Saturday, October 3, 2009

While I'm Falling by Laura Moriarty

I can remember one of my creative writing professors sharing a famous quote: there are only three types of stories in this world. All stories revolve one of three ideas. I wish I remembered the wording. But google searching for the answer seems to defeat the purpose. These three things are war, love and death. look at these categories and I think: what about loss, self-discovery, catharsis, victory, defeat? And yet I also believe that most stories are about the same basic ideas. Different packaging, same themes.  Most of the books I have read lately are about life choices.

While I’m Falling is a modern story. It ruminates on the sandwich generation, couples that get divorced after twenty-five plus years of marriage, career choices, college life. And yet, it is mainly a story that explores: what is the good life? While I was reading it, I stopped to consider my own life choices, the lack of a fire I feel in my belly somedays, the part of me that has wondered if being adult means accepting a more staid daily life. I yearned to be the protagonist, a junior in college trying to find her way, setting off course from the path she had previously chosen. I can’t even remember choosing a course in college. I was too busy having fun, learning, and living. Veronica’s life is nothing to really yearn for. But I suppose I just wanted to be back in an environment where it felt safe to make mistakes.

This evening, I started talking to a woman next to me on the metro platform. She asked about the book I was reading and I tried to explain it. A young woman in college struggles after her parents divorce, she realizes she doesn’t have what it takes to be pre-med, and a train wreck of negative events occur. And then suddenly her mother is at her dorm room, evicted from her apartment and living in her van. I explained to this woman that I felt disheartened reading the book. I didn’t particularly like the characters. Or I suppose at first I didn’t relate to them. I just felt propelled by the story. But something happened. An unlikely character emerged as the most compelling hero. The homeless mother, who doesn’t regret her life choices even as she has nothing to show for herself, made me feel reinspired. Even at her lowest moments, she is a true mother, a caring and considerate person, who truly appreciates the people around her, even the lowly waitress at an all night coffee place.

In the end, I loved this book. I love the way it captured the many conflicts of modern life. It showed that the choices we make alter our lives, but the most important thing is the attitude we use to face each day. The book is about a family unraveling, and yet it isn’t tragic. In the end, I believed that all of the negative events had to occur to get the characters where they needed to be.

Every Last Cuckoo by Kate Malloy

I loved this book. It inspired me, made me realize it’s never too late to try new things, to discover a new part of yourself, to set out to create a larger family.  Who would have thought a book about a 75 year old widow would be so engaging, informative and compelling.  I guess the truth is we don't have to read about people who are like us. We learn the most from stepping inside the mindset of those who are different from us.

Seventy-five year old Sarah Lucas is in mourning over the love of her life, her husband Charles. They lived a wonderful life together and Sarah suddenly faces each new day with dread, as she is without the biggest constant in her life. Now, as I reconsider this novel, I think of the 80 year old Jewish grandmother of a friend I met this summer.  She talked repeatedly of her beloved husband, who died a number of years ago, a chemist, "but brilliant, he could have been a lawyer."  This woman was smart enough to go to college but girls didn't go to college then (unless they had wealthy parents), and she still regrets this fact.  She didn't work and it is obvious that she always defined herself in terms of her wonderful husband.  I suppose similar things could be said of Sarah, whose husband was a beloved doctor.

Sarah, is suddenly able to find a new version of herself, defined only by her actions. Her memories take her back to the Great Depression when her parents opened their house to various relatives in need. The married wife of a doctor never imagined doing something similar but the widow who replaces her soon packs her house full.  With her teenage granddaughter, fighting for independence from the mother who doesn't understand, two of her teenage friends -one whose mother seems happy to lose a mouth to feed, an Israeli pacifist professor writing a book in Sarah's cabin, and a young mother and child whose husband and father (and breadwinner) lies in the hospital burned from the electrical fire that ruined their small trailer. In Sarah's house a new family forms, and Sarah discovers her inner artist. Young, old and middle aged mingle in the house finding ways to help each other overcome a series of hardships.  Movie nights are created, a sullen teenager crafts stories for the young fatherless boy.  Sarah and the Israeli widower ruminate on loss and violence, meditation and personal peace.

I loved the characters.  They were real, and their problems were universal.  Maybe communal living is the way to go.  This book made me a ready believer.  It also made me realize that one is never to old to try something new, to discover a new passion, savor a  new hobby, embrace a new family.  So many uplifting messages in a beautifully crafted story. What more could one ask for in a reading selection for a long bus ride?

The Promised World by Lisa Tucker

Jill from Breaking the Spine said she put down this book because it was too intense. I understand her completely. I wanted to enjoy this book as it is about boy girl twins, and I am obsessed with twins (I am one myself). I have only read one other book about boy-girl twins and the unique relationship. I purchased it in Australia, it was written by a New Zealander and it was borderline strange (the girl dressed like a boy and later it was revealed she was gay).

This novel was beguiling and intriguing but it also detailed the sort of story that makes you want to look away and not turn back. The protagonist is an English professor in Philadelphia. As a female twin and compulsive reader who studied English in Philly I felt a kinship towards her. But her relationship with her twin is something else entirely. There is a reverence in their relationship that confuses all of the individuals around them. Together they escaped a traumatic childhood. The story begins with Lila Cole learning of her brother’s death. The cause of death was suicide by police (I will leave you to figure out that for yourself). After her brother’s death Lila is consumed by grief and depression, her marriage is challenged, and her niece and nephew (her brother Billy's children) are suffering as well. The traumatic events pile up one after the other and it is a lot for a reader to take.

In the end, the reader gains closure, and yet there is still so much lingering trauma. There isn’t much really conveyed in this story about the relationship between twins; it is much more focused on living through childhood trauma and abuse.

Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen

I adored so much about this book. I read it, feeling more and more like a New Yorker as I understood so very much of the descriptions.  Quindlen clearly understand the pulse of New York and even of the Bronx.  She created a full picture, one I know myself, and I loved being able to see the two worlds I have contrasted in my head artfully juxtaposed.  I couldn't help but wonder: Where does Quindlen get this information? How much time has she actually spent in the Bronx?

I wondered if people ever read these sorts of fictional stories with an anthropological eye.  She is a white woman trying to portray the world of poor, non-white individuals.  Seems easy for one to pick at her portrayals.  Too stereotypical. And thus offensive.  I couldn't decide myself if she captured everything realistically.  It was all believable, but I suppose all the time I spent working in the Bronx makes me sensitive to the way some people misrepresent the culture.

It is clear Quindlen has an agenda. She talks about women in the projects being provided with yoga, job training, parenting classes, when they need jobs, health care, a world that will prevent their children from becoming statistics.  The novel focuses somewhat on the way the media responds to the shooting of a white affluent boy (the son of a famous TV persona) versus the collapse of a building filled with low-income families in the Bronx.  While Quindlen seems to be sending a message (I am still unclear exactly her point), the story is mainly about two sisters, one who is a cohost of a popular morning TV show, Rise and Shine.  Megan Fitzmaurice is the most famous woman on morning TV (Meredith Viera-esque?), married to her childhood sweetheart, with a beloved son at Amherst (his father's alma mater).  She is larger than life, the world she lives in is full of town cars and charity balls, while her sister, the narrator, is a social worker in the Bronx with a 60 year old cop boyfriend.  Through these two sisters we get a view into two very different worlds located only blocks apart.

While I was engaged by the story, and loved the prose, I felt myself questioning so much of Quindlen's choices.  Is it appropriate to name a low-income mother Tequila (although I did have a student named Hennessy)?  Why is Bridget portrayed as both a mess and a pariah? Are we really to believe such a loving woman would never desire children of her own?  And of course I had problems with the representations of the Bronx.   It seems many criticized this work for the same reasons.

From Amazon: "Some critics say Meghan's arc in the novel is too dramatic, the contrasts between the gritty Bronx and sparkly Manhattan are overly sharp, and class distinctions are sometimes glossed over. Others, however, find charm in this very modern retelling of the ancient riches-to-rags, humble-sister-saves-the-day story. Even those who struggle with the plot and characterization agree the novel is worth reading simply for the prose."

I do recommend this book. But I am still trying to decide the most salient message.  

Friday, September 11, 2009

Life Without Summer by Lynne Griffin

The first time I picked up this book I wasn't drawn in. On second glance, I finished it in one day.  It is a novel about two mothers who have lost young children. Tessa, loses her 3 year old daughter after she is the victim of a hit in run in front of her preschool.  It is a horrific act to contemplate. A young child mowed down and left to due.  Tessa becomes obsessed with finding out the truth behind this accident, stops working as a freelance writer and allows her marriage to falter.

The story is told both through Tessa's viewpoint and that of her therapist, Celia, who has her own family troubles: an alcoholic ex, a teenage son acting out and crying for help, a rocky new marriage and a tragedy from the past that she has yet to overcome.

Part of me drew a parallel between this novel and A. M. Holme's In a Country of Mothers because of the dual perspectives, one of which is a therapist in both novels.  The books deal with wildly diverging issues and yet they are both about motherhood and loss.  And both involve shifting lens and the inside view of therapy, thus my connection.  

In the end, there is a big surprise and the end is somewhat unsettling but overall it was an engaging read.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler

I love the title of this book.  As well as the opening line: "Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person." As an individual who constantly questions her life path, I loved journeying with Rebecca Davitch, a 53 year old widower and grandmother, as she tried to make sense of her past choices and recreate her life.   In many ways middle aged Rebecca is going through adolescence for the first time.

At an engagement party for one of her stepdaughters, she finds herself questioning everything about her life.  Soon she is dreaming of a blonde teenage son (she is the mother to one biological daughter and three stepdaughters) and seeking out her high school sweetheart.

Rebecca, now known as Beck, and the center of a noisy family and the proprietor of a party and catering business run from her home (the Open Arms), was formerly a studious and analytical college student on the path to pursuing a Phd in history, while her childhood boyfriend  and almost fiancee pursued one in Physics.  On a fateful day she attends an engagement party at the Open Arms and meets Joe Davitch. Suddenly she is a college dropout, stepmother to three, and major source of organization for the family business.  Six years later her husband dies and she is left alone to raise his four daughters.

This book is a wonderful examination of regret.  Middle-aged Rebecca questions her choice and wonders: how did I get here?  It is a question so many individuals ask. And many at very different stages in life.  Rebecca reconnects with her ex fiance and realizes that she has assigned rose colored glasses to the path not taken.

Overall, I found this story to be unique and compelling.  The characters were vivid with nicknames such as Min Foo, (because of her eyes; real name Minerva), and Patch.  And it left me pondering my own decisions even more than usual.

Bird in Hand by Christina Baker Kline

I couldn't help but think of the recent Taconic crash while reading the opening of this novel. A mother (who has been drinking, by most definitions moderately) gets in a car accident and a young child dies.  She was not technically at fault but that doesn't relieve the guilt and depression that plague her. Obviously the crash on the Taconic (where eight individuals died including the driver, who has since been reported to have been drunk) is very different than the accident in this story, and yet it all connects. Mothers and driving. Loss and blame.  Interestingly, since I finished the book, Baker Kline posted on her blog connecting the horrific crash on the Taconic with her inspiration for this story.

At the heart of this novel is two couples. In the past they made the perfect foursome. But now Claire is sleeping with her best friend Allison's husband. Obviously the dynamic has shifted.

Baker  Kline creates a complex narrative to explain the connections and experiences between these four well-developed characters.  The narrative of the book shifts in time, so that we learn about the events of the present at the same time that we delve into slivers of the past that explain the complex layers of the present.  For example, halfway through the book, we learn that Charlie,  Allison's husband, studied at Oxford with Ben and Claire. He fell in love with Claire, who was already engaged to Ben, and Claire realized that to keep Charlie in their lives their  threesome must become a foursome.  So she invited Allison, her childhood best friend to visit.

It angered me to learn about Charlie's complex emotions. At first introduction, he is a cheater, ready to ease out of his suburban life in a family of four.  While the reader yearns for an explanation for Charlie and Claire's terrible betrayal, the layered truth Baker Kline reveals did not absolve them in my eyes.  Claire comes across as a selfish woman, who seeks as much attention as she can. As a young person she wanted both Ben and Charlie. As a thirtysomething woman she is ready to hurt countless individuals in order to get what she wants: fame and the excitement of the unsafe choice she didn't pick as a young person, Charlie.

Baker Kline uses all four characters to explore the idea of wanting dual lives, and lamenting past choices. Allison years for her working life pre children while also wanting the life she has with her beautiful children. She realizes that she has never once made a decision based solely on her own desires. She is caught up in meeting the needs of her husband and children. Claire wanted a life with Ben, steady and solid, with the promise of his clear adoration and love.  He was the safe choice as his love was all-encompassing. Charlie, on the other hand, was the risky choice as he was infatuated with Claire.

Baker Kline uses this novel to explore the choices adults make. City life or suburbs. A life without children or a life with.  Suitor 1 or Suitor 2.  This makes the book refreshingly real. These are choices most individuals face and the decision is never easy.  All of the four main characters, like real individuals, have been forced to compromise. Charlie in particular seems to have thought his choices would lead to a different outcome.  There is a sense that he did everything right.  Worked hard, married the right type of woman.  It is obvious though that he hasn't truly committed to these choices.  I found myself frustrated by Claire and Charlie - not because they are adulterers but because they are so extremely selfish.  All of their actions seem driven by their wants, in such an extreme manner.  It isn't hard to believe that a father would leave his two children to follow his own desires; but it still angers me.

Overall, I found this story incredibly engaging.  While I found myself perplexed by some of the character's choices, I felt Baker Kline succeeded in capturing many of the complexities of modern life and modern marriage.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Deep Blue Sea for Beginners by Luane Rice

I've actually never read a Luane Rice novel before. While reading, I figured that this book was connected to her last novel (The Geometry of Sisters) but I haven't read it.

I started reading this book at Borders (shush don't tell!) half an hour before the store closed and figured it was a perfect read for my bus ride the next day. The idea of a runaway mother drew me in. It is something I wrote about in a short story I composed in high school and I guess that was enough to engage me in this story.

Pell and Lucy have lived without their mother for ten years. Their father, who was both a father and mother to them, died three years ago, and Pell decides it is time to visit her mother and bring her back into their lives. Lyra, their mother, has been living in Capri, the one city she ever felt home in, among a cast of other expats.  In Capri, she gardens, despite the fact that her mother never considered this an appropriate career choice.

I loved the setting of this novel.  I want to journey to Capri immediately. Additionally, Rice grounds much of Pell, Lucy and Rafe's behaviors in psychology, and this leads the story to be incredibly realistic.  Lucy suffers night terrors and insomnia.  Pell, a sixteen year old, has decided she wants to study psychology as it has helped her understand so much of her own experiences. All of the psychological studies mentioned in the book added to my interest.  The explanation of Lyra's behavior is a lot harder to swallow.  I understand why she left but I still find it hard to believe that she could live happily cut off from her daughters who she so obviously loved.  The book speaks to the fact that we have no word in our society to match deadbeat dads.  Women who leave are considered monsters. But are they?  Nothing is ever as black and white as it seems.  And in the end we learn that Lyra's desertion of her children was a lot less of a conscious choice than it originally seems.

This was a highly engaging read with very realistic characters. 

Monday, August 10, 2009

Summer Reading Update

So far my favorite book of the summer is Perfect Life by Jessica Shattuck.  I found the book so thought-provoking I started taking notes while reading - something I haven't done for a fiction book since my English courses in college.  I had a long review composed but unfortunately a blogger mishap lead to me losing most of my response.  I will rewrite and post a review shortly. I highly recommend this book for book clubs. The book engenders so much discussion.  I can imagine classes sitting and discussing the book and how it reflects modern life. And that to me is the highest compliment.  

In other marnes and nobles news, I must share a recent BandN experience.  I was happy to spend some time in the Union Square BandN yesterday - it was formerly up there as one of my favorite NYC BandN's, mainly because you used to be able to sit in the large windowsills that overlook Union Square and the back of the store.  Apparently, every New Yorker must love this bookstore.  The place is mobbed on a Sunday afternoon.  And this has lead the powers that be to change the policy regarding sitting and reading. There are signs throughout the store saying: "Please do not sit in front of these shelves or in the aisles.  Thank you." There is some seating set up on the 3rd and 4th floor, but apparently people get there early to claim these seats.  It honestly it took me over half an hour to find a spot to sit that complied with the rules (I tried sitting in the YA section, as I used to, and was asked to move as I was blocking the aisle).  I am happy to report there are no rules about sitting in the aisle at my BandN in DC.

In store reading: Yesterday, I read The Impostor's Daughter by Laurie Sandel.  I had heard a great deal about this book before I picked it up.  The fact that the author's unique story is told in the format of a graphic novel intrigued me.  I haven't read many graphic novels so its hard to evaluate The Impostor's Daughter.  One doesn't really get a sense of Sandell's writing ability, but we do get a sense of her ability to illustrate.  The story itself is fascinating.  Her father, an economics professor, is actually a con man who has lied about successive university degrees. His larger than life personality greatly affected Sandell's coming of age, and her quest to understand the truth helps her find herself as an adult.  Sandell doesn't hold any information back. There are  "cartoons" of her and her boyfriend engaging in sexual activity, and of her interviewing various celebrities for Vogue. A dependance on Ambien is also explored.  One has to applaud Sandell for being so forthcoming about her past exploits, and the truth about her family. There is something to admire in her courage -- she felt she needed to uncover the truth even though the rest of her family did not really approve.  I really appreciate that The Impostor's Daughter is a unique format. It felt so strange to hold a hardcover in my hands, and then to discover that the whole story was told through images and words.  I always revel in individual's who find new ways to express themselves, new ways to manipulate and fine-tune the written word.  Sandell does exactly that.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Waiting on Wednesday: The Bradshaw Variations

I've been so happily devouring books I haven't had much time to scope out fall books.  Thankfully Breaking the Spine continues to pick excellent books for me to add to my list.  This week I am happy to take part in "Waiting on" Wednesday.

My pick is The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk.  It comes out September 3, 2009.

From Amazon:
From the award-winning novelist Rachel Cusk comes a timely and absorbing story of the harmony and discord of family life.

Since quitting work to look after his eight-year-old daughter, Alexa, Thomas Bradshaw has found solace and nourishment in his daily piano study, but his increasingly artistic way of life shocks his parents and his undermining in-laws. Why has he swapped roles with Tonie Swann, his intense, intellectual wife? And how can this be good for Alexa?

Tonie is increasingly seduced away from domestic life by the headier world of work, where long-forgotten memories of ambition are awakened. She finds herself outside their tight family circle, alive to previously unimaginable possibilities.

Over the course of a year full of crisis and revelation, we follow their fortunes. The Bradshaw Variations reveals how our choices, our loves, and the family life we build will always be an echo—a variation—of a theme played out in our own childhood. This masterful and often shockingly funny novel shows Cusk to be a writer at the height of her powers.  

I am excited to read about a stay-at-home dad or as my young self once coined in fourth grade a "house dad."

Perfect Life by Jessica Shattuck

This is not the type of book one reads to escape.  Like so much in our modern world it raises endless questions. It prompted me to take handwritten notes while reading, something I haven't done in years.  I took notes because I wanted to ensure I considered all of the themes percolating throughout the book.

There is something both thrilling and exhausting about this book.  It explores the nuances and complexities of modern life with such a keen sense of observation and irony.  The characters are so real and so inherently a product of their modern world.  They (like many other experiences today) make me want to run away from modern society. Here are these individuals who went to Harvard and they are completely weighted down by their histories and their ambition.  Their modern life styles seem oppressive and exhausting.  At the end of the day, does all this striving make us happier?  I found myself connecting this story to a recent article in the New Republic about  a longitudinal study of males who graduated Harvard in the 1940s.  We expect these individuals to be happier.  But what does a pedigreed education really do to enhance a person's happiness?  Obviously it increases their earning potential but that in itself will not increase happiness beyond a certain point.

One of the four main characters, Jenny, is a typical type-A female, and what many would deem a "true success."  The youngest child of a canning plant foreman father and a mother who ran her own day care service while raising four children, Jenny journeyed from a small town with "ghastly colored houses" to Harvard and Harvard Business School.  She admires and loves her father "possibly more than any other on earth" and yet he has never visited her house in Boston. Additionally, Jenny clearly understands that she is raising her son to operate in a completely different world than that of her father, a quiet man with "hands like slabs of meat and a face as flat, ruddy, and impassive as a statue's."  Here is one of the many complexities of modern life. Many individuals seem to want their children to have more than they had, but what does that look like?  Is a woman with a Harvard MBA who excels at marketing pharmaceuticals happier than her quiet foreman father? 

I was particularly affected by the passage that talks of the chasm between Jenny's son and her father. Shattuck writes: "They would not speak the same language.  Even the simplest nouns would be attached to such different things in their minds: kitchen, school, transportation, meat....They would be left with nothing but the hugest most basic precepts: ocean, light, sickness, death.  Would this be enough?"  I suppose this chasm doesn't really exist in the world I operate in. My parents were raised middle class - my mother especially grew up in a similar manner to me and my brothers.  I no longer have grandparents and while I can imagine they might laugh at my high-flautin vocabulary we would still attach words to the same ideas.  Many of my friends seem able to have conversations with their own grandparents and parents without defining words in different ways.  I suppose part of this chasm has to do with class.  I defined school differently than my students who grew up in the Bronx.  It really isn't surprising that those who make it out of their low income communities rarely return. There is an idea of otherness, of being separate.

Jenny believes that motherhood "did not fit logically into the modern, well-educated career-driven woman's life."  Shattuck offers Jenny as a lens through which to hone in on modern motherhood.  We are left to ponder, when a woman was brought up learning to cook, garden, and keep house, when a "woman's primary aspiration was to achieve reproductive potential" as opposed to the more elusive form of recognition modern women strive for today, monetary or otherwise was it easier to mother? While Jenny questions these ideas I couldn't help but find fault with her own arguments. She talks of women who were taught to take care of sisters and brothers and grandparents, as if this was all so foreign to her, even though she worked in her mother's day care. It seems easy to  look at the past with a rosy view without realizing that of course with more options and a high powered career traditional motherhood is not easy.

I can't help but wonder, what are we all striving for?  In many ways some of the characters in this book seem like gerbils on a wheel grasping for what those around them covet, circling back into the lifestyles of those who came before. That isn't to say their aren't a variety of lifestyles portayed. Elise, one character, seems to love her world as a scientist. It is her niche and that is uplifting.  She has also found peace in a loving relationship with her partner Chrissy, but all of that is affected by their decision to have children (carried by Chrissy).

Biology is a reoccurring theme in the novel.  What makes someone a parent, blood or their actions?  This question is offered up through more than one story stream.  Additionally, how should biological parents be considered in a world with more rampant and acknowledged use of donors.  Is it better to know your donor? 

At the heart of the story are a series of even larger  questions: What is the good life for a child? What is the good life for an educated individual? What is fundamental? What is normal? Do modern individuals overuse their brains when they should be better using their bodies?  Shattuck uses Neil --the individual the other characters view as troubled, unstable and even teetering on crazy-- as a tool to question many of the experiences and ideas that have become normal.  He is concerned with human suffering and hates the way coddled people have inflated their own low points.  He questions if people actually deserve to be happy.  He wonders if symptoms of social psychological issues serve a purpose.  He wonders if antidepressants are a cultural force and an arbiter of normalcy.  He puts forth the idea of "all American delusional," for example, getting caught up in the minutiae of something as small as a video game without considering  its frivolity and utter insignificance in the larger world.  While he may have been the character with the most problems, I sympathized with him, saw things more through his lens than the three female characters (even though I myself am a woman).

 Shattuck offers a beautiful and magical story that stops the reader and causes them to ruminate on modern life. The novel, like its characters, is complex, intense, and varied.  I immediately recommended the book to friends. And if I had words to convey high praise without sounding ridiculous I'd offer them here.  I loved being in this world even though it was frustrating and at times nauseating.  I loved wrestling with these questions and I know I will continue to do so for a long time.

The Summer House by Nancy Thayer

This was a pleasurable read.  At the heart of the story is the interactions of an extended wealthy family.  The Wheelrights are a family of bankers.  Charlotte, one of the granddaughters, has rebelled against what is expected of her and has started an organic vegetable garden on a parcel of land on her grandmother's Nantucket estate. This has created some tension with some of the other members of the family who feel the grandmother is favoring Charlotte.

The novel mostly focuses on the secrets and experiences of three women in the family. Charlotte, her mother Helen, and her paternal grandmother, Anne, who is celebrating her 90th birthday.  Anne has been keeping  a huge secret from her son, Charlotte's father.  Helen is dealing with the repercussions of her husband's actions.  And Charlotte has a secret that explains why she fled to Nantucket.  Further drama is added as Charlotte's youngest brother returns home with a pregnant girlfriend.

As always, I enjoyed watching the events unfold for a dysfunctional family. I was rather irritated by Grace, and her daughters (Anne's other child).  I enjoyed the historical aspects included in the novel: Anne's husband was stationed in Germany during WWI and this actually forever altered their family.   This is a good escapist read.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Baker's Apprentice by Judith Ryan Hendricks

There is something magical about discovering a new author.  Wandering into a room, finding a book you long ago purchased sitting on a bookshelf full of old reads and starting anew. For that is what I do with each new book, I start anew, I dive in, I feel a sense of discovery, of excitement of surprise lurking at every turn.  I can't explain why I am a compulsive reader. So much of my life has been spent with my nose in a book, my mind working, my eyes lingering on turns of phrases, artful sentences, passages that emit emotion.  On a reader's high at the moment, I feel sorry for those who don't read. A woman at line in BandN said: "It really is a shame that I don't read more. I just never have the time."  "I page through magazines," she explained, offering up an excuse, feeling embarrassed. I told her: "that counts too," but a minute later I was decrying modern magazines, fed up with the endless wasted words detailing the lives of Jon and Kate, the Octomom, Angelina Jolie. It's all so unimportant.  It doesn't count.  Reading is magic.  I think that is why I loved teaching middle school English.  It allowed me the opportunity to dispel small doses of the magic. I got to regal a classroom with a magical passage. I got to introduce reluctant readers to a book that helped them fall down the well, into the world of a reader. My students knew I would buy them books.  My mother never denied me books as a child; I couldn't deny them either.

And there is even more magic in the world, as discovering an old book written by a prolific author allows one to reach out and surround themselves with a full tome.  I was ecstatic to discover Bread Alone had a sequel. I longed to know more about Wynter.

Defying the law of sequels, I think I liked The Baker's Apprentice even more than Bread Alone.  I suppose it is futile to compare them, for it is the backstory of Bread Alone that supports The Baker's Apprentice, letting it stand supported as a rich story. Tabling all of that, the continuation of Wynter's story expanded to include so many surprises.  The cast of characters was expanded and I found myself connected to a whole slew of characters.  I loved the community and family that was formed at The Queen Anne's Bakery.  I loved watching Wynter mentor her apprentice, Tyler, a young woman with blue hair screaming for help and guidance.  I loved being provided with glimpses of Mac's perspective as well as viewing the letters he penned Wynter.  I whole-heartedly feel that this sequel was a necessity: the story just got so much richer and fuller and more layered.  In many ways the book ends with out a complete ending.  But it felt right for things to be left the way they did. I loved the final scene, even as a part of me mourned the fact that there were no more pages to continue to regal me.

One of the factors that added to my love of this story was the setting and time period. I have always been rather intrigued by the Pacific Northwest and Seattle in particular. I can imagine myself in such a location. Beyond that, I love that this story takes place in the late 80s and early 90s. It is a world where mix tapes still reigned supreme, where the internet and the tabloids were less omni present, and local cafes weren't places filled to the brim with lit up computer screens.  Individuals sat in bars reading, as they sipped their wine.  It's a world I would have loved to inhabit. It is also a world populated by people who came of age in the 70s. I find those individuals fascinating.

I entered pure flow when reading this book. I was basically unaware of my surroundings (oh the life of a student on summer break, done with work!) - and just sat reading for hours on end, something I do way too often, but something I can't stop.

Futzing around on the internet, I have learned Hendricks plans to write a third story about Wynter.  I know I will continue to love learning about the lives of CM, Mac, Tyler, Ellen, and the rest of Wynter's cast of characters.  I am also deeply excited to read the rest of Hendrick's books.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Bread Alone by Judith R. Hendricks

I found this book on my bookshelf at my parents' house.  It is one of the few books I haven't actually read.  I don't know why I didn't read it years ago. I absolutely adored the story.  I am not a baker or a chef, but I love people who have a passion for such activities. Wynter's love for baking bread made me want to understand the process more.  But I still can't imagine reading non-fiction  books about baking or cooking, but more power to those who do!

I wonder if reading about individuals who are starting over, and seeking their place and niche in the world inherently  leads to others questioning their own path.  I can't consider this personally as I consider my own path daily even without such fictional prodding. I loved reading about Wynter's delayed adolescence - that is how I am defining it -- her attempt to find herself and make peace with all the waves of experiences and emotions that are trying to overpower her.  She is an incredibly realistic woman, one who is emerging from a marriage that allowed her to ignore the fact that she hadn't found her niche.  She taught high school for a handful of years and sold Real Estate for a year. She hated both. So she easily subsumed her interests and became the corporate wife her husband desired.  Seven years later she is forced to to create a new version of herself, and like many that have come before, she proves to be strong and resilient, capable of so many things she had never considered when she was cocooned in a beautiful house in Los Angeles. 

This book made me think of a Washington Post article from last week. Matt Crawford has a doctorate in political philosophy from UChicago, and yet he recently penned a surprise bestseller titled Shop Class as Soulcraft.  He is quoted as saying:  
There's this false dichotomy out there between intellectual work and manual work.  The popular image of the plumber is just the butt crack, not that of a skilled tradesman who sets his own hours, figures out complex problems on the fly and probably earns more than most of his clients. Plus, there's that satisfaction of imposing one's will and intellect on the physical world, to immediate effect.
 He also states:
The issue is not so much whether it is manual or physical labor, but whether your work demands use of your personal skills and judgment. If it doesn't, then you're on an assembly line, no matter how crisply starched your shirt is.

All of this is ruminating in my head as I face my own unclear future, but it also relates directly to the life of Wynter, a woman who finds meaning in making bread.  Some may consider it the work of the unskilled or, unintelligent, but it clearly brings Wynter a great deal of happiness. Isn't that what we all want for our children and friends?  Work that brings about happiness and fulfillment?  I know I do.  Sometimes I think we all get sucked into the dominant mentality.  A woman I taught with basically removed herself from regular society. She took time to paint and do yoga. She found herself in the brown earth of New Mexico.  In some ways I envy her, even as I recognize that I am not capable of living completely off the beaten path.

My experiences in shop class and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity (burned my hair in the woodburner, learned I am not as handy with a hammer as one should be) and in the kitchen have proved that I will never be a car mechanic, construction worker or bread baker.  Part of me wishes I was less cerebral and more capable of finding happiness in simple tasks, and grueling physical labor.  But, swirling through my head are other ideas as well.  It's isn't just about labor; but making a conscious choice to do something for the right reasons. I will file that way in the back of my mind.

I just found out that there is a sequel to Bread Alone. And I am so excited to read the next chapter in Wynter's life.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Romantics by Galt Niederhoffer

My first thought upon finishing this book: thank g-d I didn't go to Yale! I can't imagine having college "friends" like those depicted in the novel. At the same time, I think the book realisticly encapsulates the dynamics between a clique of college friends. In my own group of college friends, much like the clique in the novel, there are two sets of married couples who dated since college as well as a variety of other connections that span the group (including those who are now married). Our "incest" is pretty humorous, but nowhere as lined up and all encompassing as those in this novel.  The Romantics also realistically portrays how ties change post college. In this instance there are two married couples, learning new parts of their partners, and two engaged couples, with one female paired with a newcomer (what a strange position to be within the group!). While the individuals in the group are still connected and share in one another's lives, there is a distance that has developed now that they no longer live together and partake in the same activites as one another.

The novel is in many ways a satire. There is a strong sense of humor laced throughout the book. For example, as Janet Maslin points out in her NYT review, "one of the rich, adrift Yale chums in the novel never quite managed to apply to film school after graduation. But he did buy expensive screenwriting software, read part of its manual and write an unfinished script 'about a clique of college friends who reunite at a funeral.'" Niederhoffer understands that this isn't a new genre; and yet she approaches it in a different way then those who have come before and after. In the last couple of months I have read both A Fortunate Age and Commencement - two other novels that involve college friends reuniting for a wedding - and yet The Romantics stood apart as a totally different perspective on reuniting friends. I didn't draw any parallels between those two books (which my reviews show I greatly enjoyed) and The Romantics while enmeshed in this entertaining story.

Maslin writes: "Six years after college, the old friends gather to dissect one another’s successes and failures amid the rocky, picturesque tranquillity of this Maine island. All of them are sharp-eyed enough to know whose family “landed on the wrong side of Plymouth Rock” and who has been favored by fortune." As in The Commencement and A Fortunate Age, the friends are gathered together for the wedding of a college friend (in this particular case two college friends).  The maid of honor is unethused for the wedding, not because she cannot believe one of her friends is getting married (this is the case among the girls in A Fortunate Age), but because she still loves the groom, and has a major love-hate relationship with the bride.

The Romantics is more cynical than romantic. It offers a somewhat frightening view of marriage and twenty-something life. I found myself oddly detached from the characters. I didn't care for any of them. They all seemed self-centered and unaware of the larger problems of the world.  And yet I still cared about the resolution of the novel. I suppose I felt the most affinity for Laura, the outsider, and lone Jewess in the group, the maid of honor suffering through a painful weekend.  But I didn't empathize with her as much as I found her the most interesting. Overall, I find this book emotes more laughs and questions than emotions.  

After finishing the novel, I did some research on the author (as I tend to do). I always want the extras....  Ms. Niederhoffer's own story  is almost more fascinating than the book itself. I need to read her first novel which is somewhat based on her own life.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Last Summer of Her Other Life by Jean Reynolds Page

Yet another book about family secrets - I am on a roll with selecting my favorite types of books.  This book focuses on Jules, a thirty-nine year old woman who finds out she is pregnant shortly before returning home to North Carolina to care for her dying mother. I must note: there is something about parenting in the wake of the loss of a parent that seems to beguile me. Individuals today have children later in life thereby increasing the likelihood that they will parent without the hands on guidance of their own parents.  And yet the idea of parenting as an orphan still seems unnatural. I suppose in modern society the sandwich generation is expanding and thus parenting both parents and children is becoming the norm.

Back to the book: Jules, is a sound operator, an LA woman, a protected daughter. And while she  is thirty-nine she is still not fully grown. She has been protected by her mother and brother and even her high school boyfriend and doesn't know the truth about her father and his death.  Furthermore, although she has a steady job and pays taxes, Jules recognizes that she has not truly emerged from adolescence as evidenced by the fact that she has chosen to live in Los Angeles - a city where individuals who do not want to grow up reside.  

In North Carolina, Jules is forced to confront some very adult realities, and she emerges a stronger individual. Her life is dramatically altered shortly after her mother's death, as a local teen accuses her of "inappropriate sexual conduct."  It is fascinating to see the consequences of such accusations, especially since the reader knows Jules did not partake in any such activities with the accuser -- a boy she cannot even identify.  Soon the story spins into a much more complicated tale - that of a boy who is clearly suffering.  Jules, and her brother Lincoln become further involved as they seek out answers to try to help the young boy.  

There are a lot of twists and turns in the book. At first it seems to set up a romance between Jules and her high school boyfriend, the son of a man who died in the same boating accident as her father.  But Jules also seeks out the attention of Walt, the uncle of her accuser (a boy she crushed upon in high school) who is now married.  And while Jules's status as an adopted child never seems to bring any drama to the story, the reveal of her brother's parentage leads to a great deal of anguish and discovery.

This book offers up a refreshing view on family and truly shows that motherhood has nothing to do with blood.  And yet it also shows the absolute unraveling of more than one family due to the poor choices and questionable behavior of one individual.  It is more of a mystery than one would expect from the cover. And all together it spins an engaging story that rivets the reader and raises a great deal of questions on a variety of topics.

My reading was further enriched by Reynolds Page's insights at the end of the novel. She writes: "I see my books as being completed in a new way each time someone reads one of them," and "I see writing books as a kind of collaboration with the reader."  I love this idea and am going to spend some time further pondering these insights.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

(Acknowledgements: Thanks R.L. for letting me read your early copy!)

I have enjoyed every single one of Tropper's books and I consider him one of "my authors." But I think I can easily proclaim that this is his best work yet.  I love that this story revolves around a dysfunctional family (my favorite topic to read about!), and that it approaches the experience of a death in the family through a unique lens.

At various points in the novel, I stopped to savour Tropper's language.  His writing is infused with humor at every turn, and yet the flow of his sentences are  incredibly poetic.  Every chapter opening earns its way into the book.  It all begins: "'Dad's dead,' Wendy says offhandedly, like it's happened before, like it happens every day."  With the offhanded comment of an unfazed sister, we tumble into the Foxman's family's affairs.

At many moments, the book is simply the protagonist, Judd, telling his own story, speaking directly to you with his eyes bowed and his full emotion stuck in his throat.  His voice is so real, his character so developed. We all know Judd Foxman.  He is the Jewish Every Twenty-Something Man.  He explains to the reader: 

Love made us partners in narcism, and we talked ceaselessly about how close we were, 
how perfect our connection was, like we were the first people in history to ever get it exactly right. We were that couple for a while, nauseatingly impervious assholes, busy staring each other's eyes while everyone else was trying to have a good time.  When I think about how stupid we were, how obstinately clueless about the realities that awaited us, I just want to back to that skinny, cocksure kid with his bloated hear and perennial erection, and kick his teeth in.

Judd is pure male.  He is constantly thinking about sex.  And while the book is graphic I wasn't put off at all. 

Tropper has such a keen eye for the absurdities and complexities of modern life.  His depictions of Shiva calls are spot on and hilarious. His creation of a mother who penned the seminal books on childcare with a brood of children full of problems is both realistic and wildly entertaining.  His introduction of a shock jock boss (named Wade Boulanger!), and a rabbi whose childhood nickname was Boner, as well as his inclusion of miscarriages, infidelity, dog maulings, late in life lesbianism, a family friend who was severely brain damaged by a college fight all make the book incredibly entertaining and so refreshingly real.

There is so much more I want to say about this novel. But I will just say this: I highly recommend it!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Family History by Dani Shapiro

On the back of this book is a blurb from the Detroit Free Press: "One of those books most readers will finish in one sitting... because it is so intense you can't take a break. In gripping, moving prose, Shapiro reminds us of any family's essential fragility, but also of the tenacious strength of love."

Thank you Detroit Free Press for capturing the essence of this book so concisely! The art of crafting a blurb is beyond me; I am too wordy.

As for reading the book in one sitting, I did. (But  I tend to read most books in one sitting). Having read this book shortly after In A Country of Mothers,  I felt even more connected to the psychological drama and the focus on family dysfunction.  I am beginning to believe that any book with a family at its center cannot be a disappointment, although I secretly know this is not the case.

This book sucker punches the reader. It is harrowing and sad. The young daughter the parents know and love disappears--and is replaced with someone who confounds them and dramatically alters their family in irrevocable ways.  There is a sense in this book that the parents did everything right, and yet their child has turned into a very messed up teenager.  No one is to blame of course.  But it is hard to "watch" such loving individuals suffer through such family crises.    The reader wonders: why is this happening?  What explains this change for the worse?  And will she come out of this situation? Will Rachel and Ned and Kate's lives ever be stitched together?

I love the way Shapiro uses language. She has a wonderful ability to create a full scene, one that invites the reader to truly visualize the settings of her novels.  She is also adept at building  a story, beginning in the present, moving backwards and then forwards. The story alternates between the present and past in a way that allows the reader to swim around and pick up information slowly, only providing them with the full story shortly before the crescendo of the novel.  Shapiro is also skilled at her use of perspective. We see the world through the eyes of Rachel Jensen. We feel her despair and confusion, her longing for the past.  And we keep our fingers crossed that things will turn around. There is a real immediacy to the novel.  The powerful emotions Jensen experiences move beyond the page.

This book shows how quickly a family can unravel, and yet how long it takes to try to resolve the issues that led to this unraveling. In some ways it is the cautionary tale of a parent's worst nightmare.  And it is also a beautifully penned story, a full fleshed story with vivid secondary characters and a real sense of the complications, mundanity and drama of real life.

Best Friends Forever by Jennifer Weiner

I am sad I missed Jennifer Weiner's reading in NYC. She is hysterical in person!  Luckily, I was still able to buy and finish the book the day it came out.  I personally found this book to be incredibly different than Weiner's past works.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, just interesting.  This book does not take place in Philly (most of her previous books do) but instead Chicago. The book is also somewhat less snarky.  In somewhat traditional Weiner fashion there is one formerly overweight character.  So I suppose in that regard Best Friends Forever isn't a huge departure from Weiner's oeuvre.

The book is about two former Best Friends: Addie Downs and Valerie Adler.  Valerie, a meteorologist, finds herself in trouble after she acts questionably after  her high school reunion. She shows up on Addie's doorstep looking for assistance. The two wind up embarking on an adventure of sorts, true to the rhythms of their unique friendship, with Valerie leading Addie out of her overly ordered life and into various sticky situations. The book captures the sense of horror involved in returning to a high school reunion. Many of the former high schoolers individuals find themselves altered (one previous bad boy is a minister), others are still overcoming the traumas of high school (I would put Addie and Valerie in this category).  Both Addie and Valerie have experienced harrowing experiences that have shaped them as individuals and altered the friendship they severed after nine years of best friendship.  The novel is in some ways a mystery - albeit one where the reader knows more than the characters. We are introduced to a Chief of Police who is trying to explain the incidence of blood and a belt in the parking lot of a small town country club.

There is so much to relate to in this book.  I got a kick out of the fact that Addie's parents met at summer camp as mine did as well.  Additionally, I loved the way the story was grounded in history.  Addie's father is a Vietnam vet who is unable to return to the life path he had charted before combat.  Valerie's mother is a hippy of sorts.  The portrayal of high school, full of traumas and celebrations is realistic and entertaining.

The pace of this novel was excellent.  It switches perspective and includes the viewpoint of the detective investigating the blood left behind in the parking lot of the Country Club where the reunion is held.  I think its excellent that Weiner has shown she can write different genres, hopefully this will silence all of the critics who try to squarely place her in the "chick lit" category.

In a Country of Mothers by A.M. Holmes

I loved A.M. Holmes memoir, The Mistress' Daughter. I can remember sitting on the floor of BandN at 86th and Park, reading the whole book in its entirety.  Holmes story is fascinating; she was adopted, and eventually reunites with her biological parents, inviting into her life a great deal of chaos, manipulation, drama and secrecy.  I particularly enjoyed the fact that Holmes included a great deal of research on both her biological and adopted family. She found records of her grandparents' marriages.  I remember going home and deciding I needed to find out more about my own family history.

I was super excited to read fiction by Holmes; and this novel did not disappoint.  It is in many ways a psychological thriller, as engaging as my favorite psychological thrillers (written by Elizabeth Brundage).  I love the timeless quality of this novel. It was written in 1993, and so there is very little mention of the technology that currently dominates our lives.  And yet it is a truly modern novel.  Part of this novel focuses on a twenty-something trying to figure out her life. She is a witty film student and assistant who has a knack for charming people and making them laugh.  The first chapter begins with Jody Goodman calling a shrink because she is unsure if she should attend film graduate school (even though she is already enrolled).  "Hi, this is Jody Goodman, you don't know me. I'm having some trouble making career decisions."  I was immediately drawn in.  I will say it aloud myself: "I am having some trouble making career decisions."  The other main character Claire is a forty-something shrink who is still overcoming her past, as well as having problems with her preteen son and her family life with a husband and two sons.  Claire becomes Jody's therapist and they develop a deep intimacy  until the relationship extends beyond normal professional boundaries.  

Jody, was in therapy before, as she is an adopted child who was adopted shortly after her parent's biological son died.  Her life is in many ways defined by this huge loss, much the way the daughter in A Widow for One Year is affected by the deaths of the brothers she never met (and the empty hooks where all their photos once resided).  Jody, has a magnetic and endearing personality and people in the film industry are drawn to her.  Claire is drawn to Jody as well, especially because she gave a baby girl up for adoption in the same city (Washington D.C.)  and year that Jody was born.  Claire begins to be obsessed with Jody and believes she is the daughter she gave up for adoption.   There is an element of suspense: Is Jody really Claire's daughter? Could such a coincidence occur?  I will let you discover the answer yourself. I will say the situation develops to an amazing crescendo.  

This novel raises so many questions, about adoption, and family, about the real value of therapy, about the lives of therapists, about taking risks and about desire.  I highly recommend this book.  

The Castaways by Elin Hilderbrand

I used to be a huge Hilderbrand fan.  Upon discovering and devouring The Love Season, I became a dedicated reader and so did my best friend and my mother. But I found her last book (A Summer Affair) to be incredibly disappointing.  The Castaways was a compelling read but it still lacked some of the magic of Hilderbrand's earlier works.

This novel, like all of Hilderbrand's novels, takes place in Nantucket. This novel focuses on a group of friends: four couples with a series of connections. Andrea, who is married to the police chief, formerly dated Jeffery, the husband of Delilah.  Tess, Andrea's cousin, is having an affair with wealthy Addison Wheeler (known as Wheeler the Dealer), the husband of Phoebe.  There is also a deep friendship/flirtatious relationship between Tess's husband Greg, and Delilah.  As you can already tell this is quite the soap opera. The book begins with the announcement of the drowning deaths of Greg and Tess, who went sailing to celebrate their twelfth  anniversary. Their deaths ricochet throughout the group, and as we learn about the unique way each character is grieving, we also learn a great deal of the backstory behind this incestuous group.

The story alternates through each character's perspective, so we are able to see first hand why Addison falls for Tess, how Jeffrey feels about Andrea, what lead Phoebe to become addicted to pills, how deeply Andrea and her family are affected by her own grief.  There is a great deal of suspense built into the book, and each character is well-fleshed out but I still couldn't help but miss the evocative language, and effortless storytelling found in The Love Season.

Children of the Waters by Carleen Brice

This was the second book I purchased for my long train ride. I had read a series of positive reviews of Brice's first novel, which I now plan on reading.  This book tackles so many interesting ideas and experiences.  It is a truly modern novel, discussing topics such as interracial dating, treatment of young black males by the police, black male identity,  single parenting, raising children who are mixed race, fundamentalist Christianity, adoption and what truly determines a person's racial identity.  Few authors discuss such topics so insightfully and poignantly (at least few authors I have read).  Furthermore, one of the main characters in the novel is adopted but not told by her parents. This intrigues me as my mother has consistently said that she would never tell a child they were adopted -- this fact is made inherently more interesting by the fact that she is a psychologist (thankfully, we have pictures of my mother pregnant with me and my brothers so we know she isn't lying to us!).  The book also includes so much about a wide variety of topics I know very little about: veterinarians, Native American rituals, holistic healing, Lupus, Buddhism, and being mixed race.  I feel I learned a great deal from reading this book and that isn't always the case with fiction.

Brice creates such layered and real characters.  We get a sense of each character's thoughts, emotions, and feelings even though Billie and Trish are focused on the most. We see each character as a full-bodied individual. No detail is left out.  Like real people, all of the characters are flawed. Nick is unwilling to be a parent and scared of truly letting Billie inside his head. Billie is stubborn, OCD, controlling and unhappy to find out she is mixed race.  At times she is downright mean to her newly discovered sister. Trish is somewhat simple-minded and overbearing towards her son.  Will, goes from shoplifting to extreme piousness, believing deeply in the preaching of a corrupt priest.  Billie's adopted parents withhold the truth from her.

Overall, I was captivated by this book.  It is yet another example of a well-written, unique story written about a complex and slightly-dysfunctional family.  One of my favorite types of reads!

Returning from Delinquency

I have been terrible about posting lately and have no valid excuse.  I have been reading a great deal of non fiction and have some new insight on why non fiction is so powerful. In the meantime, I am returning to normal posting.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Beach House by Georgia Bockoven

In college, I took a course titled Contemporary American Writers, in which we studied the complete works of three American "writers" (they were not all novelists, or even "writers" in the most traditional sense of the word) and the focus on each author culminated with a three hour session with these writers. During my year in this class, one of the writers was the venerable Susan Sontag.  I can remember that Sontag talked about her love of reading and the fact that she hoped to read every day of her life, including the day she died.  I can remember relating to those words even though I clearly understood that Sontag did not read anything low brow. I am sure she would have a great deal to say about chick lit and the usual fare in women's fiction, as well as the fact that our society is so under read.  I am thinking of this story as I grapple with my own tastes in books. I read an account recently of a Phd student in literature who said the program took the joy out of reading for her. I cannot imagine that.  I know I haven't read enough of the classical works of English literature.  And yet, here I am reviewing beach reading. I am not embarrassed. One of  my friends from college said I taught her to be comfortable with reading chick lit.  I have never been ashamed of my reading interests, and I suppose I am not going to start being embarrassed now.  And yet, if I were to consider writing my own novel, I would want it to be literary as well as entertaining to read.
I picked up this book and another as my reading fare for a 3 and half hour train ride.  I had read most of the selection at the small bookstore in the station.  And here is the wonderful thing about this novel: it completely drew me in and entertained me greatly.  I guess my whole point is that sometimes all a reader needs is an entertaining book that makes you keep reading. I love beautiful language, but it isn't always necessary.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

In Store Reading - Part 1

Reflections on books read in store:

A Thread of Truth, Marie Bostwick
Interesting Topic. At times seemed cliche or soap opery (of course the abused wife was a run away who turned- in this case unknowingly--to stripping only be saved by  a man who appeared charming but is really  a controlling jerk). Liked the camaraderie in the town but the knitting shop which is focused on isn't as exciting as Walker and Daughter from the Friday Night Knitting Club and Knit Two. Why are so many chick lit or women's fictions books focused on knitting?  Not sure I get it.  For the record, my favorite book that involves knitting women is Ann Hood's The Knitting Room.

Baggage Claim by Tanya Michna
I liked reading a portrayal of a female academic (especially a history professor!).  I was easily drawn in by this book and the accounts of the two women in very different stages of life. Not much else to report. This is a thought provoking book.

The Widow Season by Laura Brodie
Sarah McConnell's husband had been dead three months when she saw him in the grocery store..... So begins the story of a young widow who is possibly being haunted by her husband's ghost.  This book is quite the wild ride.  A reader spends the entire story trying to determine if it's the story of a woman grieving in untraditional ways, a ghost story or the story of a man who ran away from his life.  At different points in the book I was sure of the answer and then some new detail  would make me realize I was wrong.  I've truly never read anything else like this novel.  It was full of mystery, and yet it is completely a story about love, grief and human relationships.  Additionally, the author is a talented writer. There is a true literary quality to the novel.  Upon finishing the book, I learned that Brodie has a Phd in English and wrote her dissertation on widows in English literature. According to Brodie's website, her favorite chapter was on husband's who fake their deaths in order to spy on their wives.  This explains a great deal about the unique style of this novel.  While at points I was completely perplexed by the events of this novel, and annoyed by certain passages which lead me to believe one thing was really occurring, only to be totally confused by a further event, I see that this makes the novel special. I tend to ignore paranormal fiction or science fiction, because I like novels that portray real life through a new lens. But I recognize that there is a lot to appreciate about Brodie's ability to write realistic fiction with so many twists and turns.

April & Oliver, Tess Callahan
I love the cover of this novel: the colors just captivated me. The language in this novel captivated me as well. It's a complicated story, and yet it is mostly about two individuals overcoming the events of their childhoods.  The reader deeply wants more for April, as it seems every one has failed her, and her circumstances have led her with so few opportunities. And yet she isn't bitter and angry. I think there is something I need to learn from that.  April and Oliver are in some ways "cousins" as they share a grandmother. Their fathers are half brothers but Oliver's father is not biologically related to the mother who raised him. Thus April and Oliver are not genetically related. This is important as it is obvious that Oliver longed after April during his adolescence.  The book begins with the death of Billy, April's younger brother, who she took care of and loved deeply.  The aftermath of his death leaves April alone, dealing with an abusive/stalkerish ex, a grandmother in declining health and her own grief. Oliver, returns to NY from college in California with a fiance in tow.  He is a law student and a former piano prodigy. April wonders why he isn't using his gifts.  His fiance doesn't even know about his musical talents.  I won't reveal what happens, but I was completely drawn into this book.  The characters are incredibly realistic, and human.  The writing is crisp and artful.  The story is unique from so much of the derivative stories one finds these days.

Accidently on Purpose by Mary F. Pols

Another memoir about a woman in an unexpected position.  I've been wanting to read Pols book for a while having read parts of her blog. While I found her story interesting and compelling, I wanted to be more captivated by her writing. I loved reading about her large Catholic family, her childhood in Maine, how she fell in love with being a movie critic.   I liked learning about life as a self-sufficient woman in San Francisco. I was particularly intrigued by the passages about being a late in life mother at the same time that her parents (who had her particularly late as she was the last of 6 spread out over a number of years) were failing in health. I've always found the phenomenon of the sandwich generation fascinating.  And it is obvious that Mary's parents were larger than life characters.  But I didn't find myself particularly moved by her writing style. I suppose in some ways it was too "journalistic" for my liking.  The structure seemed to make it harder for me to become totally enthralled. Maybe I am just too accustomed to fiction.

Pols book in many ways provides a slice of sociology on modern motherhood.  What is it like to share parenting responsibilities with a young slacker? What is it like to share parenting responsibilities with someone you barely know? What is it like to parent in an untraditional arrangement?  Additionally, it answers questions about raising a child far away from your extended family, and raising a child without a full cadre of grandparents. All of this is fascinating to me personally, as my parents had me late in life and I grew up largely with one grandparent (although I have so many memories of my other two grandparents who I treasured and interacted with constantly until they died when I was 6 and 7).  This book caused me to think about motherhood and my own personal time frame. It made me think about fulfillment and what I desire from family life.  It made me think about society and modern trends.  

It's hard not to want Pols to find a man to complete her life.  It is wonderful that she was able to have a child (at 40) so easily.  It is wonderful that her son has an active and involved father. But since the story unfolds completely from Pol's perspective, its hard not to feel that she deserves more than Matt, even though they are not together.  It seems that she does indeed long for a partner.  I suppose I can't help but think about the trend of single mothers raising children.  I don't have a judgement on whether this is right or wrong for their kids. I just wonder how lonely it must feel at times.  The romantic in me wants everyone to find a mate. The realist in me wonders if a mate is a necessity.

I can remember one review saying that Pols gave Matt irritable bowel syndrome because she stressed him out so much. That wasn't my take on the situation. But one does wonder: What is his perspective on the situation? In the end, it is apparent that Mary is happy with the results of the "best accident" in her life.  And it is obvious that Matt stepped up to the plate and loves Dolan. But, its impossible to know all of what he thought and felt.  It's not Pols job to provide that insight. It's just the over curious part of me that wants a scan of the bigger picture.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Perfection by Julie Metz

I am not sure why I wanted to read this book. I guess most people are drawn in by tales of betrayal. I think the story behind this novel is horrific. It’s hard to imagine being married to someone for sixteen years and finding out that your spouse had so many secrets. It’s hard to imagine being married to someone, sharing a life with someone who could cheat on you repeatedly without you knowing. And I guess that’s what makes this book interesting: this happens so much in our country and yet people rarely talk openly about infidelity.

When Metz meets her husband’s psychiatrist the shrink explains that she believes Henry showed signs of narcissistic personality disorder. The shrink also believe his main mistress (the mother of Henry and Julie’s daughter’s best friend) has borderline personality disorder. It was interesting to consider that all sorts of wrong behavior can be explained away by psychological issues. It made me think of someone I knew in high school, who consistently cheated on his girlfriend. I actually know at least two guys who were committed to girlfriends but cheated on them more than once. One of the guys took part in this behavior with two different girlfriends. Both of these guys are incredibly intelligent. As a young college student, I just couldn’t understand. I thought: “you pick: either one girl you get every night, or a different girl every night. It’s simple.” I understand now how naïve I was --hell, I am still naïve. Love, sex – it’s all complicated and I am in no way an expert.

I am glad to know that Julie and her daughter have moved on and are finding new forms of happiness. It’s hard to read this memoir and not feel their pain. I found the writing somewhat detached. She told the story in a very straight-forward, bare bones way. It was the story itself that makes this book readable, not the writing.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Richest Season by Maryann McFadden

I had read the story behind this book before I saw it on the table, and that made me instantly snap it up. I am happy McFadden found a way to publish her story and now a way to release her book to a wider audience.  I was easily drawn into the story, and very captivated by the portrayal of South Pawley's island.

Twelve Times Blessed by Jacquelyn Mitchard

I had a four hour bus ride before me so I picked up this book and The Richest Season. I thought I had read Mitchard before and yet I can't remember which one. The beginning of this book didn't pull me in, but at some point it happened and I was typical MandN needing closure to the story at all cost, and reading when I should have been doing something else entirely. I hid out in a friend's house reading the book, happy he had something else to do, and I had time to finish before he returned.

In many ways, the main character's life is truly transformed. I suppose a near death experience can do that to you. I loved the way True's life is initially enhanced by her marriage to Hank. I didn't understand the need for a quick wedding and found it unrealistic that True would go through with such a spontaneous act without including her son (that seemed somewhat out of character). But the romance of True and Hank is inspiring and exciting. I want to believe love can happen that quickly, and can be so fulfilling. Of course, it later turns out to be incredibly complicated as well...

This book deals with so many entities that interest me: single motherhood, entrepreneurial businesses, New Orleans, infidelity, the precocious behavior of young children, life post 9/11, illness, loss of a parent, motherhood post 40. In many ways this book is so clearly modern. There may not be discussions of blackberries and facebook (it was published in 2003) but it still is clearly a product of the 2000's.

I found the relationship between True and Isabella (Esa) incredibly interesting. I love the fact that people can form families with people who aren't their blood. The extended family in this novel is wonderful. The ultra Christian mother of a young actor made me want to scream, as did the actions of True's own mother. But there are maddening and complicated individuals in this world and Mitchard seems to understand them completely.

This five hundred page plus novel seems to really blossom -- it goes from being the story of a lonely widow who sadly faces her birthday, to a story of love and friendship and overcoming obstacles with happiness and courage. In many ways the tone of the book shifts once True finds herself again, and part of that is due to the entrance of Hank.

I wish I had written my review of this book right after reading it as I feel I would have more to say. But I still highly enjoyed this book.

Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan

In typical Marnes and Noble fashion, I sat in Borders (sorry BandN!) reading Commencement the day it came out (I am currently on vacation so I have way too much free time!) I was a hundred and fifteen pages in when I had to leave the store so I bought the book. I of course finished it in one day - the day of its publication. Such typical MandN behavior.  A day later, I am still thinking about so many of the issues this book offers insight on.  I guess since I am a twenty-something who is still trying to figure so much out, and I am deeply attached to my college group of friends this book deeply resonated with me.

I was very excited for this book since I consider it to be the same genre as A Fortunate Age. One of my friends didn't love A Fortunate Age.  I understand her criticisms but I happily devoured Smith-Rakoff's book.  My first thought when finishing it was that I wanted to read it again. Part of my love may come from its focus on NYC in the 1990s. In many ways, NYC was a character in the book. And I miss NYC dearly.

As for Commencement: to me this is a genre I treasure. The story of a group of friends post-college. It is a time period I have wanted to capture myself and I suppose I still hope to someday.  It is hard to read Commencement and not feel nostalgic for college, especially since I have entered somewhat of a quarter life crisis in my twenty fifth year.  Interestingly, both Commencement and A Fortunate Age focus on students who attend liberal arts colleges. Having attended an Ivy, I wonder how different my experiences and my career path would have been if I attended a small liberal art's college. I never really considered attending a liberals arts college; but I think I may have been happy at one. (Not that I didn't love my own college experience, as I did, thoroughly).  In many ways the book focuses on how random events change individuals. If the four protagonists had not chosen to attend Smith, or been randomly placed in the same house (in the maid's quarters) they would have had completely different experiences. In one passage of the book, it is very obvious that Bree and her family recognizes that Smith forever altered her in ways that were unimaginable before hand.  Sally, on the other hand, is most affected by the death of her mother right before her high school graduation.  In many ways, the absence of her mother affects all of Sally's behaviors and decisions, and she realizes that much of what she had done since her mother's death was "an attempt to shock her back to life" (an affair with a married professor, not applying to medical school, her bare bones wedding in the Smith College Quad). (pg. 115)  April's determined and extreme personality and hardcore feminism is a  result of her tumultuous  upbringing and the absence of supportive family and friends. Celia, on the other hand, is greatly affected by her large nurturing family, her supportive and successful mother, a rape experience and her unique view on men.  

This book provided a clear window on the Smith experience and it had me nostalgic for my college's own traditions.  But I also loved living through the four years of college with these interesting and disparate women.  I found it particularly interesting to consider how attending an all-girls college affects hook up culture and women's perception of men.  The book highlights (through a theory of Celia's) the idea that some "women's college grads are like people who had lived through the Depression -- even though they now had plenty of food, they still hoarded every last scrap." Celia explains: "when she met a guy, any guy, she was too willing to accept his flaws because who knew where her next meal was coming from?" (pg. 213) The book also offers such interesting views on feminism.  Feminism is something that the girls clearly grappled with extensively at Smith. I am not sure I can say that I did the same during my four years of college. I took a Gender Studies class, and a Women's history course, I worked for a group that promoted positive body image, a group that invited Naomi Wolf to speak on campus (and of course I was in the audience) and I participated in Take Back the Night Walks. But I still don't feel that feminism is something my friends understood or grappled with in college . At this point in our lives, we are certainly considering the idea of our choices and we obviously see that we have many more options than previous generations. But I can't say that any of my friends are feminists, or that they feel the most strongly about women's issues. It is something interesting to compare and contrast. The women at Smith clearly cared less about their appearances and experimented more with their sexuality. The culture at my college was much more materialistic and into appearances and the hook up culture was much more "heteronormative."

The inside book cover proclaims that this novel is "a portrait of the first generation of women who have all the opportunities in the world, but no clear idea what to choose."  This is an interesting idea to consider. I suppose this is true of my friends and the people I grew up with, and I suppose I know many woman who havemade choices that seem archaic.  Sullivan deftly portrays keen insight on our shared generation. She shows women who are interested in snatching a husband and others who don't believe they will ever find a man who compliments them. Celia, is in many ways a true modern woman, as she doesn't long for marriage and feels that she is a different version of herself (Celia 2.0) among men.  I can remember feeling my female friends in college knew me best.  There have only been a small group of men who have understood me in the same way. But the optimist in me does believe there is someone out there (and many somebodies at that) out there for everyone, even Celia.

Sullivan is quite insightful. So many of her ideas were things I had considered before but she packages them in creative new ways. She describes the girl's experiences their first year out of college as their freshman year, and each subsequent year as their sophomore, junior, senior year. I liked this idea greatly.  There is so much uncertainty post college. Maybe our culture has infantilized young people, or maybe adolescence has been delayed or extended, but so much of post college life is challenging and unique. Even now, a full four years out of college, I am still trying to figure out what I want in life.  In some ways, it is hard to read about the protagonists of this novel. They all seem so sure of their career choices: Bree is a lawyer and followed her dreamed path from Smith to Stanford; Celia wants to be a writer and she works in publishing while eventually making time to write on the side; April eventually works for a radical feminist, partaking in crazy experiences, but acting out of a deep passion for her work; Sally, may have given up on her dream to go to med school but she is still connected to the science world, working in a lab at Harvard. Sally also seems content to build a new family for herself with her doting husband Jake.  She is certain in that decision, even if she recognizes that she has given up on some of her initial dreams.  The truth is they all do stumble, being surprised by unexpected events, making spontaneously bad and good decisions.  But I was envious of how much each of them had a sense of certainty about what they wanted.  

I love the insights and observations Sullivan shares about women in New York City. Her passage about the fact that most of the women looking for husbands worked in marketing had me laughing and nodding my head in agreement.  Her discussion of dating in New York is filled with colorful characters like Barrel Daryl. All single  women in NYC have some similar stories; Sullivan's don't disappoint.

I really have so much to say about this book. I found it interesting the way Sullivan discusses the young women's dependancy on their parents and the idea that all of them are supported somewhat by their parents but do not discuss it.  Sally, has received money due to her mother's death (malpractice suit) and yet lives a pretty typical life - which is interesting but realistic.  I am still grappling with the ending which didn't provide as much closure as I wanted (I turned the last page dreading seeing the Acknowledgements, knowing there was no more but wishing otherwise).  I was easily drawn into this novel. I love the characters - I loved the way the friends are shown to be family to one another, the way they mothered one another.  I can remember that about college: the way friends replace your parents as the people you call during big and small events.

I have some additional thoughts about the surprises in the end but I don't want to ruin the ending for people who want to read the book.  I thought the book was going to go in one direction that made me amused in its similarity to A Fortunate Age, but it actually changed course. In reality, there are some amusing similarities. Both books focus on the first engagement and wedding of one of the friends.  What does this say about life as a twenty-something post college?  In A Fortunate Age, there is discussion of the fact that it is hard when your first friend becomes married because there is a sense that you are losing something, that your group of friends is changing.  I am intrigued by this idea. In Commencement, the girls at first don't think Jake is smart enough for Sally. But in the end, it is obvious that he loves Sally and deeply appreciates the same thing that Sally's girlfriends love about her.  He takes care of her and helps her to remember her mother, something her own family does not do.  In the end he proves himself to the girls and thus, he becomes a "Smithie."  A Fortunate Age spans a longer time period (and takes place in an earlier time period) and so by the end of the book almost all of the main characters are married with children. It is a natural progression I suppose.  But it is interesting to consider. The first friend married in my group of college friends was a male and thus the effect was not the same.  The first married girls, married individuals from our group, boys they dated throughout college and thus there was less a sense of loss, less a sense of altering the dynamics of the group. All of this is interesting to consider.  

So much to ponder. I need my college friends to read this book so we can discuss!