Monthly Archives: November 2013

Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem

One sentence plot
Three generations of activists rebel against the world and each other in a context of New York 20th century social change.

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The review
I really wanted to love the second book picked by my new book club. I didn’t want to be the curmudgeon in the corner always criticizing the group’s books. I quite liked the sound of this one. And yet this book has so few redeeming features that I’m reluctantly but vehemently giving it this blog’s first 1/5 rating.

My main and major criticism of this book is that it is boring. The level of boring of this book was so unremitting that I struggled to get through the thing at all – along, I must add, with pretty much every other member of my book club. I was almost the only one to finish the whole thing, and only because of my sense of obligation. The book isn’t particularly long. But at a micro level it is all long, clunking, multi-part, dense, tedious sentences, and at a macro level I absolutely couldn’t care less what happened, what these characters did, what happened to them. There was almost no point in this book at which if someone had snatched it from me mid-sentence I might have felt any glimmer of frustration or regret. Reading the book was a major chore, and not one that was eventually rewarding. As I read the last lines, after thinking ‘I don’t really get why he did that’, I thought ‘I don’t care. It’s over! Hooray!’

The book covers three generations of an extended family, the matriarch being Rose, a Jewish communist, whose German communist husband is exiled to Germany. Her daughter Miriam rebels with communism and revolution to rival her mother’s. Miriam’s son Sergius, brought up in a Quaker boarding school and oozing conventionality til his heritage seemingly drives him to be a rebel without a cause. The supporting characters are in some ways quite interesting, but not especially engaging. They’re hard to keep straight. Cicero. Tommy. Lenny. Random others. The relationships are fractured and insufficiently examined. The action is described in retrospect rather than in any sort of real time.

There is an occasional funny moment, usually linked to a rare use of a character’s own voice (Miriam’s letters to her absent father, for instance) but mostly, oh, what a self-indulgent, tedious, smug book! Every social issue of the 20th century is superficially, pointlessly crammed in. Occupy! Race! AIDS! It’s the sort of book you just know the author is imagining reviewers calling a great American novel. And instead, I found it a lot of sound and fury signifying… not very much. Granted I thought the last quarter of the book was better than what preceded it, but by this time I was too prejudiced against the whole enterprise to permit any whisper of redemption. What a disappointing waste of $30 and about 15 hours of my life. I’ve heard Lethem’s other books are much better, but I just don’t think I could bear to try reading another one…

The verdict: 1/5 shoes

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A Cure for Dreams by Kaye Gibbons

One sentence plot

Three generations of Southern women live their small and poignant lives in a small town.

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The review

I read A Cure for Dreams only about a week ago and yet when I came to write this review, I realized I couldn’t remember a thing about it! Which is in itself a rather damning review… And yet I rather liked A Cure for Dreams. The fact is, it’s not about plot. It’s more about evoking this small Southern town, and what it’s like for the women who live there. The character studies are compelling and beautifully drawn, the prose is lovely, the atmosphere immersive, and yet not very much happens (and yet in the lives of these women, the small happenings are momentous). I cared a lot about these characters. While I preferred Ellen Foster by the same author, a much meatier tome than this charming little piece, if you like character-driven coming of age ensemble pieces, this little book may well charm you.

The verdict: 3/5 shoes

The Maddaddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood

One sentence plot

In a dystopic but disturbingly possible speculative future, our compelling protagonists take polar opposite approaches in their attempts to halt Earth’s destruction by the human race, and make the world a better place.

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The review

I very nearly was unable to review Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, by not finishing it. The first time I picked up Oryx and Crake, I admit I was prejudiced. I had just finished Atwood’s brilliant A Handmaid’s Tale, and was very much bewitched by that particular vision of the future. I just couldn’t get my head around a brand new dystopia by the same author, and I so struggled to get into the world of Oryx and Crake when it was first published. I resented it. I wanted Handmaid’s Tale 2. Then, when The Year of the Flood came out, I decided to try again, but it was so long since I’d read Oryx and Crake by then that I had forgotten lots of details, and found it confusing. So when Maddaddam came out, I had pretty much resolved that it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t going to buy it at all. But then my friends kept going on about how much they loved the books, and then I heard Atwood talking about it at the National Book Festival in September, and I decided to bite the bullet. That meant reading the whole trilogy, back to back, from scratch. And thank goodness I did because this time I loved it.

The trilogy paints a world that’s initially split into those working for big corporations and living on compounds, and those living in polluted, crime-ridden slums. The rich compound dwellers, living literally in a bubble, are mostly valued for their science skills, producing profit for the companies based on ways to ‘improve’ humans’ lifestyle, while their bored, science-widow spouses buy expensive spa treatments and ogle the gardener. Life outside the compounds are very much the sordid badlands, where nobody from inside wishes to go – or is allowed to go. Everyone seeks longer life and guzzles vitamins which, while lucrative for companies, may not be quite what they seem.

While most people accept the status quo, Atwood builds a compelling cast of characters who seek to change it. For some, the answer is science and innovation. For others, an eco-warrior religion, God’s Gardeners. For others, they’ve just fallen in for the ride and get involved. Since the first book starts after the almost end of the world, it’s no spoiler that some of these characters succeed in their ambition to change the world, in a dramatic way that transforms life on the planet. What is compelling is why, who and how.

The books flit backwards and forwards in time, introducing characters briefly, then later delving into their backstory, their complex motivations, relationships, and affiliations. You think you know a character, then a whole new facet is revealed. At times you need to really use your memory (eg pay attention to a brief character called Brenda in the first book) but Atwood impressively creates not just a new and believable world (complete with many new species) that stands up to scrutiny, but a web of disparate characters that are all linked in impressively and pleasingly complex ways.  People who seem minor later recur as stars. The characters I cared about in one book were not the ones I loved in the next book. Everything is shifting, but somehow, read back to back, it all makes sense. It works.

There are important ethical questions in the book, and Atwood does not take a position; she presents the circumstances, and opens the space wide for thought and debate. Of the three books, I preferred the middle one, The Year of the Flood. But Oryx and Crake is an essential scene setter. And the final book, Maddaddam, pulls things together in just the right way. It’s not a happily-ever-after cut-and-dry ending – rather it explores the meaning of the concept ‘ending’. A fascinating piece of speculative fiction. Atwood’s writing skill is spectacular. I’m sad there won’t be a fourth book in the series, according to its author. Because I really want to know what happens next!

The verdict: 5/5 stars (if you read them one after the other)

Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver

One sentence plot

After 6-year old Turtle helps save someone’s life, she appears with her poor but devoted adoptive mother on television and is devastatingly spotted by a young lawyer from the Cherokee nation intent on proving the adoption invalid and placing Turtle with a Cherokee family.

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The review

I didn’t immediately realize that this book is a sequel to Bean Trees, which I vaguely remember enjoying several years ago. Alas I couldn’t really remember the plot of Bean Trees, but the back story wasn’t necessary – it is recapped. In Bean Trees, in a car park in the desert, Taylor is given charge of a traumatized young girl who has been abused and beaten. In Pigs in Heaven, we find that Taylor has now adopted little Turtle (so-named because of her firm, turtle-like way of clinging to Taylor), and they are living quite happily in a dilapidated house with Taylor’s sweet musician boyfriend Jax. All is going swimmingly til Turtle spots a man falling down a hole, and by drawing attention, saves his life. She finds herself on the Oprah Winfrey show, where she is promptly spotted by a lawyer, Annawake. It turns out Turtle is Cherokee, and as such it was not legal to adopt her outside of the Cherokee Nation. Annawake, seeking to avenge the similar and sad fate of her own brother, pursues Taylor and Turtle to return Turtle to her rightful place within the Nation. Taylor is terrified of losing her daughter. Their lives are thrown upside down as they essentially go on the run, finding themselves falling into increasing, debilitating poverty, before they all end up in Annawake’s poor little town where we all learn not to judge a downtrodden, miserable-looking place – or person – by its cover. We all learn the importance and history and culture and traditions and food intolerances of the Cherokee people in a way I found informative, sad, inspiring, and above all, overtly preachy. Indeed, Kingsolver’s political agenda seemed to be driving the plot of this book. And when the ending comes, it seems contrived, and all too convenient to be believable. Indeed, I tossed down the book in frustration.

Overall, I did like this book, but it is clearly early Kingsolver, miles away from something as sophisticated as The Lacuna. Kingsolver’s political agenda is overt, overpowering things like characterization. Though Taylor, her mother, and Annawake are all interesting, I didn’t feel as invested in their fates as I would expect to – and I didn’t care much about personality-deficient Turtle herself. It felt more like many of them were there as representative characters to further the plot rather than people in their own right. Which is what I said about Savage the Bones earlier this week – hopefully not a reading theme that will persist! I did appreciate learning some history along the way, but not at the expense. The writing is of a good, Kingsolver-ish quality – I zipped through it rapidly and for the most part enjoyably.

The verdict: 3/5 shoes

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

One sentence plot

A poor Mississippi family struggle to instill hope and humanity in their harsh daily lives as Hurricane Katrina approaches.

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The review

I was literally prepared to hate this Hurricane Katrina-themed book. It gave the vibe of Beasts of the Southern Wild, a movie that reviewers fawned over and I hated. The book’s central action is pit bull dog fighting – and I don’t really enjoy reading about that type of violence in any great detail. But mainly I was prematurely biased because my wife and friends had read it before me in anticipation of a discussion at our new book club, and were vocal in their distaste for it. I like book clubs for getting you to read things you otherwise wouldn’t have touched with a bargepole. Having been obliged to read it though, I don’t know whether I’m glad.

The book is interesting in many ways. It vividly depicts the sort of grinding poverty that makes it absolutely clear why this family just wouldn’t have the means or drive or option to flee to safety when the hurricane warnings came, as their white, richer neighbors did. It gives a fascinating and realistic-sounding description of what it was like before and during the hurricane. It examines a family scrabbling for hope and survival after the death of their wife/mother. The father turns to drink; his hope is in the past. One brother turns to basketball. The girl, Esch, turns to sex. Another brother turns to dog fighting, dreaming of making his family’s fortune and pouring his love and care into the family’s great white hope, a vicious and prize winning pit bull terrier by the name of China. But there is a depressing inevitability that none of these bids for hope will turn out well. Indeed, the tragedy of this book is that there is little hope for this family. The crescendo of Katrina, when it comes, is just another setback in a life of harsh brutality and inevitable setbacks. The tender moments intended to offer a glimmer of hope are really not that hopeful. This family will survive, but it is not easy to imagine them ever flourishing.

Part of my trouble with this book was the characters. While the whole miserable setting and situation are vividly depicted, the characters themselves did not emerge to me as fully formed, sympathetic people. Personalities and characterization are not the building blocks of this book; rather they seem more of a device to help depict the plight and experiences of ‘a people’ rather than ‘people’. However, if accepting the characters as more representative than actual, it is interesting to follow the parallel stories of the girl Esch and the pit bull China – competitors in love, esteem and value.

This sort of thing is typical of the author’s style – she is poetic, lyrical, and a big fan of similes and metaphors – indeed, to excess. Most of the time they work; many other times they seem self-conscious and distracting, and sometimes onerous to read, as though they were written to fuel a high school English class’s essay on imagery. There are metaphors within metaphors galore. She also uses devices like Esch’s reading Greek myths as a microcosm for the tragedy unfolding in front of her (or vice versa); again, an interesting technique that is awkward in its execution. From the book group feedback, this style is either loved or despised, depending on the reader.

This is a book with a lot of promise, some interesting ideas, some luminous moments, some less good moments, and overall, the major need of a good editor. Against the odds, I found much of it compelling. It will be interesting to see Ward’s next work – as she matures as a writer, she may be one to watch.

The verdict: 3/5 shoes