Friday, November 30, 2007

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

I have seen this book in the bookstore for a couple of years and always been intrigued by the title. Then about a year ago I discovered that it is told from the perspective of a 15-year old boy who has autism. Again, I wanted to read it, but somehow never got around to picking it up. Well, my book group is reading it for our next meeting, so I finally had the necessary excuse to read this book. I am really glad that I did.
The storyline in Curious Incident revolves around a boy, Christopher, finding a dog in his yard who has been killed. As a Sherlock Holmes fan he decides he is going to solve the mystery - hence the title of the book. However, that is the pretext for a much more engaging and fascinating story.
Mark Haddon has done an incredible job giving the average reader an insight into the mind of an autistic adolescent. The writing style, the descriptions, the sense of repetition, the graphics all work together to demonstrate how Christopher copes with the world. This is obviously an extremely smart young man; he is a virtual mathematical genius. But, he cannot separate out unnecessary "noise" in his life. When he is standing in a train station he doesn't just see the few necessary details he needs to get by, he describes every poster and every person because he does not have the ability to filter.
Throughout the story Christopher explains convincingly why he does not like the colors brown and yellow, why being at home is comfortable, and why he would like to be an astronaut.
Having finished this book, I cannot wait to discuss it with a few key individuals - namely a mom I know with autistic sons. I am curious how she views the book - is it true to her experiences? And, a friend who works with autistic children - again, does she find the story to be genuine?
Moreover, it has given me better insight into my own children. I am fortunate that neither of them suffer from spectrum disorders, but I do have a better understanding of some of their emotional outbursts. When a granola bar breaks in half and they are heartbroken and refuse to touch it I get impatient: who cares? But living in Christopher's head, I have a better understanding of how something so seemingly unimportant can take on such grandiose proportions. Maybe I can expand my own patience with my children.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has family members on the spectrum. To me this was much more engaging and much more approachable than a non-fiction description of autism disorders written by an un-empathetic doctor. I feel like I learned a lot more through the personal interaction than I could have at a distance. A quick read that is well worth the time.

Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear

Pardonable Lies is the third in the Maisie Dobbs mystery series. This is a series that you need to read in order. So much of what Winspear writes builds on what she had already told you. So, I would strongly recommend starting with Maisie Dobbs if you want to read this series.
Each of these books gets better and better. Jacqueline Winspear has an incredible grasp on 1920/30s Europe. The dialogue, the clothing fashions, the dilemmas that people are facing between the Wars all seem remarkably accurate. She has an ability to give the reader just enough flavor to really feel the era without overwhelming with unnecessary details just to prove that she knows the time and the place that she describes.
As with every Maisie Dobbs novel, this story revolves around solving a World War I mystery. The mysteries always cause Maisie to undergo intense self-reflection about her own involvement in and response to the War. In this story Maisie has begun to deal with the guilt of surviving when so many friends had been killed. Part of the theme also revolves around the attempt of the survivors to put to rest the questions they have about men who had been killed during the War.
This book seems particularly poignant today as we deal with soldiers returning from another war. These men are dealing with psychological and physical affects that civilians cannot hope to understand. Winspear does an excellent job of helping the reader to understand how difficult it is to return to "normal" life and pretend that nothing out of the ordinary happened.
Without a doubt Jacqueline Winspear is one of my favorite recent authors. I would recommend her books to most anyone. They are fascinating mysteries that make the reader want to keep going to solve the crime. They are great historical novels that really encapsulate post-War Europe. And, they are psychological stories about inner-personal turmoil and dealing with grief.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Paris Requiem by Lisa Appignanesi

This is one of the best researched books that I have read in quite a while. Lisa Appignanesi has written an interesting book about turn-of-the-century Paris which covers a lot of the main problems that existed at the time: anti-Semitism, prostitution, gender norms, and the treatment of foreigners.
The story revolves around James, Raf, and Elli Norton, three Americans in Paris in 1899. Raf's fiancee is found dead and a murder investigation ensues. The story is detailed and covers every social realm of nineteenth-century Paris. The story itself is not the most original. The murderer is not a complete and total shock. But, the research, the accuracy, and the topic are fascinating.
Appignanesi has obviously done tremendous research about the time and place where her book takes place. The story would not make sense in any other setting because of the tensions that existed in Paris in 1899.
I can't review this book without making it personal. So much of what Appignanesi writes about is exactly what I studied as a graduate student. I would guess that we read some of the same books in doing our research. Her understanding of gender - relations, problems, -bending, norms - reflects all of the contemporary research done by historians and anthropologists studying France. She also has done extensive work on the Dreyfus affair and the newspaper response to it. She accurately depicts the tension between the military and the journalists - egged on by the writings of Zola.She has managed to convincingly connect the Dreyfus Affair to medical and political beliefs of the time. Her descriptions of the mental hospital and the medical fields treatment of mentally unstable individuals - usually seen as women or Jews - also very clearly dovetails with the historical and medical texts written about the era. Finally, her use of Americans as the main characters allows her to underscore the tensions that existed in 1899 towards foreigners.
That Appignanesi could blend all of these issues into one coherent and engaging story is, to me, the sign of a great novelist. If I could figure out a way to create characters who live at the intersection of so many varied historical topics and place them accurately on the map in Paris at the time, maybe I could become a bestselling author too.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Le Divorce by Diane Johnson

I picked up Le Divorce after finishing Exodus. After seeing the ads for the movie of the same name, I expected light, entertaining, chick lit. That was not the case. The book is much heavier and deeper than I had expected. It was without a doubt an interesting read, but not one of my favorites.
The story covers half a year in the life of two sisters, Isabel and Roxeanne. Roxeanne has married a Frenchman, moved to Paris, and is pregnant with her second child. Isabel has dropped out of film school and is moving to Paris to help her sister with her children. Arriving in Paris, Isabel discovers that Roxy's husband Charles-Henri has left her unexpectedly. The story covers the period of Roxy's pregnancy and dealing with the international laws regarding divorce in France. The main character and narrator is Isabel who has relationships of her own during her time in Paris.
The book is a great examination of French-American interpersonal relations. Johnson cuts to the chase in underlining minor but irritating differences between the two cultures that often lead to misunderstandings and problems. The expatriate American community in Paris is comic in its at once hatred of the French and yet continued desire to live in the French capital. In this, I enjoyed the book because I felt like Johnson hit on some key issues in the relations between peoples of these two nations who seem so alike but end up confounded by their differences. Using divorce as the crux of the problem opened up a number of legal and social differences between Americans and Frenchmen.
However, I had no sympathy for either of the characters. They were selfish and relatively shallow. There was nothing compelling in the plot to keep me turning the pages. I did not feel like Isabel grew through her experiences in Paris. Plus the book just seemed to end. There was a definite conclusion to the divorce problem. But there was no sense of the characters having grown or changed because of their experiences.