Tuesday, April 16, 2013

{read: Pulitzer winner} The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

I reviewed The Orphan Master's Son in 2012, and it was one of my favorite books of that year. It's not a quick read, but its portrait of daily life in North Korea is captivating, and the plot has twists I didn't see coming. There's even some humor, especially when we readers learn how North Koreans view us. If you haven't read it yet, it's definitely worth your time. I'm glad to see it won the Pulitzer for fiction (awards were announced Monday).

Check out my original review for more details.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

{read: My TBR shelf} What's up next?

Sometimes my TBR shelf threatens to take over the rest of my bookshelves. Books that were once neatly organized end up in haphazard stacks anywhere there's room to squeeze them in. If you're looking for a sneak peek at what I'm reading this spring, here it is!

Reading now: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
The largest part of the North American Monarch butterfly population has ended up in the Appalachians in Tennessee instead of in Mexico where they usually spend the winter. While some local residents view this as a miracle, others (who had planned to log the land to pay overdue bills) are less impressed. Scientists who have arrived to study the butterflies are working against time, since the butterflies will likely freeze to death without having a chance to lay their eggs. This story, told mostly through the viewpoint of 28-year-old and mother-of-two Dellarobia, is oddly compelling and hard to put down.

Up next:  
The Comfort of Lies by Randy Susan Myers
In the Kingdom of Men by Kim Barnes
Code Name Verity by Kim Wein
Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

What are you reading this spring?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

{read: WWII moral dilemma fiction} The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

The Storyteller is Jodi Picoult's best book in recent years. The story of a scarred — inside and out — young woman who is asked to forgive and then kill a Nazi who worked at a concentration camp will draw you in. Sage Singer can't imagine how Josef Weber, who is a retired high school teacher and a pillar of the community where he now lives, was ever a Nazi. But then he tells her about his childhood and his history during the war, and she's appalled. She calls the FBI to report Weber, and when the investigator learns that Sage's grandmother is a Holocaust survivor, he asks if she might be able to identify him. This is first time Sage has heard about what her grandmother endured, although she's always known about the concentration camp tattoo on her arm.

While the beginning and end of this story are trademark Picoult with ethical dilemmas and alternating points of view, the strength of the book is the center, where Sage's grandmother tells the story of what it was like to be a Jew in Poland when Hitler came to power in Germany. I've read several WWII books, but this one is powerful. I'd recommend the book for the center section alone. That being said, I thought the ending was rushed and left some things unresolved. I don't need things to all be tied up neatly, but there were some issues raised near the end that deserved more time than they got.

The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2013)
My rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

{read: more best friendship} Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell

As I was writing last week's review of Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett, I realized I hadn't reviewed Let's Take the Long Way Home, another great story of female friendship that I mention in that review. In honor of the power of women and the ties that bind them, and in celebration of Women's History Month, here it is: my favorite memoir of female friendship. But be warned: It will bring you to tears more than once.

This heartbreaking story of friendship — between two women and between dogs and humans — is powerful and shattering. I first read Drinking: A Love Story, which is Caroline Knapp's memoir about her struggle with alcoholism. This book begins after that one was published and tell the story of the friendship between Gail, who fights her own battle with alcoholism, and Caroline. After seeing how Caroline viewed herself, it was surprising in some ways to see the different way that Gail perceived her. I think that reading Drinking first gave me a deeper insight into Caroline's character, although Let's Take the Long Way Home is the book that I loved.

Fair warning: the last third of the book will leave you in tears, yet the reason I read this it because I wanted to see how Gail made it through the loss of her best friend. How do you go on when you can't? As she says in the first sentence: "It's an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too."

Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell (Random House, 2010)
My rating: 5 stars

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

{read: best friends forever} Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett

This is the story of the friendship between Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealey and a reminder that all stories don't end happily ever after.

Lucy struggles with depression throughout the book, despite the success of her own memoir, and her psychological issues keep her from ever being able to be happy and enjoy what she has — an abundance of great friends, an amazing talent as a writer, and an outgoing personality. All she can see is what she doesn't have — true love — and it tears her apart. Even her romantic relationships can't measure up to the ideal of true love that she's set before herself.

Ann loves her and does everything she can to save her, but it's not enough. She answers Lucy's mail for her, serves as a safe house during a particularly difficult period of Lucy's life, and is always on the other end of the phone, ready to reassure her and try to fill the cavernous need for love that Lucy has. Yet in the end, despite all her efforts, Ann loses her best friend after 20 years.

This reminds me in some ways of Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell, which chronicles the friendship between Gail and Caroline Knapp. Both memoirs of friendship were prefaced by memoirs written by the other half of the friendship which focused on individual stories. The memoirs by Ann and Gail come later, after their friends have died, and focus on the friendship more than their individual stories; of the two, Gail's tells more of her story than Ann's does.

I'd recommend both pairs, read in chronological order if possible, to anyone interested in stories about writers, women, and friendship. Gail's memoir also has a strong dog theme running through it, as both she and Caroline were dog lovers and owners.

Truth & Beauty (Harper Perennial, 2005)
My rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

{read: love story} Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

This unusual love story between a 26-year-old unemployed cafe worker-turned-caregiver and a 35-year-old quadriplegic is delightful, funny, warm, and honest. Jojo Moyes has crafted characters that you root for in Lou, the cafe worker who will take the job as a caregiver only if it doesn't involve wiping bums, and Will, who ended up as a quadriplegic two years ago after a motorcycle slammed into him on a rainy day.

Will used to rule the corporate world and led a fast-paced life filled with wheeling and dealing during the day and women, travel, and vacations abroad on his off time. The switch to confinement in a wheelchair, only able to move his head and one hand a few inches, is at times unbearable.

Lou has become the sole breadwinner for her family now that her father's laid off, since her mother stays home to take care of her grandfather, who's had a stroke. Lou's boyfriend, Patrick, is obsessed with his marathons and triathlons and can barely spare a minute for her.

Somehow Will and Lou manage to connect and become unlikely friends, despite the differences in their lives. When Lou finds out that Will's decided to end his life in six months, with the grudging support of his parents, she sets out on a mission to convince him that life is worth living. Will she succeed?

I loved this story because the characters were so fully developed and realistic. Lou's family is a mess and struggling to get by, Will's family is a mess even though they're rich, and they're each just trying to get through the day — until they discover that there can be more to life than surviving and living small, safe lives.

This book is about more than just falling in love. It's about the complex relationships within families, the responsibilities of children toward parents and parents toward children, and the challenges of living with serious disabilities. Yet while this sounds weighty, Moyes handles it with ease and tells a story so compelling that you keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. You'll recognize pieces of yourself somewhere in here, whether it's as a parent, a child, a person falling in love, or someone trying to figure out what she wants in life. I didn't want to put it down, and yet I wanted to leave the last 100 pages unread so that it wouldn't be over. This is the second great book I've read in 2013. (The first was The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell.) 

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, 2012)
My rating: 5 stars

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

{read: sales in Saudi Arabia} A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers

I was expecting more from the acclaimed Dave Eggers. This was airy, aimless, and left me wanting some substance.

Alan is a sales rep from Reliant who goes to Saudi Arabia with a team of three young tech people to make a presentation to the king in hopes that Reliant will be chosen as the IT provider for a new city, KAEC, that's being built. But progress on the city is slow, no one knows when (or if) the king might even show up for the presentation, and the only reason Alan is included is because he met the king's nephew 20 years ago. He's depending on this sale and its commission to bail him out of his enormous debts and pay his daughter's college tuition.

Alan tries to strike up a friendship with a taxi driver who ferries him around and he takes part in a few lustful dalliances that score him alcohol and a day trip, but mostly he waits.

While this story was easy to read, I wanted more from it. Alan changes not at all throughout the book, the final scenes are anticlimactic, and I was left wondering what the point of the book is. Is it that the U.S. has outsourced everything without thinking of the consequences? Is it that we are all broken in some way, but we're more than the sum of our broken parts?

Either there was much more here and I just didn't read deeply enough to get it, or it was only what it seemed on the surface: a desperate man reaching for life preservers that will always elude his grasp. While some people like novels about quiet desperation and resignation, I've never been one of them. Perhaps this just wasn't my kind of book.

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (McSweeney's, 2012)
My rating: 2 stars