Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Watching the Tree Limbs by Mary DeMuth

I stumbled upon Watching the Tree Limbs by Mary DeMuth in an attempt to find a good "Christian" novel that was also literary. This book popped up on Google so I bought it. This was a few years ago when I was really desperate to find a book that came from a Christian worldview that was also written well and not shoving beliefs down the readers throat. It took me a long time to pick it up but I finally got to reading it.
When I first started reading this book, I really didn't like it. For some reason that I couldn't quite comprehend, I wanted to stop reading the book altogether. Part of me wondered if it was the graphic nature of the story but I'm not usually bothered by that sort of thing. The main character, Mara, is raped not even ten pages into the novel. DeMuth goes into great detail and I did feel a bit turned off but that didn't explain why I wanted to stop reading when all of it was said and done. I have since realized as I read on that it was the writing style that was a turn off. DeMuth is in no way a bad writer but her style made me feel nostalgia toward another writer and that writer was...well, my 17 year old self. Halfway through the book I was suddenly reminded of my writing style in high school since I wrote almost every day in study hall. If I had read this book back then, I bet I would have considered it a favorite. Now I'm not one to say you can't read a book that is below your age level...I'm actually very much against people accusing children's literature as being simple. However, I was a bit turned off by this realization.
As I said above, the book begins with our nine year old protagonist Mara being raped by a high school student, with a John Deer hat, nicknamed General. The book revolves around Mara's psychology after this incident as well as Mara's family history that she knows nothing about.
This book was a quicker read than expected. I became very engrossed in Mara's family mystery and desperately awaited the reveal to the community that General had been rapping Mara. The build up was excellent. The book surprisingly moved at a fast paced mixed with the slow nature of the story. I also had a bit of fun toward the end of the book when I began to guess outcomes and tried to figure out the ending based on clues given by characters and literary techniques that the author set up.
However, despite my enjoyment there was a huge low to this novel. While the book does an excellent job at keeping the reader invested and DeMuth perfectly illustrates Mara's psychology, the ending was a huge disaster. I don't mean it was a disaster in terms of the outcome; I mean disaster in terms of the ending execution. The entire novel drags the reader along wondering who Mara's family is and when will General's true identity be exposed. 320 pages out of the 346 sets this up! And all we get are simple info dumps and cliche moments. This technique isn't always bad. Harry Potter books often have info dumps at the end. But the big difference between this book and the Harry Potter books is that Harry Potter is fast paced and has tons and tons of explanations to give that the info dumps, while a tad bit on the easy side by the author, work. The ending of Watching the Tree Limbs was way too fast compared to what was set up. I would have liked to see Mara find out about her past in intervals over time, not in super small bits that don't make sense and then one huge info dump. Another problem I found was that DeMuth spent more time on a passage about Mara accepting Jesus (a passage I didn't quite understand) than on the real issues she set up to be resolved. In fact, this type of scene is what I was avoiding. It took the book from interesting mystery to cliche Christian stereotype. Mara's struggles throughout the novel were General, her past, and struggling with her own goodness. Yes Mara struggled with her faith but this book treated it as once Mara accepted Jesus, everything suddenly worked out and that is a very wrong and damaging tween idea of God. Finding faith doesn't mean our problems disappear. The climax became Mara accepting Christ instead of focusing on what the book had set up so nicely. In my opinion, many "Christian" books fall for this trap and this is why so many aren't considered literary. They are essentially Christian propaganda. 
Another big disappointment was Mr. Winningham. He has no character development what-so-ever yet DeMuth makes him a big part of the story. The book asks us to sympathize with him and while his back story helped with that, his character didn't give me any signs that I would like him. He never grew from this experience that he was going through. He should have been given more of a part to play in the present than simply playing a huge role in the past. 
Overall, this book was enjoyable. It wasn't exactly a stellar read but it was a good read. I would recommend it purely on the basis that Mara's character development is fantastically done. My rating is 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

I read Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and studied it in college. Recently I have come in contact with several passages from the book and have fallen in love with the beautiful language and writing style. It occured to me that I should read another of Robinson's books to relive her excellence. Housekeeping certainly lived up to my high expectations.
The book is narrated by Ruthie, a quiet and contently lonely person. She is raised alongside her sister Lucille by a succession of relatives in Fingerbone, Idaho. Their house sits by a large glacial lake and above the lake are train tracks, the same tracks where their grandfather died in a train wreck. After their mother commits suicide by driving off into the same lake, their grandmother takes care of them. After her death they are raised by their two Aunts before Aunt Sylvie arrives and becomes their final guardian.
The title of this book is simply beautiful. When the book was first published it was said to be a feminist novel but I never got this impression at all. Part of me feels like when there is a story that consists entirely of female characters, it is automatically dubbed to be a feminist work. Not true. Obviously, housekeeping is a very traditional act that women, in the early 1900's and for as long as history can recall, have been taking part in. It is the act of making ones living space presentable and homely. In the case of this book, the title also talks about housekeeping on a deeper level, of rebuilding ones soul and keeping up a spiritual home for ones soul.
The theme of loneliness was also a wonderful aspect of this novel. Ruth is constantly lonely and her experiences and descriptions completely personify what it means to be lonely and why some people suffer from it.
Robinson has a beautiful way of tying literature with theology. What was by far my biggest take away from this book was Robinson's uncanny way of looking at the Bible as a story instead of merely a book of rules to follow. She refers to several areas of the Bible externally and also internally, specifically Ruth's name and her ties to the book of Ruth. The quality of her words is like eating the most gourmet, delicious food. She never ceases to satisfy.
To finalize this review I also want to touch on the ambiguity of the ending. This trope is one that I never grow tired of because it's interactive nature literally invites the reader to finish the story. It is truly beautiful.
Obviously I love this book. It was a quick and immensely enjoyable read. I will give it 5 out of 5 stars. Robinson is quickly becoming my favorite author!

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen

I didn’t know much about Jesse James. When I heard his name, I would think of the wild west and bank robberies and Billy the Kid. That was the extent of my knowledge before reading this book. I am not a historical reader. Don’t get me wrong, I love history. But I think history is more interesting for me when it is visual. I realize this trait is feeble. I went into this book hoping for the best but expecting something that would bore me to death. Essentially my expectations were correct…and at the same time, I came to realize that this book is not getting the credit it deserves.
What do I mean by that? To put it simply, this novel in its brilliance was boring. When I first began reading I found the characters and situations to be fascinating. Ron Hansen is a brilliant writer. His characterizations and descriptions resemble that of classic novelists such as John Steinbeck. In fact I was reminded of Steinbeck while reading and upon looking over the rave reviews for this book in the inside cover I saw that someone else made the same connection. Because of this comparison and Hansen’s brilliant writing, I find it odd that this book isn’t required reading in classrooms.  I think that if I had to read this book again then I would only do it if I was taking a class on it. Taking a class would help me understand the story more. I think this was one of the issues with the text while I was reading. I don’t want to say issue holds the book back but it will hold back certain readers, me being one of them. At its heart, this book is about Jesse James and his gang and gang stories are always formatted a certain way that confuses the heck out of me. For example, I recently watched a movie called American Hustle and I could not grasp the plot for the life of me. Yeah, I’m that bad. It was about a con-man and also mixed the mafia into the picture with confusing deals which kept me from enjoying the film and therefore understanding the film. Obviously this is a fault of my own intellect but I have a hard time enjoying a story when I can’t comprehend half of it. This was a major downfall for me as a reader.
The writing, as I said, was incredible. Hansen is slowly but surely becoming one of my favorite writers as I really enjoyed his other novel, Mariette in Ecstasy. While the story went over my head, the writing did not. If my rating was based on the writing alone, this would be a five star review. The psychological study on the relationship between Jesse James and Bob Ford is also enough to give this book five stars. The book’s title is really not the focus of the novel but the climax. A big theme the book tackles is fame in America and the obsessive nature in which people treat the rich and famous. This theme came across the most in the final part of the novel after Jesse’s death.
Overall, this book clashed for me between the excellent themes and writing style versus my lack of understanding con-men stories. I still feel really silly saying that. Toward the end of the novel I was so ready to be done and move on and I just felt bitter about the experience. So I will give this book 3 out of 5 stars.