Sunday, July 28, 2013

Fairyland by Alysia Abbott


This book is a memoir written by a woman in the hopes that she can recover the memory of her father and his innocence, because his innocence was the first thing that came to her mind when she thought of him. Alysia's mom and dad were a couple, got married, had the author and then Alyia's mother died in a car crash. Once she did, Alysia and her dad moved to San Francisco, where Alysia began to realize that her father was gay.

Steve Abbott, Alysia's father, began to move through the peripheries of the San Francisco poetry scene in the sixties and seventies. He came out during the age of Harvey Milk and he was able to finally find his voice during that time period. During that time period, Alysia was right by his side - he was her only parent. The part of her memoir that struck me the most was how she chronicled the seeming loss of innocence that occurred between the age of the Beats, the onset of AIDS and the death that it wrought before people became educated about it. What also struck me was the constant tension between the need to write and find one's voice and the need to support the family - even though Steve was constantly publishing and writing and reading, the small family constantly struggled to make ends meet.

It is also about Alysia and her coming of age during a time when people like Anita Bryant vilified gay men and lesbians, when Harvey Milk was gunned down at point blank range because he was gay and when people she knew and loved were dying because of a disease that people thought they deserved because they were gay. As an adolescent, a teenager and a young college student living in NY, France and then back at home, she struggled mightily with the fact that her dad was different. She called him weird at one point and made the comment that she didn't want to be on the weird side anymore, leading meto the conclusion that this was a coming of age memoir as well. She has been tremendously successful - she lives in Cambridge, MA with her own family and seems to have come of age well.

This is a novel that is a personal account of an historical period. She draws on the letters that her father sent to her as well as his journals and her own journals, so in that sense it's not a bad personal and historical accounting of what happened and the impact that it had on her life. It's well written and moves fast. It's heartbreaking while also fun in parts. Definitely a must read.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani


When we first encounter Thea Atwell, our protagonist, she has been sent away from her home in Florida to the mountains of Appalachia in what we know is disgrace. She is 15 years old and one half of a set of fraternal twins, the other half of which remained at home with their parents. Thea hopes that she is merely there for summer camp, but when summer is over, she learns that she will be there for the rest of the school year at the very least. The events occur during the beginning of the Great Depression and one can tell that it is having an impact on the girls at the camp, many of whom must leave or get hastily married in order to ensure the family's financial stability and/or position. Economics, however, are a secondary theme to adolescent, and specifically female adolescent, sexual awakening. It doesn't take the reader long to figure out that sex was at the heart of Thea's exile from the fold; however, it is richly given to us in layers that are peeled away slowly.

The way that the story is told is very effective: DiSclafani alternates between the present, when Thea is at the boarding school and the past, when she is in Florida and hasn't yet experienced the acts that led to her exile. Both are very sensory and rich environments even though they are very different from one another. Thea is a tremendous character: she both feels guilt at the transgressions she's made in the sense that she feels bad that harm has come to people because of what she has done. At the same time, she loves the sensory feedback that she gets and she is very angry at her parents for sending her away. In my mind, this is a very realistic position for a character to be in because in real life, I'm sure many a person has felt that they were entitled to feel sexually fulfilled and have still felt guilty that their actions may have harmed or actually harmed someone (pedophiles aside). I really enjoyed this novel...even though it didn't give me any insight into why adolescents like horses...

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson


Without giving too much away, hopefully, I think that I can say this about the plot of this novel: it's about the lives of a woman named ursula Todd who continuously reliving her life. For instance, we meet her on the day of her birth, where she is still born and then on the next page, we meet her again and she has managed to live a little longer. And in the section after that, a bit longer. And so the whole book goes, with Ms. Todd living a bit longer each time. During each of these lives we learn a lot more about Ms. Todd and we also learn that she becomes aware that this is happening to her.

The book was a bit difficult to get into as far as the rhythm and pacing of it - it is also disconcerting and disorienting in the beginning because the reader has no idea of what is going on. I think that this may have been intentional on the part of the author because as the novel goes on, one of the most impressive parts is the main character's increasing self awareness including the fact that she seems to have 9 lives. Stick with it because it's so worth it in the end! I also read this book as a combination of "the road not taken" and the ability to make different choices. It's the ability to use hindsight to fix the exact situations that you knew that you had made a mistake in. The writing itself was amazing. It allowed me to get fully absorbed in it without feeling mired down in mud or struggling to wade through. There were a ton of poetic metaphors that were fresh (as opposed to the old tired ones that a lot of people seem to use). It is intelligent without making itself feel better than the reader. I loved this book and highly recommend it.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Life After Life by Jill McCorkle


Surprisingly to me, this was Jill McCorkle's sixth novel; however it was her first in about 15 years.The center of activity of this novel is an assisted living facility in the Southeast, which is also located near a cemetery. THe novel introduces the reader to many different residents of the facility, its workers and their friends. Their memories and experiences are revealed to the reader through memories, journal entries and first person narrative. Slowly and surely, the reader begins to grasp the tension between illusion and reality and the difficulty that each person has determining what belongs to each realm.

I loved these characters - even the ones that were reprehensible. I appreciated the authenticity of the characters. It wasn't a stretch to believe that these were people that I would have known in real life. It moved somewhat slowly and yet I didn't mind that it moved slowly. It allowed me to get to know the characters and to immerse myself in the community. It's a small community - one where everyone knows everyone else. For instance, one of the residents was a teacher in the community and taught many of the children of the other residents - that's how small it is. I have lived in such a community so it didn't feel as claustrophobic as some people complained that the book felt. The novel was very poignant and I really enjoyed it.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Detroit by Charlie LeDuff


I heard about this book on one of my favorite reading podcasts: Books on the Nightstand and it sounded so good. I found it quite easily at my local library.

Charlie LeDuff is a trained journalist and he actually lives in Detroit. He states that his family is from the area, however I'm not positive that this is accurate. He does currently live in Detroit and does online and TV journalism. This made his perspective unique, intriguing and heartbreaking all in one. His narrative looks at many different parts of Detroit's existence: his personal and family life, politics, economics and law enforcement. Even the parts of the narrative that aren't personal become so as he talks about them through a personal lens. He chronicles the appalling neglect of the fire department - their shoes literally have holes in them. One of the firefighters that LeDuff shadows as he researches the book dies in a house fire, in part due to equipment failure. LeDuff's narrative delves into the inner sanctums of the police department and the mayor's office, where the degree of corruption he unearths is so unbelievable, that it could have been fiction. It also explains the derelict circumstances that exist in a city that was once relatively prosperous - or prosperous enough that people wanted to move there from Southern cities in order to better their own circumstances. LeDuff also chronicles the rise and fall of the very politicians that he exposes for their corrupt practices.

While the topics encompassed by the book were amazing, I felt like I was talking to someone who was in the midst of a manic episode. It was in a constant state of being wound up and revved up, impatient in a way. And maybe it was because he was upset and impatient and frustrated at the way his hometown had been run into the ground. There were times when he tried too hard. For instance, he stated “The strain was showing on Monica Conyers like a cheap cocktail dress.” That is old and worn down. He was most effective when he was slowing down and saying it more simply. Aside from this, it was wonderful and I loved it.

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...