ElCicco #CBR5 Review #52: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

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This long read recently won the Booker Prize and has garnered much praise for its author, 28-year-old New Zealander Eleanor Catton. It’s an ambitious project, and every review I’ve read of it references Catton’s emulation of 19th century novels, a la Charles Dickens. The Luminaries, like a soap opera, involves a large caste of characters and complicated, intersecting story lines. Once you get through the first 400 pages, it starts to come together and gets a little easier to follow. I kept thinking as I was reading that it would make a wonderful mini-series (and would be easier to follow and keep everyone straight).

The novel opens on a dark and stormy night. Really. A weary traveler named Walter Moody stumbles upon a meeting of a dozen unusual men, men who wouldn’t seem to have any common cause. But of course they do, and it’s complicated, with each man telling his piece of the story. In short, it involves the murder of hermit Crosbie Wells, missing person emery Staines, drug-addled whore Anna, gold, and a very bad man with scar on his face. Catton spins her story both backward and forward, and between the dozen men at the meeting plus another half dozen or so important characters, it gets rather hard to manage at times.

One aspect of the novel I found confusing had to do with the gold. The story unfolds in an 1860s gold rush town in New Zealand called Hokitika. Catton has done extensive research on the gold rush and gets her economics and society facts straight, but the plot lines that involve gold — who’s got it, where did it come from and where is it now — read like a literary form of 3-card monte. I suppose it’s intentional, keeping the reader as confused and in the dark as the twelve men trying to find out what happened to the Wells, Staines and Anna. But then there’s the complication of the missing trunks (more than one!) and one character stealing another’s identity to commit financial fraud.

Another aspect of the novel that was lost on me had to do with astrology. The luminaries — sun and moon — refer to two particular characters, and the 12 men each stand for a sign of the zodiac. Each chapter begins with a chart of the zodiac for that particular day and how particular characters interacted with each other on that day. A character named Lydia, who works as both a madam and amateur astrologer, leads seances and reads people’s charts for them. Perhaps this is simply Catton showing popular interest in astrology at that time, but I’m sure there is some deeper, greater significance to all this astrological stuff that I’m just missing.

Still, I was willing to remain bewildered over the economics and astrology thanks to the brilliantly drawn and diverse characters and a story that holds together well if you stick it out to the end. The hookers here do not have hearts of gold, the Chinese miners are abused and not considered worthy of consideration, the pharmacist deals in opium, a politician is being blackmailed, and Walter Moody may or may not have seen a ghost. Striking it rich, forgetting one’s past and exacting revenge seem to be common goals on the frontier, and that makes for good reading.

The end of the novel does not provide the reader with all loose ends tied up neatly in a bow, but it was a satisfying resolution to me. On the whole, I liked the novel quite a lot. It can be a bit of a slog at first, but once you see the connections among the characters and the facts of their pasts slowly work their way forward, it’s an engrossing story.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #51: The Night Guest: A Novel by Fiona McFarlane

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The Night Guest is one of those mysterious, sly novels that throws you off balance and causes you to second guess the author all the way through. You know from the first pages that our main character Ruth is someone out of the ordinary. As we learn more about her, it becomes less clear what is real and what is fantasy.

Ruth is a 75-year-old widow, mother of two grown sons, living alone at a beachside house in Australia. When we first meet her, she has been awakened by a sound in the house which she is certain is a tiger. The next morning, a government carer named Frida Young unexpectedly arrives on Ruth’s doorstep to help her for a few hours each day. While Ruth is willing to accept Frida’s help, and her sons are pleased that someone is looking after mum since they are too far away and too busy to check in on her, there is something a bit off, perhaps even sinister about Frida. Ruth experiences occasional qualms over her presence, but what we learn throughout the novel is that Ruth is experiencing the onset of dementia. How much of her concern is genuine and how much is a figment of her imagination? And what about that tiger? It seems easy enough to write that off as a bad dream or a sign of dementia, but what if it’s something real?

The Night Guest is, on one hand, a story about growing old, losing your faculties and independence, and needing to rely on strangers for help. It was especially poignant for me because we, like many, are dealing with this in our family right now.  Ruth’s dementia becomes an opportunity for her to revert to her past, to remember her youth and first love in Fiji. Ruth’s parents were medical professionals and missionaries there and Ruth did not move to Australia until she was 19 or so. McFarlane reveals Ruth’s dementia through her recollections and telling of stories about her time on Fiji, stories whose details change and become muddled as the disease progresses.

But it’s that tiger that really fascinates me. The tiger appears at the very beginning of the story and again towards the end. Ruth’s reaction to the thought of a tiger in her home is not what you might expect. Rather than fear, she experiences something more like exuberance. “… there was another sensation, a new one, to which she attended with greater care: a sense of extravagant consequence. Something important, Ruth felt, was happening to her, and she couldn’t be sure what it was: the tiger, or the feeling of importance…. She felt something coming to meet her — something large, and not a real thing, of course, she wasn’t that far gone — but a shape, or anyway a temperature.”  She goes on to think, “For some time now she had hoped that her end might be as extraordinary as her beginning.” I can tell you that the end of the novel is rather extraordinary and would be a topic of some discussion in a book group.

I enjoyed this novel quite a bit. This progress of the dementia plus our concerns about Frida make for a suspenseful and tense tale. And that cover art is pretty cool, too.

ElCicco #CBR5 review #50: Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks

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Primates is a kid-friendly graphic novel about three powerhouses of anthropology who also happen to be women. Ottaviani has written several acclaimed graphic novels  related to science (including Feynman). Wicks’ illustrations are bold and crisp. Together, the two manage to weave together the three women’s stories in a solid, detailed and clear narrative of the scientists’ groundbreaking work among primates.

Each of these three women is fascinating in her own right and demonstrated a singleness of purpose and lifelong commitment to her studies. And each got her start thanks to eminent anthropologist and pioneer of primate studies Richard Leakey. Jane Goodall of England was a bookish child enthralled by the stories of Tarzan and Dr. Doolittle. Although she couldn’t afford to attend college, a fortuitous encounter with Dr. Leakey gave her the opportunity to become his secretary and eventually go out into the field to observe chimpanzees. Her patience and perseverance led to the discovery that chimps use tools and eat meat — shocking news in 1960. Goodall became one of the foremost researchers and lecturers in her field. The American Dian Fossey was an occupational therapist by training and deeply interested in gorillas. Thanks to her encounter with Dr. Leakey on a trip to Africa, Fossey was invited to pursue this interest. Her patience and passion for the gorillas allowed her to uncover the intricacies of their social and communication systems. Her work led her to push for conservation and also made her an outspoken critic and enemy of poachers, who murdered her in 1982. Canadian Birute Galdakis was actually formally trained as an anthropologist when she met Dr. Leakey and discussed with him her interest in the study of orangutans. These primates were so reclusive that almost nothing was known of them until her pioneering work, which caused her physical hardship and took a toll on her marriage

I think any kid (not just girls) would find the work of these scientists interesting. They lived in huts, studied poop and animal calls, and learned to get animals to trust them. They were patient and were able to pursue dreams that had seemed closed off to them. The story doesn’t shy away from the harsher aspects of their stories, referencing the murder of Fossey in addition to Galdakis’ divorce. It also shows Leakey as a very human man. While he was generous and took chances on women who had passion but little to no training, his reputation as a bit of a rake is also alluded to. Apparently, he had affairs with some of his female students, but not Jane, Dian or Birute. (It looks like Jane and Dian might have rebuffed his advances.)

All in all, a good story that could get kids interested in science, research, conservation and history. Also a nice follow up to my last review.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #49: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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If you’ve seen any reviews of this book, you already know that it is a novel about a woman who spent the first five years of her life with a sister, Fern, who happened to be a chimp. When I started reading the novel, I was sort of irritated that reviewers have put this plot point out there and spoiled some of the fun of reading, but now that I’ve finished, the fact that Fern is a chimp is not really the big point. The novel’s focus is more about family, communication, intelligence, memory, psychology and human treatment of animals. That Fern is a chimp is not the most important thing about her.

Our narrator Rosemary (for remembrance) starts in in the middle of things, which from her point of view is when she has been in college at UC Davis in 1996, her brother having run away from the family over a decade ago and her sister missing for even longer. Rosemary has left her parents (and, she hopes, her past) behind in Bloomington, Indiana, but much of her recollections have to do with her father, who as a psychology professor at IU did research world-famous involving Fern and Rosemary. Rosemary feels great guilt and responsibility for what happened to Fern and her brother, although she herself is not clear on the details of their disappearances. It’s only through recollections, chance meetings and conversations that the “facts,” such as they are, begin to emerge.

Rosemary is intelligent, sometimes funny, occasionally emotionally raw as our narrator, and she questions her own reliability in telling this story. She is aware that memory is a tricky thing, given the amount of psychology she has been exposed to growing up. Rosemary is self-reflective, noting that as a child she was terribly, annoyingly loquacious but as an adult she has learned to suppress certain aspects of her personality, her “monkey-girl” nature for which she was teased and bullied in school. When the story begins, she is concerned that a chance encounter with a bohemian student named Harlow will cause her to revert to her uninhibited ways and bring unwanted attention to her family history. “In the comments section of my kindergarten report card I’d been described as impulsive, possessive and demanding. These are classic chimp traits and I’ve worked hard over the years to eradicate them. I felt that Harlow was maybe demonstrating the same tendencies without the same commitment to reform.” While she knows Harlow is bad news, she feels a kinship with her that has been missing since her siblings disappeared.

Communication is an important theme throughout this novel. Rosemary tells us that her father, in doing his research with her and Fern, said he wanted to see if Fern could learn to speak. Rosemary is suspicious and posits that what her father really wanted was to see if Rosemary could learn to speak chimpanzee. Rosemary and Fern were very close and, according to Rosemary, could understand each other as well as any two sisters. And like siblings, they experienced the gamut of feelings for each other from love to resentment and jealousy. Yet the communication among the other members of Rosemary’s family seems incredibly poor despite their verbal abilities. At one point Rosemary says, “Language is such an imprecise vehicle, I sometimes wonder why we bother with it.”

By the end of the novel, Rosemary has learned the truth about her family and herself. There are some sad and unexpected turns, but overall the plot hangs together well. I was very drawn in to the story and was convinced that Fern was a genuine member of this family and that her loss was as hard as the loss of any child could be. Fowler gives her reader a lot to think about and discuss in a reading group.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #48: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel by Sherman Alexie

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is Native American poet Sherman Alexie’s semi-autobiographical novel about a Spokane Indian teen from the reservation. Arnold Spirit (aka Junior) is different from the other kids on the reservation, and not just because of the condition he was born with. Arnold is different because he has hope and dares to leave the rez to attend the all-white high school in town. Filled with humor, sadness, hard truths and enduring hope, this YA novel, which won a National Book Award last year, is an inspiration for those who feel different and alone.

Arnold was born different. As an infant he had hydrocephaly, and he has had medical and speech problems through his life, problems that made him an object of bullying on the reservation. Arnold likes to read, draw (illustrations by Ellen Forney) and play basketball with his pal Rowdy, also from the rez and a really tough kid. When Arnold starts his freshman year in Wellpinit high school on the reservation, his frustration with the poor, outdated resources at the school causes an incident that ultimately leads to his decision, with his parents’ support, to attend the white kids’ public school in town. Arnold’s decision causes anger and resentment on the reservation, especially from his friend Rowdy, but others like his sister and his dad’s friend Eugene seem to understand and admire his drive to live his dreams.

The novel covers Arnold’s first year in high school, which turns out to be eventful and surprising in both good and bad ways. Arnold spends a lot of time alone and learns to handle it. He also finds some surprising allies at his new school Reardan, gains some confidence and discovers skills he hadn’t realized he possessed. One of the powerful messages of the book is the importance of parents and adults in developing young people’s self confidence. If expectations are high and the adults in your life show that they believe in you, it’s amazing what you can do.

At the same time, though, Arnold struggles with the loss of his friendship with Rowdy and a series of tragic deaths. In one chapter, Arnold addresses Tolstoy’s idea that happy families are happy the same way but sad families are sad in different ways. Arnold disagrees and the reader learns that sad statistics about alcoholism and deaths on the reservation. Arnold observes that on the reservation, they were all drunk and unhappy in the same way. Another powerful chapter deals with the basketball rematch between Wellpinit and Reardan, where Arnold has become a star. It becomes a bittersweet showdown for Rowdy and Arnold.

Alexie’s message for his YA audience (and it’s appropriate for anyone) is to make sure that you don’t let others define who you are or make you fit in some narrow category. Instead, recognize all the tribes you belong to and try to expand them. In an interview at the end of the book, Alexie says that you should be prepared to be lonely, as Arnold was when he made his decision, but Arnold found with time that the people he expected to shun him completely were part of his tribe. Arnold says, “If you let people into your life a little bit, they can be pretty damn amazing.” It’s a moving story with a great message.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #47: Locke & Key Volumes 1-6 by Joe Hill, Art by Gabriel Rodriguez

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Locke & Key is a six volume graphic novel that is scary, smart, and humorous. The first five volumes [Welcome to Lovecraft, Head Games, Crown of Shadows, Keys to the Kingdom, Clockworks] have already been published. Volume 6 [Alpha & Omega] will be published in February 2014, but you can pick up the single issues now, except for the final chapter. That will be published Nov. 27 and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. Locke & Key involves quite a bit of murder and horror, which is familiar territory for author Joe Hill and his father Stephen King. I usually shy away from creepy stuff, but the story line is so good, it sucked me in, and the artwork is a stunning complement to the writing.

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The series focuses on the Locke family and their ancestral home Keyhouse, which sits on the edge of a small Massachusetts island town called Lovecraft. When mom Nina, teen son Tyler, teen daughter Kinsey and first grader Bode arrive at Keyhouse, which has been maintained by cool, artsy Uncle Duncan, their dad Rendell has just been brutally murdered by a mentally unstable high school student named Sam Lesser. Tyler feels responsible, Kinsey is overcome by fear and tears, Bode feels lost and alone, and Nina hides inside a wine bottle. The local police keep a watch on the family when Sam Lesser escapes Juvenile Detention in California. Sam is on the road to find the family, drawn forward by a voice that comes to him and promises him everything he desires in return for his service in locating some keys.

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Throughout the volumes, Bode, Kinsey and Tyler find unusual keys around Keyhouse, keys that unlock magical/supernatural powers. Meanwhile the malevolent force that sucks in Sam also tries to work on the members of the Locke family. The story itself is fascinating because it’s more than a traditional quest story or “forces-of-good-versus-forces-of-evil” story. It is truly a psychological thriller. Many of the keys have the power to transform the person him or herself — to change form or look or even to get literally inside someone’s head. In the wrong hands, they could wreak havoc not just on one person or the town of Lovecraft, but the whole world.

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I enjoy graphic novels, but for me, it’s only worthwhile if the plot and writing are any good. That’s the hook for me, while my husband gets pulled in by art first. We both loved Locke & Key. Hill’s creative plot and sympathetic characters made me keep reading even when I was terrified about what was going to happen next (which I hate; I generally avoid horror in all forms). He goes back in time to provide an unusual family history for the Lockes, and his tale of the creation of the keys demonstrates an inventive mix of historical and supernatural imagination. The modern day Lockes are dealing with the usual teen angst and high school drama, which is also the source for the humor in the story. I especially enjoyed the prom scene that gives a hilarious nod to “Carrie.” Hill has written a “sins-of-the-father/sins-of-the-son” storyline that unfolds with tragic consequences but the possibility of redemption.

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My husband recommended Locke & Key and we discussed the merits of the graphic novel form over traditional fiction for this story. Certainly, Locke & Key could have been told as a novel, but given the incredibly imaginative creatures and scenarios Hill envisioned, the graphic novel form was the perfect form for the story. Rodriguez’ ghosts and demons, the keys, the settings (Rodriguez is trained as an architect and it shows in his blueprints for Keyhouse) and characters are better than anything my poor imagination could have come up with. I also loved his homage to Bill Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes at the opening of Vol. 4.

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I both look forward to and dread the last installment of Locke & Key. Hill has no compunction about killing characters in brutal ways, and children are not exempt from that. I’m worried about losing some of them (I love Rufus and Erin — two characters who know the truth and suffer horribly because of it), and I hate to see the story end because it’s so good. The series has been nominated for The Eisner and other awards, and fellow writers such as Warren Ellis and Robert Crais have praised the writing and art. As they say, this is a graphic novel for those who don’t really like graphic novels.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #46: Longbourn: A Novel by Jo Baker

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Lovers of Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice will recognize the title of this novel as the name of the estate where the beloved Elizabeth Bennet and her family reside. Jo Baker, a diehard fan of Austen and the novel, has taken the classic story and created a parallel “behind the scenes” story for it, imagining what life was like for the servants at Longbourn at the time of the events of Pride and Prejudice. Baker’s focus is on her own characters, some of whom are mentioned in passing in P&P and some that spring from her own imagination. Longbourn complements P&P in a startling way. The reader is exposed to a world that existed in tandem with Austen’s society but that was hidden from the likes of the Bennets, largely because they didn’t have to look. Baker shows in detail the world of the servant, the orphan, the common soldier as opposed to the wealthy, the privileged, the officer. She also has created a really topnotch plot for her characters. I don’t think I’ll be able to read P&P again without thinking of Baker’s characters and the way servants kept the upper crust’s world running smoothly.

Our main character is Sarah, a house servant at Longbourn, an orphan roughly the same age as Elizabeth Bennet. Her life is full of work, from early morning before the family arises, until after dark, when everyone else has gone to bed. The other servants include the cook/housekeeper Hill, her butler husband Mr. Hill, and the younger servant Polly, who is also an orphan. Baker provides detailed descriptions of the types of work required of servants and the amount of effort involved in seemingly mundane tasks like cleaning clothes. In P&P, a famous scene shows our plucky heroine Elizabeth walking to Netherfield through muddy fields, getting her petticoats filthy in 6 inches of muck. How we adore her for being so independent and unconcerned about Mr. Bingley’s sisters’ derision! Yet from Sarah’s point of view, Elizabeth might take better care if she were the one responsible for getting those petticoats back to a pristine white state. Elizabeth and Sarah, though residing under the same roof, live in two very different worlds. Even their experiences of a visit to Meryton are as different as night and day. Elizabeth and her sisters visit shops and mingle with officers. Sarah sees this: Back alleys opened off to the left and right, where half-naked children made dams and pools in the gutters and women hunched on their doorsteps under shawls, bundled babies in their arms. The shambles, when she passed them, were deserted, but were filled with their usual miasma of terror, of ammonia and blood. Sarah’s experience of officers in Meryton is a truly hideous scene in which officers flog an enlisted man. The Miss Bennets would never have seen or known of such things.

The plot for Longbourn gets underway when a new servant is hired — James Smith. He is a few years older than Sarah, dark and quiet. Nothing is known or said about his background, and Sarah finds this suspicious. Why are Mrs. Hill and everyone else so willing to take on and trust this stranger? Even though he works very hard, taking on several tasks that had fallen to Sarah’s lot before (and making her life a bit easier), Sarah finds him irksome because he doesn’t engage with her. She resolves to uncover the truth about him. At the same time, the wealthy Bingley family arrives to open their estate at Netherfield, and Mr. Bingley’s servants, in particular a footman named Ptolemy (Tol), provide novel social interaction for the Longbourn servants. Tol is a mulatto, very handsome and charming. He and Sarah hit it off, but Mrs. Hill doesn’t trust him and James seems wary as well, setting up tension in the servants’ quarters. It is reminiscent of Elizabeth’s relations with Darcy and Wickham without being a clumsy recreation of it.

While Tol and James are figures of Baker’s imagination (and very well drawn characters), there are some characters from P&P besides the Bennets who figure prominently in this novel. Baker’s use of Mr. Collins and of Wickham contributes nicely to the plot without taking anything away from P&P. The arrival of Mr. Collins, future heir to Longbourn, creates a fuss and bother in the servants’ quarters not just because Mrs. Bennet is in an uproar about it but also because the fate of the servants will depend on Mr. Collins. Mrs. Hill is very concerned that, upon taking ownership of Longbourn, Mr. Collins will want to retain their services instead of firing them and bringing in others. In P&P, Mr. Collins is a comic character, much derided by Elizabeth and her father for his pedantry and awkward manners. Sarah provides a more sympathetic view of the man: Mr. Collins could not help his awkwardness. He could not help where he had come from, or what chances nature and upbringing had given, or failed to give. Wickham, on the other hand, remains very much the smarmy cad, and the adults below stairs have his character pegged long before the Bennet family.

Rather than go into any more plot detail (because it would spoil the fun for anyone who wants to read this), I’ll just say that the overriding theme is about having your own life and finding your own happiness instead of living in the shadow of someone else’s, a luxury afforded to a minority. Lovers of Pride and Prejudice will find that Baker takes great care of our beloved main characters from that novel while showing us a world that Austen and the Bennets barely knew.