Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Of Ruts

Move over, Britneys and Ashleys, Emilys and Hannahs alike. If it's true, as the late great Molly Ivins once said, that two of anything makes a trend, it's time for the Leahs of the world to shine. Be ready for Leah-heavy sitcoms and dramas. Teachers, brace yourselves for little Leah H., Leah C., Leah Anne and Leah Beth, all in the same class. And yeah, look for more Leahs in literature, as the second new book I checked out last week -- Roommates Wanted by Lisa Jewell -- also features a Leah in a leading role.

Lisa Jewell has a bunch of books out, and I liked the other one I read, One-Hit Wonder. I guess you could term them chick lit, since I can't really imagine a guy reading either one of them. She did something bold for a chick-lit book with her newest: she made the protagonist a guy. That would be one Toby Dobbs. Toby is in his late thirties and has led a depressing life. His mother's dead, his father abandoned him years ago, his marriage lasted all of one month, and although he considers himself a poet, he never writes or does much of anything. The last thing his father did for him was purchase a large Victorian house as a wedding gift. His father had intended for him to fix it up, sell it, and buy a better house to fix up, then sell. Instead, he took out an ad inviting lost souls to come live with him for minimal rent.

He's been living this way for fifteen years when an elderly tenant (who predated him in the house) dies. Enter Leah, his neighbor across the road who discovers the old man. It turns out that the man left Toby a substantial sum of money, with a note stating that Toby's in a rut and is to use the money to make his life less miserable. He determines that that means selling the house, but first he's got to fix it up...and there's the matter of his lost souls, four of them. Toby determines he's got to see all four of them settled and happy before kicking them out.

Not being a naturally curious person, he enlists Leah's help to do so. It turns out that Leah, and most of Toby's tenants, are stuck in various ruts as well. Ruby has been in Toby's house since she was sixteen, and is still sleeping around, staying out all night, and trying to get her singing career off the ground. Melinda is a sort of cougar who had abandoned her son Con (another housemate) when he was young and is now determined to make it up to him whether he wants it or not. The enigmatic Joanne, on the other hand, is so determined to avoid a rut that she firmly rebuffs all conversation that might lead to an attachment. And Leah is settled in a long-term job managing a fluffy gift shop, and has recently had a shakeup in her equally long-term relationship. In short, everyone could be happier.

You know where this story is going right from the start, but Jewell makes it enjoyable to get there. Her characters have a familiar feel, but are for the most part more realistic than archetypal. It's sprinkled with setbacks, twists and turns, and the story of the house has a nice "It's a Wonderful Life" sort of moment when Toby's former tenants return in droves to help finish the renovations when the last of his inheritance goes missing. Is it Shakespeare? Hell no. But Jewell has a good attention to detail and good character development. Pack this one in your beach bag with no reservations.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Summer of Fun? Nah...

when I picked up Brian Groh's Summer People at the library, it sounded like a pormising summer read. For one thing, it had the word right in the title. For another, it was set in a wealthy summer community in Maine near the beach. It looked like it could be funny and emotional all at once, being as it was the story of a middle-class boy (Nathan) who gets a job as the companion of elderly Ellen and juggles his duties with a budding romance with the nanny of some children a few doors down. It sounds like the kind of summer everyone would like to have, and certainly the kind I'd like to read about.

It turns out that there's one person who wouldn't enjoy that kind of summer, and that's Nathan, the main character. If we're ever given Nathan's age, I missed it, but I'm guessing he's somewhere between 21 and 25. His existence back home will probably strike a chord with most people who are that age, or remember being that age: he has a crappy part-time job in a library, lives with several friends with disgusting habits in a run-down apartment, and has just lost his girlfriend. He carries this misery with him up to Maine and remains sullen, self-absorbed and unhappy throughout the book. His (somewhat clumsily set up) relationship with Leah brings him no pleasure, nor do the surroundings. He doesn't fit in, he's self-absorbed and doesn't really seem to bond with Ellen at all.

I disliked Nathan. I would like to arrange for a literary blind date with him and G from Citizen Girl, except for the fact that they're so much alike they'd wind up hating each other, and that they're so self-centered that neither of them would probably be aware of the fact that they're on a date. As the summer wears on, it becomes apparent that Ellen's not really capable of looking after herself anymore, and probably shouldn't be left alone at all. Yet Nathan doesn't really bother to tell anyone that, except for his father because he wants to sound like a martyr (I swear that's what the text said). Why? His precious summer, with his precious Leah (the nanny) would be cut short. When Ellen falls and hurts herself badly, his primary concerns are whether or not he'll get in trouble because of it, and what will become of his date with Leah now that he has to go to the hospital.

This book wasn't all bad, though -- after all, I did finish the damn thing. I liked the overall feel to it, of summers on the coast of Maine, the boats and tennis and drinks on manicured lawns at night, the peace and quiet of it all. I also liked the characters that floated around the edges of the story. There aren't really many books about old people, unless you count the variety where the narrator is looking back on an event that happened fifty years ago or more. Although Ellen's a frail old woman, she's also somewhat of a silver fox, having been the longstanding object of one neighbor's desire while carrying on an affair with another neighbor. The people in Ellen's tangled love affairs crouch at the edges of Nathan's self-created dramas with Leah and his ex-girlfriend, as if to say when Nathan complains of his misery, "Son, you have no idea."

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


When I find an author I really like, I'm pretty loyal to him or her. Except for the ones with long, brilliant careers, I've read the bulk of all the works by the authors on my sidebar. A new book by a favorite author is, to me, like a new album released by a favorite band. I look forward to it and usually try to get my hands on it the minute it comes out, or the minute I hear about it.

So when I saw that A. Manette Ansay had a new one, I bought it without a second thought. I think there is a book of hers that I missed, but I have read virtually everything by her. I got introduced to her works when I wandered into Barnes and Noble one night feeling depressed and beaten down and looking for some new experience to take me out of myself for a bit. They had a copy of River Angel displayed prominently, with the pretty line about souls rising like milkweed and dandelion seeds on the cover. While I'm not Christian, I'd hold this book up as an example of well-done Christian-themed fiction that's not terribly preachy, that emphasizes community, redemption and even mystery and doesn't seek out easy answers (after all, a child had to die and many lives had to be ruined to bring about the happy ending). I set about reading the rest of her books and even read her
autobiography this fall.

Things have changed since she wrote Limbo. She explains in the introduction that she did finally get a diagnosis, that the solution was shockingly simple and that with proper treatment she is not only able to walk and to perform normal tasks without expending all of her energy, but that she and her husband even had a child. It was a medical condition that her baby had that inspired Blue Water.

In the opening pages of the novel, Megan Van Dorn's life is turned upside down. She's driving her six-year-old son to school when someone blows the stop sign at a four-way intersection and shoves their car 20 feet, killing her son. The "someone" turns out to be Cindy Ann Kreisler, a onetime high school friend of Megan's, who was driving her own children to school, still drunk from the night before. The rest of the story involves how Megan and her husband Rex attempting to deal with the tragedy by buying a boat and sailing to the Carribean. It also gives you insight into the events that placed Cindy Ann drunk behind the wheel of an SUV, with her three children from her three marriages in the car with her.

Maybe it's the subject matter, but I didn't take to this book the way I did to the others. I loved the way Ansay made the rural Midwest an additional character in the story, coloring everything that happened. I loved the way she was able to blend plot and character in unexpected ways (the grandmother's big secret, in Vinegar Hill, is both shocking and in character at the same time). I loved her for her ability, in River Angel and in Vinegar Hill, to depict both the positive and destructive sides of faith, community, and tradition. Blue Water seemed, to me, to lack these attributes. You don't get as powerful a sense of who Megan and Rex really are, and much of the book rests on the two of them.

But while it didn't do a whole lot for me, I would still recommend giving this one a try if you like A. Manette Ansay. The book does have many interesting secondary characters: Megan's brother Toby, who runs a fish-and-aquarium shop; his unlikely late-in-life love Mallory, the town's only vegetarian, who makes and sells jewelry and wears men's clothing, and just happens to be Cindy's sister; and the interesting people Megan and Rex meet on the boat (all of whom, it turns out, have something similar lurking in their own pasts). And I felt the parts about Cindy were stronger than those narrated by Megan, possibly because Megan seems to be defined almost solely by the loss of her son. If anyone's read it, I would welcome your own opinions on it, too!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Bold Experiment

The idea of radical lifestyle change is daunting. It takes imagination and committment, drive and desire. Especially when you're questioning basic assumptions rather than just the surface. My high school biology lab partner would attempt this several years after I watched him dissect a fetal pig. Spurred by his success in walking home from college across the state -- approximately 400 miles -- he then decided to walk across the country. He didn't make it. He serialized his journey in our town newspaper, and as the weeks wore on, his columns grew increasingly anguished, describing his loneliness, his isolation, his overwhelming desire for clean clothes and the chance to spend more than one or two nights in the same place. He returned home after several months.

Barbara Kingsolver's family also undertook a radical lifestyle change, and this involved the food they ate. Their goal was simply to involve themselves at the production level of everything they ate. If they couldn't make it or raise it themselves, they forged relationships with those that could. This effort extended even to the meat they ate.

They (Kingsolver wrote the book with her husband and oldest daughter) make the point early and often that they're not just doing this for the hell of it. The current system of food supply in this country is not a sustainable one. Fruits and vegetables are grown year-round out of season and shipped thousands of miles to your grocery store. Animals are raised for slaughter in dangerous and unsanitary conditions, with quality sacrificed for quantity every step of the way. In the tradition of The Jungle, they do occasionally use disgust as a persuasive tactic. Did you know, for instance, that the breed of turkey most commonly used is incapable of supporting its own weight on its legs or reproducing naturally? And you eat them. Ewwwwwwww.

But she uses arguments beyond just disgust. She talks about how much better vegetables taste when they're not bio-engineered to withstand long journeys in trucks. She describes the fun of attending cheese-making classes, the exercise benefits of hoeing her own vegetable garden, the self-esteem her youngest daughter derives from operating her own successful egg business, and the way that food strengthens the bonds between family, friends and neighbors.

If you're doubting you can do any of this yourself, well, you're right to doubt. For a year, this was Kingsolver's job, so she could devote plenty of time to seeking out food sources, cultivating her own crops, etc. She also was fortunate enough to live on a farm, giving her the space to do this, and she had a family who believed whole-heartedly in the experiment. But that doesn't mean you can't do some of it yourself. Barbara's daughter Camille is a nutrition major, and her contribution to the book are recipies and meal plans, found at the end of each chapter and also at

Kingsolver is very earnest and passionate, and like all earnest and passionate people, easy to make fun of. It's easy to poke holes in her experiment, pointing out how her cheese cultures and her turkey and chicken flocks are shipped to her from far away, or how they stop in the middle of it all to consume tons of fossil fuels on a lengthy family vacation. It's easy to question her motives and wonder if it would've succeeded had their book not depended on it, if she's telling the whole truth, if there weren't some nights she was just dying to jump in the car in her pajamas and go through the Wendy's drive-thru.

But I invite those disinclined to share her views to work past the first chapter in particular (it even began to grate on me how she talked about "American habits" as if she herself wasn't American) and travel with her and her family on the rest of their journey. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and she'll get even the most vegetable-averse among us wondering about fresh asparagus and the Christmas lima beans depicted on the cover (I can testify to this, for I am the most vegetable-averse among us). Furthermore, they show that there are things each of us can do without this level of comittment and energy, and they provide the resources to do it. After reading Naomi Klein's landmark book No Logo, I felt hopeless. There seemed to be little I could do about the growing prevalence of branding everything. After reading this book, I felt encouraged and interested in trying as well.

I'd like to end this post with a public shout-out to the person who is the reason why I read this book. Back in 1997, I was enrolled in a course on women writers, cross-listed with both English and women's studies. Dr. Daphne Kutzer assigned to us a book called Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver, whom I'd never heard of before. The book is about two sisters, three years apart, and was assigned to us when my own sister, three years younger than me, was up visiting. Living so far away from home, I didn't get to see her much, and after I walked her to the bus station, I took the book to the warm, greenhouse-like environment of the college art gallery and read about someone else who was also missing her younger sister. Since then, I've gone on to read everything Barbara Kingsolver has written, but it was that class that introduced me to it, and that wonderful professor that got me hooked. Thanks, Dr. Kutzer!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A scathing comment...a Library Diva first

When I started this blog, it gave me the option of moderating comments. I've been around the internet for long enough to see what can happen when no one's minding the gate, and while I didn't mind people disagreeing with me, I didn't want my comments section to be an oasis for those looking to sell Viagra and Russian brides online. There was less of that than I'd thought, although I vetoed one comment that had sort of a spammy feel to it ("if books about aging interest you, you should check out my website on skin care...") Yet today, I had to veto a comment.

Seamus, if you're reading this, I want you to know that I have no problem with your disagreement on my post about The Alchemyst. I never claimed anywhere in that post that I could do it better. I can't ice skate worth a damn either, but I do have the ability to spot when someone lands a triple salchow. I stand by what I said about the characters being largely flat and lifeless. You said that Nicholas and Perenelle were exactly like they were described in legends; I would respond by asking "like what?" Are they funny, clever, empathetic, sarcastic, creative, terrifying or what? Because in The Alchemyst they seemed to be mere plot devices, like the rest of the characters, particularly those of the "protagonists," Sophie and Josh.

I still stand by my advice to avoid the book. However, I know that one man's trash is another man's treasure, and I'm glad you liked the book, Seamus. I am frightened, though, by your level of anger, particular towards someone you don't know. Was it really necessary to get that personal and vulgar? I didn't call the author names, after all. I merely suggested that he could've done better. I sincerely hope you were emboldended by the anonymity of the internet and don't go around addressing real-life strange women who are in punching radius of you with the "c" word. It was the way you expressed yourself, not the opinion itself, that got your comment rejected. Go ahead and disagree with me or anyone else who posts on here (hello, you two!) but please, do it in a respectful manner or I won't print it.