Friday, March 28, 2014

Book Review: The Dry Grass of August

The Dry Grass of August is the debut novel by 71-year-old Anna Jean Mayhew. That makes me so happy. I'm not sure I have it in me to ever write a novel, but I love knowing that there are authors out there who are just getting published beyond 70.

This is a novel reminiscent of The Help: 1950s racial tension in the South, centering around a family and its maid. The story is told from the POV of a 13-year-old girl named Jubie, who adores Mary, the family's housekeeper/nanny, and despises her father. The novel opens with a trip from North Caroline to Florida—a trip in which Mary has to use a separate bathroom, eat outside in the car, etc. The trip turns out to be more of an escape than a vacation; Jubie's parents have a volatile marriage, and during this trip, Jubie finds out why.

At the beginning of the novel, Jubie tells us that "we lost Mary" on this trip, but we don't know exactly what that means until midway through the novel. The novel took a bit of a dive for me at this point. I think I needed to feel Jubie's utter powerlessness more. I needed to see more tension and devastation in order to be convinced of what she did. There were just parts that didn't click for me, and maybe I shouldn't get hung up on these things; but I found it unbelievable that a 13-year-old would drive from Georgia to Charlotte in the middle of the night in the family car. There wasn't enough evidence in the first half that Jubie was this person.

Regardless, this was a good novel. The ending was weak. I said "Wait? That was the end?" Perhaps there will be a sequel. It isn't necessarily bad to want more: I wanted more depth to the characters, more tying up of loose ends, more closure. But there were fantastic moments in the novel—Mayhew is a lovely writer— and it is definitely worth reading.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Book Review: The Girl You Left Behind

JoJo Moyes' The Girl You Left Behind was so much like The Last Letter from Your Lover that I am not sure I can even tell the two apart. Oh, the story line was different but the structure was nearly identical.

First there was a story in which I was utterly engrossed, completely wrapped up in the characters, reading frantically to see what would happen to them… and then boom. Their story is over and we move to contemporary times and a new story that loosely involves the first story. I really liked The Last Letter From Your Lover, but this time I felt manipulated.

Here's the thing: the first story in both of these novels was absolutely fantastic. This novel tells the heartbreaking story of Sophie, a young French bride whose artist-husband is a French soldier in WWI. When her village is occupied by German soldiers, Sophie has to make some hard decisions in order to protect her family and save Eduoard. This part was well written and captivating.

And then. We move to the present day with a story that I never could quite pin down. I couldn't see the characters, couldn't feel them, and didn't care what they did because of that. I just wanted to go back to Sophie. Sophie's story does wrap up ultimately in the second half, but only with a few speculative sentences.

I'm probably done reading this author for awhile, unless I hear a compelling argument that not all her books follow this format. I just want the first stories told to completion without any clever intertwining through the generations.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

Garbage, disease, hopelessness, corruption: Katherine Boo's nonfiction account of life in one of India's slums is definitely not a feel-good beach read. It's a grueling look into how the have-nots struggle to survive in the midst of staggering poverty.

We're first introduced into the Annawadi slum through Abdul, a boy who supports his large family by collecting and selling garbage. This garbage, of course, he must store in their tiny part of a shack so that other scavengers don't steal it. The rats feast nightly, both on garbage and on the children. Annawadi is a world in which corruption runs rampant (the police are constantly looking to be paid off), education is almost nonexistent, and the daily goal is just to survive—and maybe make a little money.

A cast of other characters appear in Boo's account, ranging from a one-legged crazy woman to a young girl who hopes to be the first in Annawadi to get a college degree. Critics call this a hopeful, redeeming book, but I can't say I found it at all hopeful. In the end, everyone is living in the slum still, hoping to figure out how they can get rich.

While I didn't find it hopeful, it was extremely enlightening. As a middle-class American, no matter how many hungry, homeless Americans I've seen, I can't even slightly conceive of the kind of poverty that is described in this book. It all feels so hopeless and heartbreaking—and yet we must know—and car about— the desperation that is rampant in the world.

While I didn't love the book—who could?—I did find it to be a valuable read and one that is important for shaping a global perspective.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Book Review: The Last Letter From Your Lover

I couldn't help but love this novel of lost-and-found love by Jojo Moyes. It's that kind of novel filled with missed opportunities, misunderstandings, and second chances that just leaves you feeling as if something really good happened.

Let me just state right from the start that this is fluffy chick lit. And I'm only a little ashamed to be reading it, but it serves as a nice cushion between re-readings of The Book Thief and A Long Way Gone: Memoir of a Boy Soldier. Yep. I relish fluffy stuff now and then.

And so the story goes that Jennifer wakes up in the hospital and can't remember anything about her life. I know! I love amnesia! (What Alice Forgot is a great amnesia story, for real.) She's been in a car accident, but that's all she knows. She's reluctant to tell anyone, including her husband, just how little she remembers, but things just don't seem right to her. She feels as if she is missing something, and eventually she begins to find letters from her lover hidden around her house.

Bit by bit she pieces together the life she had with him, which is much different than the upper-class, society wife life that she has with her husband. She wants to find this mysterious "B" again, and when she does, well, I won't give that away. The last third of the book includes a separate love story that confused me at first, but ultimately it all tied together like a nice little present.

I can't help myself. I was wrapped up in the story. Moyes is a good writer and a great storyteller. It's easy and satisfying and makes a great in-between read.

Linked up with Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books

Friday, February 7, 2014

Book Review: In the Sanctuary of Outcasts

Most of us, upon hearing the terms "leprosy," have some kind of biblical scene play out in our minds: Jesus and the 10 lepers, Miriam's hand white with leprosy, lepers on the outskirts of town. But leprosy still exists. In fact, only in the past 30 years has leprosy been cured successfully. 

For over 100 years, a facility in Carville, Louisiana housed individuals in the U.S. who had contracted leprosy, now called Hansen's disease. I was aware of the leprosarium, but I didn't realize that it was still in existence up until the late 1990s; I thought it had closed back in the early part of the 20th century.

This memoir by Neil White opens in 1993, when White, an educated white-collar businessman, is sent to prison for fraud and check kiting. It's a minimum-security prison in what appears to be a plantation. What White doesn't realize and is astonished to discover is that he and his 250 fellow prisoners will be sharing their prison sentences with130 social outcasts: the last lepers in the U.S. The Federal Prison System apparently decided that Carville hospital is the perfect place to house low-security inmates. Evidently, the patients had no voice in the decision to share their home with convicts.

White is terrified at first that he'll catch leprosy. He views the patients with disgust and distrust. If he shakes a hand with one of them, will he catch it? Eventually, he learns more about the disease and begins to form relationships with the patients. He is astonished by their stories. Many of them were taken from their families when they were small children and quarantined in Carville. Even when they were allowed to return home after decades in the hospital, many chose to stay on in the only home they'd really ever known.

In his 18 months there, White discovers all kinds of truths about himself: mostly, that he is a selfish, phony young man who thrives on attention and kudos.  He has betrayed everyone he knows, leaving a trail of disaster for his wife and parents to clean up. He seems, in some ways, relieved to be in prison, away from the mess he's created of his life. It is here in this quiet place that he is stripped of pretense and forced to learn who he really is.

Much of the memoir is about the people White meets, both prisoners and patients.  White encounters  a wide cast of fascinating characters, and he describes them well. Whether they are patients or prisoners, the inmates have one thing in common: they are on the outskirts of society. For the prisoners, there is always a sense of desire: they are anxious for the day they'll be released. They take classes, set up business schemes, write resumes. But the patients just go about their days, used to life in this quiet sanctuary and never expecting anything else. White's favorite person is Ella, a patient who has spent almost her entire life in the hospital. It is from her that he learns to slow down and appreciate life, no matter what the circumstances.

I really loved this book. White provides a fascinating look at a little known part of American history, combined with a fantastic search-for-identity story. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Book Review: Labor Day

When our book club was offered a chance by William Morrow Paperbacks to read and discuss Labor Day by Joyce Maynard, we jumped. I had already read the book and liked it, and I was pretty sure our club members would enjoy it. The deal is that we all 10 received a copy of the book, and when the movie comes out in a few days, we'll get tickets to go see it. What a deal! But I had no idea how much the offer to review it would motivate our book club.

Frankly, our book club is notorious for being largely a chatting club. I'd say we run around 60% average "I read the book." Sometimes we even decide not to talk about the book much so that we don't spoil it for those who haven't. But this one? Let's just say that after this meeting, we agreed that when we all actually read the book, we have fabulous discussions!

Part of the fun of the night is that we were challenged to make snacks based on foods served in the book. Donna made curry soup, which was absolutely fantastic and perfect on a cold January night.

Rachel made lady fingers drizzled in French silk chocolate based on a scene involving, um, silk scarves…

And Sarah and Elizabeth both made peach pies. Of course we all had to try both of them, and oh. my. goodness. They were both absolutely amazing!

The process of making peach pies was rather central and quite memorable in this book about a boy, his mom, and the convict that changes the course of their lives.

Caroline brought this article from Parade Magazine about author Joyce Maynard teaching Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet, who star in the upcoming movie, how to make a pie. (You can actually watch a how-to video on the link.) I loved this part of the book—when the convict, who has escaped from prison and has invited himself to live with 13-year-old Henry and his emotionally fragile mother, Adele, teaches Henry how to bake a pie.

But enough about the food. The book itself received an almost unanimous "I loved it" from our group. One of our members called it "fluffy chick lit" and didn't particularly like it. This isn't heavy literature, but I personally would not categorize it as "fluffy." It's a quick, easy, and satisfying read.

We used the readers' guide at the back of the book to facilitate our discussion, although of course we veered off course many times. The questions promoted all kinds of discussion about parenthood, the definition of family, coming of age, and love at first sight.

We all loved Henry, the lonely boy, and Frank, the loving convict. We felt rather disgusted with Adele, Henry's mother, who had checked out emotionally years ago after Henry's father left her. As one member said, "Loving your kid doesn't mean you're a a good mother." But Frank sees something worth saving in Adele, and his gentleness both nurtures Adele and encourages Henry. For a short time, they are a family.

The problem is that this new family is living on borrowed time. The authorities are looking for Frank, and he can only stay in hiding at Adele's for so long before he's caught. We all know that their fairytale life can't continue.

And that's all I'm going to say about the plot.

There were some wonderful moments in the novel. Maynard is fantastic at painting a picture that sticks in the reader's mind. I remember particularly a beautiful scene where the rough convict bathes a wheelchair-bound boy, a baseball lesson, as well as a couple of vivid pie-making scenes. Henry, Adele, and Frank are the most memorable characters, but we also see a lot of his father and stepmother as well as an anorexic girl who becomes Henry's friend, of sorts. Lots of complicated relationships are explored in the novel; Maynard does a great job of showing how parents' actions and choices impact a kid's life forever—and how one selfless man can change all that.

We are all looking forward to seeing Labor Day brought to the screen within the next few weeks. Movies are always risky, especially so soon after reading a book—before our middle-aged brains have forgotten all the details. We plan to meet after the movie to compare and contrast it with the book. And I'm hoping someone will make another peach pie!

{Disclaimer: as mentioned, I was provided with review copies of the book and will receive movie tickets for reviewing the book. The opinions of the book, however, are not influenced by this bounty.}

Friday, January 24, 2014

Book Review: When She Woke

Imagine Hester Prynne's scarlet letter being a red body, Arthur Dimmesdale as a televangelist, and little Pearl being, well, non-existent, and you have Hillary Jordan's When She Woke. It's The Scarlet Letter of the future.

There is no dividing line between church and state, and there are no prisons. Criminals aren't tucked away in prisons to rehabilitate but are "chromed": their skin color is genetically altered to match their crime. Once chromed, they are put back into society, where they are despised. Basically anything can be done to Chromes without repercussion.

Hannah (Hester Prynne) is a Red—a murderer. Her crime is abortion, and that she refused to name the father of her baby makes her crime even worse. It's no spoiler to reveal that her lover is her married pastor, a Joel Osteen-like Arthur Dimmesdale who seduced young Hannah, predictably raised in an ultra-conservative, fundamentalist home.

On a certain level, I found the book fascinating. Jordan is a great writer, so that was a big bonus. But too much happened—and not enough happened. Hannah is sent to a sort of halfway house that's run by some kind of warped headmistress. She meets a cast of Chromes there that I would have loved to see developed more. Ultimately Hannah escapes and heads into the real world.

Things got weird from here on out and moved really fast. Hannah and her friend, a Yellow, hook up with a pro-choice group and are forced into an underground railroad/witness protection type program. Somehow these people are able to intercept the signals that tell where Chromes are. Of course, Hannah has to see Pastor Dale one more time before she goes away to Canada forever.

In many ways I really liked the first part of the book. It was intriguing and the pace was good. But things got rushed midway through, and so much was thrown at the  reader that it began to read too much like a let's-cram-as-much-in-as-possible tract. I liked the twist on The Scarlet Letter, and I love dystopian novels in general. I think this one had too much of the author's own bias in it and it felt too preachy. An intriguing concept, though, so I don't not recommend it—it's just not quite my cup of tea. I think it would make a fantastic movie!