Monday, May 31, 2010

Book 30: The Heretic's Daughter

From the first reading of The Crucible in school, I've been fascinated with the Salem witch trials. As soon as I heard the role of the trials in this book, I knew I had to read it.  In The Heretic's Daughter, Kathleen Kent tells the story of her ancestors, Martha and Thomas Carrier and their family.  The story is told through the lens of Martha and Thomas' daughter, Sarah.

Martha Carrier was accused of Witchcraft. She courageously maintains her innocence, despite encouraging her own children to do whatever it takes to save themselves.  Sarah and three of her brothers are also accused, and Sarah recounts their harrowing trials and imprisonment.  

Despite this being a work of fiction, the stories Kent heard as she grew up give the book a sense of authenticity. I felt as though I was right beside Sarah as she recounted the experiences of her life.  The story is just so compelling. How could so many people knowingly accuse others of witchcraft? Stand by while parents, children, and siblings were ripped apart? Tried, imprisoned, and in many cases put to death?  I don't know how you live with yourself for doing something like that.

And of course the role of religion in the whole experience.  Certainly, there's more tolerance in many mainstream religions today.  But stories are in the news now of people in Africa being put to death for practicing witchcraft.  And too many religions, even in this country, are still incredibly intolerant based on snippets of scripture, twisted to fit some warped view of righteousness.  When I think about that, it makes me wonder if the underpinnings of a movement like the Salem witch trials could still exist, and if they do, will we recognize them and fight against them?

As I read more about the witch trials as an adult, I am struck again and again by the courage of those who never gave in to their accusers.  Knowing that a lie could save their lives, they chose instead death and staying true to themselves.  These people who were freethinkers and believed in the power of reason as much, if not more, than the power of the pulpit. It is reading a book like this that makes me hope that if were in a similar situation, I'd be proud to be called a Heretic and have the courage of my own convictions.

I look forward to more tales from Kathleen Kent.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Book 29: South of Broad

I think Pat Conroy is a  gifted storyteller. The Great Santini is, I think, my favorite of his books.  When I first started South of Broad I was listening to it as an mp3 download.  The audiobook was great, the narrator did an excellent job with it, but Pat Conroy is almost a lyricist, and I wanted to read and savor the words, so I bought the book and read all but the first fifty pages.

The story starts on 16 June 1969 in Charleston, South Carolina and tells the story of Leopold Bloom King and his family and friends through the next twenty odd years.  Readers of James Joyce will recognize both the name Leopold Bloom and the significance of the 16 June date.

Upon hearing that I was reading South of Broad, one friend commented that her grandmother had read the book and said it was not as dark as some of his others but that she knew no one in Charleston, let alone a teenaged male, who talked like Leo King.  I think that is a very accurate statement.  In fact, it was the one thing that grated on me throughout the story, the only part that didn't feel authentic.

I loved the story. Conroy talks of the languid south, it's outward charm and interior rigid rules in beautiful prose.  He paints wonderful pictures of his characters and settings, and he uses a handful of words that I must seek out in a dictionary to have their full context.  

That being said, one thing that Conroy does extremely well is show both the beauty and the bowels of life.  His characters always have layers of complexity to them.  And some of them have horrific dark stories to tell- often occurring in childhood and instilling in them demons they fight or run from for the rest of their lives.  Yet Conroy does it all with a degree of dignity, evoking sympathy from the reader for the characters.

AIDS in the homosexual community in the 1980's becomes a central part of the story, the catalyst bringing together in a new way a group of friends who have been close for twenty years.  It reminded me of the early news I remember hearing of the AIDS epidemic.  I was young at the time.  No one really knew what it was. There was a lot of speculation around exactly how it was transmitted.  I remember people thinking it was a scourge to homosexuals, and I remember more than one person saying that the gays deserved this punishment for their lifestyle.  People began rethinking that when they realized AIDS doesn't discriminate on gender or lifestyle. 

I was too young in the mid to late 1980's to appreciate the horridness of this disease, the lives it destroyed and the way in which the disease ravages its victims.  Conroy portrayed this sensitively, authentically, and with compassion.  

This tribe of friends, a motley crew  if one ever existed, met in high school under an array of extenuating circumstances. Yet their friendship survived all kinds of things.  I miss that.  I have some friends I have known for a number of years with whom I am still very close.  But not a tribe, where we all know each other and are a part of each others' lives. For me, these friends are quite compartmentalized. This friendship, in its deep, combustible way will last throughout the lives of its characters.

All in all, South of Broad was an engrossing read, a good story. Darkness and light, laughter and tragedy, much like life itself.  Fans of Conroy will certainly enjoy.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Book 28: Heart of the Matter

I devoured and relished Emily Giffin's Heart of the Matter.  There are so many reasons why I love Giffin's books, not the least of which is that she tells compelling stories. But it is more than that.  It's that she creates such believable and relatable characters who face believable and relatable situations.  In Heart of the Matter, the lives of two women intertwine in unexpected ways after a tragic accident. These women are suddenly caught in an imperfect, heartbreaking situation. As they face decisions they never thought they would have to make,  each of them is realizing that "always" and "never" rarely are. And each of them is trying to determine what it is that is truly matters to them.  

As a side note, two characters popped up in this book that I wasn't expecting to see. I have always liked how Emily's characters are tethered to each other in interesting, unsuspecting ways. I love getting this glimpse into what had happened in their lives after Giffin told their story in an earlier book. This is not the first time Giffin has done this, and it makes me feel, as a reader, that I'm getting snippets of an epilogue, or catching up with old friends.

I found myself making a few notes as I read this book.  I didn't necessarily expect that, but after I thought about it a bit, I wondered why I was surprised.  Elements of Giffin's books have always stuck with me. In Heart of the Matter, Tessa talks about her friendship with Cate, and how Cate has an idealized view of Tessa's life. For the first time in a fiction piece, and perhaps due in part to other things going on in my life right now, I found myself making a list about some things in my own life that I am grateful for.  I just hadn't been able to see these things until recently, because I was always thinking the grass had to be greener on the other side. How often is it that a book classified as "chick lit" helps you do something like that, have your own little epiphany?

I know I've already mentioned how well drawn and relatable Giffin's characters are.  One of the best illustrations of this that I can talk about here without giving too much away is when Tessa begins to feel the first fingers of fear in her gut that something is off kilter.  She tries to talk herself out of her fears, find alternate possibilities, even flatly deny her suspicions and try to talk herself into believing her observations are just insecurities and are completely explainable. Every woman I know has been there, for one reason or another, and Giffin is spot on in her description.  Not wanting to believe something is off but knowing beyond a doubt that it is, even if you can't prove it; even if you don't want to believe it.  I felt myself tensing up as I have when I've tried to quell fears I didn't want to be true and I didn't want to face. Giffin captured it perfectly.

Finally, in this story, you want a villain.  There simply isn't one.  There are three good people caught in a situation none of them wanted or sought. And they realize, like we all do at some point, that we never really know what we will do in a situation until we are in that very place.  Sometimes we find ourselves doing that thing we swore we'd never do, being that person we swore we'd never be, because we finally understand what really matters to us. 

Monday, May 10, 2010

Book 27: Three Wishes

Once in a while, the Fates conspire to show you something you need to see. Perhaps you've fallen into your life. Maybe you're living someone else's bliss.  Or maybe you simply woke up one day and said, there's more than this,whatever this is.  And you've finally, finally admitted to yourself that while you've been blessed with so many wonderful things, you want still more.  Only now you want the things that you think are going to make you really happy, complete you, finally realize what your authentic self wants.  If you're lucky, you blink your eyes or wave your magic wand or just wake up and do it, and you have this final piece to the puzzle.  Or you're like me. You realize you simply don't know how to begin to get what you want, or even if you deserve what you want.  That's a painful, painful place to be. So you start reading books, to help you figure out how to get this elusive thing that is going to make you happy. You start talking to people who can give you clarity. More important, you listen to what these people tell you.  And then, just when you're ready, more things keep coming into your life to point you in that right direction.  You know, these pesky Fates.
If you've been following this blog, you've seen Finding Your Own North Star and The Happiness Project here.  What I didn't articulate as much with talking about these two books, was how much they impacted me personally.  They started me on a journey that I've been on for the last few months. I have actually spent many wonderful weeks working with someone who helped me change my perspective, question my motivations, face fears, and start thinking about things more positively. As part of that, I've learned that once you open up yourself to thinking about things in a different way, the messages you need to hear seem to find you, no matter what.
In browsing through the shelves at Barnes and Noble Sunday, that's precisely what happened.  I'd picked up several fiction books, and I began meandering through non-fiction and current events. I perused and picked up several titles, reading book jackets, adding some to the basked and returning others to the shelves.  And then I came across Three Wishes. The first thing I noticed is that this memoir was really an intertwined memoir of three women, who co-authored the book.  Carey Goldberg, Beth Jones, and Pamela Ferdinand all lived in the Boston area, and all worked in journalism. They had all had successful careers and had happy, fulfilled lives in so many ways. But each woman was nearing the end of her thirties, and each wanted a baby.  But none had found the right man.  Carey was the first to decide that she would have a baby on her own.  She ended up using a sperm donor.
Of course, once she made the decision to go with a sperm donor, a man comes into her life, and the donor becomes unnecessary. So she passes the donations onto Beth.  And there you go.  Beth meets that right man. So the donations go to Pam, and lady luck strikes a third time.  Of course, not all the paths were easy once the man walked into the picture, and happy endings were not instantaneous. In fact, there were some devastating times before the happy endings. But the journey to happiness itself was an intriguing, sometimes sad, and ultimately heartwarming read.
For these women, the most important thing to them was to become a mother- but not at the expense of everything else in their life.  They visualized it, they planned for it, of course. But they didn’t stop living their life in the pursuit of this goal.  And that is exactly when they got what they wanted.  That was what struck me.  The dream doesn’t have to be marriage and motherhood.  That’s just what it happened to be for these women. It was their pursuing the goal while still living their life that spoke to me so much.
I’ve realized what is important is to give yourself permission to admit what you really want and pursue it.  Because once you do that, once you say that it is OK to want something, and that you deserve to have it, you start opening yourself up to the possibility of receiving it. Although I’ve not taken any huge steps yet, I’m already learning that doing things in my life that fulfill me is going to open me up to many more possibilities.
 Now all these books about people following their bliss seem to be finding their way into my path, whether from a conversation with a random seat mate on a Delta flight, or wandering through the aisles of a bookstore and just happening to pick up a book about people doing the same thing.
Regardless of what your own happy ending might be, this book reads like you're sitting down with friends who are telling you their story, with all its hilarity and heartbreak.  And when you're reading it, you know that no matter how circuitous the journey, these women wouldn't trade it. Because once they opened their eyes to what they wanted, this journey is what led them to precisely where they were meant to be.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Book 26: Evermore

A line from Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer" is running through my head: "Who-ah, we're halfway there..." That's right. This is book 26.  I'm halfway through my goal of reading 52 books this year.  I'm excited to be at this point. But enough about that... on to the book!

Evermore is another young adult book.  I've been reading a lot of YA books lately, and while I'm certainly not in the targeted age group, I'm not alone in being the only one not in that age group devouring books in the genre.  Some friends and I were discussing why we've been reading so much YA lately. We've come to the conclusion that it's simply because there are some great stories being written for this group. And after all, we once were that age, so we can certainly appreciate the genre. With Evermore, I'm adding Alyson Noel to the ranks of Melissa Maar, Cassandra Clare, Maureen Johnson, and Richelle Mead- all YA authors in my library.

Evermore is the first of the "Immortals" series.  Ever Bloom has relocated to her aunt's home in southern California after a car accident claimed the lives of her parents, sister, and dog. She's mostly recovered from her injuries, save a scar on her forehead and, oh, yes, the ability to read the thoughts of everyone around her and see dead people. She's not sure what to do with this new psychic ability and deals with it by using her iPod to block out as much psychic noise as possible.  Then she meets Damen.  He's the one person whose aura she can't see, whose thoughts she can't read.  And this sets up the rest of the story, so I'm not going to say anything else about what happens. I don't want to be giving out any spoilers.

Evermore fits in well with the paranormal genre.  It doesn't try to be a Twilight, Vampire Academy, or Mortal Instruments.  Noel creates her own niche, so I didn't feel like there was any copycat storytelling going on.  Her characters are well drawn, realistic.  The story is fast paced. I found myself wanting to know the story of Damen- what IS he, and how are he and Ever tied together? What is he playing at with his inconsistent behavior? Why is Ever's dead sister visiting her?  Noel gives out the details of the story in little nuggets and hints that had me turning the page to see what I'd get to learn next. 

A quick read for me, entertaining.  Anyone who likes this genre would like this book. And I'll be checking out more from Alyson Noel.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Book 25: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

I intended originally to include Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in only the list of other books I read this year, since there are already two other Harry related posts in the blog.  But then some friends pointed out that this weekend is the assumed commemoration of Voldemort's downfall,  and I had only about 70 pages left to finish the book so I decided to go for it.

Disclaimer now: If you've not read the HP series, there will be spoilers here.  If you've only seen the movies, there may be some things you didn't know. If you've not read the books or seen the movies, you should.  I'm also tackling this posting a little differently than most others. I'm just going to list some of the things I really like about this particular book.  For reference, I re-read GOF this time in the UK, hard-cover edition. 

Goblet of Fire was a game changer.  While the first three HP novels all had their share of darkness and danger, there was still a sense that they were primarily novels for adolescents and children.  Clocking in at over 600 pages (over 700 in the US Hardcover edition), GOF broke that mold immediately. This was the book that brought back Voldemort in the flesh (such as it was). More importantly, l the characters, and we the readers saw a loss of innocence.  We learned that JK Rowling would not be sparing us (and the characters) from the deaths of people who were fighting for the side of right or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Children, parents, heroes, friends- like in a real war, everyone was now fair game.

The hormones kicked in.  Harry has his first crush. Ron realizes he just might like Hermione as more than a friend, although he bungles that realization spectacularly.  Hermione snogs an international Quidditch hero. The subtlety with which Rowling presents all of this not only provides humor, but also takes the (older) readers back to that first awkward crush we all remember.  

Ron's struggle at being "just" the side-kick (at least in his mind), and his belief that he is somehow inferior to Harry is starkly explored in this novel.  And given the age of the characters, quite realistic.

Despite her admiration for rules and order, when Hermione Granger decides something is worth fighting for, she won't merely bend the rules, but completely obliterate them. Yes, she used a Time Turner in  Prisoner of Azkaban, but in GOF, she imprisons animagus Rita Skeeter in a jar to keep her from printing so many lies in the Daily Prophet.

Voldemort comes back, and nothing is going to be the same. We can see that old alliances will be reforming. And although it isn't detailed grotesquely, we begin to see the lengths that Voldemort and the Death Eaters will use as they create their new regime, not the least of which are torture and cold-blooded murder.  

Two of my favorite ideas from the whole series comes from this book:First is Dumbledore's belief that "Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open (p627)."  The second is that we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.  Although I am in by no means embroiled in the ultimate battle of good versus evil, I try to apply that sentiment to my own life. I try to do what I think is right because it is right, no matter whether it is easy.

So, forgive me this third Harry Potter related posting, but enjoy it in the spirit is intended: a celebration of the downfall of the Darkest Wizard of the ages.