Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Undertaker's Daughter

The undertaker’s family lived on the second floor of the one funeral home in the little East Texas town in which I grew up – and I was always curious about what that must have been like for the man’s three children.  But the kids were all older than me, and I had no one to ask, a minor problem that made Kate Mayfield’s The Undertaker’s Daughter irresistible.  As it turns out, the memoir is more complicated than I expected it to be. 

Mayfield admirably answers all the questions I had about what it must be like to live around dead bodies and caskets, and (in her case) to sleep directly above the spookiest room in any funeral home, its embalming room.  In addition, she talks about things like the card parties her mother regularly hosted, parties of her own with girlfriends during which they scared each other (and, in the process, themselves) with an Ouija Board, of all things, and the times her father and his own friends “partied” in the home’s oversized garage area.

But all the time anything like this was happening at Mayfield & Son Funeral Home, everyone in the family was subconsciously waiting for the phone call that would announce the imminent arrival of the next dead body – because that’s when things really got crazy.  Then, life on the second floor had to be conducted in almost total silence so as not to disturb the mourners downstairs.  And meals were most often of the sandwich variety so that those same mourners would not be offended by any cooking smells.  To the Mayfield kids, though, it all seemed perfectly normal.

Kate Mayfield
But the real beauty of The Undertaker’s Daughter is in what the author reveals about the inner workings of her family.  Life inside the funeral home was even more difficult than everyone in the little Kentucky town already suspected it might be.  The Mayfield family, as are most, was far from being a perfect one, and Kate Mayfield’s frank account of what was going on behind the scenes is an intriguing one.  Among other things, she explores the often-strained relationship between her parents; recounts what it was like to live with an older sister whose mental problems made her a genuine threat to the safety of her siblings; and exposes the social and sexual mores she herself ignored. 

At times, in fact, The Undertaker’s Daughter reads more like a coming-of-age novel than it does a memoir.  Particularly moving is Kate Mayfield’s strong attachment to her father and how her feelings about him change as she discovers more and more of his personal secrets.  But even with as much as she ultimately learned about her father, the author knows that he took some of his secrets with him to the grave.

Simply put, The Undertaker’s Daughter makes for a fascinating read – and it will be a shame if some Hollywood production company doesn’t turn this into an equally fascinating movie.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See: I've Had Just About Enough


I really never intended for my thoughts on All the Light We Cannot See to become a continuing series.  But the more I read of the book, and the harder it gets to keep pushing through it, the more I wish I had never started it at all.  Let's just say that the wait was, in this case, not worth it.

I am on page 383 now, with something like another 147 pages to go.  And there you have both the good news and the bad (too much reading time invested to quit on it now). The author continues to present his plot in snippets, during which I have often spoken aloud the words "just get on with it, please."  But, no, that's not the way this one works, and that makes me wonder about the editing process that "All the Light" went through before publication. I do realize that Mr. Doerr worked on the manuscript for ten years, but reading the book should not feel like a decade's work...what year is it now, anyway?

As the author flashes back from the present (August 1944) to events four years earlier, and then back to the childhoods of both characters in 1934 and later, I am getting a feeling of "overkill."  This feeling probably explains why I still don't much care about the book's two main characters, a German boy and a French girl, despite the fact that, different as they are, they seem to be headed to a very unpleasant meeting in the very near future.

At the moment, both are in grave danger of dying before that meeting ever takes place (if it does).  And, except as an intellectual exercise, I really don't care if either of them lives another five pages.  I hate it when I feel as if I'm wasting my time on a book...if Doerr is going to save this one for me he's down to less than 150 pages to get the job done.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Essential W.P. Kinsella

I will be forever grateful to W.P. Kinsella even if he never publishes another word because he is responsible for one of my favorite books of all time, Shoeless Joe.  That novel, of course, subsequently morphed into what is one of my favorite movies: Field of Dreams.  And now, thanks to the remarkable new collection of Kinsella's short stories (published in celebration of the author's approaching eightieth birthday), The Essential W.P. Kinsella, I have finally read the short story that started it all, "Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa." 

In addition to being a very fine novelist, W.P. Kinsella is a prolific short story writer with something like two hundred stories to his credit.  In the U.S., he is probably best known for his baseball stories, but in Canada he is perhaps better known for his First Nation stories set on the Hobbema Indian Reservation.  The reservation stories feature a continuing cast of diverse characters through which Kinsella takes satirical pokes at life on the reservation, the Canadian government, and the general attitude of the white population toward Canada's native population.  Those stories, funny as they usually are, often leave the reader pondering a serious point or two about life.

But Kinsella is also the author of what, for lack of a better term, I will call standalone stories, stories that have nothing to do with baseball or with Indians.  It is one of these standalones, in fact, that is my favorite of the entire collection, a story titled "The Last Surviving Member of the Japanese Victory Society."  It tells of a divorced man who falls in love with the Japanese woman who owns the plant and garden nursery he frequents.  It is the story of two people who are determined to be together despite a major obstacle to their relationship: the Japanese woman's mother, who is determined to have nothing to do with "the devil" who has come to take her daughter from her.  “The Last Surviving Member of the Japanese Victory Society” has such a feel of honesty and frankness about it that I almost immediately began to suspect that it is a very personal one to its author - a suspicion, in fact, confirmed by the touching dedication that follows the story's final words.  Simply put, this is a beautiful story.

W.P. Kinsella
The author himself had a hand in choosing stories for The Essential W.P. Kinsella, and fans of his baseball stories and First Nation stories will be pleased with the number of each type chosen for inclusion.  The baseball stories may magically touch on tragic figures such as Roberto Clemente and Thurman Munson, but the tales spend just as much time in the low minors with players who are unlikely ever even to sniff life in Triple A ball, much less the majors.  The Indian stories portray the unexpected humor of life on the reservation - humor that is often more of the "sometimes you have to laugh so you don't cry" variety, than not.  There are likely to be surprises for everyone in The Essential W.P. Kinsella.  But those who know Kinsella's work only from his baseball stories are going to get the biggest and best surprise of all. 

Happy Birthday, Mr. Kinsella...and thank you.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Blog Connection Problem Via Mobile Devices?

I noticed something with Book Chase this morning - something that put a bit of a scare into me when I tried to connect to the site from a Barnes & Noble store.  I tried connecting twice, once on an iPad and once on a Kindle, and the same thing happened both times. Within seconds of accessing Book Chase, I was suddenly redirected toward some third party site.  

In neither case, did an actual re-connection happen, but from the looks of the internet addresses shown on the browsers, they were pointing me toward a Chinese site of some sort - and that can't possibly be a good thing.  This has only happened when trying to connect from mobile problems when I connect from my iMac here at home.  

My question: have any of you had that experience when trying to connect to Book Chase from a mobile device?  Have you run into a similar problem elsewhere, by chance?  If so, please let me know because I'm trying to figure out if the problem is in my blogger software or in the operating systems of the devices I was using this morning.  Thanks.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See: Were My Expectations Too High?

As I mentioned it a previous post, it seemed like I had been waiting forever for the library to tell me that my reading copy of All the Light We Cannot See was finally at the library waiting for me to bring it home.  

You might remember that I started in the queue at number 360 way back in mid-September.  My progress on the waiting list was very slow, but fairly steady, and I finally just put it out of my mind completely.  Then one day last week, I happened to notice that I was at number 22.  What could explain the sudden leap...did 150 people, or so, just give up and cancel their request?  The answer turned out to be that the county system allocated more money to purchase additional copies of All the Light We Cannot See and that jumpstarted the waiting line in a big way.  

Just a few days after my first post about the book, it was in my hands.  I started reading it (while continuing on with another book or two) on the afternoon I picked it up, and as of this moment, I'm on page 217 of the 530-page novel.  And I have to tell you that I'm a little bit "underwhelmed" here.  

I'm still hoping that All the Light We Cannot See grabs me in the powerful way that my all favorite novels do, but I'm starting to lose hope as I continue to turn the pages.  Don't get me wrong.  The plot is intriguing, and the book's construction, with the exception of one aspect of it, is clever and effective.  

The one thing I don't like about the book's structure is the endless series of 2-to-3-page segments that alternate between the book's two settings and main characters.  I realize that the two main characters will eventually meet - but I'm beginning to lose patience.  Just when I start to immerse myself in a segment, it's over, and I have to refocus my attention in a way that I find jarring and counterproductive.  

Too, I think it's because of these short segments that I'm having some difficulty in feeling that I know the book's characters very well.  Now, I do "like" several of them, especially Marie-Laure's crazy uncle, Etienne.  But I still don't feel all that warm and fuzzy toward the book's main characters: Marie-Laure and Werner.  

I'm starting to fear that I may have set the bar for All the Light We Cannot See so incredibly high that I doomed it before it had a chance to "wow" me.  Perhaps I would have been luckier if I had come to it completely cold.  Have this kind of thing ever happened to you?

Friday, January 23, 2015

Rick Reilly on the Difference Between Facebook and Reading a Book

As someone who is working hard to wean himself away from the terrible habit of wasting time on Facebook, I particularly love the opening to this promotional video for National Readathon Day (which is tomorrow, January 24, by the way).

For more information on National Readathon day, please click this Penguin/Random House Link.

Preach it, Brother Rick...and for those wondering, I'm managing to limit my Facebook visits to once or twice a day for about ten minutes of browsing, total.  No political posts are read, no religious posts are read, no cute dog and cat videos are watched, no trashy celebrity news is viewed, and I only post a comment or two (if that) before shutting her down.  I'm limiting myself to personal family news, book related topics, and a little music news.  Period.  And my life is so much better for that.

John Bayley Dead at 89

I'm not going to lie and claim that I was much of aware of English critic and novelist John Bayley before I stumbled upon his memoir, Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch, in which Bayley recounts the intimate details of his marriage and life with his more famous wife.  

I happened upon the book in a London bookstore in 1998 and, as I recall, I had read the whole thing within two days of having purchased it.  I was so struck by the utter modesty of the man as he downplayed his own achievements to focus the book almost entirely on his wife, that I came away from it a big admirer of John Bayley: the man, if not so much John Bayley: the critic.   Bayley was the lone caretaker for his wife as she went through the whole downward spiral that is Alzheimer's.  He was there for her from the very beginning...and he was there for her at the end.

Now comes word from the U.K. that John Bayley has died at age 89, and I cannot help but miss knowing that this gentle soul is no longer with us.  

All told, Bayley wrote three memoirs about Iris Murdoch, but I want to quote from the prologue of the last one, Iris and Her Friends: A Memoir of Memory and Desire, because of how perfectly the quote captures the tone of all three of the books:
I can hardly believe it's all over.  At the end it happened so quickly.  My diary says that Iris and I were together, struggling along in the particular way that an Alzheimer's patent and caregiver do, less than three weeks ago.
And then between one day and the next, it became all but impossible to get her to eat and drink.  I coaxed her in every way I could think of, but she seemed abruptly to have given up being a good, if sometimes difficult, child, and became a sadly determined adult.  Politely and smilingly, she declined to open her mouth to have a teaspoon or the edge of a cup put in, as if she had decided it was no longer worthwhile.
Iris Murdoch was a great writer and she had a brilliant mind. Perhaps I shouldn't, but I always feel that Alzheimer's is a greater tragedy for people like her to suffer than it would be for the rest of us more ordinary types (wrongheaded thinking, I know).   Iris was very lucky to have had a man like John Bayley in her life.  

Rest in peace, Mr.  Bayley.  You will be long remembered even by those of us who know you more for what you did for Iris Murdoch than what you accomplished during your own brilliant career as writer, critic, and teacher.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Orphan Master's Son

Most people, I think, if asked to list the “Top Ten Worst Governments in the World,” would find a spot for North Korea’s somewhere in their first five choices.  Even then, however, the problem with trying to rank North Korea within such a list is that everyday life there is still pretty much a black hole to casual observers.  But novels such as Adam Johnson’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner The Orphan Master’s Son often shed enough light on these black holes that outsiders are able to study the horrors within them.

The orphan master’s son in question is Park Jun Do, a boy partially responsible for the relative wellbeing of the orphan boys under his “father’s” authority.  Jun Do, in fact, by deciding where to place the boys in state-mandated work details, ultimately decides which of them are to live longest and under exactly what circumstances most of them will die.  Orphans in North Korea do not have a bright future. 

But this is only the beginning for Park Jun Do.  The boy has certain skills that are valuable enough to the State that his life, may it turn out to be a long one or a short one, is destined to be an interesting one.  Before it ends, Jun Do will have spied for his Dear Leader via the tunnels that penetrate well into South Korea; will have kidnapped unsuspecting victims from the beaches of Japan; and will have learned English well enough to serve both as a translator of radio broadcasts and as part of a diplomatic team sent on a special mission to the U.S.  And when that U.S. mission ends in humiliating failure, Jun Do’s life really gets interesting.

Adam Johnson
The Orphan Master’s Son is told in two parts: “The Biography of Jun Do” and “The Confessions of Commander Ga.”  In the second part, Jun Do proves just what a survivor he is, even within a political system in which a citizen can be denounced for the most trivial oversight – a process that most often places its victims into the hands of ruthless interrogators, only to be later carted off to prisons for the rest of their suddenly truncated lives. 

Jun Do’s life, challenging and painful as it sometimes is, is an adventure that Adam Johnson fits together like a puzzle for his readers.  The author uses three very different narrators to tell Jun Do’s story: a third person narrator for the “biography” portion of the book, a first person narrator in the guise of a rather softhearted State interrogator for much of the second part of the book, and “live” broadcasts via loudspeakers used to spread daily propaganda radio messages to the Dear Leader’s people.  Johnson also uses flashbacks to illuminate details about significant events and relationships in Jun Do’s life well after that character’s ultimate fate has been revealed.

That the structure of The Orphan Master’s Son is not a conventional one may require the reader to work a bit harder than usual, but the author tells a truly memorable and shocking story.  I highly recommend this prizewinner to anyone curious about what daily life in North Korea might be like.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

I'd Sooner Flush a Fifty Down the Toilet...

Try as I might, and no matter how hard I try to ignore celebrity trash like the whole Kardashian family, daughter Kim has intruded on my day once again - this time as I innocently (I swear, it's true) searched the web for the latest book news, I inadvertently clicked on a page that had a headline about what some are calling a new "book."

Seems like the woman (I started to say "lady" but just about gagged at the thought of associating that word with this... person) has a new "book" out.  Appropriately enough, the book is titled Selfish.  And get this, it's nothing but a compilation of this airhead's favorite SELFIES.  I kid you not. the title to this post says, "I'd sooner flush a fifty down the toilet" than even glance at garbage like this.

Now, though, I'm off to grab lunch, during which I hope to flush the Kardashian kids and their ever so weird parents from my mind for as long as possible.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World

Digital reading, via such electronic reading devices as the Nook, the Kindle, and the recently departed Sony Reader, has been around long enough now that its side-effects are starting to be measured and discussed.  The root question regarding digital reading explored by Naomi S. Baron in Words Onscreen is one of whether or not “digital reading is reshaping our very understanding of what it means to read.”  Readers of Words Onscreen, if they had not already reached that conclusion before beginning the book, are likely to come away from a reading of it with a resounding “yes” in answer to the author’s question.

Few would argue that reading a book on a Kindle provides the same experience as reading that same book in its physical form.  Each format has its own set of distinct characteristics, advantages, and disadvantages and, largely depending on personal preferences, each format attracts strong advocates – and equally strong critics.  Naomi Baron, by exploring those advantages, disadvantages, and related characteristics in detail, explains why that is and why it is unlikely to change.  If not always surprising, what Baron learns in her study of digital reading (and digital readers) is always thought provoking enough to steer the reader toward self-examination of his own feelings about the electronic reading process and environment. 

Naomi S. Baron
Baron begins with the premise that digital reading is suitable for shorter pieces of light content, the kind of thing the reader neither intends to analyze nor to reread.  At the same time, she states that digital reading is not at all suited for reading most long works or works of any length that require “serious thought” on the part of the reader.  Does this mean that, as the prevalence of digital reading continues to increase, certain types of reading will be abandoned by even the most serious of readers?  Baron, in her chapter detailing the ever-increasing adoption of digital textbooks by American colleges, argues that this might just be the case.  And that shift in focus and ability to deeply study a text, she argues, will have detrimental effects on all of our futures.

Words Onscreen explores these and many other issues related to America, Canada, and Britain’s eager (although the pace has slowed in recent months) adoption of digital reading.   Interestingly, for a variety of reasons, some of which are financial and some cultural, the rest of the world has not moved toward digital reading nearly as enthusiastically as have these three countries.   Even more interesting, because it seems to defy common sense, is the discovery that much of the resistance toward digital reading comes from readers in their twenties and younger.  One would have expected such resistance to come almost exclusively from older, more tradition-oriented, readers.  That this is not the case, however, is only one of the surprises to be found in Words Onscreen. 

Side Note:  I read Words Onscreen in digital form and, as a result, while reading it I experienced firsthand some of what Baron describes in the book.  I have found, however, that as I gain experience in reading e-books, I am beginning to overcome some of the limitations inherent to digital reading.