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Sunday, September 26, 2010

ROOM by Emma Donoghue

Published in the US by Little Brown, Sep. 2010
Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

ROOM is a novel that I would not normally have picked up.  Prior to Wednesday, I had no plans to read it.  I generally don't read books about children or animals.  But earlier this week Emma Donoghue came to the bookstore where I work and I ended up coming home with a signed copy of ROOM.  Donoghue was a delight to meet.  She's warm, funny, and completely unpretentious.

I knew the book was long-listed and then short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize, which I think is fabulous, but being up for or winning an award is not enough to propel me to read a particular book.  To be honest, I thought the premise of the book sounded a bit hokey and sensationalistic if not opportunistic.  I stand corrected.  It was nothing like I thought it would be.

Donoghue's inspiration for the book was the Elizabeth Fritzl case in Austria that broke in April 2008.  For 24 years Elizabeth Fritzl's father held her prisoner in a secret part of the family home's basement.  He physically and sexually assaulted her which resulted in seven children and one miscarriage.  Donoghue finished writing ROOM prior to the August 2009 discovery that Jaycee Lee Dugard, who had been kidnapped 18 years ago, had been held captive and sexually assaulted by Phillip Garrido and his wife Nancy Garrido in a tent behind their California home.  She had two children while in captivity.

Donoghue, the mother of two small children, wondered what it would be like to be a child who'd spent his entire life in one small room.  This inspiration and her enthusiastic discussion about her writing is what propelled me to read the book.  Her lively reading also hooked me (she read the birthday cake scene).  Donoghue is originally from Ireland and now lives in Canada.  So, due to her engaging reading from her book, while I was reading the book the voice I had in my head for the narrator sounded like Donoghue--a mature Irish woman sounding like a five year old boy.  It worked for me!

ROOM is about about five-year-old Jack who is born into a room where his mother has been held captive for seven years by a man named Old Nick.  The room is all Jack knows, he's never been outside or even seen the outside through a window.  Other than his Ma and Old Nick, who he's heard more than actually seen, Jack doesn't even know other people exist.  Five-year-old Jack is the narrator of the book.

Donoghue does such a brilliant job describing the world of Jack through his five-year-old eyes.  You also get an idea of what his Ma's life was like prior to Jack's arrival and how she's changed since.  The life that she creates for Jack is one of structure and play.  It's almost like a fantasy childhood--what small child doesn't want his mom's attention to be on himself practically every waking moment?  This young woman whose name we never learn isn't portrayed as a victim.  After reading thrillers about women who are terrorized and murdered by serial killers, it was fascinating to read a book about such a horrific situation from a radically different perspective.

If you plan on reading ROOM, do yourself a favor and don't read any reviews that contain spoilers. The book is a thrilling read.  Although the novel technically has five chapters, in my mind it has three parts.  The first part is getting used to the flow of Jack's speech, getting to know him and his Ma and the room.  The second and third parts of the book . . . well, you'll just have to read it for yourself.  If you plan to get it from the library, there may be a waiting list as it's now in its first week on The New York Times bestseller list.

As Anita Shreve wrote in a blurb on the back of the book, it's unlike anything I've ever read.

I plan to read more of Emma Donoghue's novels, starting with Slammerkin which has been on my to-be-read list for sometime now.  It was recommended to me because I love Sarah Waters's Victorian novels.

For a complete list of Donoghue's writings, visit her website here.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes
Publisher: El Leon Literary Arts
Pub date: April 2010
Source: eBook

I've been thinking about reading Matterhorn since it came out in April.  What pushed me from thinking to reading is that Karl Marlantes is coming to Chicago.  He's speaking at the Pritzker Military Museum on Thursday, April 23, at 6pm.  If you'd like to attend, click here to make a reservation and for more info.  Just like reading the book before seeing the movie, I like to read the book before seeing the author.

Matterhorn is a novel about the Vietnam War, primarily the experience of Marine Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas and the men in his unit.  Much has been made about the fact that Marlantes spent 30 years writing this novel.  It's a big book, and not just in subject matter: coming in at 690 pages it might be intimating for those who haven't read any or many war novels.  But this one is worth your time.  If you've been thinking about reading a novel about the Vietnam War--or any war--I highly recommend it.  [If you really, really don't want to commit to 690 pages, but want to read a novel about Marines in Vietnam, I highly recommend James Webb's Fields of Fire which weighs in at 360 pages.  And you should also read Webb's A Sense of Honor.  But I digress.]

Marlantes is a highly decorated Marine combat veteran who fought in Vietnam.  He earned the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for valor, two Purple Hearts, and ten air medals.  He's also a graduate of Yale University and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, which makes me think of Craig Mullaney, another Rhodes Scholar who wrote an excellent nonfiction book about his experience at West Point and leading a combat platoon in Afghanistan called The Unforgiving Minute.

At the beginning of Matterhorn, Mellas is a green second lieutenant in awe of the combat hardened veterans of his unit and embarrassed by his clean uniform and shiny black boots. There's an unforgettable leech scene that kicks off the book's action.  Leeches are everywhere in the Vietnamese jungle, but the consequences of this particular leech are life-threatening.  It doesn't take long for Mellas to become exhausted and hardened like those around him.  And in a short time, he, too, is legend to fresh green troops who later join his unit.

Marlantes describes much that you see in other war novels: lack of food and water, hours and miles of marching with heavy packs and equipment, bugs, diarrhea, ringworm, crotch rot, immersion or trench foot, malaria, and jungle rot.  He doesn't present these hardships gratuitously, but in a way that makes vivid what these men endured day in and day out in addition to fighting the enemy and carrying out the often ridiculous orders of seemingly incompetent higher ups. 

One of the things I liked about this book was how it showed a variety of types of men, particularity the new lieutenants, and how they adjust (or really don't) to life as combat leaders.  Mellas doesn't come off like a shining star in the beginning or even as someone with potential.  He's not just insecure, either.  In fact, he has moments of being a whiner and initially wants to be behind the lines, away from the action.  He's jealous of the other new lieutenant that starts with him because the other guy adjusts faster, gets along with his platoon quicker, etc.  This is what made the book and Mellas seem so real to me.  The military is a strange place and arriving at a new unit is challenging with all the names to memorize and figuring out who does what and wondering how you'll fit into the mix.  I can't imagine how heightened that confusion is during a time of war when you're also supposed to be one of the guys in charge.

Marlantes also explains or explores the racial tensions between black and white troops.  He doesn't just show the tension and quickly explain them away as spill-over from civilian society and the fight for Civil Rights and the rise of the black power movement.   Racial tensions in the military were exacerbated by rank, following orders, and the need for leadership.  The issue is deftly woven throughout the novel by characters whose experiences are revealed to the reader by the narrator or shared through dialog to help understand some of the characters.  Mellas, freshly graduated from Princeton, supports equality.  However, he has a hard time understanding and negotiating the racial tensions within the unit and figuring out how he'll manage it.  There is also an interesting struggle between two enlisted black Marines, Henry and China, who have very different philosophies of how blacks can gain equality/power.

The bad guys in the novel are Lieutenant Colonel Simpson and Major Blakely.  In every military novel I've read there is at least one officer who is clueless, power hungry, glory seeking, or insane.  Usually it's a combination of these flaws and, unfortunately, it's always the guy in charge.  Matterhorn is no exception.  Simpson is the battalion commander and Blakely is his executive officer.  They're responsible for directing the action of the companies and think that moving around in the jungle should be as quick and easy as dragging one's finger across a map.  Thanks to the modern miracle of radio communication they also micromanage the hell out of the platoons.  They don't believe their lieutenants when it comes to things like the need for food and water, the number of confirmed enemy dead and wounded, the need for medivacs, or the time it takes to hack their way through the dense jungle and up and over foothills and mountains to get from position to position.

Simpson and men like him want what they want when they want it without understanding the conditions it takes to get the job done.  But it's not like war is ever easy or without casualties and those on the ground doing the work ("kids," as they're repeatedly called) don't get to see the big picture.  What was heartbreaking and soul crushing for the grunts in Vietnam was that it wasn't even a war of real estate--they'd take a hill at great cost and then get orders to abandon it.  Vietnam was a war of attrition.  The body count was supreme.  As one of the characters says, the decision to act will be either considered a fuck up or a brilliant tactical move depending on the body count.  Of course--and this is the understatement of this post--there were also politics and bureaucracy involved.

One thing that I didn't particularly like about the novel was its representation of women.  There are two women characters in the novel and the other women--2 or 3 more?--are talked about or are in flashbacks.  Women are good when they're being soft and sexy or at least compassionate listeners or wearing skirts that hug their hips.  But if they're doing their job they're "fake men."  Granted the book is set in the late 1960s and I'm keeping that in mind.  I also served in the Marines and I'm familiar with the attitude of military dinosaurs.  And I get that Marlantes was trying to show the need for human connection, being mothered/nurtured, and the desire for live-affirming sex in a time of war.  It just would have been nice to have one women who could be professional and garner some respect without having to let down her hair and show leg.  But that's not the book that Marlantes wrote, so I'm not busting his chops.  I'm just saying. 

There are many conflicts within the novel.  Here's a quick list off the top of my head:
  • blacks v. whites
  • lifers v. draftees/one tour enlistees
  • veterans v. newbies
  • officers v. enlisted
  • grunts v. fliers
  • Marines v. Navy
  • academy grads v. ROTC grads or mustangs
  • murder v. killing
  • WWII/Korean era Marines v. current fighters

Marlantes does an excellent job of presenting the bone-numbing exhaustion, boredom, and the futility of war.  You think, who would ever want to sign up for that?  But it is the surviving and the getting through it and mainly the camaraderie that keeps kids signing up generation after generation.  And Marlantes does a smooth job of showing that camaraderie and how respect and love grows between men.  The kids always think they'll be the ones coming home with medals to tell the stories and write the books.

Overall, Matterhorn is a book that'll put you through the ringer.  I was fortunate to have some large chunks of time to read the book in a few sittings and that really made me feel like I was in it.  When I was younger such books got me pumped up about war and the military and my love-hate for the Marines.  Now they just wear me out and make me wonder if war is hardwired into humanity or if it's a social construction that humans can actually outgrow.  If you're wondering why I read the book, it's because I think it's important to read about the experiences of the warriors who fight our wars, whether or not I agree with the waging of any particular war.  It's a part of understanding American history, current events, and fellow citizens.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Publisher:  Borzoi/Knopf
Publication: March 2006
Source: Library copy.  A very torn and tattered library copy that has been read so many times that the pages now have a cloth-like softness about them.  And, thankfully, only one unidentified thing that looks like a booger squished between two pages.

This is one of the best books that I've read.  Ever.  It blew me away.  It cleansed a part of my heart and renewed a part of my spirit that I didn't know needed cleansing and renewing.  Markus Zusak is a brilliant writer with the soul of an angel.  Yes, I'm gushing.  It's a 550 page book set in Nazi Germany and narrated by Death.  Doesn't exactly sound like good times, but it really is a great read.

Zusak writes about the other side of Nazi Germany, those Germans who, as he says in a Q&A, didn't want to fly the Nazi flag and boys & girls who thought the Hitler Youth was boring and ridiculous.  In other words, the side of German life that "lives beneath the propaganda reels that are still so effective decades later."   Zusak shows the fine line people had to walk when they weren't interested in following the party's increasingly intolerant ideology.  He does it without being heavy handed or preachy.

It took me a dozen or so pages to get into the flow of the book.  It's a bit choppy at first due a stylistic device, but it didn't take long for the reading to smooth out for me.

The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl who is given over to foster parents by her mother after her father is taken away by the Nazis for being a communist.  Liesel doesn't know this at the time but eventually pieces things together.  On the train ride to her new foster parents, she watches the death from illness of her younger brother.

Liesel's story is narrated by Death.  It's ingenious, really, to have a story about the largest slaughter in the history of the human race being narrated by Death.  Who else could tell a story containing so much death (Jews, civilians, and soldiers) so objectively without perpetuating more propaganda?  I came to like the character of Death.

Here's a good summary of the story that doesn't contain spoilers from the reader's guide in the back of the book:
Liesel Meminger is only nine years old when she is taken to live with the Hubermanns, a foster family, on Himmel Street in Molching, Germany, in the late 1930s.  She arrives with few possessions, but among them is The Grave Digger's Handbook, a book she stole from her brother's burial place.  During the years that Liesel lives with the Hubermanns, Hitler becomes more powerful, life on Himmel Street becomes more fearful, and Liesel becomes a full-fledged book thief.  She rescues books from Nazi book-burnings [really, its only one, but this sets off a chain of events] and steals them from the library of the mayor.  Liesel is illiterate when she steals her first book, but Hans Hubermann uses her prized books to teach her to read.  This is the story of courage, friendship, love, survival, death, and grief.  This is Liesel's life on Himmel Street, told from Death's point of view.
I could go on and on about how fantastic this book is (How you'll grow to love the characters.  How tears will stream down your face.  How you'll smile with knowing warmth at the different ways love is expressed between the characters.  How you'll be saddened by the senseless killing and hatred.  How you'll be moved by small acts of kindness) but I won't.

This book is often categorized as teen fiction and if you don't read teen fiction please don't let that put you off.  It's simply a book for people with soul who like a good page-turner.  If award winners are your thing this book has won a bunch of them and it's also on lots of 'best' lists, too.  It was a New York Times best-seller so some of you may have seen it on display in your favorite bookstore a few years ago.

They're making a movie out of The Book Thief, but I can't imagine going to see it.  I'm usually excited about books being made into movies, but this is one that I don't really know if I'll go see it.  Liesel and her family & friends are so finely burned into my brain that someone else's version of them may have a cheapening effect.  We'll see.

Monday, September 6, 2010

In the Belly of Jonah by Sandra Brannan

Publisher: Greenleaf BookGroup Press
Release date: September 1, 2010
Source: review copy

In the Belly of Jonah is the first book in the Liv Bergen Mystery series by Sandra Brannan.  I received a review copy from Brannan's publicist.

About the book:
Liv Bergen is in her late 20s and manages a limestone mine in Fort Collins, CO (Brannan is a fourth generation miner, so she knows what she's talking about).  She's self-confident, single, and a former college basketball player.  When her summer intern, Jill Brannigan, is a no call, no show for work, everyone grows concerned.  Jill is a responsible, hard-working kid, and a basketball player at CSU.  

Unfortunately, she's found dead.  Her corpse displayed like some ghastly still-life.  This is not a cozy.

There's a serial killer in the area and Jill turns out to be his fourth victim.  Liv is called upon to identify her intern's body and then gets even more involved in the case when she gets a phone call from an old college friend, Lisa Henry, who is now an FBI profiler.  Liv and Lisa played basketball together at UW in Laramie so its not completely unrealistic that Liv offers the FBI the use of her home while they're in town working on the case.  Lisa's partner on the case is the legendary FBI agent, Streeter Pierce.  Liv sticks her nose in one too many places and endangers not only her life, but her loved ones as well.  As in all serial killer novels, time is running out for everyone involved.

It was refreshing to read a book that I probably would not have selected for myself.  Unless its Patricia Cornwell's latest, serial killer novels have pretty much run their course with me.  I've come across plenty of books by first time authors whose book summaries sound interesting but then reading the first few pages is just painful.  I stop after five pages in those situations.  However, I read In the Belly of Jonah swiftly and happily.  I let out no groans of disbelief (which have escaped me when reading thrillers written by best-selling authors) and there were no parts of the novel that dragged on or where it lost its footing.

There are some first novel challenges, however, and my main criticism is that the writing isn't always polished.  It's sometimes stiff and tells more than it shows.  I also hope Brannan infuses subsequent novels with more atmosphere.  I've been to Fort Collins and other parts of Colorado, but the book did not give me a feel for the area.  And the blurb on the back specifically mentions "a breathtaking setting," which just wasn't there for me as a reader.  Same goes for Liv's large family and their importance in her life: they didn't feel woven into the fabric of the story or Liv's life, but seemed more like props at times.

But these are minor criticisms compared to the solid job Brannan does with the plot and characters, so don't let them stop you from picking up this book especially if you're a mystery/thriller fan who likes strong women characters and if you like to read a variety of writers.  The main thing is that Brannan's enthusiasm radiates throughout the novel and its obvious that she loves to write.  I look forward to seeing how she develops Liv.  You can go to her website and read the first chapter here.

And if you know a teenager who is a blogger or writer, click here to check out Sandra Brannan's offer to sponsor a teen to attend next year's book blogger convention in New York City.  She's passionate about supporting teen writers.
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