Vacation reading

So we were on vacation last week, and rainy weather plus a sick kid meant I had plenty of time on my hands for reading. Glorious reading! I got through three books, each very different and each very rewarding…

Galore by Michael Crummey is the best book I’ve read in a looooooong time. This amazing novel is the definition — the PLATONIC IDEAL — of rollicking yarns and prose poetry. It is EXACTLY the type of book I most love. It has all my favorite elements. Big sweeping epic third person omniscient narration. Vivid setting & history (Newfoundland) that is an important part of the plot. Multiple generations, multiple perspectives. Myth & folklore. Doctors & priests. A bit of magical realism. Strong female characters. Biblical imagery. Luscious language. Bittersweet humor. And it is strikingly original. And totally engrossing.

Galore reminded me quite a bit of Midnight’s Children. Michael Crummey just might be Canada’s answer to Salman Rushdie. This book was nothing short of awesome. I hope it wins a zillion awards.

I chose Ursula Hegi’s Sacred Time from the library at random, having never heard of the book or the author. It was quite a change after the wild romp that was Galore, and I’m not sure I would have checked it out if I had known more about it. In a nutshell: Sacred Time belongs to the “Ripple Effects Of A Child’s Death” genre. If that’s not your cup of tea you might want to skip this one.

That said… this book is very well executed. Yes it is about the death of a child, and the reverberations of that death through the family and through the years, but it completely avoids the three Ms of melodrama, maudlinity (maudlin-ness?) and manipulation. The characters are complex, three-dimensional and (for the most part) likable. The book is set mostly in the Bronx, with the three sections of the book taking place in three decades, the 1950s, 1970s, and 2000s. There is lots of period detail and cultural references which gave the book some fun moments, despite the grim subject matter.

Zombie, Ohio. Yes, it is a zombie story. If you are into zombies I highly recommend this one. I’m not a huge fan of zombies — for one thing, there are too many internal inconsistencies, like do they digest their food and if not, how can they keep eating all those brains — but I do like post-apocalyptic fiction and therefore I read the occasional zombie story.

This one is unusual in that it is told from the zombie’s perspective, and furthermore the zombie, in life, was a philosophy professor at a small liberal arts college, tee hee. Like all zombie stories, it is really gross, but it is also funny. E.g. the scene where the newly-minted zombie has to figure out how to actually open a skull so that he can get at the brain, giggle giggle.


Chris Pavone: The Expats (progress report)

Welllllllll it’s been over two weeks since I last posted a “weekly” review. Couldn’t be helped. Huge, unavoidable work crunch. But now all that is over and I’m starting to catch up on my reading. I have about three different books in progress right now, including The Expats by Chris Pavone. I put this on hold at the library months ago. Usually a good sign when 150 other people want to read it too, right?

I’m only on page 55, but so far I am not impressed. I guess this comes with the spy-story territory, but I absolutely can’t stand it when the protagonist knows stuff that isn’t shared with the reader. To me it seems like the worst kind of manipulation, a cheap trick for creating suspense. For example:

Also, she didn’t want to admit to Dexter the things she’d done, the types of acts she’d been — still was — capable of. If she couldn’t tell him the whole truth, she was loath to tell any of it. That seemed worse. And since the worst of it was that morning in New York, which was also the reason for the end of it all, her story wouldn’t be complete — it wouldn’t make sense — without explaining that event. And her story wouldn’t be defensible with it.

What morning in New York?? What event?? I don’t want to be forced to keep reading just to find out this background info. Suspense should unfold naturally. We should find out what’s going on along with the protagonist. Authors, if you’re going to use third person limited, it’s only fair to keep the reader in the loop, so to speak.

Also the flashbacks (or flashforwards?) are not well executed. The sequences are too short, and the different eras are too close together (only 2 years apart) so that it is very hard to keep track of where you are.

That said, the idea of a spy story that also involves marriage & family is intriguing. The setting is colorful (Luxembourg) and I am mildly interested in discovering how it all turns out. For now I will keep reading…

Joshua Ferris: The Unnamed

The Unnamed is a portrait of a man brutally ravaged by mental illness. He suffers from a very extreme obsessive compulsive disorder: he finds himself compelled to go out walking, for hours on end, no matter the weather, until he becomes so exhausted that he cannot stay awake any longer. When he wakes up, behind a dumpster or wherever, he calls his wife, she retrieves him, and they return, warily, to normal life, and wait for the next incident. The book is told almost entirely through his perspective and much of it revolves around his poignant struggle to understand the mind-body dichotomy, to reclaim his body that insists on this crazy walking against his will. At times he is completely psychotic. He loses fingers and toes to frostbite. He cannot work. His relationship with his wife and daughter is damaged beyond repair. And despite a vast battery of medical and psychological tests, no doctor is ever able to come up with a name for what ails him, let alone a cure.

Yep, that is The Unnamed. It’s very, very well done. Well crafted, well written. Not a single word out of place. If you like unreliable narrators and intense explorations of mental illness, this is definitely the book for you.

It’s not really my thing though. I prefer rollicking yarns and prose poetry; sweeping sagas with reliable third person omniscient narrators that take you out of yourself and into another world. I read The Unnamed because my book group picked it for this month. I’m glad I read it. It certainly made me think. I never would have read it otherwise. It’s good to push the envelope, right?

Lisa Grunwald: The Irresistible Henry House

After reading a string of rather excessively macho novels I made a point of looking for something a little softer when I went to the library this week. I came home with four books, three of which were written by women and are all about, y’know, relationships and stuff. (The fourth is a Booker prizewinner by a man, Plainsong, which I may or may not read. Actually, “may or may not read” applies to all of my library books. That’s the beauty of the library. One of the many beauties.)

Anyway The Irresistible Henry House was… well… irresistible. I read it in two days. Which is very unusual for me, alas. I don’t know if you heard the story on NPR, but back in the day (early 20th century) many college Home Ec programs had a “practice house.” An actual real house where Home Ec majors could go and live and practice, y’know, household stuff. Often these practice houses would also include a “practice baby.” Yes, a real baby. They would get a baby from the local orphanage and it would live in the house and the girls would take turns being its mom. These babies were then highly sought after by adoptive parents because they had been raised using the very latest child-rearing methods & philosophies. Like feeding on a schedule. And not picking it up when it cries, because “if you don’t train him now, you can’t train him later.”

So, this is real. They really did have practice houses and practice babies back in the day. And Lisa Grunwald has written a novel about it. Henry House, as you might have guessed, begins life as a practice baby. He has a different mother each week. And, it turns out, he is quite a charming charismatic little fellow, to such an extent that when his time is up (age two), the program director finds she can’t bear to part with him, and he ends up staying. He spends his whole childhood being cared for by practice moms. The ramifications of this are fascinating. Henry learns to be perfectly democratic with his moms. He learns to never ever show a preference for one over the others, not even by implication such as sharing a favorite color. (I actually know someone like this, in real life. It is freaky.) And as he grows up, predictably, this leads to big problems in the romance department.

Aspects of this book are hard to take. Particularly the child-rearing methods. You don’t have to be very far along the attachment parenting spectrum to be offended by the outdated philosophy. And Henry’s difficulties with adult relationships are painful to read as well. However, Grunwald does an amazing job with the material. This story could have been cheesy and maudlin, but she totally makes it work. Henry is a complex, three-dimensional character. Martha, the program director who refuses to read Dr. Spock and treats the practice babies brutally (by today’s standards), is also complex. Sure, I wanted to strangle her, but I also had a lot of sympathy for her. It works because the writing is so good. The author doesn’t pull her punches, and she never preaches. She is completely matter-of-fact. She lays it out, and you draw your own conclusions.

Other aspects of the book are a lot of fun. Henry is a charmer after all. And furthermore the book is set during the baby boomer era with tons of cultural references. There is plenty of color and humor to offset the hard parts. A page-turner for sure.

Highly recommend. Especially if you’ve been reading a lot of macho boy writers lately.

Sherman Alexie: Flight

I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian last year, my first book by this author. I was very curious to read it since it had received so much attention and made the NY Times bestseller list. It turned out to be one of those books that you feel ashamed for not liking since everyone else in the world apparently loves it, and you wonder what’s wrong with you that you don’t “get” it, ya know? I appreciated what Alexie is trying to do — describe, angrily, what it’s like to be an Indian in the USA today — but his choppy, clunky writing style just didn’t do it for me. As I have mentioned before, though, I don’t generally read YA novels, so I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s writing for kidz today with their short attention spans yadda yadda . . .

Soooo, when I went to the library to choose this week’s book, I found myself browsing in the A’s and I decided to give him another try. Flight looked interesting — it was in the adult section after all — and if Joyce Carol Oates found it “funny, irreverent, sardonic but sentimental” well who am I to argue?

Flight is about a teenage boy, half Indian and half Irish, who has grown up in foster homes since the age of six. He is a juvenile delinquent who’s been in trouble with the law many times. With each successive foster placement he gets angrier and more violent. At the beginning of the novel he has decided to commit mass murder. However, at the very moment when he is about to open fire, he suddenly has a series of out-of-body experiences where he is sent back through time to inhabit various people’s bodies at different key points in American Indian history. From this he learns valuable life lessons about how Violence Is Not The Answer and the book ends with happiness, peace, and redemption for all.

You can see where I’m going with that snarky synopsis, right? I didn’t like this book any better than True Diary unfortunately. It felt much the same. There is way too much telling and not nearly enough showing in this book. And I’m not talking about plot. I’m talking about the emotional state of the narrator, which is extremely fragile. Listen:

I wish I could learn how to hate those rich Indians. I wish I could ignore them. But I want them to pay attention to me.

So I shoplift candy and food and magazines and cigarettes and books and CDs and anything that can fit in my pockets. The police always catch me and put me in juvenile jail.

I get into arguments and fistfights with everybody.

I get so angry that I go blind and deaf and mute.

I like to start fires. And I’m ashamed that I’m a fire starter.

I’m ashamed of everything, and I’m ashamed of being ashamed.

The whole book is like that. Again, I appreciate what Alexie is trying to do. The plight of Indians (he never calls them Native Americans) is shocking in the extreme, and no one cares. This is a story that absolutely needs to be told. I just wish he would tell it with a bit more subtlety.