Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Walk Across America

In the early 1970s at the tail end of the peace and love hippie movement, with turmoil bubbling up around the country, Peter Jenkins decides he needs a life changing journey. Peter is a recent college graduate and divorcee who wants to leave the US because he believes it is in shambles until an older friend tells him, "if you want to leave, go right ahead, but first you sure as shootin' ought to give this country a chance!". That's when Peter decides to take his Alaskan Malamute, Cooper, and himself on a soul searching quest for what America and Americans are really like by walking across America.

The journey starts in Alfred, NY and the book ends when he reaches the Gulf of Mexico, so the title is a bit misleading. I guess "A Walk Down the Eastern Part of the United States" doesn't sell as well. He eventually finishes by walking to California, but we do not hear about it in this book. A journey that begins with Peter trying to figure out if America has any heart quickly becomes introverted. Peter begins to feel this whole journey is a spiritual and religious quest. In the end aren't we all looking for God or at least his replacement?

Peter finds both a spiritual answer for himself and discovers that Americans are warm and welcoming from West Virginia to Alabama. We meet some fun characters throughout the book including a mountain man and a soulful black family who adopt Peter as one of their own. Cooper was perhaps my favorite character in the book. A dog is always a great way to add fun and heart to any story, but *warning* like in most books with dogs, he dies! Tragic.

Although the writing is amateur, the story is compelling. It often feels like Peter lightly taps places and people on the shoulder without fully embracing his experience with them in his writing. He often says how thankful he is to people and how great places are, but I often wish he'd give more than just a passing nod. Even when he devoted chapters to one place or person he stayed with, his writing felt like it was lacking feeling and depth. I wanted more meat.

The first half of the book I felt was equal parts about the hiking/camping and the people/places he went. Towards the end of the book, however, it changed to be more about the people. They were both interesting, but personally I was more interested in the hike, nature, and Cooper.

This book does speak to more than just the lost hippie child. I loved that he seriously used phrases like 'groovy' in his writing, but even with those tacked on, this reaches more than just the flower child generation. It's a fun read and a true story of a man learning about his American routes and discovering that his suppositions about Americans were wrong.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Grief and Loss Fall Flat...You win again July

It has not been a good month for books in the Miss Elizabeth household. I've been traveling recently, so I decided to stir it up with a book on CD. I chose "The Year of Pleasures" by Elizabeth Berg. I'm a sucker for a cover (damn you shallowness!), and thought the book sounded sweet plus it was a short listen. Well I liked this better than some books, but still it did not phase me.

The book is about a grieving widow in her early 50s. She just lost her husband who was the love of her life and has now uprooted herself and moved to...Illinois? Anywho, she makes new friends, finds old friends, grieves her husband, and struggles with how to move on. The title is mentioned within the book by a character who says when she lost her daughter, she spent a year finding one thing a day that made her happy, something she enjoyed doing no matter how small. I love that idea, but I don't think the book earned this title.

What I think the author was going for was one of those, 'we just lost something dear, girls stick together, best friend, women' books. In my opinion, it didn't hit the mark.

The author tried too hard to describe simplicities like trees, shops, topography and after a while, it just felt phony like the writing of any student trying to be poetic. Stop with the figurative language and get to the meat! God knows I'm guilty of some of this behavior in my own writing, but I expect more from an author.

Something that annoyed me throughout the book was the main character, Betta's, attitude towards today's generations and technology. She stuck her nose up and was exasperated with any form of new fangeled technology. Whenever this was mentioned, she usually associated younger generations with the inability to love life beyond the internet. As a twenty-something, I resent the implication that I'm unable to socialize, enjoy just sitting, or the beauty of nature. I understand the point she makes about many people being dependant on technology and children missing out on activities because they're stuck in front of a screen, but sweeping generalizations are annoying and never apply to all.

The subject of the book, loss, grief, loneliness, is one that many can relate to and will resonate with most audiences, but I didn't feel it went anywhere new. It felt cliche. I did appreciate the underlying values of friendship and life even if I wasn't overly thrilled with the delivery. One line that hit home with me was, "how necessary the near presence of others in keeping me civilized and sane". For anyone who has ever lived alone or holed themself up for a period of time I think they can relate.

Again, this book did not strike a chord in me. The characters were underdeveloped and the plot points fell through. The author tried for deep and meaningful, Steel Magnolias-esque, but it didn't reach that level because I never felt a connection with the main character. There's not much more to be said about this book. Find something with more heart.

More Ordinary than Curious

I recently attended the American Library Association's annual conference in New Orleans where I had the pleasure of meeting and receiving complimentary copies of authors' books. One such book was "The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno" by Ellen Bryson. This is a book I saw on a B&N shelf not too long ago and thought it looked interesting. Well what with me thinking the book looked good, and having met the author, I was all ready to enjoy this novel....Anytime now...Crap.

I didn't.

The novel is about Barnum's Museum of Curiosities in New York City post Civil War (1865+ for you Canadians). The main character, Bartholomew Fortuno, is the world's thinnest man. We meet and see the daily lives of several other "curiosities", such as the fat lady, the elastic man, and a strong man, but one day a mysterious woman is added to the museum and Barty's world is tipped upside down. I applaud Ms Bryson for getting her first novel published. The idea is original and interesting, but it fell flat, like her characters.

The characters and plot were 2-D. They didn't jump off the page at you and I didn't feel there was anything or anyone to grab onto. The author made attempts at going beyond surface level, but I'm sorry to say her attempts failed. The main character, Barty, is annoying. He's like that whinny kid in class with no backbone. He knows all the rules by heart and isn't afraid to let everyone know it. I never warmed up to him and found his personality agitating.

The "mysteries" within the novel were not riveting. To say the least I was not turning the pages to figure out what happened. Had I not felt obligated to finish the book I would have put it down ages ago and been better for it. Nothing in the book moved me. Pieces of the plot felt loosely strung together and the "great reveals" were lacking. I wasn't surprised or intrigued.

I found nothing transforming about Bartholomew Fortuno. The author should have explored her characters more, made their relationships deeper, and their perspectives more pronounced and weighty. The curiosities are people who are outcast by the rest of society, but find a home in the Museum among others like them. This is a perspective that reaches all of us in one way or another, but I felt alienated from her characters and I don't feel Bryson tried to make the connection between her audience and the characters. Bryson tried to probe Barty's philosophy on the curiosities and how their presence in the world was a tool, but she never fully latched on to it.

After reading this book, I've decided to take Nancy Pearl's advice: if after 30-50 pages the book doesn't grab or interest you, just put it down. The world is full of books worth reading and life is too short to waste your time on an uninteresting read.