ABR’s #CBR5 Review #26: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

xmas-carolAfter my failed attempt to get in the holiday spirit by reading Holidays On Ice, I picked up the surefire solution, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Nearly all of us know the story … Ebeneezer Scrooge is the original miser who is visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve in an attempt to redeem him.

You may think you have heard or seen the story so many times there isn’t a point to reading the book, but you’d be wrong. The book is perfect. It manages to be festive and foreboding, comical and creepy without the sentimentality that comes with so many holiday stories (many of which are interpretations of this very story).

Although it is relatively short – 170 or so pages – I spent a week reading it leisurely to my kids. Whether you read it alone, out loud to your family or find an audio version you can enjoy, I would highly recommend making this book part of your holiday traditions.

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #25: Holidays On Ice by David Sedaris

holidays-iceI typically have trouble ramping up the holiday spirit so this year when I had the decorations up and the shopping done I thought I’d read something to help. I mistakenly chose David Sedaris’ Holidays On Ice. I’ve had the book on my book shelf for many years. I’m familiar with the “SantaLand Diaries,” the story that leads the book, and I would consider myself a David Sedaris fan, but Holidays On Ice was not the book I needed.

I would highly recommend the first essay, “SantaLand Diaries,” in which Sedaris details his experience as a Macy’s elf named Crumpet. In a twisted way, it just might put you in the holiday spirit. At least you’ll be able to laugh at some of the more stressful moments, like waiting in line to see a Santa that terrifies the kids and shopping amongst the masses. It’s funny, sad, pathetic, revealing and unfortunately, honest.

Although I would recommend the book on the strength of “SantaLand Diaries” alone, I also enjoyed “Dinah, the Christmas Whore,” which recounts a Christmas when the Sedaris family rescued a prostitute from her abusive boyfriend and invited her into their home for the holiday.

But do yourself a favor and skip “Season’s Greetings To Our Friends and Family,” the Dunbar family Christmas letter, which goes from sad to awful to sickening, and “Christmas Means Giving” in which two neighbors go to grotesque lengths to outdo each other during the holiday season. Yes, I understand they are sarcastic, but I thought they were just too creepy and outlandish to be funny.

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #24: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

12-tribesHistorically, the 12 tribes of Israel are descendants of the patriarch Jacob. In this book, the 12 tribes are descendants of Hattie, a 15-year-old Southern girl who marries, moves from Georgia to Philadelphia, and settles into a life that brings her disappointments and tragedies. Rather than plagues of frogs and locusts, Hattie is plagued by alcoholism, infidelity, doubt and depression.

The book begins with the birth of Hattie’s first children, twins Philadelphia and Jubilee. Had the rest of the book maintained the pace and drama of the first chapter this book would’ve been excellent. I found the first chapter so heartbreaking I had to put the book down. But the remaining chapters, which are told by and about Hattie’s offspring, are often much less impactful.

Floyd is a sexually confused musician traveling through the South in the 1940s. Six is a prodigious but sinful preacher. Alice and Billups are adults traumatized by abuse they suffered as children. Franklin is unfaithful. Cassie is institutionalized. Bell is dying alone. By the end of the book, each of Hattie’s ‘tribes’ has told a story, and each one is more depressing and hopeless.

Many of the chapters exist as singular stories, but I thought the best ones casually mention Hattie and bring her back into the story, even if only peripherally. Ideally the book would end with a fairly complete portrait of Hattie, whether or not we liked what we saw, but many of the stories stop and start abruptly and the fates of many characters is untold.

My biggest issue with the book sounds disrespectful – after all the time period it covers was tumultuous and violent – but I wanted someone, anyone, to be happy, to find happiness. Chapter after chapter the characters struggle with alcoholism, infidelity, abuse, poverty, illness. It’s heaped on so that by the end of the book you’re a little jaded. (Much like Hattie, I suppose.)

There is a passage near the end of the book that summarizes the entire novel for me:

“Fate had plucked Hattie out of Georgia to birth eleven children and establish them in the North, but she was only a child herself, utterly inadequate to the task she’d been given. No one could tell her why things had turned out as they had, not August or the pastor or God himself. Hattie believed in God’s might, but she didn’t believe in his interventions. At best, he was indifferent.”

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #23: Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

12yearsThis book doesn’t need much introduction. It is the memoir that has gained renewed attention since the release of the film by the same name. The memoir was written in the 1850s by Solomon Northup who, although he was a free man living in the North, was kidnapped and sold into slavery. He remained a slave for 12 years until he was able to convince a white abolitionist to help him contact his family and secure his freedom.

I have not seen the movie, but I would highly recommend the book. It is beautifully written, poetic in places, horrifying in others. It is much more than a historical narrative, it is the story of a loved and loving man who remains hopeful and spiritual in the harshest of situations.

As you’d expect, it is educational, but it is also inspirational. Some passages are so lyrical, they read like a psalm.

The book really deserves a more thoughtful and robust review, but no matter how elaborate the review, it would come down to the same recommendation: Just read it.

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #22: The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

outsidersWhen I was a pre-teen girl we read the Baby Sitters Club, Flowers in the Attic or Judy Blume. These days young adults have a plethora of choices. Books so good, many adults read them. I have no issues with today’s choices, but when I came across a $1 copy of The Outsiders I thought I might get my 12-year-old to read it. Obviously it’s not as complex or fantastical as some of today’s top picks, but the story itself is timeless. The greasers against the Socs. The in crowd versus the outsiders. It may take place in 1965, the kids in the book face the same pressures and temptations as kids today.

If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, The Outsiders is about a group of greaser boys in 1965 Oklahoma. Ponyboy is a quiet, smart orphan being raised by his older brothers, Darrel and Sodapop. His brothers are drop outs, working to keep the family together. They may be rowdy greasers but they love and protect their family and their friends.

Ponyboy’s best friend Johnny isn’t wanted at home and is skittish from a recent fight with the Socs. One night Ponyboy and Johnny run into a group of drunken Socs who pick a fight, and in a moment of panic, Johnny stabs and kills one of the Socs. Ponyboy and Johnny leave town, hoping to avoid the police. They hide in an abandoned church and wait for word that they can return home safely. Their plans to avoid the police are interrupted when they rescue some school kids from a burning building and are both hospitalized, Johnny with life-threatening injuries. The murder isn’t prosecuted by the police but is settled with a rumble between the Socs and the greasers. Suffice it to say that some characters make it out, some don’t. But nearly everyone is forced to confront the prejudices that drive the events of the story.

I recently read Joanna Robinson’s Pajiba piece on banned books and was surprised to find this book is often banned because of the gang violence, drinking and smoking. While I don’t agree with book banning in any form, this entry seems particularly unreasonable and unfortunate. Ultimately The Outsiders is a timeless story about cliques and stereotypes and the pressures of trying to do right and fit in.

The writing isn’t particularly creative, but it was written and published when Hinton was just a high school student. Whether or not it was intentional, the occasionally awkward text and dialogue accurately reflects a teen’s point of view and way of speaking. It is sincere and earnest without pandering.

I know my 12-year-old could read a more creative book, something supernatural or dystopian with sorcerers or magical cats or precocious kids. But the message of this book is as good as any published today. And it’s done in fewer than 200 pages.

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #21: Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

wonderstruckSeveral years ago during a March snowstorm, school was canceled for nearly a week. Our power was out for three of those days. It was near torture. Not only was the house freezing, we had no hot water, and one of my kids had strep throat. Despite that, one of my favorite parenting moments occurred that week. One day, we all huddled in my bed, under mountains of blankets, and read The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It was perfect.

So of course I jumped at the chance to read Wonderstruck, Brian Selznik’s follow-up to Hugo Cabret. While I didn’t love Wonderstruck as much, it does have all the elements that make Selznik’s work so magical. It would be satisfying enough to simply look at the book with its incredible sketches, but the story is lovely and uplifting.

In Wonderstruck, Selznik actually tells two stories. One story follows Ben, a young boy desperate to know more about his absent father. After an accident renders him deaf, he travels to the city, following clues he hopes will lead him to his father. His story is told in words. The other story follows Rose, a young girl who lived 50 years before Ben. Her story is told through pictures.

Selznik alternates between Ben and Rose until their stories intersect. At that point their questions are answered and their lives are fleshed out. The resolution is rewarding for Ben and Rose and for the reader.

I really can’t imagine anyone not enjoying this book. It is gratifying without being cloying, simple but suspenseful and both lovely to look at and read. Get it for your grandmother for Christmas. Or better yet, snuggle up and read it with your kids.

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #20: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

dark-placesOn its own, Dark Places is probably a very good book. But if you have read Gillian Flynn’s other novels, Sharp Objects and Gone Girl, Dark Places will seem familiar, derivative.

Dark Places may not be the page turner that Gone Girl was, but I still really like the way Flynn composes her novels. Her back-and-forth style not only creates suspense and tension, it gives the characters a chance to tell the story. You hear events from one character, and in the next chapter, another character corrects the errors, fills in the blanks, expands the story. I also think she is a uniquely descriptive writer.

That said, there is certainly a recipe to the success of her novels. Start with a troubled girl. Throw in a tragic past. Give her an addiction or vice. Make her family dysfunctional. Add a colleague who may turn into a love interest. Include one or two truly terrifying women. Turn the female protagonist into an amateur detective. End on a slightly optimistic note that still makes you feel dirty.

Libby Day is the troubled girl in Dark Places. In her tragic past her sisters and mother were killed, and when the signs and the townspeople pointed to Libby’s brother, she claimed he killed them. Libby’s vice is that she has lived off insurance money for 25 years. She doesn’t want to hold a job, have friends, clean herself or her apartment. And yes, she drinks and steals. Her possible love interest is Lyle, a member of the local Kill Club, a strange organization that is fascinated by murders and believes her brother is innocent. Libby herself is a pathetic character, but the doozy in this novel is Diondra, a sexually precocious 15-year-old addict, alcoholic, abuser, Satan worshipper. She’s a peach.

When Libby’s insurance money starts to run out, she teams up with Lyle and the Kill Club, who pay her to reconnect with her father and incarcerated brother, and sell mementos from her dead family. It’s no surprise that she begins to question her brother’s conviction and doubt her memories.

I would like to say that this book also ends more hopefully than it begins. But in the end Libby’s family is still dead (that isn’t a spoiler) and now you have the Diondra character in your head.

 

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #19: Joyland by Stephen King

 

joylandI am a fan of Stephen King. I think Carrie and Pet Sematary are horrifying reads. I think Different Seasons is brilliant. That said I haven’t read Stephen King for years. When Joyland was published I thought it was a good time to start again.

My first thought was that if you are a rabid Stephen King fan, you might be disappointed in Joyland. It’s more a tender, nostalgic coming-of-age story than a “typical” Stephen King horror story. But the more I read the more I thought that if you are a King fan, you’ll love this book. And if you’ve never really enjoyed Stephen King, you too might just love this book. While it does contain some of the tried and true Stephen King tropes – horror, suspense, great dialogue, sympathetic characters – the story isn’t so fantastical you have to suspend disbelief to enjoy it.

 

The story is told in flashback by Devin Jones, now a man in his 60s, who spent the summer of 1973 working in the Joyland amusement park. Years before Devin’s arrival a young girl was murdered on one of the rides, and rumors and legends about her ghost abound. Through a series of serendipitous events, Devin becomes a star performer at Joyland, attracts the attention of a protective single mom and her son, and delves into the murder. 

Joyland won’t get under your skin the way some Stephen King stories can, but it does have a little something for every reader. There is horror, violence, heartbreak, romance and yes, sex. But the heart of the story is quite sentimental and wistful. 

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #18: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

Lean InWhen a male friend suggested Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In for our couples book club, I immediately went on the defensive. I knew very little about the book, but like a lot of readers, I had my mind made up before the book was even released. Who was Sandberg, a privileged, rich executive, to write about what it’s like to be a working mother?

I was wrong.

I thought this book was insightful, smart, well written, even self-deprecating. I still think Sandberg, by nature of her position and her wealth, can’t completely identify with a typical working parent, but even she admits that. What she can do is present a compelling argument why it’s crucial we address the working parent Catch 22 – the workplace needs to be more accommodating to working parents (not just mothers) so more working parents can remain employed, but more working parents need to stay in the workforce in order to vocalize the need for the flexibility.

I’m not going to critique her proposal in this review. That’s a different story for a different time. And regardless of what you think of her ideas, I think you have to agree the book is well written, thoroughly researched and documented, and provocative. It’s a quick read too.

If one indication of a good book is how much you talk about it with your friends, colleagues or peers, Lean In would surely meet that criterion. Try discussing it with your spouse over a cocktail or bring it up in your next office happy hour and see if it doesn’t get people talking and sharing opinions.

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #17: The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life by Rod Dreher

ruthie-leming(This review contains spoilers.)

I have to admit I didn’t read this book, I listened to the audio book while driving to pick up my son from sleepaway camp. I’m typically not a fan of audio books, mostly because I find it harder to carve out the time to listen to a book, but in this case, I think the audio book enhanced the novel. My version was read by the author, Rod Dreher, who has a tendency to fall into a Loo-C-Anna dialect now and then.

At its heart, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming documents the life of Ruthie, Dreher’s sister, before and after she is stricken with lung cancer. While Dreher left his hometown of St. Francisville, Louisiana, during high school, his sister Ruthie married her high school sweetheart, taught at a local high school, built a home across the street from her parents and raised a family there.

With her diagnosis of cancer comes an outpouring of love and support, a showing Dreher laments he wouldn’t find anywhere but home. He left home to find personal, professional and spiritual fulfillment, but his search has left him largely empty. He frequently changes jobs and locales, converts to Catholicism and then to Orthodoxy, and struggles with a God who would allow cancer to happen to his beloved sister.

As you can expect the novel is heartbreaking. I found myself in tears more than once. It’s also inspirational; it is likely it will make you stop to appreciate your family and rethink your priorities.

Or you might think it is overwrought. While even the most hardened reader will be moved by Ruthie and her battle with cancer, a great deal of the book - more than I expected – details Rod’s struggle with his spirituality after Ruthie passes. If you’re not one for philosophizing and proselytizing, this won’t be your cup of sweet tea.