Friday, November 15, 2013

Book Review: Someone by Alice McDermott

Title: Someone
Author: Alice McDermott
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG-13

Marie is an ordinary person. Born in Brooklyn in the 1920s, she doesn't stray far from the path you might expect. She graduates from high school and works for a few years until she marries. She and her husband move to Long Island where they raise four children. Her mother dies and her brother comes to live with them. They grow old.

Marie's life isn't all that different from mine, or from that of millions of American women. She's beloved by her husband and children, and invisible to almost everyone else. And that's the beauty of Someone. I was talking with my mom about the book a few weeks ago and she said, "that book isn't really about anything," and I guess that's true, but that's also what I loved about it-- McDermott is able to make the life of an ordinary woman extraordinarily interesting. The book is very descriptive, and I think this comes, in small part, because Marie is very nearsighted, but McDermott uses this character trait to paint interesting pictures from an ordinary life. It was lovely to me that McDermott was able to select both small and large moments from Marie's life to create a cohesive picture of a whole life, a full life, an ordinary life. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Book Review: David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

Title: David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG, as far as I can remember

Ed and I listened to Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath during our drive to and from Las Vegas last month. At seven hours, it's the perfect thing to listen to on a long drive. Based on the premise that David manipulated Goliath's expectations in order to gain victory, Gladwell goes on to show how other people have done the same things. He talks about using our obstacles as strengths, like the dyslexic construction worker who used his superior listening skills to become one of the best defense attorneys in the nation. Or the doctor who grew up in abject poverty who went on to become one of the most relentless cancer researchers of his time. Gladwell illustrates the David and Goliath principle with stories from history (like Lawrence of Arabia) and from the recent past (like the troubles in Northern Ireland). It's a good book to generate conversation, like on our car ride, and I think I enjoyed listening to it even more with a companion than I would have by myself.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Book Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Title: Fangirl
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG-13 or R for sexual themes and language

Remember back a few months ago when I fawned all over Rainbow Rowell's lovely YA novel Eleanor and Park? I was delighted to see that she was coming out with a new book, but since it same so quickly on the heels of E&P, I was a little bit worried that this one wouldn't live up to its predecessor. So I was surprised to find that I actually liked this one more.

Although Fangirl would probably be found in the teen lit section of Barnes and Noble, its protagonist, Cath, is a college freshman at University of Nebraska, straddling the bounds between childhood and womanhood. And this scares her. Lots of things scare Cath. The fact that her twin sister, Wren, didn't want to be her roommate. The idea of going to the dining hall. Her roommate, Reagan. Her roommate's boyfriend, Levi. Her fiction writing class. How her father is going to survive with both of his girls at school. In fact, the only time Cath feels absolutely unafraid is when she's Magicath, the author of Simon Snow (think Harry Potter) fanfiction. Thousands of readers are waiting with baited breath for Magicath to finish her version of the story before Gemma T. Leslie's (JK Rowling's) final novel comes out.

Cath's anxieties are something that gets in the way with her daily functioning. She has a hard time reading people. She has obsessions. She has weird things about food. She finds it hard to forgive people who have wronged her and has sort of a rigid sense of right and wrong. But she's also a person who cares deeply about her family. Her mother left the family when the girls were young (I read this at the same time I was reading The Lowland and the books were interesting to read in comparison with each other). She wants to be less fearful. She might even want to fall in love.

Fangirl is a book with so much heart that I didn't want to stop reading. The book takes place over the course of Cath's entire freshman year, and a LOT happens in the book. I think I loved it so much because Cath reminded me a lot of my son, Bryce, and it gave me hope that he might be able to thrive in the wilds of a freshman dorm. One note: the main narrative of the story is interspersed both with selections from the Simon Snow novels and selections from Cath's fan fiction. I know some readers didn't love these parts, but they didn't bother me.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Book Review: The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti

Title: The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese
Author: Michael Paterniti
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13

Let's say that once in your life, you had a great idea for a book. You were fresh out of a great MFA program, so you had the writing chops (if long-winded footnotes are your thing). So you took off to Spain to write the story about the greatest piece of cheese in the entire history of the world. But let's say that life intervened. Instead of learning about the cheese, you got into a bromance with the cheesemaker. You had a few kids. You and your wife both got involved in other projects. And eventually, the people who gave you your advance took it all back and canceled the project. How do you salvage things? If you're Michael Paterniti, then the result is The Telling Room, where he tells not only the story of the cheese from the village of Guzman, but also the story of larger-than-life Ambrosio, plus a lot of added extras. Paterniti does a great job characterizing the man and painting a picture of rural Spanish life, and touting his own exploits, but as a story, this one felt like a whole lot of laziness and MFA posturing and not much of giving a fully-rounded story.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Book Review: Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Title: Tell The Wolves I'm Home
Author: Carol Rifka Brunt
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13

The year is 1987, and June's Uncle Finn is dying of AIDS. His last wish is to paint a portrait of fourteen-year-old June and her sister Greta. This portrait is just about the only place where June and Greta seem united these days-- Greta seems too worldly, too experienced, and June can't think about much but Finn. When he dies, she feels all one, until Finn's partner, Toby, the one the family thinks murdered him, reaches out to her.

While the story itself is well-written and heart-wrenching, and truly one of the best books I've read this year, what makes the book so great for me is the way that the author captures the atmosphere of 1987. I'm a few years younger than June and also grew up within train-riding distance of Manhattan, and Brunt gets it exactly right. I will never forget the first time I read about AIDS in LIFE Magazine. I was probably ten, and I was absolutely convinced that I was going to die of AIDS because the article talked about how AIDS was transmitted by bodily fluids, and I spent so much time swimming at the beach, peeing in the ocean, and occasionally swallowing ocean water. Imagine living in that time and place, and feeling those feelings, and loving someone with the disease more than you loved anyone else, ever. And after he dies, having someone else, also dying of AIDS, come into your life, and falling in love with him, too. The end of the book felt somewhat implausible to me, but I loved June and Greta and Toby and really loved the world that Brunt recreated on the page for me.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Book Review: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Title: Rose Under Fire
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG or PG-13

Many of my book-reviewing friends considered Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity the best book of 2012. And it was a great story-- a female spy who was captured by the Nazis and forced to write a confession about her work with the Resistance. The story she wrote was one of enduring friendship, and there was a dynamic twist that surprised readers and gave them a satisfying a-ha moment. As good as that book was, I enjoyed reading Rose Under Fire more. I know that some readers will disagree with me. Rose Under Fire lacks the puzzle aspect of Code Name Verity, but once again we have a protagonist on the cusp of womanhood who is put into a very adult situation. Rose Justice is an eighteen-year-old American ATA pilot, given the task of transporting fighter planes. On a routine flight to France in the fall of 1944, she is captured by the Nazis, who escort her plane into their territory, then send her to Ravensbruck, a women's concentration camp. Rose spends the next winter and spring as part of a family of courageous women, all of whom want to live and look out for each other in a place that seems incompatible with life or compassion.

While Code Name Verity was a fascinating read where the reader tried to puzzle out what was happening, there's no question about the narrative on Rose Under Fire. But the narrative still seems almost unbelievable a times, as Rose tells her story from the postwar safety of the Paris Ritz. I'm thoroughly impressed by both of the novels, and hope that Wein continues to write stories in this vein-- I think that this one cements her reputation as the novelist of women's WWII narratives.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Book Review: Mile 21 by Sarah Dunster (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Mile 21
Author: Sarah Dunster
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Electronic Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for adult themes and loss

In the opening pages of Mile 21, a new novel written by Sarah Dunster (one of our featured poets in the journal this month) and published by Cedar Fort Press, we meet Abish Miller, the protagonist. Abish is the kind of girl who glares at her co-workers in her part-time student job on campus at BYU-Idaho and argues with her parents. But she also works as a volunteer chaplain at the local hospital, visiting patients who would otherwise spend their days alone. When she leaves work and the hospital, she runs like someone is chasing her. In other words, Abish is complicated. And prickly. We soon learn that some of Abish’s prickliness comes because she’s grieving the loss of her husband, Mark, who died a year earlier. I think we often have preconceived ideas about widows, and especially about young widows– that they bear their loss with grace and a stiff upper lip, but Abish is raw and rubbed down to the bone. She’s not coping well, except when she runs.

Dunster’s previous novel, Lightning Tree, was historical fiction (an excerpt of which won our fiction contest a few years back), and while Mile 21 definitely has elements of a romance, it’s much more an exploration of Abish’s own character. She recognizes early on in the novel that she needs to change (actually, she might be content to exist in her grief, but her boss and her parents give her ultimatums that force her to start healing), and while she fights this change at many turns, dating the wrong kinds of guys, breaking the law, as well as the normal things readers might expect of twenty-one-year-old college students, she eventually does start to heal.

While Dunster does an excellent job showing the depth and complexity of Abish’s character, revealing details that explain her crustiness and her pain without exactly justifying them, the novel is about more than just Abish. She writes about Rexburg, Idaho and the surrounding countryside with such authority, affection, and clear-headedness that they almost become another character in the novel. I loved the descriptions of the streets and the farms that Abish passes as she runs, and Dunster forces readers to look at some of the inherent contradictions in a community that is as predominantly Mormon as Rexburg.

As a runner, reading about someone who uses running as therapy and works through her problems by running long miles along really resonated with me. I think Dunster gets the details right here too– after a while, running is less about breathing and sore quads, and a lot more about getting outside and working oneself into a meditative state. Readers who want to go to some hard and dark places with a character and see some ultimate redemption will enjoy Mile 21. Who knows– they may even be inspired to start running marathons.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Book Review: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Title: The Lowland
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for sexual themes

Subhash and Udayan Mitra are brothers who grow up inseparable in Calcutta in the 1960s. In their early 20s, their paths diverge when Subhash leaves to study for a PhD in America, and Udayan stays behind to protest the injustices of the government. Subhash recognizes that he and his brother are growing apart, especially when Udayan gets married, and Subhash continues his monkish existence in Rhode Island. When [spoiler alert!] Udayan dies at the hands of the police, Subhash returns to India and makes the grandest and most complicated decision of his life-- he marries Udayan's pregnant wife, Gauri. And then both of them keep the whole story a secret from their daughter, Bela, who grows up knowing nothing of Udayan and believing Subhash is her biological father.

As a writer, I recognize that a life like mine wouldn't make a good novel. For one thing, there are too many characters. I have six kids, a husband, parents, a bunch of friends, kids' friends in and out of the house at all hours of the day and night, and nearly a dozen siblings and in-laws. I've noticed that the people who inhabit novels often live very solitary lives. And this is true of Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland. When Subhash brings Gauri to Rhode Island, their isolation, both from each other and from the world around them, feels profound. It feels like these two (and eventually these three) people live with a whole world around them, but engrossed in their own lives. Gauri, in particular, seems unable to shake her own sorrow and her lack of maternal instinct toward  Bela. The early chapters of the book are rich and engrossing, and the second half is very sad. I kept expecting a sort of redemption for Gauri to come at the end of the novel, as it seems to come for Subhash and Bela, but it didn't come. If there had been more of a catharsis, I think I would have given the book five stars, but the end felt like a quiet anticlimax, which is probably more fitting, seeing how the characters lived their lives, but made for a less satisfying read.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Book Review: The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty

Title: The Husband's Secret
Author: Liane Moriarty
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: I can't remember, but I know there was sex in it

Honestly, it's been a while since I finished The Husband's Secret. I took it out of the library because I really enjoyed Moriarty's previous novel, What Alice Forgot. The Husband's Secret has many of the same themes of What Alice Forgot (marriages of people about my age going south) and also takes place among the upper-middle class in modern-day Australia, and it's a perfectly fine book, but What Alice Forgot was such a fun book, with such an interesting and funky premise, that I felt this book lacked sparkle by comparison.

The Husband's Secret starts out with three separate stories. First we have Tess, who discovers that her husband is cheating on her with her (formerly fat, now smoking hot) best friend/cousin. Tess listens to the couple's confession, takes her son, and flies home to be with her mother. She enrolls the son at her former elementary school, where Cecilia is the PTO president (or the Aussie equivalent thereof). Cecilia has it all-- gorgeous daughters, a perfect home, a handsome husband, and a thriving Tupperware business (yes, don't laugh). The school secretary is Rachel, who is still mourning the loss of her daughter, who was murdered more than twenty years earlier. As the narrative unfolds, the lives of these three women converge.

This is a book I'm glad I read, and one I would recommend to others, especially as sort of escapist chick lit (if finding out your husband did something horrible in his past counts as escapist chick lit), but it's not as good at What Alice Forgot. Read that one instead if you can only commit to one.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Book Review: Every Day by David Levithan

Title: Every Day
Author: David Levithan
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG-13 for language and discussions of sex

I've long been a fan of David Levithan's collaborative work, specifically Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, but I'd never read anything by him as a solo artist. So when I heard someone recommend the novel Every Day, I was eager to see him perform on his own. The protagonist of Every Day, A, wakes up every day in a different body. This has been happening as long as A can remember, probably all of his life (and I use the pronoun "his" here with a grain of salt-- A doesn't identify as male or female, and spends time as both males and females-- this is actually one of the larger issues of the novel-- what gender means, but it's easier for me to refer to the character by a pronoun, and although the audiobook reader was female, A leaned male to me, I guess). Anyway, if you watched as many reruns of Quantum Leap when you were procrastinating reading The Canterbury Tales in college as I did, you basically get the idea. Each morning, A is someone new. However, until this point in A's life (he's sixteen during the events in the novel), he, unlike Scott Bakula, has never tried to solve anyone else's problems. He lives lightly in the shoes of his bodies, trying not to mess anything up in their lives that can't be undone. Until one day when he wakes up in the body of a rather repulsive teenage boy, and finds himself completely in love with that boy's girlfriend, Rhiannon. After that one day, A does his best to stay as close as possible to Rhiannon, even if seeing her or being near her comes at the detriment of the people who's lives he's inhabiting.

It's a fascinating idea for a book, and I absolutely adored the first 2/3 of the story. I loved how A had to wrestle with doing what was best for himself versus doing what was best for the other people. I loved the interactions he had with Rhiannon, and watching her come to terms with what being with A meant for her. I even loved the resolution to the story. I wasn't as wild about the side story-- one of the people A inhabits gets in trouble with his parents for being where he wasn't supposed to be while A was in control of his body. His preacher brings out a media firestorm about demonic possession, and sets up events for future books. Although I loved the original love story, it seems resolved by the end of the novel, and I'm not sure I'm as interested in where Levithan seems prepped to take A in future stories (my guess is that this will be a, you guessed it, trilogy). I also felt that Levithan's own views came through a little too strongly in the novel. Nearly 1/3 of As bodies belonged to kids who were gay or transgender, and virtually all mentions of religion were negative. But the book is still thoroughly entertaining, I just wish the last third had lived up to the setup of the first part of the story.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Book Review: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Title: The Signature of All Things
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: 1% of this book would be rated VERY R, but the rest is probably PG. So if you read it and come to the scene where she comes across a sex book and think the rest of the book is going to be porn, skip ahead a few pages and go on your merry way. Yes, you'll miss one of the minor themes of the book, but it's okay. You'll also have to skip a scene in the bathroom, and one in the moss cave, but don't let it deter you.

Okay, so this is a book where my personal bias is going to come through. My guess is that a lot of readers will find this book slow. They'll say that not much happens, and that readers have to wade through lots and lots of history and botany for a little bit of action. If I'm being totally honest, I think that's probably true. But I have a thing for long, lingering books where a reader can get really lost in the character, and from the first chapter, when Alma Whitaker is born in 1890, I was totally lost in the story.

Alma is the daughter of a working-class Englishman who uses his limited knowledge of botany to steal cuttings, which turns into a job sailing with Captain Cook, which eventually helps him build one of the largest botanical and pharmaceutical companies of the 1800s. Her mother's family has run the Dutch botanical gardens since the 1600s. So it's no surprise that Alma is raised (in Philadelphia) to be educated and independent and hard working. The book covers the successes and disappointments of her long life, and I loved reading about her interactions with abolitionism, spiritualism, evolution and all of the movements of the 19th century that came in between.

My only beef with the book, and again, this is a reflection of my personal bias, probably comes from my obsession with the obituaries. When Alma looks back at her long life in the final chapter of the novel, she examines her accomplishments and her disappointments. When I read the obituaries, I tend to see that most women who did not have children have much more interesting obituaries than those who did, and it seems that the author, through Alma, is celebrating the accomplishments that can come through a child-free life. Or maybe I'm just too sensitive because it takes me all day to (badly) review a few books because I don't have the time for solitude and reflection that a woman like Alma had. 

Book Review: Ajax Penumbra 1969 by Robin Sloan

Title: Ajax Penumbra 1969
Author: Robin Sloan
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG

I fell in love with Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore when I read it earlier this year, and I was delighted to discover that Robin Sloan had written a prequel to the book, Ajax Penumbra 1969. I'm not sure if this book would be a long short story or a novella, but whatever it is, it's thoroughly enjoyable reading for anyone who loved the original book, or for people who want to start reading with this book. As expected by the title, the story takes place in 1969. Ajax Penumbra is working as a research librarian at a small Midwestern college, when he's sent on a quest to find a missing book. He ends up in San Francisco, and discovers the 24-Hour bookstore, already the site to many mysteries. I found the story, which takes people around and through and underneath San Francisco at a pivotal point in history, utterly fascinating. I was just sad that it was over so quickly!