Monday, April 14, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan

A week or so ago, I read a review in the New York Times  that made me do something I haven’t done in quite awhile. I pre-ordered a book from Amazon. (The book was due to be released in just a few days.) Oddly, it was a book of short stories and essays, which is not my usual reading fare. And, stranger still, even though I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump lately, I ignored the stack of soon-to-be-due library books awaiting me, opened the box from Amazon, and sat down and read.

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan is a moving collection from a startlingly talented young writer.

Her short stories deal with a variety of topics from young love to the life of a contractor in Iraq’s Green Zone to the drawn-out last days of doomed researchers in a sunk submarine. I think the best ones are those whose protagonists are young adults in the throes of first love with all its passionate intensity, confusion, and disillusionment, but her skill in exploring human emotion is evident throughout. The essays are beautiful, and range from exploring how she (or more precisely, her mother) deals with her diagnosis of celiac disease to recounting a day spent in the company of an exterminator. She displays an admirable empathy for her subjects and a mature self-awareness. At the same time, she is young and she knows it. She accepts her youth as the gift that it is as she stands on the brink of graduation from Yale and the next phase of her life.

Marina Keegan had already begun receiving accolades for her writing. She had a post-graduation job lined up at the New Yorker. And then, five days after graduation, she died in a car crash. The material for the book was compiled by friends and family with help from Anne Fadiman, who was Marina’s instructor and mentor at Yale. More details about this remarkable young woman’s life are available in the introduction and online. However, her parents have said Marina wouldn’t want people reading her work just because she’s dead. She’d want people reading the book because she had something to say. So should I mention the biography? How relevant is it? It doesn’t really matter whether I mention it or not, because it’s pretty impossible to read the book without being clued in to its backstory. But knowing about the tragedy does, subtly or profoundly, change the reading experience.

Woven throughout some of the stories are a rather morbid preoccupation with death. In one story, the protagonist’s not-quite boyfriend has just suddenly died. In another, stranded submarine occupants await eventual death in total darkness. In her essays, although she celebrates her youth, she makes mention at times of things she will do before she dies or as she is about to die. It all seems so very prescient, but of course, it isn’t. Just as when she writes about herself and her peers having so much time to explore options and change their minds, or when she writes about her own future, a some-day pregnancy, it leaves the reader with a hollowed-out feeling. This girl was just bursting with life, with hope, with promise–with all that grand expectation and invincibility that comes with youth. The writing stands on its own, and yet, the emotional impact is greater—the reader is necessarily impacted—by knowing that the author died shortly after writing the words.

Marina Keegan urged her fellow students not to settle for after-graduation jobs where they would forget about their passions, their ideals. The sentiments are inspiring and expressed with all the enviable enthusiasm and lack of cynicism of someone who still seemed to see the world’s most insurmountable problem as the eventual burning out of the sun. (And even that, she believed, could be gotten around with some ingenuity.) For herself, Marina wanted to beat the odds and be a writer—a challenge that could well seem, to today’s young writers, to be more impossible than engineering a solution to the death of the sun. The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories shows that Marina was up to that challenge. She was a writer. Don’t read the book because she’s dead. Read it because it’s wonderful.

Monday, April 7, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown

I had spring break off from work and spent a good deal of it in the car, so I packed several books, thinking I would finally get some reading done. However, I ended up sleeping a lot. Plus, we drove through some really pretty country and I spent more time than I should have just staring out the window. I wasn’t in the mood to read, which is bizarre. I did manage to finish one book, the book we chose for our next historical fiction/history book club meeting.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown is one of those inspiring against-all-odds sports epics that make for such feel-good reads. It is primarily the story of Joe Rantz, who was a dirt-poor University of Washington student struggling to stay in school during the depression era. Although there were no scholarships available for rowing, Joe felt that earning a place on the crew team would solidify his position at the school. The book follows him from freshman tryouts through the Berlin Olympics, but it also flashes back to his childhood and the struggles that made him the resilient young man he became.

The story is wonderfully descriptive about rowing and teaches an appreciation for the sport. It also does a nice job fleshing out the head coach as well as the boat builder who serves as an additional coach/mentor to Joe.

Interspersed with the narrative of Joe’s years of college is the build-up to the Olympics in Germany, along with the increasing Nazi threat and the world’s reaction (or non-reaction) to it.

The author is able to maintain tension throughout the book despite the fact that the ending to each of the narratives is not really in doubt. The writing is straightforward, and although somewhat repetitive at times, the book moves along at a good pace. It’s easy to root for these likeable characters. This is really Joe’s story with comparatively little information about his teammates. I would have liked to see the other boys in the boat get a little more attention. They were all potentially interesting men. Still, there was quite a bit of information to cover as it was, so it would have been difficult to include more biographical information on eight more people.

The book is being compared to Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and I can see why, although certainly what Zamperini went through was orders of magnitude greater. Still, there is always something stirring about a come-from-behind sports story, especially when there is a villain to beat.

Monday, March 31, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Spring break has started and I’m off work, so I finally buckled down and read something. I’m way behind on the Back-to-the-Classics Challenge (hosted by Books and Chocolate). I hadn’t even started. That meant the first book on my spring break list was The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Since this book has been on my shelf for more than ten years, it’s also a TBR-pile challenge book (hosted by Bookish). It is an amazing novel for a 23-year-old author to have produced. But what a depressing book.

The title is a hint. This is a book about lonely, alienated people. The main characters are Mister Singer, who is deaf and mute, and Mick Kelly, a teenage girl from a poor family who has big dreams but a tiny box of a reality. There is also an alcoholic itinerant worker who wants to be a labor organizer but no one will listen to him; that and his drinking have driven him sort of crazy, or it could be he is unbalanced to begin with. There is a restaurant/bar owner, whose relationship with his wife is pretty poor and then she dies. And there is a black doctor who is dying of tuberculosis. He has suffered all his life from watching his people suffer and wanting to help them, wanting them to help themselves, and watching them being beaten down by whites in the poor southern mill town they live in. He was merciless to his own children because his expectations for them were so high, and what they achieved was pretty much what was available to them, and he blamed them. His daughter, who is religious, seems the best-adjusted person in the book, but even she gets served up heartbreak after heartbreak.

Mister Singer had one good friend, another deaf mute, who went crazy and had to be sent to an asylum early in the story. After that, Mister Singer lives for the few days a year he can go to visit his friend. But the other characters in the story see Mr. Singer as some sort of empathetic sounding board. Because he can’t speak, they talk to him and pour out their troubles. He’s a very good listener. All these lonely people need that more than anything. But they all think he is something he is not.

Mick is a troubled girl who loves music and who wants to travel, to see the world. She wants to do something with her life. She has to care for her younger siblings, but she can compartmentalize those chores with the part of her life that is her own. Eventually, though, she has to help bring in money, which is pretty much the last gasp of her fading childhood. She is trapped and loses even the illusions of youth, even her hope.

The writing in the story is extraordinary. It’s impressive but sad that someone so young can represent such a wide range of depressing and hopeless situations. Some of the characters speeches did run on and on, but even that reflects how lonely alcoholic and mentally unstable people will run on. So while it makes for dull and repetitive reading at times, it’s realistic.

If you’re in the mood for fine writing, thoughtful character sketching, and depressing insight, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is worth reading. I’m just not sure it’s the best book to kick off a vacation.

Friday, March 21, 2014

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: A Good American by Alex George

A Good American by Alex George is a historical family saga that’s a bit different. I enjoyed it more than I can explain because, when I try to describe it, it sounds like I didn’t like it very much. But really, the sum of the book was much better than the parts of it sound when I try to break it down.

The book is narrated by James Meisenheimer, who is one of the third generation American Meisenheimers. The story starts with the immigrants, Jette and Frederick, who come to America from Germany in 1904. Jette and Frederick have a romantic backstory, but Jette’s mother does not approve of Frederick. Jette becomes pregnant and the two must flee. Jette decides on America. Although initially reluctant, Frederick soon takes charge, falling in love with his adopted country, the land of opportunity. They settle in to a small farming community in Missouri and the saga begins.

James marches us along his family tree, introducing us to his family members by telling us all the old stories, chronologically. He carries his family and the reader through World War I and then World War II. There are births, tragic deaths, weddings, more births, more deaths, etc. The Meisenheimer family grows and more or less prospers. They live their lives interacting with others in the community and being touched, to some degree, by the goings-on in the larger world.

The plot of the book is essentially a straight-forward narration of the lives of the various members of the family, from 1904 until just about the present. It’s a lot of years and a lot of people, so it’s necessarily pretty superficial. Also, everything is narrated by a grandson. So, even as he’s giving details about affairs of the heart or festering sibling rivalries, there is always an emotional detachment (discretion?) and a speed of delivery that kept me distant from the characters. James had the most indiscreet details to give about his own life, but his life was the least interesting.

I’m not sure what it was about A Good American that made it so hard to put down. I wasn’t emotionally invested in the characters. They each seemed to be a cog in the wheel, so James’s problems, which took center stage in the last portion of the book, didn’t seem any more important to me than Joseph’s problems in the middle of the book or Frederick’s problems at the beginning. Maybe that’s the point. Each generation has its own crises and lives through them and then dies.

I think there is just something in that "American Experience" mythology--that immigrant- experience, march-of-progress story--that takes one family, one very ordinary family, and follows it through time that is compelling if well-told. And this is well-told. They live pretty ordinary lives. They suffer pretty ordinary tragedies. And it makes for a surprisingly good read.

Monday, March 10, 2014

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Wake by Anna Hope

There are a great many historical novels that center around one war or another, for obvious reasons. Sometimes, if I read too many too close together, I get bogged down in the sameness of the awfulness (of war- not of the books). But other times, I read a book that manages to really move me, even though it retreads essentially the same paths and comes up with the same message.

I just finished Wake by Anna Hope, an extraordinary debut. The book is set in London in 1920 as the city is preparing to celebrate the two-year anniversary of Armistice Day. The celebration will include the burial of the Unknown Warrior. Scattered in short scenes throughout the novel are images of the exhuming of an anonymous corpse and its preparation for burial. The Unknown Warrior theme forms a framework for the novel that gives it more emotional heft. I’m surprised by how healing it felt (for me at the end of the book) to lay that unidentified but symbolic corpse to rest.

The novel takes place in the aftermath of the war, following three women for whom the war is not really over.

Evelyn lost her lover and she is unable to recover from the loss. She works in the government pensions office. Every day of her life is salt in the wound. Added onto that loss is that the one person she thought she could rely on, her younger brother, returned from the war changed. Though outwardly charming as ever to others, he is nastier to her. He drinks and parties too much. She doesn’t understand why he isn’t at all bothered by what has destroyed so many others.

Hettie is a young dance instructress at a jazz club. She yearns for freedom and a life of her own, but she has to help support her mother and her brother, who has come home from the war shell-shocked and unable to work. One night, dancing, she meets a handsome, wealthy stranger who seems to promise her the excitement and freedom she craves, but he, too, has been touched by the war.

Finally, there is Ada, who has lost her only son. She received only a brief letter from the war office informing her that Michael was dead, but nothing to indicate when, or how, or where his body was buried. For a long time, Ada couldn’t accept his death. Even now, she sees his ghost.

These women’s stories are beautifully told. In small flashes, some of the horror of World War I slips in, but this is more about the lingering afteraffects of the war. The losses were permanent. People had to learn to live with their loss. And in this affecting novel, time and support help these women to learn how it will be possible for them to live on.

Check out all the historical novels being read by participants of the Historical Fiction Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestries. There's still time to join up!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

SIX WORD SATURDAY

Six Word Saturday is a weekly meme hosted by Show My Face. Want to play along? All that's necessary to participate is to describe your life (or something) in a phrase using just six words. For more information, try clicking here. Feel free to explain or not explain. Add an image, a video, a song, nothing.
Post your six words, then link back to Show My Face and hop around to visit other Six Word Saturdays!



My words this week are:

WARM SUNNY WEEKEND. NOT ON CALL!

So I feel blessed this weekend. The snow has melted and I can see my driveway again. This shouldn't be such a big deal in Kentucky in March, but there you go. In a little while I'm going to take a walk to Starbucks. Life is good.

It's been a busy, busy couple of weeks. I've only read one book and that one is to review for the Historical Novels Review, so I've been slacking off on blogging. Two weeks ago, I took my daughter up to Toronto to look at the University. What an adventure! It was great to have some mother-daughter time, but it brings home even more acutely the awareness of how soon she'll be leaving home.

I'm not sure how much reading I'll get done this weekend. I'm a little bored with sitting on my couch under a blanket with my space heater running. I'm going to have to get outside. Can it finally be spring?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Good Morning, Miss Dove by Frances Gray Patton

semicolon blog
I love discovering an old stand-the-test-of-time novel that is sweet and uncomplicated and just pleasant to read. Not very long ago, I read a review praising Good Morning, Miss Dove by Frances Gray Patton. I could have sworn I found the review by jumping through some of the list at Semicolon blog’s Saturday Review of Books, which I highly recommend for book browsing. Unfortunately, I went back to find the link to that review, and for some reason I’m not finding it.


So here is mine. The book was written in 1954 and I read a library book with a plain brown cover embossed with the Louisville Free Public Library logo. So there isn’t much in the way of cover art to attract.

The story is that of the Terrible Miss Dove, world geography teacher to the elementary school students in the little town of Liberty Hill. This is small-town America like that of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, where generations grow up and stay, marry amongst themselves, and know each other’s business. For two generations, every child in Liberty Hill has learned geography from and, more importantly, had his or her character molded by Miss Dove.

Miss Dove possesses a very strict sense of right and wrong and an innate sense of the proper way to deal with children. They are terrified of her–or maybe the better word is awed. They learn to sit up straight, to speak only after raising their hands, not to chew their hair, to keep their hands folded, not to request drinks from the water fountain, etc.. She runs a regimented, polite classroom.

And then, one day, in the middle of class, she feels a sharp pain in her back and her leg goes numb. She has to sit down. A boy is sent for the doctor (one of Miss Dove’s own former students.) She must be carried to the hospital. The nurse is another of her students, as is her fiancĂ©, one of the town’s policemen. The pastor who comes to call is another. The brash young intern who performs the preliminary examination is not, but his mother, now living in another town, was. As Miss Dove waits in the hospital for a series of tests to determine her fate, she relives, through memory, her own life through the encounters she had with the students whose lives she touched and influenced.

At last, aware of the critical nature of her diagnosis, she elects to put her fate in the hands of one of those students. He now has the authority over her that she once had over him. She trusts him.

This is quite an old-fashioned book. It’s lovely to read for the sincerity of its admiration for Miss Dove and Dr. Baker and the good-old fashioned virtues. At the same time, it’s hard not to be glad that times have changed. While it might be great for kids (or myself as a kid) to have a teacher like Miss Dove, it would be awful to have had ONLY a Miss Dove for a teacher. And the paternalistic treatment she received once she went into the hospital would be completely unacceptable today. The nurse would not even tell her what her temperature was–


"That’s confidential information for the doctors," said Billie Jean. Apologetically she patted Miss Dove’s hand. "Even if I told you, you wouldn’t know what it meant. It’s in centigrade."

Miss Dove did not defend herself against the girl’s bland assumption of her ignorance. "My question was indiscreet," she said.

"Oh, no! Not indiscreet!" Billie Jean protested. "All patients ask. But you know rules."

Yikes!

Times change. But good people will always be good people and they do have the ability to influence the lives of those around them. Although books that point that out can sometimes be schmaltzy, they can also sometimes be sweet and inspiring reminders to look for the good and hope for the best.