A Book Review, With an Assignment

This is a guest post written by the brilliant woman behind Arcane Matters. If you would like to write a guest post let me know!

In The Heart of the Canyon
Elisabeth Hyde


I am a big, big fan of those adventures-gone-wrong movies, like River Wild and such, so I was naturally drawn to In The Heart of the Canyon.

With apologies to the late great Estelle Getty, picture this: A rag-tag group of adventure seekers and three experienced guides spend two weeks on three rafts risking life and limb as the careen through white water rapids. There is a family of four; a mother and her sarcastic high school daughter; a single man looking for some river action; an elderly couple back for something like their twentieth (and last) river run trip; an annoying picture-taking know-it-all boor and his suffering wife and, finally, a brainy and quiet college professor. Then there’s the guides: JT, who is leading his 125th run; Dixie and Abo. Oh, the possibilities! The personality clashes; the chance for madness and mayhem and mischief. I started this book with such high hopes.

I finished the book pretty quickly, but not because it was un-putdownable, mainly because I was hoping to getting closer to What Goes Wrong. The entire book, I waited for a bunch of jewel thieves to show up and hijack the boats, taking all as prisoners. Or for the group to take a hike and get stranded in a deep dark cave. Or for a maniacal escaped-from-jail serial killer to stalk the group. But this book is much more subtle that that. The traumas are more emotional than physical, and the lion’s share of the action is of the internal variety. Instead of thieves and scary caves and marauders, we are dealing with even scarier things: crumbling marriages; broken hearts; facing the end of life; dealing with Alzheimer’s; being an overweight teenager in a viscous high school world. Scary stuff, indeed.

The writing is not nearly sublime enough to be of the literary variety, but isn’t fluffy enough to be a guilty pleasure either. It exists somewhere in the middle. Some of the river-running details and descriptions of this Grand Canyon read at times like a Wikipedia entry. And all that skipping between characters forced m to consult the front-of-the-book character guide on more than one occasion. What kept me reading was the promise of something going wrong.

Perhaps it was wrong for me to assume that a river adventure must include massive mayhem, but that is what I wanted. Mayhem never really ensued, but there is a little twist, a shocker of a storyline that I suspect the author wanted to take us by surprise, to make our jaws drop open and our minds race with thoughts of “Now what?!” The thing is, though, I figured out what the twist was in the very beginning of the book, and the many, many dropped hints scattered throughout only supported my early conclusion and made the writing seem contrived. Those hints stuck out like sore thumbs, and it all felt so cheap. Am I especially astute? Or is the writing especially flawed? You decide, and if you do read it, tell me exactly the page you figured out the shocking twist. I have a feeling it was probably very early in the book.

Book review: Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood

Me and Margaret go way back. I discovered her when I was a teenager and predictably started with A Handmaid’s Tale. Then I devoured her oeuvre. Cat’s Eye was like a bible to me. The Edible Woman made me a vegetarian for nearly a month. Lines from her poetry were written on posterboard on my quote wall and carved into my ceramics class artwork. She is one of the two writers who truly made me want to write.

I have read almost everything she has written, but I don’t stay informed about adult publishing these days so I didn’t know she had a new book out until I was wandering the big bookstore chain in our neighborhood. I bought it immediately, even though it was not in our tight budget. For books, money can always be found. Margaret Atwood must be owned, not borrowed.

Moral Disorder is a book of connected short stories following the life of one woman. I think I read that on the back when I purchased the book, but I didn’t read it for a couple of months and I forgot. So I didn’t realize until she named the character the same thing. I read the first several essays, the ones that are in first person, thinking they were separate but strangely echoing one another. They echo other aspects of Atwood’s work, too. She has written many stories of childhood and they always share a sadness and distance. Her view, her memory perhaps, of childhood is far from the idyllic version many writers use. It always seems a dark and uncertain time. She captures the hardest feelings we had as children, the confusion and fear and dependence on unreliable adults. I think her stories featuring children are my favorites.

In the beginning of this book, we follow the main character (“Nell” in later chapters) through the birth and childhood of her much younger sister. We see her great anxiety when caring for her pregnant mother in a brilliant chapter called, “The Art of Cooking and Serving.” This particular story beautifully sets place and time through the 50’s advice the child reads in her mother’s cookbooks, and this pressure pushes Nell until she breaks, sick of caring for her mother and then for the baby her mother delivers.

The next story, “The Headless Horseman,” hit close to home for me. In it, Nell’s baby sister is shown to be a fearful and strange child who ends up adopting the scary, papier-mache head from Nell’s Halloween costume and caring for it like a doll. She also demands that Nell be a monster sometimes but Nell’s vaguely menacing tone even when the game is over torments the little girl: “A sister pretending to be a monster or a monster pretending to be a sister? It was too much for her to decipher.” Bizarrely, I played Monster with my own little sister and tormented her with undoubtedly similar questions. At least Nell’s little sister begged to play the game in the first place. Mine did not and was scarred forever by my meanness.

The four stories in the middle of the book use third person and we meet Nell as a woman, living with a married man in the country. This sudden narrative switch didn’t bother me when I thought they were all separate stories, but since I realized that they are connected and feature one character throughout, I have been pondering Atwood’s decision to use two different points of view. I haven’t come up with much by way of reason. I can speak to my reactions – I judged Nell more when she was presented in the third person. I wondered what the hell she was doing in the country with the married man. I felt she was a bit stupid for getting herself into the strange situation involving him and his ex-ish wife. I kept thinking that I would never put up with what she put up with from him or from the situation. It wasn’t extreme, but those were my thoughts.

Then we switch back into the first person and the character moves back to the city and I found that I felt closer to her again. So was this device used to try to give a fuller picture of the character? Can we never really know a first person character except through their own image of themselves? And can we never empathize with a third person character without their self reflection to assist us? I know. These are totally Lit 101 type questions. It’s just been a while since I thought about them.

I recommend Moral Disorder to lovers of Atwood. I didn’t find it that substantial of a book, not grand or sweeping or dramatic. It captured a life. It said a few lovely things and a few deep ones. It was a quiet and simple book. Enjoyable but maybe, if I am honest, not that memorable.

Book review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I bet you think that I frequent libraries since I am a librarian. This would be a logical assumption, but a wrong one. Even though I live a mile from the gorgeous main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, I rarely go there. In the past, the only times I entered its hollowed halls was when I was going to a particular conference that gives extensive required reading lists. I did that conference three times, I think. So three. Three summers that I spent some time at the library. Otherwise, not so much.

But having a baby changes everything, as the commercial tells us. The biggest thing I have found changed, other than the joy and worry and fatigue, is that I walk. I, a fibromyalgic shut-in with an epic distaste for the outdoors, can now walk an easy two miles without even paying for it in pain the next day. Nearly every day, I take the Beck to a baby playground nearly a mile away. When we leave, he often naps in the stroller and he stays asleep if I keep moving. So one hot, humid day, I wished I had a place to keep moving that was air conditioned. And then I realized we were about 3 minutes away from the library.

I am a lover of contemporary fiction but I have felt extremely out of the loop for the past half decade. My work requires that I keep abreast of all the latest developments in kid lit and that has been enough to fill my reading time. When I started working in Brooklyn and lost my subway commute, I read far less and the reading time I did get was really taken up with kid books. My only grownup book time was vacations. And, honestly, I can’t read when in turmoil – I lose my attention span. So with ttc and miscarriage and all that, I just didn’t feel like reading.

So there I was, looking for something to do and something to read while Beck slept. The fiction section has a display of recommended fiction and I felt drawn to this book right away. It has a good cover and a circus theme. Two circus books are firmly implanted in my memorable books list (Geek Love and A Son of the Circus), so it’s a theme I dig right away. I grabbed it somewhat impulsively, knowing full well that it could be something I just dragged home only to have to drag back unread in two weeks. I got Beck some board books while I was there so it wouldn’t be a waste of checkout time.

I read the first few pages right away, the dramatic prologue that certainly sets the stage for mystery and drama: a stampede, a murder, a setting and language that firmly plant us in a specific time and world. It’s a Depression era circus, a somewhat depraved and desperate place. I knew I wanted to read more but put the book down for a few days to finish something else. I found that I kept wanting to go back to it, though.

The book flashes back and forth from the past circus to the present, where our main character, Jacob, is 90-ish and living in a nursing home. He is in good mental health but his body is failing him a bit. He is edgy and anxious and bored. And a bit bitter about the state of things – the nurses, the food, the company of other old people.

Through the flashbacks, we learn Jacob’s story. He comes to the circus very much by accident because of a family tragedy that leaves him penniless and alone. He is almost a veterinarian and once the circus figures this out, they very much want to keep him on to care for the menagerie. He quickly feels connected to these animals and they keep him emotionally tethered to the place even when events occur that should send him running.

August the animal keeper, Jacob’s boss, is a charming and terrifying man. He is a talented animal trainer on his best days, a generous husband and friend. On his bad days, when things don’t go his way, he is ruthless and sickeningly cruel. There are some hard passages to read in this book, though the author does a good job of setting the worst cases of animal cruelty “offstage,” as it were, so that our imaginations take care of the details.

August’s wife, Marlena, is the star of the liberty horses act and a skilled horse trainer. Jacob immediately feels drawn to her beauty and love of animals but fears for her safety because of her brutal husband. A dangerous love triangle develops here, with Jacob receiving constant invitations from August for dinners and excursions. He can’t refuse August, but his feelings for Marlena become dangerously close to the surface.

The story of these three is set among the characters of a typical old time circus – the dwarf clown, the roustabouts, the cooch tent prostitute, the newly-acquired circus elephant who is either very stupid or very smart. Overseeing all is the ringmaster whose ambition to surpass Ringling drives him to give merciless and deadly orders when things aren’t going well. People aren’t paid. People go missing.

I couldn’t put this book down. I read it late into the night with that “just one more chapter” feeling you get from well-built suspense. I even read the interview with the author at the end and all the book club questions, which is rare for me. There I learned that the author did extensive research into circuses of the time and that many of the craziest details are true, or at least as true as circus history can be.

The end came too quickly, as it does when you are enmeshed in a fictitious world you love. In some ways, the final present-tense outcome seemed far-fetched to me, impossible. But when you are writing about the circus, perhaps anything is possible. And whether it rang true or not, it hit the right note on an emotional level.

Highly recommended.

MotherTalk Review: The Dangerous Days of Daniel X

There was a time in my life where I positively devoured crime books. I read Patricia Cornwell novels with a sort of manic fervor and enjoyed being scared and sleepless. I read a few other books of that genre by different authors, but eventually the chewing gum lost its flavor and the stories felt trite and dull. I skipped out of the world of crime novels before I had ever had a chance to sit down with a James Patterson read.

Last year when one of Patterson’s much admired book series became an actual television series I decided to give it a chance. I instantly became sucked into the world of Women’s Murder Club. I loved that it was a crime show second and a relationship show first. I loved that it had realistic characters that were deliciously flawed and still striving and yearning for their own version of perfect.

When I heard that Patterson along with co-writer Michael Ledwidge had decided to begin a new book series geared at younger readers, and specifically boys, I was excited. I often feel a pang of sadness when I meet someone and find out that they weren’t big readers at a younger age. Books are actually something that I can’t imagine my childhood without. Seriously- when I think back to family meals around the dining table I always recall that everyone had a book with them. Sure we conversed and debated and laughed, but if it was just a lazy day Saturday lunch you didn’t show up without a dog eared book to get lost in as you munched on your peanut butter and banana sandwich.

That an author would specifically set out to hook a new generation, a generation that has only known a world with widely available electronics and hundreds of television channels, back into reading is extremely commendable. It is an exceptionally hard task to pull a kid away from a video game and then show him that you can be just as entertained and engaged in a book.

As I read The Dangerous Days of Daniel X I tried to imagine that I was a young boy with a full schedule of extracurricular activities and a video game consul just waiting for my attention. I imagined that I was not big on reading “for fun” or someone that felt books would make me feel stupid.

The novel begins: “If this were a movie instead of real life, this would be the part where in a strange, ominous voice I’d say, “Take me to your leader!” Daniel informs us that our planet is in danger and that disgusting and ruthless aliens are here and set to destroy life as we know it.  We then jump to the beginning of Daniel’s life and learn that he is not your average little boy. That he is, in fact, extremely unique and special. That he alone will save us. It is, I will admit, a very captivating way to begin.

The story revolves around Daniel X and his other-worldly abilities. It reveals the character to be an alien hunter with a massive list of aliens he must seek and destroy. It’s also is a story of secret identities as Daniel struggles to be just a regular boy with a regular family. There is a good deal of violence that some younger readers might make squeamish or find nightmare inducing, but Daniel is a hero that makes us confident that good will ultimately conquer evil.

One of the first things that you will notice about this book, and I do believe it was a specific choice of the authors, is that each chapter is only 2-3 pages long. So in a book with 238 pages you will encounter 92 chapters. Personally I found this a bit tedious, but I have to remind myself that I am not exactly who this book is for. I am the kind of gal that could sit down and devour a good  book cover to cover in one afternoon.

I have to wonder if the inclusion of so many chapters is some sort of subliminal reward system. I remember being younger and feeling a certain sense of accomplishment upon completing or reaching a certain chapter in a book. Heck, I remember the first book I ever read with actual chapters and how insanely grown up it made me feel. So for the general reader (that would be you and me) so many new chapters might seem annoying, but for a new reader it could be a marker of achievement.

The book is very inventive and clever with current inclusions of zesty pop culture but sometimes it read a little forced. Referencing Shia La Beouf gets you points with the tweens, but it felt a bit like a Grandparent talking about an ipod. Older readers will realize that the authors are far more comfortable making references to original episodes of Stark Trek or vintage zombie movies.

This book would be a great read for someone that is just getting turned on by reading. I think young boys as well as girls would be able to follow the story and get lost in the fantastical world of Daniel X. I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone younger than 8 without supervision. There are some very graphic depictions of violence and death, including family members.

Website for The Dangerous Days of Daniel X

Publisher’s website

Purchase the book on Amazon

More from Mothertalk

So let’s talk about the books we read in our childhood. What was the first book you read as a young adult that made you feel accomplished? What books from your childhood do you still have on your bookshelf?

HP “talk” (spoilers in comments)

In this post we will use the comments section to “discuss” HP7.  If you have not read the book and do not wish to see anything – do NOT click on the comments.

I repeat. Do NOT click on comments if you do NOT want to read any spoilers.

However, for those of you that have read the book and have musings, questions, observations, requests, etc please apparate to the comments section and let’s discuss.