Monday, May 30, 2011

You will drink the blood of the world and fill me up

The Passage by Justin Cronin (2010)

Deep in the jungle of Bolivia scientists discover a virus that kicks a person’s thymus gland into overdrive, increasing their immunity and their lifespan. In secret government experiments, death row inmates are transformed into powerful creatures that the military hopes to use as weapons. Of course they turn out to be stronger and more powerful than anyone thought, escaping the military lab and decimating the American population.

The final subject of the experiment hadn’t been a death-row inmate at all, but an abandoned little girl named Amy. There is something very unusual about her to begin with, and it she is affected differently by the virus. It soon becomes clear that she will play an important role in saving what is left of civilization.

After the world changed, we skip forward to the year 92 A.V. and visit the Colony, a settlement in California where fear of virals has become a way of life. The walled town uses sentries and constant light to keep virals away, but their batteries will not last much longer and when the lights go out they are doomed. When one of the residents detects a far away radio signal, a group sets out for Colorado in hopes of finding help.

Because of the isolation in this new world, each settlement is like a separate culture. Every time the book shifts to another time or place, the reader’s worldview shifts with it. Rounding out the story are excerpts from documents such as evacuation orders, newspaper stories, and journal entries presented at the Third Global Conference on the North American Quarantine Period, held in 1003 A.V. Intriguing!

The Passage is a daunting tome of a book - the ebook version is 836 pages but unlike many lengthy books, it’s not because it is poorly edited. It’s well-crafted and polished, but simply a huge, epic story that could have easily been split into more than one book. Upon finishing I felt exhausted and drained, as though I experienced everything the characters did. It was a long journey fraught with hardship and peril, and I narrowly escaped with my life. Yes, it was that good! I felt propelled by this riveting story and completely caught up in the world Cronin has created. Many characters entered and exited the story, but he fleshed them out well enough for the reader to not only keep track of them, but care about them. The lengthy apocalyptic nature of the book and the many mysteries and side stories remind me of a combination of The Stand and Lost. You can’t get much better than that.

Book two, The Twelve, is due out in 2012. In this interview Cronin talks about it a bit and says the twelve are not who we think they are. I’m very much looking forward to continuing this adventure but I’m glad it won’t be right away. It may take me a full year to recover enough from my arduous journey to be able to start another book like this.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Something Blue

Something Blue by Emily Giffin (2005)

(Spoiler alert! If you haven’t read Something Borrowed or seen the movie I am about to give away the ending!)

There may be nothing more satisfying than watching a shallow, self-centered, stuck-up woman get her comeuppance. We last left Emily Giffin’s cast of characters sorting out a love triangle that did not end well for Darcy Rhone. She found her fiance in his underwear in her best friend Rachel’s closet and, needless to say, the wedding was off.

Something Blue picks up soon after, with Darcy feeling as if everyone in her life has conspired to betray her. Never mind that Darcy was also cheating on Dex with his friend Marcus – that is obviously completely different! Having lost both her fiance and best friend, Darcy tries to move on making the most of her obviously doomed relationship with Marcus, at which point she accidentally gets pregnant.

Darcy has always had everything, and now she can’t even keep a guy she thought was beneath her, and she was pregnant to boot. The logical thing to do in this situation is of course to move to London without a work visa or viable plan, and stay with a friend who really doesn’t want her there. Darcy and Rachel’s mutual friend Ethan is a struggling writer living in a small flat in London, and clearly has little patience for Darcy’s drama and frivolity but grudgingly lets her come stay with him, and this is where the story really takes off.

Darcy is still shallow, self-centered and snobby (and the narrator in the audio version also made her sound whiny) and this book put me in the strange position of being inside the head of someone whose misery I was glad for. Darcy is incredibly demanding and annoying and deserved every bad thing that happened to her.

But it’s not quite that simple, thank goodness. As things go from bad to worse Darcy finally gets a wake-up call and realizes she needs to make some significant changes in her life if she doesn’t want to lose every friend she has, and she becomes much more tolerable from here on out.

For a new mother-to-be, Darcy spent remarkably little time thinking about her pregnancy and planning for motherhood, and a whole lot of time shopping and thinking about snagging her next boyfriend. But it is chick lit after all, and we are obliged to have some fun and shirk our responsibilities. Although it was a little too easy for Darcy to suddenly grow a conscience and turn her life around, I was relieved when she became a more sympathetic character. This isn’t a book to put much thought into since it just doesn’t go very deep, but it’s enjoyable for its surface appeal. I’ll probably grab another of Emily Giffin’s novels the next time I’m looking for an audiobook.

Monday, May 23, 2011

You are my sunshine

Behold! A miracle has occurred!

No, I was not whisked away to heaven during the weekend’s scheduled rapture. But I did finish my Whisper Cardigan Saturday night, which was almost as impressive and surprising as judgment day would have been.

Pattern: Whisper Cardigan by Hannah Fettig from Interweave Knits Spring 2009
Yarn: Malabrigo Lace in Rhodesian
Needles: US 6 and US 3

Can I tell you how much I love this yarn? I love the color, I love the softness, I love everything about it. Had the sweater come out terribly I wouldn’t even have cared because then I would have had the pleasure of knitting something else with it.

This project was fraught with uncertainty. The pattern sizing was sketchy at best and I didn’t know until I finished the whole top portion whether or not it would fit. But I tried it on and it fit perfectly. Then came the small matter of picking up about a zillion stitches. Barely pulling through that ordeal, I began knitting downward, increasing on each side to create the little flaps on the front, which I feared that I’d find annoying. I was also concerned that the sweater would keep my shoulders too warm while leaving the front of my body chilly. But I wore it all day today and noticed only how luxurious it felt, and how much I enjoyed the burst of sunshiny color every time I passed a mirror. And after this many gray and rainy days I will take sunshine in any form.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Sisters, sisters, there were never such devoted sisters...

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell (2006)

Imagine a world in which a young woman could be put into psychiatric care because she enjoyed taking walks alone or because she eloped or because she liked sex. That world existed, and not so long ago, and it was in that time that Kitty and Esme Lennox were growing up. Though raised in India, after a tragedy befell the family the girls were brought back to England. Kitty had no problem conforming to English society, and was just as eager as her parents at the prospect of being married off to a suitable young man. But not Esme. She is solitary, temperamental, dreamy, and doesn’t want to be told what to do. None of which are favorable qualities in a young lady at that time.

Fast forward 60+ years and meet young Iris Lockhart. The owner of a vintage shop, her only family her step-brother Alex, she is self-sufficient and independent, though her personal life is a bit of a mess what with her involvement with a married man. Out of the blue one day she receives a call from a psychiatric hospital which is closing down, telling her that, as next of kin, she is responsible for Euphemia Esme Lennox, a resident now for sixty-one years. Thing is, Iris’s grandmother Kitty (now in a nursing home) always said she was an only child. Iris will soon discover that this is just the beginning of a whole web of secrets in her family history.

O’Farrell has spun a fascinating tale of sibling relationships, carrying us back and forth in time between the present day sisters and the young women they once were before Esme’s incarceration. Her writing is clean and simple, and a little bit ethereal. Esme, while arguably not crazy, has an imagination and after some of the things she has been through her thoughts are scattered. Kitty has Alzheimer’s and the passages written from her perspective jump from thought to unfinished thought, yet the story is remarkably easy to follow.

At about 250 pages, it was a surprisingly quick read. Although Kitty and Esme’s story is the central one, I found Iris and Alex’s relationship equally compelling. It was complex and unresolved, and I was left wanting more. Haunting and a little bit eerie, this is a novel I won’t soon forget.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Silly title, but a good book

The Sins of the Wolf by Anne Perry (1994)

Hester Latterly is between jobs and sees an ad in the paper looking for a nurse to accompany an elderly lady as she travels from Edinburgh to London. Having never been to Scotland, Hester thinks this would be a lovely way to spend the time before her next job starts. Little did she know that the poor woman would die in her charge and Hester would be charged with murder! Thrown into jail, she can only sit helplessly by as her friends William Monk and Oliver Rathbone try to find information to exonerate her and find the real culprit.

I’ve been listening to this series on audio off and on for a few years. These older titles appear to no longer be available to download or on CD so I was stuck lugging around a hardcover copy. It’s worth it though. I love these Victorian mysteries with all their society scandals and strange (to me) customs of that time and place. Because I don’t generally read mysteries I can’t compare these, but to me they are complex and unpredictable.

I really like Hester Latterly – she is not from wealth, but she’s respectable, smart, and tenacious. I imagine that she is a plain woman, and I know she cares little for looks. She is down to earth enough to imagine she may end up single her whole life because so many men are put off by her intelligence and independence. But she would rather be true to herself than be frivolous in order to live a conventional life and fit in with society. When she was working as a nurse during the Crimean War she saw horrors enough to ensure she’d never be a shallow society lady even if she wanted to.

This series is great for wintery or rainy-day reading. Curled up with an afghan and some tea, this is the perfect engrossing read for a cozy afternoon.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

I'm the pickle on your Big Mac

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King (2010)

We meet Vera Dietz at her best friend Charlie’s funeral. At least they were best friends until a few months earlier when Charlie began hanging out with a new crowd, a crowd decidedly unfriendly to Vera. Things between them steadily grew worse, and then suddenly, unexpectedly, Charlie was dead. Now Vera spends her days trying to finish high school and her evenings working at the Pizza Pagoda, picking up more and more hours in an effort to fill her time and avoid dealing with what has happened. But Vera is haunted by thoughts of Charlie and the awful things he has been blamed for, by the memories of the violence in his household when they were growing up, and by the secrets he was hiding as their friendship started to fall apart.

Moving back and forth between current day and when Charlie was still alive, we can follow their friendship from its highest point to the end as Vera reflects on the past. Included are chapters from the point of view of Vera’s dad (complete with flow charts!), of “the dead kid,” even from the pagoda, a town landmark. (I do like when authors infuse life into inanimate objects to get a point across.) Lest you forget she’s still in high school, Vera infuses her weekly vocabulary words into her narrative: “Here’s me using parsimonious in a sentence…” It’s great fun to read.

And yet, it’s a dark novel with powerful and disturbing themes. Vera Dietz confronts abuse and the blindness we so often have to others’ pain, and addresses our responsibility to step in and help other people - even those who have betrayed us - as well as our guilt when we do not do so. On the surface there is some fun stuff like romance and Vera’s witty observations about her job and the world in general, but the undercurrent is sinister.

I hesitate to compare it to one of my favorite books of all time, but this novel reminded me a little of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. They’re both definitely for the older YA crowd, containing some pretty upsetting things which are slowly revealed throughout the book. The writing style is different but the feelings I had about the themes and characters are so similar. This is a book I’ll be thinking about for a while.

Be sure to check out FYA’s review too, as well as this post which includes a video in which A.S. King discusses Vera, shows us the pagoda, and expresses strong feelings about organic lettuce. Then go read the book!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Zeitoun : a review

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (2009)

Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun knew that hurricane Katrina was coming. Unwilling to leave all their contracting jobs and rental buildings, Abdulrahman (known simply as Zeitoun) decided to stay behind in the city while his wife fled with the kids. After the storm, Zeitoun traveled around his New Orleans neighborhood in his second-hand canoe, helping neighbors, distributing water, and feeding abandoned pets. Using the one working phone in the neighborhood, Zeitoun and Kathy spoke daily. One day Zeitoun was picked up by a group of armed men and thrown into a makeshift outdoor prison, entering a nightmare of bureaucracy and injustice.

What was at first just an interesting story became almost surreal, and I had to remind myself that this was happening in the United States. Of course I heard a lot about mismanagement after Katrina what with the miserable conditions and looting and whatnot, but I hadn’t really heard about such flagrant civil rights abuses as this. And this is just one story.

The Zeitoun family were interesting in and of themselves. Abdulrahman grew up in Syria, and Kathy was from Louisiana and had been a relatively devout Christian before converting to Islam when she was in her early 20s. Already divorced and with a child, she met Abdulrahman through friends and after marrying they built and ran a successful business together. A Muslim couple living in Louisiana post-911 is bound to face prejudice and they did, not the least of which was from Kathy’s family.

Although it is non-fiction, the book reads like a novel with background fleshing out the story in all the right places, and intimate glimpses into Zeitoun’s thoughts and memories. Eggers conducted extensive interviews, even talking to the people involved in Zeitoun’s arrest and incarceration. The result flows seamlessly, sweeping the reader along on a captivating and unforgettable ride.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Becoming a Life Change Artist : a review

Becoming a Life Change Artist : 7 creative skills to reinvent yourself at any stage of life by Fred Mandell and Kathleen Jordan (2010)

The basic premise of this book is that there are certain skills necessary to make successful life changes and they are the same skills used by the great artists in their processes of creating art. Just as the great artists had to learn those skills, so too can we learn them. We are all artists facing the canvas of a fresh day and need to call on our creativity to solve our problems.

The authors first lay out the process of life change: identifying your creative dilemma, exploration, discovery, and integrating what you have learned into your life. Then they introduce the seven skills needed in order to navigate that process, and devote a chapter to each one. The skills are: preparation, seeing, using context, embracing uncertainty, risk taking, collaboration and discipline. For each skill chapter, they talk a little about the particular skill, share a story of how one or two artists used that skill in their work, and then examples illustrating how regular people have used that skill in making life changes. Each chapter ends with exercises to help develop that skill, which in most case consist of questions for reflection.

Although the introduction talks about being in the “third age” of life, it is clearly useful to people at any stage. In fact, rather than being a guide for people going through major life changes, I think it is helpful simply for life management. These skills and qualities would be helpful for anyone, going through changes or not.

What I most appreciated is that unlike many books in this genre, this one did not try to be spiritual and New Age-y. There was no jargon, no unnecessary capitalization of common nouns (i.e. “Get ready for your Life Journey!” etc) or any other typical quirks that result in lots of eye rolling on my part. I really enjoyed the stories about artists, their lives and circumstances, and how their art changed over time. These stories added a dimension that most books of this sort do not have.

I would potentially read this again, or at least parts of it, and I’m glad I read it in paper format. There are a lot of pictures (though black and white) and for some reason I really liked the tactile experience of it - it was exactly the right weight and flexibility and texture. But of course the information would be just as good electronically.

I hadn’t heard of this book until I saw a friend post it on goodreads, so thanks to Ingrid for the suggestion!