12.20–Tumbleweeds

12.20–Tumbleweeds

Tumbleweeds is the second novel by Leila Meacham, whose novel Roses was a NYT Bestseller a few years ago. Roses I did not read, but Tumbleweeds is the novel of choice for a book club being hosted by my mother and me, so I figured I should probably read it.

It is entertaining, certainly.  The story line is tense and, at times, unutterably sad.  It follows the story of Catherine Ann Benson, who is orphaned at age 11 when her parents die in a car accident. She is uprooted from her posh life in California and becomes the ward of her grandmother in the Texas Panhandle.  At school, she is “adopted” by two other orphans, Trey Don Hall and John Caldwell, a popular and handsome pair of best friends.  The trio become inseparable all through high school, until one tragedy and a series of misunderstandings threaten to rip their friendship to pieces and scatter them to the winds.

The premise is your classic love triangle.  Obviously, with two boys and one girl, someone is going to be hurt and left out.  It was predictable in that way.  There were a lot of moments that I wanted to throttle Trey, for his ridiculous assumptions and his stubborn hard-heartedness.  Poor Cathy is the most sympathetic character, and seems to be the only innocent bystander in the whole mess of the novel.  It is entertaining, certainly.  Meacham creates enough mystery and tension to make the reader want to reach the very last page just to find out what secrets everyone is keeping.

The secrets are what got to me the most.  No one tells the truth until the very end of the novel.  Lives have been ruined, and the poor people of the town of Kersey all have to move on and get over one thing or another.  In the beginning it seems that Kersey is an idyllic heaven and nothing can go wrong. But the secrets kept by its citizens, most especially its two golden boys, are what tear it apart.  With the exception of Cathy and some of the older people, there is no one who is really likable or trustworthy.  It is melodramatic and reminds me of a Lifetime movie.  In fact, I would not be surprised to see

Tumbleweeds

Based on the novel by Leila Meacham

A Lifetime Original Movie

sometime.  Except I don’t watch Lifetime, so maybe not.

The prose leaves something to be desired as well.  It’s very juvenile–not at all as if it was written by a veteran novelist.  While the narration is always done in omnitient third-person, it follows different characters after they all split up and go their separate ways. In the chapters that follow the men, especially Trey, Meacham seems as if she is trying entirely too hard to simulate a male’s tone of voice and manner of speaking.  It is not at all natural, and this was a real problem for me when reading the novel.  I understand it is a special and somewhat unique skill to smoothly portray the voice of the opposite sex, but sadly Meacham failed more than most at this.  In a novel that predominantly about men, this is a problem.  Also, some of her sentences forced me to read them two, three, or four times, just to discern the meaning.  Dialect and accent are great things to write within dialog, but including colloquial phrases in the narration just adds to the feeling that neither you nor your editor know grammar very well.

I read the novel quickly, so there must have been something I enjoyed about it.  I didn’t hate all the characters.  Cathy manages to turn her situation around and make a decent life out of the misfortune that befalls her in her youth, and for that I admire her. John Caldwell is a great character, and I greatly admire almost everything about him–the exception being his extreme piety, which caused the story to veer wildly from where I wanted it to go. Meacham also created a web of intrigue so thick that it kept me interested despite the fact that the characters were mostly completely unbelievable.

I wish I had more good things to say about this book, especially because my mother read it before me and was raving about how good it was. For plot it was pretty good, but everything else came up lacking, and there are vital things like character and tone that cannot be overlooked. But maybe I’m in the super-picky minority.  Has anyone else read it? What did you think?

12.19–Frankenstein

12.19–Frankenstein

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So sorry I’ve been out of it lately. I’ve been job hunting, and we all know how fun that is. Also, I’ve been creating a new domain all my own, www.BibliographyBlog.com, and that’s taken some work.  But I’m back! And hopefully back to normal.

Obviously, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein needs no introduction.  It is read every year by perhaps millions of kids all over the globe (or it’s supposed to be…we all know teenagers don’t love to read the things they’re told to read). This, then, is less of a review and more of my reactions to the text.

In school, I loved studying the Romantics.  As bombastic, long-winded, and miserable as they are, I felt at that time that I identified with them.  In some ways I still feel that way, but it is mostly their regard for nature and their hope for escape from the complicated society of man that I feel.  The melodramatic sorrow is something I’ve mostly left behind. Still, I love the Romantics.  In the center of this movement exists Gothic literature, and at the center of this–perhaps the most famous work of Gothic literature–is Frankenstein.

The incredible thing is that this enduring work of literature and the infinitely infamous monster therein were created by a teenaged girl as the answer to a challenge by her older husband and friends.  For those that do not know the history of the novel, Mary Shelley and her husband Percy visited Lord Byron in Switzerland.  One night, Byron proposed a challenge to the poets residing in his home: create a ghost story.  For days Mary strained her brain in an attempt to come up with something good enough to compete with the Romantic titans around her.  According to Mary herself, she was visited by the specter of the very monster she would proceed to create, and out of that visitation arose one of the greatest stories of all time.  It has been adapted for the screen more than any other work of fiction in history. It certainly makes one reflect on our present society.  It was written by a teenager, and most teenagers now can’t even read it.

The text itself is beautiful, and utterly different from what most people think they know of it.  There is not much of a description of the monster himself, and what does exist is nothing like the public’s common conception of him. He is large, yes, and ugly.  But he is extremely smart, well-spoken, and very fast.  He possesses super-human strength, but his massive size seems to reflect the massive heart within him, capable of great love, or of great sorrow and hatred.  Sadly, it is this last emotion that he settles upon in the end, after his creator has rejected and betrayed him. Events do not move swiftly and the novel is not packed with action. As with any good work of Romantic literature, it is mostly self-reflection, thoughts on the great beauty of the surrounding landscape or the nature of man and beast, or long passages of “woe is me” written in about 14,000 different ways.

So, what’s to like about the novel? After all, it’s full of sorrow and tragedy and wrath and destruction. To start, language.  Call me a nerd (I’m totally ok with that), but nothing really gets to me like beautiful, elevated language.  In Mary Shelley’s time, people spoke and wrote in a way that is elegant and thoughtful.  There is a lot of vocabulary in the book that was unknown to me, and I like to think I have a somewhat expanded vocabulary. Both Frankenstein and his monster are bombastic and loquacious. The monster tells a story that lasts for several chapters. Though it could have been shortened drastically, the language is so mesmerizing in its eloquence that one hardly notices the passing of the pages.

Frankenstein’s story, similar to those of the infamous Doctor Faustus or Lord Byron’s Manfred, tells of a man who seeks knowledge far above what man is entitled to know of the universe.  He seeks to create human life, but the unnamed forces of nature do not seem to appreciate this, nor does Frankenstein truly understand how to do so, and his experiment goes horribly wrong.  As with other Gothic heroes, Frankenstein is extremely melodramatic. It is possible for him to solve his own problem in one of several ways, but he must choose to focus on something other than how horrible is the abomination he has created.  Sadly, he cannot move past the hideousness of the creature and the things it does when it is hurt and lonely. He loses everything and everyone he loves due to his single-mindedness, and the creature pulls Frankenstein down to the creature’s own level: completely alone and devoid of happiness. Frankenstein is punished for his arrogance and ambition by powers much greater than himself.  It is this epic human struggle, so common throughout this literary movement, that I find so emotional and compelling. Having never seen any of the numerous Frankenstein adaptations, I had virtually no concept of what the story contained (excepting the obvious). It was extremely intense and stressful for me to read this book, as I knew that nothing good could happen, but I couldn’t help but hope anyway!

I loved this book. The fact that a girl so young could write such an enduring and tempestuous work–one that caused numerous powerful emotions to arise within me–is incredible, and I admire young Mary Shelley greatly for her brilliant work.  It is so unbelievably beautiful.

 

12.14–The Lovely Bones

12.14–The Lovely Bones

Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones is exactly what the title may suggest–lovely. A story of a family ravaged by the emotions resulting from the murder of their eldest daughter, it is told by the deceased girl, Susie Salmon.  Susie’s account of her murder and the events immediately preceding it are horrific, it’s true, and have the potential to be off-putting. Yet the novel that follows these morbid events is touching in a way that only the most heartbreakingly truthful accounts of life can be. Sebold writes fiction, but she captures the reality of life in every paragraph.

Susie looks down on her family from “her” heaven. Sebold has created a reality where each person who dies has their own heaven. These heavens occasionally overlap, when the deceased’s interest aligns with another’s. Susie has friends in heaven, and her dog even joins her there when he dies.  But her heaven also allows her to watch the goings-on of Earth, and Susie tells not just her story, but those of the people she was forced to leave behind. What she describes (with a certain detachment) is a sorrowful tale of grief, anger, betrayal, and frustration.  The gaping hole she leaves in the family widens until her parents relationship is in tatters, her elder sister drifts away emotionally, and her young brother is bubbling with anger. She makes somewhat half-hearted attempts (or so it seems to me) to contact her father and alert him to her murderer. Her feeble grasping at the world of the living sometimes manages to break through, and her father is able to receive enough to figure out who her killer is.  Though this revelation and subsequent hunt add an element of suspense to the novel, it is by no means the main focus of the novel.

It is difficult to read at times. Sometimes I wonder why it’s so appealing to read something as sad as this novel. Perhaps it is for the hope of a happy ending despite all. Or perhaps it is because we can be grateful that their sorrows are not ours. Sebold’s story is harrowing and grisly at times, but touching and beautifully written. Susie’s voice contains both the sweet innocence of childhood and the wisdom of one with the ability to see more than humans, and reading her account of events is a pleasure. The book was a bestseller without being fluffy and brainless, and I really admire both the author and the characters she created.  I highly recommend this book to anyone.

12.4–The First Apostle

12.4–The First Apostle

This is  definitely a poolside read, or in the case of our Texas”winter” when poolside is a not-so-distant-but-still-not-here concept, a bathtub book.  It is quick and easy, and a little below my intelligence level (pardon my elitism).

James Becker is apparently an aspiring Dan Brown.  The book is another conspiracy novel in which the Vatican is hiding a massive, powerful, world-view-altering secret from the unsuspecting masses.  The implication is that this secret will shake the very foundation of Christianity right out from under the believers’ feet.  Though still irritating, I no longer find this type of novel offensive.

The novel opens with the unintentional murder of a British housewife, living alone in a mansion in Italy while her husband travels for business.  The murderers have broken into her house to investigate a Latin inscription her builders uncovered during renovations to the house.  After her death is ruled accidental by Italian police, her husband and his friend, a police officer named Bronson, follow the trail of clues missed by the Italian police which indicate that Jackie’s death did involve foul play.  This trail leads them to repeated encounters with the Italian mafia, across European borders, and deep into the hills and caves surrounding Rome in pursuit of this “earth-shaking” secret.

The plot sounds exciting, and it is a good quick read. Unfortunately the novel is a bit too predictable and cliche, making it difficult to enjoy fully.  There was never anything truly absorbing about it. The characters were not deep enough for me to care about.  Nor was the plot at all believable.  Every solution to every problem was a bit too convenient and far fetched, which did nothing to encourage the suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader.

Other than that, there isn’t too much to say on the book.  If anyone does want to read it, I would hate to give any of the “twists” away, though the reader will likely be able to guess them for themselves.  As I close, I must apologize for the selection of books I’ve made this year, and for my slow reading.  Not many of my reviews have been encouraging.  I’m in the process of reading a best seller right now, and I’m really hoping that I will be able to give you some shining praise for it, so as to inspire you to rush out and pick it up!