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.