Saturday, June 25, 2011

LibraryThing Early Reviewer Reads

Forgive me book blog, for I have not been posting. I have been reading, although at a paltry rate, and I hope Summer brings me some time to do nothing but read, read, read. Here are the reviews of the LT ER books I've read since my last post.

Leaving Van Gogh

I finished reading Leaving Van Gogh days ago, and have struggled since then to find the right words for a review.  Carol Wallace crafts a deeply moving work of historical fiction that recreates the last year of Vincent Van Goh’s life in Auvers, France. The story is told through the caring eyes of his physician, Dr. Paul Gachet, who suffers his own sorrows as a widower unable to save his wife, or ease her suffering as she died years prior. At the request of Vincent’s brother, Theo, Dr. Gachet watches over Vincent and tries to diagnose his condition and offer what little help he can provide to ease Vincent’s suffering.

Dr. Gachet's tender voice brings this well-known story the unique perspective of a physician struggling to understand and treat mental illness, of an amateur artist, art lover and art collector's insight into the art world, and of a perceptive friend's witness to the struggles of the Van Gogh brothers. Leaving Van Gogh is a beautiful, sad story that took me inside the tortured mind of the mentally ill, and the sorrows of those who care for them. I was surprised at the emotional impact of this book, given my understanding of Vincent Van Gogh’s life story. The author manages to combine the details of these men’s lives into a lovely and devastating portrait that illustrates how reality is too much for some to bear, and how sometimes love is not enough to tether us to this world. I have stared at Van Gogh’s paintings for hours, and read countless books on his life, and I thought I had some understanding of his sadness and his daily struggles. This wonderful work of historical fiction taught me once again how little I knew, and allowed me to feel deeply the pain of these men, and to imagine what they might have said, or felt, or might have done in the days leading to Vincent’s suicide.

I have revisited my art books and my Van Gogh books and I am seeing them again through new eyes, especially Vincent’s raw and sorrowful portrait of the Doctor and Dr. Gachet’s heartbreaking sketch of Vincent on his deathbed. I found this book to be incredibly sad and touching, faithfully and lovingly researched and written and I recommend it very highly. It will stay with me for a very long time. 

Winged Obsession

Jessica Speart’s Winged Obsession offers a glimpse into the real lives of an international butterfly smuggler, Yoshi Kojima, and the Fish and Wildlife undercover agent, Ed Newcomer, who catches him after three years of hard work. Interwoven in this story is Newcomer’s undercover work to catch pigeon racers who kill hawks to protect their flocks. Both of these story lines provide a shocking and sad portrayal of human disregard for the lives of protected species for profit or for sport, as well as the frustrating lack of resources or meaningful laws to deter these criminals. Comparisons to The Orchid Thief are inevitable, from the quirky characters, the obsession to find and collect a rare thing, and the author's presence as a character in the story. 

The author is at her best when providing factual, background information on declining butterfly populations, the illegal trade of protected species, the beauty of the varied butterflies, the mania of the collectors who covet them and the dedication of the officials who try to catch the lawbreakers. She is particularly adept at describing the filth and horror inside Kojima's homes, and was able to make my skin crawl in several passages. The author is at her worst when using cliché-riddled passages to describe the interactions, dialog or thoughts of her characters, particularly in the early stages of the book. That said, the bizarre life and actions of Kojima and the dogged pursuit of him by Newcomer, and the story itself make this a book worth reading for anyone with a love of nature and butterflies, and anyone who enjoys a suspenseful mysterious read. I finished this book with a renewed appreciation for the hardships facing endangered species and a lingering curiosity about the mysterious and deceptive Kojima.

The Long Journey Home

As a fan of both Augusten Burrough’s and John Elder Robison’s books, I was eager to read their mother, Margaret Robison’s memoir, A Long Journey Home. I hoped to gain some understanding of her perspective and some insight into how their lives turned out as they did. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy reading this memoir, and found it both frustrating and sad. I was frustrated by the author’s writing style, which was more a list of recollections rather than the memoir of a poet. Maybe this is a generational problem, but I was constantly infuriated with her inability to stand up for herself against her husband or her father in law, and her failure to defend and protect her children or to find a way out of the messes in her life. I only made it halfway through the book before I began to skim through the chapters. But I read with great interest the last chapter, shocked that she could insist that her son’s book was filled with blatant lies, particularly in light of her mental instability. I’m sad to say that the author comes across as very passive and weak willed, confused and self-absorbed. She fails not only to take any responsibility for her part in their crazy lives, but fails to even allow for the possibility that her children suffered from her neglect. It is a terrible thing for a child to grow up abused or neglected, and an even more terrible thing for the adults in their lives to deny that the events took place. This book was not the revelation or the well written memoir I expected, and while I felt some sympathy for the emotional turmoil she suffered, Ms. Robison’s version of her life as victim upset me as both a woman and a mother. 

Happy Summer reading!