The Astronauts’ Wives Club, by Lily Koppel.

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I have always been fascinated by the heavens. Ancient mythology (Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Norse – yes, please), astronomy, star-gazing, the space race…all of it. I can’t get enough. I’ve watched all the movies, I’ve read all the non-fic, and to an extent, some of the better fiction, too.

So of course when I heard about Koppel’s The Astronauts’ Wives Club I had to pick it up. It is a lovely recap of the man’s race into space and then to the moon, from the first Mercury missions (sub-orbital and orbital missions), to Gemini (two-man crews), to the Apollo missions. But here’s the thing – the entire story, as you might have guessed, is told from through the experiences of the wives.

I couldn’t have done it – been a 1950s housewife. I couldn’t have stood by my man, no matter what, presented the perfect mask to the world, maintained the perfect home, and then allowed my man to pick up the Cape Cookies (as the groupies at Cape Canaveral were called) every time my back was turned. Nope, I’d be more likely to steal my husband’s rocket and fly myself to the moon. You know – after I got over my fear of heights, speed, fire, and small, enclosed spaces. YA YA!

I think that’s part of what made this book so fascinating to me. I didn’t learn much new; there weren’t any big revelations or startling journalistic maneuvers, but Koppel held me firmly in her grasp for as long as she kept talking. I couldn’t look away from these glamorous lives of the men exploring my heavens and the woman leading such puzzling lives. I enjoyed that Koppel didn’t try to force any one angle. I spent much of the book trying to figure out whether anyone was truly happy and never could quite make up my mind – if that’s not fidelity to the true complexity of marriage, work, politics, identity, and friendships, I don’t know what is.

A good, solid read, worthy of an entire afternoon of your time. 4 of 5 stars.

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All the Truth That’s in Me, by Julie Berry.

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I guess I didn’t realize when I added All the Truth That’s in Me to my To-Be-Read list that it was Young Adult fiction. (Not that I have anything against YA; I adore it, it just wasn’t the tone I was expecting.) I knew it was the story of two girls who were abducted and, in particular, the story of the one of them who escaped and returned to their town and was shunned for having survived, although mute and disfigured. I thought it was a horror story a la Lauren Beukes superb The Shining Girls or Koethi Zan’s The Never List.

Once I started reading, however, I realized that Julie Berry’s novel wasn’t going to quite live up to my expectations (however unfairly high they were set). The writing was a bit choppy in places and seemed a bit…off? A while later, I realized that the novel was a period piece, although I couldn’t quite decide if it was set in colonial America (or elsewhere) or some dystopian future. There were odd word choices and the phrasing wasn’t always quite right. Also the pacing was short and blocky – there were never any extended scenes. I acclimated and decided Berry was making the most of her writing style by switching up the scenes quickly and whatever was lacking in writing style was covered by how catchy the story was. I needed a bit of a love story, and that’s just what this was, as the mute survivor pined after her childhood love.

There were enough twists and turns to keep me reading even after I decided to return the ebook…I needed to know what happened with each revelation, and then they kept stacking up and somehow I kept swiping through the pages. Hardly any of the characters had much depth, but I was okay with that. I wanted an easy read with a bit of romance to it and that’s just what this was. The historical nature was a bit distracting at times – I think Berry needed to either strip that element out or go a bit further in anchoring it firmly in a set place and time – but I seemed to get past it okay enough to enjoy a few hours entertainment.

The problem is how do I rate a book like that? Certainly I would recommend you borrow this one, don’t buy (unless maybe you find it in a bargain bin). Could I read it again? Ehhhh…maybe if I was sick and needed mindless reading. When you need wish-fulfillment without a bunch of logic cluttering it up, this’ll do nicely. And it did keep me reading even after I decided I was rather frustrated and disappointed. So I guess it gets 2 1/2 stars out of 5 and liken it to a nice 30-minute comedy you leave on the TV because you’re too lazy to get up and find the remote.

The Bear, by Claire Cameron.

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I bought myself a copy of Claire Cameron’s The Bear as a Valentine’s present to myself. Yeah, maybe not mushy-gushy…at least not in terms of sentiments. But it sounded like a great survivalist story with a gory beginning (and possibly little “literary” content), so why not give myself the gift of reading whatever I want?

The story is about a young family who goes camping on a remote island near Vancouver, only to have a rogue black bear attack during the night, sending the camp into chaos. The children, five-year-old Anna and two-year-old “Stick”, miraculously survive the attack by the “big black dog”, though Anna isn’t quite sure why her parents are missing or what they’re to do.

Despite the sensational plotline, there was very little shock value to the story since it was told from Anna’s point-of-view. The way I had to puzzle through Anna’s thought process and figure out what she meant was a neat device, and lent additional meaning to things such as when you figured out that she was afraid her dad was so mad he had gone away again meant her parents had separated for awhile, and the camping trip was their attempt to reconcile.

The story turned more into a peek of a five-year-old’s view on the meaning of family and togetherness and “doing the right thing” than it was a tale of survivalism (though there was still some of that). It kept me interested, though the story seemed incredibly short. I would have enjoyed balancing Anna’s pov with a third-person omniscient to flesh out the adventure and really tell a fuller story. I certainly connected with Anna, and to a degree her mom, but I would have enjoyed bonding with their dad and exploring the separation, his ultimately sacrificing himself to save the kids…I can appreciate the idea of exploring the event through Anna’s perspective, but what a wealth of drama was left on the table!

So, yes, I enjoyed the story. I liked that I was expecting a sensationalistic tale absent of nearly all literary merit and instead had my expectations flipped on their head. Anna’s voice was very well done, laying a feeling of peace and beauty over an incredibly sad and ugly incident. I wanted to weep for the kids to have witnessed such an event and not being able to properly communicate with the grown-ups the feelings and thoughts they needed to express. But even so, I thought The Bear fell short of what it could have been. So it only gets 3 of 5 stars.

Mini-review: The Night Guest, by Fiona McFarlane.

The Night Guest opens with an old, kind (and slightly doddering) widow named Ruth awakening during the night, convinced there is a tiger roaming her isolated island house. Seemingly unrelated, a supposed government health-care worker shows up the next day, unexplained and unannounced, willing to take care of Ruth. But why?

Night Guest was a good story, but not nearly as enchanting as I wanted it to be. The middle of the book dragged, though I hate saying that without a clear idea of what could have picked it up a bit. I suppose my biggest complaint was that I wanted it to be more The Tiger’s Wife meets Mr. Pettigrew’s Last Stand, only it fell short. Still a good story if you can temper your expectations. 3 of 5 stars.

Mini-Review: A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki.

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I was immediately drawn to the premise of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being: an author on a remote Canadian island finds a diary that washed ashore as part of the debris from the Japanese tsunami of 2011. The diary belonged to a 16-year-old Japanese girl who wants to commit suicide to end the bullying and loneliness that consumes her life, but is compelled to first tell the story of her 104-year-old great-grandma who is a Buddhist nun and general badass. I know – great, right?!

But there were problems. For one, the book is plagues with footnotes. Sure, they helped explain a lot of the Japanese cultural references, but all of the footnotes – there were so many of them – bugged; certainly they detracted from the flow of the story. [I just finished Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick and it had the same problem. Is this a thing now and how do I stop it? It worked for Junot Diaz in Oscar Wao. I haven’t found another novel that could pull it off. So authors, just stop it.] I loved Jiko’s character (the badass great-grandma), but her story was told through Nao and her narrative voice was beyond annoying. I much preferred the story of Ruth, the author who finds the journal, but even Ruth’s sections started to drag as the story moved along, instead of building in intensity (which, ironically, Ozeki was able to do with Nao’s sections – only I didn’t like Nao any more for it).

There were passages that I really connected with in terms of the writing, but so many more that I wish had been culled. I thought if the book had been trimmed by about 100 pages, the story would be tighter and better for it. I loved the philosophical bend of the time-beings and time and stories and impermanence, but just as Ozeki really got going, she would let the plot interrupt. Tale could have been The Elegance of the Hedgehog, but fell just short. 2 of 5 stars.

Mini-review: Looking for Alaska, by John Green.

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Not my favorite John Green story. I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from reading it, but I wouldn’t recommend it either. First: I wasn’t madly in love with any of the characters; I didn’t even like half of them. I appreciated that they were purposefully drawn that way, but I think my reading suffered for having the expectations of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS and WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON. Secondly: See my earlier comment about it not being my favorite John Green – if I’m going to recommend something, it’s going to be my first or second favorite. Lastly: I found the ending (or the catalyst to the ending) broadcasted so early that I found it incredibly annoying. Maybe he wasn’t trying to hide the event, but I want *something*, some nuance, some secondary event, some discovery or reaction to be unexpected or else so out-of-the-park well-written that I don’t care that I guessed right. Borrow it from a friend or the library, or maybe pick it up secondhand.

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert.

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You know how sometimes you come across a book and you almost pick it up, but then decide that it isn’t your thing, so you put it back down with purpose…only to find yourself repeating the same process again and again? That was me and Signature of All Things. I couldn’t make up my mind whether or not I was going to commit myself to reading it – and keep in mind that all that meant was that I’d add it to my 300+ list of to-be-read books and keep an eye out for it in the rather organic fashion with which I approach most of my TBR list.

The blurb didn’t capture me. And probably more significantly, I had identified so strongly with Eat, Pray, Love after reading it mid-divorce that I was afraid of marring the experience. I didn’t dare watch the EPL movie; I didn’t read her follow-up memoir Committed; I didn’t think her fiction would be any less problematic, despite dozens of claims that it wasn’t anything like EPL.

But then it went and landed on a couple of  “Best of…” lists for 2013. I thought about it a little harder. It was featured on Amazon’s Lightning Deals during Black Friday or Cyber Monday or some such, and so I maybe bought it for $6. And then it landed on the longlist for 2014 Tournament of Books. So I committed.

Everyone who said it was completely different from EPL? They were spot-on. Yes, I knew it was a historical fic when I went in to it, but there’s a way to do that without losing any of the whimsey I so much enjoyed in Gilbert’s essays. But I’m not averse to a more (ahem) academic voice. So I toiled on. The voice wasn’t uninteresting…it just wasn’t what I knew Gilbert was capable of. But maybe she was setting us up. Laying the land. With dull and neutral colors.

And it wasn’t as if the story and its inhabitants were completely without any glimmer or whimsey – I adored Beatrix’s blessing for her baby as she welcomed Alma into the world. I loved the fire and cleverness Gilbert showed of Henry as he was exploring and adventuring around the world as a child. I loved the curiosity and spunk Alma had a young child and the way Beatrix was determined to foster those qualities in her daughter and stuff her with learning and a thirst for more. The scene when the teens bond over mischievous remarks at dinner just after Alma’s…er…awakening. My problem was more that these scenes were just glimmers. We had moments…and then they disappeared. The unevenness left me feeling unattached and wondering whether Gilbert remembered what she had written from one scene to the next or why she was making these characters say or do what they had done.

The plot was lovely and (mostly) well-constructed; clearly it was where Signature excelled. The sweeping big moments were well written and the symbology was lovely and the metaphors not to heavy-handed. Gilbert hit some sweet notes. It was the connecting pieces that made me scratch my head at the reviews and praise I had read.

Maybe it was that I had read the book in one go – E.R.-bound at that. Maybe I haven’t thought and pondered over the book enough. Perhaps I am just missing the point entirely. Or maybe it’s that I’m also reading Adichie’s Americanah right now and compared to its genius and absolute perfection, everything else looks like a first draft thrown up on a chalkboard. Signature was better than that…but for me, not much. (2 of 5 stars)

 

Re-reading King: The first two Bachman books.

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Rage, by Richard Bachman: I think it was absolutely the right decision on Stephen King’s part to not only stop further publication of this early novel, but pull as many copies as he could. To have a book out there that empathizes with and to a degree glorifies school shooters…that is not only controversial in today’s reality, it’s beyond the pale. What’s the difference between allowing something like Misery to stay on the shelves and deciding to pull the plug on Rage? Perspective. I don’t think anyone could say that Misery condones, in any way, Annie’s actions. Does Rage argue or its protagonist? Well….that’s a bit trickier, isn’t it? Certainly King thought the book might have been a bit too sympathetic. Freedom of speech goes both ways – and recalling a piece of work is an awfully loud statement. Hear, hear.

The Long Walk, by Richard Bachman: I think if The Long Walk was released today, it would have gotten a long more attention. And possibly would have been released as a YA sensation, and then turned into the latest blockbuster trilogy. Who cares if it’s only one (short) novel; we’ll hire Peter Jackson. Long Walk is easily my favorite of the Bachman books. And even though every time I read it, I find new bits that I wish had been fleshed out a little, I’m amazed at how good it is for all its simplicity.

A non-review review of Enon, by Paul Harding.

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I starting reading Paul Harding’s Enon and just…hit a wall of grief. I knew it was a story of a father whose life spins out of control after the death of his teenaged daughter. I knew that. I’ve read books like that before…in fact, some say that I’m drawn to them. That they form a bit of a shaky talisman I use to ward off even thinking “what if…?” So I thought I’d be good. The book would either be well written, or it wouldn’t. I would like it, or I would not. So I picked it up.

Guys, let me tell you something – Paul Harding can write. Everything felt so real. The days he created, the reality of a parent caring for a child, the house and the scenes of, you know, living – it didn’t feel like I was reading. Which is maybe why I couldn’t read the story. I couldn’t handle the father’s grief, the idea of the child’s death, any of it. It felt too real. I couldn’t imagine investing all of that time, all of that love, enjoying my daughters for another 4 or 6 years, when you start thinking of them as “safe” and then having them ripped away. It had happened to him, hadn’t it? Wasn’t he losing his mind? Wasn’t he where I would be? I could picture all too well the thought that if it could happen to him, why not me? Who’s to say I would be safe?

And by god, the character’s grief seemed so real. That kind of writing is a gift; it felt less like writing and more like translating perfectly that which we feel and think in our heads onto paper. And anyone who thinks lightly of that kind of magic hasn’t tried writing anything. (Or reading much, either, in my opinion.)

It was all too much. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t finish the book. The weight, the burden, the depression…I couldn’t carry that around for “fun.”

Write something else, Paul Harding. I want to read more of your stories, fall into more of your worlds. Just not one that destroys mine so thoroughly.

Something that stuck.

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…the certainty that someone will never come back, never speak again, never take another step – whether to come closer or to move further off – will never look at us or look away. I don’t know how we bear it, or how we recover. I don’t know how it is that we do gradually begin to forget, when time has passed and distanced us from them, for they, of course, have remained quite still.

From Javier Marias’ aptly named The Infatuations. I don’t know how we bear it; I really don’t.