This blog is dedicated to the amazing staff at the New Canaan Public Library in New Canaan, Connecticut.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Room by Emma Donaghue, 2010, * * * * *

At the start of Donoghue's powerful new novel, Jack and his mother, who was kidnapped seven years earlier as a 19-year old college student, celebrate his fifth birthday.  They live in a tiny, 11-foot-square soundproofed cell in a converted shed in the kidnapper's yard - the "Room" of the title.  To Jack, "Room" is his entire world.  It is where he was born and grew up and it's where he lives with his "Ma" as they learn, read, eat, sleep and play.  At night, his Ma shuts hims safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when the kidnapper , dubbed "Old Nick" by Jack,  visits. Seen entirely through Jack's eyes and childlike perceptions, the developments in this novel are astonishing.  Ma proves to very resourceful, creating exercise games, makeshift toys, and reading and math lessons to fill their days.  However,  she knows that this is not enough - not for her or her son.  She devises a bold escape plan that relies on her young son's bravery and a lot of luck.  What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.  Although Donoghue brilliantly protrays the psyche of a child raised in captivity, the story's intensity cranks up dramatically when Jack is introdced to the outside world.  While there have been several true-life stories of women and children held captive, little has been written about the pain of re-entry.  Room is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between a parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, 2010, * * * *

Freedom is a close cousin to Franzen's previous novel - The Corrections -  a social-realist epic about a depressive, entropic midwestern family being swallowed and digested by the insatiable anaconda of modernity. The Corrections told the story of the Lamberts—Arthur and Enid and their three children. Freedom tells the story of the Berglunds—Walter and Patty and their two children. Instead of St. Jude (a proxy for St. Louis) we have St. Paul. Instead of a dubious get-rich-quick scheme exploiting the post-Soviet chaos in Lithuania, we have a dubious get-rich-quick scheme exploiting the war in Iraq. Like its predecessor, Freedom is heavy on psychology and extramarital affairs and earnest speechifying (capitalism, overpopulation, Israel). Freedom tells a lot of stories, and it spreads them over many decades and several continents. It tracks the rise of a rock star, the gentrification of a city neighborhood, the tragic death of a basketball career, the suburbanization of a nameless country pond, and the dirty birth of an international bird sanctuary. The book’s central drama, however, is an old-fashioned love story: the tumultuous lifelong relationship between Walter and Patty Berglund. Walter is a nature lover who works hard to suppress his anger and provide for everyone around him. Patty is a college basketball star who blows out her knee and becomes a housewife. Each fills certain gaping spiritual holes for the other until eventually, over the years, their relationship becomes hellaciously complex.  As the novel progresses, you see this relationship from many different perspectives—Walter’s, Patty’s, their son Joey’s, their friend Richard’s—and each view subtly tweaks the story, swinging blame, exposing motives, recasting villains as heroes and heroes as villains.  It made me think, many times, of one of David Foster Wallace’s favorite edicts about fiction: that the good stuff can make readers feel less lonely.