Saturday, May 31, 2008

Don't You Marry The Mormon Boys

The book jacket's summary of Janet Jensen's debut novel, Don't You Marry The Mormon Boys, describes a story about two people from different backgrounds and belief systems (Andy is mainstream LDS and Louisa was raised in a polygamous fundamentalist community) who fall in love at medical school but face overwhelming obstacles in an effort to be together.

That was the story I was expecting and found myself disappointed with the story I was actually given. Andy and Louisa do, in fact, face these obstacles, but it is never the focus of the story. In fact, were it not for a few flashbacks to medical school, there is no mention of these two main characters together in the same chapter, much less the same plot for the first 200 pages. Andy does his rural, family practice medical thing in Kentucky, which seems a completely unnecessary setting to me (unless the far fetched and wholly irrelevant ending was somehow important to the story of Andy and Louisa's journey....which it is not), and Louisa returns to her polygamous community to realize that her eyes have been changed to the situation around her after eight years of living away from it.

Sure there are a few wistful thoughts, memories and even dreams about the other, but the reason for their attraction, or friendship, is never explained. Andy thought she was beautiful, in spite of her plain, long ankle length dress, and crowning glory long hair, but apparently pursued a relationship with her because she was so smart and he wanted to study with her. (????) The reader is never given any information about Louisa's feelings towards Andy. There is simply an assumption that because she spent time with him, she fell in love with him. The hows and the whys are not worth mentioning, I suppose. Without that development of their relationship for the readers to hold onto, I didn't yearn for these two to be together. As their individual stories don't actually intersect until page 197, a little yearning would have been nice. But, that doesn't seem to be the point of the book.

The thing I liked most about this novel was Jensen's humanistic portrayal of polygamous families. It's always troubled me that the media, pop culture and even the mainstream LDS church portray them as crazy, mindless followers without any thought or choice about their lifestyle. Jensen shows a side of their families and individuals who honestly believe what they practice, and that they do it for the same reason a lot of us do whatever it is we do - because we think it's what God has commanded us to do. I also appreciated the look inside their culture...from the need to protect themselves from outsiders to the organizations of their households. Considering the current events going on in Texas, it adds a deeper understanding to the story. But, that doesn't seem to be the point of the book either.

It isn't all sunshine, however, and as Louisa's eyes are opened to the real problems of their community (abuse, incest, birth defects, depression) she becomes a target of opposition to the community - particularly to the Council of Brethren, who seem like old, scary, mean men without a compassionate bone in their bodies. Again, this black and white portrayal of the community's leadership seems too clean and villainous to be true. Surely, there are some members who are able to be something other than completely dogmatic. It doesn't matter, though, because, once again, this conflict with Louisa does not seem to be the point of the book.

In the end, I'm not sure what the point is, or was supposed to be. Andy and Louisa seem more like conduits for the author to expound on the quirks and habits of rural Kentucky and polygamy than actual characters. The part of the story where they are actually together and communicating and conflicting only warrants 40 or so pages. Then the story jumps tracks and heads off in an entirely new direction - one I won't mention because it will seem like I am reviewing another book. I felt like it was a different book.

I guess I feel mostly disappointed because I didn't get the story I was promised. I didn't get Andy and Louisa's story. Not really.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Hope Was Here

I feel like the big grown up bully attacking the cute, freckled face kid on the playground with this review. However, as a Newberry Medal Honor Book, the playground kind of turns more into a raquetball court and the kid has to be good to play in it. Consider me goggled, racquet in hand, and donning my wrist sweat bands for serious play.

I really don't understand how this is a Newberry Medal Honor Book. The characters were flat and one-dimensional, the plot predictable and the message was dangerously simplified. I'm left to guess what age group Bauer wrote this for. The abandonment issues the protagonist, Hope, experiences are too mature for young elementary age and older, middle school and high school aged adolescents certainly can grasp the concept of a flawed character or even impure motives. She most certainly didn't write it for a 32 year-old moderate who found the obvious bias of kind-hearted liberal vs. heartless, evil conservative over-the-top and unhelpful for any honest discussion about politics.

I didn't hate it. How can you hate G.T. and his good-guy-leukemia-fighter-town-fixer-upper-cook self? I couldn't. I couldn't even hate Hope, and her far-older-than-actual-sixteen-year-old-mentality even though I never understood her, or her motivation to become so politically involved (because the author never let us know that. She just wrote Hope that way).

I'll take off my goggles now and lob poor freckled face a few serves. It was a nice story. The boy got the girl. The good guy wins. The food was good and hot. The end.

God Wants A Powerful People

I've always considered myself a Sheri Dew fan. Loved her biography of President Gordan B. Hinckley. Her book, No Doubt About It, is truly one of my favorites. I love her strength. I love her leadership. I love her honesty.

However, I did not love this book. It seems beyond sacrilege to not love a church book, especially one with such a message, although I do admit to loving many parts of it. Her masterful references to scriptures, appropriate analogies to really drive a point home and self-deprication are spot on, as usual.

But, there is a judgmental tone throughout the book that left a slight unpleasant feeling afterwards. For instance, there is a part of the book where she is talking about our power and being powerful (I know...shocker) and mentions a young adult (or young woman. I can't quite remember) coming up to her after her talk to thank her for her message and how touched and motivated she was. All Sheri Dew seemed to notice was how the girl was dressed. Apparently, her dress standards weren't as stringent as a 50 year old woman and I felt sad that she pointed it out in her book. It made her story...less. Yes, bring up modesty and all of its power, but don't do it that way. Judging someone without their knowledge is never fair. I just didn't like it.

There are a few more instances, one involving overhearing other women at her workplace (which, I assume, is Deseret Book) discussing an Oprah show and her interrupting the conversation by quizzing them on how it compared to a certain General Authority's talk on the subject matter. Of course, they didn't know, or couldn't remember and she admits feeling disgusted and disappointed with these women for not knowing. Perhaps it's the knowledge that I also could never live up to her personal standards that has me feeling judged and combative, but there is a slight tinge of rancor throughout the entire book. It isn't solely uplifting, or encouraging. At least, not without pulling some others down along the way.

Lastly, she refers many times to some extremely difficult circumstances in her personal life. It's always vague and always...unhelpful. I feel like, if you're going to use something as an example, explain it. Don't dance around it. And if you don't want to share, don't. Only sort of, kind of, hinting of your problems isn't really sharing them.

Obviously, there is much good stuff. I probably should have focused on that in my review, but sadly, the power of the book was weakened considerably by my inability to get past the negative and her inability to solely focus on the positive

Friday, May 9, 2008

Here Be Dragons

I love to read other people's favorite books. Amy M. recommended this to me, although I don't think she described it as her favorite. Just a book she had read a long time ago that she remembered loving. Having never even heard of it before, I pulled out my super reading powers and gave it a whirl.

First, this is NOT an easy read. The edition I checked out contained more than 700 thin pages of small print. Second, it's historical fiction about a time in history I had no prior knowledge of - 13th century England and Wales. Lastly, there are many, many characters to keep track of, most with unusual names and many being interrelated.

All these difficulties aside, I really enjoyed this story. At its heart is the love story between Llewelyn, Prince of North Wales who later became known as Llewelyn the Great of Wales, and his bride, Joanna, the illegitimate daughter of England's King John. Its development and conflict anchors a story that is forced to span war after war after battle after skirmish after war. Really, these ancient leaders never stopped fighting.

The title, Here Be Dragons, describes a map making technique used long ago. When map makers had limited or no knowledge of certain areas, they wrote, "Here be dragons" on the area with drawings of the mythical creatures to describe this unknown danger.

Both the Welsh people and the Norman-french, who currently held the English crown (really, it's all very interesting) were suspicious of the other and held strong prejudices against any of its citizens. The marriage, which could have and should have brought about peace between the two nations, only put Joanna, who loved both her Norman-French/English father and eventually her charismatic Welsh husband, in the middle.

After I finished reading, I spent a good deal of time researching the accuracy of the facts presented in the book. Many, if not most, are true. Obviously, the fiction comes from the interplay between characters and description of feelings, which can't ever be wholly known, but I think the author did a great job of infusing historical figures with life. The struggles over choosing heirs and the family feuds that any transfer of power creates, were believable and likely.

Most importantly, when applying this history lesson to our current times, I realized human nature doesn't change much...even eight-hundred years later. The names of the countries may have changed but we still believe there are dragons over in the unknown. We still use power and ignorance to fuel our wars and pride and wounded egos to justify them.

Will the human race ever grow up? Time with continue to tell. In the meantime, I'm happy I read this smart, complex and excellent book.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Kommandant's Girl

I mentioned when I wrote my review on The Book Thief, how dismayed I felt when realizing the story was set in WWII Germany. The market for fictional stories of the war, especially the persecution and massacre of the Jews, seems to have been saturated.

The Book Thief surprised me with its fresh and irreverent approach to story telling. The Kommandant's Girl, on the other hand, stuck to the game plan and told a very conservative and unimaginative story.

To be fair, the book is set in Poland, not Germany, and the story is based on a real life story the author discovered while doing her research in Poland.

Emma Bau, a newlywed whose husband has escaped to help the resistance movement, finds herself in the Jewish Ghetto living with her parents. During one night, she is awoken and smuggled out of the ghetto and set up to live as Anna Lipowski with her husband's non-Jewish aunt. At a dinner party one evening, Emma/Anna meets Kommandant Georg Richwalder, a high ranking Nazi party member, and his attraction to her leads to his hiring her to be his assistant. As his assistant, she is expected to and in fact, wants to, help the resistance by acting as a spy whenever she can. To Jenoff's credit, she attempts to give her characters depth by allowing Emma/Anna to become attracted and attached to the Kommandant, understandable considering the short length of her relationship with her husband, and considering the kind of man Kommandant Richwalder appeared to be: fair, hard working and heartbroken from his wife's earlier suicide. As their relationship progresses, she is ultimately asked to betray her marriage vows and use her relationship with the Kommandant to gain urgent information for the resistance.

The story is interesting and even well told (except for the end when the author tried to tie up too many loose strings for plot purposes), but that interesting and well told story has already been done. Many times. Unfortunately for Jenoff, whether this particular story is true or not doesn't make its telling any more consequential. In spite of its familiarity, I'd recommend Pam Jenoff's account to anyone who hasn't reached their own threshold of World War II Jewish fiction.