Saturday, June 25, 2016

Cluster Critiques

The Grownup: A Story by Gillian Flynn
The Grownup is about a woman who seems smart enough to run a Fortune 500 company, yet gives hand jobs and “reads auras” in the back of a fortune teller’s shop. Said improbable handmaiden/aura reader latches onto a wealthy woman desperately seeking someone to “purify” her haunted Victorian house (of course) and deal with her spooky stepson (of course). There are plot twists (of course) and then it ends. Yes, I’m giving this one booktitude (made up word, but you get it).

Every time a new literary idol, like Gillian Flynn with Gone Girl, surfaces so too do their other writings, as publishers rush to capitalize on starry-eyed fans. Such is the case with Flynn’s micro-book (really a short story) The Grownup. For sure Flynn can create complicated, charismatic characters and story scenarios that make you flip pages like the wind, but Gone Girl is her only book so far that has reached the literary holy grail that separates prodigy from pupil - great story, great characters, great ending. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll probably enjoy the hour it takes to read The Grownup (and it did win a 2015 Edgar Award for best short story), but it, like Flynn’s other books, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, doesn’t measure up.  Hey, I didn’t set the bar. Flynn did.

It Was Me All Along by Andie Mitchell
Anyone who soothes their soul with food will relate to It Was Me All Along about growing up in a particularly fractured family where food was the babysitter, the hug, the love. Not unlike many books written about conquering emotional eating, Mitchell takes us through the common thresholds of her life, all alternately defined by eating:  shame, unhealthy and heroic efforts to lose weight, acceptance, and of course the inevitable triumph. Does anybody write about continued overeating failure?  

But what makes Mitchell’s book better than average is that she is likable. It Was Me All Along is a "comfortable", unchallenging book, but if you want to read a book that is a more interesting examination of the issue of conquering overeating, read Big Brother: A Novel by Lionel Shriver (fiction).

Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson
After receiving so many blank stares from my enthusiastic recommendation of Robert Kurson’s first book Shadow Divers, about two deep sea divers’ discovery of a shipwrecked WWII German U-Boat, I was thrilled when I received an email saying, “I saw on your blog that Shadow Divers was one of your favorite books. I loved it too.”  That email came from Sarah Bird (Above the East China Sea) and launched a friendship. So when I saw that Kurson had written a new book, my heart did a little tap dance and I immediately texted Sarah.  

What’s not to like about anything that contains the word “pirate?” And sure enough in Pirate Hunters Kurson delivers a dashing tale of intrigue, gold, and modern-day pirates. He does this by typically and appealingly blending history and process (which in the wrong hands could be boring) in ways that keep you on edge, pleasantly anxious, and convinced that on the very next page you’ll see the words, “we found it.” And did they? Well, what do you think? Take a walk on the Pirate side! Read it.

The Crossing by Michael Connelly
I can forgo nearly every recurring character-series book after about the third, but I can’t resist Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Harry Haller series. I wouldn’t characterize any of Connelly’s books as fabulous, but they are consistently good intellectual who-done-its, and The Crossing is no exception. The bonus of reading The Crossing is that its plot includes both Harry Bosch (a brutal but lovable-and-means-well rule-breaking cop forced into early retirement), and Harry Haller (a shrewd “good guy” criminal defense attorney), who happen to be half-brothers and are usually on opposite ends of a crime. 

Haller has signed up to defend an otherwise unsavory character he believes is innocent of a particular murder, and he needs Bosch’s help. Haller can barely stomach the idea of working on the “dark side,” but he gets sucked in and so do we.  

Connelly may not make you swoon, but he always entertains. Need a good summer beach read? Here’s your sign.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Jahren, a professor of geobiology at the University of Hawaii, and a self-confessed workaholic and manic-depressive, says she was raised in a Minnesota family of Norwegians who forged and reinforced daily “vast emotional distances between the individual members of the family…. going days without anything to say to each other.” So the solitary life of a scientist became her home and her life. And yet, this introvert spills it all in poetic, philosophical allegory for us to examine and ponder.

Although some of her most potent narrative is about plants, it’s her self-observations that take our breath away and make us introspective. On plants: A cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet". On being a scientist she describes herself as an ant: “Driven to find and carry single dead needles, one after the other, all the way across the forest and then add them one by one by one to a pile so massive that I can only fully imagine one small corner of it…insufficient and anonymous, but stronger than I look and part of something that is much bigger than I am”. On life she says: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” On having children: “I have learned that raising a child is essentially one long, slow agony of letting go.”

As a fidgety dreamer never satisfied with the status quo, I found her plodding, relatively uneventful life soothing and alluring. As a writer always seeking the right words, I found her eloquence enviable. Read Lab Girl.

Badluck Way - A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West by Bryce Andrews
You would think, having spent 12 years owning and living on a large Texas working ranch, then managing a small dude ranch in New Mexico for a year, I would have gotten over romanticizing the cowboy/cowgirl life. But I haven’t. So when I saw a Kirkus Reviews description of Badluck Way as a “A coming-of-age memoir that illuminates the pleasures and problems of running a conservation-oriented sheep and cattle ranch,” I bit.  

Bryce Andrews is a young Washington state urbanite raised in a family of music and museum professionals. But he too had the cowboy itch so when the opportunity came along for him to work on a ranch in southwest Montana, just across the border from Yellowstone Park, he takes a year out of college to see what ranching is all about. He learns it’s a lot of hard work and hard choices – like killing beautiful wild animals that are killing the stock of your livelihood for example. Being the only employee, isolated on a vast and lonely, wind-swept prairie, he also learns a lot about himself. Lucky for us, Andrews can write beautifully, so we are treated to lines like: “It occurred to me that I had achieved a rare thing: I was living at the center of my heart’s geography. And I knew it.” If this quote appeals to you, or if you’ve also romanticized the cowboy/cowgirl life, you will probably enjoy Badluck Way.

Eruption: the Untold Story by Steve Olson
I suspect we’ve all heard the story of the Mount St. Helen’s volcanic eruption many times from many perspectives. But this version, as told by Steve Olson, goes beyond the fact that it was one of the largest eruptions in human history and killed 57 people. Olson gives us the history and politics leading up to the eruption, and which significantly endangered many more people than it should have. For example, the logging industry, which gambled with the lives of its workers, and the political pressure they placed on elected officials to keep a lid on the impending danger. Also, volcanologists knew far in advance that Mount St. Helen was going to blow and yet campers, including children, were allowed to remain on the mountain. Some died or were severely burned by the volcanic ash and barely escaped with their lives. Most of all, Eruption makes it frighteningly clear that in spite of all our science and preparedness, we are at the mercy of our natural world, and we are not prepared. Don’t get me wrong, the purpose of this book isn’t sensationalism, it is educational, and it is well written.

The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City by Laura Tillman
When I googled the names of John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho, who were tried and convicted of murdering their three young children in Brownsville in 2011, I was briefly, unwillingly and regrettably exposed to horrible images of the dead children – images I will have to work hard to erase from my mind. You think you know what that might look like, but I can assure you, you do not, and do not want to know.

In this particularly emotional, and sometimes confusing look at the crime and the perpetrators (much less so the victims), Laura Tillman struggles with the “whys” and the “what now.” And although Tillman presents a multitude of facts and observations, all I ended up with were more questions.  I suspect she did as well – and may live much of her life trying to get past those. She spoke of the never being able to wear the shoes again that she wore the day she visited the murder scene.

What could make a mother and father who outwardly loved their children, murder them, and so horrifically? Was it the drugs in which both parents irrationally indulged? Was it the bottomless poverty that caused them to turn towards drugs and self-medication? Was it the drugs that kept them in poverty? Was it the similarly horrific culture in which they were raised? Was it mental illness? Was it their belief in witches and black magic and evil spirits? Or was it a combination of all of the above? How could Child Protective Services allow children who were filthy, malnourished, covered in mosquito bites and living alternately on a mattress in an alley, in a car and in a building with no electricity stay in those conditions? Is it right to execute Rubio and Camacho for killing their children?

Honestly, don’t read the book, but do know, and I must not forget, there are horrific lives occurring, probably closer to us than we realize, and helpless children are the victims, and we are responsible for what happens to them.

Ghost Boy: The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body by Martin Pistorius
When he was 12 years old, Martin Pistorius, a healthy, typical boy, came home from school with a sore throat. His conditions quickly deteriorated to the point that he could not walk or talk, and the doctors didn’t know why. And so they sent him home, telling his parents essentially that he would just die at some point. Then about two years into his illness he started mentally “waking up,” but because he was still unable to speak to his parents or caregivers or to physically move, no one knew; therefore, the “Ghost Boy” moniker. 

To go past this point in the story would be a spoiler, so I’ll stop here and say it is a pretty interesting story, reasonably well told.

No comments:

Post a Comment