Monthly Archives: December 2012

Review: The Little Giant of Aberdeen County

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, by Tiffany Baker, is an interesting novel. I can’t quite remember why I picked it up at the bookstore, but once I had it, it languished, unread, on my bookshelf for about two years. I opened it once, but for some reason or other I never made it past the first page. My second stab at it was (obviously) more successful.

The novel opens at a funeral, narrated by the main character, Truly. Truly is a an immense woman, the titular giant of her county. The story then jumps back in time from the funeral scene to before Truly’s birth; the main narrative then traces her life from infancy through her troubled childhood through her even more troubled adulthood. Eventually, the storyline loops back to the same funeral, and then progresses on from there. Truly is the type of flawed heroine whose burdens and difficulties in life are painfully real, relatable even when her size and specific situations are not.

Truly is born big and continues to grow throughout her life. She towers over everyone else in Aberdeen, though she finds her place — after several tragedies — at a farm on the outskirts of town. Truly loves her makeshift family and her life on their farm, especially the work with her horses. However, her happiness is never complete, as her splintered family and dismal past never quite relinquish their grasp. The family secrets are dark and frigid, with far-reaching consequences. The tangled web of secrets and hidden agendas ensnares many characters, affecting them across the years in the narrative. Without giving away any spoilers, let me just say this: it’s hard to say who’s right or wrong in many of the situations, and Baker pushes the reader to consider the choices and how they might act in the same circumstances.

One of the few constants in the novel is the insidious and icy Robert Morgan. There are several Robert Morgans — a veritable lineage of them — but one in particular acts as the anchor that not only holds Truly in place, but very nearly drags her under. Truly makes a serious sacrifice for this awful man, who thanks her for her pains by tormenting her for years without mercy. His demeanor is hardly better toward his own son; the family dysfunction is the driving force of the latter part of the novel.

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County is a heavy read, but manages to tug your heartstrings and be dramatic without verging into hackneyed melodrama. Baker mostly avoids bogging her characters down with the many tragedies, large and small, that they face, focusing rather on the way they change the lives in the wake of the events. It’s remarkably fast-paced for a novel of its breadth, and kept my attention well (something family dramas have occasionally failed to do in the past). The three main characters are endearing in their own ways, while the villains are unrelenting in their machinations. Baker presents a small-town world of the past, self-contained and content to stay that way, even as she reminds the reader that the life in such a town was in no way as idyllic as we like to imagine.

I liked The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, but I don’t know that it’s a book I’ll reread in the future. The dramatic pull of the novel kept me engaged, and the conflicts still have me thinking and considering, but I don’t think it’s quite enough to merit a permanent spot on my bookshelf.

Happy reading, and Happy holidays!

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Review: Neverwhere

I just outright devoured Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. As the first book I’ve read since the end of the semester, it was bound to be a relief from the academic grind, but this was a particularly satisfying choice. I started the book around 8:30 in the morning, and had finished it by 4:00 p.m. (See? Devoured.) Gaiman’s pacing in the story had much to do with my reading pace; his novel starts off at a run, and never really slows down until the final chapters.

The reader is introduced to Richard Mayhew, a young Scottish man living in London. His life is fine, but rather lackluster. This all changes dramatically when he refuses to ignore a hurt young woman laying, filthy and bloody, on the sidewalk. Though his fiancee breaks up with him for doing so, Richard picks up the girl and, when she panics at his offer to take her to a hospital, takes her back to his flat to tend to her. The girl is named Door, and is not from the same London that Richard inhabits. Instead, she is from the shadowy second city — London Below. This underworld exists side-by-side with London Above, as the secretive residents of London Below refer to it, but few people can even see the people or the signs of this separate civilization. Door explains that people fall through the cracks in the city, and end up in the realm of magic and darkness.

Despite Door’s efforts to shield Richard from her world, she needs his help. Door is being pursued by two assassins named Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar; she doesn’t know who sent them or why, only that they are lethal and terrifying. The two men are one of Gaiman’s best achievements in this novel. They are quietly horrifying, sadists that maintain polite tones and grammatical correctness as they chase down their prey. Several of their scenes made the hair on my arms stand up. These two men are working for a secret employer, likely the same person that ordered the brutal murder of Door’s family prior to the events of the novel.

As he contacts people from her world, Richard becomes more and more entangled in the web of London Below. Door attempts to leave before any real damage is done, but Richard slips into her world against their best efforts. Richard is literally no longer visible to the people in London Above, and even the people that can see him don’t recognize him. Their gaze simply slides off him, and they forget about him as soon as their attention wavers. His job is gone. His apartment is sold out from under him. His fiancee forgets he ever existed. Left with nothing, Richard has no choice but to enter London Below and search for Door in hopes of finding someone to help him.

In London Below, Richard is utterly out of his element. He obtains a guide of sorts, but she soon disappears under murky circumstances. At the vibrant floating market, Richard is able to ask around — trading a hankerchief for information — and is directed to where he can find the pixie-like Door. Door and her allies, a  bodyguard as brutal as she is beautiful named Hunter and the well-connected but definitely shady Marquis de Carabas, initially want nothing to do with a bumbling outsider. Door, however, is soon overcome by guilt and allows Richard to tag along with them.

Richard is overcome by the world around him, which defies reality. The group’s adventures come fast and heavy, with injuries, fights, and even deaths along the way. Their quest is mercurial, as are Door’s supposed friends. Richard discovers a side of himself that he never knew existed, and begins to come into his own. The characters are interesting and engaging, and each is more well-rounded than I initially expected. Gaiman paints flaws into each of them, but it’s hard to hate any of the motley crew, even the one (*mini spoiler alert!*) who turns out to be a traitor.

I enjoyed Neverwhere, though there were a few loose ends at the close of the novel that I rather wished had been addressed. I did like the ending, though, despite the minor unfinished business. Neil Gaiman’s adventure is a fast, easy read, good for escaping the ordinary, if only for a few hours.

Happy reading!

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An Evening with David Sedaris

2012-11-15 Sedaris flyerThis is a bit belated, but I had to write about the wonderful “Evening with David Sedaris” that I attended on November 27. To begin with, I am a huge David Sedaris fan. I own all of his books, and listen to him on NPR every time he’s on; it’s not the holidays unless I giggle over “The Santaland Diaries” with a cup of cocoa.

I had the great pleasure of seeing him read several years ago, and afterward had him sign my copies of Naked and Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. I was dead last in the signing line, and waited for nearly an hour. When it was at long last my turn, Sedaris was gracious and charming, asking me about my life and encouraging me in my literary and authorial pursuits. He gave me a packet of lettuce seeds as a gift. When I got home, I looked in my books and was delighted to see that in one, he had written, “Betsy, it’s so wonderful to finally meet you in person. — David Sedaris” and in the other, “Betsy, I look forward to reading your work someday. — David Sedaris.”

This time, I arrived at the reading early enough to get in line for the limited number of signings he was doing before his show. When I stepped up to him clutching my copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day, Sedaris surveyed my dress and boots and said, “You look lovely! I like your dress. It’s so nice when people dress up for these things.” I almost floated away, because I had in fact put a considerable amount of planning into my outfit. I thanked him, and told him how excited I was to hear him read again. He asked when I saw him last, and I told him about being last in line and getting the packet of lettuce seeds, which I still have tucked away inside the cover of Naked.

As I spoke, he signed my book, then looked up and said, “Well, we have a relationship! We have a tradition now! Let me see what I have to give you.” He rummaged around in a large bag, then pulled out a what looked like a bound pamphlet. “This,” Sedaris said, “is a copy of a short story I read once in Amsterdam, but never published. It went over well, though, so they asked me to print a limited number of them and publish them alone.” I was delighted to be given another story, and he signed it with a flourish. “Enjoy the show. See you again soon!” he said as I thanked him profusely. 2012-11-27 Sedaris signing

I was positively pink with excitement, and I was completely over the moon when I saw what Sedaris had inscribed in my book: “To Betsy — We meet again, enchantress. — David Sedaris.”

I could have happily ended the night at that point, but there was still his reading. As always, Sedaris was both hilarious and heartfelt, turning such such moments as waiting in a coffee shop, getting a colonoscopy, or seeing a plastic bag full of water hung in a doorway into sidesplittingly funny commentary on not just himself and his loved ones, but society in general. I laughed so hard that I was in tears at several points.

I can’t praise David Sedaris enough as an author or as a person. I can’t wait for his next book, and hopefully, his next live reading!

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