Saturday, March 24, 2012

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a homemade, spicy salsa of a memoir.  Biting into it sometimes makes the reader wince but nothing short of a snarky spouse hiding it could possibly keep anyone from devouring this riveting and eerily unnerving tome. I’m tempted to tell you that you really need nothing more than an explication of the title to convince you that you should stop everything to read this book.  Jeanette Winterson was adopted by a religious zealot, a woman so unhappy that she stayed up nights baking cakes to avoid the marital bed and so sure of her convictions that she told her daughter very early in her childhood that “The devil led us to the wrong crib.”  Mrs. Winterson tried beatings, locked her daughter in a coal hole and conducted a sadistic three-day exorcism when she learned that Jeanette was attracted to those of her own sex.  When Jeanette expressed a desire to be happy, her mother asked the question any psychotic parent would ask, “Why be happy when you could be normal?”  When your mother keeps the bullets for her revolver in a can of Pledge, you can be sure that nothing she does will surprise you which may explain how Jeanette Winterson shows humor and a healthy degree of objectivity in describing the woman.  That anyone growing up in such a household could write caringly enough to engender sympathy for Mrs. Winterson is truly a testament to Jeanette Winterson’s skill.

Reading saved the author and eventually won her a spot at Oxford and a career as a novelist perhaps best known in Britain for her 1985 autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and its highly successful television adaptation.  But Winterson couldn’t find the elusive happiness she sought at age sixteen when her mother kicked her out and she thought she’d left the abuse behind.  She stumbles through relationships, battles depression and begins a search for her biological mother.  The second half of the book is an emotionally difficult read because Winterson is so honest in her telling of her own failures.  She succeeds because of who she is:  For most of my life I’ve been a bare-knuckle fighter. The one who wins is the one who hits the hardest. I was beaten as a child and I learned early never to cry. If I was locked out overnight I sat on the doorstep till the milkman came, drank both pints, left the empty bottles to enrage my mother, and walked to school.

Summing it Up:  Read this memoir for Winterson’s laser sharp language and honest portrayal of her life. Savor her ability to show her path to peace.  Published in 2011 in Britain, Why Be Happy was chosen as Best Book of 2011 by The Guardian, Book of the Year for Memoir by The Telegraph and Book of the Week by the BBC. 

Rating: 5 stars    Category: Nonfiction, Gourmet, Book Club

Publication date: March 6, 2012 (U.S.)

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Friday, March 9, 2012

Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman

Three Weeks in December is one of those rare novels that excites, educates, and elucidates without preaching or belaboring.  It wasn’t until I put the novel down that I realized how much I’d learned about Africa, gorillas, Asperger’s, lions, colonialism, and unforeseen consequences.  Told in alternating chapters that evoke the language and pace of The Poisonwood Bible, this inventive glimpse into the “dark” continent opens in December, 1899, when Jeremy, a quiet, unprepared gentleman with a secret, travels from Maine to British East Africa with his beloved horse to supervise hundreds of Indian laborers brought in to build a railroad.  When lions begin attacking their camp and killing his men, Jeremy turns to his indispensable aide, Otombe, for assistance.  Otombe, the athletic, strong opposite of Jeremy, learned his perfect English when a British missionary couple raised him until he was six when they gave birth to their own child and returned him to his tribe.

Based on a real incident in the 1890s when two lions ate over 100 Africans, Indian railroad workers, and British administrators near the River Tsavo in what is now Kenya, the historically based sections are both informative and surreal in their intensity. Schulman’s taut, precise language makes the jungle, the animals and the people in it come alive with sentences like this: “Not a hippo chuffed, not a leopard rasped. . . At the moment, the silence was so crisp he could hear it ringing in his head.  Then the screaming started, the gunshots and the clanking of pans.  Camp.  At this distance, all the fear and frenzy was stripped from the noise, just faint clanks and pops and squeals, the pathos of bugs.  Above the other noises, one man’s voice cut through, a single word called again and again, crying out the name of his lost friend.”

In the alternating chapters set in December, 2000, we meet Max, an American ethnobotanist, who travels to Rwanda in search of a mysterious vine that could be a cure for heart disease. The coping skills Max utilizes to manage her Asperger’s give her a unique vista into the non-verbal communication of the gorillas in the remote mountain station where a violent group of young boys threatens the existence of the endangered animals.   If this book is made into a movie (and it has to be), whoever plays Max is almost guaranteed an Oscar as she’s one of the most peculiar and yet most endearing characters I’ve ever encountered.  Max’s skill at sitting quietly and observing everything around her allows readers to experience the land, smells, and sounds as if we were seeing it through her perspicacious eyes.   Audrey Schulman’s skill in making a character who eschews personal contact seem so compelling is masterful.  

As both Max and Jeremy are atypical outsiders dropped into an alien culture, their struggles provide drama and tension while exposing the underside of both development and preservation. The ending reinforces this tension and provides a great sighing “ah, ha” for the reader.  This novel is a paperback original from Europa Editions, the ones with the double fold covers that make reading such a pleasure. Europa provides novels that readers might not otherwise discover as it did with The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  Because it’s a paperback original I predict that it’ll be a book club hit immediately.  I plan to beg my book groups to choose it.  Watch the book trailer and I think you’ll agree. If you do choose it,  Ms. Schulman will skype with or call your book group and answer your questions. Check her website to arrange a "visit."

Summing it Up:  Read this for the two compelling stories of Africa set one-hundred years apart.  Savor it for the unique characters, the surprising ending, and for what you’ll learn.  Buy a friend a copy as you’ll want to discuss it the minute you finish.

Rating: 5 stars    Category: Fiction, Gourmet, Historical Fiction, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication date: January 31, 2012 (paperback original from Europa Editions)

Author Web Site including an exceptional video book trailer:

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