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...