Sunday, April 15, 2012

Room by Emma Donoghue

     A couple of people in the Valley Book Club suggested this book to me, and its central idea was very intriguing, so I gave it a try.  From the first chapter, I became totally engrossed, fascinated by the little boy who tells the story and by his love of a place he knows only as "Room."
     Jack, the narrator, is a five-year-old boy who lives with his "Ma" in Room. He has never known any other world because he has never left Room - it and his Ma are the whole world. They are the world because Jack and his Ma are prisoners, kept hidden and enslaved by a man they call Old Nick, who abducted Ma when she when was 19.
     You would expect such a story to be almost impossible to read because of its horror and brutality, right? But because of the secure little world that Ma has painstakingly created in Room for Jack, it is just not that kind of story. She makes Room seem normal so that Jack can stay with her and live a life free from the kind of fear and abuse that she herself lives with when Old Nick comes to "visit" her at night. She creates a structured day for him and teaches him what she can, like how to read and count and measure and all the names of things, which become like real, human names to Jack. His lamp is called Lamp and a wall is Wall.  She teaches him about hygiene because if they get sick, they're on their own. But most of all, she teaches him about a love so strong, that even Old Nick cannot touch it.
     Okay, now comes the spoiler alert. If you already love this premise and don't want to know anything else, stop reading here. But eventually, Jack and his mother find a way to escape Room, and the rest of the novel is about surviving Outside. How does a woman who has been a sexual slave and prisoner for seven years go back to life in the world as a daughter, a mother, and a friend? How can she cope with those who have the unmitigated gaul to criticize her parenting skills?  How does a boy who has never seen grass or a tree and thinks that those things only live inside the TV deal with relatives, playgrounds, media attention, and the biggest of horrors - the mall?
     Is this a happy, happy, everyone survives and all is great in the end story? Not really. But amid the horror and struggle is enough humor, strength, and beyond all, love, that it is a story you will not be able to put down or walk away from. Jack and Ma are characters you will remember for a lifetime. And that's a lifetime that from now on, I will be more grateful for.

The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

     Every time I head to the beach (which is never quite often enough), I need an Alice Hoffman book to take me away from it all. Her stories are mesmerizing works of fiction filled with engrossing detail and usually some kind of spiritual element that ties all the threads together. I hadn't read this one yet, and I became totally lost in the intertwining stories.
     The book is like a continuing history and beginning of a small town in Massachusetts, the founder of which is a woman with undeniable spunk who is afraid of nothing but the prospect of not surviving the brutal wilderness she finds herself in. From her and her stock come the citizens of Blackwell, where bears roam freely in the woods and people survive family secrets, doomed loves, war, unjustified rumors, and an enthralling list of other obstacles. These stories weave together into the history of a place that, in the end, seems mystical and somewhat magical, but that could be any small town in America.
     If you have never read a Hoffman novel, you need to give one a try. You'll be transported, if not on a beach day, then any day you choose.

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

     The Postmistress is a story of war: the one at home in America where citizens of quiet, little towns go on with life until the war peeks in. It's also the story of war abroad, where violence and destruction are a daily occurence, one that citizens deal with and learn from or somehow make fit into their lives. It is also an infinitely interesting character study of people who live on both sides of this impossible scenario.
     Iris James is the postmistress in Franklin, Massachusetts, and as such she is practical, orderly, prompt, and a stickler for detail. But when love comes her way from both a personal direction and in the form of a Franklin couple torn apart by war, her unfailing order comes crashing down, and she must decide between right and wrong, love and duty.
     Frankie Bard is a news reporter for Edward R. Murrow in a war-torn London where she must tell the story of the war while dodging not only bombs, but the harsh limits of the media censors. She is terrified both of what is happening to the world and of not telling the story completely. When the paths of Iris and Frankie finally collide, both must make a choice about what is really necessary to stop a world from breaking apart.
     The Postmistess has intrigue, love, war, secrets, and characters that are real enough to make the reader feel they are there with them, struggling to survive. It has beautiful detail and a style of writing that creates an interesting world that is easy to get lost in. In short, it has everything a good novel should have. So, give it a try and let me know what you think of Iris and Frankie's final decision. Did they make the right one?