Wednesday, March 25, 2015

All the Truth That's In Me

All the Truth That's in Me by Julie Berry (2013)

Judith and her best friend both disappeared from their small town of Roswell Station four years ago. Two years later, Judith returned alone, with her tongue cut out. Treated as an outcast, she has tried to keep to herself, while secretly longing for the boy she has always loved. When the town is attacked she helps in the only way she knows how, and now there are even more questions about her disappearance.

Despite the cover and how the description sounds, this is not a contemporary crime novel. The community in which Judith lives seems to be Puritan, complete with stockades in the village square. The people who attacked them are described as "homelanders" - the English? It is all a bit unclear, which only adds to the mystery.

Written in second person, Judith is speaking the entire time to Lucas, a boy she has been close friends with since they were little, and who she feels more for now that they are older. Of course, now that she is mutilated and it's taken for granted that she has been defiled, he is unlikely to care for her. (And if you think Lucas is that insensitive, you haven't read very many books.) Second person should be awkward, but here it's not. In fact, the writing style is quite sophisticated and the story well-crafted.

Judith was a compelling character, one I rooted for. She was treated so unfairly by her mother, who seemed to blame Judith for what happened to her but should have been protective of her and glad to finally have her home. The rest of the town seemed to either be suspicious of her, or want to take advantage of her inability to speak. She did find one friend who encouraged her to come out of her shell, and her brother Darrel was also on her side. I loved this mixture of enemies and allies, and the tension it created.

There aren't enough books that take place in colonial America, and this one was incredibly unusual. Judith was an uncommon character, and everything about her story was unfamiliar and maybe even a little disorienting. But once all is revealed, it was very satisfying. It was also impossible to put down. I think this considered young adult, but I'd put it firmly in the crossover category. People who don't read young adult would still like it, and might even be surprised if you told them it is YA, but teens would also find it gripping. Highly recommended!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Funeral in Blue

Funeral in Blue by Anne Perry (2001), narrated by David Colacci

When two very different women are murdered together in an artist's studio, the case takes Hester and William Monk to gambling halls and the streets of Vienna. They delve into the personal lives of people close to them, and research the Vienna Uprising in 1848. One of the victims was the wife of Christian Beck, a doctor in a hospital where Hester has worked, making the case very close to the Monks and their friends.

I think most of the audiobooks in this series are narrated by a woman so I did not have high hopes for this male narrator, but I was pleasantly surprised. The book itself, however, left a lot to be desired.

The way the stories usually go, Monk and Hester start out thinking the case is about one thing, but when they follow the trail it leads them to something else entirely. But with this one, it turned out not to have anything to do with anything they had been investigating and was basically all a misunderstanding. So, not very satisfying.

I've also gotten over the whole crazy introspection/mind-reading thing. Hester and Monk are constantly extrapolating a ton of information based on looking in someone's eyes. This is not limited to this series, of course, but is quite prevalent and I find it ridiculous. You simply can't glean more than someone's general mood from looking in their eyes or observing their expression, you just can't. This is something I'm willing to overlook if the story is better, but in this case I couldn't.

In general, this is a pretty good series and I'm a little surprised to see that I've already read twelve of them. I was considering stopping after this disappointing one, but then I read the description of the next book and it sounds more appealing, particularly since there is progress in the overarching story of William Monk's memory loss. So perhaps I'll continue on to the next book one day.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

It Will End with Us

It Will End with Us by Sam Savage (2014)

I read the newest Sam Savage book unexpectedly last weekend as a means of procrastinating from a novel I was struggling with, and what a nice little side trip it turned out to be.

Like his other novels it's super short, just 150 sparsely-worded pages. And like his other novels, it's packed with emotion and atmosphere. At the heart of this story is Eve, an older woman recalling her childhood in South Carolina, especially her relationship with her mother. Currently, Eve is being cared for - perhaps in a nursing home or similar place - and it's clear that she is in decline. She moves back and forth from ruminating on her missing hairbrush to thinking about her mother's failed efforts at writing.

There's no plot, just meandering thoughts expressed in short paragraphs, some of which are sort of truncated sentences, like "The time I put Thornton's paper dolls in the fire, after he wouldn't talk to me at school." It can jump around a bit too, one paragraph not necessarily leading to the next, but it's never confusing or jarring. It's just like a wandering mind.

There were some sad moments that have stuck with me. Eve and her mother both loved the arts, but couldn't quite grasp them. When Eve was young her mother spent a great deal of her time writing, and Eve remembers the moment when she realized that her mother was a failure as a poet, that what she wrote wasn't actually literature. Eve also points out at the beginning that she has never seen a famous painting, and then later tells about a time when she tried to visit a museum and was denied admittance:

"I remember that I cried when we found out the museum was closed to the public, sensing, I suppose, even then, that I was never going to see an actual painting by anyone famous."

I bought It Will End with Us a couple of months ago and was just waiting for a day at home alone to read it all in one sitting, but that's not what happened. Instead I picked it up impulsively at a time when it was exactly the one thing I wanted to read. I was worried because I've liked all of his books so much I'm always afraid the next one will be the bad one, and I was even a little unenthused for a while reading this, but once I became immersed in Eve's internal world I liked it much more. It's not my favorite, but it's still very good. His books are totally character-driven and Eve is probably his most realistic character and I think this is the least humorous story. I'm pretty sure I said the same thing about his last book, The Way of the Dog, but it was true about that one, and now it's even more true about this one.

I don't know what it is about Savage's work that speaks to me so much. His books don't have very high ratings on Goodreads and it doesn't even bother me. If I see a low rating from some other reader, I just think "Eh, it's not for you." I wouldn't care if noone else in the world liked his books, and I wouldn't try to convince them. He could just send me his manuscripts written in longhand for all I care, and I'd be glad to read them. He published his first novel when he was 65 and I hope he'll be around long enough to write a bunch more, but on the other hand I find his work so re-readable I could be content forever with what I have now.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Top Ten Books On My Spring TBR List

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted over at The Broke and the Bookish.

Here are my top TBR choices for this spring (subject to change at any moment based on my whims):

1. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I've been wanting to read this for months, and my book group picked it, so it's a definite!

2. The Bees by Laline Paull. I've heard outstanding reviews of this one and, though I'm terrified of bees, I've added it to my list. The audio is supposed to be great and it's read by one of my favorite narrators, Orlagh Cassidy, so I might download it quite soon.

3. Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. I've waited too long to read this - in fact, it's on my list for my TBR Pile Challenge. I finally watched the movie version of Horns recently, and it has rekindled my love for Joe Hill (and Daniel Radcliffe, but that's another story.)

4. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. Also for the TBR Pile Challenge, and also a book I've heard rave reviews about. I'm trying to read one long book a month from my challenge list until I've conquered them all, leaving me free to zip through the short ones for the rest of the year, and this will be the last chunkster from that list.

5. A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev. An unconventional romance that I keep hearing good things about.

6. West of Sunset by Stewart O'Nan. New Stewart O'Nan! About F. Scott Fitzgerald! Why didn't I read this the moment it came out?

7. Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev. I'm going to Russia on vacation in June and I'm hoping to read this before I go.

8. The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks. This much-anticipated (at least by me) story about a teenager who is kidnapped and held captive was finally just published and I'm anxious to finally read it!

9. Faithful Place by Tana French. Or something else by Tana French, anything. I read The Likeness recently and now I need more.

10. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. I've been wanting to read it for a while. It's about a young woman in Haiti who is kidnapped, and just sounds very different from other novels out there. Plus, Roxane Gay is awesome.

What's on your list to read this spring?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sunday Knitting

I started a pair of socks back October and now that I've finished, I realized I haven't even shown you a progress shot since the very beginning. Well, five months later I have a new pair of socks!

It is very difficult to photograph one's own feet.
To be fair, I could have finished them ages ago, but kept setting them aside to wait for a knitting group night because I didn't have another portable project that was easy enough to work on while socializing. Eventually, I said to hell with it and just finished them.

They're pretty snazzy, if I do say so myself.
The pattern is Pharoah's Check from Sensational Knitted Socks. I've been wanting to do one of these mosaic-style colorwork patterns for a while. In fact, I've done very little colorwork which brings me to the weird striping thing on the toes. We need to talk about this.

Do you see how the stripes on the right foot suddenly look more black as we get closer to the toe? There's a definite line of demarcation where the black somehow suddenly pops out.

This has to do with how you hold the two colors of yarn, and which one you bring over/under the other one when you switch. One is always more dominant and you need to make sure it stays consistent. Because I haven't done much colorwork I wasn't really paying attention, although it is something I vaguely know about. I was aware, as I was knitting, that I wasn't consistent, and I knew it would make a difference. But honestly, they're socks, and I don't care a whole lot. It didn't seem worth the trouble of trying to keep track of which color I was bringing over or under which color each time I switched. I don't know if there's a trick to keeping track, and if it applies to all colorwork or just vertical stripes, but I'll certainly figure it out if I plan to do a pattern like this for a hat or a sweater. 

All in all, I think these came out pretty nice. They fit and feel good, and I'm sure I'll get a lot of use out of them.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Chocolate War

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier (1974)

It's time for the annual chocolate sale at Trinity, an all-boys high school run partly by some ill-equipped and slightly sinister Brothers and partly by a not-so-secret society of students called the Vigils. This year Brother Leon stupidly bought twice as many chocolates for the sale and is now asking the students to sell them for $2 a box instead of $1. So, the Vigils are always setting up stunts by bullying unwitting kids into doing their bidding, and this time they pick on Jerry Renault and tell him to refuse to sell the chocolates for a certain number of days. Then he is supposed to start selling like everybody else, but he doesn't. He continues to refuse until the Brothers and the Vigils are both after him.

For Jerry Renault, I think there was supposed to be some connection between his mother's death and his refusal to sell the chocolates, but honestly I had no idea what the connection was. It was more like he was told to refuse to tell them, and then told to start, but he impulsively refused to sell for reasons he was unsure of himself, and then he felt like he had to stick with it because he was committed to the bit.

I didn't feel like the characters had real personalities. The Brothers were all a bit sinister and the boys all masturbated a lot. The end. Jerry was the most developed character and I still didn't get enough to really feel much for him or his situation. I don't know what he was thinking when he did the things he did. Told in third person and although we got some thoughts from the several of the characters, it still felt a bit distant somehow.

Mostly, the story was about bullying. I did not like these boys, or their teachers, but I was sympathetic to the victims of the teenage power struggle that was going on. I kind of liked the idea of the story and it wasn't bad, it just wasn't especially good. It certainly doesn't hold a candle to the best bullying book out there, Stephen King's Carrie.

The Chocolate War is kind of a classic of teen lit, being one of the few YA novels written back in the 70s. I just don't have a whole lot to say about it, and my struggle to come up with something has made me feel a bit more negative about it than I did when I was reading it. I gave it three stars on Goodreads, which means I liked it but didn't love it.

I have a vivid memory of another Robert Cormier book that I read, maybe more than once, back when I was a teenager and I feel like I have to mention it. It was called After the First Death, and it's about a group of terrorists who take a bus of kids captive and start killing them. It is way more exciting than a bunch of boys being mean to each other at school. I still remember the silver cover on my school library's copy. I wonder now if it's as good as I remember it, or if it was just good compared to all the other crappy books I was reading at the time?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Being Mortal

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (2014)

I haven't read anything by Atul Gawande since his first book, Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science, which I loved. His newest takes on the end of our lives, something I've been thinking about a lot lately (see: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes) so I was eager for this book. It did not disappoint.

Gawande discusses various options for end of life care, including assisted living, nursing homes, and hospice, and a bit about the history of each of them and how we went from taking care of our sick and elderly at home to our current system. We all know how much people resist leaving their homes to go to nursing homes, or even assisted living, but here he gets into why that is - it seems obvious, but it's actually complicated and breaking it down can help inform ways to make nursing homes better places. Of course he talks about the role of medicine in extending our lives - though often not the quality - and how terrible medical personnel are at having conversations about health care and end of life issues.

Some of this I knew first hand, which I suppose is one of the reasons I was so interested in this book. A couple of years ago, my mother died after an illness and I recognized so many things Gawande discusses in the book from that experience. For instance, aging (or illness) isn't just a steady decline, but a series of setbacks that are each treated as they come along, offering temporary relief until the next one occurs. It's very up-and-down, even though the trajectory is, overall, a downward one. I also recognized the way medical staff tend to treat these particular conditions, but seem to forget the person in front of them, and even the larger context of the person's overall illness and decline. When they talk, it sounds more like a medical lecture than a conversation with a person who is ill. A family member would always try to be with my mother when things were explained to her, but even though most of my family work in hospitals or elder care, even they would be confused. In fact, when Gawande's own father was dying, his family were subject to one of these conversations. He says "The discussion became difficult for me or my parents to follow, despite all three of us being doctors." Now imagine being alone with the doctor having this conversation, especially if you are extremely ill. How is anyone to understand what is going on? And how can you then make difficult, life-or-death decisions?

The conversations should follow a different path, Gawande says, one that makes more sense to the patient and gets at the fundamental truths needed. Doctors should ask their patients what their goals are, how much they are willing to endure, and what trade-offs they are willing to make. In one example, a man faced with possible death or paralysis says that as long as he can watch football and eat chocolate ice cream, then he is ok with surgical risks. Others may only want to live if they can still walk. By having this conversation up front, the smaller and more specific decisions that will come up later will already have been made. This also requires an honesty that many doctors aren't willing to employ, as relentlessly optimistic as some of them are determined to be.

Gawande says that doctors have been mistaken that their job is all about ensuring health and survival, and that in fact it should be about well-being, and that means a focus on our reasons for being alive. He talks a lot about the loss of independence many experience when they are elderly, because nursing homes are so hyper-focused on health and safety with no regard for the larger picture. Patients are put on strict schedules, carefully monitored diets, and made to stay in wheelchairs so they don't fall and get hurt. I think any normal adult would resent being infantilized this way and I know that I, for one, intend to eat and drink whatever the hell I want when I'm old. If there's any time in our lives when we should be able to have a chocolate cake and a cocktail for dinner, it's when we don't have much time left. Shouldn't that time be filled with the things we enjoy? Shouldn't we walk while we still can, rather than sitting and letting our muscles atrophy? To hell with safety. Life isn't safe.

But Gawande offers hope in his examples of facilities that have been dedicated to helping residents retain independence and dignity. These places try to be like home, with plants, pets, and onsite daycares so residents can interact with children. Some have locks on doors to retain privacy, and no rules about, say, drinking alcohol or having overnight romantic guests. I cannot think of a more ideal place to finish living than one that doesn't require trading off all the pleasures in life in order to get some assistance.

I could go on. There is so much in this book to think about and discuss, and it's pertinent to all our lives, even if we prefer not to acknowledge it. What Gawande writes about is so important, especially as medicine advances and we live longer. It's becoming ever more crucial to examine what it means to extend our lives in terms of the quality of the time we have left. I hope many who work in health care read this book, or at least somehow adopt these ideas. I highly recommend this to anyone who may be concerned about what things will be like at the end of life, or who has the same worries about their loves ones. So basically, if you are a person, you should read this.