Sunday, November 30, 2014

What Happened in November, 2014


This month, I have been reading and listening to some long books.  In fact, as the end of November approached, and I realized that I hadn't even done one review, I put down . . .And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer (not for the first time!), and picked up 1Q84 by Haruki Murikami, so that I could read it on paper when I wasn't listening to the audio version, and have at least one book to write about. 

IQ84 is set in Japan in 1984.  Apparently, in Japanese, 1Q84 is pronounced the same as 1984.  There are two main characters, Aomame and Tengo.  Aomame steps out of a taxi in a traffic jam, goes down a stairway, and finds herself in a parallel universe.   At first Aomame can't tell that she is in the wrong dimension, but then she begins to notice subtle clues, like news stories that everyone knows about but that she can't remember, and the appearance of a strange second moon in the sky. 

Tengo was a bit of a child prodigy, who as an adult is making ends meet by working in a "cram school" (tutoring center?), while he struggles with writing a novel.  A colleague who is judging a writing contest brings Tengo a strange offer.  If Tengo will re-write a promising piece that a teenage girl submitted, the colleague is certain that it would win a prize, and possibly become a best seller.  Tengo has already read the entry, and was oddly interested in it.  Despite his ethical reservations, he can't resist.

Aomame and Tengo were friends when they were 10 years old.  "Friends" may be overstating it, but they attended the same school, and sympathized with each other because of their unusual family situations.  Every Sunday, Tengo's father who worked for a broadcast network, would go from house to house collecting fees.  Sort of like if the cable guy came to your house every month instead of Comcast sending a bill.  Aomame's parents were members of a strict religious group, and they took Aomame around with them every Sunday when they proselytized.  The two children would see each other being dragged along by their parents, and feel a kinship.  One day they held hands.  Apparently that was enough for them each to live the rest of their lives thinking about each other.

All of the usual Murakami topics are here - cats, menstruation, classical music, etc.  While thinking about this, I stumbled upon this great page, which graphs how often Murikami mentions 10 different motifs in each of his novels.  I would add a few more to her diagram.  In fact, if you took all of the sentences out of this book where Tengo was contemplating his erection or Aomame was complaining about the size of her breasts or the texture of her pubic hair, I think the book would be 50 pages shorter.

One thing that surprised me and that I haven't noticed in Murikami's other books was that the translation was really horrible.  Murikami has lived in the US from time to time, and was even an associate professor at Princeton, so, I would expect his English to be excellent, and that he would be concerned about the translation.  There were some times when I would have used a different word, like when Aomame asked if she was annoying Tomaro, and she really meant to ask if she was disturbing him.  No big deal.  But it bugged me when they kept saying that Tengo's dad was in a sanatorium when he was clearly in a nursing  home and when Tengo couldn't stop talking about his "older girlfriend".  There must be one word in Japanese that means "older girlfriend" and another that means "girlfriend".  In the translation it was just awkward as Tengo was always thinking about his "older girlfriend" or going to visit his "older girlfriend", especially when the fact that she was older than him was basically irrelevant to the story.

At first, the story seemed overly simple.  At one point, Aomame basically said "Oh, I think I am in an alternate universe now"  which was strange.  But the story wound around like a cinnamon bun, getting tighter as it went, until everything came together well in the end.  In terms of Murikami books, it is still not my favorite, as that position belongs to Kafka on the Shore.  It may come in third for me, behind Kafka and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

1Q84 was a NYT Notable Book for 2011.  It was the longest audio book that I have ever listened to, with 38 discs.  In paper form, it is 925 pages, and definitely a Big Fat Book.

Tags:  Big Fat Books, Sci-Fi-ish, NYT Notable

Challenges:  Rewind, Audiobook, I Love Library Books

Book Group Reports

The Neighborhood Book Group took November off, but The Typical Book Group got together this month to discuss Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson.  I was glad that we picked this book to read, because it is one that I read a couple of years ago, and still think back to from time to time.   In short, MPLS is about an old retired army officer living in the English countryside, with no intention of challenging the status quo.  Then the Major meets Mrs. Ali, who is a local shopkeeper, and everything changes.  The things that were once important to him seem stodgy and trivial, and he recognizes the unspoken prejudices among his friends and relatives.  Mrs. Ali is of Pakistani descent, but has always lived in England.  Still, to the Major's acquaintances, she will always be foreign.

The Typical Book Groupers all loved the Major.  He reminded us of Harold Fry from The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.  Both the Major and Harold opened their minds when they were old enough to be set in their ways.  We also talked about what event was the Major's "last stand".  There were so many possible choices, and we each seemed to come in thinking that the last stand was something different from what the others thought.

Next month we'll discuss The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty

Tags:  Book Group Reports

In Other News


My expectations were low.  There was nothing that I wanted.  I didn't even go on the premier members only night.  And still, I found some great books at my library's semi-annual used book sale.  The only book that was even on my radar as something that I sort of wanted was Middlemarch, since I got My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead at the last sale, and knew that I wanted to read the original first.  That one was easy to find. 

Then, I stumbled upon Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton, which The Neighborhood Book Group is thinking about reading as part of our "foodie" genre.  Next, I found The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton.  Two of my friends, Kim and Ann, have read this one recently, and they both loved it.  Usually, I like what Kim likes, but Ann and I can be polar opposites in what we think makes a good book. Still, I'm looking forward to reading this one, and I got a great hard cover copy.

My coolest find was an obviously never before read copy of  Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, in French.  One of my neighbors who went with me to meet JSF a few years ago was in college working on her French minor at the time.  I think she'll be happy to get this one.
I also picked up Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus which I have had in my hot little hands at earlier sales and put back down.  However, this book, like . . . And Ladies of the Club covers the Civil War and a long period thereafter.  Also like . . . And Ladies, Oldest Living  was published in the 1980s.  This book is also almost as long as . . . And Ladies too, weighing in at 718 pages.  I may not rush into this one.
My nightstand now includes Mary Called Magdalene by Margaret George, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka, Bossypants by Tina Fey, and Secret Ingredients:  The New Yorker Book  of Food and Drink. 
All of these, plus 2 for my husband for a total of $17.00.  Not bad at all!

December Preview

NYT Notables - It is November 30 today and the NYT Notable Books list for 2014 is no where that I can find!  It will surely be included in my December newsletter.
I plan to read these books in paper form:
The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty
Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett, if I can get it, or Bread and Butter by Michelle Wildgen, if I can't.
Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King
(Sounds a lot like last month's preview - doesn't it!)
I plan to listen to these books in audio form:
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett, if it's easier to get on audio

Saturday, November 1, 2014

What Happened in October, 2014


The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Ever since Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer, there has been an awful lot of Goldfinch bashing going on.  The prime complaints seem to fall into one of two categories, the first being that Tartt needed a more cutting editor, and the second being that Tartt's characters spent too much time talking about drugs.  I, on the other hand, am in the camp of The Goldfinch defenders, which I sort of didn't expect. 

The Goldfinch is a long book, at 771 pages, but that alone does not mean that Tartt needed a better editor.  I can't say that not a single word could be cut, but neither I could cite many examples of areas where I was bored.  For the most part, the parts where one could think that an editor was needed were times were Tartt was deliberately prolonging the story to show how time was dragging on for the main character, such as at the engagement cocktail party, or while he was alone in Amsterdam.  I loved every page, and wish for another hundred or two.  As for the drugs, if this was too much for you, please don't read Edward St. Aubyn. 

Lest you think that I entered into this book with rose colored glasses, I have never been Donna Tartt's biggest fan.  Time and time again, I tell people that if they liked Tartt's Secret History, they will love Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marissa Pessl, which is similar, but in my opinion, better.  I rarely even talk about Tartt's The Little Friend, as it was really not that great of a book, but for some reason, it is one of those books that sticks in my mind with images reappearing constantly.  In The Goldfinch, Tartt hits the mark, and earns her reputation.

The Goldfinch starts with Theo and his mother visiting a NYC museum exhibit of Dutch artists, where a girl with red hair catches Theo's eye.  Theo is drawn to the girl, who is at the museum with a man who appears to be her grandfather.  He follows them, when suddenly a bomb explodes, and Theo's life is forever changed.  Theo becomes an unwitting art thief, and spends the next 20 years  hiding his treasure.  Theo's mom is killed in the explosion, and as a result, he moves in with his wealthy friend, Andy, and his family.  As might be expected, Theo's deadbeat father reappears, and whisks him off to Las Vegas.  In Vegas, Theo meets a new friend, Boris, whose life is at least as dysfunctional as his own.

Theo is charmed in that he has amazing people in his life.  Boris, flawed as he may be, is just what Theo needs, right when he needs him, time and time again.  Hobie, who Theo meets while trying to figure out what certain things that happened at the museum meant, shapes Theo's life, and gives him all of the stability that he was missing. Andy and his family, the Barbours, give Theo the illusion of normalcy, while also giving him a place to belong, if he wants it.

I listened to The Goldfinch on audiobook.  It was read by David Pittu, who won two Audies for his performance.  He should have won even more - as many as were available.  There had to have been at least 30 characters, all of whom had distinctive voices and accents.  The voices for Hobie and Boris were my favorite.  Pittu made Hobie seem old, dignified, and somehow more affluent than the customers who shopped in his store.  He made Boris sound impulsive, risky, shady, and yet still trustworthy and loyal, all with a Russian/Austrailian/Ukranian accent. 

I loved The Goldfinch, and will happily read it again, hopefully in the near future.  I am adding it to my list of Favorites.  The Goldfinch was a NYT Notable book for 2013.

Challenges:  Audiobook Challenge

Tags:  Big Fat Books, Favorites, Pulitzer Winner, NYT Notables, Awesome Audio,

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey is the story of an ex-pat experience, as told by a husband who felt that it was a complete success, and a wife who felt miserably out of place.  George and Sabine Harwood moved to Trinidad in 1956, just as the colonial rulers are losing power.  The new Prime Minister, Eric Williams, promised to change the country and free its true citizens from the control of outsiders.  George loves Trinidad, and loves the ex pat lifestyle, so much that he never wants to leave.  Sabine sees Trinidad with more weary eyes, and is hopeful that the people will find the leader who they are hoping for in Williams, even if he scares her with his anti-establishment promises.

There are a couple of stories that are going on in White Woman.  The first is that of a revolution, as seen through the eyes of an outsider.  Sabine, the only white person at the rallies supporting Williams, is hopeful for him and his followers, and would be more than happy to leave Trinidad to them.  When he gains power, and fails to make the changes that were promised, she sees him falling into the ways of the former rulers, and is disappointed that he is letting his people down, even if she was never an intended beneficiary.  While reading this, I couldn't help thinking about Kwame Kilpatrick.  As a person who lives near but not in Detroit, I was excited for Kilpatrick to be elected.  He was young and Detroit and whole metro area was ready for someone fresh to make a change.  Instead, the Detroiters who elected him were rewarded with scandal, corruption, and outright theft.  Like Sabine, I was on the outside, looking in, but hoping that the new leader would make a difference, even if the changes wouldn't directly help me.  Also like Sabine, I was disappointed and disillusioned with the results, even if a part of me knew that I was foolish to hope for more.

Another story that unfolds through out White Woman is that of people who catch each other's eye in a crowd, and never quite let go.  One day, while she is riding her bike, Sabine and Eric Williams lock eyes.  While they don't know each other, they feel a connection.  Over the next several years, they run into each other from time to time, and fall into conversations as if they have been speaking daily, saying things to each other that no one else would say.  While it could never happen in America, Roffey makes it seem completely reasonable that the Prime Minister of Trinidad would speak freely with a woman who he has only briefly met, but who looked really cute while riding her bike.

Challenges:  Rewind

Tags:  British Stories

Yankee Broadcast Network by John F. Buckley and Martin Ott

Although I haven't done any Industry Requested Reviews in a couple of months, I still get requests every day.  One request that caught my attention was that of John Buckley and Martin Ott, who wanted me to review their book of poetry about television.  While they were really straight forward about what their book was, I guess that I was a little surprised that literally every poem related to television.  My fault - not theirs.  What disappointed me though was that while they think about television enough to want to write a book of poetry inspired by it, they seem to really hate it.

For most of us, television is a guilty pleasure, but for Buckley and Ott, the pleasure is all gone, leaving nothing but guilt, and a dash of disgust.  One of the things that caught my attention when deciding to accept the review request was their poem called "The Real Housewives of Wayne County."  Wayne County, in case you don't know, is the county where Detroit is located.  However, it's also the county where Grosse Pointe (remember "Grosse Pointe Blank" starring John Cusack?) is, which makes Wayne County an area where extreme wealth abuts complete poverty.  The poem that Buckley and Ott wrote relied only on the Detroit brand names and stereotypes, and missed the opportunity for a study in contrasts.  In fact, they could have renamed it with the name of any county, and inserted the names of products made in that county, instead of "Better Made" and paczki.

My favorite poem was "Burn'ded" which was obviously a satire of Ashton Kucher's show, "Punk'd".  In the Buckley and Ott version, there are many people playing ever escalating "pranks" ending with a home grown terrorist who eventually sees the episode in which he stars with his fellow inmates.

Yes, Yankee Broadcast Network was exactly what it promised it would be.  I just didn't like it as much as I hoped I would.

Tags:  Industry Requested Reviews

Book Group Reports

The Neighborhood Book Group met to discuss The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley.  There were 8 of us who met, and only 4 had finished the book.  2 more were not quite finished, and the other two of us (I was in this group) never picked the book up.  At the beginning of the meeting, I would have said that of the people who read it, half liked it, and half didn't.  Unfortunately, after discussing various unlikely twists and coincidences, the people who had started off saying that they liked it changed sides.  I think I won't bother trying to pick this one up. 

We chose to discuss Sweetness because we are trying to read something from various genres, and this one was chosen as a mystery.  In December we will meet again to discuss The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, which we have classified as science fiction.

The Typical Book Group met this month to discuss . . . And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer.  We picked this book as our summer Big Fat Book (BFB) in June, and delayed meeting until October to discuss it.  Even with this delay, of the 9 people at book group, only 2 had finished the book.  There were 3 more of us who had started it and were in various stages of progress, but the rest didn't even give it a try.

I talked about . . .And Ladies in my August and September wrap ups.  Basically it is an 1100+ page book about a book group that formed in the late 1800s, and the course of the lives of the original members.  As I've mentioned, I frequently fall asleep after reading only a few pages.  The two groupers who finished the book said that somewhere around page 500, the story picked up so that they could easily read 50 pages at a time, and that they thought about the book all of the time when they weren't reading it.  I'm somewhere around page 700 now, and I am not experiencing that at all, but then again, I've been putting it down for 2 or 3 weeks at a time and coming back to it, instead of immersing myself in the story.  Maybe this month I'll stick with it until I'm done.

All told, the people who finished the book liked it, and thought that it was worth reading.  I did notice though that one of them only gave the book 3 GoodReads stars.  So, while I'm now expecting something worth finishing, maybe I won't expect it to be life changing.

Next month we'll read Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson.

In Other News

The Man Booker Prize was announced on October 14.  This year's winner was The Narrow Road to the Deep North  by Richard Flannigan.  Based on the Amazon reviews, this sounds like a really good book.  The main character is an Australian surgeon in a Japanese POW camp during World War II.  I'll be keeping my eyes open for more on this one.

November Preview

People, I am burnt out on blogging, and almost even dreading it.  So, I'm not making any promises about even doing a monthly summary for November.  But in case you are interested in what I am planning to read and listen to, here you go:

In Paper Form:
. . . And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer.  Yes, I promise to finish this book in November.
Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett, if I can get it, or Bread and Butter by Michelle Wildgen, if I can't.
Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King

On Audio Book:
1Q84 by Haruki Murikami
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

What Happened in September, 2014


Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks

Two Christmases ago, my daughter gave me Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks.  The movie was coming out, and the plan may have been to trick me into taking her to see it by giving me the book first.  The plan didn't work, and Safe Haven sat in my nightstand  unread for a year and a half.  In August, my family rented a house in North Carolina, and I decided that it was the perfect time to give Safe Haven a try.  I expected it to be a good beach book, with the added benefit that my daughter would see me reading it and appreciating her gift.

I have to say that Safe Haven was pretty much exactly what one might expect from a Nicholas Sparks book.  The main character, Katie, has left her abusive husband and fled to a small North Carolina town.  There she meets the recently widowed Alex, and falls in love with him and his two children.  All is going well until, yep, you guessed it. 

While the story was predictable, it was a page turner, and I found myself oddly unable to put it down.  Sparks played some hokey name games, and threw in an unexpected but equally unbelievable twist at the end.  Still, if you are renting beach house and looking for something to bring along, you might as well bring this one!

Challenges:  Rewind

Tags:  Light and Fluffy

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

I'm a pretty persistent reader.  Most of the time, if I can make it through the first hundred pages, I'll finish the book.  Last month, I put down . . . And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer after over 400 pages.  This month, I'm quitting The Finkler Question, despite being 2/3 through.

The Finkler Question is the story of three men living in London, Julian Treslove, Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik.  Julian and Sam are about the same age as each other - mid 40s, and Libor is in his 80s.  Libor and Sam are recently widowed.  They are also Jewish.  So what, you ask?  Jewishness is all that they talk about.

Julian is mugged, and believes that he was the victim of an anti-Semitic attack.  Although he is not Jewish, he then experiences a huge case of Jewish envy, and tries to become Jewish by changing his manner of speaking and actions, without actually converting.  Libor is seemingly happily Jewish, although he spends a great deal of time thinking about whether attacks on Jewish people and places are understandable, if not justified.  Sam Finkler, on the other hand, joins a group who identify themselves as ASHamed Jews and are opposed to the Israeli state.

Much of the dialogue in The Finkler Question is focused on what it means to be Jewish, whether one can be Jewish and be ashamed of other Jewish people, and whether Jewish people who disagree with what other Jewish people are doing, especially in Israel, are anti-Semitic.

If you are Jewish, and are questioning your beliefs, this might be a great book for you.  I was actually not aware that some Jewish people don't support Israel, which I probably should have known.  So much of the book is about Jewish people as a group, and then the opinions of particular Jewish people.  All of this is great, but it just got old.  I was looking for another dimension to the characters.  Being Jewish, or being jealous of people who are Jewish, shouldn't be all that they are.

The Finkler Question won the Man Booker Prize for 2010. 

Challenges: Rewind, Audiobook, and I Love Library Books

Tags: British Stories, Man Booker Listed, Questioning Religions

. . . And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer

Well, I picked it up again.  This time I read from where I left off, at page 413 in 1880, until page 613 in 1887.  Some more club members have died, others have married, and the kids are mostly grown.  There are some hints that someone might be a lesbian, but I'm not sure if that was a topic discussed in popular fiction in 1982 when the book was first published, so I'm not expecting anything explosive.

The other members of The Typical Book Group are also struggling with this one.  We usually discuss our summer Big Fat Book in August, or possibly in September if everyone is out of town at the end of the summer.  This year, we have decided to move the meeting back until October.

Although this book is taking me forever, I am liking it.  It has a nice, soothing rhythm.  There's not a ton of action, but there is something about it that I like.  I'm taking a break again, but after I finish The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon, I'll try and knock out another 200 pages.

The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon

In 1930, a judge in New York named Joseph Crater suddenly disappeared and became the "The Missingest Man in New York".  His wife, Stella was at their vacation home in Maine, while Crater went to Atlantic City with his mistress, Sally Lou Ritz.  He came back to the City, had dinner with Ritz and his lawyer, William Klein, then got in a cab, and was never seen again.  In her book, The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress, Ariel Lawhon offers a theory of what may have happened.

Lawhon's story focuses on the tangled connections between Stella and Crater and a cast of characters including a mob boss, Owney Madden, his unexpectedly friendly thug, Shorty, and the Craters' maid, Maria.  No one seems to actually have liked Crater, so there were lots people who might have preferred for him to disappear.  In fact, in real life as in the book it took 10 days for anyone to start wondering where he was.

During Crater's lifetime, there were rumors about how he secured his appointment to court. Lawhon speculates that Owney Madden was involved, and became worried when a grand jury was convened to investigate alleged corruption.  She then also guesses that the police investigating the crime may be indebted to Madden themselves.

Sometimes in a historical fiction book, there is something that happens that is so unbelievable that you know it must be true.  In this story, when it turned out that the Craters' maid was married to one of the policemen investigating the case, I knew that it must have been true, because there's no way that a police officer would be charged with investigating his wife's boss' mysterious disappearance, so no author would make that up.  However, when I got to Lawhon's end notes, it turned out that was a fictional twist.  The Craters did have a maid, but there's no indication that she was married to an investigator. 

All told, this was an interesting story, made all the more so with its morsels of truth.

Challenges:  I Love Library Books Challenge

Tags:  Historical Fiction   

In Other News

Pass it On

You might remember that I got my copy of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson from a Little Free Library.  I finished that book while I was staying that the beach house that I talked about in my review of Safe Haven, and so I left it there.  The shelves were crowded with more beach reads than literary fiction, but I found it a nice spot next to The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.  While Safe Haven would have fit right in, I wasn't done with it yet.  So, I'll return Safe Haven to my Little Free Library instead.  Pass it on!

Man Booker Short List

The Man Booker Prize Shortlist was announced on September 9.  To my surprise, David Mitchell's new book, The Bone Clocks, did not make the cut.  Instead, Joshua Ferris' book, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour made the list, along with books by Howard Jacobson, Karen Joy Fowler, Richard Flanagan, Neel Mukherjee and Ali Smith.  Despite an earlier so-so review, the Times published this almost glowing review of To Rise Again on September 15.  What brought on the reconsideration?  I just might suspect that they didn't want to be left on the wrong side of the hype if Ferris wins this one.  More power to him.

Blogging for Rivera

This month, I had dinner in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts.  No biggie really, I've been there before, and anyone in my tri-county area can go for free.  But it is pretty spectacular.  If you need a reason to visit Detroit, this could be it.

But anyway, sitting there, sipping wine, I was thinking about Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo, and I couldn't help but think about The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver.  The thing about The Lacuna is that although I know that it was a good book, and it was about Rivera and Kahlo, I can't tell you much about it.  Unfortunately, I read it during the period when I had officially started my blog, but before my Parent Rant that got me really writing about what I read.  And this is why I'm still blogging.  I'm convinced that if I stop, I won't remember the details about the books that I read.  So, here I go, blogging toward another month.

October Preview

In October, I plan to read and review the following books:

On Paper or Electronic Format:

. . . And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer
White Woman on a Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey
Bread and Butter by Michelle Widgen

On Audio

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Sunday, August 31, 2014

What Happened in August, 2014


And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer

I tried.  Seriously, people, I tried.  For a full month I have been reading . . . And Ladies of the Club and I am still only 1/3 of the way through. 

. . . And Ladies of the Club was a popular book in the 1980s, and The Typical Book Group picked it as our summer BFB (Big Fat Book).  The story starts just after the Civil War, when two of the main characters, Sally and Anne, graduate from college and enter the real world of Waynesboro, OH.  They are asked by one of their teachers if they are interested in becoming part of a yet to be formed literary women's club, and they quickly agree.  From there, we meet 10 other women who become club members, their families, and their husbands. 

400 pages in, I am still in the late 1800s, three of the club members have died, and several others have been admitted.  The members have confronted social and political issues, like calls for prohibition, presidential elections, and the challenges of reuniting a divided country. 

The story reads like a classic, with not a lot of action, and lots of social dilemmas.  While I don't find it  boring, it is so soothing that it frequently lulls me to sleep after 5 or fewer pages.  So, I'm taking a break.  I would hate to waste two months reading a book only to say "meh" at the end.  We'll see.  If I read a couple more books and keep thinking about this one, I'll come back.

Tags:  Historical Fiction, Big Fat Books

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle is a company, likely based on Google or Facebook, where everyone who is smart and young wants to work.  They have a campus, which they would prefer that you not leave, where bands clamour to perform, where food and health care is provided and where innovation is constant.  The Circle wants to find out everything that is knowable in the modern world.  Do 27 year olds prefer Cancun or Hawaii?  How many grains of sand are there in the desert?  What happens when you transfer sea animals that have never before been seen into a Circle designed habitat?  The Circle is all about transparency.  If a person visits a park and doesn't post pictures to Facebook to tell their friends about it, why didn't they?  Were they ashamed?  Are they trying to hide their activities?  Or are they being anti-social?  It is quickly determined that all people are entitled to all experiences.  If you go to an art show in California, and I am stuck in Michigan, I can be there with you if you post about it.  But if you don't post about the experience, you are stealing that opportunity from me.  

Mae, a floundering Carlton College graduate, begins to work for The Circle when her friend, Annie, invites her to apply.  Mae quickly finds herself overwhelmed with gratitude to Annie, but also surprised by how much of her life The Circle wants to consume, and how much she is willing to give it.  Mae's dad is suffering from MS, and she is able to get better insurance coverage for him through The Circle.  In exchange, The Circle will monitor all of his care, which will obviously require live video supervision from 10 different cameras in his house.  Soon her parents begin to feel that this is too much, but Mae is insistent that The Circle knows best. 

The Circle is a commentary about how much of our privacy we are willing to give up while getting little in return.  As a customer experience worker, Mae finds herself devoting valuable time to people who she has never met but who have asked her to like them, instead of spending time with her family members and real life friends.  The instant gratification of having another "friend" and getting a favorable rating outweighs anything that Mae believes her parents could provide to her.

Part 1984, part "War Games", and part MaddAddam, The Circle predicts a not so distant future where online participation is mandatory.  Individuals control crime by mounting inexpensive video cameras which anyone can log into and see through.  This sounds good enough, but in a world where secrets are considered lies the superficial takes the place of the real.  Margaret Atwood calls much of her work "speculative fiction" instead of "science fiction", which is very apt in this case.  We can't be too many years away from a time when much of The Circle's technology is possible.  It is as though The Circle is a predecessor to the corporations that control the world in Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy.  In MaddAddam, each corporation has a campus and controls the lives of its employees, but there secrets are essential, and the corps will do anything to keep their secrets from getting out.  In the timeline of speculative fiction, The Circle would be placed between Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore and Oryx and Crake.  The Circle was a NYT Notable for 2013.

Eggers did an incredible job of imagining the world that could be.  Some of the technology that he explains, especially the "See Change" video cameras which can be mounted anywhere and are so inexpensive that they are readily available to everyone, seems possible.  My guess is that this is something that Eggers has mulled over, and that he hasn't gotten too many hours of sleep, for fear of the future.

The Circle was read by Dion Graham, who also read several of Egger's earlier books including A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and What is the What.  To me, he is the voice of Dave Eggers.  It is a testament to Graham's ability that he is able to read these stories with such a range of topics and characters.

Challenges:  Audiobook Challenge, I Love Library Books Challenge

Tags:  NYT Notables; Sci-Fi-ish

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Have you ever had that feeling that if you just had something to do over again, you would do it differently?  So has Ursula Todd.  In Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, the novel consists of a series of episodes in Ursula's life.  There are three primary story lines, being the stories of Ursula's birth, that of her 16th birthday, and that of her World War II experience.  In each of these, the first time the story is told, it ends horribly for her, and she dies.  Each story is then retold, with Ursula making slightly different choices, as though she knows that she is trying to keep something from happening, but doesn't quite remember what.  Again, something horrible happens, and she dies.  The stories are retold again and again until Ursula has carefully navigated around all of the hidden hazards of her life, and can move on to the next episode.

Ursula feels a strong sense of deja vu, and eventually realizes that she has the ability to change the course of history, one tiny interception at a time.  If her maid falls down the stairs and can't go to a celebration in London, she won't bring the flu back to Ursula's household.  If she befriends Eva Braun, could she prevent World War II?

Atkinson's novel twists and turns while moving two steps forward and one step back.  It is almost as though she took Ursula's life, couldn't decide which way to go, and told the story every way that she could imagine.  However, the result is so carefully constructed that the novel presents Ursula's choices almost as a form of Darwinian evolution rather than simple drafts that didn't work out.

Life After Life was a NYT Notable Book for 2013, and the 2013 GoodReads Choice winner for Historical Fiction.

Tags:  Historical Fiction, NYT Notables, WWII Civilian Stories, British Stories

September Preview:

In September, I plan to read and review the following in paper or electronic form:

Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks
. . . And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hoover Santmyer (Try, Try again!)
The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon

I also plan to finish listening to The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, and will post about that, and will start listening to The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.  However, at 32 hours, I am unlikely to post a review of this one before October.


Thursday, July 31, 2014

What Happened in July 2014



The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal

Edmund De Waal is a famous twenty-first century potter (did you know that there was one?) who I first read about in this NYT article.  Although the article was intended to be about De Waal's new exhibit, the reporter talked enough about De Waal's family memoir, The Hare With Amber Eyes that I had to add it to my TBR list. 

What is amazing about Hare is that while it could have been the epitome of vanity publishing, instead it is a really great book, without bragging or pouting.  De Waal's family first made its fortune in Odessa through grain trading.  His great-great grandfather pushed the family into Europe, where they established banks in Paris and Vienna.  De Waal's great uncle was Charles Ephrussi, whose name was familiar to me, but for a while I didn't know why. Charles was the third son, and was able to avoid the family business and do things that were more interesting, like collect art.  He lived in Paris in the time of the Impressionists, and his collection included works by Pissaro, Monet, Renior, Cassatt, and Degas, all in one room of his home.  When De Waal discussed his uncle's relationship with Renoir, I knew why I knew Charles.  Charles Ephrussi is the man in the top hat in Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party.  Susan Vreeland's Luncheon of the Boating Party is a book that I loved reading, and is on my list of books that I would like to re-read this year.  Unfortunately (fortunately?) I lent my copy to my friend, Kim, so I couldn't take a detour into fiction while reading Hare.

That's OK, because in Hare, the truth is better than the fiction could have been.   When Paris became obsessed with Japanese art in the 1800s, Charles jumped in, and amassed a collection of netsuke.  Netsuke are small, intricately carved objects, made sometimes from stone, ivory, or even wood.  Time passed, and the netsuke went out of style.  Charles sent his valuable collection to a nephew, De Waal's grandfather, as a wedding gift.  De Waal's grandfather went on to live in Vienna, where he ran the family owned bank.  According to De Waal, his grandfather's pre-World War II wealth, in today's dollars, was $400 million.  Unfortunately for the De Waal family, they were Jewish, and living in a Nazi state.  By the end of the war, most of the wealth was gone, but amazingly, the netsuke survived and passed through another generation, before landing in De Waal's capable hands.

While billed as the story of the netsuke, this is really a story of a family living in an incredible time.  It somehow doesn't read as a memoir, so much as a telling of historical events in a new and interesting light.  Definitely worth the read. 

Challenges: I love library books

Tags:  Memoir, Non-Fiction, WWII Civilian Stories, Paris

McSweeney's 44

McSweeney's is a quarterly something that generally includes short stories and articles, and was created by Dave Eggers.  I say that it is a quarterly "something" rather than magazine or journal or book, because it is really none of these.  Sometimes it comes with the stories loose in a box, sometimes it looks more like a magazine.  Usually, it looks a lot like novel, which is the case with 44.  The main contributors to 44 were Joe Meno, Rebecca Curtis, Tom Barbash, Jim Shepard, Stuart Dybek, and Wells Tower.  There was also a 82 page tribute to Lawrence (Ren) Weschler, to which many others contributed.

One of my favorite parts of 44 were the letters to the editor, which were all witty and quirky, and generally what one would expect from McSweeney's readers who are hoping to get published themselves. 

Jim Shepard wrote a particularly un-McSweeny-ish story that I liked called "The Ocean of Air", about the Montgolfier brothers who were the first to invent a hot air balloon safe for human travel.  I also liked Stuart Dybek's piece, "Happy Ending" which tells the story of a man, Gil, attending a party thrown by a mogul who claimed to be unhappy.  Gil shows the mogul how happy he is by inventing a scenario which would make his life much worse.  Another interesting story was "Birthday Girl" by Tom Barbash, where a driver who is possibly (almost surely) drunk hits a young girl, and then tries to make things right.

The story by Wells Tower, "The Dance Contest" is well written and interesting, but also strange.  It is about a man named Osmund Tower, the fictional father to Wells, who finds himself imprisoned in the luxury wing of the Theb Moob Mens' Prison in Thailand, due primarily to his naivete.  While he may be in the best possible part of the prison, it is a prison none the less.  The Captain in charge comes up with the idea of rewarding the prisoners with prizes, based on their performance in a dance contest, as judged by Internet viewers.  Cruel and unusual?  You decide.  What I didn't get about this piece is why Tower wanted to make it seem like his character was his father.  Why not just name him Tom Sutherland or Osmund Miller?

Although I, personally, didn't need such a long, funereal, tribute to Ren Weschler, he seems to be a person I should know more about.   I would recommend starting with the Errol Morris conversation with Weschler, and then skipping ahead to Jonathan Lethem's tribute.   If they leave you wanting more, 44 is well stocked.  As always, I finished McSweeney's feeling a little smarter (and maybe a little more smug) than when I started.

Challenges:  Rewind

Tags:  Keeping it Short, Historical Fiction, Non Fiction

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

MaddAddam is the third book in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake trilogy.  The first book, Oryx and Crake, focused on Jimmy, a guy in his early 20s who survived some sort of a plague, and wonders if he is the only human who made it.  He lives among people he calls "Crakers" because they were developed in a lab by his friend, Crake.  Much of that book was told through flashbacks about Crake and their shared love, Oryx.  The second book, The Year of the Flood, was told mostly by Toby and Ren.  They are members of a group, The God's Gardeners, who try to live in a more simple way among the corporations and criminals of the modern world.  MaddAddam again focuses on Toby, but this time the story is more about two other God's Gardeners, Zeb and Adam. 

MaddAddam takes place after the waterless flood of the plague, and begins right where The Year of the Flood ended.  Toby, Ren, Amanda and Jimmy are all in a confrontation with dangerous painballers, who are criminals who have fought to the death and survived.  Toby is happy to be reunited with her old crush, Zeb, and much of the book is Zeb telling about his life as a boy with his brother, Adam.  Adam and Zeb had to flee from their abusive but powerful father, the Rev.  Zeb found adventure slaying bears and impersonating big foot, while Adam went on to recruit like-minded people to become MaddAddams and God's Gardeners.

While MaddAddam brought resolution to the series, I found it a little lacking compared to the earlier two books.  Ren and Jimmy were marginalized and treated like children here, when they had much stronger roles in the earlier books.  At the end of the trilogy, I still don't know what the point of the MaddAddams was.  Was it just to be a  group of people gathering information about the bad things the corporations were doing?  The MaddAddamers don't seem to do anything, although they investigate a lot, and know a lot.  Also I'm totally lost about Adam.  Was he really into his Adam 1 God's Gardeners persona, or did he establish the God's Gardeners just as a front to hide corporate escapees and further the MaddAddam cause?  Much of the plot was also redundant, with Zeb telling his story to Toby, and then Toby telling the same story to the Crakers.

My favorite part of MaddAddam was the Crakers.  When Crake invented them, he intended them to be post-religion, and had no idea that they would come to worship him and Oryx as deities.  He also didn't anticipate Toby teaching one of them, Blackbeard, to read, or the creation of a Craker bible, the Book of Toby.  Atwell was also incredibly timely in describing how the religion of corporations can lead to the destruction of mankind.  In light of the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision, the world as she predicts it is all the more likely.  In MaddAddam, Adam and Zeb's dad was the leader of the Church of PetrOleum.  As he preaches, the "Petr" is from the apostle, Peter, and the "oleum" is because of all the references to oil in the Bible.  Clearly, God created oil for our use, and any government attempt to regulate the drilling or sale of oil is a violation of the religious beliefs of the Church.  Maybe, just maybe, we could learn from the mistakes that Atwood's characters make in the name of a self serving religious belief.

MaddAddam was a NYT Notable Book for 2013.

Challenges:  I Love Library Books and AudioBook

TagsNYT Notables, Sci-Fi-Ish, Questioning Religions

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

During the early days of  the siege of Sarajevo, in 1992, a cellist with the Sarajevo Opera named Vedran Smailovic, played his cello in ruined buildings and at funerals which were frequently targeted by snipers.  In The Cellist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway takes Smailovic's story, and sets it to fiction.  In Galloway's Sarajevo, a young woman who calls herself Arrow is working as a sniper defending the city.  A man with a young family, Kenan, walks from one side of the city to the other in order to fill water bottles for himself and his neighbor.  An older man, Dragan, tries to get to the bakery where he works and where he knows bread is waiting for him.  Each of these characters faces the possibility at every intersection that he or she may be shot by a sniper or hit by a shell.  All of  them are eventually drawn to the cellist.

Sarajevo fell from being the host of the Olympics in 1984, to being a place where a person could expect to get shot while walking down the street just eight years later.  Galloway's characters face their new reality while not quite believing that it could be true.  Each of them refuses to be that person, living in that city.  They believe that if they can hold on to their integrity and standards, Sarajevo has hope of being restored.  Unfortunately the siege and the war waged on for years after this story ends, and after Smailovic left the city.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is the story of life in a war zone, where no one is coming to help.  It tries to be a story of hope, but the reader is left with the feeling that if Arrow, Kenan and Dragan aren't killed on one day, they may be the next.

There was some controversy about Galloway's use of Smailovic's actions in this book.  Galloway defends his story as being fictional but inspired by Smailovic's public acts.  Smailovic apparently was not told about the book before it was published and felt exploited by it.  However the story came to be told, it is worth knowing.  

Challenges:  Rewind, I Love Library Books, Audiobook

Book Group Reports

The Neighborhood Book Group Neighborhood Book Group met in June to discuss This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper.  I was a lame book-grouper, and had to leave after only half an hour to go play bunco instead.  Life in suburbia!  Luckily, this book group is all business, so I actually got to do some book discussing before I left.  With the movie coming out this fall, we talked a lot about the characters and the stars who will play them.  Although I love Tina Fey, I just can't see her as Judd's sister, Wendy.  Like 90% of the characters in this book (Am I underestimating?  Is it 100%?), Wendy is having an affair, and her life is just basically  sad.  Maybe Tina will make her situation seem less pathetic.  We also talked about who was the most dysfunctional.  This discussion could last hours.  Most of the group sided with the mom, Hillary, or the younger brother, Phillip.  And, this is where I left them, so I'm not sure where the conversation went from there. 

Next month they (we?) will discuss The Vacationers by Emma Straub.  I'm so bogged down in The Typical Book Group's summer BFB, that I don't think I'll have time to get to this one.

 The Typical Book Group

The Typical Book Group never meets in July, but in June we pick a Big Fat Book (BFB) to read all summer long.  This year we picked . . . And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer.  Talk about a BFB.  My copy is 1184 pages, and it's actually a little uncomfortable to hold. After two weeks of reading, I am only 200 pages in.  I'll have to pick up my pace if I'm ever going to make it through this!

Tags:  Book Group Reports, Big Fat Books

In Other News:

Local Libraries

Are these cute neighborhood libraries popping up near you? 
My friend, Debby's father-in-law installed one in his front yard.  There's another one in the park at the end of my street.  They are the cutest things.  The idea is, you can pick a book to take, and leave a book for someone else to read.  No sign out slips, no late fees.  It's the honor system at its best.  Debby's F-I-L lives in a bit of a hoity-toity neighborhood, but in an area where lots of people walk, so I think his library will get lots of action.  Doing my best to convert young future Republicans to a more reasonable party, I deposited a copy of The Believer, which is a book review magazine by the McSweeney's people, as well as a cookbook, and my copy of Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks.  In exchange, I took a copy of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, which has been on my TBR list since it became a NYT Notable.  Score!

Winner, Winner, Goldfinch Dinner

Guess what?  I won a copy of The Goldfinch audiobook by Donna Tartt.  Remember way back when when I was giving away a copy?  No, I didn't enter and win my own contest.  Because The Goldfinch won two Audies, there were two copies to give away, and I entered the giveaway on Wholly Books.  And I won!  I can't wait to get it and start listening!

Loss of a Legend

On July 3, we lost Louis Zamperini.  The real story here is not that a 97 year old man died, because really, what more could we expect?  What is remarkable is that Zamperini was still alive.  Zamperini was a former Olympic athlete who was shot down over the Pacific during World War II, and then taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese.  His story is told in Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, which Angelina Jolie has turned into a soon to be released movie.  Here is a link to the NYT Obituary.

Man Bookered

On July 23, the Man Booker Prize Longlist was announced.  This was the first year that authors from everywhere around the world were eligible, rather than just authors from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth.  So, with Americans now eligible, 5 made the list.  The only author who made it this year who I have read is Joshua Ferris, and the reviews of his recent book, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour have been pretty mixed.  Some might have expected The Goldfinch, which already won the Pulitzer, to edge out a few of the lesser known picks.  However, it was no surprise that Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn didn't make the cut.  Lost for Words is a thinly veiled satire of the Man Booker Prize, and it would have been a shock if the Man Booker judges were thick skinned enough to select it.  The Shortlist will be announced on September 9.  My money is on David Mitchell's new book, The Bone Clocks, even though it hasn't been released or reviewed on this side of the pond yet.

August Preview:

In August, I hope to review the following books:

The Circle by Dave Eggers
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - I'll only get started on this one - it's 32 hours!

Traditional or EBooks
. . . And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer
Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks (IF I make it through Ladies)
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson  (OK - this will be a stretch!)

Friday, June 27, 2014

Reason #27 Not to Play with Dead Rats

In 1665, England had a problem.  People were dying of a mysterious disease that no one knew how to stop.  It started in London, so of course anyone with the means left the city.  By leaving, however, the Londoners took the plague with them to the neighboring villages and towns.  One village, Eyam, found the plague to be within its borders, and took the drastic step of quarantining itself.  It is in this village that Geraldine Brooks sets her story, Year of Wonders.

In Year of Wonders, Anna is a young widow and mother who takes in a boarder to help her make ends meet.  The boarder is a tailor who travels outside of the village on a regular basis.  Soon he falls ill and dies, directing Anna to burn all of his unfinished work, for fear that it has been contaminated.  After other villagers begin to die, they realize that they have been overtaken by a plague.  They make arrangements with a neighboring town to keep them supplied with goods, provided that they do not leave the village and risk infecting others.  This quarantine is the idea of the rector, Michael Mompellion.  Time passes and more and more villagers die, causing them to question their decision and their leader.

While I was listening to Year of Wonders, I kept wanting to yell to the characters "Now go wash your hands!  Right now!  With soap!"  They didn't listen to me, but in reality, it may not have mattered if they had.  The thinking now is that the plague was spread through flea bites.

Although this sounds like a terrible book, in the first chapter Brooks introduces us to characters who  lived through the disease, and mentions some who died.  It is definitely more a story of survival than a story of tragedy.  I have read all of Brooks' novels, and Year of Wonders is probably my second favorite, behind People of the Book.  Other Brooks novels that I have reviewed on this blog are March and Caleb's Crossing

Year of Wonders was a NYT Notable Book for 2001.  For the Challenges, this one is a triple countsie - Rewind, Audiobook, and I Love Library Books.

Next Up on CD:  Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood

Still Reading (and Loving!):  The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Water Under the Bridge

We are Water by Wally Lamb is a story showcasing the cycle of violence that results from abuse.  Damaged people damage other people again and again.  The primary storyline involves Annie, who is a mother of three grown children, and who has recently determined that she is a lesbian.  As an artist, Annie plans to marry the gallery owner who promotes her work.  Annie is one of the above referenced damaged people who perpetuates the cycle within her family.  Annie's ex-husband, Orion is oblivious to the trauma that his wife faced as a child, and equally clueless as to what has happened in his own home, even though he is a psychologist. 

The most interesting part of the book is the story of Josephus Jones, a black artist who lived on Orion and Annie's Connecticut property years before they did, and died by "falling" into a well.  Josephus was based on Ellis Ruley, a black artist who was married to a white woman, and who also died mysteriously in the 1950s.  Unfortunately, Josephus is only a small part of Water

Another part of Water that Lamb took from real life is the story of how Norwich, CT flooded in 1963.  That night forever changed Annie's life.  From this article, it is clear that Lamb took the details of his story from accounts of what happened that night.  Lamb, himself, was there and lived through the flood as a 12 year old.  After reading the article, however, I have to wonder how Lamb's neighbor who is interviewed for the article feels about being turned into a fictional pedophile by Lamb.

In Water, Lamb is very explicit in describing the sexual abuse of children.  So vivid, in fact, that I have to wonder if he has crossed over the line that separates literature from the realm of something that might stimulate a person who is aroused by children.  Am I saying that Water is kiddie porn?  Not quite.  But whatever it is, I could do without.

The Typical Book Group is right.  The characters are not likable, and the pedophile story line was over the top.  If Lamb had stuck to the real stories of Ellis and the flood, and maybe spent some more time on the art theft plot instead of the stories of abuse, I would have liked it better.

One more down for the I Love Library Books and the Audiobook Challenges.

If you are interested in winning some free books, there is a Literary Fiction blog hop going on right now.  I'm not participating, but I did enter a few of the giveaways.  To get to it, visit River City Reading, and click through the list of participants.  You can enter to win on every blog.  Good luck!

Next up:  The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Typical Book Group Report - 21

It was sort of a strange book group meeting last night.  There were 7 of us there, and only three people had finished reading the book, We are Water by Wally Lamb.  I was about 1/3 of the way through, and a couple of others had read the first chapter or two.  Our host, Barb, apologized for the selection.  But, the three of them who had actually read the whole book couldn't stop talking about it.  They were very courteous about not spoiling it for the rest of us, but they clearly had a lot to say, even if they didn't love the book. 

The chief complaint was about the chapters told in the voice of Kent.  They felt that the pedophilia was much too graphic, and from the amount that I've read, I agree.  They also felt that there wasn't a character in the whole book that they liked as a person, and that most of the stories ended sadly. 

Well, they can't all be winners.  I have to say that I am liking the book more than I expected to.  I'll post more about it once I finish.

We won't meet again until the end of the summer.  Each year, we pick a Big Fat Book (BFB) to read all summer long.  Quite a few long books have come out since last summer, but we wound up picking one that was first published in 1982.  It is . . . And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer.  The Times HATED it, but apparently the American public of the 1980s loved it.  I'll keep you posted!

For now, I'm still reading and listening to We are Water by Wally Lamb

Sunday, June 15, 2014

An Imperfect Life

Tom Rachman knows how to create a character.  His first book, The Imperfectionists, was a novel told through short stories of various people who work for or are devoted to a newspaper, The Paper.  Each character was related to the others in some way, but each was a fully developed person, with an interesting life away from The Paper.

His second book, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers is a character study of a woman named Matilda, including her childhood and the odd collection of people who raised her.  The action is set in 1988, when Matilda, who is also called Tooly, is 10 and living with Paul, in 1999 when she is 21 and living with Duncan and Humphrey, and in 2011, when she is an adult woman running a small book store in Wales.  Tooly has lived throughout the world with Paul, Sarah, Venn, Humphrey, and Duncan, but her relationships with all of these people are tangled, and never quite what they seem. 

Tooly sees Sarah as a glamorous if flighty woman, who is unreliable, but is also constantly popping up.  Venn is a worldly charmer who Tooly seeks to emulate and impress.  Humphrey is an old immigrant who Tooly feels she needs to take care of.  Ultimately, Tooly comes to understand who it is who can be counted on, and who will disappear when she needs them most. 

This is a book of bad decisions and painful regret.  It's a book of exploitation and opportunism.  But throughout it all, Tooly doesn't dwell on what she should have done or what others should have done for her, and instead is persistently moving forward in the best way that she can figure out.

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers  is constantly shifting between the time periods, with chapters confusingly called things like "1988:  The End", which is the 4th chapter of the book, even though there are 7 more chapters that come later that are set in 1988, and another chapter called "1988:  The End."  If you can surrender to the confusion and just roll with it, a great story with memorable characters will unfold.  Based on the recent NYT review, my guess is that this one will make the list of Notables for 2014!

I requested and received a free electronic copy of this book from NetGalley.  Thanks to Jess Bonet of Random House for making it available to me.  Other than the book, no promises were made and no payments were received.

Next Up:  Next I am tackling We Are Water in paper form, in addition to audio.  My book group is meeting to discuss this one in just 2 days, and I'm only half way done! 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Gatsby Continued

So, when I was helping my son study for his test on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, I somehow came across a summary of The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian.  The blurb said that in The Double Bind, Tom and Daisy have a son after Fitzgerald's novel ends.  The son grows up and falls on hard times, finally dying as a homeless man with a collection of pictures of famous people, including Gatsby himself.  Now they had my interest.  Gatsby is one of my all time favorites, and I'd love to know what Tom and Daisy did after the last page was turned.

The Double Bind begins with Laurel talking about a time that she was attacked by two men in the woods and almost raped seven years earlier.  In the present day, Laurel is working at a homeless shelter in Vermont.  A man who she knows from the shelter, Bobbie Crocker, dies leaving a cache of old photos.  The pictures include some of Laurel's swim club from her hometown  of West Egg, and one that might be of Laurel herself.  The director of the homeless shelter thinks that the photos may be good enough to put together a show as a fundraiser.  She assigns Laurel to print more photos from the negatives and get the pictures ready to display.  Laurel takes on the project with more enthusiasm that anyone expected.

Early on in the project, Laurel begins to think that Bobbie might be Tom and Daisy's son.  She travels to East Egg to meet with the woman who she thinks must be Bobbie's older sister, Pamela Buchanan, only to be told that Pamela's brother had died decades earlier, and could not possibly be Bobbie.  While trying to prove the connection and figure out why Pamela would deny it, Laurel meets with people who knew Bobbie, and learns more about his story. 

It was a little disconcerting at first to have Laurel taking about going home to visit West Egg.  It was  like saying that she was going to Neverland.  But of course, since Gatsby is fiction to begin with, why couldn't a later story be set in the same towns?  I was also a little annoyed that so much of the story was about Laurel and her attack.  I really wanted to hear more about the West Egg of Gatsby's era than about Laurel in the modern day.  At the end the plot took a major twist that was satisfying, but disappointing at the same time.  It was satisfying in the sense that the ends were tied up, and I finally understood why there was so much focus on Laurel, but disappointing in that what I wanted to happen didn't. 

The Double Bind has a basis in real life, in that the novel was inspired by a man, Bob Campbell, who was homeless in Vermont, and died leaving great pictures of famous people behind.  I'm counting this book for both the Audiobook and the I Love Library Books Challenges.

Next up on CD:  We Are Water by Wally Lamb

Still Reading:  The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman
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