How dare you sport thus with life – “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley

frankensteinCBR10 BINGO:  This Old Thing (BINGO!)

I wanted to title this one “Victor Frankenstein was a real d-bag” but I didn’t want to malign a 200-year-old classic like that. I know that I’m supposed to appreciate this book but I don’t. I tried several times over the years to read this and bailed early on.  Aside from Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, I tend to not like Gothic or Gothic adjacent fiction. It just makes me roll my eyes. In the interest of securing that last BINGO square during the season for spookery , I choked this one down. So, now I have to write about it when I would rather block it from my memory entirely. Here we go….

You all know the basics.  While the classic movie versions are different, the premise is the same. Victor Frankenstein, full of hubris, decides to “create” life. He cobbles together dead body parts, animates his “creation” and then freaks out and hides. Frankenstein’s so-called monster, confused and shunned by his creator, stomps off into the countryside. There he is greeted by the angry mob of villagers who see DIFFERENT! DANGEROUS! and regard him as a threat.

I know that this book, in part, is a cautionary tale about scientific advances that “play God”.  There is also the gothic “ghost story” component to the story.  I’m setting those ideas aside. This is not just about a mad scientist animating a corpse. I’m not going down that path in this review.  Instead, I’m going to rant about Victor Frankenstein.

In many ways, this book thematically represents everything that is going on RIGHT NOW. What just went on a neighborhood away from me a few days ago. This book is not just about using science to play God. It’s about lack of empathy. It’s about prejudice and fear. It’s about thinking that you are superior; that your needs are more important. It’s about self-obsession that leads to paranoia. It’s about a lack of personal responsibility that turns into shunning or fearing or blaming. It’s about making someone else the scapegoat for your unhappiness or lack of success.

In Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein embodies ALL of that: the prejudice, hatred, fear, paranoia, superiority AND total lack of self awareness or responsibility.  From beginning to end, Victor holds on to his righteous indignation. Even when he laments about his creation, he finds a way to deflect blame to his “monster”.

The novel is told partly through a sea captain’s letters to his sister. In his letters, the captain relates the events as told to him by Victor. Even in the end, Victor Frankenstein doesn’t really take any personal responsibility for his creation.  Seeking sympathy and approval, he just spins it all into a tale.

Check out Cannonball Read 10. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

 

 

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They understood their strength, all at once – “The Power” by Naomi Alderman

thepowerCANNONBALL!!!! Sorry. I just can’t believe that it happened this fast for me. Back in the olden days of CBR 3,  I read mostly shortish YA books and still struggled to eke out 52 books and reviews by the deadline. Now that I am drunk on CBR 10 early completion power…..let’s talk Naomi Alderman’s “The Power.”

The premise itself is very simple.  Young women begin to have the ability to harness electricity and manipulate it. Its source is a mysterious skein located in their collar bones. Once the young women are aware of this, they discover that they can also awaken the power in older women.  As they begin to understand their physical dominance over men, the women start to use their advantage to rescue themselves from abusive situations, to promote themselves at work and to rise up against patriarchal cultures.

Never has it been more evident in our world that power corrupts.  For us, it’s predominately male and white and generally affluent. What Alderman questions here is:  if the advantage of physical strength was reversed, would women begin to dominate in the same way as men? Would women actually be benevolent peace-loving matriarchs? Is the corruption of power a human flaw and not a gender one?

The sudden deference of men holds a  mirror up to women who often temper anger or frustration so as not to be accused of being shrill or bitchy. When a female Mayor confronts the male Governor of her state, her newfound directness makes him unsure:  “She thinks, That is how a man speaks. And that is why.”  It was a powerful moment of sudden awareness that the power that had often held her in check was now available to her. 

Many fellow Cannonballers read and reviewed this, and it is a mixed bag in terms of what you all thought.  I liked it, but it started to drag part way for me. The narrative got a little too bogged down in a weird Eastern European female dictatorship situation.  I appreciated the political angle, but it lost its way for me a bit.

Alderman did an interesting job of handling the role that religion plays in the empowerment of some at the subjugation of others but shied away from other hot button issues. The novel touches upon ethnicity and sexual orientation within this power shift, but only peripherally.  I wish that she had explored that a little further.

Check out Cannonball Read 10. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

 

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Two parents, a girl, a ghost, and a ticked-off cat – “City of Ghosts” by Victoria Schwab

cityofghostsCBR10 BINGO:  And So It Begins

I added this to my hold list at the library months before the publication date and I STILL had to wait a month for it. Behold the power of Victoria Schwab! I loved her Shades of Magic series (as V.E. Schwab)  and liked her YA Monsters of Verity series so it was a no brainer for me to snatch this one up.

After a near death experience where she is “rescued” by a ghost, Cass is able to sense and see ghosts in the real world. Her ghost guardian angel, Jacob, sticks with her after the accident and becomes, to her parents, a sort of imaginary friend.  Together, they are often pulled beyond this world into the “Veil”, another dimension where trapped souls exist.

Longing for the family summer vacation at their blissfully un-haunted beach house, Cass is blind sided when plans change. Her parents, writers and researchers of ghost myths, are asked to host a television show about the most haunted places in the world.  Cass, Jacob, her parents, and her cat Grim head for Edinburgh Scotland where Cass and Jacob encounter something very different from the mild-mannered ghosts from home. Here there is a history of plague, public execution and vicious murders.

“City of Ghosts” is the first in a series of “middle grade” books which is interesting, because I think that the book had more of a YA feel. I don’t remember any mention of the main character’s age but read elsewhere that it was 11. Cass just didn’t feel 11 to me, more teenager-y than that.

My only criticism would be that her parents humoring her relationship with her “imaginary friend” didn’t seem plausible. Even though they were a little quirky themselves, an 11-year-old with an imaginary friend should maybe raise some flags for the parents, right?

Per usual, Schwab writes a page turner. I finished this book in a couple of hours even knowing how disappointed I would be that I didn’t slow myself down and stretch out the fun for a day or two. Written in a very believable conversational voice, the story bounces around between the sweetness of Jacob and Cass’s friendship and the malevolent forces of unsettled spirits. A super fun book! Perfect for the Fall chill in the air and a hot cup of tea.

Check out Cannonball Read 10. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

 

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The question is whether or not you choose to disturb the world around you, or if you choose to let it go on as if you had never arrived – “A State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett

stateofwonderI picked up this book in my ongoing love affair with fiction about the natural world. I also really enjoyed  Patchett’s “Commonwealth” and I wanted to read more of her stuff.  A little bit “Heart of Darkness” and a little bit “Poisonwood Bible“,  Ann Patchett’s “A State of Wonder” explores maternal love,  the big business of pharmacology and the ethics of interfering with indigenous people.  There’s a lot going on in this book.

When a letter arrives bearing the news that Dr. Anders Eckman has died, his research partner, Dr. Marina Singh travels to the Amazonian jungle as an emissary for both the drug company that she works for and for Eckman’s widow. First, she must complete Eckman’s mission to check on another scientist, Dr. Annick Swenson,  who is actively working on a fertility drug but no longer communicating with the drug company.  Secondly, she is seeking information on Eckman’s death and closure for his widow and his sons.

After her luggage and phone are lost by the airlines, Marina is left adrift on the coast of  Brazil. Her reaction to the anti-malarial medication that she is taking, constant night terrors,  leaves Marina exhausted and virtually sleepwalking through her days.  Besieged by the heat, the language barrier, the constant bombardment of tropical insects,  and exhaustion, Marina seeks information on Dr. Swenson and waits in the city for her return.

When Dr. Swenson finally resurfaces in the city for supplies, her refusal to discuss any progress with her research or to shed any light on Dr. Eckman’s death leaves Marina with a choice. She can either return home empty-handed, or travel with Dr. Swenson back into the jungle to find the answers herself. Shackled with insecurity and guilt from a disastrous mistake in her past, Dr. Marina Singh follows Dr. Swenson into the jungle. Here, Marina is forced from the sterile and controlled environment of her lab into the primitive Amazonian jungle that has no room for her insecurities or self pity.

This journey from the labs of a Minnesota pharmaceutical company to the depths of the Amazonian jungle is a wild ride full of colorful characters and vivid scenery.  Patchett’s novel exposes the limitations of the human body, the power of sacrifice, and the mark we make on the world around us.

Check out Cannonball Read 10. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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Marriage is, as she says, a peculiar institution- “An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones

anamericanmarriageI had this title on my radar but didn’t sit down to read it until it became this month’s pick for my book club.  My book club consists of women ranging in age from 50-something to late 20’s. Four of us are married, 3 of us have children,  1 is pregnant with her first child , one is recently engaged and one is single after a decade long relationship.  Each of us will be coming at this from different vantage points in terms of marriage and relationships.  I may add an addendum AFTER we meet because somehow I think that the discussion about this will be a lively one.

The core of the story is about the marriage of  a southern black couple, Roy and Celestial.  Roy was raised in a small town in Louisiana and was the first person in his family to go to college. Celestial grew up in Atlanta with a scientist father and a mother in academics. Roy is a little smooth and determined to be successful. Celestial is artistic, passionate and little impulsive. They meet in college through Celestial’s childhood friend, Andre, but don’t become romantically involved until several years later.

Told through three points of view (Roy, Celestial and Andre),   Jones’ novel is an exploration of marriage and family relationships: What drives us to marry?  What do we owe to ourselves and to each other? What are we willing to take on in the service of those relationships?

Here is where I have trouble reviewing any further. I didn’t read the book jacket or reviews for this book in-depth before I picked it up. My ignorance of the pivotal plot point that impacts these characters, I think, made for a better read so I’m not going to write about it here. For those of you who have read the book, please forgive me. I’m not trying to dismiss the significance of what happens. I just think that the impact is even more powerful when you don’t know what’s coming.

Read it, if you can, before you know much about it.  Either way, it is a fantastic novel and Jones’ portrayal of the complexities of  marriage is heartbreaking and very real.

Check out Cannonball Read 10. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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Because this is not a house for the faint of heart – “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls

theglasscastleCBR BINGO: Farenheit 451

While I was fishing around trying to find a banned or controversial book for this review, I stumbled across several articles written in 2016 about a 15-year-old girl in a school district near me. When Jeannette Walls’ memoir, “Glass Castle” was removed from the 9th grade reading list at her school, this young woman was having none of it. She challenged her school district at a board meeting and very succinctly pointed out that the material that the parents were objecting to was regarding the treatment of  kids younger than the 9th graders who were being prevented from reading it. She questioned why they should be sheltered from things like neglect and alcoholism and sexual abuse when kids her age were having to face it every day. Wouldn’t it be better to gain an understanding of that rather than try to hide it?

My son’s middle school curriculum tackles some very challenging and sophisticated reading material. I knew this when he entered the program a couple of years ago. I was familiar enough with some of his reading list to be a little skeptical. What could my tender 11-year-old possibly understand here? How could he comprehend what was going on in a meaningful way? While I cannot speak for everyone in his class, I have witnessed a young man understanding a lot more than I would have given him credit for. A young man, as it turns out, who can comprehend that tough material in a meaningful way and can come out on the other side of it with empathy and a level of understanding appropriate for his age.  This has everything to do with the way that the material is presented and discussed by his teachers.

The idea that we should try to protect our children from the harsher aspects of life is a very dangerous one that I see play out all to often with my generation as they parent. This is where all that helicopter-ing does my son’s generation a disservice.

On the flip side of that coin are Jeannette Walls’ parents, Rex and Rose Mary.  Both extremely intelligent and not without the ability to provide for their children,  Rex and Rose Mary Walls are mired in their own needs. Often starving and  living in unhealthy and dangerous  conditions, the Walls children are forced to raise themselves and each other.

Amazingly, Walls’ memoir is almost a love letter to her parents and siblings. It would be easy for Walls to vilify her parents. The book is very difficult to read in some ways because she cannot seem to do just that.  Instead, her writing  has a bittersweet note to it. Rather than having a judgmental tone, Walls writes about her dysfunctional childhood with a matter-of-fact gentleness. She doesn’t make excuses for her parents or defend their behavior, but instead tells the story of  their fierce independence. No matter how misguided, their need to forge their own path was, ironically, the one lesson that they were able to impart to their children.

It is a book that clearly deserves a spot on any reading list, even a 9th grade one.

CBR BINGO: Farenheit 451

Check out Cannonball Read 10. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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History isn’t something that’s done with, it’s what’s happening right now. “Everyday People” by Stewart O’Nan

everydaypeopleMy “Home, Something, Home”  CBR Bingo square is about as close to home as I can get. Having lived in Pittsburgh since the mid 1980’s, I probably should have read this native author before but somehow he wasn’t on my radar. He is now.

First, I think I need to get into a little history here. In this novel, O’Nan writes about a specific community in Pittsburgh’s east end: East Liberty.  During the 1960’s, the Urban Redevelopment Authority hatched a plan to build a pedestrian friendly shopping district in an attempt to save the East Liberty business district  from losing out to the suburban malls that were sprouting up.  They tore down a lot of existing buildings, set up a pedestrian area and encircled the entire business district with a one way loop road called Penn Circle. In the end, it served only to allow traffic to drive around what had become perceived as a “bad” neighborhood and isolated the mostly African-American community and its businesses.

O’Nan has taken the neighborhood’s history of being constricted and isolated but here the catalyst is the construction of a bus only thoroughfare that whisks commuters from the suburbs into downtown  allowing them to bypass the East Liberty neighborhood entirely. (This bus way does exist but was built 15 years before it takes place in the novel). Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different character who works or  lives in the neighborhood in the late 1990’s. Some of the older residents remember when the neighborhood was a thriving community. For most, that is a distant memory and they work multiple jobs just to make ends meet. The youngest members of the community having never experienced that bygone era and only know the pull of gang allegiance and the funerals of too many friends.

Shadowed by a fatal accident that occurred during the construction of the bus way, the neighborhood is brought together at its dedication.  The local church choir performs at the  “celebration” of the bus way’s opening and as a tribute to the local politician that spearheaded the project. A lot of fanfare for something that ultimately renders their neighborhood invisible. Just a quick moment outside of a bus window.

This book foreshadows what has now become the gentrification of the East Liberty neighborhood over the last decade. The neighborhood that was once largely ignored has since become prime real estate due to the sprawl of nearby affluent communities and Google’s Pittsburgh offices.  O’Nan clearly saw it coming when he wrote this book 17 years ago.    His familiarity with the neighborhood and the care that he takes with the characters that he places there feels genuine. I do have to say that I was a little uncomfortable with his attempts at writing the slang and dialogue of the African-American community of East Liberty but I would cringe a little at any white dude trying to pull that off.

Three cheers for Cannonball Read BINGO! I’m not sure that I would have read this book otherwise but I’m certainly going to read some more of O’Nan in the future.

Check out Cannonball Read 10. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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