Tuesday, January 29, 2013

{read: memor/advice} tiny beautiful things by Cheryl Strayed

I've been on a Cheryl Strayed kick ever since finishing Wild, her memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of her advice columns on life and love from The Rumpus, is fierce and intense. Best read in small bites, it tells both of the challenges Strayed has overcome and those that her correspondents are facing. In fact, it tells so much of Strayed's own story that it could be read as a memoir.

She dispenses advice with compassion but also a clear-eyed honesty. As she tells those who write to her, there is often no way around doing the hard thing. I found it impossible to put this book down and couldn't follow my own advice to read it in small pieces, even though sometimes I felt like I couldn't read another story about someone's heartbreaking life: the teenage girls and boys Strayed counseled who were abused by their parents and stepparents, the woman who was raped three times, the man who suffers from a disease that has disfigured him and thinks he'll never find a woman who will desire him, the father who lost his 22-year-old son and can't see a way to go on. Yet what kept me reading was Strayed's compassion, the stories of survival against what are sometimes overwhelming odds, and the promise that things will be mostly OK in the end. Yet be warned: Her answer to the last letter will break your heart, or at least make it crack a tiny little bit.

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed (Vintage, 2012)
My rating: 5 stars

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

{read: psychological thriller} Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I am coming late to the Gone Girl party, and I suspect that many of you will not like what I have to say. This was one of the most hyped books of 2012, and I couldn't wait to read it. It seemed that everywhere I turned, people were reading it, loving it, and urging me to read it. I'd read Gillian Flynn before, and while I didn't fall in love with her books, I enjoyed them. I was expecting fireworks, something that was head-and-shoulders above her previous books. What I got was more like a sparkler.

Perhaps it was the hype, and perhaps no book could have lived up to it, but I disliked Gone Girl so much during the first third of the book that I almost didn't finish it. It sat on my table as I picked up another book and then another. The eager hopefulness in Amy's diary entries, contrasted with the contempt Nick showed toward Amy in his sections, turned my stomach. Yet, eventually I made it to the second third of the book, where the POV changed. Suddenly, I was intrigued. The change of narrator was interesting. I wanted to see what would happen next, what this person had to say. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm didn't last long. The plot felt contrived (although there are a few surprises), and while I briefly enjoyed pondering the difference between sociopath and psychopath and wondering which definition better fit these characters, in the end it wasn't a book that I'd recommend. It wasn't just that I didn't like the characters; it was that they weren't interesting. Beyond a few brief moments, I didn't much care what they'd do next. While the best books I've read have characters with voices so captivating that I'd listen to them do their Saturday chores and follow them down the grocery store aisles to see what kind of pasta sauce they'd choose, neither Nick nor Amy inspired this interest in me, and the plot wasn't exciting enough to make up for it. I was glad to be done with this book.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Crown, 2012)
My rating: 2.5 stars

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

{read: coming of age} The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell

My new fiction obsession these days is finding interesting narrative voices. Think of Hig in The Dog Stars, Katey Kontent in The Rules of Civility, or Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars. These characters have distinct points of view and convey them in a way that makes me want to follow them around and listen to what they have to say, even if they're just doing their grocery shopping.

The Death of Bees brings three new voices, each with its own clear perspective on the world. Interestingly, I found myself paying the most attention at first to Nelly, whose chapters are rarely longer than a few paragraphs. While her older sister Marnie and their neighbor Lennie tell most of the story, Nelly has so little to say that you feel it has to be important. Yet I confess that it was the first few lines, which are in Marnie's voice, that convinced me to give this one a try:

Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved.

Marnie and Nelly are determined not to go into foster care and set out to cover up their parents' deaths until Marnie turns 16 and is a legal adult. Will they succeed? You wouldn't think you'd be rushing back to the Glaswegian slums and lives of grinding poverty every chance you get, but I couldn't put this one down. In the end, perhaps surprisingly, it's a story that's more about hope than despair.

The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell (Harper, 2013)
My rating: 5 stars

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

{read: bookish thriller} Dominance by Will Lavender

It's been a while since I've read a book this creepy, although the creep factor didn't kick in for me until about two-thirds of the way through. Then, though, every creak in the house sounded suspicious. Perhaps it didn't help that it was nearly midnight and my dogs kept barking for reasons unknown to me. I expected a murder to  duck into the living room at any minute, axe in hand.

Before that, though, I had a hard time getting into this plot-driven thriller that's light on character development. In this book, which alternates between a college class taught by an esteemed professor/convicted killer years ago and a present-day murder, much is made of a game called The Procedure, in which people reenact, word for word, scenes from certain books as a way to fully understand them. Think of this like role-playing games for bookish types. Yet this game, which played such a central role in the book, could have been even more powerful if it had been tied in more directly to the murders themselves. I kept waiting for this and was disappointed not to see it.

In the meantime, some of the plot devices — gathering all of the former students into one house, for example — seemed contrived. The last page, however, made up for the shortcomings in plot and character earlier in the book.

Dominance by Will Lavender (Simon and Schuster, 2011)
My rating: 3 stars