Thursday, April 20, 2006

Long For This World/Paper Wings

Long for This World by Michael Byers was a book I was required to read for the Maple Valley Library Book Club, called "Cover to Cover." It's not a book I would have chosen on my own, as it deals with Progeria, a disease that turns children into seniors in a matter of a decade or less. Its a cruel disease, heart-rending for the families of the children who have it, as it's a genetic mutation and fairly rare. This book takes place in Seattle, and provides an in-depth look at how the disease effects the doctors trying to cure it, and the patients they come to care for, as well as their families. The story revolves around a research scientist, Dr Moss, who focuses his research on progeria, and who adores his patient William, a brilliant boy, and makes a tough decision to try and help him with an experimental therapy. Dr Moss and his family are surrounded by tragedy and pain, though, and we uncover the inner workings of the family and the husband and wife in a way that seems more natural and less voyeuristic. Though the book ends oddly and there is a great deal of tragedy and pain, I found myself liking the tender mercies Byers bestowed on his characters, in showing not just their foibles and stupidity, but also showing nobility, decency and compassion. Fair warning, though, this is not a book to read if you are depressed! It will keep you running to the tissue box. I found myself understanding the feelings of Ilse, Dr Moss' wife, when she had to deal with her evil Austrian mother, because I have an evil German grandmother who is just as much of a pill, and equally prejudiced and awful at times as Ilses mother. I also identified with Paper Wings by Marly Swick, a book that takes place in the early 1960s, when I was still a baby. The author deals with her parents pain on learning of JFKs death, and I have to say that one of my earliest memories as a 3 year old is of my mother and father sobbing, and when I asked why they were crying, they said the president was dead. I felt great antipathy toward this president person for making my parents so sad and upset. I wasn't much older when MLK was shot, and my father broke down and cried again, like a baby, which wasn't normal for him at all, and made me so uneasy. He and my mother took the assassinations of the Kennedys and the MLK assassination with the same amount of personal outrage and pain that they would have if someone had murdered a beloved relative. Swick's characters are all true to form and interesting, though I found the book as a whole to feel like something that had been "workshopped" at a writers conference or a writers program of some sort. It didn't quite feel professional, rather like it was a good effort by someone new to writing fiction or memoir or a combination of the two. That doesn't mean that I didn't like it, however, as I did enjoy it and did empathize with the characters. I just hope that the author hones her craft a bit in the coming years, as she shows promise. I also happened to view the movie "Elizabethtown" with that cute elf Orlando Bloom this week, and I must say that it was not at all what it had been advertised to be...There was much more to it than the romance between Kirsten Dunst and Bloom. It was a touching and charming film about family and home towns and trying to break free of the guilt and pain of failing in career, in marriage, and in everything else. I could have done with less of Susan Sarandon tap dancing, though her stand up routine wasn't bad. Normally I'd watch her read the phone book, but she's really not a great dancer, sorry to say. Still, the movie is certainly worth a look now that its in DVD.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Sisters Mortland

I think this book, The Sisters Mortland, should be retitled, "The Sisters Morbid," as that's the gist of the entire novel--a morbid fascination with death displayed by most of the characters. The author, Sally Beauman, is English, and there are certain things that I've noticed the British do better than Americans. Satire, dark comedy, Shakespeare (and acting in general) juicy bon mot and drollery, and exposition in movies are but a few of the things at which the Brits seem to excell. Then there's certain kinds of morbid horror that lend themselves to the British sensibility rather nicely. However, the British novels I've read, including British SF/Fantasy seem to have way too much 'tell' with no 'show.' The plots are glacial, the discussions of minutae endless, and the descriptions tiresome. I had high hopes that this wasn't going to happen to the Sisters, however, and I was saddened when it became apparent that the author was going to focus on death and betrayal as her theme, with lies and liars being the sub-theme. Characters are cruel to one another for no reason, and riveted to the past, with all its eccentrics and bizarre happenstance, as if that were the only way to live life, instead of just getting on with things and being honest or decent. I found myself disliking all the characters in the end, as they all seemed either cruel or vicious or stupid. Yet several characters seemed unforgetable and tragic. Maisie, the little girl who viewed the world differently than other children (she sounds like a high-functioning autistic to me) had such promise, though she'd been sexually molested by a man who gets off in front of her and gets completely away with it, and Finn, whom we don't hear much from, but who seems to have lost her ability to tell right from wrong (but, as she dies of cancer for her sins, I think we are supposed to forgive her) and the gypsy Daniel, whose headlong crash of a life ends horribly. I felt for him because I really felt that he could have pulled himself out of the mire of these wicked women and their lives, if only he had tried. The evil Martha-Stewart-clone Julia is only memorable in that she is allowed the last words in the book, for some odd reason, when she is the most souless, vicious beast of them all. Beaumans prose is poetic and plump, but there's a bitter aftertaste to it, be warned. I've also just finished another book of Dorothea Benton Franks, called "Pawleys Island" that was nearly as wonderful as Shem Creek. Again, characters that are delightful and surprisingly real, and a plot that moves along at a no-nonsense pace. Frank obviously has this contemporary fiction thing down to a science, and she makes it all seem effortless, which is the mark of a true professional.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

A Hilarious Book and a Touching One

I've just read two books that I would highly recommend to friends and relations, particularly if you are in need of a good laugh and a good cry. "The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan: Classic Diet Recipe Cards from the 1970s" by Wendy McClure is witty, funny and a wonderful way to brighten your week. McClure apparently found some old Weight Watchers recipe cards from the 1970s in her parents basement, and after sorting through them, picked out the most heinous foods to comment on for this book and her blog. The results are marvelous and will trigger some fun memories in those of us who actually lived through the 70s and were on diets. Tuna Fish Cavalier is "Cavalier on the outside, crying on the inside" and Spinach and Egg Mold is explained as, "Did you know that some molded salads can blend into their surroundings to escape predators, just like chameleons? Observe the Spinach and Egg Mold as it begins to take on the appearance of the Formica countertop. Then again, it really didn't have to worry about being eaten anyway." You've gotta love a woman who can create juicy bon mots about truly horrible-looking foods, even comparing a badly sauced chicken to the movie "Carrie." There wasn't a flub or a dorky comment in the whole book, and it reads quickly at 120 pages. This book is destined to become a comedy classic, and I plan on loaning it to my neighbors and buying a copy or two for friends. I think anyone who enjoys British wit or just good old snarkiness will love The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan. If you're more in the mood for a realistic love story and a good cry, try Dorothea Benton Franks "Shem Creek." Billed as a "low country tale" Shem Creek is the story of Linda and her two teenage daughters as they move out of New Jersey and try to make a new life for themselves in Linda's home state, South Carolina. Mt Pleasant turns out to be a town full of characters and people that seem so real, you feel like you could call them on the phone for a chat. Frank has the ability to write realistic dialog and keep the pace of the novel moving at a healthy clip, so the reader doesn't get bored. The characters are all created with enough dimension that the reader wants to know how things fare for them, and is saddened or elated when things happen to them. There are some delicious food descriptions herein as well, and if you happen to like Southern cooking, you'll be thrilled with the recipes in the back of the book for fluffy biscuits and pound cake. I found myself pulling for Linda and her daughters throughout the book, and I cried at the touching parts as well as laughing at the antics of the more troublesome characters. It's not Shakespeare or Dickens, or even Steinbeck, but it is good, solid modern fiction, served up with a heaping cup of love for the Carolinas and for people willing to take a risk to turn their lives around. I plan on reading another of Franks books, just as soon as I can unearth one from the local library. Oh, and huzzah to my best friend, Rosemarie Larson, who just got a great job at her local library. Congratulations, fellow bibliophile!

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Your Big Break

Hey, no April Fools, folks! Happy Spring to one and all.
This week I was trying to read a book by Sharon Owen called "The Ballroom on Magnolia Street" and gave up on page 29, while reading about the two dunderhead sisters whose habits and conversation seemed completely vapid. I wanted to like the book, as I love Ireland and generally find its authors interesting, but this particular book fell prey to the old "I'm just going to tell you everything you need to know about the characters instead of showing you through action" problem. Paragraph after paragraph of yammering on about what the character thinks, what happened in the past, etc. YAWN. As this is her second book of three, one would think Owens would know better by now.
Johanna Edwards "Your Big Break" was much more satisfying, in terms of character and pace than Owens work, but it was rather light in the exposition department, so it suffered from the exact opposite problem than Owens novel. I could read the entire novel in 6 hours because it was all dialog, and very little description or deepening of characters. It reminded me of Jennifer Weiner mixed with Helen Fielding minus the dry British wit. I'm talking LIGHT reading here, the fluffy kind of chick lit that you turn to when you're down and exhausted and just want to escape for awhile with a pint of your favorite soy ice cream. The plot revolves around Dani (*cutesy shortening of Danielle--try not to gag) who works at a company that specializes in breaking up couples with customized letters and "break-up kits" that contain everything from DVDs of sad movies to beer and porn magazines. Dani is supposed to follow the 5 cardinal rules of her organization, especially the one that states it's imperative NOT to get personally involved with the clients. Dani, of course, is a complete wimp and a ninny, and gets involved in all her clients lives, to the detriment of everyone involved. She even lies to her parents, because she is ashamed of working for a break-up if this is somehow akin to stripping, prostitution or selling drugs! HA. Halfway through the novel, I wanted to smack Dani the ninny up alongside the head and tell her to stop being such an idiot, grow a spine and tell the truth. But of course, it takes everything around her breaking down for her to do anything. I also found it amazing that she didn't stand up to the EVIL Erin, but instead allowed Erin to force her into a horrible situation. All she had to do was tell the truth and tell Erin to go soak her head, but no, she has to agree and be submissive and meek and ridiculous, and then try to straighten things out later, when its all a huge mess. And we find out at the end that this spineless ninny is going to open her own business? Puuuulllease! I can't imagine it would work with someone that stupid in charge. I think Edwards is smarter than this, personally, and I think she could create a heroine who isn't such a dope, but I would assume she did so because she wanted to cash in on the chick lit craze started by Helen Fieldings Bridget Jones Diary, and heaven knows Bridget wasn't the smartest character on the bookshelf. But she was charming and had a ridiculous obsession with her weight that kept the reader from wanting to drown her halfway through the novel. She was certainly believable, more so than Dani and her cutesy nickname, and her penchant for vomiting when confronted with her parents infidelity. I was disgusted by my own parents infidelity before they divorced, but I certainly never had to run to the toilet to vomit, nor did I lose my lunch on my shoes. Sheez. Get a grip, girl!