Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Delicate Edible Birds

If I were to recommend the best short story writers few have heard of, Lauren Groff would be at the top of my list. The tales in Delicate, Edible Birds (2009) are rich in language and imagery; the characters are so real they could walk off the page. Like Carol Shields, she depicts average women in unique situations. Take for example, "The Wife of the Dictator." In an unnamed South American country, a dictator takes a rather plain American widow as his wife. She is envied and spied upon by the upper class women--those whose husbands are government officials. After the birth of her daughter, a disappointment to the dictator, she shows signs of being beaten. Her daughter grows into a plain and fearful child.

The dictator's wife is wearing new colors..., and on her head she now wears hats with chin-length veils. When we search out her eyes, we believe we see bruises around them, and from that moment we don't search them anymore. Later we wonder if they are not bruises, if she is simply exhausted from all of the sleep she has been missing. When they are together in public, the dictator rarely turns his eyes from his wife. We almost never hear her subdued voice anymore. ( p. 152)

As revolution brews in the country, the modern women who narrate this story quake with fear. The American wife, now "ugly with fatigue (p. 156)" speaks to them over tea and admits that in her dreams, she has visions of her husband's atrocities. But the spotlight is not really on the wife, but on the callous women watching her. Yet they, too, are hostages to the violence around them. Ultimately, Groff grants them self-awareness if not culpability.

In "L. Debard and Aliette," Groff depicts unrequited love, as she does in "Sir Fleeting." In the first story, we have a former Olympic swimmer who helps a Polio victim regain the use of her legs and go on to be a Gold Medalist herself. The character, Aliette, is loosely based on the real life of Ethelda Bleibtrey. The story has an unusual and brutal twist.

In "Sir Fleeting," a woman looks back on her youth and her life-long passion for a handsome but shallow man. There is marked contrast between the wholesome eighteen year old she once was and the lonely, elderly woman she is now. As she glances at her reflection in an elevator door, she remarks: Whatever it was I'd had in that picture had seeped away over the years, a rubber tire with a long, slow leak. (p. 194)"

Every tale in this collection harbors a surprise. Each ending, some shocking, some merely revelatory, prove Lauren Groff a master storyteller with a unique understanding of the human heart. She depicts people in their full humanity, capable of deep love or great cruelty. Above all, she is a writer whose every sentence contains a wealth of meaning and beautiful prose.

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Friday, January 27, 2012

Blue Nights

Blue Nights, like all of Joan Didion's works, is a sort of prose poem, about and dedicated to her late daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne. As the title implies, it is about life's fragility--the gradual shift from light to darkness. Didion explains:

In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue...During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do), you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone (p. 4).

In the 1980s, Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, were the literary darlings of New York. They were equally well received in California, where they had a second home in Malibu. Quintana was their adopted only child. Only 6 weeks before the publication of A Year of Magical Thinking, Didion's memoir about the sudden death of her husband, she tragically loses her daughter to complications from pneumonia.

Boris Kachka, in a New York Magazine article, sums up her book, as well as her tragic losses.
The book is about many things: mental illness, fate,and our overgrown faith in medical technology. But it is most importantly a reckoning with her shortcomings as a mother...'I don't think anybody feels like they're a good parent. Or if people think they're good parents, they ought to think again.' http://nymag.com/print/?/arts/books/features/joan-didion-2011-10/

Despite its tragic subject, Blue Nights is not difficult to read. Its terse, crystallized writing style
provides ample distance between the reader and the narrator. Yet one ends the book feeling that the real Quintana Roo has not been revealed. As Boris Kachka concludes, "(Didion's) clinical brand of revelation can sometimes feel like an evasion--as likely to lead the reader away from hard truths as toward them."

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012


The latest and last Michael Crichton book, Micro, takes readers through the Hawaiian rain forest, the twist is that the characters are small - much smaller than your thumb. The story opens with the discovery of the bodies of three murdered men on Oahu. They are found in a locked room and are covered with hundreds of tiny razor-sharp cuts. The question is who murdered them and how did the murderer get out of the locked room? The only clue is a tiny robot with razor sharp blades that is barely visible to the human eye.

In another part of the island, a secretive company has developed ground breaking nano technology. They are using tiny robots to harvest microscopic items out of the Hawaiian forests. The materials hold great pharmaceutical promise. The directors of the company, Nanigen MicroTechnologies, travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts to recruit graduate students to help with the research. Seven students decide to travel to Hawaii for a visit.

Once in Oahu everything spins out of control. Peter Jansen, a student receives a cryptic text message from his brother Eric who is a director for Nanigen. Peter then receives news that his brother, an experienced sailor, has died in a boating accident. While looking into his brother's death, Peter realizes that not all is right with Nanigen.

Peter and the other grad students have a run in with the psychopathic president of the company, Vin Drake. While ostensibly showing them the company's technology, Drake shrinks the students into microscopic size. The students escape the lab and the race is on. Dodging both gigantic insects and the people sent to kill them, the students show remarkable resilience by drawing on their areas of scientific expertise. The time is short however, as the test trials of others studied after being shrunk, show 72 hours is the most a human can survive at that size.

Crichton died in 2008 before finishing this manuscript. Richard Preston was chosen to finish the book and I think he did a stellar job. I couldn't tell where Crichton's story ended and Preston's began. The story moves quickly and is filled with fantastic scientific machines - but that is vintage Crichton. A story that feels somewhat like a cross between Fantastic Voyage and Mysterious Island, the book will have you looking at insects, birds and indeed the dust in your house in an entirely different way.

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

To End All Wars

There are certain subjects where it seems difficult to believe that anything new can be said. World War I is one of those subjects, yet many new books are published about it every year. Adam Hochschild's To End All Wars is an enjoyable read because it manages to take a different look at this conflict by focusing on pacifists, conscientious objectors, suffragettes and others who took the unpopular stand of opposing the war.

Hochschild, an American author and journalist, writes on the subject of human rights and his books often focus on the people who are steamrolled by history. In this book, Hochschild's focus is primarily on England, where Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters fought together to earn woman the right to vote but split bitterly on the subject of whether England should join the war. Also intriguing is the story of Charlotte Despard, a leading suffragette and pacifist whose brother, John French, just happened to be the commander-in-chief of the Western Front. Others, from the well-known mathematician Bertrand Russell and his antithesis jingoistic Rudyard Kipling, to conscientious objectors shipped off to France to face sure death are profiled as well.

Much of this book reads as a standard World War I history, with plentiful diversions throughout to tell the story of those who resisted. The shift in combat from the second Boer War, which was fought on fields by cavalry on horseback to World War I, which saw the introduction of mustard gas, tanks and large-scale use of machine guns, is starkly portrayed. The horror of battles which often saw losses of hundreds of thousands of men for gains of limited territory is vividly detailed, making obvious the importance of having other voices to question the country's choices when it got caught up in patriotic fervor.

Hochschild comes to a similar conclusions as Niall Ferguson's book The Pity of War by arguing that World War I should have been avoided and was bungled by the British, who managed to lose more casualties in a single battle than the United States lost in the entire war. I find it ironic that a war that was primarily driven by European empires and alliances was also the catalyst for many of the social changes that followed - the Bolshevik Revolution, women earning the right to vote and the beginning of the end of colonialism. Enjoy this compelling book as both a history of World War I and of those who are not always mentioned in the history books.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Lady of the Rivers

The Lady of the Rivers by Phillipa Gregory is the third of her books in the series entitled The Cousins' War, but the time in which it is set precedes those books in the series written previously, The White Queen and The Red Queen.

The Women of the Cousins' War: the Duchess, the Queen, and the King's Mother published in 2011 and also by Phillipa Gregory, working with others, makes use of original documents, archaeology, and other sources to share, in a historical work, the stories of Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford (The Lady of the Rivers) ; Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of Edward IV (The White Queen) ; and Margaret Beaufort (The Red Queen), the founder of the Tudor dynasty. This is one example of the depth of the research Gregory does for her historical fiction.

In The Lady of the Rivers Gregory focuses on Jacquetta of Luxembourg, a strong woman who, although she is not a well known historical figure, is involved in many events preceding, following, and during The War of the Roses. Jacquetta is a descendant of Melusina, the water goddess, and possesses some powers of foretelling. She is reluctant to use those powers, but is required to by her first husband the Duke of Bedford and by Margaret of Anjou, the Queen of England who she serves for many years. As a young girl, Jacquetta befriends Joan of Arc and witnesses her execution. Throughout her long life, Jacquetta deals with what it means to be a strong and intelligent woman in a world ruled by and dominated by men and she also deals with balancing her abilities of foretelling and her knowledge of alchemy with the charges of witchcraft that are often leveled at those with such powers.

Any reader familiar with and a fan of the work of Phillipa Gregory will enjoy this historical work. A reader new to this author will find that the strengths of The Lady of the Rivers, as of other works by Gregory, are well drawn characters and dialogue, satisfying friendships and romantic relationships, and excellent descriptions and details of daily life, which provide a strong sense of place and of living in the time.

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Friday, January 13, 2012

The Puppy Diaries

Jill Abramson, the author of this memoir, is a respected investigative reporter who now serves as the first woman executive editor of The New York Times. She was recently the subject of a 12 page article in The New Yorker (October 24, 2011), as well as featured guest on the CBS Sunday Morning Program, October 15, 2011.


Articles about Jill Abramson often cite her tough and sometimes abrupt style. But her book, The Puppy Diaries, clearly shows Ms. Abramson's softer, maternal side. Scout, named after the character in To Kill a Mockingbird, is a "Marleyesque" white golden retriever. Just about every sort of mischief that a puppy could get into attracts Scout. And as she grows into adolescence, these problems start to compound themselves.

What is unique about this book is its journalistic detail. Not only does it include a comprehensive bibliography, but Abramson documents, step by step, her often futile attempts to train Scout. She elaborates on the various schools of thought (positive reinforcement clicker method vs. the pack leader approach advocated by Cesar Millan). Abramson details everything a potential dog owner should know, from the adoption process (breeders vs. shelters) to the myriad choices of food (raw diet, gluten-free, table scraps). She also reveals much about grieving for a former pet and learning to love what seems, at times, "the replacement."

I had not forgotten Buddy," she writes after a year of mixed feelings, "but he was now the dog that had been my ideal companion for a different, earlier time. Watching Scout play in the snow..., I knew that I had finally passed my test: I had completely given my heart to her. (p. 233)

Jill Abramson has written an endearing memoir that captures the humbling experience of training a puppy. Whether you are a dog owner, prospective dog owner, or simply a lover of The New York Times, this book will be of interest.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

When She Woke

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is very different from her first novel Mudbound, but it is every bit as well written and as hard to put down once you start to read it. Mudbound was set just after World War II, on a remote cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta, a farm often further isolated when it is surrounded by a sea of mud following a heavy rain. Mudbound won the Bellwether Prize for fiction, a prize founded by Barbara Kingsolver and awarded to a first literary novel that addresses issues of social justice. It focused on issues of war and bigotry, friendship and passion. If you have not read Mudbound, it is well worth reading. as is When She Woke.

"When she woke, she was red." We first meet Hannah Payne in prison, a woman convicted of murder, whose skin color has been genetically altered. She is a Chrome, one of the many criminals whose skin color matches the class of their crime. In the State of Texas, Hannah has murdered her unborn child and refused to reveal the identity of the father, a well-known public figure.

The reader follows Hannah back and forth in time. We learn the story of her love, the identity of the father of her child, and about her abortion and the consequences of that act. We get to know her family and friends. We travel with Hannah when she leaves prison, first to a sort of halfway house, the Straight Path Center, and, shortly thereafter, we follow Hannah as she tries to rebuild her life in a world hostile to her.

Reviewers have referenced Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, to which the parallels are clear. Also mentioned, in reviews, is the dystopian world of Margaret Atwood. Marge Piercy is another author who creates dystopian worlds and interesting female characters dealing with situations in which they would prefer not to be. Piercy has said "dystopian fiction asks the question: 'If this goes on, what is going to happen?' " and is "based on our actual observations about the way the world is, and how it appears to be developing."

Among the many issues affecting the characters and society are abortion, adultery, consequences of crime, prisons, faith, the relationship of church and state, and the role of women in society. When She Woke is riveting for the reader on many levels. The characters are varied. The situations are interesting, often unique. How it will end for Hannah is not clear. The book is set in a fascinating world, one that is frightening and different from our world, but describes a future not so difficult to imagine.

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