Thursday, May 29, 2014

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

In Jordan's prize-winning debut, prejudice takes many forms, both subtle and brutal. It is 1946, and city-bred Laura McAllan is trying to raise her children on her husband's Mississippi Delta farm—a place she finds foreign and frightening. In the midst of the family's struggles, two young men return from the war to work the land. Jamie McAllan, Laura's brother-in-law, is everything her husband is not—charming, handsome, and haunted by his memories of combat. Ronsel Jackson, eldest son of the black sharecroppers who live on the McAllan farm, has come home with the shine of a war hero. But no matter his bravery in defense of his country, he is still considered less than a man in the Jim Crow South.

It is the unlikely friendship of these brothers-in-arms that drives this powerful novel to its inexorable conclusion. The men and women of each family relate their versions of events and we are drawn into their lives as they become players in a tragedy on the grandest scale.

My take: 3 stars
Typical story of racism in the south after WWII. Black sharecroppers on the land of white owners. Some whites hate blacks and others simply follow the rules because they are the social mores of the day. That is the typical part of the story. The part that sets this book apart is the comparison and contrast of the characters.

The book is written from the perspectives of six characters, half white and half black: Two husbands, two wives, and two war veterans just returned home. The women are the richest and most complex.

Laura is a white wife, who is very submissive to her husband; however, he knows her moods: "A woman will make her feelings known one way or another. Laura's way is with music: singing when she's content, humming when she isn't, whistling tunelessly when she's thinking a thing over and deciding whether or sing or hum about it."

In contrast, Florence is the black wife of a man who tends the land that he doesn't own. She is a headstrong midwife and let's her husband know where she stands: "You'll move if I say so", Hap (her husband) said. "For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church." Florence's reply: "Only so long as he is alive. For if the husband be dead the wife is loosed from his law. Says so in Romans."

Henry and Hap are the husbands, one owns the land and the other works it. Jamie and Rosnel are both war veterans, and are dealing with their war-damaged psyches in different ways.

There is one character who overshadows all of these, however, and we never get to hear from him. It's Pappy, the cruel racist father of Henry and Jamie, who lives with Henry and family. While I detested Pappy, his ways and his words, Jordan draws a very real character from this time, and I wanted to hear from him. What made him so hateful? Was he always mean? Did something happen in his life to set his ways, and his path on one of hate-filled vitriol? Why didn't we hear from him? Why would Jordan choose to make one of the most pivotal characters silent? It was disappointing.

As was the last chapter, told by Rosnel. It was full of "what if" scenarios. I got the feeling that Jordan assumed the reader would want to know how Rosnel, out of all of the other characters, turned out. With me, this was not the case. Laura started the book, the book was really about her at its core, and I think Laura should have been the one to close it. To have Rosnel close it seemed needless and cast a hint of preference on the closing. It gave him an unnecessary spotlight at the end that marred the story.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Suzanne's Diary for Nicholas by James Patterson

Katie Wilkinson's boyfriend Matt dumps her; not a total cad, he leaves her a gift, a diary kept by Suzanne, his first wife, for their son Nicholas. Though it's not exactly the diamond ring Katie was hoping for, she's unable to make herself destroy the diary-against her better judgment, Katie begins to read. Drawn against her will into the other woman's world, Katie learns of physician Suzanne's heart attack at age 35 and her decision to slow down, accomplished by a move to Martha's Vineyard and a new job as a simple country doctor. When love comes knocking, in the form of housepainter-cum-poet Matt Harrison, Suzanne is ready to listen to her newly repaired heart.

Though painful for Katie, she begins to know and like Suzanne and her infant son Nicholas. Suzanne's devotion to Matt and their son shines through, as well as her plainspoken wisdom. While the journal helps Katie understand Matt, whether they can write a future together remains in question.

My take: 2.5 looks
This is what I call a "palette cleanser": a book that is virtually mindless and requires no thought, but is entertaining nonetheless. Typical chick-lit, the characters are likable, the romance is unrealistic romantic, and the outcome is obvious. This is the perfect beach book, and I recommend it as such.

The Woman Who Knew Gandhi by Keith Heller

Based on an aside in Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography, in which he mentions a brief but seductive youthful flirtation with an Englishwoman, The Woman Who Knew Gandhi boldly imagines a long correspondence between a spiritual leader from the East and an ordinary woman from the West.

In 1948, just after Gandhi's assassination, Martha Houghton receives a letter from Gandhi's son, who himself lies dying of tuberculosis in Bombay. Having found a stash of her letters to his father, he asks to meet her. The request sends Martha into a tailspin, for her husband knows nothing of her lifelong friendship with Gandhi. Martha and her husband are forced to reevaluate their long marriage, and she must find a way to reconcile the disparate halves of her life. Moreover, their small community becomes a magnet for the press, and Martha finds her words twisted and used against her. Ultimately, she must decide whether to meet her old son's friend on his deathbed, or to remain in England and mend the rift in her marriage.

My take: 4 looks
I love accounts like this! One of my favorite books, That Same Flower by Jostein Gaarder, builds on a relationship St. Augustine had before he renounced sensual love. While all of Heller's book is pure speculation, it is told in such a realistic way that the reader is immediately brought into the fantasy.

The book focuses less on Martha's time with Gandhi and more on how his assassination affects her, then the revelation to her husband of her years of friendship with this famous man of peace. Martha receives a letter from Gandhi's son and she is forced to confront what she has hidden for decades. This throws Martha and her husband into a state of reflection, her on the life she could have had; and him wondering how he could have lived this long with his wife and known nothing of his wife's friendship.

Once the news media gets wind of the relationship, they do what the media normally does, distorts the truth until it is unrecognizable. This affects Martha and her family, but that storyline is very secondary to the emotions that each character in the book feels. In the climax, Martha travels to India to confront Gandhi's son on his deathbed.

This book was extremely interesting and I would recommend it.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Author Spotlight: Jostein Gaarder

Jostein Gaarder is quite unlike other authors. From his GoodReads bio:

Jostein Gaarder is a Norwegian intellectual and author of several novels, short stories and children's books. Gaarder often writes from the perspective of children, exploring their sense of wonder about the world. He often uses metafiction in his works, writing stories within stories.

Gaarder was born into a pedagogical family. His best known work is the novel Sophie's World, subtitled A Novel about the History of Philosophy. This popular work has been translated into fifty-three languages; there are over thirty million copies in print, with three million copies sold in Germany alone.

In 1997, he established the Sophie Prize together with his wife Siri Dannevig. This prize is an international environment and development prize (USD 100,000 = 77,000 €), awarded annually. It is named after the novel.

Jostein Gaarder is, by far, my favorite author. When my husband asked me recently to name a book I would want if deserted on an island, I named Sophie's World, the first novel I read by Gaarder. Written from a child's point of view, as many of his works are, "Sophie" is a novel about the history of philosophy. Gaarder handles this very complex and intricate subject so deftly and through such a compelling story that the reader doesn't realize it meets most requirements for college-level Philosophy 101. It really is quite brilliant.

And then there is Vita Brevis: A Letter to St Augustine, also published in English as That Same Flower. St. Augustine, in his Confessions mentions a woman; the woman whom he renounced in favor of celibacy. The premise here is well-summarized from Wiki: In the introduction, Gaarder claims that he found the old manuscript at a bookshop in Buenos Aires and translated it. According to his plotline, it was written by Floria Aemilia, Augustine's concubine, who after being abandoned by him, got a thorough Classical education, read his Confessions (where she is mentioned but not named, unlike their son, Adeodatus) and felt compelled to write this text as an answer. 

Doesn't that make you want to run right out and get it??

The Christmas Mystery is about a boy who opens each day on an advent calendar to find pieces of paper which create a story. The story is about a girl who slowly travels back in time to Bethlehem to see the Christ-child. As the family tries to find the maker of the advent calendar, the story begins to intertwine with their own.

Finally, The Solitaire Mystery. Another story-within-a-story, this one features Hans-Thomas, The Sticky Bun Book, a cross-country adventure to find an estranged mom and a drink of a wonderful liquid called Rainbow Fizz. Again presenting philosophical thoughts and ideas, it is done with more of a light-touch, and the reader doesn't realize at first that they are also on a philosophical journey.

Four of my favorites from this favorite author. Why spotlight him now? Because I just received his The Orange Girl in the mail, and I am exited to read it!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Romanov Conspiracy by Glenn Meade

Dr. Laura Pavlov, an American forensic archaeologist, is about to unravel a mystery that promises to shed light on one of the 20th century’s greatest enigmas.

A member of an international team digging on the outskirts of the present-day Russian city of Ekaterinburg, where the Romanov royal family was executed in July 1918, Pavlov discovers a body perfectly preserved in the permafrost of a disused mine shaft.

The remains offer dramatic new clues to the disappearance of the Romanovs, and in particular their famous daughter, Princess Anastasia, whose murder has always been in question. Pavlov's discovery sets her on an unlikely journey to Ireland, where a carefully hidden account of a years-old covert mission is about to change the accepted course of world history and hurl her back into the past; into a maelstrom of deceit, secrets, and lies.

Drawn from historical fact, The Romanov Conspiracy is a high-tension story of love and friendship tested by war, and a desperate battle between revenge and redemption, set against one of the most bloody and brutal revolutions in world history.

My take: 4 looks
Very nice historical novel! The action was steady and realistic, the characters were fully drawn, and the ending was very satisfying.

While the book seemed character-heavy in the beginning, it was necessary to introduce them in short order for the story to properly take off. Meade weaves the story in such a way that each character is separate and distinct and as the story propels, it is easy to keep track of them and their part in the story.

Interestingly, my book club read The Kitchen Boy by Robert D. Zimmerman several months ago, which was painstakingly researched by the author. Many of the people, events, and situations in that book were the same in this book. That period of history is intriguing, and I would highly recommend this book.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

Mildred Pierce had gorgeous legs, a way with a skillet, and a bone-deep core of toughness. She used those attributes to survive a divorce and poverty and to claw her way out of the lower middle class. But Mildred also had two weaknesses: a yen for shiftless men, and an unreasoning devotion to a monstrous daughter. Out of these elements, James M. Cain created a novel of acute social observation and devastating emotional violence, with a heroine whose ambitions and sufferings are never less than recognizable.

My take: 3 looks
First of all, if you have seen the movie, you have NOT experienced the book. Among other things, the book is a straight character study, and the movie is more action packed. Characters are removed and downplayed, and Veda is not quite the viper that she is in the book. But, most importantly, Monte does not die in the novel, and Veda never goes to jail. That portion of the story was invented by the filmmakers because the censorship code of the time required that evildoers be punished for their misdeeds. HBO recently redid the story, starring Kate Winslet, and it is said to be much truer to the novel.

With that being said, this was a doozy of a book. Mildred is a complex character. She doesn't take much off of her husband Bert, divorcing him quite early in the story, but will go back time and again to lesser men who care for nothing but a piece of her tail and some of her money. Yet she opens herself repeatedly to her eldest daughter Veda after numerous heinous verbal attacks. It is quite clear that Veda despises her mother through and through, evident to Mildred, but that makes Mildred only try harder to meet her expectations.

Veda is a viper of a daughter. She reminded me very much of Sarah Jane, a character in Imitation of Life. The difference is that Sarah Jane had some redemption at the end, although it was too late. Veda is a viper all the way through. She has firm respect for the one person who insults her to the core by letting her know that she has no talent at the piano. Everyone is furious with this man, but Veda inwardly admires him.

A very interesting character study, to be sure. But I have to wonder: what kind of characters are these? What is Cain trying to get across? That Mildred could survive, thrive and reinvent herself during and after the depression and Prohibition, only to crumble at the hands of her daughter? That mothers are gluttons for punishment? Did Ray stand for wholesomeness, which was crushed; while Veda stood for evil, which prospered?

And the men in their lives. Bert, who Mildred tossed away in favor of Wally, and later Monty, was the one stalwart  presence in her life, and she continued to go to him when she really needed advice. She had no respect for him, and yet he was the only one she respected.

I will ruminate on this one for months, I am sure. It was a very interesting book, and one that I recommend. If you read it, give me a call. We'll discuss it!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Author Spotlight: Forgiving James Frey

A Million Little Pieces.jpgJames Frey is the author of A Million Little Pieces. It was published in 2003, and Oprah made him very rich when she chose it for her book club.

Intense, unpredictable, and instantly engaging, A Million Little Pieces is a memoir of drug and alcohol abuse and rehabilitation as it has never been told before: through complete lies. Recounted in visceral, kinetic prose, and crafted with a forthrightness that rejects piety, cynicism, and self-pity, it brings us face-to-face with a provocative new understanding of the nature of addiction and the meaning of recovery.

 By the time he entered a drug and alcohol treatment facility, James Frey had taken his addictions to near-deadly extremes. He had so thoroughly ravaged his body that the facility's doctors were shocked he was still alive. The ensuing torments of detoxification and withdrawal, and the never-ending urge to use chemicals, are captured with a vitality and directness that recalls the seminal eye-opening power of William Burroughs's Junky.

But A Million Little Pieces refuses to fit any mold of drug literature. Inside the clinic, James is surrounded by patients as troubled as he is -- including a judge, a mobster, a one-time world-champion boxer, and a fragile former prostitute to whom he is not allowed to speak to but their friendship and advice strikes James as stronger and truer than the clinic's droning dogma of How to Recover. James refuses to consider himself a victim of anything but his own bad decisions, and insists on accepting sole accountability for the person he has been and the person he may become--which runs directly counter to his counselors' recipes for recovery. James has to fight to find his own way to confront the consequences of the life he has lived so far, and to determine what future, if any, he holds. It is this fight, told with the charismatic energy and power of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, that is at the heart of A Million Little Pieces: the fight between one young man's will and the ever-tempting chemical trip to oblivion, the fight to survive on his own terms, for reasons close to his own heart. A Million Little Pieces is an uncommonly genuine account of a life destroyed and a life reconstructed. It is also the introduction of a bold and talented literary voice.

As you can see, it's pretty glowing.

The issue was that this book was published as a memoir, which was later proven to be false in that many of the items in the story were fabricated. Oprah was ticked. She called him out on her show. But not just Frey. When she was finished with him, she called his publisher to the stage. They were both eviscerated. It was so bad, as a matter of fact, that Oprah later apologized for blasting him so completely and publicly.

His agent dropped him. His publisher dropped him. His contract for additional books and a 7-figure deal were cancelled.

In 2009, Frey started a publishing company aimed at churning out commercially successful young adult novels, like "I Am Number Four". However, the contract that Frey had authors enter reeked of a sweatshop mentality. He was accused by NYMag of "abusing and using MFA students as cheap labor to churn out commercial young adult books".

With all of that said, is Frey a decent author? I can't say because I have refused to read any of his work on the basis of his previous deception and apparent traits of being a none-too-nice person. However, I am willing to bury my hatchet so I can see for myself whether or not he has talent.

I am hereby lifting the self-imposed ban on this author. However, I doubt will have drinks with him anytime soon.