Thursday, December 30, 2010

12 books, 12 months: Room, by Emma Donoghue

This is part 3 of my portion of a book review series brought to you by The Latter Day Bohemian via Middle-Aged Woman. I originally posted this on my personal blog, and then moved it.

Pssst: This post contains book spoilers. It's not that I don't get why reviews don't contain spoilers, know, half of this book takes place after a major event, and not ONE of the reviews I have read reviewed the entire book because of that thing. And that isn't journalistic integrity, exactly, it feels like journalistic truncation. Or something. So, as an amateur, armchair reviewer, I'm too interested in the whole book to give you half of a review. But if you haven't read the book already, I speak to a few major plot points - be warned, 3 readers!

Anyway. This book is tough. It takes on a lot of hurdles, some sensational, some psychological, and some imaginative. It's a book that could so easily falter that I kept expecting something bad (literarily speaking) to happen.

Among a series of other, generally tight conceits, Room is built on the premise that a 5-year-old boy, Jack, is the narrator. As the parent of 2 kids, ages 7 and 3, I was pretty skeptical that Donoghue could really get into the weird phrasing and idiosyncratic voice of a 5-year-old narrator. But...she did. Very very well, I think. FAR better than any other adult book I've read where a child narrates in the first person (Carson McCullers, if you aren't dead - probably you are - take note! Charles Dickens - definitely dead - would be shamed).

Not once did I want to rip my headphones out and yell "ARGH!!!" (and YES, I "read" this as an audio book - again - which may have contributed to the overall believability of Jack's voice, as I had an actor reading me lines that may have been more awkward on paper).

There are multitudes of small points where Jack is spot-on. His interchanging verb tenses, his attempt to ferret (flawed) logic from a situation he half understands. It's an amazing portrayal and worth every second of this book for that achievement alone.

So...straight from the worst, most sensationalized news, Room (as you, 3 readers probably have already heard) is about a mother and son who live in a tiny, fortressed, 1-room garden shed, held captive by a man, "Old Nick" who kidnapped the mother when she was 19 and put her in the room he had already created for that purpose. Jack is their son.

Many other reviews have spent a lot of time talking about the weirdness/cleverness of Jack's world scope (they don't sleep on a bed, but on Bed; other inanimate characters include Duvet, Wardrobe, Plant, and so forth...). And more time also (elsewhere) has been devoted to the sense of "real" or "not real" that Jack has, growing up in a world where the only "real" people he has ever seen is himself and Ma.

While I like the attention paid to those details by Donoghue, I was most impressed by her portrayal of characters. Like Jack, Ma (she is not given a real name) has an intent, unique personality that scrabbles off the page. This story survives on Ma's ingenuity and strength, and also on her crushing depression and stress. When Ma is not on the page, the narration limps along a bit lifelessly.

In the first half of the book, while they are in captivity (this is the big spoiler - they escape!), Donoghue establishes a well crafted, subtle relationship between the two. Once their situation becomes more apparent, there are hundreds of little touches that both reveal and give shape to the two characters. Donoghue invests Ma with a wealth of creativity inside a world of deprivation, and the two characters re-write their situational poverty through a series of daily, innovative rituals.

In my favorite of these, they set up the room to have an obstacle path, and then they "hike" around and around their tiny room, talking about the things they would see on a hike: "a tree", "a bear"...While Donoghue, through Jack, is never explicitly complimentary or descriptive about Ma, the effort Ma puts into parenting Jack well and carefully in that impossible situation is repeatedly breathtaking.

I've been a volunteer with trauma-survivor service agencies for almost 20 years, mostly as a peer-to-peer support person. Subsequently, many of the ways in which Ma is some days strong, some days catatonic, some days angry really resounded for me. I don't know what kind of research Donghue did with trauma victims, but I do know she created someone who could believably have been one of my clients. And her moods, linked so tightly to Jack as she is, were best reflected in the tragedy of a child who couldn't understand, but had learned to cope on days when Ma was "gone", wrapped in a catatonic state of blankness.

I think the strangest reaction I had to this book was my inability to finish it immediately. I was gripped by the story, and felt tremendous (reader) anxiety about how they could escape. Donoghue set up the tension and the exposition of how Ma had tried to escape over the years in a greatly paced way, so that as I pieced together Ma's history and helplessness (such as her discovery that Old Nick had reinforced the foundation of the shed with chain-link fencing), I was caught - brainstorming more ways in my head as I read.

And then...about 2/3 of the way through the book, after they've escaped and are living in a psych hospital for evaluation and "re-integration", Ma attempts suicide. And I was devastated. It was one of the most clinically believable, tragic moments I've hit in a book in a long time, and I had to stop. It took me almost 2 months to come back and see what happened. It ended tightly, but I was still raw from thinking about what led Ma to that place. And so even though I didn't want to finish it, I think even that speaks to Donoghue's unerring skill.

Overall, Room is one of the best researched contemporary novels I've read. While there were stumbles, they were quite possibly stumbles of my own understanding, such as my disappointment in Ma's parents' response to her return to them after 7 years in captivity. I think Donoghue wants to show that Ma was disconnected from her parents before she was kidnapped, or maybe more that Jack, narrating that reunion, didn't understand the experience. Whichever, I was left feeling empty about something that had so much potential for resonance. And the grandparent/family characters felt weakly drawn and not-quite-real. Which perhaps circles back to that point of, maybe they just weren't quite real to Jack.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

12 months/12 books: Post #2 "The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance" by Elna Baker

This is part 2 of my portion of a book review series brought to you by The Latter Day Bohemian via Middle-Aged Woman. **This is re-posted from my personal blog - not sure why it took me until now to figure that out **

I realized when I picked up this book and paid FULL PRICE for it that I would probably choose to review it. And that I wasn't sure how much I would be able to simply review this book as much as review my own take on Mormonism, "single"-ness, and faith.

That proved pretty true while I was reading it as well: it was tough to hear Elna Baker's voice without filtering her through my own experiences in nearly identical circumstances. She caught me when describing the crepe-paper festooned Mormon gymnasium and nut cups, and I can attest that she is deft at portraying many typical Mormon experiences with a great eye for their intrinsic and myriad loopiness. Unfortunately, the editor in me begged to push her (over and over again) for more personal authenticity than glibness.

Elna Baker is a professional comedienne who fits in with the current oeuvre of memoirists who (as it seems to me) are like your funny friend with a lot of ability to build up to a good punchline in a life-of-the-party sort of way, and who then find themselves writing a book piecing together all their funny punchlines. For Baker, sometimes that works, and sometimes it's a mess. However, it's not a terrible thing to say that this book is funny and messy, but unfortunately, it's also occasionally teen-journal-angst-ridden (the format is part journal as well, including a map of whom she's kissed, and where), excessively narcissistic, and generally pretty glossy when it comes to self-examination.

She's no David Sedaris, but she's definitely interesting, even if her best selling point is that she is someone funny from the Mormon world, navigating a life where she doesn't drink, smoke, do drugs, engage in premarital sex, swear, or drink caffeinated beverages. Almost all of her punchlines are related to being Mormon. And that's okay. A little one-trick, but (to me, at least) unique by virtue of being genuinely Mormon in a world FULL of "my weird childhood/life/religion/sexuality/money-making-scheme" memoirs.
Generally, I find that Baker's humor is sharp in the well-edited passages, and a bit of a toss-off in many other sections. Here's one example:
"“Do you guys know what cereal killers are?” he asked.

We shook our heads no.

“You guys are the cereal killers!” he said emphatically.

He piled us into the van and drove us to Fred Meyer. While he bought us masks, gloves, and squirt guns, we each got to pick out any cereal that we wanted.

From there we headed to several of his friends’ houses, assembling in a clump on their doorsteps while Tina, my oldest sister, rang the bell.

As the door opened we cocked our squirt guns with one hand, and held up our cereal boxes with the other: “Hands up,” we yelled. “We’re the cereal killers!” Then, at my father’s instruction, we went into his friends’ houses and forced them to eat cereal."
It's a funny little story, but it lays there, sort-of lodged in as a substitute for more information about how her family dynamic works. It needs a framework that just isn't there to strengthen her voice, and the overall effect is that she's weak at painting other people into her single-spotlit world.

One of the most intriguing things Baker admits in this book is how she complicatedly mixes her suppressed sexuality with spirituality. At one point, she meets a man to whom she is very connected and attracted but who is also an atheist. She likes him, and wants to be with him, but can't reconcile their clashing worldviews. Soon thereafter, she gets mostly naked with him (Major Mormon Taboo), then whispers in his ear "I really want you to pray about whether or not you believe in God".

Ha! So...the build-up to that is great. Awful. Embarrassing and deeply crazy. But the aftermath to that scene isn't "what is UP with me that I am trying to turn this guy on and then get him to pray?" Or even laughably clueless "I wonder why he ran out of here?" It's just...hum. Sort of "That was weird of me, wasn't it? Oooh, toast!" It's probably a situation not many authors could handle deftly, so maybe I could cut her some slack. However, Baker flubs the aftermath of many situations by not giving them the chance to reverberate fully. Like your friend at the party, she's already on to the next funny story, leaving the last story falling apart in her wake.

What I like most about the book is that Baker is generally very good at laughing at herself - something I think most Mormons lack, like a genetic defect caused by all that inter-breeding of Scandinavian zealots. (NB: Not all Mormons are Scandinavian descent, clearly, but look at any Ward phonebook and count how long the J section is "Jensen, Jergensen, Johansen, Jorgensen"...).

At any rate, I think the thing I wanted most from this book is something I may never get from any Mormon memoirist: a thoughtful, intelligent understanding of how their faith functions and how they reconcile the myriad requirements and inconsistencies of that faith with the rest of the world. Baker does an okay job, albeit superficially, of talking about how faith for her is more the feeling of peace with belonging to a group she understands and to which she belongs from birth. And I get that, even if she can't plumb much deeper into her own understanding.

As I stated before, some passages are clearly better edited than others, and it ends in the fraught-with-messiness setting I associate with a contemporary memoir. She chases atheist ex-boyfriend to (seriously) Africa, learning that being connected with someone doesn't erase the months of craziness you've put them through. It's got a bit of an Eat, Pray, Love end-vibe (minus the Love), but again, it ends up being a funny, if overall minor work.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

12 books/12 months: Under the Dome, by Stephen King

This is part 1 of my portion of a book review series brought to you by The Latter Day Bohemian via Middle-Aged Woman. ** This is a re-post from my personal blog - not sure why it didn't occur to me to put it on the word blog until now **

Note: I listened to the audiobook version of this novel over the course of a couple of weeks, during my commute and while jogging. I may mess up the spelling of a character's name or location because I never saw the printed spelling.

Stephen King novels seem to loosely be structured around the same general premise: trap a person or group of people, either figuratively by circumstance, isolation, desire, or something a bit more obscure like a secret, or literally by placing them in captivity or incarceration, and then follow the arc of what each character or personality does in the parameters of that trap.

In novels of his that I particularly enjoy, like The Stand or It, the depth or integrity of each character seems to hinge on minutiae: a selfish character may find their own inner mettle when trapped, and another may find their inner depravity. And the nuances that lead each to disparate action is - to me - King's greatest gift.

His novels always seem impeccable in their detailed scrutiny of human character and the ways in which people think, feel, and act. In that, I compare his writing with the best of others of his generation: John Irving, Margaret Atwood, John Updike. I am not much of a horror or suspense reader, but to me King's novels walk that line between pure horror and better literature because of his great gift in creating believable, breathing characters.

Then, of course, there is the supernatural element of his books, which forever ties his work into that genre. Sometimes his supernatural premise is insidious: a niggling fantasy you had one dark night made horribly real and brought out, wriggling, under the light. In the case of Under the Dome, however, what fails - and fails badly - is this supernatural element (the logistics and the laughable source of the dome of the title barely deserve mention, other than as unworthy of the rest of the novel) and - even more importantly in this case - the supernatural element that wasn't.

In his novels where evil is perpetuated by a supernatural force, like Randall Flagg in The Stand or IT in It or the possessed dog, possessed zombie baby or possessed car, characters who respond to that unassailable evil with their own dark natures seem to be making choices that are, on some level, outside their own control, or at least are seduced by something that may puppeteer or commandeer their actions. The presence of iconic evil, in other words, makes the mundane horror and darkness of human characters more sympathetic.

In Under the Dome, the Dome itself is a bit of a red herring when compared to the actual decay of the town Chester's Mill (the town trapped by the dome). While the dome makes a complex situation explosive, I think King wants to make the point all the dome did was ignite fuses that were already laid.

For Chester's Mill, all of that decay can be traced back to the character of "Big" Jim Rennie. Big Jim is a town selectman, a used car dealer, a drug kingpin, and a born-again Christian. And evil. There is not one human or empathetic vision of Big Jim in this novel: before the dome came down, he was already a murderer, a thief, a drug lord, and an abuser of power and people. Subsequently, Big Jim's actions once the dome comes down are an escalation of what is clearly one-dimensional narcissism and his constant maneuvering to protect himself and maintain a position of local power. The meltdown of Chester's Mill hinges almost entirely on the results of Big Jim's negative actions, his power-plays and his relentless dark core. While you believe that he is, for whatever reason, evil, those machinations are, from the outset to the end, one-dimensional and flat - primarily unbelievable - and the novel breaks down over this point.

For example, one of the logical effects of the dome (or capsule) enclosing the town is that the power and water lines are severed. People with generators have power; those without generators do not. People with wells have water; those without do not. As the dome shuts out weather fluctuations, this is somewhat neutral as far as heating or cooling systems - initially, but impacts the storage and cooking of food, running water, and other power and water-based resources. Big Jim's drug manufacturing has slowly been siphoning all of the town's reserve propane, so only a few people actually end up with access to the propane needed to run their generators longer-term. Why is Big Jim a drug dealer? Why not: he's evil. Why did he take the propane? Because he can. Why does he cover up this fact? To keep power and hide his drug organization. Why do all the people who NEED that propane and know that Big Jim has taken it do NOTHING to get it back? Because...that's what they do. They do nothing until the logical results of Big Jim's machinations have already become inevitable.

Maybe I don't think this novel is successful because there are too many sheep-characters and too few heroes.

Maybe King sees this novel as an allegory for Nazi Germany, and in creating a purely evil human character and the groups of people who follow that character without scrutiny or a personal ethical core, he is quite possibly making a statement about current politics and/or religion in the US. And this is not a terrible point, but if that is his aim, I think he fails to ever find the access-point that makes the reader both identify with the followers of evil and recognize the horror of that choice.

This is a bit of a grander overview of the book's effect. I liked it well enough, but I don't like novels where fragile characters like children, dogs, and drug-addicts are dangled over the metaphorical flaming pit to make you squirm. Plenty of the more fragile characters in this novel (and, in fact, ALL of the "bad guy" characters) die. It's a bit of an apocalypse at the end. The main heroic arc is fine, if sort-of uninspiring, and I may always think a little differently about how precious clean air is after the end of this novel.

It's no The Stand, and I wish it had been a hell of a lot shorter for the pleasure I took in it in the end, but I am glad I read it. It's B- King, but even B- King is better than the A+ of most lesser skilled novelists.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Book Challenge!

12 Some Books, 12 Some Months Challenge brought to you by The Latter Day Bohemian, courtesy of Middle-Aged Woman, and mixed up a little by me. ** I'm reposting these on my book/word blog - not sure why I didn't think of that until now **

Pick 12 titles from your To Read Pile. These should be titles you currently own have wanted to read for a while, but to which you haven't gotten around.

Post your list in your public space of choice by September 1, 2010 whenever. If you prefer not to post, you can just leave a comment with your list.

Read all 12 titles between now and September 5, 2011 (or, you know, whenever).

When you finish a title on your list, post about it in your public space of choice. If you prefer not to post, you can just leave a comment with your thoughts.

Once a month, I’ll try to post a round-up of the reviews/thoughts posted from that month so that we all know what everyone else has read.

My list (in no particular order):
  1. The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, by Natalie Angiers. Why haven't I read this yet? It's been in my "To Read" pile for at least 2 years. And I'm still totally excited about it, but every time I start a new book, this one isn't it.
  2. I'm Down: A Memoir by Mishna Wolff: A memoir about growing up in a white family that identified most with their black neighbors, this caught my eye when it first came out and I finally bought it (on sale - thanks, Powell's Books!) Now to get it off the bedside table, where it could otherwise languish...
  3. Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl by Susan Campbell. Well, duh. This one practically lept into my arms and said "Your Life! Here! Buy me!".
  4. Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell. I bought this because it's supposed to be a "great novel about coping with grief"...but then I started reading it and realized that it's about 2 women who bonded over dog raising and AA. Both of which are...yeah. And then one died and the other one wrote a book about it. Hopefully the grief-coping part will grab me, because I've been languishing on page 100-something for a while now.
  5. Under the Dome by Stephen King. I've heard this compared to the best of Stephen King's work (The Stand, It) enough to know I want to try it. This one is a bit of a crapshoot, but I am hoping to LURV it.
  6. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. See #1. Same. Exact. Problem.
  7. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. I think I've tried this exact same thing before. Everybody loves this novel, and I love the ~theory~ of this novel, but couldn't make it past the first chapter the last 2 times I tried to read it.
  8. The Alchemist by Paul Coelho. I thought I had already read this until my niece blogged about it and then it didn't sound familiar at ALL and I wasn't sure I ~had~. So maybe this will be a quick recognition...
  9. My Fair Lazy: One Reality Television Addict's Attempt to Discover If Not Being a Dumb Ass Is the New Black or a Culture-up Manifesto by Jen Lancaster. I have a lot of guilt around liking uptight, right-wing Jen Lancaster. But...she's funny and sharp and - when she doesn't talk about politics - I like her. I haven't been able to wince my way through her latest book yet, but...maybe this is my motivation.
  10. Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin. I love UKLeG's writing, but this one has been on the bedside table for a while's my chance to reinvigorate my interest in this book. Supplanted by Room, by Emma Donoghue.
  11. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. I'm not sure if I'm kidding about this one. It's sat on my shelves for 100 years because the first chapter is about war and then...I never got to Chapter 2. Maybe this year...
  12. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Jamie loved it. I loved the first 80 or so pages, and then I put it down and then...I don't know what happened.
 What are YOU going to read?