Pure by Julianna Baggott

Fiction — print. Grand Central Publishing, 2012. 431 pgs. Purchased.

Fifteen-year-old Pressia survived the Detonations, a nuclear fallout that wiped out most of the Earth’s population and fused the survivors with the animal, rock, or thing closest to them. Pressia fused with the doll she was holding whilst waiting for her grandfather to pick her and her Japanese mother up at the Baltimore-Washington airport, and the doll now covers her right hand — its eyes flipping open or closed depending upon the angle of her wrist — rendering the hand useless. A small, battery-operated fan fused to her grandfather’s neck making it difficult for him to breathe the thicken, ashen air of the post-Detonations world.

Yet, for nearly ten years, Pressia and her grandfather kept each other alive. Pressia’s butterfly trinkets, which she fashions from pieces of junk metal, and her grandfather’s flesh sewing skills as a former taxidermist are traded for food and other necessary items. Now, with her sixteen birthday only days away, Pressia’s grandfather has created a hidden cabinet with an escape hatch so Pressia can avoid reporting to the dreaded OSR. Previously known as Operation Search and Rescue, OSR has turned into a paramilitary organization that patrols the destroyed city and engages in a biyearly competitions to see how many survivors they can kill.

The ranks of the organization are filled with people like Pressia; one of the main leaders, El Captain, fused with his brother so he is perpetually giving his brother a piggyback ride. The organization is supported by those survivors who were lucky enough to be in the Dome — a test facility built in response to climatic change, environmental degradation, and a escalating Cold War — when the Detonations occurred. The residents of the Dome promised they would return to help the survivors when the time came, but no direct interaction with the Dome has occurred since leaflets with the promise were dropped.

That is, until Partridge escapes outside the ventilation system after learning his mother may still be alive. Partridge’s father always claimed his mother died trying to help people into the Dome, but the story has never jived with Partridge’s memory of his mother taking him to a beach and slipping him a pill. The pill has rendered him non-codeable; a process that his brother went through in order to make him a stronger specimen of a man and that Partridge wonders is the reason why his brother killed himself. Outside of the Dome, Partridge teams up Pressia determined to unravel the secret of what happened to his mother.

Baggott’s dystopian world captivates the imagination. Each time I would think of the book, I would look around and wonder what object, animal, or person I would fuse with should the Detonations occur in that moment. A book, my laptop, my cell phone? I also told multiple friends about the book explaining how I hope a film adaption will eventually be made because the book conjures up such visually stunning scenes in my mind. It’s not just the visuals of these fused beings moving throughout the destroyed city. Rather, it’s the way Baggott describes the smoke moving through the gaps in the buildings or the glint of the stars through the darkened sky. It’s a captivating world, and I practically devoured the book.

The novel draws on a unique explanation of cellular biology to underpin the “fusions” that occur throughout the novel and this explanation is provided by a character in a rather heavy-handed monologue. The same can be said of the revelations about what happened pre-Pressia and Partridge finding one another — the founding of the Dome, the reason why some people made it in and others didn’t. I would have liked these details to be sussed out over time rather than being doled out in a series of sort history lessons, and I’m hoping many more will be given in subsequent books because I was still left with so many questions. What happened to the old governments? Are there other domes?

Given the plot and the numerous villains included within the tale, I was surprised at how slowly the story unfolds. It isn’t quite the fast paced, action packed dystopian novel I was expecting to be.  There were sections I thought could have benefited from tighter editing, and dropping a point of view could have possibly help. Lyda, a young girl who served as Partridge’s unwitting accomplish to his escape, was obviously included to keep the reader up to date on what was happening in the Dome. Yet she was separated from the community at large so I never really felt like I understood the Dome. It’s still some magical entity where answers are hard to come by.

That said, I do plan on continuing with the series. The setting — the Dome, the Dustlands, the Meltlands — was such a wonderful spark to my imagination that I’m not quite willing to let that go.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

21546135Fiction — print. Broadway, 2010. 350 pgs. Purchased.

In the 1980s, seven-year-old Libby Day’s mother and two older sisters were murdered by her brother, Ben. Each of Ben’s victims were murdered in a different manner — Michelle was strangled in her bed, Debby was cut by an axe, and their mother, Patty, was killed with a shotgun. Libby, who escaped and hid outside during January in Kansas, lost several of her fingers and toes to frostbite.

The tragedy captured the imagination of locals and the nation, who considered the mass murders to be one of many done in deference to Satan during the 1980s. Now, twenty-five years later, there are still a handful of people who are obsessed with the crime — people who doubt Libby’s account of the night and believe Ben is innocent. In their minds, no killer would murder his victims in three different ways during a single night.

Out of funds, Libby agrees to work with this group for a series of small payouts — a couple hundred bucks for finding her deadbeat father (the aptly named Runner) or for selling off personal items owned by her sisters and mother. Agreeing to work with this group, though, means Libby must face her brother and rehash the worst night of her life together.

This novel jumps back and forth between the past and the present; each chapter changing both the time period and the character being followed. At one point, we see where Ben had gone in the hours leading up to his mother and sisters’ death and then — skip ahead a chapter — the reader is shown the frantic worry of his mother during this same time period. The narrative structure is not entirely uniform backtracking in order to explain or examine or place into context a fact Libby has learned in the present.

Yet, somehow, this novels feel like the more “traditional” of Flynn’s three crime novels that I have read. (Her fourth was published in November of last year.) She’s fixated on the whodunit rather than the psychological, which is surprising given her other two novels and how the novel is set up to be a response to the so-called “Satanic Panic” or “Satanic Ritual Abuse Scare”of the 1980s where daycare workers were accused to abusing children in acts of worship towards Satan. Sounds nutty, but true. Elements of this are utilized in the book — ritual Satanic practices either occurring or being rumored to have occurred, young girls accusing Ben of abusing them — but Flynn never really goes into the psychology of these events. They happen or they don’t; they move the plot along or they don’t.

The end, though? Flynn pushes her horribly unlikable characters (a staple of her novels) off the cliff of believable happenstance and wreaks the whole novel. It’s almost as though Flynn grew to like her characters, but realized she wasn’t allowed to like them after making the reader hate them so settled for a hodgepodge ending with a “twist” to keep her from having to pull the trigger, so to say. If this has been the first novel of hers I read, I certainly would not have lunged across the table at a used book sale to grab her others.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Fiction — print. Broadway, 2006. 254 pgs. Purchased.

A journalist at a second-rate paper outside of Chicago, Camille Preaker’s editor sends her back to her hometown in southern Missouri to cover the disappearance of a second little girl from Wind Gap named Natalie. Nine months ago, a little girl named Ann was abducted, murdered, and found in a creek with all her teeth pulled out. The local sheriff thinks it was someone from outside the community; the detective on loan from Kansas City won’t rule out that the two little girls knew their killer.

Yet Camille is a writer in another sense; she utilizes her skin like parchment and has spent much of her life carving words into her body with a knife. Eight years after leaving her hometown, Camille has finally stopped cutting herself, but returning to Wind Gap and dealing with her distant mother, who lavishes attention on Camille’s thirteen-year-old half sister just as she did on their deceased middle sister, leaves Camille with an ever-mounting desire to start writing hurtful words into her skin again.

And, even as Camille’s editor grows increasingly concerned about her psychological well-being and her step-father starts suggesting it may be time for her leave, Camille is unable to walk away from the case. She recognizes a kindred spirit of sorts in Ann and Natalie — two tomboys with histories of violence — and Camille is increasingly concerned about her overly-sexualized, younger sister, Amma. The thirteen-year-old is the biggest bully in town, but Camille’s mother babies her and refuses to curtail or, even recognize, Amma’s behavior.

There is also the added difficulty of trying to interview people who, rightfully, have no interest in seeing their tragedy turned into a story for national amusement, which I appreciated as someone who once worked as a journalist on the crime beat. She goes to much further lengths than I would have ever gone, but I recognized the frustration in trying to interview the unwitting and the unwilling. And I appreciated how Flynn kept it unclear if Camille is one step ahead or a mile behind the detective assigned to the case, whom she is both sleeping with and trying to get quoted on the record.

This novel — Flynn’s first — is far darker and sinister than her monstrously popular Gone Girl with Camille trying to balance the psychological trauma of her past with the mental challenge of dealing with her mother, sister, and reacquainting herself with residents of the town in the present. The emotional pain women inflict upon each other either through words or through snubs are explored throughout this book. Camille carves the words her mother says to her in her skin; Amma snubs one of the girls in her posse to keep them in line. And it makes for a complex psychological struggle that is both hard to imagine and easy to see in my own past as a high school student.

This mental balance is what keeps the pages turning as the stunningly impactful twist found in Gone Girl is nowhere to be found in this story. Like nearly all crime writers, Flynn goes for a big twist at the end and, like many first time novelists, ends up giving it away long before the reader gets there. The “whodunit” of the crime may have been easily solved, but the mental anguish Camille feels at every turn unravels slowly. And I think one has to be deeply interested in the unhealthy aspects of the human psyche in order for this novel to work for them. Even I, for all my interest in “deviant behavior”, was wondering how Flynn could come up with such a tale.

Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally

Fiction — print. Touchstone, 1993. Originally published 1982. 400 pgs. Purchased.

Winner of the 1982 Man Booker Prize and adapted into a film in 1993 produced by Steven Spielberg, Keneally’s novel recounts the efforts of Oskar Schindler, a Czechoslovakia-born German who saved over 1,100 Jewish workers from the Nazi concentration camps by employing them in his factory in Krakow, Poland. As a member of the Nazi Party and an ethnic German from Hitler’s prized Sudetenland, Schindler had the credentials necessary to wine-and-dine SS officers, including the brutal commandant of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp, Amon Goeth, in order to get them to turn a blind eye to his factory workforce and leave his workers off the deportation lists.

Keneally writes at the beginning of his novel that while he spent time interviewing Schindlerjuden (“Schindler Jews”) and researching about Schindler’s life, he felt more comfortable packaging this nonfiction tale as a fictional account. Yet the book reads like a nonfiction tale with a series of interviews and stories about the Schindlerjuden — Hela Brzeska (now Helen Beck),  Poldek Pfefferberg, Genia Dresen (the girl in the red coat) — sprinkled throughout.

Readers are provided with a recounting of Schindler’s life — the date of his birth, his strained relationship with his father, how he gains control of the factory in Poland — that, for any other fictional tale, would be disparaged for falling into the “telling rather than showing” trap. Meaning that Keneally tells the reader about Schindler rather than allowing Schindler’s actions to establish his character or to move the story forward.  The whole novel reads like a biography — little emotion infused within the text, lackluster descriptions to set the scene — and despite what Keneally said about wanting to have the freedom to invent, there are remarkably few scenes where the dialogue was not supported by documents or interviews with people in the room.

Had I not read his preface at the beginning of the book, I could have easily been persuaded that this was a biography rather than a fictional account. And I was left with the distinct impression that Keneally set out to write a biography yet felt he lacked the credentials to call it such. Or, did not want to be held to the higher standards of fact checking that (should) come with a nonfiction account.

This is certainly one of the rare cases where the movie is far superior to the original novel with the exception of the book’s conclusion. The movie, if I remember correctly, shows the Schindlerjuden and their numerous descendants visiting Schindler’s grave in Jerusalem on Mount Zion (the only member of the Nazi Party to be buried there) and celebrating him as one of Israel’s Righteous Among the Nations. Yet the film says nothing of how the once wealthy man died penniless having spent his entire fortune on brides and food to keep the Schindlerjuden alive through the end of World War II. He emigrated to Argentina, went through a series of bankruptcies, returned to Germany in 1958, and survived on donations sent by Schindlerjuden from all over the world until his death in 1974.

And there is a particular line in the epilogue about how the only point in Schindler’s life where he managed to be a successful businessman were years he spent trying to shield his Jewish factory workers from deportation. He may have originally utilized Jewish workers in his factory because they were cheaper than the Polish laborers, but his financial success during this time helped to save their lives and the turn about in their fortunes following the war was far more poetic to me than the conclusion of the film. Still, I would suggest skipping the book and watching the movie instead.

Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver

Fiction — print. Harper Perennial, 2003. Originally published 1993. Print. 354 pgs. Purchased.

Three years after the events of The Bean Trees, young Turtle and her adoptive mother Taylor (formerly known as Marietta) are on their way home from visiting the Hoover Dam when Turtle announces she saw someone go over the ledge of the dam. A little girl of few words, it takes Taylor some time to pull all the necessary information from Turtle. But she believes her daughter is telling the truth and bullies the crew at the dam into sending a rescue team down to retrieve the mentally challenged man who fell.

The miraculous story offers Turtle her fifteen minutes of fame as the tale is picked up by the local news stations and then by Oprah, who invites Taylor and Turtle out to Chicago to appear on her show. Turtle’s national appearance catches the eye a Cherokee lawyer named Annawake Fourkiller, who takes one look at Turtle and immediately knows the child is Cherokee. Furthermore, Annawake  immediately knows the finalization of Turtle’s adoption (as covered in The Bean Trees) was a fraud.

The young lawyer works with Child Services for the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and cannot believe the Nation would have approved the adoption of a Cherokee child by a white woman, which is required under the Indian Child Welfare Act. Concerned Turtle was essentially stolen from her family, Annawake flies to Tuscan and confronts Taylor about the adoption.

When my book club met back in November to discuss the prequel to this novel, I explained how I had a hard time suspending disbelief about Turtle’s adoption because of my familiarity with the Indian Child Welfare Act and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. One of the members mentioned to me that the sequel dealt with this particular issue, although she wasn’t too happy with the way it was resolved. I won’t spoil the ending here, but I will say my inkling that convenient family history would step in to save the day turned out to largely be true.

That said, I enjoyed this book far more than I enjoyed its prequel. The actions of the characters in this novel were far more believable than in the previous book. I spoke about my uncertainty that I would immediately take in an abused child at this particular age when I shared my thoughts about The Bean Trees, but you can bet that after three years of raising said child I, too, would flee Arizona for the Pacific Northwest if I thought my child would be taken from me.

I can also believe the reaction of Taylor’s mom — the desire to fly to Las Vegas to help, the determination to go to Oklahoma and smooth things over with Nation. And while Annawake’s personal investment in Turtle’s adoption might have felt a little heavy-handed at times, I know her story is not the exception to the rule and appreciated the emotion it brought to why the Indian Child Welfare Act is such an important piece of legislation.

Unfortunately, one the best aspects of the prequel was missing from this book. Lou Ann and the family she and Taylor forge together have largely scattered to the winds. Taylor and Turtle live with Taylor’s sort-of boyfriend, Jax, on the outskirts of Tucson, and all of Lou Ann’s concern for their plight is funneled through a game of telephone with Jax.

Instead, Taylor and Turtle’s support network has shifted back to the mother she left behind in Kentucky and the boyfriend Taylor isn’t interested in marrying. (Her mother insists this is because Taylor’s grandmother raised her to feel like she didn’t need a man and her mother did the same to Taylor.) It morphs again in Las Vegas when they met a young woman determined to recreate herself as Barbie (yes, the plastic doll!) and then again when Taylor’s mother travels to Oklahoma to reconnect with a cousin named Sugar, who just so happens to be a member of the Cherokee Nation. And the network Turtle ends up with in the end feels much weaker than the one she had in The Bean Trees despite Kingsolver’s assertion that the Cherokee Nation values the tribe and family more than non-Native Americans do.

That said, this is the fourth Kingsolver book I have read and I can confidently say that she is now one of my favorite authors. I love her writing style, particular the way she manages to sweep me away with her descriptions without writing long and rambling sentences, and the unique characters she develops. I own two more of her novels, and now I’m torn between rushing ahead to read them or saving them for when I need to read something I know will be good.