Wednesday, March 14, 2012

THE MARRIAGE PLOT – Jeffry Eugenides


Just finished this book today. Muncie Kennedy Library group discussed it last Thursday but I couldn't make it so I put off reading it. Having previously read Middlesex which I loved and Virgin Suicides which I did not, I was looking forward to trying another by Eugenides. Once I started it this past Sunday afternoon I had a hard time putting it down. It was so exciting to start a book where all the characters are readers and everyone is enamored of higher education. There are so many references to books, and authors, and studies it felt like being young and in college again. My friend, Mike who also attends the Kennedy group said that he and another group member didn't really click with this book but the rest did. Upon finishing it I will tell you that I was so entranced during the first half that it was rating it four to four and a half stars out of five and numerous sticky notes were everywhere. Then... yesterday I got to about the middle of the chapter “Pilgrims. From there to the end there are only five sticky notes. The last few chapters became tedious but the book ended with a very good and satisfying conclusion.

Eugenides does not disappoint when it comes to the overlapping and interesting plot, great expressive language, and clear character development. In this book he takes the reader through a roller coaster of emotion with a bi-polar/manic-depressive man. The book itself is not so much about him but the two other people whose lives are closely connected to his. Having known a few bi-polar people, the examination up close of the illness as presented in this novel by Eugenides was fascinating and as far as I could tell fairly portrayed.

In 1982 Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell become freshmen at Brown University. Mitchell is a shy, not sure what he wants to do with his life, religious scholar and is almost immediately smitten with Madeleine. Madeleine is a beautiful, brilliant, English major studying semiotics, and through the eyes of Mitchell perfect. Leonard is a large, ruggedly handsome, promiscuous, and charismatic philosophy major. You can see where this is going romantically. Mitchell loves Madeleine, Madeleine loves Leonard, and Leonard mostly loves himself.

My friend Mike talked about this novel being in the “deconstruction” style and so it is. The first chapter starts with graduation day and then works backwards through the college years of the three main characters. The college chapters are great, full of interesting situations, wild parties, a lot of weed smoking, and getting high. But also of wonderful conversations about books, authors, theories, ideas, and philosophy. One of my favorite pages is 57 when Leonard and Madeleine talk about becoming famous and Leonard says, “My goal in life is to become an adjective.” They then try to decide if they want their last names to be made adjectives ending in esque, ish, or ian. I myself wondered if my last name of Dann could become Dannish, Dannesque, or Dannian as in, “Oh that is so Dannesque!” when someone says something profoundly articulate.

By senior year Madeleine has let her life be ruled by Leonard and Mitchell has come to the conclusion that he is destined to always be her friend and never her lover and he vows to move on and get over her eventually. One of my favorite Mitchell thoughts is when he sees Madeleine with her lover and, “In Madeleine's face was stupidity Mitchell had never seen before. It was the stupidity of all normal people. It was the stupidity of the fortunate and beautiful, of everybody who got what they wanted in life and so remained unremarkable.” I found that to be a thought I myself have proposed to my own children about people who are too pretty. Perhaps that is why I identified with Mitchell? I really enjoyed his character. The Mitchell chapters were interesting and full of adventure and it was fun to watch him evolve into a man ever searching for real meaning in life.

By contrast after graduation the Leonard and Madeleine chapters devolve into madness and care-taking, stress and uncertainty. Leonard is not a likeable character and Madeleine became tiresome. Also I hate to admit it but it became apparent a man wrote this book in the descriptions of the love making that were way too graphic, weird, and actually not erotic. The description of bi-polar behavior, the warning signs, the treatments, the effects of the drugs, and the behavior modifications family members must deal with were expertly worked into the chapters taking these two through their first year out of college and attempting to start a life together. Some of the situations did make my heart race with worry and I had to hurry through to find out what terrible things happened to Leonard during his breaks with reality. A section I did like was when Madeleine examines her love of 19th century classics by authors like Austin and Bronte and goes off to a conference where she meets new friends and decides on a future path for herself. I then had hope that she would dump Leonard and fly on her own. Oh well.

After graduation Mitchell and his friend Larry took off on an adventure across Europe. Mitchell's plan was to end up in India volunteering for Mother Teresa which he did but not before a bit of a side trip involving a homosexual encounter. Mitchell ends up back in New York at the same time as Madeleine and Leonard soon after another of Leonard's psychotic breaks. The ending chapters I must say were great. I was afraid things were going to end up too neatly tied up and with everyone happy ever after (I hate it when that happens). There was an ending and closure and it was good.



Friday, March 9, 2012

IN THE WOODS – Tana French


My friend, Sherry recommended this book more than a year ago. As my hand walked across my shelf of unread books many times I kept not choosing it. Why? I have no idea. But last month during group at the Kennedy Library in Muncie, Indiana a delightful young woman mentioned it and said she would be reading all of Tana French's books which spurred me to go home and pick it up. It does have a sticker on the front announcing it as an Edgar Award Winner (2007) so I had a hint it might be a good mystery.

It certainly had the creep factor going. This is one of those plot within a plot books. Rob Ryan, is a police investigator for the murder squad in Ireland. He is also lucky enough to have as his partner his best friend, Cassie. When Rob and Cassie are assigned to investigate a murder of a young dancer it takes them to the very village where Rob grew up in Knocknaree, just outside of Dublin. Twenty years earlier as 12-year-olds, Rob and his two friends went into the local woods to play and the only one to ever return was Rob who cannot remember anything of that day. While investigating the bludgeoning death of Katy Devlin a young, bright, pretty, and lovable 12-year-old girl of Knocknaree, Rob stumbles upon some old evidence and begins to think he can put together the pieces of the disappearances of twenty years before. And there the plots get mingled.

Along with the creepiness of the past unexplained crime, there are so many sad characters in the present. Those left in Knocknaree who cannot move on or move away for fear of not being there in case their lost loved one returns and those affected by the loss of a lovely young girl whom everyone seemed to adore. The Devlin's are devastated by the loss of their child. Mrs. Devlin is in deep depression and there is something odd about the oldest girl who is extremely over-protective of their other daughter who is mentally handicapped. Rob himself is a sad person. He relives parts of his childhood in an attempt to try to remember more. The loss of his two best friends as a child haunts him continually. It's also really sad that he can't seem to have a lasting relationship, not even with his own best friend.

There are many characters and many suspects in both stories. The only thing is, I pretty much new early on who murdered Katy Devlin, or at least who had instigated the crime. I don't want to be too hard on this book because there were parts of it I really liked and I do think this author has promise and would consider reading another of her books. But, I found a lot of the angst between Rob and Cassie a bit contrived and overdone. Some of the description, especially of police procedure became tedious for me but a lot of crime novel readers like that so I tried to overlook it. This 400+ page book could have used (IMHO) some better editing and been half as long and a better read. But I did like the mixing of the crimes, and the characters seemed real to me with normal emotions. Except for Rob, he is way too easily seduced by Katy's older sister. At his age and with his experience he should have been a lot better at dealing with her and recognizing her deception. Rob is just too dense for me to like. Cassie is much more perceptive and tells Rob what he needs to look for, and is right every time. But he never listens to her! I also didn't like it that more isn't revealed about the old crime. After all his investigating, Rob gets no closer to solving that mystery. Hopefully in another of her books he gets closure.

THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE – Alan Bradley


Once in a while I pick up a book simply because the cover calls out to me. I always told my students not to rely on covers to choose and yet... The beautiful shaded jadite green of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie caught my eye. Coupled with a delightfully dead very black crow with postage stamp stuck on its bill shouted to my psyche to take it home, which I did from the used book store for a mere $8. I reasoned that even if I didn't like it the book would serve to inject a punch of color to one of my many bookshelves. Who could not be captured by any book whose first sentence on the back cover contains the words “wickedly brilliant?” Also listen to this first line on the first page! “It was as black in the closet as old blood.” The last thing I checked before heading to the store front was the author info since I wasn't familiar with the name. I read there the sentence, “He lives in British Columbia with his wife and two calculating cats.” Hooked, I was.

This mystery comedy is set in and around a crumbing old mansion, Buckshaw in the 1950 English countryside. In this mansion are living the de Luce's, an aging widower, three daughters, and a butler/caretaker older man. Mrs. Mullet, the cook housekeeper comes and goes each day. The sisters, Daphne, Ophelia, and Flavia are at odds with each other as most siblings are when young. Eleven year old Flavia de Luce is the youngest the protagonist of the tale and the narrator. Flavia is extremely precocious, intelligent, and aspires to one day be a famous scientist. In the attic of the old house is a very elaborate chemistry lab left by an uncle and once used by Flavia's mother, Harriet de Luce before her mysterious demise on a far off expedition years ago. There Flavia spends hours studying, writing, and plotting revenge on her sisters. Her speciality is poisons.

Introduce, a mysterious stranger, a dead bird, a rare postage stamp, and a dead man in the cucumber patch. Of course the local authorities are bumblers of the case and Flavia begins to investigate the crime getting herself into danger and complications. Yes, there is silliness, but it is a one afternoon lark of a read. I am thinking precocious preteens and early teen readers could get hooked on this series if offered to them in the right way. Kids who enjoyed the Lemony Snicket Series of Unfortunate Events books might move on to this series particularly if they like a their humor mixed with the macabre, and a bit of fancy language tossed in. I certainly don't know many teens or preteens that know the meaning of philatelic (study of stamps and postal history), vicissitude (state of being changeable), copacetic (very satisfactory), or boulevardier (man-about-town). But then most adults I know don't either. I don't know if they keep them there forever, but there was a really nice trailer on the Amazon page for this book called, “Take a Tour of Buckshaw with Flavia de Luce” that is fun. Also there is the Flavia de Luce website http://www.flaviadeluce.com/ and I see that three more books in this series have already been released.

Alan Bradley is Canadian. I guess I have to say I haven't read many canadian authors. Oh well, should I put this book here on the shelf between Pilgrim's Progress and My Collected Stories by H.G. Wells? Think I will...done. 



WHAT'S THE LEAST I CAN BELIEVE AND STILL BE A CHRISTIAN? - Martin Thielen


First Tuesday book discussion with Pastor Mark Strietelmeier always lasts well over an hour and we finally, after two hours, had to just decide it was late and time to disband. This was a great read for us. Mark doesn't pick the books we read, it is a group decision and we don't always like what we pick. This was a suggestion and I wasn't sure it would be “my cup of tea” as referring to the title I thought it would be shallow or vapid. Oops, mea culpa. The title actually originated from a question Thielen was asked by a friend of his who was/is an atheist. It occurred to him that for an unbeliever or the questioning one this was a great question which lead to some deep thinking and resulted in this delightful book written in an easy conversational style. It was in actuality quite affirming for me and I would venture to say for most, if not all of the attendees last Tuesday.

The author is a Methodist pastor of Lebanon First United Methodist Church in Tennessee. He has several pages dedicated to his own faith journey and descriptions of how and why he evolved from being a fundamentalist to being a biblical scholar and then to becoming a pastor of a church in the “mainstream” Christian community of today. But the meat of the book is divided into two parts; the things you don't need to believe, and the things that are essential to believe. Sounds simple, no?

The first half of the book covering all the things that a Christian person does NOT have to accept was presented in such a kind and caring way that it gives one the relief of knowing he or she is not alone in thinking that it is not necessary to accept all of the rightist-fundamental rhetoric that is so popular right now. Thielen covers all his points in detail and with historic background. When I read that the concept of the rapture is not Biblical or historically Christian I felt much relief for not even knowing about it until the 1980s. What a joy to be told by a preacher and scholar that it is perfectly alright for me/us to not accept any of the following; inerrancy of all the Bible texts, God causes tragedy for retribution, women should be subservient, evolution is heresy, you cannot doubt, you do not need to care about the environment, the rapture, only Christians go to Heaven, God loves only straight people, the Bible should be taken literally, and last but not least... its ok for one to be loud, obnoxious and judgmental with doctrine. Thank you Pastor Thielen!

The second half of the book is dedicated the good news about following Jesus. What it means to be the ones who focus on the Gospels, spread the Word, give and accept grace. When reading the second half I felt validated but also I saw that any person reading this book could see that there is a real and healthy alternative to following a path of close-minded and judgmental religion. Here is a favored quote from Thielen stating his purpose:
That alternative is positive, vibrant, open-minded, grace-filled, gender-equal, life- giving moderate and mainline faith. And that kind of faith—centered in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—answers the big questions of life including: Where is God? What matters most? What brings fulfillment? What about suffering? And is there hope?
In concise clear chapters Thielen expands on where the theological ideas presented in his book come from, the historic background, what they are specifically saying and why we do or don't have to accept them. What specifically does Thielen mean when he talks about  “mainline faith” I'm not 100% sure but he did refer to the following at some point: Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans (ELCA), Catholics, and Episcopalians, and maybe some others I'm not sure. But I would guess if you read his book you would know if you are mainline or not.

Just an aside - one of favorite chapters happens to be the last which tackles the question, “Do mainline Christian believe in getting saved?” I live in rural Indiana and one major thorn in my side has been people asking me, “Have you been saved?” Besides the fact that it really isn't any of their business, they ask because if you don't give the right answer it gives them an opening to preach to you. I have many times opted for the answer Mark gave us many years ago which is, “Yes, about 2,000 years ago. It was a Friday, the sky turned black...” but of course that is not what they mean. I have been a christian all my life as have most of my friends and relatives. In a nutshell, this chapter makes it clear that salvation can be sudden or gradual and both are valid. You do not have to nail it down to moment in time with a major show of a testimony after an alter call. According to Thielen alter calls were invented in the 1800s out West. Interesting, no?

I liked this book a lot. Hope you will too.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

THE MAN WHO LOVED BOOKS TO MUCH (AGAIN) – Allison Bartlett


This book was reviewed by me two years ago when I first read it. I am doing so again because I have just reread it and attended a book discussion group about it. The plan is to review it, tell you what the group said and then go check and see how different my feelings are from the first time I read it.

My second reading occurred this past Monday. Book group (Adams Central Literati) was scheduled for Tuesday at 3:00 p.m. and the plan was to just skim and reread favorite parts. However, once started I reread the whole book cover to cover and was entranced with this story about the bibliokleptomaniac John Gilkey. Gilkey is a notorious rare and expensive book thief from California. For many years he has plagued book sellers all over the world but mostly in California. Bartlett studied the man, and the crimes, but also did her research about rare books (what qualifies), passion for collecting, and the particular sociopathic illness Gilkey exhibits. I found her book to be well-researched and incredibly interesting.

John Gilkey has spent many years honing his craft of thieving and creating exotic rationalizations for why he shouldn't be guilty of anything. He needs those books, they are too expensive for him to buy, therefore he only does what he “has to do” to acquire them. It is interesting that he comes from a whole family of kleptomania. Much of the book is based on interviews with Ken Sanders, a book dealer, shop owner, and self-proclaimed John Gilkey investigator. Sanders has a shop in Salt Lake City, has been a victim of Gilkey in the past and has since dedicated a lot of time keeping tabs on him. He has spent much effort helping other dealers and the authorities to combat Gilkey crime sprees. Sanders is an interesting character all his own. I checked out his website about his store and I would like to visit there someday.

Two people of the seven attending Literati stated that they did not “like” this book. One disliked it so much she couldn't force herself to finish it. (sigh) Ok, here is a lesson for all of you attending or wanting to attend a book group. It doesn't make for good discussion to talk like that. Better to say, something less off-putting like “it wasn't my personal interest and I didn't find the time to finish it,” but better yet finish it and then talk about the hangups you had with it without making others feel insulted. It is perfectly understandable for a well-read and literary person to state that the writing style was below par, stilted, or that there were no interesting word choices or phraseology. All good points but leaving the floor open for others to say that they noticed that too but were invested in getting to the story, studying the crimes, thinking about this unusual personality and reflecting on where this man's life is going to end up.

I do have to admit that in the beginning I found the writing style a bit loose and sometimes I had to reread parts to get a better picture of who exactly she was talking about. We did discuss the fact that the author is or was a journal article writer and we felt this influenced her style and perhaps was why the book felt less-literary than many that we read. One person in group appeared to actually dislike Bartlett as he felt she should have informed on Gilkey when she became aware of his criminal activities. Others of us felt she did what she needed to do to collect her data, probably followed journalistic protocol, and was not obliged to inform the authorities. You can find on the Internet Ken Sanders web sites and some documentation about the crimes and Gilkey. Apparently Gilkey is still “collecting” and since most book sellers know who he is, he is now stealing from libraries, possibly.

Ok, now I am going to look at my old review at (http://literatireflections.blogspot.com/2010_07_01_archive.html) and see if I said any of the same things....

I'm back. That one was better. I did find out that since 2009 Gilkey has been incarcerated several times but is out now and is on the prowl. Where do you suppose he keeps all those books now? Also I forgot to mention that I love the cover of this book too. So many beautiful books.... I want them.