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guest review: Night School by Lee Child, from Mom

I’m so glad to have my mother around to review Lee Child along with me – or in this case, to review one I haven’t read yet! (For the moment, this is his newest, but I’m sure there’ll be another along shortly.) Night School follows my most recent Reacher read, Make Me, although the two are not chronological sequels. My mother sent this as an email to me, not intended as a formal review, but I appreciated it and she gave her permission to post.

Here’s Mom.
night-school

I really liked this book, especially compared to Make Me, which I finished afterwards. (And found excessively cruel and graphic, although well-plotted.) The story line carries us along beautifully. Another working of what’s up?, as in Make Me, where we don’t know quite what the deal is, but we have enough info to be looking hard at the details. And of course we get to tangle with some bad guys in number, and whip their fascist asses in entertaining variety.

Here Reacher is still in the army, which means a lot of structure and conflict built in from the bureaucracy. (In Make Me, he’s a bit of a drifter looking for adventure – and I know that’s a claim to fame for his fans.) So the Army sends him to Germany in this quest for the problem they need to solve. He bumps against the neo-nationalists so much you start to wonder if they are part of the plot. Hmmm.

So the plot is the thing, but Child’s writing is beautifully not present. I noted at first the short declarative sentences. After a 50-page warm-up, the story just flowed through. Some of the great stuff: He says to the German adversary, So why do you suppose you speak my language but I don’t speak yours? (Something to do with how important your language/country might be?) Or – the Germans thought they were uniting under one umbrella, but the West saw it as an arrangement of military bases with the people there efficiently manning the hotels and cafes.

I remember that Child is originally British, not to suggest he has an ax to grind. His character is man of integrity without a lot of allegiance to the system. His assistant in this is Neagley, the sergeant in War Games (the short story included at the end of Make Me). She’s perfect here, completely at his command (“adores him,” someone says), but has some complex that doesn’t allow any touch. So the sex interest is his boss, and of course the sex does not get in the way of the plot advances.

I could do some more page-turning like this, and I can’t help but like this impossible character.

Well said all around, in my opinion. I like what you said about the bureaucracy and the foil it provides. Cruel & graphic, yes: this is an important note for prospective new Reacher readers. Must have high threshold for blood. And the plot is indeed the thing. Lee Child excels at several things, I think: that invisibly expressive writing you mention, and action sequences (suspenseful fights I can really see), and a hell of a charismatic lead man. You said it: he’s an impossible character but we just can’t help but follow him. But the plots are nice and complex, filled with technical details and enough to challenge the experienced mystery/thriller reader. That is what I think you’re saying here, anyway.

About that “beautifully not present” writing, I find Reacher’s voice to be distinct and entertaining. Some of the books in this series are written in third person and some in first. And perhaps since I’ve listened to so many as audiobooks (and I highly recommend what narrator Dick Hill does with them!), I think that voice is a big part of the charisma. Those short, declarative, sarcastic, witty deliveries, even just inside his own head, really serve to characterize him.

Well done and thanks. I look forward to Night School and more of the page-turning and impossibilities.

guest review: Mother Tongue: My Family’s Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish by Christine Gilbert, from Mom

My mother is here today to guest-review a book to which she brings special expertise. Mom has a Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics from the University of Houston; used to teach English as a foreign language to adults in community college settings; and now volunteers her time tutoring English language learners one-on-one. The disclosure here is that I was sent a free copy of this book in exchange for my mother‘s honest review. (It’s fun how that fact plays off this book’s title.) Thanks, Mom!

mother tongue

Christine Gilbert is quite the adventurous spirit. She tells the story in Mother Tongue about her quest to learn three languages – Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish – in less than three years, while living in three countries. This adventure includes a baby who acquires a sibling along the way. She and her husband have few ties to the U.S., and are able to work remotely. Thus they are perfectly placed for the language quest.

The quest is primarily hers, but includes her son as he grows and learns the local language effortlessly, as children do. (Her back-story includes a genetic disposition to Alzheimer’s disease, and she learns of brain research that suggests that young bilinguals have an advantage over monolinguals that gives about five extra years before onset of Alzheimer’s.) She sets out to understand language learning theories, while researching all the logistics of moving house and choosing the places.

Gilbert does her homework on language acquisition theory, and she makes her case for total immersion (no hanging out with English speakers!). She works long days in language study. In the beginning – Beijing during a very cold winter with pollution too severe for the family to go out much – she chooses to hire a tutor for working at home, as well as a housekeeper who doesn’t speak English. When a crisis takes the family away suddenly, she reviews her experience and decides complete isolation within the foreign country is not the only way to absorbing language and culture. Each move and new setting will bring more lessons, and Gilbert gets quite good at her tasks.

This is not a dry tome about memorizing vocabulary for long hours. We make friends along the journey, we learn to talk and savor local food. Gilbert is a fun character, and her husband’s story is equally interesting; the book is a travel story on lots of levels. As a parenting and family dynamics study, Mother Tongue is yet another book. I’ve been involved enough in the bigger story to follow her adventures as told on her blog, and can reveal that this is an unending quest – two more countries appear there, and since I haven’t looked lately, who knows where they may be now.

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

motherI am deeply impressed by Alison Bechdel: her self-awareness, her fraught journey through her life and her relationship with her mother, her psychoanalysis and her work in this book (and, I’ll wager, her earlier Fun Home, which I haven’t read but have heard lots of good things about. I’ve put it on the list). This is a memoir of her mother, at first glance; but it’s more self-involved than that, although I don’t mean that in a bad way. That’s just what this book is. It’s the story of her writing a book about her mother, and it’s that book; it’s really a book about herself, then.

It is also a graphic memoir, which is not a format I’ve spent much time on, as I find it a little exhausting to follow; I guess I’m a traditionalist when it comes to my reading matter! I prefer traditional fonts, and certainly hard-copy rather than electronic (well, there are the audiobooks…). I’ve read very few graphic works, and although I’ve enjoyed them all, I tend to find them a little more effortful. On the other hand, though, I sped through these 289 pages easily in an afternoon. Seeing Bechdel’s visual version of herself, her mother, and her other characters (a father, two brothers, two psychoanalysts, a few girlfriends) added to the experience; so, props on the format as well, as it turns out. (This is where I’ll note that Alison Bechdel is also the author of the esteemed comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, and a whole pile of books of said comic.)

I feel the need to address a personal element of my reading this book. I have aspired for a handful of years now to write a book about my own mother. And it was my mother who gave me this book – I believe after she went to an author reading at a bookstore? – with a nudge toward writing my own version. This is funny to me now that I’ve read Are You My Mother?, because for one thing, Bechdel’s mom was less than pleased with her efforts (is there a joke in there, Mom?); also, the book I envision, hope, one day to write is not very much like this one. No criticism there, of course. I dream of something a little more like Haven Kimmel’s mother-book, She Got Up Off the Couch. That is, I want to tell my mother’s story (unavoidably mediated through the lens of being her daughter), because I think her life story needs telling. Bechdel’s need was admittedly a little more self-focused. She quotes Virginia Woolf more than once: about To the Lighthouse, “I suppose that I did for myself who psycho-analysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.” And that is what Bechdel is working on doing through this memoir: psychoanalyze herself, and put her emotions to rest. At the end, it feels like she does, at least a little.

She is quite involved in the idea of psychoanalysis, and does quite a bit of her own research; in addition to relationships with two different analysts, she reads Freud and some lesser-knowns; her personal favorite is one Winnicott. She opens each chapter with a dream, then sets it in the timeline of her life and discusses what it might mean. It’s an interesting lens, and not one I’m familiar with. I’m not ready to go get analyzed, myself, but I came away respecting Bechdel’s process. Some of the papers she studies and quotes from are overly academic for what I was looking to get out of this book, but that’s okay; I let them flow over me and stayed on track with what Bechdel was up to, which was what I was looking for.

I found Bechdel funny, personable, sympathetic, and authentic. I’m glad for her in what she gained through this process. I expect to come back to this book for some thoughts on my own work, if/when I ever get that far; for now, it was a rewarding read. And I’ll be looking for Fun Home. For feminists, lesbians, mothers, daughters, or people with relationships to solve – I recommend this deftly drawn work of emotion and searching. Thank you, Alison.


Rating: 7 sessions.

guest review: The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan, from Mom (audio)

Thanks Mom for sending these reading notes.

I’m reading a Playaway version of Worst Hard Times. I picked it up because it’s a World Book Night item, on display at the library when I went to pick up my box of Catch 22 to give away. I was most interested in this audio player-book just sitting on the shelf. (Add earbuds, battery, and stir.)
worsthardtime
It’s a pretty grim picture. Worst Hard Times is the dust bowl story, and follows people’s stories in several of the farms & towns of the worst areas. Egan writes for the NY Times, and recently wrote a scathing attack on the idea that the landslide in Oso was one of those “acts of God” that are so unfortunate but . . . . (Actually there was lots of warning by geologists, an earlier landslide in the last decade, with the logging of the hilltop as the coup de gras).

The Dust Bowl is called the worst man-made disaster of the U.S., and easily understood in hindsight as a tragic result of lack of understanding of natural forces, as well as grasping for even more wealth when the land was giving its riches reliably during the wet years of the Twenties. He gives more details than can be born, almost: the dust swirling, no plates set out until time to use them, wet bedsheets hung up over windows every night, people dying of “dust pneumonia.” The old cattlemen said it was a crime to uproot the prairie grass, and that the land would be ruined – more importantly, to them, even than the loss of the land for cows.

This area, which was called the Great American Desert, was given to the Apaches. When the government decided to give the land to settlers, Texas, especially, made every effort to eradicate the buffalo in order to drive off the Indians.

So, a good story. The reader, not so much. (He’s “an accomplished actor, director and combat choreographer” according to the audio blurb. Huh?) He put a little too much hick into the voices when he quotes them, and, like some readers I’ve noticed, makes women’s voices especially irritating, with a too-high intonation. The most irritating, though – a subjective reaction, I know – is his pronunciation of Boise City as /boyZAY/. Really?

Oh, Mom, I do so get it! The pronunciations from my recent read of Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods are fresh in my mind – unfortunately the only one I can cite specifically is urinal as “your-RYE-null” (very strange!) but there were others, equally odd & distracting. I think I’m more upset by the overly hick accents and the obnoxious women’s voices, though.

Does Egan overtly make the comparison between our hubris & lack of foresight with the Dust Bowl, and same with the recent mudslide (etc. etc.)? Or leave us to figure it out? If the latter, readers like yourself make the connection without difficulty; but I always appreciate the former. If you have a statement, go ahead and make it, please! Stand up for what you think.

I would say yes. I’m not through yet, but he lets a lot of characters say this. He also writes of the preachers who said that people are being punished for some sin, or that prayer & positive thinking will make it all better.

The sodbusters are all from the devil, according to the cattlemen. The saddest part of that is not that they are right, but that the dust dunes and drought ends up killing even the grass that remains.

There’s a scientist who explains it perfectly, and after Roosevelt’s election, he gets put in some government function to help solve the problems. There’s a town where the people agree to follow this guy’s recommendations for saving the land. Don’t remember the details, but hope to see this followed up in a later chapter.

There’s a newspaper owner (Dalhart or Boise City) who stops reporting all the bad stuff. Then he decides the people just need to embrace the situation. Look at the black clouds, the wind, the dead earth, and see the majesty of nature. Nuts! He doesn’t mention embracing all the death.

So I think Egan will have a strong conclusion to this effect.

The roaring boom of prosperity and the miracle of turning land into wheat (=$$) is a big theme. Plain people learning that they could have become rich if they planted every acre. They couldn’t tear up the prairie fast enough. We even have what he calls suitcase farmers, entrepreneurs who come to town and pay someone to rent their land and plant wheat. They just wait around for the harvest and the profits. After the bust and the drop in wheat prices, off they go, with no more interest in the land they have mined. How much hubris can you stand?

This does sound like a good story – though decidedly grim, as you say. I’d like to put it on the (long) list… Thanks for sharing!

Atwood on King

Thank you Mom, again, for passing this on: a review of Stephen King’s latest, Doctor Sleep, by Margaret Atwood of all people. In other words, good writing about good writing! (I will refrain from the temptation to call this a guest post. Margaret Atwood, unfortunately, does not write for me. At least not specifically.)

From the New York Times Magazine: Shine On.

I think you’ll find that she and I draw a few conclusions in common (ahem, thank you), although she does it better. I especially like her assertion that King is proper, respectable literature – something I have suspected, increasingly, for some time. (I think I said it here.)

Well done, Atwood; thanks, Mom; the rest of you, go read this review and then the book in question.

guest post: Mom’s recent reading adventures

Mom says…

Just thought I would share some recent reading adventures.

I just started Rules of Civility which immediately captivated me.

Just finished Leonard Rosen’s The Tenth Witness, part of his Henri Poincare series (book two). I loved the previous one more, but was swept along by this one, even with some flaws. He explores the soul and the tendency among some to be cruel and unconcerned about humans, as well as the incomprehensible ability – of others – to be full of love and compassion. The recent one took on the Nazis and WWII. All Cry Chaos (book one) was so good that I bought it in audio, although I haven’t gone there yet. The protagonist is a descendent of Poincare the mathematician, and that plays a bit part. More importantly, he’s a Frenchman who travels as part of his work, and sees a lot of places that I at least know. Amsterdam has a roll in the first, and in the 2nd, the Wadden Sea and the island of Terschelling. There he takes on the mud walking on the flats that is so popular with the Dutch, and makes a case for its attraction.

Mom is not only a world traveler but a mathematician, herself.

And before that I read in succession Wolves Eat Dogs, by Martin Cruz Smith, and The Sky Unwashed by Irene Zabytko, both of which have a focus on the Chernobyl nuclear disaster which killed a few hundred thousand at least. There’s also Georgi Vladimov’s Faithful Ruslan, a dog’s story (told by the dog) as parable: we cannot get beyond our training, even to save ourselves. It was circulated by hand as samizdat for years. Those three along with the Penguin books (Death and the Penguin, Penguin Lost) are all set in the Soviet sphere or Soviet Union – or Russia – and they all take on the attitude toward life that that history gave people. A bleak hopelessness combined with determination made survival possible for some, but they carried the black memory of their lost families and co-strivers. The Sky Unwashed is set completely in the Ukraine during the catastrophe of 1986, with some of the people living like peasants of an earlier century, and many returning to the forbidden sites to continue to live that way, gardening and tending a cow or pig, even as there are whole pine forests of standing trees killed by radiation. Smith has been here before (Gorky Park, etc), and knows the territory. His treatment may be even more devastating, love and desperation and ambition mixed so completely, with the hopelessness of the system still a palpable part of people’s psyche. These books are set in a society where being drunk and incompetent at work was not out of the ordinary, and there is no sense of duty to the public: police and social worker are driven by bribes and ambition or a perverse sense of cynicism (is that a contradiction?).

Contradiction? No. Redundant? Perhaps; but no, I think I’m with you here. Perversely cynical.

Enough of that! I started out to tell you about Collapse. I always enjoy stories about other cultures, so anthropology with some lessons makes for a good read, even without considering the lessons for today. Jared Diamond tells at the end about his conversations with students about this material, as he taught a course with the plan to write this book. The students couldn’t imagine how these people could have cut down the last tree that also doomed them – how could they knowingly do that? He even cites an academic who sees this as impossible (speaking about some collapsed ancient society) because cultures are more purposeful and self-aware, self-preserving. There are too many counterexamples for this to be valid of course, and where does that leave us? His conclusions leave some hopeful possibilities, as well as the not-so-hopeful outcomes.

Diamond tells a striking story set in an airport. We see the ID checking, the security machinery, the computer screens with the little piece of paper that tell who you are and where your seat is. It is clearly a lesson in pervasive technology, but wait! His point is that he is in an airport in New Guinea, where we have been talking about a society that was only found in the last century, and all the faces are very like those of the ‘primitive’ people we see in photos from the ’30s. His point is that we are much more connected that in the past, when some societies were able to collapse separate and unknown to the rest of the world. (One of the principles of collapse is connection to neighboring societies, whether as trading partners who fill a need, or as competitors or simply antagonists that further the collapse.) So globalization is both positive and negative in the social equations of collapse and survival.

Many more thoughts about this book, but no definitive answers – did I expect that?

Aside from Rules of Civility which of course I bothered her to read, much of this was new to me! I did read and enjoy Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday, and I recognize him from her brief description here. In fact, I could swear I’d read that airport scene before; or maybe Mom had already told me about it? Funny. At any rate, Mom, I enjoyed this glimpse into your reading life – as diverse as any – maybe that’s where I got it?? A fine legacy! I was just reminiscing the other day over the authors my mother has introduced me to – James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, Elizabeth George (who is becoming less appreciated, sadly), and Lee Child who I’ve brought to her attention. But better than any of these genre authors is having inherited eclectic reading interests. Thanks, Mom.

from Mom

After we both enjoyed some Kingsolver (The Lacuna, Flight Behavior) so very much, my mother is clearly pushing for me to enjoy this one along with her. She shared this quotation:

“April is the cruelest month, T. S. Eliot wrote, by which I think he meant (among other things) that springtime makes people crazy. We expect too much, the world burgeons with promises it can’t keep, all passion is really a setup, and we’re doomed to get our hearts broken yet again. I agree, and would further add: Who cares? Every spring I go there anyway, around the bend, unconditionally. I’m a soul on ice flung out on a rock in the sun, where the needles that pierced me begin to melt all as one.”

–from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

This book is both a collection of stories about practical (more or less) matters and a reflection on life: human, plant, planet. Very sweet to dip into without rolling straight through.

My first reaction is that this brief quotation echoes Annie Dillard strongly – you recall that I recently shared some of her passages, too. Funny how that works out. I don’t know when I’ll be joining you, Mom, but thanks for the head’s up.

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