Sunday, September 30, 2012

We Sinners by Hanna Pylvainen

 You know what's great? When you sit down and write a review of a book, and looking back on it discover that you liked it even more than you thought you did.  We Sinners is just such a book.  I appreciated it while I was reading it, and read it fairly quickly, but by the end, I didn't love it, just that sort of meh feeling one gets when one doesn't have really positive or really negative feelings about a book.  Having sat down to review it, though, I can safely say that We Sinners had much more of an impact on me than I thought.  Honestly, this is one of the great things about writing book reviews, that upon further reflection you can much more out of it than you would if you just read a book and walked away.  This ever happen to you?

We Sinners by Hanna Pylvainen is the story of the large Rovaniemi clan, Warren and Pirjo, and their nine children.  More than that, though, it is the story of their faith, a fundamentalist version of Christianity that originated in Finland, Laestadianism.  (Hmm, if I'm trying to make this sound captivating, I'm failing, aren't I?  Give me a few minutes, I'll get there.)  The Rovaniemis' church is impressively strict, demanding that its congregants forgo dancing, TV watching, drinking, listening to popular music, and using birth control.  In the tradition of some evangelical churches, it relies on lay preachers rather than the formally educated and ordained.  The church community is small and insular, and rather more a main character in Pylvainen's story so central is it to her characters' lives.

In We Sinners, Pylvainen explores the Rovaniemi family member by member, from those who embrace their faith whole-heartedly to those who can't wait to escape to a world free from the narrow confines of it.  It probes the psyches of both parents who each question their dedication to God, Warren when he faces the possibility of being called upon to preach and Pirjo, when it seems like something so simple as a television set could derail her family's focus.  It follows the children as they explore the lives they've been effectively denied, dating boys outside the church, experimenting with drinking, finding themselves and being excommunicated from everything they've ever known because of the selves they find.  Some choose to leave, and some choose to embrace the church and the, strict, if comfortable way of life they have grown to appreciate.

Pylvainen's short novel is not short on profundity.  Many might choose to villify this church, but Pylvainen, instead, chooses to show a more balanced picture of the trials and rewards of faith and readers emerge on the other side of her narrative forced to decide for themselves which is the better way, if indeed there is one.  For some of the children, the comfort of living in a community with faith that they all have in common draws them in inexorably as they grow to adulthood.  For them, the longed for words of absolution become a comfort and a necessity.  Their large families rise up around them, for better or worse.  The others attempt to find solace in "worldly" relationships where it eludes them, they trade their family and faith for freedom, but find that freedom from their faith isn't all they ever dreamed.  All find themselves haunted by the faith of their childhood and, it seems, that none find exactly what they're looking for at the end of either path.

We Sinners is a quiet but powerful book that explores the vagaries of a commanding faith from inside and out.  Pylvainen's prose is stark but illuminating, shining a light on a topic that rarely gets so much balanced attention.  While Pylvainen briefly explores each of the family's members to great effect, the focus always remains on the fundamentalism that both unites and divides and how the choice to stay or to go always leaves someone standing on the other side of the glass wondering if they failed to choose the better way.  We Sinners' portrayal of faith might not be for everyone, but anyone who wants to understand what makes a fundamentalist Christian family tick would do well to give Pylvainen's thoughtful debut a look.

Thanks to the publisher (Henry Holt) for providing me with a copy in exchange for my honest revew.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Loose Leafing: All Good Things

Hola, everyone!  I have bad news, and I have good news.  The bad news, my wrists have been hurting me something fierce and making it hard to both work and blog.  Since my blog doesn't pay the bills, I've unfortunately forced to give most of my wrist endurance to my job, hence my missing the BBAW festivities of yesterweek and other assorted blogging.  The good news is, my poor, afflicted wrists seem to be getting their groove back, and I have returned to my oft neglected blog again.  (Hi, blog!)  The other bad news is I have to work more hours than normal this week, which doesn't leave an awful lot of time for my triumphant return to blogging, but I'm working with the time I've got, and I'm happy to say I've been making lemonade of my lemons lately and mostly enjoying life despite the working and the wrist problems.

For example, I've been reading and really enjoying it.  I liked The Stand, but I've gotta say, reading it all summer really started to feel like work.  It's been nice to actually start and finish a few books.  First, I read Glass Boys by Nicole Lundrigan for a blog tour.  I was a little nervous about it at first, but I'm pretty sure that for the moment, it's my favorite book of the year!  (P.S. There's still a little time to enter my giveaway for the book if you haven't yet.  Have I mentioned how great it is?).  Then I read The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harman and really enjoyed that one, too.  Review to come.  For my current read, I randomly chose a book from my shelves (my shelves!  I remember them, there are various and sundry great books there that are even more neglected than my blog!  Horrors!) and ended up with Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg which is the type of memoir Augusten Burroughs made famous.  A train wreck memoir, if you will, wherein you are frankly disturbed by the things you're reading, but it's well-written and you can't seem to look away.  After that, I think I'll be ready to tackle Broken Harbor by Tana French which has been patiently waiting for me. 

In between all the reading, I have been enjoying an annual trip to Hersheypark with my younger cousin.  We are the only children of our respective families, and he's kind of like my fake little brother that I don't spend quite enough time with for him to be annoying to me like a real little brother, so I've been pleased to make our Hershey trip an annual tradition so neither of us have to be the "single riders" that have to load in the middle of the roller coaster trains.  ;-)  Yesterday we even (accidentally) dressed alike in bright yellow/green shirts, shorts/pants with many pockets, and grey shoes.  We rode almost all the roller coasters, him being much more daring than I was at his age (thankfully), and purchased an outlandish amount of chocolate, and I plan to be irritated for only a little while longer that I had to pay $12 simply to park my car.  Twelve dollars!  That new roller coaster must have cost them a fortune (which was totally worth it - we rode it twice!) for them to be going in for this kind of highway robbery.  Ah, but don't they know that if they charge me like four fewer dollars to park, I will then buy that much more chocolate and they still get all my money anyway, without my having to tell everyone I know how I've been so wronged.  Less parking, more chocolate!  Do you think I could get people to picket with me?  Make Kisses, not dollars!  (Um, I'll keep my day job.)

While not reading/riding roller coasters/complaining about things I have no control over, I've been pleased to watch the Bloomsburg fairgrounds being populated with all sorts of rides and food stands and awesomeness.  The last week of the month our little town plays host to the biggest fair (I'm told) in Pennsylvania.  Last year, our town played host to the biggest flood of the Susquehanna River in a century, causing the cancellation of the fair, so I am looking forward to it twice as much which is a really really really lot.  I am super-stoked that next week at this time I could very well be stuffing my face with the many delicious deep-fried things (if I am not already full of delicious deep-fried things and sitting at home contemplating my clogging arteries), ogling the largest pumpkin in the tri-county area, and hopefully winning the candy game or a gold fish or a big stuffed animal or something.  People around here live for the fair, and so do I! 

So, how's life in your neck of the woods?  Have I been missing anything exciting (excepting the obvious) during my temporary vacation from the blogosphere?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Glass Boys by Nicole Lundrigan (Review and Giveaway)

Glass Boys by Nicole Lundrigan totally took me by surprise.  When I was offered a spot on its blog tour, I took quite a while to decide in the affirmative.  Its blurb makes it sound like more of a mystery/thriller than the literary fiction I seem to prefer (actually, it's quite literary, thank you very much).  It's from a Canadian publisher that, as far as I know, is new to me (but maybe just because I live in a hole). I had no idea Newfoundland had a dialect (see above RE: hole dwelling), but apparently it does, and so, therefore, does the book (hit or miss much?).  I worried so much that I wasn't going to like it, and I was selling out my quest to take no chances with review copies.  Getting to the point, though, I need not have worried.  This might well be the best stuff of my reading year!

And Wilda considered then they weren't as fragile as she often imagined.  They weren't made of thin clear glass.  If she opened her hands, let them go, they wouldn't shatter on the floor.  Surely, they wouldn't.  In the golden moonlight, she saw that each one was just enough for the other.

In the opening pages of Glass Boys, abusive, angry Eli Fagan, discovers his stepson, Garrett, is hiding an unspeakable secret.  At the same time, Lewis Trench, the newly appointed constable of Knife's Point, Newfoundland and his brother Roy are getting drunk on potato whiskey.  The two families cross paths in one fateful, accidental moment, and Roy Trench is killed.  The incident is ruled an accident.  Eli Fagan returns to his wife and stepson and eventually has two daughters.  Lewis Trench meets a woman in a curio shop after the trial and takes her home to Knife's Point to be his wife. The couple have a pair of sons, sensitive, eager to please Melvin, and Toby, a less thoughtful but more enthusiastic boy.  Though the two families attempt to avoid each other and their shared sordid past, the past can't be escaped, and the years never seem to ease the pain and anger between the two men, until the incident's echoes reverberate into a new generation.

Glass Boys takes some getting used to.  For starters, Newfoundland has a dialect and Lundrigan has taken care to reflect it in her writing.  There are s's on the ends of words where every fiber of a sensible reader's being supposes there shouldn't be.  Lundrigan's prose relies on sentence fragments for emphasis.  The first few chapters are, as a result, confusing and a little hard to digest.

Once the first few chapters are past, however, a profound, if dark, multi-layered story emerges.  Lundrigan's characters are richly drawn and haunted by the secrets of their respective pasts which are spread out before us like a breadcrumb trail to an unexpected destination.  Lundrigan's story is undeniably gritty and doesn't shy away from the worst things the human heart has to offer, but at the same time, just the tiniest trace of magic runs through Lundrigan's tale, just a tiny trace of hope that the younger generation might just be able to untangle the knot of hate that binds the two families together, however they might try to avoid its legacy.  The feeling that redemption seems to always lie only a page away makes this literary work unputdownable.

Despite its darkness, Glass Boys is likely my favorite read of the year thus far.  Lundrigan's story is, at times, hard to read, simply because of its subject matter, but she gives voice to her characters so well that even when they are flawed and loathesome, they still attract our sympathy, except, of course, for the one that doesn't quite.  Mostly male characters figure in Glass Boys, and Lundrigan proves herself remarkably adept at portraying thoughts, feelings, and actions even from across the gender divide.  In my experience dark stories rarely have satisfying ends, but Lundrigan defied my experience ending the book in a way that doesn't trivialize the rest of her story by wrapping up too easily but also doesn't neglect the catharsis we crave after having our hearts broken along with the characters we've come to care for deeply.  Highly, highly recommended.

(Disclaimer:  I was provided with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.)

Seriously, I'm so impressed with this book, ergo I was very excited to find out that the author's publicist is providing a copy for me to give away.  This will help me get started in my quest to get everyone to read this book. ;-)

If you'd like to win a copy, and have a US or Canada address (no PO boxes), please leave a comment with your e-mail address by 9/17, midnight EST.  I'll draw a name at random, and e-mail the winner. (And next time I'll learn to use one of those fun Google Docs forms.  Promise.) 

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Stand by Stephen King (Standalong Wrap-up!)

Well, it's been a long summer.  Okay, that's not true.  This summer has flown by.  Really, I can't believe it's September already, nor can I believe it took me almost a full extra month beyond the official end of the Standalong to finish what is, arguably, Stephen King's most ambitious, most famous novel.  Since it's taken up so much of my time this summer, and book reviews have been at a premium around here, I'm going to attempt to write a legitimate review of it, but if you did the Standalong and you just want to check out my second half reactions, there's bullet points at the bottom of the post!

It's the early 1990s and something deadly and manmade has been unleashed upon the world.  A plague sweeps across the U.S. killing off a large portion of the population causing chaos among the living.  Soon only a seeming few far-flung survivors remain, and it becomes apparent that the killer flu isn't the only issue at hand.  Survivors find themselves haunted by dreams of a dark man who has no face but is inutterably terrifying.  Some survivors dream of an elderly black woman who seems to offer a refuge from the dark power lurking in the west.  Little do the unfortunate survivors of the plague know that there is a much larger battle yet to be fought, a battle that will determine the future of a world torn between good and evil. 

Stephen King's tour de force is a hulking novel with its extended version weighing in at over a thousand pages.  Thankfully, King's writing has such a pull and a flow to it, that despite its size, The Stand is a relatively quick read, and one that can be hard to put down.  King's depiction of the killer flu that originates in a military facility in California and sweeps the nation before anyone even has a sense of what's happening, is alternately terrifying and compelling.  Some of the best chapters in the book emanate from the spreading of the flu and the all-too-believable cover-up that follows what starts as a PR disaster and turns into an apocalyptic death march. 

However, the plague is just the tip of the iceberg, and as the relentless deaths from the flu finally slow to a trickle, King's narrative follows many of the survivors as they begin to dream and soon attempt to reassemble themselves into a society amid the wreckage.  Here, King is again at his best, following the lives of innumerable characters and managing to give each of them a distinctive personality and a fleshed out backstory.  Despite being introduced to far more characters than can be counted on two hands, readers will feel like they know each and every person that King chooses to focus on, and it will be impossible for readers not to relate to at least a few of them. 

The Stand is not without its flaws, for sure.  It's aged fairly well in general, but much of the slang gives away the fact that it is a 1970s book retooled for a 1990s audience.  Around the two-thirds mark, King's story flags and drags for a while.  The dialogue seems overdone and cheesy while the plot comes to a near standstill as all the characters arrive at a sort of planning stage.  Thankfully, it doesn't last too long, the story picks up and ends with a bang.  Numerous times in the last quarter of the book, King and his lovable, if terribly flawed cast of characters, nearly brought me to tears, and I could hardly put the book down in the race to the finish.  While I'm afraid it might not unseat my favorite Stephen King books of old, The Stand is really not to be missed.  It showcases a great American author at the top of his game, creating an epic tale of good and evil that fully probes the truth that there is no one that is truly one or the other.


Just by way of wrapping up this whole readalong thing that I did a shoddy job of finishing on about a few bullet points?  (These could be spoiler-y, so if you haven't read The Stand, look away!)

- In the end, I didn't hate Harold.  I just felt so bad for him, how even in a new world he couldn't let go of old slights long enough to embrace a new life and a new identity that hadn't been forced upon him by cruel high schoolers and his own unthinking parents.  Rather, he chose to believe that no one could ever change, that peoples' perceptions of him could never change, which leads him down a path of destruction, including his own.  I thought this was all incredibly depressing because it rang true, I mean, how hard is it to leave behind a past that has damaged you?  Too often, it's too hard.

- The whole establishment of the Boulder Free Zone and its ad hoc committe really dragged for me after the enthralling beginning to the novel with the plague unleashed and survivors regrouping.  The whole Boulder Free Zone seemed to be afflicted by a plague of a different sort - cheesy, lovey dovey dialogue on numerous occasions, mostly boring committee meetings.  It seemed like if we wanted to get from here to there a little faster, this could have been way pared down.  I read the huge version, so I wonder if it actually was in the shorter version...

- Glen Bateman is the King of the Infodump, and I actually didn't mind.  Turns out if you want to get away with infodumping in your postapocalyptic novel, all you need is a lovable, retired sociologist.  I actually felt like I learned real things from Glen Bateman's windbagging, and even though I recognized the societal information infodumping, I mostly appreciated it.

- Once Larry finally worked through all his issues, I really came to like him as a character.  I was pleased that Stu turned out to be as decent as we all hoped he was at the midpoint of the Standalong check-in.  At the end of the day, though, I think Tom Cullen and Kojak might just have been my favorite characters.

- The second half of the book definitely didn't do it for me the way the first half did, but ultimately I enjoyed reading The Stand.  I'm glad I finally did it, and it was good to revisit my love of Stephen King this summer!

Did you "Stand" this summer?  What did you think?