Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Review: I Do, I Don't

Most of my posts should reveal that I'm not interested in simply summarizing the plot of a novel.  This job is sufficiently accomplished in the book jacket and replicated on vendor sites.  While some bloggers may derive pleasure from synthesizing salient facts from a novel, this production does not motivate me.  What does interest me is finding some outside connection to the book.  Sometimes these connections take the form of familiar sensory experiences, as in A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash and Christopher Tilghman's The Right Hand Shore. Other times I'm able to forge a new connection, such as the uniquly presented point of view of fathers in Matt Bell's Cataclysm Baby,  or perceive contemporary women's issues in a new light, The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau.  I'd like to communicate a book's utility, whether it be grippingly informative, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici by C.W. Gortner, or potently philosophical, The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau.  

My sister asked a very relevant question a couple of weeks ago, "Why do you only give good reviews?"  Well, there are two answers to this question.  One answer reflects the manner I receive books, and the other represents my basic worldview on reviewing.

To date, I have only reviewed books that have passed through the hands of people who know me well.  In the scientific community, we call this selection bias.  There is a much higher probability of me favoring books that have survived an initial screening with me in mind.  I have a high stack of novels waiting to be read, and some genres are conspicuously absent due to this bias.  One topic in particular, the I'm-trying-to-get-pregnant theme is known to be taboo.  I have four children, don't desire more, and have a deeply seeded, though neurotic, fear that somehow such writing will yield a second line on the dipstick.

I personally do not find pleasure or purpose in filleting a novel.  My days as a statistical analyst contributing to peer-reviewed journal articles give me screenshot on the frustrating process that is publishing.  The work passes through countless hands, drowns in gallons of red ink and may or may not actually make it to print.  There is a lot of work that goes into even the shortest publication, and the simple fact that a work is in print shows that someone, somewhere, gave the work merit. 

This is not to say that we're all winners, and every book is worthwhile reading.  What I am saying is that my likes and dislikes vary with my mood, the time of year, and the stage of life I'm in.  While my kids were younger, a memoir encompassing the joys and frustrations of motherhood or Navy wifehood might interest me.  I went through a phase, accidentally, and much to the dismay of my friends, of devouring medieval Norwegian historical fiction.  Currently, you couldn't pay me to read any of these now. (Well, actually, I would be interested in more of the Norwegian historical fiction, but I'm afraid I've tapped the source.)  Does that mean these types of novels have no literary merit?  Absolutely not!  Most novels have an audience, sometime, somewhere, albeit few have the coveted popular vote of the bestseller list. 

Have I read novels that would function better as kindling for a Girl Scout campout?  Sure!  I once was given an ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) that gave a fictionalized account of some colonists at Jamestown.  I stopped reading by the end of the first page when I passed over the words citing the founding of Jamestown in 1609.  While I realize ARCs have not been scrubbed for final edits, such an error is inexcusable at any stage of the process.  If a fourth grader on the East Coast can identify the error, the author, the agent, the editor, the friends who were passed a copy, all should have identified the error early on, too.

Another stop-read novel that comes to mind came across as whiny-women-are-always-supressed-by-men victim driven drivel.  Yes, there is still discrimination of women in some situations.  No, it is not appropriate nor accurrate to blanket all men as suppressors in this decade.  While I was reading, I could hear my male former graduate school advisor, a middle-aged first-generation Indian male, screaming into the phone, "I will pay for childcare!" as it became clear I was quitting.  As a white, middle-class female, I could not connect to the "downtrodden" white, middle-class female character of the 21st century.  Sorry.

The times of reading pre-screened books is rapidly coming to an end, as I contemplate the first anonymously-tossed novel in my queue.  The temptation to critique rather than reflect is high.  I'm still not likely to write anything with the purpose of discouraging readership.  As I type, I conjure some unique exceptions including the glorification of suicide or rape.  A charismatic author crossing the line of fiction into harmful propaganda will probably get a giant red flag from me.  Here is my public health/public service announcement gene expressing itself.  What if, lacking in harmful potential, a novel is simply terrible?  I doubt I'm even going to review it. I simply don't have that kind of time.  I have laundry to do instead.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Crown

The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau
Simon & Schuster 2012

All of the elements for a powerful series are set in The Crown:  a throat-grabbing plot, high-impact sensory elements and an ending dangling on the edge of a cliff.  This historical thriller set during Henry VIII's reign starts at full throttle and does not let up. Conveyed by an unlikely source, a novice to the Dominican Order, tension is built within ascents of tension:  Will death come by noose, by fire or by disease?  Who will gain the power of the mythical Athelstan crown? Will the convent survive?  My anxieties were augmented by the contribution of every sense.  Bilyeau's presentation of the Tower of London, for example, was so effective and beyond any historian's description of this prison's cruel abandon.  I could smell the lye, feel the cold slime of mildew on my fingertips and see the dim candlelight flickering off the blocks of stone.  I could hear the horrified screams of tortured souls as if they were beside me.  In a grand finale, the ending left me pining to know, not only what happened to the centerpiece icon, but how the characters rebuilt their lives outside the protection of the convent.  For most readers, this well-described and aggressive plot would be enough.  What takes this inventive story a step beyond is its medieval management of issues still pertinent in modern times.

The risk of sexual assault was very real in Tudor England, and the consequences were grave.  Resist and have your entire safety net of marital prospect, social stature and economic safety stripped away. Submit and risk total ruin by pregnancy or advertised spoilage.  The convent is portrayed as a safer, but not completely safe, harbor from the well tolerated licentiousness of men across strata in the day.  While rape and incest are recognized as offenses to God and Man, even potential victim advocates are rendered powerless.  Bilyeau tugs hard on the impact of sexual assault without rising to a podium.  The issue is presented in a manner that gave me pause. 

Bilyeau also drives the the notion throughout the novel that, despite the depravity of even a significant part of the Catholic Church, great good is being accomplished.  Torturous and murderous political power ascensions frequently take precedence over the Ascension.  The Reformation certainly hasn't been the only movement to recognize the faults and fractures of the Church, but righteous indignation cannot deny the truth.  Volumes of charity feed the poor, heal the sick and protect the weak.  Although there will always be corruption, hope persists.  There will always be great charity, there will always be the Church. 

The Crown takes the intensity of The DaVinci Code to a new level.  I was left not just searching for the shadows of myth, but the imprint of timeless truths.  To be 1538 (or 2013).

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Land More Kind Than Home

A Land More Kind Than Home
by Wiley Cash
William Morrow, Released Today, April 17, 2012

Three summers ago, I drove my two oldest boys to East Carolina University.  Entrusting our travels to my new GPS aquisition, we left Hampton Roads and turned onto Route 13.  Miles and miles of crumbling shacks alternated with abandoned storefront churches and rusted out cars on blocks drifted by us as we traveled this isolated and lonely two-lane road.  Any sign of inhabitation seemed questionable, the rare onlooker returned a suspicious glance in our direction.  Abandoned by truckers, I doubt anyone but reclusive locals traveled along this forgotten stretch.  The "non-yellow newspaper in the front windows to keep folks from looking in" that Adelaide Lyle describes in A Land More Kind Than Home is a very real part of the rural North Carolina landscape even today.
The further west you travel in North Carolina, the further the distance from the Raleigh-Durham-Greensboro triangle, the progressively more isolated North Carolina towns become.  By the time you reach the Appalacian mountains, you are practically in a foreign country.  Here the history of the War Between the States fades, and the lingering culture of the Scotch-Irish migration persists.  Religion takes on a personality of its own; there is an evolution of the Holy Spirit that is very different from its distant Christian cousins in the East. 

By the time you reach Marshall, NC, practically the Tennesse border, you are in a land where superstitions mix with the Gospel in what outsiders would perceive as an unholy way.  But it is not unholy, and this novel shows that the Spirit, though strange, is thriving in these folk.  Their devotion, even to madness, proves their willingess to submit to God in a way no city dweller would do.  Burning a barn to the ground, handling venomous snakes, and pressing the Devil out of a mute boy are reasonable actions for one unwilling to question the written Word.  Refusing to take these risks in the name of the Lord is perceived as spiritual weakness.  The pull between Reason and Faith creates a small fissure that eventually fractures the community in two. 

What Wiley Cash artfully accomplishes is a complete mastery of setting and culture without the faintest whisper of judgement.  Marshall is a community of families that never left the mountains, it is as simple as that.  These families share their stories, bear their grudges and ultimately, tend to each others' wounds.  Even as heartache and loss wind their way up the seldom trod roads, these families heal, together.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Cataclysm Baby

Cataclysm Baby
by Matt Bell
Mudluscious Press, released today, April 15, 2012

If ten people were to be tasked with identifying the theme of Cataclysm Baby, ten could write dissertations, and none would have any parallels.  This post-apocalyptic novel is different today than it was yesterday and different from what it will be tomorrow. 

Certainly the years following a mass destruction, the ethical choices one must make to preference the very survival of humanity over an individual's moral construct, provide just the veneer of what these twenty-six stories, A to Z, attempt to tell.  Underneath the obvious Orwellian overtones lie the total lack of control felt by the oft-forgotten parent, the father.  The collective 'he' convey the wear and tear that infertility, deformity, disability have on a marriage.  Each father mourns the loss of context for their memories:  their pre-apocalyptic lives offer no prospects for their children. 

What struck me after reading, then re-reading, these stories were their embedment in what is now and what was, not just the what is to come with the end of days.  I was transported to the growing deserts of Africa where fathers are forced to choose between seeking their child's protection in the orphanage or the assured starvation of the family.  How many fathers were told that a Western adoption would provide the child a better life?  How many fathers were deceived, not necessarily with intent, that the papers they signed would unburden their daughters, their sons, their families.  Their culture accepts orphanages as a respite; our culture views orphanages as an abandonment.  Did he know his son was gone forever?  I then travel to Asia and witness the banks of baby girls in Chinese orphanages.  The state-mandated one-child provides a constant tension with the preference of the male child, the perfect child.  How many fathers wept as they left their newborn daughters on these doorsteps?  The horror the father must have felt upon witnessing the cleft palate on his son's face!  How many fathers felt helpless in consoling their wives' grief?  The womb, once full, then contracted, has but an empty cradle to show for its efforts.  My final destination was home, the West:  here I watch the struggles of the first generation immigrant father.  His family's stories, the values of love, respect and responsibility and his very language lost on an unviewable, unknowable continent.  I see the private tears of the father, unable to stem the tide of indoctrination, assimilation.  His child mocks his every word, his every bite, and this father can do nothing more than witness the death of his tradition.  Did he know that this boat, destined for prosperity, would bring him such pain?  Knowing what he knows now, would he have led his family up the gangplank?

I am still shivering from Bell's chilling profundity.  I now look across the dinner table and view my husband through a different lens.   I can now see his sufferings with clarity; I am no longer denying their existence.  Few books in print have the reach and depth these pages achieve.  I will go back to these words, when I am in another time, another place in my life.  How will I perceive these words then?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

McDonald's and E-Books: The Parallels between Health Promotion and Book Buying

My professional background has its beginnings in public health.  I spent a lot of time studying, observing and implementing plans for health improvement via behavioral change.  Along the way, I learned more about the tsetse fly than I thought was knowable, and I learned more about the spread and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases than I cared to know.  The take-home message was that there is no one-size-fits-all method to make people change, even if the change is good for them.

One of the challenges in motivating a major change in behavior is that behavior is embedded in race, culture, socioeconomic status, educational level and age.  I can convince a senior citizen to take a pill, because it will take away the swelling and pain of arthritis, for example.  I can convince a girl in her teens not to smoke, because smoking will make her face yellow and wrinkle.  Some people prefer the advice of a pastor while others prefer the physician's prescription. 

While pondering my professional past, I wondered, what motivates people to buy a book?  Are there any common denominators between health promotion theory and (successful) book promotion?  It occurred to me through this pondering that I haven't actually purchased a novel for myself in years.  Non-fiction, yes; fiction, no.  Every work of fiction that I've read for a long time has been tossed at me or given to me as a gift.  I've kind of experienced arranged marriages for reading material:  there has already been some external party that has previewed the book and determined it has qualities that have a high probability of appealing to me. 

On the other hand, I've taken loads of risks purchasing non-fiction, especially how-to types of books.  My vast collection of Martha Stewart craft volumes and my cookbook collection including gluten-free vegan cooking prove this point (despite the fact that I am neither gluten-free nor vegan and despite the fact that I have no free time to fold, cut, polish or entertain a small, well-dressed army).  Why do I willingly spend a lot of money on books I will probably never use? There's really not the burden to complete the book.  I can be satisfied with one good recipe or simply the pretty pictures of the latest hand-embossed pop-out greeting card Martha has invented.  When would I actually buy a book to read? 

Surprisingly, the motivators for me to buy a novel are very similar to the motivators for me to change my health behaviors.  Here are a few that are most applicable to my life:

1.  Legislation.  Make me do it.   Seat belt, bicycle/motorcycle helmet and car seat use skyrocketed with the enactment of public safety laws.  Similarly, here lie the required reading lists in college, and the prey of the university press.  I blood let university bookstore prices, because I have to.  I may or may not actually read the book.  I will probably sell the book back to the university bookstore at the end of the term. (Unless it is non-fiction in which case it will sit on my desk, then in a box in my closet for all eternity.)

2.  Social group identification.  Have a spokesperson from a specific demographic. My kids' pediatrician complains that her Indian friends adhere to Dr. Oz as much as they do Hinduism.  Imagine what would happen to our middle class juvenile society if the cast of Twilight became vegan (oh the conflict with playing a vampire, but I gleefully digress).  My husband (USNA '94) likewise purchases any novel connected to the Naval Academy, the largest fraternity in the world. I'll buy Lydia Netzer's upcoming book by the case:  she's a well-educated mom not willing to fill the soccer-mom mold.  I can relate to that. 

3.  Familiarity.  If I have achieved a certain level of comfort with one behavior change, such as dropping from full fat to 2% milk, I'm more likely to try similar health changes, like buying fresh fruit instead of canned.  If I buy organic milk, the purchase of organic eggs is not a stretch.  Now, I've admitted to not having bought a novel (*for myself*) since probably college.  But, after reading The Book of Jonas, The Right Hand Shore and Luminarium, I will definitely be on pre-order lists for their authors' next contributions.  Dau challenged my world-view, Tilghman connected to my Chesapeake Bay roots and Shakar appealed to my math brain.  These novels had the same effect on me that Rick Riordan has had on my kids; I am pining for the next volume.

4.  Fear.  You will die.  Try selling a house with asbestos tile in the bathroom.  Even though asbestos tile is stable, has airborne particles only if ground to bits and is very resistant to wear, that tile has to go:  it COULD result in asbestosis.  Imagine the social consequences of being that kid who has not read J.K. Rowling's latest Harry Potter volume come school the day after its release.  You could be completely shut out of socializing for a day.  The marketing of this series has been brilliant:  the release will be big, and you can't miss it. Personally, I threw my kids in the backyard with tray full of food and orders:  DO NOT TALK TO MOM.  I was afraid, yes, afraid, that I would overhear the ending before I found out, firsthand, what happened to Dumbledore. 

5.  Convenience.  The apple slices at McDonald's and the blood pressure monitors at Wal-Mart speak to changes made when the effort is minimal and access is high.  While you're here, you can throw milk into that kid's meal or have a weight check.  Ta Da!  E-books to the rescue of the harried mom!  Ninety percent of the books I purchase are for the Kindle.  I can have it now, and there's no clutter.  (There has to be some way around the Amazon choke hold, but that's for another post.)  "Customers who bought this book also bought..."

Of the above, convenience probably ranks highest for me.  That's the stage of life I'm in.  I'd like to go to a bookstore and wander through the stacks, but I doubt the owners would appreciate my five year old ninja.  Familiarity ranks highest with my kids.  Thank the heavens for e-books; otherwise I would have no shelf space.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Lost Saints of Tennessee

The Lost Saints of Tennessee by Amy Franklin-Willis
Atlantic Monthly Press 2012

While every relationship forms a bond, there are some that possess a chemistry, a physical sharing of atoms that are immune to separation.  The twin relationship is perhaps the best example of such a bond.  Ask any twin about his or her mirror, and s/he will report a connection that borders on psychic.  More than simply completing each others' sentences, twins have an awareness of each other even when physically separated.  Hundreds of twin studies validate that there is a psychological link that is very distinct from other sibling relationships. 

Now, take these scientific truths and have one twin contract a severe case of measles that results in brain damage.  Have the healthy twin assume the roles of defender and caretaker.  Now have the impaired twin drown.  Zeke Cooper is the healthy twin in The Lost Saints of Tennessee.  Breaking the twin bond tears out Zeke's ability to connect, to love.  His relationship dependencies are clear:   twin-twin > husband-wife > mother-son.  Without the twin, the lower relationships fail. 

This cathartic journey of family hardship begins in Clayton, Tennessee, the lower working class Southern town that barely manages indoor plumbing.  Just about every significant emotional bond a person could have over the course of a lifetime is traversed:  mother to son, husband to wife, wife to lover, brother to brother, brother to sister, father to daughter, ex-husband to ex-wife, ex to new interest and even man to dog.  What Franklin-Willis provides that is a bit unusual is a late voice to the much-maligned mother of the twins.  Just when I was ready to write Lillian off as a failed maternal figure, she is given the podium to share her own tragedies, those tragedies imperceptable to the maturing or even matured child.  The retelling of Zeke and Lillian's failings and painful life events speak to the universality of suffering in relationships.  These tragedies communicate the bonds that secure us all, the bonds that tie us down, and, ultimately the bonds that break.