Thursday, August 28, 2014

Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth): The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller

A blogger who goes by Biblibio (and only just posted her real name this last week) created an event called Women in Translation Month, to increase awareness of books in translation written by female authors, and to highlight the fact that there are far more books by men translated into English than books by women. You can read more about it on the Biblibio blog.

I've been following her posts all month and wanting to join in, if only in a small way, and finally have a small window of time to get this review up. Back in the spring of 2012, I won a copy of the novel The Hunger Angel by Nobel Prize-winning German author Herta Müller through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. (It wasn't an ARC, but an actual hardcover book -- very rare in LTER giveaways! Many thanks to Henry Holt and Company, and of course to LibraryThing, for the opportunity to read and review the book.) I posted my review on LT in August 2012, but it appears that I never posted a review here on the blog. So, I decided to copy it here from LT, in recognition of #WITMonth. I'm thrilled that Biblibio decided to create this event, and I hope it has brought some much-needed attention to women writers in translation, and the fact that we need more of them!




The Hunger Angel tells the story of 17-year-old Leo Auberg's deportation to a Soviet labor camp, and the five years he spent there. If you read novels mainly for plot or character development, this one might not be for you. It helps to know BEFORE you try to read it that the story isn't really linear, but could instead be called episodic. The chapters are very short, and some of them describe actions and events that occur during Leo's time in the labor camp. However, some of them are primarily descriptive; their purpose is not to move the story forward, but to add another layer to our understanding of Leo's experiences in the camp.

Because the chapters are short and serve these two different purposes, I found some to be more interesting than others. It also made for a slightly disorienting reading experience. But the book is well worth reading -- for the power of the writing and language, and the light it shines on a dark period in history. Müller places Leo's focus on physical experiences and specific objects, and this stylistic decision draws the reader into the labor camp. I believe that reading this novel is MEANT to be disorienting, that the reader SHOULD feel a sense of unreality and nightmare, in between moments of hypnotic focus on physical objects.

Müller made the not-uncommon decision to omit quotation marks from the novel. At some point while I read, I realized that it also contains no question marks. In the translator's note at the end of the book, Philip Boehm confirms that he followed this stylistic choice from the German original -- and that's where I learned there are also no semi-colons in the book. The limited punctuation adds to the reader's confusion and disorientation, particularly when reading a sentence that is obviously a question. The last sentence in the chapter called "Cement" is, "So why can't I disappear" (p. 33). This happens again and again, increasing the sense of confusion and dislocation.

Don't read The Hunger Angel looking for plot, and don't try too hard to keep track of all the characters mentioned -- many of them are not clearly defined, and not too important in themselves. Read it to admire the way Müller uses language to bring this dark history to life, and to pull you into Leo's world.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book review: The Appetites of Girls by Pamela Moses





When I saw this book on LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers list this past spring, I knew it would be right up my alley (she said, while having an afternoon snack). So, thank you to LibraryThing, and to Putnam Books (Penguin Group), for the chance to read and review an advanced copy of The Appetites of Girls, the debut novel by Pamela Moses.

From the Penguin website:
Self-doubting Ruth is coddled by her immigrant mother, who uses food to soothe and control. Defiant Francesca believes her heavy frame shames her Park Avenue society mother and, to provoke her, consumes everything in sight. Lonely Opal longs to be included in her glamorous mother’s dinner dates—until a disturbing encounter forever changes her desires. Finally, Setsu, a promising violinist, staves off conflict with her jealous brother by allowing him to take the choicest morsels from her plate—and from her future. College brings the four young women together as suitemates, where their stories and appetites collide. Here they make a pact to maintain their friendships into adulthood, but each must first find strength and her own way in the world.

The book is divided into three “Parts,” and also has a short prologue and epilogue. Part One introduces each of the girls at a critical point during childhood or early adolescence. Part Two details their meeting at Brown University as suitemates, the development of their friendships, and some of the significant experiences they have during those college years. Part Three explores the different paths they take after graduation. Within each Part, there are four long chapters, each narrated by one of the four main characters.

The primary narrator is Ruth; the prologue and epilogue are both in her voice, and the chapter subtitles that indicate who narrates never say “Ruth’s Story,” but always “My Story.” In spite of this, the book feels fairly well-balanced among the four characters. Their voices aren’t vastly different -- which might be seen as a minor “debut novel flaw” -- but their personalities and interests are distinct enough that after a few paragraphs, I easily settled into that character’s story and perspective.

It’s probably clear from the description that this is character-driven literary fiction. Most of the “action” centers around university life and friendships, and family relationships. The novel doesn’t have a “plot” so much as incidents and vignettes, weaving together, and then shifting focus from one chapter, one narrator, to another, and so on.

Moses’s decision to use first-person narration for each of the characters seems like a wise one to me. It brought an immediacy to all four young women’s experiences that made me feel like I was right there with them through everything. I wanted to speak up for them, and defend them: Ruth’s mother really needed to get off her daughter’s back, and Setsu’s brother made me so angry, I wanted to give him a smack. During the girls’ happier moments, I felt like I was celebrating with them, watching from a quiet corner of the room.

The themes surrounding food resonate throughout the novel, of course -- eating with loved ones, bingeing alone, rewarding oneself with sweet things, sometimes overeating, other times denying oneself the tastes one most desires. The actual appetites of the characters do play a role in some of the situations, but they do not yearn only for food. It is often so difficult to discover those things that bring us true happiness, that make us feel truly fulfilled. While we’re looking for “the real thing,” we might get sidetracked by lesser pleasures, or try to fill that empty feeling, at least for a moment, with things that are close at hand: chocolate, chips, cheeseburgers. As this novel illustrates, the real appetites of many girls and women are vastly more complicated, and can’t be satisfied with only dinner and dessert. In the stories of Ruth, Francesca, Setsu, and Opal, Pamela Moses has given us four young women who had to learn what they were truly hungry for, and then decide how they might attain it. Their journeys are full of missteps and regrets, some successes, and lasting friendships. I loved spending time with them.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Why I love love love Wickett's Remedy by Myla Goldberg (especially the audiobook)



When it was fairly new, my book group read Bee Season by Myla Goldberg. I liked it very much, and I think most of the other members of the group felt the same way. I had purchased the book, and I still have it. Of course, it was a bestseller, and was eventually adapted into a movie (which I never did see -- by then we had kids and less free time).

Around the time when her follow-up, Wickett's Remedy, was published, Myla Goldberg was at a book event -- might have been Book Expo America, but I'm not sure -- and she gave a talk about some of the research she had done for the new book. (I watched this talk on television -- specifically, on Book TV.) She mentioned spending time in the reading room of New York Public Library, and requesting some World War I-era newspapers from the closed stacks. She talked about the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918. Her enthusiasm for her subjects, and for library research, made me like her even more than I'd liked her first book.

In 2007, I came across the audiobook of Wickett's Remedy at the library, and checked it out. I was interested to hear the story, but doubly intrigued when I saw that Myla Goldberg was narrating it. Many authors are NOT great narrators, but having seen that talk on Book TV, I thought Goldberg might pull it off. She did not disappoint, and I fell in love with this novel. I even have it in my Favorites collection on LibraryThing.

The reviews were mixed for this book. Part of this has got to be because Bee Season was such a hit, and it would be hard for the next book to live up to that. (All this talk about Donna Tartt, who just won the Pulitzer for heaven's sake for The Goldfinch, her third novel, and how much people still love her debut, The Secret History, after all these years, and all they say about the second novel is, "Oh, she did have The Little Friend in between, but that wasn't as well-received." So a bit of sophomore slump is fairly common. Okay, sorry for the long aside.) But also, readers who were expecting something in the same vein as Bee Season were in for a bit of a shock. While the first book is contemporary, the second is set in Boston during the 1910s, and the largest part of the story is set around 1917 and 1918, with the backdrop of America's entrance into World War I, and the Spanish influenza epidemic. Bee Season, as I recall, has a fairly traditional, mostly linear narrative, while Wickett's is a patchwork of voices and formats.

People who like mixed formats and somewhat experimental fiction, along with multiple narratives and timelines, should really try Wickett's. The main story is about Lydia Kilkenny, a young woman from an Irish Catholic South Boston family who works in a department store, meets and marries a medical student named Henry Wickett, then helps him to develop a "remedy" to ease people's minor ills. The secondary storyline is about a man named Quentin Driscoll and his "QD Soda," a product and company launched around 1918. These parts of the story are primarily told through excerpts from a newsletter, the "QDISPATCH" or "QD Dispatch," dated in the early 1990s. (Some of the QD stuff is maybe longer than it needs to be, but I found it mostly entertaining. And think about branding, brand loyalty, and consumer culture as it is today, and the QD Soda Company doesn't seem like a big stretch.)

The book also includes articles and letters from newspapers, many of which are taken directly from newspapers of that period. (In the audio, the news articles are accompanied by the clacking of typewriter keys.) While we spend much of the book very close to Lydia, the news clippings add a sense of the epidemic's scope, its terrible impact beyond the Boston of the novel. The Quentin Driscoll storyline also includes some correspondence: letters from an elderly man to his son, and from the management of a nursing facility to Ralph Finnister, the CEO of QD Soda in the 1990s.

Finally, there are the voices of those who have passed on, speaking from beyond the grave, giving further perspectives on the main action of the novel. So, while Lydia’s story is the largest part of the novel, and it’s written in typical third-person, linear fashion, it’s surrounded by notes in the margins, where these other people are adding their two cents to the narrative. I would guess this is the most disorienting part of reading the print version of the book, and it could have been frustrating to me as well. It might be difficult to know exactly where to “insert” the additional comments so that they fit into the flow of the story. Because I listened to the audio version, I didn’t have to make those decisions, it was all just read to me. Moreover, they are narrated by other people, not by Myla Goldberg, so it’s always clear that it’s an aside from a voice beyond, a sidestep from the main story. The CD’s box says, “Read by the Author, with David Aaron Baker, Chris Burns, Ilyana Kadushin and Stina Nielsen.”

The additional narrators and occasional sound effects help to bring the action to life. Goldberg’s lively delivery makes her a great companion as you follow Lydia’s journey from home to marriage, through grief, to the discovery of her true calling, and toward renewed hope. Wickett's Remedy has a sense of immediacy that brought me into Lydia’s life, and inside the influenza epidemic, and quite simply touched my heart. I wish more readers, and audiobook fans, might give it a try, and some of them fall in love with it as I did.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Read-a-Thon tomorrow!



I took the day off from work today so I could do most of the housecleaning I usually do on Saturdays. Tomorrow, I'm going to be READING! Or at least that's my plan. Even if I don't read a TON, it feels good to have a good amount of cleaning done, and a block of time when I know I'll be able to read. At the very least, I want to finish TransAtlantic by Colum McCann, since we're discussing it at my book group in a few days. After that, it's all gravy.

Over 400 people have signed up to participate in the 24 Hour Read-a-Thon. I'm so happy to be joining them!

Friday, August 30, 2013

Book review: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

Description from the Random House website:
Anais Hendricks, fifteen, is in the back of a police car. She is headed for the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders. She can't remember what’s happened, but across town a policewoman lies in a coma and Anais’s school uniform is covered in blood.
Raised in foster care from birth and moved through twenty-three placements before she even turned seven, Anais has been let down by just about every adult she has ever met. Now a counter-culture outlaw, she knows that she can only rely on herself.

First things first: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan is a really good novel, but it's definitely not for everyone. There is more swearing in this book than in any other book I can remember reading, in my whole life. The F-word is on just about every page, at least once, and there's liberal use of s**t and c**t and I could go on. If you can't tolerate a large amount of foul language, don't go anywhere near this novel. (There's also a heavy Scottish dialect, which took me a little time to get used to. Maybe there are Scottish swears that I didn't even catch.)
In addition: there is a lot of drug and alcohol use, and some violence. There is a lot more sexual talk than actual sex, but there are also multiple references to prostitution, and a few mentions of rape. But, trigger warning, there is one rape scene in the book. After the first moments, once it's clear what's happening, the chapter ends, so I don't feel it was gratuitous, but it was disturbing enough that a warning is appropriate. I'll try to avoid anything else that could be considered a spoiler.
Oh, I might as well add, the narrator is a 15-year-old girl who is probably bisexual, and there are two lesbian characters. If you're still interested in the novel after I've already warned you about the swearing, the sexual talk, the fights, and the rape, then hopefully a couple of teenage girls kissing is no big deal for you.
What I really loved about this novel was the way it took me into Anais's head. It's a scary place to be, but she's incredibly tough -- and she has to be strong, to have survived her turbulent childhood. She's still able to find beauty in the world, sometimes. One day, she goes by herself into the woods.
I climb up on my oak tree, let myself fall back until I am hanging by my knees, hair trailing across the forest floor. It's soothing. The trees still have some leaves, all dry and crackly. The rest are mulch. Hundreds of tiny wishes drift through the woods, they sparkle in the dim, and dance up as silver orbs. (p. 157)

 Anais also has a savage sense of humor. There's a flashback to when she learned how to ride a bike, and she still needed training wheels.
I remember I had this amazing bike, a chopper with a flag on the back. I had tae use stabilizers even though I was nine; I learned to ride it so late it was embarrassing.
"Why did you not learn before you were nine?" some kid asked me.
I wobbled around him with one stabilizer lifting off the ground.
"My mum was too busy tae teach me."
"Too busy doing what?"
"Your da."
"What?"
"And your brother."  (p. 98)
When social workers informed her they believed she had "a borderline personality," she replied, "'It's better than no personality'" (p.85). In a scene where she's being interviewed by the police, she gives her name as, "'Minnie Mouse, address: Disneyland'" (p. 96). There are times when she's afraid, and times when she feels vulnerable, but most of the time, she's completely, bitingly, unapologetically herself.
And yet, sometimes she doesn’t seem to be sure who she is.
Identity problem. Funny that. Fifty-odd moves, three different names, born in a nuthouse to a nobody that was never seen again. Identity problem? I dinnae have an identity problem -- I dinnae have an identity, just reflex actions and a disappearing veil between this world and the next.  (p. 86)
I first heard about this book on the podcast The Readers, where after mentioning it on several episodes, they chose it for The Readers Book Club earlier this year. (Read more about it and listen to the episode here; be aware that the last section does include spoilers, but Simon and Gav will warn you when they’re coming.) For the Book Club episodes, the hosts usually talk with the author to find out a bit more about them, and how they developed the story, and ask some questions about specific characters or themes. During the interview with Jenni Fagan, she said that she had been “in care” when she was young. She also said that she has ideas for half a dozen or so novels, all very different from one another, and that she hadn’t initially planned for her book about a teenager in care to be her first novel, but that’s just how it turned out.
Fagan doesn’t say very much in that interview about her own experiences in care -- which is completely understandable, and not something most people would press her about. However, having been in a couple of foster homes, a psych hospital, and a group home at various times during my own childhood, I desperately wanted to ask Jenni questions like, “Are there really so many drugs being taken right there in the group home/youth facility, and if so how is that possible? How does everyone get them?” Also, “What is the drinking age in Scotland? How is it that all these teenagers in care have access to that much alcohol?” This is probably the only area where my “willing suspension of disbelief” faltered a little -- although at the same time, I realize that Scotland and the U.S. are different countries, my experience was from 25-30 years ago, and Anais had been in care her whole life, while the periods I was out of my home were short, no more than a few months at a time. (Reading over what I just wrote, it seems weird that I was totally fine with the parts about faces hovering in the walls, men without noses, flying cats, and the idea that Anais might have been grown in a petri dish!)
Overall, I found The Panopticon to be very good, and ultimately inspiring. A lot of the book is dark, but the humorous moments, the poetic images, and the caring connections Anais makes with several other characters, these parts seem that much brighter in contrast. As I said, it’s not a book for everyone, but I hope it finds a large number of readers who will try it and find the beauty within it.
(All quotes and page numbers are from an advance reader’s edition, and might differ slightly from those in the finished publication. I borrowed it from the staff room at the library.)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Book review: The Spark: a Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius by Kristine Barnett

I received an advance reader’s edition of The Spark: a Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius, by Kristine Barnett, through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. The quotes in my review are from that advance copy, and might differ slightly from the published book. The back cover gives a good overview:

Kristine Barnett’s son Jacob has an IQ higher than Einstein’s, a photographic memory, and he taught himself calculus in two weeks. At nine he started working on an original theory in astrophysics that experts believe may someday put him in line for a Nobel Prize. Last summer, at age twelve, he became a paid researcher in quantum physics. But the story of Kristine’s journey with Jake is all the more remarkable because his extraordinary mind was almost lost to autism. At age two, when Jake was diagnosed, Kristine was told he might never be able to tie his own shoes.

It took a while for the book to arrive, and then it took ME a while to work it into my reading priorities, but when I finally got started on it, I was completely absorbed. In the first twelve to fifteen months of his life, Jacob Barnett was a normal, happy, affectionate baby, with occasional hints of above average intelligence: Kristine writes, “He learned the alphabet before he could walk, and he liked to recite it backward and forward” (p. 13). But around 14 months old, Kristine and her husband Michael began to notice small changes in Jake. He talked less, smiled less, and became generally less interested in other people. Kristine ran a home daycare, and the other children treated Jake as their younger sibling. During that first year, he loved interacting with the other kids, and trying to do the things they did, but by the time he reached about 15 months old, they could barely get his attention. Instead, he was fascinated by shadows, by the play of light and dark on the walls.

Kristine describes how Jake is gradually swallowed up into autism, to the point where he stopped speaking for a couple of years. Kristine and Michael initially resist the diagnosis, but not for long: all the signs are there. The first formal evaluation results in a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, but after the second evaluation, before Jake’s third birthday, the diagnosis is revised to “full-blown, moderate to severe autism” (p. 32).  The therapist who conducted the second evaluation explained that “Jake had likely been diagnosed with Asperger’s (a mild form of autism characterized by relatively high functioning) instead of full-blown autism because his IQ was so high -- a shocking, off-the-charts 189 on the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children” (p. 32).

Chapter after chapter, the story of this amazing boy, and this incredibly resilient family, held me enthralled. In many ways, the Barnetts are an “ordinary” family -- while Kristine ran the home daycare, Michael worked at Target, then later at Circuit City, until his store was closed early in the recession. Kristine’s anecdotes about toddler Jake include Matchbox cars and crayons. They’re hard-working, generous people, who love their kids and want to do what’s best for them, and try to help others who are facing difficulties too.

In short, the Barnetts are a lot like most other American middle-class families. But, they have a son who is profoundly gifted. Kristine writes, “According to Miraca Gross in her book Exceptionally Gifted Children, there is less than one profoundly gifted person per one million” (p. 230). This boy essentially stopped interacting and communicating with other people when he was a toddler, and his parents were told by experts that Jake might never speak again. We know from the back of the book that Kristine decided to follow the “spark” she saw in Jake, to help him pursue his passionate interests, and this helped him eventually overcome the symptoms of autism, so he could come back into “the regular world,” yet still be himself. Jake’s story is worth reading on its own, but Kristine’s story, and that of the whole family, just adds to the richness of the book. The back cover doesn’t mention that Kristine and Michael’s second baby had a rare and potentially fatal condition; that Kristine herself was later diagnosed with another serious health problem; that in addition to the regular daycare, the Barnetts created a charitable program for autistic children, run out of their home. Kristine writes:

So every morning, I’d open the day care as usual and work a full nine-hour day there. But twice a week, after the day care children went home, I’d vacuum the room and set up a mock kindergarten for autistics kids. I called the program Little Light.  …  [I]nstead of hammering away at all the tasks these kids couldn’t do, I thought we’d start with what they wanted to do (p. 68).


I can tell you that The Spark is inspiring, a testament to the power of love and family, and also the value of going with your gut, especially with regard to what’s best for your kids. But I’d rather say that Jake and his family, and the journey they’ve taken so far, is just fascinating. I feel like I know them, yet I also believe that Kristine is a superwoman. If you have kids, or want to have kids, you should read this book. If you know someone who is autistic, have an interest in autism, or enjoy any kind of “medical memoir,” you should read this book. If you’re an educator of any kind, you should read this book. If you don’t fall into any of those other categories, but you just like any story about people facing obstacles and working to overcome them, then for heaven’s sake, JUST READ THIS BOOK.

I am grateful to LibraryThing and Random House for the chance to read and review this advance edition, and for the privilege of meeting Jacob and his family. To author and supermom Kristine Barnett, who wrote that this book is “the chance to share Jake and his gifts with the world” (p. 243), thank you, thank you, thank you!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Want to read: Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon

I listened to a Guardian Books podcast today that included an interview with writer Andrew Solomon about his latest book, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.  I didn't realize until today that it had won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle award for general non-fiction.  One of his earlier books, The Noonday Demon: an Atlas of Depression, is a favorite that I've recommended to others.

Far from the Tree explores families where there is a profound difference between parents and child: deaf child of hearing parents, gay child of straight parents, child with schizophrenia, child becomes a criminal, and even child prodigy who possesses an incredible talent.  It took him over 10 years to research and write it.  This page on the Guardian website has a short article, and also a video of Solomon discussing the book.

Once in a while, I learn about a book that I want to buy new, and even in hardcover, because it's important to me to support that author's work and career -- a financial affirmation, if you will.  Even though it's over 900 pages, I'm pretty sure I'll be buying my own copy of Far from the Tree, and soon.  And it might take me years, but I will read it!