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Friday, April 4, 2014


By Emma Donoghue

A book club favorite, I have read and reread Room half a dozen times since it came out.

It holds up remarkable well.

The first time I read it, I saw it as a story of a little boy being raised in confinement. I found the shtick of the perspective being a five year old boy well done for the most part and I was fully invested in the plot.

True, there were things that were hard to believe and there were points when I felt I should be more emotionally invested than I was (the climax for example, because of the first person telling of the little boy, I never saw *him* in any real danger... it is a brave author who can kill off the narrator half way through a book), but that was ok because there were aspects that really worked: the treatment of the mother character, the frustration of the situation, the ending, etc.

The second, or third, time I read it, I began to see the symbolism. I began to think about more global points of our own sense of self and the rooms that we build for ourselves in our everyday lives... the walls that are real, the walls that are emotional... the walls others build versus the ones we create for ourselves. How safe are we in our rooms?

Later, I began to think about the idea of "room" being a societal point. We are who we are based in large part by our surroundings. To be that fish-out-of-water is a frightening experience. Whether we are a boy leaving the relative safety of his "room" or an immigrant leaving their home country, or a college girl leaving home for the first time... we all go through culture shocks and how we react to the inherent difficulties is very telling.

It wasn't until a more recent reading when I was told that this book was inspired by real life events.


Let me say, that it is a quick an relatively easy read. The only difficulty comes at the emotional level, not the reading level. The characters are not all that fleshed out or profound, but that is more because the narrator is a five year old.. and through his eyes we do get glimpses of character development that isn't at all obvious to him. The story is interesting and won't soon leave your mind.

I feel compelled to say: trigger warning for violence against women and children in peril.

Well worth the read.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The 100

The 100

I want to like this show.

Why is this show making it so hard to like it?

Sigh. Ok, here goes.

What we know from the get go: space, adventure, teen, The CW.

What we can posit: sci-fi, teen angst, plot contrivances, pretty people, the need for suspension of disbelief.

Then we watch the 5 minute preview on Hulu.

And we get excited. Very excited. The first five minutes gives us exposition (handled well –quick, succinct gives we what we need to know and moves on). It gives us a heroine who is strong, feisty, and likeable. It gives us some cool space shots of space stations and other such things. In other words, there is a good budget on this, that bodes well. It gives us a peek at some of the coming drama, but it seems tempered by the story. So far so good.

Then we watch the whole first episode.

But wait… first let’s make a check list:

Teen angst means unrequited love, someone being dramatic for no other reason than being dramatic, the line “you just don’t understand!” and a pretty girl getting mostly naked.

What else can we expect? Well, I am going to predict a stereotypical villain doing something villainy, adults looking stupid, and hints to a bigger story arc, and probably the death of a somewhat central character fairly soon to show us how edgy and stuff the show is.

--- an hour later ---

That check list is now a mass of checks and stars and underlines.

Here’s the central plot: The humans destroyed their planet almost a hundred years ago and the survivors have been living in the Ark space station. All crimes are given the same weight (wha…?) and prisoners are judged on their 18th birthday. For some reason, the powers that be decide to jeteson 100 teen prisoners down to Earth with no supplies but equipped with wristbands that let the Ark monitor their vitals in order to determine if the air is safe down there. During the landing, the communications between the teens and the Ark are destroyed.

Here’s the thing. Some of the acting is good. Some of the storylines are decent. But there is a fair bit of WTF and that makes it very hard to concentrate on anything else.

The good: The show has potential. Especially up there on the Ark, a few things happened that made me wonder what the background was. I could see the introduced villain turning out to not be the villain (hopeful eyes) because he really isn’t all that evil. At least not yet. What a switch that would be! 

More good: despite hitting everything on my checklist the teens down there are interesting. The show on the ground is more Lord of the Flies meets Lost, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The bad: We do not understand the motivations of some main characters who are doing colossally stupid things. Over and over and over again. Who needs food, lets just hang out and play with the trees. Who need water, lets take off our clothes and have knife fights! Also? That check list thing is pretty annoying. We shouldn’t be able to predict the entire first episode. Also? All the teens look like they are 16 and 17. (It was established that they aren’t 18.) So. In a space station that regulates the breeding of the population and is all scrappy and hardly making do, there were a hundred 16 and 17 year old criminals? That’s… mighty specific and really really tough to swallow. 


Fingers crossed the show finds itself and makes it work. We need better sci-fi on TV.


Post Script. I watched the second episode. Let me just say, the good is slipping and the bad is getting worse. I got a head ache from all the eye rolling. So far? No problems have been fixed… but a whole lot of more crazy you have to just ignore it if you want to stay sane stuff has happened.

Le sigh

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle
By Jeannette Walls

I am not normally a big fan of memoirs, but I am very glad I made the exception for this one.

Written with a powerful clarity and possessing remarkable prose, this is a story that reads like a fairy tale for the modern time.

Nomadic and possibly mentally affected mother, an alcoholic father, extreme poverty, and the struggles that are born from each make up the background.

Jeannette tells her story with humor and humility. We are never preached to, and her story is not part of a self positioned pedestal. Instead, we have her story of triumph and escape from a highly dysfunctional situation that is both inspiring and heartbreaking.

What really makes this book fascinating is her tone. She loves her parents despite their obvious and detrimental flaws, and that love shines through. It is easy for a child who doesn’t know any better to idolize her father and not see his sins as sins, but even as she ages Jeannette manages to show both the good and the not so good in her parents with descriptions that are honest and haunting, and which never place her obvious love for them in doubt.

The pace is clear, the characters are well developed, the stories from her youth as fully fleshed out and act as perfect threads that weave the story of the Walls family in vivid and tragic relief.

I highly recommend this book.

Friday, February 21, 2014

When Gravity Fails

When Gravity Fails
George Alec Effinger

I read this book because it was recommended to me by someone who said “Hey, this book is really cool. It treats the idea of gender and transgender in a really cool way.”

If you don’t know, I am very active in the local LGBT community and so this piqued my interest.

And yes, the book does indeed treat gender in a way vastly different than is typically done in society and fiction: it makes it totally moot.

In this futuristic world, one can change one’s gender easily (for a price to be sure) and there is very very little stigma attached. Of course, this world also features personality cartridges that one clips in and out of one’s head. The idea of interchangeable personality traits, whole personalities, and also gender is so commonplace that it is just background noise to the “free lance PI investigates a series of murders and gets in over his head” story line.

That story, by the way, is engaging and full of nuance. It is classic hard boiled but it has a dash of color and flair not found in classic noir stories. The main character, Marid, is both totally believable and easy to root for. The twists are good twists, the fem fatal is done extremely well, and the mystery unravels as a good and steady pace.

Set in an Arabic ghetto, some readers might have trouble with the names and local language, but I found the fact that this wasn’t a New York based detective story a nice change of pace. I loved the way that Effinger handled world building… both with broad strokes and with little details that helped one get more than a sense of things, you really felt that this was a real place full of complex and dynamic real people. The quirks and futuristic flourishes didn’t feel forced or there for shock or shtick value.

I won’t go too far into the plot because I would love for each and every one of you who read this blog to go out and read this book. Suffice it to say, I highly recommend it… and not just because of its treatment of gender politics, but for the story it tells and the phenomenal way in which it tells it.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Book of Jonah

The Book of Jonah
Joshua Max Feldman

The Amazon description is as follows:

The modern-day Jonah at the center of Joshua Max Feldman’s brilliantly conceived retelling of the book of Jonah is a young Manhattan lawyer named Jonah Jacobstein. He’s a lucky man: healthy and handsome, with two beautiful women ready to spend the rest of their lives with him and an enormously successful career that gets more promising by the minute. He’s celebrating a deal that will surely make him partner when a bizarre, unexpected biblical vision at a party changes everything. Hard as he tries to forget what he saw, this disturbing sign is only the first of many Jonah will witness, and before long his life is unrecognizable. Though this perhaps divine intervention will be responsible for more than one irreversible loss in Jonah’s life, it will also cross his path with that of Judith Bulbrook, an intense, breathtakingly intelligent woman who’s no stranger to loss herself. As this funny and bold novel moves to Amsterdam and then Las Vegas, Feldman examines the way we live now while asking an age-old question: How do you know if you’re chosen?

This is mostly accurate, but if you think this book is full of Christian allegory or life lessons learned through connection to God or the divine, you would be wrong.

Instead, this is a book that attempts to tell two interwoven stories about two very different people who find something supernatural and healing when they find each other. Except that it doesn't.

What we have in a confused convoluted plot, the introduction of a second main character late in the game and then ignored, a check list of vices, and a picture of God as a cruel puppet master. I don’t think any of those things were intended.

The plot: Jonah gets a vision. It makes no sense to him. He tries to ignore it. He gets another and then another and then another.. but at no time is he given actual (or figurative) instructions by God. There is no “Go there, do this” there is just visions of death and nakedness. There is, in short, no context. How then should he act? He hasn't a clue. He attempts to become a slightly better person (breaking up with his mistress, coming clean to his fiance, alerting the media to the shady deal his law firm is making, etc. But he is still punish by more visions and confusion.

Enter Judith. She is written as a two dimensional foil… a sad lost person floating in the world with no purpose except that she exists and eventually becomes the object of Jonah’s quest.

In both the case of Jonah and Judith, the author seems to have an offensive check list of sins for his characters to partake in… I’m guessing to show us just how bad they really are before they get saved. Jonah is materialistic, cynical, an adulterer, likes his drugs and alcohol, and is the epitome of the greedy lawyer. Judith is an extreme intellectual who lacks ass social graces, is sexually manipulative, promiscuous –with both men and women-, cold, and sells out to work for an evil casino mogul by helping him buy up church land.

They finally meet and have a moment of connection but then Jonah gets another vision (this time with a sense of what he should do) but he runs away. She returns to her sheltered slightly hedonistic life and Jonah finally decides to do something vision related besides bail and he goes on an “epic” quest to find her. The last, maybe, twenty percent of the book is this quest.

He finds her. They talk.

And then… nothing. He goes into the desert and lays down to feel the sun on his face.

The end.

We have no idea what is going to happen next except that they will change their lives (we assume for the better) and they both feel… something… although that really isn’t shown.

I’m not sure when I have had a more disappointing end to a book, but I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. The whole thing is written as so introspective and verbose… chapter after chapter of exposition and very little movement in terms of consciousness or plot.

Frustrating to say the least.

And what makes this double hard is that Feldman is very talented at some very important part of story telling. He has a beautiful way with dialogue. His side characters are well described and totally believable. His has an almost uncanny way of setting a scene and giving the reader tactile signposts that illustrate more than the current action. And the story he was trying to tell had mounds of potential. It could have been powerful and life changing.

It just, wasn't.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Paper Towns

Paper Towns
By John Green

Don’t be fooled by the fact that our protagonist is in high school. This is not a YA book.

Instead, it is a wonderfully written examination of human goals, perceptions (both of self and others), ideas, and connections.

It is a coming of age story, a hero’s quest story, a road trip adventure story, and a story about life. With universal themes, witty dialogue, complex and yet toally believable characters, and an ending that is pitch perfect, this is a modern classic.

I cannot say enough good things, but I want to say something specific about the characters.

We have a host of high school troupes. We have the friendship dynamic, the boyfriend girlfriend dynamic, and we have the unrequited love dynamic. We have characters who fall under the LGBT umbrella who are fully accepted. Every single character is written in a realistic compelling way. These are people we know and people we wish we knew. The dialogue is so real (and at ties hilarious) that it is hard to believe that this is a book.

The plot is well paced with the story having clear acts that shift in tone and purpose but work together almost seamlessly. Incorporating literary classics like Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” as well as pay pop culture homage and use modern day tech (the internet plays a significant role) in a totally plausible way, the story manages to still be timeless.

I highly recommend this very quick read to anyone who has felt lost, anyone who has wanted to peer behind the sets of their own lives, anyone who has hidden behind a public mask.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Dinner

The Dinner
By Herman Koch

(Not one of the Koch brothers)

Premise: Two couples have dinner and discuss their children. The entire book takes place at this meal. It is a story about parental sacrifice.

That… didn’t sound very interesting to me. However, the idea of the whole thing happeneing over the course of a many course meal… that was a bit intriguing from the narrative structure point of view.

Boy, am I glad I read this book.

First off, yes. The present day action all takes place around one meal. However, the author uses flashbacks ( a lot of flashbacks) to give context to the discussion and the action at the table. Thankfully we move back and forth easily; it is always obvious where in time we are.

Secondly, yes… sort of. This is a story about parental sacrifice. But it is so much more. It is about parental responsibilities and about human responsibilities. It is about legacy. It is about violence and repercussions. It is about turning a blind eye… or blinding oneself to avoid seeing.

There aren’t a lot of characters, but those that ae introduced, even the side character of the waiter, are given unforgettable details and quirks. The dialogue is fine, as far as it goes, but what really shines in this book is the story; the complicated, layered, and downright creepy story.

As the adults discuss, and pointidly don’t discuss, what it is their children have done (and not done), the onion is peeled letting us in deeper and deeper to what many would consider a parental nightmare.

Layers. That’s really what this book is about and what holds it all together so well. Layers. Layers of guilt, of action, of inaction… layers of the past, and in a shocking twist, layers of decisions and choices that affect the future.

I really don’t want to spoil any of the surprises for you… I highly recommend this book. Note: do not power read. This story, like a fine meal, is better savored and digested slowly. Trust me, barrel through and you will miss some of the wonderful subtlety and nuances that make this book a rare and delightful feast.

Any more food puns? Nah, I think I’ll stop.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Love Saves The Day

Told mostly through the perspective of a cat named Prudence, this novel was mostly a delight.

I have a low tolerance for the schtick of "animal voices" in fiction, but this novel did a great job of evoking a very cat like response to the unfolding drama. Prudence is dismayed when her Most Important Person, Sarah suddenly disappears... but she is even more upset when Sarah's daughter Laura and her husband Josh invade her home, pack up all the Sarah-things and then transplant everything, Prudence included, to a new home across the city.

While trying to come to terms with her new life and roommates, Prudence deals with the grief of a lost loved one with surprising depth. Interwoven in her memories of Sarah and her adventures with Laura and Josh is a back story of a complicated mother-daughter relationship.

There were laugh at loud moments as well as some profound messages of love and hope... and of course, a happy ending.

But there were also a few things I didn't like about the novel.

While most of the narration comes from Prudence (and is done in the first "cat" perspective), a few chapters focus on Laura... and jarringly are told in the third person.  As if that wasn't complicated enough, there are a couple of Sarah chapters too... which are not only in the first person, Sara, but are conversational in tone... as if she is telling her story (to whom we don't know) from beyond the grave.

Chapters 1 - 4: Prudence
Chapter 5: Laura
Chapter 6: Prudence
Chapter 7: Sarah
Chapter 8 and 9: Prudence
Chapter 10: Laura
Chapter 11 and 12: Prudence
Chapter 12: Sarah
Chapter 13: Prudence
Chapter 14: Laura
Chapter 15 and 16: Prudence

The reason for the narration change seems to be to give the readers more information so that the plot movement makes more sense. While this is accomplished, it is still awkwardly done. Sarah's chapters are full blown flashbacks that fill in a lot of missing facts, but are unsettling because she didn't share these facts with either of the other characters while she was alive, and yet they are essential in our understanding of Sarah as a person.

I just think that either the shared narration should have started earlier (four chapters in is a long time to suddenly change anything) or have been handled differently.

Regardless of the narration, the other thing that was slightly cumbersome was the "sticky point", the thing which all the negativity and family drama between Laura and her mother Sara hinged upon. There is an awful lot of lead up to this traumatic moment where their lives took this horrible turn and nothing was ever the same and Laura just couldn't get over it even years and years later because oh my god it was so big and so nasty and... And then we read it, and it is somewhat of a let down. (And we read about it from Sarah who isn't the one still dwelling on it!)

And then another character, who had been referenced but had yet to show up,does in fact show up, and she solves Laura's problem with a direct "get over yourself" sort of moment... and then... the problem is pretty much solved.

... /raised eye brow/ ...

Of course, as happens in most animal point of view books, the animal has a near death experience but since we all know that there is going to be a happy ending, the drama isn't really there, even if the writing is particularly strong in this section.

So.  All in all, I enjoyed the story this book told. I loved Prudence as a character and enjoyed her cat-itude about things like food and The Monster (vacuum cleaner). The book was a fairly quick read and did have some universal truths to point out in terms of loss and communication. In short, it was a good book and I am glad I read it even if I am picky and easily bugged by things that probably wouldn't even phase a more casual reader.