Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt

I picked this book up to read for one of my book clubs, intending to pass it on to a different one of my other book clubs.  It received the 2014 Pulitzer Prize and had pages of rave reviews in the beginning of the book so I dove in, despite it being over 700 pages.

The book tells the story of Theo Decker, a 12 year old boy who loses his mother in a bombing in a New York City museum.  He is given a ring and told to take a picture of a bird (The Goldfinch) by a dying man in the rubble of the building.  He escapes and ends up living with the very well-connected family of a friend until his vagrant father returns to claim him and drags him to Las Vegas. There he meets Boris, a Russian world-travelling teen who introduces him to drugs and debauchery.  He escapes mid-teens back to New York to the family of the dying man from the museum where he runs their antiques and restorations store with less than ethical business practices.  Boris returns to his life and reveals the painting he's kept secret isn't even there and the two of them set off across Europe to retrieve the original and redeem Theo's life.

The first third of the book is an homage to New York art and intellectual life, a place of wonder and privilege for little Theo, doted on by his saintly and sophisticated mother,  Theo is the least believable 12 year old imaginable, unless of course one is familiar with upper class New Yorkers' children.  In the second third, his adventures in Las Vegas read like someone who's heard about Las Vegas but has never actually sunk so low as to actually go there.  Thankfully, he returns to New York and all its majesty, where the antiques restorer fills in as a caring father figure, which Theo abuses by selling his restorations as originals and using the money for prescription drugs.  The last part of the book rushes through his reunion with his previous caretakers, an engagement to their cheating daughter and several pages reflecting on how art endures.

Here's the poor little orphan reflecting on when his father left:
"In many respects it was a relief to have my father out of the picture...though it was sad when [mother] had to let our housekeeper, Cinizia, go because we couldn't afford to pay her..."

The antique dealer's niece is also orphaned and shuffled off to Texas where "there's nothing to do but go to the movies and you can't walk anywhere, people have to drive you.  Also they have rattlesnakes, and the death penalty, which I think is primitive and unethical in ninety-eight percent of cases."

It almost felt at times like I was reading a young adult novel.  There's lots of cliches and preposterous happenings and way too many pages describing his feelings of anguish over his mother's death.  In the end he reflects that "I don't care what anyone says or how often or winningly they say it, no one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here's the truth: life is catastrophe."

At least his life is, the spoiled whining brat.

Published:  2013   Read: November 2014   Genre: Fiction

The Gift of Rain - Tan Twan Eng

This is the story of a young half-Chinese man in Malaysia during WWII who befriends a Japanese martial arts master and later assists him in imprisoning the people of his home when the Japanese invade.  I began reading this book and realized it was predictably going to end with regret and sorrow and I put it away.  Life is just too short to read something predictable.


The great human capacity for choosing not to makes life easier.

What, among the creations of our modern world, do you think will still exist and have historical and aesthetic value five hundred years from now?

Published: 2008  Read (incompletely) November 2014  Genre: fiction

The Yellow Birds - Kevin Powers

I picked this book up in Nashville in October at the Southern Book Fest.  It's the story of two young soldiers who are sent to Iraq for a tour of duty.  Both are from small towns in Virginia, both enlisting to find a better life.  Their experiences in Iraq affect them profoundly, altering the futures they had planned.

John Bartel's first impression of basic training was that he "...remembered feeling relief in basic while everyone else was frantic with fear.  It had dawned on me that I'd never have to make a decision again.  That seems freeing, but it gnawed at some part of me even then.  Eventually I had to learn that freedom is not the same thing as the absence of accountability."

He is assigned a buddy, Murph and before the are sent overseas, Murph's mother makes him promise to take care of her son.  The weight of his promise is crushing when he returns after a year at war.

"....I had the feeling that if I encountered anyone they would intuit my disgrace and would judge me instantly.  Nothing is more isolating that having a particular history.  At least that's what I thought.  Now I know: All pain is the same.  Only the details are different".

It is a heartfelt story that makes you think of the reality of war and the people who go to it.

Published: 2012  Read: November 2014  Genre: Fiction

Solitude - Anthony Storr

Sub-title: A Return to the Self

When my good friend Teddi died, she left her book collection to another friend who let me pick any of them that I wanted to keep.  This book was one that I thought looked interesting.

The author challenges the psychological belief that people need people to be happy and instead explores the satisfaction to be had from solitude.  He examines the personal feelings of contentment that can be experienced through creative and intellectual endeavors.  He offers examples of individuals who survived solitary confinement through their imagination and self-discipline.  There are chapters discussing the different personalities that seem to take to solitude, the effect of grief and bereavement and the solitude of the end of our lives.  The author emphasizes the value of meditation and reflection in solitude to renew and awaken our spirit.

Someone had cut out newspaper articles on solitude and kept them in the front cover of the book.  I can't help thinking it was part of their way of dealing with loss.

Published:  1988  Read:  November 2014  Genre: Non-fiction

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Race to the Poles - Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Enough of fiction!  I'd met someone who works in Antarctica part of the year and that triggered me to pick up this book at my local used bookstore, Half Priced Books.  It's a defense of Robert Scott, the leader of the second group of men to reach the South Pole in the early 1900's.  Scott was vaunted as a hero when he and his team died on their way back to camp and was an inspiration to the English during World War I and II.  In the late 20th century, several authors re-visited Scott's journey, "debunking" his heroism and character.  Fiennes challenges those stories, providing an explanation and perspective on Scott in his time and Antarctica.

I knew very little about the Pole explorers, though I had read other stories about their adventures and tried to get through The Worst Journey in the World and couldn't finish it.  I'd read In the Kingdom of Ice this summer and enjoyed it.

Fiennes story give us the background of Scott's life and his career in the Royal Navy.  He lead British explorations to Antarctica in 1901 and then again in 1910, reaching the South Pole with four other men, five weeks after Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian and his team were the first to reach it.

The character and leadership qualities of Scott were evidence of the British culture of the times.  He's portrayed as a determined yet flawed man, and like all of his crew, possessing unbelievable stamina, strength and confidence in achieving his goals.  Their suffering in the cold and desolate landscape puts any personal whining about petty discomforts to shame.

Published:  2004  Read: November 2014  Genre: History (Adventure)

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Magician's Assistant - Ann Patchett

I saw Ann Patchett recently at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, Tennessee and was reminded how I wanted to read some of her fiction again.

This is the story of Sabine, an assistant to a magician, Parsifal, who she met as a young waitress in her twenties and stayed with until his death.  He was gay and her and his partner lived together in the house of the partner.  When the story opens, they've both died and she discovers Parsifal had a family she never told him about.  She meets them and goes to visit them to learn who this man she loved for so many years really was.

I loved the relationships of her, the mother and the sisters of Parsifal.  Sabine and Parsifal lived in LA and his family was in a small Nebraska town.  The contrast of cultures and their different yet shared experience of the person they knew and loved was tender and moving.  I particularly liked his mother, Dot Fetters.  Her matter-of-fact outlook on life despite all that had been dumped on her was comforting in the same way it was to Sabine.

There is a comparison of the sophisticated, world-travelling glamour girl to the simple life of the country that made me wonder how much Patchett researched the Nebraska locale; it seems somewhat cliche, the way a city person would imagine it.

It's a portrayal of people being kind to each other, overlooking their quirks and trials and tribulations, accepting them as they are and loving them all the same.  Recommended read.

Published: 1997   Read: November 2014  Genre: Fiction

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Wonder - R J Palacio

My reading group has been trying to get to discussing this book for months.  One of our members, a former grade school teacher recommended it.  It's a young adult title, aimed at nine to twelve year-olds.

The book is the story of the 5th grade year of school for August, known as Auggie, a boy with a cranial facial disfiguration that makes his first year of school after being home-schooled a frightening new experience.  The story is told in first person by several narrators; Auggie, his friends, sister, Via and schoolmates.  The voices sounded to me like genuine 5th graders, entering the first year of middle school on the brink of their teenage years.

We're introduced to Auggie's perspective first; he sees himself as "just an ordinary kid".  He recognizes that others react in shock, surprise and fear when first seeing his face yet because of the love of his parents and sister he has the strength of character to take it in stride.  His experience in middle school though is still full the the angst of acceptance, fitting in, and finding out who he is.

An example of his mother's love::

Auggie: "Do people look the same when they get to heaven?
Mom: I don't know, I don't think so.
Auggie" Then how do people recognize each other?
:Mom:  I don't know sweetie.  They just feel it. You don't need your eyes to love, right?  You just feel it inside you.  That's how it is in heaven.  It's just love and no one forgets who they love.

Auggie on recognition:
"I think there should be a rule that everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their lives"

His school principal on kindness:
"Because it's not enough to be kind.  One should be kinder than needed....we carry with us, as human beings, not just the capacity to be kind but the very choice of kindness."

I felt the book gave me a peek into the lives of these children and the adults who work with them as they learn and grow.  I loved how the English teacher assigned a precept each month (and how I learned what the term meant) and then how he asked his students after they graduated to send him their personal precepts.  One of them is my favorite from John Wesley, founder of Methodism:

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as you ever can.

The struggle of Auggie to be accepted is universal.  His difference is apparent, yet all of us feel and struggle with being different in some way.  Highly recommended.

Published:  2012  Read: November 2014  Genre: Young Adult

Raising the Dead - Andy Dougan

Subtitle: The Men Who Created Frankenstein

This was a strange find, again, something I picked up to read while travelling and finished up when I got home.  It' an historical account of the attempts in the 18th and early 19th centuries to bring a person back to life.  Th scientists and physicians of the day were trying to understand how electricity affected the body.  Their attempts seem quaint and ridiculous now but science has to start somewhere. In this time physicians were finally allowed to dissect cadavers and examine how the heart, lungs, brain and nervous system operated.  The bodies were usually those of criminals that had been hung and when those ran out, paupers graves were robbed.  There's backgroun on the age of romanticism that followed the age of reason and the enlightenment for historical context.  

The author explains how Mary Shelly, the author of Frankenstein, came to know of the experiments being done and probably used them to create her story.  Her husband, the poet Shelly, and their friends assoicated with the thinkers and philosophers of the day and I always like getting an understanding of who were contemporaries in a certain age.  

It's a grizzly but interesting tale, Erin, this one's for you!

Published:  2008  Read: November 2014  Genre: History