Powers, Richard. Echo Maker. London: Picador, 2007.
Reason read: November is National Writing Month. I chose Echo Maker for the category of National Book Award Winner.
What would you do if your only brother, the younger sibling you have protected since birth, has a terrible automobile accident that leaves him utterly convinced you are not kin; that you are an imposter? According to him you are a replica, a fake, a fraud, a well trained actor down to the very last identifying detail. Maybe even a highly technical robot with lifelike emotion and memory? Mark’s neurological condition is called Capgras and he swears Karen is a copy of his flesh and blood sibling. Despite facing haunting hometown memories and more than six months of Mark not recognizing her, Karen separates from her job and sells her home in order to become his legal guardian. Even world-famous neurologist and best selling author, Gerald Weber, is stumped by Mark’s condition. He comes to study Mark not only to answer Karen’s cry for help, but to stroke a faltering ego. The introduction of Dr. Weber allows author Powers to include such psychological disorders as Fregola Syndrome, Synesthesia, Pleiotropy, Agnosia, Dyscalculia, Tinnitus, Acrophobia, Sundowner Syndrome, Amnesia, Charles Bonnet Syndrome, Aphasia and Klurer-Bucy Syndrome. It gets a little heavy at times. Then there’s too-good-to-be-true Barbara. She arrives on the scene as an aide in the hospital but something seems off with her as well. People cannot help but fall in love with her without really understanding why. If Mark’s medical condition wasn’t enough of a plot, Powers has thrown in a political and ecological battle over a preserve with tourist-drawing cranes which migrate to the area every year. Are the cranes and Mark’s accident connected?
Confessional: I would have liked Dr. Weber’s story to start earlier in the book. He arrives on the Nebraskan scene after Karen invites him to study her brother’s case. From there, he is intertwined with the saga but it would have brought more context to his involvement if the reader had been able to follow his journey sooner than meeting Mark.
Lines to like, “Home was the place you never escaped even in nightmare” (p 8),”Disaster trumped the past and gave her temporary asylum” (p 46), and “She curled into the threat of doing this again” (p 58). I could go on and on and on. Echo Maker has dozens of great one-liners.
Playlist: Brahms, Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Schubert…and I am sure there were more. For the first time in my life I lost a library book. I have no idea what happened and it confounds me.
Author fact: I have a total of nine works to read by Richard Powers. I have finished three with six to go.
Book trivia: This should have been a movie. It was almost a Pulitzer winning book.
Nancy said: Pearl called Echo Maker brilliant and thought provoking.
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Nebraska: the Big Empty” (p 148).
Huneven, Michelle. Jamesland. New York: Random House, 2003.
Reason read: October is Mental Health Awareness month.
The theme for this book is crazy. Seriously. Every character has their own special brand of crazy. Alice Black think she’s going crazy after confronting a deer in her living room in the middle of the night. Former crazy talented head chef Pete Ross knows he’s going crazy after attempting suicide a few times for no apparent reason. Unitarian minister Helen Harland has her own brand of crazy dealing with a mean-spirited church administration who gave her a lukewarm performance evaluation. How these three meet and deal with their separate brands of crazy is the heart and soul of the story. They are completely different people and yet. Yet! Yet, they bond over the insanities (my word) in their lives.
Alice Black is trying to get over a breakup with a married man. As she struggles to make sense of the lies (“For sure I’m going to leave my famous-actress wife…”) she befriends Helen in the hopes of understanding the meaning of a frightened deer in her living room. Helen is desperate for any kind of friends and has a habit of pulling anyone and everyone, including the wife of Alice’s affair, into her orbit. She hopes they help her make sense of her life. Then there is divorced and messy Pete who still lives with his mother, who still lives under the thumb of his mother. Helen insists on keeping him in her crazy circle of friends.
At the center of all this drama is Alice’s great-great grandfather, William James, Henry James’s lesser known brother. He is the key to spiritual awakening, with the help of a crazy medium, of all three.
Quotes to quote, “Walking in such public areas made him feel more acutely the lunatic at large” (p 257) and “It counts as an honor to cut up a euthanized hippopotamus” (p 379).
Author fact: Huneven also wrote Round Rock, which is not on my Challenge list.
Book trivia: I could see this as a movie.
Nancy said: Pearl didn’t say anything specific about Jamesland but in the intro to the chapter she said some of the books “have unexpected depth” I think she was talking about Jamesland.
BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Just Too Good To Miss” (p 132).
I am so frigging late with this it’s not even funny. Here are my excuses: I was home-home the first weekend in October. I am hosting an art show. I’m trying to hire a new librarian. And. And! And, I have been running. Only 13.25 miles so far but it’s a start, right? I’m thrilled to be putting one foot in front of the other. But, here are the books:
- October Light by John Gardner – in honor of October being in the the title of the book and the fact that it takes place in Vermont, a place that is simply gorgeous in the fall.
- Jamesland by Michelle Huneven – in honor of October being Mental Health Awareness month.
- Long Day Monday by Peter Turnbull – in honor of police proceedurals.
- The Axe by Sigrid Undset – in honor of the fact I needed a translated book by a woman for the Portland Public Library challenge. Weak, I know.
- Isabel’s Bed by Elinor Lipman – in honor of Lipman’s birth month.
- Wyoming Summer by Mary O’Hara – in memory of O’Hara dying in October.
- An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair by Sharman Apt Russell – in honor of Magic Wings opening in October and the fact that Monhegan was inundated with monarch butterflies for the month of September. We even saw a few while we were home.
- Running Blind by Lee Child – started in honor of New York becoming a state in July (where Lee Child lives). However, big confessional: I am reading this out of order. My own fault completely.
LibraryThing Early Review:
- Notes from the Velvet Underground by Howard Sounes
Beck, Martha. Expecting Adam: a True Story of Birth, Rebirth and Everyday Magic. Ready by Joyce Bean. Tantor Media Inc., 2012.
Reason read: my mom’s birthday falls in the month of November. Read in her honor.
I love it when overly intellectual people have to rely on unscientific phenomenons like faith and hope and magic. I think being able to let go of factual reasoning and open our minds to blind trust stretches our narrow minded boundaries a little wider. Beck speaks to having a premonition before her son, Adam, was born. There had been almost mystic signs he was not going to be an ordinary child. Throughout Beck’s pregnancy inexplicable events pushed her to believe in decidedly unscientific miracles. The problem is both Beck and her husband, John, were obsessed with facts. Overly driven to be successful (two Harvard degrees each), they couldn’t wrap their brains around giving birth to a Down syndrome baby. Expecting Adam is the story of letting go to perfection; the releasing of ambitions; the saying goodbye to lofty goals…and saying hello to an angel.
As an aside, Beck made some references that I was unfamiliar with, enough so that I needed to look them up and keep track:
- Deng Xiaping
- Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
Lines I liked, “It works for me to think that I will be lumped together with the right-to-lifers, not to mention every New Age crystal kisser who ever claimed to see an angel in the clouds over Sedona” (p 8), “If we saw people as they really are, the beauty would overwhelm us” (p 308), and “Not I think that the vast majority of us “normal” people spend our lives trashing our treasures and treasuring our trash” (p 317).
By the way, I thought that the word retarded wasn’t political correct and should be avoided at all cost. Or, is it one of those words you can use on yourself and it’s okay? All I know is it was jarring every time I saw it in print.
Book trivia: There is a lovely picture of Martha and Adam on the back inside flap of Expecting Adam. It made me smile.
Author fact: Beck is a Harvard grad, receiving multiple degrees in sociology (B.A., M.A. and a Ph.D). I guess this is what we would call this a serial student.
Nancy said: Nancy said Expecting Adam “is a unique mixture of sophisticated humor, satire, self-deprecation, and spirituality.” She also called it, “hysterically funny” (More Book Lust, p 172).
BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Nagging Mothers, Crying Children” (p 172).
Shepard, Elizabeth. H. New York: Viking, 1995.
Reason read: May has a Mental Health Day.
In a nutshell: H is an epistolary novel about a 12 year old boy named Benjamin. In the first third of the book (50+ pages) it is through a series of letters written by his parents and sister, a therapist and camp employees that we learn Benjamin has mental issues (Autism? Depression? Bipolar? It’s never fully explained.). For the rest of the book Benjamin gets to speak for himself via letters to “Elliot” his female stuffed letter H. These letters, found hidden under his camp bed, reveal just how disturbed Benjamin’s thoughts can be. After camp his condition worsens and he is sent to a psychiatric hospital where, under doctor supervision, he is finally medicated. But is he cured? Is there such a thing as cured?
Throughout the reading of H there was the constant bubbling up of questions. If Benjamin is twelve years old and is not already medicated for his issues, why not? His therapist says he is considering medication; why now? Has Benjamin’s condition worsened? How long has he been considered autistic and/or depressed? Is Camp Onianta specialized enough to handle mentally troubled campers? What kind of camp writes a letter to inform parents that the bus arrived? And if Benjamin is considered a mild case; mild enough to attend a generic camp, why so many letters of warning from his parents and therapist before the start of the season? And speaking of the parents, camp is supposed to be a sociable event. Why tell the directors Benjamin is happiest when left alone? Isn’t that the antithesis of “camp” atmosphere? Why is mommy the only one who writes? Why do Benjamin’s parents contradict one another about his interests in letters to the camp directors? Do they not know him? Or do they want different things for him?
I find it really interesting that the camp directors give in to Benjamin’s whim by referring to his stuffed H by name. It’s “Elliot is an obstacle” rather than “the stuffed H is an obstacle.”
As an aside, I have lost track on what is a short novel and what is a long short story. H is only 160 pages long. Nancy Pearl could have included this in her “Good Things Come in Small Packages” chapter.
Author fact: H is Shepard’s first book.
Book trivia: What makes H unique to me is the multiple points of view. Letters from camp directors, parents, counselors, siblings, even the stuffed ‘H’ paint a fuller picture.
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Epistolary Novels: Take a Letter” (p 80). For those of you keeping score I know you are saying I just read a book from this chapter. But. But! But, it was for a different reason. Sometimes it just works out that way.
Long, Liza. The Price of Silence: a Mom’s Perspective of Mental Illness. New York: Hudson Street Press, 2014.
Liza Long is a single mother trying to raise a son with a mental illness. She will tell you this fact many times throughout The Price of Silence. Many will recognize her as the author of the blog post, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” Price of Silence is the long version (excuse the pun) of that post. This was a hard book to read on so many different levels. I felt that Long was trying to justify the blog post that thrust her into the spotlight. If not justify, then to at least explain it further; to clarify points. I felt she was defending herself against many different misconceptions, the biggest misconception being what it is like to raise a mentally ill child. Long is desperate to make the world understand that there is an unfair stigma attached to the treatment of mental illness (stigma is something else she mentions a lot). A physical injury is treated with urgency while “anything above the neck” is hemmed and hawed over with head scratching and no clear treatment plan. A physical injury has a logical explanation while the violent outburst of an autistic does not. There is a lot of hand wringing that takes place in The Price of Silence but it is effective. I was drawn into Long’s story and felt her frustrations clearly. Long was able to articulate the facts along side her feelings, something that isn’t easy to do while in the midst of the turmoil.
As an aside, I often wonder if Long would have allowed her blog post to be renamed, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” had Mrs. Lanza survived her son’s attack. I feel the post was renamed for shock value and to possibly draw in misinformed reader; the one who read it simply because he or she thought there had been a mistake and the real Mrs. Lanza was still alive. I wanted Long to call the post, “I Could Have Been Adam Lanza’s Mother” (much in the same way Dave Matthews could have been a parking lot attendant. Mr. Matthews is not a parking lot attendant of course, but the point being anything can happen. Lanza’s story could have been Long’s.)
Reason read: As a member of LibraryThing’s Early Review program, this was the June selection. I should note that Price of Silence should go on sale August 28, 2014.
Author fact: Long has a blog here.
Book trivia: This copy of Price of Silence promises an index at publication but I do not know if the final version will include photographs or any other personalization.
Kaufman, Sue. Diary of a Mad Housewife. New York: Random House, 1967.
Diary of a Mad Housewife is predictable and yet – not. Bettina Balser is a middle-class housewife and mother in New York City. She has two daughters, ages seven and nine and an up and coming lawyer for a husband. She thinks she is slowly going out of her mind until her husband plays it big in the stock market and moves up in his law firm. By all standards they are now rich. Suddenly, Bettina’s mental stability goes from questionable to outright mad. She thinks she has every phobia in the book. As the Balser family status changes life unravels even more for Bettina. Her husband Jonathan’s demands for only the finest everything has Bettina running around like his personal assistant, even in the bedroom. The only way Bettina can sort through her emotions, resentments and increasing mania is to start a journal. This diary is her release, the outpouring of everything.
In the end, and the end is somewhat predictable, Bettina comes to understand that every stability (mental health included) comes at a price and everyone is paying at some level.
Lines that really stood out, “I hated her until I had my head shrunk, at which time I learned to “understand” her and be tolerant – which simply means I learned how to think of her without getting overwrought or blind with rage” (p 21), “From a distance of about five and a half feet we warily watched each other breathe” (p 167), and “And I realized that there I was again, in for one of the worst phases of my new looniness – middle-of-the-night insomnia” (p 71).
Reason read: October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This is the time to celebrate strong women. And don’t let Bettina fool you. She is strong.
Author fact: Kaufman died when she was only 50 years old.
Book trivia: Diary of a Mad Housewife was made into a movie in 1970 and nominated for an Oscar. Alice Cooper had a part in it.
BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “I Am Woman – Hear Me Roar” (p 120).
Plath, Sylvia. Ariel: the Restored Edition.New York: Harper Perennial, 2004.
Sylvia Plath wrote with such raw energy and emotion. Her essence is on every page, in every word. Nowhere is that more plain to see than in the collected poems in Ariel. As the last collection of poetry written before her death it is riddled with references to death. That is to be expected from one suffering from depression, on the wrong kind of medicine, and already an attempted suicide survivor. It’s as if death is stalking her, wooing her (case in point: the last line of “Death & Co” is “somebody is done for” (p 36) and “Dying is an art…I do it exceptionally well” (p 15). I chose to read Ariel: the Restored Edition and now that I’ve thought about it I don’t think it’s the version Pearl was referring to (see BookLust Twist). Oh well.
Favorite lines – the first being from Path’s daughter, Frieda, in the foreword, “The manuscript was digging up everything that must be shed in order to move on” (p xiv – xv).
Reason read: Although we are getting to the end of the month April is still National Poetry Month.
Author fact: Everyone knows a little something about Sylvia Plath (Smith College, Ted Hughes, suicide, etc), but what I recently learned was that she was born in Boston.
Book trivia: If you haven’t read Ariel I would suggest skipping the version Ted Hughes introduced to the world and pick up the one his daughter, Frieda Hughes, wrote the foreword for, Ariel: the Restored Edition. It is far more informative.
BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover” (p 237). Oddly enough, Ariel is not a recommendation by Pearl. She merely uses it as an example of a recognizable cover when discussing Alan Powers’s book Front Cover: Great Book Jacket and Cover Design.
Swift, Michael. “At Marlborough House.” The New Yorker June 18th, 1990: 40.
This poem is loaded with details; details easily visualized into a short story. There are little shockers peppered throughout the entire poem told from the point of view of a patient at Marlborough House. Imagine: it is early afternoon and the patients of a psychiatric hospital are languishing in their rooms awaiting nurses with medication. There are a host of characters besides the patients – Jake the gardener and Dr. Levitz, the man in charge, but it’s the speaker of the poem you want to know more about. You snatch details, more like hints, in the things he says. He is male, old enough to still have parents who visit. He likes to read, knows pop cultural references and has homosexual tendencies. He is smart and funny and sarcastic. You want to ignore his suicidal thoughts.
BookLust Twist: From More Book Lust in the chapter called “Poetry Pleasers” (p 188). Incidentally, Pearl called this poem “mysterious.”
Postscript ~ Every April I think the same thing. It is really unfair of Nancy Pearl to list poems she recommends for reading without proper citations. From what I can tell “At Marlborough House” was never published in a book. I found it tucked away in a 1990 New Yorker magazine. It might well have been the only place it was published. Here are the tags I would have used on LibraryThing: mental illness, hospital, first person, homosexuality, poetry, librarian, doctor, sex, paranoia, alcohol, suicidal, sarcastic”
Fowler, Karen Joy. Sarah Canary. New York: Plume Book, 2004.
In a word – fascinating. On the first day reading this book I got 50 pages in before I realized I had only wanted to read the first chapter. I wanted to get my toes wet – not jump all the way in. From the moment Sarah Canary begins there is nonstop action in the most surreal way. The entire book is written like a mystery. For starters, there are the poems of Emily Dickinson at the beginning of each chapter. They are not there for show. Each poem serves as a clue to the storyline. Then, there is the structure of the story itself. Fowler writes in such a lyrical manner that it was easy to want to quote the entire book: “Chin was a small ant, picking his way over the melodic body of the world” (p 12), for example. Another aspect of Sarah Canary I enjoyed is the idea that every main character is an outcast of sorts. It is interesting to try to discover the peculiarity of each character. It becomes easy to do because character development throughout the story is strong. Sarah Canary is not without humor, as well: “Dr. Carr would have liked to see the insane on horseback, too…but he tried to deal in realities” (p 38).
It all begins when a strange woman wanders into Chin Ah Kin’s railroad camp. She is dirty and wild-looking and speaking in a series of chirps, clicks, grunts and sighs. As a white woman she is an unwelcome sight in a Chinese labor camp. Chin unwillingly becomes responsible for taking her back, but back to where is unknown. Along the way Chin and the wild woman (nicknamed Sarah Canary because of her sing-song noises) encounter different people who, in their own inexplicable way, are drawn to Sarah and develop an overwhelming desire to become attached to her for one reason or another.
Some of the many, many quotes I enjoyed: “His heart refused to return to his chest” (p 15), “If you let go for an instant, your soul would fly to it. If you could walk inside that combination of light and ice, its beauty would blind you” (p 32), and “Chin was stabbed with the sharp edges of homesickness” (p 245).
BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called, “Real Characters” (p 197). Pearl called this a book people either loved or hated…sorta like cilantro.
ps ~ I enjoyed Sarah Canary so much that I added Karen Joy Fowler as a favorite author on LibraryThing.