Thursday, September 28, 2006

Midwives by Chris Bohjalian

I’m like more than 10 years late on this one; it was a bestseller back when I was working at a bookstore in Amherst, and one of Oprah’s early picks. But Bohjalian’s name came up recently, and I thought, why not? There are simultaneous reasons why I should and should not have picked up this novel. I am working with midwives and planning a home birth, and while this novel does much justice and even celebrates or at least illuminates midwifery, it is at heart about a home birth gone horribly wrong and the trial following a mother’s death from an emergency C-section. But somehow the more gruesome or troubling aspects of the book didn’t get to me that much. Because really this is a mother-daughter story, narrated by Connie, the daughter of the midwife on trial. It’s also wonderfully evocative of Vermont, its intense snows and sloppy mud seasons. And it’s more nuanced than I expected. Overall an enjoyable read that I lapped right up.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

I have been a distracted reader this summer, and was just craving something that would draw me in. I have been hearing much hype about Mitchell for years, but every time I picked up his supposed masterpiece, Cloud Atlas, I kept dropping it faster than a sweaty gym sock. I mean, I’m all for experimental fiction and fractured narratives, but my brain just hasn’t been up for it of late. So when my friend Hannah told me how much she had been enjoying his latest (and my dear friend Nick told me he loved it, too, so I’d had plenty of prompting), I dusted off my advance reader’s copy and finally got down to it.

Let me just say that I am a sucker for coming-of-age novels. If they’re set in the 80’s (when I grew up), then all the better—and if they’re set in Britain (where I wish I’d grown up), well, then, what am I waiting for? The protagonist of this one is Jason Taylor—a lonely 13-year-old who secretly writes poetry and has a nasty, hindering stammer who wants desperately to fit in and be accepted by his peers. Unfortunately, the boys in his school like to use him for a punching bag. But who wants to read about the perfect, popular kid anyway? This book is heartbreaking and always honest about the wretched state of insecure boyhood. And Mitchell has some absolutely memorable characters here, and has created a solid, true story about a boy coming of age during the Falklands war, surviving divorce, and navigating the grisly public school halls while giving you a glimpse of the fine young man he will become.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Brighten the Corner Where You Are by Fred Chappell

I love the title of this novel and I bought a copy years ago for the title alone. I have been cleaning off my bookshelves, deciding what to keep and sell (a friend of mine is totally appalled that I could sell any of my books, but given that I live in 700 square feet that will soon be crammed with all things baby, I just have to!), and found this again. It’s a sweet, Southern story about the narrator’s father, a high school teacher and prankster in 1946. It’s one day in the life of this sly, inventive man—a day of much mischief and surprises, and a school board meeting in which his teaching of Darwin in science class will be called into question. I had fun reading this, and there are some great moments, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. (Which may be partially my fault in waiting 4 years to read it!)
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

I kept hearing wonderful things about this book, that it was a sure-fire book group pleaser and all that, and I tell you—it was! It’s a simple, spare novel about 19th century China when footbinding was still very much a part of women’s lives and friendships as well as marriages were arranged. Our narrator, Lily, had an “old sames” or laotong friendship arranged with Snow Flower, a young girl from a more auspicious family. Women had their own phonetic written language called nu shu and these girls shared their lives and thoughts over the years through letters (I automatically love novels about letters—just so you know). But misunderstanding and resentment begins to grow between them through their years as wives and mothers. Written with great sadness, Lily revisits her friendship with Snow Flower, slowly unfolding where they both steered wrong, where they both lost track of their true selves and one another. Not a book to finish on the bus—I had to choke back tears and regret that I didn’t give myself a proper, messy cry!