Monday, May 31, 2010

Short Takes

I do horrible on updating this blog, ever since I started working at the newspaper and writing all day. Or maybe it's that I can get people to listen to me every week and don't need it as much here, I don't know. So I fgiured I'd write about a couple of books at once, books that don't really merit separate entries anyway.

Whiter than Snow, by Sandra Dallas.
I always like to see a new one for summer. It's good, simple, uplifting summer fare. Like a street vendor hot dog, or a fresh croissant in the morning, you devour it quickly, savor the taste, but are sort of hungry again an hour or two later. Whiter Than Snow concerns an avalanche in a mining town that buried several children alive. The book is really about the hopes and dreams of their parents, and about the different ways life can trap a person. The town's sole black man absconded from the terribly racist Deep South after his wife died in childbirth -- essentially of racism. Lucy and Dolly haven't spoken in years after Dolly stole Lucy's fiance. Lucy wound up marrying the first man who asked in order to have some measure of freedom from her father. There's a lot more: Essie, the Jewish hooker, the grizzled Civil War vet who let his best friend die.

It's the same sort of Sandra Dallas book, though. The ending is usually sort of brutal (one thing about her is that she's not afraid of a strong dose of tragedy) and uplifting at the same time. If you've read any of her books, there are no surprises in this one.

E2 by Matt Beaumont is the follow up to E, which I read on vacation last year. Not all of the characters return, though several do. You could easily skip the first one to read this one. It's been updated to include not only email, but texts, blog posts and IM conversations. It was sad to see how poorly one of the horny young men had aged. Other than that, there's little to say about this one that I didn't say about the original last year. Not that it was a regrettable choice or anything. But it's another good fun, summer read.

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel would surely merit its own post had I finished it. I got about 75 pages in, and would likely have kept going had it not been due back (and had I not already renewed it once). It's a slow start, about a writer who had developed a conceptual book that his publishers refused spectacularly and is just kind of adrift. His adriftness reminded me of myself over hte past year: he got involved with community theater and a volunteer group, and took a part-time job in a pleasant environment with no status and low pay.

Then he gets sucked in by this manuscript written by a taxidermist about Beatrice and Virgil, his howler monkey and donkey. And what I think is going to happen is that it will wind up being an elaborate metaphor for a re-imagining of the Holocaust, as the writer's original conceptual book was to be. At some point I'll pick it up again and find out.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Parent's Worst Nightmare

What do you think it is? Judging from the general media, it seems to be that your kid will be raped and/or murdered. Bebe Moore Campbell's 72 Hour Hold explores an eventuality that, in same ways, could be just as hard for a parent: a serious mental illness.

Trina was a bright, beautiful teenaged girl. She had been accepted to Brown, she had lots of friends, she seemed to be doing well. Until her mother noticed her talking too much, too fast. Staying up for 36 hours at a time. Hitting the streets in the morning and returning loaded with shopping bags late at night. Then she'd crash. Trina was bipolar.

And the system was failing her, and her mother Keri. Trina's behavior would often be terrifying, but when her mother called to have her admitted to the mental health unit, she'd be able to pull herself together long enough to be judged not to meet the criteria for a 72-hour hold. Meanwhile, Keri's life changed. Her carefree days of spa trips with her girlfriends were over. She had a new crew now, people that she met at the mental illness family support groups she attended. Mostly they talked on the phone, rather than socialized in person, because they were all caring for children of their own.

Keri hits a breaking point when her daughter, a recently legal adult, sneaks out after her latest 72-hour hold before she can bring her home. One of Keri's friends from group told her about an alternative to t he traditional treatment: illegal, shadowy and costly, but she and her friend decide to pursue it together.

This is where the book started to come undone a bit, for me. The chapters on Keri's battle with Trina's illness were gripping, suspenseful, engaging and heartbreaking. And they had enough ancillary stuff thrown in so you didn't walk away from the book feeling like you'd just gone four rounds with Mike Tyson. Keri also deals with her ex-husband, Trina's father, a neocon pundit who's been married four other times since their divorce and is making noises about how maybe he had it right the first time. She deals with her on-again, off-again boyfriend, an actor whose dreams, talent and ambition are much larger than his luck. She runs her own business, a high-end designer consignment shop, with her two assistants, one of whom is a former prostitute and drug addict.

Keri's an interesting person, dealing with something unimaginable. The passages where she's trying to provoke Trina into assaulting her so she could get her placed on 72-hour-hold are heartbreaking. And the "alternative" is intriguing, but it should have been fleshed out a little more. The leader of the alternative treatment comes off as a foolish little boy, who revels in secrecy and the power it gives him. The reasons why people who've responded to nothing else respond to whatever it is his group does remain shrouded in mystery. Ultimately, Keri turns back to the system for help and hope.

But then again, I guess you can't really fault a novel for coming to the same conclusion about mental health treatment that anyone who's worked around it does: this isn't the answer, but damned if I know what is.

Incidentally, this is the book I got from the African-American section. It was good, and I'm going to do my best from now on not to read that label as a "WHITE GIRLS KEEP OUT" sign.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Apartheid at the Library

During my last library visit, it was unseasonably warm. Hardly anyone was there, and I was really able to take my time, to poke around, and to do it with no distractions. I'd noticed the "African-American Fiction" section before, but never really investigated it. For some reason, that day, I decided to. I pulled books by unfamiliar authors off the shelves and looked at them. I'd assumed, for some reason, that what was over there was primarily chick lit with black women, and there was a fair amount of that, but plenty of other, more intriguing fare mixed in.

It got me wondering, what is "African-American Fiction" anyway? How do they decide what gets shelved there, and what gets shelved in the general fiction section? Is it the race of the author? The race of the subjects? The fact that race is treated at all? How come Zadie Smith and Zora Neale Hurston aren't over there, then? My best friend from college is black, and I am white. If she wrote a novel about our friendship, where would they put it? Where would they put it if I wrote it?

Come to think of it, why is there an "African-American Fiction" section, anyway? Isn't it a pretty racist assumption that white people wouldn't want to read about black people, and that black people won't read anything unless it's about them? I think to some extent, a lot of people like to read about themselves. I know I do. I enjoyed books about college students when I was in college, books about people making their way in the world as a recent grad, and now that I'm over 30, I like to read about people making the transition to being 'real adults,' though I'm still not into Babylit yet. But I can appreciate and take an interest in the experiences of others. Why would the necessarily be all that different?

Sure, there are cultural differences between blacks and whites. Sadly, there are still many differences in status and socioeconomic class, too, too many differences. That doesn't mean that we still can't get something out of each other's experiences, though. Look how much fantasy and sci-fi novels often give their readers. I wrote, a while back, about how I found the explanation of death contained in the His Dark Materials trilogy to be enormously comforting, based in the only after-death experience we have hard evidence for. You never know what you might learn from, be enriched by, or take comfort in. That's why I feel it's wrong to take a group of books and put up a big "KEEP OUT" sign on them.

I'm interested, though -- does anyone have a different perspective? Do you feel that the classification of fiction into racial or ethnic groups is OK? I'd very much like to hear it, if so. Also, if anyone has theories as to why they started doing this in the first place, I'm interested.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Russo's Magic, and a book out of season

Richard Russo has been a favorite of mine since graduate school. Faced with the horrifying prospect of taking at trip without a book, I walked into the town's only, tiny bookstore and chose a Richard Russo book solely because his books seemed to be set in the same area I was living in at the time. Since then, I've read all of his books, but I've always found him to be hit and miss.

I would, sadly, put That Old Cape Magic in the "miss" category. I was rather surprised to see this one out so soon after his lengthy, ambitious Bridge of Sighs. That, right there, made me raise an eyebrow. But since it's Richard Russo, and since the library actually had this one, I read it.

The protagonist of the book, like many of Russo's protagonists, is a middle-aged man. Griffin grew up an only child of two academics who had a twisted and miserable outlook on life. His parents' lifelong goal and dream was to live and work in New England. Instead, they were stuck in "the fucking Midwest" (as they both consistently referred to it), unable to find a school that would take them as a package deal. They could only make their glorious escape to a rental every summer. Usually, that was virtually the only happy time of their year. Their marriage slowly became a prison and eventually broke up for good after mutliple infidelities on both sides.

Griffin strove to become their opposite. Happy in the present, committed to his wife and daughter. He comes to the Cape again in the first half of the novel to scatter his father's ashes and attend the wedding of his daughter's friend. As the book jacket promises, he is back in the second half, with more ashes to scatter, and has brought a date to his own daughter's Cape wedding. So has his wife.

I don't know what it is lately with books that take place in the past, but this is another one. The real story is not what became of Griffin's ostensibly happy marriage (though even in the first part, there are major cracks). The real story is how Griffin will resolve his relationship with his complicated parents, and cope with their deaths.

But it all fell a bit flat to me. Even though most of Russo's characters are in the throes of a personal crisis, he keeps them from being too angsty by a strong cast of supporting characters. Lucky Hal and Sully didn't just sit around and whine. They went out drinking, they played raquetball, they threatened ducks, stole snowblowers, went to work. They had LIVES. They had friends, too, and antagonists. Griffin's angst exists in a virtual vaccuum. Russo gave him a best friend, who stays mostly in the background. His daughter is made of cardboard. Griffin isn't working, since he too has become an academic and this is a summer story. His main activity is sitting around and whining.

It gets old. Fortunately, this is a short one. And Russo at his worst is better than a lot of people at their best.

The next book I tried was another David Guterson. I've been meaning to since Snow Falling on Cedars. East of the Mountain was just as beautifully written. But I couldn't do it. The book is about the last journey of an old man with terminal cancer. He is going to shoot himself and make it look like a hunting accident. It's gorgeous, sad...and all wrong. Around here, it's been warm and sunny, the flowering trees are in bloom, my folks are coming home soon, everything is going well. I tried. I will remember this one and come back to it, but for now it's definitely out of sync with my mood. I'm going to try that Sherman Alexie one instead.