Friday, September 30, 2011

The Diaries of Adam and Eve

As an avid reader and a book blogger, I should have been more on top of the fact that this week has been designated as Banned Books Week, an annual event sponsored by the American Library Association celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment. My personal thoughts on banned books are simple: I believe that, while not all reading material is appropriate for everyone, it should be up to individuals to decide what is appropriate for them (and their children) to read. Censorship - which amounts to a deprivation of information based on a particular person's or group's own moral agenda - is wrong, pure and simple. Let the people have access to all information, all opinions, all accounts, and let them decide for themselves what is worthy, what is true, and what has value.

I only recently became aware of Eve's Diary, a soliloquy written by Mark Twain very early in the twentieth century. Apparently, Eve's Diary was banned from a Massachusetts library for over 100 years because of the illustrations, which depict Eve au naturale. The illustrations are extremely tame and mild by today's standards (hamburger joint ads are far more racy), but throughout the 1900s they were considered pornographic.

Eve's Diary, originally published as its own volume, is the second part of the combined volumes of The Diaries of Adam and Eve. This is Mark Twain's "translation from the originals" of the first two human beings' diaries, and they are a hoot! Witty and utterly charming, Adam is a rather grumpy man who finds himself both irritated and perplexed by "the new Creature" (Eve) who talks incessantly, has grand ideas about everything, and is prone to "shedding water from the holes she looks out of." Eventually Eve "catches" a baby, but Adam, having never seen a baby before, can make neither heads nor tales of it, first convinced it is some type of fish, then a kangaroo, then a bear. Eve's diary reveals her to be an emotional, passionate lover of beauty and animals, and a somewhat frivolous and childish girl-woman who can't understand why Adam keeps trying to get away from her.

I loved this book. Really enjoyable, and a very quick, easy read.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (novel)

The opening scene introduces the reader to Larry Ott, an odd, middle-aged loner who lives by himself in the house he grew up in, tending his mothers chickens and going to work each day to the auto-mechanic garage inherited from his father, though he rarely receives any business. Larry is ostracized by his entire community because of the disappearance of a girl last known to have been with Larry twenty-five years prior. The girl was never found, her disappearance never solved, and Larry never charged, but the rumors about him have grown into near mythology. Now another girl has disappeared, and all eyes are again on "Scary Larry." A shocking act of violence against Larry himself, however, begins to unravel long-held secrets, especially those held by Larry's former boyhood friend, Silas, now the town constable.

The story examines the question of how damning circumstantial evidence can be, especially in the court of public opinion, and how damaging utter alienation can be to a person.

Suspenseful, haunting, and vividly told, this story kept me reading late into the night. Highly recommended.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Good and Perfect Gift (memoir)

A Good and Perfect Gift by Amy Julia Becker

I was contacted by the publicist for the the publishing house that released this book earlier this month, asking if I would read it and feature it on my blog. Always interested in personal accounts of raising a child with Down syndrome, I was happy to oblige.

In this book, Amy Julia Becker tells a somewhat familiar story: full of hopes and dreams, she gives birth to a baby, shortly thereafter learns the baby has Down syndrome, experiences the shock and grief so many of us parents experience with that diagnosis, struggles to come to terms with it all, and eventually finds some semblance of peace. On a very general level, her story is not so different from my own, and so on a very general level I was able to relate.

However, her entire struggle to come to terms with her daughter's diagnosis is framed within her devout Christianity, and to this I could not at all relate. She struggles to reconcile her daughter's "imperfection" with the belief that her daughter is created in God's image. She struggles to find some divine meaning in her daughter's Down syndrome: is it a lesson from God? A punishment? A divine reward?

Additionally, Amy Julia and her husband are both highly educated high-achievers, and the author struggles mightily with the knowledge that her daughter, by virtue of having Down syndrome, has cognitive impairments. Although at some point in the book, she attempts to convey finally coming to terms with that and being able to see her daughter's value apart from her intelligence and abilities, I never got the sense that she actually did find a way to separate her daughter's value from her abilities. Throughout the latter half of the book, she spends a lot of time talking about all of her daughter's accomplishments (and at one point, when her daughter was a mere 14 months old, she and her husband buy a special treadmill for their daughter, determined to get her walking - I absolutely cringed at this). In fact, by her telling, her daughter does seem on the higher end of ability as far as Down syndrome goes, but I have to wonder how she would feel if her daughter were one of the children with Down syndrome who didn't walk until age 3, was non-verbal at age 5, and so forth.

Amy Julia Becker is a talented writer, but her story didn't resonate with me. I understand that she wanted to tell her story from her perspective, but framing it from such a devoutly Christian perspective constructs a barrier between her and non-Christian readers/parents of children with Down syndrome. This is not the worst memoir I've read about having a child with Down syndrome, but not the best either.

My copy is up for grabs if anyone wants it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Girl's Guide to Homelessness (memoir)

There are people who have such sordid, distasteful stories from their pasts, that one has to wonder how such stories can be true, and not imagined, made up, or at least embellished. Brianna Karp is someone with a trailer-full of such stories. Growing up as a Jehovah's Witness (a sect which she vehemently calls a "cult"), she relays stories of terrible abuse and neglect at the hands of her parents. Headstrong and determined, however, she carves out an independent, successful life for herself in young adulthood, only to fall victim to the economic downturn of the last few years, losing her job and being forced to move back in with her bipolar, abusive mother. After a dramatic confrontation, Brianna is thrown out of the house by her mother, and with nowhere to go, she ends up living in a trailer (inherited from her biological father upon his gruesome suicide) in the parking lot of a local Walmart - officially "homeless." Equipped with a laptop (and nearly-free WiFi from a nearby Starbucks), a cell phone, and a P.O. Box, she spends her days job-hunting, sometimes picking up temp work, and blogging about her life as a homeless person. Along the way, she meets a man online who runs a website dealing with homeless issues, and they quickly fall in love, but this also ends badly.

Some quick research online reveals that there are people who claim to know Brianna and call into question the truth of the stories she outlines in her book. Is everything she claims about her childhood - or even her present circumstances - completely true? I have no idea. I do know that her stories from her childhood and young adulthood - especially those concerning her family - rival my own stories - stories of which a lot of people would probably have a hard time believing (right down to Brianna's mother making her drink dishwashing detergent for some infraction; my own mother made me drink Ivory Liquid detergent for telling a lie when I was all of seven years old).

In any case, I was drawn in by her utterly violent and dysfunctional upbringing, which resonated with my own childhood memories. The main reason I bought this book in the first place, though, is that her story takes place right in my city. She grew up in the town where I live, attended high school right down the street, and set up camp as a homeless person in the parking lot of the Walmart I've shopped at hundreds of times. It was a little surreal reading about places so close by and familiar to me.

She brings to light the plight of the homeless person and attempts to break down stereotypes, preconceived notions, misconceptions and prejudices towards the homeless, reminding us that we on the outside of homelessness have no idea what each homeless person's story is, and to make sweeping assumptions is wrong. She also illustrates how easy it can be for someone to lose everything, especially if they have little to begin with. Perhaps fewer of us are immune than we imagine.

If the book remained focused on this topic, it would be a better book. I enjoyed reading about her resourcefulness and ingenuity, and her outspokenness about prejudice against the homeless. Unfortunately, it strays off course about halfway through and becomes focused on her love affair with the man she meets over the internet - a love affair that, I think, anyone older and wiser can see from the beginning is doomed. Her writing is gritty and real - and definitely the voice you would expect from a street-wise yet somewhat naive and immature twenty-something girl.

It's a quick read, and worth it, I think, for the sake of making the reader think about homelessness.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Into Thin Air (non-fiction/memoir)

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

I didn't want to read this book. I'm not particularly a fan of adventure-type stories, and I have no interest in mountain climbing or Mount Everest. Even when my friend chose this book for this month's discussion for our book club, I wrote it off as one I'd pass on. So I picked up a different book from my to-read shelf (A Visit From the Goon Squad; have you read it? Thoughts?) and tried to read it, but try as I might, couldn't get into it and abandoned it about fifty pages in (that's generally the chance I'll give a book; if it doesn't grab me within the first fifty pages, I quit. There are too many good books to be read to suffer through a book that isn't enjoyable). At that point, I decided I'd give Into Thin Air a try.

I could not put this book down. In it, Jon Krakauer, then a pretty successful journalist, tells his personal account of the Mt. Everest disaster in May, 1996. Hired by Outside magazine to write an article about the commercialization of Everest expeditions, Krakauer, himself an accomplished mountaineer, convinces the magazine editors to put up the funds allowing him to actually go on one of these commercial expeditions to the summit of Mt. Everest, thereby allowing him to (a) give a firsthand account of the experience, and (b) fulfill a long-held dream of his to climb Mt. Everest. In sharp detail, he tells about that ill-fated Mt. Everest expedition, which ended up claiming the lives of twelve people.

This book really got to me. It's very suspenseful and graphic, and in all seriousness, it pervaded my dreams at night; just about every night during the week or so I spent reading this, visions on snow-covered mountains, glaciers, cliffs and crevasses filled my dreams. It's still very difficult for me to fathom what motivates certain people to engage in such sport that, really, is not only extremely dangerous, but just plain miserable.

Excellent book. It was published way back in 1997, so it's already been widely read, but if you haven't read it, I highly recommend it.