Friday, October 28, 2011

My Lousiana Sky, by Kimberly Willi Holt

This is the kind of book I devoured by the dozen when I was a middle-schooler. On the young end of the YA spectrum, it features a misunderstood heroine on the brink of adolescence, struggling with issues that are just a little harder than average.

This charming novel has an interesting twist on the outcast theme: 12-year-old Tiger's parents are what is currently called developmentally disabled. In 1957, when the book takes place, they were referred to as retarded, or worse. When Tiger's grandmother dies, she's invited to move to the city to live with her glamorous aunt. But there's the question of who will take care of her parents, especially now that her grief-stricken mother refuses to bathe or leave the house.

Tiger is a red-headed tomboy, which is probably reason enough for her to be ignored by the popular girls. Add her embarrassing parents, and you can just imagine the catty comments. Her mother, however, is sweet and kind, her father hard-working and gentle. This is a classic don't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover story, with the good and pure ultimately winning out over the mean and incompetent. Oh, that life could mirror formulaic children's literature!

I'd recommend this to girls in the 10-13 age group. It's thought-provoking in a quick-read kind of way, with a very satisfying it's-okay-to-be-yourself message.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Condition, by Jennifer Haigh

This is possibly the most unredemptive book I've read this year. I am of the general belief that people don't intrinsically change, that they really embody their original characters until the end. But still. Jeez. This family is completely mummified; none of them are going to change an iota over the next several millenia.

Okay, in fact there are a few moments of almost enlightenment, but they don't seem to help the enlightenees in any noticeable way. Lifelong grudges and misunderstandings are left intact, feelings of helplessness and inadequacy persist.

And the attitude about aging! Ms. Haigh was born 3 years after me, putting her at 43. Here is the term she uses to describe the older generation of the family, now ensconced in their late 50's: aged. And then there's this, from a character just turned 60:

Was this old age, then: the end of all wanting? ... Whatever he'd desired from life had
been gotten, or not; his wishes satisfied, or not. His wishes - Paulette's too - were       exhausted.

It's not that this book is bad; it's pretty well-written, and is an interesting examination of how a family can break down under a combination of bad news and rigid personalities. Ultimately, my issue with the book is that I didn't really like any of the characters. I felt empathy for all of them, and I rooted for each one as they seemed on the verge of breaking away from their iron-clad trajectories. But I'd hate to be trapped in the back seat with any one of them.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ninth Ward, by Jewell Parker Rhodes

This book was recommended to me by my thirteen year old daughter, possibly because she wanted help with the paper she had to write about it. It's a very charming story that touches on some difficult topics. It's girl power at its finest, which I always like.

Lanesha is an orphan being raised by the elderly midwife who birthed her moments before her teen aged mother died. Mama Yaya is a seer, and an equally feared and revered caretaker of the entire neighborhood. Lanesha is an outsider, an odd, brainy, watchful girl who has never had a friend. As Hurricane Katrina threatens the Gulf Coast, her life becomes as tumultuous as the approaching storm. This is a story about overcoming your ideas about your place in the world, as well as celebrating your own untapped strength.

My daughter didn't like the ending, which does rather leave you guessing about the ultimate fate of both Lanesha and her new friends. I kind of liked it, because the aftermath of heroics, like storms, seems a lot less interesting than the acts of bravery themselves. I finished the book with the feeling that Lanesha will manage pretty much anything that comes her way.

Chilling satellite images of Hurricane Katrina.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Room, by Emma Donoghue

For a long time I was scared to read this book. The premise seemed so horrifying that I couldn't bear to open it, despite its fabulous reviews. I'm so glad I changed my mind.

I do a fair amount of reading, and I am constantly amazed by authors who reimagine the world in totally new ways. This is a family story unlike any I have ever read; despite the odd circumstances, Emma Donoghue tells of a an existence that is as measured and predictable as any other. She gets at the truth of our relationships to one another, and at the broad range of reactions to trauma  among different people.

The basic story is that of Jack and Ma. They live in an 11'x11' room. Ma has been held prisoner here for seven years, since the age of nineteen, but to Jack, Room is the world. It's filled with all the things they want and need, and the rest of the world is relegated to to being "only tv." The story is told by Jack, and opens on his fifth birthday. So here we have two really incredible authorial feats: making this situation seem believable, and telling a complex story using the diction of a pretty literate five year old. Emma Donoghue pulls it off on both counts.

I really love the manner in which the author tracks reactions to this odd and terrible situation. Ma is an exemplary parent, whose ability to create a very normal life for her child, despite their situation, is admirable.  She's damaged, though; how could she avoid it? As the story progresses, we see the ripple effect of the one incredible central fact of the story, namely that a monster trapped a child, then that child's child, in a tiny room, indefinitely.

I absolutley refuse to spoil a moment of this book for any future readers, so I will just tell you to read it, read it, read it. You will be amazed.

This is a 3D image of Room, which will give you an idea of the scope of Jack and Ma's world. Wow. Tiny. Here is a short interview with the author, in which she explains how she created Jack, and gave him his extraordinary voice.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Hand That First Held Mine, by Maggie O'Farrell

In a recent post I described new parenthood as interesting only to the parents themselves. How wrong I was! This author describes new motherhood in minute detail, and it is absolutely fascinating. This may be because these scenes are interspersed with so many other slivers of life. To me, the difficult thing about having an infant, aside from the utter lack of sleep, is that it is so unrelenting in its repetition. Change, feed, pat, rock, feed, change, rock... Maggie O'Farrell manages to pull out specific moments, while conveying the overwhelming whole.

Elina can't quite remember how her baby got from inside her to next to her; a traumatic birth has left her with a sense of unreality that will be familiar to anyone suffering sleep deprivation, but even more so. As she tries to navigate her new situation she is careful not to alarm her boyfriend, Ted. He, in turn, is hiding the confusion and apprehension he is feeling as a result of a deluge of near-memories of his childhood.

Their story is told in parallel with that of Lexie, a vivid character from an earlier generation. The two stories are seemingly unrelated, but of course a connection eventually reveals itself.

I loved this book from the opening. I don't remember hearing anything about it, I just found it while browsing at the library. Which reminds me of how enjoyable it is to read a book with no preconceptions. It seems especially appropriate in this case, as the characters move in seemingly random loops and arcs.

There is one oddly unreal character wandering the halls of this book. He stands in stark contrast to the others, who are so carefully drawn. A connector, rather than a person. This flaw did not, however, dull my enjoyment of this book. I really had a hard time putting it down, and was riveted right up to the end. The author uses lots of color and visual detail, which stuck in my mind long after I finished reading. AN author I'll definitely revisit.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, by Peter Cameron

No one uses language the way Peter Cameron does. The precision of every word is a luxury not often experienced in modern literature. In this book, the juxtaposition of perfect grammar and an astute vocabulary emanating from the mouth of a disaffected eighteen year old boy is, well, affecting. What is most interesting is the subtle way this character's diction changes over the course of the novel. As he begins to accept his unhappiness and descend, slowly, from his aerie of isolation, his use of language loosens up ever so slightly. By the end he is far from slinging around slang, but he sounds more like a resident of the 21st century than the 19th.

This is one of those books that almost makes me wish I'd grown up in New York City. There is something about that experience that is hard to fully imagine, as opposed, say, to growing up on a farm in Appalachia. This is also foreign to me, but it's somehow easier for me to mentally put myself there. A childhood in Manhattan will forever be something I don't want, but want to know.

As for what happens in this book: James is eighteen, spending the summer before his freshman year (he's going to Brown) working at his mother's art gallery. His mother is recovering from her day-long third marriage. His father is preparing for his first bout of cosmetic surgery. His sister, who attends Barnard, is having an affair with a married professor of linguistics. His therapist is dedicated to making him initiate their conversations. His only friend, John, is trolling online for men when the gallery is empty, which is most of the time. This is the backdrop of James' life, a collection of extremely intelligent, outwardly successful urbanites, none of whom seem particularly happy.

The one bright spot in James' life is his grandmother, keeping her house in the affluent suburbs spotless as she embodies a more graceful era. She may provide the impetus for her grandson's lone hobby: endless online searches for beautiful, inexpensive houses in the Midwest.

There isn't a lot of action in this book. There are a couple of seminal events, one told in flashback, and there is a lot of self-examination. All of which is engrossing, because it is so well-written, and the main character is endlessly sympathetic and charming. Even when he's being kind of a self-absorbed smart alec. I liked this book almost as much as I liked The City of Your Final Destination, which I recommend with stars in my eyes. And clearly Peter Cameron should win some sort of literary prize for the best titles.