Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Review: Unfit by Lara Cleveland Torgesen

UnfitUnfit by Lara Cleveland Torgesen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley. I was intrigued to read this novel about a survivor of the forced sterilization program in North Carolina. Forced sterilization, typically of poor women labeled by social workers or doctors as "promiscuous" or "feeble-minded," is certainly a terrible and shameful chapter in our nation's history. The program continued in NC into the late 1960s, long after other states had abandoned such practices after the horrors of the Nazi eugenics program were revealed at the end of World War II.

So I thought this was a promising topic for a novel, indeed. And Torgesen's book has its strong points, particularly the heart-wrenching journey of the protagonist to view herself as a worthy person after suffering the state's label of "unfit to reproduce." But the book suffers from a certain predictability, as well as some lack of depth to the characters. I was bothered a few times by dialogue that seemed unlikely for the characters or time and place. My overall assessment: a highly interesting topic, but not the strongest work of fiction. I would rate it roughly a 2.5 out of 5 stars.

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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Visit to the Lindbergh Home

Fans of Melanie Benjamin's "The Aviator's Wife" (as well as readers of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's "Gift from Sea," among other works) will appreciate this... Yesterday I had the unique opportunity to tour the estate of Charles and Anne Lindbergh on the outskirts of Hopewell, NJ--the house from which their 20 month old baby was kidnapped in 1932.  I had long wanted to view the house, but it is usually closed to the public.  The state of New Jersey owns the estate (Lindbergh gave it to the state in 1940), and the house currently serves as a juvenile justice live-in facility for young women.  The Hunterdon County Tricentennial Commission is operating a few organized tours of the estate this year, along  with other events related to the kidnapping and sensational trial of Bruno Hauptmann, held in Flemington, and called the "Trial of the Century" at the time.

The estate was surprising to me for several reasons.  First of all, I was struck by what an isolated location the Lindbergs chose for their home...they picked a hilltop piece of land, 400 acres, in the Sourland Mountains, accessible at the time only by narrow dirt roads.  In the early 1930s, the depths of the Great Depression, there was a shantytown of shacks nearby, and no other house on the hill had electricity.  It doesn't seem like the most obvious place for the most famous man in the world at the time to have chosen for his family home.  Of course, we know now that Lindbergh felt hounded by fans and the press, and I suppose he thought this remote location would keep his family safe.  As it turned out, since the house was the only one nearby with electricity, the lights from the home at night clearly indicated its location for anyone searching.

I also was intrigued that to find that the house itself is rather modestly sized and not at all ostentatious. It has the feel of a rustic, country retreat... Not quite what I expected, given that Lindbergh had become enormously rich from his famous flights and Anne Morrow herself came from a background of wealth and privilege.  The house was newly built at the time of the kidnapping, and decoration, landscaping, etc, was not complete.  It is hard now to be certain what more the Lindberghs might have done with the house or exterior.  No furniture remains in the home from the Lindberghs' time, although there is a fair amount of original woodwork, particularly in the study and living room.  

The most poignant moment for me came inside the bedroom of the baby, Charles Lindbergh, Jr.  The baby's room now serves as a computer room for the juvenile justice facility; it is painted light blue, although at the time of the kidnapping, it had a cheerful wallpaper.  What I found so poignant--the lovely, blue and white Delft tiles on the fireplace, each depicting a child, toy, or animal.  I couldn't help but feel the presence of the mother who carefully chose those for her first baby's room.

I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to tour the estate.  I hope that one day the state of New Jersey will make the home a historic site open to the general public.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Is 2014 the Year of "Reading Women"?

Women writers have been the focus of some attention in the world of book lovers in 2014.  A writer and illustrator named Joanna Walsh kicked off a sort of grass-roots movement in January of this year with the Twitter hashtag #readwomen2014.  Walsh and others have encouraged readers to consider reading ONLY books written by women this year, or at least to try reading more women authors.  This has prompted some press attention, and the publication of a few lists of "best women writers" of past and present.  Most recently, Time.com joined in by posting an article entitled, "These Are the 21 Female Authors You Should Be Reading."  

My reaction to this issue is a bit mixed.  Anything in the press and social media that draws attention to reading and celebrates good books is welcome, in my view ... And, of course, I think there are many superb women writers whose work deserves promotion.  Many of my favorite authors are women, certainly (although plenty of male writers are represented among my favorites as well).  A good number of the new book releases that I hope to read this year are, in fact, written by women.  However, I find it a bit strange and depressing that, in the year 2014, we feel the need to highlight the fact that women are great writers .... Is that really still big news?  Do we actually need to remind readers to read books by women?  I would hope that we've reached a point where it's not especially surprising that a woman can write a chart-topping bestseller, or pen a highly-regarded literary work that wins a top fiction prize (for example, Donna Tartt taking home the Pulitzer this month for "The Goldfinch") ... But maybe that is not yet the case.  

So, I will join in the Year of Reading Women, at least in a fashion.  I promise to read plenty of great books by women writers in 2014 ... Then again, I ALWAYS read plenty of great books by women!  But this time I'll blog about them.  And, you know what, I imagine I will read some good books by men writers this year as well, and blog about those, too.  And if someone declares 2015 the Year of Reading Men, then... well, ok, first I'll laugh, but then I will pledge to read plenty of men writers in 2015, and blog about them.  And I'll read more women writers as well.  What I hope is that we will all read and appreciate fabulous books every year, no matter the gender, race, ethnicity, age, etc, of the author.

That said, here are the top books by women writers that I hope to read in the coming months:

"The Goldfinch," Donna Tartt
"Sleep Donation," Karen Russell
"Boy, Snow, Bird," Helen Oyeyemi
"Love & Treasure," Ayelet Waldman
"Astonish Me," Maggie Shipstead
"Americanah," Chimimanda Adichie

What do you think... Would you want to read only women writers this year?  Are more of your favorite authors women?  

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

Frog MusicFrog Music by Emma Donoghue
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow, what an absolutely captivating romp through the 1876 San Francisco smallpox epidemic and heat wave with a dance hall girl/prostitute, as she searches for her stolen baby and the murderer of her cross-dressing, professional frog-catcher friend... a murderer whom she suspects is her own longtime lover, a "fancy man" and former acrobatic star! (Um, yeah, that's more or less the set-up in a nutshell.) I thoroughly enjoyed Emma Donoghue's latest offering, and I rate it about a 4.5 out of 5 stars... But I think it deserves the round-up to 5 just on the strength of the unique plot, setting, and characters.

This is Donoghue's first novel since her international bestseller "Room," which was, of course, a complete sensation in literary and popular reading circles in 2010. Of course, whatever novel Donoghue published next would come up against some "not as great as 'Room'" backlash. To her credit, Donoghue doesn't try to write another pulled-from-the-news contemporary story, but instead returns to her roots in historical fiction. I had previously read Donoghue's well-written, though rather dark, historical novel "Slammerkin," and this novel is quite recognizably from the same author ... But "Frog Music" is a far more interesting and satisfying read than "Slammerkin," in my opinion. "Frog Music," released on April 1st of this year, has been met with mixed reviews so far. I know the reaction from my book club friends has been a little iffy so far as well, although I'm looking forward to hearing everyone's thoughts.

Here's why I found "Frog Music" such an entertaining read. I loved the sheer uniqueness of the characters. Jenny Bonnet and Blanche Beunon--two women who struggled to make their way in the world and live unshackled by the conventions that bound most women of their time. The characters of Jenny and Blanche are based on real people, something I didn't realize until I read the afterward at the end of the novel. But Donoghue took the basic known facts of their lives, pulled from sensationalized news accounts of the time, and created characters that, for me, jumped off the page. Both Blanche and Jenny are maddeningly, frustratingly flawed, to be sure ... but utterly fascinating. They are some of the most memorable characters I have come across in a novel for quite some time.

The setting, as well, was a high point for me. The San Francisco of 1876 felt like a character in and of itself--a city with a reputation for eccentricity and loose morals; a port teeming with immigrants, teetering on the brink of disaster with racial violence and a looming public health crisis. It's a perfect place to set a story about characters who must forge their own unique path.

I admired Donoghue's structuring of the novel. She weaves the tale between two story lines--the days leading up to the murder of Jenny, and a period about a month earlier when Blanche and Jenny meet. She does this skillfully. I never felt confused, and in fact, Donoghue uses this structure to slowly reveal the changes in Blanche and her deepening understanding of Jenny and, eventually, of herself. The pacing is well-done; the novel builds nicely to a climax. In "Frog Music," as in "Room," Donoghue shows herself to be a master storyteller.

Certainly, I could make a few criticisms. In some ways, I think it might have been better for the story if Donoghue had not followed the plot of the real events so closely. The plot dragged a bit at the time of the inquest. Jenny was the most interesting character, I felt; it would have been fascinating if she could have lived ... Of course, I suppose, that would have been a different novel entirely.

In any case, I found this to be a well-written, highly satisfying and enjoyable read. I look forward to reading whatever the versatile and inventive Emma Donoghue publishes next.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

On Choosing Your Next Read

How do you choose what to read next?  I often find myself feeling a tad bereft after finishing a novel, especially if it was a novel I truly enjoyed.  I read almost every day, so it makes sense to think I would want to dive right into the next book.  Instead, I often hesitate about which book to crack open (metaphorically, I should add, since I usually read on a Kindle these days).  I have a large "to read" shelf on Goodreads, and I usually have several books downloaded to my Kindle, all ready to go.  Sometimes I even have a few paperbacks, stacked invitingly on a small table in our family room, just waiting for me to pick them up.  So .... which book to tackle first?  Well, sometimes I have a "deadline" for one of my book clubs ... That makes the choice fairly easy.  But if not, then it's often strangely hard for me to commit to my next novel.  Sometimes, I'm influenced by what seems to be the "book of the moment"--a new novel that friends seem to be thinking and talking about.  Other times, I've read a review that intrigues me, and I find that I can't get the book out of my mind.  I suppose sometimes it's simply an intangible feeling that steers me toward one book rather than another.  Do you ever struggle with choosing your next book as well?  If so, how do you usually decide?     

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Zebra Crossing by Meg Vandermerwe

Zebra CrossingZebra Crossing by Meg Vandermerwe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was very happy to win a free copy of this book through Goodreads First Reads. I would rate this novel about a 3.5 out of 5 stars. Meg Vandermerwe's "Zebra Crossing" is a powerful and absorbing novel about a teenage girl named Chipo who travels from Zimbabwe to South Africa in the hopes of finding a better life. Chipo is an albino, which marks her to many Africans as a ghost, an animal, or a person linked to witchcraft or the living dead. She faces hostility in her new home because of her unusual appearance, but also because of her status as an illegal immigrant in a country seized by xenophobia and waves of violence against migrants from other African nations. Against the backdrop of the 2010 World Cup that brings the attention of the globe to South Africa, Chipo and her brother become involved in a shady underworld scheme to make their fortunes.

I found this well-written book gripping, and devoured it in about a day and a half. There are so many intriguing themes here: home and belonging, what it means to be labeled as the "Other," the power of superstition, and unrequited love, for starters. I was interested to learn about the difficult immigrant experience for black Africans in South Africa, an issue I haven't read about before. The character of the young albino girl Chipo was fascinating and memorable .... and this brings me to my main criticism of the book. Chipo, I felt, deserved more agency, and more of a chance to find strength within herself and create the life she deserved. As a reader, I'll admit, I very much wanted a different fate for Chipo. There cannot always be a happy ending, in life or in fiction, I suppose ... but a glimmer of hope can be a beautiful thing.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

Vampires in the Lemon Grove: StoriesVampires in the Lemon Grove: Stories by Karen Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I greatly admire Karen Russell, a young writer whose work I find inventive and surprising. Her novel Swamplandia!, one of the Pulitzer Prize finalists for best fiction a few years ago, is easily one of the best novels I've read in the past 5 years. So I decided to tackle her latest short story collection, even though I struggle with the short story form; I often find short stories frustrating and overly abrupt in their endings. And that is sometimes the case with Russell's stories as well--I admit, I often want more of the characters or plot when she brings a story to a close. But it's a joy to read her gorgeous prose and fall, again, down into the strange and yet somehow, very truthful, worlds she creates in her fiction. My favorite story in this collection is the haunting "Proving Up"... what an unusual window on the dark side of pioneer life.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Nostalgia by Dennis McFarland

NostalgiaNostalgia by Dennis McFarland
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Beautifully written novel about a young man from a privileged background who enlists as a Union soldier in the Civil War and suffers from PTSD, called "nostalgia" or shell shock in the 19th century. McFarland moves the reader skillfully between 3 time periods: the main character's life before enlistment (this is what most interested me--and I would have loved a deeper exploration here), his time as a private in the Union Army, and his recuperation in a Union hospital. McFarland's prose is evocative, but the pace is challengingly slow-moving at times. Those interested in the Civil War will love it, but it may not be for everyone.