Saturday, December 31, 2011

Doc by Mary Doria Russell

The year is 1878, peak of the Texas cattle trade. The place is Dodge City, Kansas, a saloon-filled cow town jammed with liquored-up adolescent cowboys and young Irish hookers. Violence is random and routine, but when the burned body of a mixed-blood boy named Johnnie Sanders is discovered, his death shocks a part-time policeman named Wyatt Earp. And it is a matter of strangely personal importance to Doc Holliday, the frail twenty-six-year-old dentist who has just opened an office at No. 24, Dodge House.   Beautifully educated, born to the life of a Southern gentleman, Dr. John Henry Holliday is given an awful choice at the age of twenty-two: die within months in Atlanta or leave everyone and everything he loves in the hope that the dry air and sunshine of the West will restore him to health. Young, scared, lonely, and sick, he arrives on the rawest edge of the Texas frontier just as an economic crash wrecks the dreams of a nation. Soon, with few alternatives open to him, Doc Holliday is gambling professionally; he is also living with Mária Katarina Harony, a high-strung Hungarian whore with dazzling turquoise eyes, who can quote Latin classics right back at him. Kate makes it her business to find Doc the high-stakes poker games that will support them both in high style. It is Kate who insists that the couple travel to Dodge City, because “that’s where the money is.” And that is where the unlikely friendship of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp really begins—before Wyatt Earp is the prototype of the square-jawed, fearless lawman; before Doc Holliday is the quintessential frontier gambler; before the gunfight at the O.K. Corral links their names forever in American frontier mythology—when neither man wanted fame or deserved notoriety. Authentic, moving, and witty, Mary Doria Russell’s fifth novel redefines these two towering figures of the American West and brings to life an extraordinary cast of historical characters, including Holliday’s unforgettable companion, Kate. First and last, however, Doc is John Henry Holliday’s story, written with compassion, humor, and respect by one of our greatest contemporary storytellers.

My take: 3 looks
It seems that I give many books 3 looks. Does that mean there are a lot of "average" books out there. Perhaps I am a little stingy with 4 looks...Perhaps it depends on my mood when I finish the book. I am, after all, human.

This one, however, I can explain. Doc was a very entertaining book. The subject matter (since these were real people) seemed to be researched, it was interesting and I was engaged with the characters. However, there were a few things that bothered me.

First of all, it was easy to put down. It was a very easy book to read, but I could also become distracted easily and lay it down for a while without giving it a second thought.  Secondly, it promised to be the story of Doc Holliday. While Doc Holliday was a main character, it would be incorrect to say that the entire book was his story. For it to be Doc's story alone, his dealings with the other characters would have to be felt and presented from his perspective. As this book was written, it was told from everyone's point of view. That proved to be a bit distracting as characters changed often with little to no segue.

Also, there were facts that I felt would have been pivotal to the story, but were not presented at all. For example, Kate's betrayal of Doc causing him to be arrested for murder. Doc's alleged final words, and how he died barefoot. That would have been a nice way to wrap up his death, since so much of the book deals with his illness and impending death. If this was truly a story about Doc, where was his involvement in the OK Corral? Where was the OK Corral at all? Not in this story.

Lastly, the book wrapped a little too quickly. It could have easily gone for at least fifty additional pages, ending everyone's story. At this point, the reader wants to know what happened to Belle, Kate, Mattie and the other Earp brothers.

While this was a good book overall, it did not meet the expectation that it created in the title: that this would be a story about Doc Holliday. It was more the story of Dodge, during the days of its settlement and how it grew from a rough town full of drovers to a more settled city of families, farmers and businessmen.

Good book, wrong title.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Rememberance of Things Past by Marcel Proust

Reading broadens so much more than simply vocabulary. It opens worlds that a reader would never experience, provides travel back and forward in time, and greatly challenges a reader's imagination.

It has a definite educational focus, too. I was reading that, on this day in 1912, a French publication rejected printing an excerpt from Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. Why would this be notable, I wondered.

Turns out that this series of seven volumes had an unquestionable impact on the modern novel. Proust began this tome in 1909, ending only when his long illness caused his death in 1922. at 1.5 million words, it is one of the longest novels in world literature. Involuntary memory plays a major role in this work, with the most famous being the "episode of the madeleine":

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. ... Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? ... And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.

It was quite ground breaking that this book was not driven by a central plot, but more by the character's perceptions and growth in maturity because of their experiences. Memory and inner contemplation replaced action and external influences.

While we take this kind of writing for granted today, we owe our own wealth of literature choices to authors such as Marcel Proust.

On this day in literary history: Van Gogh's Ear

On this day in 1888, Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, suffering from severe depression, cuts off the lower part of his left ear with a razor while staying in Arles, France. He later documented the event in a painting titled Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. Today, Van Gogh is regarded as an artistic genius and his masterpieces sell for record-breaking prices; however, during his lifetime, he was a poster boy for tortured starving artists and sold only one painting.

In 1888, Van Gogh rented a house in Arles in the south of France, where he hoped to found an artists' colony and be less of a burden to his brother. In Arles, Van Gogh painted vivid scenes from the countryside as well as still-lifes, including his famous sunflower series.

Gauguin came to stay with him in Arles and the two men worked together for almost two months. However, tensions developed and on December 23, in a fit of dementia, Van Gogh threatened his friend with a knife before turning it on himself and mutilating his ear lobe. Afterward, he allegedly wrapped up the ear and gave it to a prostitute at a nearby brothel. Following that incident, Van Gogh was hospitalized in Arles and then checked himself into a mental institution in Saint-Remy for a year. During his stay in Saint-Remy, he fluctuated between periods of madness and intense creativity, in which he produced some of his best and most well-known works, including Starry Night and Irises.

In May 1890, Van Gogh moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris, where he continued to be plagued by despair and loneliness. On July 27, 1890, he shot himself and died two days later at age 37.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Writer's Almanac

I was in the car the other day around 9ish in the morning and heard a bit on NPR that I had never heard before: The Writer's Almanac. It was excellent! I missed the name of the program, and tried to search for it on the computer later that day, to no avail. I happened to be in the car at the same time yesterday and heard it again, this time from the beginning.

It's hosted by Garrison Keillor, which makes it a little heavy-handed to me (he takes himself quite seriously), but the content alone urges me to overlook his dour delivery. The first day I heard it, there was a segment on the short story "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson. I was so intrigued by the story of the story that I am now looking to read it.

He seems to focus on poetry, which is not an interest of mine; but, perhaps this will broaden my horizons. I am going to make this program a "must listen" from now on!

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

One of the first questions people ask about The Things They Carried is this: Is it a novel, or a collection of short stories? The title page refers to the book simply as "a work of fiction," defying the conscientious reader's need to categorize this masterpiece. It is both: a collection of interrelated short pieces which ultimately reads with the dramatic force and tension of a novel. Yet each one of the twenty-two short pieces is written with such care, emotional content, and prosaic precision that it could stand on its own. The Things They Carried depicts the men of Alpha Company: Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and of course, the character Tim O'Brien who has survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer at the age of forty-three. They battle the enemy (or maybe more the idea of the enemy), and occasionally each other. In their relationships we see their isolation and loneliness, their rage, and their fear. They miss their families, their girlfriends and buddies; they miss the lives they left back home. Yet they find sympathy and kindness for strangers (the old man who leads them unscathed through the mine field, the girl who grieves while she dances), and love for each other, because in Vietnam they are the only family they have. We hear the voices of the men and build images upon their dialogue. The way they tell stories about others, we hear them telling stories about themselves. With the creative verve of the greatest fiction and the intimacy of a searing autobiography, The Things They Carried is a testament to the men who risked their lives in America's most controversial war. It is also a mirror held up to the frailty of humanity. Ultimately The Things They Carried and its myriad protagonists call to order the courage, determination, and luck we all need to survive.

My take: 4 looks
"The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 12 and 18 pounds, depending upon a man's habits or rate of metabolism."

I found myself breathing a sigh of relief when the book started in this very literal, practical way. I imagined that the subject would be more mental than physical. I was glad that I was wrong. Reading a book that hard fact is so much easier than reading a book that is ... well, that is written like this one turned out to be.

This was an edgy book. It was real, troubled and unapologetic. The cover states that it is a work of fiction, but I think otherwise. Only a soldier who served in Vietnam could write this. It is full of emotion and stoic at the same time. It is sympathetic and yet I felt complete disdain at some of the descriptions. These men were strong, brave, fragile. It was a study in contrasts from beginning to end. It was difficult and heavy to read, but portrays war in a very real sense. Less "Sergeant York" and more "Apocalypse Now". Everyone should read this, especially generations who have grown up not really knowing what war is all about. It's a beautiful piece about the horrors of war.

A line on page 16 sums it up perfectly: "They all carried ghosts."

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

In this delightful, funny, and moving first novel, a librarian and a young boy obsessed with reading take to the road.

Lucy Hull, a young children's librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, finds herself both a kidnapper and kidnapped when her favorite patron, ten- year-old Ian Drake, runs away from home. The precocious Ian is addicted to reading, but needs Lucy's help to smuggle books past his overbearing mother, who has enrolled Ian in weekly anti-gay classes with celebrity Pastor Bob.

Lucy stumbles into a moral dilemma when she finds Ian camped out in the library after hours with a knapsack of provisions and an escape plan. Desperate to save him from Pastor Bob and the Drakes, Lucy allows herself to be hijacked by Ian. The odd pair embarks on a crazy road trip from Missouri to Vermont, with ferrets, an inconvenient boyfriend, and upsetting family history thrown in their path.

But is it just Ian who is running away? Who is the man who seems to be on their tail? And should Lucy be trying to save a boy from his own parents?

My take: 2 looks
I thought this an odd little book. About a librarian who takes a 10-year-old boy (Ian) on a road trip, mostly because she doesn't agree with how his parents are raising him. It seems that Ian may be gay, so his very religious parents have him in a Christian "reprogramming" class. This flies against everything the liberal librarian believes and she takes it upon herself to share with him that he is fine the way he is.
There are many layers in this story, like her lying Russian immigrant father with questionable means of income; the man in the wheelchair who may or may not love the librarian, but who certainly has trouble keeping his mouth shut; the alcoholic head librarian; the gay couple who own a theater, above which the librarian lives.

On the surface, this is a war between Christian and not, conservative and liberal, strict belief and tolerance. Obviously, the author is the latter of the three. A twist, though, comes when the reader realizes that the librarian is just as intolerant as the parents. After all, they are not trying to imprint their beliefs on the rest of the world; they are simply raising their only son as best they know how. The librarian is the real threat here, as she strives to make sure the child believes as she does. Whether or not you agree with the gay issue, her behavior is what we stand against.

Another issue is the fact that the librarian is really not imprinted in the life of anyone else. She realizes this slowly as her friends don't miss her when she disappears, her landlord doesn't even realize she is gone, the man she thinks loves her has an entire life of which the boys knows, but she doesn't. She slowly realizes that she is but a ghost of a person.

Ian is eccentric and irritating. The librarian is neurotic (the fact that I can't even remember her name says it all). The parents are like cartoons characters in their stereotypical Russian roles. The best part of the book is the last three pages.

I would not recommend this one.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Matched by Ally Condie

In the Society, Officials decide. Who you love. Where you work. When you die.

Cassia has always trusted their choices. It’s barely any price to pay for a long life, the perfect job, the ideal mate. So when her best friend appears on the Matching screen, Cassia knows with complete certainty that he is the one . . . until she sees another face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black. Now Cassia is faced with impossible choices: between Xander and Ky, between the only life she’s known and a path no one else has ever dared follow—between perfection and passion.

My take: 3 looks
This was an entertaining read. I liked it more than some of the other Young Adult distopian books that I have read. I found it to be very subversive in its socialist ideals. The characters embraced the ideals and rules completely at the beginning, and the metamorphosis from "society" to "individual" was very well done. I may read the next in the series.