Posts Tagged ‘Books’

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Mswas’ CBR-III Review #7 – Big Machine by Victor LaValle

01/28/2011

This. THIS is why I love Facebook* – crowdsourcing. I post on a Thursday afternoon that I’m looking for a book suggestion and get a few suggestions. And THEN Jon-Paul posts Big Machine by Victor LaValle.

Hol-eee cow! I was hooked right away, and it definitely lived up to my request for a page-turner. After finishing it, I posted that I really loved it and that it would be easy to write a review. Now, I’m not so sure about that. I don’t quite know how much I want to reveal about Big Machine, because the twists and turns of the story are really unusual.

I can tell you about the protagonist, Ricky Rice. Now a middle-aged man who works in a train station,  as a boy Ricky was the sole survivor of a suicide cult. But the event that opens the novel is the receipt of a note:

You made a promise in Cedar Rapids in 2002.
Time to honor it.

Enclosed with the note is a bus ticket to Vermont where Ricky meets a group of people similar to himself and  also summoned by a vow once given.  These people are inducted into the Unlikely Scholars, a group called together to find meaning, pattern and answers in newspapers and reports.

I won’t go further in the plot because it is complicated. LaValle spends a lot of time in Ricky’s and other characters’ pasts, and so the story becomes much more than just the supernatural themes that progress.  Ricky’s seen a lot, and his world-weary take on the world allows LaValle to comment on life.

…you’ll understand why I always took the stairs.

Ten times a day if I was sent on a lot of errands. Up and down so often that I really came to love that crappy gray stairwell. Half the overhead lights didn’t work, and sometimes garbage littered the landings. The perfume of urine often filled the air, and yet I knew the environment with sweet intimacy. How cold the handrail felt in the winter, the sound of my skin slipping along the metal in a low -swiff- whenever I went down. The chips of a cracked stair sprinkling the ones below it like rock salt on a winter road.

It seems impossible now, but at that time I thought of that stairwell as a kind of cloister. Where I could find a special quiet. You can’t predict the places where you’ll encounter the unknowable.

Big Machine has a lot of  unknowable,  supernatural, and truth as well. I saw several reviews that mentioned the X-Files, and I also felt it was similar to Stephen King’s Hearts In Atlantis. Both showed us undercurrents in our world or worlds that are parallel to ours, where things are just different. Whether things are different in a good way or a bad way remains to be seen, you just have to turn the page.

(* Oh Twitter, I’ll always love you too.)

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Mswas’ CBR-III Review #4 – How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway

01/12/2011

Ahhhh, at last, a Cannonball Read book that I can unhesitatingly recommend! True, I did love The Tiger, but I read that in December, and this year so far I haven’t read anything that I’d feel was worth recommending… until now.

“I had always been a disobedient girl.”

Thus opens How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway, a wonderful read that I didn’t want to end.

How to Be an American Housewife tells the story of mother and daughter, Shoko and Sue, who are very different but are both trying to find happiness. Shoko was born in Japan and married an American G.I. after the end of World War II. She brings a book called ‘How to Be an American Housewife’ with her to America. Excerpts from this book begin each chapter, and we see how the authors instruct Japanese women on how to please their husbands and fit in to American society.

“When you marry and integrate with Americans, it is only natural not to have friends. Most American women will dislike you. Perhaps looking for other Japanese women will be possible, but probably not. Expect to be alone much of the time. Children help relieve this melancholy.”

 

“…you must work as hard as you can to prove yourself more than equal–the most polite, the best worker, an adept English learner, the most well-turned-out Housewife your husband could ever ask for. This is your duty, to both your home country and to your new one.”

Shoko reminisces about her life in Japan and coming to America, but her chapters in the first half of the book also focus on her current life. Shoko’s heart has always been bad, but now it is seriously failing. However,  she still wants to go to Japan to reconcile with her brother Taro who shunned her for marrying an American. Unfortunately she is too ill to travel, so she must ask her daughter, Sue, to go in her stead.

“I had always been an obedient girl”

Opening with this sentence, Sue’s chapters take up the latter half of the novel. As she and her own daughter, Helena, travel to Japan seeking her uncle, Sue thinks about growing up with her Japanese mother, American father, and much older brother. In some cases we do see both the mother’s and the daughter’s side of the same situations.

To my mother, the number four was bad. “Never take four,” she admonished me when I took four dumplings once at dinner. “ean death. Or two. Bad manner. One or three or five.” Same with sticking your hashi straight up and down in the rice bowl. “Only at funeral!” Mom admonished.

You couldn’t pick Mike ouit of a crowd as my brother. He was a stranger off the street. I had never run out to the tree on Christmas morning with Mike, to see what Santa had left us… But Mike was there when we needed him to be.

Margaret Dilloway’s lovely first novel is beautifully and thoughtfully written. I won’t spoil the ending for you and tell you if Sue finds her uncle,  if her mother survives her heart surgery, or if Mike becomes closer with his family. I will just urge you to go get this book and find out for yourself.

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Cannonball Read #7: A Touch of Dead

11/23/2009

A Touch of Dead was a bit of sorbet to cleanse my palate after struggling through #6. What a relief to taste something fresh and delicious! Five short stories about the characters in Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire series (True Blood to HBO fans) are collected in this volume, and they fall within various places within the Sookie Stackhouse timeline.

If you’re not aware of this series, it takes place in a small town in Louisiana after vampires have made themselves known to the world. The invention of synthetic blood has made it possible for vampires to exist without drinking human blood, and now they are both loved and hated citizens of the world. Sookie herself is not a vampire, she’s just a waitress — well not “just.” She is a telepath and can read human minds. Prior to these stories, she had been involved with a vampire, loving his blissfully quiet mind. True Blood takes place when she is still with this vamp, though the book series has moved past that and has become more complex.

The five stories in this volume vary in length and strength. “Fairy Dust” has Sookie assisting two fairies we’ve met before as they search for their sister’s murderer. “Lucky” focuses on a witchy insurance agent who is using up all of the good luck in the parish to insure his clients (can I get some of that on my car?). “Gift Wrap” is a brief Christmas story with Sookie’s grandfather coming to her lonely rescue. These three are really quick pieces, and are enjoyable but too short.

In “One Word Answer” Sookie finds out that her cousin, Hadley, had become a vampire and then was later killed. In the most recent novels in this series, we found out that the cousin’s child was also a telepath, and I’m still curious about how this chapter fits into that story. Sookie’s talents don’t render her immune to vampire bites, so I guess it would be the same for others of her bloodline. It’s just a curious turn of events. We’ve never been told that Hadley had Sookie’s gift, but since Hadley passed that down to her child, she must have something in her genes. What kind of a vampire would someone of Sookie’s bloodline be? We just don’t know.

But the best story in the book is “Dracula Night”. Harris comes right out and makes the Peanuts connection for us:

[A vampire, Pam, says] “Have you ever seen It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown?

I stopped in my tracks. “Sure,” I said. “Have you?

“Oh, yes,” Pam said calmly… “Eric is like that on Dracula Night. He thinks, every year, that this time Dracula will pick his party to attend. Eric fusses and plans; he frets and stews… Now that the night is actually here, he’s worked himself into a state.

And there it is – the idea that cold, powerful Eric is waiting for Dracula to attend his party is such a delightful image that it really makes the story enjoyable. I love Alexander Skarsgård in the role in True Blood, but I still don’t quite see him the former Viking of the novels. Eric is a great character, and it’s nice to see this little extra piece about him.

In fact, these short stories are all a welcome addition to the Southern Vampire series. I’ll leave it to you to find out if it’s really Dracula who attends the party, or if it’s just Snoopy in disguise.

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Cannonball Read #5: Cloud Pavilion

11/15/2009

I was so pleased to see the latest by Laura Joh Rowland on the new book shelf! Cloud Pavilion is the 14th novel set at the turn of the 17th to 18th centuries in feudal Japan featuring the shogun’s investigator, Sano Ichirō.

In the first of this series, Sano, a samurai, is promoted to chief investigator and in later novels to a very high office. He must always balance his loyalty to the shogun, to Reiko – Sano’s investigation-loving wife, and to bushido – the way of the samurai. His nemesis, Chamberlain Yanagisawa, is constantly scheming to best Sano and be the shogun’s favorite. By the time Cloud Pavilion begins, Sano and Yanagisawa are sharing the duties of chamberlain, and the sons of both men are taking after their fathers in political trickery and detection.

The mystery to be solved in this novel is a series of kidnaps and rapes. Sano’s long estranged uncle seeks his help in finding his daughter, Sano’s cousin Chiyo. Two other women have vanished in similar circumstances, and Sano must find their abductor – but is there just one culprit?

Set in the the Genroku period, these novels deftly illustrate Japan at that time and the differences between that world and ours. What crime procedural of modern time has a forensic scientist who is forbidden to touch a corpse? Victims of the rapes in this novel are cast out by their families, and must leave their parents or children behind. The threat of his death and his family’s death constantly hangs over Sano’s head, and the whim of the shogun can doom them all at any time.

I wholeheartedly recommend this entire series and this most recent volume.

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Cannonball Read #4: Trust No One

11/12/2009

Trust No One was disappointing. After my first three reads that were written in complete sentences, this book seemed extra-sloppy.

Maybe the quick phrases were meant to drive the story along quickly, but the language really stood out. As poorly written. With a decent storyline.

Nick Horrigan has run from his past and is living a quiet life, when a SWAT team crashes into his apartment and drags him off to negotiate with a terrorist who is threatening to blow up a nuclear reactor. It turns out that Nick has a past, and it’s all about to come crashing back into his life.

Nick’s stepfather was murdered when Nick was 17, and the reasons for that death and the cover-up are finally revealed 17 years later. Politicians, members of the secret service, and a looming election all pressure Nick. Add in an ex-girlfriend, an estranged mother and a newly found stepsister, and you have the makings of a decent story.

Too bad it was poorly written.

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Cannonball Read #3: The Unlikely Disciple

11/12/2009

I love my public library. I wasn’t looking for The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University, and in fact, I rarely read non-fiction. But as I was browsing the new book display, something about this book jumped out at me. And since it didn’t cost me anything, I figured I should take a chance on it. What a great decision!

The author, Kevin Roose, takes a semester off from Ivy League Brown University and enrolls at Liberty University, the late Jerry Falwell’s “Bible Boot Camp” for young evangelicals. Roose spent a bit of time at Liberty as a research assistant for the journalist A.J. Jacobs, who wrote The Year of Living Biblically. He got to meet some of the students there, and he realized that he didn’t know anything about evangelical Christians.

“What if, instead of speculating about Christian college life from afar, I jumped over the God Divide and tried to experience it myself?

Roose tells the story of his semester with humor, compassion, truth, and wisdom. He guides us through the history of Liberty and Falwell, and while he could have snarked his way through the behind-the-scenes experiences, he handles it with humanity. This is not to say that the book is a fluff piece, glorifying Liberty U. or Jerry Falwell; but the author looks at the students and faculty, listens to their questions and beliefs with thoughtfulness and understanding.

The factual information about the university and evangelical life are also balanced with Roose’s questions about his own faith. His semester was not quite what he expected, and his book was nothing like what I expected either.

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Cannonball Read #2: Bee Season

11/09/2009

Eliza Naumann is in Ms. Bergermeyer’s class, the one where the unimpressive fifth graders are put, but after the school spelling bee, she is the only one left standing. Eliza is a remarkable girl, and Bee Season is a remarkable novel.

Bee Season begins with Eliza’s quest to win the national spelling bee, but it moves beyond the bee to questions of religion, marriage, parenting, love, and family.

All of the Naumanns are searching for God. Her father, Saul, is the cantor at their synagogue and sees in Eliza and her powers of concentration a throwback to the rabbis of ancient times. He helps Eliza study but really is grooming her for the Kabbalah. He believes that her powers of concentration show her to be one who can speak to God.

Eliza’s brother, Aaron, has been usurped as favorite child, and finally seeks comfort in the Hare Krishna faith. With his father’s radar trained on Eliza, Aaron finds it easy to sneak around and immerse himself in this new world.

But it is Miriam, Eliza’s mother, who is seeking God in the most unconventional way: Miriam is a kleptomaniac. “Miriam … is a broken vessel, pieces of her scattered everywhere. She has been finding these pieces, in their many forms, and bringing them together so she can feel whole again.” Unfortunately, these items often reside in other people’s homes, so Miriam eventually starts breaking and entering to retrieve the pieces of herself.

I highly recommend Bee Season. Myra Goldberg is an incredibly talented writer, and has crafted every sentence about this disintegrating family with thoughtfulness, care, and wit.