Aug 30, 2018

Birds, Beasts and Relatives

by Gerald Durrell

Delightful, funny, curious as always, Durrell had me laughing on page four. He claims in the forward, that during a family reunion, his siblings and mother complained of what he had written in his first memoir of their life on the island of Corfu. Then they all reminded each other: well, at least he didn't tell this story - or the other- which was terribly embarrassing, and so of course he wrote this book to tell those stories which were left out the first time around. Including: the time his sister got mixed up with a group of spiritualists (who held seances), the time he longed to buy a dancing bear off a gypsy, the time his older brother was taken to court by a Greek peasant who insisted that Gerry's dog had eaten five of his prize turkeys. This book takes place more or less at the same time as My Family and Other Animals, overlapping without a lot of repeats. It's full of interesting and colorful characters- both his family members, their friends, visitors, and acquaintances around the island- and many amusingly outrageous incidents. Sadly, I couldn't help reading between the lines this time around, having learned what Durrell never really spoke of in his books- that they fled England because the family was ruined by his mother's alcoholism, that the family was disliked by many on the island, considered scandalous for their behavior- and it's true that in the book Gerald frequently mentions them drinking- he must have been only seven or eight at the time, yet he is given wine by his older brothers, champagne by an elderly woman he visits (to acquire an injured barn own) coffee by his tutor, etc. It sounds like a wonderfully carefree existence- him as a kid roaming the island, observing and collecting animals- yet I wonder if there wasn't a bit of neglect in there, too. One time he ran over to a neighbor's house and watched a young, newly married peasant woman giving birth- had a front-row seat and described it in detail, matter-of-factly. There's also the callously blunt way the family talks about his sister Margo's struggles with her weight and her skin condition. I'd be embarrassed if I were her.

Aside from all that, I did love the descriptions of the wildlife and other animals Durrell acquired or observed in nature. His family gave him a young donkey for his birthday, and it enabled him to explore more of the island. He met fishermen and older gentlemen also interested in nature, who took him out on the reef, or wading in the lake, to collect stuff. He describes crabs that camouflage themselves by sticking bits of seaweed (or whatever objects he gave them when corralled in a barren pool) on their shells, elvers migrating through a dry streambed to the lake, a diving bell spider (who ate her children), a pet owl and a family of young hedgehogs. Most wonderful was reading about the time he caught half a dozen small seahorses, and kept them for a brief time in an aquarium in his room. Durrell didn't have any kind of filter or means of water circulation as a kid. He tells of hauling buckets- going down to the beach to get fresh seawater for them- five times a day in order to keep the tank clean enough. I know what work it is enough to haul a few buckets down the hall to the nearest sink! No wonder he kept them just a brief time before letting them go in the sea again.

And that's just scratching the surface. There's so much more!

Rating: 3/5            248 pages, 1969

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Aug 27, 2018

A Man Called Ove

by Fredrik Backman
translated by Henning Koch

I finally got around to reading this one. I don't have much to say about it, that others haven't already. It's about an old, cantankerous man who believes in doing things only one way: the right way. He doesn't have much patience with other people and what he views as their foolish behavior. He's basically lost his will to live since his wife died. But all his deliberate attempts to join her are interrupted by neighbors who need his help- at first this seems coincidence, but gradually you start to wonder. From new foreign neighbors to old estranged friends, they all show Ove that he really does have a place in this world.

It's a story with a strong message and a tender ending, some funny moments here and there. But overall, I found it rather difficult to get through. The old man's sour attitude included using unkind and crude expressions to describe other people- which I found distasteful and eventually repetitive. For most of the characters, I did not get a clear picture of what they were like- probably because the descriptions just reflected Ove's poor opinion of them- so I never connected with, or care much about them. The writing often felt awkward and abrupt, I'm not sure if this was a stylistic attempt to reflect Ove's personality, or just due to the translation (original is Swedish). And there was a cat in the story, which gradually attached itself to Ove. The cat's behavior was often more like a dog than a real cat, which puzzled me. Ove himself is a very down-to-earth, no-nonsense man who sees everything in black and white. He likes being useful and fixing things, can't abide a man who lacks basic knowledge to do the same. All the stuff about cars, especially Ove's obsession with his chosen model, really was lost on me.

I appreciate the idea and the sentiment, but I didn't really enjoy reading this one.

Rating: 2/5           295 pages, 2014

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Aug 25, 2018

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

by Joanne Greenberg

I read this book at least twice when I was a teen. It's been decades. I was curious how similar it might be to Challenger Deep, and yes, it was a very interesting comparison. Both are about a teenager suffering from schizophrenia. Both kids experience a complex, detailed inner world where other personae speak to them. I thought it was also telling that in each case, there was an aspect of the inner world where the sufferer felt they were descending into a great depth- in Challenger Deep, it was the depths of the ocean. In Rose Garden, it was a bottomless pit of hell.

But there the similarities end. This young woman- Deoborah- is sent by her family to a mental hospital where she receives therapy and lives on a ward with other patients. Use of medication is crude and rudimentary- it seems to be limited to sedatives. I have to make myself remember that the book is placed squarely in its time- it was written in the sixties, and the story takes place during the forties. So please note if you read it that people worked with the knowledge they had, at the time. In the book, a lot of emphasis is placed on the importance of therapy- Deobrah's therapist spends hours digging through her memories to sift out the cause of her withdrawl from the world, the reason the people in her head censor her actions and punish her, the traumas she may have suffered when very young that marred her psyche. I don't think it quite works like that? As far as I can understand, medication treats the condition and therapy helps, but the cause is not a childhood trauma as this story implies.

Regardless, it's very well-written and the characters are vivid- not just Deborah, but the other patients she interacts with, the staff at the hospital, her fierce and compassionate therapist. As a younger reader, I was fascinated with and baffled by the demanding, inscrutable 'gods' that peopled Deborah's inner world- now I found them more easy to see through. I still enjoyed the wordplay, the codes the patients had of communicating unspeakable things, the often-beautiful way Deborah spoke in metaphors (she also had a made-up language for her inner world). I noticed on this read how much more this book delves into what the family went through at home- what to tell relatives, how to deal with their own guilt and worry. It even has a few chapters from the therapist's point of view (personal life as well as her work).

And I appreciated that, just like in the more modern book I read, the main character realizes at the end that while there is no permanent cure for their condition, there can be a great alleviation of suffering, and the capability of leading a productive life. Deobrah's story felt a bit rushed at the end- while it did address the very different struggles she had to integrate back into the regular world when her stay at the hospital was over, it went through that without much depth, compared to all the pages spent on therapy sessions and conversations with fellow patients.

Still, a good read, if you keep in mind how long ago it was written. At first, the frequency of the author telling stuff irritated me, but I got used to it as a style of the writing and was okay with it later on (something I often can't tolerate in more modern books). The voice overall does feel surprisingly relevant and current, in spite of its timeframe.

Note: the edition I read was published under the pen name Hannah Green. The story was based on the author's personal experiences (I don't know to what degree things had been fictionalized).

Rating: 3/5              318 pages, 1964

Aug 15, 2018

Challenger Deep

by Neal Shusterman

I am tired. I am probably not going to do this book justice, but I actually finished it two days ago, and need to say something. It's a story about mental illness. A teen who suffers from schizophrenia. He has feelings of paranoia and confusion about what's really going on- half the time living in his own head, an elaborate inner world which increasingly overlaps with reality. Gradually relationships with his family and friends erode, until finally his parents make the tough decision to commit him to a mental hospital. I thought this book was really well done. The depiction of the inner universe the kid often inhabited was fascinating- he thinks he's on an oceangoing ship (that usually gets nowhere), peopled by a half-mad captain, a talking parrot and variety of nameless crew members (all full of suspicions and delusions of their own). Things there get stranger and stranger (some parts reminded me of Kafka's writings) while he struggles to keep a grip on reality, to discern between one world and the other. The dialog and wordplay is wonderful, the narrative often very sad, but also full of hope. He has snarky conversations with his therapist, struggles through the effects of different medications, makes a few friends among other patients and staff, and finally emerges at the end- not completely better, but definitely more in control.

The book brought to mind one I had read long ago- I Never Promised You a Rose Garden- aptly enough, as they're both about a teenage schizophrenic. I think it was the convincing elaborateness of the inner world that reminded and intrigued me.

The one thing I did not like about the book was the artwork. In the story, the main character designs computer game characters with his friends, who proclaim him "a great artist" and the loose line scribbles did not at all seem to represent the kind of art I imagined. Then I read the afterword: the drawings were made by the author's son, who himself had a mental illness. I immediately felt ashamed of my criticism.

Rating: 4/5            308 pages, 2015

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Aug 10, 2018

Plumbelly

by Gary S. Maynard

A group of kids, a few friends on a South Sea Island. Each in their own way struggling against oppression, neglect, abuse. Parents with heavy hands, unseeing attitudes, teachers who take advantage. They're white kids- resented by the native islanders. The few of them stick together, and when events suddenly pitch rapidly south, they take what seems like the only option: running away on a small, abandoned sailing vessel- claimed as salvage. The story moves quickly, but is packed with so much. First love. Loyalty between siblings, between friends. I was taken aback at the amount of violence, and how casually some of the characters shrugged it off- but then, they'd seen a lot. Fair warning: quite a few people die. Some by accident, some not. The kids take their lives into their own hands, rocking on the sea. I really liked their voices (in spite of the profanity) and the depiction of life at sea, work at sailing, is detailed just enough for me to get a picture, without overburdening the reader with tons of explanation. Quite a few turns took me by surprise. I was reminded a lot of The Outsiders. And of other books set on sailing ships, that I've enjoyed. Plumbelly is from a small publisher, it could have used more careful editing- a few typos jumped out at me, but the story and characterization are strong enough I wasn't distracted by it. The people felt vividly real, the situations hard to face, the surroundings beautiful and harsh by turns- I loved the descriptions. It's the kind of book you can't put down, and you think about for a long time afterwards. In spite of its brevity there's a lot going on in there. I'd certainly read more by this writer.

I received a copy of this book from the author.

Rating: 4/5          217 pages, 2018

Aug 2, 2018

Thirteen Moons

by Charles Frazier

I eagerly anticipated reading this book, based on my enjoyment of Cold Mountain. Unfortunately, Thirteen Moons couldn't hold my interest. It's a historical novel surrounding the time when Cherokees were forced off their land by the American government. The main character is a twelve-year-old orphaned boy Will, who is sent by his aunt and uncle to work off years of bond in a trading post on the edge of the Cherokee Nation. He has a fine horse, and loves reading, but not much else in the way of prospects. He soon meets a Cherokee man who basically adopts him into the tribe, and gradually he gets introduced to the culture. For me the most vivid, memorable scene was when he attended a tribal dance where the native americans impersonated the various foreigners who had invaded their land. One of the author's aims seemed to be showing how varied the abilities and stations were among Cherokees- Will spends winters among the Cherokee in an earth-and-wattle hut surrounded by dim smoky light and storytelling, but later in the story he visits a fine plantation run by a wealthy Cherokee man who has slaves and a beautiful young girl (and he falls in love). He muddles around trying to find his place in life, eventually settling on pursing law (because he has law books) and trying to fight for the Cherokee to stay on their land. His visits to Washington are eye-opening: the portrayal of the capital as a small, muddy town full of pretentious and self-absorbed folk, quite a different picture of our early government than I ever had in mind. His efforts fail, the girl leaves him (several times) and he starts to watch the forced removal of his adopted people from their homeland. I struggled to get through the chapters where he started pursuing law, my attention to the story lagging, and hoped it would pick up again with this depiction of dissolution and despair. But I couldn't bring myself to keep reading- two thirds done, and I had no more attachment to the characters than at the very beginning. It's a slow book and I failed to stick it through.

Abandoned              422 pages, 2006