Friday, July 30, 2010

THE REST OF HER LIFE by Laura Moriarty

The Rest of Her Life 
Laura Moriarty
Women's Fiction
Hyperion, 2007
303 pages

Laura Moriarty's second novel has several ratings at both extremes. So I suppose the verdict is: you either love it or you hate it. Personally, I loved it, enough to give it a full five stars.

That being said, this is the first of her novels I've read so I didn't have any super-high expectations. Plus, I'm a mom. And this book is all about motherhood, from both the child's viewpoint and the parent's.

Distracted by her cell phone, a dog, and her best friend while driving, Leigh Churchill's teenage daughter Kara runs over--and kills--another teenage girl in a crosswalk. That in itself had me on the brink of tears. Through the events that follow, we also discover that Leigh is kind of "relationship challenged." Her marriage isn't in trouble, per se, but she has a simmering jealousy toward her husband for how close he is with Kara while Leigh struggles with every attempt at mother/daughter bonding. And he doesn't even have to try; they just naturally click. Leigh's only friend in the small Kansas town they call home is not exactly an ideal companion either. She's a gossip, which prevents Leigh from being able to fully unload her emotional burdens onto the shoulders of... anyone.

Then we get to the problem of Leigh's mother. Oh. Dear. God. What a piece of work that woman is. In the first two-thirds of the book, Leigh's less-than-pleasant childhood is revealed through chapter-length flashbacks in between the "present day" issues (i.e. dealing with the town's reaction to the girl's death, court proceedings, etc). In the flashbacks we not only see what an awful mother Leigh had, but also what a really good mother her older sister turned out to be, even if she isn't all that bright. I loved the contrast, and how Leigh then found herself somewhere in between a good mom and a bad mom, which was more frustrating than being one or the other.

This "flashback section" is where a lot of readers had complaints, saying it took them away from the real plot. But does it?

I don't think it does. I am usually a flashback-hater, but in this story it worked for me. If you mistakenly start reading this book thinking that the main focus is how the family copes with Kara's accident, you will be disappointed. This is a story about character, not events. While the events springboard the character change, those events are not the point of the story, which is made even more clear by pinpointing the exact peak of the climax--a confrontation between Leigh and the mother of the girl who died.

This novel is about motherhood. Period. And that is emphasized by my favorite quote in the book:

Maybe, Leigh considered, children just want whatever it is they don't get. And then they grow up and give their children what they wanted, be it silence or information, affection or independence--so that child, in turn, craves something else. With every generation the pendulum swings from opposite to opposite, stillness and peace so elusive.

But she couldn't stop it now, even as she saw it all clearly.

After reading this gem (that I found completely by accident on a Borders bargain shelf), I have added Laura Moriarty's first and third novels to my reading pile. I hope some of you will enjoy The Rest of Her Life as much as I did.

Happy reading,

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Khaled Hosseini/THE KITE RUNNER

It's quite interesting to finally 'catch up' on a book that was a huge fad 5 or 6 years ago, and whose film version came out 3 or more years ago.

And, for once in my life, I'd seen the film before I read the book. Usually I fret that prior knowledge of the plot will compromise my enjoyment too much, and I'll rush to read a well spoken of book before it is filmed (or else endlessly defer watching the film while I'm still contemplating whether or not to read the book one day).

However, in this case, I think I'd waited long enough that my memories of the film were dimming. And I had thought that this might offer an enlightening new perspective in approaching the book: OK, the plotting wasn't going to take me by surprise, because I could still remember or would readily recall all the key incidents; but usually a novel contains far more than can be accommodated in a film. I thought perhaps I'd appreciate such 'additional material' even more, be intrigued to make comparisons with the film version and speculate as to why certain elements had been cut or rewritten. And also, I thought, it might focus me more on the writing. Plot is overrated most of the time, I say; it's fine writing that primarily endears a book to me.

That's the problem I found with The Kite Runner: it reads like a film treatment more than a novel. It's extremely plot-rich (in a contrived, melodramatic kind of way), but there's not much to the writing. The exposition is pretty perfunctory; and there's almost nothing extra in the book that had to be omitted from the film.

It's an affecting tale, certainly - though more, I felt, in examining the strained relationship between Amir and his father. His friendship with Hassan was less convincing: Hassan, and his father, and later his son, were too one-dimensionally saintly in their forbearance to be compelling or convincing characters. The Amir-Hassan relationship I often found to be too nakedly, crudely driven by the requirements of the plot to be really emotionally engaging. Ultimately, it's probably the backdrop of three decades of turmoil in Afghanistan that gave the book its exceptional appeal, as much as or more than the characters.

I have some issues with the construction of the book as well. I think it's a bit self-indulgent to tell Amir's entire life-story, when it isn't essential to the central story of the book. It's not the superfluity of it (the story of his courtship and marriage is quite entertaining, even though irrelevant to the main story) or the long-windedness of it (it's still quite a short book, considering how much happens in it) that bothers me so much as the fact that it starts to seem rather heavy-handedly autobiographical - as if Hosseini is trying to offload a bunch of disparate stories about his own life rather than just focusing on the main story of the novel.

There's rather too much coincidence underlying the plot, too. We're told what a small country Afghanistan is, and how everybody knows everybody at one or two removes, but is it really plausible that Amir would run into one of the kids who'd bullied him on the truck that smuggles a handful of refugees out of the country six years later? Or that the chief tormentor of his childhood, the demonic Assef, would confront him again as a Taliban thug a quarter of a century later? No, it's neither likely nor necessary; it's taking plot contrivance a big step too far.

This was the thing that bothered me most about the writing. It was straining much too hard - and self-consciously, and explicitly - to weave numerous links and parallels and reminiscences between the earlier and later parts of the narrative. I often felt that this was writing-by-the-numbers, the methodical approach of "creative writing" courses gone completely over-the-top. (At one point, Hosseini/Amir even digresses for a moment to talk about how his creative writing teacher would have told him to write a scene; I don't like 'rules' for writing, but if there is going to be one Rule, I would suggest that it should be: "Never discuss the process of writing in your writing. And, in particular, never mention that you've attended 'creative writing' classes.") It was clumsily, tiresomely overdone. Hosseini might have got away with it, if he'd trusted his reader to make those connections himself (or, sometimes, been content for him to miss them), but again and again he hammers the point laboriously home: he makes the parallel really jarringly obvious; then he repeats it, to underline its significance; and then, as often as not, he flat out says oh, this was just like that thing that happened 30 pages, or 30 years ago. Amir gets his lip split open in a fight; yes, his lip split open; just like Hassan's harelip; how appropriate is that? Yes, enough already, we get it - shut up for a moment, and let us join the dots for ourselves.

I couldn't help wondering if this was a conscious dumbing down of the storytelling (and a damning indication of the declining intelligence or attention span of the great American reading public). I pictured Hosseini initially submitting a proper novel, one that actually required some engagement, some intellectual effort from the reader, and then having some agent or editor or publisher tell him, "Oh, this is way too subtle, all this parallelism and symbolism and irony. No, no, for readers today, you're really going to have to spell everything out. Go away and rewrite it, explaining the exact significance of every element in the story." Or is that just what they teach in "creative writing" classes these days?

At the more nuts-and-bolts level, the writing didn't impress me either. There are sections where other characters - Rahim Khan or Assef - are relating stories, but their narrative voice is completely undifferentiated from Amir's. And there were a few little verbal tics that really began to bug me (the kind of thing that editors really should pick up on and eliminate). Afghanistan is an uncleanly country, we know, and the people of the streets aren't going to wash that often; but there are many words we could use to describe the condition of their hands and faces - dirty, grimy, dusty, muddy, smeared, smirched, soiled, etc. Hosseini has only one: 'dirt-caked'. Fine the first time, but after the fifth or sixth repetition it begins to grate.

Not for the first time, I find myself in the role of the little boy who points out that the Emperor is wearing no clothes. The Kite Runner is a great story, but it's not at all a good book.

THE EDUCATION OF BET by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

The Education of Bet
Lauren Baratz-Logsted
Young Adult Historical Fiction
Houghton Mifflin, 2010
192 pages

Summary from the publisher:

Denied an education because of both her gender and background, sixteen year-old Elizabeth cuts her hair and alters suits belonging to Will, her wealthy patron's grandnephew, to take his place at school while Will pursues a military career in nineteenth-century England.

I quoted the above passage because that is the best summary of the book I've seen. The plot is simple, and the story itself is refreshingly clean compared to the majority of YA fiction being published today.

The scenes in the beginning when Will is teaching Bet how to behave like a boy were by far my favorite, chock-full of LOL moments. For example:

"Those... hips of yours. They swish back and forth. It is fine for a girl but--"

"Not for a boy. Very well." I gave him a firm nod of my head. "Show me, then."

"Well, it's like this." Will demonstrated as we stood on the lawn. "You must walk--no, you must stride as though you have some great purpose in mind."

"You look ridiculous," I said, watching him walk back and forth. "You look like you're off to execute somebody."

"Exactly. That's what I mean about purpose."

Overall I enjoyed this book, but it wasn't without its faults. Namely, the events are entirely predictable. However it is still a fun read. Bet doesn't plan her scheme as well as she'd thought (I'm not sure it's believable that she wouldn't have remembered that she bleeds once a month... that would have been the first thing to cross my mind), and she certainly didn't count on falling in love with her roommate who thinks she's a boy. The way Bet handles these things, though, made me love her character. I gave it 3 out of 5 stars and recommend it for young girls who aren't interested in paranormal elements, explicit sex, profane language, extreme violence, etc.


Monday, July 26, 2010

two recent novels featuring Mormon Fundamentalism/polygamy: David Ebershoff's THE 19TH WIFE and Brady Udall's THE LONELY POLYGAMIST

For someone who loves Big Love (the HBO series) and books as much as I do, this has been a banner year of polygamous titillation (because, let's face it--as Brady Udall said in his Bookslut interview, the reason we're fascinated by polygamy is, "in one word," sex). Well, for me, it's been a banner week, since I've plowed through both of these hefty novels in a matter of days. As desperate as I was to read The 19th Wife, which came out in 2009, I coyly waited until I could get it in paperback; The Lonely Polygamist was sent to me by the good people at Norton (thanks, Norton!).

The ground covered is, ostensibly, similar--Mormon Fundamentalism, or, as they're often more simply known, polygamy, since the core tenant that has separated the Latter-Day Saints from the Fundamentalists is adherence to the 19th century practice of "plural marriage," which amounts to one husband and multiple wives in practice. And although much in both books will be very familiar to anyone as obsessed with Big Love as, erm, me, the tone and approach are very different, and make the two novels interesting to read in counterpoint.

David Ebershoff's The 19th Wife is woven of side-by-side portraits of Fundamentalist polygamy in the 1840s, at its advent, and in the present day. The modern narrator, Jordan, is one of the "lost boys"--like many other polygamist boys, he was driven off the compound he grew up on for a minor infraction and was left to fend for himself in the secular world. (This happens to lots of boys--otherwise, there wouldn't be enough women on the compound for all the remaining men to have multiple wives.) Now, at twenty, Jordan has struggled through the darkest period of his life: homelessness, surviving by sex trade, learning to live in a world that doesn't follow the Principle. He's come through the worst, found a job, made some friends, discovered his sexuality, and is just about living normally--until he learns his father has been shot, and Jordan's mother, his 19th wife, is being charged with murder.

Underlying Jordan's narrative is the story of Ann Eliza Young, the supposed 19th wife of Brigham Young, the second Mormon prophet, who led the pioneers to Utah. Ann Eliza is famous for having left the Church and divorcing Brigham, and becoming an outspoken proponent of cracking down on polygamy.

Although the book is long, it is a very quick page-turning kind of read. Although (in my humble opinion) the book could have lost a few chapters, overall it is entertaining and informative. The story of Ann Eliza Ebershoff tells is largely in agreement with historical fact, and his lengthy Author's Note at the end is worth a read, since he breaks down where he embellished--his note makes his novel seem, to me, at least, both respectful and even-handed. The historical narrative is an interesting perspective on the origins of the LDS Church--of course, taking into account that it's really focusing on one specific facet (and that is men having sex with multiple women). It sounds salacious, but it is what the book is (quite seriously) about: the implications of a world where a woman can be at any moment replaced, and where men can guarantee their families' place in eternity by honoring lust for new women.

Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist takes the flip side of the story: sex may be the reason we're fascinated with polygamy, but in practice the polygamist lifestyle isn't necessarily sexy or fun at all. Golden Richards, the antihero, is a hapless man in his early 40s, husband to four women and father to 28 (living) children. Golden just can't keep it together--he can't quite make ends meet, and has resorted to building a whorehouse for cash; his wives each see him on average once every two weeks; he only remembers all his children's names by chanting them like a prayer. Meanwhile, he has a secret crush on his boss's wife--he's never chosen a woman for himself before, and the feeling of attraction is new--but he'll never have any kind of affair with her, since he got gum stuck in his pubic hair and hasn't been able to get it out for weeks. Basically, Golden's life is a big mess. A totally, completely sexless mess.

The Lonely Polygamist strings together Golden's narrative along those of his fourth wife, Trish, the youngest and least sure about her polygamist lifestyle, and one of his sons, Rusty, known as "the terrorist," who everyone in the family treats like a pariah. From their three perspectives emerges the story of a family where everyone's trying really hard and means really well, but where life is just a lot of rough patches stitched together.

Udall's polygamists are more benign than the fictional Mesadale compound in The 19th Wife, or, say, the Juniper Creek compound in Big Love. The Prophet of Udall's Church is a kind and sympathetic old man, and there are no references to the sinister elements (child rape, forced marriage, government fraud, etc) that come out in other polygamy stories. The Richards family will remind you more of Bill Henrickson, the "assimilated" polygamist family at the center of Big Love. This is perhaps not a coincidence; in 1998, Udall wrote this article (entitled "Big Love") about the time he spent observing an assimilated polygamist family for Esquire. For my fellow Big Love adherents, many bells will ring.

While I honestly felt The Lonely Polygamist was (way) too long for the story it had to tell, Udall's writing is elegant and his characters very absorbing. The cumulative effect of the book, though, is to make the reader wonder why anyone, male or female, would be willing to live a polygamous lifestyle. Interestingly, a number of Udall's adult polygamists characters have come to polygamy (as opposed to being born into it)--I'm not sure that, coming to the end of the book, having seen all the daily horrors and indignities and lonelinesses practitioners face, I understand why they come to the arrangement, or why they stay. Despite this bafflement, I was now about to close the book and not find out what happened to all the characters. Udall writes very--very--personally. It's hard not to get sucked in.

Now that these two novels have come out in quick succession, I wonder if the market has been saturated, or if more polygamy stories will come out. As Udall says in the Bookslut interview, the polygamy fascination comes down to the sex, so it seems unlikely we (you know, "we") will get tired for a while. If anybody knows of any others, I'm always open to recommendations :)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A River in the Sky by Elizabeth Peters

A River in the Sky is the latest book in Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series, which up till now has been pretty much in chronological order. In this story, Peters takes us back to when the younger protagonists were still teenagers, and moves the action to Jerusalem instead of the usual Egyptian setting.

I've written before about the Peabody series, which is a love-it-or-hate-it relationship for most readers. I'm a fan, so I was a little dismayed about the setting not being Egypt--but my disappointment didn't last long. It was quite a relief to go back in time a few years, as the Emerson family was getting a bit overwhelming as the third generation started to come on the scene, and indeed A River in the Sky has the smallest number of minor characters I can recall in any of the books.

In fact, in some ways it's a different kind of book altogether. It's much more tightly written and plot-focused than the other Peabody books, and some readers may miss the pastiche of Victorian adventure genres and the romantic comedy of the other books. Others will relish their absence. Even Emerson and Amelia seem to have brought their performance down a few notches; they are almost realistic. I feel that Peters may be trying to take her well-loved characters in a new direction. After all, the original story really has gone about as far as it can, and she's still got an audience keen to read more Peabody, so why not?

All in all, I found this to be a fun page-turner with enough plot to keep the action boiling. The location of early 20th-century Palestine provides plenty of scope to introduce foreign spies and secret societies, and there was even the tiniest touch of Egyptology to satisfy the Peabody purists. The leanness of the writing ended up being quite satisfying, with far less verbal sparring between the Emerson clan than there usually is. The result, I think, was a book that could function as a standalone adventure novel for readers who have not read, or are not willing to read, the rest of the series. This is one to throw in your beach bag or pack for a long plane ride, to devour in one sitting.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, by Brock Clarke

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England
Brock Clarke
Algonquin, 2007
320 pages

Every so often, a book grabs your attention with the opening sentence and holds you all the way to the last period. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of those books. Brock Clarke’s attempt at a quirky, humorous series of misfortunes simply fails to achieve the most important goal of any story – making the reader care about the story.

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England is the rambling diatribe of a hapless – in fact, clueless – self described ‘everyman’ who can’t help being railroaded for crimes he didn’t commit. Clarke foreshadows almost everything that is going to happen to Sam Pulsifer within the first 30 pages, so there is no mystery or tension to propel the reader along. There is an inevitability to everything that happens to Sam and he has no interest in even participating in his own life, blind to what is going on around him only because he has his hand over his own eyes. The entire plot is such a quagmire it prevents the story from being anything other than a bore. In addition to the entire story being uninteresting, the prose is grating. Told from Sam’s perspective, it is an annoying internal dialog where he consistently demonstrates that he is incapable of completing a full sentence without wandering off to some other topic. After about two chapters of this I was not only frustrated with reading it, I didn’t care about what happened to any of the characters, especially Sam. Listening to him tell his story I quickly understood why he didn’t have any friends and nobody wanted to talk to him about anything. Even Sam is uninterested in himself, which leaves anyone reading his story wondering why we should be interested in him either.

I’m not sure if Clarke was attempting to paint a picture of what it is like inside the mind of a hopeless victim of life. But whether it was or not, the story really missed the mark and only succeeded in making me wish I had purchased something else to read.

For more reviews by me, visit my blog here.

Mary Roach/SPOOK

Mary Roach's first book, Stiff (subtitle: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers), looked into the things which happen (or are done) to the human body after death. Which seems, described that way, an awfully bleak subject -- until you pause and consider the title. It gives you one clue why you'd read a book by Mary Roach on a serious topic: because she will find the funny in it.

Her 2005 follow-up, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, again shows Roach taming a thorny subject with a magnifying glass in one hand and her sense of humor in the other.

As the second book's subtitle suggests, Spook isn't about the afterlife per se. In particular, it doesn't examine the belief systems of one religion vs. another. Instead, it deals with the ways in which scientists (in some cases, "scientists," in quotes) have tried to verify the existence of a human soul -- a consciousness apart from the body -- and its persistence after the container itself runs down.

In a dozen chapters, she considers such wide-ranging matters as attempts to weigh the soul; mediums, seances, and the debunkers who love them; scientists who track down real-life claims of reincarnation; theories about inducing near-death experiences via chemical and electromagnetic means; audio- and video-recording the dead; and "the giddy, revolting heyday of ectoplasm." She examines a case in which a ghost got his own legal will changed -- or perhaps did not. And it's all done with a combination of furrowed brow and crooked grin.

Here's one of my favorite examples of Roach's style at work. After discussing ancient beliefs that the soul resided in male sperm, she continues:
The man who elevated the ovum to a leadership role in the proceedings was seventeenth-century English physician William Harvey. Harvey is best known for figuring out that blood circulates in a closed system of arteries and veins, a feat he managed by dissecting cadavers, including that of his own sister. For his pioneering work in reproduction, you will be relieved to learn that Harvey left the womenfolk alone. Here he turned to a herd of deer that wandered, ever more warily, the grounds of his employer, King Charles.

If you read that passage too quickly, skimming it in order to get to the hard facts, you may miss the laughter in the asides.

Whether a book like this succeeds or fails depends, first, on whether the author is trying to argue a case, or to teach us. Is it a tract? or a report? Roach seems not to have an argumentative bone in her body, so you can forget that concern right up front. True, she freely admits to skepticism about unproved -- unprovable -- claims of ethereal forces at work. Yet she admits to the opposite as well: no one's proven there's not a soul.

Second -- and here, maybe not everyone would agree -- if you're going to write humor, you need paradoxically a strong sense of self-control.

That's my one reservation about Mary Roach, having read (and enjoyed) her first two books: she's almost too determined to make us laugh. She seems at times driven by a quota system: if she hasn't cracked a joke within N paragraphs, she must go back and tack one on, no matter how weak and easy a joke it might be. (She often does this via footnotes, which makes the practice even worse. If you're going to drag my eyes to the bottom of the page for a joke, make it worth the time and refocusing effort to find my way back to where I left off in the real text.)

I want to take Mary Roach aside and counsel her -- like hey, come on, relax. You're a naturally, genuinely funny woman. A talented baker knows how to jazz up a birthday cake with buttercream icing, but most of us don't want the same treatment on a breakfast pastry. Dial it back a little, Ms. Roach. You don't have to keep us laughing.

All of which said, I'm really looking forward to reading her next book (Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex) and the one coming out later this summer (Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void). After all, I like reading about science, and I like to laugh (even if not always on schedule). In those terms, Mary Roach makes the ideal guide to tough, complex subjects.

(Note: Spook was also reviewed in 2009 here on The Book Book, by Kristin Dodge.)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Self-Employed Tax Solutions by June Walker

Yes, I know, I should be reading and reviewing novels and stuff like that. The Art, my dear, the Art is all! But I took a little sidestep into the real world this week and read Self-Employed Tax Solutions because I had quite a few unanswered questions about running my writing business, was having a hard time understanding the IRS's pronouncements, and am understandably reluctant to rely too much on an expensive accountant until I have the income to match.

This is an excellent basic introduction to simple record-keeping and other issues that all freelancers have to face, such as the dreaded conundrum of how to figure out your estimated tax payments. I have highlighted all sorts of useful tips, have a completely new view of record-keeping, and a much better idea of what I need to ask that expensive accountant--in a way that ensures I take up as little of his time, and my money, as possible.

The writing is clear, the examples are relevant to small creative businesses (I learned some interesting tips for writers!) and there are some very handy example calculations. I believe I may already have saved the cost of this book several times over just by reading it. Recommended.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Fifteen year old Beth Weeks lives in rural British Columbia in the midst of invisible predators, cunning Coyotes and the whisper of Indian folk tales. Her family, once close, have been torn apart by a terrible madness which has gripped her father. Shunned by the local townspeople, attacked by former friends and faced with an unresponsive mother, Beth learns to find hope in unlikely places.

This is an incredibly visual book, filled with evocative scenery and terrifying images. Amongst the pages homemade recipes and excerpts of her mother's scrapbook are scattered, adding depth to the story. Beth is a perceptive and likable narrator, and while forced to grow beyond her years, her voice remains fresh and original.

It's easy to get lost within these pages, the novel is filled so much of superstition and the unknown that the dark scenes which should be gritty and raw read more like nightmares than reality. Although it sometimes felt as if the author was intentionally skirting the issue of the abuse in Beth's life, this could also be seen as an attempt to mirror an adolescent's natural hesitancy and confusion over such issues.

Overall this is a touching novel, one which emphasises that strength can be found within all of us, and that problems aren't solved by running away from them.