A Mother's Reckoning

 

Perhaps, like me, you have pondered the massacre committed at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, murdering students, killing a teacher, and injuring twenty-one more innocent people. Undoubtedly you were shocked, frightened, confused about what kind of children – because really, the murderers were no more adult than were most of their victims – could commit such a heinous act. And maybe, like so many of us, you’ve wondered about the life they lived that would bring them to do such a deed. If you are a parent – and maybe even if you aren’t – you’ve thought about the role the boys’ parents played in this terrible tragedy and how they’ve survived the aftermath.

Sue Klebold, the mother of shooter Dylan Klebold, has written a book to relate her experience and explain the lessons she’s learned in the seventeen years since that day. Before you read any farther I want to make it clear that, in my opinion, she is one of the bravest women I’ve ever known of. This book is not an attempt to excuse or justify the inexcusable. This is a forthright and honest attempt to take us through one of the most horrifying journeys a parent could ever travel.

I debated whether or not I could even read A Mother’s Reckoning because, as a mother, I can’t – don’t want to – imagine the pain, the horror, the grief that these boys left behind. I couldn’t imagine how one reconciles the child she loved with the perpetrator of such horror. Ms. Klebold has done a masterful job of baring her soul, of taking us into a place that we can only pray we will never be. She’s done so honestly, making no excuses for herself, her family, her son or the acts he committed.

In this book she recounts the day of the shooting, the immediate aftermath, her attempts to fashion a post-Columbine life, and her ideas concerning how, as a compassionate society, we can work toward preventing what is becoming a more and more frequent occurrence. It’s well worth reading her thoughts on this – the only hint I will give is that it doesn’t have anything to do with gun control. This is not an easy book to read but it is, I believe, an important book.

I have tremendous respect for Ms. Klebold, for her truthfulness, her courage, her compassion for her son’s victims and their families. And I believe that in recounting her thoughts on that terrible day, as she listened to the newscasters pronounce that twenty-five people were dead, she has written the most heartbreaking words I’ve ever read:

If Dylan was involved in hurting or killing other people, he had to be stopped. As a mother, this was the most difficult prayer I had ever spoken in the silence of my thoughts, but in that instant I knew the greatest mercy I could pray for was not my son’s safety, but for his death.

Grade: A

 

Posted by: Jeanie F | March 15, 2016

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

The Japanese Lover

 

The Japanese Lover is the latest novel by the powerhouse Chilean novelist, Isabel Allende – but there’s a catch. Credit is given to two separate translators –  Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson – and, if I choose to be as generous as possible, a great deal may be lost in the translation. This is certainly not a book that in any way resembles the writing of Island Beneath the Sea or The House of the Spirits.

This book is an amalgam of all the historic events of the 20th Century, placed against the backdrop of a relationship that develops between an elderly woman and her young Romanian caregiver. It purports to be a love story, but wait – it purports to be a historical novel, but wait – it purports to be a family saga . . . Frankly, I don’t know what the heck it is supposed to be but it includes, among other things:

  • the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, followed by the internment of Japanese Americans
  • the Nazi invasion of Poland, followed by the internment of Jews into concentration camps
  • the difficulties of interracial love
  • spunky old people and young refugees
  • the sex trade/sex trafficking
  • homeless pets

And that is just the first half of the book.

The writing is flat, the dialogue (what there is of it) is stilted, the characters and situations stereotypical.

Having said this, 51% of the readers on Amazon.com gave it four or five stars; 8,000 readers on GoodReads gave it four or five stars, so maybe it’s just me. I say save your $12.99 ($8.44 in paperback) for infinitely more satisfying cappuccinos at Starbucks.

Grade: D- (seriously, if I could stand to give Isabel Allende a lower grade, I would)

 

 

Posted by: Jeanie F | February 21, 2016

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My Name Is Lucy Barton

 

I was so excited when I read that Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge, had published a new novel. While Olive Kitteridge was a fairly dark story, I felt that she was so beautifully drawn that even with her many flaws, I could relate to and care about her. I was primed to love the new book, so much so that I pre-ordered it and waited impatiently for it to arrive on my Kindle.

Unlike Olive Kitteridge, which is written as linked short stories, Lucy Barton is a novel. Lucy is a writer, a novelist, who develops a complication following an appendectomy. She is consequently unable to leave the hospital for a number of weeks and, as the novel opens, worries about the life she is missing at home. She has a husband, two young daughters, a career. She is alone, worried about her family and the expense of the hospital stay and, most notably, miserably lonely. Three weeks into this unhappy limbo, without prior notification, Lucy’s mother appears at the hospital.

When Lucy suddenly finds her mother in a chair at the foot of her bed, her mother leans forward, squeezes Lucy’s toe and says, “Hi, Wizzle.”

Lucy tells us:

Her being there, using my pet name, which I had not heard in ages, make me feel warm and liquid-filled, as though all my tension had been a solid thing and now was not.

If this seems like it is about to develop into the story of a mother coming to her daughter’s bedside to care for her and provide succor, you may be disappointed. During her mother’s stay we learn a great deal about the hardships of Lucy’s childhood – both physical (the family lived in a garage) and emotional. We also learn that despite some desperately difficult times and events, Lucy’s love for her mother is one of the deepest and most abiding attachments of her life. Other than making the trip from Illinois to Manhattan, we don’t really get a sense of her mother’s affection for Lucy. They haven’t seen each other for years, nor is it clear that there has been any regular communication between the two during that time. They spend their time together discussing acquaintances, some past and current events, but never the dark history that sits like a specter between them.

The story that unfolds is told in the same unadorned narrative style that characterized Olive Kitteridge. As a reader, however, it didn’t work for me in the same way the previous book did. I understood Olive’s fierce defensiveness, her anger, her conflict. Lucy’s passivity, primarily her unwillingness to confront her mother about the very demons that haunt her thoughts, frustrated me. As much as I wanted to cheer for her ability to at least superficially overcome the hardships of her childhood, it ultimately seemed that she not only didn’t overcome them but refused to even try. If knowledge is power, Lucy chose to remain powerless over her past. The author attempts to end this story with an affirmation that Lucy has come to terms with her personal history. Personally, I couldn’t believe it.

Grade: C

Posted by: Jeanie F | January 22, 2016

My Favorite Reads from 2015

AndTheWinnersAre

It’s always hard to look back on a previous year of reading and consider which of the books read were “the best,” particularly when “the best” is such a generic way of looking at a book. The best suspense book? The most lyrical? The one that kept me reading late into the night? The book that keeps coming back in my thoughts, long after I’ve finished the last page? Rather than trying to prioritize the books that really grabbed me last year, I thought I would pick those that stood out, and try to explain why.

So, listed in no particular order, my favorite books from 2015. Click on the titles to read the complete reviews of each:

Stoner by John Williams: If I were going to put these in order of “favorites,” Stoner would be at the top of my list. This quiet masterpiece, which I actually ended up reading twice just because I loved it so much, goes as far into the heart and soul of a literary character as any book I’ve ever read. I must disclose that almost everyone in my book club disagreed with me – they found him frustrating and unlikable, but I found him both tragic and heroic in the way he lived his life and, although it’s been months since I read it, I continue to think about him often. Maybe not for everyone but, truly, one of the most well-developed fictional characters I’ve ever come across.

Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian: A book whose time has definitely come, as its release coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. This book is both historically important and, as a work of literature, a page-turner. By reading it, I learned as much about this chapter of history as did Orhan, a young Turkish man living in modern times, as he struggled to unwrap his family’s – and his culture’s – tragic past.

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson: Maybe it’s my years in education that made me feel such empathy for Pete Snow, a hapless social worker forced to deal with a survivalist father and his endangered child, but I really loved this sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking story of a flawed man trying to do the right thing within a flawed system.

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf: I have never made a secret of the fact that I consider Kent Haruf to be the greatest under-recognized author of our time. Sadly, Mr. Haruf died in November of 2014, but he generously left us one last slim volume to remind us that love can grow at any time and under any circumstances – not the treacly and romantic love of romance novels, but the deep, respectful love that can exist between any two people who open themselves to the possibilities.

Fortune Smiles: Stories by Adam Johnson: Winner of the 2015 National Book Award, it is clear that I am not the only person who loves Mr. Johnson’s quirky, deeply insightful, understanding of the human heart. Even if you are not a lover of short stories, even if you choose to read only ONE short story from 2015, make it “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine,” the final story in this collection. It may change your opinion of the genre forever!

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast: You may be familiar with Roz Chast’s oddball cartoons featured frequently in The New Yorker. In this graphic novel, she has delved deeper – in fact, very deeply –  into her experience caring for her parents in the last years of their lives. It’s a serious subject, and she doesn’t try to hide the difficulty, the pathos, the frustration of the experience. Instead she tries and, I believe, succeeds, in helping us all understand that if, and when, we find ourselves in the position of caring for elderly parents, we’re not alone.

Posted by: Jeanie F | January 7, 2016

Fortune Smiles: Stories by Adam Johnson

Fortune Smiles

 

Addendum: Fortune Smiles was the winner of the 2015 National Book Award for fiction. Adam Johnson’s first novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, was the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize.

I am the first to admit that I am probably obsessed with short stories. I love everything about them: the brevity, the concise story lines, the fact that an author can build a world and bring me into it with so few words. At the moment, I have six short story collections on my Kindle:

  • The Stories of John Cheever (Vintage International) by John Cheever – a classic
  • Honeydew: Stories and Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories by Edith Pearlman – one of the great story tellers of modern times
  • The Peripetetic Coffin and Other Stories by Ethan Rutherford – The title story alone will blow your mind!
  • Mr. Bones: Twenty Stories by Paul Theroux – who doesn’t love Theroux?
  • The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories by Hilary Mantel – I was hooked on Ms. Mantel from Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

In addition to these, I am a long time subscriber to the outstanding One Story publication – “One great story delivered every three weeks”

I keep this collection on my Kindle so that any time, but especially when I have finished a novel and am not yet ready to commit to a new full length selection, I can count on having something wonderful, yet accessible, at my fingertips.

I’m now excited to add Adam Johnson’s new short story collection to those that reside permanently on my Kindle. I know that there are several I will want to return to over and over.

My first exposure to Johnson’t quirky, but captivating style, was The Orphan Master’s Son, a full length novel about the absurdities of life in North Korea that won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. If you haven’t read it, stop reading this blog and go get it.

This collection is comprised of six somewhat lengthy short stories that cover the gamut of topics:

Nirvana is the story of a tech guy whose wife, critically ill, is obsessed with the rock group, Nirvana. The story looks at love – never in the cinematic, romantic sense – and loss. And who among us can ever predict where that scenario might take us?”

Hurricanes Anonymous takes us to post-Katrina lives that are shattered in the aftermath of the hurricane. You’ll meet characters you never even imagined but whom, as you read, you know for a fact had to exist.

Interesting Facts again explores the impact of illness upon a relationship as the wife, suffering from breast cancer, becomes obsessed with how long after she dies her husband will begin dating. With the dark humor that is a signature of all Johnson’s work, he tells her it might be twelve to sixteen weeks. She responds that getting a death certificate might be an issue to which her husband tells her, “I bet Keith [who works at city hall] could get me proof of death in no time. The dude owes me.”

George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine is the longest and darkest story in the collection – a true classic in every sense of the word. It is told from the point of view of a retired East German Stasi prison warden, the warden of the infamous Hohenschönhausen Prison. He is determined to prove that the prison was not the dark and deadly place that it, in fact, was, by joining tour groups and arguing his point of view with the tour guards, who are all ex-prisoners.

An interesting side note on George Orwell . . .  is that 21st Edition, a Massachusetts maker of art works, is publishing a $9,000.00 copy of this book. Their publications are made of goatskin covers, handmade paper, hand-stitched bindings, letterpress typography, and are illustrated with art photographs.  Johnson was contacted by 21st Editions, who asked for a story, and Johnson says, “When John wrote to me and asked for a story, I knew right away I’d give him my best work.”

That this story was the one he selected tells you something about it. You will never read a short story like it again, I promise.

 

 

Posted by: Jeanie F | December 31, 2015

Old Filth by Jane Gardam

Old Filfth

“Old Filth” is a character, and not the kind of character than the title of this engaging novel might suggest. “Filth” is, in fact, an acronym for Failed in London Try Hong Kong. This is the story of Sir Edward Feathers, a “Raj orphan” who went on to become a successful lawyer and judge in Hong Kong.

The story begins with five-year old “Eddie” being torn from his home in Malaysia where he has been raised by native women and ignored by his father, a British civil servant located in what was then known as “Malay”. Eddie’s mother had died in childbirth. It was the practice at the time for the children of British civil servants stationed in various locations around The Empire to be sent “Home”, as the UK was called by the adults. It was far from “home” for these children, many of whom saw little or nothing of their natal family after being relocated.

In Eddie’s case, he and two female cousins are sent to Wales where they are fostered by an angry and abusive woman. When they are finally removed from her care the three are separated but haunted by memories of the experience. It is, in fact, one of the defining events of Filth’s life, although the extent to which it has affected him isn’t clear until the end of the novel.

Filth is rescued by Sir, an eccentric schoolmaster, and by the family of one of Filth’s school friends, but he lives a life of both personal success and private scars. He marries well, he is venerated professionally, he is wealthy. He is also isolated, insecure, misanthropic.

In spite of his often frustrating surliness, as we learn more about his life, the events that have shaped him, we develop empathy for not only Edward Feathers, but for an entire generation of children who lived an experience that many of us know little about. It has been said of author Jane Gardam that “If Rudyard Kipling was the laureate of the British Empire, then Jane Gardam is surely the closest thing we have to a laureate of its demise” (Elizabeth Lowry, The Times Literary Supplement, 2013).

Old Filth shines a light on a dark corner of British history. It was well worth the read.

Grade: B+

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