Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Angelology by Danielle Trussoni

Danielle Trussoni's first novel is completely about the study of angels and is absolutely wonderful, if you are into books that resemble the Da Vinci Code as far as type of novel (but are much better written!). It is a mystery novel that incorporates elements of religion, history and popular culture into a memorable mystery novel that anyone can sink their teeth into.

Trussoni's novel focuses on a group of angels - the Nephilim - the results of angels mating with human beings. According to Trussoni, they are monsters that belong in cages, even though they are physically, extremely beautiful. It also focuses on Evangeline, a young nun who, on a snowy day in Westchester, NY discovers that the former mother superior had been corresponding secretly with Abigail Rockerfeller (yes, the philanthropist of Rockerfeller Center fame). She meets Verlaine, an art historian who has been hired by one of the nephilim families and together, they are drawn into a centuries old struggle between humans known as angelologists and the Nephilim, who are slowly dying due to a degenerative disorder.

This novel was beautifully and sensuously written - it was hard to put down because of the writing style. There is a lot of alliteration, which makes it so nice to read. You can hear the words in your imagination as you read and feel them going by you, like silk.  The characters are beautifully developed and described in such a way that you can see them in your mind. It is also apparent that Trussoni did an impressive amount of  research in preparing to write and actually writing this novel. She must have read extensively of memoirs, diaries, letters and research in writing this book and the history that she gave also made me love this novel even more. I also really appreciated that her female characters were very, very strong, spunky women.

LOVED this novel so much...and it totally deserves to be on the NY Times best of 2010 list.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Cairo Time, starring Patricia Clarkson

So I haven't reviewed a movie in a while because very rarely will a movie move me to actually review it.  I mean, I like movies but not as much as I like books.  However, this movie was just so beautifully done that I had to share about it.

This is a Canadian independent film that was directed by Rubba Nadda and stars Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig. Patricia Clarkson plays Juliette, a Canadian journalist who arrives in Cairo in order to vacation with her husband who is a UN official in Gaza.  Her husband has been delayed so he asks his friend, Tareq (played by Siddig) to be her guide and protector in Cairo until he can escape from his duties to vacation with her. Juliette finds herself falling in love with Cairo but also with Tareq, much to her surprise.

Now, I've never been to Cairo, although I really want to go there someday but this movie made me believe that I had a really good feel for the city - its people, its traffic, its mosques and its coffee shops. And yes, even the pyramids, although I'm sure that it won't be the same as sitting there and feeling the dust or smelling the pyramids themselves. It's very elegant and masterfully done and the acting was absolutely beautiful to watch.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

So Much for That by Lionel Shriver

In this novel, that I think that I saw referred to on NPR, Shriver takes on the health care system and uses his novel to provide social commentary about how it is broken. It also tends to rail against the system of taxation that is currently in place. 

The main character is Shepherd (Shep for short), who spent much of his life building up a handyman business. The business was successful and Shep had a pretty good life - he was married to a wonderful woman and they had two children together. Shep sold the business and put the money into an account so that he could go to Pemba on a trip and retire there.  However, his wife contracts mesothelioma - a particularly virulent form of cancer - that begins to decimate his savings. Glynis, his wife, naturally becomes bitter and blames Shep ( thinking that the asbestos he worked with caused the cancer) and herself, for using art supplies that had asbestos in it as well. As it turns out, the person that he sold the company to has agreed to keep him on but the health care plan that the new owner purchased is absolutely horrendous and so Shep ends up having to foot a lot of the bills.

His best friend,Jackson is also in a similar situation - his daughter Flicka has a serious genetic medical condition that will lead to her death soon and which requires constant around the clock care and medications.

This novel was hard to get into but once I got into it, I enjoyed it. The characters are very vivid and well drawn and the diatribes are very relevant to today's issues.  The writing style was all right - nothing to fawn over - and was part of the reason that I had a hard time getting into the novel.

Grade: B

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

American Subversive by David Goodwillie

This is one of the books on the New York Times 2010 list, for good reason. It was a fascinating read. This novel focuses on two people: Paige and Aidan.  Aidan is a 30 something blogger who becomes fascinated with Paige after the bombing of a local agency in post 9/11 New York City. Paige is a 29 year old woman with a history of working for non profit organizations that exist to lobby for the benefit of noble causes. She becomes radicalized after her brother's death as a soldier in Iraq and becomes instrumental in organizing bombings of targets. Paige and Aidan eventually meet and become friends of necessity. Goodwillie's wordy novel details the relationship between the two.

I loved this book - it was ambitious and sometimes fell a little flat but the overwhelming majority of the novel was absolutely wonderful. It's wordiness was something that you could sink your teeth into and the story and writing style were such that it was engrossing - so engrossing that I couldn't put it down. The novel was also really funny in some parts. For instance, Aidan heads to suburbia where he visits with aging hippies and the way that they are portrayed made me giggle. The novel was also tender and achingly endearing in some ways - it's quickly apparent that Aidan has fallen in love with Paige and how Goodwillie describes their affair is very touching.

This is a wonderful read, well worth the time and the money to add it to your library.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Year of Living Biblically by AJ Moore

This book is a few years old but is, nonetheless, a wonderful read. AJ Jacobs, at the time, was a writer and editor at Esquire magazine. He decided that he was going to spend one year living according to the word of the Bible, but not just as metaphor. He was going to try to live the words of the Bible as literally as possible.  I picked up this book because, on some level, I related to Jacobs - he was/is a secular Jew who wasn't religious and wanted to see what he could find out about his spirituality by doing this project.  It's something that I found intellectually interesting.

The book is a memoir that is written almost like a journal or diary.  Each chapter encapsulates one month in the experiment and each chapter is further split up by day. For instance, he would start a particular entry as "Day 245" for instance. I loved this book. Jacobs' voice is completely authentic - he's the sort of person that would be really fun to have a beer in a bar with because he's got so many interesting stories. He managed to pull the stories off by using the right combination of seriousness and poignancy along with the appropriate level of comedy, when necessary.  I felt like the material was treated respectfully at the same time that Jacobs attempted to soul search by questioning the parts that he felt contradicted. 

All in all, a wonderful book.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Atonement by Ian McEwan

I, in spite of my best intentions, saw the movie version of this novel before I read the novel. I usually go the other way - reading the novel before I see the movie because inevitably the book is better than the movie. The movie in this case was actually pretty good and fairly true to the book. However, the book itself was absolutely divine.

Briony is the youngest of the Tallis children. The year is 1935 - Hitler is a rising star but hasn't done much of anything yet.  The Tallis family lives on a tremendous compound in the English countryside.  Robbie Turner also lives on the compound - his mother is a chambermaid in the Tallis household.  Briony is 13 and very imaginatve - the novel opens with her completing a play that she had written for performance by she and her cousins - Lola (15), Pierrot and Jackson. It is readily apparent that she is an avid writer with an overactive imagination. Cecilia wants to fill a vase with water at the fountain in front of the Tallis house. She meets Robbie and they start talking but the conversation quickly becomes awkward. When Robbie wants to help Cecilia with the vase, she remains stubborn, the vase breaks, and two pieces fall into the fountain. Cecilia strips to her underwear, jumps into the fountain and retrieves the fragments while Robbie only stares at her. Briony witnesses the ensuing moment of sexual tension from an upstairs bedroom and is confused as to its meaning. In fact, she thinks that Robbie has coerced her sister in some way and is a "maniac."

Leon Tallis arrives with his friend, Paul Marshall. They meet Robbie on their way to the house, and Leon invites him to dinner. Cecilia is irritated at Robbie's coming, but does not know why he bothers her so much.

Meanwhile, Robbie wants to write a letter to Cecilia to apologize for his behavior at the fountain. He indicates that he also feels awkward around her, and, like her, does not know why. After finishing it, he unthinkingly writes another letter, using the word "cunt," suggesting his subconscious desires towards Cecilia. Although he then writes another version of it, the first version is accidentally delivered to Cecilia via Briony, who reads it. Briony consults her cousin Lola. Briony is then convinced that Robbie is a "sex maniac" and that she must "protect" her sister from him.

Upon reading Robbie's letter, Cecilia realizes her love for Robbie and they end up making love in the library. Briony interrupts them, and interprets their lovemaking as a sexual assault upon her sister.
During dinner, the twin cousins run away, leaving a letter. The dinner party divides into groups to go out searching for them. Robbie and Briony are the only ones who are left alone, as Robbie has to acknowledge later. In the dark, Briony comes across Lola being raped by an unknown attacker. Briony blames Robbie as the attacker. Lola, afraid and disturbed, lets Briony do the talking. The police arrive to investigate, and when Robbie arrives with the rescued twins, he is arrested solely on the basis of Briony's testimony. Apart from Robbie's mother, only Cecilia believes in his innocence.

This book was wonderful.  It was beautifully written and meaty - something that you could sink your teeth into on a cold winter's night with a glass of red wine or some tea.  I also really loved how Ian McEwan dealt with the themes of false charges and mistaken identity and the far reaching impact such a false allegation can have upon many people - in this case, Cecilia, Briony, Robbie, his mother - the entire Tallis family in fact. I enjoyed how Briony attempted to atone for it throughout the entire novel, but didn't really ever fully atone or was ever fully able to forgive herself for her sins. This novel is perhaps the closest ever to being the perfect novel because it has developed its themes, story, characters extremely well. 

You must read and own a copy of this exquisite novel!

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Town (previously published as Prince of Thieves) by Chuck Hogan

I picked up this book because I want to see the movie eventually and because Boston is one of my most favorite, if not my absolute favorite, American city. Four life long friends - Doug McRay, James "Jem" Coughlin, Albery "Gloansy" McGloan and Dez Eldon grew up on the streets of Charlestown in Boston, MA, in the shadows of the Bunker Hill Monument. Doug is the de facto leader of the group and sets up a hit on a local bank.  The robbery is successful but something unexpected happens - Doug falls hard for the manager, Claire, that he robbed during the course of the crime. He is pursued by an FBI agent that is dead set upon catching them.  The group is  made aware of an opportunity to rob Fenway Parkat some point.  This novel is about the crimes themselves and about the relationships between Doug, his friends, Clair and himself - his identity.

I had never read anything by Chuck Hogan, even though he is apparently a very talented mystery/criminal thriller writer. I, in a few words, loved this book in part because I knew exactly where everything took place. I have been to Charlestown and I have been to Fenway and to Kenmore Square, where the bank was robbed.  It was also, in tremendous part, based upon the writing, the characters and the story itself.  The characters fascinated me. I was intrigued and curious about what drove them and that kept me reading and the pages turning. They are so richly drawn that it is impossible to remove them, the acts they perpetrate and the neighborhoods that they come from from your imagination. I loved this book and I hope that the movie is as good as the book.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Someone To Blame by CS Lakin

I don't normally read Christian fiction but I received this novel as part of an early reviewer program, so I'm reviewing it here.  When you hear about Christian fiction, or at least when I do, I think about people that are self righteous and preach-y and I assumed that this book would be the same thing.  But I was completely wrong. This is a novel that combines Christian themes with mystery, somewhat successfully; however in general, it wasn't that great a first attempt.

Irene and Matt Moore are married and opt to escape their previous lives by moving themselves and their fourteen year old daughter Casey to the small town of Breakers. Breakers is literally on the edge of the country on the Pacific Northwest and is cold and unforgiving. The family moves there in the hopes of escaping family tragedy. While there, the family meets Billy Thurber, a young man that is battling his own demons, including an alcoholic father and being judged by the local town folk. Irene, Matt and Casey are walking on eggshells around each other and the introduction of Billy to the family seems to make things worse.

I didn't particularly enjoy this novel because the writing style was just so blech. It was overly simple and I didn't enjoy reading it - it was choppy - and it pained me to read it at times. I also didn't like the characters - they were too shallow and predictable. They weren't complex at all.  The whole plotline was actually pretty predictable and this was frustrating too. I mean, if I am going to read any book, i want it to be good and this just wasn't it.  I did appreciate how the author attempted to take on complex topics - death of family members among other topics. However, in general, this wasn't a particularly enjoyable novel.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

This is Franzen's fourth novel, but only the second that I have read. I read The Corrections quite some time ago; however I picked up this novel not because of The Corrections (because, quite frankly, I don't remember too much about that novel) but because I've heard about this novel all over the place, from NPR to the Times.

Franzen begins by introducing us to his main characters - Walter and Patty Berglund - who are living in St. Paul, Minnesota in a run down part of town. They have purchased a home that can only be called a fixer upper. They seem to be a perfect couple - Walter works and is a sensitive husband to Patty, who stays at home, raises her children and makes staying at home her profession. And she does it well. The novel takes place in the years just following the September 11 attacks. Walter's son, Joey, is Patty's favorite and she becomes the classic helicopter parent to such an extent that she literally drives Joey away - he begins to sleep with the neighbor girl (Connie) and ends up living with her family because he can't stand to be in the same home as Patty.  Jessica is his sister. The story focusses on the questionable choices that each of Franzen's characters make.

I really enjoyed this book - it was a pleasure to read, even in my currently sleep deprived state. Franzen's prose makes it so easy to enjoy this book and to strive to read the entire 500 pages in one sitting.  The characters were well drawn and in depth.  It was a wonderful book to read.

Must add to your collection. I have an extra copy if anyone wants.  Please email me at mkowalewski[at]gmail[dot]com if you would like it. First one to respond gets it. Please include mailing address.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Lion Among Men by Gregory Maguire

This is the third installment in the books about the "Wicked" years - the series that began with the ever popular book, Wicked. Both were written by Gregory Maguire, whose poularity seemingly hinges on re-writing fairy tales from a different perspective. Where Wicked was witty, unfortunately Maguire's subsequent books tend to lack the wittiness and the uniqueness that made Wicked so wonderful to read.

A Lion Among Men begins with the Cowardly Lion, whose name is actually Brrr, meeting with Sister Yackle, an ancient oracle who is living in the same convent that Elphaba lived in before starting off on her tryst as the Wicked Witch of the West. Brr, who is employed by the new Emperor of OZ, has been sent to meet with Yackle in the hopes of getting information about Elphaba, Liir (her son), the Thropp family and the Grimmerie (the witch's book). Sister Yackle is a pretty good adversary for Brr because she sets up a system of give and take: for each piece of information that she gives him about Elphaba and the Grimmerie, he must give her some information about himself, leading him to recall repressed memories of his childhood through the present and which includes his interactions with Elphaba, Dorothy and the current administration of Oz.

The book starts off quite slowly - I had trouble getting into it mostly because Maguire uses winding prose and similarly winding plotlines that don't always make sense until the end of the novel. For instance, we learn about a young woman who life is intertwined with the infamous clock dragon; however these interludes don't make full sense until the end of the novel and are pretty confusing. I didn't like this novel nearly as much as Wicked because i didn't think it was as creatively written and there were no interesting revelations about the Lion or the other characters, as there were in Wicked.  It was slow and sometimes boring.

I'd pass on this one.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

In The Woods by Tana French

This is Tana French's first mystery novel and it was merely all right.  There were some things that I really enjoyed and some things that I really didn't like.

Ms. French's first novel follows a snapshot in the career and life of a detective on Dublin's murder squad. It specifically follows him on one case - the murder of a 12 year old girl that occurred in the town that he grew up in and how it draws him back into the tragedy that led to him becoming a detective in the first place. Because when he was 12, Detective Ryan's two friends - Jamie and Peter - went into the woods in the town of Knocknaree and never came out, although Detective Ryan did. He was found in a catatonic state, against a tree, with Jamie's blood in his shoes but with no memory of anything that had happened to them while they were in the woods. The mystery of what had happened to the youngsters was never resolved. Since this has happened, Detective Ryan has changed his name from Adam to Rob, has adopted the British accent that was so popular at the boarding school that he was sent to and is a murder detective with a cool partner named Cassie.

Cassie and Rob catch the recent murder case, which also occurs in Knockaree and appears to have a very tenuous link to Detective Ryan's past.

I really enjoyed the characters that French has developed - they are so vivid and three dimensional and human. They aren't heroes in the sense that Superman and Wonder Woman are heroes are and their flaws make them that much more easily related to. For instance, Rob struggles with whether to tell his boss that he in fact has this case in his past that may impact his ability to work on the case that he just got put on with Cassie.  This is something that people may have their own struggles with - it's easy to see people in the same position professionally.  I *hated* the ending and the loose ends that were left. I have no idea if French did that intentionally because she was planning on writing a sequel but it really, really irked me when things that had been built up during the course of the novel weren't resolved in any way - whether by closing it out or letting the reader know that another book was forthcoming.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

The Imperfectionists is Tom Rachman's first novel. It's about a group of journalists that work for a daily in Rome. This daily was founded about 50 years or so before the stories in this novel take place by a millionaire for reasons that are never really clear. Each chapter is about one of the employees from the publisher down to a copyeditor and even a reader.  There are also a few short pages at the end of each paragraph about the history of the paper from when it was founded to its modern day. The stories reference the characters in the other, but aren't interlaced in the sense that they tell the same story from differen perspectives.  They each tell different stories that are supposed to tell us something about the person that Rachman is narrating about.

This book was just delightful. I really enjoyed Rachman's writing style - it was quick, witty, intelligent and fun. And his characters! I loved them because they were imperfect. They aren't romantic heroes, like you sometimes find in other books - they are flawed, just like normal human beings are and that's why I loved them. They have the same insecurities and joys that we all do. Absolutely wonderful.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Breaking Night by Liz Murray

I would highly recommend this book to anyone. There. I said it and now that I've totally gotten rid of the anticipation of what I recommend, let me tell you about this book. Liz Murray was born in 1980 addicted to crack (because her mom used consistently throughout her pregnancy), but otherwise healthy and lived in the Bronx, New York. During her time growing up, she watched her parents struggle with drug addiction and struggling to provide for her and her older sister, Lisa.  Liz also dealt with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in a way that most of us may never, ever know about. At 15, Liz became homeless. She had no place to live and, for a long period of time, did not go to school. However, Liz did manage to get into an alternative school - the Humanities Prepatory Academy in Manhattan, where she managed to complete all of her assignments in the subway stations that she slept in. She earned enough credits to graduate in two years and was eventually accepted into Harvard University.

This young woman showed an uncanny maturity beginning at an early age - she knew how to mainline drugs at age 6 (even though she never used them) and had to care for her parents when they both hit their rock bottom moments (which seemed to happen often enough in Liz's early life). She showed that she is a fighter by being able to scramble to care for herself in the girls' home that she was placed at during her early adolescence and then during the period of time that she was homeless. I was deeply impressed by her writing style - no holds barred, but classy at the same time.  This isn't just some morality tale for the reader; she literally just tells it like it is. 

Worth the read.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

This is Paul Murray's second novel. It takes place at an all boy's Catholic school in Ireland and focuses on Daniel "Skippy" Juster. Skippy got his nickname because he bore an uncanny resemblance to a children's kangaroo character of the same name. He is a boarder at Seabrook College, a Catholic school, at a time in most young boys' life when they're undergoing certain, shal we say, changes. Skippy's best friend and roomate is Ruprecht, a portly boy that is a genius. The novel opens with Skippy and Ruprecht having a donut eating contest at a local eatery that is popular with the Seabrook boys. Ruprecht looks on in shock as Skippy collapses, falls off his chair and dies, while writing "Tell Lori" on the floor in jelly, even though he doesn't seem to be choking. So yes, Skppy dies in the first few pages.  But this satire of contemporary Irish society doesn't just end there. It proceeds for about 650 more pages, in which we meet the mysterious Lori referred to by Skippy, Howard the Coward (a history teacher at Seabrook and an alum who lives with his girlfriend Halley after a failed attempt at invest banking in the city), Ms. McIntyre (a substitute geography teacher, who tells Howard that she won't sleep with him no matter what he does), and the other boys and teachers at the school who are impacted by Skippy's untimely death.

I loved this book - it took me only a few days to read it even though it's 661 pages long and sometimes difficult to read, emotionally at least. Murray does a wonderful job in conveying all points of view - at times, he's poignant, at times cynical, at times nieve and at other times just really, really witty.  Totally worth the read, even though some parts of this novel are heavy, or dark or both at the same time.

Anthropology of an America Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann

I heard about this book on NPR. This book first came out in 2003 when Hilary Thayer Hamann self-published it.  Then, recently, it really took off and hit the mainstream press. It is 620 some odd pages and covers some years in the life of Eveline Auerbach, a girl that lives in East Hampton, NY and New York City in the late 70's and early 80's. She is raised by her divorcee, professor mother and sometimes, her father takes part in her upbringing - he lives in New York city after all. During her junior year in high school, she meets and falls in love with Jack. Jack is a rebel in every sense of the word, and is, in particular rebelling against his father, a wealthy man who seems to ruin everything that he touches. When that relationship ends, Evie meets and falls in love with Harrison Rourke during her senior year in high school. Harrison is a substitute drama teacher at her high school who also boxes professionally and has ties to the New Jersey mafia. After spending a magical summer together, Evie and Harrison split up and Evie enrolls at NYU for college.  She also ends up moving in with Mark, a rich stockbroker type who is als very, very slimey and reptilian and just rubs everyone the wrong way. Mark hates Harrison with a passion that is almost unseen in other people.  Evie lives with Mark for three long, unhappy years.

This book was pretty good - I can see why it became popular so quickly. It tells a really good story of a girl whose voice is absolutely authentic and true.  Her opinions regarding relationships - romantic and otherwise - all seem so true. She's also very charming and beguiling, particularly at the beginning of the novel.  We've all been in high school and had relationshps while we're there, so this part is interesting and easily related to. The second part moves a bit more slowly and perhaps tries the patience more so than the first part of the novel. It annoys the reader that she doesn't get herself out of what is obviously a bad situation that is continuously getting worse. 

While this isn't going to be on any prize winning lists, it is an entertaining read that is addictive and distracting. Worth the read for sure.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Passage by Justin Cronin

This was another of of those book blogger cult favorites that I just barely got around to reading. It's a 784 page monster of a book (no pun intended) about vampires, but it's not like Twilight or Bram Stoker or Anne Rice type of vampire novel. In fact, these vampires are highly trained killing machines created by the US government from people that were on death row after committing capital offenses in their home states.  The recruits are found and signed up by FBI agents after the ranks of death row inmates were culled. They have no mercy and nothing to tell them what is right or wrong, but they do often wonder who they are. 12 death row inmates (a Biblical reference I wonder?) are the original test targets and a six year old orphan is also found, to be a potential test subject. The 12 become jumpers, who eat the animals thrown into their cells until they escape and begin to prey on humans, who become vampires in their own right once attacked.

There are humans that somehow survive. In order to continue their survival, they band together and it's this group of people that form the First Colony in the World After. They begin to pair off and have children, who aren't told about the vampires until they are old enough to go into the world and fight.  The main character is Amy Bellafonte, the six year old girl that we are introduced to whose role it seems is to save the world.

I can't wait for the next installment in the series because there is no doubt that this is the first in a sequence where Amy is the cathartic character. The book was never dull - I was always looking forward to the next page, hell the next sentence.  It is definitely a page turner. It made me constantly look over my shoulder, hoping that a Jumper wouldn't be lurking behind me or above me waiting to make me a vampire.

Can't wait for the next!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I think that I'm the last blogger to have read and reviewed this book but I finally got around to it.  This is technically classified as young adult science fiction but there were some themes that were pretty mature in it and which adults could relate to, perhaps for different reasons.

The setting is the country of Panem. Panem is a fictional country that rises out of what once was the United States, Canada and Mexico.  It seems to be almost a post apocalyptic society in the same way that The Handmaid's Tale was.  The country consists of a wealthy Capitol district in the Rocky Mountains and twelve poorer districts who are known for certain types of industry.  The main character comes from the 12th district - Appalachia - known for its coal mining. There is a 13th district that was torn apart and literally wiped off the map by the Capitol due to a rebellion - it no longer has residents or industry and exists in name only, literally. The story takes place sometime in the future, although we are never told when in the future it takes place. As punishment for the 13th District's Rebellion against the Capitol District, one boy and one girl, aged 12 to 18, from each district is selected to compete in the Government sponsored Hunger Games, which are broadcast live on TV (think Survivor but where the competitors actually die). Each competitor, or tribute, must fight in an undisclosed outdoor arena to the death, until one remains.

Katniss, a fatherless girl from District 12, is the protagonist for this novel. After volunteering to be the girl tribute from her district in order to spare her sister (who is selected), we follow her as she travels through the Capitol and participates in the games.

The major themes in this novel are big government and Big Brother as well as personal independence and freedom, as the government is involved in just about every aspect of their citizens' lives. I wasn't able to put this book down for a second once I started it, to the anger and frustration of my household. Yes, it probably would have gone by quickly simply because it's a young adult book, but it seemed to fly by even faster because it was such a good book. It was entertaining and disturbing and fascinating all at the same time. Very believable and a great read.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mantel

Ms. St. John Mantel's first novel is about Lilia Albert. At seven, Lilia Albert is visted by her father, a man that she hasn't seen in about one year, and taken by him from her rural Canadian home in the middle of the night. As a result, she never sees her mother or brother, with whom she already lives, again. Instead her father, who has his own money, moves her from one American city to another, sometimes not spending more than a few hours or a night in one place. Along the way, he provides for Lilia's education - she mostly learns languages while he's driving, upon which she is quizzed later on.

At the beginning of the novel, though, we know none of this. We meet Lilia as a twenty something dishwasher who is living in New York City - Brooklyn to be exact - and she is dating a young graduated student named Eli. Eli is in love with her so when Lilia leaves him somewhat unceremoniously as only she can, his spirit is utterly ravaged and he is left devastated. As Eli begins to search for her, he learns about Lilia and we learn about her at the same time, as the story is told through the alternating viewpoints of a private investigator (hired by Lilia's mother to find her), Eli, and the private investigator's daughter, who feels and actually is utterly neglected by her father's obssession in finding Lilia.

I loved this book - it was a wonderfuly, quirky and deep novel that kept me reading. I really wanted to learn all that I could about Lilia - she was so mysterious - I wanted to know why she did what she did and where she had come from and why she had been taken by her absentee father. Nothing seemed to be revealed at once and making revelations in a manner like pulling back onion peels also made this book really, really special.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Scout, Atticus and Boo by Mary McDonagh Murphy

I remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee for the first time in ninth grade Honors English class. It was one of the few books where our English teachers also showed us the move, which is also one of my favorite movies. I liked it then and I liked it now, albeit for different reasons.  For me, Atticus was the main figure, where for others it may have been Scout or Boo Radley.

Anyways, this book by Mary Murphy is based upon a video documentary that she is working on, in book form. The first of two sections is written aby Murphy's own personal experiences with the book. She discusses her feelings, thoughts and reactions to the book version and the movie version and why she was inspired to compose her own documentary and accompanying book. The second section is composed of essays written by famous people, including Oprah Winfrey, Tom Brokaw and Mary Badham (who played Scout in the movie) and which includes their own impressions of the book.

I generally enjoyed the first section and the first few essays of the second section, but the book quickly grew repetitive. A lot of the essayists had the same reactions and many focussed on how Harper Lee didn't write a second novel, was a very private person and how Truman Capote, one of Lee's friends, didn't ghostwrite or otherwise assist Lee in writing the novel that garnered her a Pulitzer Prize. Because of the repetitiveness, the book took me a little bit longer to read than it normally would have - the writing style is such that if it had been more unique, I would have flown right through everything. I did appreciate that gossip and speculation about Harper Lee was not included in this book - smut like that has no place in a celebration of a book that is still extremely important to American society 50 years after its first printing.

Worthwhile read, but get it out from the library instead of purchasing.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Lit by Mary Karr

I loved reading Mary Karr's other memoirs so I was excited when this one came out. Unfortunately, it took me until now to get to it.

Lit, Karr's latest memoir, details her struggles with alcohol, her road to sobriety and her converstion to Catholicism. The focus is on her early years as a writer and young parent and how alcohol impacted those things as well as contributed to the dissolution of her marriage. Timeline wise, this book takes place 9 years after the events discussed in Cherry, Karr's coming of age memoir. The story begins with Karr as a teenager and then as a college student, then as a poet and grad student and finally her family life.

I loved this memoir.  There were some parts of it that really struck home for me as a young parent - especially when Karr details the impact of her drinking on her son in particular.  It was poignant and touching and emotional and raw, but eloquent and wonderful at the same time.  She's also really meticulous and frank in her descriptions and stories.  Karr doesn't spare the reader or herself the memories and the pain and the other emotions that are attached to her struggles. She excellently conveys the tension that she experiences between her heart/emotion and her brain/intellectualism in a way that very few authors could do. 

Karr's story is inspiring and wonderful and a must read for all.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

This novel by Tatjana Soli is about a female photojournalist that covers the Vietnam War from 1969 until a little bit beyond its close in 1972. Helen finds that the violence that she photographs changes her life in numerable ways and that she can't just leave the country, no matter how many times she nearly dies in the process. It's an addiction, akin to that possibly felt by extreme sports fanatics. Helen arrives there in Vietnam obsessed with learning about her brother, who died in the war. She is young and naive and inexperienced. She quickly becomes hooked to Sam Darrow, another photographer, who becomes her mentor and lover. He's already a ton of time doing what Helen will spend the next decade of her life doing. He can't return home, even though he constantly promises that he would do so. And Linh is, perhaps, the most complicated of all - he is Vietnamese with ties to both the NVA and SVA and the underground, black market.

The title is a reference to the Greek myth of Lotus Eaters, who eat the narcotic plants and become obsessed, possessed and addicted by them. And that reference comes out during the entire book from Sam Darrow, who can't leave to Helen who keeps returning. They're addicted to war, the endorphins that trail behind it and what they see there. It also explores violence and the role that it plays on relationships - most notably love and longing between Darrow, Helen and Linh.

I really enjoyed this novel and would highly recommend it.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Good Son by Michael Gruber

This is one of the books that I heard about on NPR and decided to read, and was wildly glad that I did.

The Good Son was written by Michael Gruber, a man that had a lot of careers before becoming a novelist, including chef and journalist. I'm convinced that his background as a journalist helped him in composing this novel about the intersection of the Muslim world of Pakistan/Afghanistand and the West.

The protagonist, Sonya Davis, is a white, American woman that practices both Islam and Catholicism and married a wealthy Pakistani. After working briefly in a circus, she and her husband, Farid Laghari, moved to Lahore where they had three children - one of whom (Theo) we get to know intimately in this novel. Theo is raised in Lahore. At ten, a family tragedy inspires Theo and his best friend (and adopted brother) Wazir to run off to join the jihad against the Russians (it is, after all, the late eighties when the Russians were in Afghanistan). At 13, Theo becomes a legendary jihadist after he single handedly kills 60 soldiers and takes over their fort. As the novel begins, Sonya is leading a group of activists into the Afghani country and mountains in order to hold a convention that promotes peace. They are taken hostage. Theo promptly sets out to rescue his mother.

I really enjoyed this novel because it was a spy/mystery novel that contained a lot of information about the Muslim world and discussion about comparative religion/culture.  That was what interested me the most about this book. Gruber's writing style made this discussion accessible and interesting while not letting it drag a whole lot (though in some places it did). Each plotline (of which there are three) are told in alternating chapters from different points of view, but it's hardly confusing or difficult to follow and actually makes the book more enjoyable because, in my opinion, it becomes easier to follow.

Mr. Gruber obviously has a talent and it's one that you must enjoy with this novel.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Possibility of Everything by Hope Edelman

I heard about this book on one of the podcasts that I listen to - the Manic Mommies interviewed Hope Edelman on one of the podcasts that I listened to (I'm really behind) and the book sounded really interesting. And it was really interesting.

This memoir takes place in 2000. Hope is living with her three year old daughter (Maya) and her husband, Uzi, in California. She's a writer and her husband works for a start up computer company.  Hope is going through a rough period - she's not happy with her writing, she feels like she gives up a lot of time with her daughter and Uzi has been working long hours at the start-up so her relationship with him is suffering. She resents him for not being around for her or for Maya.  So the family plans a trip to Belize. As the trip approaches, Maya begins to act strangely. She begins to act out by becoming violent towards her parents, playing alone and blaming everything on her new imaginary friend, Dodo.  All the doctors and social workers that Hope talks to reassure her that this is normal for a child that is Maya's age, but Hope's instincts tell her something else is at work.  Uzi suggests that they meet with shamans in Belize to see if they can help Maya and Hope is very resistant to the idea.

The trip starts out poorly because Maya is physically ill - she has a fever and a nasty cough that is, in all likelihood, Croup. Two trips to two different shamans occur. The first one is ended early by Hope herself, who is still suspicious of them.  The second one is a much more positive one for her and her family.

This story is really about Hope Edelman, couched in her daughter's story.  She details her struggles as a working, professional mother who wants to do the best that she can for her child while still making money and having a career.  What it is, perhaps, most of all is about a woman that pushes against the boundaries of her belief systems and learns what faith is: what it means to have faith in something that one normally wouldn't believe in, even where there is no explanation for it.  And I thought that Hope had a lot of guts to put herself in the position where she was trusting someone like a shaman and then, on the second level, writing about her experiences and her fears and belief systems so publicly. And her writing was so beautiful and accessible. At one point, she describes her family's trip to the ancient Mayan ruins in Belize and I almost felt like I was there.

Highly recommended and one that I would purchase for your home library.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Fun With Problems by Robert Stone

This is a short collection of seven stories written by Robert Stone. I heard about this collection on NPR I think, but I had never heard of the author before.

The main characters in each of Stone's stories seem to deal with the same issues - dissatisfaction with their life in some way, shape or form that they deal with by consuming massive amounts of alcohol. Some consume so much alcohol that they are literally and figuratively drowning in it (there are at least two drownings/near drownings in this collection). 

When I first started reading, I wasn't sure that I was going to be able to get through the entire collection.  While some of the stories drew me in immediately, some of them did not. I lost interest in some of the characters easily, perhaps because all of the main characters were male and their struggles were not like mine, not because they were male but simply because I didn't have their issues and couldn't relate to their issues. But I kept on and when I ask myself why, I figured out why.  Stone is an exquisite author who manages, somehow, to dig to the root of his character's problems and present them in such a raw manner that you can't help but continue. It's almost like you can't look away, no matter how hard you try to. He's a good writer in that his word choice is so pleasurable but his plots also made it difficult to plow through his stories or even to savor them. He needs to work a little bit on plot at least as it relates to his short story work.

Generally, decent.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

This is the 11th novel by Guy Gavriel Kay and I'm surprised that I haven't heard of this author or read anything by him before because this book was an absolute treat. It is set in 8th centruy China, during the Tang dynasty, but the country is only loosely based upon that time and place. The main character is Shen Tai, the second son of a reknowned general that has passed away. Shen's older brother, Liu, is the assistant to the prime minister of Kitan (as Chinas is known n this novel). The brothers have a younger sister that becomes a princess and part of the royal family.

Their father has recently died and part of Shen Tai's mourning was to go to a remote village, where a battle has recently occurred and where there are many unburied bodies.  Of course, ghosts roam the area as well, at least until their bodies are buried. Shen Tai buries the bodies of the dead soldiers that he comes across. As a result of his work, he is given a gift of 250 horses; horses from the nieghboring country that are prized in Kitan. They are workhorses, warhorses, beautiful and they bring honor to whoever owns them. He is swept up in the national political scene and makes friends and connections.  He is the subject of at least one assassination attempt.

This novel, perhaps unsurprisingly once you have read it, took five years of work and it shows. It is well written and well researched. The book is beautiful and full of life. It doesn't drag along and isn't smarmy, like some historical fiction books tend to do. The characters are beautifully developed and drawn. They are multifaceted. This novel is everything that one would want it to be. 

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich

I think that this is the second or third book in a month that waxes eloquently on marriage - specifically bad ones.  I hope that it doesn't say anything about my unconsciousness or whatever (it doesn't, but seriously, why are all the books that I have been picking up about dysfunctional relationships in some way shape or form?).

This novel begins with a diary entry written by Irene America - she actually keeps two diaries. One of the diaries is for herself and she keeps it in a lockbox at her local bank - a lockbox that only she has access to. The other she keeps in her desk drawer in her home and she writes in it what she wants her husband to see. Both Irene and her husband, Gil, are of Native American descent and both are raised by single mothers, but the novel doesn't delve into typical Native American Indian themes.  Its focus is more on relationships. Gil, a painter, paints portraits of Irene and uses them as weapons and, sometimes therapy, in much the same way that Irene uses her diary (at least the public one that she knows Gil reads) as a weapon against him. Gil is plagued by jealousy that causes him to lash out at their older son, Florian, while at the same time causing him to lash out almost passively/aggressively at his wife, through his paintings (some of which are disturbing).

This novel was very raw but very well done.  The characters are flawed but somehow, you manage to figure them out and relate to them on some level. The ones that you really feel for are the three children, that must bear witness to their parents' steadily sinking marriage, and their hate of each other. They often bear the brunt of their parents' fights. Vert enjoyable.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Where the God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom

I haven't been put off simply because my last foray was just plain awful!  I picked up Amy Bloom's newest edition of short stories and I wasn't disappointed at all.

This collection of short stories looks at a few different families who must deal with certain common American themes: they often must deal with death, aging, love (or the lack of it) and children moving away.  But the one common silver thread in all of these stories is strength: strength to leave or stay, to stand up for what you believe is the right thing to do. Of all the families that she focussed on, my favorite was about Julia, a white woman, who marries Lionel, a black musician with a son from a previous marriage. I loved following this family through all of its tumultuous events.

Amy Bloom is an extraordinary writer. She manages to hook you with the very first words that she writes and manages to keep you interested throughout her entire story.  The words that she uses were obviously carefully considered and the joy that I got out of them were immeasurable.  That sort of care goes a long way. I wouldn't go into this expecting a completely happy picture of marriage or love or relationships, however. This is a somewhat bittersweet and sometimes unhappy view of the institution.

Overall though, wonderful!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Free to a Good Home by Eve Marie Mont

Sometimes I read reviews of books on blogs and I think that I might enjoy the book enough that I should buy it, so I do. And more often than not, I'm not disappointed - I end up liking the book enough that I'll keep it and am glad that I bought it. But there are also times that I can't believe that I purchased a particular book because I end up not loving it (in purchasing books, it's become important to me that the book is either a classic or one that I love before I purchase it - it's a way of saving money!).  This book is one of those books that I didn't love and almost (dare I say) regret buying.

This novel is about Noelle Ryan, a vet technician whose husband Jay has told her that he's gay and filing for divorce, thereby eviscerating her hopes and dreams of a family with him and forcing her to re-evaluate her life and her goals for it. Noelle has a lot of stuff going for her, although dealing with her issues and problems isn't one of them. She's a successful vetrinary technician with a penchant for organizing charity events and convincing people to donate money, so that she can make the shelter that she works at more hospitable for the animals she cares for. She's also dedicated to her family, although she sometimes borders on obssessing about them. Throw in a family that is pressuring her to have kids, a sensitive musician boyfriend type and an apparently vindicative ex-mother in law and you have a stereotypical chicklit book.

And that's all this novel was - fluffy, disappointing and unsatisfying chicklit. It was predictable as far as plot line went and the prose was completely unsatisfying.  The characters were very two dimensional - Noelle acted only as a doormat in my opinion. She was walked over so many times that it was beyond boring and beyond me having the energy to even want to reach into the book and hit over the head or shake her to get her to come to her senses. I just wasn't interested in the characters and so found myself slogging through, thankful that it was a really quick, mindless and easy read. 

Pass on this one.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Broken Glass Park by Alina Bronsky,translated by Tim Mohr

This short and yet heavy novel is Alina Bronsky's debut novel.  Originally published in German, it has been translated into English by Tim Mohr. Sasha Naimann is a teenage girl. She, her mother (Marina), stepfather Vadim, younger brother Anton and younger sister Alissa moved from Russia to Germany, where they settled into a Russian ghetto. Sasha, a brilliant woman, opens the book by saying that she plans to murder her stepfather because he murdered her mother and her mother's new boyfriend. Vadim is incarcerated, giving Sasha the belief that she has more time to plan his execution. Sasha takes care of her brother and sister with the assistance of Maria, also a Russian immigrant and Vadim's cousin. Sasha struggles with the powerful desire to remain in the apartment that her mother was murdered in, in the housing project known as the "Emerald," because her neighbors (also Russian immigrants), want her family to leave and take their bad luck with them.  Sasha also feels like she doesn't wholly belong because she refuses to participate in the drunken, drug driven parties that her peers engage in in nearby Broken Glass Park - a park that literally has glass strewn about.

What I loved about Sasha is that she has great capacity for love, in spite of the harsh hand that life has been dealt her. She is very protective of her younger siblings and she even agrees to tutor a neighbor in order to help her pass her exams and not be left behind in school. However, her capcity for actually being kind most of the time is non-existent because of what she has suffered. The translation and the writing style along with the memorable Sasha made this book a wonderful and memorable read. It went by insanely fast. I think that I read it in about a day and a half, which is a record for me having a child and a full time job and not as much time as I would like to read.

This is definitely one for you to read.

Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende

Island Beneath the Sea is Isabel Allende's eight novel. It's historical fiction set in the 1700's and 1800's in both Santo Domingo/Haiti and New Orleans during the slave uprisings, the French Revolution and the Louisiana Purchase. Zarite, also known as Tete, is the heroine of the novel. She is a slave that was brutally raped by her master, Toulouse Valmorain, at the age of 11. Somehow, Tete manages to survive this and subsquent harsh injustices through her indomitable spirit and her religious beliefs - a mix of voodoo beliefs and Christianity. 

I loved the historical backdrop of this novel.  The details about the sugar plantations in Haiti and the fights that occur between slaves and freepeople/planters as well as the tension between mulattos and blacks is just delightful. Her cast of characters was also particularly memorable - it wasn't just about Tete, Toulouse and their children. It was about a revolutionary former slave that Tete falls in love with (and who fights with Toussaint L'Ouverture), the mulatto courtesan who marries the white military man and Toulouse's second, controlling Creole wife, as well as his brother in law.  They were fun, memorable and interesting. 

To me, what perhaps made this book the most memorable, was how Allende describes these important historical events and their impact on the lives of the women in her novel. I also really like how Allende describes and tells the story of how women were important to the historical events in this novel. 

This is a magical novel that you should read right away.  

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross

Mr. Peanut is, I believe, Adam Ross' first novel and it was a really good one! The main character is the institute of marriage, specifically the marriage of Alice and David Pepin. They met in a college seminar on Alfred Hitchcock and were married for 13 years. While David ostensibly loves Alice, he is also obssessed with her death and writes a novel describing how he would kill her. Then, one day, Alice is dead and David is the main suspect. The two detectives who investigate the case also have their own experiences with the institution of marriage - Detective Haskell's wife has become militantly bedridden although there is seemingly no reason for it and he reacts, sometimes meanly and sometimes explosively to that.  Detective Sam Sheppard was convicted and then exonerated of his wife's murder years before (yes, he's Dr. Shepard of The Fugitive fame). The plot then thickens when David is linked to a reknowned hit man known only as Mobious.  I don't want to say too much more because I may end  up giving something away.

I absolutely dveoured this novel - as much as a full time working outside the home mother can devour a book. It was wonderfully dark, complex and unflinching of its portrayal of the dark sides of marriage and how spouses can treat each other.  The novel is told mostly from the husband's point of view, so don't expect to get any insight into the female psyche. In spite of that, I was drawn in. I think that the reason that it took me a week to devour this book was that it was so complex and sometimes took some decoding. I sometimes had to re-read portions to remember what happened and to make sure that I was clear on what happened, but I was more than happy to do that because Ross' style of writing is meaty and rich and I could lose myself in it.

Ross is unflinchingly honest. He doesn't sugarcoat marriage and its difficulties.  At one point, he states that the middle of marriage is often the hardest portion and I think that this is something that may resound with many married couples.  I completely appreciated the honesty. 

It was very rewarding to read this book and must be an addition to your home library.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb

I've had this book kicking around for about a year right now but haven't ever gotten around to actually reading it. Wally Lamb's most recent novel follows Caelum and Maureen Quirk's life. When we first meet them, they are both working at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado - she as a nurse and he as an English teacher. Their marriage is in shambles, in part due to her affair and in part due to his own social disorders. In April of 1999, Caelum returns to his hometown of Three Rivers, Connecticut in order to be with his aunt Lolly, who has had a stroke. She dies on his first night there, the night before Columbine's shooting. Maureen finds herself hiding in a cupboard in the Columbine H.S. library, hoping that the shooters don't kill her (they don't) and listening to some of her students get shot. She is unable to recover from the trauma, in spite of counseling. In order to help Maureen recover, Caelum and she move to Three Rivers permanently, and, while there, he discovers a treasure trove of diaries, letters and other papers left over from his family, which date back to the Civil War.

This book, while using Columbine as a tool, is mainly about the struggles and ravages of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Maureen suffers from it and so does one of Caelum's college students in Connecticut, who has just returned (physically injured) from a tour of duty in Iraq. It looks at how PTSD impacts the survivors of awful events as well as how it impacts the people whose lives they touch - classmates, family, friends. In one stunning moment, Caelum's student tells a story about how he was holding his two year old daughter in his lap at his welcome home story while she was eating cake. His family had put an edible picture of him on the cake and his daughter had gotten a piece of his face. When she says "Daddy, I'm eating your face" he had a flashback to his friend's head being blown off and ended up throwing his daughter to the floor while in the power of the flashback.

How Wally Lamb describes the killing at Columbine and its aftermath is unforgettable. He uses real names - the names of the killers and the names of the victims. Lamb also did extesnsive research about Columbine. He used first hand sources - excerpts from the killers' diaries, videos and other manuscripts in addition to interviews - as well as secondary sources from the mainstream media. I also really enjoyed the occasional forays into Quirk family history that Lamb adds, perhaps even more so than the parts about PTSD and Columbine. I felt like it added a whole new dimension.  I was very impressed by Lamb's ability to get into the minds of the people that he created and talked about.  The novel went by quickly, in spite of its length.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Blind Side starring Sandra Bullock

I finally got around to seeing this movie, mostly because I was really curious about Sandra Bullock's performance in it. After all, she garnered the Academy Award for her portrayal of Leigh Ann Tuohy. While I generally have no strong feelings regarding Sandra Bullock (before this I wouldn't have said that I despised her or really loved her - thought that she was cute), I wouldn't have expected her to pull off an Academy Award winning performance. Anyways...

This movie was released in 2009 and was directed by John Lee Hancock. It was based on the book The Blind Side: An Evolution of a game, written by Michael Lewis. It stars Sandra Bullock (as Leigh Ann Tuohy), Quinton Aaron (as Michael Oher), Tim McGraw (as Sean Tuohy, and yes, that would be the country singer). When we first meet Michael Oher, he's 17 years old, poor and bouncing around from foster home to foster home, mostly because he runs away. A father's friend manages to convince the football coach at a wealthy, private, Christian school that Michael is a natural athlete and, as a result, Michael is enrolled at the school. While at school, he befriends Sean Tuohy, Jr. and they become fast friends.  One day, after a Thanksgiving pageant at the school in which Sean has starred, Leigh Ann and Sean, Sr. see Michael walking down the street, in the cold and rain, shivering and wet.  Leigh Ann offers Michael a place to stay, becomes his legal guardian and helps him to navigate the worlds of school, scholarships and football so that he can get into a college.

The movie itself wasn't all that great - I had to keep reminding myself that the story is a true one, where Michael Oher actually was drafted into the NFL.  The movie was so sugarcoated that I thought that I was going to get cavities at least an hour into the movie, if I didn't have them already by that time. It also seemed to be steeped with stereotypes - the rich, white, highly coiffed woman helps the poor, athletic, black boy - and that made me feel really uncomfortable. There was also a ton of really bad product placement. Usually, good product placement is done so that the viewer is hardly aware that it's being done. But in this movie, Taco Bell and Borders Bookstores are ostentatiously placed in the viewer's faces, so that it's really hard to miss. 

As far as Sandra Bullock's performance, I don't see how or why she got the Academy Award for this role.  She wasn't charismatic, she didn't have to raise her voice or have any passion or anything of that nature.  I just don't think that the role or the performance was deserving of an award.

Good to rent, but probably not to own.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

I've had this book for a while but have just gotten around to reading it. It takes place in New York City in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The narrator, Hans van den Broek, is a Dutchman that begins playing at the Staten Island Cricket Club, having rediscovered his childhood passion. He and his English wife, Rachel, have moved to New York in 1998 so that he can work at the NY Stock Exchange as a broker and she can work as a lawyer in the New York Branch of her law firm. They bring a young son, Jake, along with them.

During one of his very first matches, Hans meets Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian immigrant and businessman who is obsessed with bringing cricket to the mass market in America, mostly by building a tremendous stadium in the outer boroughs of New York. As Hans and Chuck became closer, Hans begins to accompany Chuck around the city. Hans, whose marriage has failed (Rachel has returned to England with Jake), believes that the trips are so that he can practice his driving as he is insistent upon getting an American driving license. He soon realizes that the trips that he takes with Chuck are so that Chuck can engage in murky, sketchy business practices. Eventually, Hans opts to return to England to salvage his marriage but learns a year or two later that Chuck was murdered and his body found floating in a local river.

It took me a while to get into this book.  O'Neill's long sentences take a little bit to get used to so at the beginning, I had to begin sentences over again. But once I got used to his ebb and flow of writing, I found it really wonderful and entertaining to read. I really enjoyed the themes that O'Neill presented as well - family and identity in foreign places.

Go out and get this book immediately!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson

This is Stieg Larsson's third, and final, novel in the Millenium series. It begins where the second novel, The Girl Who Played With Fire, left off.  Lisbeth Salander, the "girl" referred to in all three titles, is being sent to Sahlgreska Hospital in Stockholm after sustaining a bullet wound to the head and massive wounds to her shoulder. Surprisingly, she's still alive. After a long, intense surgery, Lisbeth is placed in the ICU, where she is only visited by medical staff, police and her lawyers, since she's under arrest for pretty serious offenses - attempted murder, aggravated assault and the like.  There's also talk about getting her committed to a mental hospital for pretty much the rest of her life. But the book itself, like it's previous two books, centers around government corruption and conspiracies, hatred and abuse of women (and Larsson's obvious concern and hatred of that hatred), and the threat to Swedish democracy by right wing elements in Swedish society. It's secondary themes seem to be loyalty and friendship and love.

I read this book as quickly and voraciously as I could, considering that I work full time, am on a broken ankle at work (yes, I finally returned!) and have a 2.5 year old.  It only took me one week to read a book that is 500 + pages. I was happy that the first one hundred pages or so resolved a number of mysteries left over from the first two books, even though I struggled to remember what had happened. I had to skim synopses from the first two books in order to remember.  What I didn't like was how Mr. Larsson introduced new characters so quickly; it was done so quickly that I had to keep a list and refer to it often to keep straight who was who, especially because there were at least two sets of characters whose names were fairly similar to each other. I thought that Larsson did an admirable job in his social commentary. He takes on really complex issues - issues that people have fought over and will continue to fight over for years to come - and he does so morally, cleverly and in a way that people can understand.  Some of his characters can be trying at times - for instance, while Mikael Blomkvist is an astoundingly dogged and loyal friend, who will do anything to make sure their voice is heard, he is unerringly vain and that vanity rubbed me the wrong way.  Of course, having a flawed hero isn't necessarily a bad thing - one can't have someone completely unrealistic take the helm otherwise readers won't necessarily identify with that person. The action sequences were good but what I really appreciated was how he made women equal players on the scene - police officers, lawyers and the like. It was fantastic.

Highly recommended but make sure you start with the first in the trilogy - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Monday, June 7, 2010

This is the third in a series of young adult books written by Megan McCafferty. Jessica Darling, the protagonist from the first two novels, has returned and is a student at Columbia University in New York City, a place that is decidedly different from her hometown of Pineville, New Jersey. She is still madly in love with her high school boyfriend, Marcus Flutie, who has decided to attend college in California. Because he's off to California, they don't see each other all that often. This novel follows Jessica's life from a freshman through her graduation from Columbia and is told as entries in Jessica's journals.

I thought the first book was pretty good - Ms. McCafferty seemed to have really hit upon something with Jessica. She had developed a character that was smart, witty, and was outside the box.  These traits were developed in the second book in the trilogy - aptly named Second Helpings.  But somehow, it got lost in the third book.  Jessica wasn't the same person. Jessica began going for months - literally, months - without writing in her journals. I was disappointed because Jessica didn't seem to be the type of person to just forget to memorialize what was going on in her life. Writing in some way, shape or form was so important to Jessica - she had written brilliant, snarky editorials for her high school newspaper and wonderful journal entries all throughout her life. Now, she left out parts of her life - perhaps the parts of her life that were the most interesting or could have been the most interesting to us. The book seemed disjointed and didn't flow very well at all, due in large part to the lost months of time.  The cool, complicated girl that I knew from the first two novels became annoyingly cloy, one dimensional and predictable and I hated it. 

You can pass on this one.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore

Wes Moore was born in Maryland in 1978 but currently works for Citigroup in New York City. His life path was  pretty interesting.  At three, he saw his father die in front of him after his father was misdiagnosed at a local area hospital.  His mother moved the family around a bit and sent her son to a private school. While there, he failed out because of behavioral issues and non-attendance, even though his two sisters did fairly well.  He was then sent to a military academy in Pennsylvania, where he graduated with honors and as a regimental commander, even though he attempted to run away four times in his first week there.  Wes eventually went on to college and became a Rhodes Scholar.

As Wes was preparing to attend Oxford University in 2000, Wes learned of another man named Wes Moore who also, coincidentally, grew up in Maryland.  In fact, the two had lived in the same neighborhood, and the "other" Wes Moore was two years older. The two had never met. The "other" Wes Moore was starting a life prison bid after being convicted of murdering an off duty police officer during the course of a bank robbery. So the Wes on the outside of the prison wrote a letter to the Wes Moore that was behind the bars.  Wes Moore, the author, had burning questions that he wanted answers - how did two men with the same name from the same neighborhood with similar backgrounds end up on such markedly different paths in their lives?

This book is told in alternating sections, which I guess is effective in detailing the differences between the two men.  However, there is no passion - it's simply a re-telling.  The author talks about the works of Malcolm X and how he was inspired by him as well as Colin Powell. However, none of the passion that those men wrote with or even an ounce of their skill is apparent in Mr. Moore's literary capabilities. I think that the real value in this book is the question that was asked and the questions that remain unanswered - how do two people from similar backgrounds end up taking such different paths?  What social forces are in play to make people choose to do one thing over another? What happens when the village cannot raise the child because it isn't equipped to do so?

My Life in France by Julia Child

I picked up this book and started reading it right after I finished up reading Julie and Julia by Julie Powell (reviewed here). My Life in France is an autobiography by Julia Child (written with her husband's grandnephew, Alex Prud'homme). It was begun during the last eight months of her life and completed and published by Mr. Prud'homme after she died in August of 2004.

The autobiography is comprised of various stories, linked of course, and which focus on Ms. Child's life from 1948 through 1954. During that time period, Ms. Child and her husband, Paul Child, began their life in Europe - most notably France - and focuses on how Julia came to love all things French - the culture, the people and the food, of course. It also focuses not just on her life there, but on how she and her co-authors wrote her famous treatise on French cooking: Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It details their struggles to find a publisher and get the cookbook slimmed down (it was apparently a TREMENDOUS book - bigger than what it currently is). Julia Child also looks at how she began cooking on TV - she was one of the pioneers in cooking live on TV and owes that success not only to her book but to WGBH, Boston's public television station.

Like many people my age (31), you probably remember seeing Julia Child cooking on TV. She was a staple on television - I swear that she was on all the time - but I don't remember much about her besides her mannerisms.  I was too young to be allowed anywhere near a stove (some say that I'm still too young to be near a stove). I've never been to France or tried to cook anything French (besides the dubiously named French Fries) but I loved this book. Julia's voice is charming - I think that she would have been a person that I would have liked to call her a friend.  She was funny, witty and observant and this all showed through in the book. Maybe, due to my love for food and wine (when I can drink it!), I really loved the details about the food that she made and the wine that she drank. Her details about the places in France that we lived or visited were just as fascinating. 

Generally liked this book...but you can decide yourself whether to purchase it for your collection or not.

Stitches by David Small

David Small tells the story of his unhappy childhood in this graphic memoir. About 50 years ago, when Mr. Small was 14, he underwent surgery that rendered him mute for all intents and purposes and also resulted in his thyroid gland being removed. He believed that a cyst was being removed, but it turned out that the "cyst" was a tumor that had begun to grow as the result of the x-ray treatments performed on David when David was just an infant by his own father (who was a radiologist). At the time that David was an infant, radiological treatments were used to cure sinus and breathing issues, which David had as a child.  As a result of the insane amount of radiology used, David developed cancer. For nearly a decade after his surgery, he couldn't physically speak above the level of a hoarse whisper, no matter how hard he trained his remaining vocal cords.

The fact that David's father gave him cancer is one of the devastating sad parts of the story; but there is a second theme that is just as devastating: the communication, or lack of it, that is apparent in David's family  The fact that David was exposed to a high risk of cancer by his father isn't really discussed by David, his father OR his mother aside from a very, very brief conversation a few months after the surgery. In fact, it's almost as if David learned that he had cancer by accident and would have continued to believe that a cyst was removed if he hadn't accidentally stumbled upon it. Other communication was non-verbal - his mother only communicated her displeasure by a little cough that she had. She wasn't very adept at showing her love for her son, if she even loved him at all. It's also about having a voice - or finding an alternative method to having your voice heard when your original voice has been literally ripped from you without your knowledge or consent.

The book is really raw. My heart wrenched, particularly at the parts where David is flashing back to getting the high doses of radiation when he learns that he, in fact, was exposed to cancer by his father.  Mr. Small has a way of illustrating the raw, strong emotions without words being necessary to convey what he intends.  Needless to say, if you haven't figured it out yet, I loved how Mr. Small drew this book. While the story itself moves quickly because of the careful format, I urge you to slow down or go back after the first read through so that you can study the illustrations and really appreciate them.

Definitely one to add to your collection.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Julie and Julia by Julie Powell

Julie Powell, while working for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation in the wake of 9/11 as a secretary, began the Julie/Julia project.  She was going to cook her way through the 524 recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year and she was going to blog about it. Her sole purpose in attempting to slog her way through this classic recipe collection is to enliven her dreary life and who wouldn't feel the same? I would be depressed answering phone calls from the victims of 9/11 and people complaining about the LMDC's plans to rebuild the World Trade Center. This blog became the basis of her book and the movie entitled Julie and Julia, starring Amy Adams and Meryl Streep and serves to commemorate her process. She attempts to weave Julia Child's life in Paris into her memoir as it is during this time that Julia learns about French cooking in almost painful detail. Julie's blog is highlighted in the media, and this leads to a lucrative book deal.

The book was very well written (as opposed to her next memoir - Cleaving - which I read and disliked immensely) but I often got really tired about the whining, stress bucket that was Julie Powell. It gets a little old when you are constantly being told by the author how awful her job is, how awful her life is and why she's better than everyone because she's doing this project.  There were times when she was very witty and pretty funny. I was impressed by the depth of Ms. Powell's research into Julia Child's life in Paris - she never met Julia Child (who died I think shortly after this project was done) so she had to look at letters written by both Ms. Child and her husband, Paul, as well as secondary resources - biographies and articles.  I found that the interludes in which she created the scenes between Paul and Julia were too forced and were unnecessary. Julie could have told her own story without those brief interludes and they did nothing to move any part of the story forward. If I wanted to learn about Julia Child, I would have picked up a book about her.

Generally an entertaining read if you can get past the angst.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Books v. Movies (or Order of the Phoenix movie v. Order of the Phoenix book)

OK, so I know that I haven't posted in a while but there's a reason for that, I swear.  I broke my ankle and had to have surgery. For the first few weeks, I was in a lot of pain and because I am also pregnant, there wasn't a whole lot that I could take for pain management (sorry Tylenol Extra Strength, you just don't cut it for an ankle that's broken in three places). I wasn't reading a whole lot because I was in pain - I couldn't really focus on what I was reading - and then, when the pain became more bearable, I was a tad depressed. Not being able to really leave the house, drive anywhere and to be utterly reliant upon another person to care for you can get depressing. But I'm back on the wagon now and for my comeback post, I wanted to talk about books v. movies generally. The inspiration for this post was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which I'm nearly done with reading and which I watched last night as a movie. 

After watching HP and the Order of the Phoenix, I'm a follower of the general rule that books are better than the movies and should be read before going to see their movie version.  There's a satisfaction that I get out of reading a book that I don't often get when I'm watching a movie. When I read a book, I can put it down and think about what I've just read. I can blog about a certain passage or journal about it in a private journal if it's really, really personal.  With a movie, when you're in the moment of the movie, it's often hard, at least for me, to just stop it and think about what I've just seen or a particular scene.  Also, there's something to be said about the act of physically reading a book - I like holding the book and turning the pages.  I find that my adult onset ADHD is satisfied in that way. With movies, I get distracted by other things really easily and sometimes will actually be doing two things at once - watching the movie and doing something else.

But my biggest complaint is that movies constantly seem to sacrifice the details and plot subtleties that make books so wonderful. And sometimes, they even change parts of the storyline to make it more palatable to viewing audiences that may not have read the book or to make the movie move that much more quickly. And that, to me, should be one of the mortal sins that Christianity teaches. It was my biggest complaint with the Order of the Phoenix movie - it left out so much and, because of what was left out now, the future movies were going to be impacted as well (the Half Blood Prince already was!).

What do you guys think?

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