The one thing I regret is that I will never have time to read all the books I want to read.
--Francoise Sagan

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow

The Girl Who Fell is part coming of age story and part mystery. The protagonist is Rachel--the daughter of a Black American soldier and a Danish mother. She's eleven years old when the story opens, on her way to Chicago to live with her paternal grandmother. We understand right from the start that Rachel has survived a tragedy that killed her mother, brother, and baby sister.

In Chicago she's immersed in an all black community for the first time in her life...Not only is she trying to grieve...trying to heal, but she also has to make sense of growing up in a world where she doesn't exactly belong. Her light colored skin and blue eyes set her apart and draw a constant stream of attention her way.

Throughout the course of the novel, Durrow shifts between Rachel's perspective and that of an eye-witness to the tragedy she survived. He's a boy just about her age...Jamie...who later becomes known as "Brick". This shift, and the way the two characters' stories intertwine, break apart, and come back together, is beautiful, surprising, rich...But Durrow also includes chapters from the perspective of Laronne, a friend of Rachel's mother. Laronne finds some of Rachel's mother's journals at one point, so we hear Nella's voice as well. This shift feels contrived to me...maybe unnecessary. And in both cases, when the perspective shifts, Durrow shifts from first person to third...I can't figure out why she made that choice. Why not let us hear Brick's story in his own voice? (Jayne Anne Phillips did the same thing in Lark and Termite...and Amy Bloom in Where the God of Love Hangs Out...a trend I'm not enjoying.)

But these were minor irritations in an otherwise gorgeous novel. There were many things I loved about it...I loved the fact that I spent almost the entire book in suspense...wondering what happened to Rachel and her family and how she survived...wondering how it would all come together. I loved the entire cast of characters (even Laronne...though I could have gotten to know her without actually hearing her side). I loved watching Rachel cope and fail and struggle and grow and heal. Her story is universal, albeit extreme. It's about figuring out who you are and who you want to be and reconciling the two. It's about finding your way in a world that's pushing and pulling you to be something else. These are things we can all relate to...

At one point, Rachel talks about her grandmother's dream for get a nice office job, a three bedroom house, a husband...She says, "Grandma sees these things when she talks about them and gestures with her hands like she's painting brush strokes in the air. The way Grandma paints her dream for me, there's a low sky."

The Girl Who Fell is a story about carving out a place for yourself...painting your own dreams. At the end of the book I was left with the feeling that Rachel's still out there trying to do just that.

Final Thoughts on The Curious Incident

I finished The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time yesterday. I loved it the whole way through. Haddon did such an incredible job of bringing Christopher to life and making him likeable...despite his quirks and differences. I really cared about him...I worried for him and hoped for him...I was fully invested.

Being linked so closely to a character with autism was interesting. I felt like I really understood Christopher...I got him...His behavior stopped seeming weird to me. And when he encountered people in the story who were put off by him or afraid of him, I was indignant. But then...I would stop and think, "What would I do if I were in their sitution?" What if I bumped into a 15-year-old boy in a train station and he started barking like a dog? What if I saw him sitting on a bench with his eyes closed "doing groaning"? I'm sure I'd steer clear...I'm sure I'd feel uncomfortable...

The most moving part of the book is near the end, when Christopher recounts his favorite dream. He says, "Sometimes I have it during the day, but then it's a day-dream. But I often have it at night as the dream nearly everyone on the earth is dead because they caught a virus...And I can go anywhere in the world and I know that no one is going to talk to me or touch me or ask me a question...But if I don't want to go anywhere I don't have to, and I can stay at home computer games for a whole week, or I can just sit in the corner of the room and rub a coin back and forward over the ripple shapes on the surface of the radiator..."

This piece of the story made me realize just how difficult life can be for someone with autism. It really brought it home. It was brilliant.

And the hopeful...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

Taking a break from the short story collection...I found this book at the Scholastic Book Fair at school today, and I remembered my sister talking about how good it was. I snatched it up and spent the day reading happily alongside my students.

I LOVE the protagonist in this story! Christopher is 15 years old. He's autistic. He loves prime numbers, the color red, outer space, and Sherlock Holmes. He detests yellow and brown, pointless chatting, metaphors, and being hugged. He has a pet rat named Toby. He wants to be an astronaut. He refuses to eat if his food touches on the plate. He's completely three-deminsional.

Christopher goes out walking late one night and finds his neighbor's dog murdered. Its been stabbed with a gardening fork. Christopher is initially accused of having done it, punches a police officer, winds up in jail...upon his release, he vows to find out who the real killer is and begins to do some dective work of his own.

I'm about 70 pages in...and already, the investigation has led to some surprising (and pretty ugly) truths about Christopher's own family. I can't wait for all of it to unravel. Wondering how he's going to cope.

This is just the kind of book I've been that's un-put-down-able.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Where the God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom

This is a collection of short stories exploring love and loss.

Part One
I finished the first section, "William and Clare" this morning...four short stories about the evolution of one couple's relationship...first colleagues, then best friends, illicit lovers, and finally husband and wife. It started with a great first line: "At two o'clock in the morning, no one is to blame."

And then there was the first paragraph:

We'd been watching CNN, one scene of disaster leading to the next, the reporter in front of what might have been a new anthrax outbreak giving way to the military analyst in the studio with new developments from Kabul, when William put his hand on my breast. My husband was asleep upstairs...and William's wife was asleep in the guest room...

I was hooked. Who are these people??? What's going on? How did they get here? To this moment? I inhaled the next 58 pages of their story.

My only complaint is that the first story, "Your Borders, Your Rivers, Your Tiny Villages," was written in Clare's voice, and all the rest were in third person. The shift was jarring. By the end of the first story, I was attached to her, and I missed her voice and her perspective.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

Phillips' style is reminiscent of Faulkner or Woolf...very stream of consciousness...sort of impressionistic. At the best of times, I felt swept up and carried along by her words...I could smell the freshly cut grass, I could feel the thick, July air, I could hear the pounding rain and the rush of the river. But at the worst of times, I was utterly bored. I didn't know Robert Leavitt well enough to spend fifty pages with him in a tunnel in South Korea as he was dying...the pain, the slipping in and out of consciousness, the flashbacks, the oozing blood, more pain...I found myself, at some points, wishing he'd go ahead and die...just end it.

I really didn't care about any of the characters...Lola, Nonie, Lark, or much as I wanted to. I felt disengaged. I don't know if it was the shifthing point of view, or the style, or both...I never felt sad with them or afraid for them...I was just floating along, watching their lives unfold, a distant by-stander...

And that might have been okay if there had been a lot of action. Several times I found myself desperately wishing something would happen...even something tragic. And when certain big events finally transpired...Lark's discovery about her father...the incident with Gladdy at the end of the book...the characters themselves didn't have much of a reaction. They seemed muted and far away...those moments, anti-climatic.

Ulimately, Phillips did an incredible job evoking time and place. The setting, atmosphere, and mood were vivid...early 1950's, small town West Virginia, the Korean war...I could see it, hear it, smell it, taste it. At times her descriptions, her word choice, felt perfect. (i.e. Today is Sunday. Nick Tucci will run his push mower along the alley, to keep the weeds down. He does it after dusk...and the grass smells like one sharp green thread sliced open.) But beyond that?

There was enough to the story and the characters to keep me reading, hoping, and expecting...but I'm not sure it paid off in the end.