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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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: It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Authors Famous &Obscure (SMITH Magazine)

February 19, 2010

So Harper Collins sent me a free uncorrected proof/advance-copy-that-wasn’t-an-advance-copy-because-this-book-came-out-in-January a few weeks ago, and I read it, and now I’m reviewing it because I can only assume that that’s what they wanted. A hearty thank-you to you, Harper Collins; I’m a big fan of the six-word memoir books. I have no idea why you sent me this, since it’s doubtful that you mistook me for a high-profile book reviewer. But thanks.

But anyway, the book. It’s fantastic. I bought myself a copy of the first one, Not Quite What I Was Planning, after hearing about it online, and loved it, then took it around and showed it to everyone I knew, then took it around again and annoyed them all with how much I loved it. But the first time they loved it, too.

The premise of the books is obviously to write your own life story in just six words (see more here), a practice inspired by a famous legend about Ernest Hemingway. He was challenged, it’s said, to write a novel in six words. His response? “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Also according to the legend, he once called it his best work. It certainly hit me harder than The Old Man and the Sea.

The best thing about these books, though (there are currently four of them out) is that the writers actually are “famous & obscure.” In It All Changed in an Instant, you’ll see memoirs attributed to Somebodies likeĀ  Michael Moore and Isabel Allende right next to ones by people you’ve never heard of. Even better than the best part, these people-you-have-never-heard-of write the best ones! Anyone, literally anyone, can submit a memoir to SMITH for consideration. I myself have done a few. Just head on over to the link I supplied above and give it a go. As The New Yorker said in their six-word review, “You could spend a lifetime brainstorming.” Five stars.

P.S.- it is my advice to take these a few at a time for best effect. After a while, as with all little-this-and-that books, they tend to blend together if you read too many. And seriously, take your copy around and share it. People will love you more.

EDIT: Mystery solved. LibraryThing sent it as a part of the early reviewer program that I signed up for. I was merely confused because right there on my homepage, it said I hadn’t received any books from them yet. If you click on that, though, you can see that by “no books” they mean “this book.” Oh, LibraryThing. Love ya.