Book Review: The Lacuna (Kingsolver)

October 17, 2010

Hello, my erudite darlings! I’m sorry for the lack of actual reviews of late– my supply of ARCs has more or less evaporated. I do have one that will be up as soon as I get around to finishing it. Also (possibly) in the works is my honest opinion of Twilight: The Graphic Novel, and reviews of the other Cybils graphic novel nominees. Today, though, I have a review for you of The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver, which isn’t new, but did recently blow me away.

This book covers roughly twenty years in the life of Harrison William Shepherd, first his experiences in Mexico as a boy and with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Leon Trotsky as employers, then his life in America during World War II and the Second Red Scare. Kingsolver has said that the foremost question she wanted to examine in writing this book was, why is the relationship between art and politics such an uneasy one in the US? A mere two decades sampled from our history can’t explain this question fully, but in looking at the period she did, Kingsolver revealed much, and strengthened her thesis by indirectly comparing America’s artisto-political climate to Mexico’s, where art and politics mold together in an almost celebratory way. The most standout character in the book, besides Shepherd himself, was Frida– by the end, you cannot think of her as a historical figure; she is incontrovertibly a real person.

The overarching story of this book is how little we actually know about people like Frida (and Harrison) from the way history paints them; it is the parts of the record that are missing (called “lacunas” by historians) that, when filled, reveal the truth. This book, then, a collection of Harrison’s journals, letters, and relevant news clippings from the time, is the massive piece which completes the puzzle of a life misrepresented. It explores the politics of fear, the inconstancy of public opinion, and the subjectivity of truth against the backdrop of American anti-communism, in a time when to dissent was to offer oneself up to a political and cultural witch hunt. All of this Kingsolver handles with deftness and sensitivity, telling a story that, while inescapably relevant to our current national climate, could only be told in the setting she told it in: it is a story of art, communism, family, and history. It is the story of a man isolated from the world by his upbringing and sexuality who nonetheless finds that he must live in it, and that he can make his mark upon it. It is the story of a life.

In a time when America is dealing with a surge of anger and fear, when “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” is still a touted view, Kingsolver’s novel is not only set in the past. It is a call for conscience and against censorship and intolerance. It highlights the dangers of fear politics, and poses the question, How many voices have been silenced?

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I’m sorry, what?

September 19, 2010

“…In high school English classes, children are required to read and view material that should be classified as soft pornography. One such book is called ‘Speak’.”

Come again?

This is a quote from an article by one Wesley Scroggins, published recently in the opinion section of the Springfield, Missouri paper The News-Leader. Needless to say, a storm of internet outrage has been launched over his insensitive portrayal of Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK, which tells the story of a teen victim of rape. Now, I’m not sure how Mr. Scroggins feels, but I would certainly hope that most people don’t get off on this book.

I am not a person that believes in many completely objective truths, but one of them is this: rape is not the fault of the victim. Laurie Halse Anderson happens to be in agreement with me. So when I hear “…the main character in the book is alone with a boy who is touching her female parts, she makes the statement that this is what high school is supposed to feel like. The boy then rapes her on the next page,” I think there’s some gross misrepresentation going on there. And furthermore, does that sound like porn to you?

Help get the word out about this– don’t let people like Scroggins keep such a beautiful and important book off the shelves and away from youth whom it can help. Declare your support for SPEAK by Tweeting #SpeakLoudly, and check out these other blog posts on this topic:

Laurie Halse Anderson answers the charges herself.

Cheryl Rainfield writes about how she feels about this affair, as a survivor of sexual and ritual abuse, as does C.J. Redwine.

Myra McEntire gives a laudable Christian perspective.


Book Review: Mockingjay

August 26, 2010

In 2008, Suzanne Collins’ dystopian novel The Hunger Games reached popular and critical acclaim for its compelling portrayal of the intricacies of love and loyalty when set against the human desire to survive. Its sequel, Catching Fire, moved seamlessly into the lengths to which an oppressive ruling power will stretch to maintain their fragile control, and what it takes to forge a revolution. In Mockingjay, the third and final chronicle of the Hunger Games, Collins takes us on a spare-no-glance tour of the cost of war on a nation and on the human soul, and of how far we are willing to go in defense of a fragile conception of moral right.

Katniss Everdeen, the Girl Who was on Fire, has survived two of the infamous death matches known as the Hunger Games and has unintentionally made herself into the symbol of the resistance against the Capitol’s tyrannical rule. Peeta, the one person who has been through as much as she has and understands, has been captured by the Capitol. District 12, her home, is a firebombed ruin. All around her war rages– the districts are revolting, and at last President Snow’s regime will be toppled or will crush them all.

Katniss is safe in the hands of the surviving District 13, protected as the face of a revolution must be. Inside, she is terrified by the loss of Peeta, enraged by the abuses of the Capitol, and discomfited by the “allies” who seek to use her standing for their own ends. The only stable thing in her life seems to be Gale, her oldest remaining friend, and even he seems to be someone she doesn’t quite recognize any more. Amidst all of this, Katniss must put aside her misgivings and come to terms with the fact that she is the Mockingjay, a symbol of hope for a nation, who is responsible for countless lives.

Anyone who has read one or both of the previous Hunger Games books knows that Suzanne Collins pulls no punches with her vivid prose, but even knowing this I wasn’t prepared for the brutality of Mockingjay. This is a book about love, trust, family, and heroism, true, but above all else it is a story of war and what war does to us. You will not necessarily like this book; you may come out of it hating Collins, Katniss, Peeta, Gale, or any other of the numerous characters. But it will resonate with you, and that, combined with your hatred, will be how you know Collins succeeded in what she set out to do– her characters are human. They have human lusts, fears, weaknesses, and strengths. Their every defeat is diluted by hope, and their every victory is tainted by regret. At the end, you will be hard pressed to say who won, exactly, because each side– every individual, in fact–left so indelible a mark on the outcome that the idea of “winning” seems nothing more than a nostalgic fantasy from before everything was set in motion.


Abbreviated Review: Permanent Obscurity (Perez)

August 4, 2010

*ARC Alert*

Permanent Obscurity: Or, a Cautionary Tale of Two Girls and Their Misadventures with Drugs, Pornography, and Death by Richard Perez was released on April 1st, 2010 by Ludlow Press (Trade Paperback, $15.95, 464 pages; also available in Kindle format).

Dolores and Serena are two best friends living a life of drugs and art in New York City, dealing with boyfriends and trying to make ends meet. This gets harder and harder as the girls discover that they’re heavily in debt to a lot of people, some of them threatening. Then Serena hits on the perfect plan: they plan to take back control of their lives– and their wallets– by making a femdom/fetish film. This is not an erotica, despite what the cover and the premise might say. There is sex, BDSM, some homosexual activity, all sorts of stuff, but none of that is the point of the book. Just so everyone is forewarned.

I enjoyed the premise of this book, and the dynamic between Dolores and Serena, but felt that it took too long to hit its stride. The first 350 pages were basically rising action which could have been halved in length and would have then served the plot better. After that point Perez picked up speed and ratcheted the tension up quickly. From there it almost went too quickly, so a shift of length might have been in order there, to make it more balanced. Other than that, no complaints. Three stars.

This book contains explicit sexual content.


Abbreviated Review: Hailey’s War (Compton)

July 27, 2010

Because of the largish nature of my current to-review list, I’ve decided to do abbreviated reviews until I get things back under control. Each one will include a teaser and a star rating. I’m terribly sorry to you readers and to the authors who worked so hard on these, to not do the books justice, but regular reviews will return once my workload is down some. Thank you for your patience.

*ARC Alert*

Hailey’s War by Jodi Compton was released on June 15th, 2010 by the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House (Hardcover, $22.99, 336 pages; also available as a Kindle edition and in various audio formats).

Hailey Cain is a 24 year-old West Point dropout with a past she doesn’t talk about and no future. She lives in San Francisco, earns her living as a bike messenger, and makes a hobby of discouraging people from jumping off of the Golden Gate Bridge. She has only two people that she is close to– her successful music-producer cousin CJ and her friend Serena, leader of an all-female gang in L.A. It is when Serena calls asking for a favor that everything in Hailey’s small, precariously built life comes tumbling down.

It doesn’t seem like a terribly big deal. A cousin of one of Serena’s girls needs an escort across the border into Mexico so that she can take care of a sick grandmother. Hailey starts to suspect that maybe there’s more to the story when they’re caught by a bunch of thugs out on the Mexican highway, she’s shot and left for dead, and the cousin is kidnapped. So begins Hailey’s personal mission against a powerful enemy that she knows nothing about, a war which will draw her into complex web of choices about loyalty, self-preservation, courage, and her own past.

Four stars.


Book Review: Infinite Days (Maizel)

July 22, 2010

*ARC alert*

Infinite Days by Rebecca Maizel will be released on August 3rd, 2010 by St. Martin’s Griffin (Trade Paperback, $9.99, 320 pages). It is the first in the Vampire Queen series and Maizel’s debut novel.

Like the “dog books” from my previous post, “dark” teen dramaromances have a certain formula– an awesomely hot and probably well-off teen girl, attending high school and possibly haunted by her dark past, falls for the hottest, most elite guy at school. He reciprocates. At least one of them is a vampire/faery/something hot and supernatural. The by now well-established minigenre includes books which I actually enjoyed, like Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely, and a lot that I didn’t, e.g. the Twilight series and Alyson Noel’s Evermore. Infinite Days, admittedly, falls under that category and shares some of its flaws.

On the other hand, its premise is completely original and quite interesting– after 500-odd years of terrorizing the general populace, Lenah Beaudonte decides that vampirism holds only illusive charms and seeks a way to regain her humanity. After a hundred years of hibernation and a ritual that involved the self-sacrifice of her best friend and lover, she wakes up in the year 2010 and finds herself needing to learn how to be human again in a new and confusing century.

Lenah herself makes for a strong and often funny voice that I was able to connect with emotionally. Though she seemed at times to be a bit too capable, I surprised myself by liking her– she didn’t take the angsty, desperate tone of so many dramaromance “heroines,” and I’m willing to believe that a 592-year old can handle a lot. Her story, too, was well-though out and engaging, though it dragged the tiniest bit toward the end of part one. Overall, I loved her discovery of day-to-day existence and the backdrop of flashbacks to vampire life and lore that she contrasted it with.

I did suffer from some Pretty in Pink syndrome with this, though. You know, where by the end of the movie everyone in the room is going “No, Andie! You have to choose Ducky!” I found myself biased against Lenah’s love interest, Justin, perhaps because he was the Edward of this story (in role only, thank the gods). Personally I liked Lenah’s friend Tony a lot more, but I can’t complain too much since Maizel did give sufficient support for the romance and lack of it, respectively, and didn’t try to run with it too badly.

And as my final point, I want to say that this read like the first novel it is. I don’t mean that in a bad way; Maizel is obviously worthy of having been published and will no doubt have several more books ahead of her. What I mean to say is that you can tell just by reading it that this is her breakout book; the ideas are fresh and vibrant, but the prose is somewhat rough, even choppy in places. I have every faith that she will improve with practice.

So. Go ahead and pick this one up for its original take on the vampire mythos and likable main character, but be ready to accept that it’s a long read for its 320 pages, and that it does contain elements of established stereotype in the romance aspect of the plot. I would nevertheless recommend it to fans of the genre and perhaps those looking for a good book to introduce them to dark teen dramaromance hibbijabba (a genre that really needs a better name than I am providing).


Book Review: A Dog’s Purpose (Cameron)

June 22, 2010

*ARC Alert*

A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron will be released on July 6th, 2010 by Forge Books (Hardcover, $22.99, 320 pages).

Ever since around the time Marley & Me came out, the “dog book” has been a strong genre. Mostly they’re memoirs, but the occasional novel, like this one, fit into the group by following the formula, which parallels actual dog ownership– laughter and love, ended by heartbreak. A Dog’s Purpose takes this journey across multiple lifetimes with the dog who is first Toby, then reincarnated as Bailey (the name I’ll use for this review), Ellie and Buddy. Each time he finds purpose and meaning by linking his life to humans, and each time he dies thinking that his journey has ended and his duty fulfilled, only to discover himself born again in search of an even higher calling.

The best, most pervasive part of this book was how absolutely dog the narration was. Of course, we can’t know what goes on inside our furry friends’ heads for sure, but as of the first chapter of this book, I imagine it to be exactly as Cameron paints it. (I’ve found that it benefits my puppy as well– instead of being angry when she gets into the garbage, I laugh at her imagined confusion in response to my reprimand. “The girl is obviously confused. How can it be a bad dog idea to eat out of the can? Does she know that there’s chicken in the can?”) Bailey is full of such doggy wit and wisdom in all of his incarnations. In fact, the only thing that matches his humour is his heart– just like any good dog.

As necessitated by the “dog book” genre, I cried a few times in the middle and definitely at the end. However, mostly I laughed, and laughed often and out loud. When I was finished I handed it off to my mother, who enjoys such books, and she had pretty much the same reaction. I would recommend this to anyone who loves dogs, or humour, or stories about life, or humourous stories about dogs’ lives. I think Kirkus Reviews put it best when they described it as “Marley & Me combined with Tuesdays With Morrie“. Truly, a touching tale.