Archive for July, 2012

In One Person

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

By John Irving

The Short Take:

Of the many John Irving novels I’ve read, this one probably hit me the hardest. It isn’t easy reading about a young man who is confused and even ashamed of his “crushes on the wrong people.” Then later there was so much dying. As usual, Irving includes characters and sequences that are light-hearted. But it was still hard. Yet I loved it.


First off, a small rant/disclaimer. I read a New York Times review of this book and was vastly irritated. I don’t get the point of making statements like the author’s characters do what he wants them to; as if that were wrong. Huh? This is why I call myself a book lover and not a book critic. Just so you know.

Irving always delivers an engaging book, peopled with delightfully eccentric characters and often addressing very serious subjects. You can also often find wrestling, New England, an absent parent, and other recurring subjects. This one follows that pattern. What made it tougher than most is you feel the confusion and discomfort of someone who knows his sexual leanings are not what is expected of him. You want to tell him, “it gets better.” But does it? Ahead of him lie those peak years of the AIDS epidemic in New York City, when men die by the thousands.

Irving surrounds his protagonist with family and friends who love him and strive to help him find his way. This is what makes this book so wonderful, and bearable. From the grandfather who always plays women in community plays to the librarian that inspires the hero’s early desire to become a writer, these individuals lift you up along with the main character.

A Little Plot:

The protagonist and narrator, Billy, is a young teen in the early 60s when he realizes he is sexually attracted to the wrong people, from the substantially older librarian, Miss Frost, to the champion of his school’s wrestling team. He feels like there must be something wrong in him that comes from the father he has no memory of (and that no one will discuss).

As he matures and recognizes his bisexuality, he also realizes he will always be a “sexual suspect:” neither gay men nor straight women fully trust him or quite believe he is as he claims. Yet while there is unfulfilled love, there are also enduring friendships.

Billy travels from New England to Vienna to New York before returning home again. His life is an amazing, absorbing journey. It’s certainly worth sharing.

For more about John Irving and his work, click here.

The Columbus Affair

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

By Steve Berry

The Short Take:

I admit to being a huge fan of Berry’s Cotton Malone thrillers. However, I think I like this outing even more. The hero is no super guy, just a disgraced journalist contemplating suicide. Plus it includes a very intriguing and surprisingly complete “bad guy.”


Berry does the Dan Brown thing only he does it far, far better: Something from history or legend is sought after by modern forces for nefarious purposes. The hero tries to get there first. This thriller follows that pattern, with different parties searching frantically for something that may have been hidden in Jamaica by Christopher Columbus.

Berry excels at making you turn that next page instead of doing al those things you should be doing. He includes so many cliff hangers they happen within the chapters — not just at their ends. He does not turn you lose for a minute.

Protagonist Tom Sagan is a nice change from the usual hero, as well. He has no special skills or abilities beyond his nose for a good news story, and even that is out of practice. Bene Rowe, a shady Jamaican who hates drug dealers but doesn’t mind breaking the law himself, is another refreshing creation. This is no by-the-book bad guy but an interesting and complex character.

If you like thrillers at all, this book is for you. If you’ve been wondering if thrillers are something you might like, start with this book. I doubt you will be disappointed.

A Little Plot:

Tom Sagan has failed at everything: his career, his marriage, fatherhood. He is contemplating suicide when Zachariah Simon arrives and shows him a live video feed of his estranged daughter bound and being threatened by two thugs. Simon promises the girl will be released is Sagan signs a paper to have his father exhumed.

This is the beginning of an adventure that eventually sends Sagan racing to Vienna, Prague, and Jamaica; all the while, never quite sure who to trust or where to turn. And, that includes his daughter most of all.

For more about Steve Berry and his books, click here.

The Paris Wife

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

By Paula McLain

The Short Take:

This highly factual novel gives a voice to Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. Living in Bohemian Paris surrounded by artists and writers, old-fashioned Hadley loved and supported her husband completely. Frankly, my 21st century eyes had a hard time not seeing her as a doormat. However, she was actually much more than that; and the book as a whole was utterly mesmerizing.


McLain’s novel paints a wonderfully intricate portrait of Paris in the 1920s, as well as telling the story of a love that was probably doomed from the start. Heavily researched, with details like a chipmunk pelt coat, the names of various cafes and night spots, and the constant use of cutesy nick names to make one realize just how different — yet also the same — things were then.

By writing from Hadley’s point of view, McLain gives her voice center stage despite the fact she lives in the shadow of her husband. It’s hard for modern attitudes to fully accept Hadley’s total commitment to supporting her husband’s writing. However, her behavior was probably closer to the norm for the times; at least outside the rarified circles of artists and writers. And, she has the quiet strength necessary to simply put up with someone like Hemingway.

The remarkable supporting cast of luminaries, from Ezra Pound to the Fitzgeralds to Gertrude Stein and more, brings even more interest to what is already a fascinating story. After all, we’re talking about the larger-than-life Hemingway and the woman who gave so much of herself to launch his career. That’s pretty potent stuff.

Frankly, I don’t think Hemingway would have made it without her by his side at the start. Her love lifted him up. Conversely, his love gave her a new way to see the world. Maybe she wasn’t such a doormat after all?

A Little Plot:

In her late 20s, Hadley Richardson has basically given up on love and is turning into a hermit. A visit to Chicago brings her into contact with the 21-year-old Ernest Hemingway and she is immediately smitten. Of course, so is nearly every other female he encounters.

However, Hemingway returns her affections and after a quick courtship, they marry. The newlyweds then follow the advice of the writer Sherwood Anderson and move to Paris to mingle with other creative people. Here, Hadley is immersed in a far different world, far wittier and worldly than she could ever be. However, her sole interest continues to be supporting Hemingway’s writing, and nothing can sway her from that — even when “the other woman” threatens.

But the mores of the Jazz Age are more than even the tenacious Hadley can stand against.



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July 2012