Thursday, February 27, 2014

Deliberately Short

This is Not an Accident by April Wilder is a pretty great collection of short stories.  It starts with the title story, which actually reminded me a little of one of Malie Meloy's stories from Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It. This was not a great start, since Meloy's stories really didn't move me.  The next story, "The Butcher Shop", also had  familiar feel.  Then I realized that it was familiar because I had read it in McSweeney's 23, back in 2007, when Wilder published it there.  When I read the third story,  "We Were Champions", I felt like I had found a new very best friend.

Wilder is a very talented short story author.  "We Were Champions" is the story of a girl, living in the City of Wrigleyville, State of Chicago, having a pig roast during a Cubs game that she could hear but not see.  She had recently learned that her high school softball coach, who had gone to jail for molesting most of the team, had killed himself.  Meanwhile, her relationship with her current boyfriend is disintegrating before her eyes, one swing at a time.

"It's a Long Dang Life" is a story of lost and found love.  Laney, a grandmother, has reunited with her former boyfriend, who she believed was killed in Vietnam.  Recognizing his shortcomings, and her own failure at an earlier marriage, she refuses to marry him.  In what might or might not be mock despair, the boyfriend, Odd, takes her grandsons hostage in their backyard play house.  A part of him wants to force her to marry him, but another part realizes it's all just a game for the grandchildren.  He thinks.

In both of these stories, the woman is managing a relationship with a man who has a drinking problem.  The topics of codependency, enabling, and relationships slowly ending invade most of Wilder's stories.  "Three Men" is a story told in the format of a musical round.  You know how one side of the room begins singing "Make new friends, but keep the old" and then the other side starts with "Make new friends . . . " while the first side moves on to the next line?  Yeah, like that.  Wilder starts with the story of Jess' husband, an actuary who she calls "The Count".   From there, we move a little backward in time, while still moving forward, to the story of Jess' brother.  Then we go to Jess' father's story, to complete the round.  The effect is really interesting, in that it tells a full story, focusing separately on three different people, all from the perspective of one woman.

Another story, "Me, Me, Me" is about a woman who can't tell her feelings to her boyfriend, but instead writes them down in letters that she mails to herself.  This all seems innocent enough, until she starts refusing to go out, because the mailman is coming, and she needs to stay and see which letter will come to her in the mail that day.  I couldn't help to think that writing letters to oneself is not so different from blogging.  So to me, it didn't really seem all that strange, just a little sad.

The GoodReads reviews of This is Not an Accident were confusing to me.  Some people said that the stories were hilarious.  They were not.  Nor do I think they were intended to be.  Others said that the stories were too dark or difficult to understand.  I have to think that if the reader doesn't normally read either short stories or McSweeney's authors, they might not get Wilder.  However, if Lorrie Moore and Tobias Wolff are on your shelves, April Wilder will fit right in.  So many lines were precisely right, accurate, and true.  Wilder knows the subject of modern American relationships, and calls them like she sees them.

I reviewed this book at the request of Shannon Twomey of Viking Penguin Books.  I received a free copy of the book, but other than that, no payments were received, and no promises were made. 

Next Up:  Where'd You go Bernadette by Maria Semple

Still Listening to:  The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Typical Book Report - 17

Tonight The Typical Book Group got together to talk about The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.  There were 6 of us there, and all but one of us had finished the book.  We actually talked about the book more than usual tonight, which I think shows that it was a good book group pick.  One intriguing thing that we talked about was who our favorite character was.  We all had different choices, which was surprising, since I thought everyone would pick Ethan, like I did.  Instead, people picked Jules, Ash, Jonah and Dennis. 

We spent a lot of time talking about Dennis.  He was such a solid character, and so different from the campers.  Our host, Laurie, had an article from "Real Simple" where Meg Wolitzer said something about how Dennis stood out because he didn't "fetishize specialness".  What was great about him was that while he didn't completely understand Jules' obsession with the camp and her friends, he still could appreciate them, and even seemed to be real friends with Ethan, especially.

We liked how Ethan's difficulty in relating to his son gave him a believable and real character flaw.  Without that, he would have been too perfectly one dimensional.  We also found it remarkable that the only intact, traditional family managed to raise the most dysfunctional kids, while the kids raised by single parents seemed to be better adjusted.

While it was a long book, and while there were times when some of the book clubbers weren't sure they could get through it, everyone who finished the book was glad to have read it.  Next month we'll read Where'd You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple.

Still Reading:  This is not an Accident by April Wilder

Still Listening to:  The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Love in the Labyrinth

Long, long ago, before The Typical Book Group even had a name, we had a book exchange.  It was at that exchange, in 2010, that I picked up a copy of The Rose Labyrinth by Titania Hardie.  Ever since then, Labyrinth has been sitting in my nightstand, waiting for me to get around to reading it.  Finally, I jumped in.

The Rose Labyrinth is the story of Lucy, a woman who needed a heart transplant.  Once she received her new heart, she began having "memories" that weren't hers.  She soon came to the conclusion that she was remembering things that had happened in her donor's life.  She began to believe that prior to his death, her donor was attempting to unravel a mystery that tied his British family to John Dee and William Shakespeare.  Meanwhile, she also fell in love with her doctor.  Together they take up the cause of solving the clues that Dee and Shakespeare left, which oddly relate perfectly to their own lives.  At the same time, a group of extremists from the US are also following the clues, believing that Dee had received divine guidance that would bring about the rapture foretold in the Book of Revelation.

This book has a bit of everything, and that may be its downfall.  It's not really historical fiction, but it has historical figures.  It's not really science fiction, but there is some time travel and a futuristic medical storyline.  It's not really a The Da Vinci Code style mystery, but it says that it is on the back cover.  The GoodReads reviews are pretty horrible, and I think that's because people went in thinking that the book would be one thing, and it was something entirely different.  The author also aligned the "bad guys" with right wing Americans, so I could see card carrying Tea Party members being offended.

All told, if you like a little sci-fi, a little historical fiction, and a little action packed puzzle solving, you'll probably like this book.  It had parts that were really interesting, and when I wasn't reading it, I was thinking about the story and wanting to get back to it.  Yes, there were too many coincidences, and yes, it is incredibly unrealistic that this seemingly random group of people would have so much esoteric knowledge that would serve them so well.  If you go in with an open mind, expecting a book that doesn't fit a specific mold, you should enjoy this one. 

This is the third book down for the Rewind Challenge.

Next Up:  This is Not an Accident by April Wilder

Still Listening to:  The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Manson Part II

Like everyone else, as a teenager, I read Helter Skelter:  The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi, and I thought I knew the whole story.  When Jeff Guinn's book, Manson:  The Life and Times of Charlie Manson came out 39 years after Bugliosi's, I wondered what more it could say.  I mean, it's not like new evidence has recently come to light.  But then the reviews started coming in, and it was clear that Guinn had found a good story to tell.

The subtitles of the two books tell a lot about the differences between the Bugliosi and Guinn Books.  Bugliosi's is the story of the Manson murders and the trials, as told by the lead prosecuting attorney, just 5 years after the Tate murders.  Guinn's book tells about Charles Manson's life, the formation of his "family", and yes, about the murders and trials.  I listened to Guinn's book in audio form, and can report that the murders occurred on disc 8 of 14 discs.  Guinn fully develops Manson's life from childhood, without trying to make the reader (or listener) feel sympathetic.  He is a reporter reporting, and he finds good information that Bugliosi either didn't know or didn't think was worth mentioning.

Bugliosi wrote his book just after the trial finished, from the perspective of the prosecutor's office.  Even if he tried to conduct interviews for his book rather than just relying on the prosecutor's file and trial record, would anyone have talked to him?  He still had connections to the prosecutor's office and the statute of limitations hadn't expired for even minor crimes that might have been mentioned. 

As Guinn explains, in Los Angeles in the 1970s, the culture of the law enforcement system was to ignore allegations against stars and the children of stars unless implicating them was unavoidable.  While Bugliosi mentioned Manson's relationship with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys and Terry Melcher, who was Doris Day's son, he down played the friendships as tangential and just an interesting and scary fact of Manson's life.  Guinn spends much more time exploring Manson's friendships with Wilson, Melcher and other people involved with the music scene. After so many years had passed, Guinn seems to have been able to get more people talking about Manson and their own connections to him.  Unfortunately, Wilson and Melcher both died years before the book was released, so Guinn did not have their first hand accounts.  Guinn also writes about how Manson recruited his followers and why they stayed with him in much greater detail than Bugliosi did in his book.

Manson:  The Life and Times of Charles Manson was a NYT Notable for 2013.  If you have any interest at all in Manson and his followers, this book is worth your time.  In terms of 2014 challenges,  I am counting this for both the Audiobook Challenge and the I Love Library Books Challenge.

In Other News:  I saw the movie based on Winter's Tale last night.  As you may know, the reviews have not been great, and I think I know why.  The movie focuses almost exclusively on Peter Lake, his relationship with Beverly Penn, and Pearly Soames' attempts to get revenge.  There are whole story lines that are not even mentioned.  No Praeger, no Hardesty, no Jackson Mead.  The only turn of the millennium character is Virginia and her daughter, Abby.  While my copy of Winter's Tale is 748 pages, it was as though the screen writers took 75 pages from the first part of the book, 25 pages from the second half, and called it "good enough".  For a lover of the book, it wasn't.  I did like the movie, but it seemed like just a cliff notes version of one part of the story, hitting me over the head with the battle between good and evil, and ignoring the rest.  What I didn't expect was that the movie would make me want to read the book again.  Like, now.  It's already on my "Redux" list of books that I want to re-read this year, and I am really looking forward to it sooner rather than later.

Next Up on CD:  The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Still Reading:  The Rose Labyrinth by Titania Hardie

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Get Away

Julia is a woman who needs to get away from her life.  Her husband has just committed suicide after being outed as "The Midwestern Bernie Madoff".  As a corporate officer, Julia will face some of the blame and possibly prison.  Suddenly, Adrian knocks at her door.  He offers her the opportunity to care for his aging mother in her home, a mansion in northern Minnesota.  Julia knows who Adrian's mother is because she is a famous author.  Julia also knows that this famous author died years ago. 

And so begins The Vanishing by Wendy Webb.  The story is set mostly in the mansion, known as Havenwood.  To get there, Julia has to surrender her cell phone, her credit cards, and anything that would allow anyone to trace her to her old life.  Figuring that this might not be so bad given her present circumstances, Julia agrees to give it a try.

Once at Havenwood, Julia immediately senses strange happenings.  It seems that people in pictures on the walls can speak, and sometimes she thinks that she is hallucinating scenes from the past.  She dismisses it a side effect of discontinuing her anti-depression medication, and the fact that she is in a really old, beautiful yet creepy house, caring for a woman who the world believes is dead.

This story has a lot in common with The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, where the narrator spends time with an aging author and eventually draws out the scariest tale yet, one that happens to be true.  It also is similar in many respects to Webb's earlier book, The Tale of Halcyon Crane, which was set in a haunted mansion on Mackinac Island.  However, The Vanishing has enough twists and turns to distinguish it from those other stories, and to keep the reader turning the pages.

There's something about The Tale of Halcyon Crane that seems to appeal to you.  Yes you.  Although it was never a best seller, my review of that book has been among my top 10 posts in terms of page views for at least the last year.  If you liked Halcyon or Thirteenth Tale, then grab The Vanishing and start reading.  Yes, some of it is predictable.  Yes, there are improbable plot twists.  As Webb says in her acknowledgements, she's "not trying to define a generation, right any great wrongs, or change the way you think about the world or your place in it.  [She] just want[s] to craft a good story that will delight you, entertain you, grab you and not let you go, and send some shivers up your spine along the way."  That she does.

I requested and received a free electronic copy of The Vanishing and agreed to review it.  Other than that, no promises were made and no payments were received.

Next Up:  The Rose Labyrinth by Titania Hardie

Still Listening to:  Manson:  The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn
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