Thursday, September 30, 2010

Girls of Tender Age

by Marry-Ann Trione Smith

I love love love this book. This is one of those completely engrossing books that I couldn't put down.

The first part of the book is filled with the matter-of-fact descriptions of a child. It's almost flippant, which makes the book all the more funny. Her innocence and misunderstandings are hilarious with a tinge of sadness, like when she doesn't want to tell her uncle she's sorry for the loss of his son because she thinks that means she was somehow responsible for his death. There's a real honesty and vulnerability to Smith's words. I respect that she opened herself up so much in this book.

What else I find amazing is Smith's brother, Tyler. Growing up unable to express emotion, unable to even make a sound when she burns herself on the toaster for fear of how Tyler will react seems awful. I think her professor's assessment of Tyler as a "manipulative lunatic" is harsh, but also true. But what is especially amazing is Tyler's brief explanation for some of his behavior:
          Tyler, what happens when you hear crying.
          He ignores me.
          Or sneezing?
          Nothing. I persist: Or laughing?
          I keep at him because he is only biting his wrist a little bit. Nibbling.
          Finally he says, A cloud of needles flies into my face and it takes me a long time to pull
          them out because they have barbs at the end.

Incredible. Honest and adept.

Smith's mother, on the other hand, I didn't care for so much. Smith doesn't paint a flattering picture of her mother. Her mother seems like the type of woman who shouldn't have children. Thank goodness for Smith's father. He broke my heart though. The way he took care of his younger sisters when his mother died so that the family could stay together, the way he was so unflappably devoted to caring for Tyler (a stark contrast to his wife).

There was plenty in the book that got a rise out of me. For one thing, the way Smith was taught in her catechism class that "The worst sin you can commit against an adult, particularly against your mother and father, is to ask Why?" That's terrible. How else is a child supposed to learn? That's dismissive parenting. I was also furious with the Hartford Police Department disbelieving Bob Malm's first victim, saying her strangulation marks looked like hickeys. Unbelievable. At the time it was "too difficult to prove that the teenager didn't victimize her rapist with her wiles." Unbelievable.

And, a small thing, but I never knew Hartford had so many firsts: electricity, female police officers. There's a lot to be proud of.

I do think Smith spends a little too long on the trial, appeal, and execution of Bob Malm. It gets a little bogged down. But once she switches back into memoir-mode it picks up again.

I was completely heartbroken over Tyler and Smith's father when the both had to be put into separate care facilities. And I was devastated when when they died. I had to stop reading and let it all sink in.

On a random note: I know the song Smith's mother sang to her grandchildren. We used to sing it at camp, but our version was a little different:

          A part of myself,
          What is this here?
          This is my boy-kicker, yeah Mama dear!

          Boy-kicker, Knee-knocker, Baby-bouncer, Bread-basked, Rubber-necker, Chin-chopper, 
          Boy-kisser, Soup-strainer, Nose-blower, Eye-blinker, Eye-browser, Sweat-browser, 
          That's what I learned in my school, yah-yah!

I think the best way to sum-up this book is with Smith's own words: "I am well trained in silence. Denial is my family's religion, my brother Tyler our god, and the Reverend Dr. Peale our pastor." There's more to this book than that, but I think those few sentences say a lot.

Definitely read this book.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Great Gatsby

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

In honor of BANNED BOOK MONTH, I decided to read a classic banned book on the ALA banned book list.

Ok, actually that was just a coincidence. I was putting off starting the next book discussion book because I have the annoying habit of finishing them too early, and then when the discussion rolls around I've forgotten character names and places and some plot points. So I needed something else to read. I thought about re-reading The Catcher in the Rye or The Stranger, but I saw The Great Gatsby sitting on my shelf, and I'd never read it before and thought I needed to change that.

The last time I'd picked up this book must have been in high school because I found a hall pass from 2005 for me and my friend Jen to go from the band room to the computer skills teacher's room. And I'd gotten no further than page 28. This time I successfully finished the book.

I liked this book more than I expected. This is a good, tragic story and I really enjoy the way it unfolds. It's compelling the way the characters are such a mystery and their lives are slowly explained, and ultimately you find yourself wishing you didn't know and wishing you could go back to the way things were.

In general, however, based on the limited exposure I've had, I don't care for post-Word War I American lit. I dislike the boozy atmosphere. The characters are all wealthy after the war and throwing around their wealth and living drunkenly and passive-aggressively. It's unattractive. It's why I don't like being around drunk people. It's uncomfortable. And it's depressing. And to then say their behavior is the result as the slow, inevitable corruption of the Middle Westerners living in the city is a poor excuse. These people, aside from Nick, work hard to keep up their happy, affluent facade, and as soon as you get a glimpse behind it, you really wish you hadn't: booze, infidelity, spousal abuse, shady dealings, lies, and shallow women.
They were careless people [...] they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made...
If you ask me, Nick was lucky to get away from those people when he did. He entered an ugly society and luckily didn't get wallowed up by it. Nick is right to describe himself as the only honest person he knows.

So I may dislike the general tone and the majority of the characters, but this is still a good book when you think about Nick. Fitzgerald crafted a well-written and compelling story, whether you like the society he depicted or not.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Devil's Rooming House

The True Story of America's Deadliest Female Serial Killer
by M. William Phelps

This is completely outside my usual scope of subject matter. But I saw this book come back to the library and thought it looked interesting: female serial killer, Windsor Ct (not far from where I grew up). I thought this book was going to be great: compelling, shocking, maybe even a little gruesome. But in reality, it wasn't any of that.

The first part of the book is nearly entirely about the 1911 heat wave that hit New England. If I wanted to read about the 1911 heat wave, I would read Hot Time in the Old Town by Edward Cohen. But I don't (not right now), and I'm not. I want to read a book about the female serial killer Amy Archer from Windsor, Connecticut during the early 1900s. And, silly me, I thought that's what I was getting. Clearly Phelps included the information about the heat wave to say to the readers, This is an excuse Amy could have used to explain away or cover up the murders committed: lots of elderly were dying because of the extreme heat. But Phelps didn't say that, and neither did Amy for that matter. So there was no need for that section whatsoever. It's completely infuriating. Stick to the story you're telling.

The timeline is completely screwy in this book. It jumps around a lot from the late 1800s to early 1900s and beyond, and can be extremely frustrating. I think if Phelps wanted to paint a clear picture of the times and thoroughly explain events leading up to Amy Archer's investigation, he should have done it much more chronologically. One would think that would be the logical approach in this kind of book.

Worst is that it seemed Phelps was trying to make the story more dramatic, which had the complete opposite affect. He added unnecessary hyperbole like, "[Archer] was no more a God-fearing Christian than Lucifer himself." And his attempts at sarcastic authorial intrusions were miserable: "Indigestion? If that was true, it was some case all right." It really detracts from the story.

Phelps also frequently alludes to Amy Archer's devout nature, but it is never really shown. She's called "Sister Amy" around town and was described to be "bible-toting," and yet there is no clear picture of her as a religious woman. At the end of the book, Phelps paints Archer as a woman using her pious nature to veil her sociopathic nature, which isn't truly evident. The reader gets no real sense of who Amy Archer was, so I had a difficult time jumping to Phelps's conclusion.

The fact is, this just isn't a good book, which is shocking considering how incredible the subject matter is. There is no finesse to this book. It is meant to come across as journalistic, but with the author's embellishments, it falls somewhere left of that. This book would have been much more successful if written with the players in mind. By that I mean I want to know more about Amy Archer and Dr. King and the others involved. It should have been written from the perspective of inmate Franklin Andrews. That way it would have been a more enveloping story, and could still encompass all Phelps's research (The book is extremely well researched, although to almost to an exhaustive and unnecessary degree.) Though, then I suppose it couldn't be considered a "true crime" book, but historical fiction or creative non-fiction.

The Devil's Rooming House in a nutshell: In the early 1900s, Amy Archer opened a home for the aged and convalescent and slowly killed her inmates by arsenic poison in order to make more money by filling more beds. No one suspected her. It took people far too long to even suspect anything, despite the fact that large numbers of inmates were dying and being carried away in the middle of the night. Amy played the insanity/drug addict card during the trial and spent the rest of her life hospitalized.

Feel free to pass this one up when perusing your library's book shelves.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Book of Lost Things

by John Connolly

The Book of Lost Things is like The Chronicles of Narnia meets The Wizard of Oz meets The Neverending Story meets Pan's Labrynth meets The Nightmare Before Christmas (just the end bit with Oogie Boogie).

This book makes books feel magical again. I remember reading The Chronicles of Narnia when I was younger and thinking they were the most magical books in the whole world. They were wonderful and scary and great stories of conflict and victory, and what child wouldn't love talking animals? I absolutely loved reading those books and desperately wished I could walk through a wardrobe to a magical land. But I had forgotten that feeling of stories being magical and having the power to transport. It was great to feel that again. I felt like a little kid again, when a book was a kind of treasure. I wanted to read this slowly, savor it, while cuddling in bed, secretly and alone.

Connolly has a beautiful way with language. His descriptions are vivid and fitting, like calling David's mother's disease "a creeping, cowardly thing, as sickness that ate away at her from the inside, slowly consuming the light within." The way he writes is well suited to this fairy tale-style book. I will say that it is a bit formulaic, however that is just the way fairy tales function; it's to be expected, and I don't fault Connolly for it. But he does put his own twist on familiar fairy tales, giving the reader new perspectives, like what happens when Snow White doesn't live happily ever after. When I read "The Woodsman's First Tale" about the adult Red Ridding Hood, I thought, Ok. WHAT am I reading?? But by then I was hooked and couldn't wait to see how the story unfolded.

The problem with fairy tales is that they have to end, and it seem that no matter how they end, I'm left feeling a little dissatisfied, and I don't quite know why. I think it's that I don't like that cryptic, did it happen/did it not happen? sentiment. I want it to be clear cut: Yes it was all true, or no it was all imagined in David's head as a result of some trauma. I'm right there with him for his journey, regardless; suspension of disbelief is not an issue with me. But then he comes out of it, grows up in the span of 6 pages (David "became a writer and he wrote a book. He called it The Book of Lost Things, and the book that you are now holding is the book that he wrote"? Lame. I hate that. No, it is not his book. It is not narrated by him. Don't try to make what is clearly a piece of fiction a nonsensical reality. I'm not that dumb, and it just doesn't work.) and suddenly the whole thing is over. However, I did like the last page and a half. I thought that was a nice way to end. Again, maybe a little predictable, maybe a little lame, but I thought it was fitting and just, well, nice.

The Book of Lost Things is a great dose of escapism. I don't really think it's all that great of a coming-of-age-story, as some reviewers have said. But it does put a great new, dark twist on fairy tales and is a genuinely good read.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Ex Libris

Confessions of a Common Reader
by Anne Fadiman

My friend and fellow book lover, Erin lent me this book.

Ex Libris is completely charming. First of all, it's one of those books that feels comfortable to hold; comfortable as in familiar and inviting. It's the perfect size and feels like it's made of real paper, not all glossy and shinny. And the essays themselves are lovely, in the most loving way.

I will say that reading these essays requires a dictionary, and not just for "The Joy of Sesquipedalians," (a word which this spell-check does not recognize but I assure you is a real word). I wish I had Anne Fadiman's vocabulary. But I didn't not grow up in the kind of household where my father quizzed my brother and I on word meanings.

Fadiman shares wonderful anecdotes about the books in her life and how they relate to her life, including the difficulty of marring her and her husband's libraries: "[...] it was a good thing the Book of Common Prayer didn't say anything about marrying our libraries and throwing out the duplicates. That would have been a far more solemn vow, one that would probably have caused the wedding to grind to a mortifying halt." Adorable. And is there some unspoken rule that book lovers/writers must be fascinated by Antarctic expeditions of the 19th century? She and Annie Dillard: two peas in a pod.

My favorite essays are "Marrying Libraries," "My Odd Shelf," "Never Do That to a Book," "True Womanhood," and "Sharing the Mayhem." "Nothing New Under the Sun" makes me crazy because I really dislike footnotes. Yet these are the kinds of essays which can (and should) be read over and over again because, while they are personal, they are also personable and accessible and will hold individual meaning for each individual reader. They are extremely well crafted in a kind of ciclicle way, always returning to her original observation.

This is a book that I feel the need to buy a copy for myself. I want to mark it up, leave it open and face down on my night stand, and lend out to my friends (as long as they promise to give it back).

If you love books, then you are bound to love this one.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Suite Francaise

by Irene Nemirovsky
Translated by Sandra Smith

This book was donated to the library's paperback rack, and the director was thinking about putting it in the permanent collection, so he asked me to read it to see if it's any good (apparently the praise from The New York Times Book Review wasn't sufficient).

Nemirovsky's book takes place in Paris and the French countryside during the German invasion in 1940 (again, I've got a thing for war-time lit). What is truly amazing to me is that the author wrote this book not long before she was deported to Auschwitz in 1942, where she eventually died. I wish I were fluent in French so I could have read it in it's original form, but this is an excellent book nonetheless.

Initially I was wondering why a Russian Jew was writing so exclusively about French Catholics. It was later reading her notes and the collection of letters I realized she was Catholic and had immigrated to France to escape Russia. It is amazing that her notes and the correspondence, let alone the book, survived. Including those adds another dimension to Nemirovsky's book.

It is an incredible book, written by an incredible woman. It is a stunning and frightening picture of humans stripped of their humanity, reverting back to animal instincts, for good or bad. The attitudes of some of these "middle class" (only slightly below royalty and nobility) characters makes me want to throw up from an overdoes of arrogance and entitlement. Nemirovsky presents dramatic contrast between those concerned for their families and for France, and those out for themselves. It is an honest and stripped look at what happens to people under this extreme, inhumane stress.

I like the more hectic Storm in June better than Dolce, and I wish Nemirovsky had lived to finish her vision. I want to know if Benoit made it to Paris safely! This book is full of vivid, unique characters, which makes for an excellent story. The reader truly grows attached to characters like Fr. Pericand, and even to the German soldier Bruno. Nemirovsky blurs the lines of friend or foe and her characters are caught up in struggles between right and wrong, when no one can say for sure which is which.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Teaching a Stone to Talk

Expeditions and Encounters
by Annie Dillard

On the advice of the woman who runs the summer book discussion series at my library, I am reading more Annie Dillard. Shocking, I know. But I thought I would give her another chance. And as it turns out, I like Annie Dillard, but only in very small doses. Any more than ten pages, and I'm out. Admittedly, I didn't even make it through all of the essays.

Teaching a Stone to Talk is a collection of poetic essays involving nature and God. "Living Like Weasels" is particularly beautiful and truly excellent essay.

Her writing style is still too precious, but I can commune with her for a few pages, and I enjoy that.

The real down side of this book is that the one I read was from another local library and someone wrote in it. Now, I understand; I write in all my books. But not in a library book! Come on, people! Plus their notes were obvious and stupid. It was distracting. Yet however annoying the distraction was, it was also a little nice because it gave me a chance to form my own opinions against those of this dumb person. It was like being back at school.

This is the kind of literature that truly needs to be studied. This isn't a leisurely read, at least it wasn't for me. It's almost as if Dillard is talking to me from some spiritual platform just out of my reach. Sometimes I think I understand her, and I get it, but then she looses me again and I lose interest. I think we simply have a one-sided love/hate relationship.