Friday, October 30, 2015

THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB


Review of THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB by LOUISE ERDRICH

After surviving World War I, German sniper Fidelis Waldvogel seeks out his best friend’s widow. His friend died in the war, leaving Eva pregnant and alone, so Fidelis marries her, and from tragedy and obligation they carve out, over time, a fierce and very genuine love. This quiet, steady conviction in each other serves them well when they leave Germany for America - where Fidelis uses his inherited butchering trade to build a business starting with nothing but some sausages.

I fell in love with Erdrich as a writer after reading one of her more recent novels THE ROUND HOUSE. From the writing to the characters to the plot, I savored nearly every detail of that book with relish. I wrote a blog post once about over-hype, when a book cannot live up to our own expectations (or the expectations others helped craft for us). In this case, THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB, while a good book, couldn’t live up to how much I esteemed THE ROUND HOUSE. In retrospect, I approached Erdrich’s work the wrong way - from most recent to earlier publications. THE ROUND HOUSE is one of her more current successes, a product of decades of honing her craft and writing many stories before. THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB, thought far from Erdrich’s first book, was nevertheless published almost a full decade before THE ROUND HOUSE, doubtless quite the gap of time for sharpening a skill.

With THE ROUND HOUSE, I caught myself appreciating phrases on nearly every page and awing over how not a single word felt out of place. THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB doesn’t have that same tight, polished feel, but I could see glimpses of the writing I admire so much emerging. However, the same keen insight is there even if the turn of phrase didn’t strike me as much. I particularly liked when Delphine confronts her alcoholic father. When she asks him why he drinks and he responds that he does so to fill the emptiness, she explodes that “everyone does everything to fill the emptiness” and therefore that is no excuse for dreadful behavior and poor choices.

I couldn’t invest in this story the way I wanted to primarily because the characters felt more like flat sketches on a page than real, breathing people. I found both the Erdrich books I read driven by character above plot, but when I don’t connect with the characters enough I crave more plot focus. At its heart, THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB is a family saga, not following one event or one person but a particular family over a long period of time. The characters are all interesting and certainly draw the reader in to consider their strengths, weakness, paradoxes, and quirks. Yet they never popped for me the way I like, where I can nearly imagine having a conversation with them myself.

Since this book focuses on the family and characters, I thought it fitting that I describe the cast - since they’re more important really than the plot premise I outlined above. First we have Fidelis, the cliché strong, quiet man who keeps his feelings to himself though he does in fact feel a lot. Then there’s his wife Eva, pregnant with his best friend’s son at the initiation of their marriage. She, too, exhibits a kind of understated determination and work ethic that draws the admiration of Delphine. A former circus performer and forever stubborn, independent woman, Delphine latches on to Eva as the mother she never had. Meanwhile, Delphine takes a fake fiancé Cyprian to stave off small-town rumors on her single life. Cyprian is a veteran and acrobat who, despite his intense feelings for Delphine, cannot love her in the way she wants. Then there’s Delphine’s drunken father Roy who explains her need for some kind of parental role model even as a young woman herself. Eva and Fidelis also have four sons. The oldest Franz has no idea he’s actually fathered by another man and grows up to be Fidelis’s mirror in spirit, though his passion is for planes rather than butchering. Eva and Fidelis first have twin boys, Emil and Erich, and then another son Markus, who becomes Delphine’s favorite and someone she takes great pains to nurture as best she can. There’s also Franz’s girlfriend Mazarine, Fidelis’s busybody sister Tante, the undertaker and Delphine’s best friend Clarisse, and the menacing Sheriff Hock.

In all honesty, I found THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB a good book with ample to discuss regarding characters and relationships not to mention history. I only caution that if you read Erdrich’s later work first, you might be startled at the realization of how much her writing has developed over the past decade.  Oh, and if you’re wondering about the title, Fidelis also possesses a remarkable voice and participated in a singing club with other master butchers in Germany, a tradition he brings with him to America.

Friday, October 23, 2015

EVERY DAY


Review of EVERY DAY by DAVID LEVITHAN

Every day A wakes up in a different person’s body. A took this simple name for themself, because they have no consistent name, physique, friends, family, gender, life. Every day A is someone new. In fact, A (unintentionally) borrows another person’s body for the day. A is considerate about the fact that it’s not their life. Every single day is a day stolen from someone else, so it’s never a day for A to do whatever they want. Then A meets Rhiannon, someone they want to see the next day and the day after that, someone with whom A hopes they could form a long-lasting relationship rather than the millions of single-day parents and best friends A has known.

As a writer myself, I found the premise utterly fascinating. The concept explodes with questions and I recognize what a challenge it would be to write something like this. I already loved Levithan’s work, but I admire him for tackling such a brave notion.

Amazingly, A does have a distinct personality despite no single body. Dry wit. Observant. Unusually mature for their age, but expected for their circumstances. A has mastered the quick assessment of a person. While A can access their current body’s memories, it’s not an easy, immediate task, so A often works from cues. They know how to summarize their temporary family and friends and look for signs that anyone expects something from A (or rather from whomever A’s residing in that day).

As always I found Levithan’s writing beautiful and popping with plenty of sharp insights that resonate with me enough to bookmark. I nodded along with A’s breakdown of kindness vs. niceness. A believes niceness is superficial, an indication more of how you want to be perceived, while kindness is unselfish and sincere, a genuine reflection of your character. I also know I’m not the only one to pull out the following quote as exemplary: “Love can’t conquer anything...It relies on us to do the conquering on its behalf.”

The nature of the magic system raises countless discussion questions about identity. A isn’t tied to specific friends. Even if they like certain kinds of people more than others, they likely won’t see them the next day. A has not had a typical childhood. In fact, A has been molded more by society overall than any one particular household. A doesn’t have hobbies or much opportunity to hone a specific skill. A views gender more fluidly than your average teen since they’re often in a girl’s body one day and a boy’s the next. A views themself in emotional and intellectual terms rather than physical. And identity is only one category of questions. Then consider the ethics. A has no control over this body swapping, but they still feel like an imposter and a life thief. A lives so carefully as not to interrupt a person’s life, but then rarely lives for themself. A constantly considers how actions in a single day could affect the next day, week, month, year, lifetime for the person who will take their life back in 24 hours. A battles with unanswered questions about what they are and whether any amount of deliberate effort can ever outweigh their accidental body snatching.

One of my few criticisms in an otherwise fantastic novel is that I didn’t understand what was so special about A’s love interest Rhiannon. As A mentions repeatedly, they have seen so many people in their lifetime. Rhiannon didn’t strike me as unique enough for me to believe A has never met anyone like her. Her special qualities were usually told and rarely shown. Upon first sight, A thinks she’s different, special enough to jeopardize the whole system A has worked out for laying low, but I never followed the logic or emotional reaction about why A admires Rhiannon so much. Nothing against her. She’s a strong character, but I don’t think she’s one of a kind and I don’t buy that A has never met someone like her before. 

I read this entire book awing at the ambitious scope and wondering how the author would begin to end something this complicated. The good news is that EVERY DAY is a terrific book, but the bad is that its scale makes it difficult to find a satisfying ending. The story feels like it cuts off as it’s only really picking up and one primary resolution felt, for me, sweet but forced.  I finished the book with a combination of lingering respect and unsettled questions.

Friday, October 16, 2015

SPRING FEVER


Review of SPRING FEVER by MARY KAY ANDREWS
(review based on audiobook, read by KATHLEEN MCINERNEY)

SPRING FEVER opens with a wedding. In fact, Annajane Hudgens sits in stunned silence as she watches her ex-husband Mason marrying another woman. Then something stops the wedding and the couple has to postpone it for a while. Annajane has tried and tried to convince herself that she’s over Mason, that she’s fine with his remarriage and blissful in her own recent engagement, but now fate has handed her an opportunity to call her own bluff, if she has the courage.

I found this another simple, enjoyable read from Mary Kay Andrews. The story features engaging characters and the audiobook boasts an excellent narrator. The plot leads you along easily and the writing lends the air of a friend telling you the story.

I liked the, more than usual, complicated relationship dynamics. Mason and Annajane aren’t merely exes, but exes who work closely together. Not so unusual, you might be thinking. Well, let’s add in the fact that shortly, suspiciously shortly, after their divorce, Mason took sole custody of Sophie, his newborn daughter with an unnamed mother. The gossip around town speculates that Sophie’s mother and Mason had a one-night stand while he and Annajane were still married. Annajane knows that the timing is discomfortingly close to their divorce regardless, but to her surprise her bitterness melted away as soon as she met Sophie. She fell hard for the little girl and has played an active role in Sophie’s life ever since. That all said, I will admit that some of the twists at the end took the relationships from intriguingly complex to soap opera melodrama.

In my mind, there’s some hypocrisy going on with Quixie. That’s the soft drink company handed down in Mason’s family, the company where both he and Annajane work. While the book paints (with heavy handed strokes) Quixie as a wholesome family business, it’s ultimately a huge commercial enterprise that keeps their family stinking rich by selling people an unhealthy product. Wait, I’m not actually on a soapbox here. I just found myself rolling my eyes when Annajane goes on about the purity of the Quixie brand time and time again. 

In general, though, this book doesn’t view things in the shades of grey I prefer but more in black and white. Take Mason’s fiancé and almost new wife Celia. As I see happen in many stories, Celia (the other woman figure) starts off as a nice if somewhat shallow person who’s simply not a good fit for Mason. However, her character descends into a mind-bogglingly deceptive and selfish woman. Personally, I enjoy the earlier incarnation of her character better. I think it makes a stronger statement when someone chooses between two people who could be good for him, rather than simply figures out which one is evil and which his soul-mate.

In many ways this sweet, simple story becomes a tale about pride, a tale about two people who could be great together if they can put the past behind them.

Friday, October 9, 2015

A TALE OF HIGHLY UNUSUAL MAGIC


Review of A TALE OF HIGHLY UNUSUAL MAGIC by LISA PAPADEMETRIOU
(review based on an advance reading copy)

Pre-teens Kai and Leila have more in common than you might think at first glance. While Kai spends her summer in Georgia and Leila in Pakistan, they’re both away from their immediate family, visiting other relatives, and feeling more than a little out of their element in the new and different locale.

Kai feels humbled by the independence her great-aunt provides, so much more than her own mother would ever allow. Meanwhile Leila fears any kind of cultural misstep in Pakistan. Both girls discover an unusual book in their temporary home, titled THE EXQUISITE CORPSE and mostly filled with blank pages. In similar aggravated moods, each of the girls writes in the book. Kai’s words appear in Leila’s book and vice versa, while additional words emerge on the pages, telling a mysterious story that connects to the both girls’ lives more than they realize at first.

I liked everything about this book: the writing, the characters, the setting, the relationships, the magic, and, finally, the interwoven detail about lepidoptera. However, my favorite part is the friendship that develops between Kai and her classmate Doodle. Papademetriou describes such fun, joyful curiosity that it made me remember exciting adventures from my own childhood with fond nostalgia. Exploration and imagination - they’re powerful personal development tools.

Silly as this sounds I admire the book for the feeling of “finished.” I read so many books where the editor in me creeps out with constructive critiques I would have made had I been involved in the finalization of the novel, critiques I believe would make it a better book (or, let’s be honest, sometimes more to my personal taste). This novel possesses a satisfying feeling of being exactly what it should be: a completed story ready for exploration by readers.

This book also increased my respect for Papademetriou as a writer with range. I loved her SIREN’S STORM series, especially for its extraordinary sensory detail. A TALE OF HIGHLY UNUSUAL MAGIC feels so different thematically that I might almost question whether it’s by the same author, which only demonstrates how Papademetriou can skillfully adjust every aspect of her story for an entirely different tone.

Friday, October 2, 2015

GOODBYE STRANGER


Review of GOODBYE STRANGER by REBECCA STEAD
(review based on an advance reading copy)

I have yet to read Stead’s now famous middle reader novel WHEN YOU REACH ME (or LIAR & SPY), but I understand from her most recent book GOODBYE STRANGER why she has such a devoted (and expanding) fan-base. She writes my favorite kind of stories, those rooted in character. She doesn’t hook with wild plotlines; the exact same tale would be yawn-worthy without characters who feel so real from the first page.

The book alternates between four perspectives: a trio of close middle school girls and a mysterious, unnamed high school girl. The trio consists of Bridge (short for Brigit), Tab (short for Tabitha), and Em (short for Emily), all starting seventh grade. Bridge survived being hit by a car in third grade, but lately she’s consumed by something a nurse said as she was recovering: “You must have been put on this earth for a reason, little girl, to have survived.” Tab falls in love (intellectually) with her new feminist teacher and all her ideals about civil disobedience. However, Tab’s still learning the line between parroting someone else’s values and defining your own. Em doesn’t look like the other seventh graders. She hit puberty early, in a major way, and even the older boys notice. One goes so far as to request a certain kind of photo. At first she knows better, but as they trade texts and she gets to know him she starts wondering what the big deal is with one little photo. Meanwhile, the high school girl’s story takes place all on one day, where everyone else’s stories eventually end. We don’t know who she is, only that she skipped school because she’s avoiding the consequences of a reckless mistake.

Every single character in this book - middle schooler, teen, parent, and teacher; girls and boys; lead, supporting, or peripheral character - feels tangibly real. The dialogue pops with authenticity, especially the voices of those straddling childhood and adulthood. Stead has a remarkable talent for bringing even the most mundane scenes to life with simple sincerity.

A lot of the insight (and you’ll find plenty) in this book almost feels like an inside joke. Stead sprinkles her story with the strange things we do in real life. Such as when Tab texts Bridge to call her, and Bridge does - but asks, exasperated, why text someone to call you rather than just call that someone? Much of the wisdom is new in phrasing rather than content. Such as Em’s mom’s explanation for how she and Em’s father can love each other for years and then file for divorce. Say people have 9,000 things, Em’s mom says. They meet someone and 1,000 of their things seem to match up, so they think they’re a great fit. Then over time they learn about more of each other’s things and some of them don’t align so well after all. 

I didn’t like the second person viewpoint for the high school character. I think second person is incredibly difficult to pull off and to do so there needs to be a strong case for how it improves a story. Well, the second person choice here mostly hides the identity of the high school student, which I don’t think needed to be a big revelation for later anyway.

The ending satisfies, but frankly doesn’t feel like the highlight of the book. So many books drag in the middle, but this one soars in the middle while the ending feels more like a sad necessity. I do wish, however, that the book ended with the last chapter instead of the epilogue that doesn’t really focus on (at least what I perceived as) the heart of the novel.

After reading GOODBYE STRANGER I know I need to read Stead’s other books as soon as I can. Her character and relationship driven style plays right into my reading taste.