TLC Book Tour: Pleasantville, Attica Locke

Jay Porter, the hero of Attica Locke’s new novel Pleasantville, has had a devastating year. Barely able to cope with the death of his wife, he finds himself a single father to his two children and his law practice is shriveling on the vine. He won a major victory against Cole Oil, but appeals have dragged the case on, and Porter is losing his conviction that he will ever see a dime of the money his clients were awarded. Furthermore, so are his clients, who are being wooed away by a slick attorney trying to make a buck. Meanwhile, Jay’s office is broken into, and a young girl connected with the Houston mayoral campaign goes missing, and Jay is dragged into the crime when he is coerced into taking on one more difficult case—this time, a murder trial.

I have never read the first book about Jay Porter, Black Water Rising. I loved Locke’s novel, The Cutting Season, however. I think reading Black Water Rising would probably have been helpful, as I know I might have understood some elements of Pleasantville a little better. I do wish I’d kept a character list or that one had been provided. I found some of the characters difficult to distinguish from one another (it could just be me, however). Pleasantville is a tight crime thriller. I might compare it to a John Grisham novel had I read one, though having seen the movies, I have an idea this novel is along those lines. In some places, the pace dragged a bit for me, but I always wanted to finish and find out what would happen, and as the court case really started, I finished the book in two big gulps. I think it might make a pretty good movie as well. The political intrigues were fascinating in their way. Politics are dirty business. The ending also went a little crazy for me, and some aspects of it seemed a little far-fetched, but overall, I have to say I enjoyed reading this book. I think anyone who likes a crime thriller, courtroom novel, or a good mystery would enjoy Pleasantville.

Attica LockeAbout Attica Locke

Attica Locke is the author of the widely acclaimed debut novel Black Water Rising, which was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, an Edgar Award, and an NAACP Image Award, and was shortlisted for the UK’s Orange Prize. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.

Find out more about Attica at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

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Rating: ★★★½☆

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Sunday Post #14: Top Ten Tuesday

Sunday PostSunday? Tuesday? What is she on about? I keep forgetting to check in with the Top Ten Tuesday meme, so I’m plucking a couple of recent topics and posting about them today for the Sunday Post.

First up, “Ten Books You Recently Added To Your To-Be-Read List.” These are the ten books most recently added to my Goodreads to-read list in order from most recent to least:

It might be fun to list the novels I added to my to-read pile each week in my Sunday Post. I think I might just do that.

Next up:

Top Ten Characters You’d Like To Check In With (meaning, the book or series is over and you so just wish you could peek in on the “life” you imagine they are leading years down the line after the story ends). Does this prompt make sense?? It makes sense in my head! Let me know and I can clarify haha

In no real particular order:

  • Harry Potter and the gang. I’d read any TNG or even Marauders books Rowling might want to write, but I’m not sure she’s keen.
  • Scout Finch. And guess what? We get to! This summer!
  • Holden Caulfield. I often ask my students to write a new ending chapter because the end of his book is so ambiguous. Is he going to be okay?
  • Huck Finn. I think Twain wrote some stuff about Huck and Tom as adults. I am curious as to how he turned out in the end.
  • Samwise Gamgee. I know he had a bunch of children, but I sure would like to have checked in with him and his (hopefully) quiet life in the Shire.
  • Ennis Del Mar from “Brokeback Mountain.” Did he ever learn to accept himself and find love?
  • Peter Hatcher. What kind of people did Peter, Sheila Tubman, Fudge, and Tootsie grow up to be?
  • Taran and Eilonwy from Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. Tell me they got married.
  • Cathy Linton and Hareton Earnshaw. Did they break the family curse and find happiness together?
  • Jane Eyre. What were the Rochesters like after they married? I can’t believe all the adventure was over.

And finally, Top Ten Inspiring Quotes from Books (anything that inspires you, challenges you, makes you think, encourages you, etc.).”

I have a blog widget that shuffles my favorite book and bookish quotes, but here are my favorites:

  • “The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”—Mark Twain
  • “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”—Ray Bradbury
  • “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.”—Ernest Hemingway
  • “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”—Jane Austen
  • “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”—Willa Cather
  • “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.—F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the same horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men. Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”—Zora Neale Hurston
  • “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”—Henry David Thoreau
  • “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.—Henry David Thoreau
  • “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”—Oscar Wilde

In other news this week I finished Attica Locke’s novel Pleasantville, and I’m scheduled to review it for TLC Book Tours tomorrow. Stay tuned for that.

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

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Sunday Post #13: Not Much Reading Going On

Sunday PostI have not had a lot of time to read over the last two weeks with some extra work, and I’m hoping it changes in week ahead. I did finish the first volume of John Lewis’s memoir March, and I immediately purchased the second volume. It was weird. I ordered the book from Amazon on a Friday night, and I received the book the following Sunday. I have never had that happen. Since when do carriers deliver on Sunday? I must have missed that memo. I am not complaining—just surprised. I don’t know. Maybe I am a bit worried about carriers and days off. Still, if they are delivering on Sunday, they must get some other day off, right?

I am still reading the other books I started prior to or near the beginning of the month: Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser, Pleasantville by Attica Locke, The Annotated Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. I have to admit I’ve put aside the Marie Antoinette bio for the most part because the other two books are more pressing for me to finish. Pleasantville is part of a TLC Book Tour stop here on April 17. I am trying to finish The Annotated Wuthering Heights for a challenge.

I like to listen to audio books while I clean house or make soap, so I started Katherine Howe’s Conversion, which I think is her first, and perhaps at this point, her only YA book. I am liking it so far. As someone who has visited Salem and lives in Massachusetts, I can appreciate the research that Howe always does with her books. I did notice she made Channel 7 the ABC affiliate in her book, but Channel 5 is actually Boston’s ABC affiliate. I wonder if she was made to change that because of legal concerns. Otherwise, I haven’t noticed any wrong notes. The book’s narrator, Khristine Hvam, nails an early American Massachusetts accent (at least based on what I understand it sounded like). I love Katherine Howe, not just as a writer, but as a person. She is so kind and personable to her fans. I am glad to see her returning to “witches” again. I will read practically anything with a Salem Witch Trials connection (practically, I said—I imagine there are some books I’d avoid). As a teacher at a New England prep school, there is much about St. Joan’s that I recognize, too.

Last week was the first week I’ve missed the Sunday Post meme since I started doing it. Truthfully, I didn’t have much to report at that point. Still, I am a little bummed I forgot to post. I am hoping some things settle down so I have more reading time. I always, always say that we make time for things that are important, and when people ask me how I find time to read, I say that I make time because it’s important. I have not been making much time lately.

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

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Review: March: Book One, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

Congressman and Civil Rights Movement legend John Lewis teamed up with his Digital Director & Policy Advisor Andrew Aydin and graphic novelist Nate Powell to write his memoir in the form of a graphic novel. The first part of this memoir, March: Book One, tells Lewis’s story from his beginnings as the son of sharecroppers to his days as a student leading lunch-counter sit-ins in Nashville. The second volume of the memoir, March: Book Two, was published in January.

I became intrigued by the memoir after seeing Rep. Lewis talking about it on his Facebook page. I have to admit he is one of my own personal heroes. He has displayed bravery that I am not sure I’d be capable of. I had the good fortune to meet him when he visited my previous school upon the dedication of an art installation. He said very kind things about the artwork, and I was able to meet him and shake his hand and tell him how much I admired him. I do remember crying. It was amazing. He was so kind and so generous with his time, which is how he comes across in this memoir as well. The story opens as Lewis awakens on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration and goes to his office. He meets two young boys, and he begins telling them the story of his life, starting with the story of his father purchasing his own farm and Lewis caring for the chickens, through his experiences going to school and yearning to learn, his introduction to Martin Luther King, Jr., and his lunch-counter protests while a college student in Nashville.

My school is considering several books as an all-school summer read, and March: Book One is one of the books under consideration. I loved it. It tells the story of the Civil Rights Movement in an engaging way. Reluctant readers and voracious readers alike will appreciate the way it brings the struggles of the Civil Rights movement to life. Many teenagers are not aware of what African Americans suffered when protesting for their basic civil rights. This book would fit in quite well with our American literature course’s units on social justice and civil disobedience.

The device of the flashback works well as a means for telling Lewis’s story as well. One quibble I have is that some of the speech bubbles are difficult to read. I think it was purposeful because I believe that the indecipherable speech bubbles were supposed to represent speech that was not completely heard or took place a “offstage,” if that makes sense. Still, I wanted to read them and see what was being said.

I liked the artwork, and I loved the concept of casting Lewis in the role of a superhero (a little bit). Lewis’s personality shines through the pages, too. He comes across as warm and intelligent—he’s serious, but he also knows when to use his sense of humor. I learned some things reading the book as well. I didn’t realize, for instance, that Thurgood Marshall encouraged the African-American students to pay bail or to get out of jail.

Graphic novels aren’t for everyone. Despite the success of books like Maus and Persepolis, graphic novels are still not accepted by all as a legitimate medium. If you are one of those folks who do not see graphic novels as legitimate literature, you might not like this book… but if you are one of those folks, I would urge you to give them a try with an open mind.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Sunday Post #12: Bossypants

Sunday PostAfter saying last week that I usually review books in their own posts, here I go reviewing a book in this post, just like I did last week. It just so happens that I only finished one book this week, anyway, and I finished it today.

First, an update on my reading challenges. I’m still keeping up with my Literary Movement Challenge. Next up in April will be the biggest test of this challenge so far because I’ve decided I want to read The Annotated Wuthering Heights for April (Romanticism). Up until now, the works I’ve read have been shorter and not quite as dense as this book, but ever since I ordered in it December, I have been looking forward to cracking it open. Can’t wait! It’s been a while since I’ve read Wuthering Heights, and and can’t wait to see what the annotated edition offers.

I am doing fairly well with the other challenges, and thought it’s still early days, I feel that I might be able to complete them all this year. I may actually be able to increase my participation level in the Historical Fiction Challenge. I am trying to decide what book to listen to next, now that I’ve finished Bossypants. I’m not sure I’m ready to go back to the Diana Gabaldon books yet. I might read Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness. I enjoyed listening to the first book in this trilogy. I keep thinking I might enjoy the other two, and I already have them in my Audible account, but I just haven’t listened to them.

I’m not really close to finishing anything else, unless I really read a lot this coming week. I have lots of books in the TBR pile, and I’m looking forward to getting into them. On the other hand, I’m looking forward to a busy week, so we shall see.

I think perhaps the best way to read Bossypants is to listen to Tina Fey’s Grammy-nominated audio version. Hearing her delivery added some spark to the book, and I’m not sure I’d have liked it as much if I had just read it. The book has some genuinely funny moments. I loved her descriptions of starting school, her high school days participating in theater, and her early improv days. Hearing her discussion of what it was like to work on SNL, to create her Sarah Palin character, and to create the show 30 Rock were all very interesting to me as well. One thread that runs through the book is that Tina Fey came up in comedy dominated by men, and her experiences of sexism in the industry were particularly though-provoking if not surprising. One thing I didn’t like is that the book didn’t seem to have a narrative arc. It was more a string of different life experiences, and I didn’t see them woven together as clearly as I might have liked. However, Fey’s delivery made me not care so much—I felt like I was having a conversation with a smart friend.

Rating: ★★★★☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

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Sunday Post #11: Candide

Sunday PostI usually review books in separate blog posts, but rather than write two, I’m rolling my review of Voltaire’s Candide into this post.

First, I haven’t done as much reading the last few days as I had done earlier in my spring break, which comes to an end today. My last few days of spring break I spent binge-watching UK episodes of Who Do You Think You Are?, which made me want to work a little bit on my own family history. I resurrected my family history blog after a three-year silence. I quite like learning about family history for the same reasons Stephen Fry describes in his own episode of Who Do You Think You Are?: 1) you learn a lot about who all these people are who make up who you are, and in turn, you learn a little bit about yourself, and 2) you learn about how history is not something that happens in some abstract way to other people—history happened to people in your family, and you have that personal connection to history. I also really love how it shows the ways in which we are all connected. It’s a fun hobby, if time-consuming and hard to do when you can’t really travel.

I did manage to finish listening to Stephen Fry read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy this week. Loved it. I am thinking I might listen to the other books in the series. I started listening to Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants. I am enjoying that one quite a lot when I’ve had time to listen to it.

So, Candide. I understand this is not really a novel in the sense we think of them today, but more of a philosophical allegory. It tells the story of young Candide, who lives in an idyllic castle of Thunder-ten-tronckh in Westphalia and his instruction in Leibnizian optimism by his tutor, Pangloss. A series of rather unfortunate events follows after Candide is caught kissing Cunégonde, the beautiful daughter of the castle’s baron. Of course, Candide is too low born to consort with Cunégonde, so he is banished from the castle and must make his way in the harsh world. And he goes pretty much everywhere, even El Dorado, never willing to let go of his optimism entirely until the end, when he and his friends decide to live the rest of their lives on a simple farm, and Candide concludes, “Il faut cultiver notre jardin.” Often translated as “We must cultivate our garden.” The translation I read renders it “We must work our land,” as the translator argues the word garden in English doesn’t tend to mean the same thing as Voltaire intended in describing the farm. Regardless, I see that statement as meaning we need to worry about ourselves and our small communities, but also that we should be happy with what we have and enjoy it for what it is. We need to work together to cultivate the good and weed out the bad. Candide finally has everything he wanted, but he no longer wants it. Is it the best of all possible worlds? No, but that doesn’t seem to be something that really exists, as Candide only experienced the feeling that he was in the best of all possible worlds in a place that doesn’t exist. He’s become a realist.

The biggest problem I had with the story was the end. Cunégonde loses her looks, but noble Candide marries her anyway, though he no longer wants to. What the hell? So what that means to me is that all he ever really felt for her was infatuation and lust, and he expended a great deal of energy on it and went through a lot of trauma for it, too. Are women worthy of love only insofar as they are beautiful? Is that the only reason to love a woman? Are we supposed to admire Candide because he sticks to the original plan and marries Cunégonde even though she’s ugly? Are we supposed to like him because he bucks up when the world hands him lemons? Bah. I realize we’re supposed to put books squarely in the time in which they are historically set, but I was still quite bothered by the chauvinism and antisemitism in the book. Does it get a pass because it was written in the eighteenth century? I don’t know. Part of me says that we give historical works like this a pass too often.

I wasn’t bored while reading Candide, and it’s quite a quick read. The story moves along and is tightly paced if not very descriptive, but as I said, it is not a novel in the sense we understand, and allegories are often about making another point besides telling a story. It’s funny, too, and has some good (and some pretty dark) humor. Candide suffers just about every calamity Voltaire can think of, and none of it seems to have a point. Other than being rather appalled at how awful people can and have treated each other, I wasn’t able to empathize much with Candide, and in the end, when he was no longer interested in Cunégonde because she wasn’t beautiful anymore (especially given how much she suffered and how much effort she put into being true to him (notwithstanding constantly being raped and enslaved), I thought he was a shit. I’d have liked it better if she’d told him where he could get off with his pity marriage.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

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Review: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, narrated by Stephen Fry

I may in fact be the last person on Earth to read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I will, therefore, dispense with any summary. The Internet makes a lot more sense to me now that I’ve read this book.

Stephen Fry’s narration was excellent. He gave the perfect irritating note (in an American accent) to the ship’s computer. He made Zaphod Beeblebrox sound a little bit like Austin Powers, but not so much that you decide he’s not cool.

If I had to pick favorite parts, they would be as follows (in no particular order):

  • The dolphins, unable to communicate Earth’s impending doom to less intelligent humans, leave and say “So long, and thanks for all the fish.”
  • The bowl of petunias thinks, “Oh no, not again.” After which many people speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias thought this, we would know a lot more of the nature of the Universe than we do now.
  • The poor sperm whale created by one of the missiles.
  • The Infinite Improbability Drive as a whole concept.
  • Shooty and Bang Bang, the Galatic Police.
  • Devious super-genius mice who seem to be running everything.
  • Oolon Colluphid’s books.
  • Vogon poetry.
  • The Babel Fish. We should get those things for real.
  • The Earth as a giant computer designed to figure out the the Question.

I first tried to read this book when I was in sixth grade, and perhaps some sixth graders could have read it and appreciated it quite a lot, but I didn’t get it, so I put it down without finishing it. Then years passed, and for one reason and another, I never managed to pick it up again until now. It’s hard to believe it was written in 1979, as much of seems prescient while other parts of it are timeless. It’s quite funny, and I could definitely see its influence on other writers I enjoy, such as Neil Gaiman. I see its influence on Doctor Who as well. And yes, I realize Douglas Adams wrote for that series.

So, one more book I should have read a long time ago crossed off the list, and wouldn’t it have been perfect if I had read it last year, when I was 42? My daughter Maggie told me on my birthday that year that I was “the answer to life, the Universe, and everything.”

Rating: ★★★★★
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Sunday Post #10: Sweet Sunday

Sunday PostAh, sweet Sunday, about halfway through my spring break. I’m curling up with a glass of wine at the end of the day. I usually try to write my Sunday Post blog earlier in the day.

This week, I finished and reviewed two books: The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli and Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman. I absolutely loved The Lotus Eaters; it prompted me to want to learn a little bit more about Vietnam. I’ve been watching a documentary on Netflix. I feel the documentary is barely scratching the surface. More reading might be necessary. You know, I have a clear memory of General Westmoreland visiting my high school in Anaheim. It must have been 1987 or 1988. We had some sort of assembly, and he talked to us. I had the distinct impression he was trying to defend himself, and I couldn’t figure out why. I had no idea who he was, really. I wonder why in the world he came to speak at my school?

I started reading three books this week as well: Candide by Voltaire, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (audio book narrated by Stephen Fry), and Pleasantville by Attica Locke (TLC Book Tour; galley copy). I know what you’re thinking: you haven’t read Candide? You haven’t even read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Nope, I haven’t read either, but I’m fixing it. I am really enjoying Hitchhiker’s Guide. Stephen Fry is a perfect narrator.

Isn’t it nice to be on spring break? I have all this time to read and watch documentaries on Netflix. I have been making a lot of soap this week, too. Most of it is for a wholesale customer, but I made a batch of Cedar & Saffron for my store. It smells great. Quite masculine. Those are safflower petals on the top. It won’t be that pretty shade of yellow, sadly, once it hardens up. It will turn a brown color due to the fragrance. I hope it will be pretty.

Cedar & Saffron SoapAnother thing I did this week is make a digital story about my grandmother, who taught herself to sew in the 1950’s and established a nice sewing business in her home. You can watch the digital story here if you like.

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I ordered this copy of Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr’s Wayfaring Strangers this week as well.

Wayfaring StrangersThe book comes with a CD of music that includes music from artists on both sides of the Atlantic, including Dolly Parton and Dougie MacLean. I’m excited to dive into that one. I am particularly interested in the migration of music from Ulster and Scotland to Appalachia. I have ancestors that I’m quite sure were Ulster Scots, Irish, and Scots, and in some branches of my family, a strain of music runs in a thread in nearly every generation. I’m a musician. My uncle is a musician. My grandfather was a musician. His grandmother played the organ, as did her mother; his grandfather played the fiddle. My grandfather’s grandmother had an ancestor who also played the fiddle. Perhaps this musical thread is one reason why I connected so strongly to Sharyn McCrumb’s novel The Songcatcher. I am certain it’s why I connect so strongly to Celtic and Appalachian music.

So that was my week. How was yours?

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

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Review: Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman

I listened to Neil Gaiman’s latest short story collection, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances, on Audible, mainly because I know that Gaiman is quite a fantastic reader (not all writers are). Unfortunately, that also meant that I didn’t have a real sense of the way in which the collection might hang together as a whole because I listened to it mostly in bursts as I cleaned house or made soap. As such, I can only really recall my favorite stories with any clarity, and I don’t have a print book to examine in order to refresh my memory, so I skimmed what pieces I could find in Amazon’s preview and Google Books. Finally, I found this review, which discusses each piece with a rating out five stars. I won’t discuss each story. Just the ones I liked or remembered better than the others.

“The Lunar Labyrinth” is the first story in the collection (following the poem “Making a Chair”). This story made me think of American Gods, and given that I knew the collection had an American Gods story in it, I assumed it would be this one. It wasn’t. Still, the story does nod toward the American Gods concept that those silly roadside attractions are more than they seem.

I liked the story “The Thing About Cassandra” quite a bit. How would you feel if you made up an imaginary girlfriend, and years later your friends and mother are insisting they ran into her?

“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” reminded me of straight up fantasy. It’s a little bit Tolkienesque, but doesn’t quite make it.

“Orange” story told completely as answers to questions the reader doesn’t hear. Humorous and a little scary at the same time.

“The Case of Death and Honey” is a Sherlock Holmes story about Holmes’s quest to solve the ancient question of how to live forever. I quite enjoyed this one as both a story and a contribution to the Sherlock Holmes repository.

“The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” is a poignant comment on loss of memory as well as a love letter to one of Gaiman’s favorite authors.

“Nothing O’Clock” is a Doctor Who story. As I listened to this one, I kept wishing it had been filmed. It would have made an excellent episode. It’s set during the time of the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and his companion Amy Pond. The Doctor and Amy land on Earth in the TARDIS to discover that no one exists, and a voice insists they’re trespassing.

“Black Dog,” as it turns out, is the American Gods story, and I didn’t like it. As with American Gods, I could see that Neil Gaiman was doing something interesting with the idea of ancient gods in modern times, but in the end, I just wasn’t into it.

The other stories and poems didn’t leave enough of an impression on me to merit discussion here.

I thought the collection as a whole was a bit uneven, despite moments that I absolutely enjoyed. The individual stories I mentioned in this review are worth seeking out (with the exception, in my opinion, of the last. As much as I did enjoy Gaiman’s reading, I don’t think I’ll listen to another short story collection on Audible. I can’t recall enough of the individual stories, and there is not an easy way for me to glance back at the book again. I was tempted to give this only three stars, but the truth is, when the stories are good, they are really good.

Rating: ★★★½☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: The Lotus Eaters, Tatjana Soli

Walt Whitman once said that “the real war will never get in the books,” but that hasn’t stopped writers from trying, from Stephen Crane to Ernest Hemingway to Tim O’Brien. Tatjana Soli’s debut novel The Lotus Eaters tells the story of a woman photojournalist, Helen Adams, who covers Vietnam. Helen is drawn to cover the conflict in order to find out what happened to her brother Michael, who was killed in action. Even long after she discovers the truth, she has been seduced by the war, the country, and its people—both repulsed by the horrors she sees and compelled to cover them, hence Soli’s title, inspired by Homer’s land of the Lotus-eaters in a quote that opens the novel:

… we reached the country of the Lotus-eaters, a race that eat the flowery lotus fruit … Now these natives had no intention of killing my comrades; what they did was to give them some lotus to taste. Those who ate the honeyed fruit of the plant lost any wish to come back and bring us news. All they now wanted was to stay where they were with the Lotus-eaters, to browse on the lotus, and to forget all thoughts of return.

I remember first reading The Odyssey and finding the passage about the Lotus-eaters poignant, even though it’s short and perhaps not as striking in terms of its danger as other passages involving the Cyclops, Circe, and Scylla and Charybdis. In their way, the Lotus-eaters might be the most dangerous group of people Odysseus and his men encounter because one thing that keeps them going is their desire for home. The title is an apt one for the novel.

Helen arrives in Vietnam a naive young woman who dropped out of college to become a freelance photographer because she was afraid that if she waited until graduation, the war would be over. She has only rudimentary photography skills, and she’s woefully unprepared for what she will see. However, she learns quickly and discovers she has a natural talent for capturing a shot. By the end of the war, she is a respected photojournalist with several Life magazine covers under her belt. She has an opportunity to escape with her fellow photojournalist (and lover) Linh as the last Americans are leaving Saigon. Linh is wounded, and Helen is concerned about his safety. As the helicopter prepares to leave, Helen decides she has to stay through the Fall of Saigon and cover the very end, but she ensures Linh is safely aboard the helicopter and on his way to treatment before she plunges one more time into the war.

The novel begins at the Fall of Saigon and then steps back in time to Helen’s arrival, tracing her experiences through the war and back to the end of the war. Soli explains the frame device and why she used it in this video:

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The book’s language is gorgeous, and I found as I read that I had to underline passages. I don’t typically do that when I read paper books, unless I plan to teach them, but this novel is so beautiful, and I found so much truth in the language, that I had to mark it up.

To be honest, I don’t know a lot about Vietnam. I teach several students from that country in my classes, and I have learned some really interesting things from them, but I haven’t read a lot about the war. My father was in Vietnam when I was born, and as far as I know, he was never in a position of extreme danger, but that’s relative when you’re in a war-torn country. I think I have actually avoided the subject to a certain degree. The senselessness of the whole thing is heartbreaking, and perhaps more so now that I’ve read this book. One thing Soli does that intrigues me is she captures the brutality and horror of the war, yes, but she also captures the beauty of the country and its people.

The patrol was still out, and they watched the sun rise up out of the east and color the western mountains from a dull blackish purple to green. So many shades of green. Darrow said, that Vietnamese legend told that every shade of green in the world originated in this mountain range. The emerald backbone of the dragon from which the people of Vietnam sprang. Until then she had been blind, but when she saw those mountains, she slipped beneath the surface of the war and found the country. (17)

The air boiled hot and opaque, the sky a hard, saline blue. For miles the black mangrove swamp spread like a stagnant ocean, clotted, arthritic. Farther on they passed the swollen tributaries of the Mekong. Papaya, grapefruit, water palm, mangosteen, orange—fruit of every variety grew in abundance, dropping with heavy thuds on the ground to burst in hot flower in the sun. (162)

I found the characters easy to become invested in. I liked them, and at the same time, they infuriated me, which I think is partly the point. They were driven in a way I can’t claim to have experienced, but Soli infuses them with reality—they seem like flesh-and-blood people rather than figments of the imagination. By the end of the novel, their compulsion to capture the war makes a sort of sense.

The narrative is as intriguing as the characters. The last 100 pages or so I read in almost one gulp in an attempt to find out if everyone would be okay in the end. Some passages are so gripping in their imagery that I had to put the book down and catch my breath—to come up for air in the real world, as it were.

Even more than the characters and the narrative, however, I loved Soli’s writing. She tells a gripping story with lush, beautiful language that actually made me long to see the places she was describing, even in the midst of the horrors of a war.

I also felt drawn to learn more of the history of the war and of the country. It’s amazing how so many stories of Colonialism—and I’m thinking here of Heart of Darkness, The God of Small Things, The Poisonwood Bible, and Things Fall Apart—eventually wind up traveling down the same roads. And yet. It’s a story we repeat over and over again. This novel is, in my estimation, as good as any of these books, and I can’t give it higher praise than that.

I’m calling this one a new favorite, and I’m recommending it to everyone. I haven’t read such a lyrically beautiful, haunting book in quite some time. I can’t understand why this book isn’t more known. Or perhaps it is and just escaped my radar. I’m not sure it was a bestseller (no claims to that effect, anyway), but it won several awards. It’s literary fiction and a true descendent of books like A Farewell to Arms. A gorgeous book.

Rating: ★★★★★

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