Thursday, November 10, 2011

THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET – Brian Selznick


The middle grandson said he liked this book and since the movie is coming out and we might want to go see it together I decided to get a copy. Yikes! I asked him if he knew it was monstrously large at 533 pages. With much eye rolling and sighing he informed me it has a lot of big margins, pictures and blank pages and I could handle it. He and I and my other grandson went to the bookstore on a Sunday and I read it that evening after they went home.

It is beautiful. As soon as I finished I went to the scholastic website to investigate where I learned that Selznick wanted the book to feel like an old movie. At http://www.theinventionofhugocabret.com/about_hugo_intro.htm there is also a wealth of information about the author's inspiration, old movies mentioned in the book, the real train crash, and information about automata, specifically the one that was the inspiration for the automaton in this book. But I digress.

In 1931 twelve-year-old orphaned Hugo is trying to survive living in a Paris train station. His uncle who is the clock keeper for the station is missing, and though Hugo keeps the clocks running and picks up his uncle's checks he doesn't have any way to cash them. Having no income, Hugo is forced to steal food and try to remain undetected. Hugo also is skilled mechanically and steals nuts, bolts, metal, and gears from the toy seller to work on an automaton that his father had been working on before he died. Hugo's existence is threatened when he is caught stealing. There is suspense, a train wreck, and a close encounter with death.

I don't know how to adequately describe this book. Pages of fascinating illustrations are followed by pages of text and I couldn't read fast enough or look long enough at each picture. I read it, explored information about the author and the real people and events portrayed in the book and then read it again. It would be a lovely book to share with a child and I am looking forward to the movie. Hope my grandsons will let me go with them.

THE HIDDEN MAN – Anthony Flacco


If you are pining for something to make your skin crawl this is a book for you. I picked this up at The Strand in NYC on my last trip there in 2008. Why it got shuffled to the bottom of my “to read” pile I have no idea, but since it has been gloomy and windy I was in the mood for a tale noir. This didn't disappoint.

I remember picking it out of a basement bin at The Strand and being intrigued by the beautiful cover art which is a photo of lighted buildings at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibit in San Francisco. What is so great about the cover art besides the beauty of the scene is the way the title and author's name seem to be reflected also. Another thing that interested me was the author profile in the back. There I read that he is a screen writer. This book actually read a bit like a movie – chapters occurring simultaneously or seconds, minutes, or hours apart.

The city is busy rebuilding on the rubble of the great earthquake a decade before, and preparing for the world's fair. A famous mesmerist is struggling to keep his act going while spiraling into a drugged world of his own where he battles the onset of Alzheimer's. Detective Randall Blackburn deals with unethical dealings within the police department while teaming with his son to solve a murder which hasn't happened yet. A nondescript man, who is actually a demented killer, stalks victims (and Blackburn's fiance) in broad daylight. Many people see him yet he goes unnoticed. Blackburn's daughter keeps the plot hopping too with her efforts to be an individual in her own right as an independent woman in this stuffy 1915 upper crust society.

A lot of action, intrigue, and yes a lot of blood and guts. Actually quite well written and nice short 275 page afternoon read. My only complaint? Typos! Argh!

MENNONITE IN A LITTLE BLACK DRESS – Rhoda Janzen


I bought this title last year when our neighboring community, which has a large Mennonite population, was buzzing about it. However, it was one of those books that I kept meaning to get to and kept moving around my bookshelf. Then the Jay County Public Library Book Group picked it which prodded me to get it read. I did like it a lot and recommend it but I have to confess at times Ms Jansen could have moved along if you know what I mean.

Everyone at discussion liked the book, some more than others. All of us could identify with being down and out but knowing that you can always go home and those there will still love you.

To put this book in a nutshell - Janzen unfolds a story of a person leaving roots and religion behind, making a life out in the world, then coming full-circle home to heal in the bosom of the family she left behind. She begins her memoir with her decision to go home after the breakup of her marriage and a serious automobile accident. If you pick it up though don't expect to get a tale of religious rebirth or a prodigal's return. While she tells us heartwarming stories of growing up in a close family, and the goodness found among her own people, she does not ever seem to feel that leaving was wrong and she certainly does not reaffirm her faith. Instead she points out the issues from her past that made her want to flea and how those issues still bother her.

This book is a memoir but also a look inside a denomination that most of us are not acquainted with of long skirts, submissive women, bonnets, and disapproval of higher education. We also get to see, over a 40 year period, how there seems to be some mellowing or softening of some of the rigid rules that Janzen grew up with. For instance when she was a girl dancing was against all rules. By the time she returns 15 years later, there is “liturgical movement” at church and young girls are allowed to take formal dance lessons.

I feel like much of the book was therapeutic for the author to help her accept the failure of her marriage to a man who after fifteen years revealed he is a homosexual. She still loves him and perhaps she always will. Janzen uses humor and sarcasm which I appreciate but she also illuminates her family and friends so tenderly that one can't help but feel an affinity with them. She doesn't stay but taking the trip home with her is worth the ride.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

SINGING SONGS – Meg Tilly

Life as fiction.” I heard that phrase on NPR today and if I'm not mistaken that is what Tilly does with this book. According to the forward, in 1990 Meg Tilly's repressed memories began to surface. She fictionalized the characters and her life but even so this book is essentially a collection of memoirs from her troubled childhood. My friend Dawn loaned it to me. Her copy is a 2006 printing of a 1994 copyright with a new forward by the author. I picked it up yesterday and was instantly both horrified and transfixed. We went to a concert last evening so I had to put it down for a few hours, but then I took it to bed and read into the wee hours of the night. Finished it just before going to church this morning.

Now I am drained. Such a scary ride through a traumatic childhood this was! I have not read a book full of so much abuse and neglect in a long time. If you don't have a strong stomach this isn't for you. However, if you can take it you will get perhaps a clearer look into the psyche of a child living in a dysfunctional family. Tilly has written these stories as if they are right out of the heart and mind of the child she was. The impressions and thought patterns are those of the child not those of an adult looking back which you often find in a memoir. While unsettling, having the stories presented in that manner makes you feel the fear and uncertainty for the child she was more clearly.

The construction of the novel is unusual. The chapters are in chronological order but the gaps between them appear to be sometimes days, weeks, or even perhaps years. Tilly had talked about the stories which became the chapters in the forward so I went to reread it and was reminded that “Doghouse” and “Buckerfield's” had been the first stories she had written. Once placed in order though those chapters came much later. The book has no table of contents so it was annoying to find those chapters for reexamination. The mother of this fictional Anna in Singing Songs was smart and well educated. She did appear to love her children and her step children. However, she was not capable of being a good or even adequate nurturer. It's hard to say why a person, who has to be aware that their parenting skills are wanting, continues to procreate but they often do, as she also did.

This mother was not only neglectful but often an accomplice to the abuse, both physical and sexual, delivered by her husband. The saddest chapter for me to read did not even fill page 190 and was titled “Richard.” Anna tells her mother that her stepfather has been molesting her sister Susan who at the time is about 13. These heartbreaking lines appear, “And there were these little oval things in the medicine cabinet. Things that Susan was supposed to stick inside of her after he hurt her so she wouldn't get pregnant.” “He kept on hurting Susan, and Mamma kept on pretending nothing was happening.”

The second most disturbing chapter was “Lord of the Rings.” It was terrible enough to read about a mother allowing her husband to abuse his own kids, but when she allowed him to nearly kill her own little boy and then send him away for reading Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings made me feel sick. I know I need to read these books so I can recognize and empathize with children of dysfunction but it hurts so much. It is important for us to realize that there are probably more families like this one than we care to acknowledge in which incestuous relationships are not considered outside of the norm.

Meg Tilly's ability to tell us these stories in all their ugliness and goriness from the eyes and ears of a child is a gift to us and we must embrace it and thank her. You can go to Ms Tilly's site to learn just a bit more about her at http://www.officialmegtilly.com/book/singing_songs/

Meg Tilly and her sister Jennifer are both respected actresses. I wonder if Susan from the book is Jennifer. I wonder where their mother is now and what happened to Matthew, Katie, and to Will. Where did their step father go and could one ever forgive parents like theirs?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

LOVE WINS – Rob Bell


Our church book group just discussed this title and we had a great time. Our pastor suggested the title a while back as he had heard some rumblings that some of the more fundamentalist types in the area did not like it. We are an ELCA Lutheran church. So of course we knew we needed to find out what horrible subversive material it contained. We tend to be a bit of a rebellious group anyway in the fact that no one tells US what we can not or should not read. The clincher seemed to come when he couldn't buy it at a local Christian bookstore and was told they wouldn't even be stocking it and would not take a special order. I envisioned the clerk with nose in the air and a sanctimonious attitude, but I am dramatizing. After that we knew we would read it.

Not sure about the others in the group but I didn't read reviews or articles until after finishing the book and pondering about it a bit. I just wanted to read it, and to think about what was presented, and not have my mind fogged up with anyone else's slant either for or against this man's preaching. The author, Rob Bell apparently is or was a preacher at Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan and is the author of several books with interesting titles such as Velvet Elvis and Sex God. What I liked about reading it with the group was that we had a month to read, think, and reread before we met. That meant having plenty of time for laying it aside and letting ideas or questions germinate before discussion. I found the style a bit off-putting. I guess I'm not one for streaming thoughts written into a book but I did get used to it. Pastor said he thought that Bell had simply made a book of notes from his sermons. Maybe.

It isn't my intent to regurgitate Bell's ideas. Instead I hope to give you my/our impressions of what he seemed to be saying or at least what we thought we heard. Might I start by saying there is nothing and I do mean nothing in this book that I have not heard, or read, or even questioned myself at some time in my life. The biggest idea he seems to be presenting is that there is more love coming from God than many of us are taught to believe.

Bell's biggest target for questioning in the book is hell. In that it may not, or actually probably is not what you have always imagined it to be. Some of the negative Internet articles stated that Bell says there is no hell. I did not hear that in this book. I/we heard:
  • hell may not be what you have always been told that it is. Which many of us fairly intelligent beings have already questioned,
  • part of hell may be on this earth today,
  • God is the father of all and loves all of his creations not just Christians. It is not our right to judge who is “in” with him and who is not,
  • heaven may not be what you expect. Many visions of what it is and how one “gets in” are created by man and not scriptural,
  • God intends all of his children to be with him in heaven and how they get there is not up to us to proscribe. This idea was pondered by better scholars than us and there is much room to question why we feel the need to name those who are kept out,
  • the Good News of love, peace, forgiveness, needs to be spread much more and we need to stop wielding scriptures like weapons which drives more people away from the Word than gathers them in.

There were other topics we discussed also but that was a week ago so I am getting a little forgetful. We all, to a person at the meeting agreed we liked this book. We are not afraid to read and think about ideas we are not familiar with. We don't have to agree to all this man's teachings but it is ok to think about them.

My biggest problem was …. no footnotes. Can I really be saying that? But seriously when he made references to scripture he did include where they came from but when he talked church history and such I needed references to feel secure. Pastor was a great help but what about those reading without a built-in reference person?

After finishing the book there was plenty of time to check out some of the articles. Holy Cow! There were all kinds of things to read on the Internet, some nice, some supportive, and some so vitriolic they almost burned my retinas. One article said Bell had set off a firestorm of controversy. How the heck could I have missed a whole firestorm? Be as it may, I missed the firestorm but again I say what the what? Why should this man's perspective be so threatening to some people? Because it shouldn't be. Believe what you like. Let others believe as they choose. Let it be.

I am still curious about Velvet Elvis so if you have read it and recommend it let me know.

In case you wish to know, some other authors we have tackled are as follows:
C.S. Lewis, Sarah Miles, Anne Lamott, Philip Gulley, Mitch Albom, Chris Cleave, Morris West, William P. Young and those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head.

THE REAPERS ARE THE ANGELS – Alden Bell



Ok, here I go with a zombie book. I pride myself on being well-read to the tune of sometimes seeming pretentious. Often I will pooh-pooh a book that I think is not worth reading because there isn't enough to think about, but how do I explain my fixation with zombie and post-apocalyptic literature? Well....

I don't have to! I am 59 years old, retired, and I will read what I want. When I was young I often would read a book such as this and just not tell anyone and to that I say, “pish posh!” This book is good. A friend of mine told me about it prefacing her recommendation with the fact that she doesn't like “zombie books” so I had to try it. I was a little leery as I recognized that the title is a quote from the Bible (to be found in Matthew 13) and I don't have a lot of luck liking the genre “Christian fiction.” But I put it on my Nook and read it in one sitting being almost immediately transfixed.

Not being a simple zombie/survival book, this book contained issues to make me ponder a bit about the evil men do in harsh situations when trying to survive, or when trying to keep something worse from happening. It isn't meant to be simply a horror story and it is much more. It's really more about human nature and morals during times of harsh situations. If you read Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which is a book I would also recommend, you should notice a similarity of style and plot. If you read Reapers you just might be inclined to do a bit of soul-searching, introspection, and perhaps even maybe some self-examination of your own priorities.

Sometime in the future and several decades after some type of apocalyptic event Temple, age 15 is on her own and on the move to escape the “meatskins” that are getting too close to her lighthouse den. Temple has been surviving mostly on her own since she was five. At one point she had a brother and the reader knows she is haunted by something that happened in her past. She has been born into this world and so she has lived finding gifts and wonders where she finds them such as glittering fish in the first chapter. She also has learned how to interact with other survivors and seems to have instincts about who to trust and when to flee from those she doesn't.

One of the quotes in the front of the book is from Stephen King's Pet Cemetery, “Sometimes dead is better.” So the reader knows from the start that a character in the story for whom you have come to care about dies. However, when it happened I had to say, “Sh_ _! I didn't see that coming. I had to reread that last chapter before realizing that the author made the character Moses so driven by the mores of his culture before the apocalypse that he cannot change. Temple has no previous culture to so her motives are simply to live, learn, and survive.

Told in present tense helps to keep the reader focused on Temple's inner turmoil and to be there with her while fighting the evils that present themselves. Her travels take her to enclaves of people trying to rebuild civilization, to Maury an intellectually challenged mute, and to a village of mutants. There is suspense, horror, hope, love, and a lot of action to keep one turning the pages, or clicking the next page button as I did. Temple is a fully formed and vibrant character and she will stay with you for a long time.