Wednesday, September 17, 2014

FLIGHT BEHAVIOR by Barbara Kingsolver

Dellarobia is on her way to a hunting cabin to meet the telephone man for a tryst, when she encounters an astonishing scene in the Appalachian mountains.  The trees appear to be covered in flames, but there’s obviously no fire.  This vision, which is really hordes of monarch butterflies, gives her pause to rethink her plans.  She turns back to her unhappy life with a passive husband and two small children on a sheep farm owned by her in-laws.  Mother-in-law Hester is a taciturn woman who seems chilly toward her own grandchildren and downright hostile toward Dellarobia.  Near the end of the book we find that she has her reasons for such a dismal outlook on life, but, in the meantime, the butterflies become a national sensation.  Ovid Byron, a scientist/professor from Arizona, sweeps in with a few assistants to try to determine why the butterflies have chosen to roost in Tennessee, where the winter cold will surely kill them and possibly annihilate the entire species.  The author uses this fictional phenomenon for two purposes.  First, Ovid becomes a vehicle for educating the locals about global warming, which they’ve heard of but don’t believe in.  The second purpose is that of providing a metaphor for opening up the outside world to Dellarobia and her young son Preston.  It’s a minor miracle how the author touches on so many themes in this book.  Dellarobia bristles at the condescending attitude held by both the scientific community and the press toward her neighbors, but she’s a quick study and soon grasps the gravity of the situation for the butterflies, as a microcosm of a planet whose ecosystems have gone awry.  Kingsolver’s prose is luscious, never preachy, and the dialog is crisp and witty.  An outsider handing out pamphlets, admonishing people to reduce their carbon footprint, gets a rude awakening when he recites his list of suggestions to Dellarobia.  She’s never been in a plane, has never bought bottled water, and hasn’t eaten in a restaurant in two years, demonstrating that her contribution to the problem is meager in comparison to that of urban dwellers.  Despite its weighty topic, this novel has a lot of heart and humor, and I embraced everything about it with delight.

Monday, September 15, 2014

PIGS IN HEAVEN by Barbara Kingsolver

  Annawake Fourkiller, a Cherokee lawyer, recognizes Turtle from a TV news clip, and wants to return her to the tribe.  However, Taylor adopted Turtle after a woman dumped Turtle in Taylor’s car.  Now Taylor and Turtle are inseparable, and they try to disappear.  Taylor soon finds that life on the lam is no picnic, especially since no employer is going to allow Turtle to come along, and day care options are non-existent.  When Taylor’s mother Alice seeks out her long-lost Cherokee cousin, Alice becomes romantically involved with Cash, who turns out to be Turtle’s biological grandfather.  Obviously, there’s got to be some middle ground here that will make everyone happy.  I found it hard to side with Annawake on this conundrum, given that Turtle was physically and sexually abused before she found asylum in Taylor’s car.  Losing their children to outsiders, though, has long been a sticking point with the tribe, who want to make sure that their kids understand their heritage.  Losing one’s ancestral identity seems to me to be a small price to pay for personal safety and well-being, but Turtle’s abusers are out of the picture, and her grandfather is a kind man who has long been deprived of contact with his granddaughter.  This is a sticky situation, and Kingsolver handles it with her usual compassion and tenderness.  My favorite character is Jax, Taylor’s laidback boyfriend, who is honest to a fault and loves Taylor wholeheartedly.  What’s not to love about a musician whose band is called Irascible Babies?  Taylor and Turtle could do a lot worse.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

THE INVENTION OF WINGS by Sue Monk Kidd

The Grimk√© sisters, Sarah and Angelina, grew up in Charleston during the early 1800s.  Their father, a judge and planter, owned slaves, but Sarah and Angelina became abolitionist spokeswomen, who also became advocates for women’s rights.  This novel focuses primarily on Sarah and a mostly fictional slave, Hetty, nicknamed Handful.  I did not know until I read the Author’s Note at the end that Sarah and her sister were actual historical figures, but I began to suspect that some of the events were factual when the author started sprinkling the names of Whittier, Emerson, and Thoreau into the text.  We meet Sarah and Handful when they are both young girls.  Sarah has two goals:  to free Handful and to become an attorney.  As a child, she has no authority to free a slave, and as a girl, she has no chance of studying law.  Instead, she has to watch helplessly the atrocities her mother inflicts on Handful and Handful’s mother.  As an adult, Sarah goes North and converts to Quakerism, since the Quakers oppose slavery and  seem to embrace women as ministers.  Her quest to become a Quaker minister ultimately derails her marriage plans, and she remains single, while her sister marries abolitionist leader Theodore Weld.  The author weaves several historical events into her plot, including an aborted slave insurrection, led by a freed slave, and the use of quilts as tapestries documenting the lives of slaves who could not read and write.  Certainly the novel is well-written and engrossing, but even more admirable are the accomplishments of these two women, who predated Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and possibly influenced that author.  Sarah and Angelina Grimk√© were not just thinkers; they were doers who endured quite a bit of antagonism for being outspoken women and for espousing human rights.  I’m so glad I met them through this novel.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

THE VACATIONERS by Emma Straub

A 2-week vacation in Mallorca could be just the ticket for mending all sorts of family rifts.  Franny and Jim Post are joined by 28-year-old son Bobby and 18-year-old daughter Sylvia.  Bobby’s on-and-off girlfriend Carmen comes along, much to Franny’s dismay, as do Charles and Lawrence, a gay couple hoping to adopt a child.  Charles and Franny are such close friends that Charles even watches Franny bathe, as she seeks his advice regarding her cheating husband. (I have to say that I found this scene to be a little odd.)  Jim has been fired from his job for having an affair with an intern, and Sylvia is reeling from having lost her boyfriend to her best friend.  Sylvia, unlike Bobby, has an inkling of what’s going on with her parents, and their marital uncertainty trickles down to her, further causing her footing in the world to be a little unsteady.  She plans to reinvent herself when she starts college at Brown in the fall, and in the meantime hopes to lose her virginity to her handsome Spanish tutor.  Bobby is the least likeable of the lot, with his churlish behavior and atrocious judgment when it comes to money.  His and Carmen’s relationship is probably the most busted of all, and with good reason.  Charles and Lawrence are the relationship role models here, dealing with their own fidelity issues, discussing Charles’s unusually tight friendship with Franny, and contemplating their future role as parents.  There’s really not that much of a plot here; it’s definitely more of a character study, sort of a multi-generational Big Chill, where some relationships get mended, some get cemented, and some die on the vine.

Monday, September 1, 2014

LAURA LAMONT'S LIFE IN PICTURES by Emma Straub

Elsa Emerson is the youngest daughter in a family of thespians in rural Wisconsin in the 1920s.  After her beautiful older sister’s romance with a charismatic actor in the family’s theatre company ends in tragedy, the family goes into a tailspin.  Elsa grabs the first opportunity to escape to Hollywood, in the form of yet another charismatic actor, Gordon Pitts.  Gordon manages to land a studio contract with a steady income, while Laura puts her movie star ambitions on hold.  Pregnant with her second child, she catches the eye of Irving Green, a studio executive, who renames her Laura Lamont.  As Gordon’s career starts to wane, Laura’s takes off, and the two part ways, as Gordon becomes more and more seedy.  Irving begins to squire Laura around Hollywood, and soon the two are married.  Irving is basically a saint, and Laura loves him dearly.  Theirs is a storybook marriage—unusual by Hollywood standards.  Laura’s life as a celebrity, however, has its ups (an Academy Award) and downs (more family tragedies), and Laura’s coping mechanism is an addiction to barbiturates.  (Doesn’t this sound a little too familiar?)  Plus, the roles for women her age are not as plentiful as they were when she was younger, and she turns down a role as a mother, despite the fact that she has three children by now.  She reaches an all-time low when her best friend has to fire her from a ridiculous game show.  I enjoyed this book, with Laura and all of her foibles, but her journey is not all that uncommon:  Small town girl is discovered, marries a big shot, and then has to find her way back to who she really is.  She finds strength in her family, and I don’t mean the one in Wisconsin.  (Her mother has no complaint about her running off with Gordon but cannot forgive her for changing her name and marrying a Jew.)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

THE PAINTED GIRLS by Cathy Marie Buchanan

In the late 1800s in Paris, an impoverished teenage girl could earn a small wage in a variety of occupations:  as a ballet dancer, as an artist’s model, as a washerwoman, and, of course, in a brothel.  In this tale of three fatherless sisters, Antoinette, Marie, and Charlotte manage to scrape by, while their mother finds solace in drink.  Antoinette washes out as a dancer, while Marie and Charlotte show promise and advance to the stage.  Marie is the only one of the three who can read, and when the newspaper publishes an article about how a person’s facial features can predict their behavior, Marie feels that her monkey-like face has doomed her.  Antoinette, on the other hand, becomes infatuated with Emile, who, along with a cruel friend, is arrested for murder.  If Emile can escape the guillotine, he will be banished to New Caledonia, and Antoinette begins scheming to join him there.  One reviewer wrote that this book is part love story, but I don’t see it as that at all.  It is a story of the bond of sisters, united in their struggle to survive, and the rift that a boy can create.  In this case, Antoinette is blind to Emile’s flaws, while Marie sees nothing else.  I feared for these girls throughout the book.  They have no adult supervision or role models, and they do as they please:  visiting convicts in jail, modeling in the nude, going to bars, attending theatre productions, going to work at 4:00 am.  They’re like mini-adults but without the good judgment that comes with maturity and experience.  Ultimately, Marie makes a decision that widens the gap between her and Antoinette and has unforeseen consequences.  I love how, near the end, the author matches the frenetic pace of the story with paragraph-long chapters, alternating narrators, as she has all along.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY by Rachel Joyce

Harold Fry receives a note from a former work associate, Queenie Hennessy, who writes that she is dying of cancer.  His walk to post a reply soon becomes a journey to the hospice where Queenie resides—over 600 miles away.  He clings to the belief that Queenie will not die until he gets there, while his baffled wife Maureen waits at home.  Two parallel stories unfold.   One is that of the pilgrimage itself.  Harold refuses to outfit himself with suitable walking gear, has no cell phone, and eventually sends his wallet back to Maureen so that he can proceed without money.  Now he’s totally dependent on the kindness of strangers, and he encounters quite a few during his journey, acquiring a burgeoning entourage, who become somewhat of an argumentative albatross.  The backstory is that of a marriage gone stale and a son whom Harold believes he failed.  All of his family relationships are complicated, as is his relationship with Queenie, and the closer Harold gets to his destination, the more he reveals to the reader about his history.  He’s made some crucial mistakes in life, but as you might guess, his pilgrimage helps rectify some of those, but some have consequences that cannot be undone.  His rendezvous with Queenie does not unfold as I would have guessed, and the author cleverly conceals his son’s fate until the end.  Yes, this is a heartwarming story, but I didn’t find it to be particularly special.  Memorable?  Maybe.  I was also not fond of the writing style, which I found to be a little choppy, as if it were written for a somewhat unsophisticated audience.  Perhaps this “ordinary” style is intended to help connote the ordinary man that Harold is—at least before his extraordinary pilgrimage.