Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Sea House by Esther Freud (2003)

Esther Freud was born in London in 1963.  She trained as an actress before writing her first novel, "Hideous Kinky" in 1991, which was made into a movie starring Kate Winslet.  I haven't read that book but did see the movie a few years ago.

I picked up "The Sea House" at the library, and enjoyed it, although it was sometimes a difficult to follow - the novel alternates between the past and the present in the same seaside town on the English coast.  In the present we have Lily, who comes to Steerborough to do academic research on the architect Klaus Lehmann, a German who emigrated to the UK with his wife Elsa.  Lily stays in a seaside cottage and finds Lehmann's letters to his wife strangely evocative of the feelings she has for her boyfriend, Nick, back in London.  She starts questioning their relationship and her life in London as she becomes entranced with the slow paced life in the village and the two little girls who are staying next door, as well as their father.
The passages about Lily are alternated with the late 1950s in the same location, where we see the artist Max, a deaf German immigre whose sister recently died.  He comes to Steerborough, invited by his sister's good friend Gertrude to come and paint.  Little by little Max comes into contact with Lehmann and his wife and as the story progresses we begin to see the connections between Lily's work in the present and the impact that Max, at the beginning a simple observer, ends up having on the history of the village and the people in it.  At the end of the story all the connections are made clear. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Helpless by Barbara Gowdy (2006)

Barbara Gowdy, (born 25 June 1950) is a Canadian novelist and short story writer, who lives in Toronto.  Gowdy's novel "Falling Angels" (1989) was made into a film of the same name.
I'm not that familiar with Canadian novelists, so I knew nothing about her work when I found a few of her books on the shelf in our library.  "Helpless" caught my attention so I took it home, and it turned out to be one of those books you can't put down until you find out what happens.

The novel is the story of the stalking and kidnapping of nine-year-old Rachel, who lives with her mother, Celia, a struggling pianist, in Toronto.  Ron, an appliance repairman who lives in the neighborhood, becomes obsessed with Rachel, quietly stalking her as she walks home from school and keeping an eye on her while she is at home and on the playground. 

The first few chapters of the book made me think of the way Jodi Picoult writes about similar themes, but it got much darker once the abduction takes place.  The striking thing about this novel is the access we are given to the inner workings and the past of Ron, the kidnapper - it's almost too close for comfort.  In June 2008, the novel was abridged and adapted for BBC Radio 4's Book at Bedtime. This resulted in several listeners complaining that the novel was 'dark', 'disturbing' and had '(frightened) the life out of them'. One listener described it as 'inappropriate for any time of day least of all at bedtime' and another claimed that Gowdy's graphic description made him feel 'physically sick'.  I won't say there were passages that made me physically sick, but a lot of it was definitely disturbing. 

One of the most disturbing aspects of the book was the character of Nancy, Ron's unwilling accomplice, and how someone who is not mentally ill (I suppose) was, due to her life circumstances and current situation, unable to take a decision on a moral issue that seems so obvious and clear cut.  I found myself angry at Nancy, shouting at her in my mind to just get Rachel back to her mother and turn Ron in!  She immediately knew what Ron was doing was wrong, it just seemed to take her forever to put her own self interest aside in order to do something about it.  And even then, it only seemed she took action when it became clear that there wasn't anything in it for her anymore.   Nancy reflects the modern person who won't stop and help someone who needs help, because it might inconvenience them, someone we are all in danger of becoming, in one way or another...

Thursday, December 15, 2011


This lovely statue of a girl reading is called "Renee", the artist Armand Loveniers, and is located in the city where I live, on the Naamsestraat, appropriately right next to a bookstore! It is also the location of many university buildings and the first female dormitory at the KU Leuven.
I love to find artwork about books and reading...
This statue is sometimes called "Fronske" (Little Frown) because, as a serious and hardworking female student she is the antithesis of the "Fonske" statue of the merry male student on the Fochplein in Leuven, who simply pours knowledge (or is it beer?) effortlessly right into his head.

Renee has been on her spot, studying, reading, dreaming... since 1997.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

This is How by M.J. Hyland (2009)

M.J. Hyland was born in London in 1968, studied Law and English at the University of Melbourne and she is currently a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Manchester.

The book "This is How" tells the story of Patrick Oxtoby, a young man who is going through a very difficult time in his life. His girlfriend, who he thought he would marry, has broken off their engagement, and he decides to move away from his home town to get away from the discomfort and shame he feels.

Patrick has never felt easy around other people, he has never felt confident that others really like him, and he has always had a hard time interacting with others, including his own mother, father and older brother. Throughout the book I felt that Patrick was in some way autistic. He was very intelligent as a child and got into university but simply couldn't settle into life there, so he came back home after failing his first year and took a mechanics course, something he really loved to do and was good at, in spite of the fact that his family is very disapproving of this choice. He ended up getting a job at a local garage where the customers and his boss really appreciated him.

But because of the break up of his relationship, he decides to move to a seaside town, get a room in a boarding house and work at a different garage. His boss is sorry to see him go, but helps him find a new job. So at the beginning of the novel we see Patrick arriving at the boarding house, where his discomfort with other people becomes immediately clear in his first moments with his landlady Brigit, and then later with the two other men who are boarders at the house.

Patrick tries to fit in and tries to make a go of his new life, but things simply don't seem to go his way. His mother shows up for a desastrous and embarasssing visit, the two other boarders seem to look down on and ridicule him, his new boss turns out not wanting him there full time, and his attempts to date a local cafe waitress, Georgia, don't work out the way he hopes. Frustration builds up inside of Patrick, something he attempts to deal with through drinking binges, and he ends up doing something violent and irreversible which lands him, in the second half of the book, in prison.

Physically frail and mentally unstable as Patrick is, as a reader one is terribly apprehensive about him being funneled into the penal systerm, but is just as powerless as Patrick is to stop the flow of events. Throughout his initial nights in jail, through his trial and later imprisonment, it is difficult to imagine how he is to survive in the hostile environment. His family has completely dropped him, and his father only comes to visit him once before informing Patrick that they are moving very far away. He is an easy target for guards and fellow inmates alike, although he does find a few individuals in prison who seem to want to help him, they often expect something in return.

This is a very grim book, but in the end, it seems that Patrick finally finds a small shred of hope with his new life in prison: "I'm sometimes happier in here than I was out there. I'm under no pressure to be better in here and life's shrinking to a size that suits me more."

Wow. I was totally struck by that statement. And having gotten to know Patrick in the previous 338 pages I could totally understand that, while prison life may be brutal and dehumanizing and violent and filthy, that for some people, it might well be the size of life that fits them better than the one that was possible for them in the outside world. It also got me to thinking that we all have a certain size life that suits us best. Some, like the Madonnas and Lady Gagas of this world, are suited to a life that is huge, loud, crazy and constantly moving; while others of us, perhaps nuns or monks, those who still choose a cloistered life, are more fit for a much smaller, quieter, well contained life. It got me to thinking, what size life am I best suited to, and more importantly, does my current life reflect that? Food for thought - and this is an excellent book.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar (2006)

The weekly literary supplement in our newspaper tipped me off to this book. Because of the current events in Libya and the fact that the author has a new book out (Anatomy of a Disappearance, published March 2011), there was a two page article on him. This novel was his first novel and I was lucky enough to be able to find it, in the original English, in our library.
Hisham Matar was born in 1970 in New York City, to Libyan parents. His father was a member of the Libyan delegation to the UN. When Hisham was three they moved back to Tripoli, where he spent his early childhood. In 1979 his father was accused of being against the Qaddafi regime and the family had to flee, to Egypt. He finished his secondary education in Cairo and then went to the UK for university studies in architecture.
In 1990, Matar's father was kidnapped in Cairo and has been missing ever since. Two letters the family received seem to indicate that his father was being held prisoner in Tripoli. The last news they had was that he had been seen alive in 2002.
Matar began writing In the Country of Men in 2000 and it was published in 2006, and nominated for the Booker Prize.
The novel is written in the first person from the point of view of Suleiman, a nine-year-old boy who lives with his young mother and older father in a residential area of Tripoli. He does not understand why his father disappears for days at a time, nor does he understand why his mother gets "sick" when his father is gone and drinks a foul smelling "medicine" she buys clandestinely from the baker. Suleiman is an observer and relates to us the smells, colors, and feelings he has in his daily life, while all around him the political situation creates a feeling of quiet menace and danger.
It is clear that Matar's own experiences and observations as a child for the basis for this book, and when you read the description of how Suleiman and his mother watch a neighbor tried and executed on Libyan television, it is obvious that something very similar was witnessed by the author, as it is impossible to imagine someone could make it up. The book is a fascinating window into how it was to live under the thumb of the Qaddafi regime.

At the same time, however, the book is a coming-of-age story of a young man who learns that his parents are not infallible, and how even though he escapes by moving to Egypt, there is always a link to his homeland because his family is still there. The book is also in part the story of Suleiman's mother and her oppression as a woman in a male-dominated society. There is a parallel to be found between the way Qaddafi oppresses the citizens of his country and the way the father and brothers of Suleiman's mother dominate and oppress her. She has no choice and behaves in the book like an animal cornered, self destructing through alcohol addiction as her only escape.
This is an extemely well-written book that opened my mind to a people who having been living for 42 years under oppression. It also reminded me how universal the job of being a mother is, and how difficult it is to get it right.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Incendiary by Chris Cleave (2005)

The subtitle to this book is "A Novel of Unbearable Devastation and Unbounded Love". This phrase immediately made me think of the book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, also published in 2005. But there are more similarities to these novels: both tell the story of a survivor of a terrorist attack in a large city, and how this person deals with the loss of someone they loved.

In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the story is about Oskar, a 9-year-old boy, whose father dies in the September 11 attacks in New York City, and how Oskar deals with this afterwards. (I loved this book and recently blogged about it here.)

In Incendiary, the story follows a young working class mother in London, who loses her 4-year-old son and husband in a fictional terrorist attack during a soccer match between Arsenal and Chelsea. We never learn her name, as the entire book is a letter she is writing to Osama Bin Laden, trying to convince him to stop bombing by showing him how much she loved her little boy. The bulk of the book is her story of how she tries to live after the attacks.

She spends weeks in the hospital, she becomes wrapped up in a sick relationship with a wealthy journalist and his girlfriend, she seems to get back on her feet by taking a job with her husband's old boss at the police, but just seems to keep getting kicked down again. As the novel progresses and her circumstances get worse, she sinks further and further down into desolation, and ends up seeing and talking to her deceased child nearly all the time, which are the most difficult scenes to read, extremely heart wrenching.

The terrorist attacks not only devastate the narrator's life but it also changes the way of life of the whole of London, and this is very realistically portrayed - as a reader, especially if you've ever been to London, you can easily imagine all the paranoid measures that are taken to protect the population. Tragically, the day Incendiary was released was the day of the terrorist bombings in the London underground in July 2005; the author talks about the novel and this horrible coincidence here.

This is a very gritty and dark novel. Where Incredibly Loud is poignantly hopeful and where Oskar is surrounded by people who do love him and want to help him get over the loss of his father, in Incendiary, we feel the complete hopelessness of the narrator and how alone she is - the few people in her life who seem to care about her are actually selfishly using her. She somehow manages to carry on, but as I finished the book I felt sad and deflated for her; she is physically alive but the magnitude of her loss will surely continue to pull her down. I can only think about the Japanese survivors in those towns that were completely washed away by the tsumami last week - how do you rebuild your life after everything is taken away from you?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Little Bee (aka The Other Hand) by Chris Cleave (2008)

I finally found this novel in my library under its UK title "The Other Hand". I read it in one day, unable to put it down until I found out what happened to Little Bee, the young Nigerian girl who is seeking asylum in Britain.

Little Bee's story is heartbreaking. We have an asylum center not far from us here in Belgium, and it is regularly in the news - and it is such a shame that we are unable to figure out how to help the people who come to Europe seeking a better life. It often makes me think of the European immigrants who went to North America at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, who were seeking the exact same thing - hope for a better life. I always think that none of them would have undertaken the journey and the suffering that in itself entails, if their situation in their home country wasn't truly desperate.

Little Bee was also in a desperate situation and did what she had to to save her life. She is an amazing heroic character. I found myself disliking the character Sarah, the English woman who tries to help Little Bee. Even more than that, I hated her lover, Lawrence. At a key moment, when Sarah unthinkingly asks Little Bee to phone the police when her son is missing, Lawrence is instantly aware of the consequences this will have for Little Bee and he fails to step in. He could have so easily made the phone call in her place, and he did nothing.

This novel is eye-opening and confrontational for those of us who live easy lives in countries that attract refugees and asylum seekers. Are we like Sarah, naive and unaware, or like Lawrence, aware but unwilling to do anything?

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Last Life by Claire Messud (1999)

Sometimes you accidentally come across a book that has strange parallels with your own life. I recently bumped into just such a novel by author Claire Messud, which has had me completely enthralled. Born in Connecticut in 1966, the same year I was born, Messud grew up in the United States, Australia, and Canada, returning to the United States as a teenager. Daughter of a Canadian mother and an Algerian French father, she attended both Yale and Cambridge. I did not look for any information about Messud until after finishing the book, but the entire time, I knew she must have had an international upbringing, because she knows exactly what it feels like to be a foreigner, an immigrant, whether invisible or not, and brings the feeling out in her writing and her characters incredibly well.

The Last Life, published in 1999, is the story of three generations of French Algerians, told mainly through the eyes of Sagesse, who through most of the novel, is a teenage girl growing up in a city on the French Mediterranean coast in the late 1980s. She lives with her father, a French Algerian, her mother, an American, and her handicapped brother, in close proximity to the hotel owned and operated by her father’s parents. I lived in France for a year in the late 80s and much of the current events of that time and general description of the society Messud shares with us rang very true for me.

I was initially attracted to the book by the idea of what it was like to grow up as a teenager in Europe having an American mother – thinking of my own children and especially my oldest, who is now 16. The relationship between Sagesse and her mother, and especially the way her mother tries to fit in with the French in-laws and ultimately gives up, really spoke to me. I could relate to many of the attempts to blend in, to not rock the boat, and how you realize at a certain point that none of your efforts have really been appreciated, and all you have managed to do in the end is make yourself disappear.

Sagesse at one point spends a summer visiting family in Boston, and it was fascinating to me to read about her feeling of being foreign in American society; having lived for more than 20 years out of it, I could relate to a lot of what she described. Also the teenage angst Messud writes about so poignantly is also familiar territory.

A good portion of the story takes place in Algeria in the 1950s, the years leading up to the country’s independence from France, and how the situation became very dangerous and most of the French citizens had to flee, leaving everything behind. Sagesse’s grandparents go, to the property in southern France her grandfather has purchased to build a hotel on, but her father, a young man, stubbornly stays on in Algiers to be with his dying grandmother. This part of the story is incredibly gripping, the desperation palpable. Ultimately, the experience marks her father for the rest of his life.

Sagesse’s family seems doomed, as one tragic event after another comes to haunt them. But Sagesse herself, and her mother, seem to have an invisible strength that carries them through. Is this ability to survive and carry on despite numerous setbacks, something typically American? Messud does not say. But Sagesse eventually ends up as a young woman in living in New York City, where,

I am invented and reinvented...I can appear foreign or native, exotic or
invisible, depending on my whim. I am, to different friends, American or French,
or a plausible mid-Atlantic hybrid...There is nothing real about my history, and
most of it I do not tell.

This struck me as being applicable to many children who grow up with parents from different cultures and countries – they have the ability to be chameleons if they so choose – and this can be a blessing or a curse. It makes me wonder what it will feel like for my three children, young Belgian-Americans, as they get older, and some of the children of friends who are also in similar bicultural situations. How will it play out for them? How will it feel?

I was completely enthralled by this book and enjoyed reading it, even though much of it is sad. Aside from the Algerian parts, so much of it was nostalgic for me personally. And Sagesse is a character I will not quickly forget, a young woman of flesh and blood, feeling and thought, whose story gave me so many things to consider.

The Last Life is Messud’s second book. Her debut novel, When The World Was Steady (1995), was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Her 2001 work, The Hunters, consists of two novellas, and her most recent novel, The Emperor’s Children, which is set in New York City during nine months surrounding 9/11, was long listed for the 2006 Man Booker Prize.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (2009)

This book was recommended to me by my mom, who found it in her library, and luckily, I found a copy in mine, as well.

The author of this book, Jamie Ford, whose great grandfather immigrated from China to Nevada in 1865, has written a fascinating and moving novel about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. But this is also a coming-of-age novel, a family chronicle, and a love story.

The story takes place in Seattle and bouces back and forth between 1942 and 1986.

Henry Lee, a 12-year-old Chinese-American, lives in Seattle in 1942 and is the only Asian child in his school, where he is constantly bullied. One day, a Japanese girl arrives and is put to work with him in the school cafeteria. Henry has learned from his father to hate the Japanese, but he soon forms a strong friendship with Keiko. As the war heats up, Japanese citizens of Seattle begin to be targeted and disappear, and then internment of all Japanese begins on a large scale. Henry does his best to help Keiko and her family as they are shipped out to a camp, but they lose touch, and Henry eventually moves on with his life, making peace with his father and repairing their difficult relationship as well.

Later, in 1986, having lost his wife to cancer, Henry by chance sees a hotel in the old part of Japanese town where belongings of Japanese people who had to leave the city have been kept for all these years. A flood of memories comes back and before he knows it, Henry is searching for Keiko.

I found this novel to be extremely interesting from a historical perspective - I really knew next to nothing about the Japanese internments during World War II, and I learned a lot from this book. The author also paints a vivid picture of what life was like in the international part of the city of Seattle in the 1940's - including the racial discrimination between different nationalities, the way of life at that time and the local jazz club scene! I definitely could tell the author knows Seattle inside and out.

The love story between Henry and Keiko was bittersweet and a bit syrupy at times, but that did not detract from my enjoyment of the novel. I really enjoyed the well written side characters, such as Henry's friend the sax player and his son and son's girlfriend, and especially the tough lunch room lady who ends up being quite a help.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997)

My friend Joy sent me this book for my birthday and I loved it. The author took me into what felt like an alternate reality, a completely different way of looking at and being in the world. I was so mesmerized by it that I was sorry when the book ended, and I almost want to read it again, now that I have the entire puzzle of the story put together.

The story alternates between the past (1969) and present day of a family in Ayemenem, India. The family has a rich and complicated history that the author presents in a tapestry of imagery, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings. The story centers around Estha and Rahel, boy and girl set of twins who are 7 years old in 1969 and live with their mother, Ammu, in the extended family’s home next to their grandmother’s pickle factory. Their uncle Chacko is expecting a visit from his ex-wife and daughter, Sophie Mol, from England, so the whole family drives to Cochin, the city where the flight will arrive.

Sophie and her mother arrive and are taken back to the family home where a few days later a tragedy will occur that will forever change the lives of Estah, Rahel and their mother. The entire novel builds up to this event little by little but in the very first pages of the first chapter, the reader is told that Sophie Mol dies, because we are immediately transported to her funeral.

So we know what is going to happen, but we don’t yet know why or how. And by alternating between those fateful days in 1969 and Rahel and Estah’s adult lives, we see the terrible things that happened to them, their mother, and the young untouchable man who became their friend, while at the same time we are privy to how those events affected them in their adult lives. I was impressed by how the author accomplished this back and forth motion between the two time zones in her novel, and still managed to keep the reader glued to the page.

Politics, history, human rights, child abuse, incest, the caste system, religion, racism, … the book touches on so many things and through so many beautifully drawn characters. And the idea of the God of Small Things appealed to me very much.

As Estha and Rahel discover:

1. Anything can happen to Anyone, and
2. It’s best to be prepared.

How true and how sad that they had to learn such an adult lesson so early on. Another lesson Rahel learns after saying something thoughtless and ugly to her mother that struck me as tragic but achingly true: “When you hurt people, they begin to love you less. That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.”

With so many sad things happening around them and to them, ultimately Estha and Rahel have to grow up quickly. This book deservedly won the Booker Prize and it is one I will read again. Thanks, Joy!

Monday, January 31, 2011

Still Alice by Lisa Genova (2007)

This book was recommended by my aunt, and since she just turned 70 I find it very brave of her to have read this, as it is the story of a woman who discovers she is suffering from Alzheimer’s and it is at times very frightening to read. But at the same time it is fascinating and moving and I simply couldn’t put it down.

Alice is 50 years old and a professor at Harvard when she begins to notice that she has difficulty remembering things. At first she puts it down to menopause, but when she gets inexplicably lost in her own neighborhood one day, she decides to see her doctor, where she receives the devastating diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s.

This was extremely painful to read about – Alice is an intelligent woman with a busy life who also runs and takes good care of herself, and is only 6 years older than me and the same age as some of my good friends – I could really relate to her!

The author wrote the book from Alice’s perspective all the way to the end, and so the reader feels the frustration, disorientation and confusion right along with Alice as her life slowly but steadily shrinks down. It is very scary to feel what Alzheimer’s does to your mind, especially in the beginning when Alice is desperately trying to contain the damage and still function in her daily life. It is easy to understand her when she says she would gladly trade Alzheimer’s for cancer, and when she makes suicide plans. This book feels incredibly authentic as to what might go on in the mind of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s and it is eye-opening to be in Alice’s head. It is incredible to realize how much we rely on our memory for all the miniscule details in our lives and how devastating it is to lose it.

One of the saddest things for me was how Alice eventually had to give up her running…the one thing that she turned to to keep herself feeling good was eventually no longer possible, even with someone running with her. It makes you realize how lucky you are to be able to go and do as you please and having your body and mind cooperate with everything, without you even being aware of it. Quite an eye opener.

The book is also very informative and contains a great deal of scientific information about the disease. The reactions of Alice’s family, colleagues and friends are very realistically presented, as well as the life of an academic. Everything in the book is so realistic and tragic, and yet, there is a note of hope at the end. In spite of that this is definitely a book where you will need a box of kleenex.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Age of Orphans, by Laleh Khadivi (2009)

An unexpected find on the shelves of our library...

Laleh Khadivi, the author, was born in Esfahan, Iran, in 1977, to a Kurdish father and an Esfahani mother. Her family fled Iran after the revolution there, and they lived in many places (including Belgium) before settling in North America. Khadivi is a filmmaker and this is her first novel.

The story begins with a small Kurdish boy who lives in a remote area of what is now Iran, in a tiny village with his mother and father at the beginning of the 1920's. He is soon taken by his father and all the other male villagers to a valley where he undergoes the traditional ritual that makes him a man. At the age of 9 or 10, along with all the other Kurdish men, he sets off to defend their territory against the nationbuilding that is going on in the name of the Shah of Iran. They are crushed by the Iranian army and the boy, orphaned, is brought up in the Iranian military, as the captain's pet at first, and then later as a talented soldier.

He is given an Iranian name, Reza, and takes on an Iranian identity, foresaking his Kurd roots as much as he can, in spite of his tell-tale green eyes. He eventually makes his way to the capital city, Tehran, where he finds a young wife in the Iranian middle class. His superiors, pleased with they way he has developed into the ideal Iranian soldier, decide to send him back as a captain to the Kurd region where they expect he will have special talent in dealing with the local population, as he understands the language and the customs.

Back in the landscape that evokes his childhood, Reza's facade slowly begins to crack, as he loses control over his wife, who after bearing seven children will die in tragic circumstances, leaving the children to flutter away from their father and the father to end his days in the place he started it.

The story is a commentary on identity, on minorities, on poverty, and on the unique position of the nationless in this world. It explains a small part of the situation of the Kurdish people and why they struggle on without their own nation to this day. It is also a shocking look into the cruel life of a boy taken from his mother, the only love he knew, and thrown into an army and forced to be brutal and deny anything that ever defined him. At times I was really in awe of the author's ability to get inside this man's head.

This is not an upbeat, uplifting book but it is certainly thought-provoking and will stay with you long after you have finished it.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Perfect Match by Jodi Picoult (2002)

Whenever I am in the mood for an easy read that grabs me by the scruff of the neck and won't let me go til I get to the last page, but at the same time is sure to be topical, deal with tough moral dilemmas and peopled by characters I feel like I know, then I can't go wrong with a book by Jodi Picoult.

I was at the library and decided to pick up one of her books I hadn't read yet (still waiting for "House Rules" to be turned in) and sure enough, I started reading it last night and just couldn't put it down and finished it this afternoon.

"Perfect Match" is definitely topical - it deals with a young boy that has been sexually abused by a priest - and also includes a terrible moral dilemma - is it right for the mother of that boy to take the law into her own hands, when she herself is a District Attorney, and dish out her own version of justice? And what are the unforeseen consequences when she does?

I am still not sure what side of the fence I am on after reading this book. Being a mother myself it was easy to understand what drove the main character to do something so desperate but still, didn't we all learn in grade school that two wrongs don't make a right? And the thing that kept going through my mind, again as a mother, was what example was she setting for her son? Ultimately we want our kids to be good people. Wanting to protect them from every single bad thing is simply not possible even though we would like to think otherwise. In this way, I think the mother in this book, while very intelligent, was missing some basic insight.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Help by Kathryn Stockett (2009)

I've been wanting to read this book for a long time after hearing rave reviews from many of the readers I respect the most (mainly my mom) and I finally got the chance while staying in Texas over the holidays and after a visit to my mom's library.

This book, the story of black maids and the white women they work for in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960's, is a wonderful, funny, sad story and it had me from the first page. The words of Aibileen and Minny, the two black women, and Skeeter, the young white woman, are so authentic and real, as a reader you immediately have sympathy for them and their friends and family. When they set out to undertake writing a book of interviews of maids in their town, I was excited and scared right along with them.

This is a story that shows us what is was like for both black and white women in those days in the South, but it also explores friendship, loyalty, and family. It is wonderfully written and kept me turning the page, desperate to find out what happened at the end. I finished it today on the roof top patio of a hotel in San Antonio TX, sitting in the sun and trying not to cry, so happy to have finally had a chance to read this wonderful first novel and completely satisfied by the ending. Thank you, Ms. Stockett.