Friday, April 14, 2017

Roots by Alex Haley

Roots is a work of historical fiction written in 1976 by Alex Haley. He begins with the life and eventual capture of his great-great-great-great grandfather Kunta Kinte in Africa. In what follows is a mostly fictional story, except for possibly a few details and Kinte's lineage.

Fiction or not, Roots is an amazing saga of nine generations. The most intriguing part of the book, for me, was the beginning, which focused on Kinte's life. After Kinte was transported to America to be sold as a slave, I understood how he yearned for his village, the sounds of the monkeys in the trees, his simple hut, hunting for food, and being so self-sufficient. When I first started reading about life in his village I thought how horrible it must be to life in such primitive conditions. But by the time Kunta was kidnapped, I saw how beautiful and amazing his life had truly been.

It was also interesting to see how, when Kunta lived as a slave on two American plantations, he despised the American slaves. Their culture was so completely different from his, and they seemed more complacent to him, as he couldn't understand why they didn't all try to escape. In the first of many personal compromises he would make, he married a Christian American slave and struggled with instilling his heritage in his daughter, Kizzy. The fact that slaves were not allowed to read or write (and Kunta could do both, in Arabic), made it even more difficult. In addition, after Kizzy was sold to another plantation, her ties to her father and mother were completely severed. What would Kunta have thought, to know that his grandchildren would grow up to be culturally similar to those American slaves he despised? His dreams of a family, living as Muslims, repeating the traditions he grew into, would never be achieved.

In full disclosure, there is some controversy surrounding the book that might make it unpalatable to some. A few years after its release, Haley was sued by author Harold Courlander and Haley settled, acknowledging that some passages were take from Courlander's book, The African.

There were also questions raised about how true certain parts of the book actually were, in terms of Haley's purported research into his family's ancestry. 

Controversy aside, this was quite the read, and so worth it. It's heartbreaking, eye-opening, and likely a  different perspective on American history than many of us were offered in school. Highly recommend. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

"Mom, after someone dies and becomes a ghost, do they become a kid again?"

My four-year-old asked me this just a day after I finished reading Atkinson's book, Life After Life.

"Well, some people believe that. It's called reincarnation." I told him, wondering if his earlier comment about how I should wear a certain necklace "the next time I got married" was related to this conversation.

While I'm not sure Life After Life is about reincarnation, parallel universes, or a hybrid of both, it nonetheless has an intriguing premise: a woman lives her life again and again, with small tweaks here and there that enable her to live longer in one life (or shorter), or follow a completely different path in another.

Ursula Todd is born (and reborn) in a snowstorm in Britain, 1910. She is primed to live through the first and second World Wars, which makes for an interesting perspective in its own right. Through Ursula, Atkinson explores themes of family, fate, intuition, free choice, and, obviously, mortality. One thing I like about this book is that there are many tongue in cheek moments, even in the darkest places Atkinson ventures. But I wouldn't describe this book as funny. It can be a bit heavy at times, yet Atkinson does a great job of giving levity here and there to remind us that even in the darkest times, there's always hope, if not in this world, then well, you know.

We learn what life in the English countryside is like, as well as life in London during the World War II Blitz, and we even learn a little about life in Germany in the 1930's. As with Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing, Atkinson explores that nagging feeling you sometimes get about something, but can't quite explain. She also explores what life might be like if that niggling feeling moves toward awareness.

And it's this final point, that got me thinking about what my son said next, after asking if after people die and become ghosts, they become kids again.

"After I became a kid again, my house looked different" he told me as matter of factly as if he'd just said there were clouds in the sky.

While I haven't gone all in on the prospect of reincarnation, the goosebumps on my arms reminded me that some things, like Atkinson's book, or a conversation with a four-year-old, just might make you wonder.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice

According to wikipedia, Anne Rice is an author of "gothic fiction, christian literature, and erotica."

One of these things is not like the other... 

I know Interview with the Vampire has been around for awhile, after all, I was in high school when Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt played Rice's vampires, much to her dismay. That was more than *gulp* 20 years ago. But crap, the book is 40 years old people!

So if you live under a rock, like me, or you just have yet to dabble in the literary vampire arts, here's a briefing.

The story is told in the present day, with the vampire Louie telling a young reporter about his life over the past 200 years. He begins in New Orleans in the late 1700's when he was made a vampire by Lestat, a sadistic, manic vampire who doesn't seem the type to play well with others. I kinda get the impression vampires, as a class, don't play well with others though. So Louie is really an outlier. He maintains a semblance of compassion and humanity. He struggles with killing people every night and doesn't have a penchant for playing with his food, like Lestat does.

The story is great. We travel from New Orleans to Eastern Europe to Paris. We cross the span of 200 years (although there aren't a lot of historic or social landmarks that highlight the different time periods). But what I really liked was Louis' voice. Like literally. The man who narrated my audiobook did a great job. He kinda sounded like he had an eastern European accent from...well, wherever the Count is from. Yes, I'm talking about Sesame Street again. Anyway, I liked how Rice wrote him too (Louis, not the Count). He struggles with questions of immortality and religion. One of my favorite scenes is when Louis is in a church, looking around at the relics and religious symbols. Disillusioned, he thinks to himself, "I'm the only supernatural creature in this church."

And when he is talking with Armand, one of the Paris vampires, about the purpose of life without God, he says, "And what constitutes evil, real evil, is the taking of a single human life. Whether a man would die tomorrow or the day after or eventually... it doesn't matter. Because if God does not exist, then life... every second of it... Is all we have.”

That struck me. I've heard only the opposite argument, that if there is no God or no cosmic repercussions of any kind for human behavior, then what is the point of morality? Louis argues that it just becomes even more important to make the most of this life. Leave it to a fictional vampire played by Brad Pitt to bring me to an existential epiphany.

Here's another one I liked.

"Consequently, if you believe God made Satan, you must realize that all Satan's power comes from God and so that Satan is simply God's child, and that we are God's children also. There are no children of Satan, really.”

This stems from Louie struggling with whether or not he is good or evil, given his religious background and carnal reality. Whether or not you agree with these things is immaterial. Rice's writing will make you think about why you do or do not believe as you do through Louis. And according to Brad Pitt (who played him) he's a lot better in the book, than the movie. So....

An oldie but goodie. But I'm gonna watch the movie anyway.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman


In the words of the great John Cleese, "and now, for something completely different..."

I don't know what I was expecting from this book, but it wasn't that. And yet, it's probably spot on for Gaiman. So what do I know?

I'm not sure how much I'm supposed to say because in reading the back of the book synopsis and other reviews, I just didn't realize that this story was so out there. Whoever was tasked with writing that synopsis stuck on his best poker face and really kept his hand close.You read the back and think, "okay, some guy visits a childhood friend's home and remembers stuff." Whatever. Maybe it's the crazy adventure to the creek or that epic slumber party.

Suffice to say, when things took a left turn (and it was abrupt) I was a bit surprised. My suspension of disbelief hadn't warmed up yet, I guess. Gaiman throws you right into his world where otherwordly creatures live amongst us mere mortals. I know all you Gaiman groupies are rolling your eyes right now in your best "er-doy" expression, but humor me.

The story is sufficiently creepy. Some of the imagery Gaiman evokes made my spine tingle. And the story seemed blissfully compact. I don't know how Gaiman told it in the number of pages he did, because it didn't seem as long as it was. There weren't any moments where I was bored or felt the action or tension really eased, yet I wasn't exhausted from all the excitement. I know I'm making myself sound like some kind of geriatric reader, "Oh the tension! It was too much! I need a nap."

I realize at this point in the review, I've normally given a better synopsis of the story. But like I said, I'm not sure what to say. Basically, if you already know you like Gaiman, I think this book won't disappoint. If you've never read him, it's a pretty good intro to his stuff. I definitely liked it better than some of his other books I've read. *ducks and hides*

Some interesting tidbits I got from Wikipedia about this tale, his characters, the Hempstocks, have appeared in other books, like Stardust and The Graveyard Book. He also wrote this book for his wife, who doesn't like fantasy. And some elements are drawn from his own childhood (like how someone stole his dad's car and commit suicide in it). Creepy.

A film may be in the works...the rights were bought a few years ago, and Tom Hanks is a producer. Should be interesting.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

"Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?"
"Oh no, said Merricat, you'll poison me."
"Merricat, said Constance, would you like to go to sleep?"
"Down in the boneyard ten feet deep."

What if this was a schoolyard rhyme you learned as a kid, whose origins lay in a mysterious house in your neighborhood where you've heard two strange sisters live, but who you've never seen? You've heard other things, too. That the sisters eat children, and if you think you've insulted them, to leave a gift on the doorstep in a basket. To your surprise, you'll find that the next morning, the basket will be empty.

What actual events could have caused all this mystery? What if one of the sisters could tell you everything?

Mary Katherine, or Merricat, is our narrator. She is the younger of the two sisters. Her story begins after the mysterious poisoning of most of her family, and after her sister Constance's trial. She tells us about the routines that occupy her days, how Constance fills the kitchen with wonderful smells, how her uncle Julian has good days and bad days, and how she and her cat Jonas scamper into the woods by her house, to bury treasure, or nail a trinket to a tree, or dream about living on the moon.

Merricat's voice is immature and dreamy. She lives in a world all her own. She loves her routines, and fights against change. So when cousin Charles visits the small family, Merricat sets to work trying to get him to leave. From an outside perspective, Merricat's actions are confusing, scattered, and nonsensical. Why would she put sticks and dirt in Charles' bed? But from Merricat's perspective it makes perfect sense. One might look at Merricat and wonder if she's a burgeoning witch, with her superstitions and strange love for nature.  But is there another reason why the village hates them so?

This is a short read, but a compelling one. And Shirley Jackson seems to have a cult following for her strange tales, which include her controversial The Lottery, published in 1948, as well as the Haunting of Hill House.

Obligatory movie notice: We Have Always Lived in the Castle will be released as a major motion picture this summer.



Saturday, February 4, 2017

Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix

Why do people like this book? Am I missing something?

I get it. Bad writing and an improbable plot that could also operate as a pasta strainer have united like a defective pair of power twins before to create cult successes (I'm looking at you Sharknado). And really, there is a whole genre of bad horror films...but does it work with books, too? I'm not a horror book reader, so I'm sincerely asking.

Why do people think this book is so scary? Creepy kids? Scary. Does this book have creepy kids?

No.

Psychological drama? Can be scary. Like when someone thinks they're going crazy because they are seeing things other aren't. Or when they hear things other people don't. Does this book have psychological drama?

No.

Clowns? Scary. Does this book have clowns?

No.

Ghosts? Okay, now we're talking. This book has ghosts! However, they aren't Japanese or Korean ghosts, and we all know those are the scariest kind. And IDGAF if I'm spoiling anything, because this book is so bad, I'm doing you a favor. If you read it anyway after you read this review, you deserve to have it spoiled for the poor decision making skills you are exhibiting.

So there are ghosts. But (okay, I'll indulge you) *SPOILER ALERT* they're not scary.

And the plot? The plot, you ask? We have a handful of characters who are written as caricatures that we care little about. They work in an IKEA knock-off store that might be haunted and spend a night there figuring it all out. There's a homeless guy/possible ghost living in the store, but that's never resolved or really followed up on. In fact, it was like Hendrix was going in one direction and then forgot what he previously wrote and decided to completely change tack, so he killed the homeless guy and we are left wondering how he fit into the story at all. But maybe he was a ghost...one character wonders at the end. This is Hendrix's idea of resolution, I guess.

I won't go into any more holes in the plot. Suffice it to say you will find less in a heroin addict's arms after nickel night in the back alley.

I think the only good thing about this book is the actual book, which is made to look like an IKEA catalogue, complete with a store map and product drawings and descriptions. But I read the audiobook, so...

The dialogue was boring and humorless, and the only reason I finished the book is because it was short and I wanted credit for my cannonball goal. So here's my review and now I can move on with my life.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

After finishing several audiobooks, I had gotten used to "reading" while accomplishing some other task. So it took several weeks for me to actually read this book, which was a Christmas gift. How time-consuming to SIT DOWN and READ an ACTUAL book...Could I truly devote ALL my attention to it? I was afraid I wouldn't get the kitchen cleaned or my email checked or God knows what else if I just READ the book myself. Oh no, is this what kids these days think about books? *high fives myself for bridging a generational gap*

Speaking of kids these days, Ove is the kind of curmudgeonly old man who would say exactly that. He yells at people and calls them names, never mind the people he DOESN'T like. But he saves his deepest ire for anyone who ignores the no driving sign between the row houses in his neighborhood. He is the sort of man who doesn't understand idle chatter, who judges another man by the car he drives, and whose (albeit reluctant) willingness to fix your radiator is a sign of his ability to tolerate you.

Mild spoilers ahead, but nothing that isn't revealed in the movie's trailer...

Ove's wife has died and so Ove doesn't see fit to live himself. But things keep getting in the way of his...attempts. Nosy neighbors, broken furniture, kids to yell at, that kind of thing. And in the story of the end of his story, we learn how he became mortal enemies with his former friend and neighbor, how he met his wife, how he got a cat he didn't want, as well as some back story on some neighbors.

A Man Called Ove is about the ups and downs that make up daily life. For such a simple premise, you'll want to keep reading nonetheless. I hate to call it a "feel-good" book, but that's kinda how it made me feel. And while it might not make you full on ugly cry, you may have to squeeze back a tear or two in moments both happy and sad. And besides all that, it makes you look at grumpy old men in a whole new way. And who doesn't need a little helping hand to bridge that generational gap, amirite?