On Homegoing

9781101947135

Let’s just add spreading the word about Yaa Gyasi’s stunning novel Homegoing to the ever-growing list of reasons why I adore Ta-Nehisi Coates. It was Coates’ off-hand endorsement of Gyasi’s debut in a recent article that first alerted me to the presence of this instant classic. Once I caught onto the buzz via Coates, it was pretty hard to ignore the cacophony of rave reviews, podcasts, and bookstores, all imploring me to read this book. Then I suffered a few agonizing weeks, waiting for everyone else who had heard the buzz ahead of me to return their copies to the library so I could take my turn. Spoiler alert: Homegoing was totally worth the wait.

There are literally thousands of reviews out there lauding the achievement that is Homegoing, and still I feel compelled to add my voice. There isn’t much I can say that hasn’t already been covered regarding plot. The story begins with two half-sisters, unknown to one another, who lead very separate lives in Africa. Effia, married to a white man, becomes ensconced in the comfort of the Cape Coast Castle, while her sister, Esi, comes to live in the very same castle, only she is one of many women kept in the dungeon and sold into slavery. From this starting point, Gyasi follows each woman’s lineage, alternating between the two family lines with every other chapter. But rather than following Effia’s or Esi’s life stories to their respective ends, Gyasi only devotes a single 20-odd page chapter to each character in her story. And so a child of the protagonist from the preceding chapter becomes the new protagonist in the next chapter and so on across the generations.

In so doing, Gyasi covers over 300 years of story, from the eighteenth century through today, profiling specific moments in time from the lives of just a few members of this family. She creates a remarkably complete portrait of the family’s past and present, finding ways to subtly tie loose ends and clear up those questions left unanswered when she abandons one character’s story for that of his or her offspring. Beyond that, Gyasi crafts a fully realized study of the experience of black families across both time, as three centuries of story are captured here, and space, as Effia’s descendants mostly remain in Africa while Esi’s live in the United States.

Though readers may at first consider the general outlines of these characters’ stories rather archetypal, from the runaway black slave who will never know true freedom to the single mother finding community in her church choir, Gyasi is remarkably apt at filling them in to their most fully realized extent. Although we may get only the smallest taste of any given character’s circumstances, Homegoing never wants for greater detail. Despite being an oft-overused and thus weak statement, there is no more apt way to put it than to say that Gyasi makes her characters come to life. She does so in a tender, artistic, and seemingly effortless way, leaving me in awe of her talent and unable to select a character that was my favorite, nor one that felt underdeveloped or that I disliked.

Gyasi not only captured an incredible story in Homegoing, but maybe even more remarkably, she shared it in a beautifully inventive and surprisingly comprehensive fashion. I think this is what struck me most about the novel, the way in which brief snapshots of so many interconnected yet disparate lives were able to so thoroughly capture the black experience. As a white woman, I completely acknowledge the presumptuousness inherent in me writing that Gyasi has captured the black experience; this is obviously an experience that has never personally been my own and all the books in the world could never provide me enough insight to equal the actual experiences of black people themselves. However, I believe most readers would be hard pressed to find a novelist who has provided this type of insight in greater measure than Gyasi has here. In conveying the stories and histories of African and African American people so effectively, Gyasi makes them become at once both universal and absolutely singular. Relatable to those outside the black community through the unapologetic rendering of each character’s essential humanity, their flaws, inconsistencies, struggles, passions, and triumphs, while also brilliantly detailed enough to highlight uniquely specific experiences of life that many readers may otherwise never know. Seeing how Gyasi strikes a perfect balance between these two qualities is quite a treat for readers, but also seems desperately necessary now more than ever. I think Roxanne Gay put it best when she said “Homegoing is a very confident debut novel. Exceptionally engaging and the strongest case for reparations and black rage I’ve read in a long time.” Gyasi renders the existence of intergenerational poverty and structural racism utterly undeniable, logically connecting the historical experiences of black people to the reality of their lives today.

While the structure of Homegoing is unlike anything I’ve ever read and the subject matter is oftentimes heavy, ranging from tribal conflict between the Asante and Fante people to drug abuse, single parenthood, and the violence and abuses of slavery, it is a quick and absorbing read. The frequency with which new characters are introduced, the desire to know what happened to the previous protagonist, and the language with which Gyasi writes all make this novel rather easy to settle into. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Homegoing one day becomes required reading in the classroom. It’s that kind of good, that kind of important, that kind of accessible.

I will admit, I found the ending a bit underwhelming, but mostly because it felt pretty inevitable. This is one of those cases where the cheesy saying is totally true: it’s about the journey and not the destination. While readers won’t have trouble guessing how Gyasi will end her novel, that’s not why you pick up a book like this one. It’s the process of getting there, of seeing how Gyasi takes us through the ages and does so in such a riveting and artful way, that makes Homegoing worth a read.

One of my litmus tests for books is the degree to which I want to discuss a book with others as soon as I’m finished reading. Similarly, the amount with which I recommend a book to family and friends is also highly associated with my opinion of it. I guess the two are intertwined, along with my desire to write this review; good books beg to be shared, discussed, and read as far and as wide as possible so that they can foster more sharing, more discussing. Gyasi’s debut is one of those books that I’m absolutely aching to talk to someone about. I’ve already advised several family members and friends that it’s a must-read, and now I’ve taken to the internet, hoping to connect with other readers who can fill the void in me as I eagerly seek a dialogue about just how incredible Gyasi’s Homegoing is. I couldn’t recommend this book more highly and I couldn’t be more excited to hear from others who consumed this book with as much gusto as I did.

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On The Perks of Being a Wallflower (The Film)

Image retrieved from imdb.com

It’s a rare treat to watch a film based on a book whose director and author are one and the same. In fact, it’s something I never thought I’d be able to witness until the opening credits of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

I first heard of  the novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower in my early high school years. I was lucky enough to sit next to one of the most undeniably cool girls in my class during freshman English. For some mysterious reason she took a bit of a liking to me, at least enough to chat with me while waiting for class to start. One day she offhandedly mentioned the book as one of her favorites, so of course I immediately rushed out to find a copy for myself.

Nearly a decade later, I learned that the novel was making its move to the big screen. I rarely have high hopes for books translated to film. Such conversions eradicate the world I created in my own head while reading and replace it with a new one, complete with perfectly primped actors and detailed sets and polished production. My expectations regarding The Perks of Being a Wallflower were no different – until I rented it from the Redbox and saw that Steven Chbosky, author of the novel, was credited as screenwriter, director, and producer of the film. I’ve long hoped to see a novelist take his or her story to the screen. I guess I imagined it would be a study in writerly talent and style, not to mention my own skills as a close reader. To see how my understanding of the world created by a writer compares with his or her own visual representation of it sounded like a fascinating opportunity. If nothing else, the author’s film version of a novel will undoubtedly be the most authentic cinematic execution of his or her work of fiction. And I was lucky enough to enjoy such an unexpected opportunity with this film.

Unfortunately I hadn’t touched the book for some eight or nine years, so my memory of the novel was cloudy and limited to one trademark line: “In that moment, I swear we were infinite.” Nonetheless, I was pleased with Chbosky’s recreation of the Perks story on film, though it took a bit for the movie to really grow on me. (And I must admit, I was surprised at the way in which the book’s most quotable line was delivered – the scene felt so far from how I remembered imagining it.) In the first half hour, the dialogue felt a bit forced, the set up of the relationship between the three main characters awkward in its very structure. I was hesitant to give myself over the actors and their manor of speaking – I couldn’t decide if some of the lines were just poorly delivered or poorly written by someone trying to sound young and hip. But soon after I was about to give up on The Perks of Being a Wallflower and halfheartedly finish it while looking up recipes for dinner, I started to find my attention unconsciously drifting wholly to the movie. After a watching the film a second time, I can certainly identify a few elements, including portions of the storytelling, the acting, and the writing, that are notably weaker than others. But my ultimate sense of the film remains firmly positive and I can’t exactly put my finger upon the source of this fondness.

Though the cast features a few big names with supporting roles, including Paul Rudd and Joan Cusack, the main player in this film has little name recognition. Logan Lerman portrays wallflower protagonist Charlie, an incoming high school freshman at the beginning of the film who makes brief reference to the “bad time” he experienced last year. Though we don’t know much about Charlie’s past troubles, we can surmise that they are psychological in nature, that he has few if any friends, and that he isn’t so good at making new ones. Ezra Miller is perfectly cast as Patrick, an outwardly gay senior at Charlie’s school. The only upperclassman in Charlie’s freshman shop class, Patrick generously invites Charlie to sit with him during a football game. Patrick introduces Charlie to his step-sister Sam, played by Emma Watson, and thus into their wider but tightly knit social circle of daring, Morrissey-loving, Rocky Horror Picture Show-devotee friends. Charlie’s troubles take a backseat to his new place amidst Patrick and Sam’s circle, especially as he grows closer to Sam, the object of his burgeoning affection. Though Charlie’s new friends appreciate his wallflower ways, their mere presence in his life can’t keep Charlie’s deeper problems at bay forever.

Much of my ultimate adoration for the film I attribute to Ezra Miller’s portrayal of Patrick. Miller gave a refreshingly honest and endearing performance as a high school-aged homosexual male, unabashedly himself and heartwarmingly sincere. He is just the kind of friend I wish I’d had in high school – someone who would never dare to conform, who deeply loves his friends with an unquestionable loyalty, who takes notice of others despite his seemingly-self-centered efforts to attract attention, and who is able to make even the most run of the mill days feel singular and epic.

A prime reason for the hesitancy with which I came around to this movie was the beauty of its ending – it both made up for and explained some of the elements that previously seemed poorly executed. The film’s conclusion reveals an important detail of Charlie’s past which is hinted at throughout the movie in a gracefully misleading manner. This revelation has great explanatory power regarding the protagonist’s disposition such that some of the previously awkward-seeming components are made much less so. In adding to the gravity of the story, the ending was also an opportunity for Lerman to really demonstrate the depth of his acting ability. And fortunately for me, I completely forgot this twist of sorts from back when I read the book, allowing me to savor the reveal like a first-timer to the story.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower made me yearn for my youth like few movies can. It portrays adolescence in such a heartbreakingly honest but romantic and whimsical way that I couldn’t help feeling nostalgic for my high school days and what else that time could have held for me. Though the movie as a whole may not be an extremely accurate depiction of the typical high school experience, the feelings evoked by The Perks of Being a Wallflower are certainly ones I vividly remember having or wanting to have. The movie is a pleasantly surprising ode to youth but also an exploration of its more troubling aspects, of the highs and lows that come with adolescence, first love, and moments of feeling inexplicably indestructible and infinite.

On Django Unchained

Image retrieved from http://www.wikipedia.org

There is not a single thing that could have improved Django Unchained for me. Despite it’s two hour and forty five minute running time, I was riveted and entertained for the entire duration of the film and fully satisfied by its ending.

I was a little fuzzy on the film’s storyline before heading into the theater, but the list of people involved in Django Unchained offered me more than enough reason to see it. Though by no means a Tarantino connoisseur, I have mountains of respect for the director’s genius and am willing to give any of his films a try. The cast couldn’t have been more compelling – Leonardo DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz are easily two of my favorite working actors and having names like Jamie Foxx, Jonah Hill, and Samuel L. Jackson on the bill doesn’t hurt either. Even Don Johnson had a small role in Django – the fact that he’s found relevant acting work in the year 2012 is a minor  miracle in itself.

With so much to recommend Django Unchained, my expectations were high and obviously so were those of many other American film-lovers; it was nearly impossible to find a pair of seats although my husband and I bought tickets for a Saturday morning showing a few weeks after the movie’s initial release. And Django certainly delivered.

En route to the new plantation by which he has been purchased, Django amidst a group of other in-transit slaves is intercepted by Dr. King Schultz, a German bounty hunter fronting as a dentist portrayed by the inimitable Christoph Waltz. Dr. Schultz buys Django’s freedom so that the former slave can identify three plantation workers with sizable bounties on their heads that recently left Django’s old plantation. The freed slave quickly becomes an apprentice to Dr. Schultz, who capitalizes upon rewards offered for the South’s most wanted men with the utmost precision and charm. As the two grow increasingly close via their business operation together, Django reveals to the doctor that he was once married to Broomhilda, a slave woman whose first owners were of German descent. Their exploits as bounty hunters quickly turn into a quest to reunite Django with his wife. Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Calvin Candie, the remorseless owner of the Candyland plantation, known and feared by slaves for its size and severity and current home to Broomhilda.

Django’s newfound freedom provides plenty of opportunities for situational humor which Tarantino exploits to great satisfaction but without being overly obvious or cheesy. Because of the time and distance from slavery afforded modern day Django-viewers, the ridiculousness of the Ku Klu Klan and the absurdity of slave ownership are capitalized upon to great comic effect as well. There is definitely an expectedly gruesome and bloody side to the film, owing to its setting in the times of slavery and the director’s notorious appetite for violence.

But what really makes this movie so satisfying and widely appealing, despite these potentially polarizing elements, are the core motifs of Django’s story – freedom and love. Tarantino’s brilliant storytelling ensures that the search for Django’s wife, which lies at the heart of this film, is never cheesy or forced. And a cast of immensely talented actors only heightens the sense of satisfaction a film like Django Unchained provides.

Dr. Schultz is one of the most compelling and heroic characters in the movie, although not overly so. I’m still cheering Christoph Waltz’s smooth performance, for the audience is consistently impressed with and protective of Dr. Schultz despite his ruthless, murderous day job. Django’s initial taciturnity gives way to an endearingly willful though stoic side of his personality as he becomes accustomed to his freedom and bounty hunting. The development of this character is wisely written and Jamie Foxx does as expertly job of giving life to the film’s namesake. Samuel L Jackson is quite hilarious as the aged Stephen, a head house slave at Candyland with such an unwavering allegiance to Calvin Candie that it seems as though Stephen has forgotten he is black like Django himself. And Leonardo DiCaprio is as excellent as ever, perfectly cast as the powerful Francophile Calvin Candie.

After watching a few other Tarantino films and allowing Django to sink in, I’m fairly confident that its my favorite film from the director’s cannon and it has quite effortlessly slipped into my top favorite films of the year 2012. While I credit much of my ardent appreciation for Django Unchained to Tarantino’s talent, I would be completely remiss not to, once again, acknowledge just how perfect Christoph Waltz’s performance was in this film. I certainly would have enjoyed Django no matter who filled Dr. Schultz’s shoes, but I can’t guarantee it would have been such a flawless film without Waltz’s award-winning talent.

On The Boys Are Back

The Boys Are Back was the kind of movie that snuck up on me and completely sucked me in. With it’s gorgeous Australian setting and delightful Sigur Ros soundtrack, I was visually and melodically reeled into this tragic but touching story.

Clive Owen plays Joe Warr, a recent widower whose late wife Katy abruptly succumbed to cancer. Warr is a top Australian sportswriter and, while Katy was alive, Joe’s work often took him away from his beloved wife and son Artie. Following Katy’s death, Joe is ill-prepared to be thrown into single parenthood and is forced to strengthen his relationship with young Artie.

The movie follows Joe’s negotiations of fatherhood which are further complicated when his son from a prior marriage, Harry, comes to visit. Living with his mother in England whenever he’s not away at boarding school, Harry has been virtually absent from Joe’s life until his Australian vacation. During this time, Artie and Harry become quite fond of one another, while Joe tries to become the father he never was for either of his sons prior to Katy’s death.

Though the premise of the film isn’t entirely unheard of, The Boys Are Back is an original take on a familiar story. In fact, the movie is actually based on true events captured in Simon Carr’s book about his struggles with fatherhood following his wife’s death. Unfortunately I didn’t realize this until my second watching of the film just a few days ago so I have yet to read the book.

The movie takes a look at single parenting and widowhood in a touching, honest and refreshingly unaffected way. Joe experiences visions of his late wife but these momentary bouts of grief and denial are not in any ways overly done. Rather Katy’s few posthumous appearances serve as an indication of both Joe’s anguish as well as the strength of his love for Katy. In relying upon his wife’s wisdom and love, Joe learns to be a better parent, imagining the advice she would dispense and the support she would staunchly provide.

There are definitely instances when his parental judgment falters, though Joe’s intentions are always true.

His parenting mantra becomes “just say yes” rather than constantly denying things to Artie and Harry for little to no apparent reason. Although this practice ultimately backfires a bit, it also allows for a unique experience of family among these three. His sons learn just as much from Joe’s mistakes as he does himself. Ultimately, The Boys Are Back is about how learning to be a family, from the struggles to get it right to carefree moments of pure childlike fun. Joe’s situation is further complicated by a tenuous-at-best relationship with his mother-in-law, the demands of a travel-heavy job, and ambiguous affections toward fellow single parent Laura.

While watching The Boys Are Back, I can’t help feeling at least a little bit concerned about the trials of parenthood I have to look forward to in the (far) future. But the movie also highlights the accompanying rewards that can come after, if not directly as a result of, those very struggles. Out of a tragic loss, Joe finds both hope and joy in his sons, things that he may have missed out on entirely if not for Katy’s devastating end.

Though it may seem as though I’ve offered more of the plot than would be prudent, there is so much more to the movie than what I’ve described thus far. Interwoven throughouot the underlying storyline are so many beautiful moments to which I could do little justice describing in a mere blog post. And the very look of the movie is extremely compelling in itself. The Carr house settled in the Australian countryside is as idyllic as could be while the clean feel of the whole film will have you longing for a world as cozy and comforting as that which these boys forge. The music of Sigur Ros only adds to the overall tone of the film, delightfully highlighting those euphoric moments with joyous sounds and lending a shadow of beauty to scenes marked by grief and sorrow.

The only flaws I could possibly find in the film are a few not-so-firmly-established details. I’m pretty sure the film is Australian but, through my first watching, it wasn’t entirely clear where things were taking place. Joe is British and Katy was Australian, but it wasn’t until later in the film that we understood how they came to live in Australia. Part of my density may have also been attributed to talking to Mike while watching the movie the first time through – our little side conversations could have easily distracted me from some establishing factors. There were a few details that didn’t make complete sense at first, but by the end of the film it all came together.

There’s also a scene Mike and I reference a little too much when Joe is playing hide and seek at Artie’s birthday party. As the kids are all hiding outside in the dark, Joe holds a flashlight under his chin and, in a decidedly creepy voices, sings out “I like to play with little children.” Though he’s obviously emulating a character to add drama to the game, it rings with a little too much pedophilia, which fellow single parent Laura doesn’t hesitate to remark on.

Despite being a female, 22-year-old, suburban-dwelling, childless blogger, I shared in all of Joe’s experience. I laughed, I cried, I even had a little trouble following some of the nuances of the storyline, but still I absolutely fell in love with this movie and the way of life that shaped this small family unit. With great performances from Owen and the two child actors, George MacKay as Harry and Nicholas McAnulty as Artie, dazzling scenery, a heartfelt script, and beautiful imagery to boot, The Boys Are Back is not to be missed.

On Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig is an iconic story chronicling a father-son American West motorcycle journey, peppered with philosophical musings and observations on American culture. This was a (530 page) book which I truly could not put down. Though Pirsig touches on everything from small-town USA to the definition of quality, from the structure of a cycle to the teachings of Plato, his book retains a coherence that draws you in and keeps you absorbed the whole way through. It’s pretty obvious why this book, based on events from Pirsig’s own life, has gotten so much hype.

On Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life

Recently I embarked on a daunting and arduous task: completing Gerald Martin’s biography of Colombian writer Gabriel “Gabo” Garcia Marquez. For Martin this was the work of a lifetime, quite literally; the biographer devoted 17 years to this passion project, conducting research and intensive interviews with over 300 individuals all in Spanish (though the book was first published in English).

While I never thought I could complete such an exhaustive study of one single, though undeniably worthy, individual, the biography reads much more like a narrative rather than an intensive listing of the events, places, names, and dates that make up a life as many biographies can quickly become. In fact, Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life is highly reminiscent of the famed subject’s classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, though this may be because so much of his fiction is based on his own life (or maybe because of Martin’s serious emulation for, and unintentional imitation of, Garcia Marquez). And for anyone who has struggled with keeping the Buendia family tree straight, don’t worry: Martin offers a much more easy-to-follow genealogical record of his subject.

A praiseworthy biography, not only for the nearly two decades that Martin devoted to it, but also because it provides a careful, honest, and engaging profile of Colombia’s beloved Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

On The Robber Bride

I consider myself a big Margaret Atwood fan, though I’ve only delved into a few of her novels. And I actually only first read The Handmaid’s Tale because it was assigned to me for a class (though I was delighted to find it already on my bookshelf, probably purchased for a few bucks at some used bookstore, and thus not one I needed to add to the list of textbooks to acquire). But it was a novel that really stuck with me, though whether because of its feminist undertones, its narrative style or Atwood’s particular voice, I can’t really say.

I guess the reason I can call Atwood a favorite is because I know she’s reliable. If I’m in a fictional funk, unable to pick up any novels that satisfy my craving for a good yarn, Atwood is one author whose work I know will fit the bill – and there’s a lot of it for me to choose from. That’s kind of what happened with The Robber Bride. I went to the library in search of a post-worthy read, a book that would be worth all the time and effort required to finish it, one that would just beg to be shared with the blogosphere and my small community of readers. I have a huge list of books to get to but I find that few are right at my fingertips at the local public library. Nine times out of ten, I have to put in a request and get it shipped from another branch before I can delve into its pages. So I decided to browse the aisles instead and see what was already right at my fingertips and ready to go home with me. Atwood was it.

The Robber Bride is the story of three women whose lives have been inextricably bound by a woman named Zenia. Tony, Charis and Roz all attended the same university, lived in the same dorm even, but barely knew one another until Zenia, their ruthless, mysterious and beautiful classmate, wreaked havoc in all their lives. Though the three suffered Zenia’s malice in entirely independent encounters, the recurring patterns of her behavior and the lasting heartbreak she sought solidified a friendship among these three women whose commonalities were few and far beyond Zenia.

Told in brilliant Atwood fashion, when The Robber Bride opens, Tony, Charis, and Roz are having lunch some five years after Zenia’s funeral. When they spot her across the restaurant, as alive as ever, we are taken back to the formative years of this dangerous woman’s relationship with her fellow co-eds in order to unearth the character of a woman who faked her own death.

Currently a history professor, Tony was a quiet undergrad who uncharacteristically took up a male friend’s offer to attend a party one night in the hopes that doing so would lead to the unfolding of a beautiful romance. Rather, it led her right to Zenia, and their brief but intense friendship was unlike anything reclusive Tony had known before. We are then taken back to Charis’ unstable youth, as she was juggled among female relatives against her will and fighting against a whole host of inner demons. After college, Zenia enters Charis’ life when the later becomes a yoga instructor and Zenia arrives to her class with a plea for help that the sympathetic gentle Charis cannot refuse. And finally we meet a young Roz, the mysteries of her father’s work, the pull to leave home, and the day when, in an effort to shower some due attention on his wife, Roz’s husband takes her to the restaurant where Zenia waitresses and the two women connect.

As in a mystery, Atwood doesn’t give her readers all they may want or need to know right away, but we earn more and more details as we bide our time. That very form was actually one of my favorite things in reading The Robber Bride; we learn about these three women leading quite disparate existences but who, nonetheless, share a deep and lasting bond because of one mysterious woman. It takes quite a lot of time to discover why Zenia played such a significant role for each of them, how she irrevocably changed the course of their lives, and how it ultimately brought them together. In form, the story unfolds quite realistically, for we are thrown into the present moment with little context, and only in patient time can we expect for the pieces to come together and the larger picture to find itself revealed.

Though a bit dark and brimming with mystery, deception, and heartbreak, The Robber Bride isn’t your categorical mystery novel, harlequin romance, or indulgent piece of chic lit. Intelligently told and wisely crafted, the book has all the hallmarks of a classic drama, a soap opera even, but dispensed in measured doses and veiled under cover of Atwood’s talent as an alluring wordsmith. Though it clocked in at a daunting 520 pages, the novel didn’t feel lengthy or drag on at any point, but rather, quickly progressed in the anachronistic telling of these four women’s stories.

No matter what sort of book you’re in the market for, drama, romance, mystery, or simply a well-weaved story, I highly recommend getting your hands on The Robber Bride. As expected, reviews are good all around and this complex novel is accessible and entertaining for any reader without dumbing itself down to the lowest appreciable level. Margaret Atwood’s authorial stamp on any piece of fiction is a high recommendation in itself but if you need further encouraging to pick this one up, take my word for it. You will be happy you did!

On Last Night in Twisted River

Don’t let the fact that the first chapter of John Irving’s twelfth novel is focused almost entirely upon a logging accident in the New England town of Twisted River deter you from picking up this phenomenal book. As an Irving fan, I’m familiar with his work but never before have I been as completely engrossed and impressed with the novelist as when reading Last Night in Twisted River.

Though the story begins with a logging accident, it ultimately moves away from the town of Twisted River and on to settings throughout New England, the midwest, and even Canada. When Dominic Baciagalupo, the cook at one of Twisted River’s few eating establishments, and Daniel Baciagalupo, his 12-year-old son who becomes a writer as an adult, have to hurriedly escape from Twisted River, they leave behind their close friend Ketchum and what few other ties they have to learn to create a new life elsewhere. Circumstances are continually forcing them to relocate, settling down in new towns with new restaurants, friends, and women. An elaborate story strung together by friendship, family ties, and secrets both dangerous and dark, the novel nearly spans a whole lifetime but never once falls dull.

In classic Irving style, this intelligent story slowly unravels and then comes back full circle, complete with startlingly true characters and a teasing interplay with the novelist’s own past.

On Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Image from kingsolver.com

One year without supermarkets. One year of planting, watering, weeding, harvesting. One year without sugary cereals, Chinese food, delivery pizza. No processed foods. Everything local, hand-picked. It sounds like quite a daunting challenge: to give up mass-produced edibles and adopt a new food culture eating only what is in season and harvested by your own two hands, or by those of your neighbor. This is exactly what challenge Barbara Kingsolver and her family of four put themselves up to for an entire year, with all the struggles, joys, and recipes recounted in the entertaining and engaging Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Reading Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle really encourages you to look at the food you eat, where it comes from, how it is made, and how you can change these factors to enjoy a diet more healthy for you but especially for the environment. The benefits, both personal and environmental, of growing your own food and eating locally are endless – savoring foods when they’re at their peak, reveling in the flavor of produce grown at your own hands, reducing the incidence of cruelty to animals in food production, lowering the number of miles each item of food must travel to reach your plate, supporting local business- and farm-owners, enjoying a more healthy, whole-food lifestyle. And the detriments of the alternative are shocking – to get to your dinner table, the items in a typical American meal have traveled an average of 1,500 miles, through transportation, packaging, warehousing, refrigeration, and other forms of processing. Isn’t is so much more satisfying, healthy, environmentally-concious, inexpensive, and delicious to eat a tomato plucked from your own backyard than one from a pile in the grocery store?

So you don’t have room for a vegetable garden at your place? How about trying the local farmer’s market? Not only a farmer’s markets becoming more easy to find every year, they carry the best of the best in-season produce so you don’t have to worry if you’re fruits and vegetables are going to be good. Another great option is to join a CSA, community supported agriculture, where local farmers will deliver food direct to you on a weekly basis. You’ll never know exactly what you’re going to get, but it is guaranteed to be fresh and in-season. To learn more, visit Local Harvest.

And to learn more about Kingsolver’s book, to get recipes, and more, visit the Animal, Vegetable, Miracle website.

On The Book Thief

I recently finished re-reading one of my most favorite books, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Though technically a young adult novel, Zusak’s book tells a brilliant and important story for all ages. Set in Nazi Germany, The Book Thief highlights the struggles of maintaining friendships and a sense of humanity amidst the hatred, cruelty, and violence of Germany in 1939.

Liesel Meminger arrives to 33 Himmel Street to live with her new foster parents shortly after her brother’s death. Before Liesel is even 10 years old, she has already been torn from her mother and lost her younger brother – and life only gets harder from there. Told from the perspective of death, this ambitious novel follows Liesel’s path in her new life, the relationships she forms there, and the solace she finds in words.

Her first book, The Grave Digger’s Handbook, was a stolen from her younger brother’s gravesite. Though it takes her quite some time to complete the book, with the help of her gentle foster father, a poorly educated man himself, Liesel masters the book, and yearns for more. Over the years her episodes of thievery increase, but the compulsion to read proves a more powerful motive than the rush of burglary.

While reading offers Liesel a temporary respite from her reality, she soon learns the true danger of the real world when she befriends a Jew. Max finds his way to Liesel’s foster family’s front door and things are never the same from then on. The relationship that Liesel builds with her secret housemate plays a powerful but fragile role in her life, one that is defined by Max’s need to stay hidden in Liesel’s basement, his frail health, and his understanding of the power of words.

Though this novel is, at times, incredibly heartbreaking, it has moments of completely pure and simple joy. This dichotomy helps demonstrate the true despair and helplessness that shaped the lives of many people in Nazi Germany; The Book Thief illuminates the power of friendship at a time when maintaining certain relationships could be nearly impossible and positively life threatening.

I don’t believe I could ever really do this book much justice. It’s full of beautiful imagery, devastating loss, ambitious storytelling, childhood nostalgia, transcendent relationships, and a whole lot of heart. In my opinion the New York Times said it best when they reviewed this book as one with the potential to be “life-changing.” No matter what your reading style or genre of choice, this is a book that anyone with even a shred of humanity in them can learn from and appreciate.

 

On Freedom

Jonathan Franzen is one of today’s most undeniably talented and intelligent writers and, currently, he is pretty much on top of the world. His most recent novel, Freedom, is being declared the new definitive American novel, a masterpiece, a story that defines a generation, etc. etc. I was first introduced to him when a friend suggested I read The Corrections, his second full length novel. She prefaced her suggestion by assuring me that it would not be an easy read, however it would prove to be a very worthwhile one. I came upon a series of essays by the author, however, before I turned to any of his works of fiction. The essays compiled in Franzen’s collection entitled How to Be Alone were beautifully written, intelligently constructed, thought-provoking, and completely relatable. When I made it to The Corrections, I was enraptured by Franzen’s story-telling ability, the way in which he created a riveting family saga that covers all the humor, nostalgia, sentimentality, conflict, and monotony of family life. I’ll refrain from raving about these works for now but let it be known, I was eager to read Freedom, despite all the hype, the controversy with Oprah, and the predictions of greatness, simply because of my genuine love for Franzen’s work.

Like The CorrectionsFreedom is a book about the modern American family, a snapshot of one dysfunctional and disparate family struggling to make sense of the world today and their place in it. When I considered why Franzen selected the title Freedom, I realized how this novel explores the ways in which family life can encourage and inhibit our freedom, and how central this struggle is to daily family life. Freedom is certainly at the center of it all, both our freedoms to and our freedoms from, freedoms both real and imagined, both implicated and explicit. Franzen created a novel that surveys one of the most prized and predominant American values in the context of modern family life.

In the Berglund family depicted in Freedom, Walter is the do-gooder father, a hopelessly devoted husband and environmental advocate working for the Nature Conservancy. We’re almost misled to believe that he is most like us – the sane one, the most relatable and reliable character. In time, however, we learn that no character is so easily categorized or trusted. Sure, Walter presumes the picture of normality, but ultimately reveals moments of radical extremism that wreck havoc on himself and his family.

Then there’s Walter’s wife Patty. A college athlete, she never knew much outside of basketball and an ambition to win. Her relationships have all been defined by what she gets out of them – her closest friend from college loved Patty to a confidence boosting degree, Patty’s favorite thing about Walter is his  unconditional love for her, the security he provides. Though she may seem the picture of the perfect stay-at-home mom, blessed with an adoring husband and perfect children, Franzen once again proves that things are never as simple as they seem when Patty is challenged by the friend who drew her to Walter in the first place.

And then there is the Berglund’s daughter Jessica, a type-A personality who is distanced from her mother on account of Patty’s overwhelming love and devotion to Joey, her youngest offspring. We follow the course of the children’s lives, jumping back and forth in time to see where Jessica and Joey go in relation to where their parents have been. The children experiment with an array of moral and political leanings and their own changing attitudes toward the Berglunds, all while confronting the disparity between their expectations and reality of adult life.

Freedom is not just about the family in modern America – it truly is about freedom and the ways in which it manifests itself in 21st century America. This is a novel about our responsibility to the world and what we have been told the world owes to us. Franzen confronts the issues of how to deal with the freedom, or lack thereof, that modern culture affords each and every American citizen. The Berglunds live in a world where freedom comes at the price of figuring out what exactly to do with it. A world where people are free to be like everyone else, to join the masses and never think about a thing for themselves, to blindly follow the herd and do as they’re told. But also a world where true freedom is never quite free, where every decision carries the weight of moral and political implications, where nothing is so isolated and unfettered as to be completely free.

In Franzen’s latest, he challenges the notion of freedom upon which so many people believe their family’s life is based. The husband who is enslaved to his wife, the wife burdened by unhealthy relationships, the daughter who seeks space from the dysfunction of her family, and the son who yearns for freedom from his father’s ideals. In this enveloping novel, Franzen plays with the very idea of freedom through the example of the Berglund family and, hopefully, suggests to his many readers a more  well-intentioned way of living a life more free.

On One Week

While playing a rousing game of Scrabble this weekend, Mike and I stumbled upon a little gem of an indie flick called One Week. Starring Joshua Jackson of Dawson’s Creek fame, this Sundance film was too riveting to watch while engaged in a board game, and we were quite pleasantly surprised by the overall effect of the film.

Narrated by Campbell Scott, the film follows Jackson’s character Ben Tyler as he embarks on a Canadian motorcycle trip after being diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer. The devastating prognosis shakes Ben to the core and wrecks havoc upon his relationship with his fiance, Samantha. Atop his newly purchased vintage motorcycle, Ben takes in the natural beauty and quirky landmarks of Canada.

In time, Ben finds the answer to the question “what would you do if you only had a week to live?” As he tells Samantha in the film (this is paraphrased from my somewhat full memory so bare with me) “I lived a new lifetime each day.” Though in print it sounds a bit tawdry, Jackson delivers this line with the same poignancy and grace that underscores the entire film.

Though the plot may be slightly formulaic, One Week provides a fresh, insightful, and more intelligent take on the typical “bucket list” film. Stunning scenery, interesting characters, a touch of irony, and invigorating road trip montages abound, without being overly cheesy. Backed by a solid soundtrack and a strong performance from Jackson, the relatively slow pace of this quiet movie doesn’t leave viewers feeling bored but rather more introspective and reflective. Well-acted, beautifully-shot, and deeply-felt, this film is an all-around success. The perfect movie to end a crisp fall day, there is no better way to describe how I felt when the credits began to roll than decidedly content.

On Small Wonder

I believe that there are a few authors who really speak to each of us in an extremely personal and almost eery way. Maybe they’re not always on the mark, maybe every piece of work they churn out isn’t our favorite, but in some small way, their writing has made a profound and unparalleled impact on us that will forever burn their names in our hearts and minds.

This is how I feel about Barbara Kingsolver. I haven’t been able to fully immerse myself in all of her novels, but Animal, Vegetable, Miracle really moved me in a way that few pieces of nonfiction have ever been able to and so did her collection of short essays entitled Small Wonder.

Inspired by the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Kingsolver meditates on a wide range of issues, most of them pertaining to what it means to be an American and what it means to be a parent. Bolstered by Third World parables, stories of foreign travel, anecdotes from her own family life, and a revolutionary sensibility inspired by the likes of Susan B. Anthony, Emma Goldman, and Martin Luther King Jr., Kingsolver has woven a stunning fabric of truth and authenticity that makes the personal political.

The thing I find most inspiring about Kingsolver is her optimism, her belief in the goodness of human nature and the potential for change. Nearly all of her ideas ultimately come back to love, peace, and respect. Though she may write on international conflicts, humanitarian crises, the domestic homeless population, or the war on terror, her views are remarkably accessible to all because they are grounded upon the small wonders of everyday life. The love a mother feels for her chid, the comfort of having a family to come home to, the right to live a healthy life – these are the things upon which she frames her larger critiques and interpretations of modern American society.

Armed these so-called revolutionary standpoints, Kingsolver’s point is not to inspire guilt about the wasteful and selfish ways of America, but rather to inspire a sense of responsibility to make a change. Despite the many national decisions made with which she entirely disagrees, Kingsolver does not allow these discrepancies between her country’s ideals and her own to diminish her sense of national pride. Instead, she draws upon the same ideas that inspired the founders of our nation as she holds out hope that change is possible. The United States holds the resources and the power to be a role model, to make changes that will improve the whole world, not just our small corner of it. Kingsolver implores us to take that potential and do something productive with it, to create a movement to spend our money more wisely and generously while restoring our sense of contentment grounded in something other than our latest purchase at the mall.

Kingsolver dreams of an America that cares just as much about its homeless citizens as those that are safely housed with their families every night. She envisions a country where the local independents can thrive, where unnecessary desires and obsession with consumption takes a backseat to the simple joy of working to put food on the table and fulfillment from relationships and family. As a storyteller, Kingsolver’s imagination is obviously in great form but this ideal US is not some unattainable dreamland in her head. Reading the pieces contained within Small Wonder will make you realize how possible and necessary these changes can be, from the impact of harvesting vegetables in your own garden, to caring about your fellow citizen enough to sacrifice a few dollars of luxury spending.

Small Wonder will make you reconsider what you thought you knew, and it will raise questions you may have never thought to ask before. But Kingsolver will also undoubtedly instill in you a sense of hope and the revolutionary spirit to alter your life for the betterment of yourself, future generations, and those in need all around. And she’ll perform this great feat of inspiration by pulling on the most fundamental and universal of human heartstrings: love and family.

On The Lacuna

Mrs. Kingsolver has done it again! I don’t even know how to begin to describe this novel for it is so elaborately written and tells a vast story. I will admit, as often happens when reading Barbara Kingsolver’s novels, I found it a bit laborious to get through the first 50 or so pages of The Lacuna. But once I read my way further into the stuff of the book, I was completely hooked.

The story begins in 1930s Mexico. A young Harrison Shepherd and his mother take up residence with an oil magnate living in Mexico whom the latter hopes to marry. Given the variety of circumstances that Harrison’s mother finds repulsive and fearsome, she off-handedly tells her son to write down everything that happens to them in Mexico for posterity’s sake. From then on out, Kingsolver provides us with Harrison’s journals and correspondence to track his story.

Under the tutelage of Leandro, the resident cook in Shepherd’s potential father-in-law’s home, Harrison learns the basics of authentic Mexican cuisine. These skills he applies to plaster preparation when he encounters a formidable Diego Rivera, attempting to complete a two-story mural with sub-par assistance. Shepherd corrects the hired helps’ hopeless ways, making quite an impression upon the famous painter. From there, Kingsolver draws a historic and remarkable life story for Shepherd. The boy works in the home of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, foments a unique relationship with the celebrated female painter, and inadvertently becomes immersed in international political conflicts when exiled Marxist and Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky takes up residence amongst Diego and Frida.

Though he considers himself rather apolitical, Harrison can’t help but find himself in the midst of great political upheaval, especially once he settles in Asheville, North Carolina as an accomplished novelist, only to fall under suspicion of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His true passions lie in Mexican history, as is evidenced by the content of his compelling and widely-read novels. But Harrison’s life story is such that his stenographer, Mrs. Brown, finds it impossible for the novelist to avoid writing a memoir – especially given his extensive collection of personal journals which would make such a task immensely less daunting.

The Lacuna is by no means an easy read and I imagine that, were I to revisit this book in a month or two, I would find thousands of new things to take away from it. Part of the reason I find this novel so compelling is the mere density and complexity of it – the way in which history is so seamlessly woven throughout, how Harrison’s past experiences in place and time craftily dovetail with the present moment, the grand beauty of the language that only further heighten Kingsolver’s storytelling.

And a great part of it’s charm is the mystery inherit in the story. As Shepherd repeatedly says “The most important part of a story is the piece of it you don’t know.” Kingsolver proves this to be true by offering only the subtlest of hints at certain important pieces of the grand puzzle of Shepherd’s life. She omits a select few of Harrison’s journals and purposefully conceals periods in his life that prove consequential in his future – all in a captivating effort to demonstrate Harrison’s point that the omissions are often the most crucial points of a story.

Complete with historical, social, and political commentary, The Lacuna is undoubtedly one of the most well-crafted and gripping books I’ve picked up in a while. If nothing else, readers can appreciate this novel for the sheer talent required to create something at turns so challenging, entertaining, engaging, and astonishing. This is definitely another one to add to Kingsolver’s ever-growing list of accomplishments!

And here are a few tidbits from the novel to give you a little taste of what you can expect from this one.

“Does a man become a revolutionary out of the belief he’s entitled to joy rather than submission?”

“This household is like a pocketful of coins that jingled together for a time, but now have been slapped on a counter to pay a price. The pocket empties out, the coins venture back into infinite circulations of currency, separate, invisible, and untraceable. That particular handful of coins had no special meaning together, it seems, except to pay a particular price. It might remain real, if someone had written everything in a notebook.”

“You are a writer, employed by the American imagination.”

“You’ve never seen anything as dramatic as these American trees, dying their thousand deaths. The giant beech next door intends to shiver off every hair of its pelt. The world strips and goes naked, the full year of arboreal effort piling on the sidewalks in flat, damp strata. The earth smells of smoke and rainstorms, calling everything to come back, like down, submit to a quiet, moldy return to the cradle of origins. This is how we celebrate the Day of the Dead in America: by turning up our collars against the scent of earthworms calling us home.”

On Spooner

During Oscar season, Mike and I always seem to have a long running list of movies we’re dying to see. Spooner was at the top of our cinematic to-see list a few years back but, unfortunately, no one seemed to want to support the film’s release so it never made it to theaters. In some cases, that’s a pretty good indication that a movie isn’t very good. But other times it simply means that the film is quirky and delightful but too off-beat for a mainstream audience. In this case, I’m happy to say Spooner fell into the latter category.

First of all, this film’s star is Matthew Lillard. I was pretty surprised to see him in a movie trailer, let alone one for an indie, Garden State-esque film. And he was also one of the film’s producers. I have a sneaking suspicion that Spooner was a passion project of sorts for the actor and that this film is much more closely aligned with Lillard’s real-life tastes than some of the work he’s more well known for, like Scooby Doo or She’s All That.

While the movie is a fairly typical boy meets girl, indie coming of age story, I found it’s simplicity and unassuming nature to be particularly unique among the increasingly popular genre. Herman Spooner, portrayed by Lillard, is on the cusp of turning 30 and still lives at home with his parents. He’s about to be evicted by the folks and hit the big 3-0 mark when he meets the girl of his dreams. Rose Conlin, portrayed by the lovely and adorable Nora Zehetner, is an ex-bartender on a mission to do something monumental with her life. Roses’s plans to change her life involve flying to the Philippines to become a teacher. But en route to her parent’s house for a going away party just days before her flight, Rose’s car breaks down in Spooner’s hometown. When Spooner offers some assistance, his good intentions override his social awkwardness as he tries to reign in this perfect girl.

It’s not like this story hasn’t been done before, complete with a soundtrack of yet-to-be-discoverd bands, artistic cinematography, and film festival recognitions to boot. But I find this film so unpretentious. The story is told very directly but also with extreme sweetness. Yes, you will find yourself questioning how someone like Spooner could possibly exist as he does, but you’ll also find yourself completely won over by his naivete, his innocence. Heart-warming and genuine, this is a movie about love in its simplest form without ever trying to over-complicate the issue.

The little bits of humor peppered throughout don’t hurt a bit either. I don’t often find myself laughing aloud while watching movies or TV but there were a considerable number of times when I did so with this movie. From Spooner’s social faux pas to his hilariously mismatched blind date with the drunken and promiscuous Linda, there is just as much to laugh about in this film as there is to warrant a little sigh of contentment.

The one problem with this movie is trying to get your hands on a copy. Mike serendipitously found it while browsing the new movies that were being offered On Demand and we paid a few bucks to watch it from the comfort of our own home. I’m pretty sure that it was never released in theaters and I don’t know much about a DVD release. All I know is that those of you with access to Comcast Cable On Demand can spare a few dollars to indulge in this sweet romantic comedy. And if you don’t fall into that category, I’ll simply suggest keeping your eyes and ears open for any word of this one!