Thursday, November 29, 2012

Chocolat, by Joanne Harris. Viking, 1999

On a whim, Vianne Rocher and her 5 year old daughter move into a tiny town in France that is basically run by Reynaud, the cure`, a stern man who shepherds the villagers through their every move. With their brightly colored clothing and  outgoing ways, Vianne and Anouk  stand out like macaws in a flock of crows. Both Vianne and Reynaud have deep secrets and Vianne earns Reynaud’s enmity almost at once by opening a chocolate shop- which would be bad enough in his view, but to add insult to injury, she does it at the beginning of Lent, when Reynaud wants all to deny themselves any kind of pleasure. At first he feels she will fail quickly, but she has a touch not just with candy making but with people- she has the ability to know what people want or need. When she announces plans for a chocolate festival to be held on Easter Sunday, it’s war.

 This is a work of magical realism, but one where the magic is denied. We’re never entirely sure it’s real… but despite the denial, there are some pretty strong signs it is. It’s also a book about jealousy, prejudice, the value of being true to one’s self, aging with √©lan, love, loss, abuse, bullying and a lot of other things that make up life no matter where. Told in the alternating, first person POVs of Vianne and Reynaud, the book opens their pasts enough to us so we know why they act as they do, but leaves enough unsaid to keep us wanting more. The descriptive prose is glittering: the chocolates, the wrappings, the foods, the wine and champagne all appear in three dimensions and five senses. Don’t read this book if you are dieting; it provokes cravings that, in my case at least, will not be denied. A beautiful book. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Freud’s Sister, by Goce Smilevski. Penguin Books, 2012

Sigmund Freud had several sisters; Adolfina was the one he called ‘the sweetest and best of my sisters’. She never married, was treated poorly at home, spent years in a psychiatric hospital, and ended her life in a Nazi concentration camp. This book is historical fiction, not biography- it would be difficult to write a biography of Adolfina as there is not much known about her. But it’s more than a fictional biography; it’s also a treatise on the lack of meaning of life and how horrible most lives are. Everyone seems to have mental health problems- Adolfina’s mother is emotionally abusive, her lover suffers from extreme depression, her best friend Klara Klimt (sister of artist Gustav) spends years in the asylum rooming with Adolfina, Sigmund, while brilliant, is fixated on the Oedipus syndrome and penis envy. A fair part of the novel takes place in the asylum, describing the patients there. All of the people except Sigmund Freud have hard, hard lives. The story is brutal and moving, albeit written in lovely prose (no mean feat when the story was written in Macedonian and translated to English).

The question that this story hangs on is this: When Sigmund Freud got visas to leave Vienna for the safety of England, why did he take, along with his wife and children, his wife’s family, his doctor and his family, and the house servants, but not his four sisters? Did he not value them? He was dying of cancer; did the pain affect his thinking? Did his wife’s family have something to do with it? The question goes unanswered.  I personally thought the story was good, but I did not enjoy it. 

The Boy in the Moon, by Ian Brown. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2009

The boy in the moon is Brown’s son, who has an extremely rare genetic disease that has given him both mental and physical handicaps. CFC- cardiofaciocutaneous- syndrome is not a hereditary disease but one that randomly crops up, so the author and his wife had no inkling that their second child might not be like their first one. Walker cannot speak or even swallow (he is fed through a tube directly into his stomach) or control his bladder or bowels, and requires constant care, which his parents (both writers and so home a great deal of the time) and a nanny provide for him at home for the first 11 years of his life. The hardest part of dealing with him, however, is not the diapers or lifting a child growing into his teens or the fact that they never get to sleep an entire night, but the fact that Walker hits himself in the head all the time. As one can guess, that’s agonizing to watch. And it finally comes to a point where they just can’t do it by themselves anymore, physically or emotionally; they have to place Walker in a home.

The first part of the book is biographical: Walker’s and their history, what they did and how they did it. The second half is spiritual and philosophical: what is the meaning of Walker’s limited life? What is the meaning of anyone with a mental handicap? What do they teach the rest of the population? The author gives us a history of how the mentally handicapped and mentally ill have been treated in the past- for the most part, horribly. He spends a good deal of time with the people of a group of communities called L’Arche, founded by Vanier in France forty years ago and extending into Canada and the USA now. In these small communities, the mentally handicapped are treated as the norm. They and their care givers have meals together, go out into the towns, and are all equals. It’s a fairly ideal situation, and there is a twenty year waiting list for people to get into these communities. The home that Walker is in isn’t quite as good as L’Arche, but it’s pretty good. Brown also makes great efforts to medically understand Walker’s disease; he has genetic tests done to try and get a positive diagnosis of CFD (he doesn’t) and an MRI to see what Walker’s brain looks like. He goes from place to place, trying to find out how Walker works, whether Walker has any sense of self. He keeps hoping that there is some way to ‘fix’ Walker.

In the end, Brown really gets no answers. Walker has made his father into a different person that he was before- less selfish, more attuned to others, more appreciative of his friends and family, and, finally, a person who has to accept that Walker cannot be fixed, he can only be loved for who he is. If he has a ‘purpose’, other than to just live, if may be that.

The book is, frankly, pretty grim. No matter how much love there is, taking care of someone who is severely handicapped is hard work and it’s very hard on families. That they were able to keep Walker home for over 10 years is testament to their devotion. But despite its grimness, the book is a well written meditation of what it means to have a family member with a mental disability. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir, by Cyndi Lauper & Jancee Dunn. Atria Books, 2012

Cyndi Lauper’s autobiography begins with her running away from home to escape her step-father the sexual predator. Things don’t get much better for her for quite some time- some truly horrific things happen to her on her way to success. And success is illusive- for all Lauper’s hard work, hit records, and Grammy nominations, she has never become as rich and famous as one would think she should be.

Recognition didn’t come to Lauper until she was thirty. Through her twenties, she worked menial jobs, sang in cover bands, and was never taken seriously, even by her own band mates- she was even sexually assaulted by some of them. She gave free rein to her eccentric style (which has been copied endlessly) and didn’t pull any punches about what she thought, and these habits didn’t endear her to record execs. And so much of the time, she just has had plain bad luck. It’s not that she is blaming fate for her own short fallings; she readily admits when she screws up. This woman never stops working, and, I suspect, never will. Her creative force is just too strong. She describes how she works, and it’s remarkable how she dissects music and puts it back together in new ways.

The book is written like you’re sitting down with Lauper, listening to her tell her story. She narrates with an immediacy that puts you right in the scene. She also digresses like she were sitting in front of you talking. This is not a dry, moment by moment biography! I highly recommend this if you’re a fan. 

The Witch of Exmoor, by Margaret Drabble. Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1996

‘The Witch of Exmoor’ begins with the adult children of Frieda Haxby Palmer having a weekend together for the purpose of deciding what to do about their mother. She has, they feel, lost her mind or gone senile. The problem is, there is not one sign that she is incompetent, except by the standards of her upper middle class, consumerist children. What they call signs of a failing mind are selling the house they grew up in, suing the government over tax issues, making a public investigation and scene over a manufacturer of over processed foods, and moving to a rambling, falling apart white elephant on the coast far from ‘civilization’. And embarrassing them in the process of all that. That’s the worst; the embarrassment and the worries over what she might be doing with their future inheritance. Frieda doesn’t care what they think; she’s never been an attentive mother; when they were young, she was busy writing and earning a living, now they mostly bore her so she doesn’t bother with them. The only family members she cares to interact with are her son-in-law, who believes in social activism, and his son, who is bright and curious and has so far avoided becoming average. Her children feel she is a monster because of her past and current inattentiveness. They really have no idea how she spends her days and who her friends are.

The characters are close to caricatures:  the moral-less lawyer, the good wife who hides concerns in a Martha Stewart existence, the bad child (drugs), the good child (does what her family wants), the poor man who has no chance at an equitable life because of the circumstances of his birth, etc. Frieda is the character who is best filled out; she is like a 1960s hippie and feminist who has grown into old age with her values intact; we find more and more about her as the book goes on, like peeling an onion.

The book is really less a family novel (although it is that) than it is a social commentary that is as apt today as it was in 1996. Britain is still trying to figure out how to fix the NHS, human rights are still being trampled everywhere. Corporations are still soulless entities who will do anything for a profit.

I really enjoyed this book. I wanted to know more about Frieda; she’s a woman with a sense of adventure, one whom I would like to sit down and have a drink and a good conversation with. She’s a real person in a cardboard world. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Another Second Chance: God’s Story- How a Stranger’s Kidney Saved My Brother’s Life and Mine, by Troy Lewis. Writing Career Coach Press, 2011

In 1992, the author’s first child was born. Although a very healthy 24 years old at the time, he decided that he should do the responsible thing and purchase health insurance. Unexpectedly, there was protein in his urine- a sign of kidney disease. A nephrologist diagnosed his problem as Iga Nephropathy (Berger’s disease), a very rare disease. 80% of the people with it live their lives symptom free; the other 20% decline abruptly around age 40 and go into kidney failure. Knowing this, Lewis had checkups to keep track of his kidney health, and sure enough, around age 40, his kidneys started shutting down. Over the next few years, he progressed into end stage renal disease and required dialysis.

Very involved in his church, Lewis believes that this is God’s plan for him, and that he should just trust. And trust he does. As with anyone with a severe illness, he has a lot of ups and downs. Papers aren’t filed on time with the transplant coordinators, his brothers turn out not to be suitable donors, dialysis treatments cause his blood pressure to climb to dangerous levels. In the end, though, a series of events and a group called the Alliance for Paired Donation, gets him his needed kidney – and saves his brother’s life.

Lewis lays this at the feet of God, pointing out that his brother was a minister, his own donor was a minister, and that he himself had played Jesus in the church pageant for a number of years. Personally, I see it as a lot of good people doing the right thing- and going above and beyond that in several cases. His wife managed progress through the transplant program, making sure every paper was where it needed to be. He was very proactive in his own care. I’m happy that he had his faith, and that of his family and friends, to help him through this, but it was also very important that he helped himself. The book is decently well written and reads as if the author was telling you the story in person. If you’re looking for medical detail, this isn’t the book you want, though. 

Ragnarok The End of the Gods, by A.S. Byatt. Canongate, 2011

This small book is a retelling of the Armageddon of the Norse myths, Ragnarok, as framed by the mind of the ‘thin child’. This thin child- pretty obviously Byatt herself- has been evacuated with her mother and sister from London to the English countryside. She picks up a book of Norse myth, and finds herself swept up in it, finding it the perfect reading for how she feels about her own life- she does not expect to see her father come back from the war alive, she is aware that her parents feel as helpless as she does, she finds the Norse gods more fitting than the Christianity that is taught each Sunday. She finds an odd solace in the idea that the end is written already, no matter what the gods do to prevent it.

Byatt, curious as most children are (or used to be), presents Loki in a more favorable light than most tellers do. He is the curious one; he wants to know what lives in all the dark corners of the earth and sea. Thor and the other gods are not curious or noble; they seek to torture and destroy Loki’s children simply because they exist. They write their own future destruction.

Inserted into this telling is an ecological warning; that the abundance of plants and creatures that thrived in the English countryside of Byatt’s youth is disappearing. Humans, like the Norse gods, are writing their own doom.

When I picked this book up, I thought it very different from the author’s other works. I didn’t realize it was written for a series of myths retold by famous authors; that explains my feeling that the book was not up to Byatt’s usual many-layered, ornamented style. As a novel, it’s not great; as a myth telling, it is. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Shadows, by John Saul. Bantam Books, 1992

Josh MacCallum is ten years old and having a hard time. He lives in a small California desert town with his single mother and baby sister, is a genius, and has just been skipped forward in school a second time,  making him two years younger than his classmates. Friendless, he is bullied constantly. It’s no real surprise when, in a fit of anger, he cuts his wrists. His panicked mother agrees to look into The Academy, a school for gifted youngsters affiliated with a university. Despite her reservations, the school seems to fit Josh’s needs, as well as being offered at no cost. For the first time Josh starts to make friends and is actually in a group of his peers. Things look happy.

But things start going wrong quickly- students are committing suicide at an alarming rate. Mysterious sounds are heard at night. And the ‘special seminar’ that Josh and his new best friend, Amy, are invited to join is downright creepy.  It’s supposed to be about artificial intelligence, but it really seems to be more about how living brains work. The head of the Academy, Dr. Engersol, seems all too bent on isolating brains from body.

It’s really hard to write about this book without giving huge spoilers. Suffice it to say that what Josh uncovers is a truly skin crawling situation, that bad things happen to good people, and that it’s reasonably well written. The book was written 20 years ago and features computers and how they are interconnected, so one must remember what the state of computer technology was like back then to realize how freaky some of the things that happen in the book must have seemed to readers back then- there was no World Wide Web and modems connected your computer directly to another computer through the phone lines, not routing through a server. Some of the story is predictable, but there are surprises, particularly an unhappy twist at the end. 


The Knife and the Wound it Deals, by B.E. Scully. Amazon Digital Services, 2012

This is a collection of short horror fiction. Some, like ‘Champ’s Last Round’ make me think of the Twilight Zone- they would have made great episodes. Others, like ‘Grief Assassins’, are very poignant. ‘Released’ is achingly sad. ‘A Simple Game of Chess’ could easily have been written by Poe. There is dark fantasy (‘Earth Shall Return Them’) and the author’s version of the selling your soul to the devil tale.

It’s a well rounded collection; the stories are all very distinct. Scully avoids excess gore and blood in favor of more subtle, sophisticated horror. This is a connoisseur’s anthology.  


Fujisan, by Randy Taguchi. Amazon Crossing, 2012

Fujisan, by Randy Taguchi. Amazon Crossing, 2012

While little known in America- ‘Fujisan’ is only her second book released in English- Randy Taguchi has written 14 novels and many short stories and essays and is immensely popular in Japan. The four stories in ‘Fujjisan’ are all set on or near Mt. Fuji. That, and the fact that all four protagonists are struggling psychologically, is what connects these stories together. In ‘Blue Summit’, a former cult member working in a convenience store strives to deal with life now that he is allowed free will. ‘Sea of Trees’ is a coming of age story, as three boys in their early teens meet danger and death for the first time. ‘Jamila’ is the name of a hoarder, the psychological opposite of the narrator, who throws away his past like dirty hankies. In ‘Child of Light’, a nurse faces life and death and the human spirit- far from the first time for her- as she wonders about her future.

The protagonists are all struggling to reconcile their images of themselves. Faced with change on a deep level, they are all knocked off balance and into new understanding of themselves by other people. The stories are quiet and reflective like a Japanese garden but deeply moving.


Saturday, November 3, 2012

Journal Fodder 365: Daily Doses of Inspiration for the Art Addict, by Eric M. Scott and David R. Modler. North Light Books, 2012

 This book doesn’t really have 365 daily prompts; it actually provides 48- it’s divided into twelve monthly sections and each section has four prompts. There are a lot of art techniques in each chapter, though, so you could still consider it to have 365 ideas.

The authors expect the reader to do some deep journaling. Along with the more common subjects of dreams and personal history are ones like owning your shadow self. They recommend strongly against using standard imagery- like the ever popular woman with wings or a crown- and coming up with your own- use pictures of yourself and ephemera you’ve saved. They don’t want you just creating collages; they want the collages to be personally meaningful.

Unlike many art journal projects, they don’t advise that you have to own every art supply ever made to do the job. In fact, the basic list is very short- journal, colored pencils, glue stick, scissors, water colors and a few pens, pencils and markers. These simple supplies- and a few others recommended in each chapter- are used in numerous ways to create many different looks. Each chapter shows different techniques for writing, drawing, painting, collage and more. There is even a URL you can go to for extra technique tutorials online. There is a lot to the book.

The down side is that the techniques are fairly basic. They are geared to the beginner artist. This is not a bad thing- it’s great that there is a book that won’t intimidate the beginner. But a more seasoned artist may want to seek out a more advanced book.