"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

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Review #3: Labor Day, by Joyce Maynard

I finished this book a week or two ago, but I've sat on the review, because I'm haven't been sure of what to say. Labor Day appeared to be a quick, quiet little read, given to me by Boss, who said he thought I'd breeze right through it. He didn't appear to have any thoughts either way about the book; he enjoyed it, but I don't think it necessarily struck a chord with him.

It did with me, though. And that was very, very unexpected.

Labor Day is told from the perspective of thirteen-year-old Henry and largely takes place over the four days of Labor Day weekend sometime in the mid-80s. Henry lives alone with his mother Adele, a woman who Maynard paints with such a fragile brush that I'm afraid to breathe loudly when I read her scenes. Henry, in an attempt to get Adele out of the house, convinces her they need to go to the store, and, once there, runs in to Frank, a man who just escaped from prison via his hospital room window. Frank is injured, and Henry, in the way that only kids who haven't been raised in the Age of Instant News About Missing Children can, conspires to have his mother secret him away to their house.

Adele, surprisingly, agrees to this idea, and together she and Henry bring Frank home. Adele cleans his wounds, and Henry begins to witness a mysterious, unspoken bond between his mother and Frank. Suddenly, Henry realizes that no matter what he does, or how much he loves her, there are some things he will never be able to provide for his mother.

At the time I was too young to understand the part of being Husband for a Day I was not equipped to carry out, but in another way I think I sensed my own terrible inadequacy and it was the knowledge of this that weighed on me, when I lay in my narrow bed in my small room, next to hers, the walls between us so thin it was almost as if she were there with me. I could feel her loneliness and longing, before I had a name for it. It had probably never been about my father really. Looking at him now, it was hard to imagine he could ever have been worthy of her. What she had loved was loving.

It's just The Kid and me living together; I divorced her father two years ago, and we separated nearly two years before that. We've been pretty much on our own for four years, with, it should be said, lots of loving family around. But at the end of the day, it's just the two of us, and that's been an adjustment, at times more for one of us than the other. The Kid is an empathetic soul, and in the four years we've been on our own, we've developed an almost a psychic connection. We can communicate with one look, and we each know how the other feels about something at any given moment. (We don't hide feelings in this house - we couldn't if we tried!) Luckily for her, I'm (hopefully) not as fragile as Adele, although I'm sure I've had my moments, but she's a lot like Henry. In many ways this thrills me; Henry is a smart, resourceful, kind, generous young boy. But in a lot of ways this worries me, for Henry often turns inward, repressing his emotions in a futile quest to make his mother happy. As a mom, I worry that she does that as well, and I never want her to put my happiness in front of hers. It should be the other way around.

I honestly think that if I didn't have a child, or if I did but wasn't divorced, this would have been a quick, simple read, enjoyed but promptly forgotten. But, for both the reasons detailed above and too many more to list, Maynard's quiet, spare little story about a boy and his mom made me take a second look at my own relationship with my child, and realize that everything I do, both the big Parenting Moments and all of the tiny, little, unrealized acts, affects her in ways I never thought possible.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Review #2: The Temptation of Lila and Ethan, by Jessica Sorensen

I've written before about "New Adult" and what crap it is, but I keep reading it because I never learn. I want it to be the equivalent of hangover watching Dirty Dancing on TBS while waiting for your roommate's boyfriend to come back with hangover McDonald's with a big fat hangover diet Coke, but it's not. It's not at all. It's like discovering that Dirty Dancing has been replaced with, I don't know, sports or something, and your roommate's boyfriend got you a regular Coke instead of a diet, and now you have to put on a bra and go get one yourself. Not that I ever had that experience in my early twenties. Ahem.

But I'm done. I'm breaking up with "New Adult". (And yes, I'm going to keep using quotation marks because I refuse to recognize this as a real genre.)

Anyway, on to the story. Lila's a poor little rich girl who developed a pill habit thanks to her mom introducing her to them at the age of fourteen, after Lila disgraced the family by sleeping with an older man. And by sleeping with, I really mean date-raped, and being tied up while that happened, which resulted in scars on her wrists, ankles, and belly. Lila's twenty at the time of the story, so all I could think about was that I was pretty sure that rope burn doesn't last six years. Anyway, the tied up rape sex and Lila's crappy parents make her drink and pop pills and have indiscrimate sex with random men.

The story needs a hero and he arrives in the form of Ethan, who rides in in his truck to pick up Lila and save her from the walk of shame. Lila wants Ethan, but Ethan made it clear early on that they are just friends. Ethan doesn't want to have any sort of relationship because his dad used to hit his mom (but now he doesn't and his parents are still together), and because his last relationship was with a heroin addict named London who now has amnesia and can't remember Ethan.

I finished this book yesterday, and I honestly cannot remember the circumstances that finally got Lila and Ethan to Do It, so that should tell you everything you need to know. And I can't remember the sex scenes, so they can't have been that great. It's also part of a series, which I didn't know when I pulled it off NetGalley, and while the last chapter gives Lila and Ethan a conclusion, it also reads like the preview chapter of the next book, and it feels very gimmicky.

A lot of things bother me about "New Adult" - the smelly loser-ish guys, the extra dumb girls, the lack of any kind of decent parental figure, the message that if you just love each other enough, you can survive on minimum wage jobs forever - but what bothers me the most is the writing. It's bad. I don't know how else to say it, other than it's really, really, really bad. I once had a teacher spend several class periods on written language versus conversational language versus street language, and I never forgot that lesson. It's a lesson some of these "New Adult" writers need to learn.

Review #1: Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon

I first read Outlander about fifteen years or so ago. My mom gave it to me, saying, "I know you don't like time travel, but just get over that, and read this book." Rarely does my mom do that, but when she does, she hits the mark. In fact, she gave me Harry Potter in much the same way, about four months before it exploded, saying, "Stick with it. Trust me."  After hearing about the upcoming series on Starz, and discovering it was only $1.99 for an e-reader edition, I realized I needed to take a little trip to the Scottish Highlands.

And I'm glad I did. Jamie's just as delicious as I remember, and Claire is just as smart and fiesty. The characters come to life as easily as they did the first time around, and the reader is transported back to eighteenth century Scotland just as quickly as Claire was when she stepped through the stones at Craig na Dun.

For the uninitiated, Gabaldon's story begins in 1945, with British nurse Claire Randall on a second honeymoon with her history buff husband Frank. Though they've been together for years, the war has kept them apart, and Claire and Frank are just beginning to settle in to married life. On a solitary walk near a stone circle, Claire is whisked through a time portal and finds herself in Scotland in 1743, at the height of the British and Scottish fighting. Through a series of events, Claire finds herself with Jamie Fraser, a young Scottish warrior fighting to clear his name and return to his land. Together, they must face the truly evil Lord John Randall (Frank's ancestor), keep each other safe, and try to find a way for Claire to return to her own time.

One of the things I love about this series is how well it blends the "prince saves the girl" storyline with a strong female lead. Yes, Jamie saves Claire - quite often, in fact - but Claire is no slouch, and she pulls off several clever and daring rescues. As fierce a warrior as Jamie is, he needs Claire, and as intelligent and strong as Claire is, she needs him, too. They truly are a team, and that's not something you often see in stories like this.

The beauty of this book lies in its characters. The story is good, to be sure, but the characters are what elevates this book from good to excellent. Jamie, Claire, and the entire cast are strong, brave, smart, and resilient, but they are also flawed, and Gabaldon doesn't shy away from exposing those flaws.

I also read the author's interview, and I found it interesting that Gabaldon wrote Outlander "just to see if [she] could". I'm glad she decided to take the leap.