Saturday, January 14, 2017

Books for the Inauguration

My five-year-old granddaughter said to me the other day, "I watched Donald Trump on television when my mommy wasn't looking." Like she was watching porn or something!. This is an extremely sad state of affairs when a five-year-old isn't in awe of the president-elect or respectful of the office.

In this inauguration week, I want to highlight two new books I received from the publishers that speak to what I am feeling and what many in this country appear to be feeling. 

What We Do Now: Standing Up for Your Values in Trump's America

Edited by Dennis Johnson and Valarie Merians
Melville House   2017
224 pages     Nonfiction/Politics

Leading liberal and progressive voices speak to the chaos brought about by the election and now the inauguration of Donald Trump in the book of essays, What We Do Now. For example, in one essay,  David Cole, the legal counsel for the ACLU asserts that because Trump was elected, we must now hold him accountable. He says, "But if we now and for the next four years insist that he honor our most fundamental constitutional values, including equality, human dignity, fair process, privacy, and the rule of law, and if we organize and advocate in defense of these principles, he can and will be contained." 

There are essays by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Gloria Steinem, Dave Eggers, Cornell Brooks and many others, each essay discussing some aspect of American freedom and a blueprint for how to move forward. Progressivism, as we well know, has been dealt a huge blow, and progressives all over the country are still stunned two months after the election. These essays provide tremendous food for thought on how we can and must proceed.
My favorite is an essay by author George Saunders called The Braindead Megaphone, which comes from a book by the same name. (By the way, many of the pieces in the book have been published elsewhere.) He says,
"Then a guy walks in with a megaphone. He's not the smartest person at the party, or the most experienced, or the most articulate. But he's got that megaphone." And people listen.

Every essay is appropriate and thought provoking.

The Trump  Survival Guide: Everything You Need to Know About Living Through What You
Hoped Would Never Happen.
by Gene Stone
Day Street Books     2017
208 pages     Nonfiction/Politics

In The Trump Survival Guide, Gene Stone gives liberals and progressives a call to action for the next four years. He begins with an historical guide to the actions of ineffective presidents of the past, and offers concrete solutions to  help those of us in despair to find ways in which we can actively be watchdogs to hold Trump and his administration accountable for the decisions that will be made in the next four years.

Stone looks at important policies of the country through several lenses—the history of the policy, what President Obama did regarding the policy, what President Trump might do, and what the average citizen can do to support, and in some cases save,  the policies that are important to them. He discusses civil rights, the economy, education, women's rights, immigration, the environment and several others. The chapters that interested me the most personally were the chapters on education, immigration, and women's rights. I particularly liked all the contact information that individuals can use to become active advocates for the policies that are most important to them. 

As for me, I am going to continue to be actively involved in immigration reform and women's rights. My little five-year-old granddaughter and her mother are going with me to the rally in Lansing, Michigan on the day after the election. My daughter, step-daughter and teenage granddaughters will be in Washington. We cannot remain silent.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Woman in Cabin 10

by Ruth Ware
Scout Press     2016
340 pages     Thriller

It was a dark, very cold and snowy January day when I began The Woman in Cabin 10. I was all wrapped up in a blanket, the fire was blazing, and I was determined to put life at bay and read something totally absorbing. This was the perfect choice. What was good about The Woman in Cabin 10 was that I couldn't put the book down. It isn't great literature, but it sure did keep my heart pumping and my blood warm.  I had similar hopes when I read Ware's previous book, In A Dark, Dark Wood—and I was similarly underwhelmed, except to say that the setting is just as atmospheric in The Woman in Cabin 10 as it was In A Dark, Dark Wood. This time, however, the setting is a small cruise ship in the North Sea. 

Laura Blacklock (Lo to her friends) is a travel writer and is lucky enough to score a trip on the maiden voyage of the small ship, Aurora, to view the Northern Lights, to visit the Norwegian fjords, and the city of Trondheim. There are only ten cabins, and all but cabin 10 are filled with travel writers, photographers, and potential investors for the ship's owner, British Lord  Richard Bullmer. 

Before the voyage began, Lo experienced a robbery in her apartment; the most scary part of the robbery was that she was locked in her room for several hours. This event throws her completely off balance, so she enters the cruise ship sleepless, hung over, and anxious. We learn right away that she is an unreliable reporter, that she has a drinking problem and is dependent on anxiety medication. Almost immediately she is rattled again when she thinks that she hears a scream and someone being thrown overboard in Cabin 10, right next door to her room. Of course, no one believes her. It is a classic murder mystery setup, but in Lo's case, she cannot cease pursuing what she thinks happened, even when she is warned to stop searching for answers. Add to this the claustrophobia and the constant nausea coming from the lurching small ship, and you have a prescription for a very tense ride.

One reader suggested that the book involves a lot of gaslighting. I didn't know what that term meant, but apparently it refers to when a hysterical woman is manipulated into thinking that her own memory, perception and sanity can't be trusted. No matter how much the people on the boat try to gaslight Lo, she persists, and solves the crime. The last 50 pages or so are very tense, but the solution is a bit underwhelming and slightly disappointing. 

One of the problems I have had recently is finding anything to like about the women protagonists in mysteries that seem to be very popular. Certainly, I didn't like Rachel in The Girl on the Train, and Amy in Gone Girl, and I really didn't like the women In a Dark, Dark Wood. Now, here is another one with a truly unlikable protagonist. But, apparently they make great characters in movies, since all of these books have been made into movies. Probably The Woman in Cabin 10 will show up on the big screen as well. Ah well. So much for my opinion. 

Ruth Ware website.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Year of Needy Girls

by Patricia A. Smith
Akashic Books     2017
333 pages     Literary Fiction

Two disasters happened in my small city of Kalamazoo in 2016 that upended the city—an Uber driver went on a rampage, shot and murdered several people, and a drunk and overdosed driver plowed into a group of bicyclists, killing several as well.  How a city responds to a major problem can determine the character of the city. In the case of Kalamazoo, both compassion and outrage led to policy and city ordinance changes that will make the city better. In Bradley, Massachusetts, on the other hand, outrage over homosexuality and murder threaten to destroy the fabric of the town. The town became divided between "us and them," leaving disaster in its wake. The Year of Needy Girls explores how a community responds to crisis.

Like many towns, Bradley has poor people, immigrants, and middle and elite classes. Deidre, a teacher, wants to live and work on the right side of town. Her partner SJ, a librarian, seeks to find meaningful work in the poorer section of the community. From the outside, their relationship is secure; their employers know that they are lesbians and are accepting of it. However, inside the house, the couple is drifting apart, keeping secrets from each other,  and feeling the stress of trying to maintain a normal life within the community.

There are several story lines at play in Patricia Smith's The Year of Needy Girls, which was published yesterday. Maybe too many. A young boy disappears and is discovered sexually assaulted and dead several days later. The town becomes very fearful for its children. Then Deidre, who works in a private girl's high school is accused of molesting one of her students, and the terror the community is feeling over the death of the young boy erupts into ugliness and homophobia. Everyone suffers from the fallout although the resulting witch hunt lacks tension and suspense, which leaves the reader feeling rather blah.

The tension in the plot is all internal, both for the characters and for the reader. We know from the outset what is going to happen, and in general, we know how the characters are going to respond.  Publisher's Weeklysays that Smith's "crisp prose and dedication to realistic moral ambiguity" makes for an interesting read. I understood and related to the moral ambiguity, but as a retired teacher, I knew that Deidre was too dedicated to her students and was constantly being too accommodating and affectionate with the "needy girls" at the school. Something was bound to happen, and her own ambiguity over her response to the girls was very disquieting. One of the first things a teacher learns is to not get emotionally attached to your students—and to NEVER hug a student. The tragedy of the book is that Deidre's brilliant and dedicated teaching gets lost in scandal.

The reviewer in Kirkus Reviews felt that the author was attempting to do too much and the plot was too easily resolved. A much better exploration of women teachers in private girls' schools is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Spark. Mystic River by Lehane explores with much more tension the abduction and sexual exploitation of a child. I am not sure that I can wholeheartedly recommend The Year of Needy Girls, but read the reviews, borrow the book from the library, and make your own appraisal. 

Just as I was posting this review, I opened today's Washington Post. The headline article was about an elementary teacher and his husband who were accused of abusing 8 boys. They killed themselves to avoid the investigation and prosecution. So, the topic of teachers and sexual exploitation is not going away, and teachers need to be extremely vigilant as they work with their students. On that topic, Patricia Smith's exploration is valuable and insightful.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Best Books of the Year 2016

Here is a list of my favorites of 2016.You will see some of these on other "best of" lists but some of them are unique to my life situation. Have you read any of these?

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley. This was by far the best mystery I read all year.  I read it pre-publication but it showed up on most of the "best of" lists for the year.
My Brilliant Friend by the mysterious Elena Ferrante. The first book I read in the new year, given to me by a friend. What a furor this series has caused. Well worth reading.
Zero K by Don DeLillo was the first DeLillo book I have read. It is a meditation on death written in DeLillo's signature bleak language.
A Covenant with Death   by Stephen Becker. This was a reissue of a novel from the 1960s, and it is a meditation on the nature of justice and of capital punishment.
The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton. This is a lovely coming of age story not billed as YA, but certainly appropriate for teenagers. Just about my favorite book of the year.
Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick tackles teenage anxiety in literary fashion. 

Historical Fiction
Last Days of Night by Graham Moore tells the story of the feud between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. Nickola Tesla and a host of other characters enrich an exciting conflict.

The Journey  by Francesca Sanna is much more than a children's book. It's timeliness regarding the plight of the refugees has influenced my thought every day.
Slade House   by David Mitchell is not an important book but it is a great diversion. Totally fun.
Between the World and Me by Ta'Nehisi Coates is one of the most important books of the year. An explanation of how to live as a Black man.
The Nordic Theory of Everything  by Anu Partanen. I read this in preparation for my June trip to Norway. A fun read.

My life on the Road by Gloria Steinem is the iconic woman's memoir. Important to the political discussions of this year.
You'll Grow Out of It  by Jessi Klein is a memoir in essay/ storytelling style. Totally fun read.

Most Hated
The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up  by Marie Kondo. Frankly, I hated every moment of this smug look at my clutter. Unlike what many of Kondo's advocates told me, it did not change my life.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Twenty-Three

by Linwood Barclay
Berkley Books    2016
464 pages     Mystery/Thriller

I am seeing the number 23 everywhere—now that I have completed the Promise Falls trilogy by Linwood Barclay, and it occurred to me that 23 is a prime number. I wonder if that is why Barclay chose it as the number to run through the entire series. At the beginning, the number was very mysterious, and then I thought it meant the number of people that would die over the course of Broken Promise, Far from True and The Twenty-Three. However, now that I have finished the series, I believe that the number doesn't really matter because there are way more than 23 dead people---too many to count!  

The Twenty-Three begins with another disaster; more than a hundred people die after drinking the water early one morning of Memorial Day weekend. The hospitals and the morgue are filling up and ambulances are screeching down every street. Every character from the other books in the trilogy shows up, but almost first on the scene is Randall Finley, who owns a local water bottling company and is also running for mayor. It seems that his company has been bottling water in anticipation of some big event—he says it is for the warm summer weather ahead. Of course, every bottle has his name on it, and he sets up shop to distribute the water in the city park. He allows himself to be filmed by every major news outlet in the country and his name is on everyone's lips, both literally and figuratively. The reader immediately suspects that he may have poisoned the water for his own ulterior motives.

Mayhem is happening all over Promise Falls—not just because of the poisoned water. Every character's drama from the past two books is played out in this finale—but not every plot twist is resolved. Some of the characters die from the water; others are murdered; and still others are enormously conflicted. Promise Falls remains a town that I wouldn't go to visit if you paid me!

I believe that the two major plot devices are ripped from the headlines. Surely the poisoned water is a reference to the Flint water crisis, with which we in Michigan are still coping. Just as I was reading The Twenty-Three, indictments came down on the Flint Department of Public Works director and two of the emergency managers who were involved when the water got poisoned. The director of the water department in Promise Falls was a bit of an idiot, so apparently Barclay was well aware of the idiots who were running the city of Flint. The other ironic thing is the self-serving Randall Finley, the would-be mayor, with his name plastered over all the bottled water in the city. Remind you of any other self-serving would-be public servant with a name plastered all over everything!!! But I digress. 

Don't try to read The Twenty-Three without having read the other two books in the series. There are too many characters and too many crazy plot devices. Some of the loose ends get tied up satisfactorily, but others cause the reader to shrug and groan. All in all, however the Promise Falls trilogy is great escapism and a reminder that sometimes fiction is stranger than truth.

Linwood Barclay website.