Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham

I haven't written anything about best books in a while, and my fans (all four of you, bless your hearts) are asking why not. The answer is, of course, time and laziness. Life has gotten a little busier--I've joined the hurly burly working world (and am the better for it), but when I have a free moment, I'd rather do anything but write. My reading time has diminished too, but I did manage to read Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil this week. [I'm a fan of the 2007 movie version with Edward Norton (ooh la la) and Naomi Watts in the roles of Dr. Walter Fane and his wife, Kitty.] A spoiled debutante who's afraid she's past her prime, Londoner Kitty G. agrees to marry taciturn bacteriologist Walter Fane, who is totally smitten with her. As promised, he whisks her away from her dull life to Hong Kong where she promptly begins an affair with a suave government official. Kitty is disdainful of her husband, and when he discovers her infidelity, she doesn't conceal her scorn for him--his lackluster personality, subpar status, and pitiful devotion to her--and wants nothing more than to dismiss him and marry her lover. Kitty is naive in the ways of men, however, and she soon has no choice but to join Walter on a trip to a remote Chinese village, his ultimatum for her unfaithfulness. Walter has basically sentenced them both to death since the village is deeply infected with cholera. What happens to the couple in this village is transformational; stated simply, both learn about forgiveness under the harshest of conditions. The movie's ending differs from the book's. I must say I prefer the cinematic version--it's straightforward and sexy. The book's conclusion is a tad enigmatic, but essentially presents the same message: love without forgiveness is child's play.

Friday, October 2, 2009

MWF seeks great book

I was feeling guilty about not blogging more, but then I realized I've not read anything I would consider "a best book ever" lately anyway. I've read some good books but not any great ones (ihmo, of course). The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield was good, reminiscent of Daphe DuMaurier's Rebecca. I've been plugging along through George Howe Colt's The Big House and Ann Patchett's The Patron Saint of Liars. They're both fine stories, but I'm not really in love with either of them. I'm waiting for that next can't turn the page fast enough, never want it to end book. And I'm here to tell you folks, Atlas Shrugged ain't it. (I'm only on page 70 out of 1100.) Sigh.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe

I cannot believe I've only posted once in September. This month has been so busy; it seems I haven't had a half hour to spare. For those of you who know me personally, you know this type of schedule is not what I've been used to for the past decade. Working takes it toll, and unfortunately, this blog was the coin paid. I finally have a few minutes to spare and wanted to update everyone on my reading. I loved the book I'm So Happy for You by Lucinda Rosenfeld; it is a high-grade chick lit venture into the cattiness that simmers then boils between childhood friends. Rosenfeld's writing is wry, dry, and satirical. A well-known American author who is a master of satire is Tom Wolfe. Best known for The Right Stuff (non-fiction about America's space program), Wolfe has also written several engaging novels. A Man in Full (his 2nd novel ) concerns aging Atlanta mogul Charlie Croker and the entanglements of his ever complicated life. Everybody seems to demand something from Charlie--friends, business rivals, employees, ex-wives, children, etc. Someone always seems to want a pound of flesh. Can Charlie Croker survive the stresses of the modern day man? Read Wolfe's large, blowsy book and find out.

P.S. Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons is also excellent.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks fictionalizes a true story of a village racked by bubonic plague in rural England in the 16oos. No stranger to tragedy, the maid Anna Frith narrates the story of the town's relegation to "plague village"and the ensuing isolation and terror. I loved this book because it shows how love and community can endure and strengthen, even amid the horror of the Black Death. Brooks doesn't hold back in describing the plague's symptoms--this trait was reason enough for me to read the book. (I have a bit of a fascination with "disease fiction" or "symptom stories.") One can't help but feel superior that the poor souls never connected the outbreak to fleas. However, the reader feels nothing but admiration for the villagers' will to survive, to endure in their encapsulated, self-sufficient world. Not a difficult read by any means, I recommend this book as great historical fiction, containing a modicum of modernity (the characters seem extremely psychologically evolved by 17th c. standards). And, if you're a plague buff, you must read it. The bubos are a sight to see in your mind's eye.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Red Leather Diary by Lily Koppel

It's been a heck of a week--lots of activity that goes along with school and work recommencing. I haven't had as much time to read, and I've really missed it. Reading calms me down--gives me the rest equivalent of, perhaps, a 20 minute catnap. The books I did manage to pick up this week seemed watered down compared to the The Help. I couldn't seem to get into them; there was nothing magnetic about them, and when I'm tired, I need magnetism, sweetheart. When contemplating what book to feature today, I dredged up (from the pitted membrane behind my skull) The Red Leather Diary by Lily Koppel. A unique little memoir, Diary tells the story of NYC writer Koppel who dumpster dives outside her apartment building and finds an old diary belonging to a young resident from the 1920s. Koppel is intrigued by the teenager's musings--despite the passage of time, they seem closely aligned with her own views--and launches an search to find her. The diary's author, Florence Wolfson, now in her 90s, is alive and well and willing to talk. The book wonderfully juxtaposes the past and the present. Some things were different back then, and some weren't at all. The Red Leather Diary seamlessly blends history and feminism and, of course, the best setting in the world (imho), New York City. FYI, some of my friends did not like this book, but, as you know, books are extremely personal choices. Just like husbands or wives or mattresses.

P.S. Does shopping for a mattress sound like fun? Well, it's not.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Another book I keep pondering, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a rare treat--a great story perfectly balanced with allegory. Madame Renee Michel is the brilliant middle-aged concierge in a tony Paris apartment building. She takes great pleasure in making herself appear to be a dull landlady. Madame Michel likes to think she's duping the rich tenants who march proudly past her quarters every day. They don't know that she is an amateur philosopher, an accomplished autodidact with profound thoughts about life and love. Two tenants, the sad twelve year old Paloma and the aesthete Monsieur Kakuro Ozu, manage to see through Madame Michel's charade to her sparkling intellect. Friendships form among the three, and Renee Michel's philosophies of life and love take a beautiful turn. Hedgehog's story of life in a French apartment building can stand on its own: with a light touch, the author shows how the upper and lower classes, colorful characters in both, interact in modern day Paris. The story is entertaining simply for its cultural details (the nosy rich, a refined cleaning lady, delectable tea times). On a broader level, however, The Elegance of the Hedgehog stands firmly as allegory: meaninglessness versus meaning, timelessness versus time, and most important, alienation versus community. This book will make you think about the big picture, and, if you follow its lead, you'll aim squarely for an eternal world of camellia and moss. Meaningfulness, timelessness, and community--these are the important things in life.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Well, I just finished The Help, and I can't get it out of my mind. Reading this book was a very cinematic experience for me. I could easily picture the movie that the book will one day surely become. Narrated by several characters, each wholly developed and totally believable, the story just sings with verisimilitude. It is 1962, and Skeeter Phelan has graduated from college and come home to Jackson, Mississippi, to figure out the rest of her life. She doesn't have much in common with her two best friends, Hilly and Elizabeth, anymore. Both are married mothers immersed in Junior League and household management, the latter of which requires the ubiquitous "help" of that era. The housekeepers are African American maids who are simply doing the best they can, struggling to earn a living so they can make a better life for their children. These women endure plenty, from the minor (being banned from their employers' toilets) to the major (living in a world of hate crimes). Skeeter, a budding writer, is compelled to tell the maids' stories in a book, a potentially dangerous act in that era. What she learns from the help, which includes the nurturing Aibileen and the sharp-tongued Minny, is both baffling and beautiful and ends up considerably blurring color lines. The Help resurrects the South of the early 60s in all its ugliness and beauty. Stockett's words leave indelible images in the mind which had this reader thanking history, yet again, for the Civil Rights Movement.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

I'm glad my book club selected this book a few years back or I would never have read it. The subject matter--Afghanistan, war, rape--turned me way off. But the book is really more about childhood, friendship, American immigrants, and forgiveness than those other things. Honestly! In spite of the war-torn, brutal setting, the book glows with positivity and hope. Amir, a well-to-do child in Kabul, is best friends with the lower class Hassan. They both enjoy participating in kite races, an unfamiliar pastime to me, but apparently popular in that part of the world. The beauty and grace of kite flying strongly contrasts with the brutality and bullying going on all around the boys. Unfortunately, Hassan falls victim to a brutal attack, and Amir ends their friendship, a move that deeply haunts him into adulthood. Quite a bit of the novel discusses Amir's life in America--how his family adjusts, how he decides to become a writer. America is the country in which Amir matures and grows ready to face his past in Afghanistan. He does return to his homeland to face his demons, and he wins, in every way. The Kite Runner is a novel about triumphing over the evil that lives within and without.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Numbering roughly 200 pages, On Chesil Beach is an arresting novella about a wedding night gone wrong. McEwan (Atonement) succinctly paints the personalities, courtship, and nuptials of Edward and Florence, two virgins honeymooning on Chesil Beach in 1962. The reader is privy to their most intimate encounter, an inept confluence which miscarries in the worst of ways--divorce. Yet, McEwan, delicately mixing in time and reflection, intentionally causes us to wonder if this tragedy need have happened at all. Edward, older and wiser, reflects that the wedding night, with a little more love and patience on his part, might not have been a disaster. He and Florence were well-matched in many ways; why should sex have destroyed everything? The reader can't help but wonder if premarital sex could have saved the marriage. But, perhaps, Florence's extreme reluctance would simply have squelched the courtship at an earlier juncture. On Chesil Beach raises good questions about intimacy, physical and emotional, and the power of regret.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I had to include this book, Harper Lee's one and only. Narrated by young Scout, a girl growing up in small-town Alabama in the 1930s, the story wends it way through a plot chock-full of childhood play, family, growing pains, and, most important, the troubles racial tension causes. I read To Kill a Mockingbird in 9th grade and liked it. I read it in my thirties and loved it. The definitive coming of age novel, the story shows Scout maturing from child to young adult during a period of three years: she learns that some people can be dangerous, and others (often the most unlikely ones) can literally save your life. Some time after rereading this book, I also read Charles Shields' Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, garnering a few literary tidbits. Lee, still alive and living in Alabama, has never published another novel; in fact, in the decade or so following Mockingbird, a major magazine rejected some essays she submitted, calling them subpar. Talk about humiliation! Also, I seem to remember that Shields supported the theory that Lee's good friend Truman Capote had helped her write Mockingbird, but don't quote me on this. In any case, none of this drama is important because the book remains one of the best in American literature; children and adults both find value in it. It's one of those that won't waste your time, so you can read it every decade.

Monday, August 3, 2009

So B. It by Sarah Weeks

It seems to me that many of the young adult novels written today are mediocre. I sometimes think it's because my adult mind has lost its ability to relate to anything youthful, but then I read a book like So B. It by Sarah Weeks, and I realize that maybe it's not me after all--it's them. (Sorry, Traveling Pants !) A coming of age story, So B. It concerns twelve year old Heidi's search for the truth about her mother, a loving mentally challenged woman, and her mysterious past. Her mother has no other discernable family, an unusual name (So B. It), and lives with Heidi and a kind agoraphobic neighbor, Bernadette, in adjoining apartments in Reno. Certain things intrigue Heidi, leading her to search for her mother's identity. Who are the people in the old pictures she's found? Who pays for the rent on their apartment? Weeks excels in plain, old-fashioned story telling: the characters seem real, not petty and paper-thin, and the places they travel are the well paved, mortar and bricks sort. The So B. It character fascinated me--her disability should limit her, but it really doesn't at all. She lives, and she's loved. Maybe the real message of this book is that family is important, and it comes in many kinds of weird configurations. Maturity is at the heart of So B. It--wisdom without preachiness. I wish there were more YA books like it.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

I'm back! The Ladies #1 Detective Agency Books by Alexander McCall Smith

Well, summer's passing quickly by, and I'm back at home base now, ready to read and write. I read some really enticing books with a great sense of place this month--the Ladies #1 Detective Agency books by Alexander McCall Smith. I'd steered away from these because I thought I wasn't interested in Africa, but, boy, was I wrong! These little novels provide an excellent description of Botswana--the country feels very warm, tropical, Southern climed--and the main character Mma Precious Ramotswe is thoughtful, moral, and mature. I felt comforted by these stories, like I felt when reading the American "Mitford" series, but more so. I think this series is better than Jan Karon's, simply because it makes Africa, somewhat of an inscrutable continent, more understandable. When I read Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, I started to navigate the literature of the African sensibility, and McCall-Smith's detective stories (they aren't really serious mysteries at all, mind you, if there is such a thing) further pipe me along this journey. Granted, I have just read these--they haven't percolated in my mind over time--but what's summer for if not to be impulsive? So, I'm adding them to the list.

It's good to be back. Please read, and if you find a good one, let me know!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell

July 1st and we're really into summer now, baby! Our family will be having some serious beach time this month, so I've been thinking about some good ocean reads. Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell springs to mind. The very first of her Kay Scarpetta series, it remains, in my mind at least, the very best of them. There's a strangler loose in Richmond, VA, and Dr. Scarpetta, Chief Medical Examiner, solves the case. I've only read this book once, and that was on my honeymoon in 1992. I found a copy in the ship's library towards the end of our trip; having only one day left to read it, I took it with me everywhere for 24 hours. Well, you can imagine what my husband thought about that! I carried Postmortem to the pool, to bed, even on the junket to Hope Town. My husband was astonished to see my eyes glued to black print while all around us the green sea and blue sky beckoned. He's never forgotten my (misdirected) focus, and it remains to this day an object lesson for him on the perils of marrying a librarian. I literally could not put the book down; stealing it was not an option, either. I had to finish it before we disembarked, and I did, actually, with a few hours left to spare my poor husband some attention.

Happy summer, everybody! Read some good books in July and let me know the titles. I'll return to blog some more in August...

Monday, June 29, 2009

Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier

I sometimes confuse this book with City of Falling Angels, and, in my defense, they both inhabit the same corner of my mind reserved for shadowy, magical writing. Furthermore, the same crumbling graveyard-type angels are apt symbols for both stories. Yet, Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier is quite different from the Venice book. It is a novel of Edwardian England, childhood friendship, and women's suffrage. Told from several characters' perspectives, the story gives the reader an authentic feel for London during the brief reign of Edward VII. Two young girls, Maude Coleman and Lavinia Waterhouse, meet in a cemetery and start a friendship with draws their very different families together. The cemetery (and the eerie stone figures within) is the dominant setting of the novel, representing the Victorian fascination with death, and by contrast, the new ways of life beginning to emerge in the just-begun 20th century. Chevalier's novel Girl with a Pearl Earring (her take on the origin of the famous Vermeer painting) is better known. I liked Falling Angels better because of its excellent sense of place; Pearl Earring has a well-described setting as well, but I prefer 19th c London to 17th c Holland.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College by Jacques Steinberg

In order for a book to make this list, it has to stick with me over time, popping into my head, informing conversations with friends, and generally establishing itself in my long-term memory. Well, I have to say that The Gatekeepers by Jacques Steinberg is now successfully plugged into my circuitry. It is a non-fictional account of the admissions process at prestigious Wesleyan University in Connecticut. The author, reporter Jacques Steinberg, shadowed a Wesleyan admissions officer through the trials and travails of high school visits, conversations with guidance counselors, student interviews, prospective student tours, etc. This book gives the reader an insider's knowledge of what an uppercrust Northern university is really looking for in an applicant (geography, for instance--they want students from all US states and every other country if possible.) The Gatekeepers was published in 2002. Since then, there has been a developing trend of terrific "admissions" fiction; two such books are Acceptance by Susan Coll and the more recent Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz. The latter book is an absolutely outstanding story of a Princeton University admissions officer's angst. All of these books give the reader a new appreciation for the hard work, turmoil, and extreme subjectivity of this profession. Even so, I'm glad my son won't be applying to college anytime soon. I'm not ready for it yet.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt

Our family likes to travel, even though we haven't been able to go as many places as we would like. Mostly, we tend to travel to kid-friendly sites, like Disney World. The food's always pretty good, the beds are comfortable, and the views are, well, pretty in a manufactured kind of way. With a little imagination, I can almost believe that Cinderella's castle becomes real at nighttime. For travel to true castles and other lush locales, I have relied on books for years. Travel memoirs are an excellent way of learning about a country or region without having to leave the couch. (Remember the armchair traveler in Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist?) John Berendt's nonfiction analysis of Venice in The City of Falling Angels is a scintillating account of a sinking city. He covers the people (some with local ties) who try to literally bolster Venice up, but end up bumping into each other's egos. Berendt's talent lies in showing Venice's flaws and making them beautiful: the elegance of a crumbling building, the lithe scrappiness of the city's cats and rats, the goodness beneath those big egos, and yes, the beauty of a stone angel, even as it falls. I never knew much about Venice until I read this book, but now I want to know more. Or even visit one day, if Disney World ever exits our itinerary.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

If you've been following my blog, you know that I really like coming of age stories. One of my favorite ones is A Separate Peace by John Knowles. I first read this novel the summer before ninth grade (from the dreaded summer reading list!) and liked it but was a little confused, nay overwhelmed, by the tragic events within. The story concerns the friendship between two prep school boys, Gene and Phineas, in the early 1940s, before the U.S. went to war. The grown-up Gene is the narrator of the novel, so the reader becomes familiar with this character's adolescent, as well as adult, personality. We are less acquainted with Phineas' nature, but we do know he is an optimist, a happy upbeat boy whom everyone likes. He's a great foil to Gene's darker, brooding personality. Gene is jealous of Phineas' charisma, and in the central bone-chilling scene, damages his friend forever. My fourteen year old self wondered why he would do such a thing. At forty-one years old, I still ponder this question but think the answer has something to do with adolescent impulse control. Also, when I reread this novel as an adult, I understood the meaning of the title. The adult Gene is telling his story in order to make peace with his actions of long ago. He's forging a peace separate from Phineas, WWII, boarding school politics--all of his history. Gene is making peace with himself.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

Occasionally, a good friend recommends a book to me which I end up not liking. It often works the other way as well. The Stone Diaries is a favorite book I've pushed on friends who later report that they were bored or just didn't get it. Well, again, it just goes to show that not everybody likes the same things, and that's okay. Canadian author Carol Shields' Pulitzer Prize winning novel is a faux biography of a perfectly ordinary woman, Daisy Goodwill. Told from several perspectives, Daisy's life story is filled with perhaps a little more sadness than the norm, but not much. We see her move from childhood to adulthood and marriage and motherhood. She lives a long time and does all the usual things. Daisy goes through all the phases of life with elegance and resilience. There's nothing particularly striking about her life--and that's seems to be Shields' point. There is beauty and art in the most ordinary of lives. I loved this book--this is one of the ones that made me cry at the end.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien by Oscar Hijuelos

If books are like people, then my selection for today would be an exuberant, colorful, story-telling friend who does all the talking. And, man, this book does not shut up! The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien is my favorite of Oscar Hijuelos' novels, and it is chock full of wacky and randy details about the daughter-dominated O'Brien family of Pittsburgh, PA. The father is heartily Irish, and the mother is deeply Cuban, and therein lies a central conflict of the story. The youngest child, the only son named Emilio, finds himself being pulled between his parents' two cultures while he is nearly smothered by all the femininity in the household. Hijuelos is a terrific writer--his novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love won the Pulitzer prize for fiction--and in true Latin American style he shows the magical and mystical in the everyday world. Fourteen Sisters has its tragedies, but it lands firmly on the side of love and hope and passion. I loved reading this book--I wouldn't want to read this kind of fiction all the time, just like I wouldn't want to spend every day with a garrulous friend. But, once in a while, it's utterly delightful!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Some great "also rans"

I read so many books that when people ask me to recommend one, I often cannot remember a single title--all those bibliophilic hours blur together, and my mind just freezes up. That's one of the reasons I decided to start this blog, to insure 24 hour access to book data which is occasionally cordoned off. And there are so many books I've liked--many won't be on my favorites list yet, but I wanted to offer them as good reading choices nonetheless. Here's a baker's dozen of books:

The Dive from Clausen's Pier by Ann Packer
Songs without Words by the same author
Testimony by Anita Shreve (great author!)
Where or When by the same author
Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
American Wife by the same author
Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett (memoir)
Why I'm Like This by Cynthia Kaplan (memoir)
Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl (memoir)
Waiting by Debra Ginsberg (memoir)
Blind Submission by the same author
Morningside Heights by Cheryl Mendelson

Interesting that all the authors are female...hmmm. Well, in any case, some of my upcoming favorites will have male authors, I'm sure. But if not, it can't be helped. As a reader, you like what you like. No need to make apologies.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Three Junes by Julia Glass

Every day, if we're lucky, we make connections with other people. A smile, a gesture, a story gets passed from one of us to another. Round and round it goes, this whirl of human interaction. Rarely do we see the whole of it--how one person's kindness persuades another to be kind, or how an anecdote passed on and on acquires polish. Julia Glass' Three Junes gives readers this vision: we sees how the passage of time links people together in small but consequential ways. Divided into three sections, the novel follows the McLeod family and friends in disparate parts of the world: the 1st June focuses on father Paul McLeod in Greece; the 2nd June, his son Fenno in New York; and the 3rd June, their friend Fern, also in NYC. The book's Junes span just about a decade, but that is plenty of time for the reader to see the important role serendipity and chance meetings play in life. Three Junes is remarkable for its hopefulness--there is a pattern and plan in life, and coincidences are not meaningless. When life seems chaotic, it's important to remember this message.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler

Marriage has been on my mind lately, its eventual success or failure and what determines this outcome. These recent musings do not stem from my own marriage but from a memoir I just finished. It Happens Every Day by Isabel Gillies got me thinking about how tenuous a prospect wedlock can be--how the saying "timing is everything" really applies to this institution. Gillies, a New York actress, is swept off her feet by childhood friend Josiah Robinson at a wedding, and they proceed from passionate dating to wedlock and parenthood. They move to Oberlin, Ohio for his professorship where he soon begins to canoodle with another. Reading between the lines, I see that Gillies was simply at a time in her life (early 30s) when she needed to get married and have children. Her husband fit the bill--he was gorgeous, thoughtful (at first), and brilliant. Smitten by perfect timing with the perfect man, she ignored the warning signs (he'd had an affair when married to his first wife!) that she might have heeded in her twenties or even later in her forties.

All this discussion about timing and wedlock brings me to another one of favorite books: The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler. (Every one of Tyler's books belongs on this list--however, I'm aiming for a smidgen of diversity.) In this book, Michael and Pauline time their meeting perfectly: during the heady days of WWII, he falls hard for her mostly because she looks the part of pretty wartime gal. He is smitten, but the resulting marriage is anything but storybook. Incompatible personalities should have doomed this union from the start, but something about that wartime beginning just carried them onward. Michael and Pauline are married for thirty years before one of them finally decides to fix the mistake they made. Thirty years! As always, Tyler deals with this thorny topic with humor and compassion, so it's never unbearably sad. I urge the reader to compare this novel with the marriage portrayed in Tyler's Breathing Lessons.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Well, as the saying goes, there's just no accounting for taste. A friend of mine loaned me Very Valentine by Adriana Trigiani, saying I probably wouldn't like it because she certainly didn't. Surprise! I liked this book a whole lot--it is a comfortable story about New York City and high end shoes with dashes of Capri and Italian food thrown into the mix. What's not to like? The author gets very specific about the craft of cobbling, so maybe that's why my friend was irritated. Loving shoes the way I do, I was fascinated. In any case, in reading (as in romance), you never know where sparks are going to fly.

A book that everyone seems to love (and I'm no exception) is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Francie Nolan is the main character (somewhat based on Smith herself) who lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NYC in the early part of the 20th century. She endures poverty, hunger, family troubles, including a rogue of a father, to finally triumph at the end, with education and love. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a classic coming of age story which has carved a permanent niche in many a reader's mind. A friend of mine (a different one) said her fondest memory of this book is the scene which illustrates a profound irony of poverty: the mother, Katie (having been chastised for throwing away coffee) announces that even poor people need to be wasteful once in a while to understand what luxury feels like.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Curtain by Agatha Christie

I remember in 1988, as a mystery loving teenager, I read Agatha Christie's last Hercule Poirot novel, Curtain. I was enthralled and couldn't put it down; I shivered and my blood ran hot and cold. The next morning I woke up sick with either food poisoning or a stomach bug, so I assumed Curtain's visceral effect was not the result of the fantastic plot or character crises, but rather my unfortunate bloodstream, invaded by bacteria. Then, I reread the book about ten years ago and loved it just the same--though without a fever, thank goodness. Christie wrote this book in the 1940s and then locked it away until just a year before her death in 1976. No secret here--Poirot dies in this book. The author wanted to kill him off so he would not become some sort of watered down franchised character. (Flash forward to the rumors about J.K. Rowling killing off Harry in her last Potter novel...very similar) Curtain is very psychological in tone; inner vs. outer strength, youth/aging, hope vs. despair--Christie weaves these themes throughout the mystery. If you are a lover of suspense, and especially an Agatha Christie fan, don't miss Curtain.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder

Has it finally stopped raining? You know, as a general rule, I love rain--absolutely LOVE it--but this week has put that love to the test. It rained Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and today, Friday, the sky has held off except for a kerplunk here or there. We needed the rain, but this deluge was just too much. It goes to show that the old saying is true--when it rains, it pours, literally and metaphorically. To counterract the resulting soddenness (of earth and spirit), you must read--you must! Well, you should either read or listen to music or do something else that lights up your harbor.

So, I suggest you read about water. Not puddles, but deep, perilous ocean as detailed in the nonfiction thriller Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder. The SS Central America sank in 1857 while returning from a California gold run, and the treasure lay somewhere at the bottom of the ocean. Fast forward to the late 1980s...entrepreneurial inventor, Tommy Thompson, sets his mind on finding this gold. Is he successful? You'll have to read the book to find out. Regardless of Thompson's success, you'll learn about the last frontier--the deep ocean--as well as the history of the California gold rush. This book really appeals to men; my father recommended it to me, and some of our male friends have also really enjoyed the story. As far as adventure stories go, I am not an easy sell, but I fell hard and fast for Ship of Gold. Oh well, call me fool's gold.

Happy Memorial Day!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Myra Sims by Janis Owens

It has been raining since Sunday; the ground is sodden and tree limbs are falling here in our verdant corner of Florida. It's a good time to take cover and settle in with a book if you can. Janis Owens' trilogy about the Catts family (My Brother Michael, Myra Sims, and The Schooling of Claybird Catts) is an engaging saga about a tenacious West Florida family. Owens brilliantly captures the hot and piney landscape of this part of the Sunshine State as well as the cracker mannerisms of its inhabitants. The title character, Myra Sims, is a survivor; she has endured much in her life--a rough childhood, mental illness, loss of a husband--and has emerged even stronger. Each book in this trilogy, though covering the same events, is narrated by a different character, and Myra Sims' voice is the best of the three. Her narration is so authentic in tone, I felt I knew this woman, and in fact, I've met many like her in real life--unpretentious, organized, resilient. But, in this case, as a reader, I also get to know the dark secrets of her past, the juicy details. Don't you just love reading?

I've slowed down a bit on the blog recently because I just finished writing a novel. Hallelujah! Who knows what happens from here. (Well, lots of editing, for sure.) I'm just glad to finish something I started. More on this later.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Yesterday's book featured a character slipping between past and present by virtue of memory and dreams. The Time Traveler's Wife's character Henry DeTamble travels through past, present, and future courtesy of a "chrono displacement" disorder. I am not a huge fan of time travel stories (or any science fiction, for that matter) but I make a huge exception for this story. The reason this book is so successful is its readable prose, likable characters, and brain teasing plot. I won't lie to have to use your smarts at the beginning to figure out what's going on. Henry is 28 years old in one passage, and then only 8 in the next, then he's 32, and so on. And his lovely wife, Clare, is likewise variously aged throughout, depending on where in time Henry travels. But once you get the hang of it, it's fun--like putting a puzzle together. You realize the plot's progression, though seemingly random, is in fact solidly chronological--it always loops back to Clare. (After all, she is the time traveler's wife.) I think we can learn a lot from this book as well as yesterday's book: even though time plods forward, we are fortunate that our memories let us revisit and reframe events again and again and again.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Evening by Susan Minot

A dreamy, hypnotic novel, Evening is a little more complex than my other choices but well worth it. The chief character is Ann Grant Lord, a wife and mother who is in the final stages of cancer. Sounds depressing, right? Well, Evening is deceptively sad because in the midst of impending death lies all the lushness of a life remembered. Minot's writing takes you seamlessly from present to past and back again. Most of Ann's memories/hallucinations revolve around a man, Harris Arden, with whom she had a brief affair decades ago at a friend's wedding. She fell passionately in love with him, but tragic circumstance blunted the relationship. It's apparent from Ann's mental meanderings that she never really got over him, or at least what he represented. The poetic quality of Minot's writing places it well above the standard love story, and its examination of what passion really means bumps it up even more. You see, the reader learns through Ann's story that a love lost is not lost at all. Memory survives: the memory of who you were when you were with that person, the flip flop of your heart, the anticipation, eagerness, and expectation. These feelings are recorded in the brain and never forgotten. Evening is a story of memories and the lessons they teach.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Debutante: the Story of Brenda Frazier by Gioia Diliberto

The weather's definitely hot now, and here in Florida we're starting to get those refreshing afternoon thunderstorms. You know what this means, summer's here--not according to the calendar, mind you, just according to our frizzy hair and sweaty clothes. Summer's the time for a good beach read, and I recommend the biography Debutante: the Story of Brenda Frazier. I read this about twelve years ago; I found it on my mother-in-law's bookshelf and ended up reading the entire book on the six hour drive home. Brenda Frazier was one of the lesser known "poor little rich girls." Diliberto's book about her is the only one out there, I think. Frazier's over the top debutante festivities put her on the cover of Life magazine in 1939. She was part of New York's cafe society, lounging at El Morocco with fashionably white skin and red lips. After her debut, it will come as no surprise that things seemed to go downhill for Brenda--two failed marriages, nervous breakdowns. She ended up a recluse, dying of cancer in 1982. Why would I want to read this book, you may ask. Well, I'll tell you--it's deliciously written, easy to read, and it imparts that satisfying message that we all know is true, even if today's world insists otherwise: money ain't everything, and if you think it is, you're in for a sorry life.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Last night at a book club gathering, Barbara Kingsolver's name came up. I remembered how much I enjoyed reading her novel The Poisonwood Bible a few years ago (for a different book club--I can't get enough of book clubs, but that's another story). The Poisonwood Bible is the kind of book I never would have selected on my own--the plot details on the inside cover would have scared me away: a zealous missionary drags his family to Africa where they encounter snakes, ants, malaria, death. Yuck, way too depressing. But that's why reading groups are so great, because you are pressured (in a good way) to read "outside the box." This book, despite heavy subject matter, is blessed with snappy first person narration by the family daughters and mother. Additionally, Kingsolver excels in bringing the full bouquet of Africa to her readers: the smells of the marketplace, the heat and beauty of the landscape. I'll probably never go to Africa, but I felt like I'd been there after reading this book. And isn't that literature at its best-- transporting the reader to another time and place? This book succeeds in that mission (even if the missionary father royally fails in his--oh, you'll just revel in his blunders!).

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Widow for One Year by John Irving

Back when our son was first born, and I was spending great swaths of time reading, A Widow for One Year was a great treat for me. John Irving's writing acts on me like Stephen King's--I either love it or hate it. I loved this book. The main character is a writer, Ruth Cole, and we follow her journey from an unhappy childhood to happy middle age. Again, I didn't want to put this book down; Ruth was a likable character, and it was different for Irving to cast a female as his chief protagonist. He succeeds beautifully with this character. There are quirks in this novel, as in all Irving's works, but they're softer here. (Some of his topics in other books are just too strange for me--bears, incest.)

I just finished a thought-provoking nonfiction story called Life in Rewind about a young man's battle with debilitating obsessive compulsive disorder. Just like A Beautiful Mind, this book demonstrates the power that sheer will can have over mental illness.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Girl from Yamhill by Beverly Cleary

I'm realizing that I must love coming of age stories because there are an awful lot of them in this blog. But then one could argue that any story is a coming of age story. My second nonfiction selection is definitely a memoir of growing up. Beloved children's author Beverly Cleary's A Girl from Yamhill is as good as it gets in this genre. She details growing up during the depression in a small Oregon town in such readable prose, you won't be able to put the book down. Cleary faces everything most of us face--school troubles, family problems, boy issues--and you can see how these themes take root and later inform her writing. I grew up reading the Ramona books--the quirkiness of the main character set her apart from other popular characters of the time. The honest, conversational tone of A Girl from Yamhill sets it apart from much of literary (auto)biography. This volume covers only the first part of Cleary's life--up to her departure for college. The second installment, My Own Two Feet, continues her story into adulthood. I didn't like volume two as much, maybe because Cleary's best when focusing on childhood--hers and her characters.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Essentially a coming of age story, The Namesake takes this genre a step further by showing the growth of the main character betwixt and between two cultures--America and India. Gogol Ganguli is the intelligent son of Bengali parents who moved to the U.S. as newlyweds. His father named him after the author Nikolai Gogol whose story "The Overcoat" greatly influenced his life. The name is supposed to be temporary but ends up sticking. Gogol never feels like he fits in: as a child he finds the family trips back to the homeland strange, and as a teenager, he cringes at his parents' Bengali customs. But he doesn't feel completely at ease as an American either (witness his often painful relationships with women.) Lahiri's prose steps into high gear towards the end of the novel when she describes how a family tragedy forces Gogol to come to terms with himself. I honestly think her passages concerning the love between a parent and child are some of the most beautiful in the English language. Anybody who has lost a parent will identify with Gogol. I highly recommend this book.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

Happy Mother's day to everyone, and happy reading to you if you are so inclined! Today's book pick is one of a very popular series (ever heard of it? ha!) which my son and I have read together. Half-Blood Prince stands out in my mind because I actually had goose pimples as we read it. The events in this installment take a very dark turn, and Voldemoort's evil seems unstoppable. Most memorably, Harry and Dumbledore brave corpse filled lakes and caves to retrieve a valuable object. Rowling answers some questions in this book but leaves the reader with many more. For instance, the gut wrenching scene at the end left both of us open-mouthed with only one word hanging from our lips: why? Our family is excited about the July release of the film (finally!). I hope I like this movie as much as The Prisoner of Azkaban--the best one of the films so far, better even than Order of the Phoenix. I've never been a fan of fantasy/science fiction, but I make an exception for the Harry Potter books. Good writing is good writing.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

It's a lazy, hot Saturday here in FL. I recently read Secrets to Happiness by Sarah Dunn, a good Manhattan story with quirky characters. Now, I'm reading Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas. It's a young adult novel set during WWII and concerns a young girl's perspective on a nearby Japanese prison camp. So far, I'm enjoying reading it, but not nearly as much as I loved reading The Blind Assassin a few years ago. I don't remember particulars about this book, just that I couldn't put it down and that it contained a novel within a novel. If The Blind Assassin were a person, it would be that girl in college that you loved talking to, only you've forgotten her name. But she was the funniest, best, most scintillating conversationalist you've ever known. Other Atwood books have left me cold, but this one--this one is best friend material.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Ten Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer

I've mentioned that a book has to resonate over time with me. Well, what I mean by that (somewhat self-aggrandizing!) statement is that my mind has to spontaneously revisit a book's themes again and again over a significant chunk of months. I read The Ten Year Nap about a year ago, and I've thought about it consistently since then. The chief plot concerns Amy, a stay at home mother and former attorney, who is forced to consider returning to the workplace. Wolitzer deftly weaves the stories of other Manhattanite mothers into Amy's world. Some of these women work, some don't; all have made choices that have left a residue of regret. I simply love the title of this book--I think a lot of stay at home mothers feel cut off from the workaday world, almost as if they're living in a dream far removed from the hurly burly of careers, ambition, and dressing for success. Having to go get a full-time job would be quite a rude awakening. Or would it? You'll have to read The Ten Year Nap to see what happens to Amy.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Walking Across Egypt by Clyde Edgerton

I do like the occasional darkly themed book (see the previous two postings), so afterwards I need to read something shiny and sweet as an antidote. Walking Across Egypt by Clyde Edgerton is just such a book. Mattie Riggsbee, an elderly Southerner, lives alone and craves connection with others. Enter one Wesley Benfield, juvenile delinquent with promise. The two form a friendship, largely based on Mattie's terrific cooking. Her food nourishes Wesley's (and the reader's) heart and soul--the pound cake description will leave you drooling and reaching for your Bundt pan. Edgerton weaves Southern humor and charm throughout this small town tale. Reading this book, I felt transported back to my grandmother's house--I could almost taste the okra. My grandmother is long gone, but Walking Across Egypt resurrected memories of sitting at her table. I can't ask any more from a book than that.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule

Yes, I love to read about quirky characters, but, push a quirk to the extreme, and you have pathology. Case in point, psychopath Ted Bundy. Ann Rule's nonfiction spellbinder The Stranger Beside Me is a true crime classic. The author actually knew Bundy--she worked with him on a suicide hotline of all things--during the killings in the early 1970s. Rule's style is thoughtful and rational as she coolly details Bundy's path of violence and tries to make sense of it. I've read many of the author's subsequent books, but this one remains my favorite, partly because I remember the fear we felt as children after Bundy's rampages in Tallahassee and Lake City. The chilling theme of the book is perfectly expressed in the title: can you ever really know another person? Ann Rule knew Bundy, she even liked him, and he was a monster.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Green Mile by Stephen King

You know, rereading my blog from yesterday, I realize I should not be so dismissive of Ernest Hemingway. Some of his short stories are absolutely elegant (read "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," "Cat in the Rain"). His writing style in longer works just rubs me the wrong way--too much unattributed dialogue. Employing the "books are people" metaphor, I simply force a smile and return them to the library unread.

Speaking of American masters...I can't leave out Stephen King. In two hundred years, academe will not begrudge him this title, I just know it. Now, I don't like all of his books--in fact, I either love them or hate them--there's no in between for Stephen King and me. Most people seem to agree, however, that The Green Mile is one of his best. Published in 1996 as a serial novel, it's about a prison guard, Paul Edgecomb, reflecting on the miraculous events which occurred on his death row unit during 1932. The hall to the electric chair is labeled the Green Mile because of its length (long) and its color (green). The movie starring Tom Hanks is very good also. The Green Mile is hopeful and uplifting with little of the Kingesque gross stuff (think the foot chopping scene in Misery). I seem to remember I cried at the end of the book (and the movie too). Looking for catharsis? Try this one.

Monday, May 4, 2009

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

If you shy away from the classics because they require too much thought, then this is the classic for you. East of Eden is a great big romp of tale that you won't be able to put down. Sure, it has all the requisite metaphors and symbols, plenty of fruit for learned discussion, but the bottom line on this book is that it's highly entertaining and good historical fiction about California in the early 1900s. A family saga featuring brothers Cal and Aron, making their way in a hardscrabble world, East of Eden has is all: sex, irony, and (my favorite) such a sense of place that I could almost taste the dirt and grit of the nascent 20th c West. Steinbeck is the American master, in my humble opinion. Sorry, Hemingway.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler

Our cat's perched on the armoire, watching me type this entry. She's a skittish, calico tabby who is growing increasingly fond of sleeping, as am I, especially on a Sunday. In any case, my book for today is A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler. I can safely say, I love every book this author has written. Her style is a deceptively simple, easy prose that the reader just laps up. But her stories positively vibrate with complex irony and exquisite humor. A Patchwork Planet features Barnaby Gaitlin, a lifelong screwup, trying to make his way in his Baltimore, MD world. He quirkily navigates the pitfalls of family and love and friendship. At the end, the reader doesn't pity Barnaby, she admires him. I think everyone can identify with the hapless Barnaby Gaitlin (I sure do). So, it's nice to see the underachiever given a garland for once.

Bye for now--I'm going to go read Richard Yates' Young Hearts Crying.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber

Well, it's Saturday, and I just spent Friday night finishing a book (This One is Mine by Maria Semple). I enjoyed it very much. It's not on my best books list yet--I've got to see if it resonates in my mind over time. However, I would recommend it as a good, quirky read about the LA/entertainment industry culture.

I want to address the question "Are books like people?" I give a hearty "yes" to this question. Just like people, books can irritate, please, or leave us yawning. And this choice of liking/not liking is so personal. Many a time has a highly recommended book left me bored as a gourd (The Sun Also Rises). Likewise, I've loaned beloved books to friends (The Crimson Petal and the White, for instance) only to hear later that they hated them--couldn't get past page ten. I never take offense because sometimes a book's tone, vocabulary, plot, detail (or lack of) just don't do it for you--just like that neighbor down the street who keeps calling you to have coffee. It's nothing to worry about--your personality and hers just don't click. So be kind. In life, gently decline the offer of coffee; as for the book, return it with a smile. (And, for the latter, it's okay to say "I hated it!" You can't hurt a book's feelings.) BTW, amidst all the rambling, my best book for today is The Crimson Petal and the White, historical fiction about a prostitute in Victorian England. It's a hefty tome, all right, but its tone is anything but. Light, frothy, immensely readable--I couldn't put it down. Sugar's (the prostitute's) striped skin ailment intrigued me. Quirks, medical or otherwise, are good fodder for reading, in my book.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt

Greetings from Florida! I'm an avid reader (with degrees in English and Library Science) and have created this blog to share my favorite books from childhood to the present. Speaking of favorite book from childhood is Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt. It's a coming of age story that I try to reread every ten years or so. This author is more known for her book Across Five Aprils. More picks later...