Friday, March 19, 2010

A Three-book Week

I used to be a Reader, with a capital R. I majored in literature two different universities. I defined myself by my reading. It was my joy, my escape,  my window to the universe,  my alternate universe when I got sick of looking at this one, and all that other stuff that Readers say. I often read 3-4 novels a week.  Not so much any more. Now I am lucky to read the 20 or so books per year that get assigned by the two book groups to which I belong. So, to get to the end of a week and have, by the skin of my teeth, finished two book group books ON TIME, plus an extra book just for the heck of it, feels really good. They were about as different as three books can be, and I could actually keep straight which one was which, which bodes well for my cognitive abilities, since sometimes I worry that I don't read as much anymore because my poor brain just can't handle it.

Anyway,  here are my reviews of the three books:

Bernice McFadden
Genre: Adult Fiction, Contemporary, African American
You Might Like This Book: If you are interested in stories about women and loss, friendships between women or accounts about post-WW2, segregated southern America with a focus on the challenges of broken families and identity crises exacerbated by the legacy of slavery, war and poverty.

So, yeah, this is not, as they say at the movies, The Feel Good Story of the Summer.  While it contains beautiful writing,  it is also intense, ugly at times, filled with in-your-face violence, profanity and sexual slang, and sadly, not the most compellingly constructed story that I've ever read. In fact, it reminded me a lot of a John Grisham novel in terms of the setting and descriptions, except the author was trying to make it clear that her book is Art, not just pop fiction. For me, the Art was a bit contrived.

It is the story of a woman called Sugar who is trying to figure out who she is. She never knew her parents, in fact was abandoned as a baby and raised in a whorehouse. She lives with emptiness inside and very, very few happy memories as she makes her way as a prostitute. Hers truly is a tragic life.   The other main character is Pearl, a straight-laced and kind-hearted older woman who has experienced devastating loss and lives with a large missing piece in her own life.  Pearl and Sugar find each other and for a time, there is great hope that the unlikely friendship will yield true change and emotional abundance for both of them.  For a time.

The story is set against the goings on of a small southern town populated by the posterity of slaves trying to cope not only with life in segregated America, but also with the after effects of WW2. The people of the town serve to frame and highlight the process of Pearl and Sugar coming together and all the clashes that their different lives and values cause.

In the end, this book continues tragic. Perhaps the author fancies it on a Shakespearean level, but not for me. I don't always need a book to have a happy ending, but I do like for the character arc to have some forward motion. This ride is more like a boomerang.  If it were cathartic and authentic in the feel of the ending, I think I wouldn't mind so much. Sometimes a good tragedy really serves to clear the mind and uplift in a sort of backwards way.  Unfortunately for me, this one just sputters out, and I found myself unbelieving and frustrated rather than sighing and crying. 

A Curse Dark As Gold
Elizabeth Bunce
Genre: YA fiction, Historical Fantasy, Fairy Tale Retelling
You Might Like This Book: If you enjoy Fairy Tales, strong female characters, imaginative settings and stories about recovering from loss.

This is a re-telling of the story of Rumpelstiltskin and it has a lot of the most important elements from that classic old tale, with some twists and a lot more detail.  There is a poor miller and his daughter, and an odd little magical dude,  but there's no king, just creditors to pay as the mill threatens to go under or be sold.

I really liked this book. I could imagine the setting very clearly, so the author really shone at that kind of writing. It was definitely full of misfortunes for the poor miller's daughter, thus as a heroine, she has her work cut out for her. Her flaws serve to draw the story out and occasionally get a bit tiresome, but for the most part I was really cheering for her to win in the end.

This one is kind of a no-brainer for me because on the whole, I like reinterpretations of fairy tales. I was a devourer of Grimm and Andersen as a kid-I just loved them and read and re-read them into my late teens. I'm appalled by all the desire to whitewash and sanitize them. I was never terrorized for a second. They were, after all, FAIRY tales, not Truth tales, for heaven's sake. Anyway, with all those deliciously rich tales firmly in my memory, it is really a pleasure to step back in that world, especially when someone has taken the time that Bunce has to draw in all the detail and make a world worth escaping to. This is her first novel, and I will be looking for other things from her pen.

American On Purpose
Craig Ferguson
Genre: Adult, Memoir
You Might Like This Book: If you're a fan of Ferguson on the Late Late Show, or celebrity memoirs in general, or you are interested in what drives a middle-class Scottish guy to become a full-fledged American citizen, or you enjoy stories of getting past addiction.

I do like Craig Ferguson on the Late Late Show. I have fairly frequent bouts of vampirism, where I'm not really having trouble sleeping, I just like to stay up late and get things done, then nap the next day. So, I discovered Craig a few years ago and enjoy his brand of comedy, plus, as Craig himself observes, American women love an accent. It is so true. You can find full episodes on, but watch with your eyes wide open-this is the Late, Late Show after all-there's a reason it's on at 12:30am.

So, the book. It is really quite a good read, with plenty of Craig's wry humor and lots of stories from his life. He is brutally honest, which I admire and he has been through the ringer, so he has a lot to be honest about. He speaks of the effects of WW2 on Scotland and how it affected his parents lives as well as his own, even though he was born in the 60's.  He speaks of his parents having to work so hard just to give their kids a better life than they had as children. He speaks of starting to drink as a teen and being a full alcoholic by his early twenties.  Sad.

He then tells how he turned his life around and got sober, and all through it he reminds the reader that this whole path is leading him to America. He gets there in the end, of course, and the last few pages of the book beautifully sum up the rest of the story.

I found this a little more authentic than the usual celebrity memoir, mostly because of his writing skills and his humility.  He managed to describe his most important relationships with women, most of which didn't work out, without vilifying the women and in fact making them seem quite heroic and wonderful. He fully acknowledges his responsibility for his life. Even though most of the book is about his ride into and then out of addiction, it all comes together and inspires admiration and understanding.  Plus he likes Mormons, so what's not to love?


  1. I'm with you. I used to read SO much. Now I can barely squeak along. But every now and then I have spurts. I would question Sugar as art--it seemed a little basic novelish to me. :)

  2. Thanks for all the good reviews! I've been browsing my friends blogs to get ideas for book group since it's my turn to host! :) Your blog is one-stop shopping!


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