Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Cluster Critiques

You know how sometime it just seems your book karma is MIA and nothing you read, or try to read, meets your expectations? Well the past two months have been almost the opposite of that.

For the most part I have been swimming in literary nirvana, scarfing book after book that charmed, intrigued, astonished, or at least held my attention, which in today’s sea of script, is not to be undervalued.

Four of the five following five books are worth reading. One is highly overrated. Some are unforgettable.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Helen Macdonald adored her soft-spoken, no-nonsense, photographer father. Her childhood memories of him were idyllic, graphic, and poetic. So when he died unexpectedly she was gutted. Formerly an English Professor at Cambridge University, swaddled in life’s finest, Helen quit her tenure, disserted her friends, and secluded herself in bottomless despair. At least until she remembered the one other thing that had, at least at one point in her life, made her happiest. Falconry. As a child, for no apparent reason, Helen worshiped hawks. She drew them, studied them and read voraciously about them. Then she grew up and flew away from this first love, only to return when it seemed there was nowhere else to turn. Helen buys a Hawk and names her Mabel because falconry tradition dictates the sillier the name, the more majestic the bird. And this is but one of the fun and intriguing things we learn about falconry as Helen and Mabel rebuild life together. Helen gives us a lovely narrative of redemption, coddled in the fascinating sport and history of falconry (the sport of kings) including a very satisfying kinship to author T. H. White (The Sword In The Stone, etc.) and his love/hate relationship with falconry. I felt elevated reading this book and I was sad when it ended.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

How many times have I been lured into reading dystopian novels and sworn I’d never read one again. The difference Station Eleven made for me is its unique focal points, which are: (1) When there is an apocalypse, and life as you know it is gone, culture – art, music, storytelling – will survive; and (2) We think our cars, homes, accomplishments and style are important. But smash our world, and all we really care about is love, family and preservation of our individual spirit. After nearly everyone dies off from some mysterious pandemic, a Shakespearian theater group that includes actors and an orchestra reassembles what’s left of themselves, and begins touring a world made much smaller by lack of motorized transportation. They are predictably damaged and have nothing but what can be scavenged along the way, but they are determined to bring civility and culture to a reality otherwise in devastation. Something about that determination to retain art and dignity really appealed to me. And the survivors of the plague cared about nothing more than finding their loved ones, and defining themselves in a world that related in no way to their past. Station Eleven is a soft touch, and a pretty sweet story, told pretty sweetly. I’ll bet you’ve never heard a post-apocalyptic book described that way before. 

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

After staring at my blinking cursor for three minutes I decided I just really needed to purge. Are we so desperate for intrigue and mystery that we’ll go gaga for a borderline mediocre book just because it’s “sort of like” Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s 2012 literary star? OK, so it had a winding plot, some characters (meh) and an almost surprise ending (meh), but it was also a circuitous story so irritating at times that I just wanted to kill off the annoying characters to be done with it. Amazon says author Hawkins “teases out the mystery with a veteran’s finesse.” It’s more like Hawkins “spends a lot of words making us wish she’s just get on with it.” To be fair, I finished the book, but it was a book club choice and I kind of had to. I also finished it because with such rave reviews I was convinced there must be a butt pucker ending worth sticking for. There wasn’t. It’s pabulum.

Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free by Hector Tobar

You watch the news and briefly glimpse the tortured faces of people impacted by tragedy (i.e. tsunamis, train wrecks, terrorism), and it all seems surreal and miles from real life, and then you watch a commercial for a credit card. But what really happens to such people goes so very deep and we are oblivious – unless you read a book about them. One such book Deep Down Dark is about the 33 Chilean coal miners trapped in a collapsed mine for 69 days in 2012. This book could have been exploitive and boring but it was neither because author Tobar focused on the characters of the people involved. The wives who gave up everything to move to the rescue site and lived in tents for months just to support their husbands. The women with little or no education, who made their living selling candy from a cart on a city side street, and demonstrated the audacity and vocabulary to demand that the lives of their husbands and sons be valued and saved. Women who, with nothing more than determination and love, beat out high-powered and highly educated politicians and executives. And then there were the men in the cave. How they reacted, how they organized, what came out in their characters, and what didn’t. The reactions of the mine owners, the politicians, the media were fascinating as well. But what made this book very readable was what the mine cave-in, entrapment, and escape did to each of the men in the cave, and what it did to all of them.  This is a well-written study in human nature and how humans deal when solidly faced with mortality. This book teaches us that education and money (two things we prize so highly) have nothing to do with who we really are. Truly, when things are at their worst, we are at our best.

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes

This is a really short “behind the scenes” look at one of the most iconic movies of all time, The Princess Bride, from Cary Elwes who plays the very handsome leading man. Neither Director/Producer Rob Reiner, nor the cast and crew, realized at the time they were filming The Princess Bride that it would eventually become so loved.  Elwes’ book includes fun and poignant stories from and/or about the cast -- the most interesting of which was about the now very famous sword fight scene, which was shot in one non-stop sequence and no stunt doubles. Then there was the story of how they had to film Billy Crystal’s scenes in the movie over and over again because the set crew kept bursting out laughing. Particularly sweet was the friendship Cary developed with Andre The Giant, who died of complications from gigantism just a few years after the movie was completed. As You Wish is short and, like the movie, funny and sweet.

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