Tag Archives: Fiction

Hunger and Responsibility: Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

Quite possibly the most gross-out scenes I’ve ever read happened within the pages of this novel, Big Brother, by Lionel Shriver. Disgusting and horrifying, funny yet excruciating, Shriver doesn’t shy away from showing the reader the consequences of morbid obesity. Shriver wrote this novel as a response to events in her own life. Her older brother, whom Shriver has described as being a “genius,” was morbidly obese, and died of a heart attack at age 55. Big Brother is dedicated to him. But calling Big Brother a novel about obesity doesn’t begin to describe this book.

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Shriver uses obesity as a pathway to explore familial relationships and responsibility. How far would you go to “save” a sibling who has “buried himself in himself?’ Would you sacrifice your marriage, relationships with your children and friends to devote yourself to a sibling’s overwhelming needs? Are we truly our brother’s keeper?

That’s the decision the main character of Pandora confronts. Her brother Edison, whom she idolized, visits Pandora and her family. He’s down on his luck, couch surfing in New York City. He also has gained more than 200 pounds since the last time Pandora saw him. A jazz pianist, Edison punctuates his conversation with annoying, jarring “hep” talk – heavy cats, ya dig, man? He’s overbearing, obnoxious, and eating them out of the house. Plus, Pandora’s husband Fletcher, cycling nut and food Nazi, can’t stand him. It doesn’t help that Edison breaks one of Fletcher’s fanciful furniture creations. The visit is a trial for the whole family – Pandora, Fletcher, and Fletcher’s two teenage kids from a previous marriage.

Pandora faces her responsibilities to her brother when the visit comes to an end. Does she put him on a plane, knowing he has nowhere to live, no gigs lined up, and few friends left? Pandora proposes a private weight loss clinic to Edison. She’ll be his coach, plan his weight loss and stick with him until he’s down to his normal weight. This project will require living apart from her family – Fletcher will not have Edison in the house any longer than his planned visit – and this threatens Pandora and Fletcher’s marriage, and Pandora’s relationship with her stepchildren.

The characters in this novel are not especially likable. Fletcher and Edison are both obnoxious and self-righteous, convinced of their superiority and their claim on Pandora. I found Pandora fascinating. While claiming to avoid the spotlight, she has managed to run two successful businesses, the most recent a novelty toy company featured in national publications. Her musings on her relationships and how much is owed to family members was fascinating. Pandora neglects her younger sister, yet feels a strong duty to her step children. And Edison’s obesity throws her sense of responsibility into overdrive, jeopardizing her marriage.

Shriver seems to be pulling the novel into a tidy happy package, and then upends it all. I won’t reveal the ending here…

Shriver sums up so many themes in this quote from near the end of the novel:

However gnawing a deficiency, satiety is worse… We are meant to be hungry.

Indulging that hunger to the point of obesity is dangerous. Indulging a sense of responsibility to the point of sacrificing other relationships is also dangerous.

Shriver, while using obesity to explore familial relationship, also explores contemporary thoughts and perceptions of obesity. Pandora mulls over society’s stereotypes of the obese and the slim. Are thin people joyless self deniers? Are the obese lacking in character strength? Shriver can be heavy handed, but I’ll forgive her “hunger” to impart her hard earned lessons about family and obesity.

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On Lists. And How Very French.

I confess to a list obsession. I make lists, I read lists, I check things off lists. The list I try very much to NOT get too obsessed with is Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. First published in 2006, the list – and book – was compiled by Peter Boxall, a professor of English at Sussex University. The original list was extremely Anglocentric, and has been revised twice, with adjustments to the list to include more world literature. This list is very easy to find – there’s a listology list,  a goodreads lists via listology where goodreads users can vote for their favorites, and even an app you can purchase from the iTunes store. And of course, there are blog posts to read, spreadsheets to download, and pinterest boards to follow.

I confess to another thing: I purchased the 1001 books app. And according to the app, if I really, truly, want to finish the list before I die (at a projected age of 81), I need to get cracking. In order to finish the list by my anticipated death, I need to read 3 of the 1001 books per month. No pressure.

2967752This month, I can check one book off the list: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. This French novel was first published in 2006, and the first English edition was released in 2008. The novel received a number of awards in France, and was well received internationally. The New York Times reviewed it very favorably in 2008. (read the review here.) I found a copy at my favorite used book sale, and it has been sitting on my shelf of “to read” books for almost a year. When it came my turn to choose a book for my Awesome book group, I seized the opportunity to check this one off the list.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog first struck me as being very, very French. Firstly, the main characters live rich internal lives without a lot of drama. Renee, the concierge of a Parisian apartment building, is a closet intellectual that hides her true self. Renee camouflages herself by blaring television programs and wafting the scent of boiled cabbage into the lobby of the building, while she enjoys tea and Tolstoy behind the door of her loge.

Paloma, the other main character, is a twelve year old genius, also hides her true self from her family and schoolmates. Paloma tells her story through her journal of Profound thoughts, and in the reader’s first encounter with Paloma, she reveals that she intends to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday.

The novel is told in alternating voices, Renee and Paloma taking turns with the story. The two characters make observations on class and culture, art and beauty, and skewer most of the world around them for their hypocrisy and stupidity. Their essays continue in this vein to the point where I started to get a bit bored, frankly. There’s only so much free standing philosophy I can read without becoming impatient.

Finally, Renee and Paloma meet. On page 244. Again, how French to have a lengthy narrative on parallel paths, finally connecting the two characters well into the action.  Finally, the reader starts to see the glimmerings of a plot. Connecting Paloma and Renee is the character of Ozu, an older Japanese gentleman who moves into the apartment building.

I loved the mutual admiration of French and Japanese culture in this novel. Renee enjoys Japanese film, Ozu obviously is enmeshed in French culture. Ozu is able to see past Renee’s self imposed peasant facade, and befriends her. He introduces Renee to Japanese cuisine, and more importantly, gives her permission to be herself, which is a lovely message.

I won’t reveal the ending here. I will just say that it was a surprise, and while disappointing in terms of character development, it resolved the plot.

I was very satisfied,  checking this novel off  the list in my 1001 Books app. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to read all 1001 before I die, but I’ll enjoy trying!

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Walking a fine line…

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

I know that a movie will be made of the book I just finished, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. I know it will be sentimental, funny, and undoubtedly, freakishly maudlin. And that’s a shame, because while this book does veer into sentimentality, it is never maudlin.

The premise of the book is outwardly quiet and simple: Harold Fry, recently retired, receives a letter from an old friend, Queenie Hennessy. She is in hospice, dying of cancer, and wished to say goodbye, and thank Harold for his friendship. Harold writes a letter in return, and heads out to the post box to mail it. But he keeps going. Initially he continues because he feels his letter is inadequate, and then, after a conversation about faith with a young woman at a garage, decides to walk to the 500 hundred miles north to Queenie. His faith in his walk will save her.

While walking, Harold meets many people who share intimate details of their lives with him. He attracts attention and becomes a bit of a celebrity. His wife, Maureen, however, is not amused and just wishes Harold would come home.

While Harold’s feet carry him north toward Queenie, he makes another pilgrimage through his mind and memory. Harold revisits painful memories, and recalls the events that led him to his current humdrum life, curiously removed from his wife and other people.

In this pilgrimage of the mind is where the magic of this book happens. Joyce is able to convey Harold’s inner pain, his utter anguish, and regret in such a way that I was very deeply moved. Through his pain, Harold grows to understand himself better, and catches glimpses of the inner beauty of others:

He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passerby, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went.

And this interior life, so richly described by Joyce, will never, ever be honestly conveyed on a movie screen. There will be flashbacks, and memories retold to others, but a film will not be able to capture the complicated progression of Harold’s thoughts.

Joyce walks a fine line with her novel. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry could have descended in to the hyper emotionalized realm that is usually the domain of “chick lit,” but the novel remains poignant. Chick-lit novels tend to make me angry in the way they manipulate my emotions, but I never felt this way with Harold Fry. Instead, I was consistently and deeply moved through the book.

I highly recommend the audio version of this novel. Jim Broadbent is the reader, and he is a gifted interpreter of the text.

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Celebrity Literature, Part 2 – Wildwood by Colin Meloy

10431447This time I didn’t even realize it. I read another celebrity written novel, this one chosen solely on the merits of its very interesting cover art. (My first blog post about celebrity authors was The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer.) This time, the celebrity author is Colin Meloy of the folk-rock group The Decemberists, and the illustrator is his wife Carson Ellis, the “illustrator in residence” for the band. Looking at Carson Ellis’ website, I realized she had illustrated The Mysterious Benedict Society series by Trenton Lee Stewart, which I loved – the drawings and the story. The novel is titled Wildwood, and it is the start of a fantasy series aimed at middle grade kids.

Ok, now I need to back track a bit. I didn’t sit down and read this story, I actually listened to the audiobook, which was read by the amazing Amanda Plummer. I wish I had read it – I would have seen more of Ellis’ charmingly rustic drawings.

Wildwood is a fantasy tale, drawing on many fantasy archetypes and plot devices. There is a stolen child. There is a character with a secret about their birth. There is a quest, and an animal friend (or two or three). There is magic, plus an evil witch. When I first started listening to the novel, my first inclination was to classify this story as Labyrinth (the movie) meets The Chronicles of Narnia.

And that’s pretty accurate, but add an overlay of Portland west coast hipster. There’s no Turkish delight á la The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Instead, the main characters of Prue and Curtis munch on gorp while hiking through Wildwood. Prue eats squash dumplings while an animal companion tries lentils and greens. Prue rides a fixed gear bike and looks at vinyl records. These details were amusing, creating the hipster vibe.

The plot is fairly simple: Prue’s baby brother is stolen, and she goes after him into the woods – the I.W. – the Impassable Wilderness. Prue is followed by a classmate, Curtis. While in the woods, they are discovered and chased by a group of militarily dressed coyotes who capture Curtis. Prue manages to escape, and travels to Southwood to appeal to the government for help to rescue her brother and Curtis. Bureaucracy and then downright fascism lead to Prue escaping Southwood to go on a quest to consult the Mystics of Northwood. Meanwhile, Curtis enlists in the coyote army, which turns out to be the force of Alexandra, the evil Dowager Governess of Wildwood. Curtis quickly realizes he’s signed onto the wrong team. Prue and Curtis finally meet up again as they help the citizens of Wildwood, both animals and human Bandits, form the Wildwood Irregulars in order to defeat the Dowager Governess.

A few plot details sat uneasily with me. Prue’s parents are strangely absent, delegating much of the baby brother’s childcare to Prue, and then later in the story, they are strangely acquiescent to Prue’s decision to return to the wood. I also was uncomfortable with Curtis’ decision at the end of the story (I am trying not to give away spoilers here). I also found myself wondering how coyotes held their Napoleonic rifles without opposable thumbs. I think this means I wasn’t engaged enough to suspend my disbelief involuntarily.

Aside from these minor distractions, Wildwood is an entertaining story with much to recommend it – interesting magic and lore, a charming blend of mundanity and fantasy, and very likable main characters. The west coast quirks add to the enjoyment, and I will be looking forward to the next installment – this time in print, so I can enjoy Ellis’ illustrations.

 

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When Books Collide: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks and Manuscript Found in Accra by Paulo Coelho

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Have you ever read a book and have it make a kind of crazy convergence with another book you just read? This just happened to me, and I’m finding the contrasts and the comparisons between the two books have made the reading experience richer, and more thought provoking.

Last week, I read/listened to Manuscript Found in Accra by the Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho. I’ll be honest, my hopes were not high for this book. I had read The Alchemist a few years ago and it did not appeal to me at all. Modern allegorical tales like The Alchemist and Jonathan Livingston Seagull leave me cold and unmoved. But I have so many friends whose insight I value that have enjoyed Coelho’s writing , so I was willing to give him another try.

Sadly, Manuscript Found in Accra was not my kind of book. It was a sermonizing bore. The central figure of the book, the Copt, lectures and takes questions from his audience of citizens of Jerusalem, as they await the invasion of a crusader army. The audience is a group of Muslims, Jews, Christians, men and women, who ask vague questions about loneliness, beauty, and love, and the Copt answers in long, tedious philosophizing detail. Not my taste.

Geraldine Brooks’ novel People of the Book  I read closely on the heels of Accra. People of the Book tells the fictional history of a real manuscript – the Sarajevo Haggadah – through the lives of the people that come in contact with the book. Brooks tells the history of the book both backwards and forwards, through the conservator that repairs the book in war torn Sarajevo, and the men and women who created the 16071938book, and protected the book through the countless pogroms and exoduses of modern Europe.

Here’s where the books collide.  Manuscript Found in Accra waxes poetic about medieval Jerusalem, how it was a welcoming place where Jews, Christians, and Muslims were neighbors and lived together peaceably. The audience listening to the Copt is this mixed group of people, listening to the wise man together. I don’t know how accurate this picture of Jerusalem is, but I can tell you that it didn’t feel real when reading it.

People of the Book shows the reader religious conflict in abundance. Muslims, Christians, Jews are constantly on tenterhooks when dealing with each other, dancing around propriety and predjuce in a constantly shifting balance of power. But the book, this precious, beautifully illustrated book, gives the characters a common ground in their desire to preserve and protect it. Jews, Muslims, and Christians all conspire to save the book.

That felt true. People of different faiths – or no faith at all – coming together to preserve an object of beauty.

I think if I hadn’t read Accra just before People of the Book, I would not have appreciated the idealistic viewpoints of either book. Both books present the idealistic view that people of different faiths can live together and prosper through that life. However, People of the Book demonstrates this through the collective acts of compassion that the characters show to each other in order to save the book. Manuscript Found in Accra simply shows the nameless, multi-faithed audience, listening raptly to the Copt.

For me, the cliché – actions speak louder than words – held true.

 

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A Dickens of a Pilgrimage

Earlier this month, my family traveled to the United Kingdom to have a mini vacation in London, and then visit family further south in Hampshire. One of my husband’s favorite touring spots is the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, home to Nelson’s Victory, The Royal Navy Museum, the ironclad ship the Warrior, and the newly designed museum housing the Mary Rose, the Tudor warship that sank in Portsmouth harbor in 1545. The dockyards are a terrific day out, and I highly recommend visiting if you are ever in Portsmouth. I, however, must confess to being a bit tired of visiting the same sites, and this year I asked to be dropped off in Portsmouth and I would walk down to the harbor later.

One Mile End Terrace

See how unassuming? Dickens’ birthplace is the house with the circular plaque.

You see, Portsmouth is home to a couple of literary pilgrimages that I’ve been wanting to make for a very long time.  This year, I visited 1 Mile End Terrace, home of the Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum.  One Mile End is a small, unassuming Georgian terrace home, on a residential street. So unassuming that according to a museum display, that Dickens himself could not identify the house when he visited Portsmouth as an adult. His strongest memory of Portsmouth seems to be of leaving Portsmouth as a child, with the city covered in snow.

The furnishings at Dickens’ birthplace are mostly period furnishings, but not authentic to the time when the Dickens family were renting the house. I really enjoyed the illustration display in one of the bedrooms, showing different artist interpretations of Dickens’ characters. There was also quite a bit of ephemera – a lock of Dickens’ hair, period photographs, playbills, and small personal items. Dickens was so famous during his life, that people saved all sorts of items he owned or touched. There were quite a few checks written by Dickens on display. Apparently, people preferred to keep a check written by the famous Boz rather than cash it!

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Charles Dickens died on this couch.

The most important item in museum’s collection is the couch from Dickens’ home Gad’s Hill, upon which he is supposed to have died. It’s possible that he may have died elsewhere – possibly at his mistress Ellen Ternan’s home, and then moved to the couch at Gad’s Hill where his death was reported.

However, my favorite piece in the museum was a pair of bookcases that Dickens owned. IMG_1861It was donated to the museum by a family member, and contained souvenir porcelain, mainly toby jugs, featuring Dickens’ characters. I just loved the bookcases, and I wish I knew what Dickens kept on the shelves.

If you are a fan of Charles Dickens, and happen to be in Portsmouth, I would recommend stopping by. It’s a tiny place, and will only take an hour of time to enjoy, even if you linger. It’s probably not enough of a “pilgrimage” to warrant a special trip on its own.

However, if you are also a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle, Portsmouth may be worth a stop for you. Doyle spent the early years of his writing career practicing medicine in Southsea. Portsmouth was bequeathed an extraordinary collection of Doyle writings, which is house in a research library called the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection Lancelyn Green Bequest. While the archive is open by appointment only, there’s a permanent exhibition called A Study in Sherlock at the Portsmouth City Museum. Guess where I’m headed the next time the family goes to the dockyard?

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Summer, Books, and Baseball

Summer means extra time to read books, and to watch baseball. Sometimes the two come together in a magical confluence, combining the pleasures of the mind with the pleasure of sport. My baseball reading list isn’t long, regrettably, but these are the baseball themed books I love:

2967641. “The Thrill of the Grass” by W.P. Kinsella

“The Thrill of the Grass” by W.P. Kinsella has to be one of the most perfect short stories ever written. Combining insights about family, change, and baseball, the only problem with this gem is that it’s a short story and ends all too quickly. Kinsella is famous for his baseball themed literature, most of all for his 1981 novel Shoeless Joe, which will live forever as the basis for the classic movie Field of Dreams. I first heard “The Thrill of the Grass” on Selected Shorts, a NPR radio show that features actors reading short stories. Humorous moments, such as the narrator’s feelings of betrayal as his daughter chooses to watch the game from the “other”, third base, side with her boyfriend, rather than his customary first base side, are abundant. The ending leaves the reader smiling, and perhaps a bit teary.

167052. Summerland by Michael Chabon

Quite possibly the best quote I’ve ever read about baseball is from this book:

The fundamental truth: a baseball game is nothing but a great slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer day.

Michael Chabon, Summerland.

Summerland is a difficult book to describe. Eleven year old Ethan has been selected by the ferishers (fairy-like small people based on Native American mythology) to be their champion on their baseball team. The villain, Coyote, is trying to bring about Armageddon, and he’s kidnapped Ethan’s father, who is the inventor of the personal zeppelin. All this sounds odd and convoluted, but trust me, it’s enjoyable novel and many games of baseball are played.

109963423. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

What happens when you get what you wish for? Will you choke and be unable to handle it? Will you embrace your dream fully? And what if it wasn’t your dream, but someone else’s dream for you?

Henry Skrimshander is a college shortstop phenomenon, about to break the college record for innings without errors, when he lets loose a wild throw that sends his roommate and fellow teammate into the hospital. How Henry handles his vulnerability is at the heart of this novel, but the other characters face equally terrifying self revelations. The character of Mike Schwartz, Henry’s mentor and baseball team captain, is a compelling portrait of a college athlete with worn out knees, and a possible painkiller addiction.

Henry’s personal bible is a book called The Art of Fielding, written by a major league shortstop. I found this metafictional aspect of The Art of Fielding especially fascinating, since Summerland also uses this device. Summerland‘s fictional reference is called How to Catch Lightning and Smoke, a reference book for would-be catchers by E. Peavine, and is the “source” for my favorite quote above.

The zen-like wisdom from the fictional The Art of Fielding is both a guide and frustration to Henry. Mulling over some of the wisdom of the fictional The Art of Fielding, I stumbled upon this very well written blog piece: The buddhist-baseball-wisdom-of-aparicio-rodriguez. The author and I have a different approaches to The Art of Fielding – he comes to the novel through an enjoyment of sports themed literature, while I enjoy the literature and am surprised by the sports themes.

But I believe that this is the most basic truth about baseball novels: they are never really just about baseball.

As always, if you can recommend any other baseball themed books you have enjoyed, please let me know the title in the comments section. Thanks!

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