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

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

{read: Irish thriller} Ratlines by Stuart Neville

Ireland is one of the countries that offered asylum to the Nazis after WWII, but now, just weeks before JFK is scheduled to visit, someone is killing them. Albert Ryan, a man who fought in the war and now works for Ireland's Directorate of Intelligence, is tasked with getting to the bottom of it. But what he finds is that it's not quite as simple as it seems. He gets pulled into a tangled mess of intrigue and the bodies start to pile up. Can he find a way out?

I had discovered Stuart Neville years ago with his first novel, The Ghosts of Belfast, which featured an IRA hitman who is haunted by the 12 men he killed and, once released from prison, sets out to kill those who had engineered their deaths. (That's the first of a trilogy.) This standalone didn't disappoint, and the end is especially chilling. Neville excels at creating damaged male characters who fight against right and wrong, all the while knowing that a "normal" life will always evade them and death is just around the corner.

Ratlines by Stuart Neville (Soho Crime, 2013)
My rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

{tread: resilience} Torch by Cheryl Strayed

How much of my reaction to a book is based upon my expectations for it? Perhaps that's a subject for another day, but I bring it up here because Torch by Cheryl Strayed was a book that I was almost afraid to read. After devouring Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things, I moved on to Torch with mixed feelings. Rarely do I end up liking an author's fiction and nonfiction equally. In fact, if I really like someone's nonfiction, her fiction usually disappoints me. (Expectations again.)

Then I read the jacket copy and saw that the plot of Torch is at least loosely autobiographical. Strangely, this made me angry. I wanted fiction, which I defined as a work that was entirely made up with absolutely no basis in Strayed's life. I didn't want memoir/autobiography thinly veiled as fiction.

I let Torch sit on the shelf a few more days.

Finally, I picked it up. I hoped I wouldn't have to invoke the 50-page rule. But after all my angst, I needn't have worried. Torch is that rare treat, a book that envelops the reader completely in its world. What we as readers always hope for is to enter a world that's completely imagined, populated with characters so real we feel like we could invite them over for drinks or go shopping for a new coat with them. That's Torch. After the first few pages, I forgot to compare the plot to Strayed's life. I forgot to pay attention to what she was doing as a writer. I was caught up in the story, which ends up being one of hope in the face of grief.

In Torch, Teresa is diagnosed with incurable cancer and told she has a year to live, but she's dead within a few weeks. Her family, common-law husband Bruce and children Claire and Joshua, are left to struggle on without her. Claire drops out of college. Joshua deals marijuana and meth. Bruce learns he can't stand to be alone with Teresa's memory and gets married just months after Teresa dies.

Yet this story, which could be depressing, isn't. These characters are doing the best they can, fumbling forward while looking backward. This is a story about the resilience of the human spirit.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

{read: The Bee List} A collection of Bee novels

The title of Lisa O’Donnell’s January debut, The Death of Bees, brought to mind the obvious almost-opposite title, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. And that reminded me of Little Bee by Chris Cleave, which is one of my all-time favorite books. Here’s a short tour of The Bee List, each featuring distinct first-person female narrators.

1. The Death of Bees offers three voices, each with its own clear perspective on the world. Interestingly, I found myself paying the most attention at first to Nelly, whose chapters are rarely longer than a few paragraphs. While her older sister Marnie and their neighbor Lennie tell most of the story, Nelly has so little to say that you feel it has to be important. Yet it was the first few lines, which are in Marnie's voice, that convinced me to give this one a try:


Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved.

Marnie and Nelly are determined not to go into foster care and set out to cover up their parents' deaths until Marnie turns 16 and is a legal adult. Will they succeed? This story is set in the low-rent district of Glasgow amidst grinding poverty, but perhaps surprisingly, it's a story that's more about hope than despair.

2. The Secret Life of Bees featured Lily Owens, a white girl escaping from her father and searching for her mother in 1960s South Carolina. She and Rosaleen, the black woman who is the closest thing she’s known to a mother, take off on foot and end up seeking shelter with three black beekeeping sisters. This bestselling coming-of-age tale about mothers and daughters, told in Lily’s irreverent voice, will charm you. It’s a best-selling classic Southern novel.

3. Little Bee’s title character is a teenage Nigerian girl who, after a chance encounter on an African beach with an upscale English couple on holiday, barely escapes with her life. She eventually winds up in an English immigration removal center, which is where asylum seekers are sent. When she’s finally released, she sets out on foot across the country to find Sarah and Andrew. (No, this isn't the fictional UK equivalent of Wild.) But, as she and Sarah learn, that brief encounter on the beach has lasting consequences. One of my favorite characters was Sarah’s young son, Charlie, who is convinced that he’s Batman and battles the “baddies.” The searing voice of Little Bee will stay with you long after you finish this tour de force that shows us what globalization really means.


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

{read: memor/advice} tiny beautiful things by Cheryl Strayed

I've been on a Cheryl Strayed kick ever since finishing Wild, her memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of her advice columns on life and love from The Rumpus, is fierce and intense. Best read in small bites, it tells both of the challenges Strayed has overcome and those that her correspondents are facing. In fact, it tells so much of Strayed's own story that it could be read as a memoir.

She dispenses advice with compassion but also a clear-eyed honesty. As she tells those who write to her, there is often no way around doing the hard thing. I found it impossible to put this book down and couldn't follow my own advice to read it in small pieces, even though sometimes I felt like I couldn't read another story about someone's heartbreaking life: the teenage girls and boys Strayed counseled who were abused by their parents and stepparents, the woman who was raped three times, the man who suffers from a disease that has disfigured him and thinks he'll never find a woman who will desire him, the father who lost his 22-year-old son and can't see a way to go on. Yet what kept me reading was Strayed's compassion, the stories of survival against what are sometimes overwhelming odds, and the promise that things will be mostly OK in the end. Yet be warned: Her answer to the last letter will break your heart, or at least make it crack a tiny little bit.

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed (Vintage, 2012)
My rating: 5 stars

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

{read: psychological thriller} Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I am coming late to the Gone Girl party, and I suspect that many of you will not like what I have to say. This was one of the most hyped books of 2012, and I couldn't wait to read it. It seemed that everywhere I turned, people were reading it, loving it, and urging me to read it. I'd read Gillian Flynn before, and while I didn't fall in love with her books, I enjoyed them. I was expecting fireworks, something that was head-and-shoulders above her previous books. What I got was more like a sparkler.

Perhaps it was the hype, and perhaps no book could have lived up to it, but I disliked Gone Girl so much during the first third of the book that I almost didn't finish it. It sat on my table as I picked up another book and then another. The eager hopefulness in Amy's diary entries, contrasted with the contempt Nick showed toward Amy in his sections, turned my stomach. Yet, eventually I made it to the second third of the book, where the POV changed. Suddenly, I was intrigued. The change of narrator was interesting. I wanted to see what would happen next, what this person had to say. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm didn't last long. The plot felt contrived (although there are a few surprises), and while I briefly enjoyed pondering the difference between sociopath and psychopath and wondering which definition better fit these characters, in the end it wasn't a book that I'd recommend. It wasn't just that I didn't like the characters; it was that they weren't interesting. Beyond a few brief moments, I didn't much care what they'd do next. While the best books I've read have characters with voices so captivating that I'd listen to them do their Saturday chores and follow them down the grocery store aisles to see what kind of pasta sauce they'd choose, neither Nick nor Amy inspired this interest in me, and the plot wasn't exciting enough to make up for it. I was glad to be done with this book.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Crown, 2012)
My rating: 2.5 stars

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

{read: coming of age} The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell

My new fiction obsession these days is finding interesting narrative voices. Think of Hig in The Dog Stars, Katey Kontent in The Rules of Civility, or Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars. These characters have distinct points of view and convey them in a way that makes me want to follow them around and listen to what they have to say, even if they're just doing their grocery shopping.

The Death of Bees brings three new voices, each with its own clear perspective on the world. Interestingly, I found myself paying the most attention at first to Nelly, whose chapters are rarely longer than a few paragraphs. While her older sister Marnie and their neighbor Lennie tell most of the story, Nelly has so little to say that you feel it has to be important. Yet I confess that it was the first few lines, which are in Marnie's voice, that convinced me to give this one a try:

Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved.

Marnie and Nelly are determined not to go into foster care and set out to cover up their parents' deaths until Marnie turns 16 and is a legal adult. Will they succeed? You wouldn't think you'd be rushing back to the Glaswegian slums and lives of grinding poverty every chance you get, but I couldn't put this one down. In the end, perhaps surprisingly, it's a story that's more about hope than despair.

The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell (Harper, 2013)
My rating: 5 stars

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

{read: bookish thriller} Dominance by Will Lavender

It's been a while since I've read a book this creepy, although the creep factor didn't kick in for me until about two-thirds of the way through. Then, though, every creak in the house sounded suspicious. Perhaps it didn't help that it was nearly midnight and my dogs kept barking for reasons unknown to me. I expected a murder to  duck into the living room at any minute, axe in hand.

Before that, though, I had a hard time getting into this plot-driven thriller that's light on character development. In this book, which alternates between a college class taught by an esteemed professor/convicted killer years ago and a present-day murder, much is made of a game called The Procedure, in which people reenact, word for word, scenes from certain books as a way to fully understand them. Think of this like role-playing games for bookish types. Yet this game, which played such a central role in the book, could have been even more powerful if it had been tied in more directly to the murders themselves. I kept waiting for this and was disappointed not to see it.

In the meantime, some of the plot devices — gathering all of the former students into one house, for example — seemed contrived. The last page, however, made up for the shortcomings in plot and character earlier in the book.

Dominance by Will Lavender (Simon and Schuster, 2011)
My rating: 3 stars