Friday, December 15, 2017

The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs

Title:  The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs
Author:  Janet Peery
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2017. 288 pages.
ISBN:  1250125081 / 978-1250125088

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Even a hundred years past the town's founding a visitor to Amicus might guess it had been laid out by rival drunks."

Favorite Quote:  "For most of her life she had yielded to the will of others, she had done what others wanted, but now it was her turn to be obstinate and she resolved to enjoy it."


Abel, Hattie, Doro, Jesse, ClairBell, Gideon, and Billy are the Campbell family now. There was also Nick, but sadly he died in his twenties of a heart condition. Abel - the ailing father, the retired judge - continues to judge and control his children. Hattie - seemingly meek next to her husband's control - enables her children's behaviors.

The Campbell children all face their own problems, many of them revolving around addictive behaviors. Abel and Hattie in their decades of marriage have gotten used to the "scandals" surrounding their children, through marriages, divorces, addictions, and confrontations with the law.

The only acknowledged drug addict in the midst is Billy. He is ill and not expected to live long. He is also an addict, has been for a long while. This has led to brushes with the law and confrontations with his family. After one particular episode that begins at Abel's birthday dinner, the other Campbell siblings plan an intervention while continuing on their own addictive paths. So begins the plot of this book. However, this is not really a plot driven book. It is more about the characters, their individual struggles, and the relationships.

This book sets the stage to be the story of a dysfunctional family set in fictional small town of Amicus, Kansas. The book description states, "With knowing humor ... reveals a family at its best and worst, with old wounds and new, its fractures and feuds, and yet its unbreakable bonds." Unfortunately, the humor escapes me. This is not a happy or a humorous book. This is a serious, sad look at the damage addictive behaviors - physical and psychological - cause to the individual and those around them.

Stories of dysfunction and struggles against oneself have the potential to be powerful ones. Neither the character nor the topics have be likable to create a powerful message in a book. Unfortunately, this book has the unlikable characters, but the power of the message does not quite reach me.

Maybe, it's because all members of the family present these behaviors. Maybe, it's because the characters are all older in their forties and fifties, still controlled by their parents and still vying for parental approval and sounding like they are so much younger than their ages would suggest. Maybe, it's because those are the aspects of their characters developed. Maybe, it's because the individual struggles get overshadowed by the competition and jealousies among the siblings. Maybe, it's because, as a reader, I cannot find anything to relate to in these characters. I don't quite know. I can't quite determine the exact reason why the book does not engage me, but sadly it does not.

Eventually, the book becomes Hattie's story and her emergence in her own life. Unfortunately, this development and evolution comes too late in the book. The response to and the caring - or lack thereof - for these characters develops long before that point. Although the change in her is interesting, at that point, I am done with the book.


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Thursday, December 14, 2017

Love and Other Consolation Prizes

Title:  Love and Other Consolation Prizes
Author:  Jamie Ford
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2017. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0804176752 / 978-0804176750

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Ernest Young stodd outside the gates on opening day of the new world's fair, loitering in the shadow of the futre."

Favorite Quote:  "We all have things we don't talk about ... Even though, more often than not, those are the things that make us who we are."

Love and Other Consolation Prizes is a love set in the middle of the red light district of Seattle in the early 1900s amidst the glitz and fanfare of the Alaska Yukon Pacific (AYK) Exposition. It is a love story of teenagers forced by circumstance to grow up and live adult lives well before their age warranted. It is a love story that lasts over fifty years until the next Seattle World Fair. Exactly whose love story is the question that remains unanswered until close to the end of the book.

Ernest Young is born into poverty in China. His mother obtains him passage to the United States when he is twelve in the hopes of a better life for him. His journey leads him to an orphanage and a workhouse. It leads him to the be a prize raffled off at the World's Fair. Yes, a human boy becomes a raffle prize. This horrifying circumstance leads him to the brothels of Seattle and sets the course of his remaining life for as a houseboy in a brothel, he finds friendship and love. Fahn is young woman working as a housemaid in the brothel. Maisie is the Madam's daughter. The three are close in age and form a trio of friends.

Fast forward fifty years. Ernest is an old man living a quiet life. His two daughters are living their lives - one as a journalist and one as a dancer in Las Vegas. His wife suffers from dementia-like symptoms and has fading memories of her life with Ernest.

His daughter discovers the story of Ernest's childhood and the raffle and wants to investigate and learn more. This sets Ernest down memory lane. Through past and present, the story of Ernest, Maisie, and Fahn is revealed. Around it is built the colorful world of Seattle and the World's Fair.

As with Jamie Ford's other books (Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and Songs of Willow Frost, this book pays homage to his ancestry and the Asian American experience. All three books begin in Seattle which is where Jamie Ford grew up. Songs of Willow Frost also begins with a young boy growing up in an orphanage. Perhaps enough time has passed between my reading the two books or perhaps the stories are different enough, despite the similarities, the books do not feel formulaic. It will be interesting to see if he keeps to the same locales and the same themes in his works moving forward.

The most horrifying piece of the history in this book is true. During the AYK, an infant (not a twelve year old) named Ernest was indeed the prize of a raffle. History says that a winning ticket was picked, but the "prize" was never claimed. What happened to the baby has never been resolved. There are no words to describe such an event; yet, it is a piece of history I would never have known but for the home it finds in this fiction.

Two things draw me to Jamie Ford's books; in this too, the three books are similar. The first is that the books envelop the reader in their world - the sights, the sounds, the smells. I feel as if I am there experiencing the history. The other is his ability to draw sympathetic characters and to elicit that emotion. That keeps me engaged in the story. For that, I look forward to the next book.


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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

George and Lizzie

Title:  George and Lizzie
Author:  Nancy Pearl
Publication Information:  Touchston. 2017. 288 pages.
ISBN:  1501162896 / 978-1501162893

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The night Lizze and George met - it was at the Bowlarama way out on Washnetaw - she was flying high on some awfully good weed because her heart was broken."

Favorite Quote:  "See, we're always writing the narrative of our lives, and when you respond badly you turn the event into a burden, something that you carry forward into the next moment, the next hour, the next day, and the rest of  your life. It fills up your narrative. It weighs you down. You never forget it. But when you respond well, you have nothing to add to the narrative. You simply experience the unpleasantness, then let it naturally pass away, and then greet the next moment of your life with no trace of the last."

George and Lizzie are married. They have been married for years. This marriage is not a partnership of equal caring. It never has been. In fact, a list is given of the reasons why George loves Lizzie, the key quality on the list is Lizzie's neediness. "Lizzie needed George in ways that no one else ever had, or, he believed, ever would. She needed him to do the ordinary things ... More significantly, Lizzie (in George's view) needed rescuing from her own sadness, and George was convinced that he was the only person in the world who could do so."

So, one person's sadness and another's desire to fill that sadness is the basis for this marriage. Years and years late, Lizzie is still sad, and George is still trying. That is where this story begins. More than the story of a marriage, this is Lizzie's story. Going from the present all the way back to high school and back again in a nonlinear fashion, the book lays out an image of Lizzie's story. At the heart of Lizzie's sadness are the decisions of a teenaged Lizze in high school and the repercussions of those decisions extending through her life.

In high school, Lizzie decided to embark on a "game" to sleep with the entire football team. She saw the mistake she was making but was unable to stop. Fast forward to college. Lizzie tells her boyfriend the truth about high school; he bolts. Lizzie never recovers. Fast forward to George, who essentially loves Lizzie no matter what.

George's character is not developed. The reader sees what Lizzie sees - the constant, steadfast love in the face of all the obstacles Lizzie puts up. As a reader, I appreciate that devotion and wait through the book to see if eventually Lizzie does as well. I am also left wondering why George stays, what in him drives that need to cure Lizzie's sadness. His perspective is not explored.

My biggest issue with this book is that I don't understand the character of Lizzie and the decisions of her high school and college years. The book introduces the fact that Lizzie grows up the only child of two psychologists who view her more as an experiment than a child. However, that facet is not explored enough to lay the foundation for what comes next. The decision about the "game" in high school is unexplained. Lizzie's inability to stop is unexplained. The regret is understandable. However, that regret is replaced by the regret of losing her college boyfriend. She spends her life pining for someone with whom she had a very short relationship in college and who clearly moved on. That loss remains regardless of the love she receives over the course of long years from George. That too is unexplained. Years of devotion are unable to balance a short college romance; George is unable to cross the barrier of her sadness. Why?

I am not saying there may not be reasons; I am saying the book does not explore them. Without that why, I am left with one thought. George, run and save yourself.


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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Salt Line

Title:  The Salt Line
Author:  Holly Goddard Jones
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2017. 400 pages.
ISBN:  073521431X / 978-0735214316

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The burn was the first rite of passage."

Favorite Quote:  "You can be lonely without ever having known anything but begin alone."

A political point to be begin with. A key defense mechanism in this post-apocalyptic world is a wall around the region that believed itself the best off in terms of the availability of resources and the lack of pestilence. The powers of the region built a wall as security to keep outsiders from finding their way there except through very strictly controlled, strictly regimented pathways. Coincidence given the current political discussions in the United States? According to author interviews, absolutely. The book has been a work in progress for a couple of years before any talk of an actual wall emerged.  But what a coincidence! As a reader, it is difficult not to draw the comparison.

On to the story. The world as we know it is no more. People live in conclaves, guarding against the dangers of the world outside the wall. Dangers they have never witnessed, but dangers they have been indoctrinated about throughout their lives. The flip side of danger is that it begets adventurers. Tour companies target the rich, offering a carefully orchestrated adventure into "nature" outside the walls for "connecting with nature - however dangerous it can be - is essential to the experience of begin human." This nature trek heads into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

This story is about one such tour group who gets much more than they bargained for. The danger they are expecting is that of the nature, particularly miner ticks whose bite can kill in the most gruesome way as described in the opening pages of the book. What they don't expect is to find a thriving community outside the walls with its own views of the world, its own rules, and its own agenda. What they don't expect to find is political deals and business deals that cross the wall. For some of them, what they find are their own voices and new paths and new relationships.

Then again, the members of the group are not necessarily there for the promised adventure either. Wunderkind Wes, who invented the last big "thing" to alter the world is worried that edge is slipping and is on this trip to do the unexpected. If there is a business deal to be made, that's an added bonus. Edie, who is an immigrant to the world inside the walls and is fighting for stability, is there for she feels she owes a debt to her celebrity boyfriend Jesse. Marta Perrone, who lives in apparent luxury but knows there is a darker side to that wealth, is there because her wheeling-dealing mobster husband deems it necessary. The tour guide Andy...well, why he does what he does becomes clear through the book.

The book follows the storyline of several characters inside and outside the wall. It builds back stories and then moves forward. Perhaps a few too many. The world building is definitely stronger, for I can perceive a visual of the salt line and the worlds on both sides.

The ending of this book is not truly an ending, for several of the characters experience new beginnings. Could that hint at a possible sequel? I am not sure. Am I invested enough in the characters to want to know more? Possibly Marta for she emerges as the most intriguing of all the characters. However, more than likely, not.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Little Fires Everywhere

Title:  Little Fires Everywhere
Author:  Celeste Ng
Publication Information:  Penguin Press. 2017. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0735224293 / 978-0735224292

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking bout it that summer:  how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down."

Favorite Quote:  "To a parent, your child wasn't just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once. You could see it every time you looked at her:  layered in her face was the baby she'd been and the child she'd become and the adult she would grow up to be, and you saw them all simultaneously, like a #-D image. It made your head spin. It was a place you could take refuge, if you knew how to get it. And each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be able to return to that pace again."

Little Fires Everywhere is the story of the Richardsons, a well-to-do family leading a schedule, planned life in the planned neighborhood of Shaker Heights in Cleveland. He's a lawyer; she's a journalists. Their four children are growing up, knowing only their comfortable world. Their regulated life is shaken up by the arrival of a new tenant Mia, someone Mrs. Richardson views as a bohemian artist. Along with Mia comes her daughter Pearl. Lives start to intertwine as friendships and relationships flourish.

Conflict arises when the Richardson's friends are involved in a cross-cultural adoption and the birth mother re-enters the picture. The conflict is between the rights of a birth mother and adoptive parents. Sides are taken. Other secrets form and even more emerge in this heated debate.

In the context of this debate, this book is at its heart the story of mothers and daughters and of a big philosophical question. What makes a woman a mother? Is it the act of carrying a child for nine months? Is it the act of physically giving birth? Is it the unconditional love you pour into a child? Is it the tough love when you hold back, thinking it is the best for your child? Is it all of the above or any combination of the above or perhaps something all together?

There are many mothers in this book. One mother turns her back on her daughter because the daughter's choices. Women - girls - become mothers without understanding the impact that will carry through their entire lives. A woman finds herself mothering another's child. Another would trade all she has to have the chance to be a mother. The power of Celeste Ng's writing is the ability to elicit emotion and to pull the reader - at least this reader - into the hearts and minds of the characters. I walk away seeing all sides and feeling sympathy towards all sides. This does not mean I agree with all sides, but I can see them.

Oddly, for a book that takes on the topic of motherhood, much of the story revolves around the teenagers in the book with all the teenage angst that carries with it. High school parties, who likes who, sibling rivalry and other such topics at times give the book a young adult feel. However, parental readers beware for teenage sex does become the focal point of the story for a while. That and the main topic of motherhood make this definitely a book for adults.

For an emotionally engaging book, the ending to this book seems rushed. A big revelation is accepted with calm by a teenager. A truth about a daughter is accepted with equal calm by a mother. Real life considerations to other decisions are simply not there. Let's just say that certain aspects of the ending are quickly handled and thus become a little less believable. Regardless, practical considerations aside, I do still want to know what happens to these characters after the book ends. That too me is always a sign of a book that will stay with me.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Rescued

Title:  Rescued: What Second-Chance Dogs Teach Us About Living with Purpose, Loving with Abandon, and Finding Joy in the Little Things
Author:  Peter Zheutlin
Publication Information:  TarcherPerigee. 2017. 256 pages.
ISBN:  0143131176 / 978-0143131175

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In the early fall of 2012, after he's been with us nearly four months, our rescue dog Albie and I walked the pin-needle-covered trails of what was fast becoming our special place:  Elm Bank along the Charles River, a forested preserve outside Boston."

Favorite Quote:  "The particulars might vary, but to a person we each felt a deep sense of fulfillment and satisfaction in being sble to provide love, affection, and a warm place to sleep for a beautiful living creature that, as the famous line in 'Amazing Grace' goes, had once been lost but now was found - a creature that was once abandoned or abused, or had never known a home or human kindness, or that might otherwise have been dispatched from this world without a second thought within the cold concrete walls of a shelter. Now these dogs were free to run through fields or jump into ponds or sit by fires and have their heads gently stroked by someone who loved them."

Rescued is a book by a "dog person" for others who are "dog people." The book is about a love affair with dogs, but not just any dogs. These are rescue dogs, those that have been abandoned, lost, and many times abused. They are in need of loving homes.

Pragmatically, the book provides information on rescue organization and the sad reality of kill shelters. However, information is not at the heart of this book. It is not necessarily an informative call to action, but rather an acknowledgement of those who already understand and are willing participants in this rescue mission. It seeks to inspire by example not necessarily by facts or statistics.

This book is a set of lessons, centered around the joy of rescuing a dog in need and the fact that at times it is unclear who rescues who - human or dog. This book is about the unconditional love that can be found through a pet, particularly one that may not have know love before. The chapter titles pick up on a common phrase or life thought and put it in the context of a dog owner:

  • Settings the world right, one dog at a time
  • Home is where the dog is
  • Life isn't always a beach ... but sometimes it is
  • Dogs will be dogs
  • Walk a mile in their paws

This gives the book a cutsie feel that may not have been the intended effect. Life lessons abound, by all means, but setting them in the midst of cliches seems to draw the power away from the lessons.

To convey its message, the book weaves together a number of stories of owners and the dogs they rescue. The anchor is the author himself and his dogs. However, the book moves back and forth through different scenarios. As such, the emotion of these rescues and the bond that develops between owner and dog becomes a little more distant. The book does not settle into any one story to convey the depth of that emotion.

Interestingly, the book is about the joy and necessity of rescuing these animal. It is about how animals become a part of the family. "But all of this made me realize that dogs, like children, have their challenges and some children, and some dogs, are easier than others ... And just as we don't surrender our children when things veer off course or become challenging, the commitment to a dog, especially one that had to beat long odds just to make it home, ought to run just as deep." At the same time, it is also about a realistic approach. "Allowing our dogs to be dogs means reminding ourselves sometimes that, as much as we love and adore them, and as much as we want to protect them, they are, for better or worse, not children."

The stories in the book are as heartwarming as those eyes on the cover as it spreads its important message of care.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

The Friendly Orange Glow

Title:  The Friendly Orange Glow:  The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture
Author:  Brian Dear
Publication Information:  Pantheon. 2017. 640 pages.
ISBN:  1101871555 / 978-1101871553

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "They sat in little wooden chairs in front of little wooden desks."

Favorite Quote:  "PLATO was a computer system, but more important, it was a culture, both physical and online, a community that formed on its own, with its own jargon, customs, and idioms; its own cast of thousands, a world familiar to us yet subtly foreign, an entire era that clashes with the accepted, canonical history of computing, social media, online communities, online games, and online education. It's as if an advanced civilization had once thrived on earth, dwelled among us, built a wondrous technology, but then disappeared as quietly as they had arrived, leaving behind scraps of legend and artifacts that only few noticed."

The author worked for five years on the PLATO system; he is "someone who had the great fortune to come of age, to 'become digital,' as it were withing that very culture." That perspective makes this history a very personal one.

"The story of PLATO as a technological and cultural history is unusual. Unlike most such histories, there are no existing major books, magazine articles, documentaries, or other common sources to which historians may turn ... An untenable situation was avoided by setting up a website, running since 1996, announcing the book project, describing its scope, listing questions for which the author was seeking answers ... The result is a book largely based on oral history, capturing, before they are forever lost, the stories of the people who participated in the late, great online community known as PLATO." This source material makes this history a very personal one and makes this history a story of the people involved beyond the facts of the project itself.

What, you may ask, is PLATO? I had never heard of it before reading this book; I would venture to guess that neither have most people. That dearth of knowledge is what makes this history a necessary one. PLATO stands for Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations. It was an early computer development project that began in 1960 at the University of Illinois. Its ideas are the predecessor to many things we take for granted today - online forums, email, instant messaging, screen sharing, and other technology essential to remote, cooperative work.

The intent of PLATO was an educational platform. Could a computer be used to teach students as effectively as a human teacher? What role could this technology play in reimagining the US education system. A by-product of this project was an intensely committed community dedicated to its development, sustenance, and enjoyment. This book is a story of that community. It is, in fact, the community itself seeking to preserve its history.

The book itself relates its history in three segments. The first part is about the historical environment and the behavioral ideas that led to the system's development. The title to Part Two is also the title of an Isaac Asimov short story about learning through mechanical teachers rather than a human one - the PLATO objective. The final part is the successful and unsuccessful attempts to move PLATO to a wider platform - beyond both its community and beyond the world of education. Clearly, the impact has lingered although the system and the names have not.

The Friendly Orange Glow is a book written by a community for a community. It is an endeavor to preserve a history. The research and time put into compiling the history is clear in the length and depth of the details and the extensive list of sources and notes at the end. The personal interest and viewpoint of the author is clear from beginning to end. The book is lengthy and dense but nevertheless a fascinating story of a time, a place, and a community.


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