Where the Crawdads Sing Book Review

Where the Crawdads Sing (novel)
By Delia Owens

A young girl grows up alone in the coastal marshlands of North Carolina, having been abandoned by her family. She can neither read nor write so the sea gulls, shore birds, and swamp creatures become her friends. In order to survive, she learns how to fish and to hunt on the shoreline for mussels, which she sells to the local bait and tackle store. In her desperate loneliness she meets and befriends two boys, Tate, the son of a local shrimper, and Chase, the popular and handsome townie. Then, someone is killed and the local sheriff launches an investigation.

This first novel by Delia Owens is both a soulful romance and intriguing murder mystery. Owens creates a wonderful character in Kya, the swamp girl. Though I love a good romance, I found myself more fascinated by Owen’s convincing description of Kya’s survival, once her drunken and abusive father finally left, in the Carolinian swamps at the age of seven. Ever since reading The Boxcar Children and The Secret Garden (when I wasn’t much older than seven) I’ve enjoyed stories of children discovering and building places for themselves in wilderness areas. Owens obviously knows the North Carolina coastline and the animals that live there.  Her prose is rich and descriptive.

This is definitely a book club pick, a novel with both merit and high entertainment value.

The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix TV series/Shirley Jackson book)

When I was about sixteen years old, I read Shirley Jackson’s book The Haunting of Hill House. Jackson first published her haunted house story in 1953 and then ten years later in 1963, the book was made into a black and white movie starring Julie Harris. Now Netflix has come out with a brand new TV series of The Haunting of Hill House (just in time for Halloween) and I have to say, the screen writers did a remarkable job. The Netflix series is refreshingly, not a slasher/gore, horror movie enslaved to haunted house conventions.  It even has a satisfying, if not happy ending, something increasingly unique to the genre.  But more about the new Netflix series later.  First, I’d like to talk a little about the book.

As a young woman, though I liked to read, I’d never read a scary book before The Haunting of Hill House.  In those days not many popular authors wrote horror, especially a story of a bizarre haunted house with serious co-dependent issues. The Haunting of Hill House made such an impression on me at such an impressionable age, I’ve attributed the occasional haunted house dreams I’ve had all my life to reading this book when I was a girl. I can still quote some of the lines Jackson wrote to describe Hill House. She said the house was “insane” and “whoever walked there, walked alone.”

Prior to The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson’s greatest claim to fame was her 1948 short story, The Lottery. Some may be familiar with this shocking tale because it’s been repeatedly anthologized in high school English textbooks. Still, I think The Haunting of Hill House is Jackson’s signature work. Stephen King, our preeminent teller of scary tales, has paid tribute many times to Shirley Jackson and The Haunting of Hill House.

Before the Netflix series, there were at least two film versions of The Haunting of Hill House, one of those being the atmospheric and frightening 1960’s movie. The Netflix production though, has managed to not only capture the essence of Jackson’s story, but successfully elaborate and enrich it. The original book is about a small group of people led by a psychic researcher, who come to Hill House to investigate rumors that it’s haunted.  In the Netflix version, the group exploring the house is a young family. They’ve bought Hill House to renovate and resell it.

Though the acting is wonderful in the new Netflix series what’s really memorable is the way the filmmakers use flashbacks and time sequence to build the mystery surrounding the house. They juxtapose the older, present-day family members currently struggling with trauma from their Hill House experience, with their much younger selves at the time they lived in Hill House. The opening scene begins in the past with the young father loading his children in the family station wagon in the middle of the night.  He’s desperately trying to leave Hill House before any more family members die.

There’s been lots of haunted house tales since Jackson’s book, but what makes her story and the Netflix series so distinct is how the character of the house is portrayed.  It is both a benign reflection of its inhabitants, and something fearfully predatory.  What does Hill House want and why? Behind both Jackson’s story and the Netflix offering, lies the chilling answer.

The Great Alone Book Review

The Great Alone (novel)
By Kristin Hannah

I’ve never been to Alaska but this book makes me want to visit. Not only does the author do a fine job describing the majestic scenery of Alaska, she’s also able to capture who the regular Alaskan people are, how they live and work in the outback, logging and clearing roads in the short summer, and smoking strips of marinated salmon for the long, bitter winter. How can you not appreciate an author who is observant and sensitive enough to distinguish the difference between a lower-48, night sky (black) and the winter sky of Alaska (a velvet blue with ambient light from the snow-covered terrain). I loved reading Hannah’s prose.

But all that glorious setting and description is just the frosting on the cake. The cake being a wonderfully involving story of a family in the 70’s trying to survive in the Alaskan wilderness. The story is told from the daughter, Leni’s perspective. She’s a lovely, auburn-haired teenager, an only child, trying to survive not only the Alaskan wilderness (“there’s a hundred ways to die in Alaska”), but her troubled parents. Her violent, unstable father, Ernt, is an ex-POW from the Viet Nam war. Leni loves her sweet, chain-smoking mother, but cannot understand why she doesn’t leave her abusive father. Ernt becomes part of the extremist fringe in Alaska, wanting to keep the world away and live “back to the earth.” He wakes Leni up in the middle of the night to train her how to quickly assemble and load her gun in case of government attack.

When Leni discovers love with the son of her father’s worst enemy, Tom Walker, the town patriarch and progressive, I couldn’t help but think of the family conflict in Romeo and Juliet. I’m relieved to report this story takes an entirely different direction than Shakespeare’s tragedy. Leni struggles to adulthood, but finally discovers her own voice and freedom.

I can’t say how much I liked this book. Hannah does all the right things with character development and plot. I stayed up until midnight last night reading. And that, blog readers, is probably the best recommendation and review I can give any book.

Idaho Book Review

Idaho (novel)
By Emily Ruskovich

I wonder if all books entitled with a state name don’t find an automatic audience of thousands of people within that state wanting to read the book. James Michener, an old epic author from the 70’s and 80’s used to title his novels after their state setting: Texas, Hawaii, Alaska. So, as an Idahoan, I approached Emily Ruskovich’s novel with a lot of anticipation. What would she say about our state and how would she characterize the people that live here?

I’m pleased to report Ruskovich writes a sensitive and human story of two women living in a rural area of north Idaho driven by love to the same damaged man, Wade. Wade is a homesteader and day laborer who has some kind of early onset dementia (his disease is never fully explained).

Though Ruskovich writes beautifully and expressively about simple things like a minister leaving a bowl of pears for a prison inmate, this is a brutal, tragic tale of domestic violence. Wade’s wife, Jenny, apparently in a jealous rage, murders their younger daughter, May. It appears to be a crime of passion, but the reader is not sure what happened. With Wade’s forgetfulness and Jenny’s obsessive love, there’s even a lingering question of whether Jenny was actually the murderer. The mystery of that fateful day is further amplified by the disappearance of the older daughter, June, who had a troubled relationship with her younger sister, May. It’s questions like these that propel the narrative along and keep the reader guessing.

Though Ruskovich is a gifted writer with a fascinating story to tell, some readers will be put off with the way the author jumps back and forth in time and between different character perspectives. Interestingly, readers are never privy to Wade’s perspective about what happened to his family. This story could have been too dark, but the ending is satisfying. There is always room for redemption in even the most despairing situation.

The Importance of Great Alpha Waves

 

The Importance of Great Alpha Waves

My adult son, John, came home for a visit and told me, “Ignore anything I say that sounds off—it’s my suppressed-narcissistic-rage talking.”

“You’re what?”

“I’m reading this book, The Divided Mind by John Sarno about how you can be this kind, nice guy on the outside, but inside you’re really pissed. You want to be special and loved and dependent and independent all at the same time. People around you just aren’t giving you what you need.”

We both laughed because someone had created such a big term for what is basically, the human condition. I’d not read the book, but John said it was about psychogenic illness.

“Is that like psychosomatic illness?”

“No. Psychosomatic is like partly in your head. Psychogenic says the illness IS ALL in your head.”

John acted like the book was mildly entertaining, but my interest was piqued because I’ve experienced psychosomatic illness in the past. It could be a family mental health issue. My mother always claimed Aunt Gertrude was a complete hypochondriac. If anyone mentioned an illness they had, Aunt Gertrude had that same illness and worse. Her nerves were shot, her back too, as well as her eyes, ears, and female parts. Miraculously, Gertrude lived into her 70’s.

My psychosomatic illness started probably with the death of my brother when he was ten and I was twelve. But symptoms didn’t show up until I was in a potentially fatal car accident when I was twenty. I only had a mild concussion, but I’d never come that close to death before. Suddenly I realized my body was fallible. For the next year, I found myself in one emergency room after another begging for help. I had heart palpitations, headaches, and vague feelings of pain. I was listening so closely and carefully to my body, every hitch or tremor was evidence of deadly disease. Something had to be wrong with me.

Indeed, I did have a problem but it wasn’t exactly physical. I’d been traumatized by a couple of life events and needed help dealing with the anxiety. The doctors though, put me through a gamut of needless x-rays and blood tests. I even had an electroencephalogram, searching for a possible brain tumor. During the procedure, I remember looking at my reflection in the dusty window of Rockingham Memorial Hospital in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I was sitting at the end of the examining table in a hospital gown, my head strung with wires and electrodes. In the window reflection, I looked like Medusa.

“Well,” the technician told me when I peppered him with questions about the findings of the encephalogram, “I’m not supposed to say anything . . . but I will tell you this: you’ve got great alpha waves.”

Great alpha waves, huh?  I guess that’s a good thing.  So, I took some small comfort in his prognosis, at least until the next wave of anxiety over my health hit me. It wasn’t until I read a book called The Well Body Book by a couple of hippy doctors in the 70’s, that I finally calmed down and started having a little faith in my body. I’ll never forget their discussion of what they called “the three-million year old healer,” your own body’s defenses against disease and illness. They talked about how really rare the bad diseases are, and that most infections are viral and therefore survivable.

That’s the thing about reading, whether it be The Divided Mind or The Well Body Book: reading changes you. Though I read The Well Body Book forty years ago, I can still quote it, and it’s still meaningful to me today. Maybe John will someday say this about The Divided Mind.  Who knows?

Burning Fences Book Review

Burning Fences (a Western memoir)
by Craig Lesley

Imagine a beat-up old trailer sitting off a gravel road in Monument, Oregon not too far from John Day.  Dried grass and weeds grow up around a cable spool used as a table outside the trailer, and a pile of Oly beer cans sit by the front door. This is the home of Craig Lesley’s father Rudell, a crusty trapper and elk hunter who smells like skunk pee, the bait he uses to trap Coyote.

It’s detail and descriptions like this that make Northwest author, Craig Lesley’s memoir so much fun to read. As a North-westerner myself, I’m familiar with the places Lesley grew up in: the Dalles, Madras, and Baker City, Oregon. But Burning Fences is more than just setting and place: Lesley writes a good story too.

After being abandoned as an infant by his father Rudell, Lesley spent much of his growing up years looking for validation from fatherly figures like Vern, his abusive step-father and Oscar, the uncle that owned a sporting goods store. Lesley gets his big chance to reconnect with Rudell, when his father suddenly shows up in his hospital room after Lesley’s been injured in a farm machinery accident.  Rudell’s flippancy, saying his son got hurt, “playing chicken with a mint chopper” says a great deal about who Rudell is and how much he is willing to give to this new father-son relationship.

Yet despite his father’s lack of commitment—or maybe because of it—Lesley confesses that Rudell’s abandonment helped defined his life. “Rudell’s neglect motivated me to raise an alcohol-damaged Indian boy just to show the old man I could succeed as a father where he had fallen down.”

When Wade, Lesley’s foster son, sets fire to Rudell’s fence post pile, Lesley finally recognizes he cannot control either Wade or Rudell’s behavior. Only then is Lesley willing to burn fences and abandon the expectations he’d had of himself and others.

How to Change Your Mind Book Review

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelic Drugs Teaches Us (Nonfiction)
By Michael Pollen

Have you ever felt trapped in your mind, repeating the same depressing thoughts and longing for fresh eyes and a new perspective? This is one good reason people like to travel.  In How to Change Your Mind, author Michael Pollen (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) suggests a different kind of “trip” using psychedelics drugs to refresh your spirit and expand your mind.

As a child of the 60’s I’d heard all the horror stories about hallucinatory drugs: bad acid trips, ugly flashbacks, and Art Linkletter’s daughter jumping out of a window because she’d taken LSD (toxicology reports found no evidence of drugs in her system). Pollen says due to the vilification of psychedelics and their association with other addictive and dangerous drugs, for over 40 years the medical community lost sight of their astonishing therapeutic value. That changed in 2006 when a landmark clinical study demonstrated how these drugs have the potential to positively affect our life experience.

Some fascinating chapters in the book are devoted to Pollen’s own first-time experience with hallucinatory drugs at the age of 60. His plan was to be a part of the drug trials undertaken at John Hopkins University and NYU (but first he had to check with his cardiologist to make sure his heart would tolerate the “trips”). A self-described non-religious journalist, Pollen testified that he experienced altered states of consciousness and a type of spiritual awakening under psychedelics. More importantly, the drugs enabled him to disengage from his ego, allowing a remarkable feeling of well-being. As cliched as it sounds, Pollen says he felt and understood in new, profound ways the significance of love.

I liked the last third of the book best, the chemistry and analysis of why and how these drugs might help people dealing with addictions, depression, and imminent death. I had no idea that “Bill W,” the founder of AA, took a hallucinogenic, Belladonna, to help him with his alcoholism. Nor did I know that the research in the 1950’s and 60’s on psychedelics lead to the development of SSRI antidepressants. Pollen also reveals that in the NYU and Hopkins trials, “ . . . 80% of cancer patients showed clinically significant reductions in standard measures of anxiety and depression, an effect that endured for at least six months after their psilocybin (magic mushroom) session.”

Pollen’s book is exhaustively researched and full of the colorful characters that people the history of psychedelics, including well-known figures like William James, Aldous Huxley, and Timothy Leary, as well as lesser known scientists and researchers like the Swiss discoverer of LSD, Albert Hofmann, and one of the country’s leading experts on the genus Psilocybe (hallucinatory mushrooms) Paul Stamets.

Though I currently have no addictions, no cancer diagnosis, and am not depressed, Pollen’s book made me curious how hallucinatory drugs might help us. I’d never considered how psychologically tyrannical and destructive our ego can be, how instrumental the ego is in the repression of joy. Portions of Pollen’s book is too detailed and ponderous for my taste.  But other parts are not only fascinating, but wise and thoughtful.  He’s an excellent writer.  This book is well worth the read.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway Book Review

The Death of Mrs. Westaway (Genre: Gothic Mystery)
by Ruth Ware

How about a good Gothic mystery to take to the beach (or in my case, the back patio looking out over the Snake River)? Harriet or “Hal” is a psychic/Tarot card reader on a pier at Brighton Beach, England. She’s poor and in debt, but suddenly gets a letter telling her a grandmother has died, and she is due to inherit some of her considerable wealth. The problem is, Hal has no grandmother. They’re deceased.  But Hal is desperate and the Tarot cards seem to be telling her to go, go find a fortune even if she may be committing fraud in doing so.

Author Ruth Ware (from The Lying Game and The Woman in Cabin 10) is a solid mystery writer and knows how to keep the plot twisting and turning. Good mysteries usually have a surprise at the end, and this one does too. I loved all the little supernatural elements of the story—even though this was not a ghost tale. I wouldn’t call The Death of Mrs. Westaway a challenging or thought-provoking read, but still, I enjoyed the book and was entertained.  A nice thing to happen in the lazy, hot days of summer.

The Cruel Prince Book Review

The Cruel Prince (Genre: Teen Fantasy)
by Holly Black

The wonderful thing about young adult literature is that it doesn’t beat around the bush with a lot of wasted words. Good YAL has potent stories and great wisdom–all bound in a 50,000-60,000 word package. The Cruel Prince, though not particularly wise, has a fantastic story that had me reading until my eyes were dry and gluey.

Black’s book is a fantasy about faeries, but anyone that knows the medieval origins of faerie myths will tell you faeries are a dangerous lot, nothing like Peter Pan’s Tinker Bell. And indeed, in The Cruel Prince we have a pair of mortal sisters growing up in Faerie Land and subjected to all manner of cruelty. Added to their misery is betrayal and confusion. Some faeries who would appear to be adversaries are friends and vice-versa. One of the sisters manages to outfox her faerie masters and in the process stumbles upon true love. It’s actually an old tale, well told by author Holly Black.

 

They Both Die at the End (Genre: Young Adult Sci-Fi)
by Adam Silvera

Where was this book when I was teaching high school reading to “reluctant readers,” particularly boys? Most young men would enjoy reading They Both Die at the End–even some older ladies. The author really draws us in with this futuristic story of two young men who get a call from “Death Caste,” an agency that lets people know when they have a day left to live.

The death call courtesy is suppose to allow people to say their final goodbyes and arrange their own funerals. It’s an intriguing hook, particularly when you consider Marcus and Rufus are both around 17-years-old. How these young men respond to their own life tragedy, and how they deal with mourning from their loved ones, is heart-rending.

There’s lots of lessons here about living all the way to your life’s end and learning how to say a good, goodbye. Though the book is a touching tale, it’s brutal and risque at times. Marcus and Rufus are inner-city youth. Strong language is used including an occasional “F” bomb, and one of the protagonists is bisexual. In this, it is a modern story of young people today. Still, I’m not sure They Both Die at the End will find a place on all school library shelves—which is unfortunate.

Varina Book Review

Varina (Genre: Historical Fiction)
by Charles Frazier

Of course I wanted to read another book by Charles Frazier. He was the author of Cold Mountain that wonderful tale of a wounded rebel soldier during the Civil War trying to make it back home to the woman he loved.  But Varina is not Cold Mountain. Though both books take place during the Civil War era, and Frazier continues to demonstrate in Varina how well he’s able to recreate a historical period through his masterful use of archaic language and detail, Varina simply is not as compelling a read as Cold Mountain.

Varina Davis was the much younger wife of Jefferson Davis, the president of the short-lived Confederate States of America, (those states that seceded from the union during the Civil War). Though Varina is a little-known colorful figure in American history (in Frazier’s story she’s quite an opium eater), our interest in her lies primarily in how she survived and changed after the South lost the war.

However, Frazier’s exploration of Varina’s transition from southern belle and Washington hostess to an independent woman living on her own in London and New York, is never fully realized.  More words are given to the men surrounding Varina: James Blake, Ryland, and Burton Harrison, to name a few.  From their mouths we see how bewildered southerners felt, losing the war, and being forced to give up the institution of slavery, a necessary evil which they believed, built their economy.

Thus, the books great failing is that though it’s about a woman, it reads more like a book about the southern men the war left behind. This fatal flaw and the meandering story line made me lose interest several times. The most gripping part of the story really was Varina’s attempt to escape Richmond for Cuba, slaves and children in tow. Only in these chapters did I feel the kind of engagement I had reading Frazier’s Cold Mountain years ago.