Friday, December 30, 2011

More great stories are waiting to be discovered @ your library?

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

Kirkus Reviews -

Didion (We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction, 2006, etc.) delivers a second masterpiece on grief, considering both her daughter's death and her inevitable own.

In her 2005 book,The Year of Magical Thinking, the much-decorated journalist laid bare her emotions following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. The same year that book was published, she also lost her adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, after a long hospitalization. Like Magical Thinking, this bookis constructed out of close studies of particular memories and bits of medical lingo. Didion tests Quintana's childhood poems and scribblings for hints of her own failings as a mother, and she voices her helplessness at the hands of doctors. "I put the word 'diagnosis' in quotes because I have not yet seen that case in which a 'diagnosis' led to a 'cure,' " she writes. The author also ponders her own mortality, and she does so with heartbreaking specificity. A metal folding chair, as she describes it, is practically weaponized, ready to do her harm should she fall out of it; a fainting spell leaves her bleeding and helpless on the floor of her bedroom. Didion's clipped, recursive sentences initially make the book feel arid and emotionally distant. But she's profoundly aware of tone and style—a digression about novel-writing reveals her deep concern for the music sentences make—and the chapters become increasingly freighted with sorrow without displaying sentimentality. The book feels like an epitaph for both her daughter and herself, as she considers how much aging has demolished her preconceptions about growing old.

A slim, somber classic.

Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller

Kirkus Reviews -

Revisiting her family story first introduced in Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (2001), Fuller (The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, 2008, etc.) employs her mother's exceptional life as a pivot point for chronicling her parent's perseverance overcoming personal tragedies and the political chaos of mid-20th-century Africa.

The golden-hued life of white settlers in Kenya, ensured by the trappings of the British empire, was already a mirage by the mid 1960s when Fuller's parents married. In 1964, the Republic of Kenya was born, ending white rule. For several years, the young couple lived idyllic lives, but the political climate was deteriorating. Like many "jittery settlers" Fuller's grandparents sold their farm and returned to Britain, never to return to Africa. Fuller's mother was devastated, and she and the author's father remained but "receded further and further south as African countries in the north gained their independence." The family resettled into a new home in Rhodesia, but a family tragedy soon found them, precipitating the family's relocation to England, where the author was born. The dreary, rain-soaked island held little appeal for the family; Fuller's mother recalls, "We longed for the warmth and freedom, the real open spaces, the wild animals, the sky at night." After returning to Africa and borrowing money for a farm in Rhodesia, the family found themselves engulfed by civil war. After another devastating family loss catapulted Fuller's mother into a cascade of breakdowns, their luck turned when the Zambian government issued them a 99-year lease on a farm. During a 2010 visit, Fuller's parents were happy and at peace, their farm "a miracle of productivity, order and routine."

Gracefully recounted using family recollections and photos, the author plumbs the narrative with a humane and clear-eyed gaze—a lush story, largely lived within a remarkable place and time.

Damned by Chuck Palahniuk

Publishers Weekly –

Move over, Dante, there's a new tour guide to hell: Madison Spencer, the 13-year-old narrator of Palahniuk's cliché-ridden latest bulletin of phoned-in outrage. After self-asphyxiating, Madison wakes up in hell and quickly finds, as she's put to work prank-calling people at dinnertime, that her new home is not much different from Saturday detention in The Breakfast Club. Embarking on a field trip with some new friends, Madison fights demons, raises an army of the dead, and storms the gates of Satan's citadel. At the same time, she flashes back to her unhappy life as the daughter of a self-absorbed movie star mother and a financial tycoon father who collect Third World orphans. Unfortunately, Palahniuk's hell turns out to be a familiar place, filled with long lines, celebrities, dictators, mass murderers, lawyers, and pop culture references and jokes repeated until they are no longer funny. In the end, the author seems to be saying that the real hell is the banality of our earthly lives, an observation that itself seems a little too banal to power this work of fiction.

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