Tag Archives: Book Reviews

The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman has done it again. I was first captivated by his Coraline (soon to be a Major Motion Picture), then drawn in by the campy Neverwhere miniseries, then entranced by his collection of short stories, Smoke and Mirrors. This time it is another book for younger readers — a sort of re-telling of Kipling’s The Jungle Book. This book is absolutely charming.

The Graveyard Book begins with a gruesome murder by a man only identified as “the man Jack”. The only survivor is a toddler who escapes to a nearby cemetery and, after some discussion, is taken in by the occupants. The rest of the story contains elements of romance, mystery, horror and adventure.

If you’d like to hear the first chapter (read by Gaiman himself), click the play button on the widget below.

http://harperaudio.gigya.s3.amazonaws.com/harper_v1.swf?gid=Amazon

Review: Mrs Lieutenant

A couple of weeks ago I received a google alert for Elgin, Illinois. I get them several times a week, and usually read them, then delete them. This one, however, I not only read and saved, but I took action that I don’t regret.

The alert was about an author, Phyllis Zimbler Miller, who grew up in Elgin. I’d not heard of the author, but found her on a site I’d been to before, The Author’s Den.  I sent her a message, telling her I was pleased to see that Elgin produced talented people and that I’d also grown up there. I also found her on twitter and found her weblogs. In fact, this woman is all over the Internet.

I added her to my twitter feed and we exchanged a couple of twits and messages on The Author’s Den. She offered to send me her book to read and review here. I accepted, so here we are.

I have to admit, when I looked at the cover of the book and read the blurb on the back, I was a little worried that I was not going to like it. After all, I was a knee-jerk anti-war teenager (and am a more thoughtful anti-war middle-aged woman). Why on earth would the story of four vastly different women who happened to be married to budding army Lieutenants in the 1970’s interest me in the slightest?

I was mistaken. Mrs. Lieutenant was an interesting read. It kept my interest and I came away from it more enlightened about life of military folk during the Viet Nam war. The book has romance, drama, drama, sex, and conflict. I cared about the characters and hated a couple of them. What more could I ask for?

The premise of the book is that four young women from different US cultures are thrown together for a couple of months on a military base while their husbands complete some needed training. Although backgrounds and pasts differ, their futures seem to all hold at least one near-definite: the possibility of their husband’s going to, and possibly dying, in Viet Nam.

Sharon Gold, the main character, is a Jewish anti-war protester from Chicago, Illinois. Donna is a Puerto Rican married to an “Anglo”. Kim is a white woman from South Carolina who doesn’t like Jews, Puerto Ricans or Blacks. Wendy is a sheltered Black woman from South Carolina.

While I believed the tension between Kim and the other women, I had a hard time understanding the tension that Sharon felt. Maybe I’m too young to remember tension between Jews and non-Jews, or perhaps I’ve lived in a community with a lot of Jewish culture for so long. Although, I do admit to not knowing anyone Jewish in my hometown until I got to high school, but it never seemed to be an issue — in fact I might have known them, just didn’t know they were Jewish.

I think this book might even appeal more to women that lived that life — even if they lived it during other wars, or during times of peace (have we actually had those?)

While Ms Zimbler Miller’s writing style occasionally felt awkward (possibly because she was writing in language of the 1970s), there were some spots of brilliant writing:

“Don’t lie to me. I know you were with a man.”

Jim’s face flushes with the ugliest shade of purple she’s ever seen. His eyes will pop out of his face any minute, landing at her feet and rolling away, becoming marbles for Squeaky to chase.

She sinks to the floor as her knees fold under her. “I swear Jim, I swear on my sister’s life, that I was home all day alone. That I was not with another man today, or ever before, or ever in the future.” The tears plop onto her hands.

He stides down the hall. In a moment he’s back.

He has the gun!

“I’ll kill you if you’re ever with another man. I promise you, Kim, I’ll kill you.”

So, as I told Ms Zimbler Miller in my first message — it’s great to see that Elgin, Illinois produced people with her talent. She spent time at the very same library I did as a young child — perhaps we read the same books.

I’m sending this book to my Aunt Ginny, who went to high school with Ms Zimbler Miller. I think she’ll even get more out of it than I did.

Review: Life Among the Savages

Before Erma Bombeck and Jean Kerr wrote about life as housewives and stay-at-home-mothers in the 1950’s, Shirley Jackson had already published her account.

You’ve probably read, or at least heard of Shirley Jackson, but you might not remember where or how. Think back to your high school English classes. Remember reading The Lottery? If that doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps you are a fan of horror films. If so, you might have seen the 1963 film, The Haunting or its mediocre 1999 remake, both based on her novel, The Haunting of Hill House.

While Ms Jackson is more widely known for her Gothic horror stories, she’s likely the creator of the humorous housewife/mother sub-genre of literature.

In Life Among the Savages, Jackson tells us about raising her three children, Laurie, Jannie and Sally. It’s told with humor and not a little self-deprecation. Ms Jackson was matter-of-fact about not being the perfect stereotypical 1950’s housewife:

Our house is old, and noisy, and full. When we moved into it we had two children and about five thousand books; I expect that when we finally overflow and move out again we will have perhaps twenty children and easily half a million books; we also own assorted beds and tables and chairs and rocking horses and lamps and doll dresses and ship models and paint brushes and literally thousands of socks. This is the way of life my husband and I have fallen into, inadvertently, as though we had fallen into a well and decided that since there was no way out we might as well stay there and set up a chair and a desk and a light of some kind; even though this is our way of life, and the only one we know, it is occasionally bewildering, and perhaps even inexplicable to the sort of person who does not have that swift, accurate conviction that he is going to step on a broken celluloid doll in the dark. I cannot think of a preferable way of life, except one without children and without books, going on soundlessly in an apartment hotel where they do the cleaning for you and send up your meals and all you have to do is lie on a couch and–as I say, I cannot think of a preferable way of life, but then I had to make a good many compromises.

I look around sometimes at the paraphernalia of our living–sandwich bags, typewriters, little wheels off things and marvel at the complexities of civilization with which we surround ourselves; would we be pleased, I wonder, at a wholesale elimination of these things, so that we were reduced only to necessities (coffeepot, typewriters, the essential little wheels off things) and then–this happening usually int he springtime–I begin throwing things away, and it turns out that although we can live agreeably without the little wheels off things, new little wheels turn up almost immediately. This is, I suspect, progress. They can make little wheels, if not faster than they can fall off things, at least faster than I can throw them away.

Life Among the Savages begins when Ms Jackson, her husband Stanley and their two children live in New York and decide to move to Vermont, where Stanley (Hyman)has a job at a local college. It describes their house hunt in a small town in Vermont.

One nice thing was, there were lots and lots of houses available. We heard this from a lady named Mrs. Black, a motherly old body who lived in a nearby large town, but who knew, as she herself pointed out, every house and every family in the state. She took us to visit a house which she called the Bassington House, and which would have been perfect for us and our books and our children, if there had been any plumbing.

“Wouldn’t take much to put in plumbing,” Mrs. Black told us. “Put in plumbing, you got a real nice house there.”

My husband shifted nervously in the snow, “You see,” he said, “that brings up the question of…well…money.”

Mrs. Black shrugged. “How much would plumbing cost?” she demanded. “You put in maybe twelve, fifteen hundred dollars, you got a real nice home.”

“Now look, if we had fifteen hundred dollars we could give an apartment superintendent–” my husband began, but I cut in quickly, you must remember, Mrs. Black, we want to rent.”

“Rent, did you?” said Mrs. Black, as though this proved at last that we were mere fly-by-nights, lookers at houses for the pleasure of it. “Well, if I was you folks, small children and all, well, I‘d buy.”

While Jackson’s other works are more widely acclaimed and on some “the best of” lists, Life Among the Savages is a well-told and funny slice of life tale. Some critics call it forgettable. I disagree and like reading about this side of a woman whose tales of darkness have fascinated me for years.

It seems to have been written before the darkness that ended up plaguing her took over. It’s readable and funny. While Jackson’s mental illness may have contributed to her genius and spawned some of the last century’s best horror tales, she was a good writer anyway and Life Among the Savages proves it.

One thing of which to be aware, however — this book didn’t age well. While I was able to laugh at many of the vignettes without really thinking, some made me chuckle with reservation. Remember this was written in the late 1940s and 1950’s. Back then people drank more. People smoked more. Even pregnant women smoked. And probably drank too, without thinking about how it was harming their unborn children. Shirley Jackson was a very heavy smoker and she wrote about smoking cigarettes a lot. While cooking; while reading; while waiting for labor pains to begin in her fourth pregnancy. In fact this book is, in some ways, a direct opposite of some of the mommy blogs I’ve been reading lately — yet similar in some ways. Current expectant moms wouldn’t think of writing about lighting a cigarette while pregnant, but they do write self-deprecating vignettes about their day-to-day life. I suppose the women who are writing the blogs about motherhood (the ones who do it well) are the current Erma Bombecks, Jean Kerrs, even Shirley Jacksons. The times have changed–technology, medicine, child-rearing; but maybe more has stayed the same.

Hmm, that might make a good Masters Thesis.