Category: Reviews

Being Henry David: Cal Armistead

Sometimes I find books.  And sometimes they find me.  This one falls into the latter category: a happy accident.

Being Henry David by Cal ArmisteadFrom the author’s website:
A teenage boy awakes from a deep sleep to find himself at Penn Station in New York City, with no memory of who he is, or where he came from. His only possession is a book at his side:  Walden, by Henry David Thoreau.  He decides to take the name Henry David, shortened to “Hank” by Jack, a street kid who befriends him. Shortly after they meet, Jack and Hank are involved in a crime with a kid-exploiting criminal called Magpie. Afraid to approach the authorities for help, Hank flees to Concord, Massachusetts, hoping that Walden–both the book and the location–will offer clues to his identity. That first night, Hank sleeps outdoors at the site of Thoreau’s cabin, then seeks shelter in the local high school and the public library. A tattooed, motorcycle-riding librarian/Thoreau historian named Thomas takes Hank under his wing, and guides him on the painful path to discovering his true identity. When Hank can run no further from the truth, will he confront the tragedy of his life or seek the ultimate escape?

I stumbled upon this book while browsing  the local library’s e-book holdings in Overdrive, while on the hunt for Thoreau books.  It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I have been on an insatiable quest for All Things Thoreau for about a year now.  When this book popped up in my search results, I was intrigued, but skeptical.  I thought the Thoreau connection would be just a gimmick, and that Henry’s ideas would be glossed over, if given any attention at all.

I was wrong.

Being Henry David grabbed me on Page One, on its own merits and not Thoreau’s.  I immediately  needed to know how he got into this mess and how he was going to get out of it.  Long before he got to Concord, Hank had me in his cheering section, and the author had me firmly in her pocket.  (And I will never hear the words “You gonna eat that?” quite the same way again.)

To be fair, there were a few small things I could quibble with.  Without spoiling it, the ending did seem a bit too pat — all wrapped up in a bow, with a few big questions dangling out the side of the box.

But overall Being Henry David was a satisfying, suspenseful, and quick read.  The first-person narrator is likeable and believable, even when he doesn’t like or believe himself, and the supporting characters — particularly Thomas — are well-rounded.  The Thoreau angle hits the right balance; it fleshes out the story and enhances Hank’s character development without becoming preachy or breaking the story rhythm too much.  I especially enjoyed all the detailed settings (Walden Pond, the Concord Library) since I had visited those very places less than a year ago myself and have been feeling a bit “homesick” for them ever since.

Not only did I enjoy the book, but I have recommended it to a friend who is a teacher of reluctant readers in high school.  I think the kids — both male and female — will really enjoy it.  The story has a great hook and moves quickly, so it is sure to grab students’ attentions and imaginations.

Best of all, this book will engage young people at a crucial age, introducing Henry David Thoreau’s ideas to them before they begin to “lead lives of quiet desperation.”

What’s not to love?

 

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The Mermaid Chair: Sue Monk Kidd

The Mermaid Chair When one of my book clubs chose this as the selection for May, I was excited.  This book had been on my “to be read” list for quite some time.  I had adored The Secret Life of Bees, and this book featured a coastal island and hinted of Celtic spirituality.  What was not to love?

I wanted to love it.  I did.

But I didn’t love it after all.  In fact, I found the first third of the book a bit of a slog to get through, and I was frustrated with it.  After reading 37% of it, I wrote, “I don’t think I’m liking this book.”  And no one was more surprised by that than me.

One of the dangers of using a first-person narrator is that there is potential for too much “tell” and not enough “show.”  That was certainly the case here.  The narrator and protagonist, Jessie, tends to simply state things, and the author expects the reader to just accept it without any further elaboration.  So when Jessie tells us she has fallen head over heels — first in lust and then in love — we are just supposed to believe her, even if it took about a nanosecond to happen and seemingly with no real cause.

We are also supposed to believe that Jessie’s real life has left her feeling unfulfilled, and that her psychiatrist husband has been neglecting her.  Yet Jessie has a lovely life, including an art studio in the turret of her home, and her husband is more than eager to come be with her and help with a difficult family situation.  It is Jessie herself who turns him away.

I wanted to like Jessie as much as I wanted to like this book.  Instead, I found her to be incredibly self-absorbed, and unwilling to take responsibility for her own life.  The only character with whom I truly did sympathize was her husband, and the one moment I got teary-eyed was reading a letter from an intermittent monk.

That’s not to say that the book was all bad.  I thoroughly enjoyed the three older women characters, particularly their friendship, connection, and shared memories.  These characters were very dimensional, interesting, and downright funny at times.  I could have easily read a prequel to this book about these ladies when they were back in their youth.

Sometimes I read a book and wonder if the author wishes she could do it over again.  The Mermaid Chair is a perfect example.  All of the elements were there, and the story itself was interesting.  It was the execution that was lacking.  Crucial parts were simply not written well, and that made it difficult to fully engage as a reader.

I rated this book three stars on Goodreads because it was better than it was bad.  But I was disappointed.