Thursday, April 17, 2014

BOY, SNOW, BIRD






Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi, Riverhead Books, 2014, 308 pp


What a great year for novels 2014 is shaping up to be! This is the fourth new novel I have read this year and I have been enchanted with each read. I'm quite sure Helen Oyeyemi intended to enchant me, playing around the way she does with the Snow White fairy tale and re-imagining it as a meditation on race, beauty, and envy.

Boy is a woman who escapes a truly horrific childhood. In fact, the level of its horror is not fully revealed until the end of the book and I could never have guessed it in a million years. A pale, white-blond, brainy type with a strange relationship to mirrors, she marries a widower and becomes stepmother to a spoiled and precocious beauty named Snow. When Boy and her husband have a child, named Bird, the infant's dark skin is proof that Mr Skinner is a light-skinned African American passing for white. Boy discovers her evil side.

Quite a set up, but by the time all this has happened, I was under Oyeyemi's spell. Not worried about inconsistencies or less than fully developed characters, on the contrary I decided that in the author's mind the story made total sense and the characters were completely formed. She didn't feel the need to explain every little thing, nor did I need her to.

Sometimes I have a sort of reverse snobbery about authors who retell classics like Shakespeare plays or folk tales or, god forbid, Jane Austen books. But such is the artistry and wild abandon displayed in Boy, Snow, Bird that I was content to be duped, to marvel at the unbelievable, and to care passionately about Boy and Snow and Bird.

Helen Oyeyemi is a beautiful black woman, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants raised in middle class conditions in London and educated in the best schools. This is her fifth novel (I must read the other four), she has won all kinds of accolades, but really I think she is a wizard.


(Boy, Snow, Bird is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A FALL OF MOONDUST





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A Fall of Moondust, Arthur C Clarke, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1961, 231 pp



How serendipitous that I should blog about A Fall of Moondust the morning after the lunar eclipse. In fact, the eclipse was way more impressive. This was the least liked book of Clarke's I've read so far. The plot kept me reading. As usual, the author delves into some philosophical questions about mankind. But the device of a cruiser traveling across the Sea of Thirst on the moon only to become buried in the dust by a moon quake was too much like other such movies/novels: meet the characters, disaster strikes, characters either deal of freak out, captain and crew must rise to the occasion, rescue efforts, success or failure.

Not to say that Clarke does a bad or even mediocre job of it. He is after all Arthur C Clarke. In a 1986 Introduction to his 1961 novel, he explains that before the Apollo, Armstrong, and Aldrin, astronomers postulated that the lunar plains were composed of extremely fine dust. So you see the Sea of Thirst was aptly named. The cruiser is the "Selene" after the Greek goddess of the moon.

Clarke's doses of hard science were accessible, even for a science-challenged person like me. The love story is nicely done in a 1950s way, though does hint at premarital sex. But what else are a ship's captain and his sole stewardess going to do to relieve their stress? Pat Harris, the captain, has relationship issues and ruminates, "If there was a clear-cut scientific test that could tell when you were in love, (he) had not yet come across it." Cute!

On board the "Selene" is a nutjob passenger who believes in UFOs and paranoically blames the accident on a superior intelligence who is "after him." Clarke then spends some pages debunking the whole flying saucer myth from a scientist's perspective.

So despite some out-dated science and a hackneyed theme, Arthur C Clarke created an entertaining story while contributing to mankind's myth of someday living on the moon.


(A Fall of Moondust is out of print as a paper book, there is no eBook, but an audio version on CD is sometimes available by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, April 12, 2014

ORPHAN TRAIN






Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline, William Morrow, 2013, 273 pp



When this novel was published about a year ago, I knew there was no way I wasn't going to read it. I have some kind of fracture in my psyche where I mourn and pine for children who become orphaned for any reason. 

No such trauma happened to me. I was a wanted and loved child and raised by well-meaning, competent and loving parents. However, for some reason, I habitually wondered if I had been adopted and was going to be told when I got "old enough."

I have been working off and on over many years on a novel about a foster mom and have done some research myself on the history of orphanages, foster care, and adoption, including the orphan train phenomenon. All I will say is the entire subject is fraught with as much abuse as it is with good intentions.

Christina Baker Kline did plenty of research and created a fine story bracketed by the orphan train era (1854 to 1929) and the current foster care program in this country. One of her characters was an orphan train rider of Irish descent whose life turned out well despite much suffering, loss, and abuse in childhood. The novel's drama is built on the connection between this woman and a modern day fostered teen about to age out of the system.

Together these two, almost unwittingly, enable each other to heal and come to understandings about their lives. Though the architecture of the story is a bit too obviously contrived and the writing somewhat lighter than the topic demands, I did my share of weeping as I read. I have to credit the author for that.


(Orphan Train is available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available as an eBook by order.)

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

THE SON






The Son, Philipp Meyer, HarperCollins Publishers, 2013, 572 pp



Perhaps because this was the final book I read for the Tournament of Books and I was a bit weary of the project by then, I found reading The Son a chore. 

Perhaps because I so admired American Rust, I longed for a similar emotional impact and became annoyed when that sort of jolt came so much less often in this novel.

In any case, I was disappointed. It was only my self-imposed intention to read the entire TOB list before the tournament ended that kept me going. I felt pretty intrepid as a reader for making the goal-the first time in my four years of following the tournament-but I hold a slight grudge against Philipp Meyer for making the last sprint feel like a marathon.

I did not mind taking another look at Texas history, since half of my immediate family now lives there. In fact, my 12 year old granddaughter is being forced to study the history of Texas at school. Perhaps it is shallow of me, but I like Larry McMurtry better. 

There are actually a plethora of sons in The Son. Only one daughter rather saves the reader from drowning in testosterone, though I'm afraid she did die a slow death from poisoning by that hormone. None of the sons lived up to the sheer balls of Colonel Eli McCullough. In fact, his great granddaughter Jeanne Anne won the contest on bringing the Colonel's philosophy of life into the 21st century.

I felt the author was trying a little too hard to write a Great American Novel, not that he shouldn't have tried. He has an agenda in The Son. He also had one in American Rust but made it more palatable or visceral or personal for this reader.


(The Son is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, April 06, 2014

ELEANOR & PARK






Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell, St Martin's Press, 2013, 325 pp


THE SUNDAY FAMILY READ


The token young adult novel on this year's Tournament of Books has it all: troubled teens, bullying, first love and music. It is a modern day Romeo and Juliet. All I can say is that I wanted to read it everyday, I was completely immersed, and I didn't want it to end.

Eleanor lives in virtual squalor with her dysfunctional parents. Her large body and unruly red hair make her an object of ridicule at her new school. She can't understand her mother's weakness and worries about her horrible crazy stepdad. Surrounded by a self-imposed shell of mistrust, she is always blowing it with Park.

Park is Korean/American with basically good parents, except his dad who is a former soldier wants Park to be more macho. He takes pity on Eleanor during a classic school bus incident and eventually falls in love with her.

You basically know the rest but it turns out you don't exactly. That is why you keep reading. I think the sexual exploration was nicely done and realistic and should not worry parents but it probably does anyway. I am giving this book to my teenage granddaughter.


(Eleanor & Park is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, April 03, 2014

LONG DIVISION






Long Division, Kiese Laymon, Bolden Books, 2013, 267 pp



Here is another book I would not have read or possibly even heard of if not for the Tournament of Books. It is gut wrenching and powerful. The writing reminded me sometimes of James Baldwin, other times of Alice Walker. The story is a testament to the reality of racism and its continued presence in American culture, despite our half-black president, despite the unparalleled success of Oprah Winfrey.

City is an Alabama boy raised as much by his small town grandma as by his mom. He is smart, he goes to an exclusive high school, and his Black swagger is melded with the insecurities and confusions about life for a Black male in 21st century America.

Due in part to a book called Long Division, given to him by his school counselor, and in part to the ghostly presences in the woods by his grandma's house, City time travels back to 1964 and 1985. A second narrator named City lives in the 1985 sections. Also included in the rather large cast of characters are a missing classmate named Baize, an enigmatic female whose favorite punctuation mark is the ellipsis, and Shalaya Crump, unrequited crush of the 1985 City.

It is a tangled story and sometimes hard to tell which City is narrating or which time period is going on. In the end, that confusion is the book's charm as well as its theme. Time passes, cultures change, technologies progress, but the color of one's skin is still the deal breaker.

In 2013, City and his frenemy Lavender Peeler take part in a grammar competition called "Can You Use That Word in a Sentence," supposed to be free of cultural bias. Turns out it has a liberal agenda designed to prove we are no longer a racist society. After City creates a historic meltdown over the word "niggardly," the video of which goes viral, the contest goes by default to the other minority, a Mexican contestant.

Kiese Laymon, born and raised in Mississippi, is now an associate professor of English and Africana Studies at Vassar College. He has clearly taken to heart the necessity for a Black person to run twice as fast to get half as far. In fact, he has probably run four times as fast. I will read any novel he writes. As Toni Morrison ages, I've wondered who could take her place. I may have found him.


(Long Division is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

APRIL READING GROUP UPDATE







Don't know where March went. But it is over and that is no April Fool's joke. My reading lesson in March was that I am not a rereader. I know some people are and some writing instructors say you can learn to write better by rereading a book you loved and figuring out what made it so great. When I reread, I usually find the magic is gone. This was not true when I was a kid. Then I read my favorite books over and over. Now I sit there restlessly looking at all the not yet read books on my shelves and wanting to read them! So there!!

Here is the line up for April:


The New Book Club:   







Once Upon A Time Adult Fiction Group:







One Book At A Time:








Bookie Babes:






Tina's Group:






There you have it. I wasn't able to get the book links from Indiebound today. Some glitch on the site. 
 
I WON'T be rereading The Power and the Glory (read in 2002 and loved it) or Orphan Train (read last month), but I will attend the meetings and discuss. I am looking forward to the James Baldwin and to The Liars' Club.

How do you feel about rereading books?