Review: Pierced by the Sun

Review: Pierced by the Sun

Jun 20

Pierced by the Sun by Laura Esquivel, translated by Jordi Castells (2015)
Originally A Lupita le gustaba planchar (2014)

piercedbythesunAfter four years of undergraduate study (preceded by four years of undergraduate goofing off), I finally graduated with my English degree in 1995. I’d avoided English as a major for a long time, because even though it had always been my best subject, I’d worried that formal study would damage my lifelong love of reading. It didn’t do that, but for those last two years, it definitely turned reading into a life-sucking, non-paying job, so I spent the first couple of post-graduation months happily avoiding books.

When it was finally time to throw myself back into the pages, the first two novels I attacked were Caleb Carr’s The Alienist and Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, both of them worthy of the honor. I enjoyed them both a great deal, but the wistful, sensual magic of the Esquivel novel was like a gentle, warm reminder of why I loved reading and why I’d finally settled on English as my major. It will always have a special place in my heart because of when it came along in my life and how it welcomed me into the resumption of my bookworm ways.

That was twenty-one years ago, and I hadn’t read another Esquivel novel since, until I was presented with the opportunity to read her latest, Pierced by the Sun, a month before its release. I knew it was time to reacquaint myself.

Lupita is a police officer in a city in Mexico. When a local official is murdered while she directs traffic nearby, she becomes wrapped up in the investigation. The turmoil weakens her enough to let in the demons she’s tenuously kept at bay for some time. She has been the victim of abuse, at the hands of more than one man, and she has in turn abused others around her. She relapses into self-destructive behavior while continuing to seek peace in the menial mundanities of her everyday life while piecing together the circumstances surrounding the murder.

Boy, did she like it! She liked to drink until she was completely lost. What she liked the most about drinking was not being present, that feeling of self-evasion, of disconnection, of liberation, of escape. Alcohol offered her an excellent alternative to being herself without actually dying.

Titles of chapters all begin with “Lupita Loved,” as in “Lupita Loved to Iron,” “Lupita Loved Booze,” and “Lupita Loved to Dance,” and the titles are quick images of this conflicted woman tortured by her past, wrestling with her present, and still finding love and beauty in bringing life up from the soil, or gazing at the stars as they tell their stories from the heavens. Esquivel has something to say about modern Mexico, and while it’s a bleak picture, it’s made up of millions of beautiful things, some of which point to some kind of hope for something better.

Esquivel’s prose is mostly spare, much as it is in Like Water for Chocolate. Sentences are short and simple, but they find elegance in the details they highlight, and in the way they follow each other, a musical style that’s pleasing and somehow exotic, as when she sees a murder suspect in the dance hall on Friday night:

Lupita had three options: go after the man and arrest him, go back to Captain Martinez and tell him about it so he could handle the arrest, or go find some cocaine and enjoy the rest of the night. She chose the last one.

Pierced by the Sun is a short novel that takes its time, both qualities I appreciate in a good story, but the writer stops one chapter short of a satisfying read. Lupita is given a chance to forgive herself, and the narrative voice expands, rather abruptly, into a larger statement about Mexico, but then it leaves us there when one last image of Lupita, perhaps ironing shirts, or maybe making breakfast for a lover, would have brought the arc back to earth. If the novel is meant only to be a treatise on Mexico’s straying from  its wonderful history, I suppose it’s fine as it is, but then it’s a waste of a good story. If it’s also meant to give us this character and this story in this time and this place, it owes us a better conclusion, and this is the novel’s only real shortcoming.

Three of five stars: I like it.

Slogging!

Slogging!

Jun 12

I’m really, really far behind on work, and must be more productive today than possible just to get up to merely behind, so of course I’m starting my morning jotting down a few thoughts with nothing specific to say.

After a mini torrent of cozy mysteries, I read that Dave Eggers book because a small group of friends agreed to read it for a discussion.  I’m kind of the catalyst that put these friends together (I was a little worried about Reid not having anyone to talk to when I went to Hilo to finish school), and when I moved back, one of the first things we all did together was start a little informal book group, each taking turns picking titles.  We’ve been sporadic these past few years, mostly because I took forever to finish my M.Ed., but every so often someone will propose a title.  We’d last read Fareed Zakaria’s The Future of Freedom six years ago.

So we got together last night at a cafe to talk about it.  The nature of the book (and, I suspect, the reason for Reid’s nominating it) really meant not very much talk about the novel as a novel, and lots of talk about the stuff the novel is about, which is fine.  Works of non-fiction are usually discussed this way, and although when I talk about a novel I want to talk about it as an English major, get why this one wasn’t as conducive to that.  I still managed to get a few teacherly questions in there.

It was a pleasant conversation, only bogging down near the end as a few points were argued (not by me; I’d already kind of checked out) past the what-the-heck-are-we-doing moment.

That time was stolen from time I should have spent working.  Ugh.

There are a few factors contributing to my difficulty being productive:

  • I’m having all kinds of trouble maintaining any kind of sleep pattern.  Over the past several weeks, I’ve put myself to bed at later and later times, which of course means waking up later and later in the day.  Recently I’ve been going to bed at eight in the morning and waking up at three in the afternoon.  Once, I went to bed at eleven in the morning and got up at seven in the evening.
  • My slow productivity means not getting paid as often as I need to be paid, which means I have to be very frugal, which means not working at the cafe where I find it easier to be productive.  So I try to get work done at my desk at home, which can be very slow, which means I’m not as productive as I need to be, which means not getting paid as frequently as I need.  Vicious cycle.
  • Something bit me hard last weekend, and I spent three days pretty much in bed.  Flu symptoms minus the usual cold stuff that often accompanies them.  No energy, aches, and the need to sleep for like sixteen hours a day.  It was kind of depressing, actually.

I’m not quite where I was a few weeks ago, when I couldn’t pay bills necessary for the completion of work (you know, phone and internet), but I’m entering the red zone and need to put some work together today.  And thanks to my slothful pace, I think it’s going to take two or three days of just focusing on productivity, with breaks for sleep and nightly walks.  It reminds me of those late nights finishing my Masters thesis.  I can do it.

I’m at the cafe now (I’ve got enough on my card for this visit and one more), about to bang through some work.  I can do this.  I’m not even going to let the fact that the bathroom is closed deter me from at least putting in ten decent hours here, interrupted by a snack break.

Here we go.

Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

Jun 10

The Circle by Dave Eggers (2013)

the_circleI have a feeling I picked the wrong novel for my introduction to Dave Eggers.

The Circle is five hundred fairly quick pages of good pacing and good (not great) narrative about Mae Holland, a woman just out of college who accepts a job at the Circle, a Google-like tech firm. The Circle began as either a search engine or a social media platform, but has since grown to include all manner of services enabled by its accumulation of information about its users. Geolocation, messaging, commerce, archiving, life streaming, entertainment, and quantified living services (among countless others) combine to attract users to its functionality while driving the company’s mission of knowing everything that can be known.

Mae cannot believe how fortunate she is to work at such a bleeding-edge company, on a campus providing everything she could possibly need, personally or professionally. She has onsite healthcare, free samples of consumer products not yet available to the public, nightly entertainment, free meals, and even on-campus housing for nights when it’s just more convenient to stay at work than to drive home. Her college roomie is among the firm’s elite, affording Mae a status the other newbies can’t claim, and although the adjustment to this new work environment is tougher than she predicted, she is determined to do what she’s asked in order to move up from her customer experience position. Throw in a couple of potential love interests and an increasingly visible online presence, and her increased alienation from her family seems a small sacrifice.

The Circle is Brave New World and Animal Farm for the 21st Century, with a dash of Candide thrown in, as Mae plays the wide-eyed apprentice learning to embrace the Circle’s “Secrets are Lies” doctrine. While Eggers spins his cautionary tale, he seems to be worried that the stuff of a good novel might distract from his almost allegorical message. His main character is well conceived but poorly developed, so that she comes across as admirable, pitiful, and insufferable according to the needs of the plot, rather than as the driving force behind the plot. Because the power of the Circle is greater than the personality of the character, we care about Mae but find her difficult to like, and while that may be intentional, it makes for an unsatisfying read.

Mae’s shortcomings as a main character might still have worked with a more intricate or suspenseful plot, but Eggers plays it right down the line as might any writer of minimal skill and a casual familiarity with current technology news. The result is overly simplified, with only a nod in the direction of some of the issues’ nuances. Yes, the era of Big Data has some conflicts between utility and privacy, and yes, younger generations seem eager to give their privacy up, but it’s just not as easy as that. Today’s young adults don’t devalue privacy; they merely have a different concept of it, but nowhere does Eggers attempt to see privacy through the eyes of Mae’s generation. Instead, Mae gives up her privacy as this concept is understood by the generation before her, and while that works for the novelist’s intended message for his intended audience, it does little to help us understand either the issue’s many colors or Mae’s real motivations.

Two of five stars, or in the Circle’s parlance, “Meh.”

Review: To Helvetica and Back

Review: To Helvetica and Back

Apr 18

To Helvetica and Back
by Paige Shelton (2016)

to helveticaThere are twenty-six chapters in Paige Shelton’s To Helvetica and Back. The first twenty-four are pretty darn good; the final two are a crime against the reader and a crime against the genre.

Those first twenty-four have all the makings. Clare is a smart, independent twenty-something woman who runs her grandfather’s shop. She repairs typewriters, restores old books, operates a Gutenberg-style printing press built by her grandfather, and prints custom stationery. She is a protector and restorer of the printed word, the kind of protagonist bibliophiles can’t help liking. Add a teenaged niece who helps in the shop, a snooty cat named Baskerville, a best friend and ex-fiancé who are both cops, and a handsome geologist who makes the best lasagna, and you can cancel your plans for the weekend, because you’ve got some comfy pages to get lost in.

A guy shows up, demands that Clare sell him another customer’s typewriter (an Underwood No. 5, of course), gets angry when she refuses, and sets off a nice string of events including danger to her family, a possibly thwarted new romance, a murder right outside her door, tension with her best friend, and the literal unearthing of long-held secrets. It’s all quite competently put together until the author breaks one of the unforgivable rules of the genre. So egregious is the writer’s transgression that it makes most of the good stuff irrelevant, and erases much of the enjoyment I got from most of the book. Shelton commits a lesser offense in the story’s climax, but I almost didn’t even notice it because her first breaking of the rules is so blatant.

I’ll allow the good stuff in this novel to serve as the background for the next in the series, but it does not make up for a horrible decision in this story.

1 star of 5.  I disliked its ending.

Review: Books Can Be Deceiving

Review: Books Can Be Deceiving

Apr 16

Books Can Be Deceiving
by Jenn McKinlay (2011)

books_can_beA cozy mystery series starring a librarian? Yes please.

Lindsey is the new director of the Briar Creek (Connecticut) Public Library, and although there have been a few bumps (a grouchy employee nicknamed The Lemon, and healing from a broken engagement among them), the transition has mostly been great. She’s begun a Crafternoon knitting/book-discussion group, the children’s librarian is her best friend Beth from library school, the board of directors has been completely supportive of her changes, and there’s this handsome boat captain who makes incredible hot cocoa.

When one of the coastal town’s residents is murdered, Beth is the prime suspect. The chief of police is so sure Beth is the culprit that he doesn’t explore other possibilities, so it’s on Lindsey, who knows her friend is innocent, to find the murderer. Her search takes her to wind-swept islands, a retirement home, and an art school, and as she gathers information about the victim, she puts herself and her best friend in danger. Grave danger? Is there any other kind?

The editing is sometimes sloppy (a trend I’m noticing in this genre, particularly in titles from this publisher) and the dialog is often less than gracefully expository. There is only one restaurant in town, for example, and Lindsey hasn’t been there in at least a month, despite the proprietor being a friend (and a member of the Crafternoon group). When she and Beth sit down to dine there, Lindsey tells Beth she’s ordering the lobster roll and then describes it for her, even though Beth has been a resident for much longer. If there’s only one restaurant in town, if the food is so good, and if both characters are friends of the owner, why would Lindsey have to describe anything on the menu for Beth? It’s a silly incongruence, and it’s not the only one.

The story, while well told, is something of a disappointment. It’s a nicely imagined story, but it suffers from bad decisions about the victim and culprit.

It’s not until more than halfway through that the novel really gets moving, beginning with a charming, funny, and endearing encounter at the retirement home. Lindsey’s interactions with a resident, the contrast between her thoughts and conversation, and an intriguing revelation combine to have an at-last-here-we-go effect. It’s a nice, pleasant narrative up to this chapter, and then a headlong rush to the finish line. Pretty fun reading. I really hope Lindsey is sincere in wishing to visit the home again.

It’s worth a read for its second half, and for likable characters and a really good setting. Although Jenn McKinlay’s prose could use some streamlining, she comes up with some pretty nice, lyrical stuff, sentences worth lingering on and reading aloud. Strengths outweigh flaws, so I’m recommending this for fans of (and newcomers to) the genre.

Three of five stars (I like it!).

Review: The Grind

Review: The Grind

Apr 01

The Grind: Inside Baseball's Endless SeasonThe Grind: Inside Baseball’s Endless Season by Barry Svrluga
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When the Washington Nationals arrive at their hotel in St. Louis for a weekend series against the Cardinals, their luggage is waiting for them in their rooms. In a few hours, they’ll step back onto the chartered buses and into the visitors’ clubhouse at the stadium, where their personal equipment and freshly laundered uniforms will be waiting for them, each player’s belongings in his assigned locker. In order to allow the players to focus on their jobs as baseball players, the team ensures that they don’t have to worry about the logistics of luggage, transportation, dining, or entertainment, and it is Rob MacDonald’s job to make it happen. MacDonald is the Nationals’ Vice President of Clubhouse Operations and Team Travel, and he is one of 1,100 employees, not counting the players themselves, who endure The Grind of the 162-game baseball season.

The 2014 Washington Nationals finished the season with the National League’s best record, but lost their first playoff series to the San Francisco Giants. It had been a long season, but even the most avid fan had only the faintest idea of how truly long it was. In The Grind, Washington Post reporter Barry Svrluga chronicles the season, beginning with spring training in February, and passing through Opening Day in March, the dog days of late summer, the playoffs in October, and the winter off-season, concluding with the the first moments of the next cycle, the team’s preparations for spring training in 2015.

Svrluga devotes a chapter each to nine different perspectives of the season: Ryan Zimmerman, beginning his tenth season in the Majors, is featured in a chapter called “The Veteran.” Tyler Moore, a promising but no-longer-young power hitter is the focus of “The Twenty-Sixth Man” (baseball rosters are limited to twenty-five players). Chelsey Desmond, wife of shortstop Ian Desmond, is profiled with her young children in “The Wife.” And Rob MacDonald’s chapter is called “The Glue.” A chapter each on a starting pitcher, a reliever, a scout, the general manager, and the off-season, when players go home but the team’s management is working as hard as ever, bring the total of fascinating stories to nine, because of course. Because nine is baseball’s perfect number, the number of completion.

“If the major league life brings a grinding rhythm that wears on the hearts and minds and bodies of even star players,” writes Svrluga, “at least it comes with charter flights and checks with all those zeroes. In the minors, the everydayness is the same. The payoff is not.” Fans are accustomed to one very specific view of what goes on during the baseball season, but here are nine, each with a different approach to its rhythms and flows, each compelling, sympathetic, glorious, and heartbreaking. They are all terrific, but especially memorable are the chapters on Moore and MacDonald, two behind-the-scenes glimpses not well-known by the baseball fan.

No sport lends itself to great storytelling quite the way baseball does, and Svrluga nails the story of the season from beginning to end, giving us nine stories that contribute to the saga. I’ve read more baseball books than most people, and this was immediately a favorite before I got through the first chapter. It is an excellent and worthy addition to the top shelf of any fan’s library.

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