Openings

Los Angeles Public Library finally let me have The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow, a book about which I had massive anticipation after having devoured Alix Harrow’s second book, The Once and Future Witches (review here). And while that book was about spells hidden in plain sight and this book was about elusive doorways, in a real sense both books are about openings.

The 10K Doors beguiled me from almost the first page. The language was beautiful, evocative, persuasive. The story begins with a book, which is always a way to my heart. And the door theme carried me back to every beloved tale in which someone found an opening to somewhere else and was brave enough to step through it, from the classics (Alice in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth, Narnia) to more recent works (Mirrorworld, Shades of Magic, Un Lun Dun), but it particularly put me in mind of Wayward Children, the stunningly original series by Seanan McGuire that portrays a group of children who have had the experience of going through a portal to the world of their dreams, only to later be ejected and left longing to return. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is the ultimate portal novel.

Like the protagonists in McGuire’s series, January Scaller is a misfit in her own life. Her childhood has been simultaneously comfortable bordering on indulgent, and immensely restrictive; while her widowed dark-skinned father travels on business for his employer, January lives a sedate, smothering life sequestered in Mr. Locke’s mansion that is filled with the artifacts and treasures her father has brought back to him from all over the world. January spends most of her young life torn between gratitude for Mr. Locke’s guardianship and patronage, and resentful that she is kept like another of his precious objects, locked up in a house with no company save for that of a repressive nursemaid/chaperone. As a person of color, January is ogled and patronized by the lily-white British society within which the wealthy Mr. Locke moves (the story begins in 1901), and she has no friends save an Italian grocery delivery boy and the enormous and fanatically loyal dog with whom he gifts her.

As a solitary child, January naturally seeks out ways to amuse herself, and becomes immersed in certain texts and books not meant for her eyes, writings that reveal a possible escape from her overweening patron. But after her father dies and Locke discovers she may have abilities he and his friends value, January must call upon all her thus-far meager resources to save herself from their plans, and also prevent the doorways she has discovered from closing forever.

Books can smell of cheap thrills or painstaking scholarship, of literary weight or unsolved mysteries. This one smelled unlike any book I’d ever held. Cinnamon and coal smoke, catacombs and loam. Damp seaside evenings and sweat-slick noontimes beneath palm fronds. It smelled as if it had been in the mail for longer than any one parcel could be, circling the world for years and accumulating layers of smells like a tramp wearing too many clothes. It smelled like adventure itself had been harvested in the wild, distilled to a fine wine, and splashed across each page.

Although the book has a somewhat slow start, and the protagonist is initially almost frustratingly passive despite her inner nature (“The will to be polite, to maintain civility and normalcy, is fearfully strong. I wonder sometimes how much evil is permitted to run unchecked simply because it would be rude to interrupt it”), the story within a story of Adelaide (Ade) and Yule Ian Scholar (Julian), who find one another when Yule crosses through a door from his home into a Kentucky wheat field, pulls you first into that world and then into the possible connections with January’s, and after that it’s total fascinated attention to the very last page.

This book is almost haunting in its sadness and yearning for the freedom of a wider world, and a longing for the ability to translate otherness into belonging. The loneliness of January, motherless and separated from a father who wants to keep her safe but believes that can’t happen if she is with him; the solitude of Ade, searching relentlessly for the door that will carry her back to Julian; the alienation of January’s friend Jane, exiled from her homeland because of a promise; all act upon the reader to provoke a desperate wish that these people will get what they want, find what they seek, and in that process make the universe a more fluid place.

Doors become more than just passageways to new experiences; they are also symbols of openness and change, qualities that January considers essential while Mr. Locke deems them threatening to existence. Stagnation is antithetical to those who wish for true freedom for everyone, while to the people in power it is an essential component in consolidating their dominance. January is one girl up against a wall of opposition, but she finds unexpected resources from her past, from her few allies, and finally from within. This story connected with my dogged belief, despite the mundanity of everyday life, that there is both magic and hope out there somewhere, if only the way can be found.
It bowled me over.

Intricate plotting

My next book came recommended from the Facebook readers’ group (What Should I Read Next?), but I was careful not to find out too much about it before I read it. As it turns out, it wouldn’t have made too much difference (unless somebody really wanted to ruin it with spoilers), because We Begin at the End, by Chris Whitaker, is such a complex story that it would be hard to encompass everything contained within its pages in a simple book-talk.

Everyone in this book, and I mean everyone, has some sort of agenda, major or minor—some are obvious, some are hidden, some seem obvious but are quite the opposite—and following them all occasionally proved challenging but also definitely worthwhile. And along with these agendas go many secrets, a lot of misunderstanding, massive amounts of lying, and some catastrophic assumptions.

There are many ways in which one could characterize this book: It is a murder mystery, it is a coming-of-age story, it is the saga of multiple people caught up despite themselves in various forms of tragedy they are mostly unable to avert. Let me see if I can outline the basic story in some sort of coherent form…

There’s a guy called Walk (last name Walker), who grew up in the small coastal California town of Cape Haven of which he is now, at 40-something, chief of police. There’s another guy named Vincent King, who was Walk’s best friend until the age of 15 when he went to prison, partly sent there by Walk’s testimony. Star Radley is a friend of Walk’s and was also Vincent’s girlfriend before he went away, and she has two children, Duchess, 13, and Robin, five, but can’t (or won’t) disclose the names of their fathers. She’s a chronic alcoholic and drug abuser, with the result that Duchess, a necessarily tough girl with a perpetually bad attitude (picture a young Ruth Langmore from Ozark), is raising Robin and keeping an eye on her mother in an atmosphere of poverty and uncertainty. Walk tries to keep tabs on Star and the kids and help them out however he can, but Star seems determined to self-destruct.

The catalyst for the story is that Vincent is finally getting out of prison, after 30 years away, which precipitates all kinds of events, both expected and unexpected. There is a further panoply of significant secondary characters, mostly connected to Star and the kids but peripherally to others, including a couple of weird neighbors, an estranged grandfather living in Montana, a boyfriend with criminal connections, and a lawyer and former girlfriend of Walk’s; and then there are the tertiary characters—friends, social workers, helpful strangers—who enter and leave the story as needed. It’s a complex cast to juggle, but it’s masterfully done, and Whitaker manages to preserve the reader’s assumptions throughout the book, right up to the revelations of the unexpected conclusion. And what he does even better than keeping track of his plot is make you care about the fate of everyone involved.

This is a heartbreaking and frustrating story on so many levels—history repeats itself, love is mostly unavailing, and revenge and retribution are dealt out with a heavy and sometimes arbitrary hand. But it also speaks to the search for absolution and redemption, and the sacrifices people are willing to make for the people who are family, whether blood-related or not.

I won’t say much more than this, because the experience of reading it is so engrossing that I wouldn’t want to take away from that for anyone who chooses to do so. I was trying to think of other books that might be comparable to the complexity and drama of this one, and couldn’t. Stylistically, it’s a story about real people in a particular context; the closest I could come is This Tender Land, by William Kent Kreuger, but I liked this so much better (and I liked that one a lot). It also put me in mind of a little gem of a book called She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper, a much shorter and simpler story but with a protagonist who reminded me a lot of Duchess Day Radley, self-styled outlaw.

Don’t miss this one.

Genre confused

I am a big fan of Peter Heller’s work. I have read all of his novels and haven’t disliked a one of them, although I do have favorites. So I was delighted to discover that he has a “new” book out (almost a year old, now).

The Guide has the trademark lyrical descriptions of nature that one expects from Heller. The theme is fly-fishing, and although I don’t fish and am not a fan of early morning activities, his narrative of the terrain was so lovely that it calmed my breathing as I read it, making me long for wide open spaces with the sound of flowing water in the background and the dawn vista of a still pool with mayflies rising and rings spreading outwards as the sun heats the surface and the fish rise to feed.

Although this book can certainly be read as a stand-alone, it is, in fact, a sequel to Heller’s book The River, in that the protagonist is Jack, a few years on from that tragic adventure. Although it enhanced the experience to know the back story referenced periodically throughout this book, it wasn’t such a direct continuation that anyone would feel the need to go back and review the previous story in order to feel caught up. It’s made plain that Jack has been damaged by an event in his past, and that he sees this term of employment as a guide at one of the most exclusive fishing resorts in the country as an escape from his everyday life, in which he suffers from silence and too much free time.

Jack is taken on by the Kingfisher Lodge, on a pristine stretch of protected waters near the town of Crested Butte, Colorado, to replace a guide who left abruptly. The resort caters to the über-wealthy and the camera-shy celebrity, and provides an all-encompassing interlude of comfortable quarters, gourmet dining, camaraderie, and sport. His first assigned client is Allison K., a woman Jack vaguely recognizes as a hugely famous country western singer (he’s not really into music). She also turns out to be gifted at and dedicated to fly fishing, and the two share what’s described as an almost spiritual out-of-body state as they roam up and down the river, casting their lures.

But there’s something weird going on in this paradise, and soon Jack is nervous and on the defensive as minor violations of some resort rules result in some out-of-proportion reactions and repercussions. He and Allison begin first to speculate and then to research what they’ve been told, as anomalies crop up and their status becomes ever more perilous.

Although I enjoyed this book over all, there seemed to be a profound disconnect between the scene setting and the behind-the-scene activities. Heller’s other books certainly contain elements of mystery and suspense, but for some reason this one didn’t feel organic. For one thing, the “nature documentary” aspect of the book dominates for about 80 percent of the book, with only small hints and incidents thrown in here and there to increase the reader’s feelings of disquiet, and then all of a sudden, in the last 20 percent, it becomes all about the alter ego mystery of the story. Nature buffs will enjoy the setting and melodic language about fishing, while thrill seekers will get their payoff with the bizarre back story, but the genre blending that took place here needed a few more spins of the Kitchenaid to work properly. I was still fairly happy with the book, however, until I reached the last few pages. There are few things I dislike more than a book that shows the entire story, only to punt at the end by “telling what happened” after the significant events occur, instead of taking the reader directly through them, and that’s sort of what happened here.

Photo courtesy of The Broadmoor resort, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Primarily as a result of that ending, I would have to recommend Heller’s other books over this one, although the prevailing narrative was the verbal equivalent of the glorious imagery experienced in the 1992 film A River Runs Through It; if you are susceptible to words that so graphically paint a picture, you will enjoy this book no matter what.

My year of reading: 2021

It’s New Year’s Day! Time to look back at all the books I read in the past 365 days, and reveal which were my favorites, which were the best books I read this year, and whether those are one and the same. Goodreads conveniently kept track of statistics related to my reading goals, so before I get specific, here are some of mine:

This year I read 132 books, which consisted of 50,676 pages.

The shortest was a Linwood Barclay novella of 81 pages, while the longest was one of the Robin Hobb Farseer fantasies at 914 pages. My average book length was 383 pages.

The most popular book I (re)read was Liane’ Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, shelved by almost 1.5 million people!

And now, here are some categories that highlight the year’s journey, from my memories of 2021 reads:

Most excited about:

Return of the Thief, the conclusion to the Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner, finally arrived, which gave me the perfect opportunity to enjoy re-reading this series for what, the fifth time? She published the first book, The Thief, in 1996! If you are looking for a nontypical fantasy immersion to start off your year of reading, pick up The Thief and savor the story through The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, Thick as Thieves, and Return. It’s one of those series that gets exponentially better as it goes along.

Best discoveries (in any genre):
ROBIN HOBB. I got lost for a month or more in three of her Farseer high fantasy trilogies, and still have two more on my TBR list, which I hope to get to early in the year.

DERVLA McTIERNAN: A wonderful new mystery series writer with books set in Ireland

Best science fiction discoveries:
A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, by C. A. Fletcher
A Psalm for the Wild-built, by Becky Chambers (first in a series still to come)
Both of these would fit best into the dystopian category.

New time travel:
The Jane Austen Project, and The Dream Daughter, both from unlikely authors…

New fantasy I loved:
The House in the Cerulean Sea, by T. J. Klune
The Art Mages of Lure series, by Jordan Rivet (Curse Painter is the first book)

Most memorable read:
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Brynn Greenwood

Most affecting mainstream fiction with an historical backdrop:
This Tender Land and Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Kreuger

Continuing fan of:
Melina Marchetta for The Place on Dalhousie

On board with the rest of the crowd:
Author Sally Hepworth, with The Good Sister being at the top of the list.

And that about covers the highlights of my year in reading! I have written/published reviews of most of the books I mentioned here, so if anything piques your interest, go to the search box (“Search this site” at the top right under my logo and description), put in a title or an author, and find out why I called out these favorite books.

Tragic

I opened All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Bryn Greenwood, with no knowledge and few expectations except those provoked by the prescient title. By the end of the book I was insulted on behalf of the author by those book blurbs praising her for a wonderful debut; this was a wonderful book, regardless if it was her first or her 30th. It was also ugly.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot, because it was such an anguished kind of pleasure to discover it as it went along. It is a truly unique (and I don’t use that word casually) coming-of-age tale about a child who has not one advantage and many crippling obstacles in life and somehow, as some rare children do, manages to survive and to eke out an existence with happy moments in it despite everything.

Wavonna, known as Wavy, is the daughter of a violent, abusive, sexually prolific meth dealer and his drugged-out, paranoid, obsessive-compulsive wife. Neither of them has had a single regard for her since the day she was born, and in fact the idiosyncrasies of her personality that have resulted from ill treatment have caused her father to avoid her company. Wavy rarely speaks; she won’t eat in front of others; and she actively dislikes being touched in any way. At eight years old she trusts no one, depends on no one, owns nothing, and is struggling on her own to raise her baby brother, as the only “responsible adult” in the family.

Then she meets Kellen, a gruff young man who does occasional work for her father between his stints as a mechanic, and the two recognize one another’s blank spots. Kellen is appalled by the level of neglect surrounding this little girl, and starts stepping up to help her, from twin motives of compassion and loneliness. He registers her for school and takes her back and forth on his motorcycle; he brings groceries; he washes dishes; but more than these practical deeds, he offers Wavy both friendship and respect. In return, she sees him for who he is, rather than judging him by the story some of his bad deeds tell about him, and gives him the love and attention that have been missing from his life—and hers.

This is where the story hits a controversial twist, and it is a testament to your flexibility and understanding whether you continue to follow it with empathy or slam it shut with swift condemnation.

The best thing about this book is its unsentimental storytelling. It is a dark portrayal of abuse and dysfunction, yet it neither dramatizes nor trivializes any of it—it’s not manipulative. The reader is allowed to come to the material on her own terms and react to it with sadness, outrage, disgust, compassion, whatever emotion that emerges. Somehow this author is able to write a beautiful story about ugly events and still allow readers to draw their own conclusions.

The book is told from multiple perspectives—I believe there are 16—including chapters narrated by Wavy’s brother, her aunt, her cousin, the sheriff, a judge, a teacher, and of course by Wavy and Kellen themselves. I don’t ordinarily care for books split into so many viewpoints, but in this case it works brilliantly as a reflection of all the possible opinions about these two that might come up, depending upon your perspective. And all of the characters are distinctive and beautifully drawn.

Wavy’s story is stark, controversial, emotional, and unsettling. It’s in-your-face explicit in its descriptions, and will probably leave you feeling conflicted and uneasy, maybe outraged. It’s also some of the finest story-telling I have read in a long, long time. It won’t be for everyone; but if you resonate with a tale about raw human emotion, heartbreak, and resilience, it will continue to echo in your mind as it does in mine.

Note: It’s also well worth reading the author’s comments about content and choices at the end of the book.

The birthday of the world

…is the title of one of Ursula K. LeGuin‘s short stories, and today is (or would have been) Ursula Kroeber LeGuin’s 91st birthday (she passed away in 2018 at age 88). I am moved to talk a little about her legacy on this significant date because she is one of my favorite authors and has had a profound affect on both my reading tastes and general philosophy over the decades since I began devouring her stories, novels, essays, and writing manuals.

LeGuin was the first woman to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards for her fantasy and science fiction, going on after that to win seven more Hugos, five more Nebulas, and 22 Locus Awards. In 2003 she was honored as a Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, after a controversial career in which she defied many of the traditions of this organization and its members.

She was perhaps best known for her fantasy series about the land of Earthsea, which embraces the theme of equilibrium in a coming-of-age saga, and for her extremely forward-looking book about gender and identity, The Left Hand of Darkness; but she wrote more than 20 novels and 100+ short stories, as well as poetry, essays, translations, literary criticism, and children’s books. Prominent social and political themes ran through most of these, including race, gender, sexuality, and political/social structure, and her named influences were varied: cultural anthropology, Taoism (she made her own translation of the Tao Te Ching), feminism, and the work of Carl Jung.

Some of the seminal ideas in her books include the concepts of equilibrium or balance, the reconciliation of opposites, and the necessity for leaving things alone, exploring sociology, psychology, and philosophy through her characters’ experiences. Likewise her writer’s voice was distinct, using unconventional narrative forms. Literary critic Harold Bloom described Le Guin as an “exquisite stylist,” saying that in her writing, “Every word was exactly in place and every sentence or line had resonance.” According to Bloom, Le Guin was…

…a visionary who set herself against all brutality, discrimination, and exploitation.

Harold Bloom

If you are unfamiliar with her writing, I urge you to seek it out. I have probably read the original three of the Earthsea trilogy half a dozen times (and the subsequent sequels at least thrice), and I re-read her book The Dispossessed, a moving personal treatise on anarchy and utopia, at least once a decade. Her Hainish novels are delightfully engaging story-telling, and the last one, The Telling, was the catalyst that sent me off to library school in my late 40s. Her short stories, mainstream fiction, and poetry are likewise intriguing, and as an essayist she can’t be topped. Introduce yourself to her books, or recall the ones you remember fondly and revisit them as a tribute to a giant of literature with, as author Michael Chabon wrote after her death…

the power of an unfettered imagination.”

michael chabon

Grace

I have just finished reading William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace. it’s so interesting to me how different is the voice between his two coming-of-age tales—this and This Tender Land—and his Cork O’Connor mysteries, of which I have read half a dozen now. The titles reveal all you need to know about the former, because his perspective and his writing are both tender and graceful as he looks back over life events big and small in the early 20th Century in which he sets them—This Tender Land in the depths of the Depression, and Ordinary Grace in the rapidly changing world of the 1960s. While I am not disparaging his mystery series—I enjoyed some books more than others, but none was either poorly conceived or written—I feel like his true gift lies with this obviously more personal look at boys of a certain age and how they meet the challenges they encounter as they move towards adulthood.

The main character in Ordinary Grace is Frank Drum, a 13-year-old boy growing up in a small town in Minnesota in 1961. He has an older sister, Ariel, who is aiming for a place at Juilliard (she is a musician as well as a composer), a younger brother, Jake, who stutters, and two parents who, while they love each other and their children, seem to be on different trajectories when it comes to finding satisfaction in life. As the book progresses, a series of tragedies are visited upon the town, some specifically on Frank’s family, and we see how each of these people, as well as other key characters in their orbit, reacts to the events of that year.

While I am always and forever a bit uncomfortable when someone chooses to explore the role of religion in these kinds of events, I have to say that Krueger doesn’t unduly intrude his own beliefs (whatever they are), but provides a nice array of contrasts when it comes to this subject. In Ordinary Grace, the protagonist’s father is a Methodist minister with a deep and all-encompassing faith partially born out of his experiences in World War II, while his mother—even though she does her wifely duty, attending services and leading the choir—feels somewhat betrayed that he didn’t become the lawyer he was planning to be when she met him, and is impatient with the constant expression of his beliefs. And the children are able to begin to come to their own conclusions, based on what they observe in their parents, in their friends, in the world, and in the events of their lives. Nathan, the preacher, comes across alternately as the hero and the fool for his consistent faith, while others in the book similarly go back and forth between seeming either pragmatic or shallow based on their own sentiments. I really liked that Krueger let his characters—and his readers—work things out for themselves.

I loved the easy, gentle pace of the book—at one point two of the characters discuss how a railroad track is like a river, because it’s there but it’s also constantly moving somewhere else—and I felt this to be a good analogy for the telling of this story. The characters are all well fleshed out and present themselves as individuals, and the language is beautifully lyrical in its descriptions of nature as experienced by the narrator. The only flaw I found is that someone (presumably not the author, since this was not the case in any of his other books) went through and excised a whole slew of necessary commas (maybe three-quarters of them?), including the ones that would have set off dependent clauses in their sentences. It was disconcerting to read, and I found my editor’s brain silently inserting each one as I went, sometimes making it hard to be present in the story.

I became impatient with the story line at one point, because I didn’t quite understand what the book was supposed to achieve. When one of the characters dies in mysterious circumstances, it seems like the purpose of the book is to figure out why, how, and by whose hand, but since I was pretty sure from about halfway through about both the issue of whose fault it was and which person acted to end things, I initially felt cheated that the author hadn’t made a better mystery out of it. Then, as I continued to read, I gradually realized that the book wasn’t about the mystery at all, but rather about how each character in his or her diversity would react to the truth of what happened.

This is a beautiful exploration of life, death, brotherhood, friendship, family, and community, and ultimately a commentary on the painful acquisition of wisdom and also on the nature of grace, whether it’s being considered as something granted by a supreme deity or given or withheld by the humans around us in times of crisis and loss. Even though it is framed in religious terms, for me the concept of grace in the novel was vastly wider, encompassing the ideas of tolerance, empathy, and respect. And I don’t want to give away the specifics, but when the moment finally comes when you find out where the title of the book came from, it’s different from what you expected, and delightful (or at least I found it so).

The final lines of the novel are both simple and profound enough that they deserve to be immortalized in the same way that we remember “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” as the first line of Rebecca, or “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show” as the beginning of David Copperfield. I wouldn’t dream of revealing them here, but do read the book and discover them for yourself.

Coming of age w/dogs

I somehow never picked up The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski, back in 2008 when it was published and getting all the buzz. I had started my first job in my new career as a youth services librarian, and was far too exhausted ordering books for the library and trying to get current on children’s literature to read much of anything for my own pleasure. I was buying some remaindered books from bookoutlet.com recently and saw that it was available, so I included a copy in my order and started reading without knowing anything about it.

It reminded me, with its gorgeous prose, descriptive scene-setting, and intriguing characters, of a few other books I have lately read—This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger; The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, by Robert Dugoni; and Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens. Like those books, it has a young protagonist with a challenging facet to his character, and is both a coming-of-age saga and a snapshot of the times and locale in which its events take place.

In This Tender Land, the boys are orphans being raised in a reservation institution during the depths of the Depression; in Sam Hell, the protagonist is born with red eyes, an odd genetic marker that is a target for bullies; in Crawdads, Kya grows up in isolation in the North Carolina marshes after being deserted by her family, and is regarded with suspicion by the rural community surrounding her. Edgar Sawtelle is more fortunate than these others, in that he has two loving parents and a meaningful life working on his family’s farm in northern Wisconsin, breeding and training dogs for sale. But Edgar has his challenge, too: He was born mute. He hears, but is unable to speak, scream, or make any kind of verbal noise. He is fortunate to meet a woman early in life who teaches him and his parents to sign, and he and his mother go on to make up their own peculiar gestures for all the dog-related trainings, which he does silently with his hands while she verbalizes.

When Edgar is a teenager, his uncle Claude comes back into their lives (he has been in prison), and as soon as he is on the scene, things begin to change. Edgar’s father and his uncle quarrel almost constantly, his father’s native caution coming up against his uncle’s rash impulsiveness. It begins to seem like they are all doomed to live in a constant state of turmoil. Then Edgar’s father dies unexpectedly, leaving he and his mother to carry on the ambitious and taxing breeding and training program with the family’s dogs, and Claude begins to insert himself into the business as his mother, bereft and grieving, reaches out for help. When Edgar has an astounding realization about Claude’s character and actions, he lashes out with tragic consequences and flees into the woods with three of the dogs from “his” litter. But he can’t stay away forever, and is ultimately forced to face the consequences of his flight.

The book has been called a riveting family saga and a compulsively readable modern classic, and I couldn’t disagree with either of those descriptions. Edgar is an immediately sympathetic character, beset by frustration and grief and unable to make himself understood. The story is so moving, in both its triumphs and tragedies. There are those who quibble that the details of the dog breeding and training involve way too much description and attention, just as some readers disliked the lengthy descriptions of nature in Crawdads and asserted in each case that these were flaws of a first-time writer; but I actually enjoyed learning about this trade, and also specifically how it was undertaken by a boy who was mute and couldn’t call out his commands. Others decry the hint of magical realism and/or the anthropomorphism involved in having a few chapters told from a dog’s point of view. But for me, the characters of both the humans and the dogs come to life on the page and are so distinct and compelling that it’s hard to leave them behind when the book is over.

I honestly don’t know what to say, however, about the resolution of the book. I kept expecting, despite all the portents, for it to be a heart-warming boy-and-his-dog story, and up through about 75 percent of it I hung onto that; but the last 25 percent devastated me. After it was over, I went back to Goodreads and discovered that the author had patterned the book on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It might have been good knowing that, going in! I can’t say that I wouldn’t have read it anyway; but perhaps I wouldn’t have invested so heavily in my belief that there would be a redemptive, if not precisely happy, ending.

I have probably said too much for either proper readers’ advisory or a book review; but it’s hard to get over the emotion that was provoked by this book. It’s beautiful, evocative, and tragic. I would still say to read it, but hold a tiny part of yourself in reserve from wholly committing to the characters.

Overcoming

As with other recent choices, this book came to me through the multiple raves of members of the “What Should I Read Next?” Facebook group. Like the others I have read, I did my best not to learn what it was about until I decided to pick it up myself.

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell is a coming-of-age tale with something of a twist: Sam is born with ocular albinism, which results in him having red eyes. Everyone who encounters him does a double-take, starting with his father, when he takes one look at his new-born son and exclaims, “What in the Sam Hell?!” Their last name is Hill; they christen him “Samuel,” and the nickname sticks.

This story was so engaging, from page one. Sam’s mother is definitely the heroine of the early years, as she fiercely stands up to all the people who discriminate against Sam because of his weird appearance, starting with Sister Beatrice, the Catholic school principal who wants to exclude him from her school because he “may be a disturbing influence.” His mother is quick to point out the inherent lack of Christian charity in this attitude and the concomitant opportunity for her students to practice tolerance and, when this fails to accomplish her objective, takes the story to a friend at the local newspaper. Score one for Mom—Sam is admitted on day two. It’s not a blessing to Sam himself, however, who is shunned, mocked, and called “devil boy,” and eats his lunch alone on the bleachers. His salvation comes in the form of Ernie Cantwell, the only African American kid in the school, who makes common cause with Sam, and Mickie Kennedy, whose mid-term banishment to Our Lady of Mercy is a blessing in disguise for all three of the children over the length of their extended friendship.

As a child who was targeted for being fat (despite the fact that there were at least three other kids bigger than me in my grade), I completely sympathized with Sam’s plight as a bullied outsider, although no one acted against me beyond hurtful words. But after a while, I wondered just how bad he really had it, especially when he became old enough to choose to wear contact lenses that hid his secret from the world, a luxury not afforded to those with more obvious “flaws.” I appreciated Mickie’s perspective on Sam’s “disability” when she finally delivers it to him, and wished that this had happened earlier in the story: When bad things happen to Sam and he is bewailing the results of “God’s will” (as his mother has always insisted on calling it), Mickie points out to him that despite his red eyes, Sam has grown up with two loving, involved parents, friends who have always had his back, and pretty much every other advantage, while Mickie lived with an alcoholic mother whose dysfunction caused Mickie to be the adult in the household from age 12. This perspective is a bit arresting for Sam and causes him to rethink some things.

The writing style flows easily, and the characters in this book are so personable and real that I thoroughly enjoyed reading about them, up until about 15 percent from the end. The book began to drain me of interest when Sam lets guilt over a terrible circumstance he could not have foreseen nor prevented run his life off the familiar track into a prolonged period of atonement for a nonexistent “sin.” Although he does eventually have an epiphany that brings him back to himself, I felt like the book turned sentimental and overtly religious, and I didn’t like the dragged-out ending, although I appreciated the author’s final conclusions (shorn of the religious overtones).

I found out in the afterword to the book that Robert Dugoni writes a mystery series about which many people rave. I can well believe, from his writing chops in this book, that they are good, and will regard this as my fortunate introduction to an excellent writer. Someone with fewer buttons to push regarding Christianity will no doubt love this book, as attested to by the many five-star ratings on Goodreads; I’m not sorry I read it—the characters will remain extraordinary in my memory—but I do look forward to enjoying some of the author’s product not focused on religious themes.

Euphoria

After my previous reading experiences with Lily King,
I was intrigued by the concept of her book Euphoria. Although itself fiction, it is said to be based on a small portion of the life and experiences of the great anthropologist Margaret Mead.

In the book, Nell Stone, her enigmatic and combative husband, Schuyler Fenwick (called “Fen”), and their colleague Andrew Bankson are all studying tribes along a river in the jungles of New Guinea. Each has his or her own way of going about their research: Nell provokes the villagers with constant questions reinforced by various activities, taking copious notes that she transcribes and reflects upon daily; Fen immerses himself in some aspect of the tribe’s activities and in essence becomes part of them as best he can, apparently without much reflection and sometimes with massive misperceptions; and Bankson (at least up until he met Nell and Fen) subscribes to a much more traditional and passive observational method that leaves him feeling unsatisfied and sometimes duped.

Although the description of the book implies that the three of them are transformed by working together, there is only a brief period during which this is true; the rest of the time, Nell is constantly refining her research methods and publishing her results to great acclaim, while Fen looks on them with contempt (but also with jealousy for her success) and goes his own way, and Bankson moons after Nell and wishes he could simultaneously be with her and be more like her. The description also remarks on “a firestorm of fierce love and jealousy,” but again, the depiction was (at least for me) a pallid version of what is implied. For me, the center of the book was Nell, and I wanted to know a lot more about her personally and also about the thoughts behind the work she was doing than I was given by King.

Honestly, I can’t quite define how I feel after finishing this book. The language and imagery were so immediate and so incredibly beautiful…and yet the characters seemed oddly elusive. The way it’s written, from one person’s viewpoint (Bankson) interspersed with another person’s diary (Nell), was a little off-putting to me, perhaps because the narrator’s part of the tale was inhibited by his innate Englishness, while the diary was written in truncated entries that didn’t quite fulfill my curiosity. And of course there is a third person in this book (Fen) who is a main character and yet remains largely a mystery, both to the reader and to his fellow anthropologists.

Some of the thinking about the similarities and differences between so-called civilized people and the native tribes they are studying—and how that study inevitably impacts and changes those being observed—was fascinating, and the “grid” they created to divide peoples and individuals into types felt like as big a breakthrough as when the characters depicted it, inspiring me to want to read the works of Margaret Mead directly. But I wanted a lot more than I got from the core relationships in this book, and was ultimately left feeling dissatisfied, depressed, and a bit disturbed by the whole thing. So, a mixed bag for me, despite my admiration for the writing.

Note: Gorgeous, perfectly appropriate cover. It depicts the colors of the rainbow gum tree growing up through the center of the protagonists’ house.