Thursday, June 27, 2013

June Book Review: Gone Girl

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

Wow. I have a lot of not necessarily well-thought-out things to say about this book. Here goes nothing...

I really knew very little about this book - just the premise - which was described to me as "a woman disappears and the main suspect is her husband." So many people were talking about it, that I decided to make it summer reading.

Without a doubt, this is my definition of summer reading. This is just the kind of cannotputitdowndon'ttalktomeI'mreading book I was looking for when I called it "summer fluff" on my Book List in January. If my lazy brain had its way, summer reading would be all that I ever read. Because it. is. FUN. And I'm lazy. What I liked in particular about this one, though, was that it was thought-provoking fun. Just enough that I was stimulated and invested (what you might call "a page-turner"), but not enough that I felt exhausted.

I raced through this book. I got a few chapters in last week (and the chapters are short) and then put it down and finished re-reading (for the umpteenth time) The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver instead. I wasn't in the mood for a murder, and I wanted to loan a friend Barbara's first novel which I had been casually re-reading since May. Then yesterday I wasn't feeling particularly great and I literally holed up in my bed and read the whole dang thing in one sitting. That doesn't happen very often. The last time I did that, I think, was the Hunger Games trilogy which I devoured in one weekend.

Okay, so about the actual book. Meet Amy and Nick Dunne - married 5 years. On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary Amy suspiciously goes missing. Nick doesn't have a great alibi, and slowly but surely he becomes the number one suspect. Their marriage had been rocky: unemployment, relocation, debates on whether to have children. Things look bad for Nick. Really, really bad. But for Nick to be the culprit is just too easy.... Right? 

Now to the literary structure. This book is written with typical he said/she said back and forth. Chapters are short entries, alternating either Amy's (past) or Nick's (present day) perspective. Amy's dialogue is in diary form, from entries written over the past 6 years of their relationship, and 5 years of marriage, and we gather more and more incriminating evidence against Nick as her entries unfold. Nick's input is first-hand thought and interaction play-by-play (much more interesting). You wonder as you're reading Part 1, "how long can Flynn (author) keep this up?" Amy's entries are too pointed, too obvious, so I'm not revealing anything by saying early on you suspect this isn't a cut and dry scenario.

As for the inner workings of the novel: I liked the characters. I thought some of them were certainly more original and believable than others, but I particularly loved some of their thought sequences on marriage. I didn't expect to be reading summer fluff and be caught thinking, "Shit, she's right. Marriages do fall into those categories!" And then follow that by setting down the book to think hard if I could drum up anyone I knew whose marriage that DIDN'T fall into one of the categories she listed. Dammit, I could not. There are truths about marriage to be had here folks, some uglier than others, and I think those truths are what makes this better than your run-of-the-mill CSI case. But let's face it: it doesn't take much to be better than CSI. This is really fun, "gotcha!" material, that also leaves you a tad bit more enlightened.

A analogous way of describing my overall judgement would be to say that Part 1 was like Season 1 of a stunning new TV drama series (take Homeland, for example). I was excited, hyped, immersed and intrigued. No - more than intrigued - I was a captive audience. More importantly, I believed in the characters, and I wanted to know more. There was lots of potential, lots of page turning, and lots of resisting the urge to skip ahead. Part 2 became a little questionable with some of the plot twists, and you begin to see the potential fade. It's like that point in your favorite show - typically Season 2 - where you start to get worried. Not worried for the characters exactly, but worried you might start hating the show if the writers keep going down that road, or handle the choices badly. It could go either way. Part 3? Felt a little like "I need to wrap this up.... and tie it with a bow," just as many TV series finales do. The ending wasn't bad, but it was perhaps the less interesting route to take, likely because it became the predictable route. (Not predictable as in stereotypical for all marriage-related murders, but predictable based on the setup provided in the first 2 parts.) It felt like we got beaten over the head with the "wittiness" of the ending by Flynn, as if she was saying "Look how wicked clever I am!" BAM. And then she - BAM, BAM - hit us a couple more times, just for good measure. You know, to leave a lasting impression? A cliff-hanger would have been much more satisfying in that "I'm not satisfied!" type of way good book endings have.

So bottom-line? Yes, read it! I really enjoyed it -- it was lots of fun and held my focus all the way until the end.

And yes, for the record, I am worried about Homeland Season 3. It had better not have a bow on it.

June Bonus Books:
The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver (★ ★ ★★☆ )   [A re-read and always a safe bet!]

★ - Hated it. ★★ - Didn't like it. ★★★ - Liked it. ★★★★ - Really liked it. ★★★★★ - Absolutely loved it.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

April Book Review: Life After Death

Book Review: Life After Death, by Damien Echols
My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

I have a lot of catching up to do here on the blog. I'm way way way behind on my reading and reviewing, as evidenced by the fact that it is now June and I'm writing a review for my April pick. Still, I'm determined to tick them all off the list. I've finally read Life After Death by Damien Echols, and I let it sink in a little before writing the review. It was my book for April, but I'm so glad I waited until June to read it.

From April 5th through end of May I only read scientific journals and alternative medicine articles about Pancreatic Cancer. I spent hours researching different treatment centers, and writing update emails on my dad's status to his family and friends. I sort of only had a head for cancer. I find it very interesting that I selected this book unaware in January "for the month when many people contemplate salvation, redemption, and forgiveness [because of Lent, Easter, etc]," as I stated in my Book List post, yet had no idea that I would actually be contemplating all those things and more in April, myself. I'm not sure I would have been able to appreciate this book for what it is, had I read it according to schedule. My own life tragedy was too fresh in April. Since then, I've found - as I'm sure many victims of Cancer do - that tragedy has a way of creating communities and commonalities. I still have no idea what it's like to spend nearly two decades in a concrete cell as punishment for something I did not do, but I understand what a cruel turn of events can do to your whole life. I have a much bigger heart for people who've been dealt an unfair hand, and my concept of compassion and understanding of empathy are radically more mature.

Sometime late last year I caught an interview on NPR with this death-row prisoner-turned-author about his autobiographical work and was instantly fascinated. After being convicted for the "satanic" murder of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, and serving 18 years on death row (most in solitary confinement), Echols and two co-defendants were released in August 2011 on the Alford plea agreement. The agreement allowed all three to maintain their innocence while pleading guilty, and the judge converted their sentence to time served. Over those 18 years in prison, their controversially mishandled case received the publicized support of celebrities like Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, and Natalie Maines (of the Dixie Chicks). Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh filmed a documentary about the case titled "West of Memphis." Damien's wife, Lorri Davis, who discovered him by watching "Paradise Lost," married him five years into his incarceration and has organized and championed his case ever since.

So that's a little of the background, now on to the book review. First of all, this book is not a historical account of the murders or the trial. If that's what you're looking for spend some time googling all the various audio and video clips that have been made public, and read the documented evidence provided on many readily available websites. Apparently "Paradise Lost 1, 2, and 3" (an HBO documentary series about the case), and "West of Memphis"are fairly one-sided documentaries, but I haven't seen them and I'm not reviewing them here. My point is that there are plenty of resources out there if what you're looking for are facts about the crimes and trials. This book is not one of those. 

The book is Damien's account of his tortured childhood, misunderstood existence, encounters in prison, and spiritual journey. Even if none of it is true or it severely manipulates the truth, it's still a fascinating concoction. Read it with a grain -- or two -- of salt or read it as if it were pure fiction. But, I think the read is worth it simply to imagine yourself in Echol's position. I spent a lot of time wondering what type of person I would have become, had I witnessed the injustice and experienced such persecution as Echols claims. He creates an inspiring pocket of hope for himself inside a concrete cell, by using Buddhist practices, sustained meditation, and ritual ceremonies, as well as writing in his journal (much of which is used in the book) and fighting constantly for his freedom.

I flew through this book. I can't help myself when it comes to conspiracy theories or "train-wrecks." It was an easy read, but I admit I sped through because I hoped for a revelation. Once I realized that there is no real answer or closure provided and, thanks to the police bungling much of the evidence, unfortunately for the victim's families and the suspects there might never be, I was sort of disappointed. Not sure what I expected: Echols to admit guilt in his own memoir? Point the finger firmly at someone else? I did certainly expect there to be more of his "Life After Death" experiences, as the title implies and now that he is a free man, but the book abruptly ends with his release and subsequent celebration. It's much more about his terrible childhood and time on death row, than his life since his release in 2011.

This was a highly publicized and extremely well-known and documented case. However, I knew absolutely nothing about it before picking up this book. The fact that the murder and trial took place in 1993 (I was only 8 myself), means that it passed completely under my radar at the time. I spent several hours watching interviews, even with the man himself, and reading available evidence since I finished the book. I still don't know what to think -- except that it's worth reading.

★ - Hated it. ★★ - Didn't like it. ★★★ - Liked it. ★★★★ - Really liked it. ★★★★★ - Absolutely loved it.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Not writing about "Gratitude"

I sat down to write about gratitude today, and then decided against it. Today I wasn't feeling very grateful.

I've learned a lot in the last two and a half months about gratitude, but today found me unlearning it all. I was cranky, irritable, and quick to frustration. So many people and things rubbed me the wrong way. I was failing at optimism. Miserably. So I decided not to write about gratitude.

For those of you who don't know, there are 5-7 stages of grief. I say 5-7, because occasionally people combine some of the similar stages into one (shock/denial & bargaining/guilt). As a list of seven, they are as follows:
Shock or Disbelief 
Acceptance and Hope
I don't number these, because they can occur in any order and last for any period of time. These 7 stages of grieving are different when the person you love is still alive. Of course, that seems obvious,  right? Well, it wasn't to me. A few months ago, I wasn't familiar with this list, and I couldn't have named all of the above, or claimed any real experience with most of them. But a few months ago, my dad was given a "death sentence" called Cancer, and even though I live every day believing that he's going to get well, and I'm certain that his time here is not through, I still grieve a little bit each day, too. Because, that's what you do.

Some days I feel mostly normal, and my thoughts are Cancer-less. Other days I dwell on all the wrong things. Rather than moving progressively from one stage to another, I feel like every day is a taste of a different stage. Sometimes I'm immersed in one alone, and sometimes I get to experience three or four stages in one afternoon. How exciting, right? It's exhausting. The person you're grieving for isn't gone, but statistics are looking grim. The patient is looking grim one day, and just like his pre-Cancer self the next. The whole family wants to curl up and groan collectively. But you can't! You're not dying from Cancer - you're living with it. So you move forward, simultaneously allowing yourself to grieve in little bits and pieces, but giving thanks that everyone's still alive. (Thank you, Jesus.)

I'm not only grieving for my dad's health, and for my family and what this means for us, but for how my life has been forever changed. My carefree existence is gone. My ability to imagine my life much more than a month or two ahead is simply not possible. My sense of security, health, and happiness is hanging in question. Very selfish things to grieve over, of course, but I think normal. Yet, it's a strange thing to grieve for something lost, but have astounding amounts of gratitude for what has replaced it.

For the first time in as long as I can remember, I have what feels like a real, daily, non-combative, honest relationship with my dad. We talk about things, and this talking involves taking turns, listening, acknowledging, eye contact, and respect. When I hug my dad, I really don't want to let go. When I'm away from him, I can't wait to come back and "hang out." I soak up his knowledge, and enjoy anecdotes which formerly went unheeded. Those prior juvenile walls are gone and the only thing remaining is just a huge amount of untainted love. I'm thankful for that, and it's been the foundation of my understanding what "gratitude" really is, and what it means. I hate Cancer, but I'm thankful for it, because I've been given an opportunity I might not have otherwise. At the same time, I hate that I'm thankful for it, and I feel awful for thinking that.

And this is where you look back at that list and you begin to see...."Aha! She's spending today with stage Guilt." Or up late at night, I'll sink deep in despair as reality, called "Depression," hits me with full force. Or I'll think our family is invincible, and a prognosis given to us doesn't mean the same as it does in all those other cases: we will overcome anything, because WE are special. That's the "Hope" talking, my friends.

There's a stage that's not on that list, but should be. It's called "Gratitude." I can't get through a day without at least a small dose of this one. Sometimes I'm overwhelmed by it when my dad comments "I feel really good right now, almost normal." My heart unclenches just a little, and gratitude washes over me, and for an hour or an evening I'm simply and utterly thankful for that small victory.

I didn't want to write about it, but there it is.... "Gratitude." It crept in. Sneaky bastard.