Thursday, April 30, 2009

"This One is Mine" - Maria Semple


It is not called "Holly-weird" for nothing.

Violet is fighting to be a super mom and super wife in the middle of HelL.A. Her husband, David, is a music deal-maker, but he has a super mean, self-absorbed streak. Duh. It's L.A.

Violet meets Teddy Reyes, a Hep-C positive musician barely scraping by. He woos her with promises of poetry and glimpses of a different life. Meanwhile, David's sister is attempting to capture her own bit of the spotlight as she seduces a mildly autistic sports betting (but not gambling) TV personality.

It all ends up being a huge satiric view of the helL.A. lifestyle. If you read the book, keep that in mind. It is not a romance, it is not killer-funny. The characters are sad shells of human beings, where one is judged on the ability to spot a fake Hermes bag.

Though it is not mentioned (anywhere, that I have seen), this is also a great book about post-partum depression. Violet has all of the trademark symptoms, and by relating to that, it makes the downward spiral of her world more believable.

Semple, a former L.A. script writer for "Arrested Development" and "Ellen," among others, chews and spits out every quirk and richy-rich craze... except the drugs. Where were the drugs? Despite my few gripes, I held this book in my hand for a day and read it during every spare moment.

3.5 out of 5.0 Nik a L.A.s.

Jeffrey Eugenides/MIDDLESEX


Cal Stephanides was born in 1960 in Detroit to an Anatolian Greek family and raised as a girl--Calliope. It wasn't until Cal was 14 that the truth (about Stephanides intermarriage, gene mutation, and recessive intersexuality--that is, hermaphroditism) came out. As an adult, Cal lives as a man, albeit an occasionally uncomfortable one. Using the excuse of tracking down the origins of the gene mutation, Cal tells the Stephanides family history from 1922 in the tiny village on Mt. Olympus in Turkey through 2002.

The story begins with Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides, the brother and sister orphans who have to evacuate Turkey when the war between Greeks and Turks reaches its head. The narrative, which is very absorbing, unfolds via the burning of Smyrna and the massacre of Greeks and Armenians, the immigration experience, the history of Detroit, the origins of the Nation of Islam, and the race riots of 1967, all en route to describing the physical manifestations and medical truths and uncertainties about hermaphroditism, and what it's like to grow up in a third and misunderstood gender. All of these topics were fascinating to read about, things I'd heard of before but never really understood the way I do now, and Eugenides's narrative is jam-packed with informative history. For the argument that fiction can be at least as valuable to read as nonfiction, I can't think of a better example. You'll come out of this book highly entertained and an accidentally smarter person. I learned the word "intersexual," about which I'm very glad.

The Homeric effort of the book is complemented by some nice little jokes for classics buffs out there (the Greek chiropractor friend drives over his wine-dark Buick every Sunday, for example), and the immigration experience retelling will certainly resonate with any fellow Mediterraneans out there. Despite some unevenness in the prose (vacillating between past and present, for example, bugged me, as did the probably intentional omissions of long stretches of time) and a number of loose ends simply left hanging, the book is a wonderful read. Jeffrey Eugenides casts of some lovely one-liners. For example, when Cal's mother gets engaged to a young Orthodox priest:
"Why did my mother do it? She could never explain. The reasons people marry the people they do are not always evident to those involved" (181).

At other moments, he knocks you to your knees. For example, when Callie, 14, looks up a chain of definitions in the New York Public Library dictionary after seeing her "condition" described on a medical report. The chain (which I've collapsed here) runs like this:
hypospadias [definition] See synonyms at EUNUCH
eunuch [definition] See synonyms at HERMAPHRODITE
hermaphrodite [definition] See synonyms at MONSTER (430)

Middlesex won the 2002 Pulitzer, and I gotta say, I think it deserved it.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Erin Gruwell: Teach With Your Heart

As anyone who's seen the 2007 film "Freedom Writers" starring Hilary Swank can attest, teacher Erin Gruwell's educational journey--from being a young, insecure student teacher to becoming one of the most prominent, respected, and sought-after educators in the country--is a remarkable one. I watched "Freedom Writers" and found myself blown away by the powerful tale of what one determined teacher was able to do with a large, ethnically diverse group of teenagers who all faced struggles no young person should have to experience: homelessness, violence, substance abuse. Worst of all, the educational system in their hometown of Long Beach, CA--the very system that was supposed to empower them and lead them to a brighter future--had written them off as the undesirables, the unsaveables. In Teach With Your Heart, Erin Gruwell chronicles the amazing journey she took with her students as they accomplished feats that no one imagined (or expected) they could.

Despite its rather didactic title, Teach With Your Heart is less a teacher's guide than a personal memoir in which Gruwell takes us behind the scenes of her years as a teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School and beyond. Relating to the "book versus movie" saying, this particular book shows us there is much more to Gruwell's story than the film "Freedom Writers" could ever show. The book resonated with me as I consider myself someone passionate about education and educational causes, and I suspect teachers and other education-focused individuals are this book's main audience. However, I would urge anyone looking for a powerful, moving story to consider Gruwell's work.

The reading in Teach With Your Heart is extremely accessible, and what you will inevitably find is a poignant, candid, and inspiring portrait of the years that Gruwell tenaciously fought the apathy of her students, the condescension and disapproval of her colleagues, racial and socioeconomic stereotypes in her community, and the educational system itself. Sacrificing her time and financial resources for the sake of her students, Gruwell transformed her students--who called themselves the Freedom Writers as a tribute to the original Freedom Riders of the Civil Rights Movement and as an acknowledgment of writing's ability to liberate--from cynical, marginalized young people to mature individuals eager to make change for new generations of students.

On various book sites and blogs, some have expressed their doubt about Gruwell, calling her self-serving and a "sellout" in writing Teach With Your Heart. I beg to differ, as I question how many individuals, let alone schoolteachers, go on to achieve the quantity--and caliber--of accomplishments that this woman shares with us in her memoir. Should a person not be able to share his/her story after winning a plethora of prestigious prizes, in and out of the education realm; appearing on shows like "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "The View" and "Primetime"; being asked to speak to crowds of thousands around the country; starting her own nonprofit organization to help struggling youth; and forever changing the lives of her students through innovative teaching strategies, personally-funded and -coordinated field trips, and by exposing them to great works of literature? Gruwell's memoir isn't a tribute to herself; it's ultimately a tribute to all teachers, all educators who make great things happen and who touch the lives of their students on a daily basis.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Kristin Cashore/GRACELING


Katsa is "graced" with the ability to kill, a magical gift that is manipulated by her uncle, the king of one of seven kingdoms in the realm. Katsa hates acting the thug and starts an underground group of do-gooders, called The Council, to counteract the evil of her uncle and others like him. When a secret rescue mission for The Council brings Katsa into the thick of sinister happenings in a neighboring kingdom, she'll need the help of Prince Po, who is also graced with a great skill for fighting. But Po is hiding something, and Katsa is dangerously attracted to him.

I devoured the first half of this book because the character dynamics are great. The interchange between Katsa and Po is snappy (and often made me laugh out loud). Katsa is an interesting character, rough around the edges but likable, admirably skilled but with mixed feelings about her grace. The sinister mystery that catalyzes the plot drew me in, but ultimately had no real bearing on the storyworld, which was a bit disappointing. But this is more of a character story, and the characters are very well done.

The second half of the book didn't interest me as much. I skimmed over much of a long trek through the wilderness where the character dynamics didn't have as much opportunity to play out. Another problem I had with the book was that I didn't buy some of the most important character motivations: why does Katsa let her uncle control her, and why does Po feel such a great need to keep a secret? We're given reasons, but they don't go deep enough to be convincing. Still, I really liked the story and I'll be keeping an eye out for the two companion books.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Richard Wright/NATIVE SON

In the early 1930s in Chicago, Bigger Thomas, a 20-year-old black boy who lives with his entire family in a one-room slum apartment, is given a second chance in life, despite his juvenial raps, his soiled record, and his general malaise, when he is offered a job as a chauffer for a wealthy real estate mogul, a white man who is known for having donated millions to charities for the betterment of black Chicago residents. Bigger's first day at work starts to take strange turns and ends in his accidental killing of Mary Dalton, his boss's pretty 22-year-old daughter. Suddenly, Bigger's in a jam--one everyone knows isn't going to end well.

Native Son was published in 1940, and because of when it was published we have to remember that the value of the book amounts to far more than Wright's good writing (and it is very well written--there are some extraordinarily tense and beautiful prose moments strung throughout the occasionally didactic text). Wright's agenda must have been groundbreaking at the time: the thesis of his character (black and white), as it develops over the book, is that there is no crime a black man could commit that would not be a product of systemitized injustice and internalized racial conditioning. The author himself doesn't take a specific stand on this theory--it's put forth in the voices of carious characters, although not, incidentally, the voice Bigger Thomas. But a state of psychological oppression, race-fear, and race-hate between black and white characters is developed and realized with a precision and sophistication that the book does not read much differently from some of the anti-racism textbooks I read in college--although Native Son predates them all by 50-60 years. And even tf the dialogue about the subject has changed over history, lessening the mainstream philosophical importance of the ideas Wright puts forth (and really, that's a whole separate conversation), the book has certainly not lost any of its relevance as a piece of history, and the memory of a terrible moment in a 400-year string of terrible moments.

All that said, I cannot honestly say I enjoyed the reading (which is not to say I'm not very glad to have read it). This book is not a comfortable read. There are gruesome moments and awful moments as we see the best and worst of every eschelon of Chicago humanity. One question that is not fully addressed--and which a modern reader might want addressed more deeply--is Bigger's sociopathy, and the calculation (and lack of emotion) with which he commits the crimes he does. Per the discussion above, and the intense and detailed descriptions of Bigger's thought process as he kills, I suppose it is supposed to be established that Bigger is "insane by reason of historical oppression." But I can't help but ask the questions I do. I think this was Wright's intention, as he has not endeavored to make his main character likable or sympathetic in the least. The effort, instead, is to create relatability, and watching the thought process of a murderer spelled out and justified in a way that feels quite natural is... difficult.

(Spoiler alert) Perhaps the saddest piece of the novel for me is the way that Bessie is exploited and then forgotten, even by the novel itself. By far the more brutal of the murders Bigger commits, Bessie's death is lost in the story, like the sins committed against so many black women in American history. It is sad to see that even Bigger doesn't think of Bessie as a human, while the white girl he kills by accident fills his mind with worry.

I wish that I'd had the opportunity to read this book in some kind of classroom or discussion setting, because I think there are just tons of things to talk about in it. I haven't even scratched the surface with this review. Has anyone else read it?

Richard Price/LUSH LIFE

Matty Clark, an Irish New York City police detective, investigates the murder of a young white man by a teenager from the inner city. Eric Cash, a witness to the murder, struggles to put his life back together while feeling the full effect of the crime.

As I read this novel, I couldn't help comparing it to the myriad of police procedurals on television. While the detectives on L&O typically find eye witnesses with remarkable recall, and the investigators on CSI and NCIS have outstanding technology, Matty is stuck with the more realistic scenario of unreliable witnesses, no murder weapon, no leads, and indifferent bosses. He can't even get a paraffin test (gunshot residue test) three hours after the murder. Matty's no Sherlock Holmes on this case (he's not supposed to be), but you do see a certain brilliance he maintains in getting a modicum of effort out of his boss. In short, Matty is left to chance and his own devices.

Price gives us deep glimpses not only into Matty's head, but also the killer's, as well as Eric's. Each is sympathetic in his own right. We get to see the gut-wrenching abuse the murderer is subjected to, along with the poverty he lives in. We see a bunch of hustlers - his "friends" - who never travel too far outside the parameters of their neighborhood in the projects of the Lower East Side. The greater part of New York might as well be as far away as China. Meanwhile, we see the haunting effects of the murder both on Eric and the victim's family. This is a novel that's as much about New York as it is about a murder in New York. Through the characters and the story, Price castigates the self-perpetuating system that both created the killer and the victim. 
Yet this is still a story of survival. A limping, struggling, sometimes jaded survival, but survival all the same. 

Here's a link to the book: http://us.macmillan.com/lushlife 

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Dr. Drew Pinsky and Dr. S. Mark Young/THE MIRROR EFFECT


Dr. Drew Pinsky (the host of Loveline and Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew) and entertainment expert Dr. S. Mark Young look at how celebrity culture is affecting America. Their claim that narcissism is at the core of celebrity misbehavior isn't surprising, but their theory that narcissism is also what drives our interest in those antics is fascinating.

Narcissism isn't quite what you think it is (at least, it wasn't what I thought it was). It isn't egotism, and it isn't self-love. Extreme narcissism stems from childhood trauma and involves the need to find one's identity externally rather than internally. The seven traits associated with narcissism (and they're not all necessarily bad traits in moderation) are: vanity, exhibitionism, exploitativeness, authority, entitlement, superiority, and self-sufficiency. The authors take a look at how celebrities express these traits, from Paris Hilton's sense that she doesn't deserve to spend jail time for her DUI, to Britney Spears's need to flash her crotch at paparazzi.

But what's more interesting is how the authors believe that we mirror celebrity narcissism. The outrageous behavior of celebutantes may evoke our own latent sense of superiority in the form of self-righteous condemnation. Or it may normalize exhibitionism and vanity to the degree that we feel comfortable posting racy photos of ourselves online (This is especially true for teens, who are prone to narcissism at their stage of development).

The book does become repetitive, bringing back the same points and examples so that by the time I got to the middle I felt as if I might have accidentally started over. I would have liked to see examples from a wider segment of celebrities (Britney, Paris, and Lindsay are discussed most often). However, the study of narcissism was enlightening and interesting, and the self-indexing test at the back of the book was a good bonus.

View the book's page at HarperCollins.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Diana Wynne Jones/CASTLE IN THE AIR


If you've seen or read Howl's Moving Castle, or even if you haven't, you'll want to read this companion book, Castle in the Air. It's quite similar to Aladdin in that it involves a flying carpet, a genie in a bottle, and a princess. But has a humor unique to Diana Wynne Jones's work.

Abdullah is a carpet merchant who has the good fortune of being sold a magic carpet. He awakens one night to find the carpet has flown him the garden of a beautiful princess, who falls in love with him. But when the princess is kidnapped and taken to a castle in the air, Abdullah must use his carpet, daily wishes from a cantankerous genie, and the help of an untrustworthy soldier to rescue his love and dozens of other captive princesses.

Jones is one of my favorite authors, and I think this is one of her best books. Abdullah's adherence to the custom of heaping compliments on even the most foul people is hilarious (He calls a nomad "O captain of camels"). The genie's delight in making all of Abdullah's wishes go awry prompts fun plot twists. And the princess's penchant for logic is as endearing as it is surprising. You don't have to know anything about the original book, Howl's Moving Castle, to enjoy this story, but there are some fun bonuses for those familiar with Howl's characters.

Darin Strauss/MORE THAN IT HURTS YOU




MORE THAN IT HURTS YOU begins with Josh Goldin, a New York businessman and young father, finding out that his baby son has nearly died and is in the hospital. Dr. Darlene Stokes, who happens to be both female and black, suspects Josh's wife Dori is intentionally injuring the baby to cause drama. Turns out there's a name for this behavior: Munchausen by proxy, but Darlene has never diagnosed it before. Though this syndrome is extremely rare, Darlene, a single mother devoted to her own son, is convinced that the Goldins' baby Zack is a victim of Munchausen by proxy. Her ensuing legal battle with the Goldin family, who are Jewish, is fraught with racial and sexist tensions. As the situation continues to escalate, Josh Goldin begins question his comfortable beliefs about himself and his family life.

This novel is that rare (in my experience so far) type of literary fiction that, although it doesn't use a classically constructed plot, can still keep a reader's attention because it holds momentous central questions over your head for the duration of the novel. You'll spend much of the novel wanting to know whether Dori really did something to the baby, and the rest of it (up to the very last line) wondering which side of the debate Josh will end up on.

I first heard of this book when I read a pair of blog posts by Darin Strauss on the Powell's book blog, about some of the problems in contemporary literary fiction (read it here: part 1, part 2). He said:

It's not a question of a writer's skill; it's a question of intent, of pinched ambition. Too much contemporary fiction seems purposefully to address small things in small ways. And yet why not try for the all-inclusive, the gripping, for the audacious? For the masterly, high-wrought, and the beautiful?


In the article, Strauss is calling on writers of literary fiction to raise their genre out of the "boring" stereotype that it often deserves. Although MORE THAN IT HURTS YOU does slow down at certain points in the narrative, I would say Strauss has largely succeeded in taking his own advice. This novel is ambitious in style and bold in content, and the final pages pack an emotional punch that knocked the wind out of me.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sarah Waters/THE LITTLE STRANGER


A handful of years after the close of World War 2, an Oxfordshire family doctor returns to the manor where his mother once worked as a domestic servant. The Hundreds, as it's known, has fallen into disrepair as Mrs. Ayres, the widow of the Colonel who ran the estate, her son, Roderick, and her daughter, Caroline, have gradually run out of money. Dr. Faraday, eager to be of service to the family and house he grew up revering, befriends the family at the beginning of what is to become the unluckiest year of their lives, as the house is beset by freak accidents and nearly uncanny unfortunate coincidences. As the mess evolves, Dr. Faraday and the Ayreses try to reason it all out--is it just the old house falling apart? Sabotage by a member of the family or a spiteful servant? A poltergeist? Or something much more sinister?

This is Sarah Waters's fifth novel, following the World War 2 ensemble drama The Night Watch, and the Victorian literary romances Affinity, Fingersmith, and Tipping the Velvet (although to describe them as such is humorously reductive). For the first time, however, Waters has chosen not to include any lesbian themes in the novel, which is (one assumes) why The Little Stranger is being billed as "her most accessible to date" (from the press release).

If The Little Stranger broadens Waters's fan base, all the better. The writing is, as always, wholly engrossing and realistic (at times frustratingly so). In my opinion, Waters's most appealing strength lies in her tireless attention to period detail, and her ability to work said detail effortlessly and unobtrusively into plot. In many ways, The Little Stranger is a return to Waters's Affinity momentum--a Gothic novel with a slow-developing, heavily detailed first person narrator and highly deliberate plot, its eerie eye turned toward the supernatural and the supposed supernatural. The effect of The Little Stranger is much like that of Affinity--cumulative; almost gruelingly temperate and mundane throughout the long text; devastating after you've closed the last page and the implications coalesce.

The Little Stranger must have on some level been a deliberate homage to Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca: the awed working-class background narrator hypnotized by the grandeur of a fading estate (like the heroine of Rebecca, Dr. Faraday lacks a first name); the slow, psychological suspense of trying to preserve a way of life that has clearly passed.

My closest recommendation is for people who liked Michael Cox's The Meaning of Night. This is a similar period suspense piece, and a rather rewarding one.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Suzanne Collins/THE HUNGER GAMES

You know how sometimes you get really, really bad news, and the shock is so acute you end up laughing involuntarily?

That is what I did when I reached the last page of THE HUNGER GAMES and saw the words "End of Book One." And then I remembered that Ello had warned us all about this. Ello, never again will I forget your book reviews! (everbody click that link for the book's plot summary; I do not wish to be redundant)

THE HUNGER GAMES is every bit as unputdownable as it's hyped up to be, and part of its brilliance is that it becomes progressively more addictive. It's a stealth attack. The first few pages were enough to keep me interested. By page 4, I was genuinely intrigued. A couple of chapters later, I knew I had to finish the book. A few chapters after that, I knew I had to finish the book AS SOON AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE. The narrative is skillfully constructed to keep reeling in the reader. Even when Katniss steps out of the present (sometimes right when you are desperate to know what happens next) to recollect past events, the memories she shares are relevant to the present story and help to propel it forward, once she returns to it.

Katniss as a character is also well-constructed; she's tough and no-nonsense, strong in the ways that are necessary for her survival, but her subtle emotional vulnerability will endear her to readers. I love that Collins brings out this quality with a light hand. Katniss herself has trouble recognizing her emotional weak spots, and this is one reason that her journey is still not over at the end of the book.

The second book, CATCHING FIRE, comes out in September, and I will have my wallet ready.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

"Bend with the Knees and Other Love Advice from My Father" - Benjamin Drevlow


As most of my readers know, I often mix books. It's like drinking cocktails. I don't want my pineapple juice to be lonely; therefore, the vodka must join the party.

I've been mixing Drevlow with Hunter S. Thompson, and I never thought that I'd say that I've found the new Thompson.

The two men are decades (and mortally) apart, but Drevlow's book of short stories (fiction, though very close to fictionalized memoir) is very similar to Thompson's biting humor, if he had lived in northern Wisconsin. Reading both authors is like sitting at the bar and soaking up stories along with your alcohol (which I did with one of these authors - make your own guesses).

Bend With the Knees switches from booze cruises to suicides within a matter of pages, but it is Drevlow's voice (and use of himself as a character) that is reminiscent of Thompson. For example, in The Rum Diary, Thompson uses brittle cracks to describe the other journalists in Puerto Rico. In a description of a air-headed writer wannabe, Drevlow writes of "How I'd filet the entitlement out of her gills." It's edgy with a wedge of lemon to shock the senses.

4.5 out of 5.0 Vodka Lemons.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Secret Keeper - Paul Harris


Caveat: in my reading, I tend to shy away from anything that resembles real life too closely; what I'm trying to get across is, I am biased against this book from the start.  
With that said, it was a fun read.  In the very first chapter of the book, the author shows you where the protagonist is going to end up, and you have to spend the rest of the book wondering how he'll get there, which makes for an effective build-up of suspense.  All the characters are well put together and internally consistent, and the ending manages to both surprise and satisfy.
However, there are some things that don't fit very well.  Paul Harris does an excellent job of painting a picture of Sierra Leone: desperate yet hopeful, dark, wartorn.  The storyline that takes place there is very powerful.  However, it isn't the only storyline, and this is where the novel fails.  The protagonist's story switches between flashbacks to the year 2000, when he was in Sierra Leone reporting on the war (interesting and moving), his visit to Sierra Leone in the present day (interesting and mysterious), and his time in England in the present day, spent arguing with his girlfriend and his father. (completely unnecessary).  I understand that the third strand in the story is supposed to help develop the protagonist's character, but such development is unneeded.  The main character's actions in Sierra Leone would be completely understandable without us having to listen to his fiance whine at him.
Overall, a good book.  I wish Mr. Harris a successful career, though I will not be reading any more of his novels, unless he suddenly starts writing science fiction/fantasy/alternate history.



Dirty Little Angels by Chris Tusa




DIRTY LITTLE ANGELS
By Chris Tusa (Alabama: Livingston Press)
ISBN-10: 1604890304
ISBN-13: 978-1604890303
[pbk and e-book]

With confident, mature writing, Tusa blends easily into the literary landscape of American fiction of the Deep South. Hailey Trosclair, the narrator and protagonist is a wonderfully rounded creation. Flawed and restless she stalks the novel in search of love and compassion, looking for a sense of belonging. Let down by society and the adults around her she seeks spiritual answers. But the warped view of religion handed out by those around her means she asks the wrong questions and fails to see the answers she is given. At times shocking, the novel lays bare the black heart of religious and social hypocrisy.

It is a gritty, unrelenting story, peopled with deranged, desperate characters and littered with disturbing images of attempted suicide, sex and violence. Steeped in Carson McCullers’ school of Southern fiction this is a heartbreaking novel that slowly spirals towards its inevitable dark conclusion. Although flawed in places, Dirty Little Angels is an assured, intelligent debut novel.
see also comments on The Editor's Notebook blog at http://www.janettecurrieconsultancy.wordpress.com

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"Drood" - Dan Simmons


Oh, Bibliolatry, please forgive me. I still adore and worship you and your amazing taste.

Dan Simmons continues to confound readers using historical events as a backdrop to some creepy shite. In this case, the relationship between Charles Dickens and his friend, Wilkie Collins, after Dickens survives a train wreck and meets the infamous figure, Drood.

Who is Drood? Well, that would be spoiling the surprises. In short, Drood is a powerful mesmeric of London's underworld. Is he a form of Dickens's fiction? Or does he literally haunt the writer to his death, leaving Collins to write the monster's biography?

Wilkie Collins is not the most reliable character. While he prides himself on specifics of detail, he is under the influence of mega-doses of laudanum all of the time. However, his growing jealousy and hatred of Dickens is perfectly written because even *I* grew tired of the doddering fool by the middle of the book.

Could this novel have been edited from its original 700+ pages? Absolutely. Is this as compelling as Simmons's THE TERROR? Not a chance. Did I still sequester myself for the final 200 pages? Yes, but I'm a bad, bad person who ignores others.

4.25 out of 5.0 Stingers.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Sorry - this isn't a review but is anyone else having trouble with amazon.co.uk? My book's available on amazon.com, and online at other uk sites - waterstones, borders, wh smiths, etc - but amazon.uk have a glitch on their system and although they claim my book is on the site, it isn't! Is anyone else experiencing problems with the uk site?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Curtis Sittenfeld/AMERICAN WIFE


When 31-year-old Alice Lindgren, a school librarian and a life-long democrat, meets the playful and devilish Charlie Blackwell, the son of the former Republican governor of their native Wisconsin, she never imagines she'll end up marrying him. She certainly never imagines that in thirty years she will be the First Lady. In this thinly veiled (really, not veiled at all) roman a clef of former First Lady Laura Bush, Curtis Sittenfeld offers a sympathizing portrayal of a mid-Western woman who did her best, and who is trying to justify her choices.

This is quite an absorbing read, perhaps especially for Americans (but hey, maybe not). The novel without its flaws--for one, it's mammoth, and despite its nearly 600 pages, it only covers 4 pockets in Alice Lindgren Blackwell's life--high school, when she accidentally kills her crush in a car accident, and the events that follow; the bbq where Alice meets Charlie, and the events that follow; a series of episodes when her daughter is nine; and a series of episodes at the end of her husband's second term, in 2006. I can't decide if I think the content was well-chosen, or if there was too much, or if I wish there was more. In fact, coming out of the book, I don't know anything except that I really, really like Laura Bush (despite the fact that I know nothing about her).

Alice (the character) asks herself in different ways over the course of the novel if she has made mistakes. Her major mistakes are staying by her dissolute husband while he reforms--if she'd abandoned him, or not forced him to clean up, he never would have been a serious presidential candidate--and for not being vocal enough about her own beliefs, for pointedly abstaining from political involvement with her husband and only being a "wife" to him.

Ultimately, I think the book is a success--I couldn't stop reading it, and I feel like I learned a lot (although really I learned fiction).

Jane Austen/NORTHANGER ABBEY

Catherine Morland is seventeen when she is invited by family friends to go spend some time in Bath, the hip getaway of everyone fashionable in England at the turn of the nineteenth century. In Bath, Catherine meets the Thorpe family, including Isabella, who is desperate to be Catherine's new best friend. She also meets a Mr. Tilney, who may just be the love of her life, if only her new friends didn't keep giving her terrible advice about what is socially acceptable.

I've now read all Austen except Persuasion--which is coming up soon--and I have to say that Northanger Abbey was not what I was expecting. Some basic rules of Austen held true--romance, thwarted romance, tons of etiquette and moral lessons, and a happy ending. But in other ways, it was very different. Where Austen is otherwise ironic, Northanger Abbey is sarcastic. Miss Austen goes as far as to address her reader directly with a lecture--the length of a full chapter--about why it is unfair to judge novelists, which was another surprise. The novel is divided into two volumes, and is very nearly two books: one, the high society intrigues and balls and flirting; the other, a mock-up of a "horror" (gothic) novel wherein "the heroine" becomes convinced her room is haunted, her host has murdered his late wife, etc etc. The disconnect between the first and second half was a little jarring.

My impression was that this was a debut novel--where Jane Austen cut her teeth, and clearly not the peak of her craft--but I know people have told me that Northanger Abbey was their favorite of all Austen. I'm afraid it's not mine, but I'm very interested to hear other people's impressions.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A. S. King/THE DUST OF 100 DOGS

Arrr! It's a pirate book!

Just before Emer, a teenage pirate, falls dead next to her murdered lover, she is cursed to live 100 lives as a dog.

After her doggy penance, Emer is reincarnated as a girl named Saffron in the 1970's. Saffron bides her time until her 18th birthday, imagining painful pirate-worthy deaths for those who annoy her, and then takes off in search of the treasure Emer buried centuries earlier.

I love the freshness of this book, and the spunk of its main character, Emer/Saffron. The prose is clean and easy to gobble down. The story alternates between how Emer grows up to be a pirate and how Saffron grows up to be a treasure-hunter, and both storylines are absorbing.

The other thing I love about this book is how the characters in Emer's storyline mirror the characters in Saffron's. Both girls face similar villains and so come to similar face-offs.

I'll admit I was hoping for a bit more bang at the book's end, but that doesn't deter me from recommending this to anyone who doesn't mind a little pirate-style gore and violence.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Alice Mattison/THE BOOK BORROWER


Ruben and Deborah first meet in a park, where Ruben is walking with her infant and Deborah is playing with her toddler daughters. Deborah, whose husband has a fascination with old trolley systems, lends Ruben a book about a trolley strike in 1920. Although Ruben dabbles at and misplaces the book, her friendship with Deborah carries on over an arch of years, changes, and catastrophes.

I do hope people who haven't discovered Alice Mattison yet will--in my mind, she's a female (and more embraceable) counterpart to Saul Bellow: an observer of the filaments of relationships and comfort, dialogue nuance, and natural reactions. I hadn't heard of her until last August, and now I own all her books. Her talent is in seeing and capturing the unusual mundane, and putting it forth so honestly you're pretty sure you've been that character before. The plot is incidental or even nonexistent, but it doesn't matter, because you read slowly to absorb the personal details.

The first book I read of hers was Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn, which I reviewed here. The Book Borrower is perhaps better known, having been a NYT Notable Book of the Year in 1999 and now in its 7th printing, but I think NIQFIB is possibly even more polished and well-played in its tight, common themes: the vagaries of friendship between women, impossible prodigal children, art, old age, and husbands with innocent but frustratingly single-minded hobbies.

Anyone else a fan?