Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Dark World for the Outcast

The Cove
by Ron Rash
Published by Ecco
3 1/2 Out of 5 Stars

The small, isolated community of Mars Hill, North Carolina, continues to cling to the prejudices and Appalachian superstitions of another century in the wake of World War I. Its men have been to fight in foreign lands, encountered the awesome terror of modernized warfare, and yet still harbor a profound fear of a young woman who lives sadly and quietly in a place simply known as "The Cove." Laurel Shelton's life, thanks to the people of Mars Hill, has not been an easy one. Marked by the port-wine stain on her shoulder and by the misfortune of living on land that is believed to be the home of some nebulous evil, Laurel is labeled a witch and ostracized from the community--banned from the school, humiliated by the young men, and shunned by the proprietors of local businesses. It doesn't help that The Cove seems to consume everything with which it comes into contact; Laurel's parents both die under unfortunate and unexpected circumstances, the blighted chestnut trees wither and stop producing, and there are fewer Carolina parakeets with every passing year. 

When her brother and protector, Hank, leaves for war, Laurel is left alone to fend for herself on the farm and it seems as though happiness will forever remain out of her reach. But Hank returns, having lost a hand to the war, and it seems as though things might finally get better. Hank is getting married, the farm responds to his hard work, and a stranger in the woods may offer Laurel an escape from The Cove's clutches.

Ultimately, The Cove is about the danger of instinctively hating that which we don't understand. Ignorance and intolerance make Laurel an outcast and The Cove itself becomes the physical manifestation of the community's rejection of her for the crime of being "different." Just as the darkness of The Cove absorbs and destroys the beauty of its inhabitants, the human capacity for hatred destroys the most fragile and beautiful among us. To watch as Laurel slowly becomes hopeful that life will hold something better than she's been allowed to expect--to come to believe that she deserves to be allowed this hope--is painfully heart-wrenching. However, there are no happily ever afters here. Just as the cliff looms ominously over The Cove, the foreboding that something will crush this nascent hope pervades the narrative. 

Rash's writing is lyrical and simple in the best possible sense; there's no poetic posturing or pretentiousness. To capture such bruised lives in straightforward, lovely language imbues his characters with a genuine and honest dignity. 

Two factors prevented me from giving it a 4 star. The first is that I kept measuring this book against Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. While Rash does a fine job of capturing the atmosphere of the place, he lacks the lush detail of Frazier's work that truly brought the land alive for me as a reader. Frazier's portrayal of two damaged characters, Ada and Inman, is also more nuanced and three dimensional. While Rash's portrayal of Laurel and Chauncey Feith (the villain of the tale, which is made clear from the introduction of this selfish, pompous bastard) is inspired, many of his other characters are little more than well-written stereotypes. The second is that the denouement seems too abrupt in its execution and, while brutal and violent, the emotional punch is lessened by how swiftly events are brought to a close.

Despite these factors, The Cove is a much finer piece of writing than much of what is out there and I look forward to reading Rash's Serena.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Cheap Trick

Now You See Him
by Eli Gottlieb
Published by Harper Perennial
2 Out of 5 Stars

Nick Framingham is coping, albeit poorly, with the loss of his best friend, Rob Castor, a writer of some repute whose devil-may-care attitude the more introverted Nick envied throughout their childhood. We know from the beginning that Rob killed his girlfriend and then himself, leading to a media firestorm that elevates his fame following his final hours and makes his small hometown the center of national attention. What we don't know is why Nick, months later, is refusing to move on and instead is willingly swallowed by the black hole of grief. And we're not the only ones: his wife doesn't understand, his colleagues don't understand, his friends don't understand. But Nick is at risk of losing much more, including his career, his wife, and his children if he doesn't make peace with the past and a friend who seemed self-centered and charmless at his best. 


Now You See Him is not what I expected. I thought I was getting a taut literary thriller full of suspense (because that's what the blurb blatantly led me to believe) and instead I got a species of character I find increasingly frustrating and tedious: the navel gazing middle-aged male whining his way through a midlife crisis. Do I empathize with Nick's grief? Sure, but he doesn't make it easy for me to do so. He's not a likable guy (no one in this novel is likable) and seems intent on his own self-destruction. His obsession with Rob's death seems creepy to the nth power and the reader is constantly aware of the fact that Nick is withholding something, but hoards the truth with a Gollum-like "my precious" tenacity. When we are finally given explanation for why his friend's death continues to reverberate throughout his own existence, it's too little much too late and has all the subtlety of a Greek tragedy. It provides perspective, but by that point my disgust with Nick had reached such monumental proportions that I simply couldn't forgive much of what he had already done.

So why a 2 star? Gottlieb can write beautifully and offers some profound and genuine moments that capture the contemplation of grief, but there's also cringe-worthy, soap opera dialogue and the final reveal is a bit of "ta-da!" literary trickery that, provided up front, could have redeemed Nick in the reader's eyes.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Family Ties That Bind

by Jean Racine
Published by Penguin Classics
4 Out of 5 Stars

Let's see: thwarted love, betrayal, implied incest, heinous lies, father-son love triangle with wife/stepmother, and a whole lot of death at the end. Um, yeah, that's the recipe for a pretty awesome story. Phedre, married to Theseus, has always nurtured a secret love for his son, Hippolytus. When she receives news that Theseus is dead, she finally confesses her love to Hippolytus, who is in love with Aricia and is disgusted by his step-mother's advances. But, hey, guess what? Theseus isn't dead and returns just in time for all Hades to break loose . . .

Soap operas have nothing on ancient Greek drama. Plus, on All My Children, you never get a half bull/half dragon sea beastie sent by Neptune to torch our hero into a crispy critter before his horses go mad, crash the chariot, and then drag him to death. And I have to believe that's worth something.

Caught in the Middle

Between, Georgia
by Joshilyn Jackson
Published by Warner Books
3 Out of 5 Stars

An enjoyable, but overall predictable, quick read. I always enjoy Joshilyn Jackson's books, especially this one's take on the rivalries that crop up between Southern families that are only exacerbated by life in a small town. There are some humorous moments, a few twists, and likable characters. Particularly inventive is Jackson's use of a main character, Nonny, who literally finds herself "between" the Fretts and the Crabtrees (the ersatz Hatfields and McCoys of the story), as well as the character of Stacia, who raises Nonny as her own. Stacia, who suffers from Usher's Syndrome, was born deaf and progressively loses her eyesight, but that doesn't stop her from being outspoken and independent, as well as an artist and a caring mother. Liked it, but did not love it.

Maybe . . . But the Book Doesn't

You Suck:  A Love Story
by Christopher Moore
Published by William Morrow
3 Out of 5 Stars

Funny, with some definitely quotable moments.  However, for me, Moore's vampire series is the weakest of his work.  That's not an insult--I still enjoy them and definitely snicker out loud in ways that make those around me pick up their things and stealthily move away from the crazy person, but they're a little too "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" sometimes in their humor.  What impresses me with Moore is that, often among all of the wacky chaos, he can sneak up on you with a beautiful turn of phrase or moment that catches you off-guard.  The scene where Jody feeds off of a man with terminal cancer is beautiful and touching without being maudlin.  Don't worry that there are too many moments like this, though, as there's plenty of Moore's trademark "heinous fuckery most foul."

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Growing Up is Hard to Do

Looking for Alaska
by John Green
Published by Speak
3 Out of 5 Stars

Divided into two parts (before and after), I was all set to give this book a 4 until the last half of the book. The book is structured around a tragic event that changes the lives of a close knit group of friends. 

The first half of the book focuses on the main character, Pudge, a high school nobody with a penchant for collecting the last words of the dead and famous. Pudge, seeking a "Great Perhaps" that will change his life and provide him with direction, opts to attend Culver Creek, a private boarding school in Alabama. There he meets the Alaska of the book, a mercurial and mysterious girl with whom he falls in love. In addition, he becomes part of a motley group of misfits and finally feels as though he belongs. The novel's strength comes from this part of the book. There are those who will criticize these teens as being too jaded and world weary, but that's really the point. These are essentially good kids with keen intellects that have developed much sooner than their emotional maturity; they still see themselves as invincible. They smoke, they cuss, they drink, they experiment with sex. What they're really doing is trying to create an individualistic identity by trying on adult habits and modes of behavior, not realizing that their rebellious behavior has made them into stereotypes. Despite their flaws, they're likable--funny, sharp witted, and loyal to one another. 

My problem with the book is the second half, and I won't give away any spoilers. However, I was disappointed with the Scooby Doo ease with which the answer to the final mystery fell into place (my inner voice was groaning, "Rut ro, Raggy," as I realized how dissatisfying the ending was going to be). Also, adults just become complete idiots by the end of the book, shaking their heads with "You crazy kids"-like admiration at some of their more ridiculous exploits. However, it's a worthwhile read that is smartly written and would probably appeal more to teenagers.