Children of Paradise by Fred D’Aguiar (Book Review)

Children of ParadiseChildren of Paradise by Fred D’Aguiar
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

A young girl is terrorized and mauled to death by a gorilla. Other children are watching. Her mother is devastated. Other people are shocked and horrified. A teenage boy turns his own mother in for disloyalty. A charismatic preacher resurrects the dead child before the eyes of his followers. They are amazed. The gorilla is sorry. I don’t care.

Far too much tell and not enough show. The POV switching is choppy and I think the passive voice adds to the woodenness of the characters. The device of no quotation marks around conversation can sometimes be used to good effect, but here it just adds to the confusion and lackluster.

And I know that now I’m just being picky, but the gorilla could not have been captured near the commune. The commune is in Guyana, South America, and gorillas are native only to Africa. That’s too bad, because the gorilla shows more emotion and analytic thought capability and overall personality than any other character.

Perhaps I’ll try some of D’Aguiar’s poetry, as some of his descriptive passages are evocative. This novel, though…no. Abandoned.

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The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (Book Review)

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“It would be a privilege to have my heart broken by you.”

I’m supposed to be finalizing a research paper, and procrastination rocks. I read this book more than a year ago and should have told the world what I think before now. I read the entire thing in one evening and the following day, and when I closed the back cover, I immediately turned it over, opened it at the beginning, and read it again. It is simply that freaking good. I will never see the movie, because it would inevitably be a huge letdown after such an amazing book.

I also like the rumor that this is a NaNoWriMo novel. I don’t know if that’s true, but I love this book and I love NaNoWriMo, so it’s a happy rumor for me.

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Nothing Gold Can Stay

Summer is over. It’s now dark when I leave in the morning, and I have to use the light of my cell phone to signal the bus driver, to make sure he’ll see me and stop. The light jacket that isn’t enough in the morning is too much at midday. The maples outside my window are brilliant.

Autumn. You are so beautiful I can hardly breathe when I look at you, and you leave me so melancholy. If you’re me, that makes perfect sense. Autumn, you are an ending. You are golden days gone. You are perfect days, over. You are goodbye.

I woke this morning with a head full of perfect times gone by.
In the early 90’s I was a single mother to my toddler son, working as a 911 dispatcher in a small town in Nevada. Monster was the sunniest, most laid-back child ever. My mom and two sisters not only helped me with child care, they argued over who got the privilege of caring for him that day, he was just that much fun to take care of and they needed their “fix.”  I was making good money; all my bills were paid, I had some savings and enough left over to do fun things like Marine World and trips to San Francisco, wandering around Tiburon and seeing Lamplighters musical theater shows. I was making my living doing something that helped other people in a tangible way, and that I was damned good at. I lived in what looked from the outside like a crappy single-wide trailer, that on the inside was a cherry, cheery, comfortable home, with the best kitchen I’ve ever had My panic and anxiety disorder was in remission, if that’s an accurate term; for a couple of precious years I moved through the world fearlessly.
But then a new sheriff came to town, literally, one who was not pleasant to work for. My life collided with the man who became my second husband and I was plunged into an abusive marriage. My sister died, suddenly and violently. The panic came back.
Nothing gold can stay.

Every summer during my childhood, we traveled from our home in Colorado to visit my grandparents in Carson City, Nevada. My mother’s sister and her family would come up from California and the house was jam-packed with cousins and aunts and uncles.  We made day trips to the beach at Lake Tahoe or to Virginia City, inch-worming up the rutted, precarious Six-Mile Canyon Road in Grandpa’s old Scout. We shopped for school clothes and had grilled cheese and chocolate malteds at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s. We rockhounded the desert hills for stones my grandfather would cut and polish and set into jewelry I still call my Grandpa Originals. During those summers I felt as connected and as part of things as I ever would in my life. At night the kitchen nook became a dormitory full of cots for me and my sisters and female cousins. The boys were on similar cots out in the big garage, and from what we could hear through the wall, they were having a lot more fun than we girls were, possibly because the adults couldn’t hear them and didn’t keep shushing them. Finally, one year, we wheedled and cajoled the grown-ups into putting the boys in the dining area and letting us girls dorm in the garage. It was every bit as superior as I’d known it would be. A garage is an odd place to love, but I loved my grandparents’ garage.
Time passed. Six-Mile Canyon Road has long been graded and paved. The Scout gave out and was replaced. Woolworth’s and its lunch counter have gone the way of supermalls and food courts. We grew up. Nothing gold can stay.
Before my move to Seattle, when I had already intuited that the bad economy was eventually going to claim me, my boss gave me a week off work just because I deserved it. We spent it camping at Fort Churchill, not far from where I lived.

The food was excellent, but food always does taste better when you eat it outside. The beer was cold and perfect. Everybody got along. We splashed around in what passed for the river in high summer drought; we played games and laughed and reveled in the campfire and moonlight. In the cool and secret shade of the trees, where birds sang their territories and spiders danced their webs, my troubles could not enter. I was safe in the here and now, safe from worry about the future. And for the first time in years, I was able to sleep. Lullabied by coyotes kiyi-ing and owls who-ing and leaves whispering to each other in the dark, I retreated from the world, and dreamed, and healed. That week was perfect.
But nothing gold can stay. I didn’t go back to the Real World, though. It was the Real World I had to leave, to return to the Construct’s simulation.
After two years of job-searching in Nevada remained fruitless and my boss could lose no more money by keeping me on, I turned my attention elsewhere, to a place with a reportedly thriving job market and a climate that would be good for the Tominator’s health: the Pacific Northwest. Almost immediately, I was offered a plum job, and I happily reported to work as legal assistant in a beautiful office in downtown Seattle. After being turned down repeatedly for so long, I was ecstatic with my accomplishment and the beautiful city I’d achieved. Everything gleamed and glowed: the furniture, the sun on the windows of the sleek office tower, the luminescent trees that surrounded me with the promise of a fresh start, the water of Puget Sound, the future.
Or, it gleamed for maybe two weeks. My wonderful new boss turned out to have a personality flaw, if not an outright personality disorder; the three months I spent in her employ is one of the most horrific times of my life. The job didn’t last and I was left a stranger in a strange land with precious few resources. I lost my retirement to everyday living expenses. I lost my house. I lost my entire sense of security.
Sometimes it’s not even gold. Sometimes it’s just a mirage. Fool’s gold.
Dream Girl is so very golden, the more so because we’ve worked for her gold like the princess spinning for Rumpelstiltskin. We don’t love a lot of the same things so we treasure what we do adore together, period drama and campy do-wop, chai and pajama pants and those hours here and there when we can hold anxiety at bay. Some of my most treasured times are when we cuddle in my room with tea and slippers and Pride and Prejudice or Little Shop of Horrors or Dirty Dancing.
But she is very nearly an adult in every sense of the word. She is knowledgeable, savvy, almost 18 and on the brink of the adventure of her own journey. She will be leaving me, and that’s as it should be. When we raise our children right, we lose them. I raised her to live her own life, to set her own standards and build what she wants to build, for herself and for those she peoples her life with. It is part of Nature’s cycle that she grows away from me.
These perfect times are gone, yet at the same time they are not gone. I can close my eyes at any time and slip right back into them, through the magic of memory. Love each moment and know you’ll have it forever, but don’t forget to hold your breath for the next one, that is surely, surely coming.
Autumn is here. It’s cold this morning. In the next moment I am going to wrap up in the comfort of my fluffy, thick robe and breathe in the steam from a cup of hot tea. It will be a golden moment.

The gold doesn’t stay, but the Wheel turns. Green returns, and gold as well.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

          ~ Robert Frost, New Hampshire, 1924


Photo credits:
Autumn trees: author photo
Meeks Bay, Lake Tahoe: the_tahoe_guy, Flickr/Creative Commons
Fort Churchill, Nevada: author photo
Seattle skyline; author photo
Sand feet: author photo
Pin Oak in Autumn: public domain

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll (Book Review)

Luckiest Girl AliveLuckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I almost DNF’ed at 15% and I’m still not sure why I went ahead and finished it. TifAni FaNelli (and the name fits, talk about pretentious) is a superficial, calculating, self-centered, acquisitive bitch who doesn’t even pretend to be anything else. She even has a designer eating disorder. I don’t necessarily have to adore a book’s protagonist, but there has to be something I can identify with. The story itself was well-written, although I think the multiple traumas were a bit too much for one book. It was a lot to subject poor Ani to, although I didn’t really care. I’ve never found a protagonist so obnoxious and unlikable.

I am not reading any more books touted as “the next Gone Girl” or “in the style of Gillian Flynn.” Tricksy, tricksy. Amy Dunne had redeeming qualities.  I wouldn’t spend 30 minutes with Ani if she bought the drinks.

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Because I Could

I read two banned books for Banned Books Week, both of them older titles. I loved them both.

Because I could.

The Bluest EyeThe Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a novel that was both difficult and easy to read. Easy because of so many sentences that I read again and again, rolling them around my mind and off my tongue and wondering how anyone thought to put just those words together in just that order to make something as clear and rich as a bell tone. Difficult because what these sentences tell of is racist, it is sexist, it is abusive and oppressive and cruel and heartbreaking and poverty-stricken. And yet there is beauty as well, in the resilience and faith that still germinate and take root in spite of everything else.

“They beat their children with one hand and stole for them with the other. The hands that felled trees also cut umbilical cords; the hands that wrung the necks of chickens and butchered hogs also nudged African violets into bloom; the arms that loaded sheaves, bales and sacks rocked babies into sleep. They patted biscuits into flaky ovals of innocence — and shrouded the dead.”

I chose to read this book for Banned Books Week, and it may be one of the most important books I have ever read. I see why pinched and mean minds would not want this out there. Because hey, if we let people talk about the fact that people lived the tragedy of oppression and hatred in America not that long ago — and still do — then we acknowledge it’s there, and we are all responsible for it.

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Peyton PlacePeyton Place by Grace Metalious
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Only here do I realize the littleness of the things that can touch me. “

I chose this as one of my reads for Banned Books Week.  What a read! I certainly see why it caused such a furor in 1956. It’s pretty tame by today’s standards, but I still caught myself holding it in such a way that others on the bus couldn’t see what I was reading. Trash! Smut! Gasp! An engrossing read with developed, memorable characters facing the ugliness and heroism of real life in a close-woven small town.

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Homecoming (Flash Fiction)

Carrot Ranch Congress of Rough Writers Flash Fiction Challenge, September 30, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a return to home.
It was a relief to be off the train. Almost two days, including a tortuous 8-hour layover in metal chairs. She’d only had money for her ticket and a sandwich she couldn’t make herself eat. But she’d slept. Maybe Sam would feed her.

He had to, didn’t he? At least he’d come for her.

“What the hell,” he said as she opened the car door. “You just left? Why come here?”

“It’s home,” she said. “Where they have to take you in, right?”

Bristly silence. She looked out the window as the car pulled out, ignoring her angry stomach.

Because You Can: Banned Books Week

Photo by Anna Tschetter via Said to be made
with pages from Fahrenheit 451. Nice!

Banned Books Week, how I love to hate you. I hate that you have to exist, that anyone tries to ban books. But I love your spirit, your refusal to lie down for the small-mindedness of those who want to control the thoughts and morality of other people.
This mother from Knoxville, Tennessee is not satisfied with her child being assigned an alternate book after she protested the text assigned by the school. No, she thinks it is her place to make that decision for everybody’s children, not just her own, and wants the objectionable book (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot) banned from all schools in her county.
I’d never heard of the book before reading the article, but you’d better believe it’s on my TBR list now. That’s what happens when you make a big squawk about something and try to disallow it; you draw people’s attention, make them wonder what the fuss is about. There has always been an exotic allure to the taboo. Now I want to see it for myself, just because you tried to tell me I shouldn’t. More than that, though, I get my back up at anyone trying to impose their standards on me when it’s not only my right, but my responsibility, to establish my own standards. That’s part of being a grown-up.

And don’t kid yourself for a minute: When kids know a book has been removed from their school’s shelves, you’re driving them straight to it. It works on adults, too. I still remember the outcry when the movie The Last Temptation of Christ was released. The next time I was in a bookstore, I snapped the book right up. Come to think of it, I still haven’t read it. It’s still in one of my TBR piles, somewhere. But all the hue and cry racked up another sale. I’ll read it someday.

We didn’t have a lot of frills when I was growing up, but one thing my mother would almost never say no to, and particularly if we were in a used bookshop or a thrift store, was books. As many as I wanted, whatever I wanted. There was always enough gas in the car if I wanted to go to the library, the library was one place I had permission to go even if I was grounded, and I’ve been the contented, book-sated owner of a library card since I was 10. She frowned at a title or two I picked out (a few by Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins and Jackie Collins come to mind), but she never censored my reading. Maybe she knew it would be about as effective as disallowing drinking turned out to be later, but I doubt it. I think she was wise enough to know that new ideas and concepts make you think, make you examine the world around you and make you examine yourself, that they help you become the person you are supposed to be. She trusted me to use my intellect to reach good and ethical conclusions about the various ideas I was coming across. My mother is not only smart, but wise.

I had the same freedom at my grandmother’s house, which overflowed with books, literally. They filled the house and spilled over to shelves and boxes in the garage. I was given free rein, never told I couldn’t read any of them, from various histories of the world to philosophy to religion, to classics such as Shakespeare and Mark Twain and Edgar Allen Poe, to simpler pleasures like Anne of Green Gables and A Wrinkle in Time and the Narnia tales, and endless volumes of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. I read what I wanted to read. If I had questions, they were answered. We talked about what we read. And I learned; oh, how I learned. What may be the most valuable thing I learned is how to learn.
One justification often used for removing books from junior high and high school students’ reading lists or school libraries is that “these kids are too young to read about these things”. “These things” include sex, alcohol and drugs, violence, abuse, racism and other bigotry, mental illness, suicide, bullying, LGBTQ issues, death, and other things that, trust me, the kids are already aware of because they’re already struggling with them. “These things” are right smack in their lives already. Removing a book from the library won’t make the issue disappear. It boggles my mind that any parent would not want their children to have the benefit of the wisdom and experience of others, the solace of knowing these are not unique problems, that they are not alone, that there are solutions. It boggles my mind that parents aren’t aware that much worse than you’ll find in Looking for Alaska or The Hunger Games is splashed across social media such as Tumblr and Instagram and Facebook and Imgur and Snapchat, along with the rest of the virtually limitless Interwebs.  It boggles my mind that parents don’t want their kids’ minds opened enough to have compassion for others in their lives. It boggles my mind that parents don’t want their kids thinking for themselves.

I like to think that, ultimately, the attempts of those who would censor literature will always move us to fight back, that we will always strain and struggle against it, slam it down, that we will always hunger for thoughts and words, to read them and to write them, and will always find ways around censorship as surely as a bookworm kid will read by flashlight under the covers long after bedtime on a school night.

Honor freedom of expression during Banned Books Week, September 27 – October 3. There are so many banned books to choose from! Here is the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged classics, and here is their list of most frequently challenged books by decade. Some of the reasons for challenging and banning books are ludicrous; this article lists several that will get your eyes rolling. I mean, seriously, Charlotte’s Web?
Seattle Central Library’s Banned Books display. I brought home two:
Peyton Place and The Bluest Eye.

Read a banned book this week to celebrate being able to read what you want to.

Read a banned book to celebrate that you can write what you want to. Remember that you can also paint what you want to, sing what you want to, dream what you want to. I still happily remember reading about the recording artist who, when told people wanted to burn his/her latest record, responded, “Well, they gotta buy it to burn it.” (I can’t remember who it was but I want to say it was Blondie. If anybody knows, please clue me in. It was a long time ago, back when vinyl was standard issue and not hipster.)
Read a banned book to savor a new idea, the pleasure of tasting it and considering it and pondering it and turning it over to look at all sides of it, and then deciding how it fits in your life.
Read a banned book to remind yourself how stagnant the world would be if we couldn’t share our ideas with others, or have our eyes opened or our hearts broken by the ideas others share with us.
Read a banned book to celebrate the love and joy and sorrow and yearning and torment that pour forth whenever a writer or poet sets words to paper.
Read a banned book because some of the best stuff out there has been on one or many banned lists at some time. Classic literature that has changed how we read and write and move through the world, like To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Rings and The Grapes of Wrath and Lady Chatterly’s Lover and The Sun Also Rises, that were challenged simply because a handful of pinched and narrow minds thought they had the right to tell everybody else how to think, or didn’t want anyone challenging the status quo.
Read a banned book to celebrate that we remain free from the Thought Police (brought to you by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four — another banned book).
Read a banned book because every time someone reads one, closed and controlling minds lose and the exquisite freedom of artistic expression wins.
Read a banned book because you can.