Well, we’re getting into the final days of summer, and hopefully the final days of triple digit temperatures. I’ve got to really step up my game to tell you what I’ve been reading before the season is long gone. Here’s the first of three posts on what I’ve been reading the past few weeks…
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
The Gist: Harriett and David Lovatt see themselves above the fray when it comes to the sexual revolution in 1960s England. They want a simpler, more traditional life surrounded by a large family. While there are problems pursuing their path—the expenses of a large home, multiple pregnancies, and the need for day-to-day help from Harriett’s increasingly resentful mother—they remain committed to their goals. When their fifth child Ben is born following a nightmare pregnancy, the Lovatts are visited by an unthinkable horror. Ben is alien, violent, almost inhuman in appearance, and inexplicable in his responses to normal human interactions. The family’s world begins to tear apart.
Status: This was my second read of Lessing’s modern day horror story. I came across it in a Texas bookstore with my sister earlier this summer and remembered how good it was. I bought her a copy and ended up reading it again over the weekend before leaving it with her.
Summer Escapism: The best! (A real “there but for the grace of God go I” kind of escapism.)
Strength of Writing: A (It’s Lessing. What do you expect?)
Stimulation of the Little Grey Cells: B
Social Relevance: B (Beyond the horror story, there are underlying themes of dreams broken and plans destroyed, maternal love vs. fraternal love, and the inability to control what life brings.)
General Reaction: I loved it the first time I read it 20 years ago, and I loved it when I read it again this summer. The Fifth Child works so well because the horror is not from the outside. Ben is not possessed by a demon. There are no supernatural reasons for why Ben is so alien and dangerous. Although Harriet believes Ben is a punishment visited on them for their “selfish” plans to live an idyllic life, both she and David begin to see this child as a throwback to a previous hominid form. This is nature at work. And it means the horror is in us.
Ben in the World by Doris Lessing
The Gist: In this sequel to The Fifth Child, we see how Ben perceives the world around him. He knows he is different, and he pines for a place where he is accepted and understood. As he makes his way across the globe, he is sometimes treated to kindness; but more often he is used and manipulated by the unscrupulous. The monster in The Fifth Child becomes the protagonist of a modern fable.
Summer Escapism: C (Not much, but that’s OK. While it is easy to relish a horror story, this fable was sometimes painful to get through. The reader is asked to sympathize with Ben, but his alien nature makes that a difficult process. That, in itself, could be considered either a flaw or an accomplishment, depending on what Lessing intended.)
Strength of Writing: A
Stimulation of the Little Grey Cells: C (I struggled through this book for the reason given above.)
Social Relevance: B (How do you apply the Golden Rule to a monster, even if the monster is part of us?)
General Reaction: A frustrating experience (and I wasn’t the only frustrated reader), but that may be because I harbored expectations based on the earlier novel. Here’s what’s ultimately interesting about this book: Ben’s monstrous behavior can be explained by his true nature; but what can we say about the monstrous behavior of the humans in the book? Is that our nature? The answer is not what we would prefer to hear, but we know it to be true too well.
So those are two of the title I read recently. Your turn! What have you been reading lately?
It was released way back in 2009, but it’s currently number one on both the trade paperback and e-book fiction New York Times bestseller lists. It’s been made into a hit movie with lots of Oscar talk, especially for lead actress Viola Davis. It’s a summer reading pick by Oprah Winfrey, and the release of the movie has made it a selection at book clubs across the country. A colleague at a conference in Chicago a couple of weeks ago waxed glowingly of the book and told me she plans to see the movie. A colleague at work told me there was no way she was going to see the movie. It’s hot. And it’s controversial.
It is The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Is it another landmark book and film on the civil rights movement, or (as one writer put it) is it “just another example of Hollywood’s interest in black stories, but only if they are told from a white protagonist’s viewpoint?”
The Help is about three women in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi: two black maids and child caregivers (Aibileen and Minny), and a white college graduate who has returned to the south (Skeeter). Skeeter aspires to be a writer, and she has been told by a professor to write about what bothers her. What bothers Skeeter is the racism and hypocrisy in her community, and she convinces Aibileen and Minny to spill their stories about life as black maids in Jackson.
Since Aibileen and Minny are major players in the story, it’s not tokinism that is causing the controversy. Much of the controversy revolves around the fact Stockett is a white writer, which immediately provokes many readers to first question the authenticity of such a story. Is it honest? Is this just going to be another story of a liberal white person standing up for the rights of black people? What does she know about the experience of black maids during that era? (Stockett’s family was cared for by a black maid until she was 16, when the maid died.)
Similar questions were raised when Rilla Askew’s novel about the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, Fire in Beulah, was published in 2001. But leaders in Tulsa’s black community were quick to see the honesty and authenticity of Askew’s work and her five years of research into the clouded event. More than anything, there was an appreciation that the truth about the slaughter of people and the destruction of America’s Black Wall Street was finally seeing the light of day.
Stockett is finding it harder to win positive reviews from many critics and readers, despite the book’s phenomenal success. She is criticized for the dialogue she writes for Aibileen and other black characters (“You a kind girl”). She is criticized for the dialogue she writes for the white characters (Where is the southern accent?).
She is accused of making Aibileen an Uncle Tom, a “good” minority, a person who absolves the white people around her. The archetypes of Uncle Tom and Mammy are invoked by the characters and setting of The Help. Those archetypes add to the criticism that The Help ignores real history about the state of Black America in the 60s.
I suspect it is mostly a good thing when a book is the subject of debate in America. If nothing else, maybe more people will read it to find out for themselves, or read the reviews and discussions going on surrounding the work to understand the cultural, historical and social issues that are being debated.
Just take a look at what people are reading, writing and watching on the web about The Help:
The Queen’s Castle: Excerpts from Jet magazine and other items on The Help.
NPR: The Help Draws Audiences, and Ire
CBS News: Katie Courie interviews Kathryn Stockett
Check out this article on NewsOK about women who have cleaned homes, past and present.
Okay, it’s your turn: Have you read The Help, or seen the movie, or both? What’s your reaction? Are you staying away from the book and movie for some reason? Tell me, tell me, please…
It’s 110 in the shade! You need something to cool your body and your head! The ungodly hot weather is the inspiration for this week’s Literary Site. Literary Kitty has been panting the last few times he’s brought in the weekly selection. (You know it’s really hot when a cat looks like a smiling dog. Pant, pant!) So, obviously, something refreshing was called for.
Nordic Noir Book Club is just the ticket. I just finished reading Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman (review to come later this week), and I have to tell you that one of the things I enjoyed most about the book was its cold, icy setting. Summer really is the perfect time to pick up a mystery from the Nordic countries. Brrrr! Happy reading!
Let me start by saying Larsson gives up any pretense of presenting a mystery in Hornet’s Nest. The first book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, had a strong mystery plot, which also served to introduce us to the oddity that is protagonist Lisbeth Salander. The second work, The Girl Who Played With Fire, had a mystery that opened more doors to help the reader understand why Lisbeth is the way she is. With Hornet’s Nest, Larsson kicks those doors down.
While the book lacks a mystery, it’s still a thriller. Like the previous books, it takes a while for Larsson to set the pieces in motion; but once he does, you’re off on a wild ride. Larsson introduces the other players who have conspired to make Lisbeth’s life hell on earth. The thrill comes from seeing how Lisbeth and the advocates around her apply their ingenuity, determination, and bravery to see justice win over corruption. Those advocates also include, of course, star journalist Mikael Blomkvist (or as an angry Lisbeth refers to him, Mikael F***ing Blomkvist).
It’s a pleasure to see Lisbeth prevail, and a pleasure to see our strange girl patch up her relationship with Blomkvist. The stage seemed to be set for the next seven books in Larsson’s planned 10-part series: Lisbeth and Mikael forming an odd couple that would solve mysteries and bring down misogynist thugs and corrupt politicians and businessmen. Two misfits against the evil in the world.
Alas, we may never get to see another book, just when the doors have been kicked open. Swedish law may prevent anyone putting pen to paper to try to see Larsson’s grand work completed. We will also never meet Lisbeth’s twin. Nor will we delve more into the problem of violence against women, perhaps the true theme of these works. But we still have these three books which make a very satisfying package. (Or am I wrong about this being the end?)
What is it about Lisbeth? These books are monsters, breaking sales records all over the world. Yes, they start slow but they soon become can’t-put-’em-down books. Our heroine lacks any sense of social graces. She’s rude, vindictive and unable to relate to most of the world. Does she have Asperger’s Syndrome? Perhaps. Yet, we understand why Lisbeth could be the way she is, because she has lost all trust in the world due to the extraordinary abuse she suffered.
Tiny in stature, she is an intellectual giant with a photographic memory and superhuman computer skills. Readers are amazed at her ability to snatch victory from overwhelming defeat. We root for Lisbeth, because we believe every human being has the right to be in control of her life and to live free. Perhaps that’s the simple reason I love the Girl.
• And here’s what I had to say about the first book a year ago. (Has it really been that long ago?)
Have your read Larssen? What did you think of the books?
Why do you love the Girl?
I was a big Agatha Christie fan during my junior high and high school years. It all started with The Mystery of the Blue Train. Actually, it probably started with the smart marketing of the Pocket Books editions of Christie’s novels. That ominous cover, showing a skull and crossbones sign at a train crossing, and the blurb on the back cover, encouraged me to take a chance on my first adult mystery. I bought it at TG&Y and took it home with me.
Now, the funny part of the story: I never finished reading it! Here’s what happened: Toward the end of a junior high math class—8th grade? 9th grade? I don’t remember—I’m talking to my good friend Kathy about the book, telling her how much I’m enjoying it.
She gets into a kidding mood. She has the book in her hands, and she tells me she’s going to reveal the killer. A playful argument ensues, and she says she’s just going to open the book to a back page and read a sentence. She does. And, honest to gosh, she reveals the murderer!
She is immediately apologetic, and I have to check to make sure she really has done what I think she’s done. A quick review of the page tells me that she has given away the perpetrator. Kathy was just kidding around, and she feels bad. I feel bad, because I really loved this book and it’s been ruined for me.
A whodunnit really is all about whodunnit. They’re not called mysteries for nothing. Luckily, this premature reveal didn’t stunt my new Christie obsession. Over the next few years, I devoured the novels of this incredibly prolific “Queen of Crime.” Nope, I haven’t read them all, but still I present…
Young Bill Young’s Best of Agatha Christie
Best Hercule Poirot Mystery: Murder on the Orient Express. (Curiously, Murder in the Calais Coach was the U.S. title when I read it.) Ah, the little grey cells! Have they ever been employed so deliciously? Others will put their vote in for The Murder of Rodger Ackroyd or Death on the Nile, but they don’t even make my runners up list: The Clocks (a real brain twister for my then-young mind), There is a Tide (Taken at the Flood, U.K.) and Cat Among the Pidgeons.
Best Jane Marple Mystery: A Pocketful of Rye. I suspect Marple fans may find this an odd choice. Others would probably put forth my runners up: A Murder is Announced, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side and What Mrs. McGuillicuddy Saw (4:50 from Paddington, U.K.). There is a sadness to A Pocketful of Rye that probably suits my sensibilities. Plus, I think it has one of the most eloquent endings of any Christie novel.
Stay Away From the Poirot mystery Hickory Dickory Death (Hickory Dickory Dock, U.K.), and the Marple mystery Murder by Mirrors (They Do It With Mirrors, U.K.). The Queen of Crime was simply not up to her usual standards in these instances.
- The Pale Horse (murder for hire with a delightful appearance by Christie character Ariadne Oliver)
- Crooked House (a precocious little girl is at the center of this whodunnit)
- By the Pricking of My Thumbs (sleuths Tommy and Tuppence solve a crime in their later years)
- Endless Night (probably the darkest Christie I’ve ever read)
About those big and small screen adaptations…
Best Hercule Poirot: David Suchet
Worst Hercule Poirot: Tony Randle (The Alphabet Murders, based on The ABC Murders)
Best Jane Marple: Joan Hickson
Worst Jane Marple: Margaret Rutherford (Not the actress’ fault. The fault lies with the movie creators who wanted to make Miss Marple a comic figure.)
Best Film Adaptation of a Christie work: Witness for the Prosecution. (This is also Christie’s best short story. There are differences, of course, between story and film, but they both work in their own way.)
By the way, I never read the final mysteries of Christie’s two most famous sleuths, the Marple mystery Sleeping Murder, and the Poirot novel Curtain. They were written decades earlier than their mid-70s release, and were not published until after Christie’s death. The author had them all ready to go, and it was a big news story that she had both of her creations die in their final tales. Perhaps it was fitting, but I preferred to keep the little Belgian detective and the busy-body spinster from St. Mary Mead alive and solving crimes in my mind. Much better that way, don’t you think?
Agatha Christie is timeless. Her talent is evident in her continuing popularity. Variety reports that she has sold four billion books! As befits such a true literary force, there are plenty of places in cyberspace to get your Christie fix. Visit agathachristie.com for much more information, or follow the Christie community on Facebook.
Now it’s your turn. Tell us what Christie book you loved. Or let us know what kinds of whodunnits you like to read.
Over the Christmas break, I read the novel Room.
If you’ve heard about Room in the press, or happened across some “best of” lists with brief reviews, you can probably understand why a few of my friends questioned the wisdom of diving into this new work by Emma Donoghue—especially during the “most wonderful time of the year.”
On the surface, the book sounds dark and depressing; obviously, Donoghue had to go to a dark place to write this. But our world is full of darkness, and one job of art is to illuminate this darkness in order to discover what it might say about our world and the human condition.
Five-year-old Jack is the protagonist, hero and narrator of the tale. The reader discovers very early that this intelligent and imaginative young boy is confined to a small room along with his mother, Ma. In fact, Jack was born in this 12-foot-square room, and he has never seen the outside world, since the only “window” is a high skylight. Ma has made a decision to make Jack’s whole world this room, telling him the people, animals and things he sees on television or reads about in books are not real—they’re just “pretend” things. Other than Ma and himself, the only other real things are Old Nick, the sinister man who occasionally visits in the night, and the food and other items Old Nick brings into the room.
When Jack makes a discovery soon after his fifth birthday, Ma decides to tell Jack the truth about their predicament, the truth about this fortified prison, and the truth about the outside world—truths Jack finds hard to believe. She also solicits Jack’s help in a do-or-die plan of escape, for Old Nick is suffering from the recession. He’s lost his job and is having trouble paying bills. Ma knows she and her son will never be left to live if Old Nick’s home reaches foreclosure.
I won’t give any other particulars away—there’s so much more to discover in this book—but I will tell you that Room is ultimately a life-affirming work. It’s a celebration of the love between mother and child, and a celebration of the resiliency of the human spirit—especially the spirit of a child who has been given the love, support, and nourishment every child needs.
While there are many tears in Room, this can be a funny book at times, and it is often a wise one. Jack’s observations of his world can make the reader chuckle, but they can also be oddly revealing, casting a new view on this tired and cruel old world.
If you decide to tackle Donoghue’s amazing book, know that Jack and Ma may linger with you long after you shut the door on this room.
A library for Ma and Jack by Emma Donoghue.
After you’ve read the book, visit What Jack Didn’t Know by Wendy Smith.
Room is packed with themes about parent/child relationships, child development, the concept of home, and so much more. It’s ideal for a book club discussion.
It’s hard to believe it’s been more than 30 years since the publication of Gail Sheehy’s landmark Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. I read that book soon after its publication, and I can attest that it has been helpful in navigating the decades of my life, especially the 30s and 40s. Now, this is not to say that I have avoided those “predictable crises” along the way, including a classic mid-life crisis that put me in a deep funk. It’s just that I knew what was going on. Life can be scary, and information helps. Still, even though you can understand a crisis from an intellectual perspective, it’s very personal when it’s happening to you.
I thought about Passages after I finished Michael Cunningham‘s new novel, By Nightfall. Forty-something Peter Harris is a high-end art dealer and gallery owner in New York. He has a successful wife, Rebecca, who he married for love. He lives in an enviable space in SoHo, and enjoys the company of the rich and influential. But there are clouds on the horizon. He is struggling to relate to his young adult daughter, feels distanced from his wife, and wonders if his career has reached its apex, with professional stagnancy or decline around the corner.
When Rebecca’s troubled younger brother, Mizzy, comes to live with them, Peter’s midlife blues grow into a fully-bloomed existential crisis.
It’s a common condition when we start to feel the clock ticking on our own mortality. Have we made the right choices? Do we have time to again experience the exhilarating feeling of new love/new career/new life/new insert here.? Have we left something important behind? What is the meaning of all this? And true to midlife crises, there is often a catalyst that becomes an obsessive focus around which our larger existential questions are posed. For Peter, the catalyst is his brother-in-law, Mizzy.
The joy in reading this book, beyond Cunningham’s sublime writing, is wondering if Peter is going to chuck it all, come to terms with his situation, or find renewal within his current life. The joy, for older readers, may be recognizing yourself.
The biggest joy, for me, was the last line of the book. First lines of novels are celebrated and quoted often: “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” “I am an invisible man.” “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” No matter how masterful the last line of a book, we stay away from quotations because we don’t want to give anything away.
I’m going to give it away. I’m going to show you the last line of By Nightfall, if you want to see it. Just highlight the area below:
He begins to tell her everything that has happened.
It’s a simple sentence, not particularly artful unto itself, but magnificent in the context of this latest wonder from Cunningham.
It’s not even Thanksgiving, and already I’ve seen my first top ten list of books for the year. This one comes courtesy of Library Journal magazine. It’s an inaugural list (pop the cork on the champagne!) and it reflects “fiction and nonfiction titles that stood out as the very best in 2010.” The list was compiled by a group of LJ Editors and librarians.
American Terroir by Rowan Jacobsen (Bloomsbury)
By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
How To Live, Or, a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell (Other Press)
Room by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (Crown)
The Passage by Justin Cronin (Ballantine)
The Tiger by John Vaillant (Knopf)
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (Random)
Walker Evans Decade by Decade text by James Crump (Hatje Cantz)
I can’t tell you how many times I see a top ten book list with titles I’ve never read. This year is different! I’ve read The Passage (see review here) and By Nightfall (review to come), and I’ve placed a hold on Room at my library. I even have Freedom on my nightstand, but I’m still not sure if I’m actually going to read it.
How ’bout you? Have you read any of these titles? If so, please share…
Before she became the Girl from Nowhere—the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years—she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy. Amy Harper Bellafonte.”
Thus begins Justin Cronin‘s epic, The Passage. Epic at 766 pages. Epic in the scope of the story. Epic, as in: expect some sequels to this modern vampire tale. This is the Stephen King story you’ve been waiting for all these years.
OK, I’m sure there could be people who will be upset by that King comparison. Maybe they would be upset because King Rules! Or maybe they would be upset because they believe Cronin writes on a higher level. After all, Cronin is a literary darling who has picked up a PEN/Hemingway Award, a Stephen Crane Prize, and the Whiting Writer’s Award; while King is the book world’s undisputed, uhh… king of horror and suspense.
I’m not insulting either writer. I employ the comparison for simply one reason: I haven’t felt this way about a horror novel since King’s The Stand. It’s that intense. It’s that good.
Science gone wrong leads to a post-apocalyptic world in both novels, but King’s work is firmly rooted in the ancient supernatural struggle between good (God) and evil (The Devil), while Cronin is content to imply that any seemingly supernatural goings-on (telepathy, blood-lust, near immortality) are qualities of our genes that have perhaps lain dormant for millennia—qualities that have been activated by a scientific experiment to extend the human lifespan. (To say this experiment has military implications isn’t surprising, given the stereotypes of the genre, and it isn’t giving anything away.)
Little Amy is the only subject of this experiment to retain her human identity; the other, older guinea pigs are transformed into creatures that can only be described as vampires. These creatures escape the lab and the world falls around Amy, but she continues to live, aging at a much slower rate. The savage beasts recognize her as one of them, so they do not attack her; and they recognize her as someone who can answer the question their minds continually ask: “What am I?”
Following our introduction to Amy and her transformation into a near immortal, we travel almost 100 years into the future to meet a struggling community of surviving humans. Amy eventually joins the survivors, and travels with them as they seek a way to save their haven. Ultimately she confronts one of the original 12 vampires that were created prior to Amy’s transformation, and events are set in motion that will continue in Cronin’s next two books, The Twelve, and The City of Mirrors.
Like in King’s The Stand, the ultimate payoff in Cronin’s work lies in watching the creation of a new, loving family in a harsh and unforgiving world. If you ask me, you couldn’t ask for anything better after the apocalypse.
And there’s gonna be a movie.
The Eyre Affair is Fforde’s first novel, and it introduces us to Next, a Special Operative in literary detection and a veteran of the Crimean War. (No, you heard me right.) It’s the 1980′s but there are many things in the book you simply wouldn’t recognize. Fforde has crafted an alternative world where the English are still fighting the Crimean War with the Russians, Wales is a separate republic, Churchill was never prime minister, time travel is more than just a possibility, Dodo birds have been brought back via DNA to serve as household pets, and the alteration of an original manuscript can change all printed copies of the work. In this universe, England is under the heel of the Goliath Corporation, an entity that helped England recover in the past, but has since pursued the almighty dollar at the expense of civil liberties.
Bring in Archeron Hades (love that name), the most evil of evil geniuses, who has a plan for the latest invention of Next’s uncle, Mycroft. Myrcroft has invented true bookworms (genetically-engineered creepy crawlers who can actually read and are nourished by prepositions) that work in conjunction with his Prose Portal to open a doorway into a book. If you open a doorway into the work via the original manuscript and alter anything, all printed copies of the work are altered. When Hades abducts Jane Eyre, the novel ends in all copies at the point of her abduction. After all, the novel is told from Jane’s perspective. No Jane, no novel. And that’s a big problem in a world where a debate about Shakespeare (did he or didn’t he write those plays?) can quickly turn to fisticuffs.
All of this sounds preposterous, of course, and it’s to Fforde’s credit that he’s able to pull it off with such finesse. No question that the work is suspenseful, but the author can’t help but have his fun via wordplay and literary allusions. (Next’s boss is named Victor Analogy.) There’s a great scene toward the end of the book where the bookworms are expelling an excess of their natural waste products: apostrophes and ampersands. Fforde writes the remainder of the scene utilizing excess apostrophes and ampersands. And then this:
Please!” pleaded Mycroft. “You’re Upsetting The Wor’ms! They’re Starting to hy-phe-nate!”
I literally cracked up during this scene. Fforde’s sense of humor shines through in such an original way.
This is obviously a book that requires that “willing suspension of disbelief” in order to find its treasures. But if you can take the journey, the treasures abound: romance, adventure, murder, conspiracy, comedy.
Check out what Fforde has to say about his first novel.
Will I read more Thursday Next? You bet! The sequel is Lost in a Good Book and, yeah, that’s what I’m planning to do.