Saturday, February 22, 2014

Cambridge, by Susanna Kaysen. Alfred A. Knopf, 2014

Cambridge’ is the home of young Susanna, daughter of an economics professor and a pianist who no longer performs. The book is a first person POV by Susanna as she relates her life from second grade to sixth. The author has a keen memory; while told by adult Susanna, she’s picked up on the way kids perceive things marvelously. She lays it out there flatly, just as the child saw and heard it, with no adult’s explanation of what might really have been going on. This is the best part of the book, the part that will make many readers remember how they felt and saw things when they were that age.

Cambridge is home, but Susanna spends an awful lot of time away from it; a sabbatical year in England, time in Italy, a long summer in Greece, all take her away. Life, she feels, would be better in Cambridge, but once she’s there, it’s not very satisfying. She doesn’t fit in anywhere. She has a younger sister, known to us on as ‘the baby’. Her father seems to have little if anything to do with her upbringing (not unusual in the 1950 setting) while her mother ignores her except to criticize her or to tell her to do something. This latter she does by pointing at an object or person, expecting Susanna to wordlessly deal with whatever it is mother pointing at. Susanna is never mistreated and has no physical needs unmet, she is emotionally neglected by her parents. She has to look beyond them for nurturing.

There is not much of a plot to the book; young girl grows up, meets challenges, is disappointed by life while disappointing her mother. Susanna is not particularly likeable but she’s not unlikable, either. She’s contrary and bored with most of her peers. This struck a chord with me. I can remember feeling like she does; her feelings about her first period pretty much summed up how I reacted to that same circumstance.

It’s not a great book, but it’s a good book and really held my interest. 

This book was provided to me by the Amazon Vine program in return for an unbiased review. This in no way affected my opinion of the book. 

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Friday, February 21, 2014

In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life, by Robert Kegan. Harvard University Press, 1994

I picked this book up after a psychologist said it was an incredible read, one that made her do a lot of thinking. She was right; Kegan presents some ideas that I’ve not encountered elsewhere. He proposed that there are stages of human development; this isn’t new, but his idea of what these stages are is new.

His five stages start with very young children in the first order; older children (about 7 to 10 years old) in the second; the third order is teenagers and the majority of adults (most never get past this stage); some adults make it to the fourth order, in which people are capable of analyzing situations and making their own decisions and are self-motivated; and the fifth order is one that almost no one makes it too and if they do, it’s as older adults. This post modern stage sees the big picture; they see the world in shades of gray and find the similarities in different systems.

Some parts of this seem obvious; we already know that babies don’t understand that things happen to things and people when the baby is not looking at them (First order); that children are pretty much in the ‘all for me’ stage (Second order); that by the time we’re in our later teens or early adulthood we (hopefully but not necessarily) understand and take into consideration other peoples (and other groups) feelings. That stage 3 people don’t create their own theories or philosophies isn’t so obvious. Most of their actions would seem to show them as fully mature adults, but he’s right: most of the people I know don’t create their own world view but adapt themselves to the philosophies of others. The 5th stage I haven’t really managed to understand; obviously, I’m not nearly there and I’m not sure I know of anyone who is. Is the 5th stage based on examples, or is it something that Kegan hopes people will eventually evolve to? Who would be considered 5th stage? The Dalai lama?

The book is dense and I found it slow going. I’m generally a fast reader but it took me nearly two weeks to finish this book. Admittedly, it’s written for graduate students and I have no degree whatsoever, but I suspect that no one would find it an easy read. It is, however, very interesting and has given me some new ways to look at people. 

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Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Color Master, by Aimee Bender. Doubleday, 2013

Aimee Bender writes stories of magical realism that have an edge of darkness to them- and sometimes more than an edge. While some are quite lovely- her writing has a bit of a bejeweled quality- they all have something ‘off’ even when there is no actual magic involved. The people don’t seem to make connections with each other, and they are all seeking that connection. A number of the stories feel like fairy tales; not the ones with pretty fairies and happy endings, but more of a brothers Grimm feel- a bit disturbing and unsettling. But the unsettled feeling is part- along with the language- that makes this book so good. This isn’t a book to read in a rush; each story deserves to be read by itself, with time to savor it before moving on. I’m not usually impressed by an entire book of short stories, but I am with this one. Even in a book of good stories, though, one stands out, the title story “The Color Master”. In this tale, a store produces clothing and shoes for the upper class. They don’t just use regular dyes and pigments; they use multiple dyings of different colors and pigments rubbed on over the top of these. Some of the pigments and dyes are crushed opals and diamond powder. The real treasure of the story is the Color Master herself, though, the person who can create such marvels as a dress the color of the sun, or the color of the moon. I highly recommend this book and need to find some of her other works. 

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Sunday, February 2, 2014

Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders, by Gyles Brandreth. Touchstone, 2011

This is the fourth in the Oscar Wilde mysteries series, taking place in 1890. A noblewoman is found dead in her house, half naked, with cuts on her torso and two deep puncture marks on her neck. It looks like she’s been murdered, but the doctor insists she died of a heart attack despite being quite young. And what are the wounds from? Figuring it out isn’t made any easier by the fact that the death is being kept hushed up because the Prince of Wales, as well as his son, Prince Albert Victor, were present at the time. When another death occurs at a theater- again with the Prince of Wales and his son present- solving the crime becomes more urgent. Just as urgent is keeping the father and son princes free of any association with the deaths; the Prince of Wales needs to try and clean up his womanizing image before his mother dies and he becomes king, while some people have the theory that the young Prince Albert Victor might be Jack the Ripper. They don’t need anything else adding to the rumor mill. Meanwhile, Oscar has been in the company of a handsome young man who claims to be a vampire. Are the deaths murders; if so, are they supernatural in nature? This is what Oscar must figure out, and quickly.

 Sadly, I did not enjoy this book as much as I did the others in the series I have read. The story is told through excerpts from letters, diaries, and newspaper clippings, changing point of view every few pages. The various authors include Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Sherard (Wilde’s real life biographer), Wilde himself, Rex LaSalle the self professed vampire, and others. I found it difficult to keep track of who was writing what entry because it changed so often. The setting and events are brilliantly described; the late Victorian era is lovingly limned by Brandreth’s pen. But most of the characters aren’t very well developed, the pace is slow, the plot lacking, the ending seems contrived and unsatisfying, and the story just never really comes to life. It almost seemed like notes for a better novel; I suspect the method of telling via excerpts of various people’s writings led me to this feeling. It’s not a bad book but it’s certainly not Brandreth’s best. 


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