The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

May 25th, 2015

51EvfaFpHOL._SL75_By Gabrielle Zevin

The Short Take:

A perfectly charming little story about a lonely book store owner and how a bundle left in his store changes his life.

Why?

This is an ideal for book clubs: moderate length, engaging plot, quirky characters, light, yet with a message. It’s not grand literature but it certainly is a joy to read.

In turn humorous, touching, and even mysterious, this rich reading experience builds around a romance yet never goes all gooey and sentimental. Plus, the front-of-chapter comments by the main character on a number of short stories are a hoot.

A Little Plot:

A grieving widower, Fikry owns a struggling bookshop on a New England resort island. On top of that, he’s a complete curmudgeon — a terror to book sales reps — which adds to his loneliness.

Then two extraordinary things happen. First, a rare and highly valuable Edgar Allen Poe book is stolen from his apartment. Second, a precocious toddler is abandoned in his shop.

Allbeit reluctantly, his life is changed in ways he never expected.

For more about Zevin, this book, and her other novels for adults as well as young adults, click here.

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Ulysses

May 16th, 2015

51yXIymgmwL._SL75_By James Joyce

The Short Take:

This was the second book of my 2015 self-challenge. I was feeling fairly smug after my Moby Dick experience. Well, James Joyce knocked me down several pegs. I was thrilled to actually follow what was going on — which wasn’t all the time. The only reason I finished was shear bull-headedness.

Why?

Everyone said Moby Dick was so hard. Well, I not only got through it, I liked it. So I approached this one with my confidence high. Ha ha ha!

There were many times when I thought the language was beautiful — if only I had some idea what Joyce was expressing. The stream-of-consciouness bits were the easiest to follow. It was the conversations that threw me for a loop: snippets of talk and action from more than one location were sometimes intermixed with no way to tell who was where and saying what. And, the long hallucinatory sequence in the brothel? Imagine reading a hundred pages written like The Beatles “I Am the Walrus,” only there’s no music. Just words. Ugh.

To see if I was “getting it” at all, I read notes on the various sections after completing them. I was often on the right track, but there were  occasions when my reaction was, “Really?! How did someone figure that out?”

I had read that Joyce claimed this book would have literary types guessing for years, and I can see where you could seriously study this book. Not me, however, I’m just glad its over.

A Little Plot:

It’s a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, which supposedly reflects the story of the hero Ulysses, who goes about doing and thinking one thing and another in Dublin.

PS. The final book in my challenge is Tolstoy’s War and Peace. However, Russian writers just don’t feel like summer fare, so I’m waiting till September to tackle that one. Until then, it’s back to usual.

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Orhan’s Inheritance

May 3rd, 2015

51sbpUlVszL._SL75_By Aline Ohanesian

The Short Take:

This truly exceptional first novel explores the Armenian genocide during World War I, as experienced by a fifteen-year-old girl and her family. Horrendous cruelty, family secrets, ancient prejudices, and a budding romance weave together in her well-crafted story. It’s most excellent.

Why?

I remember my mother using the phrase “starving Armenians,” but had no understanding of the source. The ethnic cleansing of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during WWI was well before both our times. Ohanesian focuses on one family to convey the tragedies that destroyed well over a million lives.

Moving between the era of these relocations and massacres and 1990, the veils of secrecy and illusion are gradually parted to reveal a stunning story — as engaging as any thriller yet founded in genuine human pain and endurance.

Ohanesian leavens the pain with philosophical observations and old sayings invoked by various characters; just like the rationales and justifications we all use to get through dark times. And, she does a masterful job of it.

A Little Plot:

A successful rug merchant dies, leaving a will that bequeaths the family home to a woman no one knows. His grandson, Orhan, seeks the woman out.

Reluctantly, she tells him of her family’s ordeal during the Armenian genocide. What he learns changes his perspective of everything.

For more about Ohanesian and her novel, click here.

 

 

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The Girl on the Train

March 18th, 2015

51PRs83MdNL._SL75_By Paula Hawkins

The Short Take:

This mystery thriller builds slowly but is worth sticking with.  Told from the viewpoint of three different women, you need to pay attention to who is talking and the timeline. But, again, it’s worth it.

Why?

I’ll admit the characters in this book are not highly likable. The main protagonist is an alcoholic still fixated on the husband who left her two years earlier. The secondary protagonist is… well, we won’t go into that now.

In fact, all three of these women made me a little squirmy. But life is messy and so are people. Especially those with secrets, problems, and feelings of worthlessness.  Hawkins has taken that messiness and created a taut, tense mystery that will keep you turning pages. And, isn’t that what you want?

A Little Plot:

Rachel’s train commute to work has a stop near her old home, where her ex now lives with his new wife and child. Just a few doors down are a couple she calls “Jess” and “Jason.” Watching their interactions in their back yard, she sees everything she lacks — love, commitment, a life.

She is shocked one day to see “Jess” kiss someone else. The next day, “Jess” is reported missing. Rachel tells her story to the police, but because she is an alcoholic, she is the epitome of an unreliable witness.

However, Rachel simply can not leave this case alone.

For more about Paula Hawkins and this book, click here.

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Moby Dick: Caught at Last.

February 27th, 2015

51XqmA5DY5L._SL75_Ruminations on the Novel by Herman Melville

I approached Moby Dick with great trepidation. After repeatedly hearing how dense it was, how filled with boring whaling information, how plain hard it was to read, I did not know if I was up to the challenge I was setting for myself.

Surprise, surprise! I actually liked it! Yes, it’s dense with archaic language and a lot of information on whaling and whales, but it’s so much more, too. That’s what surprised — and delighted — me.

To begin, I certainly did not expect a profound sense of humor. Who knew I would be laughing out loud at some of Ishmael’s observations? The next surprise was the countless reference to people, places, and things not related to whaling, citing source like ancient history, Shakespeare, the Bible, you name it. Many of these I knew. Many more I wondered about. In a perfect world, I would have been constantly on my iPad researching each one. However, since I did want to finish the book in this decade, I resisted.

The insightful musings of Ishmael on subjects ranging from religion to what we eat were really interesting as well — and often just as applicable to modern times as they were 150 years ago.

Melville does go into great detail about whaling practices, but they usually directly relate to what is taking place in the plot. They enhance the story as well as increase your understanding of the dangers and tasks whalers faced in the 19th century.

That said, it’s not the fastest moving book in the world. My copy has slightly over 500 pages. Moby Dick isn’t even mentioned until page 158. They harpoon their first whale on page 256. The centerpiece white whale chase doesn’t take place until very the last pages. However, when there is action, Melville paints a scene with words like no other.

I’m really glad I read this American classic. There was absolutely nothing to be afraid of. Except, now I’ll worry a bit about grumpy sperm whales if I should ever sail the Pacific Ocean.

Now onto the second book of my reading self-challenge, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Gulp.

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The Book of Strange New Things

February 13th, 2015

41QBMlpffKL._SL75_By Michel Faber

The Short Take:

I guess you must call a book science fiction if it takes place almost entirely on another planet populated by strange, sentient beings. Unfortunately, that will alienate (tee hee) a lot of people. Too bad. This is a highly thoughtful and worthwhile novel.

Why?

A dedicated missionary travels to a distant planet, where everything is run by a colossal company, to tend to the spiritual needs of the planet’s indigenous population. If you think you know where this is headed from that statement, you’re probably wrong. In fact, you will most likely find yourself surprised again and again.

However, it’s not because Faber is leading you down false paths. He lets readers do that for themselves. His focus is on the inadequacies of communication: A marriage stressed by unfathomable distances with only typed messages to convey the unbelievable. A mysterious alien species that gladly embraces the teachings of the Gospels even though they barely understand English. An isolated work force where relationships oddly remain strictly professional.

It’s a rich, rewarding novel — highly spiritual without being cloying religious; frightening without overt terror. It will haunt you no matter what you believe. It will make you think. And, it will do all this while keeping you well entertained. A rare book, indeed.

A Little Plot:

Peter is bound for a far planet as a missionary to its indigenous people. His wife — the well-spring of his faith — must remain behind but supports his journey.

Once he arrives, he is surprised by both his fellow employees (everyone works for USIC, though no one knows quite what USIC is) and the aliens. The workers tend to keep their own counsel, preferring to talk about their work. Many of the aliens are already “Jesus lovers,” and had actually demanded a preacher from USIC.

While Peter works to better understand his flock and increase their understanding of The Book of Strange New Things, life on earth is changing in frightening ways that impact his wife. Nothing is as Peter — or his wife — expected.

I did not find a website for the author, but there’s plenty of information about him out there.

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Another Year, Another Reading Goal.

January 10th, 2015

For 2014, I set a goal of reading 52 books — an average of one a week. I hit 64, but eight were by Roald Dahl, which some people might not consider worthy of an adults list (they would be mistaken). Even subtracting those, I beat my goal by four books.

I know people who read far more than that, but it was a respectable number for me. I didn’t push it, and there are several quite long books among my reads. Strangely, the book that took me the longest to get through was Roald Dahl’s BFG. I just had a hard time getting into it. heh heh.

This year, I’m setting a much more daunting goal — at least for me. I’m committing to reading three particular books that seem to constantly elicit groans of dismay even from avid readers:

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Portrait of the Artist a a Young Man by James Joyce.

I’ll start with Moby Dick as soon as I finish trudging through The Winter of the World by Ken Follett. this Follett is really dragging for me. Ken Follett is funny that way. Some of his books just suck me in completely. Some simply bore me. However, there is always something to be learned from historical fiction, so I will soldier on.

I don’t know how many new books these three masterpieces will displace, so this blog may be quieter on that front. I do intend to report on my progress and impressions as I work towards my goal. So many people have said these books are impossible to digest. However after decades of hearing how tough Faulkner was, I found Absalom! Absalom!, which is considered one of his bestnot difficult at all

Who knows what pain or pleasure awaits? At the least — assuming I don’t give up — I’ll have read three books I should have read but have feared to try. There’s something to be said for that.

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The Children Act

December 19th, 2014

By Ian McEwan

The Short Take:

McEwan is such a gifted writer you know you are in for a spellbinding tale any time you pick up one of his novels. This one is no exception. A respected judge of England’s family court realizes her passion for her job has repercussions she didn’t anticipate.

Why?

McEwan’s Fiona Maye is a middle-age woman, highly respected by her peers in the judicial system and satisfied with her life until her husband makes a shocking request. At the same time, a life-or-death court case affecting a near-adult draws her personal involvement. These two events lead her to question a lifetime of choices about family and career.

With delicacy and insight, McEwan traces Fiona’s emotional journey through uncharted territory. He also explores the ethical and legal quandaries that arise when religious beliefs run counter to life-saving medical intervention. The arguments for both sides of the issue were beautifully addressed in the discussions between Fiona and the ill 17-year-old whose faith was so strong.

It’s a fabulous read.

A Little Plot:

Fiona’s husband asks for permission to have an affair — to enjoy one last blast of passion before they slip into old age together. Fiona is floored. And furious. And unsure.

At the same time she must rule whether the courts can force an almost-adult to undergo a life saving blood transfusion despite his and his parent’s beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Fiona feels confident in her decision, but is decidedly put off balance by what happens next.

For more about Ian McEwan and his writing, click here.

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Nora Webster

December 14th, 2014

By Colm Tóibín

The Short Take:

This novel moves along quietly yet really packs a wallop. It revolves around Nora, a new widow mired in grief, who struggles to reconnect to her life and her family. It’s a wonderful character study, perfectly couched in time and place.

Why?

I was reminded of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Yet while the pain, journey, and quality writing were similar, that’s where the comparison ends. Didion’s memoir examines the sorrow of a woman of means and with many connections in the modern day. Fictional Nora is trapped in a painfully small Irish town in 1960/70s Ireland, struggling to make ends meet for her family.

These differences make it much easier to relate to Nora’s uncertainty, missteps, and concerns — she’s closer to most of us.

There’s no big crisis, no shocking reveal; just a series of small steps forward and back as Nora tries to establish a new balance for herself and her children. Sometimes you’ll find yourself impatient with her lack of perception, other times you’ll applaud her bold moves. She’s human. She’s real. She’s worthy of your attention.

The Short Take:

Nora has lost her beloved husband, who gave her a life a freedom as well as being her soul mate. Now, with two daughters leaving the nest and two sons still at home, she must find a way to pay the bills and rebuild her life.

At first resenting the kindness of relatives and friends wishing to help, she begins to find her footing in work and — especially — music. One tentative step at a time.

Colm Tóibín is a highly acclaimed writer. You can learn more about him and his books by clicking here.

 

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The Paying Guests

December 2nd, 2014

By Sarah Waters

The Short Take:

This is possibly the slowest moving book I have ever read. Granted, it builds up a good head of steam for a climactic act of violence, but the payoff isn’t worth the slog to me.

Why?

Maybe this book is just too much of a good thing. The writing is solid, the sense of time and place are impeccable (post WWI London). However, all this attention to detail makes things really drag. In addition, the central character spends countless pages agonizing over one thing or the other.

I suspect I would have loved this book if it were half as long. As it is, I spent far too much time speed reading along. To me, reading like that is a not pleasure but a duty.

A Little Plot:

Once fairly well off, a widow and her almost-a-spinster daughter, Frances, have to take in lodgers to make ends meet. A young couple from the rising middle class, Len and Lil, move into several rooms upstairs. At first Frances and her mother are unsure how to act around these paying guests. Then Frances finds herself attracted to Lil and seeking her company.

Complications ensue.

Sarah Waters has written a number of well-received books. You can visit her website by clicking here.

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