Friday, March 03, 2017

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Intrigued by the opening credits to the new HBO series Big Little Lies that I saw while waiting to watch another HBO show, I decided to look into Liane Moriarty's novel which is the basis for the show.  Starring Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern, how can this show not be amazing?  So I set out to read the book first.  It is a page turner with short chapters, many of which begin or end the police interrogation dialogue, as it is established a murder has occurred in Chapter One.  The female characters played by Hollywood's finest all are mothers of kindergartners at Pirriwee Peninsula Public School, although HBO has moved the location from Sydney, Australia to LA.  The mothers are all "pretty people" and the competition among them is pretty fierce at times.  Woodley's character, Jane, is a single mom who has moved to town with her son, Ziggy.  Their arrival and assimilation into the mother-crowd throws off the group dynamics.  

I though this would be fluff-chick, Stepford Wives type reading, but there are larger issues surrounding the "big, little lies" moneyed mothers tell to keep up the facade of perfection.  Past and present relationships are far from perfect, and Moriarty makes some pretty strong social statements throughout.

I can't wait to watch the series.  I had Amazon send copies of the paperback to my daughter and daughter-in-law and I am hoping for some discussion to come from our little mother/daughter book club.  By the last quarter of the book, I was entirely sucked in and could not put it down.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

I am a huge Olive Kitteridge fan, so I assumed I must be a huge Elizabeth Strout fan.  Unfortunately, My Name is Lucy Barton was a disappointment, mostly because of the fundamental questions it did not answer for me.  Lucy spends the whole first half of the novel in the hospital - but there is never the slightest hint what is wrong with her.  That bothered me enough to over shadow the charming parts of the book.  While she is in the hospital, her mother, from whom Lucy as been estranged for a long time, comes to visit.  She sits at the foot of her daughter's bed, calls her by her childhood nickname, Wizzle, and the two recount old stories and reminisce about forgotten personalities from the old neighborhood.  Occasionally a doctor or nurse comes in to check on something ? ? and abruptly her mother announces she must leave.  

Lucy has a husband and daughters, who play very minimal roles in the story.  And even Lucy herself never rises to the role of a fully fleshed character in my mind.  She goes to classes to learn to write from a legendary teacher, Sarah Payne, who teaches her that we each have one single story to tell.  But Lucy Barton's story is told in fragments, always with some necessary portion hidden behind the mysterious hospital curtain.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

Looking to stroll through New York City on New Year's Eve with a fashionable and fearless old lady?  Lillian Boxfish is your gal and a you will enjoy every minute of your time with this character.  Told in chapters that alternate between the 1984 New Year's Eve walk and Lillian's successful career as an ad woman for R. H. Macy's in the 1930s, the novel spans a lifetime of love and loss.  The character is indeed based on a real woman named Margaret Fishback who was herself the real highest paid female advertising copywriter in the world during the 1930s.  

Shrugging off the warning from her adult son that New York isn't safe for an older woman on her own, Lillian is undaunted by the task of walking across town to a New Year's Eve party she hadn't even intended to go to.  Decked in a forgotten fur coat from the back of her closet, she encounters a mixed bag of characters along her way.  

One of the last lines of the book sum up retrospective view of life - "No one survives the future, of course.  Over the years, I have rushed it, run from it, tried to shunt myself from its track.  That these efforts did not succeed does not mean that I regret them"

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Flood Girls by Richard Fifield

I was gifted this book for Christmas, but it was the paperback Target Club Pick edition with a cool looking trailer on the cover.  The best sentence in the whole book is the first one - "Every night, Frank played harmonica for the cats".  Except Frank doesn't make it past the first chapter!  The trailer park neighbor kid, Jake, is told he shouldn't be seeing this, as they haul Frank's body out, but Jake takes the harmonicas and keeps them under his bed.  

What happens in the rest of the novel which is set in Quinn, Montana - population 956?    Rachel Flood,  the town home wrecker returns after a self-imposed leave to sober up.  She tries to make amends with her mother who runs the local bar, The Dirty Shame.  Rachel ends up paying her dues by being forced to tend bar AND play on her mother's soft ball league.  

Unfortunately, I found the book to be flat.  I kept waiting for a big thing to happen that would propel me through the rest of the book.  Bar night, followed by bar brawl, followed by too much drinking, followed by hungover softball game - repeat.  

My favorite character was misunderstood and neglected Jake, who drew his understanding of life from Jackie Collins novels and Rocky Horror Picture Show.  He had a sewing machine that was his source of solace.  What happens with him at the end of the novel made me want the throw the book across the room.  I guess the dilapidated trailer on the cover should have been enough warning. 

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Even though we have basically sworn off getting books for each other, this book was a very welcome Christmas gift from David.   I have been a relatively big fan of Ian McEwan since I read Atonement back in 2004.  Nutshell borrows heavily from Hamlet,  a play I taught so many times I guarantee I caught all of the subtle nods.  As for the not-so-subtle stuff - the main character named not Gertrude but Trudy, and her lover, her husband's brother Claude, not Claudius - it was pretty contrived.  But nothing was as contrived as the narrator, the unborn fetus who "sees" the whole drama unfold.  His mother is having an affair with his father's brother and this fetus is able to describe every sexual encounter between the two like he is there - because he is.  He even describes it as he feels it from the womb.  Couldn't teach this book - no siree!  Because Trudy and Claude want to be left alone, there is plotting, there is intrigue, there is murder (wouldn't you guess).  

It is a slim novel.  McEwan's language is lovely.  But the only character who I even wanted to like wasn't even born yet.   I read almost the whole book on New Year's Day with a large glass of left over Champagne by the fire, so that part was delightful.  But the book isn't one I will be passing to all my friends anytime soon.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Girls by Emma Cline

I have been so negligent about writing book reviews lately but this one needs to be done immediately.  I finished reading Emma Cline’s The Girls today after being riveted by the novel for a few days.  I had read a NY Times review of the book earlier this summer, and patiently waited for the ebook to be available from the library.   I am not curiously drawn to anything having to do with cults or Charles Manson, but the early press about the manuscript leading to a bidding war among a dozen publishers and the seven figure, three book deal made me awfully interested.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the story is tightly focused on the girls – of course.  The central character, Evie, is fourteen in the summer of 1969.  Her divorced parents seem preoccupied, her best friend seems distant, her town seems disenchanted – she is ripe for the allure of Suzanne, an older girl she sees one day with a few other girls harvesting food from a dumpster.  When Suzanne eyes Evie with a lingering glance, Evie is struck.  What follows are multiple trips and extended stays at the Mansonesque commune where a haunting musician named Russell commands.  Of course there is plenty of sex and drugs and music, but the focus is on the relationship between Evie and Suzanne.  Of course there is a climactic event of violence and a lifetime of lingering guilt by association for Evie, who is an older adult in the opening chapter and subsequent sections.
Cline knows girls and can expose the fragility of innocence with beautifully crafted prose.  This is a book that people will be talking about and girls will be reading.

    Tuesday, September 15, 2015

    Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

    All of my favorite things - smart characters, descriptions of exotic dishes, recipes, menus - come together in Kitchens of the Great Midwest.  Eva, the central character, is born in the first chapter and ages rapidly in subsequent chapters where she sometimes plays only a minor role.  Eva has a talent for food - knowing ingredients, putting together a meal, and even using food as a weapon.  I loved watching her grow into an enigmatic chef so popular people would pay thousands of dollars and endure years on a waiting list just to eat at one of her mysterious pop-up dinners.  The chapter titled "Bars" is all about those delicious 9 x 13 pan-baked creations and was the tastiest of the whole book for me.  

    Friday, September 04, 2015

    The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida

    This slim little novel is so fast paced, I almost finished it in a day.  Told entirely in second person, Vida's narrator has her laptop and identification stolen while checking in to a hotel in Morocco.  After some wrangling with the local police, she accepts another woman's ID and thus begins a series of events, new names and personalities so entangled it will leave "you" wondering who "you" are.  The unusual title of the book comes from a Rumi poem.  I listened to an interview with Vendetta Vida, who is Dave Eggers' wife, and she said the book was prompted by a similar experience that she had with a stolen laptop that contained an unfinished manuscript.  She also said second person narration was the only way she could tell this story.  I was hooked from the opening scene and laughed aloud at the last line.  Highly recommend!

    Friday, August 28, 2015

    The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

    What a sweet little story, perfect for any bibliophile with an interest in romance.  Monsieur Perdu calls his floating bookstore barge a literary apothecary, and prides himself on his ability to match a book with a person's current needs.  But his own soul is empty, and when he decides to leave his mooring and travel in search of some answers to old questions, the book takes off.  It is a charming novel, full of quirky characters and a few good book titles that might help with the longings of your own life.

    Saturday, August 15, 2015

    A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

    ove.aspxHow I loved Ove.  He is as grumpy and grouchy as they come - I pictured Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt.  His wife Sonja, who friends were always grateful married him and made him manageable for some time, has just died.  He sees no reason to go on, and begins to plan a way to end his life.  But nosy, meddling neighbors keep finding ways to divert him from his goal, and through these interactions, the soft side of Ove is revealed.  Swedish author and blogger Frederik Backman has painted  a tender character who will stay with you long after the last episode - which is laugh out loud funny.  I agree with Booklist - “If there was an award for ‘Most Charming Book of the Year,’ this first novel by a Swedish blogger-turned-overnight-sensation would win hands down” (Booklist, starred review).

    Sunday, June 21, 2015

    Language Arts by Stephanie Kallos

    How does an English teacher avoid a novel titled Language Arts?  I certainly could not, especially since I have been big fan of Stephanie Kallos since reading Broken for You in 2005.  And, of course, this cover with its looping arcs is pretty intriguing - and representative.

    Language Arts is an ambitious novel - one I almost felt she was not going to be able to pull off due to all its looping arcs.  The main character is Charles Marlow, a high school English teacher who attempts to show students how language will shape and change their lives.  Charlie is also the father of an autistic son, Cody, who never masters the use of language.  Cody, now 21, must be placed in a new adult residence.  Charlie is divorced from his wife, Allison, with whom he has little success in communicating.  During Art Therapy at the new home, Cody collaborates with Sister Georgia, an aging Italian nun who is losing her language, all of which is photographed by one of Charlie's students who is working there on her senior Language Arts project.  Sound confusing?  It often is.   To further muddy the waters, the timeline of the novel bounces between the present and Charlie's elementary school days, when he was placed in an experimental language arts program that resulted in him penning an award winning story that was a loosely veiled expose of his parents' dysfunctional marriage.  Also, symbolically significant is the elementary school instruction Charlie received in the Palmer Handwriting Method and the ways it knit Charlie's life together with a mentally challenged classmate of his named Dana.

    At times the novel nearly fell apart for me.  But there were passages about language - how is serves and fails us as human beings - that salvaged the book for me.  Perhaps it is because my mother suffered from aphasia during her last years with Alzheimers.  Perhaps because I love language, and teaching literature.  Passages like this one make the book worth recommending:

    “Memory—uncorrected, uncorroborated, and (by its very nature) unreliable—is what allows us to retroactively create the blueprints of our lives, because it is often impossible to make sense of our lives when we’re inside them, when the narratives are still unfolding: This can’t be happening. Why is this happening? Why is this happening now? Only by looking backward are we able to answer those questions, only through the assist of memory. And who knows how memory will answer? Who will it blame?”

    Monday, June 01, 2015

    Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

    Eighty-three year old Etta is full of life, but she has never seen the ocean!  So she decides to walk some 3,000 kilometers from Saskatchewan, Canada east to the sea.  She leaves a note on the kitchen table for her husband, Otto, stating "I will try to remember to come back", and loads up provisions including a rifle and some chocolate before heading out.  It is Russell, life-long friend a neighbor to Otto, who eventually decides to set out after Etta.  The final title character, James, can only be described as a supernatural coyote who accompanies Etta along part of her journey.  

    This novel is all story, and as many of my favorite story tellers do, Hooper paints her landscape with the broad brush of magical realism.  I loved Etta and her feisty determination.  This novel is quirky and engaging.  Want to escape this summer?  Hike along with Etta and James.

    Saturday, May 23, 2015

    All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

    All the Bright Places
    I don’t want to give too much away, but the moment I finished reading All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven,  I posted a quick message to my teacher friends alerting them to tell all their book-craving students to put this title at the top of their summer reading lists.  The unlikely relationship between Theodore Finch and Violet Markey begins when they meet atop their Indiana high school’s bell tower.  In that instant they become “lifesavers” for one another – bouying each other through mean cliques, exaspering teachers, family issues, the wounds of the past and the uncertainty of the future.  
    I fell in love with this book!  I devoured it.  It made me laugh and cry.  If I were still teaching I would be buying copies as end of the year gifts for my favorite students.  Of course Niven’s story is not entirely unique.  Of course the movie version, reported to star Elle Fanning as Violet, will be a hit.  Because the prose is smart and literary, the characters are flawed and real, and the theme strikes a chord with teens that still resonates in adults, All the Bright Places will become the next essential YA novel. 

    Wednesday, May 20, 2015

    God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

    I cannot - ever - bash Toni Morrison, so I will not review this one.  My opinions of her greatness remain based on her greats - Song of Solomon, Beloved and the early works.

    Sunday, March 15, 2015

    Mosquitoland by David Arnold

    Immediately, this book had three things going for it – a great first sentence, the fact that it is a road trip narrative, and that Greyhound bus that the protagonist is sitting atop on the front cover is taking her to Cleveland, Ohio (my hometown).  The first sentence is – “I am Mary Iris Malone, and I am not okay”.  In fact, that single sentence the only one in the first chapter  titled A Thing’s Not a Thing Until You Say It Out Loud.  Mim Malone is 17 years old, she lives with her father and new step-mother in Jackson, Mississippi (aka Mosquitoland), and her mother is very sick in Cleveland.  During her happier “Young Fun” days, she lived with her mother and dad in Ashland, Ohio, so when she decides to get on the Greyhound for Cleveland, 947 miles away, she is sort of going home.  Of course, often the theme of YA novels that deal with divorce teaches you can’t revisit the past, even if you make it to Cleveland in time for Labor Day, a day Mim and mom made special together  when times were good.
    The sections of the novel are marked by cities and miles to go.  Passages of Mim’s cheeky first person narration are interspersed with letters she write to Aunt Isabel, in which she refers to herself as Our Heroine and signs off Mary Iris Malone _ Mother-effing Mother-Saver.  Of course she meets a cast of cleverly drawn characters, of course she has scrapes with good and terrible luck.  Of course her father and step-mom are worried sick and intervene.  Those details are pretty predictable.  What isn’t so predicable is Mim’s wisdom and raw honesty.  As she says, “Opening scenes are funny, because you never know which elements will change over time and which will stay the same.  The world was, and is, mad.”
    I loved Mim, and although this book is recommended for 12 and up, I loved this book.  David Arnold had made a brilliant debut! He is also a musician and his book trailer offers a great sneak peak at the story and his musical talents.
    I close too many book reviews “If I was still teaching” but I would truly put this on a short list of books to preview for Book Circles and class reads.  I want to meet Mim and sit next to her on the bus.  Even if I’m already in Cleveland.

    Tuesday, February 24, 2015

    The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

    The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins rose to #1 on the New York Times Bestsellers List last week, and I finished reading it just in time to agree - it is the new Gone Girl.   I never read Gone Girl, haven't seen the movie either.  I would generally say crime fiction isn't my genre, but after a recent train trip to Chicago to see our daughter, I found myself in a large downtown Barnes and Noble bookstore where I picked up copy of this book intending to read the first page.  The first page turned into the first chapter, and then another and then another.  That is why The Girl on the Train will stay atop the best sellers list.  The narrative travels at a speed train's pace and, as the cover image hints, it compels the reader with a Hitchcockian, "Rear Window" brand of intrigue.

    Rachel, one of the three female characters, is a sort of train wreck of a character.  She is an out of work, alcoholic divorcee who continues to take the train into London each day to keep up the charade of employment, so that the girlfriend who she is temporarily living with won't kick her out of the apartment.  Since she isn't really going to work, she can drink canned gin and tonics on the train and allow herself the revelry of staring out the window, imagining the lives of people she sees on the front porches outside the stations where the train stops.  And so it begins!  She sees something curious and disturbing one day - or does she?  Due to her abuse of alcohol and her fragile mental state, she frequently blacks out, or seriously doubts her memory in hungover light of day.  So can she be a reliable witness for a murder case?

    She isn't even a reliable narrator.  Neither is Anna, wife of Tom, Rachel's ex-husband.  Neither is Megan, murder victim and wife of Scott, who has a secret past creepier than the events surrounding her murder case.  These three narrate the story which switches frequently from story teller to story teller, from past to present, from the discomfort of home to the safety and anonymity of a moving train compartment.

    I wouldn't say I LOVED it, but it did keep me wildly swiping my Kindle pages, even after I solved the case, as any TV crime lover will rather quickly.  If you have a long commute, a cold winter's afternoon, or an need for a glimpse through a seedy window into someone else's ruined life - this is your next book!

    Sunday, February 15, 2015

    The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

    I loved The Rosie Project  and I can't wait for the movie.   I love Don Tillman and his hilarious wife, Rosie, so I knew I would live the Rosie Effect.  I got a digital library loan of the novel, which was my first read in OverDrive.  I'm not sure I like it as well as I like reading Kindle editions, but it did give me the added satisfaction of letting me know I opened the book just 25 times and finished it in 6 hours and 36 minutes.  And what a fun six and a half hours those were.  (I read most of by a fireplace as a winter storm pounded the Northeast Ohio Lake Erie shore.)

    In this sequel Rosie is pregnant with a baby she and Don had not discussed having together.  His quirks and idiosyncrasies as a man and husband look as if they will be exacerbated by the responsibilities of parenthood.  I laughed out loud many times while reading about the troubles Don manages to get himself into.  It is hard to believe that until recently Graeme Simsion was a name associated with the theory of data modeling and not a popular author.  Everyone I know who has read The Rosie Project loved it and I will be recommending the Rosie Effect for a long while to come.

    Sunday, February 01, 2015

    Us by David Nicholls

    I really enjoyed One Day by David Nicholls and had read enough pre-publication hype about Us to convince myself that I would love it too.  I was not disappointed!  Nicholls is an author and screen writer and I am already anxious for the movie version of Us, especially if the movie is true to the European vacation itinerary of the novel.

    Connie Peterson tells her husband, Douglas, that she plans to leave him after they return from a trip they have planned to take with their son, Albie, who is about to leave for college.  The plan is a grand tour of France, Spain, Amsterdam and Italy, complete with all the art museums and requisite life-changing tourist stops.  But the life-changing happens as a result of people more than places. The reader travels along inside Douglas's simultaneously humorous and painfully honest narration.  Although the optimistic reader hopes for a happily-ever-after ending, pleasant realism is a pretty good was to end a pretty endearing story.

    Sunday, January 18, 2015

    The First Bad Man by Miranda July

    I love Miranda July.  I hate Miranda July.  I was totally amused by her collection It Chooses You a few years back.  I was drawn to her new novel, The First Bad Man, like a car wreck that I knew I probably didn't want to see but couldn't look away from.  Mostly, I admire Miranda July.  She puts it out there a little bit like Lena Dunham, another brash, young artistic voice I can't entirely ignore.  And I didn't hate this book as much as I thought I might.

    The title comes from the role of "the first bad man" attacker in the self-defense videos produced by the non-profit that Cheryl, the protagonist, works for.  Cheryl lives alone, is infatuated with a creepy board member named Philip and obsessed with the connection she felt with a baby she met when she was six that she named Kubelko Bondy.  When her boss asks if her 26 year old daughter, Clee, can move in with Cheryl temporarily, the book becomes sexually charged and borderline surreal.  In her review of the book, Lena Dunham wrote, "Miranda July's ability to pervert norms while embracing what makes us normal is astounding".

    I almost stopped reading this book.  When I saw where it was headed, I wanted to stop looking through the keyhole at bizarro-world.  But the New York Times review of the book had already cautioned me that "challenging work tends to incite readerly resistance".  I stayed with it until the end, shaking my head but a little in awe of the risky freshness that July makes her readers confront.

    Sunday, January 04, 2015

    All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

    I love to pick a book to read by the light the Christmas tree on my iPad during the holidays, and this year I was intrigued by all of the accolades All the Light We Cannot See was receiving - finalist for the National Book Award, New York Times #1 bestseller, Indie Next Pick and the list goes on.  I had read enough to know it is a WWII story of a young boy and a young girl who are united by the power of radio.  Historic fiction isn't at the top of my lists of reading interests, but after reading a little bit about Anthony Doerr and discovering that he grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, I knew I had to read this book.  Doerr's prose is beautiful poetry!  He weaves a compelling connection between his alternate narrators - Marie-Laure who lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History and a German orphan named Werner who is snatched up by Hitler's Youth for his aptitude for science.  Although the book is very long - 544 pages - the chapters are relatively short and the jumping back and forth between narrators and time periods make it an unbelievably quick book.  I was fully satisfied by the novel and it was the rare sort that made me interested in doing more research into the ancient walled city of Saint Malo, the seizure of French art during the German invasion and the history of radio.  Doerr explains his various inspirations for the novel in this short video.  

    Wednesday, December 17, 2014

    The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar

    Just before Christmas, I was having a nostalgic craving for a good old-fashioned Christmas shopping experience at a local book store.  Problem is - there aren't any anymore.  So we ventured to Mac's Backs Books on Coventry , which is a little out of the way, but one of the only authentic bookstores of miles around.  We milled around, lingered, lifted books off the shelf and read a few pages.  That is how I found The Story Hour by local author Thrity Umrigar.  Turns out Umrigar received an M.A. From Ohio State University, and a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University.  I read the cover flap and decided to continue my abstinence from book buying and get it from the library - digital loan.  

    The Story Hour is a novel in two voices.  The narration alternates between an Maggie, an African-American psychologist married to a professor and her client Lakshimi, a younger Indian woman from a small village who helps her husband run his Indian grocery.  Laksmimi has attempted suicide, which precipitates her relationship with Maggie, who she meets in the hospital following her botched attempt. A relationship develops between the two woman and, through various plot twists and turns, their lives become irrevocably intertwined. 

    I enjoyed the book enough to say I would recommend it.  Both women are terribly flawed and vulnerable, which is why their stories seem so true.  

    Friday, November 07, 2014

    counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

    A full page add for counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan in the Sunday New York Times Book Review a few weeks back intrigued me enough to order the book from the library. When I got the the deaths of the main character's adoptive parents at the end of the first short chapter, I knew I was hooked.

    Willow Chance is a science-obsessed misfit/oddball/lone wolf/weirdo/genius. If all of those character descriptions are accurate, then she fits into 5 of the 7 classifications of students seen by Dell Duke, her school counselor who is himself a counselor's nightmare. Through Duke, Willow has met lone wolf Quanh-ha and his sister Mai Nguyen, who are Vietnamese. Since Willow was adopted from Vietnam, she connects with these two as "persons of color" like herself. But when she insists that they will be willing to take her into their family upon the deaths of her parents, the greater themes of the book - family, acceptance, grief and recovery - begin to surface.

    This book is labeled a YA novel, appropriate for upper elementary grades of gifted students who are often, themselves, intelligent oddballs. (Willow has been treated skeptically by teachers at her new school because no one has ever finished the state proficiency test in 17 minutes before.). She is a protagonist readers will fall in love with, laugh will, and cry with. She reminds me of Jerry Spinelli's Stargirl - one of my all time favorite characters!

    Even if you don't normally read YA literature, Willow's story will charm you. I see a movie on the horizon - read it soon!