Thursday, August 1, 2013

Book review: Untied by Meredith Baxter

Untied: A Memoir of Family, Fame, and Floundering
Meredith Baxter

I read this autobiography for work (long story), and the good news is that I was able to blow through it in about 48 hours. The name Meredith Baxter did not ring a bell for me, nor did I recognize the attractive older blonde woman on the cover, although her sassy blonde mom-hair and super white, super straight teeth reminded me of Katie Couric.

As it turns out, Meredith Baxter is, among other things, the mom from Family Ties. I guess I am about 3 years too young to be the target demo for this memoir, because I don't remember much about that show except that Michael J. Fox was a Republican.

The book is...not embarrassing. But there is nothing in it to recommend it. Baxter had a rough childhood, a series of bad relationships (one abusive), five children, and a long and varied TV career during which she worked with a number of very famous people, then got sober AND came out as a lesbian. That sounds exciting, right?!

Nope. You would think all of that could make for a juicy memoir, but Baxter only has nice, bland things to say about her coworkers, and her analysis of her relationships with family, spouses and children feels like just that - analysis.  She takes responsibility for her bad decisions and tries to forgive and understand those who did her wrong. The entire book reads like an epic AA meeting.

I'm glad Baxter is happy and healthy these days. It seems like this book was probably therapeutic for her, and bully for her for getting someone to pay her to write it. But as a work of literature, it's a waste of wood pulp.

Rating: If you are on vacation and it's pouring rain, and this is the only book in the hotel lending library, this is not too painful to read. (additional 10 points off the final score  because the subtitle reminds me of my freshman English papers. Something like "Heroines in the works of Charles Dickens: Piety, Poverty, and Perseverance.")

Friday, January 14, 2011

CBR-III Review #2: The Blue Sword

I was going to review Tana French's thriller In the Woods for my next book - but it's been a helluva week and I don't feel like it. Our stove died (annoying), because a rat chewed the wiring (gross). And my boyfriend lost his job Tuesday (...devastating).

I'm doing a pretty good job of fighting down the panic, but I found that I just wasn't in the mood for child murders and possible sexual abuse. You know?

So I'm taking advantage of the relaxed Cannonball rules on previously-read books, and reviewing The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, a book that I've read at least a dozen times in the past 10 years.

I might be rationalizing, but as I re-read it I started thinking about why I continued to return to this story again and again. It's not laziness. There's something deeper going on, something I get from a book like this that is comforting. Like a literary binky. I realized some things about myself in reading it this time around.

The story itself: The Blue Sword is straight-up fantasy, so if phrases like "mysterious ancient sword," or "Corlath, king of the Hill Folk" give you the heebie-jeebies, it may not be for you. But in saying that I'm being glib, and doing Robin McKinley a great disservice. She is a fantastic writer, and if you don't go for swords and sorcery, at least check out her adaptations of Beauty and the Beast and Robin Hood. Unlike some fantasy writers, McKinley grounds her extraordinary worlds in very ordinary, relatable people.

Eighty years ago, the continent of Daria was conquered by the Homelanders, and the native people have either been pushed to the hills on the fringes of the continent, or subjugated by a sort of magnanimous racism. Think the Rudyard Kipling's India, with a little dash of 19th century Afghanistan thrown in.

Our heroine, Harry Crewe, is tall, gangly, and not particularly pretty. When her father dies, she's shipped off to the hinterlands of Daria to stay with her younger brother. She arrives in the unsettled border regions of the Darian desert, and finds herself abruptly thrust in to the conflict between the free Hill people and the Homelander settlers.

The people of the hills are the last remnant of the pre-colonial kingdom of Damar, a place where something like magic permeates the land. They are facing extinction, as they desperately try to protect what's left of their culture from the Homelanders to the south, and the malevolent tribes advancing on them from the north. And those Northerners are ...not quite right.

It's a great story of people pushed to the extreme, trying to keep it together in the face of insurmountable odds. The stakes are high, the villains are clear-cut, and the sacrifices are noble.

I think that's why this book, and others like it, are an escape for me. A novel doesn't have to be saccharine or silly to be escapist. It just needs to have a certain sort of expansiveness and grandeur to it.

The world I live in is a complicated, frustrating, anxious place. There's nothing grand or heroic about the problems I face. So, as silly as it sounds, the image of a girl on a horse, carrying a mysterious ancient sword and facing down a horde of bloodthirsty demons? That's my literary binky.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

CBR-III Review #1 - Labyrinth

Labyrinth, by Kate Mosse

It’s 1209 AD. A young woman named Alaïs stands in the Sabarthès mountains of southern France, holding in her possession the mysterious key to the Labyrinth, a secret worth killing – or dying - for. Eight hundred years later, Alice Tanner is working on an archeological dig in the same mountains, stumbles on a long-hidden cave with two ancient skeletons inside, and finds a surprising connection to the myth of the Grail.

Sounds fun, right? Something like a cross between The Name of the Rose and The Da Vinci Code. Unfortunately, Kate Mosse’s book Labyrinth falls lifelessly somewhere in between. Say what you will about Dan Brown (here, I’ll say it – he’s a sucky writer), but his book had a driving pace and a pulpy plot that made it a fine, disposable mystery. Labyrinth, I think, wants to be more like The Name of the Rose, but it never gets anywhere close to Umberto Eco’s intelligence and passion.

Okay, so the context: In the 13th Century in southern France, a Christian sect called the Bons Homes lived and worked alongside Catholics as well as Jews and the occasional Muslim. Obviously, the church fathers couldn’t let this kind of diversity/heresy stand (and they had their eyes on some nice juicy dukedoms as well) so the nobles of Catholic Northern France invaded, and a bloody civil war ensued. The result was that this sect, also called the Bogomils, or the Cathars, was completely eradicated, and Catholicism became the only acceptable form of Christianity - until the Reformation a few hundred years later.

It’s good fodder for historical fiction, but Mosse tries to combine historical drama with a lurid secret-society story, while awkwardly shoving in the socio-political details. Her single biggest flaw is that her characters are not really fleshed out, leaving us cold. Central characters don’t really come alive, and minor characters barely receive any description at all. Seriously – in the climax a supporting character makes a noble self-sacrifice, and I literally could not remember any personal details about her other than her job title.

Mosse’s other problem is pacing. The first two thirds of the book feel like a lot of set-up and historical detail, then she glosses over the exciting bits with incredible speed. An epic escape from the siege of Carcassona is described in narration – that’s it. A love triangle is suggested, described, and resolved in less than a single page.

It’s a shame, too. It seems like a fairly under-represented period of history – a quick Wikipedia search was pretty fascinating, and it makes me want to pick up an actual historical account of the time period. So I’m glad to have read the book, if only to give me ideas for future reading.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

First Post

Looking forward to Cannonball Read 2011! I have a pile of books on my bedside table that's a mile high, and I'm excited to have a reason to plow through them.

I've never done well with book clubs, so this is perfect for me. It's like a book club, except the book selection is always mine, and my opinion is always right, and I don't have to lie about finishing the book, because I finish it when I finish it. Rock on.

First up, Labyrinth, by Kate Mosse. I started it about six months ago, and never got past the third chapter. I have no idea why. So, here we go!