Sunday, March 21, 2010

Book 11 in The Great Book Read 2010: Gregory Maguire's Volume Three of "The Wicked Years" : "A Lion Among Men"

Should have re-read Volumes 1 and 2 before diving into Volume 3. Too much time had passed since I read "Wicked" and "Son of a Witch." Found myself struggling through references I could not connect up. And the book was pretty murky to begin with.

I loved, loved, loved "Wicked." I'm a pretty big fan of Gregory Maguire's work. I enjoyed "Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister" and "Mirror, Mirror" and "Lost." I love the notion of re-imagining classic tales -- my first encounter with this idea (and still the best; sorry Mr. Maguire) was in Sherri S. Tepper's "Beauty."

All of these books take familiar stories in pretty grim and gritty directions. If you haven't ever delved into this world, don't expect happily ever after. Characters are not necessarily likable, and settings are not fairy-tale castles. But they make for some mighty good reading --- food for thought.

"A Lion Among Men" is the only one of the Wicked trilogy I do not personally own. I have a shelf full of Gregory Maguire, and I think it's time for a little review. As soon as I zip through the next couple of books I have lined up.......

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Book 10: "A Million Little Pieces" by James Frey

My next entry in The Big Book Read 2010 is James Frey's controversial memoir, "A Million Little Pieces." A friend and colleague lent it, and I carried it around in my car for a while until the day I had multiple medical appointments, and snatched it up to avoid having to choose between Sports Illustrated and Parenting magazines in the waiting rooms.
The book was published in 2003, and is Frey's 400+ page recounting of the period in his life when, at age 23, in 1992, his addictions were close to killing him, and how he was pushed into rehab where he met a cast of colorful characters and managed to get his act together. He writes in a stream of consciousness style, lots of dialogue but no quotation marks, repetition of key words and phrases, and plenty of strong emotions and language.

The controversy surrounding the book, which I had heard about at the time it was published but had basically forgotten, was that it was not a true memoir; Frey played fast and loose with the truth, and this eventually came to light. He addresses this issue in an introductory "Note to the Reader" at the beginning of this paperback edition which came out a couple of years later. He says that he believes that memoir "is about impression and feeling, about individual recollection" rather than a work that adheres to "a strict journalistic or historical standard," and that this book is a "combination of facts about my life and certain embellishments," a "subjective truth." He owns up to, and apologizes for, a certain number of "embellishments" for purposes of dramatic tension, of respecting others' privacy/anonymity, "to serve what I felt was the greater purpose of the book."


Having read this confession, as well as the Publisher's apology that follows Frey's, I simply read the book. I tried to read it without making any distinction between fiction and non- and, despite mentally remarking a few times, "Oh, reeaaallly," it made no difference in the end to me whether it was all based on reality. It was a moderately interesting book that delivered what it purported to be about: a young guy navigating the rocky road of rehabilitation.

His rather raw writing style meshes well with the content. The setting and the people are not pretty. He does emphasize the egalitarian nature of addiction in his portrayels of a population at the rehab facility that includes folks from every walk of life, high and low. They are all brought low by their obsessions and compulsions. Frey refers to some of them as "good men who happen to be bad men."

The figures that he cites are alarming -- less than 15 per cent of addicts will get sober and stay sober. Many, many of them will die far too young of their addictions, and their deaths will be violent and dirty and scarey. James Frey was almost one of them. The story he writes is bleak, graphic, and full of anger and fear. There is also hope.

This is not a book I would necessarily recommend to someone struggling with their own addictions and seeking a way out of the woods. Frey strenuously rejects the standard treatment and recovery options, carving his own way out -- one important discovery for him is the truth he finds in a little book his brother gives him, the "Tao te Ching" -- but he apparently does succeed. He was still sober in 2006, thirteen years after publication of his "memoir," regardless of the ultimate veracity of it.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Books 8 and 9: "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and "The Girl Who Played with Fire" by Steig Larsson

It's odd how I seem to inadvertantly read books one right after another that have major aspects in common.... The commonality this time lies with the authors. Having just read the dense and complex "Confederacy of Dunces," I was looking for a different, perhaps lighter, reading experience. I had seen a review of Steig Larsson's books, so opted to pick up his first of this trilogy, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." Larsson, a Swedish journalist and crusader against racism and right-wing extremism, was another who died prematurely young (although not by his own hand, like Toole), and whose work was published posthumously. All three books have been translated from the original Swedish, and have been best-sellers.

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" was a wonderful read: a suspenseful and gripping mystery/detective story with a cast of extraordinary characters. The "Girl" is 23-year-old Lisbeth Salander, although the story herein is not exactly her story. Mikael Blomkvist is a disgraced journalist who is approached by octogenarian Henrik Vanger to look into the disappearance and presumed murder of his great-niece Harriet, who vanished some 40 years ago at the age of 16. In the course of his investigation, he encounters and then collaborates with investigator Lisbeth Salander, a young woman with remarkable computer skills and extremely poor social skills. As the story progresses, we are given glimpses into Lisbeth's life, past and present, explaining to some degree who and what she is, but never garnering the full picture.

Blomkvist and Salanger are not only successful in unraveling the mystery of Harriet Vanger, navigating through the unpleasantness of the extended Vanger family, but in solving a few other puzzles as well.

The second book, "The Girl Who Played with Fire," continues to intriguingly unfold the character of Lisbeth Salander, and involves her in an investigation, along with Blomkvist again, into human trafficking and the sex trade. Lisbeth finds herself accused of a triple murder, and vanishes to avoid being arrested and charged. Blomkvist fights to clear her, and in doing so, uncovers the truth of Lisbeth's horrifying past.

I found these two books absolutely riveting, devouring the first one over the course of one drizmal Sunday. I am really looking forward to the third, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest."

Book 7: "A Confederacy of Dunces" by John Kennedy Toole

John Kennedy Toole commited suicide in 1969, at the age of 31. It was through the persistant efforts of his mother that his manuscript was finally published in 1980; it won the Pulitzer Prize for 1981.
Toole's writing is notable for its dead-on descriptions of the time (circa 1963), the city of New Orleans, the dialects, and the characters.

"A Confederacy of Dunces" takes its title from a quote by Jonathan Swift: "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."
This is the story of 30-year-old Ignatius J. Reilly, an educated, intelligent individual -- the "true genius" -- who is additionally slovenly, paranoid, and lazy to the extreme. Ignatius lives with (some might say, sponges off of ) his mother in an uptown neighborhood of New Orleans. He detests and mocks modern society and culture, declaiming it as perverse and in bad taste, and does his best to either avoid interacting with it, or to attempt to somehow sabotage it. He much prefers the Middle Ages. Ignatius never accepts responsibility for anything that occurs within his parochial little world, and generally blames his circumstances on the turning of the wheel of Fate. He obssesses about any number of things, including his deceased dog, but in particular the hated Myrna Minkoff, whom he met in college and with whom he continues to have the most bizarre, competitive long-distance relationship.
His mother, influenced by a new friend, ultimately "forces" Ignatius to find gainful employment, and this leads him on a series of adventures as first, a worker in a pants factory office, and later, as a hot dog vendor. He encounters a variety of colorful characters, fails remarkably in attempts to mount several revolutionary social movements, and unwittingly assists in breaking up a pornography ring.
Ignatius J. Reilly, in his green hunting cap, flannel shirt, and baggy pants, is obnoxious, occasionally delusional, flatulant, and thoroughly unlikeable. Reading this book was a lot like watching a train wreck -- horrible and fascinating. I can't say that I enjoyed it, but it was quite an illuminating experience!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Next up: Book 6 in the Big Book Read 2010: another random grab off the library shelf.

"A Hole in the Universe," by Mary McGarry Morris (2004) If you read (or saw the movie of) Mary McGarry Morris' great novel, "Songs in Ordinary Time," you must know what a remarkable writer she is. What I had forgotten, until I picked up this book, is that she is a New Englander, from Massachusetts, in fact, and she sets her stories within this familiar framework. "Songs in Ordinary Time" was set in a small Vermont town. "A Hole in the Universe" is set in Massachusetts, virtually on my own doorstep. I was jarred into this realization in Chapter 2, when a character used the word "mingya." If you've never heard this term before, I wouldn't be surprised; my understanding always was that folks who said "mingya" were 99% likely to be from Methuen, Massachusetts. Maybe Italian, maybe not. Maybe an urban myth, maybe not... But suddenly the story came alive for me.
The characters are strong and vivid, the dialogue is authentic, and the setting is gritty and terrifying.
This is the story of Gordon Loomis, recently released from prison after serving a 25 year sentence for murder, a murder committed when he was 18 years old. It is the story of his attempted re-adjustment into society; it is also so much more.
It is the story of the decline of a neighborhood, of a city; the fictional Collerton will be recognizable to residents of the Merrimack Valley as the real, decaying sister city downriver from my own hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts.
It is the story of Gordon's successful brother Dennis, attempting to set Gordon on the road to a good life, but whose own feet stray from the path.
It is the story of Delores, trying to build a relationship with Gordon, who can barely maintain a relationship with himself.
It is the story of 13-year-old Jada, living in the sordid world of her crack-whore mother, struggling to hang on to something, anything, in order to survive.
And as all these lives intersect, the tension builds and builds --- I was so sucked in that by the 3rd chapter that I could literally not put the book down. I read all 376 pages in one day!
Masterfully written; highly recommended.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Book 5 for 2010: "The God of Small Things"

I plucked this book off a shelf at the library based solely on its title, which intrigued me: (I think in retrospect that it reminded me of a Terry Prachett book....) "The God of Small Things," by Arundhati Roy (1997).

At any rate, it turned out to be quite a different, yet oddly similar, experience. Again, I find myself reading a story about a wildly dysfunctional family told from the perspective of a young brother and sister. Again, this family is of an ethnicity with which I have little familiarity: This family is Indian, of India, of a grindingly impoverished area on the southern-most tip of the country, what's called the "Spice Coast."

This is an amazingly convoluted story. It moves backward and forward in time; the characters have names and family names and titles and nicknames, and it is at times a bit difficult to remember who is who; and the language is rich and dense, sometimes TOO dense. I found that it often distracted me from the actual storyline. The author -- a first-time author, although with some writing experience -- uses many, many, many metaphors and made-up descriptives ("a steelshrill police whistle," "cake-crumbled voices...") and Much Use of Capitalizations.

That is not to say that it doesn't work. It does, a lot of the time. And the story she tells is, like the others I've recently read, about Life and Death, and Family and Secrets, and Love and Madness, and all those Larger Themes.

I recommend it to those who, like me, refuse to give up on a book just because the going gets a little tough. I slogged on through; you could, too.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Book #4 in the Big Book Read

I borrowed a stack of books recently from my friend Lisa. She is usually my source for a good read, and I have to confess, all 3 of my thus-far postings for the Big Book Read have been books from her; number 4 is one as well. But I'm wondering how she ended up with these books that are, I now see, geared for the younger reader?!? Not that they aren't really good books! Many of my most favorite books ever are those written for a younger audience: for example, "Walk Two Moons," by Sharon Creech --- if you haven't read it, do. It's awesome. I may just have to re-read it so I can write about it here!

Book number 4 in the Big Book Read marathon is "Freaky Green Eyes," by Joyce Carol Oates, published in 2003. It's another story about a family with a secret, and this secret is so huge that even the people closest to it keep it a secret from themselves.

As an adult myself, it's easy for me to be aware that all kinds of people can be in major denial about the things going on in their lives, in their families. In my work, I have learned that children often love and cling to those who may be abusing them, feeling that this is all they know, and that this is all they have. I also know that adults, especially women, often behave the same way toward an abuser.
In "Freaky Green Eyes," Francesca "Franky" Pierson, 15 years old, tells us, in a first person narrative, the story of her family: her dynamic, charismatic father; submissive, artistic mother; timid 10-year-old sister Samantha; college football-playing brother Todd. And Franky herself, who discovers at age 14 another voice inside her head, strong and not a little scary, a voice that tells the truth. She names this "other" -- "Freaky Green Eyes." And it is Freaky that finally helps Franky see what has been going on in her life, in her family.
As Franky narrates her story, we, her audience, begin to see very clearly what it is that Franky and her siblings can't - or won't. A father who is a celebrity, former pro football star now sportscaster, for whom image matters a great deal, for whom family matters a great deal. A disciplinarian who maintains order in this family through psychological manipulation, physical punishment, and terror. A mother desperate, frightened - and stuck. A younger sister so suppressed her true feelings can only come out in nightmares. And an older brother so inured to the situation, he believes all is well, all is right, and who is on a path that will only create a monster like his own father in himself sooner rather than later.
The tension in this story builds and builds to a terrible event, and we wonder if Franky will listen to the voice of Freaky in time to save any of them.

Joyce Carol Oates has a deserved reputation as a writer, and "Freaky Green Eyes" will stick in your head.