Sunday, June 7, 2020

Reading in Quarantine: The Second 7

This stack went considerably faster than the first one. They were shorter in length but also very engaging---I tore through these because I thoroughly enjoyed each one and always looked forward to picking them up when it was time to read. I don't think I've ever felt that way about an entire group of 7 before. 

The Poet, Michael Connelly, 1996. 492 pages.

In effort to uncover the truth surrounding his twin brother's supposed suicide, a journalist finds a string of serial crimes linked to a murderer and child abuser with a penchant for the work of Edgar Allen Poe.

I had read only The Lincoln Lawyer from Connelly, which I liked a lot, but I picked this up for fifty cents at a thrift shop in my hometown last year. It was a little slow at first for maybe two chapters, a lot of journalism and cop talk as the main character, Jack McEvoy, deals with the aftermath of his brother Sean's suicide, but once it gets going, it really goes. Details that don't add up, the arrival of the FBI to the story, and the POV chapters from the murderer himself, not to mention Poe and the poetry, all make for very interesting scenes and a compelling mystery, overall. As with any story that deals with child abuse, the subject matter here was dark and disturbing, but it was a very well-done, interesting novel.

The Great American Read project (which I'm still in the first pages of) lists all of Patterson's Alex Cross mysteries on their list, and while I do enjoy the character of Alex Cross, I feel like Connelly does a better, more authentic job laying out the mystery. Written in 1996, this was Connelly's fifth novel, but on the strength of this one I'd really like to start at the beginning of his work like I did with Patterson and CJ Box's Joe Pickett series. Good thing I have all this time on my hands.

Esperanza Rising, Pamela Munoz Ryan, 2000. 312 pages.

After the death of her father, a young girl must leave Mexico with her mother to escape an abusive uncle and find work in California.

I needed a YA novel and one of my kids recommended this one. I really ended up enjoying it, there's so much going on to process. It makes me really happy they give this to kids in elementary school, because on top of being a great story about a girl and her family, there are class issues at play (Esperanza is from a upper class family), labor union issues (many of the workers want to strike for better working conditions), and racial issues (white workers from Oklahoma are given better homes and more pay per hour than the immigrant workers from Mexico). Each chapter heading is a Spanish word for whatever fruit or vegetable the crew is currently picking or prepping, so by the end you've learned the Spanish words for twelve nouns (grapes, papayas, figs, guavas, cantaloupes, onions, almonds, plums, potatoes, avocados, asparagus, and peaches), which is cool, too.

The story itself is told through the main character Esperanza's perspective, and while it does focus on common YA topics such as friendship, material things, and bullying---which I happen to think everyone should read more about anyway, no matter age or gender---the bigger topics described above make it an important story about immigrations experiences with labor and the struggles these workers face. I daresay we as Americans could stand with a bit more empathy for situations like these, and would recommend this book as an introduction on learning about topics that require understanding and compassion for humankind.

The Wild Things, Dave Eggers, 2009. 306 pages.

In a novelization of Maurice Sendak's children's book, Where the Wild Things Are (and also a novelization of the screenplay of the same name), Eggers tells the story of Max, the boy in the wolf suit who escapes his family life to and island of beasts to become their king.

Silly me, I bought this only because Eggers did it, had no idea it was based on Sendak, no idea Eggers had done the screenplay. Only after the wolf suit came into play did I realize what was happening, but even so, the story was wonderful and engaging from the very first page. I don't think you even need to have read or enjoyed the first book or film to enjoy this story, Eggers is a brilliant enough writer to have carried it totally on his own, filling in those back stories of why Max was naughty, what was going on in his family, the unique personalities of each of the beasts he spends time with, and how Max inadvertently learns a lot about himself in the process. It's a great story, and should you already be a fan of its original subject material, you will likely enjoy this, too.

Watership Down, Richard Adams, 1972. 496 pages.

After their warren becomes unsafe, a group of rabbit bucks forge an escape and relocation plan encountering several threats and challenges along the way.

I never really had any interest in rabbits; as a writer and more importantly, a reader, I'm a solid cat person, although I do sprinkle our throwaway produce ends under our deck for the baby buns that hang around the yard. It doesn't matter if you like rabbits or have even thought about them in regard to fiction, this book is really about adventure and relationships, and it's very well done. I really enjoyed it.

As with The Stand, I read most of this about ten years ago when looking for clues about LOST ---people said it might hold clues to the survivors' fate (it was also one of Sawyer's "beach books"). The premise is sort of similar, a group needs to survive and evade enemies, but that's really it. At its heart, this is a sweet story that explores a lot of how wild creatures experience other species and the natural world. I enjoyed all the rabbits' names and personalities (Dandelion, the storyteller, was easily my favorite), the mythology and history of rabbitkind showcased in the stories of old they passed around, and as these were British rabbits, I enjoyed many of their words such as "shan't," "Old Chap," and other traditional phrases. It's a lovely story, and I daresay, one that eventually addresses bigger, relevant-to-humans themes such as trust, bravery, and control. It's pretty long, but well worth the time, and the ending had me in full waterworks.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead, 2016. 338 pages. **SPOILERS BELOW**

A woman escapes from the plantation owner who enslaved her through an underground railroad but soon discovers, escaped or free, there are no safe places in America.

This was on a list of novels of supplemental reading for one of my grad classes at Augsburg, the third one from the list that I've finished, and by far the best. I didn't know anything about it before reading, only that it was said to be very good and that it would go on to win many, many awards. I assumed it was about The Underground Railroad as I've grown to know it from history and I was very excited when I discovered the motivation was the same, but this story was about an actual railroad that allowed people to escape. I don't want to say too much, because reading and learning about the railroad, where it goes, how it's made and hidden, should be experienced as it's written, I think the less known in advance, the better.

Cora, the book's main character, is interesting, very headstrong, and written, I think, in a way that details the evils of slavery she experienced while giving equal attention the concept of the long-lasting trauma these experiences caused. I don't know that I've ever read it described so fully (since Toni Morrison, at least)---the idea that these terrible things that have been done to a person, beatings, rapes, humiliations, stalkings, murders, and the memories of these things can and will stay with them, affecting every aspect of their lives. The effects of slavery didn't just stop when those enslaved escaped or obtained freedom.

Everyone should read this.

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, Ronan Farrow, 2019. 464 pages.

Farrow investigates the countless sexual assault and harassment charges against Harvey Weinstein over the years; many people, including his production team at NBC and Weinstein himself, try to kill the investigation but in the end, The New Yorker publishes the story.

I was curious at first, and I knew quite a bit going in, but after "The White Whale," a section about 90 pages in, this became an anger read to the end as I learned about the number of victims, specifics of how they were raped/assaulted/stalked (and not only by Weinstein, Matt Lauer has a section and he's just as disgusting and criminal), and just how deep this coverup really went. It was infuriating, but an important read, and (as with War on Peace) really good insight into the importance of competent journalism. The one happy moment, if there can be one in a story like this, is Farrow's little "okay, bitch ass," (my words, not his) treatment of his producer Noah Oppenheim's pleads for Farrow to make a statement that he, Oppenheim, wasn't the villain in all this. I'll allow that in a story this evil, he wasn't THE villain, but he was definitely A villain. Reminds me of Isaac from Children of the Corn, strapped to the corn cross, crying, because he knew his ass would soon be grass. With any luck, Weinstein is making similar sounds in prison these days.

Unsound Variations, George R. R. Martin, 1982.

A former chess captain and two friends agree to meet the teammate that lost an important chess match decades earlier; the loss has consumed every aspect of the teammate's life, and as it turns out, all of theirs, as well.

This is a short story in the Dreamsongs, Volume 2 collection, and one of my favorites of all GRRM's short fiction. I'm a pretty basic chess player so I knew and understood most of the terms, but honestly, it didn't really matter. Chess is important in the story, yes, but overall, it's a story about bitterness and strategy (both on and off the chess board). I think it would make for a very nice new Twilight Zone episode, if Peele might be looking for material for his third season. I really, really dug this, very clever with a brilliant ending.