Wednesday, May 13, 2015

In Envy Country -- A Strong Collection by Joan Frank

Despite good intentions, I haven't blogged recently.  I did intend to write about the day they pulled my Aquacise class out of the pool and spilled us onto the parking lot (at least we were given the nod to dress first and it was fairly warm despite flurries the week prior!) because of a suspicious sound in a mailbox (spoiler alert: it was a LifeAlert style device that was vibrating bc it was separated from its tether).  I also have had many a "deep thought" as my next surgery quickly approaches.  But I didn't write about any of that...so it is my book review habit that brings me back, even though this is a rare time when the book was not given to me in exchange for a review (I bought it used many months ago and it sat lonely for some time).



I often find myself frustrated by short stories since the format tends to prohibit the kind of in-depth, rounded characters that I look for when I read.  Joan Frank, however, manages to make me rethink the genre.  In Envy Country is a collection of stories, all fully independent from one another (vs. the overlapping characters/story-lines favored in recent years).

Many of the stories look at women and their relationships.  In addition to the more common focus on relations between men and women, many of Frank's pieces examine relationships between women -- A college-aged woman watching an older woman interact at a dinner party; A woman reflecting on her step-sister's teen years; A story narrated by a woman recalling a female coworker; and Two women talking about the unexpected twists in the life of a girl who'd been popular in school.

There is also a heavy emphasis on perception such as one story in which a woman watches a picture-perfect couple fight and another involving a woman telling a story about how differently men and women reacted to a very well-endowed.  I particularly enjoyed this element of the collection, especially the clear recognition of the paradox (not quite the right word) of writing/reading stories about observation.

I enjoyed this collection.  There were a few pieces I could leave, but I suppose the beauty of short stories is that those end soon.  Overall, I enjoyed Frank's clear voice and the depth of emotion and strength of character contained in the stories.  Four stars (of five).

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver: Too Much for Too Little

I have some other blog topics playing in my head, but I still struggle with the energy to do "spare time" writing.  In my ideal vision, I'll be on my way to healthy(ish?) soon and then be able to amass enough freelance work to consider it my career.  I can't decide if that would leave me jazzed to return to more active blogging or stymied by writing then being all work...

I am glad, however, that I've already been returning to reading more often and, therefore (to throw too much in one sentence), a review...


Kingsolver was, for a time, my favorite actively-writing author.  Far too often, I seem to fall in love with the type of books that are one-time affairs and I can't pick up additional/future pieces by the author.  For a while, however, after being introduced to her by the manager of my college bookstore way longer ago than I care to admit, Kingsolver was an exception.  Her characters and her gift for place drew me.  

I gradually fell back a bit in my fan-dom, but I was still quite excited to be able to receive an advance-readers'-edition of her newest book from the lovely folks at Harper.  I started it...and I couldn't manage more than a couple dozen pages.  The lines were wordy, still evocative but I felt like the effort had doubled while my interest diminished.  I put it aside.  I recently picked Flight Behavior up again after gaining control of my to-read pile.  This time, I made it through.  

The opening chapter finds Dellarobia (I'll call her Della for ease, although she'd protest) ready to leave behind her husband and two kids for a much younger man.  She's hiking through the water-logged landscape of rural Tennessee when a sight arrests her.  Call it a miracle, call it fate, something amazingly beautiful is hidden on the edge of her in-laws' land and she returns home.  What follows is a many-faceted, complex affair (not the affair Della planned!).  Something has brought "visitors" to Appalachia, visitors that are arrestingly beautiful but carry a complex tale.  Many turn to religion, a powerful force in the world Kingsolver portrays, yet one with a less-than-admirable element of social structure and grown folk acting like popularity-obsessed teens.  Others seem bent on something close to denial.  Eventually, another (human) visitor arrives with a tale of climate change and science that leaves Della evaluating all she's ever known.

I wanted to like this -- I'm amenable to some parts of the social (and liberal) agenda and Kingsolver holds a dear spot in my heart -- but, even on a second approach, I struggled to get through it.  In her early works, Kingsolver drew true-feeling characters, landscapes and stories "with real toads in them" but that remain incredibly readable..simple texts that still managed to be round and full.  Her more recent works have gotten more complex in their language.  Sometimes that works beautifully.  Here, however, she loses me.  The language and the plot itself are, to put it plainly, too much work and, to put it bluntly, not worth it.  She's thrown it all in...science vs. religion, modern vs. traditional, family vs. newcomers...even the often unacknowledged pain of a lost baby.  There are bright spots -- Della's children whose abundant personalities show traces of who they'll become despite their tender ages are far and away my favorite characters -- but not enough.  I'm willing to "work" for a book, I'll read books that are far from easy, but I need to feel the text rewards the effort.  This, sadly, did not.  

Two to two-and-a-half stars.  There are some lovely pieces but they get lost in the 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle without so much as a defined border.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

another "meh" review: The Unraveling of Mercy Louis by Keija Parssinen

I just don't seem to be having much luck with books of late.  Like many others, the following review is just kind of "meh"...the book wasn't bad, but I can't call it good either...and the book I'm reading now isn't looking much better (and is long to boot...an odd phrase that appears to have nothing to do with footwear).


Mercy Louis is a star, Illa is not.  Mercy lead the basketball team to the championship game last season where they had an unheard of loss that weighs on her since.  Illa is the team manager who passes through most of her days feeling utterly invisible.  The book alternates between the two girls as they go through the last summer of high school and into their senior year.  Both have complex relationships with their guardians with Mercy's grandmother convinced 12/31/1999 will be the end of days and Illa's mother trapped in a failing body after an explosion at the plant that had been the backbone of their small town.  

The book opens with a grisly discovery by a store clerk of a dead baby.  The discovery leaves all the town's girls marked as suspects based merely on the fact that they are females.  This event is followed by a mysterious condition affecting teen girls starting with an uncontrollable tic in Mercy's arm.  There are many themes here including the danger of religious fervor, the suffering of the town and its economy after the plant accident, and the confusing time of first loves.  

I'm not sure if this is marked Young Adult, but it felt like it based on the text and not just because teens are at the forefront of the story.  There's nothing wrong with that, some wonderful books are marketed as YA, but it seems to hold the book back.  There are too many themes, all explored with too cursory of a stroke.  Some things felt too cliche (ex. the plan developed by Mercy's hyper-religious grandmother) and I never felt the depth of character or plot that make me love a book.  I was definitely more interested in Illa's path than Mercy's but neither compelled me to read excitedly, instead I picked up the book in an effort to reach the finish.  It wasn't a bad book, but (in my humble opinion, an honest one not influenced by having gotten an advanced copy of the book for free from the publisher) it wasn't good either.  Three (of five) stars.

Who might like this?  I'd think it would do best with a younger crowd.  It does have some sex in it, so if that's a problem then steer clear.  It might appeal to people interested in how a powerful message can attract devotees who make dangerous decisions justified by complete, unquestioning belief.  There's plenty of plot here so I think it would interest those who like action/plots but be less appealing to readers who focus more on fully fleshed out characters.  It isn't a hard read so could be read in public situations (ex. on a train, in a coffee shop, etc)