Saturday, September 17, 2016

Harry Potter and our Epic Summer (re)Readaloud

One stormy evening early in June the power went out, and plunged into darkness, the kids and I grabbed a flashlight and our old copy of J.K. Rowling's The Philosopher's Stone. Enchanted all over again, and discovering that by some appalling parental oversight child #2 had never before read the Harry Potter books, we embarked on what would become our Epic Summer Harry Potter (re)Readaloud. 

Summer is now long over for us (school began nearly 2 months ago) but we are still reading, albeit a little more slowly with the school year routine. We're almost halfway through The Half-Blood Prince, the sixth book in the series. As is so often true on a second read, they are magic in new and different ways. Whereas once upon a time I was reading to our oldest, she is now doing most of the reading, and the youngest and I are being read to. And in addition to rediscovering the sheer wonderment of the stories, with children now about the same ages as the characters, I appreciate so much more how Rowling captures the range and depth of children's emotions and experiences and makes them relatable - even to Muggles. Most magical of all have been the hours of joy spent cuddled up on the sofa, laughing, crying, marveling, and cheering with Harry and his friends.

Which books have you revisited and maybe seen in new light?   

Happy reading!


Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Cauliflower - Nicola Barker

A saint is his own breed of magical creature, the care which, as we learn from Nicola Barker's delightful biographical novel of the 19th century Hindu Sri Ramakrishna, can be complicated, infuriating, and occasionally dangerous, but oh so rewarding.

Told from many perspectives, and pieced together floret by floret into a robust and tangled timeline, The Cauliflower, by Nicola Barker (Henry Holt and Company, 2016) paints a multifaceted portrait of this revered saint and the many devoted friends and family who make his ecstatic spiritual life and leadership possible. Our guru  - though he does not wish to be referred to as such - experiences God firsthand, frequently, and inconveniently, falling into a trance-like state and requiring you to carry him off just when you were about to enjoy a nice outing. He will only eat sweets, or he will not eat at all, or he will attempt to eat the very thing you know will cause him the most distress. He will become enamored of the latest fad of a person and ignore you, his most dedicated nephew and primary caretaker altogether. If you are his most generous benefactor who sustains his very existence he will reject your simple gift of a scarf but insist you spend inordinate additional sums on a festival. Today he is Hindu, tomorrow Muslim, and next week Christian. His spirit is magnanimous and beautiful, his message of faith universal and inclusive, his personal behaviors childish and unpredictable. He is bewildering and you adore him and are enchanted and aggravated all at once.

The author's sharp wit and imagination were immediately captivating and carried me through the novel, though it took me the first thirty pages or so to gain my bearings on voice and chronology. I loved the immersive and transporting details of life in late 1800's Bengal at the Dakshineswar Kali Temple on the Hooghly River near Calcutta - the characters, language, landscape, gods and goddesses, and a fascinating cast of characters. The non-chronological telling and rotating point of view for the most part was a strength, both setting off Nicola Barker's impressive mind and writing, and conveying a wonderful and complex portrait of Sri Ramakrishna and his entourage, but also maybe got in the way of the narrative building up to a very strong crescendo - which didn't stop me from thoroughly admiring and enjoying the book, though I did lose a little momentum. The novel's tone achieves a wonderful balance between reverence and humor, mysticism and realism, and clearly comes from a place of great love for its subject. The Cauliflower left me with warm feelings, a sudden urge to travel across time and place, a few lovely big ideas to ponder, and a firm desire to read more by the author.

I received my copy of The Cauliflower from the publisher.

Happy reading!

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Hoopty Time Machines - Fairy Tales for Grown Ups by Christopher DeWan

"The danger of being clever is that your heart will choke on your tongue." 

This single arresting sentence captures everything I loved about Hoopty Time Machines fairy tales for grown ups (Atticus Books, 2016), Christopher DeWan's inventive, witty and poignant short story collection.

As the title implies, DeWan's stories often invoke iconic characters from across the ages - the Minotaur of ancient mythology, Grimm Brothers-style damsels in distress, changelings of Celtic lore, and even modern movie monsters like Godzilla - but these cautionary tales take place in contemporary settings. You know you are in for a good ride right from the start, with a modern-day workplace featuring an impossibly absurd interview process and a soulless corporate labyrinth that consumes all those dedicated employees who dare enter.

The stories that don't riff on familiar tales and characters introduce whimsical/fantastical elements of their own. What I loved best about the entire collection was the precision of DeWan's writing, and how each brief story conveyed worlds of meaning. In a single paragraph, "Renewal" tells the tale of a recently widowed woman who buries her husband exactly as he threatened she would have to - with the years of amassed National Geographic magazines he refused to dispose of buried "over my dead body." In a few lines, through the lens of one minor resentment, this tiny story spoke volumes about an entire marriage and a complicated grief.

Many of the stories appeal to our inner Twilight Zone: In "Voodoo," an attentive father who fears the growing distance between parents and teenage daughter anxiously considers the possibility that those we love most might inexplicably turn and conspire against us. In  "Hoopty Time Machines," a parent's seemingly innocuous and geeky past-time is unveiled to be an elaborate escape plot. "The Changeling" is a powerful and chilling microfiction about a bullied boy and revenge.

Within each story, too, is a careful balance of humor and despair, and it is this which leaves the reader thinking about many of these stories long after finishing the book. "Blog of the Last Man on Earth" is the perfect example. Both funny and devastating, this bittersweet dispatch from the sole survivor of the apocalypse reminds us that all that appears superficial and all that is profoundly meaningful about our little life here on this little planet are pretty much one and the same.

I received my complimentary review copy of Hoopty Time Machines from the publisher.

Happy reading!

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Ghost Daughter- Maureen O'Leary

"The earthquake tore open the surfaces of her life and through the cracks oozed a kind of mud she never knew was there." 

In October 1989,  a magnitude 6.9 earthquake rocked Northern California, collapsing buildings, buckling streets, disrupting the World Series as it was broadcast live on television, and famously felling a section of a busy freeway. This quake also brought the walls down around author Maureen O'Leary, trapping her under her desk, which saved her, while tragically killing several people in an adjacent coffeeshop.

The powerful, complicated emotions one can only begin to imagine in such an experience are the compelling heart of O'Leary's novel The Ghost Daughter (Coffeetown Press, 2016). In it, the Loma Prieta earthquake both precipitates a series of life-changing events for four women - who are survivors in every sense of the word - and becomes an apt metaphor for the turmoil unleashed within themselves. Angel, a young woman with a murky history, is trapped under the rubble for days but is rescued, emerging battered and broken and finding herself, unwelcomingly, an instant celebrity. Her sudden fame leads to recognition, unearthing a long-buried secret of her past. The novel explores the undeniable yet dangerous connections between Angel; her adoptive mother, Judith; Reese, a recent widow; and a determined but compassionate detective, Laura Redleaf. The quake breaks each of them open and shakes the very foundations of their beings, baring their deepest vulnerabilities, forcing them to draw on their innermost strengths, and ultimately forging new and healing connections.

I loved these tough, raw, and complicated women and read eagerly, carried along by the suspenseful unveiling of their shared history, and uplifted by the novel's moving conclusion. Behind their narratives lies a common villain, an influential and brutal man. While his cruelty was necessary to the plot, his relentlessness sometimes felt one-dimensional, and I wouldn't have minded just a little more nuance in his character - but nonetheless. Recommended for readers who like strong-yet-flawed women with more heart and more grit than they know.

I received a complimentary review copy of The Ghost Daughter from the publisher.

Happy reading!

Summer Reading: Travel Companions

"I don't recognize the person who is writing in this diary, in this new, approximate language. But I know that it's the most genuine, most vulnerable part of me." - In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri

One of the things I love best about travel is how it forces you out of your element. This fact is terrifically ironic, given that I am well known (at least to my spouse) as a person who thrives on routine and who is notoriously resistant to change of pretty much any kind. But travel is my exception - maybe because there is no choice - and I have come to find that I need and crave the awakening of the senses - sights, smells, sounds and tastes - that accompany journeys to places both far and near.

Language is an extreme example of this sensory stimulation - and one that I have found, if you are lucky enough to stay for a while as I have once or twice in my life, starts to rewire your brain. It is a special kind of wrestling with culture - word order and sentence structure, phrases and concepts that exist in one but not the other, and the alternatingly frustrating and elating experience of acquiring just enough words to finally express something - anything! - in a comprehensible way, no matter how awkwardly. For anyone who can relate, Jhumpa Lahiri's In Other Words (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) is a perfect (armchair or actual) travel companion. A memoir of culture and language, she writes of her longtime passion for the Italian language, finally moving with her family to Italy to immerse herself, and begins a diary - in Italian - which becomes this collection of personal essays on language.  The essays are elegantly translated from Italian into English, so if they are rough in Italian, as the author laments from time to time, the English reader won't know it, and will just enjoy her lovely and very personal reflections. While the description of struggling with the language can sometimes feel a bit obsessive, the essays also explore the many facets of cultural identity and belonging (growing up with two languages and cultures as an American child of Bengali parents; being accepted or not as a speaker of Italian who doesn't look Italian), and perhaps most interesting of all, on how writing in a new language forced her to strip away everything she had come to rely on writing in English, and to write with a new and different part of herself. I had the great privilege of reading In Other Words on a recent trip to Budapest (most of the reading done during a regrettable delay in Charles deGaulle), and it left me inspired, I think, to be a little more attentive and observant on our trip.

Books are also wonderful anchors of memory, fixing places in time. We recently made very brief trip back to the mountains of North Carolina. I can't think of a prettier view for reading a book. This trip, I finally (finally!) finished Louise Erdrich's LaRose (Harper, 2016). I remembered being in the exact same place a few years ago, reading Ethel Rohan's Goodnight, Nobody.  An incredibly peaceful place, despite our short visit. The kind of place that opens up enough space to miss (non-work related) writing a little. I came home and - for the first time in a long time - accepted a few books for review that I'm quite excited about. Looking forward to being back soon with some thoughts to share. Where have your books or travels taken you this summer? 
Happy reading!