Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral.  Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the lane, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother.  He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (that she had claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back.  Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm.  Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways.  The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy.  And Lettie--magical, comforting, wise beyond her years--promised to protect him, no matter what.

Some books you read, some books you just immerse yourself in; Neil's fall into the latter category.  The book started out as a short story and grew into a novel.  This haunting look at childhood, magic, and myth is both beautiful and horrifying.  Like all of Neil's books, it is full of rich quotable passages like this:  “Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”  Or, this:  "Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences."

It starts off with a quote from Maurice Sendak, which aptly sets the tone for the story:  "I remember my own childhood vividly...I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn't let adults know I knew. It would scare them."  Neil helps us remember the powerlessness of childhood in a very poetic and imaginative way, and helps us examine memories and the boundaries between worlds that can sometimes shift and open doorways to nightmares, fairy tales, and magic.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Healing by Jonathan Odell

"Like The Help, that showstopping work by Kathryn Stockett, The Healing is another Mississippi-born work of art, and Odell's Polly Shine is a character for the ages."  This quote by Pat Conroy on the cover of the book is about one of the main characters.  And I admit, she was my favorite character as well.  Full of back woods wisdom about herbs and remedies and the source of some of my favorite quotes from the book.  "Sometimes when you look at a person all you see is the tangle and you miss the weave."  Or this one:  "A flapping tongue puts out the light of wisdom."

Odell's beautiful historical novel illustrates the connective power of story to heal body, mind, and community.  Rich in mood and atmosphere, this story about the unbreakable bonds between three generations of female healers is a marvelous book of reverberating beauty.

Plantation mistress Amanda Satterfield's grief over the loss of her daughter crosses over into madness.  She takes a newborn slave child as her own and names her Granada.  Troubled by his wife's disturbing mental state and concerned about a mysterious plague sweeping through his slave population, Master Satterfield purchases Polly Shine, a slave woman reputed to be a healer.  But Polly's sharp tongue and troubling predictions cause unrest.  Polly recognizes "the gift" in Granada, and a domestic battle of wills ensues .  Seventy-five years later, Granada, now known as Gran Gran, must revive the buried memories of her past in order to heal a young girl abandoned to her care.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult likes to tackle hot button issues in her fictional narratives, and this time out the framework of The Storyteller is World War II and Nazi war crimes and the huge issue of "forgiveness." 

A 95 year old widower and retired school teacher in New Hampshire, Josef Weber, claims to be a Nazi war criminal.  He confesses this to Sage Singer, a woman he meets in a grief support group, who is a 25 year old baker with a nasty facial scar from an accident.  More importantly, Sage is Jewish.  Josef asks Sage to help him die.  Sage has a grandmother, Minka, who is a holocaust survivor (from Auschwitz).  Sage never really knew her grandmother's story.  In the process of trying to decide how she will react to Josef's confession and his plea for her to help him die to atone for his sins, we learn Minka's brutal story of survival.

Our attitudes, fears, hopes, and values are strongly influenced by storytelling.  Before literacy or written language, storytellers functioned like today's mass media:  they could entertain, they could inform, they could explain, they could transmit the culture's myths and treasured stories from one generation to the next. And because they did these things in an engaging and interesting manner, people paid attention and learned. Fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than writing that is specifically designed to persuade through argument and evidence.  The more we are absorbed in a story, the more it can change us.  When we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard and are moved emotionally.  At its heart, storytelling is a gift.

Picoult is a good storyteller.  This book grapples with complex moral issues and peels back the layers of human emotion while examining the human condition up close and personal.   She takes a penetrating look at the nature of good and evil to produce a powerful and thought-provoking book.  The seed for writing this book came from Simon Wiesenthal's The Sunflower, about his time in a Nazi concentration camp, and Picoult includes an Author's Note at the end recommending several additional resources she found helpful in writing the book for those who would like to learn more about that period of our history.     

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