Once, in Lourdes

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Thank You to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advance copy of Sharon Solwitz’s novel, Once, in Lourdes, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Set during the late 1960’s in Michigan, Once, in Lourdes, is the story of four high school friends who make a suicide pact. The teenagers sign a pledge to throw themselves off of a cliff and into the ocean at sunrise in two weeks. In the time leading up to the pact, they find themselves making bold choices and living as if they’re going to actually kill themselves. Who is solid with the plan and who might have doubts?

LIKE– Solwitz has set her novel during the Vietnam War, with her two male protagonists rapidly reaching the age where they might be drafted. The overriding feeling is one of uncertainty and fear, which felt fresh and relevant for our current political climate. Solwitz does a great job at rooting her story in the era and it made me feel transported.

Once, in Lourdes is told in a close third perspective of the four main characters:

Vera- a complicated girl from a wealthy, yet abusive home. She is beautiful, but has a disfigured hand that she alternatively tries to hide and use to shock. A force to be reckoned with, she’s the group leader.

Kate- Sweet and loyal. Kate is overweight and clashes with her stepmom, who has made it her personal mission to get Kate to slim down. Their home is focused on goals and perfection.

C.J. – Brainy and geeky.  C.J. is gay and is struggling both internally and externally with regard to his sexual feelings.

Saint- Handsome and the only one in the group from a poor family. Saint is quiet, kind, and mysterious. Vera, CJ, and Kate all have a crush on Saint.

Once, in Lourdes dips into the minds of all four characters and gives a little backstory of each. I was most interested in the Kate sections. Kate is the least willing to kill herself. In the two weeks leading up to the suicide date, she undergoes the biggest and most natural transformation of the group. Kate finally stands up to her stepmother and she begins to develop a crush on a boy that she plays tennis with, someone who is not part of this somewhat toxic and odd-ball group of friends that she has had for years. What’s even more, Kate allows herself to crush on the tennis boy, even when her friends don’t approve. Kate transforms into someone who has her own opinions and shares them, which is not who she is at the start of the story. I found Kate, who on the surface seems the most mundane of the group, to be the most fascinating.

Solwitz writes vivid descriptions and beautiful prose. I often paused to admire her writing. I thought that the very last chapter was the strongest of the novel. I was intrigued to see how it would all end and the ending has a good emotional pay-off.

DISLIKE – The story was made distracting and less effective, by too much shock value. Vera and her brother, Garth, are in an incestuous relationship. This is core to the story, leading to a major plot development towards the end. However, CJ also has a sexually laced encounter with his brother, while the two play a game of pool. They get naked and although nothing technically happens, CJ is clearly thinking of his brother in those terms. This was just too much for me. I’m not at all a prude, but the story is filled with graphic sexual details of all of the characters, which were simply less interesting than other aspects of the story. It didn’t need to be eliminated entirely, but it could have been used more judiciously for greater impact. It overwhelmed the narrative and I felt assaulted.

I was unevenly interested in the characters. I wish the story had more of both Saint and Kate, and less of Vera and CJ.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. Once, in Lourdes was okay, but I’m not sure that it will be a novel that sticks in my memory.  Solwitz is a strong writer, enough so, that I’d be inclined to check out her other novels.

The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches From the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA

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Thank You to W.W. Norton & Company for providing me with an advanced copy of Doug Mack’s The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Doug Mack’s The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA, is part travelogue and part history lesson. Mack travels to Puerto Rico, The U.S. Virgin Islands, America Samoa, The Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam, to meet the people who inhabit these lands that are “not-quite part of America,” and to better understand their history and culture.

LIKE– I consider myself fairly knowledgeable when it comes to US History, but Mack has opened my eyes. I had no idea that the United States still has so many territories or that it is so darn muddled regarding the rights of the people living in these areas. I felt a little relieved, when early in his book, Mack, a travel writer, admitted to also being unaware of the full extent of these territories. This made me feel less clueless and in good company. I enjoyed tagging along with Mack, as he visits these islands. Mack’s sense of humor and his interactions with the locals, blends well with the history and politics of each island.

Admittedly, some of the politics and legal talk of territories can get a little dry and very confusing, however, Mack puts it out in layman terms, so if I read it carefully, I felt like I was gaining an understanding. My overall impression of the situation is that it is complicated and there is no one solution. I was surprised by the high number of people from the territories serving in the US armed forces, yet depending on where they live, they may not have very many rights. I was shocked by how the rights can vary dramatically from each territory, depending on status ( incorporated/ unincorporated, commonwealth, organized/ unorganized). Seeing how messy this all is, coupled with a general lack of interest or knowledge that most US Citizens have towards the territories, I doubt we will be adding any new states in the near future. It’s even presumptuous to think that people in the territories necessarily want statehood. Mack is perceptive with his noting how the idea of colonization is very distasteful and not politically correct, yet colonies are essentially what America still has, even if we call them territories and try to play “out of sight, out of mind.”

Some of the history, for example the connection between World War 2 and Guam, was familiar. Currently, with North Korea ramping up its nuclear capabilities, and other nations in the Pacific, feeling on edge, these small islands are becoming more valuable for their strategic positioning in future wars. Each country wants to grab what they can in the Pacific for their own security. Mack speaks of this towards the end of his book and it gave me the chills. Speaking of chills, I was gutted when I read about the thousands of Japanese citizens, including families with small children, committing suicide off of a cliff in Saipan (Northern Mariana Islands) after learning that they had lost WW2. I’m sure that story will forever stick with me.

DISLIKE– Nothing. The Not-Quite States of America has left me a better informed citizen, it has given me a new perspective.

RECOMMEND- If you’re an American citizen, you should definitely add The Not-Quite States of America, to your reading list. Mack is an entertaining writer and his book is important.