Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Acadiana

I’m native to Mississippi, but I am in love with Louisiana. I associate it with mysterious swamplands and sprawling cyprus trees dripping Spanish moss, peopled with an Acadian culture marked by fierce independence and a shared multi-cultural heritage. To me it’s one of the most romantic, beautiful and fascinating places on earth.

I’ve been to the state only once, during Mardi Gras as a teenager (an eye-opening experience.) I’m  told part of my family tree sprouted from New Orleans – via the founder of the now defunct Gibson’s department stores. And, of course, with that supposed legacy comes the ubiquitous palatial plantation home we could never locate to claim, due to incomplete records and the ineptitude of the county clerk. But could it have been any other way? Do you ever find out your family lived in a shack, deeply in debt, uneducated and missing most of their teeth? Of course not. No one wants to admit that. If it’s true or not I’ll likely never know.

And Zydeco music. I have a soft spot for it in my heart. There’s something about it, exuding raw  joy despite shared hardships, that lifts the spirit. It’s like jazz funerals in New Orleans. Through times of sadness and challenge a celebrative hopefulness lingers; a zest for life shines through. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die. And in the meantime, don’t stop for tears.

When NetGalley offered up an eGalley of Louisiana’s Historic Cajun Country I pounced. The photography turned out to be stunning, as well as heartbreaking in an “I wish I could be there right now” way. Also, in an I wish I had a hard copy of this and not an eGalley, the better to appreciate the gorgeous shots. Because it isn’t quite the same looking at them on the computer. Good enough to recognize their beauty, but, well, you know. I’m not going into the eBook versus book debate, but suffice to say nothing satisfies like the original.

Taking a photo of a photo robs it of beauty, but when the original is so perfect maybe this will give you some idea what Philip Gould‘s shots are like. Just stunning.

IMG_6546

The well-researched history was so beautifully executed I didn’t realize how much I was being taught as I read. You know what I mean. While text books teach you the facts, very well-written works of history educate and entertain you along the way. If I hadn’t enjoyed the book so much I wouldn’t have read it through twice, something I almost never do. There’s just too much to read, too many books I’m committed to reviewing to take the time to read books through more than once. But Brasseaux’s prose took me on a journey I didn’t want to end.

And no wonder! Carl Brasseaux is an expert on Acadian culture, one of the leading authorities on French North America, having published thirty-three books related to the topic. He’s been editor and associate manager of the Center for the Louisiana Studies publication program, and I could go on and on. This doesn’t even scratch the surface. Suffice to say, he’s very well-qualified. Not surprising I found this work so entrancing.

The book covers the history of Acadiana from the earliest settlements up to the present, taking the story area by area: Pointe Coupée & Avoyelles Parishes, German/Acadian Coasts, Lafourche-Terrebone Area, Upper Prairie and Lower Prairie. Each  has its own distinct history, but as a whole share several things in common: great ethnic diversity, a landscape shaped by water, fertile soil, plantation or grazing land used largely for agriculture, eventual ethnic unrest and economic depression both following the Civil War and the devastation of the 1927 flood.

The depression following the Civil War brought on a severe labor crisis due to the end of slavery, complicated by the continued occupation of Acadiana by Union troops. Then came the yellow fever epidemic in 1867, hitting the area hard. Rice, planted instead of corn, helped dig them out of the hole they were in. Shortly after, the rail system and national roadways were built, followed by increased industrial development. Commerical hunters, exporting ducks and frog legs, added yet more of a boost.

Between WW II and the present, Acadiana made its way via war-time construction jobs, shipyards and the availability of French translators to help the war effort. More oil exploration provided many more jobs as the area became increasingly modernized.

Today Acadiana still has its own distinct flavor, though much of the French language and heritage has either been lost or morphed into what we now know as Cajun culture. What’s left is still distinctive, still recognizable as the culture of southern Louisiana, though by reading Brasseaux’s book the full story of the region’s past gives us an idea what changes it has gone through.

My verdict? This is a beautiful book, both for its stunning photography and thorough treatment of the history of Acadiana. Anyone interested in Cajun culture or the early history of southern settlement – including the Spanish influence – would find this book an essential addition to his or her library. It’s simply gorgeous.

Thanks to NetGalley.com for the opportunity to read and review this ebook.

  • Hardcover: 200 pages
  • Publisher: Louisiana State University Press (May 18, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807137235
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807137239

A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates

Oh God – you are going to be so unhappy. – Gail Godwin

______________________________________________

I guess the only way to do this is just plunge right in, though of all the books I’ve reviewed this one is probably among, if not the most difficult. I don’t mean difficult as in the book itself being difficult to read, rather, picking things out of the story is intimidating. Because this is Joyce Carol Oates, and the grief of such an immense literary icon – contained in the tiniest body – is a fearsome thing. It’s humbling.

Worse, I can’t quote text as my copy is an uncorrected proof, and I don’t have the true first edition to compare it with. So all that lovely prose, stuck in amongst what is honestly a rambling tirade against death and Oates herself , may as well not ever have existed as little good as it does me.

Joyce Carol Oates and Raymond Smith met in college, each pursuing advanced degrees. It was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1960s when their whirlwind romance began. From the time they met until the time they married was only a matter of months. And their relationship of mutual love and respect would last 47 years, until Raymond’s sudden death.

During their marriage, Oates (who did take Smith as her legal last name) and Raymond lived a deeply intellectual life, opting not to have children, instead pursing literary interests. Both were writers, and both professors. Raymond Smith was the editor of the Ontario Review, and though he had written a partial manuscript he never published his novel, titled Black Mass. He never read Joyce’s fiction, though he had read her essays and selected nonfiction writings. On her part, she aided Raymond by reading submissions for his literary journal, while writing and teaching.

Raymond Smith died on February 18, 2008, after an illness less than two weeks in duration. On February 11th Smith entered the hospital, sure this would be a quick in and out visit. Once the initial diagnosis of pneumonia came in, it became “just overnight.” Then the doctor identified the bacterial strain, E. coli. Survival rates for patients with E. coli pneumonia were somewhere around 30 %.

At shortly after 12:30 a.m. the morning of February 18, 2008 came the dreaded call in the middle of the night. Her husband was still alive, but the person on the phone instructed Joyce to come right away. By the time she arrived he was gone.

She found herself alone, though the full impact of that can’t be conveyed unless you understand how sheltered she had been. Raymond took care never to upset her, treating her the way Leonard Woolf treated the fragile Virginia. They didn’t even share bad news, to save each other the unnecessary pain. It seems excessive. It was excessive; the result of over-protection only served to add a crushing feeling of helplessness to the already crippling grief she suffered following sudden loss of her beloved Raymond.

Again, being unable to quote the text I feel at a distinct disadvantage. If I had the time to read the published book, comparing it to the proof, I would. Failing that, the difficulty of conveying the extent of her suffering seems all but insurmountable.

Oates’s frailty frankly astonished me. Knowing nothing about her, judging only from her prodigious output, I imagined she was some sort of literary Amazon – fearless, with a will of iron. The truth of the matter was completely opposite. Oates’s was plunged into a surreal world of self-torture, nearly a year spent lining up all the prescription medication in the house knowing taking her life was always an option. Obviously, it was an option she never exercised, but the pull toward it was strong, though by fighting it on a daily basis the benefit was she forged new found strength out of helpless despair.

Over the course of those dark months she spent almost every waking moment blaming herself for not getting to the hospital on time, for not realizing her husband was so ill, and a million other bits of self-recrimination common when someone so close to you dies. Everything was a torture: seeing his home office empty; hearing his voice on their answering machine; going through the motions of every day life, living the nightmarish conviction that some dark force was swirling around her, pointing the finger of blame for something over which she no control.

She could not forgive herself, and the guilt gnawed at her. The dark force became “the basilisk,” and herself “the widow.” She detached from Joyce Carol Oates, splitting into a shadow self that spoke in the third person. Detachment is a survival mechanism. It kicks in when the sub-conscious senses a mortal threat, when the option is to detach or shut down. So she detached. And she survived.

To be honest, it takes more than one read – in my case, a read and a half, because I’m impatient – to sift through the narrative, finding JCO in her own story. So much of the book is disjointed at best, and irritating at worst. The prose is punctuated by hundreds and hundreds of exclamation points, something that grates on the nerves of the proof reader in me. I was so irritated I started circling recurrent punctuation marks, my intent to count them all so I could say THIS is what annoyed me, dammit! But I stopped, realizing I was driving myself crazy trying to be her editor, instead of letting annoyances pass by while I dug out what she was actually saying.

Reading A Widow’s Story is an excavation. And it’s exhausting. I can’t do it justice, though I’m not sure who can. Analyzing a work of grief so intense it nearly burns the page seems wrong, somehow. I can’t tell her how to grieve, nor how to write her account of grief. All I can do is read it, trying not to judge a JCO who’s all but unrecognizable. The polish is gone; the writing is raw.

It is what it is. That’s all I can say.

Hardcover: 432 pages
Publisher: Ecco; First Edition edition (February 15, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0062015532
ISBN-13: 978-0062015532

Professional reviews:

The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/14/books/14book.html?_r=1

The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/mar/06/widows-story-carol-oates-review

The Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/11/AR2011021102701.html

The Dead Path: A Novel by Stephen M. Irwin

I tip my hat, Mr. Irwin. As a literary fiction snob, curmudgeonly reviewer, and reader of thousands of books let me tell you I don’t impress easily. Besieged by free review copies, I toss aside far more than I read. Then in came this book. The cover was striking, and if it hadn’t been for that I wouldn’t have bothered reading the dust jacket blurb. But I did, and as usual thought, if it’s only half as good as the raves I’ll be shocked.

Reader, I was shocked.

As I said, I read the blurbs and thought blah blah… Impress me. I’ll give you a chapter or two, max. And it took, what, a paragraph for me to be sucked in so completely I didn’t come up for air for at least 100 pages? Yes, it was probably a paragraph. Especially when it reads like this:

“Snow fell.

It drifted down slow as morning mist, settling white on brown, white on silver, white on white. It fell so thickly that Nicholas could see no more than a meter or so ahead. His hair, normally the color of dry grass, was white with it. His hands on his hips, flecked coral, blood red, and indigo, grew steadily paler as he stood in the steady downward wash of white. His eyes, the darkest part of him, were all that moved as he watched the figure above him. A ghost, swaying its arms to the milky sky, waving. Or a summoning angel. A spectral thing, unmindful of him.”

And, once you read another paragraph, you see what he’s describing is actually something different. It’s then you respect him for having accurately described something that fit both situations. Well done.

I read into the wee hours of the morning the first day, cursing the fact I had to put it aside to sleep, since my job that pays the bills (librarian!) requires I get out of bed and wear something besides pajamas, plus I’m partial to rest. Next day: damned laundry! Housework! I pushed most of that away and grabbed the book again. Then, one last spurt of reading, and I ran from my favorite reading spot in bed straight to my computer, so I could rave. Rave!

Is it a thriller? A mystery? A work of supernatural fiction? Fantasy? Yes! Yes! Yes! and Yes!

It also contains cracking good quality prose, spot on dialogue, fully-fleshed characters and a plot that made me wish I were independently wealthy so I wouldn’t have had to put it down for longer than it requires to “tend to urgent needs.”

Phew!

So, the plot. Nicholas Close and his lovely wife Cate are young marrieds living in London, fixing up the flat they envisioned filling with loads of wonderful young married memories. But then, Nicholas takes a header off his motorcycle, and as he’s falling to the pavement(called “bitumen” to those in the former British Empire, I learned, after it was repeated a hundred times) sees a strange face in the foliage across the street, not enough to make it out, but enough for it to register as strange. Then he hits, for whatever reason survives that nasty accident, and calls home to his wife, who’s on a ladder working on a home improvement project. She slips, on her way to answer the phone, and dies in a tragic and totally unnecessary way.

Wandering through his life in a fog, one day our main character has an accident, falling down cement stairs and cracking his head on the pavement. The chap must have nine lives, because he gets up from that unharmed, as well. But it has a very strange side effect. Suddenly he’s able to see ghosts, people acting out their last moments on earth, over and over and over. They’re caught in an endless loop, and only he can see it. When a therapist asks if he was able to see Cate as well he revisits their now empty flat. And he can see her, falling off the ladder again and again, breaking her neck on the bathtub.

Understandably, Nicholas is distraught, and decides to return to his homeland of Australia, to stay a while with his mother until he can decide what on earth to do next. His mother greets him warmly, but there’s something there, something lacking as if she’s not quite glad he’s back. File that one away for later.

It soon comes out that, as a child, Nicholas’s best friend had been abducted and murdered in the menacing woods near his childhood home. Upon returning home there they are, in all their shivery glory, taunting him in a subtle but very real way. There is something evil in there. He knows that, but the poor man’s just lost his wife. There isn’t time to put a lot of thought into it.

Until… More people die.

I could keep nattering away about the plot, but there’s so much I don’t want to ruin. Let’s just cover a few things briefly: his father committed suicide when Nicholas was young, his sister Suzette… Hmm. Shouldn’t tell you that. But the two are close, and she figures prominently in getting Nicholas started investigating the evil in the woods and the tragic deaths that seem to follow him. And, he’s still seeing ghosts, many of them children being dragged into the woods…

That’s enough for you! You need to read the book. It’s just really, really a terrific read. Does it have its creaky spots? Well, yes. It’s difficult writing supernatural scenes without having them come off sounding stupid. I’ve tried it a couple of times. And it sounded like the script of a really bad zombie movie, and not one so bad it’s good. It was just plain bad.

So, yes. I found a couple spots of struggle that could have been polished a bit more, but it just didn’t matter. When 99 % of something is good, you don’t complain about that one percent now, do you? Okay, sometimes. If you’re feeling foul. But I forgave all, especially once I’d finished and the denouement (fancy French word for resolution) completely sideswiped me. Me! Reader of thousands of books! Did I see that one coming? No!

I’m just, plain impressed. And damn well entertained. Can’t ask for more than that. And when he writes his next novel? I’ll be all over it. Like a spider on a fly… cryptic smile, cocked head, raised eyebrow… nudge, nudge, wink wink…

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday (October 5, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385533438
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385533430

 

Visit the author’s website here.

Reviews, reviews, reviews!

Posted: February 23, 2011 in Book Reviews, Review Books

My (mostly) great reading streak continues! I’m getting spoiled. I’m also getting really overwhelmed with review books. Ain’t that a shame?

Here are a few I either already have (some digital, some the regular, old fashioned book) or are on the way:

Small Memories: A Memoir by Jose Saramago

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky

Afterword: Conjuring the Literary Dead – Dale Salwak, ed.

Why Jane Austen? by Rachel Brownstein

At Midnight in a Flaming Town  by Lorraine Bateman and Paul Messenger

Acadiana Carl A. Brasseaux

And I better stop before I start a riot.

Now, a few of the books I’ve finished lately:

Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark

Imagine a manor house near Geneva. Locked behind their library doors are the Baron and Baroness and their secretary. Meanwhile, downstairs, the servants wait, planning for what they already know will be a tragedy. For their employers, that is. For them it will bring a very big fortune.

Weird enough?

“They haunt the house,” says Lister, “like insubstantial bodies, while still alive. I think we have a long wait in front of us.” He takes his place at the head of the table. “He said on no account to disturb them. Not to be disturbed, Lister.” You should have seen the look on her face. My mind floats about, catching at phantoms and I think of the look on her face. I am bound to ventilate this impression or I won’t digest my supper.”

Two words: creepy and creepier.

A strange, dark book with a gothic influence. Recommended for those who don’t mind feeling discomfort, and uncertainty in their fiction.

  • Paperback: 96 pages
  • Publisher: New Directions; Reprint edition (June 29, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0811218678
  • ISBN-13: 978-0811218672
  • [I read my personal copy of this book.]

    Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter  by Tom Franklin

    Those of us native to Mississippi will be familar with this method of learning to spell the state’s name: M-I-Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter – I – Crooked Letter, Crooked Leter – I – Humpback, Humpback -I.

    That’s where the name of this novel comes from, which is pretty clever, though a bit obscure if you don’t know this mnemonic tool. And look what you learned today!

    Franklin’s novel is a great read:  atmospheric, great plot, characters the reader cares deeply about, and a gripping mystery that drives the story. At the center of the book is Larry Ott, a middle aged man considered the prime suspect in the disappearance of a teenage girl twenty years prior. As he was the last person known to have seen her alive, the weight of suspicion naturally falls on him.

    However, when no body is found, no charges can be pressed. In any case, the small community in which he lives shuns him, trial or no trial, ruining his auto mechanic business, dooming him to a lonely existence on the fringes of the town. His only hope for business are visitors from out of town who stop by, unaware of his grisly reputation.

    As we get to know Larry Ott, his inherent gentleness and patience become apparent. Resigned to his fate, he spends most of his time – when not at work – sitting at home reading novels, eating the same Kentucky Fried Chicken meal for dinner every day. A reader since childhood, he is, for the most part, content with his limited life.

    Silas (known popularly as 32 – the number on his high school football jersey) Jones, a black man now the town sheriff, grew up a neighbor and friend of Larry Ott’s. He also shuns him, though there  is at least some feeling of humanity underneath, presumably as a result of their formerly close relationship. Of course, in 1970s Mississippi a friendship between a white and black child was – to put it mildly – discouraged, creating many difficulties for them. His reluctance to associate with Ott may lie as much with a desire to keep their former relationship secret as the town’s belief he’s gotten away with murder.

    When a second murder of a beautiful teenage girl occurs, Larry Ott is under suspicion all over again.

    Recommended for lovers of suspense fiction, especially those who enjoy southern settings.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: MacMillan (January 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0230753051
  • ISBN-13: 978-0230753051
  • [Free review copy.]

    Mr. Toppit  by Charles Elton

    Arthur Hayman, author of a children’s book series, is hit by a truck and killed very early on in the novel. At his side is an American stranger – Laurie Clow -on vacation in London. Her kindness helps soften some of his last hours on earth.

    During the short time she spends holding his hand, talking to him, she develops what she feels is a very close bond, and decides to ride in the ambulance along with him to the hospital. When his family arrives they’re confused as to the woman’s relationship with Arthur, though in their grief they’re more accepting of her than they would have been otherwise. Laurie accompanies them home, helping them struggle through the funeral, staying until they’re back on their feet.

    But her fascination with Arthur Hayman doesn’t end there. Determined in her effort to bring him fame, once she’s back in the U.S. she works tirelessly to promote his books, resulting in him skyrocketing to fame posthumously.

    Hayman’s books are set in the woods near his house, his son Luke the model of the series hero. And Mr. Toppit is the villain, an unseen, ill-meaning force who is Luke’s nemesis. Luke also had a sister, Rachel, who was completely left out of the books, causing her much hurt and resulting depression.

    Once this most interesting part of the book is past, things take a rapid nosedive. From what could have been a charming tale of British eccentrics the plot turns to the world of Hollywood celebrities, changing the character of the story.

    As a result, I can’t recommend the book. It was too uneven, too jarring in its transition. What I expected to be a charmingly English story turned into an Oprah-influenced bore of a book. I’m not sure what Elton was thinking, or why he chose to depart from the main theme of the story – the books themselves and the discovery of the influence behind the character of Mr. Toppit.

    A very disappointing, disjointed and long (400 pp.!) read.

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Other Press; 1 edition (November 9, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590513908
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590513903
  • [Free review copy.]

    Lit  by Mary Karr

    The fact the memoir market is bloated, filled with books written by everyone and anyone with a life story to tell (which is, actually, everyone), is unfortunate. In a genre so overwhelmed it’s difficult for any one author to stand out; the truly great books can get lost in the shuffle.

    Mary Karr’s memoir is exceptionally well-written, a difficult life story told without a shred of self pity. Despite an ongoing battle with alcoholism, as well as an unfulfilling career that threatened to crush her literary ambitions, Karr’s strength of character is an inspiration. But her story is one thousands have gone through. That in itself isn’t exceptional. What makes this book stand out from the crowd is Karr’s graceful, seemingly effortless prose. This is one memoir truly worth reading.

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; 1 Reprint edition (June 29, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060596996
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060596996
  • [Free review copy.]

    Several more reviews to come, as soon as I can get to them. I’m so far behind it’s pathetic. If I developed an actual system that would help, eh? Oh, but that makes too much sense. And it would “stifle my creativity.”

    Anyone buying that? I tried.

    Not enough caffeine in the world to keep my eyes open today, so I’m using transparent tape. The problem is my eyes keep drying out, which makes my contacts detach. I guess that’s okay, though. You don’t need 20/20 vision to see your dreams.

    The following is only a small smattering of the reading I’ve been doing lately. I don’t know how I’ve managed to read so much all of a sudden. Possibly it’s due to the rash of really great books of the unputdownable variety I’ve been lucky enough to read so far this year. Whatever it is, I can’t complain.

    Moviegoer

    The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

    I’ll start off with a classic, Walker Percy’s 1961 novel The Moviegoer, winner of the 1962 National Book Award.

    I bought a slightly yellowed but decent copy from a used bookseller, partly on impulse but mostly because I wanted to read more southern literature. I’d always heard Percy’s name mentioned in conjunction with the best of the best, so when I happened upon the book I considered it fate. It didn’t hurt that the book was incredibly cheap, or that it’s part of a southern literature series including the names of a few other writers I’d never heard of.

    Books that lead to other books? Yes, thanks!

    The Moviegoer is the story of Binx Bolling, a Vietnam vet living in, and hailing from, New Orleans. A stockbroker by trade, Binx has trouble with long term relationships, choosing to lose himself in movies instead of putting effort into real-life interactions with people. He professes to be bored, discontent with the “everydayness” of life. Therefore, he’s always searching, for what he couldn’t say.

    “To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”

    Then:

    “The movies are onto the search, but  they screw it up. The search always ends in despair. They like to show a fellow coming to himself in a strange place – but what does he do? He takes up with the local librarian, sets about proving to the local children what a nice fellow he is, and settles down with a vengeance. In two week’s time he is so sunk in everydayness that he might as well be dead.”

    Thanks for perpetuating the stereotype, old buddy old pal.

    The Moviegoer is a strange and occasionally funny novel, as plotless as Binx’s own life, wandering from scene to scene with only the loosest of plots. I loved the atmosphere of New Orleans, the quirky relatives and the tone varying from profound to sad to lyrical:

    “Three o’clock and suddenly awake amid the smell of dreams and of the years come back and peopled and blown away again like smoke. A young man am I, twenty nine, but I am as full of dreams as an ancient. At night the years come back and perch around my bed like ghosts.”

    Lovely stuff. And librarian basher or not, I’ll most definitely read more Walker Percy.

    [Personal copy]

    • Paperback: 241 pages
    • Publisher: Vintage; 1st Vintage International Ed edition (April 14, 1998)
    • Language: English
    • ISBN-10: 0375701966
    • ISBN-13: 978-0375701962

    Vacantpossession

    Vacant Possession by Hilary Mantel

    As far as I can recall, the only novel of Hilary Mantel’s I’ve yet attempted was her hugely successful Wolf Hall. Though I love the subject of the Tudors, around halfway through this novel I became frustrated, putting it aside because I had so much trouble keeping the characters straight it became more a history lesson than an enjoyable read. Mind, I love history, but it became too much a slog to continue.

    Vacant Possession was written in 1986, back in the days of yore. In 1986 I was in college, studying for my Bachelor’s Degree in English literature. I had no idea Hilary Mantel even existed, so immersed was I in the classics.

    I regret that, not reading anything at all by contemporary writers when life was so much simpler, and I had those long summers with hours and hours of idle time to while away. Back then I just never thought to, not when there was a whole world of Victorian literature to keep me set for eons, reading and re-reading the novels of Hardy, mostly, with lots of Dickens thrown in. But modern writers? I was completely in the dark. Had the internet been around and as useful as it is now, things may have been different. But it was easy, as an English major, pushing aside anything that wasn’t considered Literature with a capital “L.”

    This novel is a tremendously satisfying gothic-inspired novel, with a main character as twisted and insane as any Barbara Vine has ever created. Muriel Axon was raised by a mentally disturbed mother who locked her away from life in order, in some warped way, to keep her safe from what’s “out there.”

    “This was Muriel’s life: days, whole weeks together, when Mother didn’t let her out of the house in the mornings. She locked her bedroom door, or hid her shoes. At St. David’s School on Arlington Road, she was nothing but an object of remark. None of the remarks were flattering. She rocked in her chair, played with her fingers. She would not write, could not, had never learned, forgotten how. At the sound of a bell the children rushed out of the room and fought each other in an asphalt circus behind bars. She stood and watched the others, rubbing her arm above the elbow where Mother’s fingers left her permanently bruised. She licked some rust from the railings; there was iron on her tongue, salt, ice. She laid about with her fists. Soon this part of life was over; Mother kept her at home.”

    When she was older, Muriel was released from her prison by a man who happened to see a woman – locked in an upper-floor room where there were, she felt, unnatural, invisible creatures nipping at her legs – gesturing wildly for help. He knocked down the door, pushed Muriel’s mother aside, and broke the woman out of the room. As a result of the excitement, Muriel’s mother had a heart attack and died.

    Later, the same man bought the house. Enraged, blaming the man for her mother’s death, Muriel sets about seeking revenge. And there’s nothing she won’t do to achieve her goal, since she has no sense of rationality, no concept of reality or normal society. Unsurprisingly, Muriel turned out to suffer from the same sorts of mental illnesses as her mother.

    I love books like this, those that give me the creeps. That is, if the characters are human and not creatures from horror novels. I have no use for those. But books that explore the twisted psyche, now that’s my sort of reading. If this is your cup of tea, try Vacant Possession.

    [Personal copy]

    • Paperback: 256 pages
    • Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (August 31, 2010)
    • Language: English
    • ISBN-10: 031266804X
    • ISBN-13: 978-0312668044

    A couple review books I read for the Amazon Vine program:

    Breakingnight

    Breaking Night by Liz Murray

    I’ve experienced crappy- life memoir overload after reading umpteen hundred of them, so I’m not sure what possessed me to actually choose to read and review this one. Luckily, it turned out to be pretty impressive.

    Liz Murray grew up the child of two alcoholic crack heads. The family lived month to month on welfare checks, most of which was squandered on drugs. Surprise! What little food they did buy lasted only days after each check. After that it was everyone for him/herself.Liz learned to visit friends on a regular basis, getting hot meals there at least a couple of times a week.

    In the middle is the story of what it was like to grow up in a completely neglectful household, how she and her sister, Lisa, survived. Liz eventually became homeless, again, living largely off the kindness of her friends who gave her what food and shelter they could. Still, she spent a lot of time on the streets. Her eventual success was due to her own strength of character, her refusal to let her godawful childhood doom her to the same fate as her parents.

    Inspiring is such an over-used word. Rather than that, I’m amazed all over again at the ability of the human spirit to recover from seemingly impossible odds. And not just to survive, but to thrive. Many of us surmount the seemingly unsurvivable, so Liz Murray definitely isn’t the first. But what she’s done is write a memoir that’s completely lacking self pity, telling her story without falling into the “poor me” trap. I thought that alone a very good recommendation.

    Worth a read if you’re a fan of memoirs, and a good book to hand to a teenager who thinks his or her life is rough.  Lots of good life lessons here.

    [Free review copy from Amazon]

    • Hardcover: 352 pages
    • Publisher: Hyperion (September 7, 2010)
    • Language: English
    • ISBN-10: 0786868910
    • ISBN-13: 978-0786868919

    Heroine'sbookshelf

    The Heroine’s Bookshelf by Erin Blakemore

    And, last but certainly not least, a wonderful, wonderful book about heroines in literature, including:  Lizzy Bennet (Pride and Prejudice), Janie Crawford (Their Eyes Were Watching God), Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables), Celie (The Color Purple), Francie Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), Claudine (Colette), Scarlett O’Hara (Gone With the Wind), Scout Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), Laura Ingalls Wilder,  Jane Eyre, Jo March (Little Women) and Mary Lennox (The Secret Garden).

     What author Erin Blakemore has done is take these female characters, relate their qualities as we know them from the novels they’re in, while weaving in biographical details from the author’s lives. In the midst of this, Blakemore extrapolates the experiences of these women to apply to women as a whole. And the effect is just wonderful.

    I didn’t expect this book to be nearly as good as it was. When you’re choosing titles blindly it’s an iffy proposition. But this time I struck gold.

    Very highly recommended to those who enjoy books about books, exploring how the fiction evolves from real life.

    [Free review copy from Amazon]

    • Hardcover: 224 pages
    • Publisher: Harper; 1st edition (October 19, 2010)
    • Language: English
    • ISBN-10: 006195876X
    • ISBN-13: 978-0061958762

     

    That catches me up somewhat. Actually, considering how crazy-nuts things have been around here I’m doing well just to recap this much. The problem is while I’m waiting to catch up with what I’ve already read I’ll be reading other books.

    Wait, did I just say that’s a problem? Okay, it is if it’s a review book. But I’d like to share thoughts about every book I read, including those I pick up on a whim. I ask for lots of the review titles specifically, but  many of them just arrive. Sometimes they’re good, and sometimes not so much. The not so much often wind up in our library sale pile, but the good ones I have the best intentions of reviewing. Sometimes it’s just on Amazon, but for maximum impact I prefer blogging them, as well.

    I have to have everything, don’t I?

    Well, frankly, YES. Shocking I don’t go on a Muriel rampage, actually. Good thing my keeper put me on the choke chain. And now here comes the muzzle! Oh drat.

    Quickening 

    New novelists, in their desire to create a descriptive novel, so often commit the sin of over-writing. That is, nearly every sentence contains a metaphor or unnecessary description which doesn’t allow the reader to form his or her own mental picture. Such a writing style can impinge on the reader’s patience, veering into annoying purple prose.

    However, in the case of ‘The Quickening,’ the story was so compelling, and the characters mostly well-drawn – though not always differentiated quite enough – I believe a little over-writing can be overlooked.

    ‘The Quickening’ tells the story of two farm families living in the Great Plains just after the Great Depression and during the beginning of the Dust Bowl era, alike only in that they’re neighbors working the same crops and raising the same animals. In other ways they’re totally different.

    For example, while “Eddie,” the hulking farm wife, makes an excellent partner to her husband, sharing in the heavy labor without a word of complaint, her neighbor Mary is delicate, discontent, and strains against the virtual chains put on her, tying her to the land. While Eddie is content, Mary is restless, looking outside her marriage for comfort, playing music on the piano at the local church in order to keep some semblence of culture in her life.

    The two clash from the beginning. What forces them together is the fact they are neighbors, thus reliant upon each other’s families in order to work the land and run their respective farms as smoothly as possible. Mary, lonely for friendship, finds in Eddie a consistent, though rough and uncivilized, companion to help her through her solitude. And Eddie, self-sufficient, though she dislikes Mary in many ways, at the same time relies on her to help look out for her family during emergencies.

    As for their husbands, while Eddie’s Frank is gentle and the opposite of his wife in build, loves Eddie unconditionally. Mary’s husband Jack, however, occasionally vents his anger on his wife, as well as on their children.

    Thus, we have two families thrust together against their wills, yet reliant on each other out of necessity. Survival depends upon good relations with neighbors when living in such a remote area, yet occasional clashes are inevitable. And it’s these clashes that cause the tension of the novel, two families forced to rely on people they don’t really like, yet must get along with.

    Aside from the occasionally over-wrought language, the plot and characters pull the novel along nicely. While it wasn’t a novel I was dying to read, I didn’t have trouble getting back into it after a break, either. I cared about the characters, but didn’t feel true passion, and wasn’t terribly emotionally invested in them.

    Still, a good read. Not great, but good. With more practice I believe Hoover is capable of producing a finer second novel.

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Other Press; 1St Edition edition (June 29, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590513460
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590513460
  • [I read a review copy of this book, courtesy of Amazon.com]

    Flyaway by Suzie Gilbert

    Posted: April 13, 2010 in Book Reviews

    Flyaway: How a Wild Bird Rehabber Sought Adventure and Found Her Wings

    by Suzie Gilbert

    “Wildlife rehabilitators find themselves … faced with a … skeptical public, many of whom seem to believe that wild animals are little more than programmed robots. Some loudly and indignantly question why rehabbers “waste” their time with animals when they could be helping people …”

    – from Flyaway

    My house feels like an animal sanctuary, and I’m not talking about the homo sapiens living inside. There’s a space underneath our porch that’s been home to at least three families of skunks (yes, it STANK), and now our second or third round of foxes.

    The skunks, despite the smell, were an entertaining lot. One year they, for whatever reason, decided to grab hold of the Christmas lights, dragging them into their little den. I told my kids they were using them to light their tree, and we got kick out of that mental picture. Once the holiday was over we pulled the lights out. They were a little chewed, and a lot stinky, and had to be thrown out. But for a month or so it seemed pretty hilarious.

    In honor of Gilbert’s book, I also have a bird story to share. Every year we put out two hanging baskets, again on our porch. For three or four years running a little brown bird with a sort of rosy red stomach (smaller than a robin) built a nest in one of them. Then, one year, we put out the baskets later than usual. One day I heard a tap, tap, tapping on the window looking out on our porch. On it was sitting that little bird – or its twin. It went on for days. Then, we put out the hanging baskets. And the bird built its nest once again. Coincidence or a little bird saying, “Hey! Where’s my basket?!”

    You tell me.

    Suzie Gilbert’s book is filled with stories any wildlife and/or nature lover will identify with. Doubtless this group will find it as entertaining as I did. Those who love biographies with a lighter spin (i.e., not of the “My life was a living hell” variety) will enjoy the frequently humorous prose.

    I was especially glad I read it while recovering from knee surgery. Why? Because I needed something upbeat and well-written to pull me out of the “this sucks!” doldrums.  And Flyaway certainly did that.

    But perhaps the best thing about this book is its avid championing of the cause of animal rehabbers, a dedicated and selfless lot who often don’t get the credit they deserve:

    “Critics may look for numbers, but from that point of view all nonprofit work is the veritable drop in the bucket. Millions are under seige; what’s the point of helping fifty, or a hundred, or a thousand? The point is in the value of the individual, and in the ensuing ripple effect. The drop in the bucket is the convulsing mockingbird; the ripple effect is that a woman brings it to a rehabilitator, who convinces the woman to stop using pesticides on her lawn, and the woman returns home and convinces her neighbors to do the same.”

    – from Flyaway

    If I thought I had a real life “animal house,” Gilbert’s book shows she’s beaten me by a mile. Her whole family was engaged in her drive to save wildlife – especially birds, but occasionally another species. If they hadn’t been on board I can’t imagine how she’d have done all the laudable work she did. I have a feeling her enthusiasm would still have been there, but her family really deserves much credit for their hard work, too.

    I give my full recommendation for Flyaway, the best nonfiction book about animals I’ve read since James Herriot’s All Creatures series, and best nature book since Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  In the spring, when the birds are coming back, its especially good reading.

    And who knows? Maybe it will inspire more people to get into animal rehabbing. I have a feeling Suzie Gilbert would find that most pleasing of all.

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; 1 Reprint edition (March 16, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061563137
  • Visit Suzie Gilbert’s website  for more info.