Friday, March 30, 2018

The Widow by Fiona Barton

The Widow is the very last book I had left to read from the sizable stack of novels my mother loaned me. Now that I've finished it, I'm officially done with the pile! I'm not complaining about this by any means, because everything my mom picked was pretty good, but I'm glad to be able to return them and get back to reading the backlog from my own shelves. Goodness knows I have enough of it.

The plot of The Widow concerns the aftermath of a terrible crime. At the start of the story, Jean Taylor is in mourning for her husband, Glen. He died recently after being struck by a bus while running errands. Unlike most widows though, she is unable to grieve in peace because of her husband's notoriety. A few years prior to the accident, he was arrested for the abduction, and presumed murder, of a toddler. He won his trial due to a lack of evidence against him, but most of their community still believed he was guilty. Jean stood by her husband throughout his case, supporting him and believing him to be innocent, despite a few worrying details she managed to ignore. Now, Glen's death brings renewed media attention to her doorstep. Many people believe that she might share more details about her husband, or maybe even reverse her support of him, now that is gone.

 Jean is damaged and depressed after the ordeals she has gone through with Glen. Without his controlling presence in her life, she begins to realize the strangeness and deception that existed in their marriage. She begins talking to Kate Waters, a determined reporter, anxious to quell the press gathered outside her house by giving an exclusive interview. The process of answering Kate's questions begins to stir up memories for her and leads her to reexamine what exactly was going on in her house. Once she is able to clarify some of her feelings and suspicions, she must decide exactly how much of her story she wants to share.

The Widow is told through multiple perspectives at different time periods. Some of the chapters take place during the time the abduction happened, and some of the chapters are told in the present day, as Jean prepares to be interviewed by Kate. Many characters are used as narrators, with some sections being told by Jean, some by Kate, some by Glen, some by the detective that worked the abduction case, and a few by other, more minor figures. Over the course of the story, the time periods catch up to one another, forming one cohesive narrative of what exactly happened to the abducted child. The pacing was excellent, with just the right amount of information doled out to the reader to keep them hooked on the story. This is the kind of novel you read in just a few sittings, anxious to put all the pieces together and sort out the details. There are lots of twists and turns to think about and the story is darkly interesting, like a Lifetime movie crossed with a Law and Order episode.

The characters are similarly well developed, each with distinct voices and personalities. Jean's character, unsurprisingly, is the best of all. It's obvious from the beginning of the novel that something isn't quite right with her, but what that something is isn't immediately apparent. Is she merely traumatized by her husband's actions, or is something inside of her influencing her behavior? It's obvious that she is a woman with secrets--that she knows more than she's letting on, but it's difficult to figure out whether she is knowingly lying to herself, or if she has genuinely blocked things out. She is an interesting character to try and understand, and her unreliability as a narrator keeps you guessing throughout the story.

The Widow was a fun read, and is perfect for fans of crime dramas or anyone looking for an exciting story to get lost in for a few hours. This is escapist reading at its finest, and its unusual, jumbled narrative style provides a nice mystery for readers to puzzle through. This is not the kind of novel I generally pick up on my own, so I'm pleased that I got the chance to experience it. Once again, I have to give my mom credit for passing on a great recommendation. 

Now, with her pile of books read and returned, it's time to get back to my own piles of unread books. While my mom's purchases skew towards self-help and crime dramas, my purchases skew to young adult and fantasy/science fiction novels. It will be nice to get back to some of my guilty pleasures for a little while.

Challenge Tally:
Clear the Shelves 2018: 9 books donated

Total Books Read in 2018:17

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

True Notebooks: A Writer's Year at Juvenile Hall by Mark Salzman

I bought True Notebooks several years ago from Amazon, thinking that it might make a nice addition to my classroom library. This memoir about an author's year teaching a writing class at a juvenile correctional facility in Los Angeles seemed like an inspirational read, and I thought my students might appreciate seeing the writing of other teenagers. When the book arrived, a quick flip through the pages showed me language that was entirely too vulgar for an 8th grade classroom, so I stuck it on my shelf. I figured I'd eventually read it on my own. With my True Books Challenge underway this year, I decided that now was the time.

True Notebooks is a memoir of Mark Salzman's first year teaching a writing course to the inmates at Central Juvenile Hall in East L.A. He is unsure about volunteering at the facility at first, but as he gets to know his students better and reads the work that they produce, he becomes a true believer in the program. The young men that he works with are incarcerated for serious crimes, mostly murders. They are facing very long sentences for their actions. Some of them know that they will never live on the outside again. Writing becomes an important outlet for them to process their feelings and sort through the emotional trauma they have experienced. They write about family members, childhood memories, life in prison, and many other topics, and most of their work is genuinely thoughtful and  moving.

Salzman's chapters are all centered around his visits to the prison and focus on his feelings about teaching there, the affection he develops for many of the boys, and his students' work. Several actual excerpts from the inmates are included, which bring their stories to life for the reader. The boys' words call many troubling questions to mind about the juvenile justice system, racism, and the purpose of prisons. Salzman doesn't attempt to answer these questions or take a political stance on anything. Rather, he raises the issues and leaves it to the reader to ponder. Certainly, there are no easy solutions when it comes to dealing with children that commit criminal acts. It's easy to repeat sayings like, "don't do the crime if you can't do the time," but taking a closer look at the human beings behind the orange jumpsuits muddies the waters a bit.

I picked up this book assuming that it would be another motivational story about teachers, like Freedom Writers or I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had. Those novels show teachers succeeding in the classroom and changing the lives of their students. True Notebooks, as I soon found out, is different. This is not a book with a happy ending. This is not a book where the students overcome their difficulties and go on to have happy lives. The boys in Salzman's class have no futures. They are caught up in gangs or drugs or both. They are serving life sentences or close to it. They will turn 18, get transferred to maximum security adult prisons, and leave their writing class behind. Salzman will only be in their lives for a short time, and there are no guarantees that his writing class will help them with anything. Seeing the boys bare their souls in their writing and then lose their cases and disappear to other prisons was disheartening. At the same time, it was a powerful comment on how our juvenile justice system functions and how poverty and gangs doom children to lives spent behind bars. Despite this heartbreak, the novel as a whole still manages to be a meaningful story. The writing that the boys produce offers a window into a world that most readers have never visited. Their experiences help readers develop empathy for a part of society that is easy to ignore or dismiss. Their stories are still valuable, even if they will be imprisoned for the rest of their lives. This novel is not really about showing a great teacher (even though Salzman is), it is about showing a group of students who, despite incredible disadvantages, refuse to give up.

In the end, True Notebooks was a good read. It was not what I was expecting from a "teacher book," but it gave me an interesting look at a segment of the population that I knew nothing about. I encountered a lot of difficult questions as I read about the justice system and society in general, and while these questions are frustrating to ponder, they are important to think about. The novel wasn't perfect by any means. There were sections where it dragged a bit and sections where I wished for more of a narrative. However, overall, I am glad I got a chance to read the work of the students featured in the story. Salzman did a good thing in teaching these boys and this is a great pick for anyone who teaches or is interested in disadvantaged students.

Challenge Tally:
True Books 2018: 6/18 + 2 bonus books
Clear the Shelves 2018: 8 books donated

Total Books Read in 2018:16

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City was one of those books that I noticed everywhere, but didn't really know much about. I saw it around in bookstores and on the internet, but as it was nonfiction, I didn't pay much attention. That all changed after I watched American Horror Story: Hotel. This season featured (among other characters) a hotel owner that killed his guests. It was good, creepy fun, but I never for a moment thought that the show was based on anything real. Imagine my surprise when I learned that not only was the hotel owner character actually based on a real serial killer, but that this Devil in the White City book I had been seeing everywhere was actually about that murderer. Intrigued, I picked up a copy so I could learn more. I didn't end up reading it right away, but now that I'm making a conscious effort to read more nonfiction with my True Books Challenge, I decided that now was the time to give it a try.

The novel centers around two very different men living in Chicago during the end of the 19th century. The first, Daniel Burnham, was a prominent architect in the city. The second, H.H. Holmes, was a hotel owner, a swindler, and a murderer. They never knew each other directly, but one major event tied them both together: the World's Columbian Exposition, or world's fair, of 1893. Burnham was the master builder who designed the fair and helped bring it to life. H.H. Holmes was a serial killer who made a pattern of luring young women coming to see the fair to his hotel, where he would kill them in unusual and gruesome ways. Both men's lives centered around the fair for the years of its construction and duration, and this novel tells both of their stories.

Larson alternates his chapters between the two men, giving readers small pieces of their lives with each new installment. The chapters about Burnham show him to be a highly ambitious and talented man. The Columbian Exposition was a massive undertaking, requiring the construction of several buildings, massive amounts of landscaping, the ability to manage huge expenses, and a lot of bureaucratic committee work. The United States was under intense pressure to live up to the glory of the Paris Exposition of a few years earlier, and anything less than perfection would be deemed an embarrassment. Burnham rose to the challenge, overcoming several difficulties along the way. His story isn't as flashy as his murderous companion's tale, but it is, nonetheless, an incredible one.

The chapters about Holmes show him to be a profoundly disturbed individual with an endless capacity for killing. Larson details how he was able to come into money and property through a series of cons, then how he used that money and property to capture and murder his victims. Intelligent, charismatic, and a doctor to boot, Holmes was easily able to convince young women traveling through Chicago to stay at his hotel, then lure them into rooms that he designed himself especially for killing. He used suffocation, chemicals, and other creative methods to dispatch these women, then disposed of their bodies in ingenious ways. For example, he sent some of their corpses to a professional "articulator" to have them turned into display skeletons for doctors, a rare and valuable medical necessity at the time. In this way, he was able to hide some of the bodies in plain sight. He also burned, buried, and dissolved his victims, according to his whims and access to resources. He was able to do all this with remarkable stealth and got away with several crimes before he was finally caught. No one know for sure how many people he killed. Estimates vary from nine people all the way up to 200.

I very much enjoyed reading this novel. It was engaging and entertaining throughout and truly read like fiction. The decision to tell the stories of both men concurrently using the fair as a way to tie them together was very smart, and added an interesting dimension to the novel. The juxtaposition of a builder with a destroyer was almost poetic - the two men lived and worked near each other for quite some time, but their lives were could not have been more different. Hopping back and forth between them was strange, but in a good way.

The Columbian Exposition itself was very interesting to read about as well. The story of Burham's life is largely the story of the fair, so I ended up learning a lot about it. It was such a massive undertaking and it was on such a grand scale that it's difficult to conceive of what it would have looked like in person. Larson does a good job describing the details of the buildings, landscaping, and exhibits-- so good, in fact, I found myself wishing that I could have attended it myself. It's a shame that this event has largely faded from public memory. It was a huge cultural moment for the United States, and it's rarely discussed now. Many inventions and innovations we enjoy today have their roots in it. The electrified third rail for trains, Ferris Wheels, moving walkways, Braille printers, and even souvenir squashed pennies were born out of it. This fair was the first time a lot of people experienced electricity and saw people from other cultures. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime event and Larson's writing on it was very informational without drifting into dullness.

My only small issue with the novel was the imbalance of information about Burnham and Holmes. The Burnham chapters were much longer and more detailed that the Holmes ones. I frequently found myself wishing for more information on the disturbing serial killer, and for less on the honorable architect. I assume this was because there was way more information available about the Columbian Exposition than there was about the life of a criminal trying to avoid detection in the 1890s, but I was still a bit bothered by how short some of the Holmes chapters were. This novel was really more about the fair than anything else. However, at the end of the book, when Larson recounts Holmes' arrest and trial, we get a few nice long sections about him. This mostly made up for the lack of information in the earlier portions of the book.

The Devil in the White City is, simply put, excellent. It's nonfiction that is just as exciting and suspenseful as a literary novel, and the fact that it's all true makes it even more intriguing. Larson's work is a nice blend of informational and artistic writing that draws you right into the story and makes you feel like you're taking a trip back in time to 19th century Chicago. I'm glad that I ended up giving it a try. I learned a lot about a part of history that I knew nothing about, and enjoyed myself while learning it. I can't think of higher praise for an informational text than that.

Challenge Tally:
True Books 2018: 5/18 + 2 bonus books
Clear the Shelves 2018: 9 books donated

Total Books Read in 2018:15

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

I've had Alas, Babylon sitting on my shelf since I was in high school, meaning that it's been on my to-be-read pile for about fourteen years now. The edges of the pages have yellowed and I had to blow a bit of dust off the top of it when I picked it up. Clearly, it's way past time that I actually read it. I initially purchased this book during my "buy anything that is a classic" phase, so aside from a vague recognition that the book was famous, I knew nothing about it. Up until a week ago, that was still true. I went into reading this completely blind, with no real idea about the plot, characters, or author. Naturally, that made it a perfect fit for my "classic by an author that's new to you" category in the Back to the Classics challenge. I went into my reading hopeful that I would find a new favorite.

The plot shifts between a handful of characters, but it mostly focuses on Randy Bragg, a rather aimless man living in central Florida in the 1950s in a tiny town called Fort Repose. He comes from a prominent political family in his hometown, but his own attempts to be elected to an office have failed. Mildly embarrassed, he lives alone in the house he inherited from his parents and makes his living from a family citrus grove.

As the story begins, Randy receives a mysterious message from his brother Mark that ends with the phrase, "Alas, Babylon." This phrase is a code from their childhood, and means that some disaster is about to happen. Alarmed, Randy goes to his brother who explains that Russia is poised to attack America with nuclear weapons. Mark, a high-ranking military official, is required to stay at his base and fulfill his army duties, but he tells Randy that he wants to send his wife and children to live with him for a while. Shaken, Randy accepts his brother's proposition and begins to prepare for the worst.

Mere days after this meeting, Mark's prediction comes true and atomic bombs begin to rain down on America. Randy's town is spared a direct hit, but he can see and hear several explosions from a distance. In an instant, the country is almost completely crippled. Electricity is lost immediately, food and gasoline run out shortly after that, and radio news updates are scattered and brief. Randy has no reliable way to figure out what's going on in the rest of the country and he feels alone and frightened. He pulls himself together, however, for his brother's family, who he is now responsible for. He takes on a leadership role within his neighborhood and begins, slowly, to learn how to survive in a world that has suddenly become alien to him.

Alas, Babylon was published during the height of the Cold War--a time when fears of nuclear exchange weighed heavily on the minds of Americans. Pat Frank worked as a war correspondent and served on several government committees before writing it, and these experiences allowed him to write a novel full of details that feel credible. He firmly believed that if America were to come under a nuclear attack, the government would not be prepared to handle it in an efficient and orderly manner, and the plot of Alas, Babylon reflects that belief. Once the bombs fall, the characters become cut off from the wider world. They don't know what other areas of the country were affected, if their government still existed, or even who was "winning" the conflict. They don't end up finding out any details at all until months and months after the bombings. Only by working together and sharing resources are they able to form their own functioning society, and they do it all on their own. In this way, the novel is ultimately hopeful about the future of mankind, but it is still a chilling examination of what might happen if a war breaks out in the atomic age.

That being said, I didn't enjoy this novel as much as I hoped I would. While Frank's insights into the military and how victims of war behave were undoubtedly valuable, his writing style and characterization missed the mark for me. The book was littered with dramatic moments that lacked proper build-up and his characters were often bland or weirdly hysterical. The prose demanded an emotional response from the reader that it hadn't earned, as it was difficult to care for anyone in the story. I found myself in the odd position of thinking that the situations in the story were realistic, but the characters themselves weren't. A lot of the narration was quite heavy-handed as well, with Frank's overly dramatic pronouncements sounding plain silly sometimes. It made the reading a bit of a slog, to be honest.

Another issue that consistently bugged me was the blatant racism and sexism present throughout the story. While I know that this is a reflection of the time period that the book was written in, there were several moments or comments that felt unnecessary. For example, when discussing inviting a black family to their house for dinner, one of the characters blithely remarks, "I've always believed in mixing crowds at my parties...but what about mixing colors?" In another section, a female character discovered a freezer full of melted, spoiled food and, "as any housewife would do under the circumstances, she wept." Later in the novel, Randy allows two of the younger children in the community to carry out guard duty at night. The young white boy in the group totes a gun, while the young black boy carries a spear. Perhaps my favorite moment, however, is when a few of the female characters become upset over the loss of a pet and the disobedience of a child and Randy comments that, "The more he learned about women the more there was to learn except that...they needed a man around." I do not think that Pat Frank was deliberately trying to be racist or sexist (in fact, he was probably pretty forward thinking for his time based on how he has Randy behave throughout the story), but he certainly wrote several cringe-worthy lines that had me rolling my eyes.

Ultimately, Alas, Babylon was only an okay read. I appreciated the ideas and professional expertise that Frank brought to the novel. I thought the story asked interesting questions, the plot was mostly engaging, and the ending was pretty good. My enjoyment of it was limited, however, by the odd writing style, wooden characters, and stereotypical beliefs. I don't think that Pat Frank is destined to become a favorite of mine, but I am glad that I gave his book a shot. It was an interesting look at a possible future that I hope never actually comes about.  

Challenge Tally:
Back to the Classics (a classic by an author that's new to you): 5/12
Classics Club (#31 on my list): 26/100

Total Books Read in 2018:14

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The American by Henry James

I have an odd relationship with Henry James. I first came across him on my AP Language exam back when I was in high school. We had to read an excerpt from The Golden Bowl and answer questions on it. I was intrigued by the passage, so I started buying up James novels as I came across them over the following years. I didn't read them, mind you, but I bought them like they were going out of style. As a result, I have several of James' works on my shelves and most of them have been sitting there for over a decade at this point.

What I didn't know back when I was building up my little classics library is that the work of Henry James changes a lot from his early novels to his later ones. He is a key figure in the transition from literary realism to modernism. His early works stick to more traditional literary techniques, while his later works become very experimental. As a rule, I'm not the biggest fan of modernist literature, so a lot of James' work is tough for me to get into. I read The Ambassadors (one of his later works) a few years ago, and really struggled with the stream of consciousness style. I read The Bostonians (one of his earlier works) in college, and really loved it.

So, I'm in two minds about Henry James. I want to read more from him to see if he's truly a favorite of mine or not. To this end, I decided to try reading The American next, which is one of his earlier novels. It also fits in with my Back to the Classic challenge as my 19th century novel, making it a good choice for this month.

The plot concerns Christopher Newman, a young American who has made millions as a successful businessman in New York. As the novel begins, he is taking a break from working to enjoy spending his money on a long vacation in Europe. He is hoping to see what the wider world has to offer and to find a wife while on his trip. He easily accomplishes the first goal, touring cities, churches, and museums all over the continent. As a self-made man with little travel experience, Newman feels a bit out of his depth while exploring the treasures of the Old World. However, his easygoing and positive personality allow him to get along well wherever he goes. He enjoys his time spent touring and succeeds in learning a thing or two.

His second goal of finding the perfect wife is a bit more difficult to accomplish, but he thinks he has achieved it when an acquaintance introduces him to Claire de Cintré, a beautiful young widow from an aristocratic French family. Claire is beautiful, kind, and respectable--in short, she is exactly what Newman is looking for. He begins to court her, but immediately runs into difficulties with her family. They consider a Newman, a common businessman, to be an inappropriate match for an aristocratic woman. However, once Newman elaborates on exactly how much money he has, they relent and allow him to pursue Claire without interference. She accepts his proposal and all seems well.

Before the marriage can take place though, Claire's family backs out of their agreement and forces her to break off the engagement.  Newman  tries everything he can think of to get her back, but she is adamant that she won't go against her family's wishes. Betrayed and devastated, he ends up stumbling onto a scandalous piece of information about the family while trying to change their minds, and he must decide whether to use the information to blackmail the family into reversing their decision.

I found this book to be an absolute pleasure to read. I'm not even sure what it was about it, but I truly enjoyed myself with this one. It might have been Newman's eminently likable nature, or maybe it was  James' clever writing style. It was easy to read and flowed smoothly from beginning to end. I was interested in the story and eager to get to the conclusion and see how everything ended up. It reminded me of the kind of novels assigned in high school English classes - filled with fussy characters and historical details, but still totally accessible to readers. I had fun, and I don't always say that of older works.

The themes in The American mostly revolve around the classic clashes of old money vs. new and rigid social structures vs. more casual ways of life. Throughout the story, Newman must try to operate within the rules of a high-class society that he isn't familiar with in order to win over the woman he loves. As an American born with nothing, this world of titles, property, and soirees puzzles him. He is able to get along well enough due to his amiable nature, but the unchangeable circumstances of his background ultimately hold him back. He tries to insert himself into the world of the aristocracy, first through kindness and deference, then later through anger and blackmail, but it is nearly impossible for him to overcome the social divide between himself and his fiancée's family. His "American-ness" works against him, and it was interesting to see him try to break through this barrier.

I don't mean to say that everything in the novel was perfect. Newman is definitely a self-centered character, and his views on women leave much to be desired. You get the sense though that he is just a street smart kind of guy doing the best he can in a world utterly alien to him, so it's easy to cut him some slack. The book was set in 1868, and his beliefs aren't any worse than what would be commonplace for the time period. The ending was a bit unrealistic as well, a fact which Henry James acknowledged himself. In later years, he actually produced different versions of this text attempting to correct for this, but most consider the original version of the novel (which is the one I read) to be superior.

Despite these flaws, however, I had a great time reading The American. It's exactly the sort of classic novel that I love. It's the right time period, the right plot, and right amount of fussiness for me. I can now say that I've read two novels by Henry James that I liked. I'll most definitely be going back for more in the future. After all, I still haven't read The Portrait of a Lady, which most consider to be his masterpiece. Maybe I wasn't being too foolish when I bought up all those James novels so many years ago.

Challenge Tally:
Back to the Classics (a 19th century classic): 4/12
Classics Club (#31 on my list): 25/100

Total Books Read in 2018:13

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

I can't remember where I first stumbled onto The Soul of an Octopus, but it's been on my Goodreads to-read list for a long time now. I must have found it online somewhere, because I knew about its existence long before I saw a physical copy. When I did happen to see it sitting on a shelf in a bookstore, I recognized it and bought it right away. That was actually only a few months ago, so it hasn't been sitting on my shelf forever (like most of my unread novels, it seems). I'm reading it now as part of my effort to read more nonfiction in 2018.

The Soul of an Octopus is a different sort of nonfiction book. It is partly scientific, in that it describes several facts about the octopus and presents findings from all sorts of studies about them. It is partly anecdotal, in that its author, Sy Montgomery, tells several stories about encounters she has with octopuses in aquariums and in the wild. It is also partly supposition, in that it includes a lot of guesses about octopus intelligence and consciousness. The blending together of all of these elements results in a book that is educational, accessible, and charming. I personally enjoyed reading it very much, although I can see how some of its less-scientific elements might irk some readers.

Most of the novel concerns stories about Montgomery's interactions with several octopuses at the New England Aquarium. She describes observing, feeding, petting, and playing with the creatures alongside the aquarium's expert staff members. Each octopus she interacts with has its own distinct personality. Some are shy and sweet while others are playful and sneaky. I had no idea before reading this that these creatures would enjoy playing with a human, but now that I know this, I really want to try it for myself one day. Montgomery forms close bonds with these animals, and her observations of their behavior lead her into a lot of musings about how intelligent octopuses truly are. They are certainly more intelligent that people think, but Montgomery goes a bit further than that. She supposes that they are conscious of themselves as individuals, which would place them as one of the most intelligent animal species in the world. She gets a little poetic in her thoughts in these sections, which is where more analytical people might roll their eyes, but overall her thoughts are intriguing to read.

She also spends a fair amount of time imagining how octopuses interpret their surroundings. They have evolved in ways utterly alien to humans. Instead of being built with a head on top, their body is on top of their head. They have most of their neurons in their tentacles and taste through their suction cups. If an octopus wraps it's arm around a human's, it can taste things that are in the human's blood, like medications and hormones. They are truly different creatures from us, and they experience the world in an entirely way. Her descriptions of what it must be like to live like they do are intriguing and cause you to think about the animal in a novel way.

Overall, I learned a lot of facts about the octopus from this novel, and it was consistently interesting throughout. Montgomery's writing is engaging and easy to read. Beyond those qualities, however, there is a lyrical niceness about it. Her enthusiasm and love for animals leaps off each page, and her fascination with her subject is a pleasure to read. I felt happier while reading this. It's nice to both learn something new and get a mood boost at the same time. I know that I'll never look at an octopus in an aquarium the same way again, so I count The Soul of an Octopus as a very worthwhile read. Anyone who has ever been intrigued by these unusual and smart creatures will find a lot to like in it.

Challenge Tally:
True Books 2018: 4/18 + 2 bonus books
Clear the Shelves 2018: 6 books donated

Total Books Read in 2018: 12

Monday, March 5, 2018

Find Her by Lisa Gardner

After reading my two nonfiction books for the month of February, I turned my attention back to that infamous stack under my nightstand. The pile of novels that my mother has loaned to me has been steadily shrinking under my efforts since the beginning of the year. Find Her, a crime thriller by Lisa Gardner, is my second-to-last one. I read this while I was away to run the Disney Princess Half Marathon last month. While I was resting up for the big event, I sped through this novel in a little over a day. Happily, it ended up being the perfect book to take on a trip. Full of suspense and well crafted twists and turns, Find Her is a truly enjoyable guilty pleasure read.

To tell too much of the plot would definitely spoil the story, so my summary will be brief. The plot centers around Flora Dane, a young woman in recovery from being abducted and assaulted when she was a college student. She was held prisoner for 472 days before managing to escape her captor, and the experience has left her with deep emotional scars. She's become an expert on criminal behavior, learned survival skills, and become a vigilante. Unable to return to a normal life, she works to find other missing girls who haven't made it home yet. While working on the case of a local abducted girl, Flora disappears herself, and Boston detective D.D. Warren must step in to try and untangle what happened and bring her home.

The narration shifts between characters and different time periods throughout the novel, with some chapters narrated by Flora in the present time, some narrated by D.D. in the present, and some flashing back to the 472 days of Flora's original abduction. Information is revealed at a deliciously suspenseful rate, with enough little pieces dropped consistently to keep readers hooked into the story. All through the reading you can tell that the story is building up to something major, and when the twists finally come, they don't disappoint.

Aside from excellent plotting, the characters in Find Her are well-drawn. Flora is quite compelling in her pain and confusion. She is a women irrevocably damaged by her experiences and struggling to relate to her family and develop a sense of normalcy. Her emotions feel genuine. The other characters in the story mostly function as background players to Flora's story, but they are similarly interesting to read. D.D. Warren is your typical tough, somewhat unpolished detective. Samuel Keynes, Flora's victim's advocate, is a quiet, intelligent, and steady force that you end up wanting to know more about. Jacob X, Flora's original abductor, is sickening in his compulsions and behavior. Everyone was interesting to read about and contributed to the overall engaging nature of the story.

I was truly surprised by how much I enjoyed this novel. Find Her is the perfect read for fans of books like Gone Girl and Girl on a Train. This is one of those novels that's perfect for when you don't feel like picking up something dense and just want to fall into a great story that you can polish off in a few days. This novel is apparently the eighth in a series featuring Detective D.D. Warren, but it most definitely can be read as a standalone. I had no idea it was a series when I started reading it and didn't feel like I was missing anything as I moved through it. I might actually end up picking up some of the others in this collection one day, as I was definitely a fan of this one.

This isn't the sort of book I would have picked up on my own, but I'm glad that my mom saw fit to loan it to me. I must say, I approached her stack of books with more than a little bit of dread owing to how we are such different readers, but I have liked essentially everything she's chosen.This story is no exception.  

Challenge Tally:
Clear the Shelves 2018: 5 books donated

Total Books Read in 2018: 11

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Flesh & Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin

I first head about Flesh and Blood So Cheap at a school training. The keynote speaker mentioned it as a high-interest nonfiction choice for young adults and used some of the pictures from it in her presentation. I'm always looking for interesting informational texts to use in my classroom, so I ordered it right away. I ended up setting it to the side and forgetting about it as I got busy with other projects. Since I'm making an effort to read all of my nonfiction books this year, I dusted it off and finally gave it a shot this month.

Flesh and Blood So Cheap is the story of the infamous Triangle Factory fire that killed 146 people in 1911. It was one of the most lethal workplace fires in American history until September 11th, yet not many people know much about it. Albert Marrin brings the disaster back to life in this novel, and presents it as more than just an accident. He places it into a larger narrative of immigration, poverty, workplace abuses, and safety reforms that give the reader a more nuanced understanding of the event. This is not a story about a random tragedy--it is a story about an appalling outcome of an abusive and corrupt factory system. It is also the story of how one terrible event provided the catalyst for much needed change and regulation in American industry. 

Marrin opens the text with an explanation of immigration patterns in the United States during the 1900s. Since most of the workers that perished in the Triangle fire were Jewish and Italian immigrants, he pays special attention to describing the reasons that those groups were arriving in America in droves during that time period. He continues on to explain how many of these new workers found jobs in the garment district in New York. The jobs (most of which were held by women) involved long hours of sewing, cutting, or transporting garments with very few breaks and very little pay. Workers were forced into overcrowded factory spaces with inadequate safety measures in place to protect them in case of an accident. Workers united behind unions to strike, and met with only partial success in changing workplace practices.

Eventually, the unsafe working conditions culminated in the Triangle Factory fire.  Marrin explains how a stray cigarette ignited a pile of fabric remnants and quickly spread around the 10th story work space. Terrified workers were unable to extinguish the flames due to the emergency water supply being disconnected. Panicking, people then rushed for the emergency exits only to find some doors locked, other doors blocked, and the fire escapes unusable. Many, seeing no other choice, jumped out of windows to their deaths. Others burned alive in the building. Firemen arrived on the scene within minutes, but their ladders were too short to reach the affected floors. Eventually the fire was contained, but many lost their lives.

The closing chapters of the text describe the legacy that the fire left behind. In the aftermath of the disaster, several leaders began to emerge demanding safety reforms in the workplace. Many of these leaders were women, who began taking on larger roles in the government for the first time. Marrin describes that through their tireless efforts, many new regulations to improve workplaces were created. Little things that we now see as commonplace, like lighted exit signs, working fire escapes, regular fire drills, and automatic sprinklers came into being, saving innumerable future lives. While the Triangle fire was a terrible chapter in American history, it was a force for necessary changes in the workplace.

Marrin's style is striking in its simplicity. He is clear and frank with details, and doesn't sugarcoat the facts. At the same time, however, his writing is always appropriate and accessible to a young adult audience. Accompanying the text are numerous pictures of the relevant people and places from the event, which serve to pull the reader further into the text and lend a deeper sense of gravity to the story. It was nice to be able to match faces and buildings to the names Marrin gives. This was a relatively quick read too, another factor that will attract younger readers. Adults might appreciate a more complex analysis of this event, but this novel is a perfect match with its target audience.

Aside from facts, the novel gives readers a lot to think about as well. Many questions of ethics and morals are raised in its pages--perhaps none as thought provoking as what Marrin explores in the novel's final chapter. He describes how, over time, memories fade and history tends to repeat itself. One only has to look to sweatshops operating overseas to see a shockingly similar pattern of abuses and safety violations to what we had in America before the fire. Different disasters are happening now across the world from us. He warns that constant vigilance is the key to preventing more workplace tragedies. It's a heavy subject to think about, but it's one well worth bringing to the minds of young readers. After all, they will go on to become our leaders one day.

Overall, I enjoyed Flesh and Blood So Cheap. It is an interesting and engaging examination of an often overlooked historical event. Enough background details are given to place the Triangle Factory fire in its proper context without being overwhelming or dry, and the description of the legacy that the fire left behind is inspiring to read. I learned a lot from this novel, and I can see my students learning a lot from it as well. That keynote speaker I enjoyed a few years ago was correct in offering this up as an example of an excellent informational text for use in the classroom. I will be donating my copy to my classroom library in the hopes that one of my kids will pick it up and fall into it the way I did.

Challenge Tally:
True Books 2018: 3/18 + 2 bonus books
Clear the Shelves 2018: 4 books donated

Total Books Read in 2018: 10