Monday, July 27, 2009

105 (2009 #30). The Shortest Distance Between Two Women

by Kris Radish

Emma, 43 and single, is the youngest of four daughters, three of whom live, along with their long-widowed mother, in a small-town Charleston suburb. She’s having all kinds of angst because in the midst of preparing for the annual big-deal family reunion, she finds a message on her answering machine from a long-ago lover (previously a sister’s boyfriend). This usually-reliable woman can’t seem to do anything about it, or about anything else going on around her.

I was frustrated with this book for a number of reasons. First, what is it with all these newer authors writing almost exclusively in the present tense? It gives the book a feeling of edginess it doesn’t need or merit. Secondly, the writing is very poor, often with very long sentences with too many phrases or clauses running the length of a paragraph, such as this one from page 134*:

There were the ridiculous humiliations of childhood that everyone suffers—teasing on the playground; not being part of whatever group was cool that week; not realizing that you are supposed to pant after boys when several girls are already panting; a discussion about sex during a sleepover that totally mystifies you because you have no clue what your girlfriends are talking about; thinking that you have always heard a different drummer but have never been quite able to find the right set of sticks to make sure the music does not stop; the random notion that something was always going on inside the family that you did not know about and that they did not think you were smart or old enough to know about; that feeling of “maybe I should too” when someone leaves a job, changes college majors, drops out or suddenly disappears; lost loves; the simple notion that no one you are related to will ever consider you an adult; the more complex notion that you may never really want to be an adult; expectations unmet; and this tremendous, and always growing, conviction that someone is always going to need you and you will be busy with the needing so you will never find the correct drumsticks anyway.


Between Emma’s almost nonstop ruminating (all talk/thought, little action) and her weird habit of lying down in her garden and “caressing her plants,” (page 38), I didn’t have a lot of sympathy for this character, nor for her dysfunctional sisters. The mother, Marty, was more interesting, finding love (and apparently great sex) again at age 78 after many years alone. Emma’s niece, the philosophical punk Stephanie/Stephie, and her beauty pageant subplot were also pretty unrealistic.

In particular, the ending was disappointing. Author Kris Radish covers the family reunion/Marty’s wedding and the beauty pageant, but leaves dangling the subplots on the long-ago lover and an upcoming intervention with the alcoholic oldest sister (mother of the niece and whose husband has an affair). Reading the resolutions to these would have been far more interesting than the reunion or the pageant. I can’t really recommend this book, even as a beach read.

[*A caveat though – this was an advance reading copy, so I can only hope such a scramble of syntax was corrected before the book went to press.]

Saturday, July 25, 2009

104 (2009 #29). Tender Graces

by Kathryn Magendie

My review copy was a spiral bound "un-copyedited manuscript," and it was another case of don't judge a book by its cover! This book was much better than I thought it would be.

The characterizations and descriptions of setting are excellent. I could really relate to the main character, Virginia Kate, as it was clear from the chapter headings and descriptive details that we were born about the same year. The author's poetic images of the West Virginia and Louisiana settings really made this reader feel as if she was there.

Virginia Kate is the middle of three children of dysfunctional parents from dysfunctional families. Her mama's*-boy father quotes Shakespeare, womanizes, and drinks too much. Her narcissistic mother had an abusive dad and drinks even more. Yet even these characters had other sides that were loving and appealing, as did Rebekha, the stepmother you initially want to hate but grow to love as Virginia Kate did. (*aka Mee Maw - and what a caricature of the overbearing mother/mother-in-law/grandmother!)

The story is told mostly in flashback/retrospect from many years later when Virginia Kate returns to her original West Virginia home just after her mother's death, after growing up in Louisiana. It's a heartbreaking story of a family breaking up one piece at a time, even though a new family grows out of it. I couldn't help but feel some sympathy for Virginia Kate's mother and some anger at the latter's conniving mother-in-law and weak husband.

The only problem I had at all with the book was the "today" chapters being written in present tense. I hope that was changed in the final published version of the book; I think it would have been better for the whole book to be written in past tense.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

103 (2009 #28). A Lucky Child

by Thomas Buergenthal

Subtitled “A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy,” this is a Holocaust memoir with a different twist. The author is now the American judge at the International Court of Justice (aka the World Court of the United Nations) in The Hague, Netherlands. He writes about the events in the book 55-60 years after they happened, looking back at his life at ages 4 to 17. The passage of time, and what Buergenthal did with his life in the interim, gives the memoir a perspective that is unique in Holocaust literature.

Thomas Buergenthal writes of the time his Jewish family spent in then-Czechoslovakia and Poland trying to stay ahead of the Nazis in late 1938 – early 1939. They finally received hard-to-get visas to travel to England – the day Hitler invades Poland. They wind up in the Jewish ghetto in Kielce and later in a couple labor camps. His Polish father and German mother—-and Thomas--often use their wits to escape dangerous situations.

In July 1944, when Thomas is ten, his family is sent to Auschwitz. It was unusual for children not to be killed immediately upon arrival there, but as Thomas arrives with others from the labor camp, it is assumed he can work. He and his father are separated from his mother upon arrival, and Thomas from his father a few months later. Thomas survives the Auschwitz Death Transport, marching for three days in freezing temperatures 70 kilometers, where he was herded into an open train car for the ride to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany. Thomas again survives until the liberation, becomes a mascot of the Polish Army, spends some time in a Polish orphanage, and is finally reunited with his mother in Germany 18 months after the end of the war. The story ends with Thomas emigrating to the United States at the age of 17.

The book is enhanced by a two-page map showing all the locations in the story, as well as numerous black-and-white photographs of the author, his parents, and his maternal grandparents (who also died in the Holocaust), and other memorabilia. That the photographs even exist is an example of individual humanity given in the book. Thomas’ grandparents left a suitcase with a neighbor in Germany when they were deported. “'We were always afraid that the Nazis would find it and punish us, but we promised your parents we’d hide it, and we did.’” For Thomas’ mother, this suitcase was “a treasure trove. All her family pictures, including photos of her parents, my father, and me, had been lost in the camps. Erased with the destruction of these pictures, it seemed to her, was proof that her family had ever existed.” (page 156)

By looking back at these events from so many years later, Buergenthal is able both to describe them dispassionately, through the filter of his life experiences, and tie his career and observations about human rights back to these events in his childhood. For this reason, I think this Holocaust memoir would be especially valuable for teens and young adults to read, and I plan to add my reviewer copy (a hardbound final edition) to my university’s library.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

102 (2009 #27). The Friday Night Knitting Club

by Kate Jacobs
read by Carrington MacDuffie

This was somewhat predictable and unsatisfying chick lit. It’s the stories of a group of seven women who are part of a loosely-organized “Friday Night Knitting Club” that meets at Walker and Daughter, a yarn store operated by single mom Georgia Walker. Unfortunately, following so many characters proves to be a little too much for the 360-page novel, and some of them are underdeveloped. The book does come together fairly well by the time of its tearjerker ending, though. Still, for light reading, I would recommend this, and the characters intrigued me enough that I would consider the sequel the next time I need a beach read. I’m not a knitter, but there’s really not that much knitting in this book – just little sections interspersing chapters describing various knitting techniques and stitches.

I listened to this audiobook (read by Carrington MacDuffie, whose silky alto is quite good) right around my first trip to New York City. For me the best part of the book was seeing some of the places and areas mentioned in it. The fictional Walker and Daughter yarn store is at Broadway and 77th on the Upper West Side; we stayed at the lovely Lucerne Hotel one block off Broadway at 79th and Amsterdam. One character lives in the historic San Remo between 74th and 75th on Central Park West, just a few blocks away. Canadian author Kate Jacobs spent a decade living and working in New York City, and it shows.

Friday, July 17, 2009

101 (2009 #26). Couldn't Keep It To Myself

by Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution

Subtitled "Testimonies from our Imprisoned Sisters,” Wally Lamb listed as main author of this book is misleading. Bestselling author Lamb led a rehabilitative writer’s workshop at this maximum security women’s prison in Connecticut, and the book is a compilation of essays by nine inmates from there that Lamb was able to get published. There are also essays by Lamb, his co-teacher in the workshop, and Lamb’s cousin who served time in a Kentucky prison.

The essays are sad but somewhat predictable – women with abusive fathers, husbands, or other loved ones, who wind up committing a crime. This was the selection for my local book club last month, and I found reading it to be rather depressing.

There’s been some interesting controversy since the book was published in 2003. Apparently the state of Connecticut has a law that “allows the state to recover room and board from any inmate who comes into money while he or she is in prison -- or after they leave it, whether through inheritance, lottery winnings, proceeds from their crimes or financial windfall.” Not a bad law, in my opinion, but some felt it was initially being applied to these women because of criticisms of the prison system in their essays. The required payback would far exceed any royalties they would receive from the book -- and, in the case of one of the women who won the PEN First Amendment Award in 2004, her $25,000 prize. The state was understandably upset when the award was announced as Lamb did not bother to inform them he’d nominated the writer. Naturally all the bad publicity that resulted led to a settlement where each of the prisoners paid $500 out of their $5600 advance to the state, with the money going back into the writing program.

To me the front cover art is the most interesting thing about the book. According to Lamb’s “Notes to the Reader” (page xi), it “is an assemblage made by York School students who participated in an extension course in art appreciation,” which probably explains the Mona Lisa-like image. What’s not so clear is why Lamb’s name is the most prominent thing on the cover. It makes me wonder how well the book would have sold without it – and in my case, turns me off enough not to read any of Lamb’s other work.

Monday, July 13, 2009

100 (2009 #25). Listen to the Wind

by Greg Mortenson and Susan L. Roth

My book club will be reading Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea later this year, so this children's version of the story caught my eye. Even if the subtitle (The Story of Dr. Greg & Three Cups of Tea) hadn't, the cover artwork would have.

Susan Roth has created stunning, colorful, three-dimensional, highly textural collages for this book's illustrations. The head scarves (made of fabric or textured papers) of the Pakistani girls and women look as though they are actually wrapped around the heads. Paper fingers are bent and look as though they are actually holding objects. Roth includes an informative artist's note at the end of the book, explaining her inspiration and how she created the collages and base papers.

The story, of Greg Mortenson's follow-though on a promise to build a school in a remote village after the people there helped him recover after a failed mountain climb in the area, is inspiring. A scrapbook with actual photographs of the villagers and the school at the end of the book shows children the story is true.

I'd love to know more about Julia Bergman, the librarian who helped stock the shelves in the schools. I'm looking forward to learning more about her when I read the book that inspired this picture book version.

The artwork in Listen to the Wind will encourage children to create their own collages, and the story will prompt them to consider ways in which one person's actions can make such a difference. I will definitely be purchasing this book for the curriculum collection of my university's library.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

99 (2009 #24). The Lace Reader

by Brunonia Barry
performed by Alyssa Bresnahan

This was an interesting book. Set in Salem, Massachusetts, it’s the story of Towner (aka Sophya) Whitney, who has returned to her hometown when her great aunt Eva goes missing. Towner narrates part of the book, and her fourth and fifth sentences are “Never believe me. I lie all the time.” Towner has been in a mental institution and admits (on page 52) to having lost some of both short-term and long-term memory due to shock therapy. All these should be clues about the book’s ending, but they’re easy to miss.

Excerpts of a so-called “Lace Reader’s Guide” by Eva introduce the chapters narrated by Towner. The art of reading lace to tell fortunes is completely made up by author Brunonia Barry, but apparently the present-day witches in Salem have taken up the practice!

Speaking of witches, I LOVED the character of Ann Chase, a phrenologist and head of the local witches. Towner says, “Death isn’t the same for the witches, Eva told me once; she said it was because they don’t attach the prospect of eternal damnation to it.” Ann comes to the rescue of my other favorite character, local cop John Rafferty (part of the story is told from his third person limited viewpoint – oh, and he falls in love with Towner and she with him). Rafferty is confronting the local evangelical group, the “Calvinists” (more on them in a bit), and Ann scares them off simply by chanting a line from Caesar’s Gallic Wars in Latin! She later asks, “what kind of weak, lily-livered god are they worshiping if they’re afraid of a few witches?”

Indeed. The "Calvinists" are so named because of their leader, Calvin “Cal” Boynton, probably the most evil antagonist (suspected in Eva’s death and in the disappearance of one of his young female followers he impregnated) I’ve run across in fiction in some time. Formerly a yacht racer, a drunk, and married to Towner’s Aunt Emma, he beats the latter so badly she winds up blind and brain-damaged. After the assault he steals a boat, runs it aground, and is not found until 48 hours later, claiming to have seen God and been redeemed, and shortly afterward starts his “church.” Barry’s description of these zealots through the thoughts of Rafferty, “with all his lapsed-Catholic guilt,” could be applied to a lot of so-called fundamentalists:
In this moment he understood the draw of redemption. He understood why people wanted to be born again. Accept Jesus and you get a free ticket to heaven. No matter what you did in the past or would do in the future. When you were saved, you were saved. No penance. No Hail Marys, no moral inventories, no ninth-step amends. The Calvinists preached fire and brimstone, but only to the unsaved: the Catholics, the Jews, the Wiccans. The insiders were protected. A few indulgences and some tithing bought you an insurance policy. Who the hell wouldn’t want to join a religion like that?” (page 152)

Barry is a resident of Salem (her descriptions are wonderful) and this was her first novel. It has an interesting history, originally self-published and promoted through book clubs. Experienced narrator Alyssa Bresnahan’s reading is choppy, but then so is the text, and she does a good job expressing Towner’s conflicting emotions. At times confounding, with a somewhat surprising ending, this book is one I’ll re-read to look for more clues in the mystery.