Monthly Archives: March 2013

gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson

Gods-in-Alabama 2005. Warner Books. Hardcover. 275 pages.

Backstory:

Joshilyn Jackson is an author whose books I’ve heard about for a while. In fact, I think I put gods in Alabama on my to-read list back when it debuted. This novel is about Arlene Fleet, a young woman who thought she had left Alabama and her past behind when she moved to Chicago right out of high school. But then an old schoolmate shows up at her door ten years later looking for information about Jim Beverly, the boy who had been the high school quarterback when they were teenagers. Fearful that certain secrets may be revealed, Arlene is compelled to return to Alabama, along with Burr, her long-suffering boyfriend.

Review:

gods in Alabama is one of those books that alternates between the present day and past events. It’s also one of those books that loves to dangle its secrets. To Jackson’s credit, she doesn’t get too ambitious about the secret withholding and tells the reader early on that Arlene killed Jim Beverly. But the “why” behind Arlene’s actions is kept mostly obscured throughout the novel, and an earlier traumatic event is referred to repeatedly but not explained. I’m not a fan of this approach in storytelling generally; there’s an artificial aspect to it that I don’t like. If the writer keeps telegraphing that there’s a secret that no one can know, a story the characters swore they’d never tell, and stuff like that, there comes a point where I just flip ahead and find out what it is and get it over with. Which is what happened with gods in Alabama.

So after I spoiled myself, I considered not finishing the book for real, but when I’d peeked ahead, I’d liked what I’d seen of adult and teenager Clarice, Arlene’s cousin and a major player in the book’s secrets. Clarice is beautiful and beloved by basically everyone, including Arlene, but still remains a real person and doesn’t slip into some kind of sainthood.

And I’ll say this for the alternating story structure: Jackson doesn’t use it in an arbitrary fashion. The two major reveals in the book coincide with that story being told by one character to another, with it being a revelation to the listener in each instance. So, the secret-keeping is not entirely for reasons of tantalizing the reader, and it makes sense that the revelations are placed at these specific times in the novel.

In the end, structure aside, gods in Alabama struck me as a variation of stories I’d read or heard before, where the golden boy of the school is really a terrible person, and characters make dramatic promises to God or themselves, like they won’t ever lie. I’m afraid it’s not destined to stick in my brain for very long, but I don’t mind the time I spent on it.

Looking at other book bloggers’ reviews, I feel a bit alone in my lukewarm response to gods in Alabama. It seems to be generally well-loved. I also seem to be one of the few that read this book first and not the related novel, Backseat Saints, which was written later.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Book Chase – “It is a good story, and despite its comic nature, it is filled with observations about right and wrong, human nature, and growing up in a change-resisting South. My only quarrel with the novel is that I found two or three of the characters to be unrealistic and, in the case of Arlene’s black boyfriend, to be too good to be true.”

Rhapsody in Books – ” . . . the characters are treated with respect, and if they seem caricatured or stereotypical at first, it is only because the author has not yet revealed their depth to you.”

tiny little reading room – “This is my second Jackson book and I wasn’t disappointed – it’s snappy, sad, Southern, smart, and somewhat sweet, all at the same time.”

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Enjoyable things that are not books

I don’t spend as much time reading lately as I did, say, a couple of years ago. I often as not curl up with a film or a tv show. Last fall, I started listening to a couple of film review podcasts (/Filmcast and Filmspotting) and I started going out to the movies more frequently to check out the films that were discussed. By the time the Oscars rolled around, I had seen six of the nine Best Picture Nominees and four out of the five Best Documentary nominees. But as is often the case, some of the films I enjoyed most from 2012 were not nominated at all.

Looper¬†was probably my favorite film. Great storytelling, great acting – I’m a fan of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who isn’t?) and Emily Blunt. I saw Looper twice. The first time I accidentally went to a showing that had open captions. I think that is cool that the theater has open captioned shows for the hard of hearing, but the words do intrude on the cinematography and the experience over all. Anyway, I still really liked the film so I decided it was worth seeing in the theaters again, without the captions.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Steven Soderbergh’s action film, Haywire. I know some people criticized the acting of mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano. I can’t say that was a problem for me, because I just loved watching her fight. You could see her character thinking about her every next move (especially in my favorite sequence, a chase scene in Dublin). The action scenes were subsequently quite interesting – I can’t tell you how many action scenes in other movies just do nothing for me.

The documentary Queen of Versailles should have been nominated for an Oscar. (The film that won Best Documentary  РSearching for Sugarman Рwas not that good and I suspect had a boost from baby boomer nostalgia.) Queen of Versailles started out as a film that followed the life of Jackie Siegel, former beauty queen and wife of David Siegel, owner of Westgate Resorts, a major time-share company. The Siegels and their many children live in a massive house in Florida, but as the film begins, they are building an even bigger one modeled partially on the Palace of Versailles. But then, as the filmmakers were shooting, the recession hit and the Siegels were in huge financial trouble. They kept filming and what they capture is fascinating, an American story that shows the varied consequences of living beyond your means.

As for television shows, I was not immune to the Downton Abbey mania. Season 3 did not have a promising start but really found its feet in the latter half, I thought. I’m totally Team Edith by the way. (Maybe because I am the middle child of three sisters? Though my sisters and I get along way better than the Crawley sisters ever do.)

Other shows I’ve been keeping up with:

The Americans – I’m a little behind on this show and have only seen the first three episodes, but so far, it’s very compelling television. It’s about two Russian sleeper agents (played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) that have been posing as an American couple in the D.C. area long enough to have a teenage daughter. I’d never seen any of Matthew Rhys’ previous shows, but wow can he act.

Community – I’ve only seen the first two episodes of the new season, and while there is a detectable difference now that its former showrunner is gone, I’m still enjoying the antics of Troy and Abed and the rest of the study group.

Nashville – I started watching because of Connie Britton, but like many viewers, the songs are definitely the strongest draw. Plotlines fizzle at times and Scarlett rarely resembles a real person, but at this point, I’ll stay to the end of the season.

Parks and Recreation – I hated the first season but now it’s the most consistently good show that I watch. The whole ensemble is amazing.

And for the above, I just have to say, thanks Hulu. Also, pbs.org for Downton Abbey. I’ve never had cable and I don’t even have antenna channels anymore, so I’m one of those people completely dependent on the internet to supply me with recent show episodes.

And just to finish off this post, I’ll mention that I did read Bossypants a couple of months ago and it was okay. I mostly know Tina Fey from her Sarah Palin impersonations. I did not watch SNL when she was on it and I didn’t watch 30 Rock either. So this may explain my lack of enthusiasm about the book. That said, I did really enjoy the chapter about her dad for some reason. Also, I totally have hiked that one trail that Tina hiked in the dark with those college boys. It’s a really popular hike for people around here.

 

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Guests of the Ayatollah by Mark Bowden

Bowden GuestsGuests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam

2006. Atlantic Monthly Press. Hardcover. 680 pages.

Backstory: After seeing the movie Argo back in October of last year, I decided I wanted to read more about the Iran hostage crisis. I’d had Bowden’s book on my to-read list for a few years. I knew very little about this moment in history. I was born in the early 80’s, and it was never taught in school. The crisis would sometimes be referenced in news discussions, but not really explained in any detail. So, for those who may be unfamiliar, on November 4th, 1979, a student group called the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran, and took its staff and security personnel hostage. They demanded the return of the ousted shah to be returned to Iran and tried there for his crimes against the Iranian people. (The shah had been allowed to enter the States for medical treatment.) This initial take-over stretched into a drawn-out affair, with 52 hostages kept captive for 444 days until the final negotiated release in January 20, 1981.

Review:

Bowden has written several other well-known books of history such as Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo. In this book, he has put together a thorough account which covers the experiences of the hostages, the motivations of their captors, the intense media coverage, and the actions of the Carter administration and the U.S. military.

Although it took me a long time to read this book, every time I picked it up, I was engrossed. I was most fascinated by the ordeals of the hostages. Especially in the early days, they were usually tied up and blindfolded. They were not allowed to talk to each other. Eventually, some of these restrictions were relaxed, but even then, they were usually kept in dark, dank places. All of them lost weight, some were beaten, a couple tried to escape, at least one tried to kill himself, and at one point, a large group of them were lined up against a wall and told they would be shot. I found myself wondering what I would do in their situation.

For those who have seen Argo and are curious: the six embassy staff members who hid in the Canadian ambassador’s house are mentioned briefly when they make their escape, and also later when news of their rescue reaches the hostages. (The hostages received mail, but it was screened first by their guards. Major news events were occasionally discovered by a hostage through such means as an American fourth grader’s letter.)

My overall impression of the situation was how impossible of a situation it was for U.S. response. Iran’s government was in shambles, which made it difficult to know who was in charge, who had the authority to end this crisis in Tehran. Due to the geographic location of Tehran, a rescue mission was considered an action of last resort, with little room for error. Bowden’s portrayal of the Carter administration is overall a sympathetic one, at least in how it handled the crisis once it happened. Certainly, the President’s short-sightedness concerning the admission of the shah into the United States was a major instigating factor of the crisis.

The epilogue is interesting in that Bowden traveled to Tehran and interviewed some of the former hostage-takers, and took a tour of the small museum of sorts that is set up in the former embassy.

I definitely recommend this book. Bowden’s research shows through in its inclusion of detail, but the details never felt too heavy. Rather, they served to color in the personality of the people involved as well as the tenor of the situation as it progressed.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Bridget in Arabia – “All of these elements – the hostages’ experiences, the rescue attempt, and the story of the individuals – are woven together to create a literary whole that is at once informative, compelling, and illuminating.”

Happy Antipodean – “With such a large number of players in this 637-page tome, it is not surprising that you lose track of the majority . . . only a few are well-delineated enough to evoke recognition in the reader each time the author returns to their story. This is a shortcoming, but it is not fatal.”

Musings of a Bookish Kitty – “Even knowing how the situation played out, I was still caught in the suspense of the moment as I read.”

 

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