Friday, July 3, 2015

The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge

William Marshall was born the younger son of a minor English noble and as a result, was legally landless. His life was also chaotic; when he was only five years old his father gave him to the king as surety for a debt. While this solved some of his father's problems it was dangerous for William. Enraged that the debt was not paid in money the king sentenced the five-year old William to death by hanging. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and William escaped the noose. He grew up to become  a wealthy knight and in time, rose to the rank of Earl.

William was the consummate knight, both battle tested and a tournament champion. The model of the chivalrous knight, William was was anything but soft  toward his enemies. He served five British kings, beginning with Henry II and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. William's influence extended to his helping negotiate the terms of the Magna Carta. His life was never a calm one as the politics of the time required shifting alliances and a cool head.

Thomas Asbridge was able to tell William's colorful story thanks to the earthing of a 13th century biography of the knight. In 1861, a French scholar bought the volume, the only known copy, at auction and it has been kept in various private collections. This book is rich in historical detail and includes genealogical charts and maps, which add to the story.

Friday, June 26, 2015

What Comes Next and How to Like It, by Abigail Thomas

Even before I opened the book, I was intrigued by its title: What Comes Next and How to Like It, as well as the author photo. Thomas, a beautiful woman "of a certain age" is seated in an idyllic wooded landscape and surrounded by four dogs.

From the first page, I was captivated by her writing. The book is arranged in chronological vignettes that comprise the thoughts of and the key events in the author's life. Her comments range from the most mundane (a broken dishwasher) to the most sacrosanct (the bond between a mother and her daughter; the love for a best friend). Interspersed among these reflections are hilarious observations, such as when she reflects on her youthful sexual exploits when seeing a new gynecologist.

"Have you had more than one sexual partner?" the doctor asked.
"Yes," I said. Land sakes, yes.
"More than five?"
"Quite a few more," I said, as modestly as I could. I didn't want to appear to be bragging, so I added, by way of explanation, "It was the sixties."
It turned out that Medicare will pay for certain yearly exams if you have had more than five sexual partners. Who knew?" 

Wry observations about aging abound in this wonderful book. I laughed aloud at many passages while others brought me to tears. Thomas details her deep friendship with a literary agent, Chuck Verrel. Their friendship spans 35 years and includes a sexual betrayal that a lesser person may not have forgiven.

Because this is written in first person narration, the reader follows her as death flirts with those Ms. Thomas holds most dear. Depression and alcoholism trail closely behind.

Ultimately, What Comes Next and How to Like It is an inspirational book portraying an all-too-human narrator as she copes with the travails that are part of living. Above all, it details friendship and familial love that triumphs over devastating obstacles--and does so with humor and grace. In the author's words:

"Love can accommodate all sorts of misshapen objects: a door held open for a city dog who runs into the woods; fences down; some role you didn't ask for, didn't want. Love allows for betrayal and loss and dread. Love is roomy. Love can change its shape, be known by different names. Love is elastic.

And the dog comes back."


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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Read Bottom Up by Neel Shah and Skye Chatham

Looking for something funny, clever and amusing to read? If so, this is the book for you!

I laughed out loud while reading it and have been recommending it ever since.

Read Bottom Up is about the treacherous and amusing world of  modern dating. Two young single New Yorkers, Madeline and Elliott, meet at a restaurant opening and attempt to date and form a relationship which is aided and abetted by technology.   

What makes this book work is the way that the story is told: Madeline and Elliot’s relationship develops in a series of emails and texts sent between them. Immediately the reader sees how easy it is for each of them to misinterpret the other’s words, sent flying through cyberspace. 

Adding another layer to their communication woes is that Madeline also texts and emails her best friend, Emily, often including portions of Elliot’s communiqu├ęs for Emily’s interpretation and analysis. Elliot is texting and emailing his best friend, David, asking him for advice on Madeline’s emails and texts. The reader has to laugh as these emails are played out on the page, every word and punctuation mark worried over for hidden meaning. Then add in the ability for Madeline and Elliot to follow each other’s Twitter feeds, and Facebook posts - there is so much room for error!

 Read Bottom Up is a quick read and complete with a happily ever after ending.



Friday, June 19, 2015

It's a Long Story: My Life by Willie Nelson

I can't stop reading rock and roll memoirs! The latest is Willie Nelson's It's a Long Story: My Life. I find Nelson's approach to life inspirational; he follows his muse from moment to moment, despite occasional doubts from people in his personal or business life.

Nelson's music has never been easy to pigeonhole. Ostensibly cataloged as country, his recordings include his takes on jazz, rock and the great American songbook. Nelson recounts instances where producers and record companies tried to get him to change his approach but in light of his success, it seems that the Willie Nelson sound trumps any genre.

It's a Long Story follows Nelson as he chases his muse from tiny Abbott, Texas to Nashville to Hawaii, with lots of stops between. His career got a boost in Nashville when he wrote hit songs for the likes of Patsy Cline, Faron Young and Roy Orbison but Nashville's cookie cutter style never seemed to fit Nelson. It wasn't until he teamed up with Columbia Records' Jerry Wexler that he became a star. Wexler was wise enough to let Willie be Willie and not overproduce his unique sound.

Of course the book also treats us to Willie's thoughts on marijuana (and related incidents), as he has become its outspoken proponent over the years. His battle with the IRS (blamed on a corrupt business manager) and many acting gigs are also discussed, as are a number of "life on the road" stories. He doesn't go into a ton of detail about family and personal life but guides us through his many marriages (and divorces) in a gentle way that makes us realize that there's probably not a lot of bitterness there.

This book is a fun read and captures Willie Nelson's easygoing life philosophy quite well. It reads like an old bandana and pair of blue jeans. If you're a fan of Nelson's music or just want a peek at his personal journey you'll like It's a Long Story.

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Monday, June 15, 2015

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson




 Life After Life, is termed a "companion work" to Kate Atkinson's latest epic, A God in Ruins, published this yearLife After Life's main character, Ursula, dies at the end of each chapter only to be reborn in the next. In between, Atkinson evokes the main events of the twentieth century and provides enough revisionist history to cover any and all "what-ifs." As Francine Prose so eloquently summarized in The New York Times Sunday Book Review: 

'Life After Life makes the reader acutely conscious of an author's power: how much the novelist can do. Kill a character, bring her back. Start a world war or prevent one. Bomb London, destroy Berlin. Write a scene from one point of view, then rewrite it from another. Try it this way, then that. Make our character perish in a bombed-out building during the blitz, then make her part of the rescue team that (in a scene with the same telling details) tries unsuccessfully to save her. 

The novel that is created using this technique is nothing short of fabulous. Just as A God in Ruins focuses on the beloved character of Teddy, Life After Life acquaints us with his sister, Ursula Todd. But in A God in Ruins, there is little belief in past lives or an after-life. There are no do-overs and certainly no opportunities to re-write history. That is the distinguishing difference between the two books.

Life After Life may be read either before or after A God in Ruins. Although each book can be read singularly, the experience will be far richer if one is better acquainted with the main characters' early lives. Fox Corner, home to young Ursula, Teddy, Pamela, Freddie and Maurice, is an idyllic place--serene and beautiful. As we see in A God in Ruins, it symbolizes an England that harkens to the past and is ultimately overrun by development and "progress."

(During The Blitz),Ursula thought that she would rather die for Fox Corner than "England." For meadow and copse and the stream that ran through the bluebell wood. Well, that was England, wasn't it? The blessed plot.

But Eden has its snake, too, albeit a somewhat comic one. Maurice, the eldest son of Sylvie and Hugh, is a callous boy, shooting every creature that crosses his path. He is depicted as a child who requires little worry--he seems remarkably resilient. Later in life, we see how his egocentric nature keeps him out of harm's way and allows him to rise in government positions. Both he and eccentric Aunt Izzie provide wry humor, and along with parents Hugh and Sylvie, underscore the complexities of family dynamics.

Indeed, Atkinson's descriptions of familial love provide some of the most moving passages in the book. They underscores how important human connections with others--including animals--are in the face of unpredictable events.


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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson



A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson, is a saga that takes two of the main characters in her earlier work, Life After Life--Ursula and Teddy--and focuses on their lives both during and after WWII. In particular, it centers on Teddy, Ursula's brother--the heroic R.A.F. pilot who survives 70 bombing raids over Nazi Germany. The story seamlessly weaves between his harrowing experiences in the war and his later life as a civilian.

A God in Ruins is as much about England as it is about Teddy. Although not an anti-war book, Atkinson, as well as her characters, expresses moral ambivalence about the "collateral damage" wreaked upon citizens. Ursula asks Teddy whether he feels uneasy about bombing innocent civilians. His reply, at that time, reflects the certainty of a military man:

How do you define 'innocent' anyway?, Teddy rebuts...Workers in factories that are making bombs?...(Those in the Siemens factories in Berlin?--the company that supplied electrical parts to the concentration camps and 'had manufactured the ovens for the concentration camp crematoria'. And let's not forget it was the Germans who started this war.
"I rather think we started it at Versailles," Ursula said quietly.

But in later life, doubts linger:

Yet even then,...all those years later, he found that in the long dark watches of the night, plagued by insomnia, he would recite those names. Essen Bremen Wilhelmshaven Duisburg Vegesak Hamburg Saarbruken Dusseldorf Osnabruck...Some might count sheep. Teddy counted the towns and cities he had tried to destroy, that had tried to destroy him. Perhaps they had succeeded. 

Complex questions and characters abound in this thoughtful book. Nancy, a brilliant mathematician and Teddy's childhood sweetheart, gives up a promising career to become his wife. Similarly, Teddy is content as a nature writer for a small, rural press. He and Nancy find a rustic cabin to begin their companionate (if unromantic) marriage.

As Teddy ages--and he is blessed with a long life--the reader can't help but note the metaphor. His marriage to Nancy ends with her long illness, and his daughter--Viola--can only be described as a handful.

Later, in her twenties, Viola joins a commune and rebels against everything her father fought to defend. She  falls in love with a dissolute young man and becomes a neglectful mother to two children. Viola, and her children, Bertie and Sunny, are central to the plot and their lives run parallel to and intertwine with Teddy's.

A God in Ruins is considered a companion book to her earlier novel, Life After Life. The earlier book employs the artful premise of having Ursula die at the end of each chapter only to be reborn in the next. A God in Ruins, although nonlinear, is less hopeful. The characters are granted only one life--no "do-overs."  Ultimately, though, the author is not done with surprises. As The New York Times noted:

Structure, and its way of coalescing from the seemingly casual into the deliberate, has been a main attraction in other Atkinson books...As for that, Ms. Atkinson has one huge trick up her sleeve, but she saves it for the book's final moments to make it that much more devastating.

If you love character driven novels, historical or literary fiction, A God in Ruins is not to be missed.

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Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Room by Jonas Karlsson

Jonas Karlsson is one of Sweden’s most prominent actors and a playwright. Fortunately for us, he has recently turned his considerable talent to writing fiction. 

The Room is set in a Swedish office; our main character is a new employee, Bjorn.

Bjorn has particular work habits that run counter to the norm and do not ingratiate him to the longtime employees. He works for exactly 55 minutes of each hour then takes precisely 5 minutes for a break. Each break is carefully designated for a visit to the restroom, or a snack, and no variations to the schedule are allowed. Therefore, he does not participate in group coffee breaks or lunches with his co-workers, and if that were not enough to make him stand out, he says he does his best work in – The Room. This room has the perfect desk, the most modern and efficient file cabinets, just the right lighting, formal artwork, and lush carpet. All are vastly superior to the standard issue desk and seat sprung chair adjoining other employee’s work space that he is expected to use.

Except - Bjorn is the only one who can see The Room. Everyone else simply sees Bjorn standing and staring for minutes at a time at a blank wall near the restrooms. They complain that he is crazy and needs to be fired. But when Bjorn starts turning out superior quality reports that draw the attention of the higher ups and says that he produces them in the that no one else can see, you begin to wonder who is crazy.

The Room is entertaining and somewhat reminiscent of the TV show The Office. It is also a small paperback (186 pages) that is just the right size for travel or commuting.