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Being read by Laura Stevenson

Review of Andrew Smith, 100 Sideways Miles.  Simon and Schuster, 2014.


Sixteen-year-old Finn Easton feels he's an alien – perhaps a product of the chaotic universe through which he has figured that the earth careens at 20 miles a second, but certainly an outsider in Burnt Mill Creek, California where he lives with his family. Finn attributes this sense of alienation to being "trapped" in Lazarus Doors, the science fiction cult classic written by his father, who has given Finn's name and identifying characteristics to the book's major character. In fact, however, the major influence in his life is a "ridiculous" accident that literally re-shaped him:  a dead horse slid off a truck that was carrying it across a bridge to the knackery, and it fell 300 feet (5 seconds down in a world moving at 20 miles a second = 100 sideways miles) into the canyon where Finn and his mother were walking. Finn's mother was killed, his back was broken, and he spent the next two years in the hospital, emerging with a re-constructed spine, an odd scar, no memory of his life before age seven – and epilepsy, which doctors hoped he might outgrow. He hasn't outgrown it. Each of the book's carefully-crafted formative incidents – Finn's primary encounter with his first love, Julia Bishop; the magnificent shadow-play she performs for him to express her love;  the exploration of a ruined penitentiary with Julia and Cade Hernandez, Finn's best friend; the rescue the boys perform in the book's climax – is followed by an epileptic seizure that re-attaches Finn to his past and to Lazarus Doors. Following the rescue, however, Finn realizes neither his father's book nor his own epilepsy can determine his future, and he begins to craft his own script.


The book, a semi-finalist for the National Book Award, is the ninth novel by the author of Winger.  It is likely to become a coming-of-age classic that will be compared to Huckleberry Finn, a book which (along with Slaughterhouse Five ) resonates in its overtones.  The portrayal of a father-son relationship complicated by celebrity, disaster, and disability is deepened by quotations from Lazarus Doors, which reveal that Finn's father, writing in the wake of the accident, bitterly mocked divine justice as a gigantic hoax that threatened to devour the human race. The tour de force of the novel, however, is its narrative voice, which brilliantly captures the sexual and social doubts of an "disabled" teenager while juxtaposing them with his sophisticated concept of a universe: the Big Bang, followed by a billion-years-old "knackery" of reconstituting atoms, described with the eloquence of Ovid's Metamorphoses.  Similar skillful contrasts appear in the dialogue, which captures teen intelligence even as it demonstrates the limitations of teen-speak; and the deathless loyalty that lies behind Finn's friendship with sex-obsessed, tobacco-chewing, hard-drinking Cade Hernandez.  The narrative's seeming chaos is deliberate, held together by symbolism deftly and unobtrusively handled; the Southern California scenery is strikingly described; and the novel's depth, insight, and humanity are exceptional.

Being read by Toni Ortner

Review of Liar from Vermont by Laura C. Stevenson

This is a sensitive, absorbing and unusual book because it is not just about the narrator, Peggy, but relates directly to how Vermont changed. The narrator relates events and conversations objectively and has a wry delightful sense of humor.  The narrator who lives in Michigan spends her summers in Vermont surrounded by working farms, horses to ride, cows to milk and fences to mend. Her deepest dream is to live full time in Vermont and work on a farm; however, since reality and dreams do not always coincide, the beatific Vermont of her childhood is inevitably altering. Farmers who cannot make a decent are forced to sell farms and land for enormous sums to developers who put in condos and ski trails. The original farms are ripped down and renovated as weekend homes for the wealthy. These outsiders who come from private prep schools, go to Harvard, and never worked a day in their lives, feel superior to the local folks. They are used to being served by others. Beautiful fields of bluebells, sunflowers, and asters are lost as condos are built along with ski trails and fancy inns and resorts. The wealthy outsiders renovate farms into summer homes complete with tennis courts, swimming pools and riding rings.

Growing up, Peggy refuses to submit to social stereotypes and be a girly girl. Peggy ignores her mother’s admonitions to act like a lady.  Peggy does not hide her temper and is honest to a fault, regardless of the impression she makes. When she enters puberty and other girls wear makeup and lipstick and frills and pretend not to be intelligent or ambitious in order to attract boys, Peggy considers them idiots. Peggy knows how to put a tire on a car, milk a cow, round up a herd, and ride an unruly horse. She wears jeans and old plaid shirts and her clothes smell of horses. She has no desire to change. All she wants is a horse of her own.

Her father whom she refers to as The Great Man spends his days ensconced in his study translating Ovid; Peggy who is well versed in the classics and an avid reader shares her views with the Great Man and makes suggestions on the progress of his work and the accuracy of his translations.  Peggy’s mother initially yearned to get an advanced degree but gave up her dream of having a career to support the career of her” brilliant husband.”  The Great Man takes his wife for granted and could no t survive without her. She is the figure behind the curtains and enables him to remain in the spotlight... Thanks to her tireless work, daily life runs smoothly; delicious plentiful meals are always on the table at the tight time. Faculty meetings run smoothly as the ambience is set. The linens and silver are laid out on the table and the wine is chilled in buckets; there is plenty of liquor to loosen the conversation. She raises the children while The Great Man remains oblivious, preoccupied with his work.

Peggy discovers that her mother has written secretly and hidden her work for so long that the paper s is brittle and yellowed. Her mother’s goes in and out of hospitals and has frequent checkups. Peggy’s two older sisters and the Great Man neither acknowledge nor discuss the true nature of the illness. The mother who is stoic carries on despite increasing pain and weakness. The sisters and father attempt to keep Peggy in the dark and send her away to school; Peggy senses something is seriously wrong.

Mr . Zandor who is a famous novelist is a close friend of the Great Man. He is the sole person who accepts supports and admires Peggy as she is and encourages her to remain ambitious and fulfill her dreams. When she talks with Mr. Zandor, Peggy is exposed to historical events, politics and economics.

To reveal any more of this tale would be unfair to the reader as this is definitely a book that must be read, and will be relished for its truth, humor, and accuracy

© Toni Ortner, 2015

Being read by Phil Innes

The Children Act — Ian McEwen [Audio]

A decent older woman without children is a judge who decides the fates of others’ children while her personal life and marriage changes, for better or for worse?

A NY Times review says: Her sole failing is that she cares too much about the people who come before her, and the case of the conjoined twins in particular has left her depressed and uninterested in sex, imperiling her marriage. By the end of the novel, she must find a way to get her groove back. At the same time, she must make a decision about whether Adam Henry, a ­Jehovah’s Witness with leukemia, should be forced to undergo a blood transfusion that is necessary to save his life but which his religion prohibits. He’s only a few months shy of his 18th birthday, when under British law he would be allowed to decide for himself.

Amherst — William Nicolson

Of local interest. I am liking it because it takes the corsets off staid Amherst Massachusetts during the Victorian period, takes them off in a physical sense but also uncorsets a form of creativity and appreciation of life. Here is the publisher’s blurb which for a change is an honest assessment of the book:—

Alice Dickinson, a young advertising executive in London, decides to take time off work to research her idea for a screenplay: the true story of the scandalous, adulterous love affair that took place between a young, Amherst college faculty wife, Mabel Loomis Todd, and the college’s treasurer, Austin Dickinson, in the 1880s. Austin, twenty-four years Mabel’s senior and married, was the brother of the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, whose house provided the setting for Austin and Mabel’s trysts.

Alice travels to Amherst, staying in the house of Nick Crocker, a married English academic in his fifties. As Alice researches Austin and Mabel’s story and Emily’s role in their affair, she embarks on her own affair with Nick, an affair that, of course, they both know echoes the affair that she’s writing about in her screenplay.

Interspersed with Alice’s complicated love story is the story of Austin and Mabel, historically accurate and meticulously recreated from their voluminous letters and diaries. Using the poems of Emily Dickinson throughout, Amherst is an exploration of the nature of passionate love, its delusions, and its glories. This novel is playful and scholarly, sexy and smart, and reminds us that the games we play when we fall in love have not changed that much over the years.




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