Monday, September 30, 2013

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

This book is set on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota in 1988, give or take a few years. The protagonist is Joe Coutts, a thirteen year old member of the Ojibwe tribe and whose mother is brutally beaten and raped in the tribe's Round House. The Round House is a place of prominence in the tribe's culture as that is where a number of religious ceremonies are held, including the Sweat Lodges. His father, Bazil, is a lawyer and the town's tribal judge, making the violation that occurred even that much more horrific. Because Joe's mother is extremely unclear as to what happened and where due to her injuries and her seeming unwillingness (who can really blame her) to remember what happened to her, it's hard to figure out who committed the offense and in what jurisdiction each event happened. This is significant because it could be a federal offense, a state offense or a tribal offense, with the ramifications of each being extremely different (for instance, on Indian land, whites can't be prosecuted). Joe watches, seemingly helplessly, as his mother sinks further and further into depression - so badly that she can't get out of bed, let alone care for herself. As Joe watches this, he and his friends decide to take matters into their own hands and to seek out the perpetrator and effect their own punishment.

THis book was absolutely masterful. It is both a coming of age story and a detective novel combined in one. In the first chapters, we meet Joe as a young and innocent boy and the picture that Erdrich paints, while using simple language, paints a very poignant picture of a boy that's just hanging out with his friends. That is taken away from him brutally when his mother is attacked and you feel the loss immensely. Her stories and characters are seemingly universal - I mean, you get that boys sneak cigarettes and beer - but you also know that the impact and experience of Joe is unique to him because of who he is - a Native American boy growing up on a reservation near the turn of the century. I loved how she also used the novel to educate the reader - possibly a majority white audience - about the struggles that Native Americans face, particularly poverty and assault related issues. This book is highly recommended.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

We learn pretty much at the beginning of this utterly engrossing book that Will Schwalbe's mother had Stage IV pancreatic cancer. Yes, thats the terminal kind that has metastasized to many other organs of a person's body. While this may have been devastating to most people (and was to Will, his siblings and the rest of his family), his indomitable mother continues to live a *really* active life. She juggles her treatments with her other obligations and her pleasures, most notably her voracious appetite for reading. During her treatments, Will (also a tremendous reader in a family of readers) will read the same books that his mother does and discuss them with her in great depth.

I'm normally very hesitant about books about books - they can go so horribly wrong so quickly; however this one was really good in part because it's not a Cliffs note version of books, and because it's also a memoir of his mother's struggle with cancer and because he's such a good writer. I think that one of the best compliments that I can give for this book is that I wish that I had known Will's mother and that this was the most wonderful tribute anyone could have made to their mother because it conveyed how wonderful she was while also imparting her gift of her love of books to the rest of us. While this book isn't upbeat (it's about cancer and death), it's not maudlin at all and parts of it are truly uplifting. I got ideas for books to read and topics to meditate on at a time in my life when I really and truly needed them to distract me or educate me or both. It re-affirmed my love of books, and reading and the act of reading and digesting what I've read. It re-affirmed the importance of family at a time that I was struggling to figure family out. This is a must read.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

This book is a memoir written by Piper Kerman, a WASP-y, upper middle class, Smith college graduate that has to spend 15 months in a minimum security prison in Connecticut after she pleads guilty to federal drug charges. It is the basis - loosely - of the Netflix series of the same name. If you haven't seen the series, please take a time out immediately, go over to Netflix and add it to your streaming queue because it is to die for - it's one of my guilty pleasures.

I really liked the memoir (which is different in many ways from the series - which can take many fictional liberties whereas the memoir can't). Kerman tries to provide a glimpse of what life is like on the inside of the prison, albeit in a way that is similar to what went on in Eat, Pray, Love. I really liked seeing the day to day life of a post-adjudged convict in the criminal justice system and the struggles that these women faced and that were inherent in the return to society. I really wished that I had gotten more backstory on the women that Piper came across. Piper's goal in writing this memoir was two fold I think: to show how badly the criminal justice system is set up to reintegrate these women into society and to humanize the women that she met. However, the backstories were incomplete, non-existent or completely fictionalized because prison etiquette seemed to forbid the questioning of other inmates about their background (according to Piper).

Piper is obviously really smart - she went to Smith after all - and she writes pretty well. She was engaging and could be witty at times. It was easy to imagine the setting and the people that she dealt with and the interactions that she had with them because she was able to engage all of the senses in her descriptions. The book came across as a sugar coated summer camp, when it obviously wasn't - something like prison simply can't by nature be so happy or copacetic.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

How good this novel is can be demonstrated by its opening line: ""My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost 40 years ago [the early 1970's] I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn't return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing." Yes, it's a "spy novel" in some sense; however only very loosely so. Too much said about the plot will ruin the effect for the reader though. I can say that the book is full of irony and simply wonderful.

Serena is one of the best characters that I've ever met in literature. She is so complex. As we meet her, we learn that she has gone to college at Cambridge (not too shabby) where she studied math after being forced to do so by her ambitious mother (instead of English and literature, which were Serena's passions and still are when we meet her - she literally can ingest one or two books a day on average and is a voracious and passionate reader). So, in many ways, this is a book about books and writing - it's also about inexperience/innocence, jealousy and relationships, betrayal and deceit. More so, it is about whether literature is still a valuable tool in modern society and whether books read as deeply as McEwan believes that they should be read will disappear.

McEwan, as usual, is a wonderful writer. This book brought me comfort in the way that a satisfying stew or roast could - it was something that I could sink my teeth into and savor and left me feeling satisfied and thoughtful in a pleasant way. His narrator is cheeky, warm, animated and intimate - we are allowed to see parts of her life that not everyone can see or would normally see. It's like we're eavesdropping on her conversations or reading her diary. As such, this novel was delightful and sublime.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

If you liked The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, you will want to read this dystopian novel, which has won a number of awards in th...