Tuesday, August 30, 2011

August Reads

1) The Art of Forgetting - Camille Noe Pagan
2) French Lessons - Ellen Sussman
3) Close Your Eyes - Amanda Eyre Ward
4) Girls in White Dresses - Jennifer Close
5) A Year and Six Seconds - Isabel Gillies
6) I Gave My Heart to Know This - Ellen Baker
7) Coming Up for Air - Patti Callahan Henry
8) This Beautiful Life - Helen Schulman
9) What Alice Forgot - Liane Moriarty

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult

I tried to recommend this book to a friend going to the beach and she responded with: "I don't like Jodi Picoult. That book where the sisters and the organs." Her response made me chuckle. So many people struggled with that book. The thing is Picoult's books are always thought-provoking and intriguing. Who wouldn't sign on for a thought-provoking read? This book is no different.

Unlike most of Picoult's books, a reader doesn't know when she begins what the main issue is in the novel. I like that I truly didn't know what was coming. I also found the focus on embryos and legal rights fascinating as it is something I briefly studied in my 1L contracts class. Can two parents create a contract explaining what happens to their future embryos if they divorce? In some states yes. In others these are not binding. And what happens if there is no contract? In Sing You Home, a marriage falls apart after ten years of infertility, and the ex-wife and ex-husband dramatically change their lifestyles. Max, seeking for something to guide him, becomes deeply religious. Zoe, falls in love with her friend and embraces life as a lesbian. Zoe and her partner want to use Zoe and Max's remaining embryos. Max does not accept homosexuality and decides any baby of his would be better off raised by his brother and sister-in-law (who also struggle with infertility). And so the legal brouhaha begins.

This was a thought-provoking and engaging read. And while I found it hard to believe two people who spent nine year living together could wind up so far apart and unaccepting of the other's life styles, I was able to suspend belief enough to accept the tenor of the story. My mother also enjoyed this book although she wanted even more resolution at the end. What did other's think?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Short Reviews

Since I've been so delinquent at reviewing lately, I thought I'd try to make things easier on my self. Here are some short reviews of some of my recent reads.

Then Came You by Jennifer Weiner
I found the topic of this book incredibly interesting as I recently spent time learning about the legal issues involved with surrogacy and donor eggs. Before delving into the book I learned that Weiner was inspired by a recent NYT Magazine article penned by Alex Kuczynski about hiring a gestational surrogate to carry her baby. I remember that article and the evocative pictures quite well (I can still recall the mother with her baby nurse at her side juxtaposed with the barefoot pregnant surrogate) and thought a fictional take would be quite intriguing. I definitely enjoyed the book but at times I felt that the characters were too stereotypical or stock. I also missed Weiner's signature snark. Overall, I thought the book succeeded in showing that while the main four women belong to different socioeconomic classes they were shaped by similar experiences and could have wound up in the positions of one another. India could have easily been like Annie if she had made different choices. It was interesting to see Weiner's take on why a Princeton student would choose to be an egg-donor. In college our school newspaper had many ads for egg donors. And it's interesting to consider why someone at an Ivy League school would make such a choice. While I understand Jules's decision and was happy the book ended with her in a good position, she was in many ways a heartbreaking character in such a terrible position even if she was at an Ivy League school. It's hard to imagine their are many people of her position at Princeton (especially based on my recent conversation with a friend who attended Princeton). This was certainly an engaging and interesting read but it isn't my all time favorite Weiner novel.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
I know some other book bloggers have really enjoyed this book, but I had a lot of trouble accepting the premise. While I can suspend believe and accept that it is possible for someone to get amnesia that causes them to forget ten years of their life (well I actually can't, but I can for the purpose of reading fiction), I simply found it hard to believe that so much would change in a person's life and personality in ten years. I know that is the point of the novel. Ten years and three children changes a marriage and causes a person to change. Maybe when I am in this position myself I will suddenly look back and accept the premise of this novel. But in the meantime the premise just seemed farcical. The book was engaging enough but I just found myself not 100% invested.

The End of Everything by Megan Abbott
This book was so incredibly unique and in many ways off-putting. I loved the language and I thought the perspective of thirteen year old Lizzie was authentic and vibrant. Lizzie and Evie are next door neighbors and best friends and when Evie disappears Lizzie gets actively involved in figuring out what happened to her friend. She believes she would know if Evie was dead and she sets out to help bring her friend back. The book is quite surprising as it isn't a story of a "typical" abduction (or at least the way the stories of abductions are portrayed in the news). The book also raises a great deal of questions about what is an appropriate relationship between a father and daughter and a male figure and a daughter figure. Is it acceptable for Mr. Verver (Evie's father) to talk about love with Lizzie. Is it acceptable that in many ways Lizzie has a crush or infatuation with her friend's father? Lizzie's own father doesn't live with her and e she hungers for fatherly attention. Does this make Lizzie's behavior more acceptable? I saw that a reviewer on Goodreads (who is a therapist) stated that she saw a lot of pathology in the book. I would agree. There is a lot going on in this novel that isn't kosher in the eyes of society. There is a lot going on in the book that is understated and in the shadows. Abbott has a real gift with the way she hints at things. She never overtly hits the reader over the head with details. This is a powerful story about friendship and coming of age but also about family complexities and realizing we cannot truly know someone if they don't allow us to.

French Lessons by Ellen Sussman
This was a really fun read and an interesting character study. I appreciated the structure of the novel which focuses on three French tutors and their tutees. In the end the stories interconnect in such an artful way. I was very intrigued by the lives of the French tutors. They were teaching French but all wanted to be doing something else. They are young people unsure how to chart their futures but they are French and they seem so different than their American counterparts. They struggle and yet seem so much less weighted down by their problems. The American characters' problems seem so much larger. Josie is recovering from a forbidden and now lost love and runs away to Paris. Riley is a young mother living abroad finding Parisian life anything but enjoyable. Jeremy is trying to figure out how to deal with his wife's large and loud lifestyle. I loved the characters Sussman created and am in awe of how well she develops each of them in their short novella like chapters. A truly wonderful and novel read. Plus, it's like one big tour of Paris!

A Year and Six Seconds by Isabel Gillies
I loved Gilles' It Happens Every Day and was excited to read about her new marriage. I found the book engaging but not as interesting as her first memoir. The chapter in which she details her meeting and courtship with her husband were incredibly engaging (and he seems wonderful) but I think the beginning of the book was less engaging. The story of a mother with two young children who must return home to her parent's apartment in NYC is of intriguing but I found myself somewhat detached. That being said Gilles tone is the same: intimate and conversational. We feel her depression over her failed marriage and her insecurity over needed her parents while a thirty-something young mother. We sit with her as she tries to cobble together a future for herself and her sons. In the end, I was so overjoyed that Gilles found new love and a pathway to happiness.

Mothers and Daughters by Rae Meadows
I loved this book. I could really feel for Samantha, a young mother trying to balance her artistic impulses, motherhood and grief over the loss of her mother. I really appreciated the elements of undiscovered family history and the three different voices.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson

I just received an email from the library that they have assumed I have lost this book as it was due back in late June. I've been holding on to it with the intention of writing a review. Book Blogging Fail. Now that I've acquired an immense amount of fines I need to actually write a review.

I absolutely loved this book. It had my favorite recipe: interesting family, unique settings and change over time. Even a month and a half later certain key scenes stick out in my mind. It is a story that will stay with you and keep you thinking about the characters long after you close the book (if you aren't using an e-reader of course).

The book is dedicated "to everybody who left home." And in that simple dedication, as in the evocative title, a bigger message is sent. This is a story about growing up, leaving a provincial world for a bigger one. It's about the dreams we give up on and the new ones chartered in the midst of the heavy sting of reality. It's about looking back and finally understanding that people weren't lying when they said: "when you are older you'll understand." It's about four siblings in Iowa with disparate dreams and ricocheting life paths. But the stories of these four siblings allow Thompson to ruminate on a plethora of topics: the drudgery of stay-at-home motherhood, the realities of marriage, the Vietnam War, the naivete of youth, Alcoholism and its effect on family members, post-partum depression, brain injuries, divorce, the move away from an agrarian society.

When I started reading about a wedding in Iowa in January 1973, I didn't envision that the book would span out to so many diverse locales and time periods. Like many family stories, the one at the center of this book is hard to predict and filled with ups and downs. There is a moment early on where I was truly devastated for one of the characters. She doesn't get the opportunity to leave home, at least not in the way she imagined (and she only leaves home much later). I found that the characters were incredibly flawed and human. I didn't always care for each one of them as a person, and yet I cared deeply about what would happen to them.

At the end of the book one the characters (a Vietnam vet who has never truly been alright since his service) says: "Why not, It's my goddamned country too." And then: "It's like family. No matter how fucked up it is, it's the only one you got." It's not a new sentiment. And yet the whole idea of savoring what you have (even if it is flawed) is such a central message of the novel. This is a human family with individuals who hurt each other, and disappoint one another, and find each other in places they never envisioned. And yet they carry on. And sometimes they even return home.

I know this is a book I will read again. Hopefully next time I won't accrue as many library fines!