Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Title Thirty Three: Do Dead People Watch You Shower? by Concetta Bertoldi

If you see this book, run away. As quickly as possible. Bonus points if you set it on fire before you run. (Kidding.) (Kind of.)

Look, I admit to a certain fascination with ghosties. I love watching "Paranormal State" and have a slight crush on Ryan Buell. Okay, a big crush. I sort of want to have his babies. So I picked up this book hoping to find some interesting anecdotes about the life of a medium and her communications with the Other Side. Instead it was like being trapped at the kitchen table with a loudmouthed North Jersey paisan (I'm an Eyetal; I can say that) who refuses to let you leave until she has told you every detail of her life. "Oooh, look at me, I can see and hear dead people! I bring comfort to grieving family and friends! "They" told me who I was going to marry! I know so much more than you but I can't prove it but dammit you need to believe me because I am an expert!" Shut up and shove a cannoli in your mouth. Your writing is trite, vain, and has the skill level of a dyslexic middle schooler. (This is not a jab at the writer's dyslexia, or anyone else's for that matter; she is simply a poor author, incapable of writing more than one paragraph for many of the "chapters" of the book.)

The only heartwarming segments deal with Bertoldi's experiences with the deaths of her father and brother. They were, and still are, evidently devastating and painful, and if her communications and visits with them have brought her some comfort, then I'm glad that what she calls her "gift" has allowed that. Otherwise, it's a lot of showmanship with little substance. She trumpets her small validations and chalks her failures up to a sort of "Oh, only God is perfect, and I won't be perfect until I am one with Him" mentality. There's a lot of pseudo-New Agey crap sprinkled liberally throughout the book, especially pertaining to her concept that those who go "home" arise to a different plane of consciousness and cease to exist as separate entities, instead becoming a part of God, shedding all earthly constraints. I don't know about you, but when I get to heaven I want to find great sex, exquisite chocolate, flowering gardens and beautiful beaches, along with high-quality scotch flowing like a river and books as far as the eye can see. I want to enjoy my earthly senses to the fullest. In the end I decided that Bertoldi is a hack, which may be unfair, but hell, it's my opinion and my review.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Title Thirty Two: Handle with Care by Jodi Picoult

I don't want to review this book.

Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad book. It's beautifully written, poignant, thought-provoking, and sensitive. I think it's fantastic and the characters are true and flawed and shining. This might be one of the best books that Picoult has written; I look back at some of her earlier work and this one just shows a level of intensity and maturity that speaks to her talent. I don't want to review it because the ending broke my heart, and I don't want to think about it.

Instead I'll give you a quick recap, and I'll let you decide if you want to read it. Sean and Charlotte O'Keefe have two daughters; Amelia is Charlotte's daughter from a previous relationship and Willow is their miracle baby, who was born with a condition called osteogenesis imperfecta, or OI. Also known as "brittle bone" disease, OI is caused by a spontaneous genetic mutation and its biggest result is the incredible delicacy of the bones; fractures can be caused by a bump into a table, a child hugged too tightly, a stumble over the edge of a rug, or simply a sudden movement. During a family trip to Disney World, Willow slips in an ice cream parlor and falls, fracturing her leg. Charlotte and Sean realize that the doctor's note they carry at all times, detailing Willow's disease, is home in their van in New Hampshire. They are arrested at the hospital on suspicion of child abuse and the girls are taken from them. It lasts only overnight, until Charlotte is able to contact Willow's doctor, but it ignites a fire in her. Upon returning home, Charlotte and Sean visit a lawyer, who tells them that they don't have a case against the police department in Florida but that they do have a case against the obstetrician who may have failed to diagnose Willow's condition early enough in Charlotte's pregnancy for her to terminate - a case called a "wrongful birth" lawsuit. This presents two major problems: one, Charlotte will have to testify that Willow should never have been born; two, the obstetrician in question is Charlotte's best friend, Piper.

What follows is a fracturing of the characters' lives - Charlotte and Sean are literally on opposite sides of the lawsuit, Charlotte and Piper's friendship is irrevocably shattered, Amelia turns inward on herself, and Willow tries to make sense of it all in her six-year-old mind. Picoult shows an amazing depth of understanding as she recounts the story in a way that keeps the reader engaged and shares information about an unknown disease, using it as a metaphor for the larger picture. I usually find subplots slightly tedious, but Picoult picks up pace with Charlotte's lawyer, Marin, who is herself adopted and searching for her birth mother, adding another dimension to the debate over termination in pregnancy.

It's an excellent book, and if you don't mind emotional reads then I certainly would suggest it. I just don't want to think about it anymore myself. Not for a little while, yet.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Title Thirty One: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

Some books are like old friends. Even though you know them well, return visits are always enjoyable and you remember just why you loved them in the first place. I've read The Lovely Bones several times, but each time I do I drift back into the story of Susie Salmon and the characters are familiar and comforting, even as I experience the sadness and heartache with them over again.

One day, walking home from school, 14-year-old Susie runs into a creepy neighbor who convinces her to investigate a room that he built under the cornfield that is the shortcut between the school and the Salmon home. Susie's natural curiosity is what leads her into the underground space, but once down there she realizes that something is very, very wrong. Harvey refuses to let her leave, then pins her down, rapes her, dismembers her, and erases any evidence of the crime. The only lead that police have is the hat that Susie had on her, made by her mother, until a neighborhood dog turns up with an elbow in his mouth and the Salmon family realizes that Susie is never coming home.

Told from Susie's point of view, looking down on her family from her heaven, the story is one of loss and pain but it's also a tale of how a family tries to move on from a tragedy that creates cracks in the foundation. Susie explores the efforts of her father, mother, sister, and brother as they attempt to navigate a world without her in it. Sebold treats what is a horrific and devastating situation with suprising grace and imagination, and the characters are what make the novel so worthwhile. I came to love the Salmon family, even as they make mistakes and flounder. I watch as her father battles the deaf ears on which fall his conviction that Harvey is the murderer; as her sister Lindsey tries to move beyond being the "dead girl's sister;" as baby brother Buckley attempts to make sense of what it means that Susie is gone; as Mrs. Salmon does the only thing she can to survive by methodically distancing herself from her family; and as Susie's maternal grandmother, Grandma Lynn, becomes the unlikely glue that holds this fractured collection of broken people together.

Sebold takes a tale of horror and turns it into one of redemption, a rare gift indeed, but at the same time she never takes away from the devastation of the emotional chasm that is left by the unnecessary death of a young girl just beginning to discover who she is. The story is real enough to be uncomfortable but at the same time powerfully endearing, and it has kept me coming back again and again, as I suspect it will for years to come.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Title Thirty: Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult

I'm such a sucker for Jodi Picoult novels. I'm in the middle of reading another one right now. I can't help it; I'm powerless. I know when I pick up one of her books that I'm going to ride an intellectual and emotional rollercoaster that redefines whatever concepts I have about fairness and justice. It's pretty rad.

June Nealon had a good life; she was raising her seven-year-old daughter Elizabeth with her husband Kurt and counting down the final weeks until the birth of her younger daughter Claire when her world was blown apart by the murders of her husband and child, leaving her clinging to Claire, all that she has left. The killer, handyman Shay Bourne, became the first person in over forty years to be sentenced to the death penalty in New Hampshire. Eleven years later, as Shay's time to die approaches, so does Claire's - the girl needs a heart transplant to survive. When Bourne decides that he has to donate his heart to Claire to right some cosmic wrong, it creates an outcry that is dwarfed only by Bourne's sudden transfiguration into a Christ figure; he turns the water in the cell block toilets to wine, brings a dead robin back to life, and cures a fellow inmate of AIDS. Added to the cast of characters are a priest who served on the jury that found Bourne guilty and sentenced him to death, now questioning his own faith in the face of what is happening around Shay, and an agnostic lawyer for the ACLU who takes on Shay Bourne's case and champions his right to die in a manner that will allow for organ donation (hanging, as opposed to lethal injection) while intending to use it as a hammer to shatter the idea of the death penalty.

When you read a Picoult novel, you have to suspend some disbelief. There's always a little mystical/mysterious woo-woo happening; some books, like The Pact and My Sister's Keeper, are much more rooted in fact, while others, like Salem Falls, Mercy, and Keeping Faith ask you to imagine a world where magic and miracles happen. Change of Heart walks a line somewhere between the two camps; on the one hand, really, an uneducated carpenter (anvil!) is suddenly healing the sick and quoting Gnostic gospels? On the other, a sick kid needs a heart and there's enough medical and legal jargon to keep the story grounded in reality for a good part of the novel.

Ultimately, it's a story about people. Picoult is very good at creating complex characters and setting a stage for them to interact. Shay Bourne is going to die at the end; that is never in question. He killed a little girl and her father for reasons that come out later, but he never denies that he murdered them and believes that he needs to die to even the scales, and that saving Claire is his ultimate purpose. As in other books, Picoult uses her people to probe the edges of a thorny issue and gives an ending that is just satisfactory enough, but still leaves some regret. That's the kind of story that I like. I don't need neat corners and tidy bows; I want to think, and this book delivers.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Title Twenty Nine: Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut by Emily White

I was a women's studies minor in college. I know, right? How much more useless could my university experience be? Major in English lit, minor in gender studies, and find myself several years later suited for not much more than reading, writing book reviews, and loudly proclaiming that if anyone ever marries me, I won't change my last name. Hey, it's a cool last name.

Anyway, that little part of me was attracted to Fast Girls, a decent enough examination of the concept of the slut among teenagers. I admit to feeling somewhat out of my depth, because I went to a private all-girls' high school so I don't think we had a slut. Any girl that was whoring it up certainly wasn't doing it in the hallways, and if someone was doing it on the weekends it obviously didn't make enough of an impression on me that I remember it thirteen years later. White's own memory of her school tramp, a girl they all called "Anna Wanna," inspired her to research the notion of certain girls being singled out and tormented, whether their behavior warranted it or not.

White interviewed dozens of women and incorporated their experiences into what is really a very long senior thesis. The writing isn't particularly great, and the book gets a little tedious and repetitious while depending on references to feminist writings - including those of Simone de Beauvoir, Adrienne Rich, and Betty Friedan. In trying to find the answer to the question, "Why did that girl get singled out?" White never really came up with a decent answer, and instead just kept telling the same tale of the girl who was known for giving a train job to the lacrosse team or trading oral for cigarettes. The women who she interviewed were more interesting, and ranged from happy and successful in the post-high school world to depressed drug addicts who never really escaped it. White also probed the idea that the slut as outcast is a role found more often in white suburbia than multiracial urban settings, but didn't spend enough time on it to make it worthwhile. In the end it's just acceptance that some girls will always be set apart due to rumor, gossip and innuendo without really offering a way to change it.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Title Twenty Eight: Tribute by Nora Roberts

We've already established that I like mass market romance novels. Don't look at me like that, you snob.

Cilla McGowan, former child actress, has found her calling in rehabbing and flipping old houses. (This book was obviously written before the market tanked last year.) In her biggest project to date, she's moved to Virginia and plans to restore the Little Farm - not just any house, but the house where her maternal grandmother and film star, Janet Hardy, took her own life in 1974. An air of mystery and sadness surrounds the house, but Cilla is determined to make it shine again. Her neighbor, graphic novelist Ford Sawyer (where do these writers get these names?) would like to make Cilla shine, but that's part and parcel. It's a Nora Roberts book.

When Cilla unearths a box of letters to her grandmother from an unnamed lover, she sets out to discover his identity. Of course, threats and violence ensue as someone tries to scare Cilla into leaving town. Meanwhile, Cilla and Ford are getting cozier and cozier, and he creates a new superheroine based on her. I can't even get a decent guy to ask me out on a date, but whatever.

Ultimately, the bad guy is caught, Ford proposes, Cilla says yes, and everyone lives happily ever after. It's a surprisingly good book if you can look past the formula, with interesting details, likable characters, and sharp-ish dialogue. I'd recommend it for a rainy Sunday or afternoon at the beach.

Shut up. Go read Proust or something.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Title Twenty Seven: Still Alice by Lisa Genova

My aunt, who passed away a few years ago from cancer, once looked at me during one of her chemo treatments and said, "Alzheimer's is the cruelest disease. There's no way to fight it." I was a little stunned that someone as sick as she was could be thinking of someone else, but that was just her. I should have paid attention at the time.

Alice Howland is a well-respected professor of psychology at Harvard University who begins to notice that she's forgetting things. She chalks this up to her busy schedule as a teacher and world-wide lecturer, the stress of her career and empty-nest syndrome, and what she assumes to be the approach of menopause- she is fifty, after all, and these things happen. Then one day, taking her daily run, she becomes lost a few blocks from home. She knows that the buildings are familiar and that she's supposed to know where she is, but her mind is blank. She is dazed and terrified, and when she comes back to herself a few minutes later, she tries to brush it off but can't.

After a visit to her primary and then another with a neurologist at Mass General, Alice is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's. Genova, who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard herself, does a masterful job of portraying the devastation, despair, and loss that Alice begins to experience from the moment of diagnosis. While focusing on Alice and charting her steady, heartbreaking decline month by month, Genova also explores how this changes the dynamics of every relationship in Alice's life - with her husband John, a fellow professor; with her three grown children; with her colleagues; most importantly, with herself. Alice knows that there is going to come a time when everything that she has worked and fought toward is going to be washed away, like a sandcastle on a beach, and as a professor who wrote groundbreaking papers and conducted milestone research in the area of psychology and linguistics, the idea of losing the ability to communicate is shattering.

One of the best things about this book is that Genova chose to write it in the third person but it comes across as a first person voice. It's almost an eerie sense of Alice's story, told by Alice as an onlooker. The eloquence of the first half of the novel begins to fade into a more simplistic fashion as the disease marches on. One plot point that jabbed at my heart, again and again, was this: Alice, who has come to rely entirely on her BlackBerry for tying her to who she is, sets an alarm to ask her five questions every day. If the day should come when she cannot answer the questions, she instructs herself to go to her computer and open a certain file and follow the instructions. It just made my heart ache that she knew she was going to reach a certain point and wanted to leave an escape hatch. As the story progressed, and she could answer the questions with less and less certainty, I found myself crying. I tried to tell myself that it was only a story, but by the end I couldn't pretend anymore. It's not just a story. It's the story of every person with this horrible illness and no cure in sight. It's my grandmother's story.

My grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's over ten years ago. Since then, I watched her slip away, bit by bit, until she wasn't my Nanny anymore. Now she lives in a nursing home, and I never go to visit her. I'm a terrible person, and there's most likely a spot reserved for me in hell, but I just can't do it. My Nan was fierce; you didn't cross her and you didn't question her no-nonsense Pennsylvania German ways. She raised eight kids as a working mother, tag-teaming with my grandfather (he was on days while she did nights) and had the unwavering respect and love of her clan. She beat my ass on more than one occasion, and I deserved it. She helped my mother raise me and my sister when my father took off when we were babies, and when she and my grandfather moved to Idaho in the eighties for their health I missed them like crazy; I was thrilled when they moved back in 1996 and we didn't have to wait months between visits anymore. This is the woman who taught me how to scrub a floor on my hands and knees, make a bed (with hospital corners), and cook a roast. Her recipe for hobo bread is legendary. She used to pass steaming baked potatoes out with her bare hands and wash dishes in scalding water without gloves. She called me "Lady Jane" when I was in trouble, and "honey" when I wasn't. We spent a Christmas together in Aruba. She would tell me not to sit on her davenport in my dirty dungarees. She wore starched blouses and slacks in the winter, and pressed t-shirts and khaki shorts in the summer, with her hair always combed, lipstick fresh, and jewelry well-placed. She passed her middle name to me. She's been gone for a long, long time. In her place is a stranger who doesn't know me, or anyone for that matter. She can't speak. She wears a diaper. She's fed by an aide. The staff at the nursing home is wonderful, and they take extremely good care of her, but she's really just an elderly infant in a wheelchair, and I'm a useless excuse for a granddaughter. My Aunt Judy was right; it is the cruelest disease.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Title Twenty Six: Life Class by Pat Barker

No one does WWI fiction better than Pat Barker. Her Regeneration trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road) is probably the definitive example of how to create fiction about a war that almost no one ever thinks about. It's true; we remember the Revolutionary War, the Civil War (or War of Northern Aggression, depending on your side of the Mason-Dixon line), WWII, and Vietnam. How often do you think of that little skirmish in the second decade of the twentieth century? America didn't really get involved until the end was near, so it doesn't have the same impact in our history as it does in those of England, Canada, and France, to name a few.

In Life Class, Paul and Elinor meet as art students at the Slade School of Art and have an attraction to one another, but are involved with other people. The first part of the novel is full of blather about art and "the work" and coffee houses and bars and sexual tension, but it's really just filler for the war that is already beginning to cast a shadow on the fringes of student life. As Paul and Elinor turn towards each other, the fighting begins in earnest and Paul, ineligible for service due to problems with his lungs after an illness, volunteers with the Belgian Red Cross. This is where Barker finds her familiar and formidable rhythm, as she describes the conditions of the men, the reports of battle, and the havoc that war wreaks on the mind. Regeneration dealt with the phenomenon of "shell shock" and the beginning stages of its validity as a clinical diagnosis at Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland; that novel is based in large part on real events and people (including the famed poet Wilfred Owen, who died only days before the armistice). Although Life Class is completely fictional, there are parts of it that are achingly real and heartwrenching. Barker uses words like the finest strokes of a paintbrush to create the image of a soldier's gangrenous pelvic wound; it's revolting but stunning at the same time. She captures the struggle between the war and home fronts, both turned mad, in Paul and Elinor's letters to each other. Moreover, she uses the concept of art as a medium for what we cannot say to perfection - it's only in Belgium that Paul feels that he can really put himself into his work, although his subject matter is clearly disturbing - it is the only way that Paul can rid himself of the horror of the broken and torn human beings around him. His work, which was never very good at school, is transformed into something more real and honest. It only took the most terrifying circumstances to make it possible.

That said, the story ends rather weakly, with an injured but recovering Paul and a drifting Elinor stumbling towards the end of the love affair that they consummated over a few days while the latter came to visit in the early days of the war. Neither of the main characters could be called likeable, and I didn't really care what happened to them. I think that the real strength of the book rests in the war, but unfortunately the book is meant to encompass more than that and it falls rather flat.