Reader’s Journal

Reader’s Journal: Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest DisasterI’m not exactly a risk-taker. In fact, I’m what might be described as “indoorsy.” The most daunting thing I face daily is trying not to trip on the stairs while carrying food and drink up to my office. Given this, you might be surprised at my interest in a book like Into Thin Air.

Well, truth be told, I really wasn’t all that interested. I mainly bought it for two reasons: it was on sale, and I wanted my mother to stop nagging me about reading it already. (Don’t feel sorry for her and think that now she has nothing to nag me about. She has plenty of other things, including calling her, making one of the eleventy-million recipes she sends me, reading Wolf Hall, and wearing just a tad more mascara because it wouldn’t kill me…but I digress.) Into Thin Air is Mom’s go-to book when she can’t seem to find anything else she wants to read. The fact that a book about a terrible, real-life tragedy during a mountaineering expedition is a “go-to” book in my mother’s mind is another post entirely.

If you’re one of my hundreds of Twitter followers—I can say that now, because as I write this I am officially up to 204 followers and yes I am willingly counting you in the mix, Nissan-Dialer, whoever (whatever) you are—then you know all about the tragic events in my own life these last few weeks. But maybe you don’t so I’ll fill you in: I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, making some pretty nice (for me) progress and happy to be out of a months-long slump at last, when I hit page 439. Page 439 is the end of Section 4 in that book. So I flipped past the “Section 5” page and a pretty print of some flower drawing and found myself mid-sentence on page 471. My copy was a rather nice hard-bound edition, by the way. For several minutes I just flipped the pages back and forth, as though that simple motion might somehow cause the missing pages to appear and apologize for taking a break. The pages clearly had not been removed from the book–it was a printing error. (But what about Into Thin Air, right? Can’t I just tell this story when—nay, IF—I review The Signature of All Things? No. But I promise if I review that book I won’t tell this story again, okay? Happy?)

And so, as I am obviously some kind of Twitter power-user which is why I have so many people interested in what I have to say, I decided to tweet Viking Books and give them what for. And anyway long story short they were really nice and sent me a new hard-cover copy just like the old one except with all the pages and I have since finished that book BUT.

Obviously I had to have something to read while I waited for said book to arrive. Now I don’t know about you but I can’t start a novel while I am reading a novel, unless I am intentionally abandoning the first novel for the second. Besides that, I haven’t been having the best luck with fiction lately, but we can talk about that another time. I scrolled through my Kindle app to see what looked good, and there it was, my mother’s go-to, Into Thin Air, and I thought, why not?

Into Thin Air was published in 1997, and it recounts Jon Krakauer’s experience of following a guided expedition to the top of Mount Everest. Krakauer joined the expedition as a journalist, planning to write a piece about guided expeditions for Outside magazine. Krakauer visited Everest from April through May 1996, and the following September he did eventually go on to publish a 17,000-word story about the tragic events that occurred there. After receiving some criticism about the piece, and wanting to explore more deeply the events of that expedition–and his part in those events–he decided to write the book that would become Into Thin Air.

The most critical decision Krakauer made took place before he ever even left Seattle for Everest. Outside magazine initially invited him to travel to Everest in 1995 and park at the base camp to interview the climbers about their experiences. But Krakauer had a past with mountaineering. He saw what might be his only opportunity to summit the greatest mountain of them all, something he had dreamed of since childhood. He convinced the magazine to give him a year to train so that he could join an expedition and go all the way to the top.

When he arrived in Nepal in April 1996, Krakauer joined an expedition led by New Zealander Rob Hall, an experienced mountaineer who owned a company called Adventure Consultants. Including Krakauer, that expedition included ten climbers, seven climbing Sherpas, and three guides (including Rob Hall). There were at least thirteen other expeditions (groups and solo climbers) planning to summit Everest from the Nepalese side at the same time as Krakauer’s group, and two other expeditions summiting from the Tibetan side. And here’s where I should tell you the book includes a “Dramatis Personae” list to rival something out of Tolstoy. I cannot possibly cover what happens to all these people, except to say eight of them died in one day as the result of a freak storm (and some very bad decisions made by many players).

And really, it isn’t so much about events as it is about the telling, the recounting, the wondering, and Krakauer, pardon the obvious metaphor, is an excellent guide. Interwoven with the story of the Adventure Consultants expedition is his own past experience with mountaineering and the difficulties of mountaineering in general, some history of Everest expeditions, some history of key players like Rob Hall and Scott Fischer (lead guide of another expedition), the history of the Sherpas, and so on. I found it to Krakauer’s credit that he avoids making any one person the villain, which could have been easy to do.

That said, he does call into question some decisions that he believes contributed to the tragedy. In some cases, the decision he calls into question is the decision to climb at all, especially given that several of the people on guided expeditions that year were not mountaineers, not in the least. Writing about their first attempt to leave base camp for Camp One, Krakauer says:

“As I loaded my backpack for the morrow, I learned that between the demands of their families and and their high-powered careers, few of my fellow clients had the opportunity to go climbing more than once or twice in the previous year. Although everyone appeared to be in superb physical shape, circumstances had forced them to do the bulk of their training on StairMasters and treadmills rather than on actual peaks. This gave me pause. Physical conditioning is a crucial component of mountaineering, but there are many other equally important elements, none of which can be practiced in a gym.”

But then a bit later:

“But the question of who belongs on Everest and who doesn’t is more complicated than it might first appear. The fact that a climber has paid a large sum of money to join a guided expedition does not, by itself, mean that he or she is unfit to be on the mountain.”

Really, this is one of the biggest questions at the heart of the book, whether people should be shelling out big bucks (when Krakauer went to Everest in 1997, Adventure Consultants was charging $75,000 for the pleasure) and putting their own and other people’s (the Sherpas’ for example) lives in great danger. When Krakauer et. al. start to climb in earnest, he realizes that some people don’t even know how to use their equipment; they cannot figure out how to put the crampons on their boots, for example. Little things like that. Things you’d think you might get the really helpful salespeople at REI to show you in the store when you buy the damn things. (Although, granted, they probably won’t show you how to do it with numb hands and a raging altitude headache.)

If anyone maybe comes off as making some questionable decisions, it’s an assistant guide from Scott Fischer’s Mountain Madness team, Anatoli Boukreev. Boukreev, who was killed in an avalanche in 1997, wrote his own account of the tragedy in a book called The Climb. To say that he thought Krakauer got things wrong is an understatement, and Krakauer addresses this in a long epilogue in my edition. To be fair, Krakauer is as hard on himself as he is on any of the other key players that day, but while pointing out that he was not a guide and not responsible for any clients, while Boukreev was.

And I think that’s the right word, tragedy. If there is one thing Into Thin Air does not make me want to do, it’s climb a mountain. And in all honesty, I cannot help thinking, after reading this book, that people who want to climb mountains are just a leeeetle bit nuts, and not just because they expose themselves willingly to such things as extreme cold and going to the bathroom outdoors. Some of these people climb alone (well, with Sherpas to fix their ropes and carry their stuff, so “alone”). Some of these people climb without using supplemental oxygen. Keep in mind that Everest is at 29,029 feet above sea level. That is thin air indeed. Rarified. Um, nuts.

Certainly after reading Into Thin Air, I am interested in reading more of Krakauer’s work, but I’m also interested in reading more about why these crazy people climb mountains. I know, I know. Because they are there. Same reason I read books, which is easier, warmer, and so much safer. And while I don’t think this will be a “go-to” for me, I’m happy I picked it up. You win, Mom. This time.

Reader’s Journal: Skippy Dies

Skippy DiesWell, it looks like my entries for Reading Ireland Month will be a paltry two novels…but then again, with a book like Skippy Dies on that (very short) list, I feel less ashamed for only having two.

People, I don’t even know where to begin. In truth, I’m feeling very protective of this book and my feelings about it. I’m not sure why because when it was published in 2010, it received mostly highly favorable reviews (read Patrick Ness’s review here), and it was shortlisted for any number of literary prizes, so it’s not as though I am being called upon defend my love for a book everyone hates. The problem is, I just loved it that much, and I realize I may not even be able to explain why.

A plot summary won’t tell you much about why I loved it (and you can find summaries anywhere: in Ness’s review, or by clicking on the book image to go to Goodreads). I can tell you it’s a campus/boarding school novel (some of you love those as much as I do). I can tell you it’s funny and melancholy at the same time. I can tell you that every bit of Murray’s affection and empathy for these characters is evident on each and every page, and he has a keen ear and understanding for the language and dynamics of young people, without making them seem like caricatures or symbols of some societal problem or another. I can tell you that despite the fact that Murray uses very contemporary references to technology and pop culture, I seriously doubt they will date the book for future readers because the story at the heart of it is timeless. And I suppose one could quibble over its length (it’s about 660 pages, originally released as three volumes sold together), but something about the length immerses the reader and reminds us of how very slow time moves when we’re young, or when we are not as young but feel so very lost.

If you’ve been thinking about reading Skippy Dies, trust your instinct on this one. Just do it. I hope you love it as much as I did.

Reader’s Journal: The Lola Quartet

The Lola QuartetEveryone has been talking about Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. That book got so much amazing blog coverage over the last few months, I wondered if it was really that good or if everyone was buying into the hype. (I find myself now worrying about this same thing with The Girl on the Train. Has the hive mind taken over?) not that it mattered—because of the TBR Double Dog Dare, I can only read from my stacks, and I don’t have a copy of Station Eleven. (Er, make that didn’t have a copy…I caved and bought it, but I havent’ read it!) I do, however, have a copy of Mandel’s The Lola Quartet that I bought several years ago and hadn’t read yet, so I decided to find out for myself what kind of author Mandel is.

Gavin Sasaki is a 28-year-old journalist living in New York City. He’s broken up with his girlfriend, the newspaper where he works is going digital and laying people off, the shower in his apartment has an ever-worsening leak, and he’s generally come to feel…well, to feel a sort of nothingness. He takes an assignment in Florida, not far from his hometown of Sanderson, covering exotic and dangerous animals that people have released into the wild that threaten the human population. While he’s there, he meets his sister, Eilo, for lunch. Eilo is a real-estate broker who deals in foreclosures. She shows him a picture of a ten-year-old little girl who looks just like Eilo when she was the same age. She also tells him that the girl has sinced vanished, that the lady left the house and took the girl with her and Eilo does not know where they’ve gone.

And so begins the story of The Lola Quartet, which was the name of the jazz band Gavin belonged to in high school, the band that was playing the very last time he saw his girlfriend, Anna Montgomery, on the night of graduation. After Gavin breaches the trust of his editor at the paper, he loses his job. He drifts aimlessly around New York and then finally decides to accept an offer to stay with Eilo in Florida while he gets back on his feet. In Florida, he becomes obsessed with the idea of finding out what has happened to Anna and the little girl in the photograph, so he decides to track down the other members of the Lola Quartet—one of whom is Anna’s half-sister—to understand what happened.

Although the story primarily feels like Gavin’s, it moves between past and present (1999 and 2009) and characters (the Lola Quartet members Daniel, Jack, and Sasha, and also Anna herself, who was not a member). In the present day, Daniel, the bassist, is a cop. In the past, unbeknownst to Gavin, he was a rival for Anna’s attention and affection. Jack, the pianist, is now a drug addict, the result of a nervous breakdown in college. And Sasha, once a talented drummer and swimmer, who suffers from a serious gambling problem and now works the nightshift at a diner. Gavin visits each of them in turn, and as we hear the stories we begin to piece things together along with Gavin. The missing information is filled in with Anna’s narrative, how she got from graduation night to the hiding place where she is now.

The Lola Quartet isn’t exactly a mystery, but it has a noir feel. All of the characters seem wise and weary beyond their years, which feels appropriate to the tone of the book. All of them remember that graduation night, where the Lola Quartet played its last performance. They were set up in the back of a truck, playing late into the night. All of them remember the small hours of the morning, a singer crooning “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön” (translated loosely, this means “you are beautiful to me.” You can listen to a popular version of the song by The Andrews Sisters here.) and the lyrics (“You’re really swell, I have to admit you/ Deserve expressions that really fit you/ And so I’ve racked my brain hoping to explain/ All the things that you do to me…”) fit all the longing these characters feel, sometimes for each other, sometimes for music itself, or for cards, or just for some other life. Anna, who is the only person who is not a member of the quartet, and who prefers electronic music (in particular, New Order) to anything else, seems also to be the one character who is most pragmatic, who spends the least time longing and more time doing. It’s an interesting juxtaposition that works quite well.

In some ways, this novel feels infused with music, especially in Jack’s sections, as he’s the only one of the Lola Quartet who decides to pursue music after high school. He goes to college in South Carolina and then meets his roommate, a jazz guitarist who aspires to be greater than Django Reinhardt. At the midpoint of his freshman year, an event occurs that leads him to feel that he’s lost the music, that he doesn’t have what it takes to play piano or maybe even live in the wider world, and begins his decline. The way the story moves amongst characters, from past to present—it feels like a jazz arrangement. I almost want to say, if you enjoy jazz, then the rhythm of The Lola Quartet should please you. You shouldn’t mind the lack of straightforward narrative drive, and instead you’ll enjoy the improvisations, the parts that seem to wander away but then lop full circle to make the narrative tighter than before.

Stylistically, this novel reminded me a lot of The Goldfinch, which I loved. That isn’t to say The Lola Quartet is quite as good, though, and it does have some issues. The only one that really stood out for me is that near the end, a few characters respond to a major event in a way that seems unlikely. I was happy that happened closer to the end because at that point I was ready to declare it a triumph. If I were going to give stars, those reactions would take one away. But overall, I fully enjoyed it. Mandel is a terrific writer, and now I see what all the fuss is about. Now if April 1 would just get here, so I can finally read Station Eleven!

Reader’s Journal: The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

The Truth About the Harry Quebert AffairNothing is better than getting lost in a good book. You’re reading along, completely absorbed, as the time passes. It must be hours, you think. You must be at least halfway through! And then you start to worry about the end, because you’re having such a good time with this book. It’s clever! It’s witty! You want to know what happens, but then at the same time you don’t because then it will all be over and you’ll have to pick out a new book and hope it’s at least half as engaging as this one.

And then you glance down at the little progress bar on your e-reader and see that you are actually only 28% through the book, and you feel a slight sense of unease. You could have sworn that you were much further along, because really how can the author keep this conceit (It’s clever! But it’s still a conceit!) going? Maybe you swiped something accidentally and it knocked your progress back. So you check. And the answer is no: you really are only 28% into this book. And the remaining 72% will feel like an eternity. It will feel like one of those runs where you are doing it just to get it done. No joy. No endorphins. No personal best. Just slogging straight through to the end.

That pretty much sums up how I feel about Joel Dicker’s The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair. When I first heard about it this past summer, the plot sounded completely compelling: It’s 2008, and Marcus Goldman is a wunderkind novelist whose first book was a huge commercial success. But Marcus has a big problem: His second book is due, and he hasn’t written a word. He has writer’s block. Desperate for help, Marcus turns to his mentor, Harry Quebert, a writer whose novel, The Origins of Evil, published in 1975, has become an American classic, one of the finest love stories ever told.

Marcus goes to see Harry at his home in New Hampshire. While he’s there he makes a curious discovery about The Origins of Evil after snooping through some of Harry’s things, which is that the book is based on a love affair that Harry—in his early 30s in 1975—had with a 15-year-old girl named Nola Kellergan. Nola is somewhat famous in her own right, because in August of 1975 she disappeared under mysterious circumstances and was never found. Still unable to write, Marcus has returned, dejected, to New York when he hears the news that Harry has been arrested for Nola’s murder. Her body was found in his yard when landscapers were trying to plant some hydrangeas. The original manuscript of The Origins of Evil is also found in a leather satchel next to the body, with the inscription “Goodbye, my darling Nola” on the cover page. Marcus rushes to Harry’s side. Harry declares his innocence–at least when t comes to murder. Marcus decides that he will help Harry by discovering who actually killed Nola. And—here’s the kicker—along the way he’s persuaded by his agent, his publisher, and even Harry himself to write the story—the truth about the Harry Quebert affair.

This novel has a bit of everything most of us bookish types enjoy: it’s a book about books, about writing. It’s clever and at times laugh-out-loud funny. It has a terrific setting (I don’t know about you, but I can’t resist books set in New England). But. The dialog is wooden. The characters are cliché. The metaphors are tired. Even the references (Harry Quebert/Humbert Humbert, Nola/Lola/Lolita) are kind of, well…yawn. And it just goes on. And on. And on. It twists. It twists again. And then—wait for it—another twist. Some of these twists you see coming from a thousand miles away, while others are just barely believable.

The author, Joel Dicker, is Swiss, and the book (originally written in French) was translated into English for an American audience (after becoming a blockbuster in Europe), so about halfway through the book I started to convince myself that Dicker was actually messing with the whole idea of the American novel—that there was some sort of inside joke and I wasn’t getting it. After I finished the book, I decided to look at some reviews to see if they would tell me what I was missing. Apparently, the answer is NOTHING. From The New Yorker:

“The dialogue barely surpasses lorem ipsum in its specificity: “Do you have any change?” “No.” “Keep it, then.” “Thank you, writer.” “I’m not a writer anymore.” And life advice from an alleged literary genius takes the form of shampoo-bottle nonsense: “Rain never hurt anyone. If you’re not brave enough to run in the rain, you’ll certainly never be brave enough to write a book.” The fact that there’s a novel within a novel about the author of another novel isn’t handled with any sort of postmodern panache, and neither are the literary allusions to Roth and Mailer—a food-obsessed Jewish mother, boxing matches—which might actually just be clichéd writing. It lacks the psychological precision of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and the sentence-level skill of Donna Tartt’s novels (both of which come to mind as similarly ambitious, plot-thick works). It’s hard to tell whether the novel is as wooden in the original French, but I’m told that it is.”

Exactly. I wish I could tell you this book raises interesting questions about authenticity, debut author hype, the relationship between teacher and student, the publishing world’s willingness to sell out anyone for a buck, or the nature of “truth” in true crime investigations and narratives (think “Serial”), but I can’t. It could have raised those questions, but ultimately, it doesn’t. Too bad.

Reader’s Journal: We Disappear

We DisappearFor years I’ve been saying that I need to keep better track of how I find books. I thought about this again when I picked up Scott Heim’s We Disappear and almost immediately wished I could offer a personal thank you to whoever recommended it.

Scott is a freelance writer living in New York City. Well, “living” might be too broad a term; he’s a writer, yes, but he’s also a meth addict, hiding out in his apartment most days and devoting his time to his high. Scott’s mother Donna lives in Haven, Kansas, just outside Hutchinson. She calls Scott to tell him that a seventeen-year-old boy named Henry Barradale was found murdered. She sends him newspaper clippings about the story and calls him regularly with updates. She bids him to come home to they can investigate together what happened to Henry, perhaps find his murderer.

Donna is suffering from terminal lung cancer. She’s a former prison tower guard at a maximum-security prison and True Detective (the magazine, not the television show) fanatic. Scott realizes her phone calls and sudden interest in Henry’s murder are really about something else, so he relents and agrees to visit. As it turns out, Henry’s murder is not the real mystery she wants to solve. We learn that the missing—the disappeared—have been an obsession of Donna’s since Scott and his sister Alice were children, when a Haven boy named Evan Carnaby vanished:

“The boy had disappeared during the time our mother was drinking, those weeks and months so long before her real disease, and soon she began staying up, quiet leaden midnights and beyond, to search for information on Evan and more missing souls. I remember hunkering downstairs to find her in the darkened kitchen, absorbed in her new undertaking. The staggering breathing, the rustle of newspapers, the sudden glint of scissors…In the mornings, Alice and I would wake to find all the faces watching us, Evan and his vanished companions, their photographs taped and pasted and pinned to our kitchen walls.”

Scott returns to find his mother similarly obsessed with Henry Barradale. The dashboard of Donna’s truck is covered in pictures of the missing, and when he arrives at the house she proudly shows him the kitchen walls she’s transformed with the same sort of clippings that she’d “taped and pasted and pinned” all those years ago. She also has an idea, a project for the two of them: a book about the missing in Kansas. She’s placed classified ads in newspapers in cities like Hutchinson and Emporia and Wichita, looking for families of the missing who want to talk, to tell their stories:

“Perhaps I hadn’t fully grasped my mother’s determination. I wasn’t certain she understood the gravity, the possible danger: could she actually exploit these despairing family members or friends with all her promises, her false guarantees? Would she still discuss our fictitious research and resulting work? Her detective work, Dolores had called it.”

When Scott arrives home and his mother’s best friend Dolores picks him up at the bus station (he’s had to take the bus because he’s carrying meth to see him through his visit), he realizes immediately that his other’s disease has progressed much more than he realized. They haven’t got much time, and so he agrees to go along with most of his mother’s schemes and wishes, even when he feels it’s against better judgment (although whose better judgment is questionable, since everyone in the story is afflicted in some way that affects their faculties).

As it does in Gillian Flynn’s work, Kansas itself also becomes a sort of character in the book: the small towns, the farms, the flat, cold landscape that Scott realizes he sought to escape but carries with him:

“Along the narrow avenues were houses with shattered windows, with gardens of car parts and sandburs and tumbleweeds. I watched her scribble street names on her notepads, names that might once have been functional but now were simply silly: Cowherder Street, Barley Boulevard, God’s Green Way.”

A way of life has disappeared, one that’s reflected in the antiques in Donna’s house:

“The bronze chandelier with its drops of glass…the old firkin sugar bucket, clumped with dried roses…the Dazey butter churn. Most of the antiques had remained in our family for years. Others I hadn’t seen before, her recent discoveries from junkyards and auctions. I stepped around the room, straightening the picture frames, examining the rows of dolls in the glass china cabinet.”

We Disappear is one of those books where it’s difficult to know what might be a spoiler, so as far as plot, I’ll leave it at that even though there’s so much more. The story is told in the first person, and Scott is a compelling narrator, and it’s difficult to not to empathize with him. Everyone in this book is disappearing or disappeared in some sense, whether through illness or memory or reality, but Scott in particular has always felt invisible in some ways—a gay teenager in small-town Kansas, escaped to the big city where instead of finding himself he found the drug that would cause him to disappear even further. He’s an addict, and he makes no bones about the fact, but neither does he glamorize it or use it to shame, blame, or confuse other people. Instead, Scott does everything in the book despite his addiction, and I think that’s one of the things that keeps the book from dragging the reader around in the hopelessness of it all.

Here’s something I can’t quite figure out: as dark as this book is, I enjoyed it thoroughly. We Disappear features a meth addict, a cancer victim, a lonely alcoholic, and countless missing or murdered men, women, and children. Yet something redeeming exists, and I think ultimately that thing is love. Scott loves his mother, even with all her eccentricities, even with all his frustration at her and at himself. He knows that she loves him. It isn’t that they aren’t flawed people, but more that Heim doesn’t really let the flaws and dysfunction get in the way of the love, and that’s as unusual in a novel as in life. Hope beats steadily beneath the narrative, which makes it easy for the reader to keep going, to keep hoping.

*images and links from Goodreads and Wikipedia

Reader’s Journal: We Were Liars

We Were Liars CoverBack in 2011 I picked up E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks and loved it. In fact, it made my list of top books for 2011, so when I saw the news about We Were Liars, I immediately put it on hold when it became available at the library. And then I waited. And I waited. And then I forgot about it and the hold expired so I put it back on the list again and I waited. And waited. Finally, last month it came available so I checked it out and then it sat untouched on my desk. And it sat. And it sat. And then, with only a few days to spare (it’s due back today), I decided I would make it my last book of 2014.

The bad news is, this book is difficult to discuss without giving away some important plot elements. The good news is, it was absolutely worth the wait, and I’m so happy I was able to end the reading year on a high note.

Cadence Sinclair Eastman (Cady) is part of a venerable, blue-blooded New England family, the Sinclairs of Boston. For all of her life, during summers she has visited her grandparents on their private island, Beechwood, near Martha’s Vineyard. Her grandfather built houses for each of his three daughters, and summer after summer, regardless of marital turmoil or other life events, the sisters have visited the island with the children in tow. Cady spent every summer of her life with her cousins Johnny and Mirren, and then when she was eight years old, her Aunt Carrie (Johnny’s mother) brings her partner Ed, who is Indian, and Ed’s nephew Gat, to the island with her, and Cady’s life is forever changed, as the four of them form an enduring bond. They call themselves The Liars.

The book opens during what Cady calls Summer Seventeen (the summer she and the Liars are 17 years old). Cady has not been to the island since Summer Fifteen, when she suffered a head injury after a diving accident. She did not return to the island during Summer Sixteen, and she has mysteriously heard nothing from the other Liars over the two years she has not seen them. She has pockets of time she cannot remember. She endures debilitating migraine headaches. She hopes that the Liars can help her recover her memory of events and help her regain a sense of normalcy.

That’s it. That’s all I can tell you. Just know that you are in the hands of a skilled storyteller. Pay no attention to the fact that this book is marketed as Young Adult if you tend to avoid that sort of thing, because this is a book about family, and about pain and loss and friendship and love. Lockhart also does such a wonderful job at showing us the insular, privileged world of the Sinclair family, of making the island such a vivid place that we can smell the salt air, see the waves, and imagine the soft summer breezes. I’m happy to join the chorus of other bloggers and readers who highly recommend this book, and I can’t wait to read what E. Lockhart writes next.

*image and link from powells.com; links are unaffiliated and I receive no compensation

Reader’s Journal: Mini Reviews, Part 2

The Journalist and the MurdererOkay, never mind that the initial “Reader’s Journal': Mini Reviews” was almost two months ago. I wrote some of these reviews in this Part 2 post (The Children Act, Canada, and A Man Came out of a Door in the Mountain) at the same time I wrote the ones in the earlier post, and looking back at them now…what can I say? It’s been a strange reading year. In the last two weeks or so the only book I finished was Janet Malcom’s The Journalist and the Murderer, which is a fascinating look at the relationship between the journalist Joe McGinniss and convicted murderer Jeff MacDonald, the subject of McGinniss’s wildly popular true crime story, Fatal Vision. I read Fatal Vision when I was in high school in the 1980s (and watched the miniseries as well). Malcom’s book does not focus on MacDonald’s guilt or innocence but instead on the 1989 lawsuit MacDonald brought against McGinniss on charges of fraud. McGinniss has been embedded with the defense during MacDonald’s criminal trial, and continued to correspond with MacDonald for four years following the 1979 trial while he wrote the book that would eventually become Fatal Vision. The accusation at the heart of this story is that McGinniss pretended to be MacDonald’s friend and believe in his innocence throughout their relationship and up until the book was published. The parties eventually settled out of court. Malcom takes a fascinating look at the relationship between journalist and subject and explores the very grey area regarding what a journalist should be required to reveal when trying to get a subject to tell a story—begging the question, whose story is it anyway? If you’re at all interested in the idea of narrative stories versus “Truth,” I highly recommend The Journalist and the Murderer, even if true crime isn’t your thing and even if you haven’t read Fatal Vision.

The Paying GuestsI also finished Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guests. I liked it fine. I don’t know. She writes so well and Florence was a great character, but I felt like she was wasted on much of the story. (If you haven’t read it, I’m not going to go too in depth so don’t fear spoilers, but my comments might not make much sense.) The first part of the book dragged for me, mostly because I never got the charm of Lilian and by the end of the book I couldn’t wait to get away from her. I wanted more Florence, more context and more backstory on her and Chrissy. When the Event (as Jenny refers to it in her glowing review) happened, the book picked up for me quite a bit. Waters is a knockout at building tension, and as usual she renders the historical context so wonderfully that I always want to stay behind and do more exploring even after the book has ended. On the one hand I highly recommend it because it’s Sarah Waters, but I admit it’s my least favorite so far (I’ve read Fingersmith, The Little Stranger, and The Night Watch, and they’re all so different and terrific I cannot pick one as a favorite). For more favorable and thorough views, you can also see what Teresa and Ana had to say about it.

In other news, I’ve been slowly working my way through Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek. I was itching to buy this as soon as it was released. This is the kind of hard-knocks, dark fiction I typically have a soft spot for, but it’s slow going for me for some reason.  The writing is very good, although some parts feel overwrought. And I know, I know, it’s already making everyone’s year-end “Best of” lists. Call it a mood thing.

I have other books to talk about but if I continued this post would be waaaaaay too long, so I’ll just wrap with my older reviews. You’ll see my cantankerous reading attitude spreads far and wide to books everyone seemed to love this year. Oh well. I have read a few other things I greatly enjoyed (and actually one of the following will likely make my own “Best of” list), but more on them later.

The Children ActSeveral posts ago I mentioned that I had just finished writing a review of a book I didn’t like much and then read a glowing review by a critic I admire. Well, Ian McEwan’s The Children Act was that book. Many glowing reviews later (from bloggers and critics alike), and I am not changing my mind. This novel simply left me cold. Even when I can see what’s going to happen a mile off, if I’m engaged in the story and with the characters, I never mind it. I thought Fiona started off compellingly enough as a character, and the legal aspect of the book (especially the outline of cases she had handled as a High Court Judge) was intriguing. Fiona is in her fifties, and committed to her work, which she enjoys and in which she takes pride. In fact, she has been so involved with work that she finds herself blindsided by a request from her unhappy husband, Mark, at the beginning of the book. Her confidence shaken, she tries to take solace in her work. At the exact moment her husband has given her devastating news, she is also called upon to sit on a difficult case involving a young Jehovah’s Witness who is being treated with an aggressive form of cancer that requires a blood transfusion. To McEwan’s credit, he is even-handed in his treatment of Adam and his family, focusing less on them as religious types and more simply as people bound by deep obligations to a faith that the parents essentially credit for saving their marriage, if not (especially perhaps in the father’s case) their lives. I don’t want to go into too much detail about the ruling and how it affects the lives of the family (and Fiona herself) afterward because it would ruin the well-managed suspense of the novel up to the moment of Fiona’s decision. If the book has a failing (for me, at least), it’s that the reader can easily guess what is going to happen after the ruling. And beyond being sort of predictable, I also found it sort of maudlin, and it serves to feed Fiona’s…well, I want to call it self-pity. I found it difficult to believe she could be so blind to what could happen, even given her absorption in her own marital troubles.

CanadaCanada, by Richard Ford, has been on my wishlist since it was released, and in August I found it on sale and read it almost immediately. Dell Parsons is fifteen when his parents are arrested for robbing a bank. The first part of the novel tells the story of Dell’s family and how his parents came to rob the bank. The second part deals with his exile, when one of his mother’s work colleagues takes him to live with her eccentric brother in a small Saskatchewan town. What to say about this book? I loved it. On the one hand, it’s a simple story—well, as simple as a story can be about a 15-year-old exiled to Canada because his parents decided to rob a bank. On the other hand…it’s timeless. In some ways, it also reads like two separate books. Dell is a little stodgy. He practices playing chess alone in his room. He’s excited about the start of the school year. He’s not popular, he doesn’t really play sports, but he holds out hope that he can study well and find his niche. One of his primary concerns after his parents are arrested is that he won’t be able to start school. And this stodgy young man is driven north to a town on an empty, wind-swept plain and left alone with a sort of Jay Gatsby gone terribly astray. It’s true—for the second half of the book, I kept thinking about The Great Gatsby, and what if Nick Harkaway had seen all the things that got Gatsby where he was, and what if Gatsby had much less control of his temper, or of circumstances in general. I highly recommend this book if you like Richard Russo, or if you enjoyed Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.

Much like Fourth of July Creek, I wanted to love Adrianne Harun’s A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain from the moment I heard about it on NPR. Native girls are disappearing in British Columbia, plucked from the highway that runs through a small town that boasts a mill and not much else. Leo Kreutzer is the main protagonist, and the book alternates between his first-person chapters and third-person chapters about his friends’ experiences. The stories intertwine the difficulty of life for these teens–missing parents, alcoholism, poverty, prejudice, violence—with otherworldly tales about devils and the like. The interspersed chapters are supposed to lend a sinister quality to the main story, I guess, but they felt like a device. I would rather that Harun had focused on what was happening in the town. It’s well-written, and fans of magical realism may get more out of this novel than I did.

*book links and images from Goodreads