Friday, December 30, 2011

The Leisure Seeker--Michael Zadoorian



Sometimes you're browsing through the fiction in the library and for no reason at all a book falls off the shelve and into your hands.  You look into it, evaluating, wondering.  You're caught by a sentence on the first page, or perhaps your eye crosses a paragraph further on in the novel and you're caught.

I have many such experiences, but, like most blind dates, they don't work out.  You take them home for a leisurely read and you wonder, "Now what exactly did I see in this book?"  I bring home piles of books every week.  In fact, I am single-handedly responsible for keeping the library funded in my county--I keep those books and other materials moving in and out at a pace defying imagination.  Bring home two bags with thirty potential candidates and wind up returning sixteen of them the next week.  The others age well on my to-be-read shelf, but eventually they too make it back to the library--mostly unread.

Michael Zadoorian's book was one such blind date that worked it--spectacularly.  I found something of interest while at the library--got the book home and devoured it in one evening.  It just worked for me.

The story of an older couple--the woman with metastatic cancer and the man with Alzheimer's, but not completely lost to it yet.  The woman decides against conventional wisdom, doctor's orders, and pleading children that what she and her husband need is a break--so John and Ella load up the Leisure Seeker and set out from Detroit to explore what is left of route 66--heading from its starting point to its end in California.

So yes, it's a geezer's road-trip novel and despite all that is working against it, it succeeds, beautifully.  You become involved with John and Ella and you recognize that some of the heartbreakingly beautiful things that Ella realizes along the way would serve us well in life today.  The novel is about love, about the extremes of love and hope, and about coming to terms with who you are and where you are in life.  There is so much that is so beautiful about the novel that I can even forgive the ending--which actually surprised me--surprised me so much that I had to wonder whether or not it was true to the characters themselves.  It was certainly true to explicitly stated intent, but. . . I'm not quite certain about whether or not these characters would do that.

That said, the problem I have with the end of the novel did not undo the delight I discovered in the rest of it.  Join John and Ella on their many adventures through the American West and see if they aren't delightful if somewhat curmudgeonly and occasionally quite disagreeable companions. 

*****


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Shockaholic--Carrie Fisher

I've read the previous memoir, Wishful Drinking and. . . well. . . I suppose enjoyed is not quite the right word for my experience with it--although my recollection of it was enough to make me pick this up when in the library.

This continues the story begun in Wishful Drinking and the title refers directly to Carrie Fisher's treatment for near suicidal depression and related psychiatric problems.  While the book does talk about and illuminate this aspect of her life, it doesn't stop there and dwell on things.  Indeed, the most substantial part of this book is a loving and in many ways compassionate memoir of her later life with her famous father Eddie Fisher.

I don't follow celebrity news or entanglements, so it came as something of a revelation to me (not of the fireworks and sudden dawn variety) that Elizabeth Taylor was, for some small part of Ms. Taylor's life, the step-mother of Carrie Fisher.  And you all say, "Well, duh!"  Told you I wasn't connected.

One point I did want to make about the book comes from a cover blurb, as this says it far better than I could:

"[Fisher] has a talent for lacerating insight that masquerades as carefree self-deprecation. . . The effect, ultimately, is extraordinarily painful while being extremely entertaining."

I enjoyed this book as well--though I'm not certain that enjoyed is again the right word.  I learned from it--I learned from it something about what it means to be famous, something about what it means to travel in the circles of the famous, and something about what it means to be human--especially a human being in pain.  Whether she intended to do so or not, Ms. Fisher's observations in the book can teach each of something about what it means to love and to be loved.

Funny, biting, tender, forthright, utterly fascinating, truly, deeply, compassionately human and humane--the book is all of these things.  I wish Ms. Fisher health, well-being, and a continuation of the ability to inform and enlighten.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Death Cure--James Dashner

Mr. Dashner rounds out the trilogy begun in The Maze Runners and continued in The Scorch Trials.  These are of the YA genre that seems to have escalated in popularity in recent days--bad adults put young people in serious danger for some perceived good or order in society.  It is understandable why they appeal to young people, because we all remember the times when the adult world was out to subvert us and to harm us "for our own good."  But it does become a trifle tiresome after a while, and this third book of the series bears this out.

While the series ends, it doesn't seem finished.  This last book seemed somewhat overlong and rambling without really getting to a critical point.  Mr. Dashner seemed not to know where he wanted to be with the book--Teen Angst or ZA (Zombie Apocalypse--for those not up on the terminology).  As a result, the book seemed a bit of a muddle to me.

However, if you've read this far, you'll want to finish out the series, so enjoy.  A light enough read with a few annoying aspects (language and plot) but it completes the story.

***

Crossing to Safety--Wallace Stegner

I should preface the bulk of my comments by saying that I finished this book on the way home from a trip to Austin.  When I completed it my initial impulse was to hurl it across the room.  My secondary impulse was to want to shred--eviscerating it, destroying it page by painful page--to inflict upon it some of the relentless damage it inflicted upon my psyche in the reading of it.  All of which is to say I had a very personal and substantial reaction to it.  If one follows Harold Bloom's notion that great literature "reads the reader" then I am left with the interesting quandary of wondering whether I want to know what it found out in the reading.

Crossing to Safety is the chronicle of two couples.  They meet in depression era America in a university setting and the story follows them as one couple, affluent and gracious, welcomes the other couple into their family circle. We see the couples in good times and in bad for each of them--through loss of job and success as a writer.

The book is at times over-written, as though the author is striving much too hard to pull from the reader some emotion.  But for the vast majority of the book, it is extremely well-done and hits the notes just perfectly.  They recall the time in the lives of each one of us when we've shared a closeness with our friends that can only be state simply--for to do more is to overstate.

So--why my reaction to the book?  Well, to say the full extent of it would be to tell too much of the story--but let it stay at the fact that one of the characters isn't merely a control freak--she is the template of all such.  There is much good about her--but this one flaw is so vast and so all-encompassing that the entire story was darkened for me.

On the basis of reading this work, I am convinced that it will take an army to make me pick up another work by the same author.  Nevertheless, I recognize this as a personal reaction and can nevertheless highly recommend the book to people with broader tolerances than my own.

****




Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Lost City of Z--David Grann




I had read about this book last year when there was a huge amount of hype.  I'm highly allergic to hype--I break-out in all sort of unpleasant spots and rashes.  I stayed far, far away for fear of the hype-allergens.

Strolling through the Library looking for books to support my son in his study of the civilizations of Peru, I saw this.  The hype had died down, everything was safe for approach, so I grabbed it off the shelf opened it up and fell in.

Fell in completely--so much so that midway through reading I went out and purchased the book.  For those of you who as children read the "lost worlds" novels of Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and most prominently H. Rider Haggard, this is a treat beyond imagining.  It tells the true story of a Amazon explorer who was dedicated to the task of finding the legendary lost city of Z.  Sometimes called El Dorado, sometimes thought to be completely impossible, the Lost city of Z became the personal obsession of Percy Harrison Fawcett and his family.

Fawcett had spent many years and had taken many trips to the Amazon river basin--one to map the boundary between Bolivia and Brazil.  In the course of his explorations he encountered all of the horrors of exploration (something often glossed over in the more romantic versions we're used to)--insects, predators, disease, and near starvation.

I think if anything came as a kind of ah-ha moment to me (though given my training it shouldn't have) it was the paucity of food available in the green darkness.  It is a kind of anti-paradise--so much so that many anthropologists concluded that no sophisticated civilization could have taken root in the hostile environment.

Normally I read non-fiction exceedingly slowly and in measured amounts so as to take notes and fully absorb what I am reading.  I read this one in big gulps and relished every moment.

In this case, the hype was right--good writing, good adventure, remarkable conclusion--satisfying all round.

*****  Highly, highly, highly, highly recommended to everyone who has enjoyed a lost-race novel and who has relished the thought of being an explorer themselves.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Great Consolation from the Jewish Tradition

from Seven Prayers That Can Change Your Life
Leonard Felder

If you look underneath the cumbersome English phrase "gratefully acknowledge" and just focus on the feeling of the Hebrew words Modeh/Modah, it's almost like the sensation of kvelling, a Yiddish word that means "to feel joy in your entire being." Kvelling expresses a sense of fullness or completeness because something wonderful is happening or because you feel loved and connected to a best friend, a beloved partner, or a child whose joyfulness makes you feel alive.

Tonight I am kvelling, and I don't know why.