Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Nevermore: Beavers, Dust, Magicians, DNA, and Truth

Reported by Ambrea

This week, Nevermore brought an assortment of new books to our meeting, including some wonderful things from our new shelves, and some interesting nonfiction about the natural world.  Kicking things off, one reader introduced a book by Hope Ryden titled Lily Pond:  Four Years with a Family of Beavers.  Our reader was especially excited about reading Lily Pond.  After having read it several years ago, she couldn’t wait to return.  She was thrilled with the prospect of revisiting a noted naturalist’s studies of these busy, busy beavers and the beavers—named Lily and Inspector General—themselves.  Written in the tradition of Jane Goodall, Lily Pond is an interesting (and sometimes amusing) account of the natural world and some of its more industrious workers.  She said it’s a great book to read and, pointing out the beaver family tree that charts Lily and Inspector General’s offspring, it’s highly informative.

Next, our reader returned to a book familiar to Nevermore, revisiting The Dust That Falls from Dreams by Louis de Dernières.  A sweeping epic that follows the McCosh, Pitt, and Pendennis families through the turmoil and trials of the Great War, The Dust That Falls from Dreams is a startling and immersive story that that traces the lives of these sons and daughters who find their lives turned completely upside-down.  Louis de Dernières’s novel received some very positive reviews in the last meetings, and our reader was likewise intrigued by the premise of the novel; however, she thought the “ending seemed tacked on.”  Although she enjoyed the novel as a whole, saying it was a lovely book that delved deep into family dynamics, she wasn’t entirely satisfied with its conclusion.

Switching gears, Nevermore looked at a lovely little fiction book called The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett.  Sabine, who has spent the last twenty years as the wife and faithful assistant to the magician Parsifal, suddenly finds herself a widow and gripped by the realization that her husband’s family, which he claims to have lost in a tragic accident, is very much alive.  Reeling with the death of Parsifal and the discovery of a new branch of in-laws, Sabine finds herself taking a journey to unravel the mystery of her husband’s forgotten family, which will lead her from the sunny skies of Los Angeles to the windswept plains of Nebraska.  Our reader said, “It’s a pretty good book—I mean, it’s a very good book.”  He enjoyed the dynamic between the families, their dialogue and their interactions, and he liked the way the author played out a complicated situation.  It’s an enjoyable novel, he told the group, and he highly recommended it to other readers.

Our reader also introduced a brand-new nonfiction book to the meeting:  Herding Hemingway’s Cats by Kat Arney.  An in-depth study on DNA, specifically how in influences everything from eye color to cancer risks to predilections for alcoholism, Herding Hemingway’s Cats takes a long hard look at the DNA incorporated in all living cells and the “molecular switches” that tell genes when and where to work.  Our reader originally though the book was about cats (in particular, Hemingway’s curious feline polydactyls); however, he quickly discovered it’s actually about genetics in general.  Although he said he enjoyed most of the book, he noted that it’s very dense and sometimes difficult to understanding.  He found much of the information fascinating, but he didn’t read the entire book; rather, he picked out some of the “sweet stuff” to highlight for the other members of Nevermore and shared some fascinating facts about six-toed cats, unusual mutations, and lactose intolerance.

Last, Nevermore looked at a brand new novel by Annie Barrow titled The Truth According to Us.  During the summer of 1938, Layla Beck is given an ultimatum by her father, a senator:  get a job with the Federal Writers’ Project (a New Deal employment program released by Franklin Roosevelt), or else.  Left with no alternative, Layla quickly leaves on assignment for Macedonia, West Virginia.  She’s stuck with reporting the history of the remote mill town, a task she’s less than thrilled to receive; however, as she settles into Macedonia and meets the Romeyn family, she is quickly drawn into their complex world and realizes that her assignment is a little more complicated than she ever suspected.  Our reader thought Barrow’s latest novel was an intriguing mix of history and fiction, combining some of the best elements of both to create an engaging and fascinating story.  Overall, she thought The Truth According to Us was a good novel and recommended it to other readers.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen

Reviewed by Ambrea

After her mother died, Emily Benedict arrived in Mullaby, North Carolina, with the hope of solving some of the riddles that had plagued her for years—and, more importantly, get to know the grandfather she never knew.  But, as she digs deep into the mysteries of her mother’s adolescence, she discovers that Mullaby is rife with mysteries:  rooms where wallpaper changes to suit a person’s mood, unexplained lights that appear at midnight, and magical cakes—like those of Julia Winterson.

Julia, who has returned to her former hometown, is known and loved for her cakes.  She has a magical touch with flour, butter, milk, eggs, and sugar that seems to enthrall the entire town; however, Julia doesn’t just bake to keep herself and her father’s business afloat:  she bakes to recall the past and, she hopes, bring back a lost love.  She hopes to leave as soon as she can.  Her rocky relationship with Sawyer aside, Julia wants to leave Mullaby—and her hurtful past—behind.

But Mullaby is not what Emily or Julia has come to expect.  Together, they will discover a richness and beauty to Mullaby that they’ve never seen—and a love that they never thought they would find.

I actually picked up The Girl Who Chased the Moon as an audiobook.  It’s one of the first audiobooks I’ve listened to since Hank the Cowdog was considered one of my favorites—back when we still had a cassette tape player in our car—so it’s rather special to me, since it revived and heightened my interest in listening to books again.  Although I’ve listened to other audiobooks that I’ve enjoyed a little more than Sarah Addison Allen’s novel (such as Dante and Aristotle Discover the Secrets of the Universe and Kitchens of the Great Midwest), I was pleasantly surprised by The Girl Who Chased the Moon.

Like both Garden Spells and The Sugar Queen, Allen’s novel is filled with little unexpected joys, everyday magic that jumps out and surprises you.  Like the wallpaper in Emily’s room, or Sawyer’s “sweet sense,” or the secrets of the Mullaby’s most illustrious family, or the frogs that hold a special significance for Emily’s grandfather.  It’s fascinating to see this magical dynamic at work in Mullaby, to see how the town accepts and even celebrates some of its local oddities.

Speaking of oddities, I found I really liked Julia and her magical ability to bake delicious cakes.  More than any other character, maybe even more than Emily, Julia held a special place in my heart.  I liked her for her troubled adolescence and her steely resolve to live her own life, to leave Mullaby behind once she gets her father’s business and her rocky relationship with Sawyer settled.  She’s essentially damaged by her past, by a number of bad years in her youth, but she has managed to heal and reinvent herself and, more importantly, grow into the woman she wishes to be.

I’m not saying Julia isn’t flawed, and I’m not saying she isn’t damaged.  She isn’t perfect, and I admire her for overcoming a number of challenges in her life—and yet she still manages to have hope.  That’s why she continues to bake, why she continues to leave the window open when she’s making her cakes:  she has hope for a better future and hope for reconnecting with someone she thought she’d lost forever.  It’s heart-warming and wonderful.

And I loved it.

I also thought Rebecca Lowman, who narrated the novel, did a splendid job of distinguishing between characters and reviving the cadence of a small North Carolina town.  She helped breathe life into the characters, playing upon the drawl and twang sometimes found in Appalachia, and she did a wonderful job of pacing the story, allowing it to unfold naturally.  While the story was sometimes strange—and, sometimes, I didn’t always enjoy the characters Ms. Lowman played—I found I enjoyed it overall.  It’s a sweet novel with a decent narrator, intriguing (and, occasionally, baffling) characters, and a beautiful little love story thrown into the mix.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Classics Corner: A Doll's House

Reviewed by Ambrea

Nora Helmer is a housewife:  she dutifully cooks and cleans, manages the household staff, takes care of the children, and, in general, oversees her husband’s home.  Flighty and lavish, Nora is doted upon by her husband, Torvald, and plays house for him.  But when their home and their very livelihood is threatened by an outsider, Nora’s decisions will come back to haunt her—and it will shake their marriage to its very foundation.

A Doll’s House is an intriguing play and, I think, definitely worth reading—or viewing—at least once, because it offers unparalleled insight into the life of a 19th century housewife and all the expectations that go along with it.  It’s a sharp in its telling, pinpointing marital flaws and social issues with uncompromising candor.

Nora is essentially a doll.  Through much of Henrik Ibsen’s play, Torvald dictates everything in her life—her clothes, her shoes, her manners, her religious beliefs, her children’s education, and more—and, when she makes decisions for herself (for the health of her husband, mind you), she is chastised and even threatened.  She’s given no leeway, no sense of individuality, and, essentially, no hope.  She’s a toy, a plaything, and she’s not really given the opportunity to change that, until her world comes crashing down around her.

I found it particularly fascinating to see how Nora grows up in an instant, how she changes dramatically when given the opportunity.  As things begin to fall apart—when her marriage and, yes, her very life is threatened—I thought it was interesting to see how she began to view herself and her husband through new eyes.  She begins to see her own self-worth, which is certainly an astonishing thing for a housewife who has known nothing else, and she views her husband for the man he is and not the man she imagined.  She begins to see happiness as a desirable thing, even if it means flouting social convention.

I was intrigued by her transformation.  More importantly, I was thrilled by her final speech when she decides that things must change—that she must change if she’s ever going to survive, if she’s ever going to become her own person.  Her moment of clarity is sudden and brilliant:  her happiness is important too.

And she will stop the cycle, as she states when she tells Torvald she has never been happy:

Torvald:  Not—not happy!

Nora:  No, only merry.  And you have always been so kind to me.  But our home has been nothing but a playroom.  I have been your doll wife, just as at home I was Papa’s doll child; and here the children have been my dolls.  I thought it great fun when you played with me, just as they thought it was great fun when I played with them.  That is what our marriage has been, Torvald.

Nora has a startling insight into her marriage that changes the entire dynamic of their relationship.  Her transformation is astonishing, and her decision would have been unheard of.  The fact that she made a decision for herself at all would have been surprising in the heavily moderated and monitored Victorian society.  It’s actually pretty fascinating, and I think that Henrik Ibsen does a fantastic job of capturing the drama of a fractured domestic life.

Admittedly, A Doll’s House does have a few moments where it grows dull and dry, making it difficult to slog through the dialogue.  Honestly, the last five pages or so of the play were exactly what I was waiting to find—that’s exactly when the real drama unfolds and Nora shocks everyone (her husband included) by making a decision against convention.  Everything else then feels like idle chatter.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Nevermore: Hawk's Hill, Doctor Death, She's Not There, Small Ghosts, Less Medicine

Reported by Ambrea

Our Nevermore meeting had an interesting selection of books this week, ranging from young adult fiction to Nordic thrillers to true crime.  First off, our readers looked at The Incident at Hawk’s Hill by Allan W. Eckert.  An ALA Notable Book and Newberry Honor Book, The Incident at Hawk’s Hill is a moving little novel about a boy who manages to survive against insurmountable odds and forge an incredible bond with a female badger.  Six-year-old Ben is incredibly small for his age and he seems to like animals more than people, a quality which his parents find rather disconcerting.  And then one day, Ben simply disappears, slipping into the prairie grasses around Hawk’s Hill.  His journey is, according to our reader, a poignant tale that’s beautifully written.  It follows in a “good tradition” of novels that, she said, can appeal to readers of all ages.

Next, our readers switched gears and dived back into a familiar genre:  Nordic thrillers.  In Doctor Death by Lene Kaaberbøl, Madeleine Karno is determined to follow in her father’s footsteps as a doctor of forensic science.  Not an unusual dream for a driven, intelligent young woman—except the year is 1894, and her ambitious career choices are seen as decidedly perverse.  Regardless of the social stigma, Madeleine follows her father doggedly and helps him solve the mysterious death of a young woman on the snow streets of Varbourg.  They must decide whether her death is due to a frightening new disease or a terrifyingly clever murderer.  One of our Nevermore members sang praises for Kaaberbøl’s latest novel, saying it as a wonderful novel with supernatural undertones and fascinating historical anecdotes.  Although he warned the novel does have some sexually explicit and graphic material, he said it was worth reading for its depictions of early forensic science and its engaging story.

Following in the same vein of thrillers, our readers also looked at She’s Not There by Joy Fielding.  Fifteen years ago, on a fateful family trip to Baja, Mexico, Caroline Shipley lost her two-year-old daughter Samantha and watched her world collapse.  Now, after experiencing weeks, months, years of regret, Caroline is offered a thin strand of hope:  a young woman calls her on the phone, claiming her name just might be Samantha—claiming she just might be their lost daughter.  Our reader said She’s Not There is a fascinating, thought-provoking novel that delves deeply into mother-daughter relationships and the tragedies that tear apart families.  She pointed out that it’s not a very uplifting novel and, while she found it interesting at some points, she said it was a plot she was okay with not remembering.

Next, Nevermore explored a new true crime book by Laura Tillman, The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts, which recounts the tragic story of three young children who were brutally murdered by their parents in Brownsville, Texas.  On March 11, 2003, John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho murdered their three young children—and the building in which they were murdered, a rundown apartment complex, became a frightening symbol in the community that many believed was “plagued by a spiritual cancer.”  Tillman, a journalist with The Brownsville Herald, covered the story in 2008 with the proposed demolition of the building and she meticulously traces the history of John Allen Rubio and his wife, as well as delves deep into the history of one of America’s most impoverished towns.  With stunning clarity and compassion, Tillman explores the aftermath of this horrible crime and its effects on Brownsville.  Our reader said Tillman’s book was absolutely fascinating and, she admitted, she couldn’t put it down.  It’s a tragic story that depicts “horrendous, horrible events”, but it’s very well-written and incredibly informative.

Last, we took a close look at Less Medicine, More Health:  7 Assumptions That Drive Too Much Medical Care by Dr. H. Gilbert Welch.  It begins with a single premise:  too much medical care can harm just as much as too little health care.  Welch announces in his book that he often believes patients can be harmed from being exposed to too much treatment, being made to worry about diseases they don’t have or exposed to the harmful side effects of the testing process.  In Less Medicine, More Health, Welch lays out seven assumptions that drive medical care and the United States’ thinking about medical care—and he systematically breaks them down into understandable chapters.  Our reader said Welch’s book was both accessible, attractive, and inviting, which allowed readers to fully sink into his work.  He recommended it for casual reading, but, in looking for a deeper understanding of healthcare and the healthcare system, he said it was only “so-so.”