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

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Review #7: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski

I embarked on reading Edgar, knowing only that it was a story about "a boy and his dog". In fact, in the author's own words: "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a boy and his dog story for grownups. If I were looking for this book, the way I once did, that's all I would want to know. Hide the dust jacket away. Don't look at it again until you close the book for the last time. Read the blurbs afterward, like I do, when I need someone to talk to right away. A novel is a daydream machine. I wish for you a long, slow read, a two-week daydream. A double-life, with dogs."

I'm tempted to not say anything more about this book other than, "Go read it. Read it now," but that's kind of a cop out. I'm also tempted to just link to Stephen King's four paragraphs about this novel, but that's a cop out, too. Maybe all I need to say is that Stephen King wrote four paragraphs recommending a novel. A debut novel. I'm thinking that once Stephen King says he wants to reread your book - and is willing to be quoted as saying that - you have officially arrived.

But I digress, and one cannot just steal Mr. King's words and be done with it.

Edgar Sawtelle, born inexplicably mute, lives an idyllic life on his parents' farm in northern Wisconsin. They raise Sawtelle dogs, a breed first created by Edgar's grandfather, and a mission carried on by Edgar's father Gar, who matches the dogs for breeding and places the pups in their permanent homes, and his mother Trudy, who is tasked with training the unusual animals. Naming the pups falls to Edgar, a job he takes very seriously, carefully marking the kennel dictionary with notes on each dog. Edgar's constant companion is Almondine, a Sawtelle dog herself, who recognizes her job in keeping Edgar safe from the moment he is born. (In fact, some of the best chapters were written from Almondine's almost dream-like perspective.)

Edgar is about fifteen years old when his father's brother returns to the farm, and shortly after that, tragedy strikes the Sawtelle family. The events set in motion that day lead to Edgar running off in the night with three of the yearling pups, and Edgar comes of age surviving on his own in the Wisconsin woods. He eventually returns to the farm at the conclusion of the story, again setting off a chain of events that will forever change the Sawtelle family - and the legacy of the Sawtelle dogs.

Amazon shows very mixed reviews about this debut novel, and I think that's because the ending divided readers. Many felt as though the book was perfect, save for the ending, but I loved the conclusion. (In fact, this was my text to the friend who had given me the book: "Just finished Edgar. Loved it. Like, really loved it. The last few chapters were exquisitely done.") Tied in to the worst-ending-in-the-world sentiment is also a heavy comparison to Hamlet, and that may be why readers were so divided on the ending. (Spoiler alert: it doesn't quite end like Hamlet.) There are similarities to the play, to be sure, but Wroblewski also invokes many other classic stories; The Call of the Wild and Watership Down immediately spring to mind.

But I don't like to read books like I'm reading for my junior year English class, dissecting the symbolism of each blade of grass. Like Wroblewski said, a novel is a daydream machine. And I prefer to daydream about Edgar as a story about a boy and his dog. That boy loved his dog, and that dog loved her boy, and sometimes, that's all that needs to be said.

Review #6: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon

I spied The Curious Incident on the sale shelf at my local library's bookshop (aren't those the best inventions?) and picked it up, not for me, but for a friend. (The same one who gave me The Brothers K and Shantaram. He's also just given me The Beach, which is, in his words, "trippy". In other words, he reads decent literature.) Without knowing anything about it, I proudly delivered my find, and a week later he called to tell me he'd finished, it was overwhelmingly sad, and that I needed to read it right now so we could talk about it.

So I dropped what I was reading and picked up the story of fifteen year old Christopher, an English boy with autism who discovers the neighbor's dog murdered in the garden next door, pierced straight through with a gardening fork. Falsely accused of the killing, Christopher sets out to prove his innocence and solve the murder, and along the way he discovers some painful and shocking truths about his family.

Listening to Christopher narrate his story is fascinating and heartbreaking all at the same time. Without giving anything away, Christopher discovers some things that children should never have to know, and listening to him process and analyze it is achingly painful. You can almost feel him retreating in to himself, and it's a testament to Haddon's excellent writing that you can hear the subtle flatness in his voice as he tells those sections of the story. There's a scene where he's on the train to London, hiding from the police on a luggage rack behind a curtain, tucked up in to a little ball on the middle shelf, next to suitcases and overnight bags, trying to feel safe. He's describing what's happening and what his mind is telling him, and I wanted so badly to crawl in there with him and hold him, except that Christopher doesn't like to be touched, so that would have only distressed him further. I felt utterly helpless in that moment (and not a little ridiculous; Christopher is, after all, a fictional character).

Without question, the feeling I had when I finished this book was sadness. Not the kind of sadness one feels when Beth dies in Little Women, but just...sadness. Simple, uncomplicated, sadness. Christopher's situation isn't going to change. His feelings aren't going to change. He's forever lost to the people in his life. The adults in this book make some mind-bogglingly horrific decisions, but at the same time, as my friend said, one can almost understand those decisions, and I'm not sure how they could have done things differently.

This could have easily become "the book with the autistic boy" and Christopher could have easily become a caricature, but Haddon handles the story beautifully, and his prose is spare and delicate. The Curious Incident has been around for a while now, and if, like me, you've just never gotten around to it, get around to it soon.

Review #5: The Brothers K, by David James Ducan

Sometimes, you find a book that draws you in so slowly and slyly that you don't realize you're invested until you finish it, and then you can't stop thinking about the characters, and wondering what they're doing now. 

The Brothers K was that book for me. It appeared in my Kindle inbox with a sweet note (as an aside, how awesome is it that you can just send books to people that way?) and some very endearing texts about how loved the book was, and surely I would love it, too. So I embarked on reading it. And I found myself wandering off a bit, putting it down for long periods of time, reading other things (Look Me In The Eye) in between. And honestly, I'm not sure I would have stuck with it except for the aforementioned endearing texts. But I'm very glad I did, because just shy of halfway through, something clicked and I fell in love with it. 

Narrated mainly by Kincaid, the youngest boy in a family of four sons and twin daughters, The Brothers K centers on the Chance family, a ragtag bunch eking out a living in the Pacific Northwest in the 50s and 60s. Papa Chance, a semi-washed up, semi-pro baseball player, is the flawed father of the group, smoking Lucky Strikes, working out his demons in the makeshift ball shed behind the house, and generally just existing. Not living, but existing, waiting for the next day, the next night, in an endless stretch of time. Mama Chance is a Seventh Day Adventist who, owing to her own unfortunate childhood, clings desperately to her beliefs and the church with an increasingly strong and fervored grasp. The four boys struggle with the dichotomy between their parents, each of them choosing very different paths, flinging themselves to the four farthest corners of the earth - India, Vietnam, Canada, and California. The girls are much less fleshed out (one of my only complaints about the story), although there is a heartbreaking scene with them and their grandmother that was so masterfully written I reread it three times.

As with all families, loyalties are won and lost, battles are waged both silently and very publicly, hearts are broken, and things don't always turn out the way they were planned. But the Chance family doesn't back down, and at the end of the day, family is family, no matter how much they may hurt you or drive you insane.

Duncan's style is reminiscent of Richard Russo (who slowly seduced me with Empire Falls) and, to a small degree, he also reminds me of Pat Conroy, although Duncan's daddy issues are much different than Conroy's. (His mama issues, on the other hand, are a different story.) He's a very gifted writer, wandering about, going off topic just enough to make you wonder if he forgot what he was talking about, only to bring it all together again pages and pages later, suddenly making it all make sense. Duncan truly brings the story to life, weaving the stories of this family together in such a way that the reader feels as though they are a guest in the Chance house praying with Mama before supper, or crouched in the bushes watching Papa throw strike after strike, or tucked in to the trees smelling the fear and napalm in Vietnam. 

And the last chapter? Complete and utter perfection.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Review #4: The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion

I didn't love this book.

I know it's a Cannonball favorite. It's an Amazon favorite, too, with over 4,000 five star reviews. And it's about love, and finding love when and where you least expect it, and since I'm a sucker for love stories, you'd think I'd love this love story.

But I just...didn't.

After eleventy million reviews, I'm sure that you know the story. Don Tillman is a professor of genetics at a university in Australia. While it's never directly acknowledged, the assumption is that Don falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, most likely affected by Asperger's Syndrome. He launches the Wife Project in an effort to find a partner, and designs a lengthy questionnaire for all prospective candidates. It comes as no surprise to anyone but Don that women don't exactly find this romantic. In the midst of his search, his best (and only) friend Gene sends a young woman named Rosie his way. Don thinks that Rosie is a candidate for the Wife Project, although he dismisses her as unsuitable almost immediately (she smokes, she's a barmaid, her earlobes are the wrong size). But Don can't quite get Rosie out of his head, and agrees to help her with the Father Project - Rosie's quest to find her birth father.

I understand that I'm supposed to fall in love with Don and his quirkiness and Rosie and her version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but Don felt very one note and Rosie just irritated me. Honestly, the only character in the entire book that I liked was Gene, an unapologetic, married, middle-aged lothario whose main goal in life is to sleep with a woman from every country in the world. He even has a map on his office wall with pushpins so he can keep track. By all accounts, he's a letch, but I found him somewhat endearing. And if my favorite character in the whole book is a philandering jackass, then what does that say about the rest of the cast? 

Don realizes, at one point towards the end, that he must change his ways in order for Rosie to love him, or at least be willing to give him a try. And while I'm okay with changing certain things for a partner (quitting smoking, eating healthier, not leaving your dirty socks on the floor in front of the hamper, putting the toilet seat down), Don makes it sound like he feels he must change everything about himself and embarks upon a quest to do just that. And so I felt very much like Simsion was making Don do all these changes in order to fit in to what Rosie and the rest of society deemed "normal" or "acceptable". But I think if you love someone - and it's clear that Rosie is supposed to love Don - you find them acceptable no matter what they're like. For if they change, they are no longer the person with whom you fell in love.

Simsion is a talented and clever writer, and the story itself is good. There were even a few twists that I didn't see coming. But Don and Rosie and their various projects just fell flat with me.

Review #3: Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's, by John Elder Robison

Recently, someone has come in to my life who was diagnosed with Asperger's a few years ago. At his urging to "read a little about it", I picked up Look Me In the Eye at the public library. (Side note: I am shocked at how little there is out there about this condition.)

John Elder Robison is the brother of Augsten Burroughs (Running with ScissorsDry), and while I vaguely remember Robison from Burroughs' memoirs, he reminds the reader that he and his brother had "different parents", and having read both brothers' accounts of their childhood, that's very true. Robison is older by several years, born before his mother's descent in to madness and his father's alcoholism became his tragic downfall.

From the beginning, Robison remembers feeling different. He describes trying to make friends at school and in the neighborhood, but not knowing how to go about it, and when he does make the attempt, the kids think he's weird or a misfit. Later, after his brother is born, and his mother goes insane and his father begins drinking himself into a blackout every night, he acts out in larger ways. (There's a particularly uncomfortable scene involving a store mannequin and a power pole that would have ended very differently in this decade.) Finally, he feels he has no choice but to leave - leave school, leave the family, leave his brother, leave town.

The middle part of the story lags a bit for my taste. Robison falls in with KISS (yes, the band, of all things), making pyrotechnic guitars and other special effects. He eventually moves on to work for Milton Bradley, and then finally finds happiness in opening his own automotive garage. While I found it interesting - that's a pretty varied career arc - I didn't particularly want to read about the specifics of the smoke bombs used on stage. But I believe that those very specifics are in keeping with Robinson's personality - it's what's interesting to him - so in a way, I don't know how he could have left them out.

It isn't until the last few chapters of the book that Robison returns to explaining why he does what he does, which was my purpose in picking this up. Those few chapters are extremely enlightening, and paint a picture of a man who, at his core, really isn't all that different from the rest of us. We all have anxiety, we all wonder if we're making the best decision in the moment, we all obsess over certain things, we all wonder if our "flaws" will be passed on to our children. What won me over - because at times Robison's behavior is a little on the jerky side for my taste - were two things: his love and concern for his son, and his obvious love for his wife. "I like married life a lot," he says. And I can't think of a more romantic and honest sentiment.

Robison clearly wants to make a difference by writing this book and I think that he has, if in no other way than he has healed himself - and those he loves - a little bit. I don't know as Look Me In the Eye is The Book on Asperger's - and honestly, I don't know as it should be; maybe it should just be The Book on John Robinson - but I think it's a good start, and I think that anyone who loves someone affected by it should pick this up. It won't unlock the mysteries, but it will shine a little light on things.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Review #2: Mockingbird, by Walter Tevis

Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the wood...

Imagine a world where there are no books, where nobody reads, where nobody thinks for themselves. Where the world is run by machines, by robots. Where the human race is, quite literally, stoned, and often self immolates for no discernable reason. Welcome to a dystopian 25th century America. Reading has been outlawed, books have been destroyed, the public at large has been drugged, and the government is run by an intelligent, never-aging robot whose only desire is to be able to end his life.

Mockingbird centers around three characters: Spofforth, the suicidal leader who was designed to be incapable of killing himself; Paul, a university professor who has illegally taught himself to read by watching early 20th century films; and Mary Lou, a woman who asks questions, refuses to believe the answers, and finds herself the only pregnant woman left in the world.

While Mockingbird is definitely not my usual genre, I really enjoyed it. It reads like an homage to Farenheit 451 and Brave New World, and is not a little scary. We live in a world of machines and electronic devices, all designed to make our lives better. But what if all the artificial intelligence we're manufacturing kills all the natural intelligence we already have? Already, there are studies that suggest we're getting dumber as a species. We don't need to know the answer; there's an app for that. If another country wanted to cripple us, they wouldn't send a nuclear bomb - they would just turn off the internet, and we would be powerless. Mockingbird may be considered science fiction, and while I agree with the science portion of that label, I'm not so sure it's fiction. And that's terrifying.

Review #1: Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts

Once in a blue moon, someone gives you a book that you would have never picked up on your own, and you can't put it down. Shantaram is one of those books.

Set in Mumbai, India in the late 70s and early 80s, Shantaram is the semi-autobiographical story of Lin, an escaped Australian convict. Lin was serving nineteen years for armed robbery when he escaped over the prison walls, hopped a few planes, and wound up in Mumbai. What follows is a sweeping story that takes the reader from the slums in the shadows of the World Trade Centre to the palaces of the Indian mafia, from unincorporated villages with no power or running water to the caves and mountains of Afghanistan, from the shackles of Arthur Road Prison to the delicate freedom of Colaba, from Leopold's (which made me think of nothing so much as Rick's American Cafe) to the House of the Standing Babas.

To try to explain what this novel is about is futile, because it's about everything. It's about humans and relationships and friendships and torture and blood and redemption and enemies and philosophy and shame and loneliness and war and peace and money and poverty and power and betrayal and prison and suffering and perseverance and triumph and glory and life. And it's about love. At its heart, Shantaram is a love story, written to the country that Roberts fell in love with, written to the men who changed his life, written to the woman he loved, written to the friends who saved his life.

Roberts is a supremely gifted writer; his prose is superb and seductive. He holds nothing back, laying his heart shamelessly bare on every page. He will make you laugh, make you cry, make you angry, make you hopeful, make you think, and make you beg for more.