27 February 2011

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Thoughts and Reflections
This book surprised me a little bit. Typically I'm not overly keen to read memoirs (I'm not entirely sure why...), but my book club had selected this one for March, leaving me little choice in the matter. I was pleasantly surprised how quickly I was caught up in the book. I read the thing in every spare moment I had and couldn't wait to get back to it when I had been pulled away.

A theme that I appreciated is this book is that a child isn't necessarily completely subject to his or her environment. Rather, a child can grow up in a racist community and not become racist. A child growing up in an impoverished family doesn't have to continue in the cycle of poverty. Such was the case, so it seemed, with all the characters in this book. Despite the communities that in which they were raised, each was able to determine their own set of values, ambitions, and way of life. An incredible aspect of these particular kids is that, despite malnutrition, inconsistent education, and poverty, they were brilliant. Their parents instilled in them a hunger for knowledge and taught them well, at times even better than the rural American public school system could teach them.

The story of this family is wild and adventurous, heartbreaking and heart-warming. The alcoholism of the father was incredibly frustrating. He repeatedly put his family at risk in order to feed his habit and even put his daughters in danger in order to earn some extra cash. He stole money from his children and was a complete brute when drunk. They parents didn't provide for their children, nor did they advocate for them or protect them. The parents were unwilling, although able, to provide for their children, even the very basics, such as food. At the same time, the children had great adventures travelling around America. Their father, when sober, seemed an ideal father, full of fun and games, lessons and energy. Also, the parents were living the life they wanted. They wanted a rootless life with no strings or responsibilities, just a great adventure.

I was impressed by the children. They were resourceful and smart. They had this uncanny ability to survive and provide for themselves from a young age. They took care of each other. They sought out opportunities and a better life for themselves. They made their way in the world.

I really enjoyed this book. I don't actually have that many thoughts on it, however. I read it and enjoyed it. I like the characters and the ending. I felt angry at the father with his alcoholism, the mother with her lack of concern for her children, and both of them for failing to provide for their children. Other than that, I have little else to say. The novel isn't especially thought provoking, despite the hard times discussed in the novel.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading it and would recommend the novel as a good read.

Brief Synopsis
This is the story of Jeannette Walls and her siblings. The family travelled around America, moving from place to place, never really setting down roots, and living in a variety of conditions. Poverty was a consistent element of their upbringing with an alcoholic father who only managed to keep work periodically and an artist mother, who, though trained as a teacher, hated teaching and refused to do so unless the family was in dire straights. Eventually, the children manage to move themselves to New York, obtain independence and develop their own lives. Their parents followed their children to New York and continued living a rootless and homeless life.

About the Author:
Jeannette Walls was born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1960. She was one of four children. Her family lived a rootless life, moving from Arizona to California, to Nevada, to West Virginia. Eventually, Jeannette moved to New York at the age of 17. She went to Barnard College, graduating from her undergraduate in 1984. She is a journalist by profession, having worked for New York magazine, Esquire, and USA Today. She has also appeared on The Today Show, CNN, Primetime, and The Colbert Report. Her first book was published in 2000 and The Glass Castle was published in 2005. The book received the Christopher Award and the American Library Association's Alex Aware in 2006. It was also a New York Times best seller. She has recently published her first fiction novel, Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel. Jeannette currently lives in Virginia with her second husband, John Taylor.

Things I Liked about this Novel:
1. The resilience of the children. I like hearing stories of successful kids from tough backgrounds.
2. The siblings. They were unique kids and proved to be intelligent and capable adults, despite a difficult upbringing. I also liked that they stuck together and worked together through it all.

22 February 2011

The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone

Thoughts and Reflections
This book was a new experience for me. I haven't read much lore or folk tales. This novel, I don't believe, is true lore (though based on a real character, Gudrid), but it is written in the style of a folk tale. The narrator is telling her story and the book reads as though the reader is hearing her tell her story. At times she tells her story in first person, at others in third.

At first I found the novel difficult to get into, mostly due to the writting style. I suppose I couldn't read it as fast as I wanted or normally would read. However, I soon became caught up in the story of the protagonist/narrator. Soon enough, the various images of Iceland, Greenland, the north Atlantic, and Canada were flickering in my mind. I enjoyed the balance between descriptive writing and history. Neither one drowned out the other, but were a nice compliment.

I enjoyed following Gudrid's story. She had a great willingness for adventure, first travelling to Greenland with her father, then to Vinland with her husband. Her life was hard, partially because of life at the time and her location, but also because of strings of misfortunes that chased her. The book discusses the ghosts of her past, how they affect her present circumstances, and how she overcame these ghosts. However, this discussion remains in the background. The overall sense of the novel is that you are simply hearing the story of someone. As such, there are no themes or motifs or other literary tools. The reader is simply hearing Gudrid tell her own story.

I enjoyed the ending. Due to some unexpected delays in Canada's mass transit, I was able to read the last half of the novel almost without interruption. I read the entire novel over about 3 days, keeping the beginning fresh in my mind even as I finished the last page. The very last pages of the novel provide the conclusion to an instance barely mentioned at the very beginning of the novel. These events didn't make much sense to me. However, conveniently, someone who read the novel previously had marked in the margin exactly which pages this later event referred to (pages 29 and 33, for those who are also confused).  With that reference, the conclusion concluded nicely, leaving me with some lingering thoughts on Gudrid and her life, but no deep or painful curiosity about her experiences. I will admit, to dreaming a few times about her ghosts, though!

And so, all in all, I enjoyed the book. I enjoyed the style, the bit of history, and the glimpse into Gudrid's life. I'd certainly recommend it.

Point of Interest
Gudrid was a real person! Here is a link to a Wikipedia article on her.

Brief Synopsis
The novel tells the story of Gudrid, the protagonist and narrator. Gudrid, as a old woman, is telling the story of the voyages of her youth to a priest in Rome. She, an Icelander around 1000AD, had a life of travel and adventure, trekking to Greenland, to Canada (Vinland -now believed to the L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland) with Leif Erikson, and elsewhere. This was also the time when Christianity came to Iceland. Conversion was at times personal and at other times political. Gudrid had converted, but was still versed in paganism and witchcraft. She believed her life to be guided by the fates. Periods of her life were plagued by death and misfortune, yet she lived a hard but happy life. 

About the Author
Margaret Elphinstone was born in Kent and studied at Queen's College at Durham University. Her research consisted of Scottish authors and literature of Scotland's offshore islands. She traveled extensively and worked in various locations before becoming a teacher at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow in 2003, a position from which she recently retired. She began publishing in the late 1980s. The Sea Road was published in 2000. She received awards and bursaries in order to research and writing the novel, which won the Scottish Arts Council Spring Book Award in 2001.

Things I Liked about this Book
1. Gudrid. She is an incredible character, strong and wise. Her willingness for adventure and ability to endure hardship blew me away.
2. The style of writing. Written as if the reader was being told a folk tale, the book read easily and enjoyably. It was a unique experience, in my opinion.
3. The ending. I'll leave it at that so as not to spoil things for you, but I enjoyed it.

11 February 2011

The Birth House by Ami McKay

Thoughts and Reflections
The language of this book is quite simple and unremarkable. However, the plot was captivating. I found myself quickly caught up in Dora's story and in the issues of the day, from a global women's movement to the everyday happenings in a sleepy town in Nova Scotia, Canada.

In many ways, the reader is able to identify with and become attached to Dora, the protagonist. The reader walks through many experiences with her, is revealed her private journal, tastes her pain and happiness. Yet, Dora still, somehow, remains a bit of a mystery, a shadow in her community, simply floating through life. She is a interesting character, but not overly complex. At certain moments in her life, I felt great regret for her. She is an avid reader, reading such books as Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights. In many ways, her story reminded me of the protagonists in these books.  The reader is made aware what an unpleasant path the protagonist is on, knowing a better path exists, but can only observe as she carries along her course. Yet, the reader persists and watches the protagonist come through her trials one way or the other. Dora lives a hard life, but still a good life.

At first, I thought this was a book for women. Everything about it targets a female audience. In many ways, it is.  However, as I read, about half way through, it hit me that the book is about women. I'm an not an expert on the suffragette movement or the plight of women in the early 1900s, but, as far as I can tell, the author does a remarkable job of informing the reader about what it was to be a woman at that time. I was often exploding with frustration, ready to shout at the page, for how silent the women were, how submissive they were to men, even if it put them in harms way. For instance, birth control of any kind was illegal at the time. Women had little choice but to have child after child or sneak to the midwife for a baby-preventing brew. Condoms were considered items for whores. Strong, uncompromising women would take a beating from their husband or turn a blind eye when he sleeps with another woman. My blood boiled when women were dismissed as being neurotic or hysterical, lacking enough sense to know what's good for them. The women in this novel were caught in this strange time when women were beginning to learn about their voices and were at long last being heard. The book does not directly discuss the suffragette movement, but rather how the movement began to affect people's lives and mentality even up in the sleepy town of Scots Bay and through a issues as ordinary as midwifery and child bearing. 

All told, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I was surprised by its substance and was even sad as it concluded (despite the pleasant ending). I would recommend this novel, but certainly encourage the reader to keep reading if they are discouraged by what initially seems like kitsch!

Brief Synopsis
The Birth House is the story of Dora, a 17 year old girl in the early 1900s in Scots Bay, Nova Scotia, Canada. She is the only girl out of 6 boys. Due to circumstance, she moved in with the local mid-wife and begins being taught in the ways of midwifery. The small community of Scots Bay encounter a number of events, which bring change to this town of traditions, not the least of these events are WWI and the suffragette movement. The story follows Dora as she grows into womanhood and struggles to make her way in the town of her birth in changing times.

About the Author
Ami McKay was born and raise in rural Indiana. She completed an undergraduate degree in Musical Education and Master's degree in musicology from Indiana State University. After completing her degrees she moved to Chicago to become a music teacher at an inner city high school. During this time she began writing, but her busy life as a teacher and single mother prevented her from being able to focus on her writing. She moved to Scots Bay, Nova Scotia in 2000. Fortunately, due to long delays in her immigration process, she was at last able to focus on her writing. She began by writing thank you letters to people she didn't know, which resulted in her making an appearance on Oprah. She eventually began writing and producing documentaries for CBC and doing other freelance work. In 2003 she won an apprenticeship in the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia, which allowed her to work on The Birth House. The Birth House was her debut novel, being published in 2006 and becoming a number one Canadian best seller.

Things I Enjoyed about this Novel
1. Dora. I found myself quite caught up in Dora's story. She was an endearing character, for whom I hoped the best. I wanted to fight with her in her trials, was frustrated with her when she was stuck and voiceless, and was quite pleased with how things turned out for her.
2. Miss B. This is an entirely unique character. I truly enjoyed her.
3. The ladies from away. Pure gold. 
4. The discussion of women at the time, their rights and roles and the changing tides.

09 February 2011

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Thoughts and Reflections:
I admit this novel boggled me. It is a strange combination of farce, general nothingness, and
incredibly heavy topics. Never once was I able to trust what I was reading, for one sentence would be contracted in the next. Often the tale would ramble off on something seemingly unimportant and nonsensical. I was never quite able to laugh at the seemingly humorous instances, for they were wrapped up in a great tragedy. Yet, at other times, the situation was completely overwhelming.

Much of the book kind of had the flavour of the old television show M*A*S*H, which satirised life in a mobile medical unit during the Korean WarThe book came first and I wondered if the television show drew from the book at all... Just a thought...

The author satirised a myriad of aspects such as working to fly the set amount of missions and having that amount incessantly raised, the death of one's companions, the inadequacies and over-bureaucratic nature of the American military, the war itself, profiteering and profiteers, military ambition and rank, soldiers and prostitutes, and the medical system. 

The author relentlessly mocks the military bureaucracy and how individuals get caught up in its chaos. A man is dead, but they can't declare it because he never properly reported for duty. Another man is alive, but thought to be dead and is not able to sort out his situation. One man is declared insane and sent home when he is perfectly sane and has only been confused with a different man. And so on... Many of these instances were both funny to read, but I had sympathy pains for those involved. 

Towards the end of the novel, the plot became increasingly serious, even gruesome and nightmarish. Topics were discussed without being satirised, such as the value of human life and the right to kill. At this point, I had an even stronger compassion for the protagonist and at last began to appreciate and understand the novel. The author depicts the dilemma of realising the needs of others, whilst being totally unable to help, having only ineffective words to attempt to comfort someone that is suffering. For instance, Yossarian desperately tried to help a dying man, but is unable to save his life and can only console him by repeatedly saying, "there, there." However, despite this nightmarish section, the ending offers a sense of hope. This strange ability of humanity to survive, even survive seemingly impossible situation provides the protagonist with a sense of hope and opportunity. Not surprisingly, the author closes the book with a befuddling, strange, funny, and somehow happy ending.

All in all, I did enjoy the book. About 3/4 of the way through, I was sort of ready for it to end, but found the final chapters captivating and thought provoking.  Most of the book is fairly nonsensical. Some of the instances that were discussed, though satirically described, were very difficult to absorb. Other instances were seemingly purely for humours-sake. Others were just embarrassingly painful. I feel as though I may have missed some of the meaning of many of the events. I would say the book is worth a read. It is a love-hate journey for certain, but I theorise that that was the author's intention...

Brief Synopsis:
The protagonist, Yossarian, a crass, lecherous, an emotional train wreck, prone to temper tandtrums and far from a stable individual, was rather endearing. His situation was a difficult one: a WWII bombardier on the Italian front who flies mission after mission, losing a few compatriots along the way, and desperately hoping to fly a set number of missions and go home. Unfortunately for him, that set number of missions is repeatedly raised. He is on the brink of insanity and trying just about everything to get himself grounded and return home. The protagonist is a fellow that is struggling against a great wrong, or many wrongs, amidst a war. 

Each chapter is named after one of the many characters in the story. However, the chapter may not actually provide that characters story, but the story of another character. Each chapter, however, paints a bit more of the overall picture and always gives a bit more information on the protagonist. 

Point of Interest:
A Catch-22 is a logical paradox arising from a situation in which an individual needs something that can only be acquired by not being in that very situation. As such, the acquisition of this thing is logically impossible. For example, in order to be proved crazy to be grounded from flying combat missions, one must be declared unfit. In order to be declared unfit, one must ask for an evaluation. Asking for an evaluation is proof of sanity.

About the Author:
Joseph Heller was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York in 1923. He worked a string of odd jobs after completing high school before joining the US Army Air Corps in 1942. He was sent to the Italian front in 1944, where he flew 60 missions as a B25 bombardier. Afterwards, he studied English at the University of Southern California and NYU, going on to receive an MA in 1949 from the Columbia University. He spent a year at Oxford University and taught at Pennsylvania State and Yale. He married in 1945 and was first published in 1948 when the Atlantic printed some of his short stories. Catch-22 was published in 1961. 

Things I Enjoyed about this Novel:
1. Yossarian, the protagonist. He was complex character that was a web of controversies: unquestioningly insane and the most sane individual on site; totally immoral yet somehow honourable; he was hateful and angry as well as kind and considerate. 

2. It's hard to say what I loved, because almost every event or character was both endearing and hateful. I enjoyed the discussion of the ridiculous military bureaucracy, but I was also uber frustrated with it. Likewise for the discussion on war profiteering... It's hard to say what I enjoyed, but overall, I did enjoy the novel.

3. The ending. The author somehow balances the nightmare of war and the incredibly frustrating experiences of the protagonist with a sense of hope and humour.