Bill Bryson has an amazing talent for taking the mundane facts of history and weaving them into a funny, thrilling, fascinating and readable work on non-fiction. His topics have ranged from travel adventures such as his exploration of the Appalachian Trail and the Australian outback, or the examination of social history from his own childhood memories to the history of his house. Bryson’s recent work, One Summer America 1927 takes the reader on a chronological trip through the summer of 1927 in America, carried along by a host of events and characters from the era including sports legends, political figures, “heroes” and criminals. The structure of the work starts with the contest to over-fly the Atlantic ocean from New York to Paris in early May and ends with a fall from grace for America’s hero, Lindbergh, in late September. Interwoven in this adventure are all the other stars who appeared on the public stage during the summer of this particular year: Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Al Capone, Henry Ford, Calvin Coolidge, Sacco and Venzetti, and many others. These people defined an era and helped form and characterize a nation before the Great Depression. What I found particularly compelling were the similarities between the mindset of the late 1920′s and today. Although this book would not be listed as one of Bryson’s best in my opinion, it was an interesting and very worthwhile read. I was appalled and disappointed to learn, however, that most of these larger-than-life sports and other historical figures were truly reprehensible people in many regards. Why, you ask? You’ll have to read the book.
Define “Normal” by Julie Anne Peters is a story about looks being deceiving. It centers around a young middle schooler, Antonia, who is selected by the guidance office to provide peer counseling to troubled fellow student, Jasmine “Jazz” Luther. Antonia is immediately put off by the girls looks — piercings, black lipstick, tattoos — and assumes she’s unintelligent, sub-human, and trouble. As the story unfolds, we learn that it is Antonia — a model straight A student, who is struggling with a home life that’s falling apart: her dad has deserted the family and her mother is increasingly dysfunctional. Antonia, left to pick up the slack for her two young brothers, tries to hide the facts from neighbors and school officials and refuses to ask for help. Despite their differences, the girls begin to trust one another. Antonia discovers that Jazz lives in a mansion and is a gifted classical pianist. Jazz, on the other hand, takes part in supporting Antonia when she and her brothers are sent to live in a foster home. The author, Peters, weaves a masterful portrayal of Antonia’s mother’s descent into crippling depression. Although the book is a bit dated, it is a fast and enjoyable read. Peters, who has made her mark in the young adult fiction scene with stories about struggles faced by gay/lesbian teens, made the characters in this story, however, a bit too stereotypical. The “good girl” Antonia is too naive and often talks like a middle-aged woman, whereas the “bad girl” Jazz trots out all the clichéd bagged of a teen rebelling against her parents. I also question the age of the girls, who are supposed to be 8th grade middle schoolers. The fact that Jazz sports tattoos and such without parental permission is questionable, and some of their activities seem more appropriate to high school. Overall, a good story that kept this reader engaged.
Courtney C. Stevens’ debut novel “Faking Normal” takes on some tough issues. It opens at the funeral for a neighbor who has been killed by her own husband. The dead woman’s teenaged son, Bodee, is a bit of an oddball and outcast already– a boy who dyes his hair with KoolAid and keeps to himself. After the tragedy, he is taken in by Alexi’s family to live with them for a while, and is the only one who notices that Lexi has a dark secret of her own. She’s been “faking normal” and has convinced her two close friends, Liz and Heather, her parents, and everyone else around her that she’s living the life of a normal high school teen. But Lexi is not doing such a good job in suppressing her internal demons, and has turned to hiding in her closet at night and tearing at the back of her neck until it bleeds. Stevens keeps the reader guessing as to the specifics of Lexi’s incident, but it is clear that it involves some form of sexual abuse. Bodee, mature beyond his years, supports her until she seems stronger and then presses her to make a full disclosure. In turn, Lexi is pressuring him to swear out a disposition against his father. It is a lovely story of the two teens growing closer, the mis-steps they take along the paths of high school dating, break-ups, drinking, and other pitfalls. Lexi, in love with an imagined boy who leaves song lyrics on her desk, almost misses the real flesh-and-blood boy right in front of her. If I were to find fault with the novel, it is in the portrayal of the minor characters around Lexi and Bodee: the girlfriends Liz and Heather are not fleshed-out individuals and the football player boyfriends are somewhat cartoonish stereotypes. Stevens certainly has writing skills and could have made them more fully formed. Also, Bodee speaks at times with the voice of a wise sage years older than his teens, which jars at times, but he is such a sympathetic and lovable character, it is forgiven. One thing I must applaud Stevens for is her bravery in including references to God and religion in a Young Adult work. The mother attends a prayer meeting, the kids have attended church school, and there is a definite thread of a religious nature throughout. The author also in the back of the book has provided a special message to any boy or girl who has suffered rape or abuse, telling them it is never their fault, they can find help to a normal life again, and they must learn to trust again. It is a beautiful, honest and brave footnote to the book. Thank-you, Courtney.
Just finished Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things. Full disclosure up front: I’m a fan of her work and have followed her writing for years, gone to hear her speak when possible, and have been influenced by her style in my own writing. Now to the book: It is a simple story of a boy and girl who fall in love against the backdrop of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster in 1911 New York City. The boy is a young man who has made a living finding people who don’t want to be found–for a price, and the girl’s father displays her in a tank of water, painted blue and dressed like a mermaid, in his museum to make money. Wrap these characters in the world of New York’s Dreamland–a fantastic amusement park–and surround them by “living wonders”–the freaks who work in the museum, and you get the makings of a story perhaps only Hoffman could have written. It starts with her delicious prose describing individually the lives of the girl, Coralie Sardie, growing up isolated in this strange museum, and the boy, Eddie Cohen, alienated from his deeply religious father and Jewish roots, who wonders the streets of New York capturing images on film. These two characters are like electrical currents who eventually cross paths. When they do (and not until approximately 200 pages into the work), this reader mentally sat up and took notice. When their lives cross, it is in conjunction with a body found by the edge of the river, and there’s nothing that gets the mystery reader’s heart racing more than a mysterious dead body. Now, here I must point out that if Alice Hoffman were the type of writer who followed the pack of “commercially successful” writers, she would have opened the story with the scene by the river and the discovery of the body–boom–right on the first pages to hook the reader. Not so Ms Hoffman who can still captivate with her prose and descriptions, her character development and her style. Just flipping through the pages, a reader is struck by the long blocks of unbroken text. It looks more like a classic than a contemporary novel. More often these days each chapter is short, the sentences are rarely longer than two lines, and the prose is broken up by dialog quite often. Hoffman also weaves themes through the work which must be set up and carefully revealed. In Museum, she artfully returns to the leitmotif of fish/mermaids and water throughout the work, interposed with the idea of the captive wife in Jane Eyre and the living embodiment of a prisoner in the character of the wolfman, Mr. Morris, and Coralie herself. And lastly, a lost locket and a stolen watch switch positions, playing at the roles of the lost and the found in their human counter-parts. If I had to find fault with the novel I would (lightly) criticize the character of the coachman who, at times, came off as far too philosophical and educated for his circumstances and almost seemed to be a thinly-veiled mouthpiece for Hoffman herself. Also, I found that the ending seemed rushed, things fell into place a bit too conveniently, but all in all in a satisfying way. In the end, I have to conclude that we need more–much more–of Hoffman’s kind of writing.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” was released on this date (April 10) in 1925. It was a critical success, but not a big seller. The second printing left thousands of unsold copies in the warehouse. How this must have discouraged Fitzgerald, who was likely hoping for a commercial success to help with his mounting debt. Why wasn’t it popular in its own time, and what about this novel has earned it a place in American literature and on every High School’s mandatory reading list? I’m sure volumes have been written on the answers to these questions, but now I wonder about a new one. How would Fitzgerald fare in today’s publishing environment? If Gatsby failed to sell, would he have been dropped by his publisher as a commercial flop? Would he have turned to self-pub in order to find an audience? How many undiscovered Fitzgeralds are there out there now with a story that is not considered “commercially viable”?
In honor of all things Irish with St. Patrick’s day approaching, selected a book by John McGahern, hailed as “one of Ireland’s most stupendous prose stylists” (The Independent). McGahern has written a quite a number of books, but his work “By the Lake” was recommended as his very best. It is the tale of a contemporary Irish village, filled with characters who, over the course of year, journey through life’s trials of work and play, birth and death, joys and disappointments amidst an earthy, pastoral backdrop that looms so large as to be a character itself.
The action focuses around a displaced English couple, the Ruttledges, who came from London in search of a different sort of life. They are the outsiders against which we examine the villiage’s long-time inhabitants: Jamesie and his wife Mary, who know everything that goes on, Jimmy Joe McKiernan, head of the local IRA, Bill Evans, a vagrant who was a child laborer, John Quinn, a man so focused on conquest of women to the exclusion of all else, and Patrick Ryan, a builder incapable of finishing anything he begins, to name a few. The book opens at the home of the Ruttledges and carries on as people come in and out of their life, encountering them in their daily rounds. What it felt like to me was as if I were suddenly dropped into this Irish village as an invisible spirit, yet tied to the Ruttledges, and able to observe their day-to-day life over the year. Conversations start mid-stream with little context. The background on people is slowly revealed over the course of the story, so for the most part, I really felt lost and struggled to understand just what was going on. That may be the point. The reader is supposed to kick back and just go with the flow to truly appreciate the atmosphere. The novel also has no chapters, but is one, long tale broken up only by scene changes marked with a little wingding of special type.
Unfortunately, I was doubly hindered by the fact that I did not understand the lingo. Yes, it is written in English, but (confession: provincial American that I am) I still had trouble discerning the meaning of some expressions and words. So, on top of the feeling of being dropped suddenly into a life without any preparation or background, all the people around me were speaking in a manner a bit foreign to my complete understanding. I see this as my shortcoming (not the novel’s), and it reminds me somewhat of a similar shameful childhood experience. My paternal grandfather was from Connemara, Ireland, and as a child I recall I could never understand a word he said (and maybe a bit of the drink contributed to that, no doubt.) And I’m sorry to say that when I was very young I used to run away from him when he spoke to me. I haven’t run from “By the Lake,” but I must say, it has been hard going.
I have joined the “Maisie Dobbs” fanclub. Yes, that simple, hard-working and wildly intelligent girl sleuth of the 1920′s has captured my heart. Author Jacqueline Winspear has created a unique tale–a combination mystery, history, romance and psychological study of human nature. The story begins when Maisie, just having hung out her shingle as a private investigator, is hired by a client to find out where his wife is sneaking off to. This launches her into an investigation much broader than a straying spouse, and something much more sinister. She soon uncovers a “Retreat,” ostensibly set up as a refuge for soldiers who were hideously scarred during The Great War, but when some inmates start disappearing, it launches Maisie into an investigation that forces her to revisit the horrors she personally experienced and face up to her past. The interesting thing about the structure of the book is that it flies in the face of all “good story writing” advice. Just as we as readers are getting sucked into the mystery, the author digresses and fills the whole middle of the book with the story of Maisie–how she came to be an educated Cambridge gal from her humble beginnings as a house maid. We return to the mystery at the end of the book, and the background story is such a satisfying tale that we forgive the interruption. The novel is full of rich characters, from her inscrutable mentor, Maurice Blanche, to her working-class side kick, Billy Beale–some of which are a bit “over the top.” But we forgive and love them for it. Just so, Maisie herself is sometimes just too good, smart, and pretty to be true, but somehow Winspear makes it work. I’m delighted to see that this is just the first in a series of Maisie adventures. She’s just the cure for a long, dreary winter. (One minor note: I was dismayed to see how poorly my copy of the book was edited. Some helpful previous reader penciled in a lot of corrections. A shame!)