Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

Orange is the new Black

Orange is the New Black: One Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman

2010. Spiegel & Grau. ebook. 322 pages.

Review:

In case you haven’t heard of this book before, Orange is the New Black is Piper Kerman’s memoir about her experience in a women’s mininum security prison in Danbury, Connecticut. It inspired the Netflix TV show by the same name, of which I have watched both seasons. In 1993, Kerman helped transport drug money for her girlfriend at the time. In 1998, she pled guilty to the crime, but didn’t serve her sentence until 2004.

I found Orange is the New Black a worthwhile read. While it was fun to spot the inspirations for characters, plotlines and scenes used in the TV show, the memoir is really a completely different story than the show. Kerman never sensationalizes prison life. For the most part, the inmates really look out for each other, and Kerman is both the recipient and giver of touching gestures and gifts. In an interview included at the back of the book, Kerman states that her book “is really about finding that value in humanity and warmth in a setting where we’re constantly told there’s none to be found.”

It seems that one of the worst aspects of prison is how the inmates are at the mercy of the correctional officers’ moods, prejudices and caprice. While certainly there need to be rules and order in prison, some COs seem to indulge in power trips and withholding information unnecessarily from the inmates. I have a friend who works as an addiction counselor in the prison system. In her first prison job, most of her difficulties arose from conflicts with correctional officers, not with the inmates. (I haven’t asked her lately if that dynamic is the same.) As Kerman describes in an NPR interview:

KERMAN: [A] small kindness from a prison officer, or a staffer, can sometimes really mean the world. There were also a very, very small number of folks – men, in my experience – who really made it their business to make life miserable for prisoners. And one prison guard can make hundreds and hundreds of prisoners’ lives unbearable.

GROSS: There’s a lot of times when you’re frisked, when you’re in prison. And for one of the guards, that’s an opportunity to feel women up – one of the male guards. Is that something you experienced in prison, or is that something that was written for the Netflix series?

KERMAN: I – like, I think most of the women that I knew in Danbury frequently experienced, you know, that really simple and straightforward groping, which is a total violation. It’s really low-level sexual abuse, but it is really persistent and pervasive. And so that would happen all the time and generally, that would happen in the course of going in or out of the visiting room. So it’s particularly jarring to sort of have that kind of a violation happen just as you’re about to go and try and have a really positive experience with your loved ones.

I’m really glad Kerman has been able to shine this spotlight on the life of prisoners in the United States. I can think of several instances when I’ve seen or heard people regard prisoners as less than human. This past Christmas, a friend of my sister’s posted on Facebook about her church congregation’s decision to send 32,000 gifts to inmates in their state prison system. The first comment on her post: “Why inmates and not children or families in need?!” (My sister’s friend and another person responded very graciously that inmates are people in need as well, and that the church also has funds dedicated to children and needy families.)

Kerman’s critique of the prison system should not lead to the conclusion that Kerman denies her own culpability in her situation. Kerman states from the start that her jail-time was deserved: she broke the law and received the consequences of that action. She is also aware of her own privilege – that she had a supportive fiance, plus supportive family and friends throughout her jail-time, and that her sentence was relatively short.

Also, as friendly as fellow inmates could be, prison should in no way be construed as some sort of summer camp. Kerman makes it clear that prison is emotionally punishing and the lack of freedom is not an abstract concept but something deeply felt on a daily basis. The boredom, the lack of privacy, the separation from family and friends, from the world and its beauty, are all part of the experience. Do the prisoners come out of their sentences prepared to re-enter the world? Kerman’s opinion is that they largely do not. She also specifically criticizes mandatory drug sentences, which have led to more, and more lengthy incarcerations than seems beneficial to society.

There are a couple other prison or prison-related memoirs out there that I may read, now that I’ve read the most currently famous one. I’d particularly like to read Ted Conover’s Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, about how Conover, a journalist, applies to become a prison officer.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Leafing through Life – “Kerman has a vivid, honest voice that doesn’t drift into self-pity but instead keenly observes the people around her both good and bad.”

The Novel Life – “While I’ve never been a fan of a memoir, Orange is the New Black reads like a fiction novel. Piper is conversational, a bit sarcastic at times, and a character that, while you may not feel relatable, you will at least find yourself immersed in her story.”

Reading through Life – “It was interesting to me, in particular, to read about the way that she adapted to the rules and routines of being in the system, and how she managed to deal with knowing that she, unlike quite a few of the others around her, was there for the first time and probably the last. I think this is what makes her story both unique and less valuable as an “insider’s look at prison”: Kerman isn’t the “typical” American prisoner.”

 

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The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (re-read)

glass castle  The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

2005. Scribner. Paperback. 288 pages.

Review:

I first read The Glass Castle five years ago and absolutely loved it. I had no trepidation when I picked it up again. I knew it would hold up to a re-read and it did. I like that Walls’ tone throughout the book manages to be matter-of-fact without distancing the reader. My emotions were always engaged, but not manipulated, by her writing.

Also, the narrative she constructs for her childhood is very compelling. The book memorably begins with Jeannette Walls as an adult, taking a taxi to a party in New York City, and then she looks out the window to see her mom digging through a dumpster. The book soon transitions to an early memory of how Jeannette was badly burned while trying to boil a hotdog at three years old. She captures a child’s journey from accepting her parents as normal to the slow realization that something is wrong. In one of these turning points, Jeannette and her sister Lori have just finished off eating margarine with sugar, for lack of other food options.

Mom got angry. She was saving it, she said, to butter the bread. We already ate all the bread, I said. Mom said she was thinking of baking some bread if a neighbor would loan us some flour. I pointed out that the gas company had turned off our gas.

“Well,” Mom said. “We should have saved the margarine just in case the gas gets turned back on. Miracles happen, you know.” It was because of my and Lori’s selfishness, she said, that if we had any bread, we’d have to eat it without butter.

Mom wasn’t making any sense to me. I wondered if she had been looking forward to eating the margarine herself. And that made me wonder if she was the one who’d stolen the can of corn the night before, which got me a little mad. “It was the only thing to eat in the whole house,” I said. Raising my voice, I added, “I was hungry.”

Mom gave me a startled look. I’d broken one of our unspoken rules: We were always supposed to pretend our life was one long and incredibly fun adventure.

p. 69

Another reason I love this book is the bond between Jeannette and her siblings, who look out for each other, in the face of their parents failure to do the same.

I recently read two thought-provoking reviews/comment sections around this book that I want to discuss a bit. Both reviewers admire the book, but as I interpreted from their writing, they experienced some unease regarding the book’s reception by readers – that is, how readers categorized the story, and what they took away from it.

The first is Jenny’s recent review from Shelf Love. In the comment section, blogger Litlove compared Walls’ story to a fairy tale:

The fairy tale critic, Jack Zipes maintains that fairy tales are as much for the parents as the children, a way of making them feel better about the stuff they may have done to their kids. And that’s the part of the book I struggle with – the thought of all the people who might read this and think: see, what I did wasn’t so bad after all.

The concern here, I think, is that the Hansel and Gretel aspect of the story, and Walls’ dispassionate tone may cause readers to gloss over the parental wrongs, and reinforce this idea that children can magically surmount anything if they just have enough guts and determination.

Here is a link to Litlove’s 2009 review from her blog, Tales from the Reading Room. She and those who discussed the book in that review’s comment section expressed unease about people who see the book as uplifting, who praise the author’s forgiveness and indeed, see it as a story about forgiveness.

This criticism of readers made me feel a little defensive, at first, as what stays with me about this book is how the siblings helped each other out of their situation. So yes, a big part of the reason I like the book is this one positive aspect to her story, in the midst of the harrowing details. I may not use the word uplifting, but I found myself rooting for these kids and feeling glad when three out of the four of them managed to free themselves from the situation.

In a funny way, the expressed unease of some commenters on Litlove’s blog made me feel uneasy, because it sometimes came across as: “Dear other readers: you’re reading it wrong.” But at the same time, I must admit that I have expressed similar unease when it comes to the popularity of books like Twilight. And I think the key here is the popularity of the work, because it is then that we start wondering why is this popular and we start connecting it to patterns of popular stories. One of the commenters on Litlove’s review remarked how Americans love the “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps” narrative. If this narrative is overly favored, such favor may submerge narratives which describe the damaging generational cycle of poverty and abuse. Thus, The Glass Castle‘s popularity makes some readers uneasy, because it can be seen as inadvertently contributing to this imbalance.

Of course, such favor isn’t the fault of the book itself, especially in this case where it is a memoir describing actual life events. And I feel that I can love what I love about The Glass Castle without caveat, while acknowledging that it shouldn’t be the only type of narrative I read about poverty. And it hasn’t been: I’ve also read books like Adrian LeBlanc’s Random Family, a nonfiction book that captures the cycle of poverty among families in the Bronx. That said, I definitely welcome more suggestions for books about poverty, especially nonfiction and memoir.

Thanks to Jenny, Litlove and sundry commenters for stirring me to deeper thought on this topic, and I hope I haven’t mischaracterized your opinions!

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

As Usual, I Need More Bookshelves – “I spent most of the reading of this book alternating between horrified and fascinated, and feeling a little bit like a voyeur watching something that I should probably stop.”

The Book Lady’s Blog – “This was a gripping, touching, ultimately very redemptive story that reminded me of all I have to be thankful for and inspired me to be more aware of those who have less.”

Tales from the Reading Room – “The book reads to me like a return to a time that has been frozen in the past, unexamined, unexplained, unexplored, preserved with the love and loyalty of the young child, who has no choice in the matter.”

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Blessed be the bridge-builders (and their books)

After my review of Karen Armstrong’s memoir was posted yesterday, I was searching the internet to verify an aspect of her story, and came across a blog post about Karen Armstrong, written by Jerry Coyne last November. Jerry Coyne is a scientist, professor and author. He wrote the book, Why Evolution is True, which I read a few years ago and enjoyed. I wasn’t really aware of his writing outside of that book. And then I read this blog post, where he calls Armstrong “dangerous” [for her defense of Islam], spoke dismissively of her “palaver”, and mockingly said she “earns her living by making liberal believers feel Sophisticated.”

I don’t know why I was so taken aback by this, as it’s not like I’m unaware of this certain breed of athiests-on-the-internet. I guess it was the dissonance between my favorable impressions of Armstrong from her books on compassion and interfaith understanding, and finding this vehement, contemptuous insistence that she is actually dangerous. (Coyne has written similarly about Armstrong a couple of other times on his blog.)

Unfortunately, I think that bridge-builders like Armstrong often face contempt as they try to create understanding and dialogue in places where partisanship is the norm. So I want to express my appreciation for writers who, in my opinion, are trying to foster havens of respectful dialogue among disparate groups, and within controversial topics. Due to my own personal interests and train of thought right now, the bridge-building authors I have in mind all have written about Christianity.

First, especially in light of his recent death, I want to highlight writer and theologian, Marcus Borg. Several years ago, I read The Heart of Christianity, and I recently finished his book Reading The Bible Again For The First Time. I resonate with his approach to Christianity; his writing gave me encouragement as I resettled into my Christian faith after relinquishing Biblical literalism. In Christianity Today’s obituary, Scot McKnight is quoted as saying: “He patiently listened to all sides of the debates and knew the strengths of evangelicalism and historic orthodoxy, even if he pointed more often to weaknesses. Borg was the kind of progressive/liberal theologian who welcomed evangelicals to the table—as long as they would listen, as well.”

Agnostic Brown University student and budding journalist Kevin Roose sought a deeper understanding of evangelical Christians, and decided to go “undercover” as a student at Liberty University. The result was his thoughtful book, The Unlikely Disciple. As I wrote in my review of it, “[The Unlikely Disciple] is a lovely picture of someone trying to find common ground and understanding with the ‘other side.’ It’s also an intriguing look at a culture whose members are frequently dismissed out of hand.”

In their book, A Climate for Change, Katharine Hayhoe and Andrew Farley sought to persuade Christians that humans have and are contributing to global warming and that Christians should be part of the effort for environmental change. Katharine Hayhoe is a Christian climate scientist. I reviewed Hayhoe and Farley’s book back in 2010, but recently heard about Katharine Hayhoe again in a re-aired NPR episode that had originally been taped in June of last year. A quote from the episode: “In her presentations, Hayhoe says she finds it effective to address the questions people have: How do we know that climate change is even real? How could I care about climate change as a Christian/Conservative/Republican? For some people, she says, it can feel like giving up their identity in order to care about climate change.”

Rachel Held Evansblog was a breath of fresh air as I became increasingly agitated with the church where I was a member, agitated with the whole Christian sub-culture it represented. I loved the people in that church and they loved me, but I was alienated by their rhetoric on certain topics. Evans, who still identifies as an evangelical Christian, articulated some of the doubts and concerns that I had. I definitely identified with aspects of Evans’s memoir, Evolving in Monkey Town. I don’t follow her blog as regularly nowadays, but I still appreciate how she seeks to build bridges within the Christian community. Her blog has a regular interview feature that has included – among many others – “Ask a Reformed Pastor,” “Ask an Interfaith Couple,” “Ask a transgender Christian,” and “Ask a Seventh-Day Adventist.”

Matthew Vines, Justin Lee, and James Brownson have each published books which work toward reforming conservative Christianity’s stance on homosexuality. I’ve read Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian and Justin Lee’s memoir, Torn. I hope to read Brownson’s more densely academic book, Bible, Gender, Sexuality in its entirety this year (I’ve read portions) and also would like to read David Gushee‘s Changing Our Mind after hearing him deliver a speech at last year’s Reformation Project conference in D.C. The speech was called, “Ending the Teaching of Contempt against the Church’s Sexual Minorities.” I haven’t reviewed Vines’ or Lee’s book yet, as I’m hoping to finish Brownson’s book and write a comprehensive review of all three, plus Jeff Chu‘s fantastic book Does Jesus Really Love Me? With all of these authors, I see their goal of reform as also a goal of building bridges, as many in Vines and Lee’s situation have understandably left the faith and never looked back, but these two and others have decided to remain and keep the channels of dialogue open.

Are bridge-building authors important to you as a reader? If so, who are the bridge-building writers you admire? What topics are they interested in?

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A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Discovery_of_Witches_Cover2010. Penguin. ebook. 581 pages.

In a nutshell:

Scholar Diana Bishop is a witch who largely refuses to use her powers – except for special occasions, such as when her washing machine is broken or a book is out of reach. While conducting research in Oxford’s Bodliean Library, Diana comes across a spell-bound book and has a brief magical interaction with it before returning it to the stacks. This action brings her to the attention of all the supernatural creatures in the vicinity: the other witches, daemons, and vampires. One vampire in particular, Matthew Clairmont, seeks her out and the two fall in love. This taboo relationship and Diana’s burgeoning powers throw both of them into danger, as they journey to Clairmont’s ancestral home in France and then to Diana’s home in upstate New York.

Review:

If I were to compare A Discovery of Witches to another book, it would be Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. The two books share a combination of vampires, history and travel, not to mention lengthiness. I remember loving Kostova’s novel, especially her ability to evoke the way places were in certain times. A Discovery of Witches does not have as good a sense of place, except for Harkness’ depiction of the old haunted house in upstate New York. I loved that house with all its quirks and ghosts. Harkness gave the upstate New York locale a New England feel, and I certainly warmed to that. Indeed, the last third may have been my favorite part of the book, as more and more characters show up at the house, including one of my favorite side characters, Miriam. True, the last third also could get boggy as supernatural politics and rules are stuffed in alongside eleventh-hour hurried explanations – [**Spoiler**] oh Diana you have all the powers because you absorbed your twin in utero! okay go time travel now! [**/end spoiler**].

Why am I starting this review by describing the last third? Well, I wanted to start with the positive, I guess. I debated giving up on this book while in the first two-thirds because I hated the Matthew / Diana dynamic so much. Young “special” woman courted by very old vampire? Oh, and he’s stalkerish (“over-protective”), handsome and rich too? Yippee. The first part – in Oxford – was almost insufferable, as Matthew shows off his antiques and fine wines to Diana, whisking her around in his high-end car and to his high-end estate. And he’s also – wait for it – dangerous, so there’s that tired rigmarole as well.

The section in France is a little improved, as we are introduced to Matthew’s mom, Ysabeau, also a cool side character. But it’s also: more antiques! More displays of Matthew’s fine tastes! And it was in this section that I realized that the book features lots of scenes of Diana being told to rest. Usually this is for a good reason, as she experiences a lot of emotional and physical trauma during the book. But she is constantly submitting to the caretaking and ministrations of others, and this gets repetitive. As lengthy as this book is, as a reader, you start to eye those repetitive aspects and ask if all that was really necessary.

I’m semi-curious about the rest of the trilogy, as I did like aspects of the book. Despite the clumsy way it was sometimes handled or written, the supernatural politics and world-building had some intrigue. And the side characters had promise – more airtime for them could possibly benefit the story as a whole, I think. Has anyone read the whole trilogy? Does it get better?

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Iris on Books – “Throughout the first half, reading A Discovery of Witches felt like an addictive rush, I kept on wanting to read more, and I could not wait to recommend it to the people I know who enjoy paranormal fiction. However, towards the end of the book, that rush turned into a mixture of the will to keep reading and dread combined with, at times, annoyance.”

The Literary Omnivore – “The plot structure is crippled by the lack of any resolution in this installment of the trilogy, the overbearing romance is so syrupy you’ll want to wash your hands, and the worldbuilding’s motto appears to be “Why show when you can tell”? Definitely a miss.”

Tif Talks Books – “I loved the complexities added in, including alchemic history, suspenseful mysteries, intricate connections, scientific relations to the paranormal, and more than a little romance.”

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The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong

Spiral Staircase

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness

2003. Knopf. Hardcover. 336 pages.

Review:

Two years ago, I read Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life as part of an interfaith book discussion. Although I’m aware of Armstrong’s impressive bibliography of books on the major world religions, I have not yet read any of them. Twelve Steps was recently published and is kind of the book incarnation of Armstrong’s work toward a global compassion movement. The Spiral Staircase is Armstrong’s memoir that starts from her departure from the convent to the time of the memoir’s writing (it was published in 2003). There also exists a memoir about her time in the convent called Through the Narrow Gate, and I was surprised to learn from The Spiral Staircase, that Armstrong had published a memoir about her post-convent life before, in 1983, under the title Beginning the World. She seems to disavow the 1983 version of her story now.

The title of the book is a reference to T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Ash Wednesday”. The first part of the poem prefaces The Spiral Staircase: “Because I do not hope to turn again / Because I do not hope / Because I do not hope to turn . . .” The poem and the title evoke a gradual climb that doesn’t always feel like progress.

For those who, like me, didn’t read her first memoir, Through the Narrow Gate, Armstrong provides enough background to understand how life in the convent damaged her. The Spiral Staircase begins with Armstrong as a student in Oxford, unable to emotionally connect to art and slowly giving up on God, whose presence had always eluded her. She has a formidable intellect, but still struggles to find her place in academia. Disappointment after disappointment seem to dog her life, though friends and her landlord’s family provide bright spots that pierce through her internal darkness. Armstrong’s voice in The Spiral Staircase is very frank but also generous toward her past self and toward others.

One of the most heartbreaking aspects to Armstrong’s story is her long-undiagnosed epilepsy. During her life in the convent, Armstrong experienced several attacks that looked like fainting to others’ eyes. Her superiors accused her of being dramatic. Outside of the convent, her episodes – which often included hallucinations, disorientation, terror and sometimes amnesia – became even more frightening. Psychiatrists thought it was mental illness and addressed it accordingly, and of course this failed to actually help her. When she was finally diagnosed, the doctor expressed exasperation at how all these psychiatrists failed to recognize her textbook case of epilepsy. Even today, Armstrong writes, there are some people in her life who refuse to accept that her epilepsy is a medical problem, not a mental illness.

The memoir grows brighter and brighter as Karen describes discovering her passion for comparative religion. She travels to Jerusalem as part of a TV production, and also learns more about Islam and Judaism while looking again at Christianity. It’s a pleasure to read of someone finding their calling, and even better, reading Armstrong’s insightful analysis and enthusiasm for her topic. I copied out two quotes, one of which I included in my end-of-year blog post, but which I’ll quote again (I also enjoy the allusion to Lewis Carroll):

Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you.

And the second quote:

Faith was really the cultivation of a conviction that life had some ultimate meaning and value, despite the tragic evidence to the contrary.

The Spiral Staircase was a difficult read at first, because her life was difficult then, but I think that is necessary in order to feel the joy as Karen finds her place in the world. I’m glad to have read this memoir before diving into her backlist, as I think it will add to the reading experience to know how she came to be interested in writing about the world religions.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

The Book Brothel – “Armstrong does a great job of expressing a lot of strong emotions in a way that feels honest and not overboard. Her unorthodox life makes for a very interesting autobiography, bringing together faith, religion, illness, and the academic world in a look at the 1960s and 1970s, a period of time that was turning away from Armstrong’s original beliefs.”

Shelf Love (Teresa) – “It’s a beautiful story that shows the value of always seeking, even when the answers seem hidden in the darkness.”

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Mini-reviews: Smile, A Woman Entangled, and Ocean at the End of the Lane

Smile Telgemeier  Smile by Raina Telgemeier

2009. GRAPHIX. Paperback. 214 pages.

Review: This delightful graphic novel is a coming-of-age memoir aimed at a young-adult audience, but definitely enjoyable for adults. Raina Telgemeier depicts the story of her junior-high and high school years, which start inauspiciously with an accident that damages her two front teeth. Various dental surgeries and procedures become the throughline for her tale of teenaged life. The specifics of Telgemeier’s life touch on common, recognizable ground: the crushes, the frenemies, the discovered interests. My teenaged life was about a decade later than Raina’s, and was even more devoid of boys than hers, but oh, I definitely identified with the fear of embarrassment and being a teenaged observer to a natural disaster (hers a devastating earthquake, mine a much-less-devastating, but still powerful ice-storm). My absolutely favorite part of Smile was when Raina switches from one group of friends to a new group of friends: Telgemeier takes a moment to acknowledge that the old friends didn’t transform into sworn enemies, but rather morphed into friendly acquaintances.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

13-year-old daughter of Average Girl Reads - “What I liked: it was in color; she was about my age for most of the book; it showed what braces are really like when you first get them; she does the right thing; there was comedy. What I didn’t like: the setting was before my time, so I was confused about some fads and fashion; it ended so soon! >=(” [This quote was changed from bullet point to paragraph form for better fit for my blog – Christy]

Beth Fish Reads – “This graphic novel autobiography is so honestly told that I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t love it.”

The Blue Bookcase – “The character’s expressions are absolutely fantastic and the teenage world of San Francisco in the late 80’s and early 90’s is created well. The craftsmanship is excellent.

Woman Entangled  A Woman Entangled by Cecilia Grant

2013. Bantam. ebook. 336 pages.

Review: This is the second book I’ve read by historical romance author Cecilia Grant, and the third in a series (I read the first in the series.) In this book, Kate Westbrook is intent on improving her family’s lot by reconnecting with her father’s estranged family and marrying well. Family friend Nick Blackshear was once in love with Kate, but now has other things on his mind, principally the negative effect his brother’s marriage has had on his law career. I appreciate how Grant’s world shows the consequences of “unacceptable” marriages (as decided by society) and that there is no magic resolution for some situations. I like how Kate and Nick are flawed but likable, and that the story isn’t only about their developing relationship, but also about their relationships with their family and friends. The historical backdrop is much more smoothly integrated in A Woman Entangled than it was in Grant’s good, but sometimes dragging, A Lady Awakened. I would recommend this for fans of Courtney Milan. They do not have exactly the same style, but some of the same sensibilities.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Dear Author – “A Woman Entangled did finish much stronger than it started, making it a worthwhile read, if still a slightly disappointing one.”

Jenny’s Books – “My point is, I like it that the characters aren’t consistently right or wrong by virtue of serving as protagonists or antagonists.”

ocean at the end of the lane  The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

2013. William Morrow. ebook. 246 pages.

Review: I don’t love Neil Gaiman’s books. I’ve read two others besides this one: Neverwhere which I disliked, and Stardust which I liked but didn’t leave much of an impression. I added myself to the library’s waitlist for this ebook because The Ocean at the End of the Lane had been near omnipresent for a while on my blog feed. It’s a fairly simple tale, with some interesting fantasy details. But as I’m writing this, I’m kind of wondering what else to say. I mean, the book is not without some quietly powerful moments, such as when the main character – a young boy – stands up to his father. And everything about the farm is warmly inviting. I liked the bittersweet tone of the book overall. But it’s just not a very memorable book for me.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

bookshelves of doom – “If the books of Ray Bradbury had an affair with the books of Diana Wynne Jones, the resulting lovechild would very probably look something like The Ocean at the End of the Lane.”

Shelf Love (Jenny) – “[Gaiman] lets us see the strong places, too, and the love, and the comfort, whenever there is any, and the eventual possibility of healing. I’d say this book — like all true art — is bigger on the inside than on the outside.”

The Wertzone – “It’s almost like Gaiman wanted to write a moody piece about childhood but then decided he needed some sort of existential threat to be introduced and defeated because, well, it’s a fantasy novel.”

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The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Bone Clocks2014. Random House. ebook. 640 pages.

Review:

In a spasmodic wish to be “current” with my reading, I placed myself on the waitlist for The Bone Clocks ebook through my public library. I knew very little about the novel going in, except that there were multiple narrators like Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (which I haven’t read), and that the first narrator was a teenage British girl.

That teenaged British girl is Holly Sykes, who has just decided to go live with her much older boyfriend, only to find he’s (no surprise) cheating on her with another underage girl. So she runs away from her town into the countryside. This first section is a masterpiece of first-person narration: Holly’s voice comes through with an indelible, clear personality and with a natural cadence.

If you’ve heard anything about The Bone Clocks, you probably know that it has a sci-fi / fantasy element. This first Holly section has a strong blast of this element: it’s disorienting and suspenseful in execution.

After the first section ended, I was sorry to leave Holly’s point of view and jump into the mind of sociopathic Hugo Lamb (who is apparently a character from a previous Mitchell book). As soon as I got a taste of Lamb’s narration, I was like, “Who is this jerk? Take me back to Holly.” But I soon succumbed to the brilliance of Mitchell’s writing in this section as well, as he captures the milieu of Cambridge and gradually reveals the extent of Lamb’s manipulations. Lamb crosses paths with Holly and it turns out that Holly is the main thread that runs through the novel, growing older through others’ eyes.

Lamb’s section is followed by two more male narrators: a weary war correspondent in 2003, and a misanthropic author who hails from in and around our present day. I found the 2003 section to be moderately tiresome, as the war journalist is prodded to talk about his Iraq experiences by oblivious, obnoxious members of a wedding party. It felt like the author’s views had too strong a presence, overtaking the story at times. The fourth section – with the misanthropic author – is a globe-trotting segment; it took me a while to warm up to this narrator but I eventually did. Throughout the second through fourth sections, the sci-fi / fantasy element blinks in and out, present though not as prolonged as in Holly’s first section.

It is in the fifth section that the sci-fi / fantasy element is thoroughly indulged and explained. I saw that a lot of readers hated this section, and I agree that it is the weakest part of the book. I don’t want to give away all of the book’s secrets, but suffice to say, the story involves two groups of immortal people – some who achieve it through humane, natural ways and some who achieve it through incredibly evil means. The narrator of the fifth section is one of the “good” immortals, whose soul jumps through the ages. I found this concept fascinating. The story of how the narrator found himself in the body of a young Russian peasant girl in the 19th century and had to make his way out of serfdom was compelling.

Unfortunately, the fifth section is also full of exposition, a made-up vocabulary, and a drawn-out supernatural fight scene. I tend to find many fight scenes boring, both in movies and books. I especially have trouble when the combatants have superhuman powers, as they do in Bone Clocks‘ climactic battle. It’s a lot of people throwing each other around using their minds and special hand gestures. I was glad when it was over.

The final section returns us to Holly again, now a grandmother living in a bleak world that is falling into apocalypse. I agree with others that it gets a little preachy here, as characters outline the causes of why the world is collapsing. But, at the same time, aspects felt scarily plausible, and I was heavily invested in the fates of Holly, her family and her neighbors. I could have done without the caricature of the female religious fundamentalist, who comes complete with a loutish, leering son – especially in a book where the sociopath can have a nuanced portrayal and redemptive moment. I find it telling when there is a pattern of who present-day novelists are humanizing and who they are caricaturing. If it’s the same “types” that are getting caricatured over and over, then it starts to veer from interesting critique to dehumanization of a certain group of people.

Anyway, despite that annoyance, I really did like the last chapter a lot, and shed some tears at the end. It’s an ambitious novel, as many other reviewers have said, and perhaps a little messy, but worthwhile. I love the title: “bone clocks” is an evocative metaphor of the ordinary human life, of Holly’s life which is a finite, wondrous thing set in counterpoint to the immortals whose battles and intrigues swirl around her.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Fantasy Book Critic – “Overall, The Bone Clocks is very ambitious and has enough goodies to be a very good book and worth reading, but not the best David Mitchell – especially if it’s not the first novel of the author one reads as the amazing voice versatility is not as astonishing any more – and quite far from the admittedly humongous expectations I had about it.”

S. Krishna’s Books – “When I was at about 500 pages in and there were still almost 150 pages left, I couldn’t help but be in disbelief that I was still reading it. I suppose it’s a warning that this book can seem like a slog at times (but most of the times it moves along well), but it’s worth persevering through those because it really is such a well told book.”

The Speculative Scotsman – ” . . . not all of The Bone Clocks‘ narrators are pleasant people, but they read as real—as do the worlds they inhabit, whether these worlds once were or are the stuff of science fiction—and that’s what matters.”

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