So Big - Review by Carole

Yikes! I've been doing more reading than writing lately. I've been bouncing from one Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to another lately without taking the time to reflect. Shame on me!

Edna Ferber's So Big started me on this kick. This was the pick of one of my book clubs, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also enjoyed learning more about Ferber. One of the famed Algonquin Round Table members, Ferber devoted her life to writing. Sigh, I was born in the wrong era. I would have loved that life, those clothes...but I digress.

I hadn't read any Ferber--did you know she wrote the novels on which Show Boat and Giant are based? I didn't! She won the Pulitzer in 1924 for So Big.

So Big tells us the story of Selena, a young girl who grows up with a gambler for a father. When he is rolling well, they live the high life; when he's not, they eat at the boarding house table. But he always managed to pay her way at an exclusive girls' school. She gets a strong education from school and from him. When he dies unexpectedly, she has to make her own way. She takes on a schoolteacher job at a small farming community outside of fast-growing Chicago.

Her appreciation of beauty helps her see the color afforded by simple things, such as a field of cabbages, as she approaches her new life. This sentiment arouses rare humor in the taciturn, hard-working Dutch farm family with whom she comes to live. She finds a kindred spirit in their son, Rolff. Her influence, while brief, has a lasting impact on his life.

Before long, she finds herself agreeing to marry one of the community's farmers--a kind man, but no great shakes in the imagination department. Selena tries to get him to see what their farm could be, but he continues in the ways of his father.

They have a son, Dirk, whom she nicknames "So Big" from the old baby game: "How big is baby?" "Sooooo Big". You can just picture her taking the time from digging up vegetables from the garden to play this game with her baby, taking great joy in seeing him hold his arms wide.

When she finds herself on her own again, Selena manages to carve out a life for herself and her son. She raises him with her values, but he internalizes things much differently. His life experiences are significantly altered from her own. It's a classic story of a parent who wants a better life for her child and works hard to make sure of it, but then is surprised to see how different the child turns out. Children who have a better life aren't forged by the same fires as their parents and thus don't form their characters, values, or work ethics the same way.

Selena and Dirk have a great love for one another, even if they don't fully understand each other. The story shifts to focus on Dirk's life. He has many of the things that constitute success in that era. After an attempt at an architecture career (of which his mother has very high hopes), Dirk decides to become a bond salesman (a career his mother doesn't fully understand). He is very good at it--he makes good money--he lives in a lovely a part of town. Yet, it is very clear to the reader that he really doesn't have anything. He has no wife and children; he cannot point to anything lasting that he has created or improved. He cannot see that, though, until an artist comes into his life.

His feelings for the artist force him to examine his life--he sees that she and his mother have more in common than he would have ever envisioned. He sees his life as a "rubber stamp" of Selena's--a cheap imitation in other words. He finds himself at a crossroads.

Chicago looms in the background throughout the story, growing and sprawling across the pages, making it as defined a character as Selena or Dirk. A truly American story of success and how that is defined--I couldn't put it down.


The 7th Victim — Review by Chris

Poor Job — er, Karen Vail. She's having one tough time.

Alan Jacobson invites us into this FBI profiler's ramshackle life. At home, she's divorcing her abusive husband, who it also turns out is abusing their son. Her mother, who has advanced dementia, lives alone in the country in New York — a seven-hour drive from Karen, who doesn't visit too often. During a non-lucid moment, Karen's mother makes a statement about her past that Karen remarkably accepts as true.

The FBI special agent is beleaguered at work by her boss, who doesn't respect her cutting-edge research. At least one person in her department actively dismisses her. She encounters a hostile former co-worker, who again becomes a colleague and remains hostile. A new young co-worker has the hots for her, and she for him — and starting a new relationship in the middle of an investigation is such a good idea.

Oh, and did I mention she's the profiler on a grisly serial murder gripping Northern Virginia?

All this and more — next, in The 7th Victim.

Don't get me wrong, I love crime drama. I just couldn't take another moment of Karen. I didn't respect or trust Karen. She made terrible choices. She made her life a train wreck.

However, I appear to be the only one with these feelings. The author loved her and the publisher thought Karen tested well enough with readers to release another Karen Vail novel within the next year, changing another Jacobson book release date.

Unfortunately, my issues with the novel went beyond Karen. The killer never felt truly threatening because the killer was veiled, purposely obscured, to add to the "twist" of the story. The title told me no resolution could come before victim number six, no matter how the story unfolded. The book jacket blurbs trumpeted the book's surprises, twists and turns. And don't tell me the end will shock me — because now it won't.

As an editor, I didn't like the inconsistent editing. Words were spelled differently (missing hyphens and apostrophes) throughout the book and the language was trite. Cops in Hollywood are the only ones who say, "Give it to me straight, doc."

If this is typical in this genre in the post-Hannibal world, then I am disappointed — and possibly reading in the wrong field, much to my dismay.

I would be willing to check out another book by Alan Jacobson, just in case this atypical book for him. I just can't recommend this book.


The Grift — Review by Chris

Marina didn't lie, not really. By paying attention, she collected the same information she would have obtained with The Sight, right?

No, not really, according to Debra Ginsberg's brilliant new novel, The Grift.

The reality is always much worse than the fantasy. Well, "worse" is subjective in most cases. Not in this one, though, really. Not as I see it.

Marina was intelligent and observant enough to know that people all want to know something, and they think someone else knows it, whatever "it" is. I've been there, looking in country western songs for the meaning of life. For others, its in the cards or eyes of a psychic.

I do not discount psychic abilities, but Marina doesn't make a good case for them. Despite a "sighting" by a psychic early in her life, Marina has been untouched by The Sight. She listens, she watches, she lets people tell her what they want to know, then she finds ways to give them back this information — in the form of readings, candles, herbs and other (surprisingly expensive) occult paraphernalia.

Until the day she starts seeing what she never believed in. Then the question becomes what does one do with the truth when she never really beheld it before? It does not, as the old hymn leads us to believe, set us free. Not the real truth, and not for people who don't really want it after all.

Ginsberg's novel was a compelling read. The language was precise, the writing smooth, the story a fresh perspective of an old concept and the characters interesting and rich.

The book's strength is in its characters. While the story is compelling, it could not be so without the characters. And the characters are not "typical." There are few victims in this novel, though some are easily led where they want to go. Some characters are weaker than others and more desperately want to believe what they are told. Some part more easily with their money.

Marina is a very sympathetic and realistic working woman. Damaged by an early life with an abusive addict of a mother who marks her (permanently) in a hideous way, the young woman gives people exactly what they want. That they give her money is not a sin, even if it's for an illusion. Marina does not sugar-coat her abilities, though she glosses over the rougher stuff in her history. We meet more than one psychic, and we have a chance to compare Marina to the others in talent and character. Ginsberg is fair to her psychics, and I appreciate that.

Marina's clients, however, fare worse. Her first client is more sympathetic than the rest, I suspect, because of her age, income and desperation. Marina's subsequent clients are more wealthy, and that is a very important factor in this story. Ginsberg shows them no mercy; in fact, she is rather brutal to those for whom she perceives entitlement via wealth and opportunity. Ginsberg shows how the mind evolves from client to friend to owner to blame-caster. It's a fascinating, well-illustrated path on which we follow these Southern California privileged.

Despite Ginsberg's clear and linear storytelling, I was confused about Marina's situation after her breakdown. At a certain point in the book, I could not overcome the confusion between reality and psychic visions regarding Marina herself. At one point, professionals dispute something Marina knows, knows as fact. Science literally disproves her theory, and yet the condition continued with other characters contributing to what appeared to be the psychic's psychosis. I was unsure what was hysterical and what was "real." I was confused: who was right, Marina or the professionals?

The book ended as I thought it should, but the final image was too quaint for the character expressing it. After 400 pages of Night Gallery, Ginsbery ended with something I would have expected from Susan Polis Schultz. It didn't ruin the book, but it went out with a simper.

Despite these two quibbles, which in the scope of the book are quite minor, I would highly recommend the book.


The Perks of Being a Wallflower — Review by Chris

You know how you read some books that are supposed to be in the voice of a teenager and, to put it kindly, you know they're not?

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is not one of those books.

The voice of the narrator is spot-on. Stephen Chbosky wrote a story in a series of letters to "a friend." The story takes place over a school year, which is a lifetime in a teenager's life. Charlie's narrative is very simple, yet very revealing.

From the beginning, Charlie seems a bit off — distant, an observer rather than a participant.
Charlie's life has been derailed by the death of his favorite aunt. He missed a year of school, but he's trying to get back into the swing of things. Slowly, Charlie unveils the story of his life and those of the people around him. It's a rich and powerful world — and it's exactly how I remember high school being, which is probably why it is one of the most challenged books of 2007, according to the American Library Association.

It has everything an inappropriate book for youths might have, starting with the suicide of one of Charlie's friends. Charlie reports how guidance counselors respond to confused and grieving students, some of whom make wildly courageous and pained remarks. It's clear that the world of teens is very different than that of the adults around them.

Bill, Charlie's English teacher, recognizes Charlie's intelligence and perceptiveness, and gives him different books to read in addition to what the rest of the class is reading. The variety in these books speaks to Charlie's intelligence, and Charlie discusses some of them in his letters. Charlie writes essays about some of the books, each of which becomes his favorite. When Bill and Charlie discuss them, the new teacher encourages Charlie to participate. Thinking is good, Bill says, but too much thinking distances you from the world. Be a part of it.

So Charlie becomes a part of what he sees when he meets two new people at a football game: Sam and Patrick. These new friends, who are step-siblings to each other, introduce him to a variety of people who would be otherwise outside his experience: Craig, Brian, Mary Elizabeth. His observations on friendship are deep and moving.

We meet Charlie's entire family: his mother, a housewife and the only one who can speak with Charlie when he starts to lose it; his father, who tries to take care of his family as best he can; his brother, a football star at Penn State; his sister, a senior at his high school. We also meet his extended family, all revealed with their charms and foibles through the keen eye of the observer.

With each letter, Charlie reveals more of himself and his situation, his emotions and his perceptions. He thinks about the private lives of his friends and family with an open heart. The reader knows there's as much to be gleaned by what is not said, and Charlie doesn't disappoint. His revelations are deliberate, measured and powerful. By the end of the book, everything in Charlie's live is revealed, from who the friend is to why he gets so upset on his birthday.

There are golden moments, phrases that will stick in the reader's mind. His use of language is appropriate for a young man of his age, sensitivity and intelligence. His observations are crystal clear and honest. A reader could learn a lot from Charlie.

Every generation has a book that has it "all," and this is the book for the MTV generation. (In fact, it was published by MTV in 1999.) The story includes suicide, pregnancy, physical abuse, homosexuality, masturbation, abortion, drug use, mental illness, sexual abuse, literature and more. It's the kind of book we used to pass from student to student, some pages dog-eared, others with obvious watermarks (small and round, you know the kind). It explains a lot in a way we could understand, and it made us all feel less like the freaks we were sure we were.

It is a fabulous book, beautifully written, poignant and revealing. I enjoyed it immensely and highly recommend it.

By the way, I checked it out from my public library. ¡Viva la biblioteca!