Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Review of Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline made its rounds on book club lists and “Best Of” lists in 2014. I am clearly late to the party. The story follows Molly, a Native American foster teen who needs to do community service for stealing a library book. Her service involves helping 91-year-old Vivian clean out her attic. And in cleaning the attic, Molly learns about Vivian’s experience as part of the Orphan Train program in the 1920s. Together, the two women consider the burdens they carry and how stories connect them to the past and to each other.

As I began this review, I thought that I would be revisiting the issue of the portrayal of older characters in novels. But this is not really a book about an older character and a younger one; instead, it’s a book about two girls growing up in different eras. Not only that, there is a gloss of romance, a whole bag full of coincidences that pull characters together, somewhat one dimensional adult authority figures that make the reader root for the kids, etc. This book had all the hallmarks of a Young Adult novel, but it is not being marketed that way.

Had I known that this was a good book for younger readers**, I would have approached it as such and raved about it.  It was so accessible, and I devoured it in one sitting! But I do feel a bit misled, as I was expecting something more raw and complicated. I do not mean to step into the steaming heap of last summer’s literary ruckus about whether or not YA literature is valuable for adult readers. I am trying to be a reader who tackles a broad array of books, and YA will be part of that array.  But I do read kids’ books with a different eye and a different spirit. I always ask myself if the 14-year-old version of me would have enjoyed the book. Would it have resonated with my experience or taught me something new?

All that said, this book does what good historical fiction can do: it pushes the reader to think about enduring themes in a different time and place. The Orphan Train program, which transported homeless children without parents away from east coast cities and relocated them with families in the Midwest, was the predecessor of the modern foster care system. The book’s appendices direct you to a collection of resources to find out more about the stories and experiences of Orphan Train participants (victims?). I can easily see this novel being integrated into a U.S. History class as a springboard to a larger conversation about immigration or urbanization.

You can find out about the Orphan Train program here. And you can learn more about this author here and here.

**Note for parents: high school level due to a scene of sexual violence

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Review of Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

Emma Healey won the 2014 Costa First Novel prize for Elizabeth Is Missing and was on assorted “best of” lists last December. The book follows Maud, an elderly woman with dementia. She is trying to figure out what happened to her friend, Elizabeth, who has seemingly vanished.  But the catch is that she can’t remember anything – where she is, where she’s going, what question she has, whether Elizabeth is actually missing. In fact, Maud only knows that Elizabeth is missing when she finds a note to herself in her pocket.

What Maud does remember is the disappearance of her older sister in the 1940s. While her experience of the current day is chopped up into fragments, the reader gets a more vivid picture of the past.

This book was promoted as a “page turning novel of suspense.” I imagined it would be like Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson. In that book, a woman forgets everything from the previous day, but the reader gets the sneaking suspicion that something sinister is going on. I thought that book was a fun, candy bar of a psychological thriller. 

But somewhat early on, it becomes clear that Elizabeth Is Missing has been improperly billed. This is not a thriller, or even a mystery exactly. This is a story about what it’s like to lose your memory, to have no way to communicate your concerns or organize your questions or be taken seriously. It is also a novel about the way that memory gives meaning and continuity to family.

This is not a perfect book, but one masterful element is Healey’s portrayal of Helen, who is Maud’s adult daughter. Maud is the sole narrator of this story. Without shifting perspectives, Healey tells us what it’s like to be Maud’s main caregiver through small details. We get to see Helen's worry lines, witness her apologies to passersby, hear her sighs of exasperation. Maud might not fully understand her daughter's gestures, but the reader does.

My own mother has long remarked that there are few rich literary portrayals of older characters. I found Maud to be deeply compelling, but I don’t think a character like this would satisfy my mother’s interest. The fact that Maud is so deeply vulnerable (and resembles in uncomfortable ways a character from her past that is described as a “mad woman”) could potentially reaffirm stereotypes of elderly people.  If you have good examples of strong older characters – particularly older female characters – please leave a comment! Here's a Huffington Post column with some suggestions.

(There is, apparently, a new “genre” of fiction called “Matron literature.”  I’m not sure if this is a good thing. I’m wondering if there will be a special table at the bookstore that features “Hot New Titles For Matrons!”)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Review of When the World Was Steady by Claire Messud

Claire Messud made literary waves a couple of years ago when she wrote a book that that had an unpleasant female main character. The question that emerged was whether readers think that female characters are supposed to be likable. Do women only get to be appealing, nice, kind, and attractive?

When an interviewer said that she wouldn’t want to be friends with Messud’s main character in The Woman Upstairs, Messud responded:

“For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’ ”

Later, she said to the New York Times Book Review Podcast

“I couldn’t help but feel that it was a gendered question. I don’t think we as readers expect to identify with or admire male protagonists, and I suddenly had a feeling that there was this expectation of a woman protagonist by a woman reader.”

While this exchange happened in 2013, the same issue could have been raised in 1994, the year that Messud’s first novel, When the World Was Steady, was published. In this book, two sisters, raised by a prickly single mother, seem different in every way. Virginia, the older sister, continues to live with her mother, working at an uninspiring job in London and searching for God. At an emotional breaking point, she decides to go with her mother on a rare vacation to Scotland’s Isle of Skye, a place that has familial significance.

Emmy, the younger of the two, moves from London to Australia in her twenties an never looks back. Now in her forties and divorced, she takes off to Bali in search of a new identity. She somewhat ironically finds herself enmeshed in the life of an odd group of Australians.

Each of these women – Virginia, Emmy, and their mother – is uniquely unpleasant. But somehow each is also deeply compelling and relatable. I didn’t want to be friends with them, but I did want to see what happened to them over the course of the novel.

As I was reading, I was struck by the utter separateness of the two sections. The story of each sister on each island (Can you holler, METAPHOR!) could exist as part of its own interesting novel about running away or finding one’s self. But there they were together, told in alternating chunks, as if the relationship between the women did not even exist. I had a conversation in my head about how weird this total separation was and felt a little bit critical until the very last chapter. And then – Wow! – it made sense. I was knocked over by the ending, which satisfied me in an unexpected way.

I don’t often go back and read authors’ backlists, especially first novels. But I picked this one up at a library sale for 75 cents after reading the author’s The Emperor’s Children years ago. This was one of my picks for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge (if you’re keeping score, I’ve read 2 out of 12 so far). 

There is a lot of good stuff about Messud on the interwebs. Here’s an interesting article about her home life, and here’s one with her ideas about art and writing.

Monday, March 16, 2015

What I'm Reading, Spring Break Edition

Since I last did a Monday Update, I have finished teaching winter quarter. Teaching reminds me of running a half marathon – my legs feel like they are going to give out at the end, and I’m moving on sheer will alone.

But now there are just papers to grade, and then SPRING BREAK! I know that there was a time when spring break meant a party on a beach. Now it means reading for fun in my overstuffed chair (with champagne).

Reading for fun, people! I can’t tell you how excited I am.

Recently, I have posted reviews for Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace by Anne Lamott, Yes Please by Amy Poehler, and A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler. I am almost done with When the World Was Steady by Claire Messud, so look for a review of that one some time this week.

Looking ahead, I have a small stack of books and a celebratory beverage waiting for me:

I’ll be reading That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott for my book club. One of our members is here for a year from Australia, and she chose this one. Here’s the description from Powells:

Set in Western Australia in the first decades of the nineteenth century, That Deadman Dance is a vast, gorgeous novel about the first contact between the Aboriginal Noongar people and the new European settlers.
Bobby Wabalanginy is a young Noongar man, smart, resourceful, and eager to please. He befriends the European arrivals, joining them as they hunt whales, till the land, and establish their new colony. He is welcomed into a prosperous white family, and eventually finds himself falling in love with the daughter, Christine. But slowly-by design and by hazard-things begin to change. Not everyone is happy with how the colony is progressing. Livestock mysteriously start to disappear, crops are destroyed, there are "accidents" and injuries on both sides. As the Europeans impose ever-stricter rules and regulations in order to keep the peace, Bobby's Elders decide they must respond in kind, and Bobby is forced to take sides, inexorably drawn into a series of events that will forever change the future of his country.

I also hope to tackle Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey. There has been a lot of buzz about this book. Here’s the description on Goodreads:

In this darkly riveting debut novel—a sophisticated psychological mystery that is also a heartbreakingly honest meditation on memory, identity, and aging—an elderly woman descending into dementia embarks on a desperate quest to find the best friend she believes has disappeared, and her search for the truth will go back decades and have shattering consequences.

I am also excited to receive in the mail my copy of Hover by Seattle poet Erin Malone. Erin has agreed to do an interview here at The Leaning Stack of Books, so get ready for an upcoming discussion about writing and reading. 

Here’s the description on Goodreads:

In Hover, a new mother struggles to overcome fear and anxiety. Her son’s birth unexpectedly summons feelings of helplessness, grief, anger, and guilt, and we learn that the death of her brother in childhood is a loss that crashes once again into her present life. Shaken, unsure of her new identity and wrestling with old fears, she slowly makes her way through this tangle of emotions towards some hope of repair and redemption.

Have a great reading week!

(It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Journey)

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Review of A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

I have noticed that I have reading experiences connected to big memories.  I remember my trip to Seattle before it was home, when the city was a dot of  “maybe” on the vast horizon of life. I was reading Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and I couldn’t put the book down, even as the water and mountains pulled me out to this new place. There was something captivating about Tyler’s writing, and it is bound up in my memories about being young and having so many choices to make.

Tyler has a twenty book resumé at this point (including a Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons), and she has said that A Spool of Blue Thread will be her last. In many respects, this book is “classic” Tyler: a quirky Baltimore family struggles with its secrets. What is new is the way that the aging process impacts that family.  Red and Abby are the parents, and they live in a giant house that Red’s father built when he was a child. Their adult children – two girls and two boys – navigate the future of the family as Abby begins to have gaps in her memory.

I found this book, like most of Tyler’s novels, to be immensely readable. I needed no grace period to come to know the characters. It was like there was an extra seat at the family table, and I was invited to come to dinner (like the “orphans” that Abby brings home for family meals). But, that said, there was something not-quite-right about this book for me, and upon reflection, I think it was the structure. In this book, the climax happens in the middle, and then it kind of dribbles its way to the end. The book starts in the current-day and ends in the past, with a weird zig-and-zag to that point. It’s almost as if Tyler wrote the story and then disassembled it. The result is a book with an odd pace.

One thing that I’ve been chewing on is whether I think the title and cover of this book do it justice.  The spool of blue thread is a real item in the book and is symbolic of the connectivity of these family members.  But I thought the house was a larger symbol and played a bigger role in both the fracture of the family and the enduring connectedness. In fact, there’s a blue swing in the book that means so much more than the blue thread.

And with that, I think the “spool of blue thread” on the cover screams, “Women’s Fiction!” in a way that does not adequately match the story itself. While the book is certainly “domestic fiction,” the relationship between fathers and sons is a huge theme, as is the idea of men striking out on their own. The title and cover minimize the audience for this book by putting it into a genre box that doesn’t quite fit.

Tyler gives very few interviews, but here’s a radio broadcast. And here’s a recent print interview. Both contain spoilers, so check them out at your own risk.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Review of Yes Please by Amy Poehler

I don’t read a lot of celebrity memoirs, because I generally don’t find celebrities all that interesting. I also chafe a bit when people write memoirs before they are old. (As a side note, when my kids were in fifth grade, they had to write memoirs.  Imagine an eleven-year-old writing, “Back when I was young…”).

That said, Amy Poehler’s memoir, Yes Please, came pretty highly recommended, and I needed a good laugh this week. I figured that it would be something like Tina Fey’s Bossypants, which I found funny and political. Those two women are certainly funny and political when they’re together.

The strange thing was that I don't think Poehler’s book is especially funny. But it isn't unpleasant either. In fact, what I appreciate most about it is her description of the creative life.  A good chunk of the first part of the book involves a discussion about how hard writing a book is. And a good chunk of the rest of it involves a discussion about what doing improv is like. If you’re wondering what’s involved in the artistic process of a comedy actor/writer, there’s something for you here.

I do think that there is a lot of filler. The parts about her childhood friends and even the parts about her own children distract a bit from the stories about her career, which are the heart of this project. I wonder if the framework of memoir made it so that she felt pressure to talk about all facets of her life, or if her editors pressured her to add in different kinds of life stories. I found myself wishing that the whole project were tighter.

But, ultimately, this book passed the time well.  It would be good for a plane ride or a lazy day by the pool. I wasn’t moved or changed by reading it, but I’m not sure that really matters in the end. It’s a celebrity memoir, after all.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Review of Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace by Anne Lamott

I first discovered Anne Lamott when I read Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life over twenty years ago. The jacket cover has long since vanished, and it is worn from heavy use. I return often to the chapter titled, “Short Assignments.” In that chapter, Lamott tells the story of her brother’s procrastination of a school assignment about birds. At the last minute, in tears at the table, her brother wondered how in the world he was going to be able to complete the project. Her father said simply, “Take it bird by bird.”

I had my own bird by bird moment just the other day, with an enormous pile of un-read student papers in front of me on my own kitchen table. For weeks, I tried valiantly to ignore them and wish them away, and I found myself ready, like Lamott’s brother, to collapse into despair. But then, the wisdom: the only way to get through a big task is to wade into it, paper by paper, bird by bird.

Lamott’s words are like that – you can pull them out at dark moments. When you find yourself thinking, “Life is not fair,” she’ll whisper, “You’re right, it’s not fair. But you have to live it anyway.”

Her newest collection, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, is a set of (mostly) previously published essays centered around living with Difficult Things. Difficult Things include the death of loved ones, damaged relationships, envy, loneliness, and online dating. If you are already a fan of Lamott’s essay collections, you will find exactly what you are looking for here. There are no surprises. I, however, only enjoy Lamott’s most recent writing in small bites, like truffles. Too much, and I get overwhelmed with the sweetness. I tried to binge read this one, and that wasn’t the best approach.

The other thing to realize about Lamott is that she grounds everything she writes in her Christian faith. She is welcoming, but she is not one to disguise her identity in a generic humanism or “spirituality.” If explicitly religious writing is not your thing, you might struggle with this collection. In fact, I’d say that Small Victories, like her previous several books, is designed to speak directly to her Christian audience. This is not to say that other audiences (like, say, me) won’t find value here, especially if they’re in the mood for some straight talk about how it’s all gonna be OK/it’s time to stop whining/who cares how your butt looks in those jeans?

Lamott has been a long-time contributor to Salon.com. Here is a recent interview, where she discusses this book. And here’s a really great column she wrote about the writing process for Sunset Magazine.

Monday, March 2, 2015

What I'm Reading, Thin Mint Edition

The good news is I will soon be done with my winter quarter teaching -- and that means I will be READING WHAT I WANT TO READ again. Woo! In the meantime, I have been busy wrestling with too many thin mint Girl Scout cookies. Why do we call them thin mints? It would be much more honest to say that I am right this very minute eating a huge stack of chubby mint cookies.**

I did put up two reviews this week: one for Boy in the Twilight by Yu Hua, and one for Cold Killing by Luke Delaney. I am ever so close to finishing Yes Please by Amy Poehler. I am not ordinarily a celebrity memoir person, so this choice takes me off my beaten path. 

My intent this week is to read When the World Was Steady by Claire Messud. I think that this is Messud’s first book. I am behind in my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge, so I’m hoping to generate momentum toward that twelve book goal. I’ve had When the World Was Steady in my stack forever, so it’s well past time that I give it a chance.

Here’s the description from Goodreads:

Two sisters, middle-aged and alienated from each other, find that their steady worlds are disintegrating. Each sets out on a quest, one from a Sydney drawing room to Bali's most sacred mountain, and the other from north London to the Isle of Skye. The sisters' self-scrutiny, their encounters with strangeness, and finally with each other, are described in prose of unusual grace and power. A PEN/Faulkner Award nominee.

I also hope to get started on Some Luck by Jane Smiley. I have checked this out of the library three times now but have failed to start it. I love Jane Smiley, but the heft of this book has made me reluctant to tackle it. Here’s the description from Goodreads:

On their farm in Denby, Iowa, Rosanna and Walter Langdon abide by time-honored values that they pass on to their five wildly different yet equally remarkable children: Frank, the brilliant, stubborn first-born; Joe, whose love of animals makes him the natural heir to his family's land; Lillian, an angelic child who enters a fairy-tale marriage with a man only she will fully know; Henry, the bookworm who's not afraid to be different; and Claire, who earns the highest place in her father's heart. Moving from post-World War I America through the early 1950s, Some Luck gives us an intimate look at this family's triumphs and tragedies, zooming in on the realities of farm life, while casting-as the children grow up and scatter to New York, California, and everywhere in between-a panoramic eye on the monumental changes that marked the first half of the twentieth century.

In other news, I have received several “Ask the Blogger” requests, so be on the lookout for upcoming posts where I answer readers' most probing questions about the reading life. If you’d like to join in the fun, please go ahead and ask a question in the comments.

**Update: Cookies are gone

(It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Journey)