Friday, September 5, 2014

And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass

The past is like the night: the dark yet sacred. It's the time when most of us sleep, so we think of the day as the time we really live, the only time that matters, because the stuff we do by day somehow makes us who we are....But there is no day without night, no wakefulness without sleep, no present without past. They are constantly somersaulting over each other. 

These lines come late in Julia Glass's new novel and form a central theme in the book. Its main character, Kit, has never known his biological father and seems adrift as a result. He is in a troubled marriage, has lost his tenure-track professorship because he couldn't finish his dissertation, and is obviously despondent. His wife encourages him to seek out the father he never knew. Thus begins a journey motif in which our hero finds his true identity. The journey, of course, is fraught with difficulties.

First, his mother has consistently refused to disclose the name of his father. The reader is aware of his identity by page 6 through a flashback to a summer arts camp. There, Daphne, a talented cellist, has fallen in love with another young musician at the camp. It is none other than a 17 year old Malachy--the boy who eventually becomes the acerbic art critic we discovered in Glass' first novel, The Three Junes. Similarly, the reader knows this will be a doomed love affair because Malachy is gay. Daphne becomes pregnant, thus dashing her hopes of becoming a concert cellist. But wounding her more deeply is the rejection she feels from Malachy, who wants nothing to do with her or the child.

As the now forty-something Kit searches for his father, he reconnects with the man Daphne marries when he is nine. Jasper is a larger-than-life outdoorsman who lives in Vermont. Kit remembers the cabin where he spent his formative years, suffering through his skiing lessons with his ski-instructor stepdad.  He stays loyal to Jasper when his mother leaves her husband to marry another and start a second family. It is not clear why, as an adult living in New Jersey, he has broken his ties with his stepfather--the man who adopted and raised him as his own.

In an attempt to help Kit, Jasper begins researching his biological family with the scant information Daphne once revealed.  And he strikes gold. 

To reveal more would ruin the surprise for readers. Suffice it to say that both Fenno McLeod (Malachy's bookseller friend, now in his late fifties) and Malachy's mother, Lucinda (in her eighties) become major characters in the book. We finally get the back story to Malachy's life before and during his battle with AIDS.

And the Dark Sacred Night is about roads not taken, the consequences of youthful mistakes, and ultimately, about forgiveness.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai

I enjoyed reading the Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai, and it has really stuck with me. If I had time, I would read it again to be sure I understood how all the pieces fit together!

It is set on an old family estate, Laurelfield, in what feels like Lake Forest. The setting was once an artist’s colony, much like our own Ragdale. The owners of the estate, the Devohr family, are eccentric, elusive, unstable, mysterious, and it seems as if a few of the late Devohrs are still present on the property as ghosts!

Written in four parts, the author takes us backward through the story - which in itself is intriguing, The first part begins in 1999, the next part 1955, third part is 1929 and the prologue, which comes at the end of the book, is set in 1900. The opening section introduces the reader to the adult children of the reigning Devohrs, who are living in the old coach house with their spouses while they figure out what to do next. Central questions are introduced: what happened to the artist’s colony, why did it close? The portrait of the matriarch, Violet, which hangs in the dining room - what happened to her? It is rumored that the poet Edwin Parfitt had been artist in residence several times, and the Devohr son in law is researching him - but why can’t he find anything about the man? Why is the attic of the main house locked? Where are the records? As the book progresses, these and many other intrigues seem about to be solved, as back stories are revealed, but just when you think you are about to say "AHA!" , something else happens and you need to know more. A good read, could be good for book club discussions.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Face the Music: A Life Exposed by Paul Stanley

Another year, another KISS book, and this one is perhaps the best one so far! It's certainly the best-selling, as it spent 3 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list after debuting at #2. What makes this book a cut above the rest is original bandmember/guitarist/singer Paul Stanley's honesty about his various insecurities as he rose to the top, as well as the personal challenges he faced when in one of the most well-known rock bands in the world. The fact that this book came out while KISS was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame probably didn't hurt sales either

The big revelation from this book is the fact that Stanley was born with microtia, a deformity of his right ear that left him deaf in that ear. Growing up with a deformity caused fear and insecurity for young Paul and he appreciated being able to take refuge among fellow rock and rollers, where he could create a larger-than-life character onstage. Years later he had surgeons reconstruct the ear (though he remains deaf) and was able to channel his feelings of being different into a starring role in a successful run as the star of Phantom of the Opera in Toronto, while also donating time to AboutFace, a charity dedicated to helping children deal with physical deformity.

Of course being in one of the world's most successful rock bands did not hold him back when it came to the world of women and parties. But like his bandmate Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley largely rejected drug and alcohol use in order to stay focused on his career. Ace Frehley and Peter Criss's books have more road stories about destroyed hotel rooms (and equally smashed musicians) and while Stanley certainly didn't completely hold back, part of his longevity as the now 62 year-old leader of KISS has to do with his focus on the music instead of the parties. And as far as the ladies go, he acknowledges that he had quite a few relationships while eventually settling into a world of domestic bliss. Relative domestic bliss that is, as his first marriage ended in divorce and he's now onto his second. One of the most ecstatic moments of the book is when he shares his favorite brussels sprouts recipe.

Of course Stanley gives us the scoop on all of his original fellow bandmembers. Ace Frehley was a funny, strange guy whose immense talent went to waste because of his substance abuse. Stanley is harshest on drummer Peter Criss, whose huge ego and extravagant demands were, in his opinion, quite undeserved. Beyond personal issues, he feels that the later reunion of the original four members couldn't have continued because of Criss' diminished drum-playing skills. As far as the other original member - Gene Simmons - Stanley talks about how much of the band's success is based on how they each brought different personalities to the table, while also being honest about Simmons' ego and self-promotion. The roughest patch of the band's history seemed to have been during the 1980s when Stanley felt that Simmons was overcommitted to other projects while bringing very little to the band itself. You also get the sense that Stanley feels somewhat hurt that Simmons seems to get all the credit for being the one behind the band's incredible merchandising efforts. It does seem like a family dynamic between the two, with various occasional confrontations steering them back to a successful working relationship.

For music lovers, part of the appeal of this memoir as opposed to the other recent band members' memoirs is that Stanley has been actively involved in KISS through its entire lifespan. He details the changes in personnel as well as the psychology behind why and who they chose to bring into the fold. He also covers the many shifts that the band made in sound, from their early hard rock to their live breakthrough to their "hair metal" years, with a toe dipped into disco for good measure. While I wouldn't recommend this book to people unfamiliar with the band KISS, as far as rock memoirs go this is a very readable one.

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Friday, August 22, 2014

The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles by Katherine Pancol

Josephine Cortes is a married  mother of 2, teacher of 12th century French history who is working on her doctoral research. Her husband Antoine, has been out of work for awhile, but is still looking for the right position. With his extra time he has been having an affair with Mylene. Hortense, their oldest daughter is a typical teenager: very concerned with appearances and very self absorbed. Zoe, their younger daughter just wants to grow up. Josephine has been letting herself go while she tries to hold her family together. This is all in vain as Antoine walks out and moves to Africa with Mylene.

Iris Dupin is Josephine's sister. Whereas Josephine is middle-of-the-road, Iris is very cultured and refined, not to mention very rich. She is also extremely judgmental and self absorbed. Philippe is her always working husband. Alexander is their son and is friends with Zoe. Iris is bored. Seriously bored. At a business dinner with her husband she tells someone she is writing a book set in  12th century France. She throws out random facts she has heard from her sister, the real historical scholar. The man, who is actually a publisher is intrigued. He begins to tell people about the book and now Iris is stuck. She has to write the book. But she needs help.

Iris pesters Josephine until she agrees to ghostwrite the book. Iris agrees to give the money from the book to Josephine and since Josephine is stretched for cash she agrees. The money is welcomed even more once Josephine realizes that her husband, who is in Africa raising crocodiles has taken out a loan she is now responsible for. Josephine begins to realize she is better than she thinks.

I didn't think I would like this book but I loved it. The characters are smart and funny. The story line is good. Every life has ups and downs and this story portrays both. It is a story about family and redemption and being true to yourself. Katherine Pancol is one of France's best known authors. This book shows why.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Shadow Queen by Sandra Gulland

Sandra Gulland is the author of The Josephine B. Trilogy, three popular historical novels based on the life of Napoleon's Josephine. In her most recent historical fiction, The Shadow Queen, she writes of the life of Claude des Oeilletes, who becomes the servant and confidante of Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan, the shadow queen, mistress, for more than 25 years, of King Louis XIV of France.

Claude was born into a theatre family. Much of the novel details the life of the theatre and theatre troupes in France, at the time of and including the characters of Corneille, Moliere, and Racine. Paris and Versailles are also detailed as settings for much of the action of the novel. 

Sandra Gulland comments that this is her second novel in the Sun Court Duet, following Mistress of the Sun, which was set primarily at court. What interested me most about this novel was the details of the life of the theatre, the players, and the playwrights. The contrast between the lives of the two women one rich in talent, but living in poverty, and the other rich and privileged, but insensitive, also made for compelling reading.

Sandra Gulland's own website is an excellent source of information about her books and the historical background of them:
http://www.sandragulland.com/

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Friday, August 15, 2014

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt


The Blazing World (2014), by Siri Hustvedt, analyzes many diverse themes. First, and foremost, it is a critique of New York's art world - a world blatantly sexist and youth-oriented. But most important, it is about value and what we value as a society, the fluidity of identity, and the difficulty of knowing oneself and those we love. (Gleaned from a YouTube interview with Siri Hustvedt, uploaded March 11, 2014,

The book is presented as an anthology of texts compiled by a fictional editor, Professor Hess. They document the life and times of the central character and installation artist, Harriet Burden. The novel is written as a series of texts - diary entries, written statements by family and friends, fiction from her son, and edited transcripts of interviews with her daughter (NPR Books, "A Delicate Arson: 'The Blazing World' Consumes Its Readers" by Amal El-Mohtar, March 15, 2014).

Harriet, better known as "Harry," is a complex and intriguing character. She is an imposing figure - over six feet tall with a huge bust.  Her personality is equally large and vibrant. She is described by another character as having red hues, overwhelming the sensibilities. But Harry also has an inner darkness. Much overshadowed, first by her father and later by her art-dealer husband, Harry is accustomed to living in the shadows. She creates her art without recognition and raises two children to be successes as an author and a documentary film-maker respectively.

After her husband dies, she decides to reinvent herself. She moves to Brooklyn, sets up a studio, takes in vagrant artists she meets at a local bar, and then hires 3 handsome male artists in tandem to sign their names to her works. They become instant successes. This heist has complicated effects on the young artists as well as on her. As Harriet reflects after one of her psychoanalytic sessions:

What I did know was that I had been sitting on myself for years and that something had happened to me. Dr. Fertig used the word inhibitions. I had become less inhibited, untied and unfettered. I had become Harriet Unbound, only fifty-five then, but counting, and I did wonder about the other paths, the alternative existences, the other Harry Burden who had looked like April Rain, petite and pinkish, or a Harry who had been born a boy, a real Harry, not a Harriet. (p. 30)

The Blazing World explores the "what-ifs" that are universal. Harry is presented in her own words and in the reflections of those who knew and loved her. She is empathetic and complicated. In her book,
Siri Hustvedt explores the complexities of relationships - those with one's children, parents, childhood friends, and husbands in a relatable way. Moreover, she illuminates the effects of celebrity and money in a society that values both. Looking back on the 70s, the reader is reminded of the difficulties of being a woman in a world that favors men.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Jack of Spies by David Downing

Jack McColl is a Scottish car salesman traveling the world selling a luxury car. He has always wanted to be a spy and is counting on his proficiency with foreign languages to help him. Jack, his brother Jed, and a colleague, Mac are in Shanghai when a British Naval officer named Cumming asks Jack to do him a favor. Cumming wants Jack to use his knowledge of the German language to eavesdrop on some German businessmen. Jack is more than willing to help as it gives him more time in the city to try to meet up with Caitlin Hanley, a young American who styles herself as a modern woman.

So begins Jack's journey as a spy. He travels from China to San Francisco to New York ostensibly selling cars. What he is really doing is wooing Caitlin and doing odd jobs for Cumming. In Europe war is brewing - Germany is stirring up the continent, Ireland is having trouble with separatists and the United States is trying to stay out of everything. Jack thinks this is finally his time to realize his dreams of becoming a spy especially since he has been offered an assignment involving Caitlin's brother and his political Irish friends. 

This is a new series for Downing. Set at the beginning of World War I, the story line moves quickly. Jack is a truly human character, especially after he becomes entangled with Caitlin's brother. Jed and Mac head off to war in this book and the book ends with jack in England trying to stop Irish and American bombers who were trained by Germans. A perfect lead-in to a sequel!

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