Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Book Review: "I'll Give You the Sun" by Jandy Nelson

Jandy Nelson's I'll Give You the Sun is beautiful, breathtaking, bewildering, and a little bizarre, but I can't get it out of my head. Somehow I knew I'd love it and yet it still surprised me.

Jude and Noah Sweetwine are twins, so close they often think of themselves as NoahandJude. They can read each other's thoughts and know each other's fears. At age 13, both are artistically creative and emotionally sensitive in their own ways, yet they're also quite different. Jude is a daredevil who loves to surf, take risks, and is rapidly becoming the type of girl who intrigues and attracts all the boys, while Noah tries to live his life unnoticed so he won't be bullied, lives in his own artistic fantasy world, and is fighting his attraction to/obsession with the new boy next door.

Yet three years later, Noah and Jude are barely speaking, and everything has changed. Jude lives in constant fear and has isolated herself from the possibility of a romantic relationship, and while she feels a profound need to create art, she can't seem to express herself the way she wants to. And Noah has completely given up art, dives off of cliffs, and become the person no one ever thought he'd be. What happened in their lives, and between them, to change everything so drastically? When Jude meets a charismatic young man she can't stop thinking about, someone with a connection to Noah, and then meets a troubled artist whose talent may help her free her artistic block, these encounters provide answers and yet more questions.

"'Or maybe a person is just made up of a lot of people,' I say. 'Maybe we're accumulating these new selves all the time.' Hauling them in as we make choices good and bad, as we screw up, step up, lose our minds, find our minds, fall apart, fall in love, as we grieve, grow, retreat from the world, dive into the world, as we make things, as we break things."

I'll Give You the Sun shifts in perspective between Noah and Jude. Noah's narration takes place when the twins are 13, Jude's takes place three years later. Each of them holds half of the answers yet aren't willing to share them with the other to complete their understanding. How can a relationship that was so interdependent, so interconnected, turn so painful?

"This is what I want: I want to grab my brother's hand and run back through time, losing years like coats falling from our shoulders. Things don't really turn out like you think."

This is a book about the half-truths we tell ourselves and our reluctance to see what is in front of us and say what we truly feel. It's a book about following your heart and accepting the truth, even if it leads you somewhere you're afraid of, and realizing you must live the life that ignites your passions. It's also a book about how simple it is to hurt those closest to us, and how the simplest actions can cause so much pain.

Nelson is an absolutely exquisite writer. I cannot tell you how many sentences I read over and over again because they took my breath away. That being said, I found Noah's narration—while tremendously heartfelt and emotionally provoking—a little difficult to follow, because he speaks in a stream of consciousness-type way, as he sees everything in his head as a painting. It took a little getting used to, but it truly touched my heart. Jude and Noah are such vivid, beautiful characters I absolutely loved, even as I wanted to shake them for making the mistakes they did.

This is one of those books I wish were so much longer because I didn't want to give up these characters. I hope someday Nelson gives us a glimpse into their lives again, but even if she doesn't, I know she is an author I'll need to keep reading. This one blew me away.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Book Review: "The Children Act" by Ian McEwan

I told a friend on Goodreads recently that I find myself running hot and cold on Ian McEwan's books. I really enjoyed Enduring Love but couldn't tolerate Atonement (and I know I'm in the minority on that one). Yet something about his newest book, The Children Act intrigued me—perhaps I wondered what a McEwan-esque take on what sounded like a plot from a Jodi Picoult novel would be like.

Fiona Maye is a well-respected High Court judge presiding over family court cases. Yet while she comes across as sensible, practical, unflappable, her professional demeanor belies the turmoil of her personal life. Her marriage is in trouble, and she's not sure how she feels about that fact. Is she angry? Hurt? Depressed? The one thing she knows for certain is she's starting to feel betrayed by her growing older, and wondering if pursuing her career so doggedly was the right decision.

"To be caught out enacting her part in a cliché showed poor taste rather than a moral lapse. Restless husband in one last throw, brave wife maintaining her dignity, younger woman remote and blameless."

As the judge on call one night she is summoned regarding an urgent case. Adam, a highly intelligent, 17-year-old boy, is gravely ill, yet because of religious reasons he refuses the necessary blood transfusion and treatments his doctors dictate. To refuse these treatments will most likely mean death, if not paralysis or other life-altering disability. The hospital and the court-appointed social worker believe Adam is too young to make his own decisions, and has been brainwashed by his parents and other religious elders. Yet Adam maintains he knows his own mind, but would rather face death or permanent disability than go against his religion.

Needing to make a decision very quickly, Fiona takes the unorthodox route of visiting Adam in the hospital. She is drawn in by his fierce intelligence and his devotion to his religion, as well as his creativity and sensitivity. She is utterly unprepared for the way this encounter makes her feel, as unprepared as she is for the chain of events her visit sets into motion. And she must make a difficult decision—should she overrule Adam's wishes (and determine that he, three months' shy of the age of consent, is not mature enough to understand the gravity of his situation) or should she doom him to possible death?

"Religions, moral systems, her own included, were like peaks in a dense mountain range seen from a great distance, non obviously higher, more important, truer than another. What was to judge?"

I found this book tremendously intriguing. I wondered, given the way many of McEwan's books unfold, exactly what would happen, and I was reasonably happy with the choices he made. I enjoyed the characters and actually wished the book was a little longer so that the reader was able to spend more time with them. In lesser hands this could have turned into utter hystrionics, but I thought McEwan's restraint was true to the plot. I haven't stopped thinking about this one, nearly a week after I finished it, so that's definitely the sign of a book worth reading.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Book Review: "Belzhar" by Meg Wolitzer

You know, I thought this book was pretty fantastic. A little implausible? Sure, but I didn't feel like that lessened its appeal or emotional pull.

Jamaica "Jam" Gallahue is reeling from the death of her boyfriend, English exchange student Reeve. Even though they were only together for 41 days, their feelings for each other were so intense, and Jam is unable to cope with her grief, which upsets her family and alienates her closest friends. All she wants to do is relive their moments together.

With seemingly no other alternative, Jam's parents send her to The Wooden Barn, a boarding school in Vermont for "emotionally fragile" teenagers. Students are isolated from the outside world, without access to their cell phones or the internet, and are closely monitored for any signs of crisis.

Unbeknownst to her, Jam is enrolled in an exclusive class, Special Topics in English. Each semester, the students in this class are mysteriously handpicked by the teacher with no rhyme or reason. It's a small class devoted to reading only one author the entire semester. While it may seem an odd choice for a school of students with emotional difficulties, this semester they'll be reading the work of Sylvia Plath.

There are four other students in Jam's class, each quite different, but all share the emotional trauma of a particular event that pushed their lives off course. The teacher, Mrs. Quenell, gives them two important assignments—they must write in the antique journal she gives each of them and return it at the end of the semester, and they must look out for each other. Seems easy, and no one can understand why this class is seemingly so exclusive.

But when Jam starts writing in her journal, she finds herself mysteriously transported back to her life with Reeve. She can relive their old memories, feel his arms around her again, and she finally feels safe and happy. Yet each time this happens, it is only for a short period of time, and when it ends, she finds pages of her journal have been inexplicably filled—with her handwriting. And this happens to each of her fellow students in the class—each is transported back to the moments before the trauma they suffered.

Does Mrs. Quenell know about the journals? If they tell her, will she take them away? And what happens when the journals fill up? The five students form a close-knit bond to try and manage the situation to their best advantage, but they fear that their happiness will only last the semester. What happens afterward, are they doomed back to their lives of pain and anguish?

As I've said numerous times before, I tend to love books that resonate for me emotionally (without being manipulative), and Belzhar definitely did. So many of us can identify with the feelings, if perhaps not the situations, that Jam and her classmates are dealing with. This is a sensitive, thought provoking, beautifully written book about having to make the choice between reliving past memories forever and moving on, and about the power of reading and writing to help us cope with and express our feelings.

Mrs. Quenell says in the book, "Words matter." And Meg Wolitzer's words really do matter, because they're so well chosen, so well expressed. I enjoyed this book tremendously and can't stop thinking about it, and if it weren't for work, I would have read the entire book in one day. As I mentioned, it's certainly a little implausible, but if you can suspend your disbelief, you'll find Belzhar well worth your while.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Book Review: "10:04" by Ben Lerner

You think you have problems? Ben, the narrator of Ben Lerner's sarcastic, intelligent new novel, 10:04, has you beat. While he's struggling to write a follow-up to his first novel now that he's gotten a generous advance, New York is under threat of two serious hurricanes (Irene and Sandy), and his longtime best friend wants to have a baby with him—whether he wants to be involved or not. Oh, and at any time, his aorta could rupture, so he's convinced himself he has every symptom imaginable.

10:04 follows this tumultuous time in Ben's life. But more than merely a litany of his problems, this book is a razor-sharp meditation on our socially hyper-aware yet pretentious culture, as he skewers the literary world, social movements, and fine dining. (Believe me, if you've ever been so inclined before, this book may make you swear off eating octopus for a while.) This is a novel-within-a-novel, so at times you're not sure whether Ben is recounting what is actually happening or fictionalizing what is happening to the Ben-like character in his novel.

"Say that it was standing there that I decided to replace the book I'd proposed with the book you're reading now, a work that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them; I resolved to dilate my story not into a novel about literary fraudulence, about fabricating the past, but into an actual present alive with multiple futures."

The above quote demonstrates Ben's (and Ben Lerner's) preoccupation with the blurred line between the present, past, and future. (10:04 refers to the time that Marty McFly returns to the past in the movie Back to the Future.)

Some books hold you in their thrall with gripping plot and characterization, while some mesmerize you with their use of language and narrative. This book definitely falls into the latter category. Lerner's writing dazzled me at times, and while the plot wasn't always easy to follow because of the blurring between fact and fiction, I couldn't stop reading because I was so impressed by his talent. Here's another example:

"Emerging from the train, I found it was fully night, their air excited by foreboding and something else, something like the feel of a childhood snow day when time was emancipated from institutions, when the snow seemed like a technology for defeating time, or like defeated time itself falling from the sky, each glittering ice particle an instant gifted back from your routine."

This is a fascinating, thought-provoking, often funny book. It's not an easy read, because Lerner's writing is densely packed (although not in a bad way), but it's definitely a worthwhile read.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Book Review: "There Must Be Some Mistake" by Frederick Barthelme

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

Wallace Webster is a 50-something retiree (although not of his own choosing), a former architect and graphic artist living in Kemah, Texas, in a condo development called Forgetful Bay. Living alone after his divorce, Wallace's quirky college-aged daughter visits periodically, and he also has a somewhat complicated relationship with Jilly, a younger former coworker. He's not quite sure how he feels about Jilly—it's more than friendship but given their age difference, he doesn't know where her interests lie, and they tend to banter quite a bit without ever really addressing the issue.

Strange things seem to be happening in Forgetful Bay. Wallace's next door neighbor dies in a car accident, and then shortly thereafter, another resident, Chantal White, gets doused with blue paint in a mysterious attack. Then a woman is found dancing in the driveway of the condo association president. As the neighborhood starts to wonder whether these events are connected, Wallace begins a strange affair with Chantal, and learns she is a far more complicated woman than he first imagined, with a checkered past.

As further incidents happen in the neighborhood, Wallace starts to reflect on his past, his relationships, and what his future holds, particularly as his ex-wife resurfaces as well. He starts to wonder whether he should try to pursue a relationship with Jilly, or if watching the relationships disintegrating around him means he shouldn't risk trying again.

"If you ask me, there are many things to love in this world, and if you don't love something, your life's probably not worth the napkin it's printed on."

Wallace also finds himself more involved in the investigation of the events occurring in his neighborhood, by virtue of a conversation he had with the disgraced former president of the condo association, and at the behest of a quirky police investigator. Is there a link between all the incidents, or are they all just a series of coincidences?

I've never read anything that Frederick Barthelme has written before, but it's easy to see why he's a well-regarded author. I liked the layered complexity he gave his characters, and felt that much of the dialogue, while a little too clever at times, was fun to read. My main criticism of There Must Be Some Mistake was that I didn't know what this book wanted to be—a meditation on a life lived and what's left to live, a quirky not-quite-murder mystery, or simply an introspective character study. The chapters were fairly brief and didn't quite flow one into another; they were more like vignettes of Wallace's life and what was going on around him.

This was an interesting, quirky read, kind of a lighter version of Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe trilogy. I just wish Barthelme gave us a little more weight and introspection, and a little less quirk.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Book Review: "Wolf in White Van" by John Darnielle

John Darnielle's Wolf in White Van is quirky and cool, tremendously creative and a little bewildering. How's that for a reading experience?

When Sean Phillips was 17 he suffered a disfiguring injury that left him near death. Even years later, people still stop and stare at him when they see him, and he lives an isolated life, practically estranged from his parents, and apart from periodic errands, he sees only his doctors and a visiting nurse who helps care for him.

While Sean was recovering in the hospital, he invented a role-playing game called Trace Italian, which leads people through a dystopian world full of violence, danger, and risk. Played through the mail, Trace Italian and several other games Sean invented have allowed him to live independently and exercise his creativity. But when two teenagers, Lance and Carrie, get a little too involved in the game and bring it into reality, Sean is forced to account for his game, and examine if he in any way encouraged their actions.

As he reflects upon Lance and Carrie's decisions, Sean also examines his life, and how he got to this point. He explores the impact his injury has had on his everyday existence and his relationships with his family and friends, and tries to determine what his future holds.

I'm not sure why, but I guess I was expecting a book along the lines of Ernest Cline's fantastic Ready Player One—a first-hand look inside of a role-playing game and how it affected both those who play and the creator. But while Wolf in White Van does touch on Trace Italian periodically, this is a far more introspective, brooding study of a deeply flawed and troubled yet sympathetic character.

I thought John Darnielle told a great story, and I really liked Sean's character. I just found that the book left me with more questions than answers. I was hoping for more of an understanding of why Sean did what he did (I'm being purposely oblique so as not to spoil the way the book unfolds), and also wished that the book had gone a little more in depth into his interactions with Lance and Carrie.

This is a book that requires a little patience because it takes a while for the story to take hold of you, but it's worth it. While I think people will have different interpretations of the events in the book, there will be little doubt that Darnielle is a great writer, and I look forward to seeing where his career goes from here.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Book Review: "Stone Mattress: Nine Tales" by Margaret Atwood

It has been a long, long while since I've read anything by Margaret Atwood. In fact, the only two things I've read of hers have been The Handmaid's Tale and Cat's Eye years ago. Not sure why, exactly. However, my interest was piqued by her new story collection, Stone Mattress: Nine Tales, so I decided to remedy my long Atwood drought.

This is a (not surprisingly) well-written collection of stories which definitely intrigued me. In fact, there were several stories I wish ran even longer, because I so enjoyed the characters and wanted to know more about what happened to them when the stories ended.

The stories in Stone Mattress: Nine Tales are mostly about reasonably normal people dealing with unusual or emotionally challenging circumstances. My favorites included: "The Dead Hand Loves You," in which the author of a horror masterpiece, written to get him out of debt more than anything else, reflects on the circumstances in which he created the book, and the people who inspired him and fired his resentment; "Torching the Dusties," where an elderly woman in an assisted living facility is struggling both with the visions of little people she keeps seeing and the fact that an activist group has stormed her facility, threatening to burn it down and kill all the residents; "The Freeze-Dried Groom," about an antique dealer and thief who finds more than he bargained for when he bids on an unclaimed storage unit; and the title story, in which a woman rights a long-festering wrong, on an Arctic cruise, of all places. I also really enjoyed the trio of linked stories, "Alphinland," "Revenant," and "Dark Lady," which dealt with two writers battling the challenges of growing old and reflecting on their work, and a woman who once came between them.

I felt Atwood was at her best in this collection when her stories, dark as they may be, were slightly more grounded in reality than those which dealt with more fantastical subjects. I really enjoyed her writing, and reading this definitely has me thinking I'll need to read more of her books.