Remarkable Creatures
by Tracy Chevalier

I was anxious to begin my first Christmas read, a novel by Tracy Chevalier, who also wrote Girl With A Pearl Earring, because of the time period: early nineteenth century, the place: Lyme, England, and the topic: women in the sciences, as rare as the fossils these women discovered. And although the back cover blurb promised the characters, “… forge a path to some of the most important discoveries of the nineteenth century” I felt the book didn’t deliver what it promised. 

Miss Elizabeth Philpot, at twenty-four, understands her place in the world as a spinster, and lives with two of her unmarried sisters in Lyme Regis,a seaside town in England. The sisters settled into their husbandless lots by developing eccentricities: Margaret mixed herbal tonics and salves, Louise gardened avidly, and Elizabeth had “the eye” for finding fossilized ichthyosauri,   Counterpoint to Elizabeth is the younger Mary Anning, who also has the eye–but is the daughter of a widowed laundress who sometimes resorts to burning the furniture for fuel. Despite the class differences the two women form a fast friendship, begin working together to hunt for the next big find. Even as Mary sells her finds to support the family, the two accompany growing number of treasure hunters, collectors, and geologists who begin to flock to the area once the discoveries are made public. Elizabeth and Mary have a falling out over the affections of one of these gentlemen, and they cease to work together.

The story touched lightly on the effect the fossils had on religious beliefs of the time, the constraints of spinsterhood in the nineteenth century, and the exclusion of women in any intellectual endeavor. Any of these enormous themes could have driven an insightful novel. What I found most  disappointing was that the how of Elizabeth and Mary’s expertise was wholly ignored. The women might read Cuvier, a French fossil expert, but the ideas and their thoughts on their reading weren’t relayed or discussed in any meaningful way. It was almost as if their knowledge was innate–although the novel covered many years the reader sees no building of ideas.  I felt this gave the women’s scientific “knowledge” less weight. Quite frankly, I didn’t fully believe they were experts.

That said, I did find the book readable and it was a pleasant, though not altogether fulfilling, way to begin my reading holiday.

Next up: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin. I’m reading a thriller? By choice?!

Hungry for more?

Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

This summer I read Scott Westerfeld’s Pretties/Uglies series and loved the fresh-take on storytelling in Young Adult novels. One member of our bookclub has been campaigning for Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games for a few months, and I wanted to quickly read it so I could get on to my Christmas break books! Perhaps it was my rush, or my glut of Westerfeld this summer, but these critically acclaimed YA novels didn’t make me immediately order the next in the series, as I did after reading The Uglies.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the novel–I stayed up late trying to finish it last night, and did so this morning with my coffee. Another futuristic science fiction  novel, the story line had many similarities to Westerfeld’s books: an individualistic, rebellious teen girl fights the constraints of a dystopian society. Katniss Everdeen offers herself up to take the place of her cherished little sister, Prim, when the youngster is chosen ala The Lottery to be a “tribute” (or participant) in the country’s Hunger Games. The games, apparently, were instituted some fifty years previously to control the populace with fear and intimidation. Each year, two tributes are chosen from each District and fight to the death in a wilderness arena. Katniss can’t bear the thought of  the tender, naive Prim enduring such depravity and, even though their District has won only once, feels she stands something of a chance due to her experience as a hunter.

[spoiler alert]

What follows is a weeks’ long cat-and-mouse game between the twenty-four tributes. Of course, since Kat is the novel’s heroine, she does well in eluding the other participants. And since this is a young adult novel, there is the requisite love story between Kat and her District partner Peeta Mellark.. It is apparent that Peeta has been a long-time admirer of Kat’s, although she is oblivious to his affections. When their trainer suggests that they will stand a better chance of winning sponsorships and audience support if they act as star-crossed lovers, Katniss plays along. Or does she?

The cliff hanger must be a convention of YA series, and this one is no exception. And while I’m tempted to find out what happens to Kat and Peeta after they arrive home to Victory Village, this time I’m full, thank you very much.

Next up: Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

From the stacks

Three Junes
by Julia Glass

I overlooked this book on the book club table at my local book stores for … maybe a year or more?! I would read the blurb on the back cover, carry it around for a while, and then think, “Oh–another book about three women? Sheesh! How many of those can you read?” And then I’d promptly set it down again. So what a surprise when I finally did succumb–only to find out that the “three Junes” were three months of June separated by years, and that two of the main narrators were men.

The story opens with the narrator Paul McLeod. A trip to Greece after the death of his wife prompts him to reminisce on their life together. As he tells his story, it is clear to the reader that we see things he does not–that the beautiful life he paints may have had some scratch outs and paint-overs. Paul’s son Fenno picks up the narration in the second June and we see Paul’s overpainting through the xray of his son’s story. The third June is told through the eyes of Fern, an neighbor of Fenno’s whose own life provides a counterpoint to Fenno’s. When Fern’s husband dies, Fenno is drawn in to her world–and through Fern’s tragedy finds clarity for his own.

A good read overall, I was most captivated with the McLeod family, and found myself distracted by Fern, who almost acted as a deus ex machina. I would rather that Glass had provided another family member’s perspective to round out the novel. Keeping it all in the family would have added to the novel’s cohesiveness.

Much too real

by David Cullen

I actually finished this book at least six weeks ago; I read it in a 3-day rush over a weekend. Why the rush? Because it was so awful I couldn’t stop. Why the reluctance to blog?  Because it was so awful I couldn’t think of what to say. David Cullen was on the scene at Columbine High School around noon the day of the murders. Nearly ten years later he has allowed himself to close his notebook. But what he left us is a raw and compelling look into the lives of the killers and the victims.

Cullen had access to police files and the journals of Dylan Harris and Eric Klebold; he interviewed teachers, administrators, students, parents, and psychologists. What we’re left with is the knowledge that most of what we knew about the tragedy was not true–Harris and Klebold were not bullied, nor outscasts. In fact, they were the bullies–and popular and gifted. They also had a criminal record and a teacher had reported a disturbing short story that Klebold had written. That Cassie Bernel was not the girl who said “Yes”.  That Dave Sanders was left by the SWAT team and did not have to die. And also that Eric Harris was a psychopath and Dylan Klebold depressed.The list of inaccuracies goes on.

Columbine was the December choice for my book club, made up of fellow teachers. Nearly to the reader, we all had the same reaction; the only outlier was the one of us who couldn’t even finish the book because of the horror. After the Columbine tragedy we read articles, had in-service on how to recognize and reach out to those outcast students. Our school instituted a “no backpack” rule. We would be sure this would never happen again; we’d recognize the “signs” and be proactive. But all this  in reaction to an event about which we didn’t even really know the truth.
And the truth is that the tragedy probably couldn’t have been prevented, no matter what. And that it could, and probably will, happen again.

The Man Standing

Last Guard Out
by Jim Albright

On our trip to San Francisco last summer, one of the most “touristy” thing we did was tour Alcatraz. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise; the self-guided tour was well-organized, paced just right, and heavy on history. The only problem I had was turning left when the recording said “right” … and vice-versa! More than once I found myself turned around.

When we got off the ferry, the ranger previewed some of what we would see, and promised that at the end of the tour we’d have an opportunity to talk to the “last guard out”–the guard to escort the final few prisoners as they were relocated to prisons around the country. Alcatraz, closed in 1963, was an aging prison, expensive to run: all food, supplies, employees, visitors, and even waste took the 30 minute trip across the Bay to “the Rock”.

Jim Albright began his tenure at Alcatraz as a young 24-year-old husband and father. Seeking secure employment to support his family, Albright was hired by the Federal prison system, and the young family traveled from Colorado to San Francisco to begin their new life. Alcatraz was his first job as a guard, and he was understandably apprehensive–Alcatraz’s reputation was one of hardened criminals and even harsher conditions. But, for the most part, Albright seems to think the reputation was not always deserved.

While he maintained a stern demeanor and followed the prison rules strictly, Albright found the prison well-run and disciplined. The problems that occurred during Albright’s term–attempted escapes, prisoner self-injury, a hunger strike–were nothing that the staff couldn’t manage. Albright retold first hand one of the most famous Alcatraz escapes, the 1962 Frank Morris escape through a hand-made tunnel, up utility pipes, and out on to the roof. While the stuff of legends (and a Clint Eastwood movie), to Albright, such events were all in a days work.

I found most interesting the life of families on the island–most guard families lived in apartments on the island, and life was a cycle of coffee klatches, movie nights, card parties, and ice cream socials … these in the prisoners’ exercise yard! The children played in the shadow of the three story prison block, and prisoners sometimes told Albright when his wife had baked a cake or pie, having seen it cooling on the window ledge of their apartment.

Quaint and colloquial, Albright’s writing will win no awards, but the story he tells is priceless. When I had Mr. Albright autograph my book I asked him if he missed prison work. The 74-year-old replied that he would go back tomorrow if he could.