.
  • Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison. I'm no masochist, so I stopped at page 70. I didn't think the story could get any more bleak and tragic, but my friend Kathy, who had read it, assured me it did. I'll take her word for it. It might be a tribute to Allison that the story was so vivid. Still, I won't even pick it up to move it aside.
What is on your list?