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review 2018-03-15 16:18
The Dark Side of Innocence by Terri Cheney
The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar - Terri Cheney

This is a compelling memoir by an author who is able to pull readers right inside her head, she writes with such intensity and intimacy. It is about her childhood and teenage years and is ostensibly about growing up with childhood bipolar disorder, though it is just as much about growing up in a very dysfunctional family, to the point that I wondered how much the atmosphere contributed to her mental health issues. The parents are obsessed with keeping up appearances, their relationship is fractured at the best of times, each has a favorite child with whom they sometimes side against the other parent, and the author and her brother don’t seem to have a real relationship with each other at all.

Meanwhile the author has mental health issues from a young age, which she never discusses with anyone. Part of this book I think is a skillful portrayal of how childhood works for everyone – you live in a weird private world that you probably don’t talk about, and you lack the perspective and judgment to know what’s normal. In other ways it’s very specific to her family and the place where she was growing up (suburban southern California in the 1960s and 70s): as an adult she realizes that her youth was littered with warning signs, from frequent, prolonged absences from school to poetry about suicide that she wrote from a young age, which somehow never resulted in an intervention.

I found this to be a really interesting memoir, well-written and a fast, compelling read. The author perhaps sells it short by writing that it’s aimed at parents of bipolar kids; while it may provide insights for those parents, I am not one and still enjoyed it. It’s a good read for anyone who wants to know what life looks like through someone else’s eyes – and isn’t that one of the primary reasons we read?

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review 2018-03-14 19:18
The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang
The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir - Kao Kalia Yang

This is an interesting memoir by a Hmong-American writer, about the experiences of a community that is opaque to many Americans. The Hmong are an ethnic minority who moved from China to Laos centuries ago; the Chinese outlawing their written language is apparently the reason they lack one even today. Many Hmong assisted the Americans in the Vietnam War, in which about a third of their population died; another third was killed in the persecution after the American army’s departure. The author’s parents and extended family, like many others, fled into the jungles of Laos and later to a refugee camp in Thailand, where they lived for several years before relocating to Minnesota.

Though a memoir, this book is more about the author’s family than about Kao Kalia Yang herself. It begins by detailing her family’s travails in Laos and Thailand before her birth in the refugee camp, and the bulk of the book focuses on the camp and the family’s immigration to America when she was seven. It goes on to describe the difficulties of their adjustment, for her (being too shy to speak English in school even once she learned it), but mostly for the family: part of the extended family winds up in another state; money is tight, and her parents are forced to take exhausting night shifts at a factory to support the family, while Yang and her older sister are responsible for caring for their younger siblings and sometimes serving as interpreters for their parents. There is little sense of the author’s life after elementary school, though; while she is a student at Carlton College by the end (and later went on to Columbia University), the later chapters focus exclusively on the last years of her grandmother’s life and the grandmother’s death and elaborate funeral. I would have liked to see more of the author’s life and how she has related to Americans and American culture – her educational choices indicate that she has her own stories to tell – but the focus of the book does make clear how extremely family-oriented both she and her community are.

It is an incredible story, and especially given that the Yangs’ experiences were evidently common among the Hmong after the Vietnam War, it’s an important one to tell for the sake of awareness. The writing is fairly good, though it doesn’t always flow in the clearest way. Here’s a sample:

“My mother and father told us not to look at the Americans. If we saw them, they would see us. For the first year and a half, we wanted to be invisible. Everywhere we went beyond the McDonough Housing Project, we were looked at, and we felt exposed. We were dealing with a widespread realization that all Hmong people must do one of two things to survive in America: grow up or grow old. In the case of the noticeably young, the decision was made for us. For those who were older, the case was also easy to figure. Those marred by the war, impaired by the years of fighting, social security and disability were options. [sic] For my mother and father, already adults who had waited on life long before it was their time, the government stepped in and told them: the welfare clock was ticking. She was twenty-five. He was twenty-eight. They knew they wanted a chance to work, but they did not know how to keep that chance safe, so on the streets, before the slanted brows of mostly white men, they held us close for security.”

The gist of the passage makes sense: the family feels insecure, they don’t want to attract attention, and the parents are under pressure to find work. But the notion that there is pressure on “all Hmong people” to “grow up or grow old,” and how this is meant to apply to the author’s parents, is unclear to me even after taking the time to re-read it carefully. And perhaps because of the author’s cultural and linguistic background, she has a distinct way of expressing ideas that may not make a lot of sense to American readers if read quickly or with less than full attention.

Overall then, I found this memoir worthwhile, mostly for the opportunity to learn more about a community that was unfamiliar to me. However, it’s not the first one I would recommend for literary reading.

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review 2018-03-13 21:12
Falling from Horses by Molly Gloss
Falling from Horses: A Novel - Molly Gloss

Molly Gloss is an excellent writer, but this isn’t my favorite of her books. I loved Wild Life, and The Hearts of Horses is a lovely examination of a rural community. This one is a sequel of sorts to The Hearts of Horses, featuring Martha’s son Bud, who at age 19 takes off for Hollywood to become a stunt rider. Much of the book is about the difference between the real American West and the West as portrayed in cowboy movies, and about the dirty underbelly of Hollywood at the time: the frequent injuries and deaths of men and horses in stunts, the sexual harassment, the various tricks used to make everything in movies look more exciting than it really is.

And I think the best of this book is in its themes, in its examination of Hollywood and its contrast between the myth of a West full of heroes, villains and derring-do and the real world in which a hardscrabble ranching family does unromantic work and loses a child in a meaningless accident. It’s a very well-written book, and there’s a resonance to Gloss’s writing that more literary-oriented readers will enjoy. But I found the plot of this one a little lacking. It has a very long, slow start – half the book passes in Bud’s bus trip to Hollywood, initial attempts to find work and first job working for a stable that rents horses for the tamer scenes – which doesn’t leave much time for the meat of the story. Bud also interested me less than Gloss’s heroines; his friend Lily, a budding screenwriter whom he meets on the bus to Hollywood, is a more interesting and colorful character, but she isn’t the narrator and so we see less of her.

Overall, then, this book has a lot going for it, but my expectations for this author are very high. I liked it, but for most readers I’d recommend Wild Life or The Hearts of Horses first.

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review 2018-03-02 22:07
Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars' Club by Christopher Teuton
Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars Club: Dakasi Elohi Anigagoga Junilawisdii (Turtle, Earth, the Liars, Meeting Place) - Christopher B Teuton,America Meredith

It’s hard for me to rate a book of folklore. Its primary purpose is to preserve stories and information about a culture, rather than to entertain, and perhaps the most important target audience here is people of Cherokee heritage who may not have much connection to traditional culture. Not being one of those people, I can’t claim that my review will reflect others’ experiences with the book.

The author, Christopher Teuton, is a professor of Cherokee descent who spends time on tribal lands in Oklahoma with four older men who jokingly call themselves the “Turtle Island Liars’ Club.” The four are involved in various ways in the preservation of traditional culture, and are all storytellers. The book is built of many short sections, interspersing stories which range from less than a page to a few pages in length with sections in which the group hangs out and discusses various aspects of Cherokee culture. The stories range from legends to accounts from the lives of the storytellers and their families, and while some read like traditional tales, others clearly have had modern updating: animals encounter steel traps or become roadkill, for instance. But there’s no pretense at telling an authoritative version of any of the tales; in discussing their art, the storytellers make clear that the stories are alive and changing, that different people tell different versions and they even tell different versions themselves to different audiences. And in fact I have encountered different versions of a couple of these stories elsewhere.

I found the stories to be interesting and enjoyable, but Teuton made an excellent decision in choosing to include more than that; the short topical sections in between provide grounding and context, and I generally found the factual information interesting. Most books of folklore seem to be compilations of stories without telling readers anything about the storytellers, their lives, or their wider culture, beyond what one might glean from the tales they tell. This one provides a much fuller picture of Cherokee life, at least as seen through the eyes of these four men.

The fact that a fairly small number of voices – of men from roughly the same generation with similar life experiences – make up the book is a drawback. Another, at least in my eyes, is the way the author renders speech: at times it is almost like reading a transcript, with the “ums,” the people interjecting with “yeah” or “mmhm,” the sentences that trail off without communicating anything. Journalists clean up speech to make it more concise and avoid making their subjects look dumb, and Teuton doesn’t explain why he chose not to, though he does discuss other decisions about how to shape the book. Fortunately though, he’s talking to people who are used to public speaking, and the storytellers’ voices along with the brevity of the sections mitigate the dryness of the author’s writing, which is quite evident in his introduction.

Overall, I found this book engaging, and readers with a particular interest in Cherokee culture or folklore will likely enjoy it. A general audience may become more impatient, though there is certainly wisdom about life in the book that applies regardless of culture. Also, four of the stories are transcribed in both Cherokee and English, which is fun.

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review 2018-03-01 22:08
The Wind in His Heart by Charles de Lint
The Wind in His Heart - Charles de Lint

It’s interesting how authors who start their careers writing atmospheric, mystical books about the intersection between magic and reality seem to become increasingly paint-by-numbers as their careers progress. Juliet Marillier followed this pattern, going from my favorite author with her original Sevenwaters trilogy, to churning out trite and recycled stories fifteen years later. Of De Lint’s work, I’ve read only his first book, Dreams Underfoot – a short story collection I enjoyed – and this, his most recent. This one is kind of fun as an escapist, plot-driven novel, but the characters and setup are unconvincing, and the emotions it elicited in me ranged from mildly entertained to moderately bored.

This story is set in Arizona, on and around the reservation of a fictional Native American tribe which lives alongside an ancient tribe of shapeshifters. Steve, a retired rock star living in the desert nearby, finds a teenager, Sadie, abandoned in the desert, and brings her to the reservation to seek help, but Sadie is a traumatized and troubled kid who sows chaos in her wake. Meanwhile, when a customer at a local hunting lodge inadvertently kills a shapeshifter, the traditional and entrepreneurial factions on the reservation are thrown into conflict. Besides Steve and Sadie, the other major point-of-view characters are Thomas, a local boy who wants to see the world but is under pressure to become a shaman, and Leah, a music blogger who comes looking for Steve after Sadie tips her off to his location.

It is a fast-paced book, in the sense that there are many relatively short chapters with lots of dialogue and that the action moves quickly, with chapters often ending on cliffhangers. Unfortunately, the characters are simplistic and unconvincing from the get-go, all too ready to share their deeply-held secrets or revise their outlooks on life at the drop of a hat, and bizarrely uninformed about their own close-knit community. Somehow Thomas doesn’t know that his boss spent several years living elsewhere (though there’s no indication this is a secret) or that his sister also sees into the otherworld (which for a supposedly deeply held secret on both of their parts, comes out awfully easily in casual conversation as soon as the book begins). Steve is even worse, being somehow unaware that anything unusual is happening even though he’s lived there for 40 years – in a trailer that is invisible to outside eyes, and with a girlfriend who, in an attempt to hint that she might not be entirely human that somehow went right over Steve’s head, has antlers and sometimes (but not always) a tail.

Steve’s bizarre ignorance is representative of the world of the book generally. The accidental killing of the shapeshifter happens because the entrepreneurial Sammy, a tribal member who grew up on the reservation and owns the hunting lodge, also somehow doesn’t believe in the shapeshifters. It’s unclear how this can be when they are more than willing to reveal themselves to him and beat him up, and for that matter when others on the reservation are perfectly willing to tell strangers who showed up on their doorstep five minutes ago all about their not-quite-human neighbors. In TV Tropes terms, the world is presented as if shapeshifters conceal themselves through a Masquerade, but in what we see throughout the book there is zero actual attempt at concealment and plenty of volunteering information.

Meanwhile, none of the POVs are really the central characters in this story or the ones driving it forward, unless you count Sadie’s acting out. The story is actually about the tribe and the shapeshifters, but three of the four POVs are white people from elsewhere, and they feel a little shoehorned in. Even Thomas, who is a tribe member, is an almost entirely reactive character, never driving the action. Steve is appointed “the arbitrator” of the shapeshifter community, which does not feel particularly earned and edges close to white savior territory in a book that otherwise manages to avoid the worst racial tropes. Leah has little reason to be in the book at all, other than to provide a connection to Newford, the fictional city where much of De Lint’s work is set. She arrives obsessed with Steve’s band because she wants to know why their music didn’t save her best friend, also a fan, from suicide, at which I can only wonder why she would have expected some band’s music to save someone from crippling anxiety and a negative self-image. Then she easily replaces this preoccupation with blogging about the plight of migrants crossing the border, which is even weirder since she never meets a migrant, just some old guy who tells her this is a worthy cause.

At any rate, this made for good cotton candy reading, exemplifying my favorite quote about how readers sometimes get sucked in, even when we know better: “That’s the problem with fiction — or the charm, if you want. Even mediocre plots have a way of sinking their hooks into you, until you find yourself concerned for the fates of characters who aren’t even fully convincing.” Put another way, there’s plenty of craft here – cliffhangers and tense situations to keep the reader going – but precious little magic. It could make a fun beach read, but don’t expect more.

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