Sunday, September 13, 2015

Thinking About Context and Content: Reviews of Trigiani's All the Stars in Heavens and Dicks' Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend

Again, intentions have failed to translate into actions as far as blogging goes for me.  I love that my work world these days involves words, but it does make it more challenging to blog on my own at least while I'm still far from full-strength.

Regardless, I have still been reading and thus....

Memoirs is narrated Bodo who we learn quite early on is not like the rest of us.  Bodo is an imaginary friend and in this world imaginary friends are real but can only be seen by their imagine-r and by other imaginary friends.  Key to this world is that the Friends only exist as long as the person who imagined them believes that they are real.  This means some disappear almost instantaneously and that Bodo is quite old at 5.

The Friends we meet in the book are hugely varied and they are (as I note below) the book's biggest asset.  Some are very nearly human in appearance, often missing a small detail like the ears that a child might neglect to include in a sketch of a person, while others are wholly different like the one Friend who is pretty much a blob-like ink-blot-style creature.  They can typically leave their imaginer and explore the world, though this all depends on what the imaginer envisioned (i.e. some pass through walls, only a few need sleep).

Bodo is imagined by Max  The book avoids labels but it is clear Max thinks differently than most and is probably on the autism spectrum.  His parents fight a lot about Max, as I understand is quite common, and he is largely a loner.  Bodo is wiser than Max; he can think beyond Max's own abilities b/c that's what Max envisioned when he imagined Bodo. Bodo worries as Max struggles socially while also knowing Max's needs are unique.  Bodo also knows something is amiss when one of Max's teachers seems to take an unusual interest in Max, this interest serving as the starting point for most of the novel's plot.  Ultimately, Bodo fights to help Max within the unique limitations of his kind and while also dealing with his own emotions.

I came to this book both because of prior experience with the author and because the idea was utterly fascinating.  I loved the various Friends that populate the novel and the fact that they aren't all bubbly perfect.  I also saw a great understanding of the trials of childhood and how intense they can be.  However, I just didn't "feel" the main thrust of the action, never fully believing the storyline with Mrs. Patterson.  Certainly, Max wouldn't have understood her motives even despite seeing some of her story, but I think the author could still have weaved more in to make it ring truer.  I particularly disliked the store's storyline (I hesitate to specify more for fear of spoiling other readers) which felt completely thrown in, like it was one more idea Dicks had and he just wanted to include it as well....that impulse worked for me with the varied Friends who must have been fun to create, but not so much with the narrative thrust of the action.

Three and a half stars.  Loved the idea and the world Dicks creates but never connected with the main action of the story.

Stars is set in the grand age of Hollywood, a world somewhat apart from the struggles most of the country felt in the 1930s and dominated by the studio system.  There are two protagonists (is that a contradiction? if so, there are two main characters...).  One is Loretta Young, based on the real-life young actress known in large measure for her "romantic" entanglements (I'll get to the motivation behind those quotes).  The second is the fictional Alda, a woman who finds herself rejected from a convent after expressing too much of a connection to a young woman giving birth and putting her child up for adoption.  Alda is sent to serve as a secretary to Loretta and becomes more of an additional sister.

There are a lot of women in this book, including Loretta's mother and three sisters (there are two absent fathers in the mix).  Some of them blend a bit, but generally they are the support system that allows Loretta to shine as a young starlet.  Then there are the men, namely Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable who fall for Loretta.  Her relationships with these two (married) men account for a large portion of the story and stand in contrast to Alda's own love story.  Throughout the book, the characters are all affected by the odd world of the studio system and its strict moral code which is certainly more show than substance and much more of a concern for women than men.

First, the matter of history -- Reading other reviews and taking a brief look at the real Loretta, I leaned that in her later years she said that she had been raped by Gable.  In the book, this relationship is a story of star-crossed lovers.  Part of me wants to ignore the facts (well, the facts according to Young) and just settle in to the fiction, but it does haunt the novel and I can't discuss the book without reference to the disparity even if I'm not wholly sure what I think about the matter.  It does provide an interesting context that further emphasizes the powerlessness of women and the impact of the cult of celebrity then and now.  Even though it would never have been discussed in the day, it is also very clearly not the story presented in the novel.  The tie between fiction and reality is always complex, but much moreso in a novel built on real characters.

Moving on -- I liked the world of women in this book much more when it was apart from the world of romance.   I loved seeing Young's family interrelate and the warmth between Loretta and Alda is the highlight of the novel.  I really cared much less for the stories tied to Tracy and Gable.  In truth, I'm not a big fan of the romance genre.  I didn't care for my first into to Trigiana (Big Stone Gap, not that it is purely a romance story) but absolutely loved my second, The Shoemaker's Wife, falling for the rich world much more than the underlying love story even then.  I could never see Loretta's attachment to either of the men.  I did enjoy Alda's love story much more, but that also didn't really ring real.  I wish the men and the romances were more secondary to the plot, I'd have liked that book much more.  Loretta, the fictional one at least, was so strong and came from a family of strong women.  Like her mother, she took control of her life and her economic destiny, exercising an independence unusual in her time.  She got so lost, however, when it came to the heart.

Still, I did enjoy my visit to the golden age.  Three and a half stars, a rating that falls pretty average for me and means I did enjoy the book but don't feel the need to tell others about it or have any impulse to revisit anytime soon.  I was more than ready for the book to be done, but I also never felt weary of the tale.  This review is based on an advance reader's copy provided by the publisher but contains my unbiased opinion of the work.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Book Nook -- A Strange Complex Trip Into a Culture and a Cult (You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine) + an In-Depth Look at a Much Simpler Topic (Cat Sense)

And so she continues on her reading and reviewing spree....and struggles with both sleep and the adjustment to a VERY gentle course of physical therapy and trial run at the pool (i.e. first one day of simple float time, then trying to participate as a member of the class as much as feels "right" until my scheduled return to the front 9/1)...

While I can manage my rambling in my professional writing, when it comes to my own blog and my book reviews I can earn my self-imposed "Rambling Blogger" moniker.  That's a warning as I try to provide a bit of context...  I usually summarize the book and then review, but this one seemed to lend itself to a more incorporated style....

Just about 11 months ago, we inherited a cat when my mother-in-law passed.  It was a sad way to get her, but Smoky has brought us much joy and she has our hearts.  I've never been around cats much, but my husband has and we've determined she's often more dog-like than cat-like.  At the very end of May, we agreed to cat-sit for a man being deployed (his brother backed out last minute).  I've watched them interact and move from animosity  to grudging acceptance and sometimes peeks of friendship. After some missteps (Lesson 1, learned after the fact: Don't hold two cats face to face as a means of forced introduction), I read up on cat behavior online and between that and simple observation I become quite fascinated.  I still maintain that "I'm not a cat person, just a Smoky person" but suppose I'll leave room for our "boarder kitty" (as in "room and board" even though she is a passport-carrying gal from Mexico) and they are interesting creatures.  NOT brief!!!  But it could have been MUCH worse!!!

This is how I came to order Cat Sense from a Bas Bleu listing (love the tee's not currently offered so glad I got a regular-wear one and a sleep-friendly larger size when they were on sale!).  Bradshaw is both a cat lover and an animal scientist.  He notes that there is relatively little research on cats and cat behavior, particularly in contrast to the volumes on dogs.  Seeking to help remedy this and using the research of others, his own scientific studies, and his experience as a pet owner, Bradshaw attempts to provide a pretty broad look at cats that basically involves three sections:
  1. Cat Evolution - This part looks at the evolutionary path (or paths) that led to the domestic cat.  He often contrasts the evolution of cats with the evolution of dogs which is helpful at times but also seems to me a bit off since the book looks to focus on cats and get away from the over-attention paid to dogs in scientific literature.  Honestly, while there are interesting moments/facts/theories/observations, this section drags and I got hopelessly lost along the way from wildcats to Smoky.  
  2.  Cat Behavior --This part is what drew me to the book and what I enjoyed the most.  I think he achieved a good mix between his perspective as a researcher and as a cat-owner.  Perhaps because of my personal situation, I found the stuff on cats interacting with other cats particularly interesting (in brief, they prefer not to...though females will collectively rear kittens in some cases).  I had to repeatedly remind myself that a lot of this is really theory and not fact.  In some cases, my own experience differed from the book's statements (I started crying once and suddenly Smoky appeared "dancing" in a circle on her hind legs somethingshe never did before and suggests some level of emotional/relational sensitivity).   
  3. The Future -- How will cats continue to evolve?  This section contained a point I'm sill pondering.  Currently, we neuter and spay most pet cats which means the ones that breed are generally feral (and they provide more kittens than will ever finds home).  This interrupts the evolutionary chain a bit since those with the most pet-like dispositions (which mix well-timed nurturing with the "nature" side of genetics) don't pass on their genes and those who are more aggressive do pass on their genes.  Bradshaw proposes letting cats have a single litter before getting them fixed...I'm mixed on it, but I had ever really pondered the genetic implications of listening to Bob Barker.  
Some general observations:  More than once, I was bothered by logical fallacies like "If not X, then Y" and "If we can't prove 'Not Y,' then Y."  There was a LOT of repetition, yet I still got forgetful and the book would benefit from some charts or other graphics and maybe a glossary of some sort.  Overall, the book was held my interest once I passed the first part, but I don't know that I'd recommend it unless specifically asked about cat history.  Three stars.  And an apology for the crazy length of the review!

This one is tough to explain.

The main character is simply known as A.  She has a roommate, B, who seems determined to become A's double, even cutting off her long braid and then handing it to A to keep. A tells us B has food issues, yet we rarely see A eat a bite. A is dating C.  She likes him because he feels simple.

The world they live in is similar to ours but also more extreme.  Consumerism is even more rampant in their land than ours.  In their world, one of the most popular tv shows tests a couple's relationship including a round that involves trying to pick the other out of a crowd of naked people in the dark.  The couple agree to a complete dissolution of the relationship if they don't succeed in all the tests.  A man becomes famous for buying veal.  And there's a phenomenon involving disappearing fathers who pop back up utterly befuddled, sometimes having managed to construct a new family. Wally's World is a store that sort of resembles our megastores but they rearrange the contents constantly so you can't find things without a hunt (workers wear crazy masks and don't really help).  Oh, and there's a strange snack cake known mostly for its ads that resemble an old-school Roadrunner cartoon.

And then it gets weird....or, more accurately, weirder...One day, A watches as the family across the street disappears one day, all three dressed in white sheets (think ghost costume, not KKK).  There's only so much one can say here without saying too much, but much of the book revolves around a cult-like group that attempts to live in opposition to most of the world around them.  Food is a big issue, as are bodies, but the cult also helps raise much more general questions of identity, culture, and alienation.

There's not a ton I can say in the "review" part of this review.  I feel like I probably missed a lot, although the lack of clear ideas/ideals is probably part of the point.  I simply didn't enjoy this book.  I kept hoping it would turn a corner but it never did.  I managed to finish, but I feel like it took more out of me than it gave back.  I felt like I should be thinking and feeling and reflecting and more, but I was just waiting to be done.

Two stars....there are some amazing sentences and some impressive word-craft.  It'll be taught in some class that mixed sociology, philosophy, and literature someday.  And a few will love it, but I suspect most will be hunting for Cliff Notes.  I got my copy from the publisher (and appreciate it even if it wasn't a win!) is probably quite apparent that they put no constraints on my review and that this is an honest and unbiased review.

On another note, I have a regular-wear and a sleep-wear version of this tee.  Super soft and totally on-point for me...Bas Bleu seems to have it shelved at the moment, but I suspect it'll reappear in time.

(Note: if they do restock and you want one, buy a size up from what you suspect you need.)

(Also Note:  She's from the Bas Bleu site.  It's not me.)

Books Are Better Tee

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Uncomfortable and Unproductive vs. Ambiguously Imperfect but Utterly Charming: Reviews on You Don't Have to Live Like This (Markovitz) and Crooked Heart (Evans)

I'm plowing through them lately.  Here's one I loved, presented (and read) after one I struggled to complete:
Greg, or Marny to his old college friends is a bit lost.  After graduating from Yale and earning a PhD in literature at Oxford, he fell into a non-tenure track job teaching at a college in England.  A brief meeting at a reunion leads to Greg quitting his job and returning to his parents' home in Louisiana.  He decides to move to Detroit to be part of something akin to a social/economic (somehow that sounds more accurate than 'socioeconomic') experiment.  A college friend is trying to get people to apply for and join a planned community, buying cheap abandoned and often dilapidated homes.  The back cover references a line calling it "the Groupon model for gentrification."  In Detroit, Marny navigates a social life while also confronting issues of race and class that develop as the participants in "New Jamestown" face animosity from some long-time residents who refuse to sell.  

This seemed like an interesting topic, but it never really flew for me.  It seems pretty clear the author doesn't want us to like Marny and the lack of sympathy for his own lead character made it hard to feel invested in his fate.  I'm not sure if he's an "everyman" or simply a loser...or maybe both.  The author provides brief sketches of far too many characters and I was often a little lost because I knew a name was familiar but I hadn't been invested enough to remember which of many characters was in action.  

I can't complete this review without turning to the topic of racism, class-ism, and other -isms.  There are a number of times when Marny's words and/or actions contain outright racism.  I do believe that there's a place for literature that contains more-than-uncomfortable lines but it needs to be done right (see Huck Finn).  Sometimes the best works of art make you uncomfortable.  Here, it doesn't really enhance the context, the plot, or the point (if he has one) which mean every time Marny recorded a racially charged thought (and that's pretty often....he dates a woman seemingly just to be able to say he is dating a black woman from the other side of the tracks) I wanted to throw the book at the wall and give up.
I give this book 2 of 5 stars.  I read it quickly not because I enjoyed it and was propelled along, but because I wanted it to end.  I might have initially gone for 3, but the more I think about the book the less I like it.  This review is based on an advance reader copy of the novel supplied to me by Harper Collins in exchange for an honest review.

Noel has had something of an unusual childhood but then again he's an unusual child.   He has been raised by godmother Mattie, a former suffragette who teaches her own lessons and who is truly the boy's kindred soul.  As WWII settles in, Mattie begins to show signs of dementia and eventually passes on leaving Noel to the care of a much-hated tangential family member.  The family is all too happy to send Noel to the suburbs along with the rest of London's children during the Blitz and the meat of the story comes when Noel finds his way into Vee's care.  Vee lives by her own moral code, bending (okay, breaking) the law to support her mother and her son, Donald.  Vee and Noel clash at first but eventually team up in their own little scheme.  Of course, that can't go well...

I really enjoyed the vast majority of this book.   I loved Mattie and mourned her right alongside Noel, hoping with him that things might somehow take a different turn. The characters of Vee and Noel were beautifully rendered, perfectly imperfect. Noel is not your typical 10-year-old, but he's also very much 10 as is best displayed when he's complaining about perceived injustices (I was reminded of Snow White as a child in Once Upon a Time....moral, but young).  The language is lovely.  

Where this book lost me and where it lost that elusive fifth star was with the story of Vee's lazy lump of a son, Donald.  I disliked him from the start, as we are meant to, but I also disliked having to read about him.  In particular, the story involving Donald near the end of the book just felt wholly out-of-place in a novel that otherwise felt quite genuine.  

Still, highly recommend. I all-but-devoured this one.  It isn't complex and probably fits a mass-market fiction audience (vs a more literary fiction that has a narrower audience), but a good solid read nonetheless with enough moral ambiguity to ring true.  I loved visiting with Noel and, ultimately, Vee as well.  Might have hit 5-stars if it hadn't wasted time on a side-note.  This was provided to me by Harper Collins in exchange for an honest review.