Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Published September 2005 by Penguin Books
Eleanor Samuels, a writer for food magazines, has an food issues, a possible weight issue (at least her mother thinks she's overweight), and a narcissistic mother. Then Eleanor's beloved "Uncle" Bennie, becomes ill and Eleanor's life is tossed upside down when she becomes his caregiver. Soon Eleanor is uncovering long-buried family secrets, dealing with fallout from her sisters' problems, and beginning a flirtation with a new chef in town.
I read this book as part of the Manic Mommies Book Club and you can find a great discussion of the book at: http://www.manicmommiesbookclub.blogspot.com/.
I really enjoyed this book which is full of memorable, although not necessarily lovable, characters. Eleanor's mother, Bebe, has had her share of tough breaks but she is so self-centered that she cannot be an effective mother. As you begin reading the book, you imagine Eleanor as quite a heavy person until you come to understand that she is not really that large, it's just the self-image that Bebe has saddled Eleanor with. Anne, Eleanor's older sister is dealing with a crisis in her professional life. Christine, Eleanor's younger sister, is married to a man who is almost as self-centered as Bebe, is a bit of an earth child and she's just discovered she's pregnant. Uncle Benny isn't really the girls' uncle at all but a long-time friend of their mother's who suddenly became a big part of their lives when they were little girls. His relationship with Bebe has clearly been closer than merely friends. Eleanor's father was a very cold and distant man. He certainly had reason to be that way with his wife but he was an uncaring father as well.
Shortridge does a an excellent job of weaving together the episodes from the past with the current story and of weaving together a lot of different story lines. I liked that Shortridge didn't wrap things all up neatly. You were left with the feeling that life would continue on for these characters without really knowing how. My only problem at all with the book was Eleanor's relationship with Henry, the chef. That part was a bit chick-litish and wasn't necessary for the story except to help Eleanor feel better about herself.
I enjoyed this book a lot. It is a quick read despite dealing with some very heavy subjects. Eleanor is an incredibly real character with whom most women will be able to relate.
Monday, June 29, 2009
by Mark Kurzum
Published October 2008 by Plume Books
An elderly Australian, who has never given his family, friends, neighbors, et. al. more than minimal information about his life, abruptly decides to recount his past, as well as he can remember it, to his oldest son. And a remarkable story he tells. Alex Kurzem describes having, at the age of 5 or 6, escaped from Nazi troops in his European village in 1941, watching from a distance the massacre of his family and many others, and fleeing blindly through the forest for days before being captured by the soldiers. Then, astonishingly, rather than being shot along with everyone else who's been rounded up, he's been adopted by the soldiers and turned into their mascot, their "good luck charm." Decked out in a scaled-down SS uniform they've had tailored for him, he's been taken along as the troops moved across the countryside, fighting partisans and slaughtering townsful of people.
Kurzem, in the book written by his son, Mark, has extraordinary memory of some details, but also some huge blanks. He remembers no other name for himself than the one the soldiers gave him, and no name at all for the village in which he grew up.. He doesn't know what country he's from. Although he had watched the deaths of his family, he can't remember their names or faces.
One memory is particularly clear, however; that of the occasion on which the sergeant who saved him from the firing squad, pulled down his pants and underpants, and, after a quick look, warned him against ever letting anyone else see him naked. Though no more than a child, he figures out that being circumcised ,must mean that he's a Jew. So, a great anomaly: in the midst of a squad of men going around killing Jews, here is this Jewish boy, whom they hail and fuss over as one of their most beloved comrades. He's even used as the centerpiece of a German propaganda film, the theme of which is how happy and contented are the children of the Reich.
Most of the book involves detective work by the two Kurzem men, as they try to fill in the details of a forgotten life, a forgotten person. Adding to the pressure are serious threats from Latvian nationalists and Israeli Intelligence, concerned that the Kurzems might turn up something that could be embarrassing to someone.
The writing is not extraordinary. It tells the story on a level that anyone would be able to read and enjoy. I did have the feeling that the father remembered things too clearlyand wondered if some of the things may have been added by the writer. That was okay with me, as I enjoyed the story.
The reviewer for the New York Times wrote of THE MASCOT: "Part mystery, part memory puzzle, written in the polished style of a good thriller...spellbinding." Both readers here agree and recommend.
[Since both of my parents had read the book, I asked my mom for her opinion of the book as well. She felt that the book was, for the most part, well written. Kurzum, she said, writes in a way that pulls the reader in without revealing too much too soon. She would have liked more on Kurzum's siblings' reactions to the story about their father.]
Sunday, June 28, 2009
Today my family attended the annual family reunion of my maternal grandfather's side of the family. When my mom was growing up the family all lived nearby and she was very close to the family. But for years after she and my father married they didn't attend the reunion. Some years back, it became important to her to attend again. Therefore, it became important to us, although rather than going to see family, we were walking into a room full of strangers. What I have discovered in the years since is that blood does not necessarily make a group of people a family. It takes some effort on everyone's part to become a family including making yourself walk into that room year after year until those people become familiar faces, until you know the names of their children and grandchildren, until you celebrate their joys and sorrows together. It also helps tremendously to have family members like my mother, who is the glue that holds not just her immediate family together but her very extended family as well, for which we are all grateful.
All of which got me to thinking about families in literature. It seems like so many of the families we read about today in literature are dysfunctional. Is this because most families are dysfunctional? Or are they just more interesting to write and read about? I've been reading a lot of books about families this year, including "Cold Comfort Farm" by Stella Gibbons and "Home" by Marilynne Robinson, but I think I'm still sticking with the Bennets of "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen and the Marchs of "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott as my all time favorite families in literature. Which family is your favorite family in literature?
Friday, June 26, 2009
Mother's Younger Brother falls in love and thru his lover meets the widower Tateh and his daughter in the Jewish slums. But she is notorious. When Tateh discovers this, he and his little girl leave New York. After Mother's Younger Brother's lover leaves him for another man, he returns to New Rochelle still searching for his purpose. While father is gone a Negro girl, Sarah, and her newborn son are taken in by Mother. After a few months a Negro man starts visiting every Sunday. He is the baby's father and wants to marry Sarah. Coalhouse Walker Jr. is a jazz musician from New York and owns an automobile that he drives back and forth to New Rochelle each week. Trains are king and automobiles are still a novelty. Racism gets ugly when some of the white men in New Rochelle decide they have to do something about that uppity Negro who drives through every week. No one could have predicted the results their nasty prank had.
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Here is what I'm planning on doing for the challenge:
Reread "Mansfield Park"
Watch "Sense and Sensibility" starring Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson
Read "Austenland" by Shannon Hale
Read "The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen" by Syrie Jones
Watch "Bridget Jones' Diary"
Watch "Emma" starring Gywenth Paltrow
This may change based on whether or not I'm able to find sequels that interest me or other versions of the movies based on Austen's books.
Stephanie will be offering more prizes throughout the six months of the challenge so check back with her often!
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Published June 2008 by Norton, W&W Company Inc.
Synopsis: April's usual babysitter, Jean, has had a panic attack that has landed her in the hospital. April doesn't really know anyone else, so she decides it's best to have her three-year-old daughter close by, watching children's videos in the office while she works.
April works at the Puma Club for Men. And tonight she has an unusual client, a foreigner both remote and too personal, and free with his money. Lots of it, all cash. His name is Bassam. Meanwhile, another man, AJ, has been thrown out of the club for holding hands with his favorite stripper, and he's drunk and angry and lonely.
My Thoughts: "Garden" in the title refers to the fact that this book is set in Florida in the week leading up to 9/11. And that's about as far as that image goes in this novel. Every thing else is gritty and dark, filled with very complex characters who are nearly all deeply flawed. The majority of the story in set in one night and Dubus alternates the narrative between the different characters. And this is where I started to get both frustrated and drawn in. As each character moves to the forefront, Dubus moves the action between that character's current actions and his/her past. Just as I was really starting to connect with a particular character's story, Dubus would move on. Usually this helps to pull me along in a book as I become eager to get to each character's next section. But these were very long sections and the reader is likely to lose momentum. And did I mention that this book is gritty and dark? Very gritty and very dark--as, I guess, you would expect from a story set in a strip club. AJ has abused his wife. The club bouncer has a long history of violence. April is gang banged in a flashback to her early stripping days. You might think that with people like this, it would be hard to feel anything for any of them. But Dubus does so an excellent job of making these people, whose lives have led them down this path, two dimensional.
For another opinion (three actually), check out this review at threeguysonebook: http://threeguysonebook.blogspot.com/2008/06/jason-chambers-im-glad-to-be-finally.html
Be forewarned if you are thinking of listening to this book on CD--it is narrated by a man who struggles with capturing the voice of a female and there are many of them here that he tries to find individual voices for. It does take something away from the story.
Published February 2009 by Random House
First line of the book: “Going missing was the only interesting thing my brother had ever done.”
This is the story of Lydia Pasternak, whose brother has disappeared. Lydia has grown up in the shadow of Danny and, although they were close when they were younger, she hasn't been close to him in years. In the year following Danny's disappearance, Lydia's parents totally tune out to her. Her mother becomes obsessed with finding Danny, to the point where she forgets to buy groceries and almost forgets she has a daughter. But while she has disappeared at home, Lydia has become something of a celebrity at school. People that never had anything to do with her, suddenly want to be her friend and Lydia is so desperate for attention that she is willing to play along with them. The detective Lydia's parents hire to look for Danny also seems to have an unusual interest in Lydia.
Lisa, at Books On The Brain, loved the book. Her review is here: http://lisamm.wordpress.com/2009/06/23/review-the-local-news-by-miriam-gershow/#comment-7930.
I was not as crazy about it but I found this book to be a fascinating look at the disappearance of a child as told from an entirely different point of view. Gershow does a wonderful job channeling the voice of a teenager on an emotional rollercoaster and of exploring the relationship between the siblings. Lydia's interaction with the other teenagers was one of the strengths of the book. I didn't feel Lydia's relationship with the detective was as credible. I thought the last third of the book, where we see Lydia attending her 10-year class reunion, dragged on a bit but it was interesting to see how the events of ten years earlier had effected Lydia's ability to bond with other people.
Gershow, without any research on child abduction, was written a unique and unsentimental book on the subject.
Monday, June 22, 2009
Published May 2009 by Random House
Four women reunite 23 years after they graduated from college at the beach house of one of the friends. Spacey Lola leans on pharmaceuticals to help her deal with a miserable marriage. Obsessive-compulsive Annie is still dealing with feelings about a relationship with a professor when she was in college and her eventual willingness to settle on the safe choice for a husband. Mel, successful writer but unsuccessful in marriage, is the free spirit. Sara, who has long-buried issues with Mel, is dealing with the medical condition of one of her children. As the week progresses, and with the help of plenty of libations, secrets begin coming out.
This is something more than a beach read--despite the title and cover. The book alternates between scenes from the ladies college years, scenes from the intervening years, and scenes from the current reunion. All of the ladies were very believable characters in their college years but I had some trouble even at that point believing that they had tight friendships. I felt like all of them lead fairly predictable lives after college and that Holton was really working to set each of them up as having an individual issue to deal with. I actually couldn't imagine why they would even want to get back together after all of the years apart and when their time together started, they couldn't seem to figure out why they had come either. One of the big surprises was not a surprise to me by the time it was revealed but Holton did pull out a big surprise that almost no one seems to have figured out ahead of time. If you like books about relationships between women, this may appeal but the length may put some people off.
I read this book as part of the Summer Reading Series sponsored by Mari at Bookworm With A View and Lisa at Books On The Brain. At Books On The Brain, you can find quite a lot of discussion on the book including answers from Cathy Holton (http://lisamm.wordpress.com/2009/06/14/summer-reading-series-beach-trip-discussion-questions/). As you'll notice, there were certainly a lot of people that enjoyed this book very much.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
In honor of Father's Day, I thought it would be fun to take a look at fathers in literature. Perhaps the most tragic father in literature is Shakespeare's King Lear, whose pride causes his downfall. Atticus Finch, of "To Kill A Mockingbird," set the bar for quiet heroism and teaching by example. In George Eliot's "Silas Marner," life changes entirely for embittered Silas when he becomes a surragate father. Geraldine Brooks and Louisa May Alcott both wrote about the same father but from two very different points of view in "March" and "Little Women." John Ames is writing his legacy to his young son in Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead," telling the boy about not just his own life but that of his father and his grandfather.
Who do you think were the most memorable fathers in literature? Who suffered the greatest failure? Who was your favorite?
Saturday, June 20, 2009
Published April 2008 by Knopf Publishing Group
This collection of eight stories by Pulitzer Prize-winning Lahiri focuses on relationships--husband and wife, lovers, fathers and sons, sisters and brothers. All of the stories revolve around second-generation Indian immigrants, primarily middle-class Bengalis. That culture is very evident throughout the stories and clearly shapes the relationships between the characters.
Kristen wrote, in a review on bookclubclassics.com: What Lahiri does so well is embrace the common, universal challenges of mortality — of family — of relationships. Her focus on Indian-Americans only serves to provide a concrete anchor or context for those burdens and celebrations we all share.
Lahiri knows how to write a short story--she is able to give the reader plenty of detail without weighing down the movement of the story. Tension is built in the spaces, not in the action. Lahiri doesn't get bogged down in backstory or, for the most part, any contrived situations. A sense of loss permeates the collection and the characters often seem to be stuck even as they struggle to find their place between their heritage and a new culture. Some of the stories are heartbreakingly sad, some leave the reader with hope. All are beautifully written.
Friday, June 19, 2009
An oldie from Booking Through Thursday:
- Are you careful with the spines? Or do you crack your books open to make them lay flat? I'm pretty careful with the spine; I never crack books open. But see #5 to know why you can always tell that I've read a book.
- Do you use bookmarks? Or do you dog-ear the corners? If you do use bookmarks, do you use those fashionable metal ones? Or paper? Never bend the corners. I have some very nice leather bookmarks from Scotland, a metal one, and a couple of magnetic bookmarks but since I often can't find any of them, any piece of paper will do.
- Do you write in your books? Ever? If you do, do you make small marks, or write in as much blank space as you can find? Pen or pencil? Highlighter? Your name on the front page? I never write in a book with the following exceptions: I put my name in the book if I want it to find it's way back to me and when I give a book as a gift I always write the date, the occasion, who gave the book, and a little note as to why it was chosen.
- Do you toss your books on the floor? Into bookbags? Or do you treat them tenderly, with respect? I don't toss them on the floor, but they do get stacked on the floor. My books are always getting shoved into my purse. Otherwise, I think I'm pretty respectful of them.
- Do you ever lay your book face-down, to save your place? Yes but only if I can't find my bookmark and only for short periods of time.
- Um--water? Do you bathe with your books? Hold them with wet hands? Read out in the rain? Anything of that sort? I do take a book with me if I'm taking a bath but I keep a hand towel on the edge of the tub to make sure my hands are dry.
- Are your books lined up on a bookshelf? Or crammed in any which way? Stacked on the floor? Lined up on the bookshelves, stacked on the bookshelves and the TBR piles are growing in stacks next to my nightstand.
- Do you make a distinction--as regards book care--between hardcovers and paperbacks? Not really but you do have to be a little more careful of a hardcover just because they are usually heavier and bigger.
- And, to recap? Naturally, you love all of your books, but how, exactly? Are your books loved in the battered way of a well-loved teddy bear, or like a cherished photo album or item of clothing that's used, appreciated, but carefully cared for? More like an item of clothing.
- Any additional comments? The only books that stay in my house after reading are the ones I know I'll read again, classics, coffee table books (for color and decoration as much as anything) and my collection of old books, including childrens books.
Among the hostages are not only Hosokawa and Roxane Coss, the American soprano, but an assortment of Russian, Italian, and French diplomatic types. Reuben Iglesias, the diminutive and gracious vice president, quickly gets sideways of the kidnappers, who have no interest in him whatsoever. Meanwhile, a Swiss Red Cross negotiator named Joachim Messner is roped into service while vacationing. He comes and goes, wrangling over terms and demands, and the days stretch into weeks, the weeks into months. "
Dawn, at www.sheistoofondofbooks.com, had this to say about "Bel Canto: " Patchett gives us a novel which explores the human condition in a vacuum. With Roxane Coss’ music being the only common language, the hostages and terrorists alike stretch their perceived limits, and we readers join the hostages in a sort of “Stockholm syndrome.” This is a highly recommended hard-to-put-down novel."
There are a lot of characters in this book, but Patchett makes sure none of them gets lost. Each character is fully developed. The kidnappers in this book are real people with a real cause, not stereotypes. The writing is beautiful and compassionate and captures the humanity of both the captives and the captors. In a list of my top ten books, this one makes the grade.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
By Mark Haddon
Published May 2004 by Vintage
Late one night, 15-yr-old Christopher Boone discovers, on a late night walk, that his neighbor's poodle, Wellington, has been impaled with a garden fork. This sets Christopher, who is a first accused of killing the dog, off on a detective mission to find the real killer. The complication for Christopher is that he is autistic...and that his father has forbidden him from looking into the matter. But Christopher, who always follows the rules...literally, continues his search for the truth. But the truth he finds is a much bigger surprise and leads Christopher to embark on a journey that would seem impossible for a person with his limitations.
This book is entirely written from Christopher's point of view which makes it quite unique. Christopher is very honest about his quirks (he does not like the color yellow or being touched) and open about his hopes (he is a mathematics genius). When Christopher sets off on his journey, the story does get a little long; but seeing how he is able to navigate his way around is quite interesting. The relationship between Christopher and his father is very touching; his father even goes out of his way to prepare meals for Christopher that meet his very stringent color requirements. There are some big issues for Christopher to deal with in this book and Haddon gets him through through them very believably. This story is told without pity or condescension.
Monday, June 15, 2009
Published July 2003 by Simon Schuster
I listened to this one on CD. Which was a good thing. Because if I had been reading it, I'm not sure if I would have finished it. On the other hand, I would not have had to listen to it--the reader drove me crazy!
This is the story of Rose, the responsible, older sister and Maggie, the pretty but trouble making kid sister. Rose is the smart one; Maggie is not. When they are young, their mentally unstable mother dies in a car non-accident. Her father cuts the girls off from their grandparents and moves them to another state. Years later we are dropped into their lives when Rose receives a call to come pick up her very inebriated sister from a class reunion, causing her to leave her boss/boyfriend naked in her bed. But things get even worse--Maggie has come to stay and things get ugly fast. Meanwhile, Weiner intersperses scenes from the life of the girls' grandmother who is now living in Florida. When Maggie betrays Rose and is kicked out, she eventually lands on the campus of Princeton. But eventually she screws that up too and ends up moving in with Grandma.
This book is too, too long. I found the parts about the grandmother to be, frankly, boring. The whole episode at Princeton served only to teach Maggie that she really was smart but she seemed to forget that again almost as soon as she got to Grandma's. The ending was predictable, the relationship with the grandmother never really seemed to get worked out, and a wedding dress was all it took to make things right. I can't imagine how anyone ever read this and thought "this would make a great movie." Weiner has definitely written better books.
Sunday, June 14, 2009
I was delighted to receive in the mail this past week a box from Emily St. John Mandel, author of "Last Night in Montreal" containing enough copies of her book for my book club to enjoy it as our September read. I'm having a hard time not pulling out my copy and reading it right away. I also received a copy of "Shelf Discovery" by Lizzie Skurnick, the subtitle of which is "the teen classics we never stopped reading." I can't wait to get into it and see which books I may have forgotten to get for my teenage daughter and to plunge back into the memory of enjoying those great books! Thanks to Jennifer at Book Club Girl for this one!
Saturday, June 13, 2009
By Muriel Barbery
Published September 2008 by Europa Editions
Renee Michel is the 54-year-old concierge of a luxury Paris apartment building. Her exterior ("short, ugly, and plump") and demeanor ("poor, discreet, and insignificant") belie her keen, questing mind and profound erudition. Paloma Josse is a 12-year-old genius who behaves as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter. She plans to kill herself on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday.
Both Renee and Paloma hide their true talents and finest qualities from the bourgeois families around them, until a wealthy Japanese gentleman named Ozu moves into building. Only he sees through them, perceiving the secret that haunts Renee, winning Paloma's trust, and helping the two discover their kindred souls.
My Review: This felt like two books to me and it wasn't because the story alternates between narration by Renee and narration by Paloma. The first one-third plus of this book is Barbery introducing us to our two narrators by means of philosophical musings. It is very obvious that Barbery is a professor of philosophy. It is difficult going and although it serves to give us a feel for Renee and Paloma it is so slow moving I seriously considered giving up on this one before I hit the half way mark. That would have been a mistake because after that point, the story got going and I finally began to care for Renee and Paloma. Prior to that, I really didn't care for either of them--Renee goes to great pains to be the very person she feels the owners in the building will look down on then despises them for looking down on her. Once Mr. Ozu arrives, things start happening and we really start to understand some of the things that Paloma and Renee have been discussing earlier in the book. I'm glad I stuck with this one.
Friday, June 12, 2009
Amazon.com gives this synopsis: Tom Guthrie is a high school teacher whose wife can't--or won't--get out of bed; the McPherons are two bachelor brothers who know little about the world beyond their farm gate; Victoria Roubideaux is a pregnant 17-year-old with no place to turn. Their lives parallel each other in much the same way any small-town lives would--until Maggie Jones, another teacher, makes them intersect. Even as she tries to draw Guthrie out of his black cloud, she sends Victoria to live with the two elderly McPheron brothers, who know far more about cattle than about teenage girls. Trying to console her when she think she's hurt her baby, the best lie they can come up with is this: "I knew of a heifer we had one time that was carrying a calf, and she got a length of fencewire down her some way and it never hurt her or the calf."
There's not a lot of suspense in this book (although one scene with a bully and Tom Guthrie's boys had me on the afraid to read on but unable to put the book down) but the relationships are wonderful, the dialogue to terrific and the characters are memorable, particularly the McPheron brothers. The writing is beautiful but uncomplicated. Chapters that alternate between the various characters' storylines pull the reader along. This was a book I was sorry to have end.
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Published September 2008 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
It is 1951 in America, the 2nd year of the Korean War. A studious, law-abiding, intense youngster from Newark, New Jersey, Marcus Messner, is beginning his sophomore year on the pastoral, conservative campus of Ohio’s Winesburg College. He's left the local college in Newark where he originally enrolled because his father, the hard-working kosher neighborhood butcher, seems to have gone mad — mad with fear and apprehension of the dangers of adult life, the dangers of the world, the dangers he sees in every corner for his beloved boy. As the long-suffering, desperately harassed mother tells her son, the father’s fear arises from love and pride. It produces too much anger in Marcus for him to endure living with his parents any longer. He leaves them and, far from Newark, in the midwestern college, has to find his way amid the customs and constrictions of another American world.
Okay, I know Philip Roth's a genious and I'll admit to really liking his writing style. I'm still, three weeks later, not sure I liked the story. Marcus seems to be so levelheaded but then gets to Winesburg and is so rigid in believing his actions are justified that he becomes something of a loose cannon. Why? And why did his father suddenly become so worried about him? His reaction was entirely out of proportion to his justification for being so worried. A lot of ground is covered in this story, but in large part it seems to come down to being a vehicle for Roth to rail against religion.
Followup 06-11-09: This morning I received a comment from a person who chose to remain anonymous but who told me, essentially, that I am unable to interpret literature. First of all, let me make this very clear--I am not a literature professor nor a paid reviewer and have never claimed to be. But I have made a couple of adjustments to my review until I can verify whether or not my statements regarding this book were correct.
The final word: I stand behind my original review in which I stated that I was not giving anything away when I said that Marcus dies. Anonymous stated that Marcus did not die, that he was on morphine at the end of the book. But on page 54, Marcus himself states that he dies. I also contended that there was no real reason for Marcus' dad to become so overly worried. I stand by that as well. There certainly were reasons given for any parent to become worried about their son in the time just after WWII and during the Korean War. But Marcus' father went far beyond the usual reaction.
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Published January 2009 by Penguin Group
In 1942, Will Truesdale, an Englishman newly arrived in Hong Kong, falls headlong into a passionate relationship with Trudy Liang, a beautiful Eurasian socialite. But their love affair is soon threatened by the invasion of the Japanese as World War II overwhelms their part of the world. Will is sent to an internment camp, where he and other foreigners struggle daily for survival. Meanwhile, Trudy remains outside, forced to form dangerous alliances with the Japanese—in particular, the malevolent head of the gendarmerie, whose desperate attempts to locate a priceless collection of Chinese art lead to a chain of terrible betrayals.
Ten years later, Claire Pendleton comes to Hong Kong and is hired by the wealthy Chen family as their daughter's piano teacher. A provincial English newlywed, Claire is seduced by the heady social life of the expatriate community. At one of its elegant cocktail parties, she meets Will, to whom she is instantly attracted—but as their affair intensifies, Claire discovers that Will's enigmatic persona hides a devastating past. As she begins to understand the true nature of the world she has entered, and long-buried secrets start to emerge, Claire learns that sometimes the price of survival is love.
Katherine, at agirlwalksintoabookstore.blogspot.com, reviewed this book and said:
I would have liked to have found out more about Will and Claire’s relationship, too: why are they drawn together, since they seem to have nothing in common? Too, there’s a lot that’s implied about what happened during the war, especially to Trudy and her cousin, Dommie; but we never find out for sure. And the “villain” in this novel wasn’t quite what I expected, either. His motivations for doing what he did are a little odd. But as I’ve said, the writing is beautiful, the research is superb, and the setting is fantastic.
This book is beautifully written and well researched. It is about a part of WWII I was not familiar with, set in a love story. The back and forth between the two time periods can sometimes become confusing, but I liked Lee's use of gossip in the latter time period to tell the story of the early time period. I would have to agree with agirlwalkedintoabookstore's assessment of the relationship between Will and Claire but I thought the relationship between Will and Trudy was very well written and Trudy was a fascinating, complex character. I did not have a problem with Lee leaving some things to the reader's imagination although I do agree that the motivation of the "villain" should have been more clear. The issues between the classes, races and nationalities were well explored and made for excellent reading.
Monday, June 8, 2009
Sunday, June 7, 2009
Yesterday I had the great pleasure of having lunch with my cousin, her friend, my cousin's daughter and my own daughter at the art museum. It was happenstance that we happened to be there when admission was free (yah!) but more importantly, when the museum was hosting an exhibit dedicated to the artwork from Golden Books, the books so many of us grew up on.
I had always thought of the artwork in these books as being of one type, but this exhibit proved that my memory was quite faulty. Among the illustrators shown were Richard Scarry and Hilary Knight (who provides the illustrations for the "Eloise" series of books). Many of the illustrations displayed are from books I still have in my possession and took me back to my earliest recollections of reading. Do you remember reading "Chicken Little," "The Little Red Hen," or "The Pokey Little Puppy?"
On Sunday 4/5 of my family headed off to headed off to enjoy lunch with my parents and usher at their community playhouse's production of "The Producers." They have very good talent in their city and the production was just wonderful. Sadly, like so many theaters, financially times are tough. The next time you're thinking of going out for the evening, why not forgo the movie multiplex and support one of your local theaters?
Home by Marilynne Robinson
Published Sept 2008 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Orange Prize winner for 2009
Glory Boughton, aged thirty-eight, has returned to Gilead to care for her dying father. Soon her brother, Jack—the prodigal son of the family, gone for twenty years—comes home too, looking for refuge and trying to make peace with a past littered with tormenting trouble and pain.
Jack is a bad boy from childhood, an alcoholic who cannot hold a job, he is perpetually at odds with his surroundings and with his traditionalist father, though he remains Boughton’s most beloved child. Brilliant, lovable, and wayward, Jack forges an intense bond with Glory and engages painfully with Ames, his godfather and namesake.
Pulitzer-prize winning Robinson writes beautiful, languid stories that cannot be rushed through. Jack is a marvelously complex character--a one moment you want to hold him in your arms and comfort him and in the next you want to slap him upside the head and tell him to get his stuff together. His relationship with his father, a retired Presbyterian minister, is complicated--by his father's failing health, his father's unwavering beliefs, and Jack's desire to live up to his father's love without being able to embrace his father's faith.
The story is as much about Glory, who is also struggling with her own demons. Having Jack around helps Glory not only deal with their father, but helps her deal with her ghosts--a broken engagement, the death of a niece and own complicated history with Jack.
There is a "surprise" at the end of the book, which did not come as a surprise to me but explains a great deal about Jack's present pain. And there are no neat and tidy endings in the book--Robinson does not write happily-ever-after stories.
Friday, June 5, 2009
My pick this week is "Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe" by Fannie Flagg.
Flagg tells the story of two women who form an unlikely friendship; one is an elderly woman, Mrs. Threadgoode, living in a nursing home, the other is a middle-aged woman, Evelyn, who is in the throes of a midlife identity crisis. Mrs. Threadgoode begins telling Evelyn the tale of two other women--tomboy Idgie and her friend Ruth. In the 1930's Idgie and Ruth ran the Whistle Stop Cafe in a small Southern town. The book takes the reader back and forth in time.
The characters are, figuratively speaking, black or white; there is no gray as far as character is concerned. But there is enough "bad" in this book to keep the book from getting too sugary. And the book does deal with some big subjects including racism, homosexuality, and spousal abuse. Only a hard-hearted person would not find themselves cheering for Idgie, Ruth, Big George, Ninny, and Evelyn.
This can be a quick one. Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.
1. Little Women - Louisa May Alcott
2. A Little Princess - Frances Hodgson Burnett
3. Sophie's Choice - Styron
4. Harold And The Purple Crayon - Crockett
5. The Onion Field - Joseph Wambaugh
6. Yertle The Turtle - Dr. Seuss
7. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer - Mark Twain
8. Bel Canto - Ann Patchett
9. Fried Greeen Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe - Fannie Flagg
10. Go Ask Alice - Anonymous
11. That Was Then, This Is Now - S E Hinton
12. Pride & Prejudice - Jane Austen
13. Jane Eyre - Bronte
14. The Lovely Bones - Sebold
15. The Age of Innocence - Edith Wharton
Thursday, June 4, 2009
Published May 2008 by Penguin Group
Recently released in paperback
During the Nazis' brutal siege of Leningrad, Lev Beniov is arrested for looting and thrown into the same cell as a handsome deserter named Kolya. Instead of being executed, Lev and Kolya are given a shot at saving their own lives by complying with an outrageous directive: secure a dozen eggs for a powerful Soviet colonel to use in his daughter's wedding cake. In a city cut off from all supplies and suffering unbelievable deprivation, Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt through the dire lawlessness of Leningrad and behind enemy lines to find the impossible.
I'm just going to say it up front--I loved this book. Honestly, I thought it sounded interesting but I was not expecting to like it as much as I did. This coming-of-age story is set against the background of the siege of Leningrad. With a siege as a backdrop, you would expect to be horrified--and Benioff does not pull any punches here. You would expect the story to be sad, and it is, although you will be astounded by the resilience of the Russian people. You would not expect humor, but Benioff is even able to give the reader that. Lev and Kolya's relationship is marvelous and very real. So many authors feel the need to squeeze all of their research into the story, but Benioff has a deft touch with his research, not allowing it to overwhelm the story. The pacing is perfect. The story moves along well, with a nice mix of action and quiet moments. Some books I recommend to my female friends, some to the males; this one I recommend to everyone.
Published October 2008 by Knopf Publishing Group
Clem and Louisa couldn't be more different. Clem's charismatic, the kind of woman that people -- especially men, as Louisa so sourly notes -- want to be around. She's also one of the lucky ones whose earliest passion ("Saving animals is all I've ever wanted to do") becomes her career. A wildlife biologist who works to protect endangered species, Clem travels the world with ease and relish.
Louisa, meanwhile, stumbles upon herlife work without much fanfare. After failing as a potter, she turns to writing about art to pay the bills. Freelance assignments lead to staff positions. Writing leads to editing. Before you know it, Louisa's found her niche, a solid if not joyful fit. Also not joyful are Louisa's relationships with men. Clem attracts multitudes, each one a possible soul mate. Louisa, we learn, dates and marries the wrong guys.
I was drawn into this one from the beginning. The dynamics of sisterhood always interests me. And the setting of that first section, the great-aunt's home, was fascinating. But Glass was not interested in expanding on this bit of the book. So she moves the reader along, dropping into each of the sister's lives in various points over the next 25 years. And, honestly, I found some of those points quite dull. This was partially due to the fact that Glass was felt compelled to give the reader a lot of backstory for each of these parts and these backstories did nothing to explain or expand on the relationship between Clem and Louisa. But at the turning point, Glass pulls us back in as the family struggles to come to terms with what has happened. In the end, this is a story of love, sorrow, and learning that there are sometimes problems that we cannnot fix.
Published February 2009 by Knopf Publishing Group
Born to an art dealer and his pianist wife, Max Berenzon is forbidden from entering the family business for reasons he cannot understand. He reluctantly attends medical school, reserving his true passion for his father’s beautiful and brilliant gallery assistant, Rose Clément. When Paris falls to the Nazis, the Berenzons survive in hiding. They return in 1944 to find that their priceless collection has vanished: gone are the Matisses, the Picassos, and a singular Manet of mysterious importance. Madly driven to recover his father’s paintings, Max navigates a torn city of corrupt art dealers, black marketers, Résistants, and collaborators. His quest will reveal the tragic disappearance of his closest friend, the heroism of his lost love, and the truth behind a devastating family secret.
Meticulously researched, Houghteling wraps a fiction story in the history of the Paris art scene in the time period surrounding WWII. Houghteling has, in fact, done so much research that the book can get bogged down in the prcoess as she tries to fit it all in. There are so many stories going on in this book that Houghteling doesn't follow through on except Max's personal quest to earn his father's respect and try to learn why they've had the relationship they've had. The only way to solve this problem would have been to make the story longer, and, frankly, it was a slow read as it was. Max's quest did begin to feel a bit like something out of a movie--you know the ones, where everything that can go wrong, does. Houghteling has talent and this is a debut novel that will make people look forward to her sophomore effort.
I must say, I did agree with S. Krishna, at http://www.skrishnasbooks.com who wrote in her review of this book: "I have to say, my favorite part of the book was the Afterword. Houghteling takes the time to explain her sources and shows that most of the book comes from actual historical documentation. I found this fascinating, and wished all the more that the recovery of looted art had been more of a focus for the book."
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
America, America by Ethan Canin
Published June 2008 by Random House Adult Trade Publishing
In the early 1970s, Corey Sifter, the son of working-class parents, becomes a yard boy on the grand estate of the powerful Metarey family. Soon, through the family’s generosity, he is a student at a private boarding school and an aide to the great New York senator Henry Bonwiller, who is running for president. Before long, Corey finds himself involved with one of the Metarey daughters as well, and he begins to leave behind the world of his upbringing. As the Bonwiller campaign gains momentum, Corey finds himself caught up in a complex web of events in which loyalty, politics, sex, and gratitude conflict with morality, love, and the truth. Ethan Canin’s stunning novel is about America as it was and is, a remarkable exploration of how vanity, greatness, and tragedy combine to change history and fate.
So I never could understand why anyone was impressed with Henry Bonwiller--I never felt like he was being sincere when he gave his little "for the people" speeches, so I had a hard time buying into the idea that so many people would be so willing to do so much for him. I was surprised that Corey didn't have a hard time with the fact that this family that has him to dinner, takes him on a boat trip, sends him to school still considers him not much more than an employee. I also felt like the last part of this book dragged on a bit. That said, I really enjoyed this study of loyalty, morality, and obligation as it explored our class system, political system and the media.
I listened to this one and was really impressed with the narration, as was Devourer of Books who wrote:
"Oh. My. Gosh. Don’t tell my husband, but I might have a little audio crush on the narrator, Robertson Dean. He has such a gorgeous voice, mellow, but with lots of emotion. He kept me calmly focused on the story through the worst traffic jams and the most annoying house cleaning. " I concur!
Published November 2008 by Knopf Publishing
In the 1680s the slave trade in the Americas is still in its infancy. Jacob Vaark is an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, with a small holding in the harsh North. Despite his distaste for dealing in “flesh,” he takes a small slave girl in part payment for a bad debt from a plantation owner in Catholic Maryland. This is Florens, who can read and write and might be useful on his farm. Rejected by her mother, Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master's house, and later from the handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved, who comes riding into their lives.
Jay, at http://quickiebooks.blogspot.com says: Mention the name Morrison and little else needs to be said. Of course it's an intense and tragic read worth every page. But it's not just about slavery. It's about the backdrop of intolerance, class and religious, that breeds the kind of culture where slavery seems justified, sometimes even to the enslaved themselves.
Morrison has literally woven this novel together--changing points of view and narrators frequently and giving a fully fleshed out back story to all of the characters she introduces. At it's heart, "a mercy" is the story of a mother who gives up her daughter to save her and the daughter who spends the rest of her life feeling abandoned. Every character in the story is rootless--from the slave girl, Florens, to the Native American, Lina, who is the sole survivor of a plague, to Jacob Vaark, the farmer/merchant the brings the characters together. The book is beautifully written and if you choose to listen to this on CD, you'll get the added benefit of Morrison as narrator. It feels like your grandmother is reading to you and you don't want the story to end.
Published August 2008 by Simon Shuster Adult Publishing
Vivacious thirty-seven-year-old Anna K. is comfortably married to Alex, an older, prominent businessman from her tight-knit Russian-Jewish immigrant community in Queens. But a longing for freedom is reignited in this bookish, overly romantic, and imperious woman when she meets her cousin Katia Zavurov's boyfriend, an outsider and aspiring young writer on whom she pins her hopes for escape. As they begin a reckless affair, Anna enters into a tailspin that alienates her from her husband, family, and entire world.
In nearby Rego Park's Bukharian-Jewish community, twenty-seven-year-old pharmacist Lev Gavrilov harbors two secret passions: French movies and the lovely Katia. Lev's restless longing to test the boundaries of his sheltered life powerfully collides with Anna's. But will Lev's quest result in life's affirmation rather than its destruction?
I was eagerly looking forward to reading this book after hearing a review on NPR. Amazon picked it as a "Book of the Month." Newspapers and magazine across the country had included reviews. That may account for my disappointment with this book--my expectations were just too high. Reyn does a terrific job of resetting Tolstoy's novel, giving the reader a marvelous background in Russian immigrant society, vivid descriptions of the characters and settings.
Anna is a beautiful woman who has not concept of how to have a decent relationship; she only sees men as conquests and finds most women beneath her. She is supposed to be very intelligent but this is a woman whose life choices are almost never based on reality but rooted, instead, in the happily-ever-after myth. The NPR reviewer felt that Reyn had made Anna a character that modern women could empathize with. I disagree--I think most women with find Anna selfish and arrogant. Unlike the original Anna, it's no longer a social disaster to leave your husband but when this Anna finds herself feeling stuck in her marriage, she doesn't just file for divorce, get a job and fight for her son. Instead, she allows herself to be drawn into a "great" love and walks away from her child. Had I liked her better, maybe I would have liked the book more.
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Published February 2009 by Hyperion
Source: borrowed this one from the library
Dickinson is the author of the syndicated advice column "Ask Amy" which appears in more than 150 newspapers nationwide and appears on several NPR shows.
This is the tale of Amy, her daughter and the women in her family who helped raise them after Amy's husband abruptly left. It is a story of frequent failures and surprising successes, as Amy starts and loses careers, bumbles through blind dates and adult education classes, travels across country with her daughter, and tries to come to terms with the family's aptitude for "dorkitude." Though they live in London, D.C., and Chicago, all roads lead them back to her original hometown of Freeville (pop. 458), a tiny upstate village where Amy's family has tilled and cultivated the land, tended chickens and Holsteins, and built houses and backyard sheds for over 200 years. Most important though, her family has made more family there, and they all still live in a ten-house radius of each other. With kindness and razor-sharp wit, they welcome Amy and her daughter back weekend after weekend, summer after summer, offering a moving testament to the many women who have led small lives of great consequence in a tiny place.
The Book Lady, at http://thebookladysblog.com/, says: The Mighty Queens of Freeville is full of quirky stories and insightful thoughts on life. It will make you laugh out loud. It will make you smile as you recognize characters familiar from your own life, and it will bring tears to your eyes as you remember the difficult moments of your own life. More than anything else, this book will make you want to pick up the phone and call your mother, favorite aunt, and closest girlfriends and tell them exactly how much you love and appreciate them.
The Book Lady is right--this book made me laugh out loud again and again. My husband got tired of me reading whole passages to him (apparently things just aren't as funny when you do this!). This book will make the rounds through the women of my family. Some really awful things have happened to Dickinson--her father abandoned the family and her husband leaves her for another woman. But Dickinson never gets maudlin, nor does she use this opportunity to bash these men. Instead she focuses on the humor, love and family that help her get through her life as she tries to find her way. Is it a great book? Perhaps not. But I loved it!
by Michael Chabon
Published May 2007
Chabon is a Pulitzer Prize winner for "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay" and also wrote "Wonder Boys" which was made into a movie starring Michael Douglas and Tobey Macguire.
For sixty years, Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered in the Federal District of Sitka, a "temporary" safe haven created in the wake of revelations of the Holocaust and the shocking 1948 collapse of the fledgling state of Israel. The Jews of the Sitka District have created their own little world in the Alaskan panhandle. For sixty years they have been left alone, neglected and half-forgotten in a backwater of history. Now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control, and their dream is coming to an end. Homicide detective Meyer Landsman of the District Police has enough problems without worrying about the upcoming Reversion. His life is a shambles, his marriage a wreck, his career a disaster. He and his half-Tlingit partner, Berko Shemets, can't catch a break in any of their outstanding cases. Landsman's new supervisor is the love of his life—and also his worst nightmare. And in the cheap hotel where he has washed up, someone has just committed a murder—right under Landsman's nose. Out of habit, obligation, and a mysterious sense that it somehow offers him a shot at redeeming himself, Landsman begins to investigate the killing of his neighbor, a former chess prodigy. Then word comes down that the case is to be dropped. Landsman is having none of it.
A murder mystery in a unique setting, complete with an enormous cast of richly drawn characters, made up Yiddish words, and Jewish lore and history. It's a story where the ultra-Orthodox Bobovers turn out to be the bad guys, chess is front and center and the Messiah may have been murdered. If you get this on CD, you get Peter Riegert doing a wonderful job with a wide range of voices. Chabon succeeds in creating both a noir thriller and a touching romance and makes for a very satisfying read.
The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry
Published July 2008 Harper Collins
Can you read your future in a piece of lace? All of the Whitney women can. But the last time Towner read, it killed her sister and nearly robbed Towner of her own sanity. Vowing never to read lace again, her resolve is tested when faced with the mysterious, unsolvable disappearance of her beloved Great Aunt Eva, Salem's original Lace Reader. Told from opposing and often unreliable perspectives, the story engages the reader's own beliefs. Should we listen to Towner, who may be losing her mind for the second time? Or should we believe John Rafferty, a no nonsense New York detective, who ran away from the city to a simpler place only to find himself inextricably involved in a psychic tug of war with all three generations of Whitney women? Does either have the whole story? Or does the truth lie somewhere in the swirling pattern of the lace?
The story is told from numerous points of view, primarily Towner's (the veracity of which is questionable given her history of mental illness) and it can get confusing. The story also shifts back and forth in time. There is a lot of detail to keep track of--much of it will come back to bear in the end. The last 50 pages are full of surprises, although the whole thing seems a little implausible and a little bit like an action movie with non-stop action. I enjoyed the book, even though in the end I was working hard to figure out if any of it made sense.
Monday, June 1, 2009
Daphne by Justine Picardie
Published August 2008
From the dust jacket: It is 1957. The author, Daphne du Maurier, despairs as her marriage falls apart. Restlessly roaming through Menabilly, her remote mansion by the sea, she is haunted by regret and by her own creations. Seeking distraction , Daphne becomes passionately interested in Branwell, the reprobate brother of the Bronte sisters, and begins a correspondence with the enigmatic scholar Alex Symington. But behind Symington's respectable surface is a slippery character with much to hide. In present day London, a young woman, newly married to a man considerably older than her, struggles with her PhD thesis on du Maurier and the Brontes. Her husband, still seemingly in thrall to his brilliant first wife, is frequently distant and mysterious. Retreating into the comfort of her library, she becomes absorbed in a fifty-year-old literary mystery...
This is really three stories intertwined into one. As a lover of du Maurier and the Brontes, I really enjoyed the insights this book offered. The story of the young woman was not terribly original, borrowing from the plot line of du Maurier's "Rebecca," but I did enjoy the outcome of that story. The story of du Maurier's own torments could become repetitive and overlong, but hers was a fascinating life and it would be hard to make it something reader's wouldn't be interested in. Symington's story was totally new to me and I enjoyed the interaction between Daphne and Alex as their feelings about each other changed throughout the novel. On top of all this, toss in the fact that Daphne's cousins were the young men for whom J. M. Barrie wrote Peter Pan, and the fact that her father was the first person to perform the roles of both Captain Hook and Mr. Darling, and the book is an even more compelling read. Very well researched and well written, this book pulls the reader along throughout.