ABR’s #CBR5 Review #6: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

6lonesomeI believe the words ‘epic’ and ‘sweeping’ were invented for a book like Lonesome Dove. Written in 1985, Lonesome Dove was the first of a series of books by Larry McMurtry that tells the stories of several retired Texas Rangers as they drive a cattle herd from Texas to Montana.

The book opens in 1876 at the Hat Creek Cattle Company and Livery Emporium in the Texas border town of Lonesome Dove. Captain Augustus McCrae (Gus) and Captain Woodrow Call are retired Texas Rangers who now spend their days drinking, stealing horses and gambling. When Jake Spoon, a charming but lazy acquaintance returns to Lonesome Dove, he raves about the land and riches awaiting in Montana. Gus and Call are persuaded to round up a crew and a herd and head ‘Up North.’

What happens in the next 900 pages could be a stereotypical story of wizened cowboys, naive cowhands and lovelorn women, but McMurtry’s characters are developed so fully and richly. There is love and drama and tragedy but nothing is overwrought. Bad things happen, good things happen, and much like the massive cattle herd, the novel moves on.

I wouldn’t say Lonesome Dove is an easy read. It is long, and there are a lot of characters. Some have a large role in the novel, some you only learn their fates through the stories of the primary characters. But it is a rewarding read, especially if you savor the way the novel seems to perfectly capture the harshness of the era and the fortitude of the people who survived it.

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #5: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

sharp-objectsI was one of the few people who read Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl and didn’t love it. Well, that’s not quite true. I loved the novel until page 412 and then …. seriously?

But I liked it enough to want to read more Gillian Flynn. So I’m starting with her first novel, Sharp Objects.

The main character of Sharp Objects is Camille Preaker, a fledgling reporter at a Chicago newspaper. When two children are murdered in her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, Camille is asked to report the story. Seeing a chance to prove her mettle and visit her mother, step father and half-sister, Camille reluctantly agrees.

Once home she soon remembers the things she disliked most about her hometown – the cliques, the bars, the drunks, the sexuality and the violence often went with it. While her hometown is dysfunctional, her home is even more so. Her mother Adora is detached with Camille and infantilizes her daughter Amma, a 13-year-old bully who terrorizes the town and manipulates their mother.

Bit by bit, the crimes are investigated and Camille’s back story is revealed. She is an alcoholic and a cutter, and when she starts to see similarities between the dead girls, her bully half-sister and herself, she is tempted to relapse.

It’s hard to like Camille. She is flawed, both troubled and troubling. She doesn’t seem capable of making any good decisions. Just about the only redeeming thing about her is that she’s trying to redeem herself.

Although the novel is suspenseful, the denouement isn’t much of a surprise, partly because at some point in the novel every character seems capable of the crimes. But what elevates the story over an episode of “Law and Order” or “CSI” is Flynn’s writing. It reminds me of Stephen King – macabre, suspenseful and disquieting. While she imbues some graphic passages with an eerie beauty, she doesn’t shy away from overt sexuality and violence. Much of the novel takes place in Missouri (where Flynn grew up) and as a Midwesterner I can attest that her depiction of the Midwestern small town is spot on. Embarrassingly so. Because of that, I found some humor in the book. But mostly it is dark and chilling.

Personally I find books like Sharp Objects, (I’m thinking Carrie or The Lovely Bones or even The Road) terrifying because the monsters aren’t supernatural. We are the monsters.

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #4: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

virgin-suicidesYears ago, when I saw the movie The Virgin Suicides, I didn’t know it was based on a book. It was only when I read Jeffrey Eugenides’ second novel, Middlesex, that I realized his first book was
the basis for the movie. I didn’t like Middlesex, but I have to say, The Virgin Suicides is nearly perfect. It’s strange, sad, funny, engrossing, and even though it was written in 1993, timely.

If you were a fan of the movie, you’ll enjoy the book. It’s one of those rare instances when the movie and book are complementary and enhancive. Entire passages of dialogue and narration are
used to great effect in the movie, and fleeting details like hand gestures, physical descriptions and songs are made significant, translated from page to screen perfectly.

The book opens with a spoiler, of sorts. The narrator, a young neighbor and one of the many boys who is obsessed with the Lisbon family, is recounting the suicide of Cecilia, the youngest daughter. Over the next 13 months, as the parents increasingly isolate the remaining four daughters, the mystique surrounding the family grows, as does the boys’ obsession. They catalog their comings and goings, speculate on their lives based on the contents of their garbage, and spy on the girls from a bedroom window across the street. There is virtually no interaction between the boys and the Lisbon daughters until the boys are permitted to take the girls to prom, an eventful night that ultimately sets the direction for the end of the novel.

The Virgin Suicides could be called a horror story. There are certainly plenty of chilling passages and shocking events. At the same time it is a coming of age story that perfectly captures the insecurities and imaginations of young girls and the urges of young men. It is also a cautionary tale of sex and lust, and a study of the somewhat hypocritical community that initially rallies around the family but ultimately gossips and whispers and moves on to the next tragedy.

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #3: Just Kids by Patti Smith

just-kids

When Patti Smith was very young, her parents took her to the Museum of Art in Philadelphia. She left the museum transformed, “moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.” Although she had no clear plan and few resources, she felt a calling and “dreamed of meeting an artist to love and support and work with side by side.”

Years later, when Smith was 21, she headed for New York, hoping to meet up with friends studying there. Almost immediately she met Robert Mapplethorpe, a fellow artist looking for work and inspiration. Their chance meeting turned into a lifelong relationship in which they would be friends, lovers and friends again. In meeting Mapplethorpe, Smith’s wish was granted; she would be both “muse and maker,” Frida Kahlo to Mapplethorpe’s Diego Rivera.

Although Patti Smith’s own story is illustrious – she is an artist, poet, writer, activist, the Godmother of punk – it is her unique relationship with Mapplethorpe that is the subject of her 2010 memoir, Just Kids. The book details their courtship, bohemian lifestyle and burgeoning careers at a time when art, music, politics, activism and AIDS converged in New York City.

Part journal, part scrapbook, part poem, Just Kids is sometimes romantic and tender, sometimes crude, and sometimes tedious. It is punctuated with colorful meetings with Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and William Burroughs, and references to Jim Morrison, Andy Warhol and the “eccentric and damned” Chelsea Hotel. The book is nearly over before Smith mentions her advancing music career, but as she says at the end, she did not intend to document her own success. Instead she reveals a very human, nearly tortured side to Mapplethorpe and his lifelong drive to become an artist, not just someone who creates art.

The book is a moving tribute to Mapplethorpe, a “sweet and mischievous, shy and protective” man who was often maligned as an artist. Just Kids is Smith’s way to eulogize him, say goodbye, and continue a collaboration that lasted a lifetime.

 

 

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #2: What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship & Love by Carole Radziwill

2-what-remainsBefore Carole Radziwill was Princess Radziwill she was Carole DiFalco, an ABC news producer from Suffern, New York. While on assignment, she met Anthony Radziwill, a news producer who also happened to be a Polish prince, Jackie Kennedy’s nephew and cousin to John Kennedy Jr.

After a long courtship, DiFalco and Radziwill married and embarked on what could have been a fairy tale life of fame, wealth and class. But shortly after their honeymoon, doctors removed cancerous tumors from Anthony’s leg and groin, and their fairy tale life took an unexpected turn.

Carole Radziwill’s book What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship & Love chronicles her five-year marriage before her husband died of cancer, and her brief, but significant friendship with Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy before her death in a 1999 plane crash.

Even though you know how the book is going to end, it’s a captivating read, mostly due to Radziwill’s expressive writing. Weddings, dinners, appointments and vacations are all described in vivid detail. And while there are some intimate stories about John and Carolyn – anecdotes about their courtship and marriage and peeks into their personal struggles – there’s nothing sensational or gratuitous about the book. It is mostly a memoir about the relationship between the two couples, a way for the author to make sense of the slow, anticipated death of her husband and the sudden death of her best friend.

You may dismiss this book if you know that Carole Radziwill is now one of the cast members on the Real Housewives of New York, or that her next book is called The Widow’s Guide to Sex and Dating, but What Remains stands alone as an evocative memoir and an honest reminder that most fairy tales have their share of tragedy.

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #1: Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott

Help Thanks Wow Book CoverAfter the shootings in Newtown I  was obsessed with the news of the massacre. For days I couldn’t stop watching television coverage, couldn’t stop checking updates online. As much as I didn’t watch to watch, I couldn’t stop. I have a kindergartener, and the grief I felt thousands of miles away literally drove me to my knees. The only thing that felt appropriate was to pray, but in light of such a senseless act, I found myself speechless.

I’ve always been intimated by prayer. I can say the Lord’s Prayer with the best of them. On many a night I go to bed after whispering a prayer I memorized when I was 10, but I don’t know Bible verses or parables. I can’t compose a prayer that would make a congregation weep.

Years ago a friend gave me a copy of Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies to read on vacation. I was instantly enamored, but for every quote, every anecdote that struck a chord, the one thing that stood above all else was Lamott’s interpretation of prayer. In Traveling Mercies she proposes the best prayers are “Thank you” and “Help me.” Those are my kinds of prayers.

And that is why I was immediately drawn to Lamott’s latest book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. Consider it a primer for prayer, an elaboration on the thought she introduces in Traveling Mercies. It reinforces her belief that prayers should be simple.

If you aren’t familiar with Anne Lamott, she has been writing since 1979, when she published her first book of fiction. I particularly enjoy her non-fiction. Operating Instructions, the autobiographical account of her pregnancy and childbirth and the first year of her son Sam’s life, is the perfect antidote to smug, trendy pregnancy books. She has written about motherhood, family, alcoholism, addiction, recovery, and throughout her work are the themes of faith, forgiveness, gratitude, grace.

Lamott’s latest book evenly covers the essential prayers of Help, Thanks and Wow, with a closing chapter called, naturally, Amen.

“Help” is the prayer we issue when we are at our worst, our “most degraded and isolated.” This is the prayer I think most of us would utter now. In a world of violence and global warming and the fiscal cliff, “Help” is the first great prayer. There are great prayers in the world – the “good china of prayers” – but when people around the world are at the end of their rope, regardless of their belief or religion, they ask for help. To do so is to relinquish control to a greater being or greater force.

There are many reasons to say “Thanks.” It may be relief. It may be true gratitude or appreciation or anything in between, “from the daily break of good luck and found money, to the magical, mystical magnetic force or quiet or exuberant relief, when you know something – God, fate, luck, kismet, the law, Powerball – has smiled on you big-time.” But the “Thanks” prayer is important because it leads to gratitude. It becomes action and behavior and habit.

“Wow” is the third great prayer. It is “offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or destruction, of a sudden unhidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace. “Wow” means we are not dulled to wonder.” Lamott believes there are two kinds of “wow” prayers: lowercase and uppercase. Lowercase wows are the daily blessings we often take for granted: clean sheets, hot shower, good coffee. Uppercase wows are wondrous, often mind-boggling or miraculous: the Grand Canyon, childbirth.

The “Wow” chapter was my favorite part of the book. No matter your religious or spiritual beliefs, anyone can surely marvel at a beautiful sunset or a child giggling on a merry-go-round. And the paragraphs that talk about the wonders of each season are truly poetic.

In the “Amen” chapter Lamott sums up the attitude and reason behind prayer. She quotes C.S. Lewis, who said, “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.” You don’t have to know who you are praying to or what you are specifically praying for, but just the act of slowing down, finding a corner of quiet, and asking for help or expressing gratitude or wonder, is a start.

At 102 pages (tall, narrow pages at that) Help, Thanks, Wow is certainly something you can read on a rainy afternoon or over a couple lunch hours. Even if you don’t buy Lamott’s concept of prayer, her writing is, as usual, entertaining, humorous, bittersweet and thought provoking. You don’t have to agree with her concepts to appreciate her thoughts. The next time a stranger helps you fix a flat tire or you see a perfect snowfall on Christmas day, you’ll think about this book.