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.