November 21, 2010

Plain Kate

Plain Kate by Erin Bow
Teen/YA Fiction
2010 Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic)

(from the author's website)

In addition to his good looks, charm, wit, loyalty, love of animals and all-around good nature, my husband is as passionate about reading as I am. He reads a lot more nonfiction (especially history & biographies) than I do, but he still enjoys a good novel and often reads what I recommend. We've spent many an evening sitting at the dinner table, chatting about our current reads. This past week, we've been discussing a teen novel that was written by the daughter of a friend of ours. We were first introduced to Erin Bow's beautiful writing in Mongoose Diaries (reviewed here almost exactly a year ago!), but Plain Kate is her first novel, and we were both quite eager to get our hands on it. Since I was in the middle of a book club read, I told Rod to go ahead and read Plain Kate before me. He read it and loved it. As we were chatting, he said he'd like to write the review, so without any further babbling from me, here's Rod's review of Plain Kate:

Plain Kate is a magical book about a magical girl in a magical land. Aimed at young adults, it is at once a quest novel, a coming-of-age story, and a fairy tale in the classic tradition. It is the story of a young girl who must overcome hardship and confront danger to find her way in a world that abounds in enchantment, both good and evil.

The title is ironic, for we soon see that there is nothing at all plain about Kate. She is beautiful, pure of heart and strong of mind, honest and determined. Other characters, older and wiser than Kate herself, understand that there is something very special about her:

Take this one,” said Daj, pointing an elbow at Kate while she turned the chicken over. “This is Kate Carver, who will go our way a while.”

"Plain Kate,” corrected Plain Kate.

“Hmph, so you said.” Daj eyed her. “As you’d have it, kit.”

Almost by definition, the characters in a quest novel must grow, and Kate is no exception. She begins the novel as a precocious young girl with an uncanny talent for woodcarving, but is forced by tragedy and by malevolent circumstance to grow up quickly. Suddenly bereft of her father, her childhood is lost, but she discovers her true strength as she matures; in the end, she is even stronger and more beautiful than perhaps she would have been absent the tragedies that helped shape her. She is tempered like steel, made stronger by first being weakened.

Taggle is Kate’s friend and travel companion, a wryly sarcastic, hedonistic cat that provides a welcome touch of humor in what is sometimes a bleak story. (And the story is often bleak, there’s no getting around it; the world—and especially Kate’s world—can be a very bleak place indeed. But we know that for joy to prevail there must be bleakness over which it can triumph.)

Like Kate, Taggle also grows. In a fairy-tale world in which charms have power and the dead can kill and animals can speak, a self-centered cat becomes, literally, the voice of reason. Ultimately Taggle is willing to sacrifice himself for one whom he has come to love:

Taggle looked up at her, his amber eyes deep as the loneliness Kate had felt before he became her friend. “The traditional thing,” he said slowly, “involves the river and a sack.”

Erin Bow is a poet, and a fine one. And, as poets do, she revels in language—her descriptions of ordinary things make them seem extraordinary:

Kate found herself fixed on the texture of Daj’s hands: so calloused and worn with work that that they were glossy-smooth, like the inside of an ox-yoke or the edge of an oarlock. Smooth as dry dust. Her father’s hands had been a little like that.

Or this about the ghostly shadow that haunts Kate:

Plain Kate watched the third shadow; it pinned her eyes. It was supposed to be her shadow, but it wasn’t. It was sinuous and moved like a water snake. She knew in her stomach that this was not a simple shadow, but some cold thing, some damp dead thing that should be resting. And, though their fire was the only light, she thought this shadow was not cast backward from the flame, but was drawing near to it, from outside the tent.

Poets see things; they notice what the rest of us miss. This is one reason they’re poets. Perhaps that’s why Bow’s prose resonates so strongly with readers: We read a description or a phrase and think, “Yes. That’s exactly right! It’s perfect. That’s how I would have described that, if only I’d known how.” But we don’t know how, most of us, which is why we’re not poets.

Plain Kate is a fairly tale that hearkens back to the tales of Hans Christian Anderson and the brothers Grimm. It’s Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast and Pinocchio and Little Red Riding-Hood as they were meant to be read, long before Disney got to them and wiped them clean of the grim horror that made them such powerful cautionary folk tales. Meant for young adults, Plain Kate speaks honestly to young people, but it’s a beautiful book that can be enjoyed by all ages, because it is written in language that appeals to us all and because it tells a story with which we can all identify. Plain Kate takes us back to our innocent childhoods, to a time when every nighttime creak of a floorboard, every branch scraping against a frost-rimed window, every whisper of the cold wind sent delicious chills through us—delicious because we knew, in our heart of hearts, that we were in fact safe and warm and loved. Bow’s book helps us relive those days, and it reminds us that the journey on which we set out is not necessarily the journey we end up taking; and that in a quest, the prize that is sought is not always the prize ultimately won.

November 15, 2010


Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel
2010 Harper Collins
Finished 10/26/10
Rating: 4.75/5 (Terrific!)

From Barnes & Noble (Discover Great New Writers):

When Frances accepts an invitation to visit Stiltsville, a community of houses built on pilings in Biscayne Bay, she has no idea that her simple "yes" to a new friend will determine the course of her life for the next two dozen years. Set in Miami from the late '60s to the 1990s, Stiltsville is a sweeping journey seen through the eyes of one woman as she experiences love, motherhood, friendship, hurricanes, racial tension, and finally, a tragic death in slow motion.

In her debut novel, Daniel describes the experiences of three generations in one family whose spiritual heart is centered in a modest bungalow built a few feet above the water. When Frances meets and marries Dennis, she learns to live her life on the water, from bay to ocean to everglade to bayou. She navigates through it all—infidelity, empty-nest syndrome, and debilitating illness—sometimes with grace and humor, sometimes with anger and bitterness, but always with the same people by her side.

Daniel excels in capturing the flavor and decadence of Miami as it became a multicultural hotbed. In Stiltsville, she has woven factual events into Frances's life from a tumultuous period that witness racial beatings, the cocaine wars, and Hurricane Andrew. The result is a riveting novel filled with pathos.

Marisa de los Santos. Anna Quindlen. Kate Maloy. Elizabeth Berg. Jeanne Ray. These talented authors have all written beautiful novels that take the ordinary and make it extraordinary. Their books explore the everyday life of mothers, wives and friends, depicting scenes of domestic life with believable situations and authentic voices. These "comfort" reads are the sort that don't involve wars or murders. There are no car chases, no mysteries to solve, no supernatural disturbances. They may not be the sort of read my husband would enjoy, but I love them! I love the sense of familiarity to my own life. I love the sense of affirmation I feel after reading a passage about the dynamics between mothers and daughters. And I love to read about long-standing marriages, full of the predictable ebb and flow of love and happiness. Daniel has written a tender story that is sure to satisfy those who share my enthusiasm for women's fiction, as well as those who enjoy reading anything set near the ocean, as I do.

As for my new hometown, I'd fallen quickly and surely in love with it. I loved to drive through the dense neighborhoods with my car windows down and smell the rotting sweetness of a ripening mango tree. I loved to eavesdrop on the loud conversations of the ladies at the deli counter, ferreting out select phrases using the lazy Spanish I'd acquired over the years. I loved the lychees and star fruit that fell into my yard over the neighbor's fence, and I loved the bright bougainvillea that dropped its papery pink petals onto my lawn. I loved the rusty barges loaded with stolen bicycles that plodded down the Miami River and out to sea. I loved the half-dozen chilly February nights, all the windows in the house open and the fireplace going. I loved the limestone and the coral rock, the fountains and the ocean and the winding blue canals. I loved the giant banyans and the dense wet mangroves and the gumbo-limbo trees and the many-sized, many-shaped palms. I loved the pelicans and manatees and stone crabs and storms and even the thick, damp summers.

Miami is the only place in this country where Stiltsville could exist, and for a while I had the good fortune of spending time there.

I lived in Miami through scandals and riots, through dozens of tropical storms and one devastating hurricane, through the Mariel boat lift and the cocaine cowboys. Outside Florida, I never met anyone else who lived in Miami or cared to, or even anyone who is not somewhat surprised to hear that I lived there for half of my life. Perhaps what is still most surprising to me about Miami is that in spite of its lurid excesses and unreal beauty and unreal ugliness, it was possible for me, a girl from Georgia, to create a life there. Overall, an excellent life. A life I knew even as I was living it, I would miss when it came to an end.

On parenting:

We'd been unlucky and now it seemed we might become lucky again. Sometimes I think the guiding principles of good parenting are luck and circumstance. And sometimes when I'm feeling pompous I think there is no such thing as luck, that Margo's strength comes from our steerage. The night she fled Trisha Weintraub's house, I'd told her while she cried that no one should have the power to make her feel bad or ugly or embarrassed, that she was the one to decide who could hurt her feelings and who could not. I was just filling the air, of course; she knew well enough that this wasn't true. I hoped, however, that at some point she'd learn what is true: that although we like to believe we are our own little islands, capable of protecting ourselves as well as sheltering and welcoming others, this is never really the case. Still, we must behave as if it is, and hope that we can withstand the wills of other people more than we cannot.

On Stiltsville:

"I thought the last time at Stiltsville was the last time," I said. We'd skied and Dennis and Margo had fished off the dock. It had been five years since the state of Florida had declared Biscayne Bay a national monument and began pushing for an end to private ownership of the stilt houses. Marcus Beck, a trial lawyer, had negotiated a deal guaranteeing that current residents could keep our houses until the year 1999—after that, Stiltsville would belong to the state. Since the decision, we'd gone out every possible weekend.

"There's no last time," said Dennis.

On empty-nesting:

I had a feeling that very soon there would be a tear in the fabric of my life, an enormous divide. On one side would be the time I moved through and things I did and the people I saw, and on the other side would be a great expanse of black time where Margo lived her life, and she and I would move parallel to each other like cars in different lanes, allowing only passing glimpses. I had to remind myself that, strangely enough, this was the way it was meant to go. They grow up, they move away.

I first read about Stiltsville on Kay's blog and after reading her wonderful review, knew it was my kind of book. Thanks for sending me your copy, Kay. I loved it and can't wait for the author to write another!

Final thoughts: When the frigid, dark days of winter become unbearable, I'll pull this book from the shelf to read a second time, warming my chilled bones vicariously through Daniel's beautiful prose, dreaming of the day when, like Frances, I can walk around the house in nothing but a pair of shorts, tank top and sandals. Now I understand why so many retirees settle in Florida!

The author in Stiltsville, circa 1980
(From the author's website)

(From the author's website)

Go here for more information about Stiltsville.

November 8, 2010

Sailing Alone Around the World

(Click here to order)

Exciting news in the Scher household. Rod got an email from his publisher. It reads:

We have just received an order for 24 copies of your book from the textbook store of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. We were told that a professor has selected this book for the spring semester.

This could be a very big deal! Woot!!

November 7, 2010

The Memory Keeper's Daughter

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards
2005 Penguin Books
Finished 10/18/10
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

This stunning novel begins on a winter night in 1964, when a blizzard forces Dr. David Henry to deliver his own twins. His son, born first, is perfectly healthy, but the doctor immediately recognizes that his daughter has Down syndrome. For motives he tells himself are good, he makes a split-second decision that will haunt all their lives forever. He asks his nurse, Caroline, to take the baby away to an institution. Instead, she disappears into another city to raise the child as her own. Compulsively readable and deeply moving, The Memory Keeper's Daughter is a brilliantly crafted story of parallel lives, familial secrets, and the redemptive power of love.

Most of us have experienced grief at some point in our lives, and I can honestly say that losing a child is the worst. So why didn't this book resonate more strongly with me? To be lied to about the death of one's child has got to be one of the most cruel acts a person can inflict on another human being. That it was Norah's very own husband who deceived her about their daughter's death is despicable. I can't begin to imagine what it would be like to later discover that the child was alive and well, not to mention being raised by another woman.

The Memory Keeper's Daughter is a compelling read, holding my interest from beginning to end, and yet it still somehow managed to miss the mark: It was a good book, but not a great one. The characters, held at arm's length (reminiscent of Frank and April Wheeler in Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road), are unsympathetic and tedious, and the plot is predictable and contrived. Still, I'm sorry my book club wasn't able to meet in October, because The Memory Keeper's Daughter was thought-provoking and rich with discussion material, in spite of its flaws.

November 2, 2010

Left Neglected

Left Neglected by Lisa Genova
2011 Gallery Books
Finished 10/11/10
Rating: 5/5 (Outstanding!)
ARC - On sale January 4, 2011
FTC Disclosure: Received ARC from Jean Anne Rose, Director of Publicity, Gallery Books

Publisher's Blurb:

In an instant, life can change forever.

Sarah Nickerson is a high-powered working mom with too much on her plate and too little time. One day, racing to work and trying to make a phone call, she looks away from the road for one second too long. In the blink of an eye, all the rapidly moving parts of her over-scheduled life come to a screeching halt. A traumatic brain injury completely erases the left side of her world. As she struggles to recover, she discovers she must embrace a simpler life, and in so doing begins to heal the things she's left neglected in herself, her family, and the world around her.

She's done it again! Lisa Genova has written a compelling novel that reads like a memoir, pulling me in from the opening paragraph, and making me long for a back-list of titles to enjoy until her next publication. Reading all but the final chapters in-flight to California earlier this month, the narrative taut with suspense, I found myself on the verge of hyperventilating as the impending disaster drew nearer. It would have been easy enough to finish the book as my plane taxied to the gate, but I wanted to savor those final pages in a more peaceful environment.

My book is littered with over two dozen sticky-notes and as I began to read each marked passage in preparation of writing this review, I found myself reading several pages at a time, losing myself all over again in Lisa's prose.

I think some small part of me knew I was living an unsustainable life. Every now and then, it would whisper, Sarah, please slow down. You don't need all this. You can't continue like this. But the rest of me, powerful, smart, and determined to achieve, achieve, achieve, wasn't hearing a word of it. If, once in a while these kinds of thoughts did manage to wiggle into my consciousness, I shushed them, scolded them, and sent them to their room. Quiet, little voice, can't you see I have a million things to do?

Genova (who has a degree in Biopsychology and a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Harvard) adroitly continues to educate her readers as she did with her amazing debut work, Still Alice. And yet her creativity as a novelist is equally as impressive as her scientific expertise. I love her use of dreams, so imaginative and detailed, as a means to begin each chapter in the first half of the novel.

Even my dreams began tapping me on the shoulder, trying to grab my attention. Do you even know what you're doing? Let me show you. But each dream was elusive upon waking, and like a slimy fish captured in my bare hands, it slipped out and swam away before I could get a good look at it. Strange that I remember them all now. In the nights just before the accident, I think my dreams were trying to wake me up. With all that has happened, I honestly believe that they were guidance sent from a spiritual source. Messages from God. And I ignored them. I guess I needed something less fleeting and more concrete.

Like a traumatic smack to the head.

Much like a few of my favorite authors (Marisa de los Santos and Erica Bauermeister, to name just a couple), Genova deftly explores the ordinariness of everyday life and marriage.

We kiss good-bye. It's our typical morning good-bye kiss. A quick peck. A well-intentioned habit. I look down and notice Lucy's round, blue eyes paying close attention. I flash to studying my own parents kissing when I was little. They kissed each other hello and good-bye and good night like I would have kissed one of my aunts, and it terribly disappointed me. There was no drama to it at all. I promised myself that when I got married someday, I would have kisses that meant something. Kisses that would make me weak in the knees. Kisses that would embarrass the kids. Kisses like Han Solo kissing Princess Leia. I never saw my father kiss my mother like that. What was the point of it? I never got it.

Now I get it. We aren't living in some George Lucas block-buster adventure. Our morning kiss good-bye isn't romantic, and it certainly isn't sexual. It's a routine kiss, but I'm glad we do it. It does mean something. It's enough. And it's all we have time for.

Until reading Left Neglected, I had never heard of this condition. From the publisher, "Left Neglect Syndrome, also known as Hemispatial Neglect, is a neuropsychological condition that can result from damage to the right hemisphere of the brain. In these cases, the patient experiences a deficit in attention and fails to recognize the left side of the body and space. The patient is unaware of stimuli on the left side and unable to recognize the significance or importance of the stimuli. This is not a visual problem." In spite of this clear explanation, I still found it difficult to wrap my brain around the specific condition until Genova put me in Sarah's shoes:

"She doesn't seem to notice that it's missing," says Bob.

"Yes, that's true for most patients in the acute phase immediately following the injury. She's mostly unaware of her unawareness. She's not aware that the left side of everything is missing. To her, it's all there, and everything is normal."

I may be unaware of some unawareness, but Dr. Kwon and Bob seem unaware that I'm still here.

"Do you know you have a left hand?" Bob asks me.

"Of course I know I have a left hand," I say, embarrassed that he keeps asking these ridiculous questions.

But then I consider this ridiculous question. Where is my left hand? I have no idea. Oh my God, where is my left hand? How about my left foot? That's also missing. I wiggle my right toes. I try to send the same message to my left food, but my brain returns it to sender. Sorry, no such address.

"Bob, I know I have a left hand, but I have no idea where it is."

and then in Bob's:

"I can't."

"Yes, you can. It's simple."

"It's not."

"I don't understand why you can't just turn your head."

"I did."

"To the left."

"There is no left."

I hear him sigh in frustration.

"Honey, tell me everything you see in here," I say.

"You, the bed, the window, the chair, the table, the flowers, the cards, the pictures of me and the kids, the bathroom, the door, the television.

"Is that everything?"

"Pretty much."

"Okay, now what if I told you that everything you see is only half of everything that's really here? What if I told you to turn your head and look at the other half? Where would you look?"

He doesn't say anything. I wait. I imagine Bob standing in his tee-shirt and jeans, searching.

"I don't know," he says.


One of the reasons I love Genova's novels is that I see parts of myself in her main characters. Losing myself in the narrative, my head bobbing in agreement, I recognize situations and emotions much like my own:

And there's something magical about the combination of mountain air and physical exercise that interrupts that endlessly looping and insistent voice inside my head that normally chatters on and on about all the things I need to do. Even though it's completely irrelevant now, I can still hear the nagging list that was playing in my head just before the accident.

You need to call Harvard before noon, you need to start year-end performance reviews, you need to finalize the B-school training program for science associates, you need to call the landscaper, you need to email the London office, you need to return the overdue library books, you need to return the pants that don't fit Charlie to the Gap, you need to pick up formula for Linus, you need to pick up the dry cleaning, you need to pick up dinner, you need to make a dentist appointment for Lucy about her tooth, you need to make a dermatologist appointment for you about that mole, you need to go to the bank, you need to pay the bills, don't forget to call Harvard before noon, email the London office...

And my experience with meditation is much like that of Sarah's:

Meditation has been added to the list of rehabilitation techniques that may or may not help me return to my old life. So I meditate. Well, I try. I've never had any inclination to meditate, and even beyond that really, I can't imagine why anyone would want to. To me, meditation sounds a whole lot like doing nothing. I don't do nothing. I pack every second of every day with something that can get done. Have five minutes? Send an email. Read the school notices. Throw in a load of laundry. Play peek-a-boo with Linus. Got ten? Return a phone call. Outline the agenda for a meeting. Read a performance evaluation. Read a book to Lucy. Sit with my eyes closed and breathe without planning, organizing, or accomplishing anything? I don't think so.

Still Alice was one of my top ten reads in 2009. Reading like a memoir and putting a face on Alzheimer's, it quickly became a favorite among book clubs across the country. I predict Left Neglected will be do just the same. Laced with humor and not quite as emotionally terrifying as Still Alice, Genova takes another medical condition and reveals the humanity that lies beneath the normally cold, clinical, disinterested account of that condition. I can't wait for the release of this amazing book so I can start discussing it with other readers.

Life can change in an instant. No one lives in a bubble, but we can take measures to protect ourselves (and loved ones) from traumatic brain injuries. Wear helmets while riding bikes and motorcycles. Don't text and drive. For that matter, don't talk on a cell phone while driving (hands-free or not). Keep your eyes on the road. Pay attention. Because we all know there are those who don't.

Final thoughts: Another winner! This will be the book club darling of 2011.

Note to Lisa: Many thanks for another great book. More, please!!