Friday, February 09, 2007

Vacation Book Report #9

The Lady and the Unicorn
(2004) by Tracy Chevalier

*** out of five

Did you read Girl With a Pearl Earring? Then you've read The Lady and the Unicorn. The artwork in question is a tapestry, not a painting; the setting is France and Belgium, not Holland; the guilds are the weavers and the dyers, not the painters; but other than that, this is the same novel. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed it; but having read the earlier novel, this is a rewrite, wonderfully elegant, but disappointing for its sameness.

Vacation Book Report #8

The Memory Keeper's Daughter
(2005) by Kim Edwards

**** 1/2 out of five

I didn't think I'd like this book because the premise is so bizarre. A young doctor's wife goes into labor during a freak snowstorm in Kentucky, and he is forced to deliver his own baby with the help of a nurse. His son is born healthy, but a second child is delivered; a daughter with Down Syndrome. The doctor's own sister died of Down Syndrome when she was a teenager, and to save his wife the pain his own mother suffered he hands the baby to the nurse with instructions to take the child to an institution. The nurse, who is secretly in love with the doctor, takes the child, moves away, and raises her as her own. The doctor tells his wife her second child was born dead.

Completely implausible, but according to the author's notes, this is based on a true story told to her by a minister. The writing is beautiful, lush and lyrical. Even the doctor who gave away his own child becomes a sympathetic figure. It's the second book I've read here that reduced me to tears.

I return to the frigid north tomorrow, so only one more book to be read here on the pink sand beach.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Vacation Book Report #7

Friday Night Lights
(1990) by H. G. Bissinger

**** 1/2 out of five.

Friday Night Lights was approached from my low expectations. I had seen both the movie and the TV show, and felt that they glorified racism, sexism, and football as religion. Turns out that is because the film and the television version stripped the book's exploration of those factors and reduced this fine complex book to the simple story of Permian High School's 1988 football season. If you've seen the celluloid versions, you must read the book.

Racism? From the book I learned that Odessa, Texas public schools were not integrated until 1982. 1982! 28 years after Brown v. Bd. of Education was decided. 19 years after George Wallace blocked black students from entering the University of Alabama, and John F. Kennedy sent in the National Guard. In 1982 I was 25 and had graduated from integrated public schools and college. I couldn't have imagined that segregated schools still existed in the USA.

Sexism? Pressure on girls at Permian High School to conform was so intense that girls scored on average 75 points below the boys on scholastic aptitude tests.

Football as religion? It's the whole book, but especially the chapter near the end about how Permian's foe in the state semi-final game changed their entire grading system to ensure that no football player would be suspended for failing to maintain a 70 average. And woe to those who challenged the orthodoxy. A 35-year teacher, Will Bates, who refuses to give a star football player a grade he didn't earn, is drummed out of the school.

And as a bonus, I enjoyed the chapter about the great oil bust of the 1980s, which led an anonymous Texas oilman to say: "After all, we're just another Middle East war away from another boom." (p. 230)

Odessa is just 15 miles from Midland, Texas, where Chimpy McFlightsuit grew up.

On to the next tome!

Monday, February 05, 2007

Vacation Book Report #6

A Gesture Life (1999) by Chang-rae Lee

**** out of five

I was a little unsure of this book given that all the endorsements on the back cover were for Lee's first book, Native Speaker (1995), although that is not surprising when I find that Native Speaker won the PEN/Hemingway Award, QPB's New Voices Award, the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, the Oregon Book Award, and the American Book Award.

A Gesture Life started slowly, introducing the main character, 'Doc' Hata, and his exemplary life in his bland surburban community on the outskirts of New York City. The book slowly opens up as Doc describes his distant past as a medic in the Japanese army during WWII (where he fell in love with a comfort girl), to his more recent difficulties with his adopted daughter Sunny. He is a great storyteller.

The prose is lovely, clean and lyrical, and I was not surprised to learn on the Penguin website that Lee is the director of the MFA program at Hunter College in New York City.

I look forward to reading Native Speaker.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Vacation Book Report #5

The Dog of the South (1979) by Charles Portis

*** out of five

I picked up this book because of Roy Blount, Jr.'s blurb on the back cover: "No one should die without having read The Dog of the South." Now I can die a happy woman.

It's a funny meandering story about Ray Midge who journeys to find his wife, Norma, who has run off with her first husband in Ray's beloved Ford Torino. The trail leads him to Mexico and Honduras and he meets many lost souls and crackpots along the way. As I read the book I thought of the movie "The Player" and decided that The Dog of the South is Fannie Flagg meets Hunter S. Thompson. It's definitely a period piece, of a time when border crossings were routine and casual drug use more mainstream.

I read some of the book in the middle of the night because on Friday night, I was awakened to hear my brother's name being shouted over and over. I finally realized that I was not dreaming and hurried to dress (although I was still asleep enough that I dressed without ever turning on a light, stumbling around trying to locate my shoes with my feet.) Someone had rattled the locked door of guests at the hotel, and they were trying to rouse my brother the manager to tell him. I hurried to his quarters and woke him. He sleeps with a sleep machine due to sleep apnea and had slept through all the commotion. After we checked the premises and called the police I went back to bed at 2:00 a.m. but of course was too wired up to sleep. So I joined Ray Midge on his mad trip and read for an hour before I could relax and sleep. (We have decided, on reflection, that the marauder was actually another set of guests, a young couple who appear to have gotten quite drunk and apparently couldn't find their room in their condition. The following morning they required bloody mary's for breakfast and reeked of stale alcohol.) It fit in perfectly with this crazy book.