Saturday, August 28, 2010

Lit by Mary Karr

I loved reading Mary Karr's other memoirs so I was excited when this one came out. Unfortunately, it took me until now to get to it.

Lit, Karr's latest memoir, details her struggles with alcohol, her road to sobriety and her converstion to Catholicism. The focus is on her early years as a writer and young parent and how alcohol impacted those things as well as contributed to the dissolution of her marriage. Timeline wise, this book takes place 9 years after the events discussed in Cherry, Karr's coming of age memoir. The story begins with Karr as a teenager and then as a college student, then as a poet and grad student and finally her family life.

I loved this memoir.  There were some parts of it that really struck home for me as a young parent - especially when Karr details the impact of her drinking on her son in particular.  It was poignant and touching and emotional and raw, but eloquent and wonderful at the same time.  She's also really meticulous and frank in her descriptions and stories.  Karr doesn't spare the reader or herself the memories and the pain and the other emotions that are attached to her struggles. She excellently conveys the tension that she experiences between her heart/emotion and her brain/intellectualism in a way that very few authors could do. 

Karr's story is inspiring and wonderful and a must read for all.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

This novel by Tatjana Soli is about a female photojournalist that covers the Vietnam War from 1969 until a little bit beyond its close in 1972. Helen finds that the violence that she photographs changes her life in numerable ways and that she can't just leave the country, no matter how many times she nearly dies in the process. It's an addiction, akin to that possibly felt by extreme sports fanatics. Helen arrives there in Vietnam obsessed with learning about her brother, who died in the war. She is young and naive and inexperienced. She quickly becomes hooked to Sam Darrow, another photographer, who becomes her mentor and lover. He's already a ton of time doing what Helen will spend the next decade of her life doing. He can't return home, even though he constantly promises that he would do so. And Linh is, perhaps, the most complicated of all - he is Vietnamese with ties to both the NVA and SVA and the underground, black market.

The title is a reference to the Greek myth of Lotus Eaters, who eat the narcotic plants and become obsessed, possessed and addicted by them. And that reference comes out during the entire book from Sam Darrow, who can't leave to Helen who keeps returning. They're addicted to war, the endorphins that trail behind it and what they see there. It also explores violence and the role that it plays on relationships - most notably love and longing between Darrow, Helen and Linh.

I really enjoyed this novel and would highly recommend it.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Good Son by Michael Gruber

This is one of the books that I heard about on NPR and decided to read, and was wildly glad that I did.

The Good Son was written by Michael Gruber, a man that had a lot of careers before becoming a novelist, including chef and journalist. I'm convinced that his background as a journalist helped him in composing this novel about the intersection of the Muslim world of Pakistan/Afghanistand and the West.

The protagonist, Sonya Davis, is a white, American woman that practices both Islam and Catholicism and married a wealthy Pakistani. After working briefly in a circus, she and her husband, Farid Laghari, moved to Lahore where they had three children - one of whom (Theo) we get to know intimately in this novel. Theo is raised in Lahore. At ten, a family tragedy inspires Theo and his best friend (and adopted brother) Wazir to run off to join the jihad against the Russians (it is, after all, the late eighties when the Russians were in Afghanistan). At 13, Theo becomes a legendary jihadist after he single handedly kills 60 soldiers and takes over their fort. As the novel begins, Sonya is leading a group of activists into the Afghani country and mountains in order to hold a convention that promotes peace. They are taken hostage. Theo promptly sets out to rescue his mother.

I really enjoyed this novel because it was a spy/mystery novel that contained a lot of information about the Muslim world and discussion about comparative religion/culture.  That was what interested me the most about this book. Gruber's writing style made this discussion accessible and interesting while not letting it drag a whole lot (though in some places it did). Each plotline (of which there are three) are told in alternating chapters from different points of view, but it's hardly confusing or difficult to follow and actually makes the book more enjoyable because, in my opinion, it becomes easier to follow.

Mr. Gruber obviously has a talent and it's one that you must enjoy with this novel.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Possibility of Everything by Hope Edelman

I heard about this book on one of the podcasts that I listen to - the Manic Mommies interviewed Hope Edelman on one of the podcasts that I listened to (I'm really behind) and the book sounded really interesting. And it was really interesting.

This memoir takes place in 2000. Hope is living with her three year old daughter (Maya) and her husband, Uzi, in California. She's a writer and her husband works for a start up computer company.  Hope is going through a rough period - she's not happy with her writing, she feels like she gives up a lot of time with her daughter and Uzi has been working long hours at the start-up so her relationship with him is suffering. She resents him for not being around for her or for Maya.  So the family plans a trip to Belize. As the trip approaches, Maya begins to act strangely. She begins to act out by becoming violent towards her parents, playing alone and blaming everything on her new imaginary friend, Dodo.  All the doctors and social workers that Hope talks to reassure her that this is normal for a child that is Maya's age, but Hope's instincts tell her something else is at work.  Uzi suggests that they meet with shamans in Belize to see if they can help Maya and Hope is very resistant to the idea.

The trip starts out poorly because Maya is physically ill - she has a fever and a nasty cough that is, in all likelihood, Croup. Two trips to two different shamans occur. The first one is ended early by Hope herself, who is still suspicious of them.  The second one is a much more positive one for her and her family.

This story is really about Hope Edelman, couched in her daughter's story.  She details her struggles as a working, professional mother who wants to do the best that she can for her child while still making money and having a career.  What it is, perhaps, most of all is about a woman that pushes against the boundaries of her belief systems and learns what faith is: what it means to have faith in something that one normally wouldn't believe in, even where there is no explanation for it.  And I thought that Hope had a lot of guts to put herself in the position where she was trusting someone like a shaman and then, on the second level, writing about her experiences and her fears and belief systems so publicly. And her writing was so beautiful and accessible. At one point, she describes her family's trip to the ancient Mayan ruins in Belize and I almost felt like I was there.

Highly recommended and one that I would purchase for your home library.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Fun With Problems by Robert Stone

This is a short collection of seven stories written by Robert Stone. I heard about this collection on NPR I think, but I had never heard of the author before.

The main characters in each of Stone's stories seem to deal with the same issues - dissatisfaction with their life in some way, shape or form that they deal with by consuming massive amounts of alcohol. Some consume so much alcohol that they are literally and figuratively drowning in it (there are at least two drownings/near drownings in this collection). 

When I first started reading, I wasn't sure that I was going to be able to get through the entire collection.  While some of the stories drew me in immediately, some of them did not. I lost interest in some of the characters easily, perhaps because all of the main characters were male and their struggles were not like mine, not because they were male but simply because I didn't have their issues and couldn't relate to their issues. But I kept on and when I ask myself why, I figured out why.  Stone is an exquisite author who manages, somehow, to dig to the root of his character's problems and present them in such a raw manner that you can't help but continue. It's almost like you can't look away, no matter how hard you try to. He's a good writer in that his word choice is so pleasurable but his plots also made it difficult to plow through his stories or even to savor them. He needs to work a little bit on plot at least as it relates to his short story work.

Generally, decent.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

This is the 11th novel by Guy Gavriel Kay and I'm surprised that I haven't heard of this author or read anything by him before because this book was an absolute treat. It is set in 8th centruy China, during the Tang dynasty, but the country is only loosely based upon that time and place. The main character is Shen Tai, the second son of a reknowned general that has passed away. Shen's older brother, Liu, is the assistant to the prime minister of Kitan (as Chinas is known n this novel). The brothers have a younger sister that becomes a princess and part of the royal family.

Their father has recently died and part of Shen Tai's mourning was to go to a remote village, where a battle has recently occurred and where there are many unburied bodies.  Of course, ghosts roam the area as well, at least until their bodies are buried. Shen Tai buries the bodies of the dead soldiers that he comes across. As a result of his work, he is given a gift of 250 horses; horses from the nieghboring country that are prized in Kitan. They are workhorses, warhorses, beautiful and they bring honor to whoever owns them. He is swept up in the national political scene and makes friends and connections.  He is the subject of at least one assassination attempt.

This novel, perhaps unsurprisingly once you have read it, took five years of work and it shows. It is well written and well researched. The book is beautiful and full of life. It doesn't drag along and isn't smarmy, like some historical fiction books tend to do. The characters are beautifully developed and drawn. They are multifaceted. This novel is everything that one would want it to be. 

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich

I think that this is the second or third book in a month that waxes eloquently on marriage - specifically bad ones.  I hope that it doesn't say anything about my unconsciousness or whatever (it doesn't, but seriously, why are all the books that I have been picking up about dysfunctional relationships in some way shape or form?).

This novel begins with a diary entry written by Irene America - she actually keeps two diaries. One of the diaries is for herself and she keeps it in a lockbox at her local bank - a lockbox that only she has access to. The other she keeps in her desk drawer in her home and she writes in it what she wants her husband to see. Both Irene and her husband, Gil, are of Native American descent and both are raised by single mothers, but the novel doesn't delve into typical Native American Indian themes.  Its focus is more on relationships. Gil, a painter, paints portraits of Irene and uses them as weapons and, sometimes therapy, in much the same way that Irene uses her diary (at least the public one that she knows Gil reads) as a weapon against him. Gil is plagued by jealousy that causes him to lash out at their older son, Florian, while at the same time causing him to lash out almost passively/aggressively at his wife, through his paintings (some of which are disturbing).

This novel was very raw but very well done.  The characters are flawed but somehow, you manage to figure them out and relate to them on some level. The ones that you really feel for are the three children, that must bear witness to their parents' steadily sinking marriage, and their hate of each other. They often bear the brunt of their parents' fights. Vert enjoyable.

My Education by Susan Choi

I admit it: I have a thing about academic novels.  And by that, I  mean novels that occur on campuses and are about characters that are ent...