Book Review: The Humans

Book Review: The Humans by Matt Haig

The HumansThe Humans is full of such wonderful writing that I almost turned into one of THOSE people. You know the ones I mean. The super-annoying ones who interrupt you every five minutes to read you yet another quote from the book they claim is totally fabulous. Awful, right? Yet in this case, I would have been perfectly justified. The Humans is, in fact, fabulous — and absolutely loaded with quote-worthy lines and passages that practically beg to be read out loud to whatever audience is available.

What’s it about? In a nutshell, The Humans is the story of an alien from a world far, far away… and light-years ahead of Earth in terms of understanding technology. When an Earthling mathematician named Andrew Martin makes a startling breakthrough that could, unbeknownst to him, completely change life for humans in ways detrimental to the rest of sentient life in the universe, the Vonnadorians decide he must be stopped.

An alien impersonator is sent to assume the life of Andrew Martin, figure out how much damage has been done, and then wipe out all evidence of his progress — which means eliminating not just computer files and notes, but also his wife, son, best friend, and anyone else who may have learned of Martin’s leap forward.

Faux-Andrew (he doesn’t actually have a name) shows up in Cambridge naked as a jaybird and has but minutes to adapt to life on Earth. Almost inevitably, he ends up in a psychiatric ward diagnosed with a mental breakdown, then is sent home to recover. And it is here that complications arise. The real Andrew Martin was kind of a jerk: completely absorbed in his work, completely neglectful of his vulnerable teen-aged son Gulliver and his lovely but ignored wife Isobel. But faux-Andrew, in his quest to complete his mission, actually pays attention to the people around him as he tries to ferret out what they know and what real-Andrew has told them… and the results are interesting, touching, and not at all what the alien visitor expects.

The Humans shows us what we Earthlings look like from an outsider’s perspective, and it’s not terribly flattering, especially at first. To be frank, humans are kind of disgusting:

I was repulsed, terrified. I had never seen anything like this man. The face seemed so alien, full of unfathomable openings and protrusions. The nose, in particular, bothered me. It seemed to my innocent eyes as if there was something else inside him, pushing through.

More than appearances, it’s the humans’ behavior that confounds the alien. The emotions, the beliefs in consumerism, religion, the micro-focus on their own small worlds and concerns while ignoring the greater events of the universe — all of this is completely bewildering and leads the alien to consider humans to be devoid of any sense of values:

The news was prioritized in a way I could not understand. For instance, there was nothing on new mathematical observations or still-undiscovered polygons, but quite a bit about politics, which on this planet was essentially all about war and money. Indeed, war and money seemed to be so popular on the news, it should more accurately have been titled The War and Money Show.

However, as he spends time among humans, things start to change. Faux-Andrew starts to feel, and has to reconsider whether a world such as his own — without pain, without change, without death, and without flaw — is really the best life has to offer. When faux-Andrew starts to feel pain, he also starts to feel love, and to realize that pleasant and easy are not substitutes for the things in life that have to be fought for — like relationships with people who matter, who hurt and who can cause hurt, and for whom he’d be willing to sacrifice his own well-being if that’s what it takes to protect them.

Ultimately, as faux-Andrew learns more and more about the people of this planet, The Humans become a meditation on what it means to be human. It’s quite lovely, actually. As voiced by a true alien, the homilies and lessons learned come across as real discoveries, not just a recitation of truisms or wisdom for the ages à la Everything I Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Even in a chapter that consists of a numbered list of faux-Andrew’s pointers to Gulliver, entitled “Advice for a Human”, the words of wisdom avoid being treacly. Instead, the advice is concise, real, bittersweet, and often funny, and sum up a view of humans that we lack the distance and perspective to see for ourselves.  Some of my favorites:

6. Be curious. Question everything. A present fact is just a future fiction.

25. There is only one genre in fiction. The genre is called “book”.

33. You are not the most intelligent creature in the universe. You are not even the most intelligent creature on your planet. The tonal language in the song of the humpback whale displays more complexity than the entire works of Shakespeare. It is not a competition. Well, it is. But don’t worry about it.

37. Don’t always try to be cool. The whole universe is cool. It’s the warm bits that matter.

47. A cow is a cow even if you call it beef.

75. Politeness is often fear. Kindness is always courage. But caring is what makes you human. Care more, become more human.

I could go on and on… see what I mean about how quote-worthy this book is? I honestly can’t stop marking pages and lines that I think are just wonderful.

So maybe that’s where I should leave this review: by saying that The Humans is a wonderful book. The writing is an amazing balance of clever, funny, and a straight-to-the-heart emotional punch. The plot is smart and creative, and our first-person narrator, the unnamed alien, is more human than most actual humans by the end of the story.

The Humans is the third book I’ve read by Matt Haig, having previously read the vampires-in-suburbia novel The Radleys and the Hamlet retelling The Dead Fathers Club (my review is here). I’ve loved all three; at this point, I can safely say that I’ll be reading more by Matt Haig — much more, I hope.


The details:

Title: The Humans
Author: Matt Haig
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Book 🙂
Source: Library book

Book Review: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

Book Review: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

The impossible happens once to each of us.

From the very first line, author Andrew Sean Greer sets the stage for a magical, impossible, emotional journey as we follow one woman through three different lives in three very different times.

Who among us hasn’t at one time or another sighed, “I was born in the wrong era” or some similar sentiment?

In The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, we meet a woman who gets a strange and miraculous chance to experience her life not just in her current world of the mid 1980s, but also in 1918 and 1941. After being treated for severe depression with electro-convulsive therapy, Greta slips into alternative versions of her life, where the familiar and the strange collide. It’s not time travel, but rather a shift in reality, a journey to an alternate universe in which Greta and the people in her life are the same people, but facing very different choices and circumstances.

Greta is a twin, and her brother Felix is the center of her universe. It is Felix’s death in 1985 during the “plague years” of the AIDS epidemic that pushes Greta first into depression and then on her impossible journey into two other versions of herself. In 1985, Greta’s long-term lover Nathan has just left her after she pushed him away during Felix’s illness. In 1918, Greta is a young wife to Nathan, an army doctor away in the trenches of WWI, but she faces her own set of disappointments and fears. And in 1941, with America on the brink of war, Greta and Nathan are married with a child, but Greta has suffered the loss of her beloved aunt Ruth and is beset by worries over Felix’s own unhappiness.

As Greta moves between lives, she leaves a footprint. She becomes convinced that her purpose is to perfect the alternate lives she inhabits — but she’s not the only one. 1918 Greta and 1941 Greta are on this journey as well, so that “our” Greta finds her own world changed by the imprints left by the others as they circle through one another’s lives.

Confused yet? It is a lot to track, and at times (many times) I found myself flipping back to double-check just which version of Greta’s life I was in now, and just where we’d left off that time around.

It’s fascinating to visit New York of 1918 and 1941, to see the roles available to women — housewives, mothers, lovers — and how those changed over time. Equally fascinating, and quite touching as well, is the view into life for a gay man in those times. In 1985, Greta is destroyed by Felix’s loss . She finds him alive and well in 1918 and 1941, but living lives defined by hiding, pretending, and sublimating. Part of Greta’s quest is to help Felix be happy in the worlds left to him; in his “real” life, Felix was an exuberantly joyful man, and although he (like so many others) died too soon, he was able to live his brief life to the fullest, surrounded by friends and loved by a good man. As 1985 Greta meets Felix again and again, she pushes him to find a way to live in his world and at the same time to seek love and truth in whatever way he can.

The writing in The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is lyrical and lovely, full of moments of quiet emotion and heart-breaking truths. In Greta’s first visit to 1918, she is literally stopped in her tracks by seeing a familiar young man on the street — a man who in her own world of 1985 was but one of the many young men struck down by AIDS:

Laughing again, turning, looking around at me: familiar young men appearing in this unfamiliar world. Men who had died months or years before from the plague miraculously revived! There, in an army uniform, was the boy who made jewelry from papier-mâché beads; he died in the spring. And that one soldier, the stark blond Swede jumping from the streetcar, once sold magazines; he’d died two years before, one of the first: the cave’s canary. Who know how many more were off to war? Alive, each one, alive and more than alive — shouting, laughing, running down the street!

Of course, in the joy of seeing these young men alive once more, Greta is overlooking the fact that other perils await. There’s a war on, and although armistice is around the corner, some of these bright young men, “miraculously revived”, will not make it through the war. It was interesting to see the parallels drawn by the author between the great calamities each age: In 1918 and 1941, it was world war that took the lives of so many as such a young age; in 1985, it was the AIDS plague that seemed to wipe out a generation, so that by the time Greta attends the most recent in a string of funerals, there’s almost no one left to be mourners, all of the deceased’s friends having been taken already.

I couldn’t stop reading, once I’d started, and I probably made a mistake in gobbling it up quite so fast. The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells has an engrossing plot, but in my rush to see what happens next, I didn’t take as much time as I should have to savor the rich characters and the extraordinary use of language. This is not a long book, but it felt jam-packed — with the jumps through time, with vivid period details, with sights and smells that take you immediately into the worlds of 1918, 1941, and 1985 — so that by the time I reached the end, I felt like I’d experienced something much more than 289 pages of a fictional tale.

The simplest way for me to sum up? I was swept away by the magical possibilities of living three versions of a life, and was enchanted by Greta’s journey. Filled with fully-realized characters and given life by a unique premise, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is a reading experience to enjoy in the moment, and then to ponder for hours afterward.


The details:

Title: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
Author: Andrew Sean Greer
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Adult Fiction
Source: Purchased

Book Review: Joyland

Book Review: Joyland by Stephen King


Don’t let the pulp fiction sensationalism of the cover fool you: Joyland is, at heart, quite a lovely and nostalgic book.

Devin Jones is one heartbroken 21-year-old in the summer of 1973. No sooner does he take a job at a North Carolina beachside amusement park than his long-term girlfriend — his first love — dumps him for another guy. By letter. Left to lick his wounds, Devin immerses himself in the carny world. He learns the Talk, gets a crash-course on how to be a ride-jockey, and spends sweltering days “wearing the fur” — that is, dressed up as Howie the Happy Hound, mascot of Joyland, dancing the hokey-pokey with delighted crowds of kiddies.

Joyland is a sweet non-Disney-fied world of fun — non-corporate, old-timey, with an ancient owner who really just wants everyone to be happy. There’s a shadow beneath Joyland’s wholesome facade. Rumor has it that a ghost haunts the Horror House, ever since the murder of Linda Gray four years earlier. The crime was never solved, and so Linda waits… for justice, for vengeance, for recognition, for release. Or so the story goes.

Meanwhile, Devin finds friends and a place to forget his sorrows for a while, and come fall, when he should be returning to college, he makes the decision to join the year-round staff of Joyland and stick around for a while. Despite his deep-down loneliness, Dev finally begins to come out of his shell, thanks mostly to the unexpected connection he finds with a beautiful but isolated woman and her wheelchair-bound son. But he can’t quite shake his interest in the fate of Linda Gray, and the more he digs, the more he realizes that the murderer might still be around — perhaps even at Joyland.

So what did I think?

I guess it goes without saying that Stephen King can write. I mean, he could probably write a computer technical manual and you’d either be in tears or screaming in terror by the end. In Joyland, King’s writing is full of his trademark sense of longing for a time gone by. The story is told by Devin from the vantage point of a man in his sixties, looking back at a pivotal moment in his younger days, the summer in which he left behind his childhood innocence for good. We are immersed in the experience of a young man in love, and can feel his longing and his pain with each step, with each memory, with each sad song playing on Dev’s record player in his boarding house room. The writing is down-to-earth and yet lovely at the same time:

I’m not sure anybody ever gets completely over their first love, and that still rankles. Part of me still wants to know what was wrong with me. What I was lacking. I’m in my sixties now, my hair is gray and I’m a prostate cancer survivor, but I still want to know why I wasn’t good enough for Wendy Keegan.

The murder mystery itself is only a small part of the book. Devin’s compulsion to solve the murder is a thread that connects his experiences, but in actuality I’d say only about 25% or so of the plot really focuses on the crime and the ghost. Much more important is Dev’s involvement at Joyland, the friends he makes, and the bond he forms with Annie and Mike Ross. There’s a Summer of ’42 vibe in parts of the story (if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know what I mean — I hope). Granted, Joyland takes place 30+ years later than the movie, but there are similar themes: innocent boy, one perfect summer, mysterious (beautiful) older woman… well, I won’t elaborate, but that’s what I kept thinking of as certain events developed in Joyland.

As for the murder, the climax is exciting — but feels a bit well-worn as well. The location, the circumstances, even the weather all feel a bit familiar, like something out of a drive-in flick from a few decades ago. Maybe that’s what Stephen King was shooting for? After all, the story is truly heavy on the nostalgia, with a wistful sensibility for the time and place it portrays. So perhaps the ending was designed to feel old-timey as well, in keeping with the overall mood and setting of the book? Something to ponder, anyway. The identity of the murderer wasn’t terribly shocking, if you go with the assumption (as I did) that he would have to be either a character we’d already met or someone closely connected to Joyland. I won’t give anything away here, but I will say that by the time the murderer is revealed, there really was only one other person it could possibly have been. Still, it unfolded in a believably scary and threatening way, and I enjoyed every bit of the big reveal and its aftermath.

Overall, Joyland is a terrific read. Devin makes a sympathetic, insightful narrator, and through his eyes, Joyland — which I suspect would appear a bit corny and shabby if we saw it on our own — appears to be a place of wonder and delight. The sensation of first love and first heartbreak are rendered with painful vividness, as is the simple pleasure to be found spending time in the company of good friends, walking on a deserted beach, or making a child smile.

My only quibble with this book is about the cover. Published by the Hard Case Crime division of Titan Books, the cover — with the tagline of “Who dares enter the FUNHOUSE OF FEAR?” — seems to promise a very different book than what Joyland actually delivers. The cover art is terrific — oh, that red-head in the little green dress! What horrors has she witnessed? Who is chasing her through the park? What did she photograph that’s so shocking? The problem is, none of these questions are relevant in the slightest, and the picture only has the vaguest of connections to the actual events in the book.

I’m no designer or artist (so be nice!), but I started playing around with old-timey amusement park photos, and I think either of these might do more justice to the actual story of Joyland:

ferris-wheel-4468_640 ferris-wheel-100234_640_2

Sure, neither screams “Stephen King” at you — which the real cover surely does, in its own way. Still, I think I’d have liked this book a smidge better if my expectations were more in line with the reality of the book from the start. Joyland is not pulp fiction, and it’s not even that much of a crime story. It’s nostalgic fiction about the end of innocence and the farewell to first love; it’s about growing up and confronting life; and it’s about people and connections.

Cover quibbles aside, Joyland is a perfect summer read. It’s quick, it’s absorbing, and really, what says summer more than a beachside amusement park?

Book Review: The Ocean At The End Of The Lane

Book Review: The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

This sad, sweet book is a reflective look back at childhood, a meditation on innocence and trust, and a sorrowful examination of what is lost in the process of growing up.

In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the unnamed narrator, middle-aged and giving off a sad-sack vibe, returns to his childhood town for the funeral of one of his parents. Needing escape from the formalities and niceties involved in the official mourning process, he drives off toward the site of his ramshackle boyhood home, now a sparkling new housing subdivision, and then is drawn further down the lane. As he travels down the rough country road, memories start to spark — memories of a girl named Lettie, who befriended him at age seven and since moved away. To Australia, perhaps? He’s not sure, but upon arrival at Lettie’s family farm, memories of a pond (that she called an ocean) resurface, and soon, an entire hidden chapter from his childhood comes back to him.

There’s a sorrow that permeates the childhood memories, even before the main events of the story begin. The boy has a nice home and pleasant parents, but is a loner, constantly immersed in books and without any friends. The action kicks off after the boy’s lonely 7th birthday, for which his mother prepares a lovely party and invites the boys from school — but no one comes, which doesn’t surprise the boy:

They were not my friends, after all. They were just the people I went to school with.

This small, sad incident sets the tone for one of the book’s themes. Part of childhood and growing up is coming to understand that parents can’t always protect us from the bad stuff. Life is hard, and loving parents are not infallible. Much as they try, parents can’t keep out the disappointments and harshness that intrude from outside the walls of home.

Moving from the sadness of the failed birthday party, a different sort of world is quickly revealed. There’s an elemental sort of magic involved, and horrible creatures too. The boy’s life and family are threatened by what appears to be an unstoppable evil, masquerading as something lovely and lovable. The world itself seems to be at risk, and great sacrifice and bravery are required. We see it all through the eyes of a man remembering what it felt like to be a child, to be powerless and scared, and to have to carry on anyway.

Ocean is, simply put, quite beautiful. It’s also, in parts, just terrifying. I was reminded in some ways of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. As with the Other Mother in Coraline, the boy in Ocean finds himself at the mercy of a parent who suddenly becomes “other”. Is there anything scarier than seeing one’s ultimate source of safety and love turn into a source of menace and actual danger? The writing here is magnificent, so that as a reader, I could feel the terror of facing harm at the hands of the person who should be a protector.

With his home no longer safe, the boy seeks protection from the Hempstock women, a trio who appear to be a grandmother, mother, and daughter — but who are in reality forces of nature, timeless and powerful, seemingly an eternal type of earth mothers. They have a gentleness about them that partners with their fierce protection of the boy and his world. They are fearless, facing down the “critters” that don’t belong, and carefully snipping time and events to remove the bad parts and make it all work out as it should. The Hempstock women have a purity and earthiness about them, living on their old-fashioned farm, where they drink milk fresh from the cow and eat rough, homemade bread. Even their food and clothes portray them as people out of time, embracing nature and simplicity, separate from the modern world around them.

Again, a Coraline reminder — as menacing creatures rip shreds of the world away, leaving an awful nothingness in those places, I was reminded of Coraline’s attempt to run away from the Other house and finding a world dissolving around the margins. Reality is less firm than we might think, apparently, and when the vast void shows through, it’s horrible to behold.

The narrator of Ocean contemplates sacrifice and its burden — and while it’s specific to the events of the story, it could also apply to the burden all of us might feel growing up aware of what our own parents’ sacrificed in order to give us a better life:

A flash of resentment. It’s hard enough being alive, trying to survive in the world and find your place in it, to do the things you need to do to get by, without wondering if the thing you just did, whatever it was, was worth someone having… if not died, then having given up her life. It wasn’t fair.

On the surface, the narrator is a typical middle-aged adult, beaten down by a life with mixed successes and failures, in which he’s made art, but has also had a challenging personal life and only occasional happiness. Somewhere lurking within him is a secret knowledge of a hidden reality, mostly lost to him but resurfacing on his occasional visits to the Hempstock farm. He represents, in many ways, any adult who has lost touch with childhood belief and imagination, who finds a hint of it resparked by revisiting its source — perhaps a certain place or a book or a favorite toy — and suddenly remembering the joy and pleasure of a child’s view of the world:

I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I found joy in the things that made me happy. The custard was sweet and creamy in my mouth… [P]erhaps I was going to die that night and perhaps I would never go home again, but it was a good dinner, and I had faith in Lettie Hempstock.

At under 200 pages, Ocean is a spare, compact, poetic book, with a purity of language. The writing is elegant and simple; not a word is wasted, and there’s not a thing missing. Ocean is marketed as a book for adults, but despite the terror of certain parts, I think there’s an ageless appeal to it as well, so that it might also work for older children — although I don’t think they’d appreciate the bittersweet element of childhood remembered from a distance, which adds such beauty and sadness to the book.

This review is already longer than I’d intended, yet I don’t feel I can really do justice to this book. I wonder: Did I really understand it? Did I miss something important the author was trying to convey? Is the meaning I found here at all in line with the author’s intentions? I have no idea.

And yet…

In reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I found myself both shaken by the boy’s fear and moved by his innocent sense of trust and belief. Even when his parents fail him, the boy has an unshakeable belief in the power of simply holding the hand of someone he trusts, and it’s quite wonderful to behold.

There’s an aching beauty throughout, and something so incredibly sad in the figure of the man drawn back to the Hempstock pond at key moments of his life. Like all adults, he faces daunting questions: Did I measure up? Did I do with my life what I should have done? Was my life worth it? He doesn’t find easy answers, but his pilgrimages to the past seem to bring him peace at key times.

Ocean is a deep, lovely, contemplative work. I imagine that I’ll want to revisit this book repeatedly, to pull apart and tease out all its themes and all it has to offer. Neil Gaiman writes beautifully, with an enchantment to his words that’s an experience in and of itself. I leave you with a magical moment:

I have dreamed of that song, of the strange words to that simple rhyme-song, and on several occasions I have understood what she was saying, in my dreams. In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real. In my dream, it was the tongue of what is, and anything spoken in it becomes real, because nothing said in that language can be a lie. It is the most basic building brick of everything. In my dreams I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly; once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed-and-breakfast by the seaside, and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, “Be whole,” and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping.

Read The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s a unique experience, and one of the most beautifully crafted works I’ve read in a long time.

Help Me Choose My Vacation Reading!

I love to travel. I hate to pack.

I have a little over a week to get ready for my trip. Passport? Check. Insect repellant? Check. Cute new sundress? Check?

Decision on what books to bring? Um, not yet.

Here’s the deal. I have a huge fear of running out of reading material, so I always bring bunches of books, and then throw in even more, just in case. Because, yes, I have once had the awful experience of finishing all my vacation reading one hour into my return flight — and had nothing to do for the next four hours. It still makes me shudder, just thinking about it. In more recent years, I’ve been relying on my Kindle, because then of course I never run out.

Fair enough. But on this trip — coming up in 9 days (!) — we’ll be in a rain forest, in rainy season, and we’ve been advised to not bring electronics… and to store our books and other paper items in ziploc bags to protect them from the damp. Seriously.

So while I have bunches of shiny new books, all pretty and perfect, just waiting to be read, I’m not going to bring any of those with me. Instead, I’m thinking I’ll bring some of the older paperbacks on my shelf, the ones I’ve had for a while and haven’t read. Maybe I bought them used to begin with. Maybe they’re just enough years old that they’re starting to look a bit tattered around the edges. Whatever the case, that’s my plan.

Here’s where you come in. I’ve narrowed my list list down to about 10, and I need to come up with a top 4 or 5. (BTW, I’m only going to be away for ten days, but like I said: DEATHLY AFRAID OF RUNNING OUT OF BOOKS.)

Take a look at my ten below (pictures link back to each book’s Goodreads page), then cast your vote and let me know what you think I should read. Top vote-getters win!

Cast your vote here:

Check back to see the results — I’ll leave the poll open until next Friday, June 21st, after which the winning books are going into the suitcase!

Book Review: Garden of Stones

Book Review: Garden of Stones by Sophie Littlefield

gardenIn December 1941, 14-year-old Lucy Takeda is the cherished daughter of a well-to-do Japanese-American couple living in Los Angeles. Lucy’s father is a successful businessman. Her mother is an enigmatic beauty who turns heads whenever she walks down the street. Lucy lives a happy life with close friends, a good school, and a bright future, until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor spells the end of life as she once knew it.

Before long, Lucy’s father is dead of a heart attack, and she and her mother, as well as all of their friends and neighbors, are forced from their homes as a result of President Roosevelt’s executive order of 1942, which designated the entire Pacific coast as an exclusion zone and forced thousands of Japanese-Americans into internment camps. Lucy and her mother Miyako are sent to Manzanar, the roughly built camp in the Sierra foothills of California, where they are assigned a flimsy wooden barrack in which to live and where their world becomes restricted to one square mile crammed full of their fellow internees.

Compounding the difficulty for Lucy is her mother’s instability. While in today’s world, Miyako might have been treated and medicated, at Manzanar in those times, Miyako was simply viewed as difficult or unlikeable, rather than having her bipolar disorder recognized or accommodated. Miyako’s beauty, however, does not go unnoticed, and she is soon the recipient of unwelcome but unavoidable attention from the powerful men who run the camp. Events soon spiral out of control, and despite their efforts to protect one another, Lucy and Miyako’s time at Manzanar can only end in tragedy for both.

Garden of Stones is a story within a story, framed by events in 1978 in which Lucy’s daughter Patty seeks answers when Lucy’s long-secret past resurfaces unexpectedly. As Patty starts to dig through clues and finally gets her mother to open up, we see the events from the 1940s from Lucy’s perspective, providing an interesting contrast between Lucy’s outlook as a teen and as a middle-aged adult. Lucy’s life has not been easy, and although she has raised Patty to the best of her ability, by keeping her past a secret she has kept her daughter from ever truly knowing who she is and what she’s experienced.

I found myself quite moved by the tragedy of Lucy’s story, in which we witness a life shattered by war and prejudice, a young girl who had everything she cherished ripped away from her, and yet who somehow manages to survive into adulthood and provide a safe and loving home for her child. Garden of Stones presents two very different mother-daughter relationships, and poses some interesting questions: What does it mean for a mother to protect her daughter? Are extreme measures justifiable if taken out of love? Is pain inflicted out of love preferable to pain inflicted through cruelty? How does one survive after enduring loss after loss?

Author Sophie Littlefield explores this shameful chapter from America’s past with an unflinching eye. We see the devastation from Lucy’s perspective, as a child born and raised in the United States, who speaks not a word of Japanese, is suddenly branded as “other”. We witness the terror of the Japanese-American community in the days following Pearl Harbor, as families frantically burn any Japanese goods or relics in their homes so as not to be seen as sympathizers — or worse, as spies or conspirators. We see friends and neighbors close their doors, turn their backs, and otherwise abandon the people they’d lived alongside, as the Japanese-Americans are forced to sell off their belongings for a pittance before being exiled to the internment camps.

But the larger, historical context is not the only source of sorrow and terror in Lucy’s life, and it is her more personal story that truly gives Garden of Stones its emotional richness. Despite the hardships and privations at Manzanar, Lucy seeks out happiness and friendship, but the circumstances of camp life and her mother’s role in Manzanar serve again and again to bring Lucy pain and suffering.

While some of the more dramatic events of the story are fairly well signaled ahead of time, there are several very surprising turns of events that made me go back through the book and reread certain passages with a fresh eye. I found the Manzanar timeline much more compelling than the 1970s storyline, and yet Patty’s exploration of the past served as a very effective means of slowing unearthing the secrets of Lucy’s life and understanding how these secrets continue having an impact even into the next generation.

Sophie Littlefield has crafted a well-written, emotionally intense tale, full of rich detail and with several well-placed, shocking plot twists. Garden of Stones is a moving story of love between mothers and daughters, of the search for meaning despite the cruelties inflicted during a hard life, and of the many different roads toward hope and survival.

Review copy courtesy of Harlequin via Netgalley

Book Review: The Round House

Book Review: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Main character Joe is 13 years old the summer that his life changes forever. Joe is the devoted, mostly well-behaved son of two loving parents, growing up on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. His father is a judge in the tribal legal system; his mother works in the all-important tribal registry office, handling the complex web of rights and obligations that are tied into a person’s genealogy and ancestry.

At the start of that fateful summer in 1988, Joe’s mother is brutally attacked and raped. Joe’s secure home and safe world is turned upside down, as the hunt for the rapist and the quest for justice consume the family. Ultimately, however, it is the tangled mess of legalities stemming from early tribal treaties and the creation of the reservations that determines the outcome of the arrest and prosecution of the perpetrator. Different laws apply to different jurisdictions, and the case ends up resting on the question of where the attack took place. Was it reservation land? State land? Federal land? Unless the jurisdiction can be determined, there can be no legal process, and so even though the identity and whereabouts of the rapist are pretty quickly determined, it is not at all clear that the man can or will be tried for the crime.

Those are the bare bones of the plot. At a deeper level, The Round House is a meditation on so much more. Some of the most compelling aspects of this book include:

– The sense of family and community present among the people living on the reservation. Joe’s immediate family is small, but his extended family is huge. Everyone is a cousin or an in-law; everyone plays a role in the lives of others. The support and connection is palpable. There is no hiding here — wherever Joe goes, he is known and welcome.

– The depth of the friendships among the boys in this story. Joe’s friends are his brothers. They have adventures, they get up to mischief together — but they have each others’ backs and their bond is one of love and dedication. The relationships among these boys are quite lovely to read about.

– The outrage over the crime that was committed. I think we are all too used to the awful stigma that still attaches itself to rape survivors in our society, but that sense of shame is completely absent here. Joe’s mother suffers deeply, but her suffering is from fear of her attacker and what he may yet do, to her and to others. What is clear here is that Geraldine was the victim of a violent crime, and she is supported by her community without question and without stinting. The house overflows with casseroles; Joe is looked after by not just his aunt and uncle but by everyone. No one hesitates to ask Joe how his mother is or to offers words of kindness. It’s a refreshing attitude that condemns the attacker without in any way blaming or belittling the woman who was attacked.

– The linking of traditional beliefs to the modern occurences. The elders in the family are respected and honored. Joe’s centenarian grandfather tells tales of buffalo women and evil spirits, but these are not just ancient myths — various facets of the stories come into play in the search for justice for Geraldine.

– The reminder that what may seem to many as an unfortunate chapter in US history is still having an impact on real people’s lives to this day. The daily frustrations of living with the outcomes of the tribal treaties is a very real part of the characters’ experiences. An incredibly powerful scene takes place about 2/3 of the way into the book, as Joe asks his father why he bothers — why does he continue trying cases in the tribal courts when nothing seems to make a difference? In response, Joe’s father pulls an old, moldy casserole from the back of the fridge where it had been forgotten, dumps it onto the table, and then begins to pile utensils and kitchen implements on top of it:

That’s it, he said.

I must have looked scared. I was scared. His behavior was that of a madman.

That’s what, Dad? I carefully said. The way you’d address a person in delirium.

He rubbed his sparse gray whiskers.

That’s Indian Law.

I nodded and looked at the edifice of knives and silverware on top of the sagging casserole.

Okay, Dad.

He pointed to the bottom of the composition and lifted his eyebrows at me.

Uh, rotten decisions?

Joe’s father goes on to explain how he and his fellow judges, in case after case, are attempting to overcome the poor foundations of their legal system by creating strong decisions on top of these, hoping to some day create a stronger framework for laws that support their people’s lives. It’s a lovely scene, showing in few words both the depths of the problems facing the tribe and the strength of the connection between Joe and his father.

The plot of The Round House swirls around the traumatic events of that particular summer, but in many ways the story is a coming-of-age tale with the universal characteristics of a boy’s emergence into manhood. Through the attack and its aftermath, Joe for the first time sees his parents as vulnerable. He starts to realize that they have inner lives, fears and hopes, apart from him, and that they can’t always protect themselves or him from the harsher realities of life. Joe and his close friends are on the cusp of their teen years, developing sexually, exploring the boundaries of freedom, reveling in their small conquests and steps toward independence. Much of the climax of the story has to do with Joe, with the assistance of his friends, taking affirmative steps on his own toward what he feels must be done. Joe has gone from the protected child of the family to a young man who wants to be the protector, and while he may stumble along the way, it is this significant summer that propels him forward into the kind of man he will grow up to be.

It’s easy to see why The Round House won the National Book Award in 2012. This beautifully written, powerful story of family and friendship, crime and justice, tradition and history is filled with memorable, well-drawn characters, dramatic plotting, and moral conundrums. There’s a lot to think over, and I’m still mulling through the events and implications of the various plot turns.

The Round House is not light reading, but it’s certainly worthwhile. I recommend it highly, and look forward to exploring more of Louise Erdrich’s work.

The Monday agenda 1/28/2013

Not a lofty, ambitious to-be-read list consisting of 100+ book titles. Just a simple plan for the upcoming week — what I’m reading now, what I plan to read next, and what I’m hoping to squeeze in among the nooks and crannies.

Happy Monday! Looking back and looking forward…

From last week:

A little slower on the book front this past week:

Just One Day by Gayle Forman: Done! I liked it much more than I’d expected to. My review is here.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich: Reading now, only about 50 pages into it so far. 

I read a bunch of my son’s graphic novels and reviewed them here.

My long-awaited new Fables paperback arrived last week! I loved Fables: Cubs in Toyland (volume 18), but now have the usual complaint — I don’t want to wait months for the next one to come out!

I also read the first volume of a new (to me) graphic novel series, Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan. Very intriguing story; I think I’ll be be reading the rest as soon as I can get my hands on them.

And this week’s new agenda:

I think it’ll take me a good part of the week to read The Round House, which is quite good, but fairly heavy.

After that, I may tackle one or two books from my TBR pile, probably An Abundance of Katherines by John Green or Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by David Levithan…

…although I’m also terribly tempted by my new arrivals, Me Before You by Jojo Moyes and The Child’s Child by Barbara Vine.

I believe this is what’s called an embarrassment of riches! Having too many books to choose from is definitely not a problem I mind having.

So many book, so little time…

That’s my agenda. What’s yours? Add your comments to share your bookish agenda for the week.

Flashback Friday: The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving

It’s time, once again, for Flashback Friday…

Flashback Friday is a chance to dig deep in the darkest nooks of our bookshelves and pull out the good stuff from way back. As a reader, a blogger, and a consumer, I tend to focus on new, new, new… but what about the old favorites, the hidden gems? On Flashback Fridays, I want to hit the pause button for a moment and concentrate on older books that are deserving of attention.

If you’d like to join in, here are the Flashback Friday book selection guidelines:

  1. Has to be something you’ve read yourself
  2. Has to still be available, preferably still in print
  3. Must have been originally published 5 or more years ago

Other than that, the sky’s the limit! Join me, please, and let us all know: what are the books you’ve read that you always rave about? What books from your past do you wish EVERYONE would read? Pick something from five years ago, or go all the way back to the Canterbury Tales if you want. It’s Flashback Friday time!

My pick for this week’s Flashback Friday:

The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving

(published 1981)

I went through a John Irving phase during my college years and immediately thereafter, during which I read, pretty much sequentially, all of the author’s early works, including the more obscure Setting Free The Bears, The Water-Method Man, and The 158-Pound Marriage, as well as the extremely popular The World According To Garp. The one that probably struck the deepest chord with me, however, was The Hotel New Hampshire. So what’s it all about?

From Goodreads:

“The first of my father’s illusions was that bears could survive the life lived by human beings, and the second was that human beings could survive a life led in hotels.” So says John Berry, son of a hapless dreamer, brother to a cadre of eccentric siblings, and chronicler of the lives lived, the loves experienced, the deaths met, and the myriad strange and wonderful times encountered by the family Berry. Hoteliers, pet-bear owners, friends of Freud (the animal trainer and vaudevillian, that is), and playthings of mad fate, they “dream on” in a funny, sad, outrageous, and moving novel by the remarkable author of A Prayer for Owen Meany and Last Night in Twisted River.

This family drama features large and small moments; quiet tragedies and devastating hurts; and above all, love, strangeness, and connection. I adore John Irving’s writing in this novel. His quirky and deceptive use of language sneaks up on you at times, so that I’d find myself doing double-takes and saying, “Wait! What just happened there?”

It’s been many years since I’ve read The Hotel New Hampshire and the other early John Irving books, but I still have my ragged copies of all of these. There are some books that you just can’t part with, after all.

PS – Yes, there is a movie version. And yes, it’s pretty awful. Skip it, and read the book instead.

So, what’s your favorite blast from the past? Leave a tip for your fellow booklovers, and share the wealth. It’s time to dust off our old favorites and get them back into circulation! 

Note from your friendly Bookshelf Fantasies host: To join in the Flashback Friday bloghop, post about a book you love on your blog, and share your link below. Don’t have a blog post to share? Then share your favorite oldie-but-goodie in the comments section. Jump in!

Wishlist Wednesday

Welcome to Wishlist Wednesday!

The concept is to post about one book from our wish lists that we can’t wait to read. Want to play? Here’s how:

  • Follow Pen to Paper as host of the meme.
  • Please consider adding the blog hop button to your blog somewhere, so others can find it easily and join in too! Help spread the word! The code will be at the bottom of the post under the linky.
  • Pick a book from your wishlist that you are dying to get to put on your shelves.
  • Do a post telling your readers about the book and why it’s on your wishlist.
  • Add your blog to the linky at the bottom of the post at Pen to Paper.
  • Put a link back to Pen to Paper somewhere in your post.
  • Visit the other blogs and enjoy!

My Wishlist Wednesday book is:

Hanging By A Thread by Sophie Littlefield

From Amazon:

In a town where appearance means everything, how deep beneath the surface will Clare dig to uncover a murderer?

Summer is the best part of the year in Winston, California, and the Fourth of July is the highlight of the season. People consider themselves lucky to live in the quaint, serene beachside town, and native Clare Knight, now a city girl, feels doubly lucky to be moving back there a week before the July festivities kick off.

But the perfect town Clare remembers has changed, and everyone is praying that this summer will be different from the last two—that this year’s Fourth of July festival won’t see one of their own vanish without a trace, leaving no leads and no suspects. The media are in a frenzy predicting a third disappearance, but the town depends on tourist dollars, so the residents of Winston are trying desperately to pretend nothing’s wrong.

And they’re not the only ones hiding something.

Clare has been blessed—or perhaps cursed—with a gift: she can see people’s pasts when she touches their clothes. And since she’s a seamstress who redesigns vintage clothing, her visions are frequent—and usually unwanted. When she stumbles across a denim jacket that once belonged to Amanda Stavros, last year’s Fourth of July victim, Clare sees her perfect town begin to come apart at the seams.

Why do I want to read this?

Sophie Littlefield is an author I keep hearing about, from other readers as well as from authors whose books I admire. Her book lists include works for adults and for teens, some in the crime/mystery genre, some with a supernatural element, and I believe some dystopian as well.

Hanging By A Thread is her most recent YA novel, and it sounds so interesting! I like the idea of a small-town setting with a twist, and I’m eager to read this one and see how it all turns out. This author has another book coming out in February that sounds completely different — Garden of Stones, a historical novel for adults focusing on the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

I’ve heard so many good things about Sophie Littlefield. If I enjoy Hanging By A Thread, then I’m sure I’ll want to try one of her books from a different genre to see how it compares. I’m really looking forward to getting to know this author!

Quick note to Wishlist Wednesday bloggers: Come on back to Bookshelf Fantasies for Flashback Friday! Join me in celebrating the older gems hidden away on our bookshelves. See the introductory post for more details, and come back this Friday to add your flashback favorites!