Thursday, November 17, 2016

Libraries as Sanctuaries, Skinner Luce by Patricia Ward, Thanks for the Trouble by Tommy Wallach, My Sallinger Year by Joanna Rakoff and Faithful by Alice Hoffman

In times of trouble, you can always count on your local library to be a place of inspiration and understanding in a world gone mad.

ALA: 'On Libraries, the Association, Diversity & Inclusion'

"After a contentious campaign season filled with divisive rhetoric, we
are now hearing from our members and in the news media about incidents
of bigotry and harassment within our communities. From children acting
out in schools to adults participating in violent acts, it is clear that
our nation is struggling in the wake of this election.

"During times like these, our nation's 120,000 public, academic, school,
and special libraries are invaluable allies inspiring understanding and
community healing. Libraries provide a safe place for individuals of all
ages and backgrounds and for difficult discussions on social issues. Our
nation's libraries serve all community members, including people of
color, immigrants, people with disabilities, and the most vulnerable in
our communities, offering services and educational resources that
transform communities, open minds, and promote inclusion and diversity.

"As an association representing these libraries, librarians, and library
workers, the American Library Association believes that the struggle
against racism, prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination is central
to our mission. As we have throughout our 140-year-long history, we will
continue to support efforts to abolish intolerance and cultural
invisibility, stand up for all the members of the communities we serve,
and promote understanding and inclusion through our work."

--ALA president Julie B. Todaro
in a statement released yesterday

Skinner Luce by Patricia Ward is marketed as a straight science fiction novel, when I found it to be a horror fantasy novel with some science fiction elements. Not being a fan of the horror genre, I was going to toss in the towel on this dystopian, depressing book by page 100, but my son encouraged me to soldier on and finish it. So I wasted most of my day yesterday doing just that. Here's the blurb: Complex characters and taut, poignant writing highlight this hardened literary fantasy thriller set in the frigid winters of present-day Boston.
“Skinner was what servs called each other. It was because they were fake, their skins a disguise . . .”
Every year when the deep cold of winter sets in, unbeknownst to humanity, dangerous visitors arrive from another world. Disguised as humans, the Nafikh move among us in secret, hungry for tastes of this existence. Their fickle, often-violent needs must be accommodated at all times, and the price of keeping them satisfied is paid most heavily by servs.
Created by the Nafikh to attend their every whim, servs are physically indistinguishable from humans but for the Source, the painful, white-hot energy that both animates and enslaves them. Destined to live in pain, unable to escape their bondage, servs dwell in a bleak underworld where life is brutal and short.
Lucy is a serv who arrived as a baby and by chance was adopted by humans. She’s an outcast among outcasts, struggling to find a place where she truly belongs. For years she has been walking a tightrope, balancing between the horrors of her serv existence and the ordinary life she desperately longs to maintain; her human family unaware of her darkest secrets.
But when the body of a serv child turns up and Lucy is implicated in the gruesome death, the worlds she’s tried so hard to keep separate collide. Hounded by the police, turned upon by the servs who once held her dear, she must protect her family and the life she’s made for herself.
I honestly didn't feel that the writing was taut or poignant, and I felt that the plot, though fast-paced after the first 50 pages, wasn't helped by the torpid prose that narrates this horrifyingly ugly world. Poor Lucy is a slave who does horrible things because she is forced to do so. Her needy human mother can't know that she's an alien, so instead, Lucy's "cousin" Sean and her mother think she's into drugs and prostitution, which she sort of is, because she has to take drugs to survive the burning in her chest and the beatings and rape of the Nafikh, the aliens whom they all serve as slaves (disposable slaves, too, I might add.)
So there's page after page of horror, blood, beatings, death, abuse and death/mutilations of children, drugs and alcohol abuse, etc. Ward never lets up on the depressing ugliness of this world. In the end, all Lucy wants is to financially support her adoptive mother and pay her way out of servitude, but she only manages to do one of those things. I would give this book a D, and I can't think of anyone to recommend it to, as it's an awful, bitter book that left me with nothing but nausea, especially since I paid full price for this dog of a novel.

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff is a rarity, an autobiography that reads like fiction. That said, I was shocked that in a novel about JD Salinger's agent and publishers, Rakoff didn't even bother to read any of Salinger's books until 2/3 of the way through her recounting of how he affected her life. And only then, on page 192 (!) does Rakoff finally "get" why so many people write to Salinger about Catcher in the Rye, or Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenter, or Franny and Zooey. That just left me scratching my head. I mean, she praises his work, which was inevitable, but her reticence in actually picking up and reading his work makes no sense at all, especially considering who she works for, and that she actually talks to the author over the phone on a semi-regular basis. Anyone with that kind of unprecidented access should be ashamed of herself for not reading the great man's work. Here's the blurb:
Poignant, keenly observed, and irresistibly funny: a memoir about literary New York in the late nineties, a pre-digital world on the cusp of vanishing, where a young woman finds herself entangled with one of the last great figures of the century.
At twenty-three, after leaving graduate school to pursue her dreams of becoming a poet, Joanna Rakoff moves to New York City and takes a job as assistant to the storied literary agent for J. D. Salinger. She spends her days in a plush, wood-paneled office, where Dictaphones and typewriters still reign and old-time agents doze at their desks after martini lunches. At night she goes home to the tiny, threadbare Williamsburg apartment she shares with her socialist boyfriend. Precariously balanced between glamour and poverty, surrounded by titanic personalities, and struggling to trust her own artistic instinct, Rakoff is tasked with answering Salinger’s voluminous fan mail. But as she reads the candid, heart-wrenching letters from his readers around the world, she finds herself unable to type out the agency’s decades-old form response. Instead, drawn inexorably into the emotional world of Salinger’s devotees, she abandons the template and begins writing back. Over the course of the year, she finds her own voice by acting as Salinger’s, on her own dangerous and liberating terms.
Rakoff paints a vibrant portrait of a bright, hungry young woman navigating a heady and longed-for world, trying to square romantic aspirations with burgeoning self-awareness, the idea of a life with life itself. Charming and deeply moving, filled with electrifying glimpses of an American literary icon, My Salinger Year is the coming-of-age story of a talented writer. Above all, it is a testament to the universal power of books to shape our lives and awaken our true selves.
For some reason, too, Rakoff has left her college boyfriend, who sounds like a great person, for an older guy, a total asshat named Don, who is an egotistical novelist with aspirations to greatness that will never be fulfilled, because has no real writing talent. That fact that it was apparent that Don was only using her, and she remains willfully ignorant of this is a real sore spot in this book, another head-scratcher, because Joanne seems like an otherwise smart woman. That said, Rakoff's prose is excellent, and her book is well-paced and engrossing. I'd give it a B+, and recommend it to anyone who is fascinated by the works of JD Salinger.

Thanks for the Trouble by Tommy Wallach is a YA fantasy novel that was surprisingly fun and engaging. Parker, a teenager who has been mute for the past 5 years after the death of his father. He spends a lot of time in luxury hotels stealing from rich people and avoiding school and contact with his peers. He encounters Zelda, a grey-haired young woman in the restaurant of a hotel, and even as he's stealing her last bit of cash, he recognizes that there is something different about her. Once she reveals that she has lived for over 200 years, and wants to kill herself by jumping off the Golden Gate bridge, the two develop an unlikely friendship that teaches Parker how to grow up and become his best self. Here's the blurb: From Publisher's Weekly: In response to a college application question (“What was the single most important experience of your life?”), Parker Santé, a mute, Hispanic 17-year-old, writes an incredible story. When he steals a wad of cash from a silver-haired, sharp-witted girl named Zelda, who is planning to throw herself off the Golden Gate Bridge, Parker isn’t sure what to make of her. After agreeing not to jump until her money is spent and Parker promises to apply to college, the two embark on a breakneck tour of parties, shopping, and confrontations with Parker’s mother, an alcoholic consumed by memories of her deceased husband. Parker may not believe that Zelda is, as she claims, 246 years old, but there’s no doubt that she helps him rediscover a longing to participate in the world. Wallach (We All Looked Up) delivers well-rounded, witty characters (“Thinking of your parents being young is like thinking of Winnie-the-Pooh going to the bathroom: just fucking weird”)—all contemplating whether living a full life is better than living a long one. Bittersweet moments intersect with the intricate fairy tales Parker writes, compelling readers to judge what is real and what is make-believe. 
Though I gather that we're supposed to think Parker is some kind of genius for writing his horrific fairy tales, I felt that they were not all that good, and I also thought Parker was kind of an asshat to many people, just because he was a teenage boy, and I suppose it's expected that immature boys treat people with such cruelty and disregard. It's also expected that teenage boys are obsessed by sex, and will inevitably have sex with the female protagonist of any book they're in. No surprises here in that regard, though Zelda is, obviously, much older than Parker, which makes their liaison seem like pedophilia. What we are left with is unanswered questions, as in whether or not Parker's account of his week with Zelda is nothing more than a flight of fancy, or whether it was real, and she's gone now. At any rate, I'd give the book an A, and recommend it to anyone who enjoys Salinger's Catcher in the Rye or oddball YA romances.

I received a free ARC of Faithful by Alice Hoffman from Goodreads and the publisher in exchange for a review. I've read 8 of Hoffman's other novels, Practical Magic, the Dovekeepers and Blackbird House, The Red Garden, The Museum of Extraordinary Things and three of her YA titles about a young "green" witch. I've enjoyed most of these works,and I believe Hoffman is a gifted storyteller and talented writer. That said, there are times when I wonder why her protagonists suffer so much. In this novel, Shelby carries a huge burden of guilt for her friend being in a coma after both of them were in a car accident (Shelby was driving and had her seatbelt on, while her friend didn't). Its normal for anyone to feel guilty after an accident, of course, but Shelby nearly drowns in guilt, cutting off her hair and taking crappy jobs at pet food stores. She steals animals that she knows are being abused from their owners, and she somehow subsists on Chinese takeout. She has a horrible boyfriend (who is also her drug dealer) and her father is a complete jerk, to both Shelby and her mother, whom he cheats on all the time. Soon, however, friends and family and dogs come to Shelby's rescue, as much as she comes to theirs, and her transformation and reclamation begins. Here's the blurb:
From the New York Times bestselling author of The Marriage of Opposites and The Dovekeepers comes a soul-searching story about a young woman struggling to redefine herself and the power of love, family, and fate.
Growing up on Long Island, Shelby Richmond is an ordinary girl until one night an extraordinary tragedy changes her fate. Her best friend’s future is destroyed in an accident, while Shelby walks away with the burden of guilt.
What happens when a life is turned inside out? When love is something so distant it may as well be a star in the sky? Faithful is the story of a survivor, filled with emotion—from dark suffering to true happiness—a moving portrait of a young woman finding her way in the modern world. A fan of Chinese food, dogs, bookstores, and men she should stay away from, Shelby has to fight her way back to her own future. In New York City she finds a circle of lost and found souls—including an angel who’s been watching over her ever since that fateful icy night.
Here is a character you will fall in love with, so believable and real and endearing, that she captures both the ache of loneliness and the joy of finding yourself at last. For anyone who’s ever been a hurt teenager, for every mother of a daughter who has lost her way, Faithful is a roadmap.
Alice Hoffman’s “trademark alchemy” (USA TODAY) and her ability to write about the “delicate balance between the everyday world and the extraordinary” (WBUR) make this an unforgettable story. With beautifully crafted prose, Alice Hoffman spins hope from heartbreak in this profoundly moving novel.
The blurb above is correct in that Hoffman's prose, is, as usual, beautiful and lyrical and manages to be full of emotional truth without being maudlin. Her plots never flag or slow, and she always finds a way to make even the quirky characters seem real and alive. My only other problem with the novel was that there was a perfect stopping place at the end of chapter 14. It read like "the end" and I was prepared to let the story go when Hoffman tacked on chapter 15 like the odd bit out, or as if her publisher insisted that she do so, when she'd already finished the manuscript to her satisfaction. I realize that there was still a question about Shelby never visiting Helene, whose coma had turned her into a miracle worker, but it still seemed like an afterthought to me, since Shelby had, in the previous chapter, left all of her past behind and made a bright future for herself, her dogs and James. Visiting Helene was like taking a step backwards, and for no reason, as nothing really happens. Still, I was glad that I read this novel, and I'd give it an A and recommend it to anyone who has made a mistake that has overshadowed their life for a time, and dog lovers who understand the meaning of the word "Faithful."

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