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

Friday, August 14, 2015

Review #37: Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer

I'm going to Alaska next week because my best friend is getting married. A couple of friends are coming with me, along with their son and The Kid.  Somehow or other, I got conned in to agreeing to go camping in Denali during this trip. And not even in a cabin, but outside. In a tent. With a sleeping bag. On the ground. With, you know, bears and moose. I've gone nearly 40 years without peeing outside; I have a real fear that streak may be broken next month, much to the Kid's utter amusement and my total dismay.

In other words, I'm not really the outdoorsy type. 

So Into the Wild is not my kind of book. A book about camping? Backcountry exploring? I can't identify with people who willingly wander off in to the woods to climb icy mountains with sheer faces. On the surface I get the adventurous aspect of it, but my adventurousness runs more to a road trip with no hotel reservations. But this book grabbed me and didn't let me go, and I was amazed at how quickly I was caught up in the story.

Chris McCandless - aka Alexander Supertramp - is a young boy just out of college when he disappears in to the Alaskan wilderness in the spring of 1992 and never returns. Months later, his body is found wrapped in a sleeping bag his mother sewed for him, tucked in to the back of an abandoned bus that is used by hikers and hunters as sort of a way station in a remote section of the woods on the edge of Denali National Park. What happened between him setting off on his last adventure and the discovery of his body is a mystery that will most likely never be solved, but how he died becomes less important as the story goes on. Filled with stories of Chris' adventures as a young boy and of other adventurers who walked in to the wild and never returned, this nonfiction account reads like a suspense novel and I devoured the book over the course of a couple of nights.

This is a heartbreaking story. The reader knows from the outset that Chris doesn't survive. Reading his journal entries and the reconstruction of his final days was difficult, knowing that he would soon be dead. Chris seemed very lost to me, someone who should have been born in another time perhaps, someone who didn't quite fit in to "normal" society, someone who simultaneously needed to be alone and surround himself with people. He was a drifter, picking up odd jobs here and there as he made his way north, and it seems as though he made a positive impression on everyone he came in contact with. He was definitely searching for something, and I can only hope that he found a few moments of peace towards the end. and while I'm sure that starvation is not an easy death, there are indications that one of the possible contributing factors to Chris' death may have also brought a sense of euphoria. For Chris' sake - and that of his parents - I hope that's true.

It's a romantic notion, going off on one's own, becoming one with the earth, with nature, living off the land and one's wits. Even I (in very, very, very, very faint tones) hear that call. But then I think that I'd miss things like indoor plumbing and air conditioning and diet Coke. And, as JB said the other night when we talked about this book, I'd miss my mom. Reading the epilogue, where Chris' parents hike out to the bus to see the place their son spent his final days, tore my heart out, both as a daughter and as a parent. The moment that started the tears flowing was when Krakauer described Chris' mom leaving a suitcase stocked with survival supplies in the bus, alongside a note that read "call your parents as soon as possible". I know from Sophia's review of Chris' sister's book The Wild Truth that the McCandless family wasn't always filled with sweetness and light, but no parent deserves to not know where their child is, and I can't imagine what Chris' parents went through during the months he was wandering.

Krakauer is an excellent narrator for Chris' story. He tells it like it is, never glossing over what I'm sure were painful memories for his family, and the family definitely deserves kudos as well for being so open and honest in their interviews with Krakauer. His books have been turning up in my life lately - Boss just finished Missoula and a few Cannonballers have excellently reviewed MissoulaInto Thin Air, and Under the Banner of Heaven. I'd like to add Into the Wild to that growing list. This is the book I wanted Wild to be, and I'll definitely be adding Krakauer's other books to my TBR list.

UPDATE:
I originally wrote this review before I left, but a flurry of packing and work and sewing projects left it unpublished. I got back last week and am just now getting around to posting reviews. I'm too lazy to rewrite the review, but I want to add two things. One, I survived camping. Camping, it turns out, kind of sucks. Actually, camping itself isn't too bad. It's the sleeping on the ground thing that I didn't like, in a tiny two person tent with the Kid, who decided that my bladder was an excellent pillow. I thought we gave that up after she exited the womb, but apparently not. Bonus points though, that I made it to an actual bathroom each time and didn't have to break my I've-never-peed-outside streak. 

Two, while I was there, I went to 49th State Brewing in Healy, just north of Denali. (Crazy amazing Scotch and whiskey selection, plus beer, plus yak burgers. How can you go wrong?) They have the bus used in the Into the Wild movie in the corner of their patio area. While I know it's just a replica - the real bus remains 20 miles in to the wilderness, and they highly recommend a guide if you want to go - it was a sobering experience to see it. It's small, much smaller than I thought it would be, maybe twice the length of a VW van. It's run down and the windows are broken. The floor is a termite's wet dream. The cot in the back looks like it's been chewed by bears and slept on by too many unwashed bodies, and all I could think about was McCandless' joy at having an actual bed when he saw it. There are copies of photos and journal pages, along with the infamous last postcard - "I now walk into the wild" - hung along the top of the bus walls. His handwriting seemed almost familiar, the carefully printed letters, straight and neat, even the entries towards the end of his life. I saw a lot of things on this trip - whales and bear and moose and caribou and mountains and the sheer enormity and power of Mother Nature - but seeing this bus will remain with me for a long time.



Review #36: The Last Child

This came to me from JB, who has an affinity for coming-of-age stories, and although this mystery certainly doesn't seem like one on the surface, I can't think of a better way to categorize it.

A year ago, twelve year old Alyssa Merrimon disappeared, seen being pulled in to a van by Jack Cross, the son of a local policeman. Alyssa's father, feeling responsible for the disappearance because he was late picking her up, runs off shortly afterward. Alyssa's mother, unable to cope with the disappearance of her daughter and the subsequent abandonment by her husband, turns inward, relying on booze and pills to get her through the day, making her very easy prey for a manipulative and abusive former boyfriend. And Alyssa's twin brother Johnny is left to desperately hold the pieces of his family together and bring his sister home.

Convinced that Alyssa is still alive, Johnny scours the county for her, stalking the registered sex offenders, determined to find her. Running parallel to Johnny is Detective Clyde Hunt, the lead detective on Alyssa's case. Johnny's gotten under Hyde's skin - the whole family has, really - but he's no closer to finding Alyssa than Johnny is.

Then, on the anniversary of Alyssa's kidnapping, another girl goes missing, and Johnny's actions set off a chain of events that will change countless lives.

I can't stress enough how much I enjoyed this book, and more than that, how well crafted it was. Mystery novels are often described as "chilling" or "gripping" or "shocking" or having "edge of your seat drama". All of those phrases seem trite, but they are absolutely accurate in regard to The Last Child. Johnny's story grabbed me from the beginning and didn't let go, and as the novel wore on, the faster I read it, both frantic to get to the next page and reluctant to reach the end. It's extraordinarily rare to find a mystery novel that keeps the reader guessing until the very end, and even more so to find one that so skillfully introduces a B story that surprises the reader as well. Hunt's characters are well drawn, and Johnny - described by one reviewer as "an amalgam of Opie Taylor and Scout Finch with a hint of Huck Finn" (Raleigh News & Observer) - is a boy who will stay with me for a long time to come. This is easily one of my favorite books of the year.

Review #35: Landline, by Rainbow Rowell

I've been sitting on this review for a while because I'm not really sure how I feel about this book. (Well, that, plus I'm lazy. And real life keeps interrupting. And the Kid wants food, like, every day, and Boss expects me to be sort of productive at work, so... book reviews tend to fall to the wayside at times.) In any event, I'm not sure how I feel about Landline. I loved Attachments, which was my first Rowell book, and I feel that if you didn't love Eleanor & Park, you just aren't human. But Landline... I don't know.

By now you know the synopsis. TV writer Georgie McCool and her BFF from college Seth finally have an opportunity to get their own show, the way they want it, which is an opportunity they've been waiting for for years. The only hitch: they have to knock out several episodes in under a couple of weeks, and it falls right over the Christmas holidays, and right over the time where Georgie, her husband Neal, and their two daughters are supposed to be at Neal's mom's house in Omaha. Georgie feels like she needs to stay behind and realize her dream, and Neal takes the girls to Omaha without her. Unsteady and unsure of the state of her marriage, Georgie begins to teeter emotionally and winds up at her mom's house, where she plugs in her old landline phone to call Neal... and when she does, she reaches the Neal of the past, before they were married, before kids and jobs and the history of a million little hurts came between them.

It's an interesting concept, this magical phone, and it's a testament to Rowell's clever writing that at no point does the reader ever say, "What the hell? A magical phone???" You just sort of buy in to it, and you have to know that there's no explanation ever given for this phone, by the way, which sort of irked me, but at the same time, it's a fiction novel, and I'm willing to suspend my disbelief for a little while because it's Rainbow and I love Rainbow (in a totally non-stalker way of course).

At times, it feels like there's nothing really wrong in Georgie and Neal's marriage. Nobody cheated, nobody is running around lying or spending money they don't have. There's just a general malaise. Georgie feels unimportant and unnecessary, and Neal feels unappreciated. But sometimes, that general malaise can be more devastating to a relationship than the nuclear bomb of something like an affair. It's more insidious, I think, and sometimes, I wonder if it's harder to undo. At times, I wanted to grab Georgie and scream at her, telling her she has to realize how unhappy Neal is, and ask how she could possibly choose her career over her family like that. But then I'd think, well, men do that all the time, and nobody would expect Neal to be there Christmas morning if the roles were reversed, so why shouldn't she get to chase her dream? And I got very frustrated with Neal: he made the decision to stay home, to take the role of the primary parent, and if he is unhappy in that role, then it's time to have a conversation with Georgie about it. But he's trying, in his way, to be the supportive spouse, to help her realize her dream, and so he gets points for that.

There are no clear winners here. If Georgie gives up her dream of this show to stay home with Neal and the kids and have a more "normal" existence, then she's giving up something she's wanted for years. And if she chases her dream, she risks losing Neal, the kids, and everything she thought she wanted. And it doesn't appear that there's a compromise available, at least not right now. Because we all know how it goes. One spouse promises that it will "only be for a year", but that one year turns in to two, turns in to seven, and before you know it, you're ships passing in the night, and you can't stand each other, and the marriage goes out not with a bang, but with a whimper. So how do you fix that? Can you fix that? Do you even want to? Or is this just how it's supposed to be? 

I don't know the answer to that. My marriage went out with a bang, not a whimper, but if I'm honest, there was some whimpering before the final implosion. So I'm definitely not the expert here. And I don't think Georgie is either. Actually, I know Georgie isn't, and neither is Neal. Maybe none of us are.

I've written and rewritten this review a hundred times. (Not really a hundred. But a lot.) And I still don't know how I feel about it. A Cannonball reviewer I read awhile ago (and I can't find it now, of course) said recently that a book hit too close to home for her to be objective abut it, and I think maybe that's my problem with Landline. It hit too close to home, but in subtle ways. I certainly am not a show runner, and my former husband is definitely no Neal, but some of the underlying angst and resentment that they felt...I quite identified with that. Maybe Landline just picked at old wounds. I still love Rainbow, but I don't think I'll revisit this one.

Review #34: When I Found You, by Catherine Ryan Hyde

I snagged When I Found You from JB's bookshelf. The book had been a gift from someone, and the inscription inside mentioned that it was a story about true unconditional love. And it is. When I Found You is a story about the bonds between humans, about the unspoken connection we sometimes find in other people, about the strength and patience it takes to love someone, even (and especially) when they are most unlovable.

Accountant Nathan McCann is out duck hunting one chilly fall morning when he and his dog stumble across the body of an infant, wrapped in a sweater and wearing a tiny knit cap, at the base of a tree. Shocked, Nathan assumes at first that the baby is dead, but then notices movement, and as carefully and quickly as possible leaves his shotgun behind and rushes to the hospital. The doctors don't give the baby good odds - he's brand new and it was a cold night - but the baby survives, and Nathan tells his wife he wants to adopt him. His wife flatly refuses, although his desires are rendered moot when the boy's grandmother steps in. Nathan makes the grandmother promise to keep him apprised of the baby's progress, and the grandmother reluctantly agrees, even naming the child Nat in a sort of homage to his savior.

Fifteen years go by, years that see Nathan burying his wife, and checking on Nat, delivering presents on his birthday and Christmas, but never making contact with the boy until one day, the grandmother appears on Nathan's doorstep with Nat, saying that she is washing her hands of him, and surrendering him to Nathan. Nathan simply opens the door wider, pulling Nat in to the house, as the grandmother drives away without so much as a backward glance. Nat is understandably angry, sullen, and scared. He's a fifteen year old boy who has been lied to and abandoned, not just at birth, but again at fifteen, and so he retreats in to himself. Nathan, for his part, is woefully unprepared to deal with Nat's needs, particularly in the first fragile moments, but he approaches the situation with the same calm resolve that he approaches everything else in life. And as Nat grows - often with two steps forward and three steps back - Nathan is there to guide him every step of the way, with his simple advice and his steady heart.

Nathan is an extraordinarily patient man. He loves Nat in the way that parents love their children: inexplicably, and with every single breath. Nat, in the way of teenagers everywhere, throws that love back at him, testing him at every turn, but Nathan is steady, unwavering, and even when a Nat experiences a life-changing event - more than one, actually - Nathan is there. This could have easily turned in to a sappy Hallmark story, full of wise words from Nathan and wise-ass moves from Nat. "Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates," and all that nonsense. But Hyde deftly avoids the Very Special Episode Syndrome and instead gives the reader a story that feels honest and true, and she doesn't shy away from the ugliness that happens when we hurt the ones we love.

Someone once told me that having children is like having someone break your heart in to a million pieces every day, and every day, picking it up, giving it back to them, saying, "Again". To be fair, it's not always like that. Lots of times it's perfectly nice having a child, and lots of times it's about the most awesome experience in the world, but there are also times - many, many times - that my heart has been shattered, and I have picked it up, given it back to the Kid, and whispered, "Again". When I Found You is Nat, breaking Nathan's heart over and over again, and Nathan, picking up the pieces and saying, "Again".

Read this. Have tissues. Lots and lots of tissues.

Reviews #31 - 33: The Stars of Mirtha Trilogy, by Nora Roberts

Nora can usually be counted on for a halfway decent trilogy. Sure, it's predictable. Sure, the timeline of true love is sped up. Sure, there's always some Horrible Danger. Sometimes it's an otherworldly type of danger, just to mix things up, like a werewolf or a witch or something. Sure, the men are always perfect physical specimens, tall and lanky, funny, totally at ease with women in distress, and not at all freaked out at the thought of marrying what amounts to a total stranger. But it's Nora, so I can look past that. Sometimes I need the predictability, especially when I'm holed up in the house on a rainy Saturday.

But this trilogy? I don't know, you guys. I just couldn't get behind it. Maybe it's cause I read all three in one sitting. Maybe it's cause they were more like novellas and not her usual 300 pages. Maybe it's cause it was pretty unbelievable, even for Nora.

The first entry, Hidden Star, introduces us to Bailey James, a cool blonde who has amnesia, and has turned up on the doorstep of rugged (of course he's rugged) P.I Cade Parris. She's got a million dollars in cash, a gun, and a blue diamond the size of her fist. What she doesn't know is that she's left behind a body or two, as well as two best friends who are searching for her. Oh, also? Bailey's a virgin. But of course the sex is amazing because Cade knows just what to do. 

The second entry, Captive Star, brings us Bailey's best friend MJ, who meets bounty hunter Jack Dakota when he tries to bring her in for jumping bail. The trouble is, MJ has never been arrested, and they quickly figure out that they've both been set up. MJ is busy looking for her best friend Bailey and doesn't have time for Jack, but Jack has Knight In Shining Armor Syndrome, so once he realizes MJ is in trouble, he decides to stick with her till he can solve the mystery of who is after her, and why she has a blue diamond the size of her fist.

The final book, Secret Star, unveils Bailey and MJ's other best friend Grace, a world famous heiress who is supposed to be the dead body on the floor in front of Lieutenant Seth Buchannan but is instead standing right in front of him. Grace also has a blue diamond the size of her fist, in addition to a dead body on the floor of her mansion. And even though the good lieutenant makes it crystal clear that he's sworn off women, especially the (misunderstood) spoiled little rich girl type, Grace has her sights set on Seth, and she's not taking no for an answer.

Usually Nora writes these in order, so that the mystery isn't really solved until the final installment, but I kind of felt like I was reading the same book from three different points of view, and it just didn't work for me this time.

Review #30: The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R., by Caroline DeSanti

The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. is the debut novel from Carole DeSanti, an editor with Penguin Group. It follows the story of Eugénie Rigault, a young goose girl from a province outside of Paris, and her coming of age during the rise and fall of France's second empire. Eugénie is a naive young girl when she runs away to Paris ahead of her lover Stephan, checking in to a hotel with his letter testifying to her good morals to await his arrival. But as the days pass and Stephan fails to arrive, Eugénie is eventually forced out of the hotel, meeting the tortured and starving painter Pierre Chasseloup in a bar, and in an absinthe-soaked haze agrees to become his muse. But before long, the call of his art is too strong for Pierre to resist, and Eugénie finds herself again out on the streets, this time rescued by Françoise, a submistress for one of Paris' most elite brothels. 

From there, Eugénie discovers she's pregnant, gives birth to a baby girl whom she eventually is forced to abandon to the nuns at the orphanage, falls in love - this time with the mysterious Jolie, who reminded me a little bit of what I imagine Marlena Deitrech to have been - and tries for years to remove herself from the Paris rolls of the inscrit, the registered prostitutes. In between, she leaves the brothel, finds protection under various Parisians and American ex-pats - mainly Confederates spending the American Civil War in France - and falls in with a community of other cocettes (courtesans). 

And then, as the Empire is falling, she comes face to face with Stephan at a party, and Pierre is back, regretful and apologetic, and Jolie's brother Henri, the roguish soldier, informs her roughly that monsieur le comte certainly can't kiss her the way he does. But Eugénie doesn't have time for the ghosts of the past and the irritants of the present. The gates of Paris are closing, the shelling is inching closer, food is dwindling, her protectors are defecting - to London, to Versailles, to America - and she is determined to get her daughter back.

The bones of a good story are here. It's war-torn Paris, courtesans and painters, absinthe and orphans, a mother's quest for her daughter, a woman's quest for equality, sex and love and money and intrigue. I especially admired the way the courtesans were portrayed - strong women who fought as hard as they could for equality, and certainly didn't take their status as second class citizens lying down. But I wasn't in love with DeSanti's style, and that's where she loses a star from me. Too much... I don't know. Just too much. Too flowery? Too wordy? Too many sentence fragments? Definitely too many semi-colons, and this is coming from a girl who loves a good semi-colon. But you have to be judicious with them. One shouldn't use them more than once or twice a page, let alone three or four times in one sentence. And Eugénie is an unreliable narrator; at times she even tells the reader that she wishes that's how it had happened, but it wasn't, but yet she never corrects herself, so that left me wondering how much of the story was accurate. When that's coupled with the overall sense that Eugénie didn't particularly learn anything from her experiences, and at the end appears destined to make an even bigger mistake, I had a hard time liking her. 

Eugénie's story has potential, but I expected a little more unruliness and a lot more passion. And way less semi-colons.

Review #29: If I Stay, by Gayle Forman

I'm a sucker for a good YA novel. I'm an even bigger sucker for a good YA novel where there is tragic death or dismemberment or some sort of horrible disease or a dead boyfriend. I cut my teenage teeth on Cynthia Voigt. Izzy, Willy-Nilly had me convinced that if I ever got in the car with someone who had had even one beer, I'd lose my leg, too,or even worse. And I wanted If I Stay to be good. I really, really did. But it just...wasn't.

For the uninitiated, the story revolves around one day in the life of Mia, a seventeen year old senior who appears to have it all: grandparents who love her, cool rocker parents, a sweet younger brother Teddy, a hot rock star boyfriend, a great best friend, and a promising future studying the cello at Julliard. In the blink of an eye, a head on car accident kills her parents and her brother, leaving Mia's body clinging to life while she floats above the scene, watching the paramedics try to save her. Mia sees the family - both her blood relatives and her friends - come to see her, and slowly realizes that she alone has the power to decide whether to stay behind with them, but without her parents and brother, or to leave them and go to the great beyond.

In a series of flashbacks, we learn about Mia's life, from her dad's transformation from punk rock rebel to cool hipster English teacher to her sweet boyfriend Adam, who plays in a rock band that's just becoming famous and supports Mia wholeheartedly, even though their musical tastes are at opposite ends of the spectrum. We meet Teddy, the younger brother who appears to worship the ground his older sister walks on, Mia's mom, who seems like the fun hippy mom I always wanted but was secretly glad I didn't have, and the best friend Kim, who is wise beyond her years. 

The book wasn't awful. But I can't say that it was tremendously well-done either. Perhaps it just didn't live up to the hype I've been seeing about it. And while I know I'm not the target audience, I'm not so sure I would feel differently if I were seventeen. I felt like Mia's family life was a little too perfect, and her relationship with Adam was a little too adult. Perhaps it's my inner cynic, but it's hard for me to believe in Mia + Adam 4eva. There were already signs of struggle, and I can't imagine something like becoming an orphan at seventeen while your boyfriend's rock star status is taking off is going to help the preexisting issues go away. But more than that, I felt like the book was presented as a story about a girl trying to make a choice - I mean, for Pete's sake, the name of the book is If I Stay - but I never got the sense that there was ever a choice. There was no suspense, no feeling that Mia was agonizing about her parents and Teddy being dead, no question as to whether Mia would stay. In fact, without looking at the sequels, I'll predict that Mia lives, goes on to Julliard, she and Adam break up, it's devastating, and then he comes back in to her life in some way, turning everything she knows upside down, and eventually they wind up together. And that's probably a good story - it's got a happy ending - but I kind of just don't care. 

And, this is a tiny nit to pick, it was written in present tense. Which I sort of hate with the heat of a thousand suns. So maybe Forman didn't even have a fighting chance with me. I may catch the movie when it eventually turns up on TBS, but only if Law & Order isn't playing for the eleven-billionth time on TNT.