Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sunday Shorts: A Round-Up Of Short Book Reviews

This post is a collection of short reviews of some of the books I've read in the past month.

In a Perfect World by Laura Kasischke

This author won me over with The Life Before Her Eyes, and when I finally started In a Perfect World, I couldn't put it down. Jiselle is a thirty-something flight attendant, with an open heart and naive nature, who falls for a pilot. Mark seems perfect -- he's handsome, charming and sexy. Jiselle quickly agrees to marry him, quit her job, and raise his three motherless children. Do you sense trouble coming? 

The story of Jiselle's marriage is one layer of this novel. In the background of her life, the "Phoenix flu" is killing indiscriminately, and no one understands why or how to prevent or treat it. Furthermore, the United States is blamed for this growing worldwide epidemic. We see society change gradually around Jiselle, beginning with occasional electrical blackouts and shortages and ending with a world that is almost unrecognizable.

I love Kasischke's lyrical, poetic writing. Her vivid imagery and attention to detail make her stories seem realistic and concrete, yet you're being drawn into a world in which nothing is quite as it seems. I love the fact that, unlike other dystopian fiction, this novel takes place in a culture that is clearly our own. The apocalyptic events don't come in one dramatic moment. It's a slow progression, painted vividly with realistic details. This made it eerily easy to imagine these events really happening.

In a Perfect World creates an apocalyptic universe interwoven with a drama about falling in love, marriage, and becoming a stepmother. This novel reflects the zeitgeist of post 9/11 America. It's also full of allusions to history, including the Bubonic Plague, and folklore. The author spent a great deal of time researching how cultures respond to plagues. Most of all, however, it's a story about who you become when life demands every bit of strength and fortitude you have -- and more -- and about the glorious and agonizing journey of becoming a mother. 

(4.5/5 stars)

The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman

Three sisters – Elv, Claire, and Meg -- have a deep bond. They share stories of a secret, magical land and a private language. One summer, after their parents' divorce, things go terribly wrong. While trying to protect Claire, Elv becomes the victim of a vicious, depraved crime. She carries this secret for the rest of her childhood, and it leads her down a tragic path that changes everyone's lives. 

I used to be a devoted reader of Alice Hoffman's books. This is my first in many years. She is the queen of quirky, lyrical magical realism. She weaves together realistic, raw, painful experiences with mythology and fanciful stories. For example, the brutality Elv suffers becomes intertwined with her fantasy world, and she lives in a dark fairy tale. Hoffman is also masterful at intermingling aesthetic beauty with darkness and pain: a necklace made of a bird's bones, a young woman hobbled by guilt and grief making intricate, beautiful jewelry in a tiny, secluded studio, or a tiny black demon, with delicate wings, bringing tragedy and sorrow.

I had mixed reactions to this novel. It is dark and sad, to the point of being emotionally manipulative at times. The characters seem to be relentlessly bombarded by tragedies. Even given the fact that the line between reality and fantasy is porous, as it always is in Hoffman's novels, it sometimes strained credibility for me. 

However, I was often mesmerized by the storytelling, characters, lyrical storytelling, and vibrant imagery. I also found parts of this story deeply moving. One piece of the story that particularly tugged at my gut involved a program in which prison inmates rehabilitate severely abused dogs. This provides some sense of purpose to a very troubled character who has always had a tremendous heart for hurt or suffering animals. At this point, the novel actually made me cry, leaving me with feelings that have stuck with me ever since. 

(3.5/5 stars)

Triggered by Fletcher Wortmann 

Imagine the worst thing in the world. Picture it. Construct it, carefully and deliberately in your mind. Be careful not to omit anything. Imagine it happening to you, to the people you love. Imagine the worst thing in the world.

Now try not to think about it.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, particularly the "Pure O" kind (uncontrollable obsessive thoughts with relatively few compulsive rituals) may be the most misunderstood mental illness. People continually joke about OCD, which makes me cringe. "I can't stand it if my CDs aren't organized. I'm so OCD." Or they imagine it's just a frenzy of hand-washing and lock-checking. The reality is generally much darker and definitely not funny.

Anyone who knows me understands that severe OCD, particularly the "Pure O" kind, is a subject painfully close to my heart. Wortmann describes it, from the inside out, so much better than any other writer I have seen. His account of his experiences is sometimes cerebral, sometimes raw and confusing, and sometimes absolutely brilliant. And much of the book was hilarious. As a person who gets through pain with dark humor, I felt like I "got" it -- I kind of wanted to take this young author out and buy him a drink. He definitely has a keen intellect and a sharp wit, and at times he reveals himself with painful honesty. The book made me laugh out loud and cry at the same time.

(4.5/5 stars)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Hello, and thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts -- reader comments make this blogging gig worthwhile. :-) Due to excessive spam, we are now moderating all comments. Like that dude in the Monty Python skit, we just Don't ... Like ... Spam. I will try to post and respond to your comments as quickly as possibly.