Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue (2006)

The lovely Corie often loans me books I'm not familiar with by authors I've never heard of and every time they end up being really really good. This is the perfect book borrowing set-up, and The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue (2006) is no exception.

One day, seven-year-old Henry Day runs away from his home on the edge of the woods and hides in the hollow trunk of an old tree. Late that night he is found by a search party and brought home to his grateful parents, but after that day he is never the same again. That is because Henry Day isn't Henry Day anymore -- he has been replaced by a changeling.

The changeling who is now Henry Day was stolen from his German immigrant parents over a hundred years ago. Since then he had been living in the woods with a band of other stolen children -- stealing food and causing mischief in the town, sleeping in burrows and eating berries and roots in the forest, nearly hibernating in the winter, not aging a day on the outside, and waiting his turn to become the senior changeling and the next one to return to the world of humans. The real Henry Day, named Aniday by the changelings, now joins the band of children in the woods and begins forgetting his family and transforming into a fairy child.

The book alternates chapters between the new Henry Day and Aniday as both boy-men grow into their new lives. Each of them is obsessed with their real past: Henry dreams in snatches of German and has an instant musical virtuosity, especially on the piano (a talent the real Henry Day didn't possess). Aniday remembers glimpses of his mother and twin sisters, and one day, years after he was stolen, he accidentally wanders too close to a house at the edge of the woods at dawn, and comes face to face with his unremembered father. Neither of them are ever quite the same after that. Both Henry and Aniday fall in love and embrace their new lives, but neither can stop yearning for the unremembered past.

I wasn't sure about this book at first, since I'm not much of a fantasy fan (fairies? hobgoblins? No thank you.), but Donohue weaves the myth of the changeling into a strong modern-day novel about identity, family, and trust. His descriptions of the day-to-day lives and traditions of the changelings (both in the tribe and after returning to the human world) are imaginative and engrossing, and his characters are complex and nicely written. An excellent book all around -- thanks Corie!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Family Resemblances by Lowry Pei (1986)

I'm not sure where or why I picked up this used copy of Family Resemblances by Lowry Pei (1986), but I found it in a big box of books at my parent's house when I was home last Christmas and I decided it was about time to read it.

This is a coming-of-age novel written from the perspective of Karen Moss, a fifteen year old girl from Chicago who spends a summer with her aunt Augusta in small-town Missouri. Augusta is beautiful and proud, 35, unmarried, and a teacher who has summers off and lots of time to spend with her niece. Her straightforwardness and her laid back attitude contrast greatly with her sister, Karen's mom, and Karen finds the atmosphere at her aunt's house to be both frightening and liberating. Augusta lets Karen drink wine with dinner and talks to her like she was a grown up -- confessing past loves, sexual exploits, and current romantic entanglements. And then Karen starts up some romantic entanglements of her own with George, a 17 year old in town to visit his grandparents that she meets at the pool. Although they often disagree and sometimes fight, the two women grow closer and closer over the long summer, but like all summers, it eventually comes to an end.

Pei nicely captures the stillness and anguish of that last summer before you get a car and a job, and the tension and exhilaration of a first real romance. The book has a subtle style to it that tricks you into thinking that nothing much is happening right before the emotions and personalities of the characters crash or connect. Occasionally the voice of Karen or Augusta hits a wrong note, but overall Pei gives us two well-written characters and an ambiguous but satisfying ending.

Finally, I'd like to point out that there is lots of nice information about Lowry Pei on his web site, including downloadable PDF files of several of his short stories and this entire novel. I really applaud when authors make their work so easily and freely accessible. Way to go, Mr. Pei!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (1989)

After talking about Freaks: Alive, on the Inside! with some of my friends, the lovely Joolie suggested that I read Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (1989). And she even had a copy to loan to me, so how could I resist?

Geek Love is the story of the Binewski family's traveling carnival. When Al Binewski inherits the carnival from his father, he notices that the troupe is becoming less and less popular. In an effort to drum up some business, he and his wife Crystal Lil decide to breed their own freak show by dosing the pregnant Lil up with drugs, radiation, and anything else they can think of. Their first experiment yields Art the Aqua Boy, born with no arms and legs, just little flippers coming out of his torso. The next successful experiment gives us Ely and Iphy, the Siamese twins. Third out of the hatch is our narrator, Oly, an albino hunchback dwarf (who was always pitied by the rest of the family since she really wasn't that unique), and finally Chick, the youngest son who looked perfectly normal but had a hidden psychic talent.

The book is split between present-day Portland where Oly works in the radio industry and her past youth and young adulthood working with her family in the carnival. In Portland Oly owns a run down apartment building and has her drug-addled and senile mother, Lil, installed in the first floor as the building manager, and her daughter, Miranda in an upstairs apartment. The thing is, Lil is too out of it to know who Oly is, and Miranda was given up for adoption when she was one year old and doesn't know anything about her family. Oly acts as a secret guardian of the stories of her family's past and the trajectory of her daughter's future (and the future of the subdued freakishness that connects the otherwise normal-looking Miranda to her family).

As she prepares for the climax that will set Miranda on the right path, Oly goes through the papers and artifacts from her past and writes out the history of the Binewski family for her daughter. In addition to regular family dramas and coming-of-age heartaches, the Binewski's have to deal with a son whose sideshow act turns into a amputational cult, pregnant Siamese twins, a child whose freak-gift removes all boundaries of physics, an emasculated father, and a mother with a very tenuous grasp on reality. Whew. No wonder things don't work out very well...

I liked this book a lot -- particularly the present-day parts. The carnival family was great, but the whole thing lost a little momentum about three quarters of the way through. And even though his gift is pretty important to the plot, I spent a lot of time wishing that Chick had a more realistic freakishness to him, and not a deus ex machina talent that quickly moved the plot from the weirdly possible to the unbelievable.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Apparition & Late Fictions: A Novella and Stories by Thomas Lynch (2010)

I got a copy of Apparition & Late Fictions (2010), the debut fiction collection of essayist and poet Thomas Lynch, through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. After I started reading it, I realized that I had actually read one of the stories ("Hunter's Moon") when it appeared in Granta a few years ago, and really liked it at the time.

In addition to being a published author, Lynch has run the funeral home that he inherited from his father since the mid-1970s. [And he wrote a collection of essays about the business, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade that was nominated for a National Book Award in the 1990s, and which I'd really like to read.] The theme of death and loss runs through all the short stories and the novella in this collection -- sometimes overtly (a young funeral home director who tends to a widow's dead husband and later her dead daughter; a coffin salesman who is mourning the death of his third wife and the long-ago loss of his daughter; a young man who takes his father fishing for the last time), and sometimes more subtly (a wealthy and respected professor, the widow of a famous poet, who isolates herself at a Michigan resort and becomes obsessed with a beautiful young Jamaican waitress; a former Methodist minister who finds success on the lecture circuit after writing a self-help book about prospering after a divorce, but who can't resist touring himself around the resort island where his ex-wife had her first affair).

All the stories are written with a light touch, and Lynch gives us a fleshed out and lived-with description of the landscape and characters of the Upper Midwest. I really enjoyed this solid collection of fiction, and I look forward to reading Lynch in some of his other genres.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Chain Letter by Christopher Pike (1986)

So, we can all agree that Christopher Pike is kind of a goofy writer. His brand of young adult fiction, while extremely appealing to the pre-driving set, is often melodramatic, stilted, and involves inconsistent characters, plots that don't make sense, and oddly detailed descriptions of the characters' hair. Chain Letter (1986) is no different, but maybe because it was one of the first Christoper Pike books I read in my youth, I feel it has a certain charm and consistency lacking in some of his later books.

In Chain Letter seven high school friends are piled into a car heading home after a rocking Beach Boys concert. [Note: I have been assured that in the early 80s, the pre-Kokomo Beach Boys would not have been a very cool band for a bunch of teenagers, including the "punk rock"/sex-crazed girl, to want to go see, but that is part of the charm of Christopher Pike]. They have all been drinking a little (you know how crazy those Beach Boys concerts get), and they get lost somewhere out in the country. Tony, the driver, loses control of the car and they go off the side of the road and into the brush. Oddly they hit a man with their car, even though they are in the middle of nowhere, and they find him dead by the side of the road. Freaking out, they hastily bury him in a shallow grave and vow never to tell anyone about it.

And then, one year later, they get the chain letter from "The Caretaker." Someone knows what they did and wants them to pay for it. One by one they receive tasks from The Caretaker, coded in the personal ads of the local newspaper. The tasks move from embarrassing to illegal, but if they refuse to do them, they are threatened with punishment. And then members of the group begin disappearing. Then dying.

The ending is a little goofy, and it doesn't make any sense at all that the grown-ups and parents would react to everything the way that they do, but there is a very nice climatic chase/attack scene and some good twists along the way. If you are feeling the need to re-visit some Christopher Pike, you won't be disappointed by Chain Letter.

And because I know you want it, here is a little hair-description for you:
Her clear-skinned oval face and wide generous mouth gave her the foundation for an above-average appearance. Plus her light brown hair had a natural sheen that none of them could duplicate with expensive shampoos and rinses.