The past is fading fast – or, some notes on Fall 2006 reading

I’m not sure how much I remember about some of these now, so the notes may not be too long.

November 2006
To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee (for Book Club)
Summary from the Amazon.com page:

Amazon.com Set in the small Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Depression, To Kill a Mockingbird follows three years in the life of 8-year-old Scout Finch, her brother, Jem, and their father, Atticus–three years punctuated by the arrest and eventual trial of a young black man accused of raping a white woman. Though her story explores big themes, Harper Lee chooses to tell it through the eyes of a child. The result is a tough and tender novel of race, class, justice, and the pain of growing up.
Like the slow-moving occupants of her fictional town, Lee takes her time getting to the heart of her tale; we first meet the Finches the summer before Scout’s first year at school. She, her brother, and Dill Harris, a boy who spends the summers with his aunt in Maycomb, while away the hours reenacting scenes from Dracula and plotting ways to get a peek at the town bogeyman, Boo Radley. At first the circumstances surrounding the alleged rape of Mayella Ewell, the daughter of a drunk and violent white farmer, barely penetrate the children’s consciousness. Then Atticus is called on to defend the accused, Tom Robinson, and soon Scout and Jem find themselves caught up in events beyond their understanding. During the trial, the town exhibits its ugly side, but Lee offers plenty of counterbalance as well–in the struggle of an elderly woman to overcome her morphine habit before she dies; in the heroism of Atticus Finch, standing up for what he knows is right; and finally in Scout’s hard-won understanding that most people are essentially kind “when you really see them.” By turns funny, wise, and heartbreaking, To Kill a Mockingbird is one classic that continues to speak to new generations, and deserves to be reread often. –Alix Wilber

I read this post-college, and I don’t know if I’d have read it again if Sue hadn’t selected it for Book Club – and then that meeting ended up not happening, so we never did have the discussion (or watch the movie). Having said that – I think that no longer living in the South makes me appreciate the Southern literary flavor even more. I don’t really buy the enlightened attitudes of the Finch family in that time and place – nor, in that context, can I fathom two mid-century middle-class Southern children addressing their father by this first name. However, the story is still compelling and the characters are classic creations.

Gods in Alabama, Joshilyn Jackson
Plot summary from the Amazon page:

From Publishers Weekly – Arlene Fleet, the refreshingly imperfect heroine of Jackson’s appealing debut, launches her story with a list of the title’s deities: “high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus.” The first god, also a date rapist by the name of Jim Beverly, she left dead in her hometown of Possett, Ala., but the last she embraces wholeheartedly when high
school graduation allows her to flee the South, the murder and her slutty reputation for a new life in Chicago. Upon leaving home, Arlene makes a bargain with God, promising to forgo sex, lies and a return home if he keeps Jim’s body hidden. After nine years in Chicago as a truth-telling celibate, an unexpected visitor from home (in search of Jim Beverly) leads her to believe that God is slipping on his end of the deal. As Arlene heads for the Deep South with her African-American boyfriend, Burr, in tow, her secrets unfold in unsurprising but satisfying flashbacks. Jackson brings levity to familiar themes with a spirited take on the clichés of redneck Southern living: the Wal-Mart culture, the subtle and overt racism and the indignant religion. The novel concludes with a final, dramatic disclosure, though the payoff isn’t the plot twist but rather Jackson’s genuine affection for the people and places of Dixie.

I got a taste of this one through a week’s e-mails from Dearreader.com http://www.dearreader.com/ and just had to get hold of the whole book and finish it. I enjoyed it overall, but the “mystery” aspects were a little underdone. The Southern flavor and humor were just right, though.

Good Grief, Lolly Winston
Amazon. com review/synopsis:

Amazon. com Some widows face their loss with denial. Sophie Stanton’s reaction is one of pure bafflement. “How can I be a widow?” Sophie asks at the opening of Lolly Winston’s sweet debut novel, Good Grief. “I’m only thirty-six. I just got used to the idea of being married.” Sophie’s
young widowhood forces her to do all kinds of crazy things–drive her car through her garage door, for instance. That’s on one of the rare occasions when she bothers to get out of bed. The Christmas season especially terrifies her: “I must write a memo to the Minister of Happier Days requesting that the holidays be cancelled this year.” But widowhood also forces her to do something very sane. After the death of her computer programmer husband, she reexamines her life as a public relations agent in money-obsessed Silicon Valley. Sophie decides to ease her grief, or at least her loneliness, by moving in with her best friend Ruth in Ashland, Oregon. But it’s her difficult relationship with psycho teen punker Crystal, to whom she becomes a Big Sister, that mysteriously brings her at least a few steps out of her grief. Winston allows Sophie life after widowhood: The novel almost indiscernibly turns into a gentle romantic comedy and a quirky portrait of life in an artsy small town. At all stops on her journey from widow to survivor, Sophie is a lively, crabby, delightfully imperfect character. –Claire Dederer

This one also came my way through Dearreader.com, although indirectly – the actual featured fiction read that week was Lolly Winston’s second book, Happiness Sold Separately. Good Grief was one I really never intended to read, but I was glad I did. Even though Sophie was a widow rather than a divorcee, many of her feelings of loss, abandonment, disorientation, and depression felt real and familiar to me, as did her slow struggle to find her way back into life and possible future relationships. It sounds more depressing than it is; I actually enjoyed it a lot, finding it optimistic, humorous, and relatable.

The Opposite of Fate, Amy Tan
Review/synopsis from the Amazon link:

From Publishers Weekly Tan’s bestselling works of fiction are, in part, based on her own family history, and this robust book, her first nonfiction effort, explains much about where those stories came from and how they influenced her. The collection of “casual pieces” (previously published in such diverse venues as Harper’s Bazaar, Ski Magazine, the New Yorker, Salon.com
and even PW) covers Tan’s childhood in California and Switzerland; her writing career; her relationships with her mother and her late editor, Faith Sale; and, most significantly, the role of fate in her life. Raised with “two pillars of beliefs” (Christian faith on her father’s side; Chinese fate on her mother’s), Tan finds luck – both good and bad – in all corners of her life. Ultimately, however, she knows “a higher power knows the next move and… we are at the mercy of that
force.” As she reflects on how things have happened in her 50-odd years, Tan’s writing varies from poetic to prosaic. In an excerpt from a journal she kept during a 1990 trip to China, she eloquently describes Shanghai’s streets: “Gray pants and white shirts are suspended from long bamboo poles that overhang the street. The laundry flaps in the wind like proletarian banners.” But reading about Tan’s adventures with her rock band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, feels a
bit like reading someone else’s high school yearbook’s inside jokes, as she reminisces about truck-stop breakfasts and late-night sing-alongs. Still, this is a powerful collection that should enthrall readers of The Joy Luck Club and Tan’s other novels.

I had this one sitting around in progress for months, which is an advantage to a book of essays that doesn’t have a strong narrative thread – you can dip in and out of it on a whim, sticking with it when something grabs you and then putting it aside when you come to something else that doesn’t strike such a chord. I enjoyed her conversational tone and self-revelations, and was especially interested in her Rock Bottom Remainders anecdotes – I hope we’ll see them again at the Festival of Books next month. (Update 4/23/07 – looks like we won’t. According to the Festival of Books program online and the Rock Bottom Remainders’ own website, they’re not making an appearance this year. Bummer.)

December 2006
Any Place I Hang My Hat, Susan Isaacs
From the Amazon.com page:

From Publishers Weekly
A political reporter in her late 20s goes in search of the mother who abandoned her when she was a baby in this jaunty if rather jerky 10th novel by Isaacs (Long Time No See; Red, White, and Blue; etc.). Amy Lincoln was brought up in the projects by her Grandma Lil, a leg waxer and devoted Falcon Crest viewer; her amiable father, Chicky, spent most of Amy’s childhood in prison on a series of minor theft raps. A boarding school scholarship rescues Amy from lower-class oblivion; she goes on to Harvard and Columbia, then lands a job at In Depth, a highbrow weekly. Upbeat and self-deprecating, Amy spends little time bemoaning her past, but an encounter with college student Freddy Carrasco, who claims he’s the illegitimate son of a Democratic presidential candidate, gets Amy wondering where her own mother might be. While advising Freddy how to approach his father, she uses her reporting skills to track down her elusive mother. The political subplot is anticlimactic—Amy doesn’t even get a scoop—and Amy’s eventual reunion with her mother, revealed to be a chilly suburban housewife, is credibly if rather disappointingly subdued. The parade of lavishly and loopishly described secondary characters and gossipy New York scene-setting give the novel its zing; Amy’s rocky relationship with her documentary filmmaker boyfriend provides a jolt of romantic excitement and a happy ending.

I enjoyed this one quite a bit at the time, but don’t remember a lot about it now – it was a quick and diversionary read. Amy was a very human and protagonist that I enjoyed spending time with, funny and easy to relate to despite her youth.

A Changed Man, Francine Prose
From Amazon.com:
From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Prose (Blue Angel; The Lives of the Muses) tests assumptions about class, hatred and the possibility of change in her latest novel, a good-natured satire of liberal pieties, the radical right and the fund-raising world. The “changed man” of the title is Vincent Nolan, a 32-year-old tattooed ex-skinhead who appears one morning in the New York offices of World Brotherhood Watch, a foundation headed by Meyer Maslow, a Holocaust survivor. Vincent declares that he has had a personal conversion (never mind that it was triggered by a heavy dose of Ecstasy) and wants to work with the foundation to “save guys like me from becoming guys like me.” Meyer takes Vincent on faith—and convinces Bonnie Kalen, the foundation’s fund-raiser, to put Vincent up in the suburban home she shares with her two sons, Max, 12, and Danny, 16. Prose tears into this unusual premise with the piercing wit that has become her trademark. Vincent becomes a media darling of sorts, and everyone wants a piece of him: the liberal donors and the television talk shows; Meyer, a figurehead so celebrated that even his close friends kiss up to him; and maybe even divorced Bonnie, who finds herself drawn to Vincent’s charms. In more hostile pursuit of Vincent is his cousin Raymond, a member of the Aryan Resistance Movement, from which Vincent stole a truck, drugs and cash. In these circumstances, can a man truly change? And what is change—not only for Vincent but for the other principals as well? Prose doesn’t shy away from exposing the vanities and banalities behind the drive to do good. Fortunately, her characters are sturdy enough to bear the weight of the baggage she piles on them. Her lively skewering of a whole cross-section of society ensures that this tale hits comic high notes even as it probes serious issues.

This was definitely satire, but with character depth and a strong – if questionably plausible – plotline. I liked the multiple viewpoints/narrators and retelling of scenes from different characters’ perspectives. It seemed a bit unresolved in the end, which I sometimes find frustrating, although not in this case.

Other bloggers’ reviews:
To Kill a Mockingbird – Book-a-rama

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