Monday, August 24, 2009

The Best and the Worst

With the nice weather and the sudden rapid increase of mere STUFF in my life, I haven't been as faithful with the BTT's as I normally am. I guess a lot of amateur blogs like mine slow down in the summer months. So I figured I'd tackle two weeks' worth of BTTs at the same time, especially since they go well together:

What’s the worst book you’ve read recently?
(I figure it’s easier than asking your all-time worst, because, well, it’s recent!)


What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

(Tell me you didn’t see this one coming?)

These were hard questions for me, because I've been fortunate in my reads this summer. I've liked almost everything I've actually dived into. But I managed to find a turkey, so I'll start there.

I initially gave Sharlee Dieguez's The Bearded Lady a sort of neutral review, tending a bit towards the negative. The further away from it I get, though, the less I like it. I read a few reviews of it online to help me pinpoint exactly what I disliked about it. One of them hit it on the head: you get way too much of "sourpuss Jessie" as the reviewer called her. The circus is an interesting and vital place, but it's all completely subsumed by Beard Angst.

Sideshows have always interested me, and Dieguez could have done a lot more with the exploitation/freedom aspect of them. One minor character was a "pinhead" and her caretaker. The "pinhead" was facing institutionalization. The caretaker was leading a lonely and bland existence. When they met, and became part of the circus, their lives vastly improved. The caretaker described it as having a sweet little girl that will never grow up. The "pinhead" was well-loved, well-cared for and was able to lead as full a life as her capabilities allowed. The Chinese concubine's alternative to self-exhibition was a (probably short) life of sex slavery. But they were mere background for Jessie's Beard Angst. And Jessie's fantasy sex sequence about her crush kissing the hairy lips above and thinking of the hairy lips below was just laughable.

As for the best book I've read recently? Gosh, that's hard. Lisa Jewell's books are always great fun, and I'm reading a very enjoyable one now, People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. The Thirteenth Tale was outstanding. The James Herriot books are always nice and cheerful, and offbeat material and shopworn devices were combined to great effect in Life After Genius.

But I'd say my winner is I Thought My Father Was God and Other True Stories. It's an absolutely fascinating book regarding the real experiences of real people. The experiences are wide-ranging. Many involve bizarre, mystic coincidences, such as losing something, and having it turn up thousands of miles away, generations later. Others weren't so much linear "stories" as meditations on life. Some of the ones about death and loss make me cry just thinking of them. But it was a neat project and a neat book. This one gets my vote for the best one I've read recently, just because I can't imagine anyone disliking it.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Another Jewell...with a touch of the mystic

In Friend of the Family, Lisa Jewell delivers more of what keeps me coming back: unique characters, realistic conflicts, and the ultimate happy resolution. This time, as the title of the post implies, she adds a touch of the mystic into the mix.

Here's the rundown: three brothers, Tony, Sean and Ned, shared the perfect upbringing with the perfect parents. Now all in their late 20s and early 30s, though, it seems that their childhood happiness didn't prepare them well for the adult world, and all three are facing a crossroads in their lives.

Tony, the eldest, is a divorced workaholic who's also a bit unsure of where his life is headed. He's with an absolutely wonderful woman that he doesn't love. In the meantime, he's also fallen in love with another woman -- who happens to be Sean's girlfriend. Which brings us to Sean's own dilemma. His first novel hit gold and won every award. Now he's under major pressure to deliver for his second novel. But he's never been in love like this before, with the perfect woman, and the perfect relationship -- until she discovers she's pregnant.

Ned has recently returned from a three-year Australian adventure, leaving behind a girlfriend who's gone slightly crazy, but dogged by his unwillingness to build any sort of settled career. The best he can offer for experience is a few weeks here and there tending bar, opening mail, renting surfboards, things of that nature. His Australian adventure is over and the life he'd left behind in Britain is gone.

Even his own bedroom is gone, but not made over into a sewing room or unrecognizable guest room. Not even merely piled rug to rafters with old clothing and books as mine is. No, much worse -- rented out to an odd young man named Gervase. The boys' mother met him at the pub where she sings and offered him the room. Naturally, this makes the boys quite concerned, especially as Gervase has no discernable form of employment and is even included in family dinners. But, as it turns out, Gervase has something else to offer. Though the boys go out of their way to avoid him, he manages to cop enough alone time with each to use his mystical powers to get to the root of their problems and help them see the solutions to them.

And of course, as most of Jewell's books do, this one has a satisfying ending. Each boy gets out of his rut and on with his life. Each finds happiness, or at least begins to walk the path towards it. It's weird. There are many more "serious" authors whose work begins to wear on me the more I read. I notice too many commonalities among the stories and they all start to blur together and seem to be less the product of a fertile imagination than simple repackaged autobiography. Jewell's books always seem refreshingly original to me, every time.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Tiffany Baker's The Little Giant of Aberdeen County has made a fantastic splash this year, so I decided to see what all the fuss was about during my last library visit.

It's an odd sort of book. It has all the trappings of the typical Southern novel: heroine named Truly, the small-town claustrophobia, the memories of a one-room schoolhouse and farm chores, the generations-deep roots. Even the title and cover suggest a long-passed, rural Southern life. But the "Aberdeen County" of the title is actually in Massachusetts, and the book takes place from approximately 1940 (my estimated year of Truly's birth) to somewhere in the 1980s.

As implied in the title, the book chronicles the life of Truly Plaice, a real, bonafide giant, and her sister Serena Jane. Truly was a celebrity before she was even born, with the whole town taking bets on her weight. They were shamed when they learned that not only was the baby they'd all been betting on female, but that the mother did not survive the birth. As a child, Truly had to live with an alcoholic, neglectful father who never recovered from the death of his wife, and also with the weight of comparisons between herself and her china-doll older sister, Serena Jane.

Their world was shattered with the death of their father, and the siblings split up. Serena Jane went to live with the minister and his wife in town. Truly went to live on the edge of town with a poor farming family. In an interesting twist, though, it was Truly who became content with her life, where her freakish size and strength were valued assets rather than liabilities. Serena Jane, on the other hand, chafed under the constraints of small-town life and dreamed of escape to Hollywood and an acting career.

The book takes an odd turn at this point, when Serena Jane becomes trapped by getting pregnant by Robert Morgan, the latest in a long line of Dr. Robert Morgans in town. She marries him, and has the baby, but ultimately runs off. Truly somehow winds up moving in with Dr. Robert Morgan, who is set up as some sort of monster. But, at least for me, the menace never fully materializes. He seems like a jerk, to be sure, and uber-annoying to live with, but not a horrible person, outside of one act which I won't detail here since it's a key plot point.

Morgan makes Truly's life miserable, but also unwittingly opens a door for her. When Robert Morgan's great-grandfather came to town after the Civil War, he married a legendary "witch" who was really just knowlegeable about herbal medicine. Generations had searched for her famous "shadow book" that contained all of her knowlege, but Truly alone uncovered it, and began putting it to work, first for the minor ailments that plague everyone from time to time, then for subtle revenge over the doctor, and finally to cross the ultimate line and end life as an act of mercy.

Euthanasia has captured the public's imagination ever since the Nancy Cruzan case in the late 1980s, when her parents fought all the way to the Supreme Court to be allowed to unplug the machines that kept her body alive long after her life had ended by all but the most basic biological definition. It was the key plot point of my most recent serious book, Buffalo Lockjaw, and of many other books, movies and television shows. But rarely do they discuss what happens on the other end of that decision, after the life has been ended.

This book attempts that but doesn't seem to come to any meaningful conclusions. Overall, the book is rather meandering and disjointed. It contains some memorable characters, but also some very stilted scenes. Truly lives in the community her entire life, but people never seem to get used to her size and continually make fun of her almost right to her face. I had a hard time believing them, just as I did in understanding why Truly continued to stay at the doctor's house. She explained it, sure -- first for her nephew, then, later, for a chance at revenge and also at medical treatment for her condition. But the explanations rang sort of hollow to me.

Overall, I'd say this book is sort of like a dinner of popcorn, cereal and some spare leftover lettuce. It's somewhat enjoyable and even a little satisfying, but never really hangs together.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

...And on the Flip Side of Last week's BTT:

Recent Serious August 6, 2009
Filed under: Wordpress — --Deb @ 1:51 am

What’s the most serious book you’ve read recently?
(I figure it’s easier than asking your most serious boook ever, because, well, it’s recent!)

This is also a pretty easy question for me. I knew what the answer would be before I even finished reading the post. The most serious book would be Buffalo Lockjaw by Greg Ames.

Seeing as how I wrote about it less than a month ago, I won't go into too much detail today. It's well-written and has good characters, but is almost relentless in its sadness and despair. It tackles about all of the serious themes life has to offer: illness, assisted suicide, death, alcoholism, finding one's place in the world and in one's own family. It's set in Buffalo in Thanksgiving, which can be a depressing place in and of itself. It's usually snowed at least once by then, and almost always cold. Plus, if you're returning to Buffalo for Thanksgiving, you might feel depressed about the decline, depending on how long it's been and where you spend your time. (I might add that if you come in the summer and head down to the waterfront, you'll feel optimistic about the new development around the Erie Canal ruins and about the sheer number of people that have suddenly come out of the woodwork to just hang out down there. Next step should be the elimination of the 190 in favor of something less ugly, in my opinion.)

So, Buffalo Lockjaw is a very serious book, but it does have its moments. I absolutely loved his Buffalo ethnography, where he collected memories and impressions of the city. In my earlier post, I mentioned the Bills fan with his lucky underwear and hot-dog rituals. There was also a conversation between two older men about what happened to the city and what they feel would solve it. I can attest to the fact that you can hear similar conversations by entering any public place in the region, any day. There were stories about various local legends, many of whom are denizens of the state psychiatric hospital just off the city's most vibrant and exciting neighborhood. These touches lighten it up, but it's still a serious work.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The One That Got Away: Lisa Jewell Delivers Again

I figured it was time to start making a dent in all of those books I just renewed, and began with Lisa Jewell's Vince and Joy. This is the fourth book I've read by her, and they've all been terrific. I like her flawed, funny, vivid characters. I like the slightly offbeat scenarios. I like the way it all winds up working out in the end.

I'd have to say that there's a lot more sadness in Vince and Joy than in most of her other books, though. The title characters first meet when they're nineteen. Each is on a family holiday. Each already has a sad and difficult past. Vince had an underbite so severe, it affected his outward appearance, prevented him from chewing properly, and required surgery. It also prevented him from ever having a girlfriend, as even the most desperate and unattractive girls shunned him. Joy suffered a nervous breakdown due to the twin stresses of university applications and catching her father having sex with their neighbor in their kitchen. She had more experience than Vince, but it was thoroughly unsatisfying and repulsive.

But when they met, it was love at first sight. They spent a magical few days together that culminated in a shared first sexual experience. Then, Joy's family split in the middle of the night. Joy left a note for Vince, but as fate would have it, it rained all night, and all he could read was the phrase, "I feel so ashamed." Years later, he found out that what she was actually ashamed of was the fact that while they were having sex, their parents were getting drunk together and his father sexually assaulted Vince's mother.

But by then, their two roads had diverged. And sadly, neither of them wound up living a very happy life. Joy got married to a man she'd only known for a couple of months, who turned out to be weird, moody, anti-social and controlling. Vince settled with a woman who was almost the extreme opposite: an ex-club kid and hedonist who aggressively returned to her roots, going out every Saturday night for drugs and dancing even after their baby arrived. Fate throws them in each other's path quite a few times -- Vince finds Joy right before her wedding day and watches it from across the street; Joy bumps into Vince many years later, just as she's finally ready to leave her husband and he's about to get married.

But like the other books, there is a lot of brightness interwoven with what is overall, a rather sad tale. Many interesting characters linger around the edges of the drama: Vince's hippie roommate Cass, who looks for Joy in her crystal ball; Joy's oddball roommate Julia and her transsexual best friend Bella; Vince's cool young parents who start a second family; Joy's plain overweight mother with a surprising past that sheds light on her unhappy marriage. Jewell has a real gift for characters. They're usually archetypal enough to remind you of someone you've known, but they're not two-dimensional either. They don't just sit in their boxes of "frump," "hippie," and "campy". Jewell lets them out to breathe and run around, so that even at the end of a very sad story, you wind up feeling good.