I just wrote an above-average-in-wittiness post about my life as a reader, and my rediscovery of reading for pleasure, but the internet ate it up, and it’s lost forever. So I’m just going to skip to the Book Review portion of that post that no longer exists:
Room by Emma Donaghue. This is a tour de force of writing. The narrator is a five-year-old boy, describing a life of living in a room with his mom. If you don’t know anything about this book, stop reading right now and go borrow it, and read it without knowing anything more. If you’ve already read it, you know that what we find out from this tiny narrator is that the room is all he knows, and that his mother was abducted and kept against her will in this locked, soundproofed room-cave, which is the only environment the boy knows. The sheer imagination necessary to write about this situation is staggering, let alone to write from the perspective and convincingly as a five-year-old. She pulls it off. I sucked back this novel in about three days - I couldn’t wait to get off work to read it, and the dishes piled up. I waited a full year for it to be available at the library - at one point there were 39 holds on every single copy. It was worth the wait. Impressive and empathetic.
Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres - Growing up in a religious household with screwed up parents, this is a memoir and ultimately a love tribute from the author to her adopted black brother, with whom she was raised, sometimes cruelly, in Indiana in the ’80s, and then their experience of being sent off to a religious boot camp in the Dominican Republic as teenagers. Note: do not skip ahead to the very ending to see how both the author and her brother fared post-boot camp - I did this by accident and it colored my reading of the latter half of the book. Don’t be like me - let the book unfold as it does because it’s beautiful. I was deeply affected by this book, loved the author’s tone, and realized that sibling relationships, sometimes very profound, are rarely examined in literature, movies, etc. It is heartbreaking, but an excellent read.
Buoyed by that, I read the non-fiction work by the same author called A Thousand Lives, an account of the Jonestown massacre. At the end of this book, the author says most people born after 1980 have never heard of the religious mass-suicide of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple in Guyana in the late 70’s, but actually I had heard of it, and feel most people my age do know of it. I saw a documentary on it, and recall Perry Wright’s Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers concept album on the topic that never quite came to be. This book shed a different light, another heartbreaking light, on religious fervor in tropical hinterlands, and painted a different picture of the mass ‘suicide’ than what is traditional thought to have happened (that all 1,000 people had been brainwashed). Thousands of FBI documents have been made public, and this is the book based on those newly declassified documents. Rather than brainwashed zombies, the people were basically starved and worked to death, manipulated, lied to, then ‘murdered’ (you’re in a line to drink poison, children and parents are screaming, unwilling people are stuck with cyanide syringes, armed guards are pointing their guns at you - what choice do you have? It’s not exactly the ‘drinking the kool-aid’ we’ve come to think about when we think of that event.) It’s sort of an unbelievable story, but Scheeres paints the portraits of the players in it in such a humane way that you feel you can understand them. She writes the story of what happened, and the descent into the madness of its leader, in a slow, incremental way, that mid-way through the book, I realized I was taking it in just as the churchgoers must have been. Things start off great, then they get a little weird, then a little weirder, but so incrementally you don’t see if happen, you don’t see the undercurrent of evil until suddenly old ladies are getting drugged, kids are put in solitary confinement for expressing anything negative about the church, people are undressed and humiliated with spankings during services, women are raped, letters from desperate relatives are censored…it happens so gradually, you don’t see the turning point of good to odd to eccentric to madness. Haven’t we all known someone who descended into mental illness this way? You wake up one day and realize, hey, this person is actually crazy, like not well at all in the head, when did that happen? By then you’re in too deep. It’s just in this case, that person had convinced 1,000 to move to Guyana and consider him a god. Fascinating and important, I also sucked this back in a few days, but if you find yourself reading it, take a little more time to process who is who in this book. There are a lot of names, and I was reading too fast to remember who was who, and I think it is worth it to slow down with this one.
Those are my top three reads in 2012 - three months, three books!