Into The Water, Paula Hawkins, 2017

IntoTheWater

Beckford is a place to get rid of troublesome women. Paula Hawkins

Spoiler Alerts

Author Paula Hawkins won her second GoodReads Choice Award in 2017 (2018 Reading Challenge) with her second novel, Into The Water.

Hawkins won readers over with her debut, The Girl on the Train, a twisting confounding mystery told by three women, one who was prone to alcohol induced blackouts.

She’s traded an unreliable narrator for a whopping ten narrators, all with secrets to hide, sometimes holding onto the secrets of others. All are tied in some way to two people, Katie, a popular fifteen-year-old student and Nel, an eccentric and distrusted forty-year-old writer. Both have met their ends in the Drowning Pool, a body of water with a morbid history. Those in mourning are left wondering why and possibly who.

One death, a definite suicide, leaves the question of why. And though she chose to end her life, is it possible there were other forces at work?

The second death, that’s the mystery. While suicide is possible, murder isn’t out of the question since there are a number of characters with plausible motives: the secret lover, the jilted wife, the heartbroken mother, the traumatized daughter etc. By the last fifty pages, you have it narrowed down to three. By the last ten, you’re sure you know. By the last paragraph, you realize you’re wrong. Or rather, you were right when you suspected it earlier, but then changed your mind.

Much grumbling has been done about the number of viewpoints. I understand confusion early in the book since Hawkins disseminates useful information sparsely and slowly. Not only that, some characters give first person accounts, while other characters are written about in the third person. Moving forward, each first-person character has a distinct voice and all characters have a unique connection to the victims. Some characters disappear for quite a while, then reappear with no re-introduction which could be confounding, but again, the relationship to the victims serves as a reorientation of sorts.

For further help, each short chapter starts with the name of the character narrating. Not only that, the name appears in the header of the odd numbers pages, so on the rare occasion a chapter goes more than three pages you can see who’s interpretation of events you’re reading by looking at the top of the page.

Overall, the mystery twists and turns the way a good mystery should, though it loses some of its realism about three-quarters of the way through. American readers unfamiliar with the inner workings of England’s criminal justice system (like me) can shrug and say that’s just how they do things over there, I guess. For all I know, maybe they do.

Glory, Passion and Principle: The Story of Eight Remarkable Women at the Core of the American Revolution, Melissa Lukeman Bohrer, 2003

Glory

…Let us survey the landscape once again, this time through the eyes of the women. Melissa Lukeman Bohrer

Since the Fourth of July is coming up, a day of immense historical meaning to the United States, I chose to review Glory, Passion and Principle: The Story of Eight Remarkable Women at the Core of the American Revolution for the historical non-fiction challenge (2018 Reading Challenge).

Some of the women are famous, some lost to history, but Bohrer tells each life story in an engaging way that’s heavy on the facts but tempered by expert storytelling skill. The chapters read more like novellas than a textbook. The rich historical context is both specific to the woman and the world she inhabits. This context gives insight into motivations, actions and choices and elevate the work from a simple retelling of their lives.

The remarkable women are:

Sybil Ludington. The Paul Revere of her time. She traveled almost three times as far and wasn’t caught.

Phillis Wheatley. As a young slave, she defied rules and expectations by learning to read and write and produced some of the most eloquent poetry of her time.

Abigail Adams. As the wife of a president, she was considered by many to be an unofficial advisor. She was an early advocate for women’s equality and the abolition of slavery.

Mercy Otis Warren. Playwright and provocateur, her work inspired resistance against British authority even as she kept her identity a secret for years.

Lydia Darragh. She defied the Quaker principle of pacificism and neutrality to relay information about British military plans to Continental Army officers.

Molly Pitcher. Possibly real, possibly a legend, possibly composite or possibly Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley. One of thousands of ‘camp followers’ who helped serve the Continental Army by doing the daily chores like cleaning, laundering and carrying water. (Note: The real Mary Hays is credited with taking her husband’s place at the cannon when he was taken off the battlefield).

Deborah Sampson. Risked ostracism and expulsion from her church to disguise herself as a man and join the fight for independence.

Nancy Ward. Born Nanyehi, she became a Cherokee warrior and Beloved Woman who advocated for women to have more input in tribal matters and for peace between her people and white settlers.

The Elements of Graphic Design, Alex W. White, 2002 First Edition

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The functional difference between a shovel and a pitchfork is the metal that is missing. Alex W. White

In my pre-kids life, I worked as a graphic designer. Though I don’t get to do it as much as I used to, I still love the work and study of graphic design. For the subject I’m passionate about challenge (2018 Reading Challenge), I chose a book I picked up at a used book store, but never read completely. I got it for $4 and because of the heavily discounted price, I feel I got a great deal. However, if I had paid full price for the book…well, I probably wouldn’t have bought it for full price.

At about 140 pages (half of which is pictures and white space) it’s a quick read. Quick but not light. White gives a cerebral look at a branch of communication that touches everyone’s life, from the layout of user manuals to eye-catching billboards. The subject of design–specifically white space–obviously intrigues him, and he shares his knowledge in scholarly prose. White offers clear verbal explanations for what is, in essence, a visual medium. I don’t know that I would recommend this book for beginners. This book isn’t about teaching the elements of design as much as delving deeper into the concepts of good design and scrutizining why things work or don’t work.

The Good:

  • He references other artistic fields like music, painting, sculpture and architecture.
  • He gives numerous visual examples to illustrate his points
  • He often gives variations of examples to show the impact small changes can make on a piece
  • Kudos to White for not using Bernhard’s glorious but overused Priester ad.
  • Included is a helpful glossary of terms and a 90+ designer checklist questionnaire.

The Bad:

  • Not all the examples are great at making his point. The Herman Miller ad may be artistic, but it is illegible and contrary to good design.
  • The layout doesn’t flow naturally. Text is on the right page, graphics on the left and the captions don’t line up with the pictures they refer to.
  • The physical size of the book is about 6 inches by 9 inches. The smaller sized pages paired with the sheer number of graphics mean reduced picture size.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead, 2016

Underground

“She has stopped running. Reward remains unclaimed. SHE WAS NEVER PROPERTY.” Colson Whitehead

Spoiler Alert

I’m not a huge fan of what I call road trip stories, the ones where main characters are plunked down in a strange new world and must find their way home. Books like The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland where we’re constantly having to adjust to the odd rules of the different fantastical locations and deal with the supposedly quaint but more often creepy and annoying inhabitants. Neil Gaiman did it well in Neverwhere, other than that, meh. I’m just not into whimsy.

So, when I heard that Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad was an actual subway system and the protagonist “encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey”, well, I put off reading it for a couple years. Between the comparison to Gulliver’s Travels and use of words like ‘adventure’ and ‘odyssey’, it sounded too cutesy. Like the Polar Express meets the dehumanizing institution of slavery. But, as with other tomes on the list, the book jacket doesn’t do the real story justice.

The Pulitzer Prize winner (2018 Reading Challenge) focuses on Cora, a rightfully bitter scrapper who lives her life in survival mode. When fellow slave Caesar presents the chance to run, she takes it. But Cora isn’t an ordinary runaway. Her mother is the only runaway renowned slave catcher Ridgeway has never caught and returned. And so, to him, Cora is a symbol of redemption. Recovering her will recover his ego so he is relentless in his pursuit.

And that’s what the book jacket should have focused on.

Much has been made about Whitehead’s choice to make the Underground Railroad an actual train, but it ultimately doesn’t affect the story. She only rides it a few times. It’s underground, so she doesn’t see the world rolling by. Missing a train doesn’t seem to have many negative consequences. Another one will come along. In fact, she ends up in an abandoned station and despite all odds, a train comes along. The train is reduced to unnecessary gimmick.

The real story is heavy and sad and beautifully written. Whitehead’s unsentimental writing style fits perfectly with Cora’s detached and deadened outlook. Abandoned, ostracized and abused, Cora has no reason to look at the bright side of life. She confronts what’s in front of her and absorbs it without flinching.

Forgoing linear timelines, Whitehead imprints historical events, some decades in the future, into Cora’s world. The Tuskegee Syphilis studies and forced sterilizations happen in Pre-Civil War North Carolina. A Rosewood Massacre-esque tragedy happens in a place Cora finds sanctuary. At one point, her life mirrors that of Linda Brent, the protagonist of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

This was a difficult but compelling read that left me drained. Filled with disturbing events and heartbreaking revelations it still ends on as positive a note as a story like this could. Whitehead’s precise insight to and scrutiny of slavery illuminates the absurdity of a world that allowed the institution and all its trappings to exist. It doesn’t wallow in the misery of what has been. It reminds the reader of what has been overcome.

Rose Gold, Walter Mosley, 2014

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“That was the name of my quarry–Rosemary Goldsmith, Rose Gold.” Walter Mosley

Spoiler Alerts

 Disclaimer, Rose Gold is the thirteenth book in the Easy Rawlins Mysteries series, which in hindsight wasn’t a good place to start.  Easy’s relationships with many characters began in earlier books and some of his past experiences from those books affect him in this one. I have no doubt that starting at the end has cost me some understanding and confusion and I’m mindful of that.

I’m fairly new to the Mystery genre, this week’s challenge (2018 Reading Challenge). I’ve started mysteries where the detective/coroner/journalist tries to solve the case while ruthless entities pursue them. I felt obligated to search for clues as if I were required to turn in my hypothesis at the end of the book. It never occurred to me sit back and let the story unfold as with other genres. Enter Easy Rawlins.

Mosley takes us to 1967 Los Angeles. Vietnam rages, police corruption looms, the Civil Rights Movement spotlights racial inequity. But Easy’s just trying to start a new life for himself and his adopted daughter, Feather. Special Assistant Frisk arrives to disrupt his peace. Frisk needs help on a case involving Rosemary Goldsmith, the missing daughter of Foster Goldsmith, a powerful armaments dealer (and political contributor).

Like a lot of young people tired of the corruption and cruelty of the old guard, Rosemary sympathizes with the revolutionary counter culture, moving up the ranks in certain circles.

The real mystery: Is she the perfect hostage commanding a hefty ransom or the brilliant architect of an extortion scheme?

They need Easy, a black man, because Rosemary’s supposed kidnapper is a young black boxer named Bob Mantle who’s reinvented himself as Uhuru Nolice, the leader of the militant group Scorched Earth. The plan is to find Rosemary through Nolice and find Nolice through Easy. And so the adventure begins.

As he tries to sort out the mystery he meets a slew of interesting characters ranging from helpful to dangerous. He always keeps his cool and gets himself in and out of dangerous situations with street smarts and charm.

The fun comes from Mosley’s writing style. While his descriptions are poetic they paint a clear picture of the character:

“Sixty or more, that face had seen a hundred thousand punches coming and avoided maybe two.”

“Somewhere in his thirties, the man had dark eyes that seemed to contain centuries.”

“She lived in a realm where true knowledge passed between those that were a part of history, not subjects to it.”

Descriptive enough to put you in the scene but not burdened with unnecessary detail, I never felt like I was being overloaded with too much information about characters and locations. The number of characters did prove a tad daunting. However, Mosley infuses each with unique qualities that set them apart from each other. Most of the characters only stay long enough to serve their purpose then disappear, so I didn’t have to keep them in my mental inventory.

Rose Gold could be considered historical fiction given Mosely’s skill at weaving the social and political upheaval of the time throughout the story. While some could argue that Los Angeles is a character in this book, I would say that this particular era is a presence that touches every character action and reaction. While some stories have a timeless quality, Rose Gold could only unfold in 1967 Los Angeles.

 

Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane, 1895

redbadge

At times he regarded the wounded soldiers in an envious way…He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage. Stephen Crane

Spoiler Alert

Though it’s been reduced to retail sales, barbecues and the unofficial launch of summer, Memorial Day is supposed to be a way to remember and honor soldiers who’ve died in war. Many books, films and games glorify war by focusing on the victories while ignoring the cost. But there is a cost and since the American Revolution over one million American soldiers have paid with their lives.

I debated reading books like Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse Five, both irreverent looks at the military and war written by veterans. I started each, but the cynicism just didn’t feel like a good fit for the holiday. But I wanted to review a book that portrayed war realistically without trivializing the aftermath. So, I chose The Red Badge of Courage which fulfills the Classic Book challenge (2018 Reading Challenge). It’s a compelling look at war through the eyes of a young soldier learning the difference between what he imagines war to be and what war really is.

The short novel follows young Henry Fleming, a naïve glory-seeking Union soldier eager to prove himself on the battlefield during the Civil War.

When the story begins, Henry and his companions wait for battle.  So far, the glory Henry seeks alludes him since his company has not seen any skirmishes. The quiet before the storm gives Henry’s fear and doubt a chance to thrive as he wonders how he’ll react if the chance to fight finally comes. Will he fight bravely? Will he flee? Will he survive?

When war finally comes to him, he does in fact run. Crane delves into the psychology of the main character and doesn’t hold back from presenting him in a negative and sometimes foolish light. Henry’s guilt and self-loathing come out in obnoxious and sometimes cruel ways. We see the toll Henry’s desertion takes on his character.  When he finds himself alone with ample time to recount his misdeed, he transforms from romantic dreamer to bitter cynic. And once he meets up with actual wounded soldiers paranoia sets in as he fears his shameful secret will be revealed.

While things happen around Henry and impact his choices, the novel is less about the war and more about the mindset of this young man as he witnesses the horrors of war nobody talks about. He eventually redeems himself and not only makes peace with his earlier actions but embraces them for their part in making him the man he eventually becomes. Side note: The edition of the book I read included the sequel “The Veteran” published a year after The Red Badge of Courage. In this micro story (eight pages) an older Henry reflects on the war with his young grandson and in fact readily admits to running.

 

 

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886

dr. jekyll and mr. hyde

“…my evil…was alert and swift to seize the occassion; and the thing that was projected was Edward Hyde.”       Robert Louis Stevenson

 

Spoiler Alert

Even though I have a Capricorn symbol tattooed on my arm, I’m not really into astrology. But I could not resist the perfect tie-in to my next book selection. That’s right. As the sun begins to travel through Gemini, my book of choice…The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It fulfills the Book Written before 1920 Challenge (2018 Reading Challenge).

The Jekyll and Hyde tale is such a familiar part of pop culture I assumed I knew the story. I was wrong. I expected it to be told from the Jekyll/Hyde perspectives, but like most stories of the time, a third-party witness recounts much of the tale.  Only at the end do we get a rather lengthy letter written by the last remnants of Jekyll telling the story from his perspective.

The tragedy begins with Gabriel Utterson, Dr. Jekyll’s friend and lawyer, growing concern for the respectable and reliable Jekyll. First, Jekyll withdraws from social circles then abruptly bequeaths everything to the mysterious and unlikeable Mr. Hyde. From there, Utterson attempts to reconcile the mystery of Jekyll’s strange behavior with the sudden appearance of the wretched stranger who yields undue influence.

Of course, in the end we find out that Hyde is the manifestation of Jekyll’s bad side, allowing him to act on his evil impulses without repercussion. Using a potion, Jekyll summons the feral and barbaric Hyde in measured doses. Unfortunately, Jekyll discovers one of the potion’s ingredients wasn’t pure, and that unknown impurity  gave Jekyll domination over Hyde’s arrival. Without it, Jekyll can’t control when Hyde appears or rein in his actions.

No longer forced to transform back to Jekyll against his will, Hyde goes on an unsupervised spree. Once Hyde commits an unforgiveable crime, Jekyll knows that something drastic must be done to stop his alter-ego.

Stevenson provides a satisfying mystery, though the familiarity of the overall story, if not the details, softened the impact.  Even so, I understand how those reading it when it was first published would find it shocking and disturbing.

Thoughts that linger:

The copy I read, pictured above, came with a glossary defining some of the outdated terms or obscure references as well as interpretive notes that added insight into the Stevenson and his story.