literary fiction

The Lighthouse – Alison Moore

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The Lighthouse Alison MooreFuth is middle-aged, recently divorced, and on a ferry for a walking holiday in Germany.  While he is away his ex-wife will pack up and move all of his possessions, and he’ll return back to England to a new apartment and a new life alone.  He has one talisman for comfort and that is a small silver lighthouse that never leaves his pocket.  Alongside Futh’s story is that of Esther, the inn keeper’s wife at Futh’s first and last stop.  Unhappily married, Esther has a penchant for affairs with guests in uncleaned rooms and stealing from other guests.  She also has a lighthouse, the wooden compliment to Futh’s more extravagant piece.  The Lighthouse follows the pair in their respective, tragic stories.

The Lighthouse was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year, and judging by the fury I saw on Twitter, many felt it should have won.  While I have not read the other nominees, I was drawn to this book primarily because of the backlash of its loss and the fact that it came from independent publisher Salt.  I wanted to love The Lighthouse.  I thought it was going to be an interesting, compelling story of loss and loneliness.  What I found instead was a boring novel with one-dimensional characters but excellent technical writing skills.

Where this book fell for me was within the first few pages.  I was bored out of my mind trying to slog my way into Futh’s story.  I found nothing about him compelling enough to keep reading; the only reason I did not stop at the beginning was because I try to always get about 25% through a book I’m reading to review.  One of the main problems I had with Moore’s writing was that she implemented something I could only call third-person stream of consciousness.  When you are in the present with Futh, you know every single little move he makes.  Esther’s portion of the story is slightly more interesting, but only if because she does more.  I can understand that Moore wanted to present Futh as floating in the present, unsure of what his life is.  There are, however, far better ways to do that without losing the interest of your reader.

I found a few things in the book to be a bit absurd as well.  Our first introduction to Esther she sits in the bar of her inn, watching a man eat a hard-boiled egg.  They barely speak, and yet he knows to follow her and that she will sleep with him.  This entire turn of events felt manufactured to show how daring and reckless Esther is, but not an act that made sense in the rest of the story.  Similarly, Futh makes a sort of friend on the ferry, and ends up driving the man to his mother’s house in Germany since it is on his way.  With no explanation, the man offers to let Futh stay at his mother’s house instead of him continuing on his journey.  There are other moments there in her house that are unexplained and feel more awkward than illuminating to the actual narrative.

I also hated the way the book presented each and every single female character.  Through the use of flashbacks, we learn that Futh’s mother abandoned him and his father when he was young, bored of her marriage and moves back to New York.  After his mother leaves, Futh begins to learn a bit about the neighbor who lives behind them.  Gloria cheated on her husband, who left her and took their son with him.  She starts a secret affair with Futh’s father, invites a young teenage Futh over to her house and gets him drunk, and then hits on him when he is an adult, in front of Futh’s father (and her live-in partner).  There is also Angela, Futh’s ex-wife, who cheated on Futh with Gloria’s son almost as soon as the marriage began.  She ignored Futh when they were in school together, and he met her again initially when she was driving back from spending time with her married boyfriend.  And then of course there’s Esther; she left her fiance for his brother, who now beats her.  She sleeps with and steals from guests.  Even the German mother of Futh’s ferry-found friend is rude and off-putting.  I can understand a couple of bad eggs, but when the women in a novel merely act in terrible ways on the victim men, it is hard for me to find much to like about the book.

I will say that I loved the flashback pieces.  I felt they were what drove the book, and the only reason I chose to finish.  I was hoping that through one of these flashbacks we would get some sort of twist reveal that made the entire slog worth it.  Did not happen, however.

I wish I had not wasted my time to read this forgettable novel.  I will look for other books by Moore because her overall style is intriguing and can develop into a real talent, but The Lighthouse fell completely flat for me.  A character-driven literary novel should at least offer a couple of characters you care about – whether you care to hate them or love them is irrelevant.  But with the cardboard cutouts we were offered, all of the beautiful imagery and symbolism offered wasted words.  After reading the book, I felt like The Lighthouse was trying to hard to be something artful and that took away from the promise it might have had.  When an author is too conscious of a specific aim, it seeps out in their words and drives away the audience they so want to entice.

Rating: 3/10

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If I Stay – Gayle Forman

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If I Stay coverMia is seventeen and full of promise.  Recently auditioned for Julliard as a cellist, two parents that love her, an adorable seven-year old brother, and a boyfriend and best friend who enrich her life.  When her family gets into a car wreck because of snow, Mia’s spirit is thrust from her body and she walks around separated from her broken body.  From the start, she knows that her parents are gone, but she doesn’t know about her brother Teddy.  Mia must decide whether she will fight to stay alive or whether she will go.

I had been recommended this book a couple of years ago, and it has been at the back of my mind for a long time.  Mia is in a coma, but her ability to walk around and see what is happening around her is a fascinating idea.  And it’s beautifully done.  The immediate aftereffects of such a tragedy could be rich fodder for a book, but it would provide certain limitations to character development.  After all, how do you care about a family if you barely know them?  However, Forman tackles this issue with remarkable talent.  The book is interspersed with memories of Mia’s life, things she remembers throughout the day as she watches her extended family grieve for her.  None of the memories feel out of place, and they easily meld to the story.

One thing that really touched me in If I Stay was the depiction of music’s absorption.  Mia is a classical cellist, her boyfriend Adam is in an up-and-coming punk band, and her father was also a rocker.  Though their tastes are different, she and Adam share their love of music  and fall in love through the medium.  Music weaves throughout the story to connect Mia to her life and to her loved ones.  I love how important it is to Mia, and how the car radio plays even after the crash, making the scene less horrible for her.  Music brings comfort to her throughout her life.  There are many authors who try to show the power music can have, but many fail.  Forman does a superb job.  You feel Mia’s feelings, without Forman having to tell you (My Memories of a Future Life also did a good job with the same concept.)

I listened to this book on audio, but I think I’d rather read it.  Don’t get me wrong, the narrator did a marvelous job being heartfelt and conveying Mia’s story, but she was the wrong age.  Kirsten Potter has a deep, mature voice, one that sounds like a woman in her 30s instead of a 17 year-old girl.  One thing I loved about Book of a Thousand Days or Ella Enchanted was that the narrators sounded the appropriate age.  Seventeen is not so young, but it’s young enough that a young woman’s voice would have a little less confidence, a little more vulnerability.  If I were reading the book, Mia’s voice would be spot on.  Mature for her age, but entirely believable as a girl.  But when you listen to a book, it is important that the narrator fits with the protagonist’s voice.  In this case, because the chosen narrator didn’t fit, it made Mia seem older.  If you listen to the audiobook, feel free to disagree with me.

If I Stay was a beautiful story, and one that left you unsure of what you wanted in the end.  Forman presents both choices – Mia’s staying or dying – with so many reasons to support the other.  By leaving, she would be with her family.  By staying, she would have to live without them and with the pain of their loss, but she would get to experience the rest of her life.  Certainly you want her to live; it would feel wrong to want her to leave.  And yet, your heart aches for her loss and you want only what will make her happy.  If I Stay will capture you heart and pull you in to Mia’s mind.  Forman makes you feel and hurt almost as if you were Mia yourself.

Rating: 9/10
Audiobook Rating: 7/10

The Borrower – Rebecca Makkai (Book Talk)

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The Borrower coverAnd introducing . . . my first post on a Book Talk selection!  Book Talk’s choice for its inaugural work is The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai.

The Borrower follows Lucy Hull, a children’s librarian in small-town Missouri (we Kansans call it Misery, because we are clever).  Lucy has a favorite patron named Ian, an eleven year-old boy who is dramatic, friendly, and an avid reader.  The only problem with Ian is his mother.  She does not want him to read fantasy or anything without a “breath of God” in it.  Lucy begins to worry about how Ian’s parents treat him, especially since most of her fellow employees think he will turn out to be gay.  When Lucy comes into the library one morning and finds Ian camped out and ready to run, she promises to take him home.  Instead, they begin a long road trip where both are running from their lives and running towards a more satisfactory ending to their story.

I both liked and did not like this book.  I loved the narrative play on children’s stories, little vignettes where Lucy would describe her and Ian’s adventures as if she were writing different types of children’s books.  The narration itself was mostly clever, told in a first-person account where Lucy defends her “crimes”.  Makkai’s written Russian dialect was good and descriptive; I could hear it clearly and understand what was being said.  Lucy’s Russian father managed to not be stereotypical, though perhaps a little widely drawn. (He was a mafia man, of course.)

One of the themes of this book was how the mind can protect you from the truths of the world, let you see things that you want to see.  I touched on this same thing in my review of Mina’s new book, but Makkai takes a different route.  For instance, Lucy’s father has always told her stories about Soviet Russia and his endeavors against the communist government.  When Lucy discovers the real truth behind one of her father’s favorite stories, it repaints her entire view of him and his struggles against Soviet Russia.  It is the truth behind the story, and the resultant moral shake up, that makes her wonder if running with Ian is really the right thing to do.  The story had always shaped her beliefs in rebelling, so when it crumbles, she no longer knows how to behave.

I did have a couple of gripes with this book.  One was the political commentary.  Lucy didn’t like Bush (the book took place sometime during his presidency) or his politics.  We get that with the first mention.  But she shoves it down the throats of her readers, coming off as preachy and unrelenting.  I don’t mind political commentary when there is a point to it, when it drives the story forward.  This, however, did nothing but stall the story and added nothing to her character.  One time would have showed you her political views.   In fact, Lucy is pretty outspoken from the beginning, so any reader would have been able to deduce her opinions.

My second was the wide criticism of Christianity.  I am a Christian.  I am not radical, unkind, or small-minded.  I realize that some people are.  Just as some people in all different beliefs are small-minded and closed to other opinions.  We as humans are opinionated, and I get that.  I just don’ t think Makkai understands that.  Ian’s parents were Evangelicals who sent their ten year-old son to an “anti-gay” class.  Whatever your opinions on homosexuality, most people would agree that few children have any idea what they think or believe at that age.  It is an age of discovery, exploration, and curiosity.  To be so young and pigeon-holed – both by Lucy and by his parents – can be more damaging than anything else.  But simply because Ian’s parents are Christian and treat him the way that they do, suddenly all Christians are bad.  Makkai does not explicitly state that, but it certainly is easily inferred by the reader.  Of course, is not Lucy’s absolute belief that she is the one in the right the exact same thing?  It is prejudice against a belief both ways, without discussion or an open mind.

You can see now why I liked and disliked this book at the same time.  It was clever, but bogged down by its message.  A writer once told me that if you aim to have a message, then you will only come across as preachy.  I think this is exhibited in Makkai’s work; the novel had potential but became so focused on a perspective that the heart of the story was lost.

The book ends on a sad note, where Lucy remarks that people do not change.  How depressing to be stuck in one mindset forever, never growing or adapting to your circumstances.  Except, change is inevitable, even if Lucy cannot see it by her journey’s end.

Rating: 6.5/10

The Help – Book Version

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The HelpI loved the movie that much that I had to read the book.  I also love the ability to “borrow” an audiobook from your library.  I knew that I would not have a lot of time to sit down and read, but I have an almost 30 minute commute to work, so I figured I would take advantage of that.  The book turned out to be so good, that I have barely put my iPod down.

If you want the basic premise of the book, see my film review.  Honestly, my mom was right.  The film was probably one of the best adaptations I’ve seen in a long time.  They kept all the good parts, changed the few things that would help it flow better on screen, and really emphasized those characters that were most important.  I would have liked to see the good that came out of the book they published, such as one of Skeeter’s old friends feeling good about what her maid said.  They don’t really tell you in the movie, but some of the maids had good things to say about their bosses, and some of them had really good relationships.  Another maid tells Aibilene that because of the book, her “white lady” sits her down and asks if she had treated her as badly.  It led to discussion, to good things, and I wish the movie had been better able to portray that.

Another thing I loved about the novel was the friendships that the women developed.  Aibilene and Skeeter’s was perhaps the deepest and most touching.  Sure, in the film, they talk and are friendly, but I don’t think it shows you just how close of a relationship that they develop.  I know that if you are only given two and a half hours, that things will be glossed over.  Which is why I love books.  They are so much richer, so much deeper.  The movie in this case gives you a mighty good taste of the story, but the book provides the full meal of it.

If possible, you also hate Hilly even more in the book.  Bryce Dallas Howard really did do a good job with that role.  Elizabeth is a lot more sympathetic, and you understand a lot more the power Hilly holds over these women in her area and just how brave Skeeter was to do anything to upset that.  It’s another thing the film glosses over, Skeeter’s ostracization.  Even though Skeeter is never really in a lot of danger, before the book is published Hilly makes sure she has no friends, no respect, and she tries to keep Stewart away, too.  All because Skeeter pulls the toilet prank and has the Jim Crowe laws in her bag.  Two small things, but it drives the wedge that the book just makes wider.  *SPOILER* (Ok, if someone had told people to leave used toilets in my yard, too, I would be pretty mad.) *SPOILER*

The audiobook was fun because it is read in four separate voices:  Aibilene, Minny, Skeeter, and a narrator.  The narrator only steps in for the banquet scene.  I thought it was odd at first, but mostly because I was used to the dialogue (especially Celia Foote’s) in certain reader’s voices.  For a scene like that, where you would miss out on something if you were in one person’s head, it made complete sense.  And this way, you got to see every little detail better than a fly on the wall.  Minny was voiced by Octavia Spencer, the actress who plays her in the film.  She in particular just jumps out of your headphones, grabbing your attention.  I loved them all, though.

The actual writing was very good, too.  Stockett really captured the different dialects used, the rhythms of speech, and the words that would have been chosen.  It reads smoothly, and even though there are grammatical errors in the speech, you don’t mind because that is so true to the character narrating the piece.

My only complaint about the book was it was hard to follow the timeline.  Since you start off with Aibilene for quite some time, and then switch back and forth between the other two, you sometimes jump back and forth in time.  It’s not a huge struggle, but it does make it a little hard to follow.  That is the danger in having more than one narrator, though.  And most of my confusion probably rested in me listening to the book instead of reading it.

If you went and saw the movie, you really need to pick up the book.  It is a rare treat to find something original, thought-provoking, and so alive with characters.

Rating: 9/10  A really fantastic novel.