Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Boys in the Trees

Monday, May 16th, 2016

51q7zXHMDGL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_By Carly Simon

The Short Take:

Simon is brutally honest in this memoir: her insecurities, her self-fulfilling anxieties, her exceptional number of sexual partners are all on display. It was not a happy read for this fan girl, but many people might find inspiration in her persistence as well as her abiding belief that “there’s more room in a broken heart.”

Why?

You probably couldn’t ask for a more revealing book about a rock star. Carly’s emotions and concerns are on full display, along with a litany of fleeting trysts with musicians, writers, movie stars, etc.

Personally, I would have preferred more about her professional life. Hit songs and albums are mentioned largely in passing except for Anticipation (written while waiting for Cat Stevens to show up). The focus is on her relationships and her insecurities.

Her time with James Taylor, both the good and the bad, gets major play. However, it is the story of her formative years that sets the stage for what is to come.

A Little Plot:

This memoir focuses on her childhood and her marriage and divorce from James Taylor.

For more about Carly Simon, her book and music, click here.

Avenue of Mysteries

Thursday, May 5th, 2016

51HcfwyQRuL._SL75_By John Irving

The Short Take:

Irving’s newest is interesting but ultimately disappointing. His story of Juan Diego, a Mexican-American writer who dreams of his childhood in Mexico while traveling in the Philippines, somehow doesn’t work; though it’s hard to put your finger on why. I would only recommend it if you truly love John Irving. I do.

Why?

John Irving is one of my all-time favorite authors and this novel is very much in his over-the-top style, with many of his typical references: writers, missing parents, deadly accidents, prostitutes, circuses, abortion, transexuals, along with a plethora of italics and exclamation points.

All this  — and a lot more — is window dressing for a string of events that puts the main character’s past memories and present activities on a collision course. But there are so many minor themes and distractions that any major point gets lost in the mishmash.

You have dogs, multiple virgin Marys, a pair of women who manipulate Juan Diago but don’t appear in mirrors or photos, his juggled medical prescriptions, geckos, garbage dumps, miracles, cremation and ashes, draft dodgers, AIDS. Whew!

It’s diverting, but also off-putting. Plus, it’s hard to accept the posited idea that memories of the past matter more when you get older. Especially when Juan Diego is experiencing a present much livelier than his previous adult life.

If you want to love John Irving, read A Prayer for Owen Meany or The World According to Garp. Leave this one for last.

A Little Plot:

At 64, the writer Juan Diego takes a trip to the Philippines to fulfill a childhood promise. But he spends much of his trip in a dream-like state reliving his childhood. And, that’s just the beginning.

That childhood forms a parallel narrative. At 14, he was a dump kid and self-taught reader with a sister who could read thoughts but spoke a language only he understood. An unfortunate accident left him with a limp which sent them both to a Jesuit orphanage. And, that’s just the beginning.

For more about Irving, this book and his other works, click here.

 

The Past

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

51n7rWGvpYL._SL75_By Tessa Hadley 

The Short Take:

The lush writing of Hadley’s newest novel is beyond reproach. The story — siblings and their families gathering on holiday in their grandparent’s old home — is sometimes disturbing, sometimes surprising, but sometimes expected.

Why?

There’s much to admire in this novel. The multiple plot lines keep the pace brisk. The prose enhances each paragraph, deepening the often intense atmosphere. The unsettling story line revolving around the young children of one sibling is worthy of Shirley Jackson. Other subplots showcase the complicated relationships within a family, unexpected passions, generational differences, and dawning self-awareness.

Beneath it all lies the concept that even though the past completely shapes the present, it belongs in the past. This is illustrated both through a center section of the book, set at a point when the siblings were small and visited this house with their mother, and through the discovery and reading of decades of old letters.

A Little Plot:

Three sisters (one with two young children, another bringing the college-age son of a former boyfriend) and their brother (accompanied by a very new wife and a teen daughter from a previous marriage) gather at the decaying home of their grandparents for a final holiday.

The children make a gruesome discovery. The sisters are put off by the new wife. The two young adults are attracted to each other. For everyone there is a sense of things ending and beginning, whether good or bad.

A quick search did not reveal a website for the author, but there’s plenty of links to learn more about her.

The Vegetarian

Friday, April 15th, 2016

25489025By Han Kang

The Short Take:

A slim volume packed with unsettling power, Kang’s story of a woman who becomes a vegetarian to end her horrifying dreams is shocking, erotic, and dazzling.

Why?

Control and self-actualization are the dueling powers of this rather terrifying novel. It is not a horror story, but horrifying nonetheless. Yeong-hye’s decision to eat no meat (veganism is very rare in Korea) has profound effects on her entire family. The book is divided into three parts told from the points of view, respectively, of her husband, brother-in-law, and sister.

The husband’s story is one of bafflement, shame and anger. The brother-in-law finds inspiration for his art and intense sexual desire. The sister’s tale focuses on decisions and regrets. The whole is a trifecta of storytelling, a la Kafka.

A Little Plot:

Yeong-Hye’s bloody nightmares convince her not to eat meat, or much of anything else. Her husband if shocked by this rebellion by his usually docile wife. Her brother-in-law sees something new in her. Her sister is torn by feelings of responsibility and envy.

Han Kang is well known in South Korea but this is the first of her novels to come to America. Wikipedia has a pretty full biography you can check out by clicking here.

After Alice

Saturday, April 2nd, 2016

51+a-Uro0HL._SL75_By Gregory Maguire

The Short Take:

Both magical and meaningful, Maguire’s reworking of Carroll’s Alice books is enchanting. Ada falls down the rabbit hole and goes in search of her friend, Alice, encountering many of the same madcap characters but with more philosophical (and delightfully witty) exchanges.

Why?

Best known for the broadway musical based on his novel Wicked, Maguire is an expert at taking children’s tales and turning them into intriguing books for adults. After Alice is no exception.

Maguire loses none of the whimsy of his source material but artfully incorporates thoughts on being trapped — whether by the institution of slavery or a metal back brace, the afterlife, family, friendship, and the confusion of adolescence.

Small observations that send my mind spinning into wide orbits are followed by delicious wordplays. Silliness and symbolism go hand in hand. Even the vocabulary is exceptionally rich, as is appropriate for this Oxford setting in the Victorian Era.

Maguire and Carroll fans should both be more than pleased.

A LittlePlot:

Clumsy Ada manages to evade her governess to wander on her own outside. However, while hiding she slips down a rabbit hole not too long after Alice  (hence the title).

Meanwhile, Alice’s older sister, Lydia, must deal with the disappearance of both children, a distraught governess, a party of guests including Charles Darwin, and her own recent bereavement.

Characters from both Carroll books will be encountered, plus another child enters the picture.

While this book had a clear ending, I’m hopeful for a sequel. The seeds are there just waiting to grow.

A Wild Swan

Monday, March 7th, 2016

51LtkoH7aKL._SL75_By Michael Cunningham

The Short Take:

Cunningham reimagines beloved fairytales, exploring what happens beyond the “happy ever after,” or what came before, or why things occurred in the first place. He reveals the morals, motives, and misadventures other tellings leave out.

Why?

This Pulitzer Prize winning writer teases new meaning out of old tales, probing their psychology, giving them new resonance, wrapping them in contemporary attitudes. Each one is completely unique, except for the writing, which is consistently delicious.

The sources include the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, the results are sometimes even scarier — but for different reasons entirely.

Plus, the wonderful illustrations by Yuko Shimizu make this book even more delightful.

My only complaint is that I wanted more. Otherwise, I was throughly enchanted.

A Little Plot:

That doesn’t really apply here. But you will find retellings of stories like Rapunzel, Jack and the BeanstalkThe Steadfast Tin Soldier, and others. One that really got to me was a new look at Beauty and the Beast. Why had I never thought of the story that way before? (shivers)

For more about the author, click here.

 

 

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

Friday, February 12th, 2016

51AZox6paLL._SL75_By Sarah Vowell

The Short Take:

Vowell doesn’t just write insightful history books, she draws shining lines from incidents in the past to present circumstances. Her histories are filled with wry humor as well as fascinating detail. This take on the Marquis de Lafayette and his participation in the American Revolutionary War has all that and more.

Why?

This book is not remotely like the history lessons of your school days. Vowell is sassy and unsentimental as well as thorough. And, she doesn’t just do the research (this 268 page book had a four page bibliography, small type, two columns per page), she visits the locations. Past and present come together in delightful stories, like her meeting with Quakers who definitely did not approve of her planned book about war and war heroes.

She points out the inconsistencies between America’s purported values and it’s realities, past and present. She takes historical side paths to shine a light on topics like the most contentious presidential election in American history, way back in 1824 (ergo the “somewhat” in this book’s title).

In Sarah Vowell’s hands, history becomes more interesting and entertaining than any novel.

A Little Plot:

Lafayette was a rich, teenage, French aristocrat determined to fight in America’s war for independence. He got to do just that, becoming close to George Washington and leading men in important battles. When he revisited America decades later, he was feted and celebrated more than any superstar.

Impressive.

A quick google didn’t reveal an author website, but there’s plenty of information about Vowell and her writings online.

 

Career of Evil

Monday, February 1st, 2016

51hy+GbenKL._SL75_By Robert Galbraith

The Short Take:

Galbraith’s (aka J. K. Rowling) third outing with private investigator Cormorant Strike is the best yet. A grizzly delivery to his office sends Strike after three men from his past, all with reason to hate him. It’s a terrific mystery.

Why?

While other book detectives feature exceptional abilities, Cormorant Strike struggles through exceptional difficulties. Galbraith wisely created a character with an incredibly rich and troubled past, then mines it sparingly to slowly revealing more of what makes Strike tick with each book.

Then there’s the delightful assistant, bright Robin Elliott, who is torn between her love of detecting and constantly battling her fiancé’s unfounded jealousy and constant irritation over her demanding, underpaid job.

That’s two highly original and likable characters to start with. Add to that Galbraith’s wonderfully twisted plot, with danger lurking on every page, and you have one great read.

While you would do yourself a disservice not to read The Cuckoo’s Calling first (after all, she wrote it first), this book is even better. Okay, I admit, all three are enjoyable; but this one was really special. Galbraith/Rowling claims she’s never had more fun writing a novel. It shows.

A Little Plot:

A woman’s severed leg is delivered to Robin at the office. When Strike considers possible suspects, he gives the police four names from his past. They chose to focus on a known gangster. Strike feels the other three more likely due to the nature of the package, an enclosed note, and past relationships.

Accordingly, he and Robin mount their own investigation into the dark and dangerous lives of these three men. Meanwhile, someone is stalking Robin, meticulously planning her death. Is it one of Strike’s suspects? The gangster? Or someone else?

For more about Galbraith and the Strike novels, click here.

The Dust That Falls From Dreams

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

51XP0oGfpdL._SL75_By Louis de Bernieres

The Short Take:

This rich and absorbing novel thoughtfully captured how World War I changed England completely. Close childhood friends from three neighboring upper-class families meet different fates, but all are irrevocably altered.

Why?

There is no dearth of novels structured around one of the great wars, tracing family calamities and triumphs. What sets this one apart is not only the excellent writing and an exceptional feel for the period, but the fact that it focuses less on parent-child relationships and more on friendships formed in childhood and their deep bonds.

If you have read the author’s Corelli’s Mandolin (and you should) you know the emotion and depth he brings to his writing. While the characters here are far different, the emotion is in full force as people struggle to find hope and purpose when surrounded by loss.

By the way, do not read the inside front flap of this book: like so many of those summaries, it gives away far too much of the story. Unlike what I offer below.

A Little Plot:

The children of three neighboring and prosperous families enjoy an idyllic childhood as “the pals” during the Edwardian era. Then WWI intervenes. The boys go to battle and the girls not only worry but find ways to help. No one is unscarred.

For more about the author, you can visit his website by clicking here. I apologize for leaving out the grave mark on the second “e” in his last name. After multiple attempts, I simply gave up.

Purity

Tuesday, December 15th, 2015

51P5bUSPVFL._SL75_By Jonathan Franzen

The Short Take:

There’s no doubt Franzen is an exceptional novelist. His latest book is an excellent example of his elevated craft. With connections and coincidences worthy of Charles Dickens, his characters move from various American locations to Germany to South American. Complex without being complicated, it explores loyalties and the many facets of what purity means.

Why?

This is yet another novel that jumps around in time, place, and character. However this time those jumps work perfectly to fully reveal the main characters: their flaws, their strengths, their growth, their pursuit of a personal ideal of purity.

Franzen gives his characters plenty of space to evolve. Sometimes they can be as frustrating to the reader as real people are, with all their inconsistencies and irrational desires. There’s exceptional darkness as well as delightful humor. It’s our world, with all its hypocrisy and heroism.

Ultimately there’s something very satisfying about how Franzen reveals the interconnectedness of his characters. While you are still left with questions, you feel his novel has fulfilled its purpose.

A Little Plot:

The title character, who prefers to go by Pip, is a young woman struggling to pay a $130,ooo student loan as well as find her footing in life. Her greatest wish is to know who her father is, something her eccentric mother refuses to reveal.

Her search takes her to a remote South American enclave devoted to revealing the world’s secrets and to an internship for an on-line journalism venture. She forms intense relationships, not all of which are what she supposes them to be.

And, Pip is just one of the main characters who sweep you through their worlds and pains.

Jonathan Franzen doesn’t appear to have a dedicated website, but there’s plenty of information about him and his books on line.

Navigation

    Want to be notified when there is a new post? Sign up to the RSS feeds below
  • Entries

Archives

December 2016
M T W T F S S
« Nov    
 1234
567891011
12131415161718
19202122232425
262728293031  

Other