Crossfire

CrossfireI’ve been a fan of Dick Francis since being introduced to his work in 1987. I was at a friend’s house, and I was saying that I like horses, and horse racing, and her mom suggested that I might really enjoy his books. Normally I’m not a big fan of mysteries, but I was sucked in from the start. That first book was Break-In, after which I had to read Bolt, which had the same characters. Luckily, Francis had been writing for years, so I had a large library to go back and read.

Francis and his wife were a team. Their mysteries did most often center around the world of horse racing, but there was usually another aspect that they would go and research. If the story was going to take place on a train traveling across Canada, they would go and travel across Canada on a train.  If he were a photographer, or a pilot, they would research that field as well.  I believe that they had a lot of fun over the years.  When she died in 2000, I thought that was the end of his writing, but instead, he went on and started writing with his son, Felix.  With the death of Dick Francis this year at the age of 90, we are presented with his last book, Crossfire.

The protagonist this time is Capt. Thomas Forsyth, an infantryman in Afghanistan, who is sent home after an IED explodes, blowing off his foot.  He spends several months in the hospital, then is sent home for 6 months to convalesce, before he has a hope of getting back to the military life that he loves.  He is convinced that he can get past the loss of his foot and get back to the battlefield with his men.  Home, in this case, is the home of his mother, a successful racehorse trainer who has taken some bad tax advice from a crooked accountant, and is now years in arrears on her taxes, terrified of being found out, and paying blackmail money to an unknown voice on the other side of the phone.

Enter Forsyth, who is determined to get his mother out of trouble while he figures out his own life.  And of course, in the Francis tradition, there is plenty of danger and death to go around.  I really enjoyed this page turner of a mystery.  I wouldn’t call it my favorite Francis book, but it was a good one.  I’d even go so far as to read a solo book by Felix, should he decide to write one someday.

Good Book

Good Book

I heard about David Plotz’s “Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible” on To the Best of Our Knowledge, and it sounded like an interesting read.  The premise is that Plotz was at his cousin’s Bat Mitzvah, and it was a long one, and he got bored, so he picked up the Bible and started reading.  He opened randomly to the story of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, who was raped by a young man from a neighboring town, who then wishes to marry her.   He and his idol-worshiping father go to Jacob to ask for Dinah’s hand.  Jacob’s sons agree, as long as all of the men of the town agree to be circumcised.  They agree, and on the third day following the circumcision, when they are helpless due to pain, Dinah’s brothers swoop in and murder all of the men, plunder the town, and take the women and children as slaves.  Wow.

I knew about this story, but not from reading the bible.  I had read The Red Tent several years ago, which I LOVED.  But Plotz had not, and his thought was that if there was this interesting and amazing story that he hadn’t heard of in Bible Study, what else might he have missed?  So he decided to go back and read the entire Old Testament, and chronicle his findings on Slate, where he is editor.

Being a devout atheist, I also am woefully ignorant of the contents of the Bible.  I took a class called “Bible as Literature” when I was in college, and I loved it, but the writing is dense and old enough that I could never really stick with reading the Bible on my own.  So the idea of a cliff notes, somewhat lighthearted reading sounded very appealing to me.  And appealing it is.  Here’s an example, from The Book of Leviticus, chapters 8 – 10.

Here’s an episode they probably skip at your church.  God, who’s been uncharacteristically quiet for the first chapters of Leviticus, returns with a vengeance.  Moses ordains Aaron a priest – the ordination requires dabbing blood on “the ridge of Aaron’s right ear,” on his right thumb, and on his right big toe.  Soon afterward, Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu, who are also priests, offer incense to the Lord.  But rather than the prescribed incense, they give God “alien fire.”  Boom! God incinerates them on the spot.  More like a drug lord than a prophet, Moses tells Aaron his sons got what they deserved, and orders some cousins to drag the bodies away and drop them outside the camp.  All they did was burn the wrong incense!  Is the Lord really that petty?  But maybe there’s an important lesson here:  The rituals that seem so picayune and random really matter.  A few verses later, God lectures Aaron: “You must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, between the impure and the pure; and you must teach the Israelites all the law which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses.”  In other words, God seems to be saying that the deaths were not the merciless act of  vindictive deity.  They were a warning to mind the details.

It was interesting to me to see the progress of attitudes through the books of the Bible, from this God who seems perfectly willing to smite people for any infraction, and a people who not only vanquish their enemies, they revel in the violence, to the last chapters, which appear to be more like what is coming in the New Testament, the apocalyptic stories and warnings, talk of Heaven, and precursors to the story of Jesus and some of his teachings. The Bible is such a fundamental book in our culture, and has had such a profound effect on so many aspects of life, that I have often felt that I had a large hole in my education. I’m not saying that reading this book filled me in as well as reading the real thing, but I do feel like I understand The Old Testament, and also some of the culture of Jesus’s time, a bit better.

I wish that Plotz had done the same with the New Testament. I think he’s leaving that to a casual Christian somewhere.

The Millennium Trilogy

Milenium Trilogy

I’ve joined the throngs and read the Millennium Trilogy, by Stieg Larsson, otherwise known as “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo“, “The Girl Who Played With Fire“, and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest“.

From the publisher, quick blurbs.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo:

Harriet Vanger, a scion of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families disappeared over forty years ago. All these years later, her aged uncle continues to seek the truth. He hires Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist recently trapped by a libel conviction, to investigate. He is aided by the pieced and tattooed punk prodigy Lisbeth Salander. Together they tap into a vein of unfathomable iniquity and astonishing corruption.

The Girl Who Played With Fire:

Mikael Blomkvist, crusading journalist and publisher of the magazine Millennium, has decided to run a story that will expose an extensive sex trafficking operation between Eastern Europe and Sweden, implicating well-known and highly placed members of Swedish society, business, and government.

But he has no idea just how explosive the story will be until, on the eve of publication, the two investigating reporters are murdered. And even more shocking for Blomkvist: the fingerprints found on the murder weapon belong to Lisbeth Salander — the troubled, wise-beyond-her-years genius hacker who came to his aid in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and who now becomes the focus and fierce heart of The Girl Who Played with Fire.

As Blomkvist, alone in his belief in Salander’s innocence, plunges into an investigation of the slayings, Salander herself is drawn into a murderous hunt in which she is the prey, and which compels her to revisit her dark past in an effort to settle with it once and for all.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest:

The stunning third and final novel in Stieg Larsson’s internationally best-selling trilogy.

Lisbeth Salander — the heart of Larsson’s two previous novels — lies in critical condition, a bullet wound to her head, in the intensive care unit of a Swedish city hospital. She’s fighting for her life in more ways than one: if and when she recovers, she’ll be taken back to Stockholm to stand trial for three murders. With the help of her friend, journalist Mikael Blomkvist, she will not only have to prove her innocence, but also identify and denounce those in authority who have allowed the vulnerable, like herself, to suffer abuse and violence. And, on her own, she will plot revenge — against the man who tried to kill her, and the corrupt government institutions that very nearly destroyed her life.

Once upon a time, she was a victim. Now Salander is fighting back.

I started Dragon Tattoo while we were in Oregon in vacation in July.  My dad had suggested the books to me, and then my neighbor offered to loan me the first two in the series, so I thought it was synchronicity.   Dragon Tattoo starts out slowly, with lots of boring details about corporate espionage, and lots of Swedish names and references to real events that I didn’t get.  Kinda wonky, maybe like someone from a very different culture watching The West Wing.  After maybe a quarter of the book where I was wondering what the fuss was about, things started to get interesting, with the appearance of Lisbeth Salander, and more detail about the other main protagonist of the story, Mikael Blomkvist.   Things get messy, they almost die a few times, and of course, they survive, which anyone who knows that there are three books in the series will expect.  It’s a real page turner, and you do start to care about these characters, and wonder what will happen next.

In Girl Who Played With Fire, we get less wonkiness, less boring detail about corporate crimes and so on, and a more straight-forward story.  Some of the reporters at Blomkvist’s magazine are writing a book about the sex trade in Sweden, its perpetrators, victims, and an uncaring public and judicial system.  The underlying message is, these are just women, so who cares.  The real hatred of women and any sort of female power that is held by some of the characters in this trilogy is chilling.  It was one aspect of culture that Larsson despised, and was working to expose.  Much like Blomkvist.

Hornet’s Nest (shouldn’t that be Hornets’ Nest?  Have you ever seen a nest with just ONE hornet?) picks up after the bloody conclusion of Fire, and deals partly with the criminals from that second book, but mostly with the corruption involved in the police and the secret service.  I found this section to be the most boring of all three books.  The details Larsson went into in building back characters and describing their lives got to the point where I wanted to say, I DON’T CARE, just get me back to Blomkvist and Salander.  They are the interesting characters.  Sure, there are other interesting characters along the way, but far too much detail was put on the hierarchy and structure of the secret service and its ultra secret wing for me.  I think a third of the book could have been edited out, and it would have been a more enjoyable read.  Probably this is not true if you are Scandinavian, or if you are a big fan of crime fiction, or perhaps even mysteries.  I am none of these things.

Again, the best things about the book are Salander and Blomkvist, and the final third of the book, with the courtroom scene, was very interesting and had me glued to the book.  But it took me several weeks to read, which is a sign of trouble around here.

I’m sure you’ve heard some of the intrigue and back-story of Stieg Larsson.  In case you haven’t, here’s the condensed version.  He wrote for an anti-skinhead magazine in Sweden, and worked to expose violent ultra right-wing extremists.  Because of this, he received numerous death threats, and worked hard to preserve his privacy.  In Sweden, when you marry, your private information is entered into public record, including your home address.  Because he did not wish for his home address to become public and therefore expose himself and his partner to danger, he never married her.  They lived together for over 20 years, and she was supposedly a big help in writing the trilogy.  When Larsson died of a massive heart attack, unexpectedly, before the books were even published, it left his estate in a sticky situation.  He had left his money to the Communist Workers League, but as his will was unwitnessed, it was declared invalid.   His partner had no claim to his money, or the royalties from the trilogy (which have sold over 27 million copies worldwide), and his estate has gone to his father and brother.  His partner, Eva Gabrielsson, reportedly has 3/4 of a fourth book in the series on her computer.  So we’ll see what comes of all of this.   Seems like there should be enough money to go around, to his family, his partner, and his Communists if that was what he wished.  Crazy story, huh?  Almost a book in itself.

The Lost Dog

Commenter CJ stopped by the other day and said that she had found an old mutual bloggy friend of ours, Wendy, who is blogging again, which I had not known, and was glad to find.  Then my friend Theresa from My Fairbanks Life stopped by, and it looks like she’s blogging again. Yay to both! I gotta get motivated and back into it myself. Soon. After I fix my sidebar, I guess, and fill it in with all of your blogs again. In CJ’s comment, she said she liked my book reviews, so in her honor, here’s my review of my most recent read, The Lost Dog, by Michelle de Kretser, which I picked up on a whim whilst browsing the bookstore, and read for the ‘Read’N’Review challenge‘, hosted by the lovely MizB.

The Lost Dog

“At some point in the previous decade, consumption had turned gluttonous.  There was more stuff around.  More people were buying it.  Democracy had become a giant factory outlet.  It was as if endless wealth had been converted by a malicious spell into endless want.  Sometimes, late on a weekend afternoon, Tom would head to a café on Bridge Road.  People crowded the pavements, shopping gathering up all classes and kinds in its dreamy pull.  Isolated, spotlighted, displayed in glass niches, everyday objects took on fetishistic power, a vase or a pair of shoes acquiring the aura once enjoyed by religious icons.  Such things could mean whatever people needed.  They were repositories of dreams.  Over espresso and the papers, Tom observed teh spending that made the getting bearable: a last high-kicking performance on the public stage before the curtain of work came down.”

Tom is an academic writing a book about Henry James. He is an immigrant to Australia, having moved there from his native India as a child. He has fallen in love (or at least strong like) with a local artist, who is famous locally not only for her art (she creates paintings, takes their picture, displays the pictures, and destroys the paintings), but also for the fact that her husband disappeared 20 something years ago, and the mystery of whether he died, whether she killed him, or whether he simply ran away, is very much unsolved. Tom’s mother is an elderly woman, living with her sister, who has gotten to the point where she can no longer control her bowels, and is afraid that this will mean she has to go and live in an old folks home. And, Tom has lost his dog in the Australian bush.

While Tom is searching for his missing dog, he is also ruminating on his book, on his career, on the artist, and on his mother. The search for the dog is but the barest framework for the novel, which has much more to do with his search for truth in himself and in those around him. The writing was at times gorgeous, and the last 50 or 60 pages were engrossing.

The rest of the book, however, I found boring as hell. Yes, beautifully written, but I didn’t care much about Tom, and I cared much less about the artist, the mother, the aunt. I cared a bit for the dog. I think I stuck around to find out about whether he would find his dog more than because I cared about the mother, or if we would find answers to the mystery with the artist and her disappeared husband. I cannot say I would recommend this book, though one of the reviews that I read on Amazon (they almost all hated it, sadly) said that while she hated this book, she adored The Hamilton Case, another book by the same author. Because the writing was so lovely, I may have to give that one a chance.  It reminded me a bit of Possession:  A Romance, by A.S. Byatt, which I also pretty much was bored to tears by, except for the last 80 to 100 pages.  And Byatt writes about what a gripping tale this one is.  So I guess they have a common style, one which clearly doesn’t engage me.

Leviathan


In an alternate reality Europe, the early 1900s are filled with two very different cultures; the Clankers, and the Darwinists. The Clankers have built amazing machines that can walk and fly and even run. They distrust the Darwinist mightily, and feel that they have made some ungodly discoveries. The Darwinists have taken the discoveries of Darwin, (alternate reality Darwin has discovered DNA, and how to manipulate it), and have created living beasts that serve as machines. A whale that flies, like a giant dirigible, but one in which the passengers ride inside of, rather than beneath.

It is 1914, and Aleksandar is the prince of Austria. When his parents are murdered, he is whisked away for safekeeping, as Europe plunges into war. Deryn is an Irish girl who longs to fly more than anything, so she disguises herself as a boy and joins the British Air Force.

The opening months of the war unfold while Aleksandar flees the Germans who would have him dead, and Deryn begins to prove herself as a talented airman, belching and swearing along with her fellow soldiers, to keep them from suspecting her secret, one that would have her soundly down on earth again, wearing dresses and missing all the fun. Not that she thinks war is fun. Not in the least. But flying, flying she loves.

Their stories converge to a taut and suspenseful ending in this first of four planned stories, Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld and Keith Thompson. Westerfeld authored the Pretties series, one of Maya’s favorites EVER, and Thompson’s illustrations bring the story to life, especially the somewhat confusing Darwinist creations. I’ve never read anything in the Steampunk genre before, but once I got past the somewhat boring descriptions early on (not generally good at Sci-Fi or Fantasy reading for this reason) this book had me hooked, and I’m looking forward to the release of the second book in the series this fall.

Sprout

I have a secret. And everyone knows it. But no one talks about it, at least not out in the open. That makes it a very modern secret, like knowing your favorite celebrity has some weird eccentricity or other, or professional athletes do it for the money, or politicians don’t actually have your best interests at heart.

Sprout is the story of Daniel Bradford, a kid who decides that if he can’t fit in, it will at least be on his own terms. He’s a gifted writer, something that his English teacher figures out pretty quickly and moves to hone in time for the state essay-writing contest. The teen years are difficult at best, but Daniel (nicknamed Sprout for his green hair) doesn’t have much help. His mother died from cancer a few years ago, leaving his father a depressed, drunken shell. To escape the pain of the memories of their life in New Jersey, his dad decides to move them out west (Sprout has about an hour of warning about this impending move), where they haphazardly land in Kansas. His father takes the money from the sale of their home in New Jersey and puts it into a plot of land, a trailer, and enough alcohol to keep him drunk most of the time.

So here he is, living in Kansas, trying to figure out who he is, and if he might fit in at all. He’s 16, gay (though closeted, because he doesn’t really want the kind of hell that being out in rural Kansas might bring upon a green haired teen with an alcoholic father who lives in a trailer overgrown by ivy), and talented. He sometimes has sex with the captain of the football team in the janitor’s closet at school, and he mostly writes about his best friend, Ruth, because she mostly thinks about herself and likes to share her stories, and he isn’t ready to talk about what’s going on in his life, in his mind, or in his heart.

Until now.

Post updated to answer the question, did I like this book. Yes, I liked it quite a bit. The prose was entertaining, thoughtful, and intelligent. Sprout’s situation, his family and friends, were sometimes not totally well fleshed out. But his own view of the world, his feelings and thoughts, are moving, and I found myself charmed by the character.

Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea

A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.  ~ Margaret Mead

In 1993 Greg Mortenson was the exhausted survivor of a failed attempt to ascend K2, an American climbing bum wandering emaciated and lost through Pakistan’s Karakoram Himalaya. After he was taken in and nursed back to health by the people of an impoverished Pakistani village, Mortenson promised to return one day and build them a school. From that rash, earnest promise grew one of the most incredible humanitarian campaigns of our time — Greg Mortenson’s one-man mission to counteract extremism by building schools, especially for girls, throughout the breeding ground of the Taliban.

Award-winning journalist David Oliver Relin has collaborated on this spellbinding account of Mortenson’s incredible accomplishments in a region where Americans are often feared and hated. In pursuit of his goal, Mortenson has survived kidnapping, fatwas issued by enraged mullahs, repeated death threats, and wrenching separations from his wife and children. But his success speaks for itself. At last count, his Central Asia Institute had built fifty-five schools.  Three Cups of Tea is at once an unforgettable adventure and the inspiring true story of how one man really is changing the world — one school at a time.

(From the publisher, cribbed from the Powell’s Books page)

I received this book twice for Christmas in 2007, once from my friend Neva, who had Greg Mortenson as a keynote speaker at a conference on Epilepsy (she is the Executive Director of the Epilepsy Foundation of Northern California.  His sister had Epilepsy.), and once from my step-mother.  I don’t remember her connection to the story…if it was just that she read it and loved it, or if there was more.  That was sickmas, and memories are dim.  Anyway, receiving it twice, I figured I should read it, though non-fiction normally isn’t my bag, baby.

I’m not sure how much of the writing is Relin’s, and how much is Mortenson’s, but I found it clunky and sometimes difficult to get through.  But the story is such a hopeful one of doggedness and faith in humanity, that you forgive the writing and want to find out what is coming next.  I mean, you know to an extent, but as the story goes from the mid-90s, with Mortenson alone and living in his car, selling his possessions to save money for that first school, to September 11th and beyond, I found I wanted to know how he got from point A to point Z, and the steps in between.  While I don’t recommend this book for the writing necessarily, I highly recommend it for the story, and for the hope it puts in your heart about what is possible, and what a difference one person can make in the lives of others.

It’s also really interesting to read about Mortenson’s understanding of the sometimes extreme Muslim culture of the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, how he understands these people far more than most westerners.  He sees the mistakes we are making in our handling of the wars in the region, and has some interesting ideas on solutions.  This is the part of the book that most gripped me, so I’m interested to read the follow-up book, Stones Into Schools.

Greg Mortenson is the founder of the nonprofit organization, Central Asia Institute, which funds the building of the schools.  He also founded Pennies for Peace, which is a charity allowing children to donate their pennies to help build schools for schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Here’s a very interesting interview he did for Bill Moyers Journal.   It’s not short, but it’s worth viewing.  Especially his views on why it is especially important toward bringing peace to the world, that girls receive an education.  Rather than fighting terrorism, his view is to promote peace.

The Help

The Help
KarenMEG recommended The Help over on her blog, so I thought I’d put it on hold at the library. I did, but then I found out I was number 258 in line for it, and decided that maybe I’d buy it myself. So the next time we were at the bookstore, I looked for it, but I couldn’t find it in the fiction area. I asked the helpful person behind the information desk, and he said they should have it, they had 5 copies an hour earlier, but it was downstairs on the ‘Best Sellers’ shelf. Down we went, where he scooped up the very last copy and handed it to me. Whew.

I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to best sellers. I look at the list in our Sunday paper, of national bestsellers, and I feel snotty thoughts about how I prefer literature to drivel, and most people are clearly stupid. Seeing this in writing, and looking at the books in my book reviews tab, I realize that not only am I a snob, I’m a misguided snob, because quite a bit of what I read is NOT high literature. So I need to get over myself quite quickly.

The Help is Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel, a story based partially upon her upbringing in Mississippi. They had an elderly black maid, Demetrie, whom Stockett loved dearly as a child. But though she loved Demetrie, she never really considered what Demetrie’s life was like, and she felt at some points that she was lucky to have them to cook and clean for. So when Stockett grew up and went to New York, she decided that she wanted to explore that theme a bit, explore the everyday life of black maids in the deep south at a pivotal time in history, 1963 and 1964.  That she is a white woman trying to get into the heads and voices of black women of the time was a bit jarring at first, but it didn’t take me long to get past that.

The story is told through the eyes of three characters.  There is Aibileen, a maid mourning the death of her 24-year-old son, who has raised 17 white children.  She loves taking care of babies, but only until the point when they start to understand and agree with their station in life, that they are superior to her by virtue of the color of their skin.  She knows how to quietly take it from the boss, but isn’t ready to take it from the boss’s children.  So at that point, she moves on to another house.

There is Minnie, an angry maid with young children and an abusive husband at home, who is fired from job after job because she speaks her mind to her employers, which they consider to be mouthing off.  She unfailingly finds new work, because she is an amazing cook.  Until now, when her most recent employer decides to accuse her of stealing some of the silver.  Now she’s having more trouble finding work, and has to resort to working for someone out of town, out of the inner circle of Junior League ladies. Someone who desperately wants into that world.

And there is Skeeter, a 23-year-old recent graduate of Ole’ Miss, who has come home a failure at finding a husband (her mother’s dream, not hers), and is trying to find her way as an author.  The advice she receives is twofold and differing.  First, get a job writing for a local paper, no matter what it is, and write.  That gets her writing every day, and starts her building a name for herself.  Secondly, write for herself, about something important, something that bothers her.  So she decides she will write about the way that white employers treat their domestic help, spurred on by a local battle over putting in separate toilets for the maids to use, so that the employers don’t have to use the same bathroom as the help.

Talking to Skeeter is a dangerous proposition.  Medgar Evers has just been murdered for speaking out against racial injustice, and the adult son of one of the maids is blinded by the brutal beating he receives for using a ‘white only’ bathroom.  Skeeter understands the danger at some level, but not deep down.  Aibileen and Minnie deeply understand the risk they would take in telling their story, but keeping their stories hidden inside is killing them.

The stories themselves are varied.  There is hatred for the cruelty and indignities that the maids are forced to endure, but there is also genuine love and affection for some of the white families, and certainly for the children they are raising.  It is a bizarre world where there is much love and affection on both sides, and yet the power structure is so heavily weighted to one side, there is never any real possibility of understanding between them.

I would say that Kathryn Stockett has done a wonderful job, though a few characters were more caricature than real, and I was completely sucked in.  I was glad to have a few hours to myself on Friday evening to gobble the book up.  I recommend it.

This World We Live In

This World We Live In

For the first time ever I hoped there was no Baby Rachel.  I don’t know what happened to Dad and Lisa, if the baby was ever born.  It must be so hard now to have a baby.  Lisa could have miscarried or had a stillborn baby.  Horrible though that is, it might be for the better.

I tiptoed out of the sunroom and through the kitchen to the bathroom.  It smells of fish and bedpans and ocean breeze air freshener.  I curled up on the cold tile floor, and I rocked back and forth, glad it made my body ache even more, like I deserved the punishment for what I’d been thinking.

I hate my dreams.  I hate Matt for bringing Syl into our lives, and I hate Syl for giving me her nightmares.

I hate this world we live in.

In Life as We Knew It, we meet Miranda Evans and her family when an asteroid hits the moon, pushing it closer to Earth, and causing natural disasters around the globe.  Miranda, her mother, and two brothers are better off than most.  They have a wood burning stove, and live next to a wood, so are able to survive the winter that quickly sets in upon them.   In The Dead and the Gone, we meet Alex Morales, a 17 year old boy in New York City, who is left orphaned by the same cataclysmic events, and must figure out how to feed and care for his two younger sisters, how to survive without their parents.

This World We Live In is the third book in Susan Beth Pfeffer’s post-apocalyptic series, and begins a few months after the first two books end.  Food is running short, and Miranda and her family are barely scraping by.   Along come Miranda’s father, step-mother, and their new baby, along with Alex, one of his sisters, and another stranger.  They have been traveling long and hard, hoping to find Miranda’s family safe, and longing to be close together in this alternate reality, one without telephones, mail service, television, and very little radio communication.  Miranda’s family welcomes in the newcomers, despite the shortness of food, and as the families come together and try to determine how they will blend, how they will survive, Miranda finds herself falling in love with Alex, and thinking that the future might not be as bleak as she once thought.

I read (and reviewed) the first two books awhile ago, and was happy to see this third book released recently.  It is told in the voice of Miranda’s diary, and the glimpses of horror and pain are tempered by those of faith, love, and enduring humanity.  A very good young-adult read.

The Bride’s Farewell

The Bride's Farewell

“On the morning of August the twelfth, eighteen hundred and fifty something, on the day she was to be married, Pell Ridley crept up from her bed in the dark, kissed her sisters goodbye, fetched Jack in from the wind and rain on the heath, and told him they were leaving. Not that he was likely to offer any objections, being a horse.”

Pell knows far more about horses than she does about men, or women, or the workings of the human heart. She understands horses, can look at a horse and see into its spirit, and know whether it will be a good worker, a good companion, a safe ride. She takes this knowledge with her to the Salisbury Horse Market, hoping to find work and somehow figure out what to do with her life, now that she’s left the only life she’s ever known behind.

Along with her parents and sisters, she leaves behind Birdie, her fiancé and neighbor, the boy who loves her deeply, who gave her her beloved horse, Jack. She feels bad about this, as she does love him. But Birdie wants children, lots of them. A house full. For that, she thinks, any other bride would do, as long as it isn’t her.

“A house full of children? She had only to look at her mother – worn and shapeless with a leaking bladder, great knotted blue veins, and breasts flat as old wineskins – to reject that plan. And worse, even, than the physical toll was the grinding disappointment, the drudgery, the changelessness of life in this place.”

Besides Jack, Pell reluctantly brings her youngest (and only surviving) brother, a mute boy brought home by her father and raised by her mother, under the agreement that this would be her last child. She has, after all, given birth to nine children. Along her journey, Pell passes through small villages, and the young women in the yards of the cottages stop and stare at her. Some with disdain, wondering what a young woman might be doing out and about in the world, unaccompanied, unprotected by a father, brother, or husband. Some with hunger, wishing that they, too, could be free of the future stretching before them, full of chores and illness and hunger, full of endless pregnancy and childbirth, living the same lives that their mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers lived before them. Quite a few women look at her with a mixture of both of these emotions.

Off to the Horse Market they go, where Pell does indeed find work, but also loses her wonderful horse, Jack, and her little brother, Bean. Her plans suddenly change, as she has been cheated out of the money owed to her, she has no horse, and she must find her brother. The story weaves back and forth, from her dismal past with a no-good preacher of a father and a worn out mother, to her journey away from destiny. Whether destiny or free will is in control of her life, she is not sure. She only knows she must try to avoid the future that waits for her in her home village of Nomansland.

“For those poor souls who can only think of the terrible fear and danger of a runaway horse, think of this: a speed like water flowing over stone, a skimming sensation that hovers and dips while the world spins round and the wind drags your skin taut across your bones. You can close your eyes and lose yourself in the rhythm, because nothing you do or shout or wish for will happen until the running makes up its mind to stop. So you hold steady, balancing yourself in the wake, and unhook your mind from the everyday while you wait at the silent center of it all and hope that the feeling won’t stop till you’re good and ready for life to be ordinary once more.

The problem being that she never was.”

I really liked this book, really liked Pell. I found her brave and strong, yet devoted to her family and her own vision of happiness. Not all in this household agreed, however. Maya read the book before I did, and kept asking me whether I hated Pell yet. Whether I had come to my senses and saw what a cruel, evil, selfish person she was. She asked if we could burn the book when I was finished with it. She wanted to cross out the word “Pell” throughout the book, and write in something akin to ‘crazy bi-otch’. So, The Bride’s Farewell, by Meg Rosoff, gets mixed reviews around here. Read it, and decide for yourself.

The Night Listener

The Night Listener

I know how it sounds when I call him my son. There’s something a little precious about it, a little too wishful to be taken seriously. I’ve noticed the looks on people’s faces, those dim, indulgent smiles that vanish in a heartbeat. It’s easy enough to see how they’ve pegged me: an unfulfilled man on the shady side of fifty, making a last grasp at fatherhood with somebody else’s child.

That’s not the way it is. Frankly, I’ve never wanted a kid. Never once believed that nature’s whim had robbed me of my manly destiny. Pete and I were an accident, pure and simple, a collision of kindred spirits that had nothing to do with parental urges, latent or otherwise. That much I can tell you for sure.

Son isn’t the right word, of course.

Just the only one big enough to describe what happened.

So begins Armistead Maupin’s novel,The Night Listener. The protagonist is Gabriel Noone, a late-night radio personality who tells stories to listeners near and far. Garbriel lives in San Francisco, but his radio program is syndicated, and so is heard all over the country, including by a thirteen-year-old boy, Pete, who has been tortured by his parents and survived to tell the tale. And tell it he does, in a book, which is in the process of being published. Pete is a big fan of Gabriel’s radio program, and asks him if he’ll write a blurb for the back of the book, to help in its publication. They strike up a long distance friendship, entirely over the phone, which becomes more and more important to Gabriel as his own life starts to fall apart.

The only other work I’ve read of Maupin’s is his Tales of the City series, books my father gave me not long after I first moved to San Francisco, egged on partially because my roommate was a gay man, partially because I was planning on volunteering at the suicide hot line (never did, since between my full time school and full time job, I didn’t have time to spare), and partially because they are a well told serial of stories told about life in San Francisco. I liked those books a lot, though I wish Mary Ann hadn’t changed so much, personality wise, from the beginning of the series to the end.

The Night Listener was gripping, an easy read, a real page turner. I wanted Gabriel to find happiness, wanted Pete to be successful and find peace from his horrific childhood. It was a good read, though I doubt it is a book I would read over and over again. Looking around online, I discovered it was made into a film several years ago, starring Robin Williams and Toni Collette. Anyone seen it?

The Good Thief

The Good Thief

Ren is a twelve-year old, one-handed orphan, living in 19th century New England. He was left at a Catholic orphanage as an infant, pushed through a wooden door in the gate one rainy night, and spends his time wondering who his parents are, why they left him here, and if he will ever be adopted.

The gate was hinged to open one way – in.  When Ren pushed at the tiny door with his finger, he could feel the strength of the wooden frame behind it.  There was no handle on the children’s side, no groove to lift from underneath.  The wood was heavy, thick, and old – a fine piece of oak planed years before from the woods beyond the orphanage.  Ren liked to imagine he felt a pressure in return, a mother reaching back through, changing her mind, groping wildly, a thin white arm.

Because of his missing hand, Ren doesn’t expect that he will ever be adopted. The farmers in the area who adopt most of the children are looking for a child who can work on the farm. Children who are not adopted are generally sent to the army, and never heard from again. It is because of his hand, however, that he is adopted by a man claiming to be his older brother, a scam artist who looks at Ren’s missing hand as a way to induce sympathy from strangers in the form of handouts.

Thus start the adventures of Hannah Tinti’s The Good Thief, sort of a mix of Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson, full of strange outcasts and thieves. There are unlucky twins, dwarfs, deaf landladies, harelips, murderers and grave robbers. Throughout the story, Ren’s inner goodness shines through, though he is mostly powerless to change the events that are unfolding around him. And deep down, he is looking for a family. Not just a group of rag-tag thieves who accept him as one of them, but a mother and a homey environment filled with love and safety. I really enjoyed this book a lot, really liked Ren, and found myself hoping that he finds the answers he seeks.

Breaking Her Fall

Breaking Her FallOne summer night in July of 1998, Tucker Jones drops his 14-year-old daughter, Kat, off with her (slightly older) friend, Abby, in front of a movie theater. But the girls meet up with a group of older boys, one of whom is Abby’s boyfriend, Jed. Jed’s parents are out of town, and he invites the girls back to his place for a party. The party is big and gets out of control, and a few hours later, Tucker receives a phone call from the parent of another girl, telling him that Kat has been drinking shots, has gotten naked, and gone into the pool house to give oral sex to several high school aged boys. Tucker flips out, and rushes over to Jed’s house to rescue his daughter, only to find the party long over, three or four somewhat sober boys sitting around a deck table talking and laughing, and Kat nowhere to be found. When Jed tells Tucker that he doesn’t know where Kat is, Tucker loses his temper, and smashes the empty beer bottles off of the table with a shovel he picked up on his way in. He and Jed get into a shoving match, and Jed slips and hits his head against the table, hard.

Thus begins this page turner of a novel, Breaking Her Fall, by Stephen Goodwin. Goodwin paints Tucker as a decent and loving father, a man who finds himself sinking into a moral quagmire, who is struggling to save his business, his reputation, and most importantly, his relationship with his daughter. Tucker is in over his head in dealing with this situation, and is struck over and over again by the pressures that teenage girls are forced to navigate.

Buffalo jumps. I’d been reading about Montana, and I kept thinking about the buffalo jumps, the cliffs over which the Plains Indians drove the herds of buffalo, slaughtering them in great numbers. That was happening to the girls. As I say, my imagination was drawn to violent images, but when I saw knots of girls on the street in their summer outfits, their tiny shorts and halters, with their spangly makeup and paste-on tattoos, when I saw them acting out the roles defined for them in the thousands of commercials and TV shows and popular songs and movies, when I put all this together with the case studies I was reading of the girls who cut themselves or couldn’t eat or simply couldn’t function, when I thought of what was happening to Kat – when I tried to make sense of it all, it seemed to me that the girls were as helpless and confused and panicky as the buffalo must have been as they stampeded over the edge of the precipice, that in all the noise and din they had lost their bearings, they they had no idea of the dangers of the plunge they were about to make.

Goodwin writes of the emotions and the difficult, halting conversations as Tucker and Kat try to understand how the events of that July night could possibly have come to unfold. As they try to understand each others’ actions and motives, to forgive not only each other, but themselves. As they try to find their way back together as a family, as the gossip mill of Washington DC blurs around them, as Kat is expelled from her private school, as Tucker’s ex-wife tries to fight for custody of Kat and her brother, Will. The story takes a lot of sideways and backward turns, as Tucker tries to unravel his own inner workings, tries to figure out who he is after this violent day, and as the family tries to mend its wounds and figure out if they can come together again.

I liked Breaking Her Fall a lot.  Most of the novels that I read are about women, especially those that are about emotions, passion, and family issues.  To read them from a man’s perspective was a welcome change.  His protectiveness for his children, his tenderness, and the way he has of keeping people at a distance since his divorce are all written so honestly and cleanly, that they will speak to many.  The end is a bit pat and predictable, but overall, a very good read, and one that I would recommend.

Day After Night

Day After Night

The nightmares made their rounds hours ago.  The tossing and whimpering are over.  Even the insomniacs have settled down.  The twenty restless bodies rest, and faces aged by hunger, grief, and doubt relax to reveal the beauty and the pity of their youth.  Not one of the women in Barrack C is twenty-one, but all of them or orphans.

Their cheeks press against small, military-issue pillows that smell of disinfectant.  Lumpy and flat from long service under heavier heads, they bear no resemblance to the goose-down clouds that many of them enjoyed in childhood.  And yet, the girls burrow into them with perfect contentment, embracing them like teddy bears.  There were no pillows for them in the other barracks.  No one gives a pillow to an animal.

The Atlit detainee camp was a detention center set up by the British to hold Jewish refugees who were fleeing the Nazis, trying to reach Palestine and what would soon become the nation of Israel.  Refugees were brought in, sprayed with DDT, and put into communal showers.  They were kept at Atlit until their papers could be verified, which was understandably very difficult for many holocaust survivors, as they escaped with nothing.  While nowhere nearly so horrific as what they had endured and fought against during the war, being held in a camp like prisoners was a bitter reminder to the inmates that they had no real home, no land where they were truly welcome. In October of 1945, the detainees of Atlit are rescued by the Israelis from the nearby kibbutzes.

Anita Diamant, author of the amazing The Red Tent, has taken this piece of history and written a wonderful book of historical fiction.  Day After Night tells the story of 4 young women who meet at in the limbo of Atlit.  They are Shayndel, a Polish Zionist who questions her own part in the movement; Tedi, a Dutch Jew who spent much of the war hidden away in the barn of a farming family; Leonie, a blonde who spent the war in Paris; and Zorah, a woman haunted by her memories of the Concentration Camp.  All four women have lost their entire families.  All four are alone in the world, all four had unspeakable experiences which haunt them and linger in their memories.  All four are hoping to find freedom and happiness in the new land of Israel, but are hesitant to allow themselves real hope.  It has been so long since any dreams come true.  For too long, their lives have been more reminiscent of nightmares.

While the story is framed around the historic event of the liberation of the prisoners of Atlit, the real story is that of these four young women, their friendship, and the weight of their memories and losses.  As their separate stories come out, their secret fears and secret shames, they are bound closer together. Together, they can begin to find some balance in the world, however temporary, before they part from one another and go their separate ways.

I found this to be a very compelling read. I’m not sure I liked it quite as much as I liked The Red Tent, but that is a tall order. I don’t like many books as much as I liked The Red Tent. Day After Night is a wonderful book, and I would highly recommend it.

Healthy Choices

I'm, Lik, SO fat!I recently read a book that I thought might be good for the parents of any teen. Especially girls, but boys as well. It was recommended to me by a friend, who was particularly impressed by the section on how dieting does NOT work, and that especially in teens who are still growing, it usually leads to the body ‘resetting’ at a higher weight. So teens who diet are likely to end up weighing more than they might have otherwise. Any teen thinking about going on a diet might think twice if given this information. This books appears to be mostly common sense, but completely against what the consumer culture and diet industry would like us to believe.

The book is titled: “I’m, like, SO fat” Helping Your Teen Make Healthy Choices About Eating and Exercise in a Weight Obsessed World, by Dianne Newmark-Sztainer, PhD.

One thing that struck me was how our culture is obsessed with being thin, while at the same time, our culture pushes super-sized junk food. Our kids are supposed to be fit, strong, and ripped, and at the same time, video games are getting better and better, as are opportunities for kids to have a social life and a lot of fun on the internet. So they’re supposed to eat crap, sit around, and yet be thin and strong. An impossible combination.

The focus of the book is mostly helping your teen if and when they start struggling with body issues, perhaps talking about wanting to lose weight, perhaps starting to diet on their own. She urges you to talk to your kids about dieting, about how it DOES NOT WORK, no matter what Special K and Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig would like you to believe. If it worked, it would work, and they’d be out of business. She urges you to help your children to manage their weight through behavior, not diet. Behaviors like eating all of the foods on the food pyramid, and not restricting yourself from entire groups (like Atkins does). Like getting out and moving some. Healthy eating and a healthy activity level will bring a healthy weight. Perhaps not as fast, but more long lasting, and leading to happier, healthier person.  Also, what is a healthy weight for one child may not be a healthy weight for another person of the same height, even if they have the same build.  We have to learn to trust our bodies.  This is extremely difficult for teens, who compare their bodies so much to those of their friends, and might wish they could be the same size as a thinner friend, or have the curves of another friend.

She also talks about helping your teen to have better self-esteem, something that’s sometimes difficult at this age, when so much of our teens self-esteem seems to be wrapped up in their looks more than anything else. I was hoping for more concrete information in this area, but she focused mainly on parental behaviors. She says, the four cornerstones of promoting healthy body image are:

1. Model healthy behaviors for your children.

  • Avoid dieting, or at least unhealthy dieting behaviors.
  • Avoid making weight-related comments as much as possible.
  • Engage in regular physical activity that you enjoy.
  • Model healthy (but NOT perfect) eating patterns and food choices.

2. Provide an environment that makes it easy for your children to make healthy choices.

  • Make healthy choices readily available.
  • Establish family meal norms that work for your family.
  • Make physical activity the norm in your family and limit TV watching.
  • Support your teen’s efforts to get involved in physical activity.

3. Focus less on weight, instead focus on behaviors and overall health.

  • Encourage your teen to adopt healthy behaviors without focusing on weight loss.
  • Help your teen develop an identity that goes beyond physical appearance.
  • Establish a no-tolerance policy for weight teasing in your home. (This means fat jokes about people on TV even.)

4. Provide a supportive environment with lots of talking and even more listening.

  • Be there to listen and provide support when your teen discusses weight concerns.
  • When your teen talks about fat, find out what is really going on.
  • Keep the lines of communication open – no matter what.
  • Provide unconditional love, not based on weight, and let your child know how you feel.

There’s also a section on parenting an overweight child, and helping them to find acceptance and happiness with their body, and another on how to spot the warning signs of an eating disorder. The key if you suspect that your child might possibly, perhaps, maybe be coming down with an eating disorder, is to TRUST YOUR GUT. Get them help. The sooner, the better.

Neumark-Sztainer is the parent of four teens, and so she has tips on bringing up touchy topics with touchy teens. This books wasn’t the be-all and answer-all type that I thought it might be, but I thought it did have some very good, affirming information, thoughtfully presented.