Monthly Archives: December 2014

Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle

wolfinwhitevanThis is a book I read a few months ago and have been thinking about off and on ever since, which is certainly not a bad thing. I waited eagerly for its release, because it’s the first full-length novel by John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, who I think is possibly the best lyricist in the world of music today. I was intrigued to see what someone who can sketch an entire story in a three-minute song could do with a whole novel, and I wasn’t disappointed.

I read Wolf in White Van very quickly when it came out in September — overnight, really — and then gave it to my son, who is a huge fan of Darnielle’s music. I fully intended to re-read the book soon, because it left me with more questions than answers. But Chris (who did like the book as well) took far longer than I did to read it, and by the time I got it back I was on to other books, so I haven’t yet reread it (though I probably will). I think it’s a book that grew more meaningful to me after thinking it over for awhile, and will probably offer even more on a second reading.

Wolf in White Van tells the story of Sean, a youngish man whose face is hideously disfigured due to an act of horrific violence when he was seventeen. In his isolated life as a near-recluse, Sean has constructed a fantasy world: a text-based role-playing game called Trace Italian, in which players move through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, writing letters through the mail to Sean in which they choose their next moves. Based on their choices, Sean mails them the next scenario. The scenes of the game were all mapped out in his head during his long and painful recovery years ago and now stored on paper to be shared with the handful of people still fascinated by a text-based game played through the mail.

The novel unfolds in Sean’s lonely present-day but also travels back through his past to the fateful day when his world changed forever. The truly chilling thing about that day and that event, when we finally get back to it at the end of the novel, is that there’s no reason, no explanation, no cause, for what Sean did. Reading this book as the parent of two teenagers I found this terrifying: every parent’s worst fear is that their child will be either the victim or the perpetrator of a horrific act — or, as in the case of suicide, both. When such a thing happens, people latch on to reasons — abuse, severe mental illness, trauma — to explain why it happened. But “why” — a question Sean is asked by a child in a park at the novel’s opening — is not a question to which this novel offers an answer.

Teenaged Sean is lonely, isolated, and doesn’t always get along with his parents — but none of those things is more true for him than it is for most other teenagers most of the time. On the day of the tragedy, nothing goes especially wrong — in fact, some things go quite right. And yet it happens anyway. The book suggests that life is like a role-playing game. Every day we face turning points, and we don’t always recognize their significance. The urge to self-destruction arrives and the impulsive young person acts on it, or lets it pass. And life continues unchanged, or ends — or is transformed into something unrecognizable.

Present-day Sean will always live with the consequences of teenaged Sean’s action. Reflecting on the book afterwards, I found that prospect less bleak than it did while I was reading it. From his isolated apartment, Sean does interact with others — primarily with the people who play his game and the caregivers who come to his home to help him, but also with the child in the park, some teenagers in a parking lot, and a couple of old friends from high-school days with whom he has brief encounters. Some of these interactions are definitely negative: a phone call from his parents relating news of a death in the family is devastating; a pair of young gamers become so immersed in Sean’s Trace Italian world that they attempt to act out the game and die in the attempt, as a result of which Sean faces a legal battle.

But other interactions are positive and hopeful — people show Sean small and unexpected kindness, and in turn he reveals his own kindness, his fragile ability to hope and trust. Ultimately, I came away feeling that the message of this short, compelling, beautifully-crafted book is both terrifying and inspiring: we shape the game by the choices we make.

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Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, by Jane Hawking

travellingtoinfinityPurchasing and reading this book was a classic, “Saw the movie, now want to read the book to find out how right/wrong they got it” experience after I watched the excellent movie which is largely based upon this book, The Theory of Everything. While Jane Hawking is not a professional memoir writer, so there is no particular literary “flair” to the book, but it’s a clear, well-told story of someone who embodied the role of selfless caregiver and wasn’t treated particularly well as a result. This is an abridged version of her earlier memoir, Music to Move the Stars, and probably benefits a little from the distance that an additional decade could provide.

I came away from the book feeling that the movie had in fact been fairly faithful to Jane Hawking’s version of the truth, though with some of the rough edges smoothed a bit for movie purposes. The problem that faced the filmmakers was obviously how to tell a heartwarming story about a marriage in which a devoted wife supports her disabled genius husband — when the story of that marriage ends with the disabled genius husband dumping his devoted wife. In fact, what both the book and the movie did for me was made me reflect a little on some of my assumptions about marriage and what it means to commit to someone “for better or for worse.” Jane’s dedicated care for Stephen was obviously heroic and she believed strongly in fulfilling her marriage vows, but when he finally left her for his nurse (a process which is far more protracted and painful in the book than it is in the movie), my main feeling was relief for Jane. She went on to marry the dedicated friend (and possibly lover? Her book is as vague as the movie is on whether they ever slept together while she was still married) who provided such support to Jane, Stephen and the whole family for many years. Does dedication to one’s marriage vows require a selfless sacrifice with nothing in return?

The takeaway from this book and movie for me were: being the spouse and caregiver of a severely disabled person is really hard, especially if, like the Hawkings for most of the book, you’re not rich enough to afford a lot of home care. Being married to a genius is also hard — they tend to be demanding and self-absorbed. Being married to the world’s most famous disabled genius wasn’t easy, and for the fact that she stayed in the marriage until he left her, raised three kids, and remains on cordial terms with her famous ex today, Jane Hawking deserves great acclaim. I hope she and Jonathan have a terrific life together because she’s certainly earned it.

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Lucky Us, by Amy Bloom

luckyusImmediately on the heels of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves I read another novel about sisters. The two sisters in Lucky Us, Eva and Iris, come together in an unexpected way. They share a father, but know nothing of each other’s existence until Iris’s mother dies. Eva and her mother, the father’s mistress, show up at his house for the first time and Eva’s mother abandons here there with the father she barely knows and a sister she’s never met. Both girls are teenagers, and the quiet, supportive Eva is quickly drawn into the orbit of talented, dramatic Iris, who dreams of Hollywood stardom. As soon as practical, the two teenaged girls leave their feckless father behind and head for California.

The adventures of Eva and Iris — and their father, and Iris’s makeup artist, and the woman Iris falls in love with, and that woman’s husband, and a large, varied cast of characters — unfold against a colourful backdrop of 1940s America on a stage that takes the girls from Ohio to California to New York — and sends some of the characters even farther afield. I found that the cast of characters was sometimes too large — there were chapters from the viewpoint of characters whose point of view I didn’t feel like I really needed to know. Also, some epistolary chapters didn’t work well for me — the letters seem more like vehicles for conveying information the author wants to tell us, rather than letters anyone would actually write or send. Despite these flaws, Lucky Us is a big, sprawling, intriguing portrait of people trying to scrabble their way towards a version fo the American dream in the middle of the twentieth century.

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

completelybesideourselvesThe only book by Karen Joy Fowler that I’d read previous to this was Wit’s End, which I enjoyed at the time but didn’t remember well at all, and The Jane Austen Book Club, which I found to be a fun read but quite light, not at all a heavy-hitter in the literary sense. So I was surprised to see  her novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves show up on so many awards and best-of lists. This, too, reads like a deceptively light novel, even a funny one, but it explores several deep issues through a compelling and highly readable story.

The main character is college student Rosemary, who is haunted by the disappearance of both her sister and her brother during her childhood. These traumas have turned her from an extremely talkative child to a very quiet young woman, but her first-person narrative voice is engaging, sharp and witty. Two stories unfold parallel to each other. One is the story of Rosemary’s unconventional childhood — which she, like nearly all children whose upbringing is unusual, assumed was fairly normal until she was old enough to be singled out and taunted by other children at school. The other is the story of Rosemary in the present, trying to piece together who she is in the present, especially in the absence of Fern, the sister whose presence defined her childhood and made it exceptional.

The novel keeps its focus clearly on Rosemary and her family, but, as the best novels do, uses that very specific story to explore much broader issues — in this case, the issue of animal research, animal testing, and cruelty to animals in general which, as Rosemary’s animal-rights-activist brother Lowell points out to her, is the ignored and unacknowledged underpinning of so much of human society. To keep the pages turning as quickly as they did for me in this book, while at the same time plunging into big and significant issues, requires an exceptionally gifted writer, and Fowler clearly is one.

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The Children Act, by Ian McEwan

childrenactIn The Children Act, distinguished family court judge Fiona Maye has to rule on a difficult case involving a seventeen-year-old Jehovah’s Witness boy who refuses a blood transfusion that may save his life. He is just under the legal age to refuse consent himself, and the court must decide whether to force him to receive the treatment against his own wishes and the wishes of his parents. Because the case occupies such a legal grey area, Fiona takes the unusual step of going to visit the boy in hospital herself rather than simply relying on the social workers’ reports. 

Her encounter with the boy, Adam, has implications which spread far beyond the legal decision Fiona makes later that night. This case and its aftermath, unfolding at the same time as a crisis in her till-then happy marriage of thirty years, forces Fiona to take a close look at herself and the choices she has made in life. This is a detailed, thoughtful character study where the character’s inner life is far more important than what happens to her in the outside world.

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The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho

thealchemistI’ve been hearing about this book for years and finally read it because a student of mine chose it for a independent study. While the book certainly has its charm, I think I was expecting something different. It’s a simple parable of a young shepherd boy who meets a mysterious stranger and sets off on a quest to find a treasure buried near the Egyptian pyramids — clearly intended as an allegory for each person’s search for his own destiny. I found two things off-putting: the recurring references to the shepherd boy’s, and everyone’s, Personal Legend. The capitalized phrase was too suggestive to me of one of those allegorical self-help books where everything is pretty explicitly laid out, and somehow I was expecting a bit more subtlety. Also, I found a troubling vein of sexism in the shepherd boy’s relationship with the beautiful desert maiden Fatima: the book pretty much states that while every man must pursue his Personal Legend, women just get to wait around for men to come back from the adventure.

So I’d have to say I wasn’t as impressed or moved by this book as many have been — while I do believe it’s a worthy message that you should follow your dreams (within reason!), I didn’t find anything strikingly new or enlightening here. It’s a charming little allegory, but I guess I’d been led to expect something more. People who’ve read and loved the book, tell me: am I missing something?

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Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, by Chris Bohjalian

closeyoureyesIn the first few pages, I thought Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands was going to be a futuristic dystopian novel. But it quickly becomes apparent that it’s set in the present day — or as near the present as makes no difference, next year or the year after — and that the dystopia is very localized rather than global. A nuclear power plant in northern Vermont experiences a meltdown, leaving nineteen people dead and thousands homeless.

Among the dead are the parents of sixteen-year-old Emily Shephard. Not only are they dead; they are being blamed posthumously for the disaster, which has been credited to “human error” — Emily’s father was an engineer at the plant, her mother was in charge of public relations, and both had a drinking problem. Emily’s family is a loving but troubled one; she’s been a difficult teenager both at home and at school. She’s also an only child and so are both her parents, so in the aftermath of the tragedy she has — or, at least, thinks she has — no place to go.

Terrified to reveal her true identity, trusting no-one, and hounded by anxiety, Emily goes from one bad decision to another, resorting to theft, drug abuse, self-harm and prostitution, eventually reduced to living in an igloo made of frozen garbage bags. But she’s also wonderfully resilient and kind-hearted, and when she find a nine-year-old runaway foster child who also has nowhere to go, Emily thinks she might just have found a reason to stay alive.

Throughout it all, Emily’s voice is sharp, perceptive, and humourous despite the tragedies all around her. Her story unfolds in an almost stream-of-consciousness narrative as she relates the events of the last year out of order, as the memories crop up. I suspect most readers’ appreciation of the novel will hinge largely on how much they respond to Emily’s voice and empathize with her, but for me, this was a completely engrossing book and I couldn’t put it down.

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