Thursday, April 29, 2010

Review: The Aqua Net Diaries

High school in middle America in the 1980s: this is Jennifer Niven's memoir of high school in suburban Indiana. Like any other high school student Jennifer angsts over her weekend dates, spends hours on the phone, and is profoundly embarrassed by her parents. She spends time dreaming up ways to cut school and acquire alcohol. In other words, this is the story of an entirely unremarkable high school experience. Most of us will find plenty in Niven's narrative that sounds familiar. Reading this book is quite a bit like reminiscing about high school with one's old friends at a reunion. That said, I'm not sure that there's anything more to this book. I absolutely loved Niven's novel, Velva Jean Learns to Drive, but I was disappointed in this memoir. The memoir was neither as deep nor as interesting as the novel. This is a light and entertaining read, but there's not a lot more to it.

Jennifer Niven, The Aqua Net Diaries: Big Hair, Big Dreams, Small Town (Gallery, 2010) ISBN: 1416954295

Monday, April 26, 2010

Review: Dead End Gene Pool

If one was wondering what it's like to grow up in one of the United States's wealthiest families, Burden's memoir provides the answer. Descended from Cornelius Vanderbilt, Burden grew up among the super rich. If her autobiography makes anything clear, it's that the super rich are entirely dysfunctional. Burden grew up with little familial attention: her father committed suicide, her mother was rarely present. Burden spent most of her time in boarding school or with her distant grandparents, who clearly preferred her brothers. It's nearly impossible to overstate just how dysfunctional "Burdenland" is. Burden does a brilliant job highlighting the absurdity of uber wealth. For anyone who suspects that nobody actually needs that much money, this book will certainly reinforce that. This is a thoughtful memoir, Burden manages to highlight the absurdities of her family without any of the bitterness to which she is likely entitled. The Gilded Age that produced Cornelius Vanderbilt was alive and well in the twentieth century, at least for some. This memoir is both hilarious and poignant, and well worth the read.

Wendy Burden, Dead End Gene Pool (Gotham, 2010) ISBN: 1592405266

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Review: How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly

Set on a single day, the summer solstice, this novel chronicles the empowerment and awakening of one Clarissa Burden. A successful novelist, Clarissa has found herself at age thirty-five in an unhappy and abusive marriage. She suffers from tremendous writer's block, while her husband ogles naked women in the name of "art." Clarissa's life gave her no reason to expect any better, as she grew up with a destitute and abusive mother. A series of encounters on the summer solstice will change this. Given the book's title, the basics of the plot probably come as no surprise. Where the surprise does come is in that these encounters are pushed by ghosts, of the family who lived and died in Clarissa's house, among others. I definitely found this to be one of the better fictionalized treatments of the supernatural world interfering with the mortal. The ghostly parts of the story fit, and they aren't forced. I found the ending somewhat surprising, though also rather unbelievable. Generally this was a good read, not my very favorite book, but definitely worth my time to read.

Connie May Fowler, How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly (Grand Central, 2010) ISBN: 0446540684

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Review: The Long Song

The horrors of chattel slavery are described in stark relief in Levy's fictional life story of a nineteenth-century Jamaican woman. Miss July, born into slavery, lives through some of Jamaica's most tumultuous events: warfare, emancipation, and the difficult transition to free labor. Miss July has endured more tragedy than most modern readers can comprehend: pulled away from her mother as a child, only to see her mother executed in the wake of a slave rebellion, Miss July's own child is given away. Ultimately Miss July finds herself in love with a dangerous white man. This book brings the horrors and brutality of slavery into full relief. It also shows how slave ownership corrupts slave owners, as we see two Britons become slave masters. This book is an accomplished family epic. It is a novel deep with emotion, and one that recreates a thoroughly believable nineteenth-century Jamaica. This is a world of tremendous violence and exploitation, yet one in which we still see tremendous human tenderness. I thoroughly enjoyed Levy's earlier novel, Small Island, and was not disappointed by my second foray into her work.

Andrea Levy, The Long Song (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010) ISBN: 0374192170

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Review: Father Melancholy's Daughter

Abandoned by her mother at age six, Margaret Gower grows up with her loving, but frequently depressed father. An Anglican minister, Father Gower is the quintessential high-church Anglican, and a model of patience and compassion. Like Margaret he has been fundamentally changed by his wife's departure. Margaret is the model devoted daughter, but much responsibility falls on her young shoulders. And much of Margaret's mind is taken up with trying to figure out the enigma that was her mother. Though both Margaret and her father have been deeply wounded by her mother's absence, this is not a story of ruined lives or sadness. It is a beautiful story about a family and a community, and how they deal with loss.

Gail Godwin, Father Melancholy's Daughter (Harper Perennial, 2001) ISBN: 0380729865

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Review: A Complicated Kindness

Nomi Nickel feels trapped in her small, Mennonite Manitoba town. East Village, Manitoba, combines strict religiosity with all of the career opportunities inherent in a chicken-rendering plant, and has brought nothing but strife to Nomi and her family. At the book's start Nomi's mother and sister have already run off, escaping the strictures of East Village. Nomi spends much of her time dreaming about reuniting with her mother and sister, reminiscing about the past, and trying to escape the strictures of East Village. Toewes does a brilliant job of narrating as Nomi, a troubled teenager. Much of Nomi's resistance seems to come from her perverse sense of humor, which sometimes distracts the reader from just how tragic her situation is. Nomi's is a world with few opportunities and no real solutions, and the novel is certainly a cautionary statement on the dangers of ideology without thought.

Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness (Counterpoint, 2005) ISBN: 1582433224