Monday, December 30, 2013

The Best Film You've Never Seen by Robert Elder

Looking for some interesting new out-of-the-box suggestions for movie viewing for the new year? You might want to give Robert K. Elder's The Best Film You've Never Seen a look. Elder's previous collection The Film That Changed My Life interviewed 30 directors about important films that influenced the way that they create movies. In this book, Elder interviews 35 directors - from veterans like Peter Bogdanovich and Arthur Hiller to cult filmmakers John Waters and Guy Maddin - about the films that they think people need to see, most of which were neglected by audiences or savaged by critics.

The interviews with the directors have a similar format. Elder asks the interviewee to describe the movie to someone who hasn't seen it, then discusses what they found interesting about it and how it might have affected their work. In a number of cases, such as with John Waters and the campy Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton vehicle Boom!, the director has become a champion of the film, which has led to public screenings. In other cases, such as with The Brothers Quay's choice of L'ange, it's pretty clear that the film's pleasures may not end up affecting most others in quite the same way.

Personally, I often enjoy a flawed film with some interesting elements over a boring "quality" film, and this often seems to apply to the films chosen here. In the case of Under the Volcano, Rian Johnson mainly champions Albert Finney's performance, while Frank Oz acknowledges that most people won't enjoy the bleak tone of Orson Welles's take on Kafka's The Trial. Some of the best surprises of the book are seeing films that you wouldn't expect to be chosen by that particular director. A Man For All Seasons is as far from Kevin Smith's oeuvre as one can imagine, but he has one of the most passionate defenses in the whole book.

We are lucky to live in an age where many films that might have been inaccessible for years are now being reissued in elaborate packages by Criterion or similar companies. Even more obscure films can now be found on YouTube in low quality ripped-from-VHS copies. Many of the films discussed in this book were seen by the directors on late night television or in theaters and largely existed in their memories. But anyone who reads this book should be able to at least be able to add a few selections to their Netflix queue. Who knows, perhaps the book will bring about the critical reevaluation of Killer Klowns from Outer Space?

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Friday, December 27, 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

Lula Landry has killed herself by jumping from the balcony of her tony London apartment. A celebrated fashion model, Lula (known as Cuckoo to her friends) is the biracial daughter of Lord and Lady Barstow. Lula has had issues her entire life. Ridiculously beautiful and spoiled she has taken up with her drug addict, actor wannabe boyfriend, again. She has myriad hanger-ons and no close friends.  Her mother is dying. So no one is really surprised that she killed herself. Or are they?

John Bristow, Lula's brother is convinced she was murdered. While the police have officially closed the case, he wants further investigation. He hires C.B. Strike, a man who has his own issues. Strike is a Afghan war vet who has returned to England carrying the baggage of guilt for a friend killed in action. Strike has lost part of one of his legs and this is a constant reminder that he is no longer the skilled military police/Special Branch investigator he once was. His PI agency is not doing well and he is regularly receiving death threats. Enter Robin Ellacot, a secretary sent by a temp agency to help out with the office work. Turns out she has a gift for the private investigation business.

Strike and Robin start off. While Strike uses his contacts, Robin uses the Internet and her charm to get information. And they find some surprises along the way.

I liked this book and I will admit to being a little wary of it after the Casual Vacancy. This book is nothing like that. The characters are interesting, each with his own background that helps the story along and defines them and their relationship. The storyline is interesting with enough twists (all wholly plausible) to make you want to keep reading. I was pleasantly surprised and recommend this book!

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Monday, December 23, 2013

Our Favorite Books of 2013!


Here it is! The list of favorite books from your favorite librarians! These are the books that we really enjoyed this year, though many of them were released in previous years. Please be sure to check out the "Staff Picks" display next to the reference desk where some of these books will be displayed. And don't forget to list your favorites in the comments!

Aciman, Andre.  Harvard Square
Aridjis, Chloe.  Asunder
Baker, Jo.  Longbourn
Begley, Louis.  Memories of a Marriage
Cambor, Kathleen.  In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden
Capus, Alex.  Leon and Louise
Davis, Kathryn.  Duplex
Downing, David.  Zoo Station
Exley, Frederick.  A Fan’s Notes
Fay, Kim. Map of Lost Memories
Gaimen, Neil. Ocean at the End of the Lane
Galbraith, Robert (JK Rowling). Cuckoo's Calling
Grisham, John.  The Litigators
Gurganus, Allan.  Local Souls
Hamid, Mohsin. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
Hawley, Noah.  The Good Father
Kidd, Sue Monk.  The Secret Life of Bees
Kirk, David.  Child of Vengeance
Koch, Herman.  The Dinner
Kuhn, William.  Mrs. Queen Takes the Train
Labiner, Norah.  Let the Dark Flower Blossom
Lahiri, Jhumpa.   The Lowland
Logan, Michael.  Apocalypse Cow
Moyes, Jojo.  Me before You
Neuhaus, Kirk.  Snow White Must Die
O’Brien, Tim.  The Things They Carried
Reid, Taylor J.   Forever Interrupted
Roth, Veronica.  Divergent
Russell, Karen.  Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Rutherfurd, Edward.  New York
Saunders, George.  Tenth of December: Stories
Schine, Catherine.  Fin and Lady
Sendker, Jan-Philipp.   Art of Hearing Heartbeats
Shapiro, Barbara.  The Art Forger
Silver, Marisa.  Mary Coin
Simsion, Graeme.  The Rosie Project
Sloan, Robin.  Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Book Store
Stockett, Kathryn. The Help
Tartt, Donna.  The Goldfinch
Turow, Scott.  Identical
Vine, Barbara.  The Child’s Child
Walter, Jess.  Beautiful Ruins
Wecker, Helene.  The Golem and the Jinni
Winspear, Jacqueline.  Maisie Dobbs series
Wolitzer, Meg. The Interestings
Wrinkle, Margaret.  Wash
Yanaguhara, Hanya.  People in the Trees
Zambra, Alejandro.  Ways of Going Home

Alexander, Eben.  Proof of Heaven
Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life
Drummond, Ree.  Pioneer Woman Cooks
Drummond, Ree.  Pioneer Woman Cooks a Year of Holidays
Friedkin, William. The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir
Goodwin, Doris Kearns.  The Bully Pulpit
Guinn, Jeff. Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson
Halpern, Sue.  A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home
Leininger, Bruce.  Soul Survivor
Madden, Thomas.  Venice: A New History
Martin, Brett. Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From the Sopranos and the Wire to Madmen and Breaking Bad
Merritt, Greg. Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal that Changed Hollywood
Murray, Liz.  Breaking Night
Olson, Lynne. Citizens of London
Sharp, Ken.  Nothing to Lose: The Making of KISS
Shavit, Ari.  My Promised Land
Shipton, Alyn.  Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter
Shorto, Russell.  Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City
Simmons, Sylvie. I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen
Sotomayor, Sonia. My Beloved World
Spitz, Bob. Dearie:  The Remarkable Life of Julia Child
Strayed, Cheryl.  Wild
Wasson, Sam. Fosse
Weir, Alison. Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and her World

Cooper, Elisha.  Homer
Kelly, David A. Miracle Mud
Marino, Gianna.  Too tall houses
Mahy, Margaret.  The Man from the land of Fandango
Stone, Tanya Lee.  Courage Has No Color

Friday, December 20, 2013

History Decoded: The 10 Greatest Conspiracies of all Time by Brad Meltzer

Brad Meltzer has written a book about what he considers to be the 10 greatest conspiracies of all time. Starting with whether John Wilkes Booth was actually killed in the barn on Garrett's farm or whether it was a setup, and ending with the Kennedy assassination. In between there is DB Cooper's hijacking, the Spear of Destiny and something called the Georgia Guidestones among others.

Each unsolved mystery is a separate chapter, complete with exhibits. These exhibits are contained in an envelope at the beginning of the chapter. While they are referred to in the text, each chapter is complete without looking at them. Although the 3 dimensional rendering of the Georgia Guidestones is really good!

This is not a typical non-fiction book, this one definitely reads like fiction - after all Meltzer is most known for his fiction. It is undeniably fun in a quirky sort of way. Conspiracy theorists will love this book as will most jr. high aged boys. I had a good time with this book and definitely recommend it!

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Pure Joy: The Dogs We Love by Danielle Steel

Worn out from holiday cooking and shopping? Love dogs? Here is a charming, short memoir from prolific Danielle Steel. In it, she talks about herself and her children (all nine) and the dogs that were beloved companions to them all. Central to her book is Minnie (Mouse), the teacup Chihuahua with whom she fell in love.

Pure Joy is a charming book with many photos of her adoring and adorable canines. If you are a fan of Danielle Steel, or just a dog lover, you are sure to enjoy this quick read.

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Friday, December 13, 2013

Mary Coin by Marisa Silver

This book has steadily gained in popularity at our library, and I’ve just ordered more copies to keep up with demand. A great read, and I suspect catching on with book discussion groups.

It is a beautifully written piece of fiction, based on a true story. Real life photographer Dorothea Lange was commissioned by the U.S. government to take photographs of migrant workers during The Great Depression. The photos and their captions were used to educate the public and legislators about the real conditions people suffered through during The Great Depression, in the hope of bringing awareness and much needed funding to better the living conditions of the poor.

Lange’s iconic photo of Florence Owen Thompson, a destitute migrant worker with two of her seven children, brought Lange her greatest acclaim. Thompson, seeing her image in newspapers and magazines, contacted Lange and asked that she be recompensed.

Author Marisa Silver does an outstanding job of telling the story of the photographer, renamed Vera Dare in this book, as she struggles with the challenges of her own life, while working to earn a living under difficult circumstances. Silver’s portrayal of Mary Coin (based on Florence Thompson) brings to life the poverty and stark conditions of the migrant worker. The story of Mary and her family, and her determination is remarkable.

Marisa Silver’s writing is descriptive, immediate, and evocative, reminding me of some of my favorite books: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, My Antonia by Willa Cather and Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Local Souls by Allan Gurganus

Richard Ford, in his 2004 introduction to Barry Hannah's short story collection Airships, noted that literary greatness is achieved when a writer can combine "a fresh sentence-level flair and a rigorous focus on the story at hand." Yet he names only a few writers who have achieved it: William Faulkner, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah. ("Talk of the Townies" by Jamie Quatro, The New York Times Book Review, October 11, 2013).

To Quatro, there are serious omissions on that list - not least of which is the name Allan Gurganus. Gurganus is best known for his tome, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, published in 1989 at 700+ pages. It was a New York Times bestseller for eight months and was made into a two-part mini series. This book was followed by another novel, Plays Well With Others, a short story collection White People; and a collection of four novellas, The Practical Heart. (The New York Times Book Review, op. cit.)

Local Souls, Gurganus' fifth book, rivals some of the best work of Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, and Eudora Welty. Like these fine writers of Southern Gothic, Local Souls explores the loneliness inherent in social isolation and employs shocking situations such as death by beheading, incest, and sex with a grieving minor. And this is only in the first novella! Yet what is unique about Gurganus' writing is the synchronicity of  humor and pain as well as what Jamie Quatro calls the "sentence-level pyrotechnics and capacious inventions of plot."

In the first novella, "Fear Not," the narrator is suspiciously similar to Gurganus himself.  After having spent seven years writing and researching his Civil War novel, the narrator is "between books.". While attending his teenage godson's performance in Sweeney Todd, he observes the ambiance of his surroundings. "This toasty auditorium smells of industrial floor wax. Student adolescence keeps walls infused with a sebaceous sweetness akin to curry." (p. 15)

Although the crowd is comprised of "the same dutiful adults" who appear year after year, the narrator is struck by a glamorous couple who take their seats next to him. His best friend, Jenna, now seated, writes him a telling note: NOTICE PAIR. SAVE HUNCHES. STORY AFTER. GOOD.

What follows is a story that is as heartfelt as it is shocking - a story that pushes all boundaries, and yet, never loses compassion for the characters involved.

The next novella, "Saints Have Mothers," has the reader questioning just who is the "saint." In it, we are introduced to our first-person narrator, Jean Mulray - a woman who has forsaken becoming a poet to fully devoting her energies to her family. The result: her husband leaves her for another woman and her "saintly" daughter becomes increasingly insufferable. Gurganus paints a portrait of Caitlin Mulray as a self-righteous philanthopist more concerned with children in Africa than the well-being of her mother. Ultimately, there is a shocking turn of events that this reviewer does not wish to reveal.

But the piece de resistance is the final novella, "Decoy."  Like the other novellas in the collection, the story takes place in Falls, North Carolina. Marion Roper has been designated "Doc" since his boyhood. He has always been the shining star, the person most likely to succeed.  After medical school, he returns to Falls to care for its denizens.  Among them is Bill Mabry. Suffering from a disorder that affects his heart, Dr. Roper promises to keep Mabry alive for as long as he can.  Mabry has a first appointment with Doc every Monday - an appointment that cements his love and admiration for the doctor.  But the love is one-sided; Marion Roper is a god in the town, and gods are unknowable.

When Roper retires at age 70, he creates another career for himself--that of an artist.  He becomes renown as a carver of duck decoys and his creations become collectors' items. Bill longs to own one of these decoys, and in an act of hubris and callousness, Doc refuses to sell to his longtime patient.

But what happens in Gurganus' world when objects take on more value than humans? When latent homosexual yearnings go unrecognized and feared?  What happens to the Falls residents, including  Marion Roper, when a flood of biblical proportions levels the town and destroys his prize possessions? As Mabry observes:

You reach an age when you open your morning newspapers not to Sports, the Funnies, but Obits. At our age, Jan and I knew dozens who had "preceded us," as morticians must say.  Such acquaintances become your own silent majority of friends. But it wasn't that. That in itself is strangely not so tough on people of our given vintage. It's not the lost; it the lingerers that slay you. You don't usually have to see the deceased up and out walking. (p. 323)

"Decoy" is a spell-binding novella that explores the limits of friendship and the loneliness engendered by being "different." It looks at class, male friendship, loss, and ultimately, the indignities and isolation of old age.

Taken as a whole, Local Souls is a tour de force that is impossible to put down.

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Friday, December 6, 2013

Difficult Men, by Brett Martin

Difficult Men is not a handbook about how to deal with unreliable boyfriends, horrible bosses, or Anthony Wiener. Instead, journalist Brett Martin's book is a smart, immensely entertaining study of the difficult male characters that inhabit the worlds of many of the best television dramas of the last two decades, and the difficult men who created those programs. The former group includes the Jersey mobsters of The Sopranos; the drug dealers and compromised police of The Wire; the meth producers and sellers of Breaking Bad; the corrupt cops of The Shield; the lying, cheating (but oh so good lookin') ad executives of Mad Men; and the serial killer known as Dexter. Among the later group are The Sopranos' David Chase; The Wire's David Simon; and Matthew Weiner, who wrote for The Sopranos before creating Don Draper and company.

You do not have to have seen any of these shows to enjoy this book (but it helps). Stories about the prickly personalities and how they often clashed with their staff and network honchos in the service of these groundbreaking shows make Difficult Men such an easy read. Take the relationship between David Chase and young writer and Harvard graduate Todd Kessler. Kessler threw himself into The Sopranos, bonding with Chase and often going to dinner with him and his family. He and Chase even co-wrote the episode "Funhouse" in which Tony Soprano’s long fever dream results in his subconscious revealing that one of his deputies is a traitor. “Funhouse” won the pair an Emmy nomination. Martin writes that after the nomination was announced, "Kessler spent the next ten minutes fielding congratulatory phone calls. Then came a call from Chase's assistant, saying that Chase wanted to see him in the office. When Kessler arrived, still buzzing from the news, Chase closed the door and sat down. 'I guess the timing isn't great,' he said, 'but I think I need to end this relationship. . . I think you've lost the voice of the show.'" Kessler went on to write the pilot for a new series of his own called Damages that "revolved around a terrible boss--brilliant but manipulative, vain, imperious, unpredictable."

Want more? How did Matthew Weiner, who could "be funny and charming, colleagues said, but also childishly underhanded (and) at times . . . a classic bully" survive working for Chase and then go on to create Mad Men? First of all, he was a brilliant writer, but he was also thick-skinned and thrived on the competitive atmosphere of the writers' room. Martin quotes Weiner as saying, "I think that part of my success climbing the hierarchy of the writers' room was that I knew that when the boss came in, no matter what mood he was in, I was not going to take it personally. I'd be like, ‘You don't like that? Okay. Well, I've got something else. No? I've got something else. Did you actually say F you to me? Okay. Well you don't mean it.’" Weiner had no problems dealing with the boss, nor, when the time came, to being the boss on Mad Men. Once told that when working with writers, ego suppression could be an unhealthy, Weiner replied, “Well, I’m very healthy.”

David Simon, too, battled famously with his writers, perhaps especially with Ed Burns, his co-showrunner on The Wire. However, Martin writes, the arguments were what Simon, "the lifelong believer in the positive powers of argument, wanted.” In the book, Simon is quoted as saying, “I never liked fighting with Ed because it was tiring and slowed the process down, but I never had a fight with him that, in the end, didn't make the show better."

Along with providing a history of HBO shows and other cable successes, Difficult Men is a sort of text book on how to get along in Hollywood. It also provides plenty of back stories on individual episodes of shows, as well as on how key actors were hired and how they interacted with other actors and with writers. For example, actor Michael Chiklis really wanted the lead role in The Shield. However all the writers could think was, “The fat guy from The Commish is NOT our (lead) guy,” said FX programming head Peter Liguori. But Chiklis was persistent, and an audition was arranged. Martin writes, “On his way in (to the audition room), Liguori passed a bald, buff guy in a skintight black T-shirt.” ‘Where’s Chiklis?’ he asked the room. ‘You just passed him,’ was the answer. The actor came in, gnawing on a mouthful of Nicorette, and proceeded to blow the room away.”

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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Stoker's Manuscript by Royce Prouty

Joseph Barkeley is from Chicago, brought here as a child after being orphaned in Romania. He deals in rare books and manuscripts and does some authentication work on the side.  He receives a call from Arthur Ardelean who asks Joseph to authenticate and purchase the original draft, including notes, of Bram Stokers's novel Dracula. The work is arranged through an intermediary as the purchaser wants total anonymity.

But just who is really employing him? With an offer of money too good to turn down, Barkeley travels to Romania. The buyer is to donate the manuscript and notes to the museum in Dracula's castle in Romania. Before leaving, Barkeley is given a "special gift" from the buyer so the buyer will recognize him. The gift? An ornate silver cross with a red gemstone. Before leaving, Barkely contacts Mara Sadov, another book collector. She is an expert on vampires and tell Barkeley that to do this is to invite the undead into his life.  She then tells him what he will need to know in order to survive. Joseph's brother, Bernhardt, a catholic priest tells Joseph not to go.

Barkeley examines the documents, authenticates them and completes the purchase. The book was published in 1897, The notes date from 1890 and indicate the current published book was not the first edition. The first one had an epilogue and had a different ending. All the first printings were destroyed in a warehouse fire shortly after being printed. In Romania Barkeley is met by Lucian Blaga. Lucian is to help Joseph deal with the  "master", the man who actually bought the documents. Strange things happen to Joseph while there: he gets attacked by what he is sure is a dog until it runs away on 2 feet, people have red eyes and someone is talking to him telepathically.

The master tells Joseph that in order to complete the transaction he needs to find a grave that is mentioned in the original manuscript. When Joseph leads him to the wrong site, he tells Joseph that both he and his brother "owe him." Joseph then realizes why his father murdered his mother and burned her body before killing himself.

Joseph's financial deal now turns into a deal to save his life. His remaining time in Romania is spent just trying to placate the master and live long enough to get home.

The author, Royce Prouty, is a first time author and he did well with this book. Fast paced, the book moves through the dawning awareness of his past and precarious future that Joseph now realizes is his reality.

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Friday, November 29, 2013

Bobcat and Other Stories

The stories in Bobcat, by Rebecca Lee, are ones in which happy endings are rare if at all. At best, compromises are made and people carry on. Take for example, "Slatland."  We first meet its narrator, Margit, when she is a child suffering from depression. Her parents (dad is a geology professor) take her to a "therapist" - a professor of child psychology at the university where her father teaches. In what seems to be a humorous take on therapy, Professor Pine suggests she rise above her situation, literally, allowing her mind to separate from the world around her. "For every situation there is a proper distance. Growing up is just a matter of gaining perspective. Sometimes you just need to jump up for a moment, a foot above the earth. And sometimes you need to jump very far. It is as if there are thin slats, footholds, from here to the sun...Slatland, flatland, mapland."

When Margit asks him when she should return for her next session, Professor Pine says that follow-ups are not necessary; his therapy works the first time. And it does work for her, "as if it were a medication that worked whether you understood it or not."

Twenty years later, as a soil consultant, darkness sometimes descends upon Margit. She uses the Slatland Technique to "step up" and separate herself from the situation. Unfortunately, this technique renders her incapable of seeing her fiance for whom he is - a Romanian liar. Instead, she is attracted to his "otherness," which also includes his narcissism, his tirades against North America and Americans, and his blatant insincerity. Ultimately, though, her ability to see the larger picture, to empathize with the secret wife and children back in Ceausescu's Romania, allows her to make the moral choice.

Infidelity and marital discord play a part in other stories as well.  Both the title story, "Bobcat," as well as the final story, "Settlers," highlights life's subtle and not so subtle disappointments. "Settlers" is the most moving of two. The story is told by an unreliable narrator who has idealized the marriage of her best friends, Lesley and Andy.  On the surface, the couple leads an idyllic life; they are accomplished professionals, own a beautiful house in a perfect neighborhood, and have three sweet little girls. Like Lesley, the narrator is thirty-five. She has a friendship with another mutual friend, David Booth, and is often paired with him when couples gather. The other friend, Berber, is dating a married man she met at a yoga retreat.  Both are now wearing turbans. Once more, Lee uses humor to dispel impending tragedy. "The turban made her look a number of conflicting things--pure and spiritual for sure, but also completely cracked in the head, like she'd had an actual surgical procedure, or maybe an imaginary one."

Although the narrator continues to see David for a number of years, hoping that he will want what Leslie and Andy have, nothing comes of their relationship. In time, she marries someone else - an old friend named Mark. She describes him as 10 years her senior, settled, director of a Raptor Centor - someone "you could trust (to) never have an affair or even leave the house too much." Indeed, as the story ends, she is again visiting Leslie and Andy with David as her imaginary escort. But now, she is in the middle of a protracted miscarriage, her baby slowly dying. As they watch images of Katrina on a muted television, she (and the author) reflect poignantly on life.

Life isn't that good always.  I wished I could let the baby know that.  There's a lot that's lousy. It's true there are large turning structures - Ferris wheels - that will carry people high into the air above the ocean, that is true, and then around the next corner there are funhouses, those are great, and then there are just ordinary playgrounds on every corner...So there is a lot, admittedly.

But then you grow up and you get a wonderful man and he cheats on you, or you get sombody like Bryan, who at your wedding says this as his vow - "I will be your teacher and you will be my team." Or you get David Booth, in which case you marry somebody else.

It's okay (she concludes) to just pass along, (I will miss you!), just keep going.

Rebecca Lee's writing is reminiscent of that of Lorrie Moore and Karen Russell. All three writers explore male-female relationships in all their complexity. Lee's unique use of language makes the writing jump off the page but never detracts from the basic humanity of her characters.

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Wedding Night, by Sophie Kinsella

If you are a Kinsella fan, then you don't need a review of her latest book to entice you into reading it. But if you aren't familiar with the work of British author Madeleine Sophie Wickham, writing under the pen name Sophie Kinsella, and you need a chick-lit laugh, give Wedding Night a try.

At age 33, Kinsella's heroine Lottie's modus operandi has always been to meet a guy, have great sex, and hope it leads to a wedding. But a proposal has consistently eluded her, so when an old flame named Ben reappears after 15 years and impulsively suggests that they get married, Lottie says "yes" if he agrees to wait to have sex until the wedding night. Continually left not at the altar but before there is even a mention of one, she figures it's well worth changing her game plan from "great sex with a hope of marriage" to "marriage with a hope of great sex."

Ben's proposal comes on the heels of Lottie's break-up with Richard, her beau of three years. She had thought he was ready to propose when he took her out to a restaurant to discuss "something." She told her sister Fliss, as well as a variety of friends and even a few strangers she met in a ladies room, that her boyfriend's popping of the question was imminent. Alas, she turned out to be wrong, heartbroken, and totally embarrassed when she discovered he only wanted to talk about the use of his free air miles.

Lottie's sister Fliss, who takes turns with Lottie as the narrator, has her own troubles. Involved in a messy divorce and struggling to keep her young son happy, her job under control, and her sanity intact, she is nevertheless horrified when she hears of Lottie's engagement to an almost total stranger. Although she agrees to stand up at the wedding, she tracks down Ben's friend and business associate Lorcan, who she hopes also will want to stop the nuptials. Fliss, however, didn't plan on Lorcan being so charming, and she certainly never thought she would end up jetting off to Greece with him to stop her sister from making what she thinks is a huge mistake.

Most, if not all, of what happens in this book is incredulous, but if you've been spending time with meaty historical fiction or beautifully written, but very sad, novels, you might be ready for a little silly fun. And what Lottie doesn't provide, Fliss will.

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Friday, November 22, 2013

The Silver Star

If you have read the harrowing memoir, The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, you will hear many resonant cords in this work of fiction. But in The Silver Star, Jeanette Walls has the liberty of creating her own endings and romanticizing her characters.

The story focuses on two sisters, fifteen-year-old Liz and twelve-year-old "Bean" (short for Jean). (Wall's real-life older sister is named Lori.) When their mother, the artistic Charlotte, abandons them to seek fame and fortune in New York, the girls are left with enough money to last a month. Both products of a home with an unreliable mother - a mother who "found something wrong with every place she ever lived" - they embark on a journey to find their uncle. There quest ends in Byler,  Virginia where they discover their uncle living in a cluttered, dirty mansion. Once this home was the jewel in the crown of a thriving mill town and Uncle Tinsley's family owned the mill. Now the mill is not operational, unemployment is rampant and Uncle Tinsley is merely a lonely widower living as a recluse. He is also a hoarder, as is Wall's real-life mother. But in this story, Uncle Tinsley is both sensible (short of the phobia he attributes to being the family archivist) and caring.

This reader found the decaying mansion reminiscent of that of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Time has stopped for Uncle Tinsley when his wife died the year before. Layers of dust have gathered on everything. There are other Dickensian elements in The Silver Star as well as a references to Alice in Wonderland.

The book's strength lies in imaginative story, believable narrator, and beautiful, descriptive language. Bean is a young girl with a short fuse who fearlessly stands up to injustice. Walls makes it very clear that evil lurks in the world and often it is in the guise of a feckless adult. Like Steven Spielberg, she knows without doubt that children are at the mercy of those adults. Also like Spielberg, she is able to capture what it feels like to be a teen.

If you are looking for a great read for yourself or your adolescent daughter, The Silver Star should be on your list.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews

Jason Matthews, a first time novelist, has written a winner in Red Sparrow. Set in Russia, France, the United States and other locales the story line runs through the  career of Nate Nash, a CIA operative posing as an economic aide and his Russian counterpart Dominika Egorova.

Nate Nash has a family full of lawyers. When he decides to pursue a career as a "clandestine officer" he has no idea that he will be equally as successful. Stationed in Moscow as an economic aide, he is meeting the most successful spy ever - Marble. Marble is highly placed in the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service). The meeting is going well until 3 cars show up looking for them. Both escape. But the fall out is that Moscow suspects Nash has a mole in the Russian government.

Nash's supervisor, Gondorf hates him and wants him gone. He decides to end Nash's tour early, a possibly career ending move. But Nash is instead sent to Finland. Meanwhile, Dominika Egorova is related to one of the highest ranking members of the Russian spy community. He decides to train her to become an operative, something at which she will excel. Dominika is a synesthete, which means she can see colors around people allowing her to get an emotional read on them, a very handy trait for a spy. Dominika is sent to seduce the third richest man in Russia. It turns out to be a political hit and Dominika does not take this well. In order to maintain control over her, she is sent to the Sparrow School. The school is a training stop for agents in the art of the "honeypot" scheme. Seduce and then compromise someone to get information.

She is sent to pursue Nash because Moscow thinks he has links to a mole in the Russian government. The  two make contact after Nash is sent to recruit her. And then the games really begin.

Matthews is a retired member of the CIA, specifically the Operations Division. He participated in recruitment operations and was a station chief in various hot spots around the world. This background is most likely what gives this book its "real" feel. There are spies and then there are spies. This book has the latter. Nash is real and professional, Dominika as well. The background just rings true. Admittedly I have no counter intelligence experience, but this book just has a different feel to it. Most spy stories have an air of contrivance to them (with apologies to Clancy and LeCarre) but not so with this one.

I highly recommend this book. I certainly recommend this author write another.

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Friday, November 15, 2013

Life After Life: A Novel by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson, best known for the Jackson Brody detective series that began with Case Histories, has a wonderful new book out. Life After Life is like none other by this literary writer. It's main protagonist is Ursula Todd and its setting is Great Britain, 1910-1944.

This is a realistic novel whose depictions of life in London during WWI and WWII are made even more realistic by the larger-than-life characters surrounding Ursula. She is born to an upper-class family and spends an idyllic childhood in the beautiful English countryside complete with housekeeper and cook. Their home is surrounded by meadow and stream and numerous foxes running about. Sylvie Todd, Ursula's mother, aptly names the home, "Fox Corner," raising four very different children there. The siblings play major roles in the lives of each other.

Fox Corner takes on almost mythic qualities over the decades.  Helen Brown, in The Telegraph  (April 22, 2013) notes that the very name is a literary nod to A. A. Milne's Pooh Corner and E. M. Forster's Windy Corner. But Atkinson's Fox Corner "is neither a foreign country nor a safe haven...This fox corner is a place where the flesh of the human inhabitants is as vulnerable as that of the chickens destined for Mrs. Glover's pot. The sweet peas rambling through the borders are tended by a man who has lost half his face in the Great War.  He wears a tin mask with one eye painted on, permanently open."

What is most unique about Life After Life is that Ursula dies at the end of each chapter and then is miraculously reborn in the next. Ursula always comes back to life with a sense of dread that something has happened but is unaware of anything other than her sense of Deja vu. As the years pass and more events--both personal and public--unfold, she acquires a sense of dread and attempts to change the outcome of history.  Atkinson obviously has fun with this notion.  For example, Ursula befriends Eva Braun in one chapter and, when introduced to Hitler before his rise to power, takes out a gun and assassinates him. How differently life would have turned out for England and, indeed, for the entire world had that occurred.

But Atkinson's novel is not about death and rebirth. That concept is tangential to the main story and is employed as literary technique. Instead, the book is a portrait of an exceptional woman during a period when enormous social, cultural and economic upheaval rocked England. Atkinson does not spare us the horrors of The Blitz and the long-time impact it had on its citizens.  All the while, our focus in on Ursula as she makes choices that affect her own life and the lives of those around her.

Still, the book begs the question: "What if our lives were afforded different endings over and over again...?"

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Crime of Privilege

Set in Boston (the wealthy areas of Hyannis Port and Palm Beach) this book tells the story of the rich, powerful and politically connected Gregory's and the murder of a young local woman named Heidi Telford.

In 1996 George Becket is attending a party at the Palm Beach home of  Senator Gregory. A friend of a friend of the family, George soon realizes that he is in a whole different world and not just because he went to the wrong prep school and was headed to the wrong college. This was a world of money and privilege and doing what you want with little or no consequences, where loyalty to the family was paramount. This message was driven home to George when he witnessed the molestation of a drunk local socialite by 2 of the younger Gregorys. Breaking up the assault before it went even further, George realizes that there are major problems with these kids, drinking and debauchery not the least of them.

He never tells anyone about the assault he witnessed. This simple act will have consequences for George that will haunt him for the rest of his life. In 2008 George finds himself on Cape Cod working as a low level assistant district attorney prosecuting drunk driving cases. His job was made available through the machinations of the Gregorys. George becomes involved in the unsolved homicide case of Heidi Telford when her father corners him in a local watering hole. The case was supposedly investigated, but Heidi's father has been doing his own investigation, sending the information to District Attorney Mitch White. White owes his own position to the influence of the Gregorys.

Every person involved in the murder and assault is either connected or beholden to the Gregorys. Careers are made or destroyed, reputations protected or publicly shredded depending on whether you are in the good graces of the Gregory's. The more George looks into Heidi's death the more he realizes the Gregorys are always involved - in his job, protecting witnesses and most of all protecting themselves. George realizes he is being manipulated at every turn.

This book is a thinly veiled/fictionalized account of the Martha Moxley murder for which Michael Skakel was convicted. Skakel is a relative of the Kennedy's. The story line contains rich, powerful political families, a young local girl killed with a golf club, the real murderer protected by his family connections and the police. The book even contains a reference to a rape that one of the cousin's was thought to have committed in Palm Beach (remember William Kennedy Smith?) but never was formally charged with. Written by an experienced trial lawyer this book has a familiar feeling to it, like you have heard this story before.

Sometimes fictionalized accounts of true crimes work well and sometimes they don't. This one does and not just because it lays out a plausible path of clues. It works because it doesn't comes to a concrete final solution in the end.  Like the real stories behind this book.

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Friday, November 8, 2013

The Plateau Effect by Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson

Do you feel like you've gotten to a place in your career, project or life where you are just stuck and can't progress any farther? Rather than seeing your path as a mountain that you can climb simply by working harder it might be useful viewing it as a plateau, where you might need some kind of new effort to progress to another level. The book The Plateau Effect: Getting From Stuck to Success offers a number of ideas of ways to move beyond this plateau into the next phase of what you are trying to accomplish.

Authors Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson have divided the book into three parts. The first part summarizes the science behind "the plateau effect", offering many examples of how people are unable to progress beyond a certain point both mentally and physically, and demonstrating the need to shake things up in order to progress. One example they provide is that simple rote memorization doesn't seem to work, and that to truly remember things you need to use tricks suck as spacing the repetition at various set (but different intervals). Even athletes can get stuck, as they demonstrate with their analysis of Derek Jeter's late career resurgence.

The second part of the book discusses the causes of plateaus while the third part is where the authors finally offer some solutions to overcoming these plateaus. Options like saying "yes" to everything, concentrating more and multitasking less, finding quiet time and not worrying about perfection are some of the potential ideas for readers to consider when they are stuck.

Like many other business and self-help books this book is certainly skimmable in many places and the authors seem to acknowledge as much by offering an appendix that summarizes the eight main suggestions covered in previous chapters. I'm not quite sure that the book comes together as a whole yet in its individual colorful anecdotes there is much to enjoy. I recommend this to anyone looking for a breezy read that may offer them ideas for a personal or career lift.

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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Dad Is Fat by Jim Gaffigan

Don't read this book. Listen to it.* As funny as Gaffigan is in print, multiply that funny by at least 10 for the audio version. Although I primarily listened to Dad Is Fat on my car's CD player while driving, there were times when I pulled into the drive-way and remained in my seat listening and laughing all by myself, no doubt puzzling (and perhaps concerning) the neighbors.

Gaffigan, as you might already know, is a tall, pale, comedian/writer/actor who has appeared in movies and on TV in addition to headlining, and who doesn't work blue ("When you are discussing mini-muffins in a stand-up act, it's not really necessary to curse or bring sex into the material," he says). As you might not know, he is also the father of five kids, ages 8 and under, who live with him and his wife in a modest, 4-story walk-up apartment in New York City. The chapter "How to Put Five Kids to Bed in a Two-Bedroom Apartment" is a special favorite.

Gaffigan has long been know for his deadpan delivery of routines involving his own laziness as well as food. His Hot Pockets bits are legendary, but riffs on bacon, cake, and manatees are equally inventive and memorable. Dad Is Fat brings parenthood to that list of things that at first blush might not seem extremely funny (wait, manatees are always funny), but turn out to be given Gaffigan's take on them. For example, when talking about parent-teacher conferences, he says: "As your children get older, the parent-teacher conference is always a strange experience. The conference is supposed to be all about the child, but somehow it ends up with you feeling like you are getting a report card on your parenting. You still want to know your child is doing well and you still want to see their work, but because I am an actor and comedian, it seems that these conferences always lead back to my occupation. ‘Well your daughter/son is very dramatic and loves to talk, which I guess is no surprise, given your occupation.’ I’m not offended, but the implication that all improper behavior is the result of what I do for a living is rather absurd. As if a chatty five-year-old with a librarian mom would be a red flag. ‘We expected your child to just sit behind her desk and shush people. Maybe she needs Ritalin.'"

Dad Is Fat is smart and funny and sweet, much like Gaffigan. Those are five lucky kids.

*Ok, read it if the CD is checked out.

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Friday, November 1, 2013

The Dinner by Herman Koch

An international Best Seller, recently published in the U.S. in March 2013, The Dinner is the latest psychological thriller that everyone is talking about.  So I read it, and now I understand why! I'm describing it to patrons as in the genre of Gone Girl and Defending Jacob, but better written. 

Set in The Netherlands, Serge is poised to become the next Prime Minister. He and his wife summon his younger brother Paul and his wife to dinner at a pretentious restaurant. Their mutual children, 3 boys, have been up to some trouble, and the future P.M. wants it handled in a particular way. Course after course of fussy, over managed food arrive, as the foursome talk around the issue. The reader is intrigued as the facts of the (awful) incident are slowly and only partially revealed. 

A riveting read with a conclusion that I'm still not sure I understand. I hope to read it again, and Judy Levin will be offering it as her December 11th book club read!

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Brooklyn Follies

The Brooklyn Follies, unlike many of Paul Auster's books, is a warm and upbeat story of a 59 year old man - a cancer survivor -who believes his life is essentially over. Nathan Glass, divorced and estranged from his daughter, comes to Brooklyn to end his days. There he discovers his nephew, Tom, working in a rare bookstore. Since the death of Nathan's sister, he has lost contact with the intellectual Tom. When he rediscovers him, Tom has dropped out of his PhD program, has scarcely any money and even less ambition. Like that of his uncle, his life is at a crossroad.

One wonders if Nathan is a side of the author himself. He is a cynic and a bit of a curmudgeon. Yet we sense his vulnerability when we glimpse him dining in the same restaurant day after day, energized by the attention of his favorite waitress.

The plot takes a mysterious turn when Tom's nine-year-old niece, Lucy,shows up.  Her mother - Tom's sister - ran away from home when she was a teenager and has led a sordid life. Lucy's appearance, and her refusal to discuss with Tom and Nathan the location of her mother, Aurora, sounds an alarm for the two men. Nathan determines to find Aurora and bring her safely back. He also decides to find a "proper" temporary home for the precocious Lucy. Along the way, he discovers a unique collection of unforgettable characters.

In a sense, the novel follows a quest motif in which our existential hero discovers genuine meaning in his own life. 

Most lives vanish, Nathan muses. A person dies, and little by little all traces of that life disappear.  An inventor survives in his inventions, an architect survives in his buildings, but most people leave behind no monuments or lasting achievements: a shelf of photograph albums, a fifth-grade report card, a bowling trophy, an ashtray filched from a Florida hotel room on the final morning of some dimly remembered vacation. (p. 303)

Ultimately, as Nathan contemplates how to immortalize these everyday people we, the readers, feel his sense of joy and renewed purpose. His second brush with death underscores life's uncertainty. As the book concludes, we see Nathan emerging from the hospital, greeting the 8 a.m. sunshine on the morning of September 11, 2001. We know that in forty-six minutes the first plane will crash into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Life, as we know it, will never be the same.

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Friday, October 25, 2013

The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox

Did you ever wonder how languages came to exist and how we know about the ancient languages today? Why we have some ancient words still in use today and just where did these words come from? How about the symbols we use to create these words?

The Riddle of the Labyrinth discusses how Linear B was decoded. Linear B is an ancient language from a society in Crete that was literate a thousand years before the classical Greek age - traditionally thought to be the start of written language. The book is divided into 3 parts, each part dealing with one of the scholars who cracked this code.

Arthur Evans was a well-to-do amateur archaeologist who became interested in languages when he saw some engraved "seal stones." Seal stones are gems with stylized marking on them (similar to hieroglyphics). He noticed that there were the same markings on different stones and these markings were done in groupings leading him to think that they were probably some kind of language but he didn't know which one. Every time he bought one of the stones he was told it had come from Crete. So, in March 1894 he went to Crete. There the stones are called "galopetras" or milk stones worn by nursing mothers. In 1894 Evans published his theory about the stones. There were actually 2 types of carvings on the stones - one hieroglyphic/pictogram and the other linear/quasi-alphabetic. He decided a full scale excavation was need and in order to secure the land he wanted to look at, he bought it.

Evans picked a good spot - Knossos. There he found more than 2,000 tablets he labeled Linear B. (Linear A tablets had similar markings but they were not ruled like notebook paper is today.)

Written language started about 5,000 years ago. At first it was "proto-writing" - crude systems used to count like knots in a string or hash marks. Writing then became the Sumerian Cuneiform at approximately 3300 B.C., about the same time as Egyptian hieroglyphics. It is possible to have a language without a spoken form. Of the approximately 6,000 languages today about 15% have written forms. Evans kept his tablets hidden from the rest of the world in accordance with the archaeological practices of the day.

In 1928 Alice Kober, then an assistant professor of classics at Brooklyn College, was working on her own set of the scripts from Evans's tablets. A quiet, self-effacing woman, she would become the world's foremost expert on Linear B. Kober began working with the few images that had been made public (approximately 100). She kept track of the frequency of each character. She started by comparing the characters to ancient Greek because she was familiar with that language. In 1935 Evans published a book with photos and drawings of the tablets. Kober now had 200 images to work with.

In  1941 Evans died and the inscriptions he had hidden and not published were left in the care of Sir John Myres. While Evans made several contributions to the deciphering of the characters, it was Kober who really moved it forward. In 1947 Kober was finally allowed to view the rest of the scripts and copied many of them. She worked almost continuously on them and when she died in 1950 she left 18,000 index cards with her notes on the script's characters. Next in line was Michael Ventris. He built on what Evans and Kober discovered, finally solving the code in the 1950's.

I found this book fascinating. With plenty of examples and the translations it shows how this unknown language became known. I know nothing about how language forms or how to decipher it.  Ever look at writing in a foreign language that doesn't use the same characters as English? That's how Linear B was, but there was no one and nothing around to translate it. These three people decoded it. I recommend this book.

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Lowland: A Novel by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri is much beloved for her books and short stories detailing the immigrant experience. But in The Lowland, her reach is more expansive. In many ways, it reminds one of Great House, by Nicole Krauss. Both books deal with themes of isolation as well as the guilt felt by survivors of horrible tragedy.  In Great House, the Holocaust provides the historical backdrop. Loved ones find everything taken from them, or worse, believe they have unwittingly participated in a horrible deed. What is the psychological impact?

Jhumpa Lahiri explores similar concerns in The Lowland. The historical context is India in the 1960s--a time when the Naxalite movement was active on college campuses. The Naxalites were part of a Maoist political party that rejected Ghandi's nonviolent principles. They believed that the huge disparities between rich and poor in India could only be resolved by overthrow of the government. Bombs were set off; innocent people were killed. Two brothers - Udayan and Subhash - once inseparable, become ideologically divided. Subhash leaves Calcutta to attend college in Boston; Udayan, attending college in Calcutta, becomes increasingly involved with the Naxalites. At age 23, he marries a bookish girl named Gauri. Gauri's love for Udayan is passionate and absolute. But like all zealots, Udayan's first allegiance is to the revolution. He sets off bombs. He participates in the murder of a policeman, knowing that the young man is a father. He involves Gauri in this act. And then, when he is caught, his family is forced to watch his execution.

In an interview with Lynn Neary of NPR, both Neary and Jhumpa Lahiri explain:

Lahiri says the character of Gauri was key to her exploration of how these events haunt and shape her characters for the rest of their lives. "I wanted to understand what it might have been like to witness something like that, and what the consequences would be of witnessing something like that," Lahiri says. "I mean, she's a 23-year-old woman. She's in love with her revolutionary husband. She watches him shot in cold blood. She discovers after the fact that she is carrying his child. How does one move on from that?"  
(NPR Interview, September 23, 2013: Political Violence, Uneasy Silence Echo In Lahiri's 
'Lowland,' by Lynn Neary)

And what is the impact on Udayan's parents? On his child? On his estranged brother? How is that impact felt and dealt with 40 years after the event? And what is it like to live in a country where that piece of Indian history occupies no more than a footnote?

Lahiri delves into the psyche of each of her characters with such empathy and depth that one is left to marvel at her talent as a writer. She deals with the loneliness of being an outsider from a foreign land.  But she also explores self-created isolation - that which results from our fear of loving or the distrust of our ability to do so. Finally, because the book spans a lifetime of experiences, the characters are able to look back on their youthful selves and come to a greater understanding of their actions.

The Lowland differs not only in scope but also in writing style from Lahiri's earlier books.  It is far more character driven and the writing is more terse.  Place is likewise important.  Rhode Island, where Subhash makes his home, as well as Calcutta, are secondary characters essential to the story. The theme of forgiveness is explored, especially forgiveness of oneself.  Yet Lahiri knows that this concept, psychologically and philosophically, is too complex for easy answers. Ultimately, an acceptance of what was and what can never be changed is the best one can achieve.

Like Great House, The Lowland is an exploration of what it means to be human in all its contradictions and complexities.

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Friday, October 18, 2013

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight

This is an engaging thriller, but Gone Girl II it is not. One reviewer wrote Reconstructing Amelia reads like "Gossip Girl" meets "Law and Order" and that's not far off.

The story begins when attorney, New Yorker, and single mom Kate gets a call from her daughter's prep school. Amelia, who is a model student (or is she?), is involved in a "disciplinary issue" and must be picked up from school right away. Kate says she can be there in 20 minutes, but she ends up taking an extra hour to reach the school. When she does arrive, it is moments after her only child went off the school roof and did not survive. Weeks after Amelia's death, Kate is still holed up in her brownstone, alternating between feelings of grief and guilt, because she feels "it was Kate's fault, of course, that Amelia was dead. That she had killed herself. It was a mother's job to protect her child, even from herself." 

But then the anonymous text messages start coming. The first one simply says, "Amelia didn't jump."  The next one adds, "You know it and I know it." Soon Kate is obsessed with learning everything she can about Amelia's final weeks, reconstructing her life by talking to her teachers, her friends, and their parents; pouring over her Facebook page, her photos, her emails, and her texts. Was her daughter the person she thought she was? Was she engaging in bad behavior? Was she being bullied? Did Amelia really jump off the school roof, or was it an accident? Or could she have been pushed!

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.

A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki's latest book, is a fantasy whose themes mix coming of age, environmental awareness, social and moral consciousness, and filial love. The story has two main characters: Nao, a 16-year-old Japanese girl who lives in Japan and Ruth, a writer of Japanese descent who lives on an island off the coast of British Columbia, Canada. Their lives become intertwined when Ruth finds Nao's diary along with that of her uncle - a kamikaze pilot during World War II.

Nao is an adolescent weighed down by responsibilities. She spent her childhood in Silicon Valley, where her father was a software designer.  He lost his job - and hence his visa - before the economic downturn in 2008. After the family relocated to Tokyo, her father was unable to get a job. Becoming increasingly depressed, he attempts suicide. He fails but becomes increasingly remote and agoraphobic. Similarly, Nao mother is emotionally distant. She keeps long hours at work and copes with her husband by physically removing herself from the situation. Nao is left in charge and watches her father with trepidation.

Nao also endures bullying at school that borders on sadistic. Her body is riddled with scars. She is both ostracized and tormented. She seeks solace in a coffee shop in which the waitresses dress up as French maids. There she writes her diary, addressing the future recipient who will find it. The imaginary recipient is her only friend. It is not clear if she tosses the diary into the ocean upon its completion, or if it is swept up in the devastating tsunami that hits Japan in 2011.

Either way, Ruth finds it while walking along the beach. Ten years have now passed since Nao wrote her diary. Yet Ruth feels so drawn into Nao's story that she becomes distraught over her fate. She forgets the time difference and resolves to change the girl's fate as well as that of the father. Ozeki toys with the concept of time and the writer's ability to create her characters and control their lives. Or do characters assume lives of their own as the plot unfolds?

A Tale for the Time Being is an unusual book with sympathetic and quirky characters. Ozeki blends issues of moral conscience with an original plot. Readers of Ozeki's previous fiction will welcome this new addition to her oeuvre.

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Friday, October 11, 2013

Countdown City by Ben Winters

This sequel to The Last Policeman starts with only 77 days until the asteroid 2011GV1 hits earth allegedly to obliterate most of it. Henry Palace has been relieved of his duties as a police officer but he can't seem to let the job go. Henry has agreed to help Martha Milano, his old babysitter, find her missing husband Brett Cavatone. By all accounts Brett is a stand-up guy. He would never leave her just because the world is about to end. Martha believes he is off doing something noble. But plenty of people are just leaving to complete bucket lists or commit suicide, so Hank's promise to find Brett may be unfulfilled. And what defines a noble act has changed dramatically with the asteroid.

Henry starts with Martha's father and Brett's employer. Rocky has turned his bowling alley into a gun range, and privately help guns are now illegal. Henry ignores this crime because he is more interested in helping Martha. Henry seems to be the only person trying to keep some sense of normalcy. His sister Nico returns along with her conspiracy theorist friends to rescue Henry from a group of anti-immigrant activists who are connected to Brett.

When Henry finally solve this disappearance, he is left with more questions than answers. In a world headed towards chaos is Henry the only sane one? The storyline is interesting not just because of the mystery part but because the storyline shows humanity's response to an unimaginable reality. Complete with government conspiracies and human foibles these books are well worth reading.

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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

“From this day forward, because we are clearly the most interesting people who ever f’ing lived," said Ethan, "because we are just so f’ing compelling, our brains swollen with intellectual thoughts, let us be known as the Interestings. And let everyone who meets us fall down dead in our path from just how f’ing interesting we are.”

In addition to Ethan, a brilliant but goofy-looking teenage cartoonist who will later create a famous TV show, the Interestings are comprised of gifted guitarist Jonah; the wealthy and beautiful siblings Ash and Goodman; dancer Cathy, as talented as she is voluptuous; and frizzy-haired Julie. Julie, from a middle-class background, begins the book as an outsider, but when invited to join the Interestings clique while at an upstate New York arts camp in the summer of 1974, she is reborn and rechristened as the more adventurous Jules. “She was Jules now, and would be Jules forever,” she determines.

Jules has her shot at Ethan, but she turns him down because she pines for another member of their group; besides, Ethan is no looker. So it comes as a surprise to her, and to the reader, when he wins the heart of the lovely Ash. The two of them go on to enjoy a wildly successful artistic life together, although they keep a few key things secret from one another. The author writes beautifully about how the extraordinary success of some and the corresponding jealousy of others can alter friendships. She also writes about how it feels to have once been interesting, if only in your own mind, and to not be interesting anymore. And she questions if being interesting is the most important thing you can be.

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Friday, October 4, 2013

I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place

Howard Norman is best known for his books, The Bird Artist, The Museum Guard, and The Northern Lights, two of which were finalists for the National Book Award. So to read his new memoir, I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place, was to be privileged to see something of his early life, to vicariously experience the beautiful Vermont habitat, and ultimately, to glimpse into the author's inner landscape.

The book is divided into five sections-- each ending with an event that seminally marks Norman. The book opens in 1964 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The author is 15. One gets a sense of the precocious adolescent as he watches his drifter father through the window of the town bookmobile. The reader has an equally strong sense of place as he describes the principals in Dykstra's Apothecary--Mr. Dykstra, Marcelline, the soda jerk, and her boyfriend, Robert Boxer, the mixed race son of Mr. Dykstra. There is something almost Huck Finn-like about the young Howard cutting school and watching his English teacher skinny-dipping with her fiance in Reeds Lake. That he dares to write about it in an essay for that same teacher only shows the chutspah of that adolescent.

In the same understated manner, Norman tells of the misadventure in which he tries to trap a swan.  Using methods explained in an interlibrary loan book he snags from the book drop (North American Indian Waterfowl Traps, Weirs, and Snares), he accidentally kills a beautiful swan. When Pinnie Olner, the librarian and his boss, tries to get him to admit to the crime, Norman tries to pin it on the person who initially checked the book out. Still, the memory of watching the swan drowning stays with him even now.

I hadn't meant to kill the swan.  It was a beautiful, mean bird, and spent nights in my secret haunt.  Nearly fifty years later, I still hear its strange guttural exhalation; fifty years of hapless guilt and remorse.  So often I close my eyes and picture the water closing over. (p. 36-37)

This unnatural death foreshadows others to come--the death of John Lennon in 1980, which Norman hears over the radio while transcribing Inuit stories in the Canadian Arctic; the death of his artist/girlfriend, Mathilde, in a plane crash; and last, the murder-suicide that occurs in his own home in Washington, D.C. Yet each section has other elements--mundane, everyday events that couch the horrific. We never really see Mathilde as a three-dimensional character, for example. We only observe that the 20-something Howard is completely smitten with her. "Your Mathilde's got bigger appetites for life than you have," "Uncle" Isador tells him. God in heaven, you can't even read half the same menu she's reading..." (p. 55)

In the final section, "The Healing Powers of the Western Oystercatcher," Howard Norman explores the tragedy that befell him and his wife when the poet renting their home in Washington, D.C. killed her son and then killed herself. How does one go back to the house where such an event happened?  How does one come to terms with it? Or does one?

The author explores these existential questions, presenting facts- psychological and criminal- and weighs them against the notion of evil. He calls upon his years spent with the Inuit tribes and has a shaman flown in to cast a spell.  He has his rabbi read Talmud. Both religious men are trying to harness whatever is good and recast it into the house.

The final pages find the author ten years after the horrific event. He has finally come to a separate peace. In the end, nature and his love of birds has brought him the harmony he has sought for so long.

I watched my oystercatcher for roughly fifty hours on my visit (to Point Reyes National Seashore). The oystercatcher's existence offered me a hypnotic passage of time, a vicarious connection to the sea, and focus, distraction, sorrow, laughter, tears, all helping to move me through and escape the grasp of servitude to the fixed notion that only pain and sorrow are real truths, and that joy exists only to be subject to doubt.  That is, at least in some provisional way, after all those hours in the realm of the oystercatcher, I was feeling joy as opposed to a simulacrum of joy, a condition that just might warrant use of the word healing. (p. 192)

I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place is an ode to the myriad experiences that make up a life.

To hear a wonderful interview with Howard Norman, click on the link below.  Enjoy...

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