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.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

This novel is my favorite novel and is written by my favorite author of all time. And the fact that it was written in 1985 just blows my m...