THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER by Stephen Chbosly

wallflowerOK, I know I said I was tired of coming-of-age books, but I kept seeing reference to this one, so I caved.

It is the story of a quiet, unprepossessing teenage boy of 15, and is told in an epistolary style.  That means letters.  Yeah, but you already knew that, right?  He writes his thoughts and story  to an anonymous stranger, in whom he feels he can confide because the person doesn’t know him.  Although in his letters he certainly does give enough hints and clues that if the recipient cared to, could easily find out who he was.

He comes from a loving family, with an older brother on a football scholarship to a college, and an older sister, a senior in high school. His aunt, his mother’s sister, whom he dearly loved, died in a car accident, and he still mourns her, because she was the only one to give him two presents at Christmas — one for Christmas and one for his birthday which falls on the 24th of December.

In spite of his shyness, he manages to make a couple of friends, all seniors, and falls gentlemanly in love with one of them, a sweet, understanding girl.

Through his friends he discovers sex, drugs and rock  ‘n roll, alcohol and cigarettes, but manages to keep his balance.  Just how precarious that balance is we begin to get hints of as the story goes one.

He is a lovely kid, one whom you might actually like to know and wish lived in your neighborhood,  but he has a darker side, and we learn of this little by little.

This YA book was banned in a number of schools for content, but frankly, kids see so much more unpleasantness on TV, movies, and in video games, that I think the people most affected by it were the adults doing the banning. You know, this ain’t your father’s adolescence these days.  No, indeedy.  we have come to learn that the Norman Rockwell covers were just that — magazine pictures of an idealized life we wish we lived.

Good book.  Go read it.

 

GHOSTWRITTEN by David Mitchell

David_Mitchell_GhostwrittenDavid Mitchell is a writer of depth, a storyteller whose stories contain layers and profundities.  He is the author of The Bone Clocks, and The Thousand Autums of Jacob de Zoet, which I talked about here on the blog, and of No 9 Dream and Cloud Atlas, which I have yet to read.  Don’t rush me,  I’m getting there.

Ghostwritten is a really interesting book, written in a very interesting manner. It’s tagline is:  A novel in Nine Parts.  It has nine chapters, each set in a different city and country, and featuring a different protagonist and storyline.   I was fascinated to see just how it would all come together, and ….. guess what.  It doesn’t actually all come together in the way you might expect.  The chapter/stories are all joined through seemingly coincidental events, sometimes with only a passing reference to a character or event in another chapter, sometimes being affected by an event or person from another chapter.

It does all come together in the next to final chapter in a way that is surprising, and yet, when you think back over the storylines, not surprising at all.

The novel has two basic ideas underpinning it;  one is of the interconnectivity of all life and of all matter, (“matter is thought, and thought is matter. Nothing exists that cannot be synthesized.”) and “Phenomena are interconnected regardless of distance, in a holistic ocean more voodoo than Newton.”),  and the other is the notion of random chance vs. synchronicity.

One of the chapters is about a young man who works as a ghostwriter in London, who says

The act of memory is an act of ghostwriting.

The book is just riddled with great quotables:

  • The double-crossed, might-have-been history of my country is not the study of what actually took place here: it’s the study of historians’ studies.

–  He spoke with the leisure of a never-interrupted man.

–  The universe is the shape of a doughnut, and if you had a powerful enough telescope you would see the tip of your tail.

– Pastoral in E minor by Fettuccine.

– Even time is not immune to time.

– The most malicious god is the god of the counted chicken.

But what is the book about?  Ummm, erm, I don’t know.  Exactly.  About what is real and what is delusion and what is hallucination?  Maybe.  You will have to read it yourself and let me know what you think it is about.

2ghostwriter

 

THE BURNT ISLAND BURIAL GROUND by Mindy Quigley

burnt islandThis is the third in the Lindsay Harding mystery series.  The first was A Murder in Mount Moriah,  and I seemed to have skipped the second and jumped right into this one.  That’s OK.  There was enough backstory throughout the book that it wasn’t strictly necessary to have read the second one.

I found this one a smidge disappointing in that the mystery didn’t appear until about halfway through the book.  It dealt heavily with the aftermath of the events of the second book.

Let’s recap.  Lindsay is a 31 year old chaplain who works for the local hospital.  She has a sleezeball mother who spends her time in and out of jail, stealing from Lindsay when out, whining and pathetic when in.  The mother has hooked up with an even sleezierball boyfriend named Leander Snoopes.  Turns out, he is downright lowdown and dangerous.  Her father, once he served his time for some kind of scam deal, has found Jesus, and is now a pastor of a local church.  He and Lindsay have a shaky relationship as they try to rebuild.

In volume one, she got romantically involved with Warren, a blast from her highschool past who is now a police detective,  but there appeared a cute doctor.  In volume two, she found her grandmother, hitherto unknown to her, and Lindsay and her skanky mother and the feisty grandmother got shot by the nefarious Leander.  Mom goes back to jail, grandmama ends up in hospital, and Lindsay plans to bring her home with her to live when she is out of physical rehab.

That brings us up to volume three, where that doctor is no longer in the picture and Warren, the detective declares his undying love for Lindsay, gives her a ring to which she becomes terribly allergic and almost loses her finger due to said allergy, she does her usual fear-of-commitment act,  meets an almost-too-handsome-to-be-true dude, who turns out to be not what he seems, Lindsay’s father is caught in flagrante delicto with Warren’s mother, they declare they want to get married, Lindsay goes berserk over this, Warren dumps her, and she almost gets shot after being forced to dig her own grave by a psychopath.

The mystery, such as it was, turned around the Native American Lumbee Indians of the North Carolina area and the story of Henry Berry Lowrie, head of a band of Native American bandits.  Most of that story is based on actual fact, with the author concocting an alternative ending.  But the basics were that the gang had a big heist, and then Lowrie immediately disappeared, as did the money.  The great grandson of a man who at that time  was suspected of taking the money, is dying and wants to make amends, and the events of the novel take their cue from that.

It was fine.  Just not much of a mystery, more of a woman’s book dealing with the personalities involved. So I am in agreement with Muriel St. Clare Byrne who said,

It has been said that a love interest is only an intrusion upon a detective story.  But to the characters involved, the detective interest might well seem an irritating intrusion upon their love story.
Time to bogie on down the road of endless literature.  So many books, so little charge left in my Kindle.
For more information on the Lumbee Tribe,  go here.

For more information on the Lumbee Tribe, go here.

SIX FEET OVER: Adventures in the Afterlife by Mary Roach

untitledI love Mary Roach.  She wrote, among others, Packing for Mars, and Stiff,  which I talked about here in the blog.

Well, after discussing all the things you were just dying to know about dead people in Stiff,  (“dying to know” — see what I did there?), in this book, she talks about dying.  Well not exactly the act of dying, but investigates the possibility of knowing what happens after we do the dying part.

What happens when we die?  Does the light just go out and that’s that — the million-year nap? Or will some part of my personality, my me-ness, persist?  What will that feel like?  What will I do all day?  Is there a place to plug in my laptop?

She covers reincarnation, a topic that has always fascinated me. Reincarnation is one of the reasons I try to stay on the straight and narrow, just in case it is actually a thing.  I would like to avoid coming back as a cockroach.  Or dung beetle.  But as she says, proof is an elusive quarry.

Of late, I find myself wondering about the mechanics of it,[reincarnation], the unfathomable blending of metaphysics and embryology.  How would the suddenly homeless soul get itself situated someplace new?  How does spirit, for want of a more precise word, infuse itself into a clump of cells quietly multiplying on a uterus wall?  How do you get in there?

Scientists and philosophers of bygone years had a name for the impossible moment.  They called it ensoulment, and they debated it for centuries.

There is her look into how people have tried to weigh a Soul.  Because a lot of people felt — and still do believe — that a Soul is an actual thing, and if so, it has mass.  Lots of discussion of folks trying to see the soul as it leaves the body.  Lots of goofy experiments.  Lots of disappointment.

Then, we turn to ectoplasm.  I was born too late for ectoplasm, much to my sorrow.  The day of ectoplasm was the late 1800s up until about 1940 or so.

Ectoplasm lived during the table-tipping, spirit-communing, strange-goings-on-in-the-dark heyday of spiritualism.  It was claimed to be a physical manifestation of spirit energy, something that certain mediums exuded in a state of trance.

The roster of scientists, statesmen, and literary luminaries who held great belief in all of this is stunning:  William James, William Butler Yeats, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (also known for believing implicitly in the fake fairy photos created by a couple of young sisters), physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, chemist Sir William Crookes, two prime ministers, and Queen Victoria.

Mediums were doing great business and everyone was trying to talk to the dearly departed. What a time to have lived.

She examines the efforts to talk to the dead. Did you know that people have created puzzles that can only be solved by a key which only they know.  When they die, their friends or family or colleagues try to communicate with them to get the key to the puzzle.  That would prove that a person is still mentally intact after death and can communicate with us.  Sadly, it hasn’t worked out so far.

She takes a look at the possibility of electromagnetic fields making one hallucinate; the out-of-body experiences of those having near death episodes;  trying to record afterlife voices on tape;  a great story of how the ghost of his father visited a man to tell him of a second will and where to find it, and how the law found in favor of the ghost.

All in all, a great read, with the ending we all expect:  that elusive quarry.  Bottom line, nobody knows.  And whoever knows in the afterlife is not telling.

A medium exhibiting ectoplasm at a seance.

A medium exhibiting ectoplasm at a seance.

 

THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST by Mohsin Hamid

reluctantThis book was shortlisted for the 2007 Booker Prize. It also won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the South Bank Show Annual Award for Literature, and several other awards. The Guardian selected it as one of the books that defined the decade.  It was also made into a movie.  Perhaps you have seen it.

It is the story of a young Pakistani man who excels in school and is accepted at Princeton, where he again excels.  He then gets a job at a prestigious New York City firm that specializes in creating value analysis of companies which other companies might wish to acquire.

In university, he falls in love with a beautiful wealthy girl, whose childhood sweetheart has died the year before of cancer.  She is unable to move on in her life from this loss, and although she is receptive to the young man and his very visible infatuation, she cannot commit to much, even his friendship.    While he distinguishes himself at the company, she falls more and more into mental illness.

At one point, he returns home to Lahore, for a vacation, and while there, the terrorist attacks on the USA on 9/11 occur.  While in Pakistan, he is made aware of the potentially immanent war between Pakistan and the threatening India, and is dismayed to see that the USA, with bases in Pakistan because of the war on Afghanistan, is doing nothing to deter India.  He begins to see the USA as an aggressor, meddling all the time in the business of other countries, and the shine and glory of his American success is beginning to tarnish for him.

As the one sided love affair unravels, his unhappiness with the global state becomes greater,  and his love for the USA and his life in it diminishes, and he decides to abandon the USA to take a position as a professor at the university in Lahore, where he mentors his students not only on their studies but also in political activism.  He becomes involved in several demonstrations, and comes to the notice of the powers that be.

Not only is the story interesting, being about love, international politics, global awareness, and growing up — that is maturing, the book is interesting because it is told in first person as he talks to an American stranger he sees in the streets who appears to be lost.  He offers to help the guy out, takes him for tea and then a meal, during which he tells the man his life story.

As the story progresses, we are informed that the well dressed stranger is obviously wearing a shoulder holster for a weapon,  is nervous of the large formidable waiter, and on their walk back to the man’s hotel, they are followed by shadowy figures, one of whom is the waiter.

The ending is purposely inconclusive, leaving us with all kinds of delicious questions such as: why did he pressure the guy to take tea, then to stay for a little snack, and then to further stay for dinner, and to linger on until the restaurant and the neighborhood was closing up?  Why did he tell the guy his life story?  Was there a purpose in all this?  Why did he insist on their walking back to the hotel at such a late hour instead of getting a taxi?   Was his personal development as a politically-aware person a result in some way of the impossible love affair?  Is it not possible for a true mingling of East and West?

And here’s one last piece of information for you:  the protagonist’s name is Changez, which is the Urdu name for Genghis.

Great book.  I really loved it.

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THE LANGUAGE OF POWER by Rosemary Kirstein

22010104Sorry for the bad picture.  I was having problems finding a graphic in a format that  WordPress would accept.

The is the fourth volume in The Steerswoman series.  I seem to have missed volume three, but this one was really a doozy.

Rowan, our Steerwoman, a kind of traveling encyclopedia in a medieval-like land is back in Donner, near where her group’s archives are.  The reigning wizard there, Jannik, is in charge of the dragons which terrorize the city from time to time.   While there, she and Bel, her Outskirter friend and warrior, meet up again with William, from volume one, who has been apprenticed to the Wizard, but has run away from him.

In their search for the whereabouts of the evil overlord wizard, they go into Jannik’ house while he is away, and all of the events leading up to this make it clear that the ‘dragons’ are some sort of mechanical device housed in a dragon disguise, and controlled by the wizard.  And everything else is apparently some kind of computer setup, which the wizards refer to as ‘magic’, but which have terms we would recognize today:  bandwidth, file, commands, programs, updates, accessing data.  The wizards apparently had some pretty high tech from eons ago.   And as Arthur C. Clarke once famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”    What a wonderful turn of events for this series.

It still has not ended, although the nasty Jannik gets destroyed, but the evil Slado still exists somewhere, and William and Rowan are still determined to get to the bottom of this whole business.

As yet, there is no Volume Five, so we must bid adieu to this series, because frankly, by the time the next book is released (and there is no indication she is even working on it), I will have forgotten all about it and be heavily involved in something else, like The Alexandria Quartet, or something.   Time waits for no woman, and I ain’t gettin’ any younger, darlings.

RUINED BY READING: A LIFE IN BOOKS by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

Reading2Do you like essays?  I do, and have always aspired to be the modern day Michel de Montaigne.  OK, I haven’t actually written any essays yet, but I am gathering material.  Just you wait.

But in the interim, while waiting for my blockbuster book of essays to be published, you may want to take a look at Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s little volume about reading and life and the intersection thereof.   She is quite a prolific writer — novels, essays, poems, stories.  Ever hear of her?  Yeah, me neither.  But it is impossible to know even the existence of every writer working today.   That’s my claim to excuse my ignorance, and I am sticking with it.

She talks about the dilemma of lying about having read a book,  whether to read a book you don’t like to the bitter end, the pleasures of the Reader’s Digest condensed book, and talks about some of her favorite books as a young reader, and dang!!! many of them were my favorites, as well.  Remember Kon-Tiki,  and Miracle at Carville?  And Faith Baldwin,  Taylor Caldwell?  And of course Louisa May Alcott, and she discusses just what fries her enchiladas in a book.

She touches on her childhood and her growing up years, the joys of eating while reading,  and being annoyed that her father did not permit her to bring a book to the dinner table, but found the intermingling of the two infusions, food and words,  so satisfying, she could not understand his rule.

She talks about reading prodigiously, but then not being able to remember much about those books.  She talks about what books shaped her life, and she says, she learned how to act from books.  Yeah, so did I.   She talks about what we want to read and what we feel we ought to read, and what we really like in a book and what we feel we should like in a book.

Not a spectacular work, but an endearing one, and will probably strike all the right notes if you have been a lifelong reader yourself, always with your nose in a book.

Nose in a book2