Saturday, April 19, 2014

Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

There is a haunted house and ghosts, but this isn't a ghost story.  There is a lake monster, but this isn't a horror story.  And there is an illicit affair, but this isn't a love story.  The Monsters of Templeton is Lauren's Groff's freshman novel, a story about cause and effect.  It is about actions and reactions, and the constants in our lives we think we have, and others we don't even realize are there.

The Monsters of Templeton begins with Willie, a post-grad who has left an archaeology trip in Alaska in disgrace.  She takes refuge in her small New York town of Templeton, which is having its own dramatic crisis.  A strange sea creature has turned up dead in the lake, bringing media, lookyloos, and lots of speculation to Willie's usually quiet town.  Upon arriving home, Willie's mother, Vi, also unloads a family secret on Willie that occupies her time and thoughts as she delves into her family tree, which is also entrenched in Templeton's history.

If this sounds like a lot, Groff handles it all pretty cleanly.  She brings up things in the right places at the right time.  Her storytelling is complete, but requires patience.  And it might be here that I disagree with other readers who would give this book a solid 5 stars.  But perhaps it's more a fault of my own impatience rather than Groff's. 

Groff alternates chapter voices.  One chapter might be a distant relative of Willie's, while the next takes us back to the present.  Her writing wasn't immediately fulfilling for me.  I'd read nearly an entire chapter not understanding what it is about and then the last few pages would begin to make sense in the grander scheme of the book. A few times I actually went back to the beginning of a chapter to reread, armed with the knowledge of the relevance of that particular character.  While I found this frustrating, the way Groff slowly unfolds the story makes it fulfilling in an entirely different way.  It's one of those books that you might want to reread.  Because you slowly learn who is who and how everyone is related, you might get more out of a second reading.

I feel like a high school English teacher would love this book for its symbolism and themes.  It just *felt* like one of those books that could elicit a lot of discussion and thought.  Maybe I wasn't in the right mindframe for this book, but I would give it three stars out of five.  While I "only" liked it, I can see how others might love it.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

If you live under a rock, Orange is the New Black is the memoir of a Smith College grad who spent her post-college days experimenting with lesbianism and drug trafficking.  Okay, to be fair, she might have been more grounded in the former than the latter, but it's not really clear from the book.  Watch the Netfiix series, though, and you'll get waaaaaaay more lesbionic love scenes than the source material proffers.

But that's not to say you should skip the book!  OITNB (get with it) is part cautionary tale, part WTF, and part commentary against the U.S. federal prison system.

Imagine you are young, spontaneous, not sure of the next step in life.  You come from a good family, you have a great education, and your girlfriend lives a life that takes her to exotic locations and pays well.  Okay, better than well.  Turns out her sister's boyfriend is a major player in the drug trade.  Eventually simply accompanying her on business trips becomes traveling with a suitcase full of drug money.  Slope slipped.  But before Kerman gets too far down, she breaks free, cuts her ties, and moves across the country.  Crisis averted.

Until five years later, when the feds come knocking at her door.  Shiznit.

This book is less about Kerman, however, and more about the federal women's prison in Danbury, CT and its other inhabitants.  Through Kerman's experience, we glimpse the daily routine, the programs (or lack thereof), the food, and the ad-hoc families that make up day to day life at Danbury.  She details the tragedy that is a part of everyday life in prison, as well as the triumphs.  Perhaps most surprising to me was the lack of sheer terror and violence I guess I was expecting Kerman to experience.  Again, that's not to say you should skip the book!

I was amazed at how people made do with their circumstances and each other.  Somewhat parodoxically, my eyes were opened to the great equalizer that prison could be.  Kerman was able to show how women from so many walks of life could coexist and foster meaningful relationships.  And you'll learn a lot of really random things, like how to make cheesecake with a microwave and laughing cow cheese, and how to clean a ceiling with tampons.  Sign me up!

I've already mentioned that the Netflix series is different from the book, but in a lot of ways, it is remarkably similar too.  Yeah, Crazy Eyes doesn't pee on Kerman's floor in the book, but she does mention a woman she calls Crazy Eyes, another who tried wooing her, and a peeing incident.  And there might not be a whole backstory on a guard and an inmate who have an affair, but Kerman describes how one guard, suspecting impropriety, caused an inmate to go to solitary, and the guard in question quitting.

But you should do more than just read this book and watch the series.  And that's one way I know I've read an intriguing book, when I want to google the author and learn more.  Because Orange is the New Black is more than *just* a memoir.  It's a commentary, and hopefully by reading it, you'll be more than just entertained.