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!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Driftwood Summer by Patti Callahan Henry

Patti Callahan Henry never disappoints. One day I picked up one of her books off a New Fiction table, and two chapters in and I just knew I would read all of her books. I devoured her latest book in one day finishing it at 4 in the morning.  I am not sure I can put my finger on exactly what makes her stories so readable, but her characters and settings always easily draw me in.

This book focuses on the relationship between sisters, something I cannot relate to at all as I only have brothers. But I still find it inherently amusing. I suppose a lot of women's fiction focuses on the relationship between sisters, in fact Kristin Hannah's last book focused on three sisters as well.  And yet, Callahan Henry's books never seem cliche or derivative.  Even though many of her books seem to replay similar ideas or conflicts, they are each unique.

The book also focuses on a small town book store, something I know I would love. I loved my local bookstore as a child--it was called The Corner Book Shop and I spent most of my childhood weekends inside its doors.

At the heart of it this book focuses on how the events of adolescence and childhood stay with an individual - something focused on in most of Callahan Henry's books. She understands young love in such an obvious way.  This book also focuses on the sandwich generation, and adults dealing with the sickness of their parents.  Callahan Henry grapples with so many issues in this book, and yet the heart of the story is the deep friendship between Mack and Riley and the rift between Riley and Maisy. I suppose it isn't a new story - sisters fight over boy, boy chooses beauty over best friend. And yet, as I said before Callahan Henry's stories always seem new.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Sima's Undergarments for Women by Ilana Stanger-Ross

Any woman with experience with a independent lingerie store will find something special in this book. Stanger-Ross clearly understands Jewish women in their natural habitats. I was personally excited to get more of a window into Brooklyn, and Boro Park, as I have filled a series of journal pages writing about the young Hasidic mothers of Williamsburg.

In some ways this book is heart-breaking. One wants to strangle Sima, who seems to have lived her life, specializing in being unhappy, feeling annoyed by her oafish husband and forever altered due to one poor decision. But its easy to imagine that women like Sima do exist. Her loneliness and her longing are incredibly believable. Sima, has worked for 35 years fitting the women of the neighborhood with bras and underwear. She watches as the young women get married, fits them for their wedding night lingerie, and then a year or two later fits them for nursing bras. She listens as young mothers, nearing 30, complain of the exhaustion caused from having three children. Sima herself expected children to follow quickly after her marriage. But through slivers of flashbacks we discover that Sima is barren, due to a secret she has kept from her husband.

An interaction with a young Israeli woman who she hires to be a seamstress changes Sima. One review talked about the fact that the reader waits for a bigger change than actually occurs. While I too longed for more of a climax at one point, I think the subtle changes that occur in Sima are very realistic.

A couple days after finishing this book I was running through my parent's neighborhood and I noticed an old woman walking - I couldn't help but think about Sima. Recently, I've been very interested in how people deal with the choices they make as young people. In many ways this book shows that we are forever overcoming the traumas of our adolescence.

A Day at the Beach by Helen Schulman

I can remember when the first few fiction books and movies that tried to respond to the events of 9/11 first came out. There was such a collective holding of breath. Could authors and screenwriters tackle this subject artfully?  How does one try to say something about such a catastrophic and insane event?  

I personally haven't read much fiction that incorporates 9/11.  Only Maynard's novel the Usual Rules, which was so full of real, human, colorful characters that one wasn't too concerned with the portrayal of the event.

Reading A Day at the Beach was haunting, as it narrates the events of September 11, 2001 so realistically. Schulman reveals that she studied tapes of the newscasts at the Museum of Radio and Television, and that she also lived in lower Manhattan.  It's hard not to read this book and recall one own's experience of that fateful day. I was a freshman in college in Philadelphia.  I was woken up by a phone call from my roommate's parents who implored us to turn on the TV.  The first building had been hit but I still went to my 10 am class.  Later, classes would be cancelled. But that morning I sat through my regularly scheduled Freshman Seminar on Desert Islands (comparative literature).

This book is so magical.  It narrates the events of that fateful day through the eyes of a German former famous ballerina (who had his own company) and his muse and wife, a Jewish woman who grew up in Riverdale.  It offers one small perspective on this national tragedy, and by doing so allows the reader to ponder a series of larger than life questions: what is the value of art? what does it mean to be part of a community? do we ever truly overcome our past?  what does it mean to be a supportive spouse?

I am having trouble coming up with the right words to explain the essence of this novel.  The blurbs on the back seem to capture everything I want to say and more:

Elissa Schappell writes: "An astonishing tour de force of a novel, deeply compassionate and piercingly intelligent  Schulman's A Day at the Beach has echoes of DeLillo but is wholly her own vision of what it means to be  a human living in a complicated universe full of desire and longing, addressing the power of art, the costs of love, the wages of history, and how 9/11 cast every American's life into sharp relief.  The ending left me in tears, shaken, but intensely grateful for the gift of this remarkable book."

Kurt Anderson writes: "A precarious marriage, a teetering career, betrayal, and paranoia -- all set in New York on September 11, 2001.  Who knew those elements could be a recipe for redemption and uplift? Helen Schulman's craft and wisdom are both impressive and effortless-looking and A Day at the Beach is a riveting story that captures the zeitgeist pitch perfectly."

I think the only thing I want to add is that Schulman is able to tackle so much in only 209 pages. This to me is tremendous.  Bubbling throughout the one and a half days that are narrated are issues pertaining to jealousy, longing, loss of one's self to motherhood, the fleetingness of success, autism, the difference between Europeans and Americans, love, the grandness of NYC and so much more.

I almost feel as my review cannot do this book justice.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

No One You Know by Michelle Richmond

This is somewhat of a delayed post. I read this book on the floor of BandN about a week ago.  I loved Richmond's last book (The Year of Sand and Fog) and had been meaning to read this latest one for a while. 

I am floored by Richmond's talent. I love her style, the way she seamlessly builds a story, her use of language. I don't tend to read literary mysteries, and so this is another thing I love about Richmond - the way she helped me discover and enjoy a genre I don't often read.

This book tells the story of Ellie Enderlin, who is  trying to come to terms with the murder of her brilliant older sister Lila ( a gifted mathematician who was pursuing a Phd in Math) which occurred twenty years before.  After Lila's death Ellie shares all of her thoughts and emotions with a professor of hers, who turns the story into a bestselling true crime book which implicates Lila's math partner in her death and causes a great deal of anguish for Ellie's family. As an adult, Ellie finally digs beyond the story created for this crime book and realizes a great deal about her sister and her self.

I love the way Richmond interweaves quotes about writing and reading into this book. So many of the specific quotes spoke to me.  One is now on a clean sheet in my journal.

This book, like The Year of Sand of Fog, raises so many thought-provoking questions, about loss and love, crime, sibling relationships, secrets and story-telling. It's a great read.

Waiting on Wednesday: Labor Day

I am so excited for the summer season of books to be released. Can't wait for the new releases by some of my faves: Christina Baker Kline, Elin Hilderbrand, Patti Callahan Henry, Jennifer Weiner, Julie Buxbaum.

The forthcoming book I am highlighting this week is Labor Day by Joyce Maynard. It will be available July 28.  

I recently read Maynard's The Usual Rules (another book with an adolescent main character) and absolutely adored the book.  After some research on Maynard I realized I had read and owned her other YA book (The Cloud Chamber) as well. Maynard tackles adolescent issues so adeptly and compellingly.

Amazon's write up for Labor Day below:

With the end of summer closing in and a steamy Labor Day weekend looming in the town of Holton Mills, New Hampshire, thirteen-year-old Henry—lonely, friendless, not too good at sports—spends most of his time watching television, reading, and daydreaming about the soft skin and budding bodies of his female classmates. For company Henry has his long-divorced mother, Adele—a onetime dancer whose summer project was to teach him how to foxtrot; his hamster, Joe; and awkward Saturday-night outings to Friendly's with his estranged father and new stepfamily. As much as he tries, Henry knows that even with his jokes and his "Husband for a Day" coupon, he still can't make his emotionally fragile mother happy. Adele has a secret that makes it hard for her to leave their house, and seems to possess an irreparably broken heart.

But all that changes on the Thursday before Labor Day, when a mysterious bleeding man named Frank approaches Henry and asks for a hand. Over the next five days, Henry will learn some of life's most valuable lessons: how to throw a baseball, the secret to perfect piecrust, the breathless pain of jealousy, the power of betrayal, and the importance of putting others—especially those we love—above ourselves. And the knowledge that real love is worth waiting for.

Monday, June 8, 2009

I'm Down by Mishna Wolff

This is a memoir about a young white woman who according to the blurb on the inside, grows up in "a poor black neighborhood with her single father, a white man who truly believed he was black." The author explains: "He strutted around with a short perm, a Cosby-esqe sweater, gold chains, and a Kangol--telling jokes like Redd Foxx and giving advice like Jesse Jackson. You couldn't tell my father he was white."

Mishna grows up trying to please her father, lost in a world that is foreign to her. Eventually she learns to "cap" (insult her friends with sayings similar to yo mamma jokes) and finds enjoyment in playing on an all black basketball team. But she also attends a special school with upper-class white students who find her weird. She learns to navigate these disparate worlds and obviously turned out alright, as she was previously a model and a comedian and now has penned an engaging memoir.

I found this book completely engaging. As someone who formerly taught African American and Latino students, I felt this book gave a me a greater understanding of some of their behaviors. As someone interested in the effects of growing up in poverty, I found Mishna's story something incredibly elucidating. Neither of her parents finished college, but they still supported her enough to get her on the right track in life. While her father may have been more concerned about her standing in the community, and whether she could stand her own in a fight or be cool enough to hang with the sistas, he also encouraged her to try new things: track, music, basketball, swimming. While he clearly wanted his daughter to excel at the things he deemed important, he found a way to accept her for exactly who she was and was incredibly proud of her accomplishments.

Jennifer Weiner recently blogged about how seeing an author's photo can affect one's reading of a novel (she reported that reading a book via Kindle, which meant she had no photo helped her not to prejudge the author and approach the book with a more open mind). Wolff's photo shows that she is clearly gorgeous. But this book reveals so much of the confusion she felt as a young person. I think it would be impossible for someone to read this memoir and not fall in love with the young version of Wolff we are introduced to. She wants so badly to be accepted. She tries equally hard at mastering capping in second grade then she later does swimming, a sport she loves because she doesn't have to worry about letting down teammates the way she did in basketball. She tries so very hard to be accepted in the disparate worlds she navigates. And she never thinks she is better than anyone else.

The book surprisingly offers somewhat of a critique of the upper middle class lifestyle. It is Mishna's friends from her special school that struggle the most with finding happiness. While Mishna's African American step mother struggles to support her family, and blames a lot of her unhappiness on Misha, we see her through a whimsical light as well. Mishna's adolescent friends seem more troubled dealing with absent parents, the pressure of success and their absolute boredom. Overall the book is funny, insightful and interesting.

The Last Beach Bungalow by Jennie Nash

Part of me feels this book both tries too hard and yet doesn't deliver.  I wanted to like this book but it didn't deliver as compelling a story as I imagined based on the blurb. It was highly readable. But I felt myself just wanting to finish. I wasn't savoring it the way I usually do with compelling fiction.

For me, something was missing in this story.  I cared about the narrator, her husband and daughter but not enough.  The family seemed so cliche. And while the narrator is a freelance writer, who shares with the reader the entirety of her inner dialogue, I didn't feel that connected to her.  For me, the characters never really came alive. I get that the narrator was still coming to terms with her diagnosis of cancer five years before, and was herself discovering that she was going through the motions and not celebrating life. But I still found myself feeling detached from the developing story.

The most interesting part of the novel was the bereft widow who cannot imagine life without her beloved husband and is looking to find a meaningful way to sell the house she shared with him for many years.  Their house is the the last beach bungalow on Redondo beach, and the only one that has not been torn down and replaced with a McMansion.  To me this woman and her captivating house, is the heart of the story and I think the novel would have been infinitely more interesting if the story was told from her perspective.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Catching Genius by Kristy Kiernan

The blurb on the book compares Kiernan to Picoult and Shreve. I could see that. She tackles big controversial topics.  I think I might also compare her to Patti Callahan Henry, due to the Southern setting and the focus on island life.

I read Kiernan's second book (Matters of Faith) a while ago and was quite excited to read her first book.  Catching Genius was incredibly engrossing.  Yet another book about a family with secrets and drama.  And yet it isn't cliche.  The story is mostly about two sisters: Connie, who felt her whole life was altered by the discovery of her sister's "genius" IQ, and Estella, who in many ways suffered due to this "diagnosis."  Now in middle age, the sisters are brought together for the first time in twelve years to clean out their former house, a beach house that stores many happy memories for Connie, and many sad memories for Estella.  The sisters come together not really understanding the reality of the other's life.  Estella believes her sister has a perfect life and family. In reality, Connie's husband is a serial cheater and she is in the process of divorcing him.  She has two sons, a high school student named  Gib who is flunking algebra and a young elementary school aged son named Carson who is potentially a gifted musical composer.  Connie, on the other hand, believes her sister is a genius.  The reality is that Estella has had many of her own challenges including serious surgery and sexual abuse. Through a tumultuous stay in their former home the girls learn the truth about one another, and open themselves up to viewing the past through a new lens.

There is a lot of hard life events in this book; but both of the female protagonists grow as do almost all of the characters in the novel (with the exception of Connie's jerk of a husband).  The story offers a true slice of life full of the variety of surprises that exist in every family.  It's hard not to love the characters, and to root for them to get the ending they deserve.  

The Visibles by Sara Shepard

I have always been able to pick up a book, read the first few pages, and know if I will enjoy the book.  I read the first few pages of the Visibles and was enthralled. I considered buying it immediately, but was in a hurry to jump on a bus to NYC. Luckily, I recently got it from the library.

The book is complicated. It isn't a happy story per say, although I suppose the characters end up better off than they started. But it is a book that tackles a lot of unhappy topics: depression, abandonment, fear of loss, the way a secret eats you up on the inside, terminal cancer, the dissolution of a marriage. I have friends who prefer to only read about happy topics. I am not that type of reader.

At the heart of it, the Visibles is a coming of age story.  The narrator begins the novel, a sophomore in a Brooklyn private school, dealing with the fact that her mother has mysteriously left the family, her father struggles with mental illness, and her brother doesn't have all that much to say to her. The one friend she previously felt close to has returned from a year in France, and Summer wants nothing to do with her. She still can't get over the fact that Claire didn't include her enough during Summer's freshman year (and Claire's sophomore year).  Genetics becomes Summer's raft - a way for her to make sense of her own life, a world for her to lose herself inside. We watch Summer grow, attending NYU, studying biology, and still staying in Brooklyn to take care of her father as his mental health worsens.  The story also contains a series of letters written by Summer's father, a doctor who struggles with severe depression and is still trying to overcome a defining moment from his own adolescence.  

The novel raises a great deal of questions about what individuals are possible of overcoming.  I love pondering how much of adolescence remains with a person. Can we ever outgrow the awkward version of ourselves we were at fifteen or seventeen? Is that the truest version of ourselves?

This is yet another dysfunctional family novel.  And thus, I loved it. It is also such a well-crafted story. The language is evocative and powerful. As a former New Yorker, I loved the depictions of NYC and Brooklyn.  

I loved this book.  The language. The story. It was at times heart-breaking and sad.  I wanted to reach into Summer's life and make so much better for her. I wanted to hunt down her lost mother and shake her by the neck declaring: "What is wrong with you? Do you not care about your children at all?"  At times, I was angry at her father too, for wallowing so much, and not being the father Summer remembered from childhood, or the strong father she needed to guide her forward. And yet, I realize how true these types of individuals are.  I realize that mental illness is a powerful thing that changes someone and often renders them powerless.   Life is filled with flawed people. And Shepard captures them in such a realistic way.  It's hard not to feel for Summer -- someone who thinks so deeply, feels so deeply, and wants so deeply to find the answers to the mysteries of her own life.  It's hard also not to connect deeply with her. With the feeling of needing something more to believe in, something that complains all the strange complexities of every unique family.  I really applaud Shepard for what she created in this novel and can't wait to read her future works.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Condition by Jennifer Haigh

I remember hearing buzz about this book. I can also remember picking it up at the BandN on the UES and reading the beginning without being completely subsumed. Almost a year later I took the bite and devoured the book in one day.  I think Haigh is a masterful storyteller.  She leads the reader to make easy inferences without hitting them over the head with clues.  There is a great deal of foreshadowing in the story. And the fact that it begins and ends in the same place reminded me of Irving's A Widow for One Year.
In some ways the family at the center of this novel is maddening. They don't talk to each other enough, they don't reveal how they are really feeling, they refuse to treat each of the children's conditions.  The book is set up to have you believe that the condition refers to Paulette and Frank's daughter's diagnosis with Turner syndrome. But each of their children has their own condition. Billy, the first born, a Princeton and Columbia educated surgeon, and his parent's clear favorite, refuses to reveal the truth about his sexuality.  Scott, the youngest, who barely knew his parents as a couple, flunks out of college, spends much of his life medicated on marijuana,  marries a woman suddenly and stands by her for eleven years (fathering two rambunctious children) and only realizes in adulthood, that he, like his son, has ADHD.  Paulette and Frank have conditions as well. Paulette loves only in one way. She refuses to discuss her daughter's illness with anyone, and infantilizes her.  Frank, a hard-working scientist and professor at MIT, is unable to really be a father to his children or a husband to his wife.  Their marriage crumbles, as does their family.
I am someone who loves stories that are inherently about families so this may explain my enjoyment of the book. But I also genuinely enjoyed Haigh's writing style.

Waiting on Wednesday: This Is Where I Leave You

My first waiting on Wednesday selection is This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper.  It will be published August 6th, 2009.
I am a huge Tropper fan and highly recommend his last novel: How to Talk to a Widower.

From Amazon:
"This Is Where I Leave
 You opens with the death of Judd Foxman’s father, an event that marks the first time in a decade that the entire Foxman family—including Judd’s mother, brothers, and sister—have been together in the same house for an extended period. Conspicuously absent: Judd’s wife, Jen, whose fourteen-month affair with Judd’s radio-shock-jock boss has recently become painfully public.

The typical Foxman family gathering ends with car doors slamming and tires screeching as various factions scatter to nurse their resentments in private. But this time around, the Foxmans reluctantly submit to their father’s dying request: to spend the seven days following the funeral together. In the same house. Like a real family. For Judd it’s a week-long opportunity to come to terms with his father’s death, his failed marriage, and to explain the mess his life has become to a never-ending parade of people he thought he might never see again. Which would be bad enough without the bomb Jen dropped the day Judd’s father died: She’s pregnant."

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton

As a History major (who wrote her undergraduate thesis on the 60s), this book was a true pleasure for me. I loved how grounded the story was in historical events.  While it is fiction, it is very apparent that Clayton spent time researching  events of the late 60s.

Additionally, as a young woman who has only marginally felt the effects of sexism, the book allowed me a completely new view of the opportunities I take for granted.  It was completely eye-opening to consider how limited woman who grew up in the 60s were.

The five women in this novel, meet at a local park in Palo Alto.  All are young with successful husbands. Each has aspirations that have been put on hold as they fulfill the role of happy homemaker. They are all yearning for more in life. Frankie is insecure that she never went to college; while she had great grades she was forced to work to help pay for her four brothers college tuition.  Linda, a talented runner, is outspoken and fierce; she wants women to be allowed in the NYC and Boston marathons, and for there to be more equality in the Olympic events available for men and women.  Kath, is an English Lit major who was forced to give up any dreams she had when her parents force her to get married upon getting pregnant.  Her husband doesn't deserve her and cheats.  She is eventually forced to find a job as her husband moves out to live with his mistress.  Ally, is full of secrets.  Mostly, she is desperate to have a child. Brett, is a brilliant woman and scientist, who always dreamed of becoming an astronaut. She struggles as she watches her younger sister become a doctor and deals with a complicated history due to a childhood accident. Together the women face many challenges: unfaithfulness, cancer, infertility, miscarriages, racism.  It is obvious that Palo Alto in the late 60s was not the easiest place to live.  But the women band together in friendship, joining together to create a Writer's Workshop that helps change all of their lives.

Clayton is a masterful story-teller. While some of the events seem unlikely from a historical perspective, I was able to suspend belief enough to thoroughly enjoy this story.  I appreciated how much this book allowed me to view how far we have come as a society (at least in terms of the options available to women) and the incredible perspective it gave me on the women who "came of age" (as wives and mothers) post consciousness rising and the first wave of feminism.