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Good Kings Bad Kings is a PEN/BImageellwether prize winning novel from Susan Nussbaum. It won in the category of socially engaged fiction. The story follows a number of characters – different chapters from different points of view tell the story. Nussbaum is able to effectively change tone and voice with each character.

The main setting of the novel is the ILLC – effectively a nursing home for kids and teens with disabilities. This is the place kids are sent when they have no where else to go – they can’t afford private assistance and maybe don’t even have a family or their support.

Nussbaum is a playwright who has been celebrated for her honest voice, and in this, her debut novel, her voice feels exactly that, no matter which character she’s inhabiting. I wasn’t sure how much she’d tug on the heart strings in this novel and was a little wary, but I liked the idea of the multiple points of view, and the characters sounded interesting.

There’s Yessenia, a tough-skinned teen recently out of Juvie – it’s only a few pages in that you realize she’s in a wheelchair. Teddy, another teen living in the ILLC, dreams of having his own place one day. Joanne, a data-entry clerk who starts working at the ILLC – she’s the only disabled adult working in the place. There are other characters, and the ways their lives weave in and out of each other’s are interesting.

This story could easily slip into being sickeningly sweet, glaringly archetypically obvious, or heart-wrenchingly unbearable. But it doesn’t. While it was a criticism of institutions and group homes, it was really about the characters, the teens, the adults, and their own ways of dealing with the world.

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ocean end of lane gaiman 2The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the newest book by Neil Gaiman. It came out near the end of June. It was a short story/novella that he developed into a novel-length work for publication. I heard about this book months ago, and got all excited for it… and then I found out he was pre-signing copies. And so I ordered one.

I’m not an autograph hound by any means. When I was kid, I went to a professional tennis tournament and watched Jana Novotná play. She was rightthere! I walked up and said, ‘Hi – you’re great! Can I have your autograph?’ But since I had no paper or pen, I had to ask her for a ball to sign. And oh yeah, did she have a pen too??

She did, and was very nice about it.

So much for being prepared. But anyway. I pre-ordered a pre-signed copy of the book from Porter Books in Cambridge, MA (lots of love for little bookshops). And finally, it came!

It’s short – I read it over the weekend. And it’s simple, maybe deceptively so, but by the end, I did get a little misty-eyed. It’s written for adults, and is written as an adult looking back on himself as a kid. It’s a lovely little taste of a story, but definitely feels like a lot was undeveloped. This could have been a really great novel – instead, it’s a brief meditation on loneliness, being different, being small and scared, and small and powerful.

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From Goodreads:

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly’s wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.

 And this is a story NPR did about it. 

When I finished the book, I was thinking that I probably didn’t need to buy it – it was so short, I shouldn’t’ve bothered… But now, I’m thinking it’s good I did, because I’ll really have the chance to go back and read it a couple of times. I have a feeling there’s a lot more to it then I’m going to get out of a single reading.

ImageI just finished reading Kraken by China Miéville. I’ve read another work by Miéville, and really enjoyed it, but it’s taken me awhile to get back to his stuff. Kraken took me a while to get through – the writing is excellent, but at first I had trouble buying into Miéville’s world of magic. Por ejemplo:

The Londonmancers had been there since Gogmagog and Corineus, since Mithras and the rest. Like their sibling chapters in other psychopoli, the Paristurges (Dane had carefully pronounced it to Billy French-wise, pareetourdzh), the Warsawtarchs, the Berlinmagi, they had always been ostentatiously neutral. That was how they would survive.

It. It. I just. I just don’t sail through passages like that. But still, there is a rhythm to his writing, a flow that works. It took me a while to get halfway through the book, but once I got there, I was pulled along, quicker and quicker, until I made it to the end. This book was frustrating in the beginning, but I stuck with it, and in the end, though I skimmed many, many words just to get past them, it was a rewarding read. It was meaty and chewy and a little slimey. Just like a good kraken should be.

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The book is really, under all the gods and magic, an allegory. Or, a ridiculous number of allegories, rolled into one. It explores the idea that belief creates; by believing in something or that something will happen, it comes into existence. It explores morality, putting characters in situations where they have to choose the lesser of some number of evils. It challenges you, the reader, to root, revolvingly, for different characters as the tale progresses, making you explore your own prejudices. There’s more, there’s more – I should have taken notes! But it’s well worth the time you’ll inevitably take with this thing.

 

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

Amor fati is a notion that comes up again and again in Kate Atkinson’s new novel, Life After Life. It’s the idea of loving one’s fate, of learning who one is, knowing yourself, and embracing your self, your destiny, for better or worse. The entire novel, really, is about that very idea, and it’s exemplified through the tales told in each chapter.

When I first heard Kate Atkinson had a new book, I  was excited, had to read it!  … But then I read on Goodreads what it was about, and the description of it sounded like something I wouldn’t like at all:

On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways.

Oh. That sounds awful.

But I got the book anyway, from the library (placed a hold and it came in really quickly for me – love the LION libraries!), and jumped in. The thing about Kate Atkinson is, her story-telling capabilities are so fully developed, her words are so full of life and her almost tactile phrasings clamber off the page. Her words are delicious, her characters are people I feel like I know or want to know. So, despite my doubts about that description, I truly enjoyed the book. I feel more grounded and appreciative of the people in my life, the choices I’ve made, the good and bad – it all serves to make me, me.

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I first read Kate Atkinson right after my daughter was born. I’d sit and rock and read, and the little babe would sleep in my arms. They were peaceful, lovely moments, and Kate Atkinson’s book, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, was a perfect accompaniment to them.

The first line in the book is “I exist!” Reading that as I gazed down at my newborn forged such a strong feeling of friendly co-conspiracy with the author, I felt like I had a wise, all-knowing-but-full-of-faults friend sitting with me. Atkinson did not fail me in any of her subsequent books, and with this latest one, she underscores her understanding of and love for humans, with all their strengths and all their weaknesses.

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I recently wrote about a book I read called The Cloud Atlas by Liam Callanan, which was a war story set in Alaska, featuring some possible otherworldliness. Years ago, I read Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, about a young man who vanished into the wilds of Alaska. During my weekend reading, I came up on this article about a brutal race in an Alaska town, where one man, way behind everyone else, just disappeared from the race track in the mountain.

This same weekend, I had started reading The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey. It’s set in Alaska in the 1920s. The thing all these stories have in common is this underlying idea that Alaska itself is not just a wild place of nature – it is beautiful but hostile, almost alive, almost supernatural.

Each of these tales reminds the reader that there is this very large area of land out there that we have not yet tamed. And though almost cautionary, they are a bit of a love story to that wildness. There is a celebration of how precious life and living is, despite, or in spite of, this land around that is constantly trying to trip you up, to take you back into itself.

The Snow Child is a Ivey’s first novel (here is a more in-depth review from the Washington Post), and it’s beautifully written. It’s a fairy tale for grownups, based on a Russian folk tale about a couple who builds a snowchild , who then comes to life. The Russian tale ends various sad ways, and Ivey’s Snow Child is no different.

It’s sad and haunting, but like life, the sadnesses are tempered by the joys – of discovering and rediscovering love, hugging children, listening to laughter, cooking for friends, realizing you can survive so much sadness… Though infused with a touch of magic, the story is about very real, very human, feelings and experiences. And the way Ivey writes about those experiences, the way she strings words together to form these descriptive, beautiful sentences, she draws you in and makes you glad to enter her world a while, even if you’re a little (or a lot) teary when you leave it.

I have managed to get some reading done in between watching episodes of a particular TV show I was hooked on… here are the books I’ve been looking at lately:

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hidden america

Hidden America by Jeanne Marie Laskas. Ms. Laskas is a journalist and author – she’s written six other books, was a regular columnist at the Washington Post, a feature writer for GQ, and a contributing editor at Esquire. She’s been around for a while, but I’d never heard of her. She first came to my attention when a certain JM sent me a link to an article she’d written about Air Traffic Controllers, going ‘behind the scenes’ and writing about their world, their lives. It turns out, that essay was collected into this book. Hidden America is all about people who you don’t really think about, but whose jobs are an essential part of making our daily lives not just better, but basically liveable.

She spends time with American coal miners, blueberry pickers, oil drillers, long-haul truck drivers, garbage dump workers, and more. It’s a fascinating account of lives and industries you interact with, depend on, need… without knowing, without thinking about. Definitely worth checking out!

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inpersuasionnation

After reading a NY Times review about George Saunders, I decided to check out some of his works. In the article, he speaks lovingly of Raymond Carver, whose short stories I am a huge fan of. I got a copy of his In Persuasion Nation and read about half of it. He’s a good writer, and combines science fiction-ish ideas with human absurdity in interesting ways…  but much of it is disturbing. He likes to show people how messed up they are by picking and picking at an idea, and then digging his fingers into it.

The story I finally put the book down at was about a TV family – in this story, the characters know they are characters in a TV show, but that’s all they are – they are not actors, they ARE the characters – they disappear into a gray fog when they’re written out of the script. And this show’s ratings are bad, so their lives (and physical layout of the backyard) are changing to try and suit the pleasures of the audience. It’s a strange tale, and I think it’s meant to push your buttons, to make you uncomfortable and force you to take a good, harsh look at your own life. I appreciate that, but only in small chunks. I’ll return the book, and will probably pick it up in the future, or one of his others… maybe. He’s one to take a little bit at a time.

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otherkingdoms

Other Kingdoms by Richard Matheson. I saw the movie, “I Am Legend,” really liked it and so read the book. It was… different from the movie. Enough so that I didn’t even compare the two – I was able to enjoy them both separately, equally. So when his latest novel, Other Kingdoms, came out in 2011, I was intrigued – I checked it out, but never got around to reading it. I saw it on the shelves the other day, checked it out again, and this time opened it up… I read the thing in one day. I was drawn into its world, I suspended disbelief (it’s about faeries. And a witch.). It’s a fairy tale for grownups. It’s really good, when you’re in the mood for that sort of thing. It’s told from the point of view of an old man telling his life story, a short time that he spent in WWI and then ended up in a village in England that was next to a woods that were filled with faeries. The introduction is from this made-up character, and there’s a bibliography that I think is made-up. I like that complete absorption into a different world. The Princess Bride, the  book, is like that. It jumps into this made-up world, adding layer upon layer, to really get you into the story. If you’re in the mood for this sort of thing, I’d definitely recommend this book. And if you like The Princess Bride, book or movie, this news story and related comments are for you.

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dreamlandA while back, I read Dreamland: adventures in the strange science of sleep, by David K. Randall. (wrote about it in a Tumblr post – was/am trying out that blogging site, too) Sleep for me is a huge thing – I never feel like I get enough of it. I feel like my daughter doesn’t get enough of it. And yet, I know it’s SOO important. This book gets into how and why it’s SOO important and but really how we know so little about what goes on while we’re sleeping. It’s a quick read, but highly informative and entertaining.

Ever had trouble sleeping? Wonder why it’s so important and what happens if you don’t get enough of it? What happens to people who commit crimes while sleepwalking? This book examines these questions and many others. It’s not a textbook on sleep disorders; it’s a personal adventure into the wide world of sleep science.  Highly recommended!

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This is definitely a mixed bag of books I’ve gone through… what have you been reading lately?

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2012 brought us the movie “Cloud Atlas,” based on the book of the same name. I don’t know much about it, but I was sent this link, to make me laugh: http://www.theawl.com/2012/11/ways-in-which-the-movie-cloud-atlas-has-changed-my-life

cloud-atlas-low_smallIt inspired me to then read Callanan’s The Cloud Atlas, which my library had (had it been out, I probably would have forgotten about it). I also wanted to read it to spite Cloud Atlas some. I just don’t have any interest in the book or the movie. I think its articlelessness is kind of pretentious, and maybe, just maybe, it seems a little daunting.

This one, The, is set in Alaska during WWII and years later, and goes back and forth, the past being related as a confessional. During WWII, the Japanese had started sending hot air balloon bombs overseas, to land and explode on American soil. This is a story about a man in the bomb squad who had to chase these balloons, and deal with a superior who was being chased by personal demons, and to learn to listen to a local shaman, whose beliefs were chasing his own. And there’s a woman they’re all chasing, in different ways.

Reading the Amazon reviews, you can see all the people who ordered the book thinking it was the one the movie was based on, only to find out it wasn’t… and it still got lots of positive reviews. It’s a really well-written story, interesting and haunting. There was one anecdote the shaman related about a man and wife whose child died and was cremated before they could mourn her according to their beliefs. The shaman helped the parents feel their child in the falling rain, and helped them say goodbye. This passage was simply told, and very moving.

It’s a work of historical fiction, but ultimately a story about the various relationships that get us through our lives, and how each one can teach us about ourselves, if only we let them.