Monday, November 27, 2017

The Train of Small Mercies by David Rowell

In a year when I have been just picky as hell about what I'm reading, DNFing things left and right, when the randomizer picked this one out for me, I was doubtful.  Yes, I pick many of my reads via the randomizer.  I own a lot of books.  It's far more productive than me trying to, like, make a decision and stick with it. 

Anyhow, The Train of Small Mercies was a LibraryThing Early Reviewers book that has turned into a "years later" reviewers book on my shelves.  When I glanced through the reviews, I thought it would get its 50 pages and then land on the DNF pile in the company of many books I thought I'd like a lot more, but it defied my expectations and started a streak of books I've actually finished.  Mind you, I am not sure how this happened.  Train definitely is just the plotless wonder that all the naysayers described, not exactly the book you hunt down when you're in a reading slump, but something about it definitely appealed.

On the day Robert F. Kennedy's funeral train is slated to make its way from New York City to Washington, DC, the sun shines brightly on a nation in mourning.  In each of the states along the way, people are preparing to watch the train pass by and pay their respects to a man who had inspired an unusual kind of hope in politics.  In The Train of Small Mercies, author David Rowell spotlights a person from each state who will see the train and gives us a glimpse of their lives on that day.

First, there's Lionel Chase, following in his father's footsteps as a porter for Penn Central.  This day, of all days, is his first day on the job.  In New Jersey, 10-year-old Michael spends the day playing with his friends and planning to see the train from the treetops while trying to forget the trauma of being a casualty of his parents' divorce. In Maryland, the West family, whose son Jamie has returned from Vietnam missing a leg, waits for the train and also for the reporter coming to interview Jamie about his experience in Vietnam.  In Delaware, Edwin and Lolly turn the day into a party of sorts, celebrating their newly purchased pool with friends as a distraction from their struggles with infertility.  In Pennsylvania, disappointed housewife Delores evades her husband's political disapproval by dragging her youngest daughter Rebecca along on a stealth trip to see the train with a series of lies that may just end in tragedy.  In Washington, DC itself, Maeve, a prospective nanny for the Kennedy family waits for the train's arrival, realizing her job prospects have changed but still hoping for a new start.

Each of these narrative strands are touched upon in brief chapters labeled with the state in which they take place.  There is little to connect each to the others except for the expectation of the train itself and a pervasive sense of Americana.  In a beautiful early summer day shot through with the grief of the funeral train, Rowell draws out a little piece of each ordinary American's story.  Each story has its own heartbreak to go with the larger heartbreak of a nation, and each story seems, improbably, to hold the promise of better days for these Americans whose private griefs are mingled with the somberness of the day.  Somehow, though it doesn't always make sense and the bands of connection are thin, at best, Rowell manages to use these six stories to convey the feeling of a nation in flux, filled with people who, even after being knocked down, somehow dust themselves off and carry on. 

Upon turning the last page, I had to agree with other reviewers that I hadn't managed to get my hands around the plot, if there was one, so I definitely don't think this book is for everyone.  That said, I don't think it necessarily needed a plot.  The compelling authenticity of the characters, the vivid snapshots of their lives, and the overarching connection of the funeral train itself were more than enough to create the feeling of sadness with the promise of hope for redemption that made this book an unexpectedly touching novel that has stuck with me.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Reviewlettes That Are Actually Short!

Often I jolly myself into thinking that I've written reviewlettes.  Unfortunately, all too often they are still too long to qualify.  Hope springs eternal, so I always just call them reviewlettes and hope that the reading public will agree.  The following may actually be short enough to qualify.  So short, in fact, that I have put all four into only one post.  Here in 2017, at the ripe old age of 33, let it be said of me that it is indeed possible for me to be concise.  Now....books!  

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is a powerful and so incredibly plausible dystopian story for adults that takes place in a United States where prisons have been abolished in favor a society where people wear their crimes in the shade of their skin.  I was entranced by this novel that is a clever futuristic retelling of The Scarlet Letter where megachurches rule and one girl wears her sin in the bright red of her skin, and being trapped in a body turned red might just be what sets her free.

World War II set stories are among my favorites, and Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum does not disappoint.  Trudy has always been bewildered by her mother, Anna, a taciturn woman who refuses to talk about her life during the war.  During a research project meant to discover the stories of ordinary Germans who lived through the war, Trudy stumbles across the remarkable story of her own mother, a woman who saved herself and her child from certain starvation or worse, but at what cost?  An excellent addition to the genre, Blum’s novel is a haunting exploration of the inescapable moral dilemmas that riddle lives torn apart by war.

After her father’s death, Liberty “Ibby” Bell’s mother deposits her on the doorstep of her grandmother, the occasionally crazy Miss Fannie.  Dollbaby by Laura Lane McNeal is a story of a few quirky characters living in Civil Rights-era New Orleans.  McNeal’s story is filled with eccentric characters, southern charm, and the battle to de-segregate, but it seems like she’s trying to do too much.  Too many characters have too many secrets.  Too many coincidental tragedies drive the plot until it all starts to collapse under its own weight.  A lot of people liked this one a lot, but it wasn’t a big hit for me.

I'm always a little iffy on middle grade books since I'm reading them as an adult. Once in a while, I find a total gem, but most of the time I find myself underwhelmed. Unfortunately, The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau didn't really light my fire (Light my fire?  Get it?  I’ll be here…sporadically throughout the next year). DuPrau's dying underground world is well conceived, and irrepressible Lina and serious Doon are certainly characters middle schoolers should have no problem rooting for. As an adult reader, however, I was disappointed with all the telling that took the place of showing, the adult characters that were mostly caricatures, and the slow plot that seems to rely too heavily on the coincidence of whatever Lina's unsupervised baby sister is getting into or gumming to death in any given chapter. Three stars because while it fell a little flat for me, I'm sure its intended audience would find it much more rewarding.