Saturday, December 22, 2012

Daughters-in-law

Daughters-in-LawDaughters-in-Law, by Joanna Trollope
I picked this book up at the library because I was stocking up on some lighter fiction to read after my brain/ear surgery. I've read a few Joanna Trollope books in the past (my mother-in-law likes her), but I hadn't read her for a number of years. I should have known better...I gave the last two books I read only two stars. This was definitely light, but it was not interesting. I wish I'd given up halfway in, but I finished it.

It's about a couple (Anthony and Rachel) who have three sons. Rachel struggles in her relationships with her daughter-in-laws. Her son Luke's wife Charlotte challenges her authority and their conflict spreads throughout the family. When Charlotte announces that she is pregnant, Rachel reacts in a rude, critical way. 

I asked my husband what he thinks about the British view of apologies. Luke calls his father Anthony to see if he will get his mother to apologize, and Anthony is horrified that Luke would suggest that, even though they all agree that Rachel was in the wrong. This seemed preposterous to me. 

The characters were shallow and unmemorable, and very little happens in the plot. Trollope is known for writing about relationships, but the relationships in this book are shallow and weak. The brothers cannot be distinguished from each other, and Rachel rarely interacts with her daughters-in-law in the book. 

Trollope said she wanted to write about the relationships between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law because she believes they are more difficult than relationships with sons-in-law. But this book missed the mark.

Some light reads are enjoyable or memorable, but this book is neither. It was a waste of time.

Best books of 2012

With my book group (and our holiday book exchange)
Here are the best books I read in 2012. Click the title to read my review. These are listed in approximate order of how much I liked them (#1 being the best). I'd love to hear what you thought of any of these books. If you've read any, please leave me a comment.

You can also refer to best books lists back to 2001 here. Enjoy!


This is cross-posted in Every Day Is a Miracle.

Fiction
1.  The Invisible Bridge, Julie Orringer
2.  The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
3.  Marcelo in the Real World, Francisco X. Stork
4.  Wonder, R.J. Palacio
5.  Sing You Home, Jodi Picoult
6.  The Casual Vacancy, J.K Rowling
7.  All Passion Spent, Vita Sackville West
9.  The Kitchen House, Kathleen Grissom
10. The Descendants, Kaui Hart Hemmings
11. This Beautiful Life, Helen Schulman
12. Shutter Island, Dennis Lehane
13. Everyone Is Beautiful, Katherine Center
14. Naoko, Keigo Higashino
15. The Wishing Trees, John Shors
16. The Girl Next Door, Elizabeth Noble
17. Song Yet Sung, James McBride
18. Second Fiddle, Rosanne Parry
19. Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, Beth Hoffman
20. Shine, Lauren Myracle
21. Glow, Jessica Maria Tuccelli
22. The Family Fang, Kevin Wilson
23. How It All Began, Penelope Lively
24. The Book of Dahlia, Elisa Albert
25. The Treasure Map of Boys, E. Lockhart

Nonfiction
8. Crazy Enough, Storm Large
13. Poster Child, Emily Rapp
14. Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer
15. Happy Accidents, Jane Lynch
17. You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up, Annabelle Gurwitch and Jeff Kahn

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Lacuna

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

I had to give up on this one. I got up to page 207, after putting it down to read a lighter book group selection, and tried to pick it up again. I will never forget my delight in reading my first Barbara Kingsolver novel (The Bean Trees) back before she was very well known. I have loved so many of her novels.

I am interested in Mexico, Frida Kahlo, and Diego Rivera and loved a biography of Frida I read several years ago. So I really, really wanted to stick this one out. But I must give up.

I just can't get connected or drawn in.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Treasure Map of Boys

The Treasure Map of Boys, by E. Lockhart

I read this book because my book group chose it for this month. We didn't have much time between book group meetings, because they very kindly moved up the meeting by one week so I could attend. (Otherwise I would have missed it because of my impending surgery.) What I didn't know until I read the reviews was that this was the third in a series!

I'm one of those people who really, really likes to start with the first book in a series. So after I got over my unsettled feelings I finally settled into the book. I put down The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver to read this, and it was much, much more readable than that tome. I usually love Kingsolver but it's taking me forever to slog through The Lacuna.

I don't read much young adult (YA), but from what I understand from my middle-grade writer husband, YA is often full of a lot of angst and dysfunctional relationships. Ruby Oliver, the protagonist, struggles with making and keeping friends and has a lot of stress around relationships with boys. In the book preceding this one, Ruby's boyfriend Jackson takes up with one of her friends, and she becomes what she believes is a social pariah. (It's not really as bad as she makes it out to be, though.) In this book, Jackson is back in the picture again, possibly. Reading this book made me SO GLAD I do not ever have to do high school or junior high ever again.

Ruby's parents are well-meaning hippies, and she actually does have some friends worth keeping. The stories about her teachers and baking were amusing...also her time working in the Birkenstocks store at Pike Place Market. (After reading about her adventures fitting bare feet into Birkenstocks, of all sizes, shapes, and smells, I realized that I could NEVER do that!)

But who goes to the Pike Place Market to buy supplies for a bake sale? That seemed completely unrealistic for local Seattle high schoolers! Ruby is a smart, well-meaning girl, and she really doesn't want to screw up her friendships, but somehow she has a knack for that.

After I said that I don't read much YA, I now realize that this is actually the fourth or fifth YA book I've read all year...and it was fine but it's my least favorite. The others--Wonder, Marcelo in the Real World, and Shine--focused on much more serious issues, and this was like marshmallow fluff in comparison. It was a good distraction from the current stress in my life...a cute read...but not sure I will be reading any more of the series. There's just not enough here to draw me back in.

Now I'm back into The Lacuna for awhile...but when I go into the hospital I'm planning to wade into something much lighter!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Everyone Is Beautiful

Everyone Is Beautiful, by Katherine Center
Everyone Is Beautiful is a sweet, easy read, about a Texan woman of Colombian origin who's transplanted to Boston because of her husband's job. She has three young boys who are extremely close together and full of mischief. She feels bereft at leaving behind her supportive parents in Houston. She hardly ever has any alone time with her husband, and she has no romance in her life.

When a stranger at the park supposes her to be pregnant, she decides she must make a change. She begins going to the gym every day and she also takes up photography. As expected, soon her marriage is in jeopardy.

I appreciated the fact that this was a story about a stay-at-home mom with a brain and a mission to bring meaning to her life. She has a true friend who supports her and accepts her for all her faults. Her husband loves her and although we do not see it at the beginning, he adores her. She comes to peace with her body and appreciates the beauty in women of all shapes and features around her.

It's a simple message and a simple story, and I actually cried at the end...as she realizes how much she loves her husband and how lucky she is.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Wild

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed

Oh my...what a wonderful book! I first heard about Wild when I was at Holden Village this summer, when two friends were reading it at the same time. I remember April telling me about how crazily misinformed and naive Strayed was about backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail...she didn't even test out the weight of her backpack until the morning she set out. She packed such strange choices as a full-size camera and fancy lens, even though she's not a photographer. She included items like a foldable saw, just in case she needed to cut wood. The only thing she included for protection from predators (man or beast) was a loud whistle. And she set off completely alone.

In the beginning, Strayed (a name she chose for herself) was not a particularly likable character. After her beloved mother dies suddenly of cancer (described in a completely heart-wrenching, daringly vulnerable chapter), she went off the rails. Married way too soon at 19, she began having irrational flings, cuckolding her wonderful husband and best friend, feeling guilty but unable to keep herself from doing it. She started shooting heroin with a guy she hooked up with in Portland while visiting a friend. Her siblings and stepfather, to whom she previously felt close, scattered and grieved in their own ways. In another heart-wrenching chapter, Strayed and her brother had to shoot their mother's neglected horse because she was too old and sick and they couldn't afford to hire a vet. She was a complete mess.

But something about the Pacific Crest Trail called to her. At the age of 22, wracked by grief, Strayed set out on a 1,100-mile hike all by herself...woefully unprepared for what she would face. Beginning in the Mojave Desert, she hiked up through California and Oregon, concluding at the Bridge of the Gods on the Oregon-Washington border. She hiked through blazing heat, record snow levels (when she couldn't find the trail), and drenching rain...and faced down severe dehydration, treacherous conditions, bears, rattlesnakes, coyotes, and a predatory hunter.

Strayed lives in Portland now and has become a local celebrity writer. She's moved beyond the devastating grief and wretched self-destruction of her early 20s and now has a husband and two school-age daughters. In this interview with Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin, Strayed talks about how happy she is now and challenges anyone who is feeling unhappy to get out and walk for 20 minutes:
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Cheryl: Walking. Doesn’t it make everyone happier? I challenge you to walk for twenty minutes and not feel better by the end of it. It’s the cheapest, healthiest cure on earth.
Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Cheryl: That we can survive anything, even if we don’t want to. Even in the face of great suffering, there is joy.
Masterfully and honestly told, Wild is a story I will remember for a long time. Check out this book trailer with photos and Strayed's description of the book:

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Let's Pretend This Never Happened

Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir, by Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess)

You need to avoid this book if:

--You are easily offended by foul language.
--You are an ardent animal lover.
--You are a literalist. (Did it bother you that Dan Brown took liberties with history in The DaVinci Code?)
--You take things or life too seriously.

Jenny Lawson, otherwise know as The Bloggess, has written a hilarious memoir about what it's like to:

  • Grow up in the wilds of Texas, with a father who is a taxidermist
  • Be so poor she wore bread sack shoes (still trying to picture those)
  • Become completely accustomed to running into the interior of a deer carcass, acquiring pet raccoons, having a just-killed squirrel turned into a puppet named Stanley, and having your dad throw a baby bobcat at your prospective husband on his first visit
  • Be spoiled rotten by her grandma
  • Feel socially awkward and like an outcast throughout school
  • Be loved intensely by her parents and have a happy, although extremely crazy, childhood
  • Try to rescue her just-died dog from swarming vultures
  • Lock her husband out of the car while he battles a supposedly dead but very alive rattlesnake--and then get mad at him!
  • Battle an anxiety disorder
  • Try to convince her husband to pee around the house to keep out the snakes
  • Set her oven on fire at least twice
  • Keep her beloved dead dog from being devoured by hungry, aggressive vultures
  • Buy a huge metal chicken because she's so annoyed with her husband who didn't want her to buy more towels
  • Be diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and struggle with treatment
  • Suffer from three miscarriages before carrying a baby to term
  • Have silly, nonsensical fights with her husband via post-it notes

As Lawson describes herself in her author bio, "Author Jenny Larson relaxes at home. Her husband glares off camera and asks whether that's his toothbrush. Her husband should probably get his priorities straight. And go get her a margarita. Even if it's three a.m. Seriously, Victor, go get me a margarita. Also, the people who published this book probably shouldn't have let the author write her own biography. Poor planning on their part, I'd say."

If she's to be believed (which is questionable), she and Victor treat each other horribly, frequently with foul language. But I don't really believe much of that. After telling many a wild story, she confesses that only one tiny piece of the story is true. I tried this exaggeration-of-the-truth tactic recently myself, and it's not easy! It seems to come fairly easily to Lawson, though. She's a master!

The writing style is very casual (ADD-like, really), with frequent parenthetical phrases, postscripts, and notes from "the editor." She talks about her vagina fairly frequently and has a sentimental yearning for tacky taxidermy such as dead Cuban baby alligators and mice in Shakespeare outfits (see cover). She also has a tendency to tell wild, inappropriate stories at dinner parties, especially those involving her husband's employer or colleagues.

I really enjoyed this book, but it's not for everyone! Check out her blog if you're curious. If it makes you laugh, you'll like the book.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Book of Dahlia

The Book of Dahlia, by Elisa Albert

Dahlia Finger, a selfish, shallow, foul-mouthed, and stoner Jewish American princess who was conceived on a kibbutz, has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor at the young age of 29.

In search of answers, she finds a self-help guide in an effort to help her grapple with her cancer and impending demise. And she begins looking back on her shambles of a life.

Dahlia is not particularly likable, but as her childhood memories come forth, it's clear why she got to be the way she is. When her flaky Israeli mother and American father break up, her previously loving and adoring older brother Dan turns on her. He becomes her worst tormentor, treating her horribly and humiliating her constantly, while she only wants his approval and love. She feels abandoned and confused, and along with the absence of her mother during her formative years, this abandonment and cruelty shapes her life and personality.

There's no question where the story is headed, and if you're looking for an upbeat, happy story, this isn't it. I wouldn't even say it has much redemption in it. But it does make you think about your own life and where it's headed. Are you making the most of each hour you have?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley

Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James

I didn't have high expectations for this book, because the reviews were lukewarm at best. Interestingly, the New York Times gave it a good review while actual readers were less impressed.

The unpopular Wickham is accused of murdering his best friend on the Pemberley estate, and Darcy is forced to come to his aid. The novel moves along at a fairly slow pace, and James introduces some new characters. The upshot is that this is a book mostly about the male characters of Pride and Prejudice, with Darcy mostly in the spotlight.

The female characters are very weak and lackluster, including our previously spunky, independent Elizabeth. Now a wife, mother, and mistress of Pemberley, her life consists mostly of managing the large household. Jane is her closest friend, and she features some in the book. In fact, perhaps because of the popularity of Downton Abbey and the like, Death Comes to Pemberley contains more details about the servant class at Pemberley. We see Elizabeth and Darcy interacting with the servants, and the servants actually play a role in the plot.

The biggest difference, however, between this book and the original Pride and Prejudice is the complete lack of comedy, which was one of the most memorable bits about P and P. Absent (except through letters) are Mrs. Bennett, Mr. Collins, and Lady Catherine DeBurgh, which brought great comic relief through their ridiculous words and actions. Elizabeth's reactions to their snobbish, outlandish behavior helped the reader appreciate her even more.

I have never read a P.D. James book before, but I'm told that this book is very different than her usual ones. One major gap I noticed was the absence of Lydia throughout Wickham's stay in the jail before his trial. Where did she go, and what was happening with her? Altogether, this book just didn't hold together well, and I missed Elizabeth Bennett.


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Audition

Audition, by Ryu Murakami

Meh. That's my review.

My husband asked me how I had heard about this book, and I can't remember. I had it out of the library for awhile before I finally picked it up.

Audition is the story of a documentary film maker, Aoyama, who was widowed seven years before. His teenage son Shige suggests that he think about remarrying, so he decides to do just that.

He hatches a plan with his friend, Yoshikawa, to hold auditions for a movie so that he can screen dozens of women in the hopes of finding someone suitable for a wife. Through these fake film auditions, he meets Yamasaki Asami, and he becomes completely obsessed with lust. All he knows about her is that she had a difficult childhood. Of course, being Japan, the search for a wife means that he must find a docile, beautiful, elegant, obedient, and submissive woman. On the surface, Yamasaki Asami appears to fit the bill, but of course she turns out to be a sadistic murderer. This book was made into a cult film in Japan, which apparently was highly regarded as a great, creepy horror film (gets four stars on Amazon).

I was not impressed, for several reasons:
  • Shige seemed to be way too mature for a 16-year-old, in fact more mature than his father!
  • The first 3/4 of the book moves along very slowly, with seemingly unimportant details. In fact, it was boring. All of the action happens in the last two chapters, and of course you know what's going to happen. No suspense whatsoever.
  • The two male characters are completely shallow and misogynistic, which might have been part of Murakami's point...or they were just written as typical Japanese men with no irony whatsoever.
  • Yamasaki Asami compares having to give up ballet (because of an injury) to experiencing a death, and Aoyama finds this touching. I can't imagine that someone who has experienced the death of a loved one would find this comparison to be touching. On the contrary, it's heartless and clueless, like comparing the death of an animal to a death of a human child--to the grieving parent's face.
  • None of the characters were sympathetic. I didn't care what happened to any of them.
  • Aoyama was naive and disregarded all weird signs that something wasn't right. He was single-minded in his pursuit and no one could convince him to be suspicious. It just didn't seem realistic.
Ryu Murakami is called "Japan's master of the psycho-thriller," but I don't buy that. I've been disappointed in the Japanese fiction I've read recently, but even Out by Natsuo Kirino or Naoko by Keigo Higashino were stronger books than this one. Perhaps I'd prefer Murakami's other books, but I'm not rushing out to try them!

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling

Do not read this if you are expecting anything like Harry Potter! I have described this book to a few people as a story about a town full of Dursleys. None of the characters, really, are likable. Some are despicable. I found this book to be very timely during our American election season, as it depicts the battle between the "47 percent" and those that support them, and those who do not wish to help the less fortunate.

When Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly in his 40s, his death opens up a seat on the Pagford Parish Council. (Pagford is apparently a mashup of the towns of Padstow and Chagford.) Soon a war of factions begins in the town, between those who want to keep the idyllic town of Pagford pure (not in my backyard), and those who believe in lending a hand to the poor, addicted, and disadvantaged.

J.K. Rowling is, as always, a great storyteller. This book starts off slowly because it's a great character study of the town's residents as well as those in the council flats in "the Fields," on the edge of Pagford. At first I had a hard time keeping all the characters straight. One of the most vivid and tragic characters is Krystal, who lives in the Fields but attends school in Pagford. Barry Fairbrother had taken an interest in her and coached her on the school rowing team. Krystal's mom is a heroin addict and she adores her neglected, developmentally delayed 3-year-old brother. She's trying to keep her family together at all costs.

It's clear that Rowling has major parent issues. The teenagers are at war with their parents, and many of the parents treat their children with scorn, apathy, or even hatred. Apparently Rowling's mum died when she was a teenager and she has had a highly strained relationship with her father (and did not speak to him for nine years after he sold off several first-edition Harry Potter books). The character of Simon (one of the most hateful in the book) is purported to be based on her father.

It's an intensely political book, based much on the fact that Rowling was living on the dole before she struck it big, and her husband once worked as a doctor in an addiction clinic. She has said, "The poor are discussed as this homogeneous mash.To me, it’s heartbreaking. This is a book about responsibility, how responsible we are for the poor, the disadvantaged, other people’s misery.”

The book tackles drug abuse, child abuse, obsessive-compulsive disorder, cutting (self-mutilation), theft, Internet bullying, infidelity, racism, homophobia, cruelty, and marital unhappiness. In fact, none of the couples are happily married. The teenagers take revenge on their horrible parents. It's not an easy book to read. But it has an important message about how we live our lives and our responsibility to help people by giving them a lift out of their miserable lives. Those who refuse to do so do not come across very well in this book.

The Casual Vacancy is not fine literary fiction, but it's a good story. I found the book to be highly British...not just in usage and culture but also in the way people interact with each other. Much is below the surface, never to be expressed aloud.

Some say that Rowling had too much of an agenda for this book, but I think this is an important book for our day and age. Mitt Romney is a much suaver, more handsome and trim Howard Mollison, believing that the hangers-on are to be cut off, as they are sucking on the teats of society. How you feel about that idea will probably indicate how you feel about this novel.

If you're interested, take a look at Jon Stewart's recent interview with J.K Rowling.

!!!!
The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
J.K. Rowling
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

Monday, October 8, 2012

All Passion Spent

All Passion Spent,
by Vita Sackville-West


I'd heard of Vita Sackville-West but didn't know much about her before my book group chose this for October's selection. Sackville-West was married to Sir Harold Nicholson and spent most of her life at their estate at Sissinghurst Castle. She and Nicholson had an open marriage, and both of them carried on extensive same-sex relationships. Sackville-West's most famous lover was Virginia Woolf. Some describe this novel as the fictional version of A Room of One's Own.

The story begins with the death of Lady Slane's husband, who had been prime minister and Viceroy of India during his prime. Suddenly, Lady Slane is presented with freedom for the first time in her life...at the ripe age of 88. Her scheming children devise a plan by which she would be passed around from family to family, but she has other ideas. She retires to a modest cottage in Hampstead and directs them that she is to live on her own, and she doesn't want her grandchildren or grandchildren to visit her (no one under 60)...and doesn't much want her children around either.

Vita Sackville-West, later in life
Lady Slane reflects back on her life and her regrets, chief among them the fact that she was never able to pursue her artistic ambitions. She is quite happy with her little circle--her French maid, Genoux; her landlord, Mr. Bucktrout; and Mr. FitzGeorge, a reclusive, wealthy collector who fell in love with her in India, in another time, and saw immediately what she had given up.

My copy from the library was published in 1931
She revels in the precious time she has left, finding pleasure in sitting outside in her back garden, going for brisk winter walks, and quietly reflecting back on her life, mistakes, and relationships. It's a beautiful, feminist story about what women in those days (and still, now) give up to pursue marriage and family. Lady Slane never really enjoyed motherhood, being a wife, or being a grandmother. She just wanted time to reflect and paint, and she never got it. She comes to peace with her realization that she did not really love her husband and she had given up everything to be with him.
It even had a hole-punched watermark
 saying "Library Association of Portland Ore."!

And she realizes that she doesn't, really, want to be completely alone. She just wants to carefully choose her companions and how she will spend the remainder of her time.

I enjoyed this book very much and plan to view the BBC miniseries about Vita Sackville-West's relationship with her husband, "Portrait of a Marriage," based on their son Nigel's book of the same name.

To hear Vita's own voice, listen to this recording of her talking about Virginia Woolf and Orlando.


Saturday, October 6, 2012

In One Person

In One Person, by John Irving

As a long-time John Irving fan (one year I even gave my husband tickets to go see/hear him at Portland's Wordstock, and he was great, talking about his novel about tattoo addicts [Until I Find You]!), I have never failed to finish one of his books. But I could not bear to go on.

I read up until about page 95 and put it aside to read my book group book (All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West), hoping that I'd be more interested once I got back to it.

This morning I picked up the book again, read a few pages, and gave up. Life's too short to read a book I'm not enjoying The premise sounded intriguing, but as one reviewer put it, Irving manages to make the life of bisexual Billy seem completely boring and uninspired. He fails to elicit any kind of sympathy for his main character because Billy is so detached. 

Even the early theater and Shakespeare descriptions bored me (and I'm a theater lover!). The sexual proclivities and lust were tiresome and hard to comprehend...perhaps because I've never been drawn (sexually or otherwise) to people who were horrible to me.

I'll quote another Goodreads reviewer (Robyn Roscoe), who described my feelings well:

"I long for the well-crafted story, the characters that made you care, and the experiences that both surprised and satisfied. In this novel, Irving spoils his own story over and over again, essentially telling us what is going to happen well in advance and then dragging out the actual reveal through page after page of tedious description and narrative. I know Irving can write a story with characters I care about, so either he needs to listen to his editors or get some new ones. Since I didn't get through more than about a third of this book, I don't know what actually happens to Billy through his life. Sadly, I don't really care. If this story was meant to develop understanding of the tribulations of the LGBT community, it fails to accomplish that. It also fails to interest or entertain."

So disappointed. I think I'll go back and reread one of his earlier books.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children,
by Ransom Riggs


Monsters. Children with peculiar powers, who are hiding from the monsters. Time travel. World War II and the Holocaust. Haunting black & white photographs (most of them actual vintage photos). A Peregrine falcon.

Sixteen-year-old Jacob travels to Wales to find out what happened to his grandfather, who suddenly and mysteriously died. His grandpa, Abe, had shared strange and unimaginable stories with Jacob when he was a child, and he doubted his sanity. Jacob soon discovers that Abe was not lying, and he becomes irrevocably connected to the children at the home for peculiar children.

In the beginning, this novel reminded me of "Grimm," Portland's own haunting TV series. Apparently this story has similarities to the X-Men. But what was unique about it was the photos. Ransom Riggs wanted to create a book with the photos alone, but he was convinced to write a novel around the photos instead. At times, this is obvious, as is the fact that this is a first novel. Although only ten children live in the home, the photos capture images of many other children...and it's not clear what happened to those children.

Other readers have criticized the fact that the children seem too American when in fact they are supposed to be British or Welsh. Riggs has never traveled to Wales. Others found the narrator (Jacob) to be unlikable and spoiled, and the parents to be too detached (apparently this is a convention in young adult novels, though, for some reason). The writing is geared toward young adults, although at times Jacob seems to talk as if he's much older. His speech seems older but his actions seem younger.

The ending is not wrapped up in a neat and tidy way, and Riggs is reported to be working on a sequel expected for release in 2013. A film is in the making. I thought this story was highly readable, with an intriguing premise and captivating photos. I will read the sequel to find out what happens next!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ali in Wonderland

Ali in Wonderland and Other Tall Tales, by Ali Wentworth

As I joke in my house, I'm not easily amused. My nine-year-old son rented "The Three Stooges" recently, and I knew that I would not find it funny in the least. Even when watch something I do find funny (like "Downton Abbey" or "Lost in Austen"), Mike is rolling on the floor laughing while I might just smile to myself.

About the only people who regularly make me laugh are Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Ellen Degeneres, and Jane Lynch. When I've read humorous memoirs, I often start out thinking they are light and interesting, and then they grow tiresome.

That's Ali in Wonderland for me. Mike had checked it out of the library for humor research (for his writing). I picked it up because it looked interesting--Wentworth is married to George Stephanopolous. She's exactly my age, so many of her childhood and teenage memories rang true for me (like when her sister who had just had scoliosis surgery and ran away in a full body cast because she was fed up, and Ali had to follow her, but the only thing she cared about was getting home for The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, and Love American Style, and her sister said she would only return home if Ali could make her laugh, so Ali took off her clothes and rubbed mud all over herself and did some weird kind of dance, only to be seen by people driving by). Some of the anecotes were indeed funny.

But midway through I started to get bored. I think the last straw was the chapter talking about how her mother believed that the cure for anything was to go to the Four Seasons. Wentworth was raised in privilege and lives in privilege now. Another chapter was about family-friendly resorts and  how inconvenient it can be to slip on a dirty diaper by the poolside. Although I assume she's a good liberal in the Kennedy style, I just couldn't relate to her problems and complaints. She also jumped around tons in her storytelling, so it was hard to keep track of which part of her life she was describing.

I ended up scanning the second half of the book to the end when she talked about meeting and marrying George. The descriptions of her big fat Greek wedding and family were funny...but I found myself ready to move onto something else.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

How It All Began

How It All Began, by Penelope Lively

I've never read Penelope Lively before, even though she is an incredibly prolific British writer.

In fact, this must be one of the most English modern novels I've read in some time! When I started reading, I was struck by how many expressions most Americans wouldn't necessarily understand, but I have the advantage of knowing after cohabitating with a Brit for 25 years. For example--these are from scanning just the first few pages:

  • Her hip was giving her stick.
  • Shirty enough if anyone looked like taking liberties.
  • Lord Peters does not provide puffs for other people's books.
  • Occasionally you considered chucking in the job.
  • He'll be tetchy.
  • Breeding will out.
  • You endure, but also observe; you become a beady eye, appreciating the spectacle. (And the constant reference to oneself as third person rather than first person)
  • Day's supply of whatever is their particular tipple...
  • She'll be coming to us for awhile.
  • Rose will fetch her and install her in her room.
  • Nice girl? (the tendency to call women girls until they are well into their 40s)

I liked how this book started out: "The pavement rises up and hits her." The book is about "the butterfly effect," how one minor incident (in this case, the main character, Charlotte, getting mugged on a London street) can affect many people seemingly unconnected from the person directly affected.

Because Charlotte breaks her hip as a result of the mugging, she moves in with her daughter Rose, who must find someone else to accompany her pompous and very English employer Lord Peters to Manchester. That someone is his niece Marion, who sends a text to her lover, Jeremy, which is intercepted by his highly anxious and dramatic wife, Stella, putting their marriage into a tailspin. Before breaking her hip, Charlotte tutored English foreign language students, and one of them, an Eastern European named Anton, begins getting private instruction from her. Rose takes a shine to Anton, although neither act on their attraction to each other.

One of the challenges with this book is that the characters are not particularly likable or relatable for me. Most of the characters seem to be just propelling through life without any effort to be happy or fulfilled. Jeremy, I just wanted to slap upside the head. He's having an affair with Marion yet wants to keep his wife as well. He's a complete narcissist. Lord Peters is amusing but would be incredibly annoying in person. Charlotte is the most sympathetic, but the reserve of the writing and the setting keeps "one" from becoming attached.

Ultimately, it's the kind of novel where no one is truly happy at the end, except perhaps Marion (hard to say). I enjoyed this novel more in the beginning than at the end...by then I was ready to move on.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Naoko

Naoko, by Keigo Higashino

Naoko is described as "a black comedy of hidden minds and lives" and a "critique of gender relations."  I'm not sure if I would call it either a comedy or a gender critique, but it was an interesting read.
Higashino is a best-selling, award-winning writer in Japan, but he's not very well known in the U.S.

Naoko is the story of a factory worker, Heisuke, and his  wife, Naoko, and young daughter, Monami. Naoko and Monami head up to Nagano on a ski bus to visit family, but tragically the bus drives off a cliff. Heisuke learns this information from the TV news.

Soon after he reaches the hospital, Naoko dies. When Monami wakes up from a coma, she is no longer Heisuke's daughter..Naoko has inhabited Monami's body. Sharing this information with no others (for fear of being not taken seriously or worse, ostracized or institutionalized), Heisuke and Monami/Naoko prepare to live their lives in this way...as father and daughter rather than husband and wife.

Naoko goes to school and begins to realize that she has been given a true opportunity: to live her adolescence and young adulthood all over again. She realizes that she was never truly fulfilled or happy as a housewife, and she decides to get into a top private junior high and high school to begin pursuing her dream of medical school.

Factory worker Heisuke, who has rarely entered a library much less read a book, is stunned and saddened by this turn of events. When Naoko begins attracting the attention of boys her age, he becomes obsessively jealous, nearly destroying the tenuous and strange father-daughter relationship they had been trying to build.
At the end of the book, it's hard to tell exactly what the truth is...here's the mystery. The comedy, however, was harder to find. I found this book to be sad. The story contains a wide variety of extra characters, many related to Heisuke's job or other accident victims. In the end, I'm not really sure why he included all these plot sidelines. Many of them didn't really add much to the story.

What I found most intriguing about the book was the idea of living your young adulthood all over again. If I could do so, I too would have studied harder, been more ambitious, and wasted less time. As far as the "gender critique," it's very soft. This book was truly Japanese, and I imagine better understood by someone who lived in Japan or understands Japanese culture. As the wife/daughter, Naoko was expected to wait on Heisuke hand and foot. She was not expected to have any aspirations of her own. This change in what is expected is what startled Heisuke.

Of course, it makes me wonder...when Naoko (Monami) gets married and has a family of her own, will she share the food preparation, shopping, cleaning, and other household duties with her husband? Doubtful. But at least showing a Japanese woman who is not happy with her lot as a housewife and has dreams beyond those four walls...that's a start!

This novel has also been made into a movie, Himitsu, but it doesn't seem to be easily available in the U.S.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Kitchen House

The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom


I am ambivalent about this book. It took me awhile to get into, partly because I have been in the process of recovering from ear surgery, and  partly because at the beginning I had troubles keeping all of the various characters straight. Kathleen Grissom has a narrator form of voice--more telling than showing--and that probably contributed to my initial boredom.

After I became more familiar with the characters, I was gradually drawn into the story of Lavinia, an indentured Irish servant, and her adopted family of African-American slaves on a plantation in Virginia. After finishing the story I was interested to read Grissom's explanation of how she came up with the story and did research to write the novel. 

During the course of the novel, Lavinia grows up from a 7-year-old girl who has lost her whole family and the world she knows to a young woman with a child. She becomes very close to the household staff, and in fact views them all as her family. This book, set in the post-colonial era, clearly demonstrates how few options women of that era had. And African-Americans, obviously, had even fewer. Lavinia benefits from privileges and affection from the master's wife's family, and eventually she is set apart as "Miss Lavinia" instead of the friend, family member, and lowly servant she had previously been.

Unfortunately, this book does resort to stereotypes and one-dimensional characters. The slaves are uniformly  good, while the white men are mostly evil (with the exception of two--Mr. Madden and Will Stevens). Lavinia is so completely obtuse and naive that it's unbelievable. She's the classic perfect white girl heroine in this story, who tries to save everyone in the end (white savior complex, very much like The Help). Another reviewer pointed out the inconsistency of her character. At times she had more guts and gusto, but most of the time she didn't have much energy or independence.

SPOILERS BELOW






One thing that does not make sense to me is this: how could Lavinia marry Marshall after he violently lashed out at his own sweet sister, causing her death? She was incredibly naive and unrealistic. 

The book reads almost like a soap opera at times--crazy woman with an opium addiction, horrible child abuse, constant rape by the white men of the slave women, hangings, wife batterers, evil overseers, alcoholism, gambling, and incest. It might have been a true depiction of the times, but it seemed a bit over the top altogether. The final, fiery ending was predictable and although there was a bit of redemption at the end, the book was mostly a tragedy...and I felt relieved when I was done with it. 

I enjoyed reading about Lavinia's adventures in Williamsburg with the spirited Meg. Beyond that, all of the story takes place on the plantation. I found myself wondering, "Doesn't Lavinia ever go into town?" Why was there nothing about what else was happening in the country at that time? She didn't have contact with anyone outside of the plantation or Meg and her family in Williamsburg. Perhaps this is normal? It was also difficult to tell when the novel took place; I would have been lost without the dates and might have guessed the mid-1800s. 

The most redeeming aspect of the book was the close relationships Lavinia developed with Mama Mae, Belle, Papa, Uncle Isaac, and the twins. They became family across the color lines, and they retained those bonds and loyalty at the end. Overall, this was a good book, especially for a first novel, but it had its flaws. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Marcelo in the Real World

Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork

Wow--two five-star books in a row. It's been awhile since I've been able to say that! On the heels of the wonderful 600+-page The Invisible Bridge, I jumped into Marcelo in the Real World, a young adult novel about a young man named Marcelo who has high-functioning Autism (akin to Asperger's).

After attending a nurturing, private school for kids with special needs through his junior year, his father (Arturo) springs two surprises on him. He wants Marcelo to attend the public high school for his senior year. When Marcelo balks at this suggestion, he offers a deal: he can work at his law firm for the summer ("in the real world") and if he "succeeds" (under Arturo's terms), he can continue at his private school.

Marcelo is not happy about this, but he agrees. He begins helping Jasmine in the mailroom. Jasmine is initially grumpy about Marcelo's presence but eventually the two form a wonderful bond. Things seem to be proceeding well until Marcelo is recruited to work with Wendell, another intern who works for his father (the other partner in the law firm). Wendell is a bad egg and tries to manipulate Marcelo into arranging a private meeting with Jasmine where he can pursue her in close quarters.

While working for Wendell (unwillingly), he discovers a photo of a girl who was disfigured by a windshield breakage--the windshield is manufactured by the law firm's largest client. Deeply touched by this photo, Marcelo searches for more information with the help of Jasmine. He is faced with a major ethical decision that can have major repercussions throughout his family, Jasmine's situation, and the future of the law firm.

Stork, inspired to write this book after working with non-neurotypical young people at the Larche Center 30+ years ago, sensitively portrays this young man who hears music in his head. Marcelo is obsessed with religion, and although he is Catholic he has a particularly close relationship with a female rabbi who serves as a sort of spiritual director/counselor. Marcelo has close relationships with his mom and sister, as well. Stork illustrates the difficulties that people on the Autism spectrum can have with disrupted routine, a lack of choices, and the lonely feeling that people do not understand him.

I highly recommend this book. It's wonderful.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Invisible Bridge

The Invisible Bridge,
by Julie Orringer


The Invisible Bridge is the story of Andras Lévi, a Hungarian-Jewish architecture student, who is studying in Paris in 1937 on the eve of World War II. He falls in love with a mysterious older woman, Klara, who brings her own set of complications. His older brother, Tibor, wants to study medicine in Italy, and his younger brother, Matyas, loves the stage.

Before long, Hungary is at war as part of the Axis powers. As Andras and his friends and family watch in horror, Hitler and the Nazis are overtaking Europe and spreading their horror throughout the continent.

The Invisible Bridge is 600 pages (hardback), crafted in the tradition of great, sprawling Russian novels. Following Andras, his friends, and family from Paris, to Budapest and the small towns of Hungary, to forced labor camps, The Invisible Bridge is about the great bonds of brotherhood and family, true friendship, love, and endurance. It's also about the healing power of art in the darkest times.

Author Julie Orringer got the idea for this book when she discovered that her grandfather had studied architecture in Paris as a young man. As a Hungarian Jew, he wasn't able to study in Hungary but was able to get admission to a French architectural school. After the war started, he lost his visa and had to return to Hungary, where he ended up being conscripted into forced labor.
“I knew he’d been in labor camps during the war, but I knew nothing about what had happened to him there or how he’d managed to survive. As I started to ask questions about that time, a series of amazing and devastating stories emerged, and a novel began to take shape in my mind—the story of a young Hungarian Jewish man who’d envisioned one kind of life but who was forced by the turnings of history to live quite another.”
Andras' story was inspired by her grandfather's experiences. I knew very little about the situation in Hungary during World War II, especially for the Jewish population, so I found this to be a fascinating read. Even now, Hungary has its share of right-wing fascists, just as it did during the war.
“In a sense, the fate of the Hungarian Jews is particularly painful because the deportations occurred long after the Nazis’ defeat was inevitable. For a long time, Hungarian Jews believed they would escape the fate of the Jews of other occupied nations—not only because the Hungarian government considered Jews necessary to the financial welfare of the country, nor only because so many Jews had served heroically in the First World War, nor even just because Hungarian Jews were particularly assimilated, but simply because the Nazis were bound to admit defeat before deportations could occur.”
This book was instructive and beautiful. I cried out loud in one of the final chapters. I loved reading about the friendship among the three brothers, in particular, and Orringer beautifully describes the way people survive terrible traumas and burdens.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Teahouse Fire

The Teahouse Fire, by Ellis Avery

"A sweeping debut novel drawn from a history shrouded in secrets about two women-one American, one Japanese-whose fates become entwined in the rapidly changing world of late-nineteenth-century Japan."

Sounds promising, doesn't it? In spite of some lukewarm Goodreads reviews, I thought the book was worth a risk. It started off interesting, with French girl Aurelia arriving in New York with her single mother to live with her priest uncle. She ends up going to Japan with her uncle to convert a "heathen" Japan. Ultimately, she becomes adopted by a Japanese family who treats her as a servant girl, but all she's ever knowin in her life is service.


Yukako, the young woman who discovers Aurelia and takes her under her wing, is the daughter of a great tea ceremony master. Much of the book is about the ancient art of tea ceremony and how it evolves, particularly with the passing of the Shogun and the ushering in of the Meiji era modernizations.

Aurelia leads a sad life...she's not only lost her mother--the only person she ever loved--but she also is shunned and misunderstood as a foreigner living in Japan in this time. Yukako comes across as a strong, stubborn woman who uses her limited place in the family to bring reforms and save the tea dynasty. But she's not incredibly likable. It's fascinating to consider how little has changed in Japan since this novel's setting. Although women have more options now than they did then, Japanese culture is still strongly rooted in patriarchy.

The Teahouse Fire, obviously meticulously researched, gets bogged down in too many details and characters. I found it difficult to get into and was looking forward to its end. So ultimately, disappointing.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Shutter Island

Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane

This is the type of book that totally screws with your mind. If you don't like such books, steer clear.

I didn't know much about it when I started it (except that it was a movie and by the author of Mystic River), so I was not aware that this would be the case.

I like Lehane's writing style and the book drew me in immediately.

When I finished the book, I wasn't absolutely positive what was true in the end. I suppose that's because I don't usually read these noir types of books and am not the sort of reader who tries to figure things out and look for clues along the way.

I'm intrigued enough by Lehane's writing and creativity to try another one of his. If you like psychological thrillers, you will probably like this one. Creepy and haunting!

This Beautiful Life

This Beautiful Life, by Helen Schulman

Not to be confused with Vicki Forman's wonderful memoir, This Lovely Life, This Beautiful Life contains characters who are difficult to like.

Jake Bergamot, 15, goes to an unchaperoned party where a 13-year-old, Daisy, flirts outrageously with him. He ends up becoming entangled with her that alcohol-soaked evening--he's flattered, they're both lonely--until his friends appear and mock him for robbing the cradle. He shrugs her off, telling her that she's too young for him.

Then the next day an ex-rated video Daisy had made arrives in his e-mail. Shocked and a bit flattered, Jake sends the video to his best friend, who forwards it to a few other friends, and then--you guessed it--it goes viral. Jake gets kicked out of school, and his family gets a lawyer.

Jake's parents, the highly educated but unfulfilled stay-at-home mom Liz and his workaholic, detached father Richard react to the situation in different ways. His younger sister, Coco, becomes neglected as their family dynamics spiral out of control.

This book explores the changing technology landscape for teenagers. Nowadays when teenagers make a mistake, if any of it is on the Internet, it never goes away. Adolescence is loaded with pitfalls.

As mom of a teenager, this book freaked me out a bit. Even though my son is not a partier and would not be likely to receive such a video, you just never know. It did give me an opener to share with him the plot of the book. He responded immediately that he would never forward such a video...but you know...teenage boys. They're prone to impulsiveness without thinking through a situation's consequences.

The story is set in an upper-class private school in New York City. The other thing I realized while reading this book is just how out of place and stifled I would feel in such an environment.

Jake's mom, Liz, sees him as the victim and Daisy as the evil girl who wrecked his life. I've heard similar tendencies in other moms of sons. She's annoying, as she is meant to be. She realizes, somehow, that she should be able to respond in a different way to what is going on, but she cannot.

Consequently, her son is left floundering on his own, without a real friend or comfort in the world. I would hope that it would be different if such a thing were to happen in my own family, but teenage boys can certainly be difficult to reach.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Miss New India

Miss New India, by Bharati Mukherjee

I picked this up at the library, intrigued by the premise and undeterred by the lukewarm (and sometimes outright negative) reviews on Goodreads. A novel about Bangalore, call centers, and the new Indian woman? Sure--sounds promising. I've read other Mukherjee novels and liked them, so I thought this was worth a try.

Sadly, this was not a winner. The main character, Anjali, is not likable and she's completely shallow...which I could live with, perhaps, if I cared anything about what happened to these characters. Once she made it to Bangalore, I lost track of some of the characters--they just were not drawn vividly enough--and then when the Bagehot House fell, I began skimming.

Why were all these people helping her? Anjali was ungrateful, not particularly talented, and lackadaisical, but everything seemed to go her way in the end, which seemed too good to be true.

Minnie, Anjali's obnoxiously snobby landlady, reminded me of a woman who ran a hostel in Jaipur, India. I believe she was Anglo-Indian as well. I remember that she "kindly" invited us to stay to dinner. The next morning when we were ready to leave, she presented us with an exorbitant bill for that dinner!

This book could have been so much better. I'm fascinated with the idea of the new India, but this was an uneven, shoddy attempt for a well-known and accomplished author. Disappointing.