Tuesday, November 27, 2012

"A Land More Kind Than Home" by Wiley Cash

I've been in a reading rut. Nothing I've read recently really excites me. In fact, I went back and looked, and I think Cloud Atlas, in June, was the last book that I really got excited about (Gone Girl almost had me, but the ending turned me off). So, into this slump comes A Land More Kind Than Home, which is an engaging and well-written book with a good pace and interesting characters. Nonetheless, it too did little to move me.

Perhaps that's because there's not a whole lot of new ground in Cash's novel. The piece centers on the Hall family and the "healing" at the church of the mother, Julie Hall, which results in the death of her mute son Christopher "Stump" Hall. The book is narrated by Jess, Stump's younger brother; Clem, the town's sheriff; and Adelaide, an elderly woman who cares for the church children. There's a fanatical and evil minister, Carson Chambliss, and a drunk grandfather Hall. There's small town quietness and the sheriff's old wounds. Despite Stump being at the center of what happens, the reader gets very little idea of who he is. Instead, the book focuses on others' reactions to his death and the relationships that crumble or develop as a result.

Again, it was enjoyable to read and all, but I just find myself with nothing to say now that's it done. The novel is actually a book club pick for December, and I'm not quite sure how we'll sustain an hour or two of discussion on it.

Monday, November 19, 2012

"The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry seems like it would be a good generic book club selection. I don't mean that as an insult (to the novel or to "chit-chat rather than actually talk about the book" clubs) so much as acknowledgment of what the book is: pleasant and vaguely interesting without being important. The characters are sufficiently sympathetic, and the book isn't overly saccharine. Plus, I like how Joyce has taken the "year off to travel Europe" conceit and applied it to a 60-year-old retiree. Still, there's little to remember in the plot or style.

The protagonist of the novel is Harold Fry; his marriage has been cold for a long time, and neither he nor his wife have moved on from their son's death twenty years ago (it's supposed to be a "big reveal" at the end that the son is dead, but the fact seemed very obvious to me early on). One day, Harold receives a letter from Queenie, a former coworker who left suddenly many years ago and is now dying of cancer. Though initially Harold plans only to mail her a letter in reply, he suddenly gets the urge to walk to Berwick, where she is residing, even though it's hundreds of miles away and even though he's made no preparations. Harold comes to believe that his walk will save Queenie--and maybe himself.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage follows Harold on his journey to Queenie, cataloging the required odd characters he meets along the way and describing his journey into a more purposeful man. Though the book seems ever in danger of dipping into the cliche or maudlin, Joyce does a nice job of keeping an even hand. Harold does grow, and he helps some people, but he doesn't save everyone. And Joyce also mostly acknowledges that there's no real heroism in just walking--I've always been skeptical when I read stories about so-and-so biking 1000 miles for breast cancer or something. Is that supposed to be a big sacrifice? Who wouldn't want to give up working and real world responsibilities for months and just focus on moving forward?

Interestingly, this book paired well with The Middlesteins in its depiction of a 60-something couple who has grown distant. In both cases the couple has stayed together despite the poor relationship, with the woman becoming the nag and the man becoming the silent hermit. Oh, and teenage children hate their parents. The terrors of teenage children and the lovelessness of long-term marriages were so eerily similar in both that I almost felt depressed. I suppose happily married couples aren't interesting to write about.

Joyce's novel would be safe for nearly everyone (though a few of the people Harold meets have decidedly "risque" stories) and does provide a nice contrast with the "finding yourself" stories of the young, but it's nothing that will stay with me.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"The Middlesteins" by Jami Attenberg

The Middlesteins seems an apt book for our times, where the American obesity crisis is at an all-time high and weight loss stories, plans, and hysteria are everywhere. On the surface, the novel is about Edie and the effect her obesity and food addiction has on those around her: her husband, her two grown children, her daughter-in-law and grandchildren. But although Edie's unhealthy relationship with food is the crisis which brings the other characters into focus, in the end, The Middlesteins isn't really about food. Instead, it's about the hurts we nurse and the way we use relationships to mend or exacerbate those pains.

Each chapter of the novel focuses on a different character, with the chapters on Edie also going back in time to her pre-obesity crisis days. In doing so, I think Attenberg actually does a better job of bringing out the family member characters than Edie herself. We never quite know why Edie, a smart, compelling lawyer, does what she does, and some of the scenes of her fast-food binging seem almost cliche. Rachelle, Edie's high-strung daughter-in-law, is more fully sketched. She wants to help Edie, but she can't do so without driving her family to the extreme (kale salads every night) in overcompensation. I also found Richard, Edie's husband who abandons her, an interesting character. Much like Gone Girl (though the characters in this book are realistic and not psychopaths), Attenberg uses the alternating chapters to offer different points of view of the same character. You can see why Richard is both sympathetic and a jerk, or why Robin (Edie and Richard's daughter) is both loving and spiteful.

And though I said the book isn't about food, it still offers interesting commentary on our relationship with eating. Though I've always been skinny, in recent months my husband and I have switched to a significantly healthier diet in hopes of establishing long-term healthy habits. Though I'm glad of the change, consciously eating differently has made me much more focused on food than ever before. Throughout the week, I find myself switching between extremes--going all "Rachelle" and insisting on super-healthy vegetable-laden meals (even though I hate quinoa and am only mildly better with kale) and then swinging to an "Edie" and binging on desserts at work. I don't want to be either extreme, but I find it really challenging to be at a happy medium. Attenberg too suggests that there's not one right or wrong way and that our food--and personal--relationships will always be complicated.

The Middlesteins is a very quick read, and I'd recommend it for its smart use of point of view as well as its topical subject matter.

Monday, November 12, 2012

"Fooling Houdini" by Alex Stone

Like many, I suppose, I had a very brief flirtation with magic as a kid. I must have received the magic kit for a birthday (it seems like a grandparent gift) sometime in elementary school, and I spent some time fooling with the plastic magic wand and other assorted tricks the box contained. At some point I reached an unwarranted level of confidence and even put on a show for my neighbors--albeit a show where one trick actually required the audience to close their eyes as I made a ball "disappear" by hiding it behind the grill. That show was the end of my magic career.

Nonetheless, in Fooling Houdini, Stone has a point when he argues that magic is something that appeals to many of us, as audience or performer, but that there's something special in being able to fool and delight another person. With that in mind, Fooling Houdini explores various wide-ranging topics related to the fooling and delighting that is magic: early and modern con games; the psychology of fooling; the magic of mindreading; the importance of touch in performing magic; the importance placed on secrecy; the shuffle; the role of mathematics. The book isn't always completely focused (it reminded me some of Ronson's The Psychopath Test in that way), but it is interesting. Stone also reveals the processes behind a number of magic tricks (mostly card tricks, his specialty), which I enjoyed, as I agree with Stone that knowing the science behind a trick doesn't diminish the awe of seeing it performed any. For me the parts focused on magic specifically were more interesting than the chapters on psychology only because I've read so many other books (Thinking Fast and Slow, Moonwalking with Einstein, The Mind's Eye) that address the psychology of the human mind more thoroughly.

Once I finished, the book Fooling Houdini reminded me the most of was Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein, which is even mentioned and referenced in Stone's book. Like Foer, Stone begins and ends his book with a competition--a memory competition for Foer, a close-up magic competition for Stone. Both men also center their books and their exploration of their topics through the personal lens of training and improving their craft. For this reason, almost as much of Fooling Houdini is about Stone's personal quest to find his place as a magician as it is about magic in general. Depending on how much you invest in Stone's journey may affect how much you enjoy the book; I found his personal story a bit uninteresting in the beginning, though it grew on me by the end.

Though the book is probably too simplistic for people who have studied magic or psychology, it is an easy dip into many of the unknowns related to magic.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

"Midnight's Children" by Salman Rushdie

The basic premise of Rushdie's Midnight's Children sounds almost like it could be a YA fantasy/dystopian novel (admittedly, a surprisingly worldly and non-European YA given the current state of the genre): on midnight the day of India's independence from Britain, several hundred babies, "midnight's children," are born. Each of these children is endowed with a special gift or power, none more so than the two male babies born right at midnight: Saleem and Shiva. Unbeknownst to either boy or either boy's family, the two babies are switched shortly after birth by a kind-hearted but wrong-headed nurse. Narrated by Saleem, Midnight's Children follows the boy as he grows up and discovers his powers of telepathy and his ability to communicate with and bring together, in his mind, all of midnight's children. As Saleem's life mirrors the development of India as a country, his life also irrevocably heads toward confrontation with Shiva, his rival.

Although I knew going in that this wasn't going to be an action-oriented kid-with-powers adventure, I guess part of me hoped that Midnight's Children would, I don't know, be an interesting mash-up of fantasy and history, YA and political understanding. After all, Rushie's Luka and the Fire of Life, which I enjoyed,  had that kind of tone. Instead, Midnight's Children is magical realism, history, and stream of consciousness in the most annoying way possible.

I've never enjoyed the South American magical realists, and if I thought that Indian magical realism would somehow be different, I was wrong. Midnight's Children takes place firmly in the real world; there are weird coincidences and odd characters, but almost no fantasy. Though Saleem can, at various points in his life, enter others' minds or smell emotions, neither skill figures much into the book. Instead, most of the novel is a very slow exploration of his childhood. This might have been tolerable if the novel wasn't narrated by Saleem's adult self. Saleem the narrator constantly stops the book to interrupt, to backtrack, to spend pages and pages on Indian history that he sees as influenced by his life and then to foreshadow ominously the book's ending. Though part of the book's conceit is that Saleem sees his life and India's life as intertwined, it's very difficult for someone with little knowledge of Indian history to follow (that's certainly a problem with me as a reader, not Rushdie as a writer, but it was nonetheless an issue for me). The constant foreshadowing of doom was tiresome; either leave it be, or get on with it!

For fans of magical realism (if you, ahem, somehow enjoyed One Hundred Years of Solitude), pointless constant foreshadowing by an excessively involved narrator (e.g., Book Thief), and books of enormous length and casts of characters, Midnight's Children is probably a great choice.