Wednesday, June 30, 2010

THE UNNAMED - Joshua Ferris

 
Started it Monday morning and had to read until I finished it Tuesday evening. What a page turner. Which is hard to imagine since there is no murder and no mystery. It is a heart wrenching tale of a wealthy couple whose lives are devastated by the husband's strange and unnamed illness. With all their money and influence it is still impossible to find a doctor that can identify or treat his obsession to walk out of and away from his life and continue to walk to the point of total exhaustion. It comes on with no warning and he simply MUST just walk away from whatever he is doing and wherever he is at the time. He will walk no matter what the elements and will walk until his body gives out and he collapses.

Tim Farnsworth is a very successful lawyer in NYC and has survived two terrible bouts of the illness as the novel begins. He and his family have been, up to this point, able to adapt, hide it, and fix things but now it is back and is so aggressive that he begins to lose everything. And I do mean lose in the literal term. Since he cannot stop walking he is subjected to harsh weather causing frostbite and tissue death. For much of the novel the family copes and Tim's wife Jane is able to rescue him each time. But as the illness progresses he walks farther away and can no longer do his job. Eventually it gets so bad and he becomes so irrational that she can no longer figure out where he is. Then begins the long years of trying to find him and make sure he has not died. After years of endless walking Tim starts to become psychotic and his personality begins to split.

The love story between Tim and Jane is heart-wrenching. They try so hard to keep their life together, save each other, and to not damage their daughter. I found it interesting and inventive. Years ago I was interested in another author, Anne Tyler who also liked to create quirky characters with bizarre mental illnesses or personality disorders. I read so many I forget all the titles but I do remember they all took place in Baltimore. Saint Maybe was good and I also liked The Accidental Tourist, Breathing Lessons, and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

Friday, June 18, 2010

ELLA MINNOW PEA - Mark Dunn

My friend Cindy Strietelmeier asked me if I had read this one as I suspect she knows I like the occasional quirky read. Then when doing inventory in my high school library I noticed it so I brought it home for the summer. A quick one or two afternoon book in fable form, it was not the silly escape fiction I had thought. Off-the-east-shore of the US is this fictional island country populated by people of a cerebral mentality. They pride themselves on being very educated, progressive, and they all have and use in daily discourse a high level and colorful vocabulary.

They also revere a native citizen, one Nevin Nollop for whom the country and all of the cities thereon are named. He is the one attributed with creating the pangram (verse or sentence using all the letters of the alphabet) "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." There is a cenotaph (monument to a deceased who is buried elsewhere) of him in the city square and the phrase he is famous for resides above it. 

One day the letters one by one begin to fall off of the cenotaph. The government studies the situation and decides that it is a sign from the afterlife that the citizens are to change their way of thinking and speaking by eliminating each letter as it falls from their language. The whole story is told through letters written between the people, and most of them to or from the main character Ella Minnow Pea. Each letter is a lipogram (written work composed avoiding one or more letters) and as the book reaches a climax it gets harder to decipher the letters.

I also enjoyed the parts about the underground whose members are trying to create a new pangram. So much so that, had I not been so busy, I might have experimented with my Scrabble letters and tried it myself. As I read my mind kept straying to thoughts of how the book could be used in a classroom to spur kids to research projects. Besides the fun things like trying to compose letters without certain letters, I thought about investigating with kids such things like abuse of government power, civil rights, religious fundamentalism, and immigration.

Anyway I had fun with it.  By the end of the book the only letters left are LMNOP. Try writing a sentence with just those.

Friday, June 11, 2010

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO - Stieg Larsson

It's a thriller. Couldn't put it down! I heard about Larsson sometime in the 90s. We were studying and reading about extremism and hate in a group at our church. Mostly we read Morris Dees but articles by the Swedish Larsson cropped up during my research. He investigated and wrote about right-wing extremism in Europe and specifically worked to expose neo-Nazis in Sweden. He died unexpectedly in 2004 and three novels were published posthumously, this being the first in a trilogy.

I read a recent article in Time about the author and the books and then saw the plans in the making for the first book to be made into a movie soon. Of course that meant I had to read the book. So glad I did. It is obvious that his work influenced his novel.

What you have here is a hot but older (40s) journalist Mikael Blomkvist, who is in a state of disgrace and is facing some jail time for libel. He agrees to take a job for an elderly tycoon to investigate the 30+ year old disappearance of his grand-niece and heiress Harriet Vanger. Blomkvist hooks up with a top-notch private investigator and computer hacker in the person of Lisbeth Salander who is a tiny, tattooed creature with multiple issues dealing with being an orphan and a ward of the state.

If you like deep intrigue, shocking events, blood, torture, Nazi hunting, and adventure this is the book for you. It is a thriller and you get a hint of the infiltration of the Nazi party into Swedish aristocracy. Of course what the duo reveals is more than just what happened to Harriet. There are evil and festering secrets in the Vanger family. You also follow Lisbeth through some very dark episodes from which you start to see why she is so different. The only thing I didn't like was some pretty raw and pointless sexual content. Call me a prude if you want.

I'm still not sure how some of the names should be pronounced – guess I'll find out at the movies.

MORAL DISORDER - Margaret Atwood

This book has been floating around my house for several months. I brought it home after the AC Adult Literati group read The Handmaid's Tale by Atwood. I was expecting another noir tale of the future but it was not to be. 

The book is constructed as a series of vignettes telling a life story.  But it is not simply a narrative. It is more like an episodic crazy quilt as the chapters are not in chronological order. The opening story is of an elderly woman and her aging husband, Tig.  She reflects on how they understand each other and how uncertain and scary life has become. In the next chapter the reader is transported to the life of the woman as an eleven-year-old dealing with a depressed mother, an absent father,  and preparing for the pending birth of a little sister. 

About half way through I began to get annoyed that I still didn't know the main character's name. All the chapters up to that point were in first person. Without warning the rest of the book switched to third person and her name was introduced as Nell. Nell's stories then switch between childhood tales of raising her sister, trying to keep her family in tact during her teen years, maneuvering the pitfalls of adolescence, visiting her mother in the nursing home as an adult, and coming of age in the 70s. She avoided drugs and gratuitous sex in college but drifted as a young adult on her own. When she finally began a relationship it was with her friend's husband but with that friend's encouragement. 

I enjoyed mostly the chapters of Nell as a young girl and an adolescent. Maybe because she was a bookworm even when the only book available was The Joy of Cooking and she memorized how to entertain with or without servants.

I liked getting a glimpse into the psyche of a person who lets others make all the rules and simply tries to keep things together. This character took on responsibility without question. For many years she looked after her sister both when she was a child, and again when she was a suicidal adolescent. She even took on the job of caretaker for her husband Tig's ex-wife when she felt compelled to. 

It was a gratifying read and short, so only an afternoon or so of my time. I recommend it. 

Monday, June 7, 2010

LIFE EXPECTANCY - Dean Koontz

Both the Adams Central HS student Literati and the Adult Literati read Life Expectancy by Dean Koontz two years ago. I was cleaning out some school files today and came across these pictures which lead to some ruminating. Al Arnold, a math teacher shocked us by coming to group that day in full "Bezo" form.  We had such a great time with that book. Below is Al/Bezo and a picture to illustrate how we thematically decorate for our meetings.


Even if you are not a Koontz lover this book is a great read. I was hooked by the first chapter. In a hospital in a Colorado resort town is the owner of the bakery waiting for the birth of his first child. However, his father is also in another room in the same hospital and is dying. Just as the baker's son is being born his father sits up and demands that the he take note of five dates that will be important and dangerous in the life of the baby, whom he names Jimmy. Immediately after he dies. Creepy enough but then a deranged Bezo the clown goes on a shooting rampage in the hospital because his beloved wife has died while giving birth.


The lifestyle of the baker's family living and working at night is creative and fun. The whole extended family is fun and colorful. When Jimmy is twenty, one of the dates Grandpa noted arrives  and the son of the deranged clown shows up. He murders the librarian and takes Jimmy and a young girl hostage in the library while in the process of attempting a robbery. 

Each date of course holds a similar catastrophe and the book is a delightful romp through the decades of this family. There is darkness, suspense, wit, and humor. I read it twice!


All the members of both the adult and high school group liked this choice. I recommend it.