Sunday, November 25, 2012

House Rules - Jodi Picoult

A teen with Asperger's syndrome is accused of murder when his inability to interpret social cues and communicate normally puts him under suspicion.  But this story is so much more.  The author authentically reveals the history, symptoms and reality of Asperger's.  She shows the dedication and singular focus of a mother trying to love and protect her son.  And she weaves in the experiences of all the family and friends that surround them.

I read this in a couple of late nights and thoroughly enjoyed every page.  The characters were fully developed and real, the plot plausible and I really could not predict how the ending would come out.  One of my reading groups had chosen it but I didn't get to participate in discussion of it.  It was a good balance of factual information and telling a story with characters you care about.  The disease is on the "high functioning" end of the autism scale and has been tied to childhood vaccinations.  It's heart wrenching to read the effect on the child and his parent, brother and every day relationships.  I am left with a greater compassion for families dealing with this illness.

Published: 2010  Read: November 2012  Genre: Fiction

Friday, November 23, 2012

Flight Behavior - Barbara Kingsolver

I've been a fan of Kingsolver for a while and I looked forward to another fiction story from her.

This is the story of Dellarobia Turnbow, a country girl, married in haste, sharing property in the Appalachian mountains with her in-laws, consumed with caring for her two children and unsatisfied with life.  While escaping to a potential trist, she witnesses millions of monarch butterflies that have landed in the forest above her home.  The discovery makes her a local celebrity and provides the backdrop for a lesson in climate change.

It takes the first few chapters to figure out what she's seen and her initial interpretation of it as "flames" just didn't make sense to me.  I was annoyed too in the first third of the book with how Kingsolver described the daily life of Dellarobia.  It didn't feel authentic.  Maybe that's my own inclination to romanticize instead of seeing things for what they are.  The character is painted as a simpleton in the beginning, with no "edge" of modern day which was a disconnect for me.  The story moves on to use the migration of the butterflies as a lesson in the impact of global warming and climate change.  A clumsy transition I felt.  A better story is the relationship between Dellarobia and her mother-in-law, husband and girlfriend.  The ending ties up things too neatly and quickly.

The writing is very descriptive and evokes the scenes in detail, making the reader feel they are standing in Dellarobia's kitchen or the makeshift laboratory observing the characters' interactions.  I tired of the preaching and felt Kingsolver's voice as an outsider to the part of the country and the people she portrays.

Published:  2012  Read: November 2012   Genre: Fiction

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Starting Out in the Afternoon - Jill Frayne

Sub-title: A mid-life journey into wild land

What a delightful gem of a book!  This is an auto-biographical memoir of a Canadian woman driving from her home in the Toronto area to the west coast of Canada to canoe around the Queen Charlotte Islands and take the ferry north to the Yukon.  It's a story of self discovery and finding an anchor in the storm of life.

She camps in a tent from her car, alone, which I found astounding.  Some quotes:

"I like being alone when there's no one around.  It's a nice freedom to be the only one there, humming and coping."

[ This comment reminded me of my Colorado River trip [about the canoe trip guide] "Bob isn't a dynamo, but he is a set-up for fantasies the way guides always are.  All that casual skill."

[On meeting new people]  "What would it be like, I wonder, if our first thought regarding anything was to perceive the kinship, the non-distinction, rather than shouting out to the difference between things?"

[On having a new partner] "What do old new lovers have for each other? The death of their parents.  Their own decline. Humour, if they're lucky.  Thankfulness.  Skill.  Not so bad, perhaps."

She returns home and continues to visit the West Coast to renew herself.  I enjoyed her story.

Published: 2002  Read: November 2012  Genre: auto-biography

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Aftermath - Rachel Cusk

Subtitle: On marriage and separation

A slim autobiographical novel that looked interesting on the library "new releases" shelf, the author had previously written on Motherhood to some acclaim.

She reflects on her feelings and experiences after separating from her husband and sharing their two young daughters.  Some quotes reveal her thoughts:

"My mother may have been my place of birth, but my adopted nationality was my father's.  I got into Oxford, my sister to Cambridge, immigrants to the new country of sexual equality achieving assimilation thorough the second generation."

"What I lived as feminism were in fact the male values my parent, among others, well-meaningly bequeathed to me."

She describes a contributing factor to the failure of her marriage to be her experience of trying to be feminine and yet equal.

I enjoyed some of her writing, she has "a nice turn of phrase" as some writers are described.  The story overall though is whiny and too revealing and the book ends with a strange short story that I frankly didn't get, it was probably intended as a allegory.  I am embarrassed for her daughters to read it when they grow older.

Published:  2012   Read:  November 2012   Genre: Autobiography

Eden's Outcasts - John Matteson

Goodness, I haven't posted in awhile!  I have been reading a lot though, travelling took me away and so its time to catch up.

This is the story of Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, and her father, Bronson Alcott.
It was a fascinating, complex, historic relationship.  (Amos) Bronson Alcott was a member of the transcendentalism movement of the 1830's and 1840's, centered around Concord, Massachusetts. He was a friend and colleague of Emerson, Whitman, Hawthorne and Thoreau - heavy hitters!

Bronson's high ideals did not bode well for the real life care of his wife and 4 daughters, of which Louisa May was number 3.  He was an advocate of the values and beliefs exhibited in the book Pilgrim's Progress and Aids to Reflections by Samuel Coleridge and a devoted father though not a consistent provider.  For example, he kept diaries of the lives of each of his daughters from the time they were born through adolescence to develop a better understanding of childhood development.  The author notes that the children were exposed  to "an almost impossibly dissonant combination of superior intellectual opportunities and frightful worldly deprivation".  The first two thirds of this biography focuses on Bronson's life and work and his friendships with men who would become giants in literature.  Bronson eventually posted some of his own writings but they never rose to the level of his contemporaries in enduring popularity.

If you are like me, you'll keep plugging through, getting a picture of what the U.S. was like prior to and during the Civil War, some distance from the front lines.  Louisa May responded to the calamity by volunteering as a nurse in a hospital for Civil War soldiers   The experience contributed to her maturing from a sheltered childhood to the gritty reality of adult life.

She began writing quite young and published short stories.  Her writing style involved going into a "vortex" of concentrated, frenzied writing, so intense that the author speculates she may have suffered from manic episodes.  Her fictionalized story of four sisters growing up in Little Women, based heavily on herself (as Jo) and her sisters and parents, was a big success and resulted in her readers clamoring for more stories of the lives of the March family, leading to the books, Little Men and finally Jo's Boys.  The influence of her father's teachings is brought out and examined and adds a richness to my memories of Little Women.

She was seen as a champion for women's rights (she was the first woman to register to vote in Concord) and the biographer explores the reactions to her books by the young women of her day.  He states that "altruism lies at the root of Alcott's feminism".  His discussion is well thought out and weaves the stories of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy into his evidence.  He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for the story.

Louisa May Alcott never married or had children of her own and died only a few days after her father.

Published: 2007  Read: October 2012  Genre: Biography