"Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather, and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." - John Keats

"You're not allowed to say anything about books because they're books and books are, you know, God." - Nick Hornby

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Review #43, Crazy in Alabama, by Mark Childress

When I was little, my mother had an avocado green Tupperware bowl. She also had a red one and a harvest gold one, and I'm pretty sure there was a blue one, too. They were different sizes, but they all had lids that had a translucent sort of flower pattern on top, so they were obviously part of a set. The bowl itself was also translucent, and more often than not, the green Tupperware bowl sat on the second shelf of our fridge with bunches of green grapes inside. So when Peejoe's aunt Lucille showed up at his grandmother's with her husband Chester's head in it, I knew exactly what bowl Childress was describing. When I called my mom to ask about the bowl, she said she remembers it, but doesn't think that a human head could fit in it. "Maybe the harvest gold one," she said, "although it would be a tight fit." She suggested that perhaps the lettuce keeper bowl would be a better option, as it was a bit taller, and, well, you need room for the neck. I told her I didn't remember the lettuce keeper. "Well, we didn't keep a lot of lettuce in those days," she said. "You kids wouldn't eat it." "Chester's head is freakishly small," I pointed out. "Maybe that helps?" "Maybe," she said, thoughtfully, but I could hear doubt. "I still think the lettuce keeper would be better. Heads are big."
Peejoe (Peter Joseph) Bullis is twelve years old in the summer of 1965. Orphaned when his parents were killed in a car accident, he and his brother live with their grandmother in a rural town in Alabama. After his aunt Lucille serves rat poison flavored coffee to Uncle Chester and chops off his head and puts it in the aforementioned green Tupperware bowl, she takes off for Hollywood to be a famous actress on The Beverly Hillbillies, but not before confessing the crime to Peejoe and depositing her six children with Grandma. Grandma can't possibly handle all eight kids, so Peejoe and his brother move a few dozen miles away to Industry to live with Uncle Dove, his wife, and their daughter. Uncle Dove is the county's coroner and funeral home director, and the boys are installed in the attic on the third floor of the funeral home.
Summer in Alabama is hot and racial tensions are reaching a boiling point. As coroner, Uncle Dove's being called to sign more and more death certificates of black boys who have been beaten to death, but with the sheriff very obviously turning a blind eye to the racial divide in the county, there isn't much he can do. But then Peejoe is inadvertently caught up in it, witnessing the death of a young black boy at the hands of a white policeman during a protest at the city's new swimming pool. Peejoe, with all of the innocence of a young child who has not yet been taught to hate that which is different from him, can't understand why blacks and whites are being treated differently, and installs himself firmly in the middle of what is becoming a race war.
Peejoe might be the narrator and the unwitting protagonist, but it was Uncle Dove who I felt came out as the true - albeit very reluctant - hero in this story. It was Uncle Dove who took in his dead brother's two children, who went to Aunt Lucille's house and dug up Uncle Chester from the freezer in the shed and buried him, who protected Peejoe from the bully of a county sheriff, who risked his family's business by becoming an integrated funeral home, losing his wife and daughter, his friends, and his standing in the community. It was Uncle Dove who drove the funeral home's hearse in to the black area of town after a mob attack, rescuing black victims and carrying off black bodies. It was Uncle Dove who carried the body of a young black boy home and laid him out in his funeral home so the boy's family could say goodbye with dignity. And it was Uncle Dove who taught Peejoe how to do the right thing, even if it meant risking everything.
Interspersed with Peejoe's interactions with white policemen and black civil rights leaders is Aunt Lucille's story. After killing Chester, she goes on a one-woman crime spree across the country, stealing a car in New Orleans, having sex with and then hog-tying a highway patrolman somewhere in the South, seducing a bellhop in Las Vegas, and entrancing a chauffeur named Norman. Finally, she makes her way to Hollywood and on to the small screen, guest starring on The Beverly Hillbillies. She hobnobs with the hoi polloi in Hollywood until Chester's head makes an appearance at a party and Lucille is forced to flee, only to be caught on the Golden Gate bridge before she can toss Chester in to the waves. Once Lucille is brought back to Industry and Chester's head is reunited with his body, she stands trial for his murder while Industry is on the precipice of becoming the next Selma.
Crazy in Alabama is a clever, sneaky little book. On the surface, it's about some pretty nutty people. It's difficult to argue the rationality of a woman who brings her husband's head with her when she runs off to be a famous actress. Dig a little deeper, though, and there's a story about racial divides, freedom, the desire to be accepted as an equal, bravery, and heroism, and I include not only the racial issues and the riots and the lynchings and the choices that Uncle Dove and Peejoe had to make, but also Aunt Lucille's quest as well. "There are a lot of ways you can kill a person," Lucille says. "Chester was killin' me the slow way for thirteen years."
Maybe Lucille isn't as crazy as she seems.
But she should have used the lettuce keeper.

Review #42: Tell Me Three Things, by Julie Buxbaum

It's no secret that I'm a sucker for good YA fiction. And Tell Me Three Things is good YA fiction. Actually, let me clarify that statement. Tell Me Three Things is good YA fiction if you're the target demographic. If, like me, you're slightly older than the target demographic and have celebrated many anniversaries of your twenty-ninth birthday, you may not feel the same, but my inner fifteen year old loved it.

It's the beginning of Jessie's junior year of high school. Her mother died two years ago and her father eloped with a woman on a business trip, which is how she wound up moving from Chicago to Los Angeles and is now attending a small prep school with her stepbrother, who, instead of being a built-in friend, appears to want nothing to do with her. Everything about Jessie is wrong in her eyes, from how she dresses to how she spent her summer, and she's drifting in the terrifying sea of high school when she receives an anonymous email with a few pieces of advice about her new school. Even as she recognizes how weird the whole thing is, she grasps the lifeline, and spends the next few months trying to figure out who her mystery guardian angel is.

In the meantime, Jessie slowly starts to make friends while remaining close with her best friend back home, tries to navigate her new family and even finds a job and develops a crush on a boy, but she still comes back to her anonymous email friend. She has her theories about the identity, but is never quite able to bring herself to ask. And although I figured it out pretty early on, I still held my breath wondering if Jessie was going to eventually make the same connection. And, too, I wondered briefly if I was terribly, horribly wrong and her new friends were going to be revealed as the ultimate Mean Girls and behind the whole thing, leaving Jessie humiliated. But I wasn't wrong, and Buxbaum managed to somehow avoid making the whole thing twee. 

It's been a long time since I've been a teenager, and I know that things are different now, but I think that the feelings of being a teenager haven't changed.  At that age, you are utterly lost. You don't know where you fit in, you don't know what's going to happen in the future, you certainly have no control over your own life, you feel like you are the only person in the world who has ever felt the way you do, and you desperately want to feel accepted and loved and that people are okay with who you are. You want to feel that you are okay with who you are. Tell Me Three Things is about those feelings. It's not about Jessie making friends in her new school or adjusting to her mom's death. It's not about the identity of her anonymous email friend or even about her relationship with her new family. It's about Jessie discovering who Jessie is and making peace with that. And it doesn't hurt that there's a sweet little romance thrown in. 

Buxbaum perfectly nails what it's like to be on the precipice of adulthood, simultaneously exhilarated by the possibilities and scared out of your mind at what lies ahead. This is definitely one of the better YA novels out there. 

Reviews #39 - 41: Kristan Higgins Audiostyle

I have a pretty long commute, and I spend a lot of time in the car. There's only so much NPR I can handle during election season, and listening to audio books appears to keep the road rage to a minimum. But I need them to be light and fluffy romance novels, or else I can't also concentrate on driving. I live in Florida, home of the alligators, the snowbirds, and the worst drivers known to man, so I've got to pay attention. So some Kristan Higgins novels fit the bill. Also, they were what was available from the library.

But honestly? I can't remember much about them. They were fine, if a bit formulaic. I'd have been irritated if I spent money on them. They're the equivalent of a Lean Cuisine macaroni and cheese. They give you the idea that you're eating macaroni, but it's certainly not the gouda mac and cheese that costs $8.50 at the local fancy pants restaurant. They're not even the blue box of Kraft mac and cheese. But they're okay, and sometimes, they're what you want.

In The Best Man, Faith Holland, one of three daughters of the Holland family that runs the Blue Heron Winery in Manningsport, New York, returns to the farm, ready at last to settle down and join the family business. She's been gone all the time because her former fiancé, the dreamy local doctor, literally dumped her at the altar and came out to the entire town at the same time. Faith blames her ex-fiance's best friend, local sheriff Levi Cooper, for her humiliation. So when Faith and Levi meet again, sparks fly, even though they can't stand each other. An interesting twist on this is that Faith is prone to epileptic seizures, which Higgins never uses as a capital T Thing, they're just a part of her life, like having dark hair or brown eyes. (Although there is a plot point where Levi was the one who took Faith to the nurse after a seizure in high school.) Of course, the love/hate turns to love/love, and they live happily ever after.

That brings us to The Perfect Match, which features the middle Holland daughter, Honor. Honor thinks she's dating her lifelong crush, but really, it's a friends with benefits situation, and three weeks after a painfully awkward proposal scene, he's engaged to Honor's best friend, who, bizarrely, still wants Honor to stand up for her at her wedding. Staid, boring, Honor, who - I'm not making this up - always wears a headband like she's eight - impulsively agrees to marry a charming but gruff British professor, who needs a green card in order to stay in New York so he can stay close to his unofficial stepson Charlie and see him through his teen years. It's the old marriage of convenience trope, which works for a reason, and the book was fine. But Honor kind of irritated the ever loving daylights out of me. She ran the vineyard, allowed her family to take advantage of her, and never stood up for herself. She couldn't even tell her best friend, who had been schtupping the love of Honor's life behind her back, to go jump in a lake, for Pete's sake. In fact, she was still considering being the maid of honor at the wedding. What the hell, Honor? Grow a backbone, sister. I can't remember how this one ended, but my guess is happily ever after.

Leaving Manningsport and moving over to Georgebury, VT, we meet Callie Grey and Dr. Ian McFarland in All I Ever Wanted. Callie is staring down the barrel of thirty, in love with her boyfriend-slash-boss, who, it turns out, is getting married to the daughter of the company's biggest client, who, it also turns out, has it in for Callie. Callie's heartbroken over losing Mark, but through a confluence of events (that I can't remember), she takes up with the very single, very good looking, very aloof new town veterinarian. There's also a B story about Callie's overbearing, confirmed spinster older sister falling in love with their mother's undertaker (they run the town funeral home), and Callie's dad trying to get back in to Callie's mom's good graces after fooling around on her twenty years ago. (There was potential for humor when Callie's mother forced her dad to introduce her to each of his former paramours, but it just fell flat and felt kind of sad.) Like The Perfect Match, I can't remember how it ended, but I'm sure if was happily ever after.

Higgins is a fine writer. It's not high literature, but it's enough to keep me from stabbing the old people clogging up the roads at rush hour.

Review #38: Who Do You Love, by Jennifer Weiner

This made the rounds a few weeks ago (baxlala and Jenny S posted reviews last month), and I pretty much agree with them, that this was good, but not great, and certainly not as great as I've come to expect from Weiner.

Rachel, who was born with a heart defect, is a veteran of hospitals, and she's wandering about one night at eight years old when she meets Andy, also eight, in the ER waiting room. Andy's been brought in because he fell off of a hotel balcony and broke his arm. Andy's all alone; the hotel staff was unable to locate his mother. The hospital can't treat him without a parent present, and so Rachel tells him a story to calm his fears and keep him occupied. Andy's mom arrives, he's whisked behind the doors, Rachel is sent back to her room, and they never see each other again.

Until they meet in Atlanta on a church outreach program the summer before their junior year, building houses for the less fortunate. Andy recognizes Rachel and they spend an idyllic few days together. From there, it's two more years, not until Rachel's grandmother takes her to Philadelphia for a stopover before her graduation trip to Europe, that they see each other again. They manage to form a romantic relationship, even though Andy is busy with school and running and Rachel is busy with college and her sorority, until their own growing pains push them apart again. The book continues in this vein: they probably come together and fall apart about a half dozen times, with sections alternating between Rachel's perspective and Andy's. Eventually, Andy and Rachel split for good. Rachel becomes a social worker, marries, and has children. Andy, a competitive runner who went to the Olympics only to eventually have his career tank when it's revealed that he used performance enhancing drugs, begins rebuilding his life working at a HomeGoods store. Years later, Rachel's husband has left her for another woman, and she's at the HomeGoods store shopping for a shower faucet, and lo and behold, there is Andy, ready, willing, and waiting.

The more time I've had away from this novel, the less enchanted I am by it. There is huge potential here, and Weiner had the ability to knock this out of the park. Instead, she wrote a fairly dull romance novel with a preposterous premise, too many coincidences, a too-abrupt ending, and a heroine that, in the end, still needed the man to feel complete. It was perfectly serviceable as a romance paperback, but I've grown to expect more from Weiner. If it were anyone else, I'd be knocking it down to two stars.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Review #37: Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, by Helen Fielding

Bridget Jones and I are about the same age. When I was younger, I loved her. I don't know as I wanted to be her friend because she was a bit exasperating, but I loved her. I got her. I got the Daniel Cleaver thing. I got the Mark Darcy thing. It was like she understood every bit of angst there was at that time in my life.

Bridget has grown up, and so (allegedly) have I, and I still love her. Why? Because she still understands every bit of angst that there is my life. It's different angst, sure, but it's still there. Instead of worrying about how to catch Daniel's attention or whether she can risk wearing her giant granny panties on a date, she's worried about nits and her kids' grades and her job performance and where she left her glasses and how on Earth she's supposed to be responsible for the little people in her house when, quite frankly, it's difficult to remember to put on clean underwear some days. And I get that. I so get that. 

Bridget is single now, a widow actually. In a move that angered quite a lot of fans, so I don't think I'm spoiling anything here, Fielding killed off Mark Darcy. In true Mark Darcy fashion though, he died while in Darfur, helping the fight for human rights, because he's Mark Darcy and he's kind of amazing. The novel opens with Bridget just a couple of years past the accident that killed Mark, and she's a bit of a mess. She can't quite get the kids out the door in time for school, she's not nearly as put together as the other mums at school, and all of her cereal is stale. She certainly doesn't make the taste free organic, sugar free, gluten free, healthy cupcakes for the bake sale the way the other mums do. Some readers may find that it's tough to feel bad for Bridget; after all, Mark's life insurance money certainly helps and she has a part time nanny. But parenthood - in all its shapes and sizes - is a challenge, and even though I'm doing it without the nanny or the life insurance money, I wholeheartedly identified with Bridget and her feelings of inadequacy, of differentness. Who among us hasn't stood around at a school function wondering what on Earth we were doing there, and hoping against hope that none of the other parents recognized what a completely incompetent nincompoop we were?

The story traces some of Bridget's mad-cap adventures: she starts tweeting (and is a hot mess at it, which is one of the reasons I don't tweet. I kind of don't really understand Twitter), she signs up for some online dating services, and has a wild affair with a much, much younger man. But it's not the adventures, or the tweets, or the pretty decent sex she has with the younger man that's the point of the novel. It's Bridget learning how to be Bridget again. Actually, I think it's Bridget learning how to be okay with herself. It's her accepting that she's never going to be the mum who makes the organic cupcakes for the bake sale and understanding that that's perfectly okay. She loves her children and tries to do her best by them, and that's what makes a good parent, not whether she's prepared a from-scratch, all organic meal for the annual school picnic. It's her realizing that although she loves Mark with all her heart and always will, she also has room for more love. And it, a little bit, is her letting go of Mark, of realizing that she's still alive, that her children need her, and that life, as they say, must go on.

The other characters are a good balance to Bridget and her neuroses. Her older son is quiet and serious, although there are definite glimpses of a young mischievous boy.  In many ways, he's a lot like Mark, which is both heartbreaking and heartwarming all at the same time. Her younger daughter is sweet and funny, the perfect comic relief to the sometimes heavy moments that steal in to the book unexpectedly. Bridget's mom is still hanging around, although her dad died some years ago. (I admit I cried at at that.) Bridget makes friends with the mum across the street, who, to Bridget's surprise, is every bit as unprepared for motherhood as she is. There are others, too - the young man Bridget begins dating, the music teacher at the school, some of Bridget's friends make an appearance or four. But the character that won me over, in the end, was that old rake, Daniel Cleaver. In the years since Mark died, Daniel has become a true friend to Bridget, and it was lovely to see him supporting her in a completely non-lecherous way. Don't worry, though. He still has his faults, and I'm not so sure I'd let him babysit, but it's obvious that he takes his role as Uncle Daniel quite seriously.

Life might not have turned out quite like Bridget thought it would - and really, does it turn out that way for any of us? - but she's doing the best she can. And in the end, that's all any of us can do. 

Review #36: American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld

Lots of people (do I have to tm Donald Trump?) around here have been reading Curtis Sittenfeld lately. I've seen the Pride & Prejudice remake reviews, but that wasn't available on my library's website, so I downloaded American Wife instead. In my head - and most likely because of the cover - I thought it would be about a Jackie Kennedy-esque first lady, but instead, it became increasingly clear that it's a thinly veiled tale of First Lady Laura Bush.
American Wife is the story of quiet, unassuming Alice Lindgreen, an only child from a small Wisconsin town, who meets and marries a boyishly charming and wealthy man who eventually becomes governor and then president. The first half of the book deals with Alice's childhood and upbringing, detailing her high school years, a tragic car accident on the eve of her senior year in which the object of her affection is killed, and her subsequent involvement with the dead boy's older brother, which results in an unplanned pregnancy that reveals some surprising news about her eccentric grandmother. Sittenfeld then moves on to Alice's life as a young, unmarried librarian, describing her time spent at the local elementary school and her friends' concerns that Alice hasn't married yet. Eventually, Alice meets Charlie Blackwell, the son of the former governor, and the only brother in the family to not be involved in politics. Charlie comes from a privileged background, he's charming and impish and, despite the differences in their beliefs, Alice can't resist him, and so they marry and have a daughter. For a little while, Alice and Charlie seem happy, but it quickly becomes obvious that Charlie has a drinking problem, and an employment problem, and a being a decent husband problem. The family doesn't really know what to do with him, but he is installed as a part owner of the local baseball team just about the time he also becomes a born-again Christian, and that seems to settle him down and it feels as though Charlie finally begins to grow up.
The second half of the book jumps from Charlie's time with the baseball team to his presidency; his time as governor warrants just one paragraph. It's post 9/11, and Charlie is running an increasingly unpopular war in the Middle East, his poll numbers are tanking, the father of a dead soldier has camped out across from the White House demanding an audience, and there's a woman who is threatening to reveal that Alice had an abortion in her teens. This could be disastrous for Charlie - he ran as solidly pro-life - but Alice is at the point where she kind of doesn't care any longer. Much of the second part of the book deals with Alice's weariness at the inconveniences Charlie's presidency has caused: the lack of privacy, people speaking out against her husband, the fact that she is suddenly one of the most famous women in the world. But what she focuses most on is her inability to speak her mind. Alice has very different opinions from Charlie - on the war, on abortion rights, on religion, on education, on just about everything - but as First Lady, she must remain loyal to her husband, even when she feels he is wrong.
Reviews I've read on American Wife are mixed. Sittenfeld is a fine writer - she certainly knows how to weave a good tale - but I struggled with the characters. Alice was on the edge of dull, occasionally showing bits of strength, but I found myself frustrated with her, although to be fair, I think she was frustrated with herself. Alice wanted to be more, she had the potential to be more and she knew it, but she held back, and I'm not sure whether I found it admirable that she did what she thought she had to in support of her husband, or irritating that she wasn't more outspoken and brave. Charlie was self-centered and annoying, a bro before the term was coined, and wildly immature. Traits that I think Sittenfeld meant to come across as charming - the boyishness, the dreamy qualities, the little boy still in love with baseball - instead made Charlie seem woefully stunted and too childlike to be taken seriously. The best character in the novel was Alice's grandmother, a strong, independent, slightly eccentric and very mysterious woman who introduced Alice to the love of reading (as an aside, Sittenfeld redeemed herself with her treatises on various novels; it's very obvious that she's a book lover of the highest order, and so I loved her a little bit for that) and took her out to show her the world.
American Wife just felt uneven, as though Sittenfeld - like Alice - couldn't quite decide what she wanted it to be. Perhaps this just isn't her best effort. But I trust my Cannonballers, so Eligible is still on my TBR list. 

Review #35: Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan

I've seen Brain on Fire a few times at the bookstore, and it was the subtitle that kept catching my eye - "My Month of Madness" - and so when I found it on sale, I picked it up. I thought I would be getting a book about a Nellie Bly-style reporter who feigns mental illness to write an expose on our country's health care system. Instead, I got a terrifying account of what happens when a young woman can't get the right diagnosis, and how quickly a disease can spread.

Susannah Cahalan is in her early 20s, an up and coming New York Post reporter, when she first experiences bizarre symptoms that she can't explain. At first blush, it sounds as though she's showing signs of the beginnings of schizophrenia, or perhaps even some sort of bizarre opiod reaction. She scratches at her arms, experiences paranoia, is feverish, hallucinates that her apartment is infested with bed bugs, and finally, begins having seizures. The doctor can't find anything wrong, and sends her on her way, actually sending her to her OB-GYN thinking that maybe she's having a reaction to her birth control. (Which is a move that made zero sense to me, but that's why I'm not a doctor.) The gynecologist can't find anything wrong with her, but recommends that she stop taking her pill, and when the seizures don't go away and her paranoia becomes more extreme, her parents and boyfriend finally step in, and raise holy hell to get her the help she needs.

After hundreds of tests and hundreds of thousands of dollars, during which time Cahalan is often strapped to her bed because of her violent outbursts, she is becoming increasingly catatonic, her fever won't abate, and the doctors are on the verge of giving up, ready to commit her to a mental institution. But then, in a very lucky coincidence, she meets Dr. Souhel Najjar, who is, she says, "the man you go to when nothing made sense". Dr. Najjar gives her a piece of paper and a pencil, and asks her to draw a clock. Cahalan does, but all of the numbers are on one side of the clock, and a lightbulb goes off in Dr. Najjar's head: whatever is happening to Cahalan is happening to her brain. He suspects that she has autoimmune encephalitis, and a second physician, Dr. Joseph Dalmua, confirms the diagnosis. Cahalan's brain is, literally, on fire. 

Autoimmune encephalitis is, essentially, a medical condition in which the body's own immune system attacks the brain. It can affect all ages, races, and genders, but it is most common in young women. In fact, according to the Autoimmune Encephalitis Association, 75% of all autoimmune disease patients are women. Research in to the disease is quite new, and they are still not altogether sure how one contracts it. Sometimes  it begins in tumors generally located in the ovaries, but more often, it appears as though it's a result of exposure to a common bacteria. Cahalan posits in the later part of the book - and this was a running thread when I did further research - that many people who were consigned to insane asylums in the past were actually suffering from the condition, but its symptoms so closely mimic schizoid behavior that physicians misdiagnosed quite a number of patients.

Cahalan's story is impeccably researched. She has no memory of these events, only of waking up in the hospital, so even though she writes in first person, everything had to be reconstructed through hundreds of hours of interviews with her doctors, nurses, coworkers, friends, and parents. She had access to the notebook her parents used to communicate; divorced, they often took turns sitting with her in the hospital and although one gets the sense that their post-divorce relationship wasn't exactly warm and fuzzy, they absolutely presented a united front and fought like hell for their daughter. Some of her time in the hospital was videotaped, and I can't imagine the strength it must have required to watch those videos.

Throughout the book, Cahalan makes a couple of references to the cost of her treatment. In more than one instance, she says that the cost of that month of madness was over a million dollars, and my guess is that's a conservative estimate. There's no mention of what continued maintenance and treatment costs are. Thankfully, Cahalan had health insurance through her employer, but it did make me wonder about the state of health insurance and medical care in this country. Would she have received the same treatment or had access to the same physicians if she were in a public hospital? If she were on a state or federal health insurance plan? What if her deductible was 20%? That's $200,000, for a journalist who is still paying back student loans and probably bringing home less than a quarter of that annually. Brain on Fire isn't the book to dissect the pros and cons of our health care system and Cahalan never makes a statement either way, but it is definitely food for thought.

I wasn't able to find much on what Cahalan is doing now, but a quick, very non-stalkerish Google search tells me that she married Stephen, the absolutely incredibly boyfriend who stood by her during this incredibly difficult time. It appears as though she's still in contact with her doctors and does some speaking about her condition and other rare diseases. I hope she's doing well and is happy and healthy.