Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman

Flap copy from paperback:
"In 1986, Susan Jane Gilman and a classmate embarked on a bold trek around the globe starting in the People's Republic of China. At that point, China had been open to independent backpackers for roughly ten minutes. Armed only with the collected works of Nietzsche and Linda Goodman's Love Signs, the two friends plunged into the dusty streets of Shanghai. Unsurprisingly, they quickly found themselves in over their heads--hungry, disoriented, stripped of everything familiar, and under constant government surveillance. Soon, they began to unravel--one physically, the other psychologically. As their journey became increasingly harrowing, they found themselves facing crises that Susan didn't think they'd survive. But by summoning strengths she never knew she had--and with help from unexpected friends--the two travelers found their way out of a Chinese heart of darkness. "

Now this is what a travel memoir should be- funny, poignant, and ultimately redemptive. Gilman's account of her travels through China are beautifully drawn. From her initial crisis of homesickness through her desperation to find something familiar in an alien environment, Gilman is painfully truthful and so her story resonates. Though today's mature reader will immediately see the warning signs in Claire's behavior, Gilman's narative voice is strong enough to carry the reader along, to make you view the story through her younger, infinitely more naive eyes. This book captures a snapshot of a China that no longer exists, and gently mocks a mindset that equates "true adventure" with sometimes life-threatening hardship. This trip had an enormous effect on Gilman, on her life and world view, and she shares those revelations with an admirable honesty and modesty. Truly a wonderful travel memoir- a must read 5 star adventure!

For more info, check out Susan Jane Gilman's blog.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian

Book description:
"There," says Alice Hayward to Reverend Stephen Drew, just after her baptism, and just before going home to the husband who will kill her that evening and then shoot himself. Drew, tortured by the cryptic finality of that short utterance, feels his faith in God slipping away and is saved from despair only by a meeting with Heather Laurent, the author of wildly successful, inspirational books about . . . angels.

Heather survived a childhood that culminated in her own parents' murder-suicide, so she identifies deeply with Alice’s daughter, Katie, offering herself as a mentor to the girl and a shoulder for Stephen – who flees the pulpit to be with Heather and see if there is anything to be salvaged from the spiritual wreckage around him.

But then the State's Attorney begins to suspect that Alice's husband may not have killed himself. . .and finds out that Alice had secrets only her minister knew.

This wonderful novel features Bohjalian's signature style. The dense yet lyrical prose carries the reader away and makes this book almost impossible to put down. The individual characters rise off the page and live, pulling the reader into an emotional investment with the story. Stephen, Heather, and Katie were the most successful and relatable narrators in this novel; I found neither Catherine's voice nor her story compelling which made for a disappointing midsection.

Without giving any spoilers, I will say the plot twist was something I speculated about early on which reduced its emotional impact as the story drew to a close. I also found it rather hard to relate to the angel theme that runs throughout the story; it never really connected emotionally for me despite Heather's personal experiences. Regardless, this a wonderful offering from a talented writer- highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Never Tell Our Business to Strangers: A Memoir by Jennifer Mascia

Book Description:
"When Jennifer Mascia is five years old, the FBI comes for her father. At that moment Jenny realizes that her family isn’t exactly normal. What follows are months of confusion marked by visits with her father through thick glass, talking to him over a telephone attached to the wall. She and her mother crisscross the country, from California to New York to Miami and back again. When her father finally returns home, months later, his absence is never explained—and Jenny is told that the family has a new last name. It’s only much later that Jenny discovers that theirs was a life spent on the lam, trying to outrun the law.

Thus begins the story of Jennifer Mascia’s bizarre but strangely magical childhood. An only child, she revels in her parents’ intense love for her—and rides the highs and lows of their equally passionate arguments. They are a tight-knit band, never allowing many outsiders in. And then there are the oddities that Jenny notices only as she gets older: the fact that her father had two names before he went away—in public he was Frank, but at home her mother called him Johnny; the neat, hidden hole in the carpet where her parents keep all their cash. The family sees wild swings in wealth—one year they’re shopping for Chanel and Louis Vuitton at posh shopping centers in Los Angeles, the next they’re living in one room and subsisting on food stamps.

What have her parents done? What was the reason for her father’s incarceration so many years ago? When Jenny, at twenty-two, uncovers her father’s criminal record during an Internet search, still more questions are raised. By then he is dying of cancer, so she presses her mother for answers, eliciting the first in a series of reluctant admissions about her father’s criminal past. Before her mother dies, four years later, Jenny is made privy to one final, riveting confession, which sets her on a search for the truth her mother fought to conceal for so many years. As Jenny unravels her family’s dark secrets, she must confront the grisly legacy she has inherited and the hard truth that her parents are not—and have never been—who they claimed to be."

This true tale of one woman's childhood on the run from her parents' criminal activities is deeply personal and poignant in parts, though ultimately the narrative voice kept me from sinking completely into the story. Jennifer Mascia, whose life was shaped by the activities of her parents and a past she didn't learn about until after her father's death, is certainly exorcising her fair share of demons here, and rightfully so.

I definitely felt for the lonely child so caught up in her parents dramas, though I thought the book itself could have been more tightly edited. It does get repetitive in places, and seemingly builds toward narrative peaks that then somehow are revealed as only plateaus. I also didn't appreciate Mascia's moments of self-loathing when she speaks of wearing size 14/16 pants; it was off-putting and didn't seem to fit into the narrative.

Though Mascia herself seems to have forgiven her parents for her unconventional upbringing, it is hard for the reader to do the same. Though her parents undoubtedly loved her, they certainly seemed to love themselves more, and gave little to no thought to the impact their actions would have on their young impressionable child. Well-written and even conversational in parts, this book certainly highlights the seamy side of life in the Mafia while demonstrating the painful effect parents can have on their children. Raw in parts, this memoir is nevertheless painfully honest- a solid offering from a novice writer.

Benjamin Pratt and the Keepers of the School: We the Children by Andrew Clements

Book description:
"Benjamin Pratt's harbor-side school is going to be bulldozed to make room for an amusement park. It sounds like a dream come true...or is it more like a nightmare? Something about the plan seems fishy, and Lyman, the new assistant janitor, seems even fishier. When Ben and his friend Jill start digging for answers, they find things that the people with money and power don't want them to see. Could the history hidden deep within an old school building actually overthrow a thirty-million-dollar real-estate deal? And how far will the developers go to keep that from happening? Ben and Jill are about to discover just how dangerous a little knowledge can be."

I really enjoyed this introduction to Clements' new series that focuses on two kids' efforts to save their elementary school from an evil corporate takeover. Ben is a delightful character struggling to accept his parents' recent separation; his dislike of change finds a focus in the plans to tear down his school. His partner in crime is the brains of the operation, and her inclusion in the story helps make the book attractive to both boys and girls.

This first installment is a slim volume that serves to introduce the theme and main characters, and sets up the mystery by solving one set of clues and introducing the next. Clements writes with an authentic voice that will appeal to young readers but introduces mature themes that should spark discussions around the dinner table. All in all an excellent read.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Weekends at Bellevue by Julie Holland

Book description:
"Julie Holland thought she knew what crazy was. Then she came to Bellevue.

New York City’s Bellevue Hospital, the oldest public hospital in the United States, has a tradition of “serving the underserved” that dates back to 1736. For nine eventful years, Dr. Holland was the weekend physician in charge of Bellevue’s psychiatric emergency room, a one-woman front line charged with assessing and treating some of the city’s most vulnerable and troubled citizens, its forgotten and forsaken—and its criminally insane. Deciding who gets locked up and who gets talked down would be an awesome responsibility for most people. For Julie Holland, it was just another day at the office.

Holland provides an unvarnished look at life in the psych ER, recounting stories from her vast case files that are alternately terrifying, tragically comic, and profoundly moving: the serial killer, the naked man barking like a dog in Times Square, the schizophrenic begging for an injection of club soda to quiet the voices in his head, the subway conductor who watched a young woman pushed into the path of his train. As Holland comes to understand, the degree to which someone can lose his or her mind is infinite, and each patient’s pain leaves a mark on her as well—as does the cancer battle of a fellow doctor who is both her best friend and her most trusted mentor."

In this admittedly disjointed memoir, Holland reveals just what it takes to run the weekend shift at one of America's most famous mental hospitals for almost a decade. Not one to sugarcoat reality, Holland paints a disturbing picture of our current mental healthcare priorities, and quite frankly of herself. I'll admit there were plenty of aspects of her life and personality which I found off-putting, but the raw honesty she displays is a testament to her commitment. I'm not sure I'd choose Holland as a friend or as a doctor, but suspect it was her ability to compartmentalize that made it possible for her to do her job and do it fairly well for 9 years.

Ultimately, I would have preferred a slightly more cohesive narrative structure; the book reads like a series of unrelated vignettes until close to the end. That said, this is certainly a book worth reading if you are in the mental health field. Though I could wish for a more sympathetic narrator, I suspect that Holland's rather grim portrayal of herself reflects the real truth about those battling on the front lines of the mental heathcare system- too little time, too few beds, and too little follow-up must wear down even the most optimistic of practitioners.