Saturday, November 1, 2014

What Happened in October, 2014


The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Ever since Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer, there has been an awful lot of Goldfinch bashing going on.  The prime complaints seem to fall into one of two categories, the first being that Tartt needed a more cutting editor, and the second being that Tartt's characters spent too much time talking about drugs.  I, on the other hand, am in the camp of The Goldfinch defenders, which I sort of didn't expect. 

The Goldfinch is a long book, at 771 pages, but that alone does not mean that Tartt needed a better editor.  I can't say that not a single word could be cut, but neither I could cite many examples of areas where I was bored.  For the most part, the parts where one could think that an editor was needed were times were Tartt was deliberately prolonging the story to show how time was dragging on for the main character, such as at the engagement cocktail party, or while he was alone in Amsterdam.  I loved every page, and wish for another hundred or two.  As for the drugs, if this was too much for you, please don't read Edward St. Aubyn. 

Lest you think that I entered into this book with rose colored glasses, I have never been Donna Tartt's biggest fan.  Time and time again, I tell people that if they liked Tartt's Secret History, they will love Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marissa Pessl, which is similar, but in my opinion, better.  I rarely even talk about Tartt's The Little Friend, as it was really not that great of a book, but for some reason, it is one of those books that sticks in my mind with images reappearing constantly.  In The Goldfinch, Tartt hits the mark, and earns her reputation.

The Goldfinch starts with Theo and his mother visiting a NYC museum exhibit of Dutch artists, where a girl with red hair catches Theo's eye.  Theo is drawn to the girl, who is at the museum with a man who appears to be her grandfather.  He follows them, when suddenly a bomb explodes, and Theo's life is forever changed.  Theo becomes an unwitting art thief, and spends the next 20 years  hiding his treasure.  Theo's mom is killed in the explosion, and as a result, he moves in with his wealthy friend, Andy, and his family.  As might be expected, Theo's deadbeat father reappears, and whisks him off to Las Vegas.  In Vegas, Theo meets a new friend, Boris, whose life is at least as dysfunctional as his own.

Theo is charmed in that he has amazing people in his life.  Boris, flawed as he may be, is just what Theo needs, right when he needs him, time and time again.  Hobie, who Theo meets while trying to figure out what certain things that happened at the museum meant, shapes Theo's life, and gives him all of the stability that he was missing. Andy and his family, the Barbours, give Theo the illusion of normalcy, while also giving him a place to belong, if he wants it.

I listened to The Goldfinch on audiobook.  It was read by David Pittu, who won two Audies for his performance.  He should have won even more - as many as were available.  There had to have been at least 30 characters, all of whom had distinctive voices and accents.  The voices for Hobie and Boris were my favorite.  Pittu made Hobie seem old, dignified, and somehow more affluent than the customers who shopped in his store.  He made Boris sound impulsive, risky, shady, and yet still trustworthy and loyal, all with a Russian/Austrailian/Ukranian accent. 

I loved The Goldfinch, and will happily read it again, hopefully in the near future.  I am adding it to my list of Favorites.  The Goldfinch was a NYT Notable book for 2013.

Challenges:  Audiobook Challenge

Tags:  Big Fat Books, Favorites, Pulitzer Winner, NYT Notables, Awesome Audio,

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey is the story of an ex-pat experience, as told by a husband who felt that it was a complete success, and a wife who felt miserably out of place.  George and Sabine Harwood moved to Trinidad in 1956, just as the colonial rulers are losing power.  The new Prime Minister, Eric Williams, promised to change the country and free its true citizens from the control of outsiders.  George loves Trinidad, and loves the ex pat lifestyle, so much that he never wants to leave.  Sabine sees Trinidad with more weary eyes, and is hopeful that the people will find the leader who they are hoping for in Williams, even if he scares her with his anti-establishment promises.

There are a couple of stories that are going on in White Woman.  The first is that of a revolution, as seen through the eyes of an outsider.  Sabine, the only white person at the rallies supporting Williams, is hopeful for him and his followers, and would be more than happy to leave Trinidad to them.  When he gains power, and fails to make the changes that were promised, she sees him falling into the ways of the former rulers, and is disappointed that he is letting his people down, even if she was never an intended beneficiary.  While reading this, I couldn't help thinking about Kwame Kilpatrick.  As a person who lives near but not in Detroit, I was excited for Kilpatrick to be elected.  He was young and Detroit and whole metro area was ready for someone fresh to make a change.  Instead, the Detroiters who elected him were rewarded with scandal, corruption, and outright theft.  Like Sabine, I was on the outside, looking in, but hoping that the new leader would make a difference, even if the changes wouldn't directly help me.  Also like Sabine, I was disappointed and disillusioned with the results, even if a part of me knew that I was foolish to hope for more.

Another story that unfolds through out White Woman is that of people who catch each other's eye in a crowd, and never quite let go.  One day, while she is riding her bike, Sabine and Eric Williams lock eyes.  While they don't know each other, they feel a connection.  Over the next several years, they run into each other from time to time, and fall into conversations as if they have been speaking daily, saying things to each other that no one else would say.  While it could never happen in America, Roffey makes it seem completely reasonable that the Prime Minister of Trinidad would speak freely with a woman who he has only briefly met, but who looked really cute while riding her bike.

Challenges:  Rewind

Tags:  British Stories

Yankee Broadcast Network by John F. Buckley and Martin Ott

Although I haven't done any Industry Requested Reviews in a couple of months, I still get requests every day.  One request that caught my attention was that of John Buckley and Martin Ott, who wanted me to review their book of poetry about television.  While they were really straight forward about what their book was, I guess that I was a little surprised that literally every poem related to television.  My fault - not theirs.  What disappointed me though was that while they think about television enough to want to write a book of poetry inspired by it, they seem to really hate it.

For most of us, television is a guilty pleasure, but for Buckley and Ott, the pleasure is all gone, leaving nothing but guilt, and a dash of disgust.  One of the things that caught my attention when deciding to accept the review request was their poem called "The Real Housewives of Wayne County."  Wayne County, in case you don't know, is the county where Detroit is located.  However, it's also the county where Grosse Pointe (remember "Grosse Pointe Blank" starring John Cusack?) is, which makes Wayne County an area where extreme wealth abuts complete poverty.  The poem that Buckley and Ott wrote relied only on the Detroit brand names and stereotypes, and missed the opportunity for a study in contrasts.  In fact, they could have renamed it with the name of any county, and inserted the names of products made in that county, instead of "Better Made" and paczki.

My favorite poem was "Burn'ded" which was obviously a satire of Ashton Kucher's show, "Punk'd".  In the Buckley and Ott version, there are many people playing ever escalating "pranks" ending with a home grown terrorist who eventually sees the episode in which he stars with his fellow inmates.

Yes, Yankee Broadcast Network was exactly what it promised it would be.  I just didn't like it as much as I hoped I would.

Tags:  Industry Requested Reviews

Book Group Reports

The Neighborhood Book Group met to discuss The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley.  There were 8 of us who met, and only 4 had finished the book.  2 more were not quite finished, and the other two of us (I was in this group) never picked the book up.  At the beginning of the meeting, I would have said that of the people who read it, half liked it, and half didn't.  Unfortunately, after discussing various unlikely twists and coincidences, the people who had started off saying that they liked it changed sides.  I think I won't bother trying to pick this one up. 

We chose to discuss Sweetness because we are trying to read something from various genres, and this one was chosen as a mystery.  In December we will meet again to discuss The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, which we have classified as science fiction.

The Typical Book Group met this month to discuss . . . And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer.  We picked this book as our summer Big Fat Book (BFB) in June, and delayed meeting until October to discuss it.  Even with this delay, of the 9 people at book group, only 2 had finished the book.  There were 3 more of us who had started it and were in various stages of progress, but the rest didn't even give it a try.

I talked about . . .And Ladies in my August and September wrap ups.  Basically it is an 1100+ page book about a book group that formed in the late 1800s, and the course of the lives of the original members.  As I've mentioned, I frequently fall asleep after reading only a few pages.  The two groupers who finished the book said that somewhere around page 500, the story picked up so that they could easily read 50 pages at a time, and that they thought about the book all of the time when they weren't reading it.  I'm somewhere around page 700 now, and I am not experiencing that at all, but then again, I've been putting it down for 2 or 3 weeks at a time and coming back to it, instead of immersing myself in the story.  Maybe this month I'll stick with it until I'm done.

All told, the people who finished the book liked it, and thought that it was worth reading.  I did notice though that one of them only gave the book 3 GoodReads stars.  So, while I'm now expecting something worth finishing, maybe I won't expect it to be life changing.

Next month we'll read Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson.

In Other News

The Man Booker Prize was announced on October 14.  This year's winner was The Narrow Road to the Deep North  by Richard Flannigan.  Based on the Amazon reviews, this sounds like a really good book.  The main character is an Australian surgeon in a Japanese POW camp during World War II.  I'll be keeping my eyes open for more on this one.

November Preview

People, I am burnt out on blogging, and almost even dreading it.  So, I'm not making any promises about even doing a monthly summary for November.  But in case you are interested in what I am planning to read and listen to, here you go:

In Paper Form:
. . . And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer.  Yes, I promise to finish this book in November.
Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett, if I can get it, or Bread and Butter by Michelle Wildgen, if I can't.
Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King

On Audio Book:
1Q84 by Haruki Murikami
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

What Happened in September, 2014


Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks

Two Christmases ago, my daughter gave me Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks.  The movie was coming out, and the plan may have been to trick me into taking her to see it by giving me the book first.  The plan didn't work, and Safe Haven sat in my nightstand  unread for a year and a half.  In August, my family rented a house in North Carolina, and I decided that it was the perfect time to give Safe Haven a try.  I expected it to be a good beach book, with the added benefit that my daughter would see me reading it and appreciating her gift.

I have to say that Safe Haven was pretty much exactly what one might expect from a Nicholas Sparks book.  The main character, Katie, has left her abusive husband and fled to a small North Carolina town.  There she meets the recently widowed Alex, and falls in love with him and his two children.  All is going well until, yep, you guessed it. 

While the story was predictable, it was a page turner, and I found myself oddly unable to put it down.  Sparks played some hokey name games, and threw in an unexpected but equally unbelievable twist at the end.  Still, if you are renting beach house and looking for something to bring along, you might as well bring this one!

Challenges:  Rewind

Tags:  Light and Fluffy

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

I'm a pretty persistent reader.  Most of the time, if I can make it through the first hundred pages, I'll finish the book.  Last month, I put down . . . And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer after over 400 pages.  This month, I'm quitting The Finkler Question, despite being 2/3 through.

The Finkler Question is the story of three men living in London, Julian Treslove, Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik.  Julian and Sam are about the same age as each other - mid 40s, and Libor is in his 80s.  Libor and Sam are recently widowed.  They are also Jewish.  So what, you ask?  Jewishness is all that they talk about.

Julian is mugged, and believes that he was the victim of an anti-Semitic attack.  Although he is not Jewish, he then experiences a huge case of Jewish envy, and tries to become Jewish by changing his manner of speaking and actions, without actually converting.  Libor is seemingly happily Jewish, although he spends a great deal of time thinking about whether attacks on Jewish people and places are understandable, if not justified.  Sam Finkler, on the other hand, joins a group who identify themselves as ASHamed Jews and are opposed to the Israeli state.

Much of the dialogue in The Finkler Question is focused on what it means to be Jewish, whether one can be Jewish and be ashamed of other Jewish people, and whether Jewish people who disagree with what other Jewish people are doing, especially in Israel, are anti-Semitic.

If you are Jewish, and are questioning your beliefs, this might be a great book for you.  I was actually not aware that some Jewish people don't support Israel, which I probably should have known.  So much of the book is about Jewish people as a group, and then the opinions of particular Jewish people.  All of this is great, but it just got old.  I was looking for another dimension to the characters.  Being Jewish, or being jealous of people who are Jewish, shouldn't be all that they are.

The Finkler Question won the Man Booker Prize for 2010. 

Challenges: Rewind, Audiobook, and I Love Library Books

Tags: British Stories, Man Booker Listed, Questioning Religions

. . . And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer

Well, I picked it up again.  This time I read from where I left off, at page 413 in 1880, until page 613 in 1887.  Some more club members have died, others have married, and the kids are mostly grown.  There are some hints that someone might be a lesbian, but I'm not sure if that was a topic discussed in popular fiction in 1982 when the book was first published, so I'm not expecting anything explosive.

The other members of The Typical Book Group are also struggling with this one.  We usually discuss our summer Big Fat Book in August, or possibly in September if everyone is out of town at the end of the summer.  This year, we have decided to move the meeting back until October.

Although this book is taking me forever, I am liking it.  It has a nice, soothing rhythm.  There's not a ton of action, but there is something about it that I like.  I'm taking a break again, but after I finish The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon, I'll try and knock out another 200 pages.

The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon

In 1930, a judge in New York named Joseph Crater suddenly disappeared and became the "The Missingest Man in New York".  His wife, Stella was at their vacation home in Maine, while Crater went to Atlantic City with his mistress, Sally Lou Ritz.  He came back to the City, had dinner with Ritz and his lawyer, William Klein, then got in a cab, and was never seen again.  In her book, The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress, Ariel Lawhon offers a theory of what may have happened.

Lawhon's story focuses on the tangled connections between Stella and Crater and a cast of characters including a mob boss, Owney Madden, his unexpectedly friendly thug, Shorty, and the Craters' maid, Maria.  No one seems to actually have liked Crater, so there were lots people who might have preferred for him to disappear.  In fact, in real life as in the book it took 10 days for anyone to start wondering where he was.

During Crater's lifetime, there were rumors about how he secured his appointment to court. Lawhon speculates that Owney Madden was involved, and became worried when a grand jury was convened to investigate alleged corruption.  She then also guesses that the police investigating the crime may be indebted to Madden themselves.

Sometimes in a historical fiction book, there is something that happens that is so unbelievable that you know it must be true.  In this story, when it turned out that the Craters' maid was married to one of the policemen investigating the case, I knew that it must have been true, because there's no way that a police officer would be charged with investigating his wife's boss' mysterious disappearance, so no author would make that up.  However, when I got to Lawhon's end notes, it turned out that was a fictional twist.  The Craters did have a maid, but there's no indication that she was married to an investigator. 

All told, this was an interesting story, made all the more so with its morsels of truth.

Challenges:  I Love Library Books Challenge

Tags:  Historical Fiction   

In Other News

Pass it On

You might remember that I got my copy of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson from a Little Free Library.  I finished that book while I was staying that the beach house that I talked about in my review of Safe Haven, and so I left it there.  The shelves were crowded with more beach reads than literary fiction, but I found it a nice spot next to The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.  While Safe Haven would have fit right in, I wasn't done with it yet.  So, I'll return Safe Haven to my Little Free Library instead.  Pass it on!

Man Booker Short List

The Man Booker Prize Shortlist was announced on September 9.  To my surprise, David Mitchell's new book, The Bone Clocks, did not make the cut.  Instead, Joshua Ferris' book, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour made the list, along with books by Howard Jacobson, Karen Joy Fowler, Richard Flanagan, Neel Mukherjee and Ali Smith.  Despite an earlier so-so review, the Times published this almost glowing review of To Rise Again on September 15.  What brought on the reconsideration?  I just might suspect that they didn't want to be left on the wrong side of the hype if Ferris wins this one.  More power to him.

Blogging for Rivera

This month, I had dinner in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts.  No biggie really, I've been there before, and anyone in my tri-county area can go for free.  But it is pretty spectacular.  If you need a reason to visit Detroit, this could be it.

But anyway, sitting there, sipping wine, I was thinking about Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo, and I couldn't help but think about The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver.  The thing about The Lacuna is that although I know that it was a good book, and it was about Rivera and Kahlo, I can't tell you much about it.  Unfortunately, I read it during the period when I had officially started my blog, but before my Parent Rant that got me really writing about what I read.  And this is why I'm still blogging.  I'm convinced that if I stop, I won't remember the details about the books that I read.  So, here I go, blogging toward another month.

October Preview

In October, I plan to read and review the following books:

On Paper or Electronic Format:

. . . And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer
White Woman on a Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey
Bread and Butter by Michelle Widgen

On Audio

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Sunday, August 31, 2014

What Happened in August, 2014


And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer

I tried.  Seriously, people, I tried.  For a full month I have been reading . . . And Ladies of the Club and I am still only 1/3 of the way through. 

. . . And Ladies of the Club was a popular book in the 1980s, and The Typical Book Group picked it as our summer BFB (Big Fat Book).  The story starts just after the Civil War, when two of the main characters, Sally and Anne, graduate from college and enter the real world of Waynesboro, OH.  They are asked by one of their teachers if they are interested in becoming part of a yet to be formed literary women's club, and they quickly agree.  From there, we meet 10 other women who become club members, their families, and their husbands. 

400 pages in, I am still in the late 1800s, three of the club members have died, and several others have been admitted.  The members have confronted social and political issues, like calls for prohibition, presidential elections, and the challenges of reuniting a divided country. 

The story reads like a classic, with not a lot of action, and lots of social dilemmas.  While I don't find it  boring, it is so soothing that it frequently lulls me to sleep after 5 or fewer pages.  So, I'm taking a break.  I would hate to waste two months reading a book only to say "meh" at the end.  We'll see.  If I read a couple more books and keep thinking about this one, I'll come back.

Tags:  Historical Fiction, Big Fat Books

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle is a company, likely based on Google or Facebook, where everyone who is smart and young wants to work.  They have a campus, which they would prefer that you not leave, where bands clamour to perform, where food and health care is provided and where innovation is constant.  The Circle wants to find out everything that is knowable in the modern world.  Do 27 year olds prefer Cancun or Hawaii?  How many grains of sand are there in the desert?  What happens when you transfer sea animals that have never before been seen into a Circle designed habitat?  The Circle is all about transparency.  If a person visits a park and doesn't post pictures to Facebook to tell their friends about it, why didn't they?  Were they ashamed?  Are they trying to hide their activities?  Or are they being anti-social?  It is quickly determined that all people are entitled to all experiences.  If you go to an art show in California, and I am stuck in Michigan, I can be there with you if you post about it.  But if you don't post about the experience, you are stealing that opportunity from me.  

Mae, a floundering Carlton College graduate, begins to work for The Circle when her friend, Annie, invites her to apply.  Mae quickly finds herself overwhelmed with gratitude to Annie, but also surprised by how much of her life The Circle wants to consume, and how much she is willing to give it.  Mae's dad is suffering from MS, and she is able to get better insurance coverage for him through The Circle.  In exchange, The Circle will monitor all of his care, which will obviously require live video supervision from 10 different cameras in his house.  Soon her parents begin to feel that this is too much, but Mae is insistent that The Circle knows best. 

The Circle is a commentary about how much of our privacy we are willing to give up while getting little in return.  As a customer experience worker, Mae finds herself devoting valuable time to people who she has never met but who have asked her to like them, instead of spending time with her family members and real life friends.  The instant gratification of having another "friend" and getting a favorable rating outweighs anything that Mae believes her parents could provide to her.

Part 1984, part "War Games", and part MaddAddam, The Circle predicts a not so distant future where online participation is mandatory.  Individuals control crime by mounting inexpensive video cameras which anyone can log into and see through.  This sounds good enough, but in a world where secrets are considered lies the superficial takes the place of the real.  Margaret Atwood calls much of her work "speculative fiction" instead of "science fiction", which is very apt in this case.  We can't be too many years away from a time when much of The Circle's technology is possible.  It is as though The Circle is a predecessor to the corporations that control the world in Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy.  In MaddAddam, each corporation has a campus and controls the lives of its employees, but there secrets are essential, and the corps will do anything to keep their secrets from getting out.  In the timeline of speculative fiction, The Circle would be placed between Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore and Oryx and Crake.  The Circle was a NYT Notable for 2013.

Eggers did an incredible job of imagining the world that could be.  Some of the technology that he explains, especially the "See Change" video cameras which can be mounted anywhere and are so inexpensive that they are readily available to everyone, seems possible.  My guess is that this is something that Eggers has mulled over, and that he hasn't gotten too many hours of sleep, for fear of the future.

The Circle was read by Dion Graham, who also read several of Egger's earlier books including A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and What is the What.  To me, he is the voice of Dave Eggers.  It is a testament to Graham's ability that he is able to read these stories with such a range of topics and characters.

Challenges:  Audiobook Challenge, I Love Library Books Challenge

Tags:  NYT Notables; Sci-Fi-ish

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Have you ever had that feeling that if you just had something to do over again, you would do it differently?  So has Ursula Todd.  In Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, the novel consists of a series of episodes in Ursula's life.  There are three primary story lines, being the stories of Ursula's birth, that of her 16th birthday, and that of her World War II experience.  In each of these, the first time the story is told, it ends horribly for her, and she dies.  Each story is then retold, with Ursula making slightly different choices, as though she knows that she is trying to keep something from happening, but doesn't quite remember what.  Again, something horrible happens, and she dies.  The stories are retold again and again until Ursula has carefully navigated around all of the hidden hazards of her life, and can move on to the next episode.

Ursula feels a strong sense of deja vu, and eventually realizes that she has the ability to change the course of history, one tiny interception at a time.  If her maid falls down the stairs and can't go to a celebration in London, she won't bring the flu back to Ursula's household.  If she befriends Eva Braun, could she prevent World War II?

Atkinson's novel twists and turns while moving two steps forward and one step back.  It is almost as though she took Ursula's life, couldn't decide which way to go, and told the story every way that she could imagine.  However, the result is so carefully constructed that the novel presents Ursula's choices almost as a form of Darwinian evolution rather than simple drafts that didn't work out.

Life After Life was a NYT Notable Book for 2013, and the 2013 GoodReads Choice winner for Historical Fiction.

Tags:  Historical Fiction, NYT Notables, WWII Civilian Stories, British Stories

September Preview:

In September, I plan to read and review the following in paper or electronic form:

Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks
. . . And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hoover Santmyer (Try, Try again!)
The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon

I also plan to finish listening to The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, and will post about that, and will start listening to The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.  However, at 32 hours, I am unlikely to post a review of this one before October.

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