Friday, March 26, 2010

Book Review: Beautiful Boy

I've been putting off reading this book for quite some time now. I'd read reviews of it—knew the subject matter—and somehow was reluctant to read it. This is David Sheff's memoir of his son Nic's battle with meth addiction. It's a hard book to read, especially if you have a 17-year-old son, like I do. Unless a parent lives in utter denial, you can't help but thinking, "This could be my kid."

Because it could be, really, anyone's kid, and that's one of the points that Sheff makes. It doesn't necessarily matter how lenient or how restrictive you were as a parent. It doesn't matter if your kid is an outcast or the most popular kid at school, an honor student or barely passing classes. Meth, he contends, is not content to hang out in trailer parks or the projects. It can seduce anyone at anytime.

Meth got his brilliant, witty, happy son Nic and turned him into a trembling, sneaking liar, who was so desperate that he even stole from his eight-year-old brother. This is David's story about Nic's addiction and about how David dealt with the fear, helplessness, denial, and tremendous guilt associated with being the parent of an addict. David finds himself struggling to live a normal life for his two young children while being essentially constantly thinking about Nic.

Sheff is an excellent writer. The story is sometimes terribly repetitive, but that in itself reflects the nature of addiction: the same cycle over and over and over: recovery, relapse, recovery, relapse. One can't help but google Nic Sheff immediately upon finishing the book, hoping to find him still in recovery but fearing the worst.

Turns out Nic Sheff has his own 2008 memoir, Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines and a mySpace page that looks to be fairly current. I hope he is doing well, and that his younger brother and sister, as they are entering the age where his addiction started, are staying strong—and far, far away from meth.

I can't say I enjoyed reading this book—who could? But I'm glad I did.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Book Review: Mudbound

I've had Hillary Jordan's Mudbound on my TBR list for a long time, and I'm glad Paperback Swap finally came through for me. I liked this book. I wasn't blown away, but I definitely got wrapped up in the characters and in the story. It's a bit of a familiar story, but that could be because it intersects in another area of my life right now—a black literature class for middle schoolers that I'm co-teaching.

"Mudbound" is the name that Laura McAllan bestows upon the Mississippi farm that her husband sees as "Fair Acres." Laura, having been raised in the city, is miserable at Mudbound until her husband's younger brother shows up after World War 2. He moves in with the family, which includes the hateful Pappy, father to Jamie and Henry.

Working on the farm and around the house are the Jacksons, a black sharecropping family. At the same time Jamie returns as a war hero, their son Ronsel returns, also a hero—but only to his own family. He immediately is forced to remember who he is: a black man in Mississippi.

The interaction between the two families is pivotal to the story, ranging from Laura's relationship with Florence to Ronsel and Jamie's brothers-in-arms friendship. And a lot more. Each character has his or her voice heard in alternating chapters, a perspective that I really enjoyed.

As I said, I wasn't utterly blown away by this book, but I really liked it. I keep feeling as if something was missing, but I think it's just a feeling for me that I wished the book was longer, with more chapters devoted to Laura, Jamie, and Ronsel. I wasn't completely satisfied with where the characters ended. In fact, I'd love for Jordan to write more novels that focus on these two families.

Other Bloggers' Reviews of Mudbound:
The Sleepy Reader
Medieval Bookworm
The Boston Bibliophile
Laughing Stars
Mostly Fiction Book Reviews
Fyrefly's Book Blog
Just Another Blogger
Lynne's Little Corner of the World

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Book Review: Still Alice

I hardly even know where to begin with this novel by Lisa Genova. OK, how's this:

Read it.

But be prepared to be weepy and really sad. Still Alice is the story of 50-year-old Alice, a professor of linguistics at Harvard who becomes alarmed when she misses a word here and there in a lecture and gets lost in her own neighborhood. She expects to hear the neurologist say, "Get more sleep" or "Take a vacation." Instead, he hits her with the unbelievable: "You have early onset Alzheimer's disease."

The novel then follows Alice's rapid decline, from Alice's own point of view. I found myself actually weeping at a couple of points, especially in her interaction with her grown children and in her constant realization that she will not be getting any better. Ever.

Publisher's Weekly has it all wrong. They say, "Genova's prose style is clumsy and her dialogue heavy-handed. This novel will appeal to those dealing with the disease and may prove helpful, but beyond the heartbreaking record of illness there's little here to remember."

On the contrary, I found her writing style graceful and her dialogue completely believable. (And I really have a thing about dialogue.) In fact, after reading Still Alice, I was struck with the total unfairness that brilliant medical professionals like Genova (she's a neuroscientist) and Abraham Verghese (internist and author of the amazing Cutting for Stone) can also write brilliant novels. Sooo not right.

But I'm glad for them both, Genova and Verghese. And I don't think you have to be "dealing with the disease" to be touched by this book. You just have to be a feeling human being. (Publisher's Weekly gets two big thumbs-down for its review.)

Other Bloggers' Reviews of Still Alice
A Novel Menagerie
Books on the Brain
Literary Feline
Literally Booked
The Bookworm's Library

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Book Review: Tea Time for the Traditionally Built

I love this whole series by Alexander McCall-Smith. I remember years ago when a friend suggested the Ladies No. 1 Detective books, and I was skeptical because I'm not really into detective books. But I eventually started reading them and discovered that they have little to do with mysteries and much to do with the human heart.

Tea Time for the Traditionally Built is much like the other nine books in the series. The story itself is fun and the characters wonderful, but what I really love are McCall-Smith's (or Mma Ramotswe's) beautiful snippets sprinkled throughout of insight into what life is really all about. Like this one:
We are born to talk to other people, she thought; we are born to be sociable and talk about things that happened the day before. We were not born to sit in kitchens by ourselves, with nobody to chat to.
I love that. So simple and yet so striking.

My mom was looking for something new to read, so I suggested she start this series. She read the first one and loved it, so my Dad went to the library and got her a couple more. But he got her numbers 9 and 10. I insisted that she not read them until she'd read the others, but she said she didn't care about reading books in order in a series.

So I'm curious: how important is it to read books in order? Perhaps I am a stick-in-the-mud reader, but I absolutely refuse to read, in any series, book #5 before book #4. But perhaps it doesn't really matter?

And if you haven't read this series and enjoy light reading with wonderful characters and simple insights, please do. And don't tell me if you read them out of order:

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (1998)
Tears Of The Giraffe (2000)
Morality for Beautiful Girls (2001)
The Kalahari Typing School for Men (2002)
The Full Cupboard of Life (2004)
In The Company of Cheerful Ladies (2004 )
Blue Shoes and Happiness (2006)
The Good Husband of Zebra Drive (2007)
The Miracle at Speedy Motors (2008)
Tea Time for the Traditionally Built (2009)
The Double Comfort Safari Club (2010)