Saturday, October 4, 2014

Then There was You by Jennifer Weiner

I have read some of Jennifer Weiner's books in the past. I know that she's unusually prolific so I haven't read anything of hers in a while. I was surprised to find out that this book was all about surrogacy and egg donation instead of the usual chick-lit stuff. The story is told from differing perspectives. The first person we meet is Jules. Jules is a Princeton student, soon to be graduate, with a secret that she keeps from most of her classmates. She comes from a seriously broken family. She's also extremely beautiful and is at a loss as to why it attracts both men and women. It also attracts the attention of a person that works for an egg donation clinic, who is interested in her body but not in the normal way. We also meet Annie, a hard-working, blue collar mother of two and wife with two children and a husband that works for the TSA. Their small family lives in a beautiful farmhouse outside of Philadelphia. There is also the trophy wife: India. She's a chick lit staple: She's in search of a baby, she's a gold digging Manhattan socialite who works as a PR executive and who isn't all that she seems to be. She has snagged a wealthy, older man despite the fact that everything from her face to her name and past has been made up. Surprisingly, felt bad for her inspite of her awful actions.

My favorite part of this book was hearing the different voices and seeing the different perspectives. What were seemingly unrelated stories were later intertwined. A weakness of this same literary ploy, however, was that towards the end, I felt that things were too neatly and quickly intertwined. Life is oftentimes very much more messy and complicated particularly with regards to babies and reproduction than Weiner would have us believe from reading this book. Emotions and other practical matters never resolve as quickly as one would have us believe. It's also not a very complicated or quick read. This is not a book that you can sink your teeth into on a cold day. But it would be great as a beach read or something to distract you during a very trying period in your life.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

This is Stephen King's most recent novel and his first (and hopefully only!) crime/detective novel. The protagonist is Bill Hodges, a 62 year old retired, overweight former detective who now spends his afternoon watching daytime television and contemplating using his father's gun on himself until he gets a letter from the infamous Mercedes killer. The killer had, the year before, driven a grey Mercedes into a group of people who were waiting for a job fair to begin, killing 8 and injuring many more. The killer had gotten away and the case was one of the active ones when Hodges retired from the police force. The letter rejuvenates Hodges in a way that the killer perhaps never intended, motivating him to start his own private investigation and solve the case before the killer strikes again.

I understand that Stephen King has had a long and deep love for crime fiction - he has said it over and over again through the years. And lately, he's tried to branch out somewhat successfully with his book on JFK and Joyland, a coming of age tale. I genuinely liked what the MErcedes killer represented- a plausible bad guy who is unremarkable in his own way and could be anyone; he is a man that has a tenuous at best grasp upon reality and his own mental health. He can't stand the world that he lives in because of the circumstances that have occurred to him. However, the plot and the story itself was not in anyway unique: it was like every other crime novel that has ever been written and was utterly predictable. The characters were also really predictable and cookie-cutter: the maverick detective, his sidekick (a young person) and a family member that is a member of the family that has been influenced by the events of the killer). In general, King's latest novel is nothing special because it's like every other crime/detective novel that has come out with the exception that it has been written by Stephen King.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist That Tried to Kill Your Wife

How can we Americans, who sit and watch the news on our televisions or listen to it on NPR, even begin to comprehend what the limbs and blood and screams and other sounds are like in a terrorist explosion, unless we've actually lived it? In Israel, however, these sorts of conflicts and explosions are a matter of daily life that the occupants must endure. It is in tis sort of life that David Harris-Gershorn writes his first book - a memoir of sorts.

He gives an interesting perspective on this daily life in Israel with its constant threats. While he's not a primary victim of a terrorist bombing, his wife was, making him a secondary victim of sorts. In 2002, Harris-Gershorn and his wife were living in Israel, studying and attending Hebrew university. Harris-Gershorn's wife was a student there. On one fateful date, she was sitting in the cafeteria when a bomb went off literally next to her while she and some of their friends were eating lunch. While eating pasta in the apartment that he shared with his wife, the author got a phone call and learned that his wife had been in the bombing and had been severely burned. Additionally, a piece of shrapnel had embedded itself in her intestines, requiring immediate surgery.

A year later, the family is back in America and trying to recover psychologically speaking from the bomb, even though there has been a physical recovery. The experience left the author very much paralyzed and prompted him to begin a quest to understand the motivation of the attacker in committing such horrendous acts. He ultimately decides that he must meet the bomber himself. For most of the book, we wait patiently for the moment in which the two people meet. While the book itself is beautifully written, it is unfilling to some extent. Perhaps that is ultimately the purpose of the book - to convey the frustration that the author must feel, to tell us that we must not expect answers to all of our questions and that it might be often about the quest as opposed to the answers. This was a wonderful first effort and I look forward to future efforts.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

I, like everyone else, read Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye in high school but haven't read it again since and when I moved to New Hampshire, I learned that there was the additional connection between Granite Staters and Salinger. He lived in Cornish as a near recluse in the State - maybe he knew what everyone else in NH knew - people here seem to respect a person's desire to keep to themselves as long as they're not causing any problems. So, when I heard a story on NPR about how Rakoff wrote a book about working for the literary agency that represented Salinger, my interest was piqued.

This book takes place in 1996 and is best classified as a memoir; however it really feels like she could be talking about the female office workers in the Mad Men era. These are tastefully dressed women who live in Brooklyn and can barely make their rent, let alone purchase a deli sandwich. Most of Rakoff's friends are, like her, the underpaid assistants to the agents in the big literary houses. There are many motivations for taking these jobs but they inevitably boil down to a love of books or the desire to become a writer or both; I think that these women think that taking these jobs will give them a foot in the door. Rakoff was hired to work at "The Agency" and was assigned to the big boss, who was notoriously blunt and brusque. The president and Agency had represented JD Salinger for approximately 6 years before Rakoff was hired. The Agency was so old school that they didn't have computers, a fax machine or a wordprocessory until the middle of Rakoff's tenure there. They did everything on typewriters (what's THAT!?). Salinger fascinated Rakoff, as he did and does everyone else. She's told on her first day NEVER to give out a phone number or address for him, regardless of why the person is calling. They would be directed to the boss who would then handle it. Part of Rakoff's job was answering Salinger's voluminous fan mail. She is also give a form letter to send, but opts instead to personally answer as many of the letters as possible. The letters came from all sorts of people from all walks of life: teenagers, veterans, housewives, you name it. Someone was assigned to read the snail mail sent to Salinger since Lennon was shot by someone who has just read/was reading Catcher. After that, the mail was going right to the trash bin. Rakoff wa that person.

Ironically Rakoff hadn't read anything written by Salinger - she considered herself to be a literary snob, limiting herself to authors like Faulkner. She spent one weekend devouring Salinger books and was hooked. This memoir doesn't require that you be hooked on Salinger in order to enjoy it. A lot of the memoir focuses on the culture of the literary agency career at the time. A good portion also focused on a coming of age story to some degree - during this year, Rakoff learns that she has to grow up and act like the adult that she is. The writing is phenomenal - she has a really great voice that is easy to appreciate and like and which hooks you almost immediately. A must read.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Euphoria by Lily King

When people hear the name of Margaret Mead,I don't think they necessarily think of the torrid, sexuality of her work and how big a splash it made because of it. It did make that splash though and this novel draws loosely on the 1933 expedition that Mead went on with her then husband and the man that would become her third husband. She then blended those facts into a story of her own creations. I really enjoyed reading this novel in major part because it was a well researched nod to Mead, a woman that the author clearly admired for the work that she engaged in. The love triangle that ensues and the ego competition add layers upon layers to an already lovely story. The tension is palpable from the get go when Nell Stone, the protagonist and author of a book that caused a splash is leaving an aggressive tribe with her Aussie husband (Fen) who is already jealous of Nell. The tribe that they are leaving lobs items at them as they leave, one of which Nell believes is a stillborn baby. Nell's glasses are broken - impliedly at the hand of her husband - as is her ankle. Both are dirty, malnourished and malarial as well as being down in the dumps emotionally and mentally. They encounter Andrew Bankson, an English anthropologist, who they eventually hook up with even though he is down in the dumps too. Bankson has lost both of his brothers and is considered to be a failure by his mother.

The way that King writes about the people, makes it almost as if you're in the bush with them. You can feel the thickness of the air and smell the dankness of unwashed bodies. You can feel the tension that is created when Bankson falls hard for both Nell's body and her sharp mind. I as the reader got uncanny access to the minds of Bankson and Nell Stone through journal entries that Nell writes as well as the narration by Bankson. The introspection is perhaps unparalleled than many other novels. It was a magnificent work that should be read by all.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Wonder by RJ Palacio

Wow, I've nearly let this blog die and I'm so sorry for that. I'm restarting. I promise not to let it go so long again. And I'm starting with a book that I've heard so much about and have really wanted to read it.

I've heard so much about Wonder. August (aka Augie) Pullman was born with a congenital facial deformity call Treacher-Collins Syndrome. As a result of this congenital deformity, Augie has been home schooled. The deformity has led to Augie having a number of operations and hospitalizations. However, at 10, his parents have decided that he should be enrolled in a somewhat prestigious prep school in New York City. Aside from his face, which is extremely distinct, Auggie is a normal kid, albeit a smart and perceptive one. His mental capacity is above average. This book examines his struggles to overcome his deformity, go to school and challenge people's perceptions about a person's outward appearance.

Even though this book is classified as young adult, realistic fiction, its story and message will appeal to teachers, parents and other adults as well as its target audience. It is an engaging read and wholesome as well - you won't find any sort of foul language (although there is a bit of bullying in it). Interestingly, the book is told from the perspective of eight different characters, including August and his sister and a few classmates. Each is able to provide their own unique perspective on August and their experiences with him, in their own unique voice (which is quite an amazing talent to have as a writer). There are many themes in this book ranging from empathy and courage to bullying and compassion. It demonstrates the impact that mainstreaming a child with August's deformity can have on all members of a community and a family. It's a book about doing the right thing and acting gracefully under pressure. This book contains great material for kids - it presents many topics for parents to discuss with their children - acceptance and bravery and how the easiest thing isn't always the right thing to do. It is also full of material for book groups. Definitely a must read for everyone out there.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Book 6 - Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

This is the first book in the Century Trilogy and begins in 1911 - right before World War I breaks out. When we start, the Crowned heads of Europe still exist; however after the war, only the British monarchy has survived. There are five families that the reader follows, from all economic classes - both rich and poor. There is a Welsh coal miner and his suffragist daughter, the local Earl that is their nemesis, two orphaned Russian brothers (one who is a scoundrel and the other a working class hero), star crossed lovers (one English, the other German), and an American diplomat.

What I loved about this novel, and all Follett's novels really, is that he's able to utilize an amazing story to create a civics lesson - we learn about World War I and the Russian Revolution at the same time that we follow the stories of an amazingly interesting group of people. He is meticulous in creating the world and the politics of his characters in the hopes of teaching us a bit about the time period. Follett's grasp of the historical record is masterful - a lot of research went into composing this Big Book (and big it is at around 1000 pages, give or take - but worth every single bit). Loved this novel and highly recommend it.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Book 5- Hitler's Furies by Wendy Lowrer

During World War 2, the best employment opportunities for German women wasn't in the Gestapo or the Red Cross - it was actually in the German occupied lands to the East and in Russia. Those territories needed thousands of teachers and nurses and secretaries among other occupations. Wives often accompanied their husbands to the Eastern countries as well. This sort of migration allowed women to see other countries, get ahead in their professional careers and escape the drudgeries of everyday life in Germany, which was economically depressed before the war. These women also became accessories to genocide.

In this book, Wendy Lowrer follows the stories of 13 seemingly ordinary women who ended up working in the East, whether by choice or because they were assigned there by their superiors. The first chapter essentially set the scene: it explained the role of women in Germany briskly and efficiently and in language that the average reader would √understand. We then are introduced to the women: a nurse that engages willingly in a euthanasia class, the idealistic teacher, a farmer's daughter, an educated woman that can't practice law because of the laws in her country, the small town swindler, the 19 year old beauty that wants to avoid working in a factory and several ambitious secretaries. When we meet these women, it's 1941 and the final solution is in it's early stages with Jews being herded into ghettos. German officials are beginning executions and the menfolk are coming home after their days at work in need of food, alcohol and comfort. While the women generally don't have direct contact with the killing, they know it exists and they remain at their posts providing all sorts of support for the men that do the killing.

I really enjoyed how Lowrer made her history book accessible to everyone - you don't need to be a history scholar to be able to get into and understand this book. I also really enjoyed and appreciated how she set the political, social and economic scene - it gives the reader a context in which to understand how this all is happening. There were some questions that I had that weren't answered as well as I wanted them to be. How representative were the women that she picked? Did she just pick them because they happened to leave a plethora of primary sources from which to draw from? How did she pick these women? She doesn't address the women that are in more direct power - the women that were guards in the camps, other SS officers. I really wanted her to delve more deeply into the lives of the women in the camps.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Book 4 - The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

This is Meg Wolitzer's ninth novel. I haven;t read any of her previous novels,but I can say that I will go back and look for them now. The story begins at an arts camp in upstate NY in the mid seventies. Six of the teenage campers are drawn to each other because they all consider themselves to be "interesting." Jules is the character that is the protagonist - the story seems to be told mostly from her perspective anyways - and she's seemingly the odd one out, not having come from an artsy background. Her best friend is Ash, her crush is Ash's brother Goodman and Ethan and Jonah are there for the ride. Cathy is Goodman's love interest. Ethan is the one that has the most breakout success as an animator in his adult life. As the group matures into adulthood, they, with the exception of Ethan, are forced to adjust their expectations of what their life was going to be to what their life actually has become.

Woliter's prose is warm and astute - there seems to be nothing that she misses when she expertly dissects sexuality, expectations and many other aspects of the lives of this group. While self-reinvention is nothing new in American literature - it seems to come with the turf considering how our country came to be - Wolitzer brings a fresh perspective and a new way of examining it in this novel. The characters are allowed and even encouraged to see happiness not necessarily as getting everything that they want but as being happy with what they actually have. This definition of success and happiness doesn't necessarily require overachievement. I loved this novel.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Book 3 - Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates


It absolutely surprises me that Joyce Carol Oates has been publishing since 1964 and that this book was the first that I had ever written by her because it is apparent that she is a careful, adept and fluent writer. This book is set in Carthage, a very real town in upstate NY, nearly as far North as you can get without entering into Canada. It is a small town, so the shock that runs throughout the town and the Mayfield family when their somewhat dysfunctional 19 year old daughter Cressida disappears in the Adirondack Mountains is a living and palpable feeling. As the community gathers and begins the search for her, evidence against a disabled Iraq war veteran named Brett Kincaid (who ironically was engaged to be married to Cressida's older sister) seems to mount.

During the course of the novel, we are treated to alternating perspectives, one of which includes the flashbacks to the atrocities that Kincaid witnessed while he was in the service. His memories are often jumbled with the violence that occurs in Carthage and intrudes on everything in his new, quiet life in Carthage. The plot often takes bizarre and unexpected turns, just enough so that the reader is kept on the edge of the seat as much by those turns as by Oates' magnificent prose. There were times that I felt that it was hard to empathize with some of the characters and the choices that they made; however this didn't detract from the message that the novel was sending: that the damage that war wrought is complex and tears at every fiber of the fabric of our society. It impacts everything from the individual to the family unit to the criminal justice system. Loved this book. It's something that should be added to your library immediately.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Allegiant and Insurgent by Veronica Roth

I read these novels back to back. It seemed fitting to do it this way so that I didn't forget anything in between the two books, particularly since Divergent is a cliffhanger. I can't give you a complete review of these books at this time without spoilers, but I will try my best.

Allegiant is the final installment in the series and is told from alternating viewpoints: both Tobias and Tris give their own accounts. I found this to be a really good difference and divergence (no pun intended) from Roth's previous two novels because, while I enjoyed living in Tris' head, I also was very curious about Tobias and his experience. Frankly, there is also so much you can take of the sort of angst that Tris has and I really enjoyed the widening of the experiences that Tobias' experiences give. It also really shows the differences between how one person, Tris, views actions of Tobias and how he views his own actions (and which are often completely different). This was generally a really great ending to a strong and respectable YA, dystopian series.

Insurgent was the second novel in the series. For me, it cemented Tris' roll as both an action hero and as a loyal and multifaceted friend and teammate. She was very strong and three dimensional as a character but also realistic in the sense that she was a character that could be someone you would know in real life. I really enjoyed this book because it also ramps up the romance between Tris and Tobias and begins to highlight the struggles they must face. Loved the cliffhanger at the end.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

If you liked The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, you will want to read this dystopian novel, which has won a number of awards in th...