Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Sunday, July 1, 2018

“Paris in Stride: An Insider’s Walking Guide” by Jessie Kanelos Weiner & Sarah Moroz

This is a charming little book. I love it as a mere object, with its beautiful watercolor illustrations and the way it just feels good in my hand. I also loved reading through it. I think it would be a lovely book even if only to read and dream over, but it’s even nicer using it to plan.

The book is divided into seven main chapters, each proposing a walking route through one or two arrondissements (though it skips nearly a third of them; I don’t know Paris well enough to be sure of this, but I assume the features of the skipped ones are of less interest to a visitor than the ones in the book).

One quibble: the authors could easily have included the distance of each walking route. With the help of a Maps app I’m sure I can calculate the distances myself, but it would have been much simpler for me if the distances were part of each chapter. Alas, this is not one of those very specific guide books. It doesn’t give the dollar sign symbols to tell you how expensive restaurants are, or the hours of operation of the businesses, and the maps (as with all the other illustrations) are hand-drawn. It gives more of a general feeling of each place than a compendium of details. Which makes it much more fun to read through!

See how pretty?

Sunday, June 24, 2018

“The Night Bookmobile” by Audrey Niffenegger

I read this graphic novel about a month ago and never got around to writing about it. I know I enjoyed the story, which turned out to be a bit darker than I expected (not a bad thing). I must say I was less than impressed by the artwork (that's not to say I could have done better . . . although someone could have) but luckily that didn't detract from the story.

I really liked the premise of this book: everyone has a "magical" traveling library that holds every book they've ever written. The more they read, the more books are added. Although my blog obviously doesn't go all the way back to my Dr Seuss days, it's kind of like my very own Night Bookmobile from 2009 on! And much easier for me to find.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

“Outline” by Rachel Cusk

It's happening again. I'm reading faster than I'm blogging and I'm getting behind. Yeah, I know, I have that rule that I can't start another book before I've blogged about the last one . . . well, I broke the rule a few times. Oops.

It's really unfortunate in this case, though, because I thought Outline was a great book, and now I won't be able to do it justice because I finished reading it weeks ago. If I'm honest with myself, though, I may not have been able to do it justice even if I'd blogged about it right after I finished reading . . . at least now I have an excuse.

This book's structure kind of floats somewhere between short stories and a novel. It seems like each chapter could stand alone as a short story, but the chapters are linked more than those in the usual book of short stories, and various characters appear and reappear (and the narrator remains the same throughout).

The general background of the book (I don't feel like it can be called a plot, and I don't know what else to call it): an English writer travels to Athens for a week (or was it a month?) to teach a writing course. The book is entirely composed of conversations the writer has (with her seatmate on the plane, a few friends, and the students in her class). I fluctuated between disbelief (that people would actually open themselves up enough to have such deep, meaningful conversations with practical strangers) and envy (that people have such intelligent conversations and I don't . . . though it made me feel better to remember this is fiction, after all), but despite disbelief and envy, these conversations were pretty intriguing. And it was really interesting to get a brief glimpse into the life of each student in the writer's class (in the first chapter where they are introduced) . . . but frustrating to come back to them a few chapters later and have to flip back in the book to match up the new stories with their old ones. 

So . . . I can't remember anything else I wanted to say about this book. But I am looking forward to reading the following book, Transit.

Friday, May 18, 2018

“A$$holes: A theory” by Aaron James

This book was less fun than I expected. It's a slightly tongue-in-cheek but mostly serious philosophical work (or as serious a philosophical work as I'm ever likely to read, considering that I graduated from college during the previous century . . . not that graduating from college in the previous century precludes me from reading philosophy--I'm just saying I would probably only read philosophy if I had to for a class, and that's not going to happen). I think the majority of its light-hearted feeling stemmed only from its repeated and frequent use of words like "asshole" which (I assume) are not likely to appear in most serious philosophical works. I had the feeling that the author was reveling in this fact, maybe even giggling about it at times. 
As for the actual content beyond the giggles, it was interesting to watch James polish his definition: what exactly is an asshole? Not just a jerk or a bastard, but an actual, honest-to-goodness asshole? James gives a fairly specific and limiting definition. Apparently the state of being an asshole is a constant state, based on entitlement. An asshole systematically allows himself special advantages over others and is immune to any resulting negative reactions. (Notice how I said "himself"? James covers that in the book too.) And if you're worried that you might be an asshole . . . well, no need to worry. True assholes would have no such worries. 
I suppose I gave some extra thought to the distinction that an asshole is always an asshole, whereas others might just act like an asshole sometimes. When the asshole (or not) is someone you have a brief encounter with, how can you determine whether that individual is, in fact, an asshole and not just acting like one in that moment? In fact, what difference does it make to the "victim" in that moment? 

Anyway . . . I'm not sure I retained much about what you can actually do about the assholes in your life. Did the book say "avoid them as much as possible, because you can't change them," or is that just my own philosophy intermingling with my memory of the book? I guess I'll never know. I do know, however, that I don't like using the word asshole on my blog. It's unprofessional. So, you know, if you're offended, my apologies. 

Saturday, May 5, 2018

“The Hand That First Held Mine” by Maggie O’Farrell

I’ve been impressed with Maggie O’Farrell ever since I read After You’d Gone and haven’t been disappointed by anything of hers that I’ve read . . . until now. Ok, maybe that’s a bit more harsh than necessary, because I still ended up enjoying the reading experience. It just wasn’t up to the standard that I’ve come to expect.

I think the problem was the characters. They just didn’t seem real to me. The more developed characters floated just outside the realm of believability, and the rest seemed amorphous and faceless. (Except for the babies! I could vividly picture their movements and behavior.) This had the unfortunate consequence of failing to make me care about any of the characters in the book, which means the occasional tragedy seemed like little more than a blip. 

This is one of those parallel stories (half of the plot is in the past, half in present day) with two completely different sets of characters (well, for the most part; the whole point of the book is the slow reveal of how the two stories are interlinked.) Plot A centers on Lexie Sinclair and begins on the cusp of her escape from her mundane post-war life in the English countryside. She shocks her family and moves to London and then has jobs and is slightly immoral and blah blah blah. Plot B is about Ted and Elina and their new baby and how difficult parenthood is, mostly for Elina at first, but then moreso for Ted. I won’t tell you how the two plots are linked because that would  just be mean, but I will say... if you read a more detailed blurb about the book and then have a guess, you’ll be right. 

Friday, April 20, 2018

“Girl in Snow” by Danya Kukafka

I’d never heard of this book (and haven’t heard anything about it since, come to think of it) before Sam gave it to me for Christmas. He liked the image on the cover, and the similarity of the author’s last name to Kafka; and the endorsement by Paula Hawkins on the front cover didn't hurt.

Girl in Snow is definitely in the same category as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train (and not just because it has the word "girl" in the title). All three are well-written, tightly plotted mystery/thrillers that are definitely fun and worth reading. If I had to rank them I think I'd say this one isn't as good as GG but is slightly better than TGotT. (Is Gone Girl inflated in my memory? Because no thriller seems to quite compare to it anymore.) 

The story here is a murder mystery told from the perspective of three different characters. Two are teenagers who attend the same school as the girl who was killed, and one is a cop who was with the phalanx who first responded to the murder scene. There's a little bit of Northern Exposure going on here, as all three characters are almost a little bit too quirky to be true . . . or maybe everyone is really that quirky on the inside, and we just don't have the opportunity to realize it the way we do when we're reading someone's innermost thoughts?

Lots of parallels were drawn between characters (art, ballet, people with fathers who are were policemen--maybe there were more similarities than this, but I'm too lazy to search for others) which was *almost* (but not quite) enough to make things a little confusing sometimes, but was definitely enough to be interesting and make me think about the connections between people and how similar situations can affect people in different ways. 

I have only one complaint, which isn't really much of one. Once again I guessed the solution early on. I first wondered on page 50, first suspected on 142, my suspicion deepened on 299... and the actual revelation wasn’t until 305. At least this wasn’t a case where all the characters were being stupid because the clues were too obvious, or a case where it was annoyingly easy to guess the killer. It was both satisfying and frustrating to crack the case early. Maybe I’m just too good at it! I guarantee you, though, I would NOT be good at solving real-life murders. I’m sure the criminals would never be as accommodating in handing out clues as authors are. 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

“The Imperfectionists” by Tom Rachman

This may sound like a stupid thing to say, but I love books that I enjoy reading. And I really enjoyed this one.

The Imperfectionists is marketed as a novel, but it’s really a book of short stories. (Don’t let that put you off, though! That makes it great for taking it in small bites and reading one chapter at a time.) This book did not reach critical mass (I assume because of the format, or maybe my one-chapter reading habit?) but my reading experience was better without it. 

Though there is a tenuous narrative arc (the stories are tied together by a fictional newspaper based in Rome; each chapter is about someone who works there, and people who are featured in one story often make small appearances in others) the relative lack of plot is a benefit rather than a detriment. What really shines in this book is the characters. 

The characters weren’t necessarily lovable or impressive (more often the opposite), but they felt real and true. As I read, I don’t remember thinking “Wow, these characters seem like they could be real people,” which is a good thing because that would have taken me out of the story. And that’s always annoying. (Though that would have been better than if I’d been thinking, “Wow, I totally can’t imagine any of these characters as real people.”) But looking back now, after having finished the book, I’m definitely thinking “Wow, those characters seemed like they could have been real people.”

Saturday, April 7, 2018

“In the Orchard, the Swallows” by Peter Hobbs

This is a beautiful little book, through and through. I mean, look at that lovely little cover! And what’s inside is even better. I actually finished reading this book several weeks ago, and I hate that I put off writing about it, but I think that’s because I was afraid I wouldn’t do it justice. That’s still true, but the longer I wait the worse it will be.

Which is unfortunate, because reading this book was rewarding, and I would really like to savor that feeling. The story is told so calmly and peacefully, almost a Zen experience, but it has strength and a quiet passion too. It’s the story of a young man who returns to his village in Pakistan after years of unjust imprisonment . . . and that sentence right there would NOT interest me in reading this book. But the writing is subtle and taut, the story offered in sweet but tart nibbles, so that reading it was almost like eating one of the pomegranates that grow in the book’s orchard. The plot gently shifts between the man’s adolescence, his imprisonment, and his following convalescence, slowly revealing the series of events that brought him to the present day. 

It’s a very short book, but it’s the kind that any Goldilocks worth her salt would close with a satisfied sigh. 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

“Riding in Cars with Boys” by Beverly Donofrio

I only got this book because I’d heard of the movie. That’s not a good enough reason. It's a nice little I-was-a-teen-mom-and-lived-to-tell-about-it memoir, with the added twists that Donofrio grows up to be a published author, and the baby who seemingly ruined her life grows up to be her best friend. So, kind of like a fairy tale. But I do appreciate the sentiment expressed at the end. Many people have limitations... but it’s up to the individual to decide whether to stew about those limits or whether to learn from them and find them enriching.

I haven’t seen the movie, and now I probably won’t. That’s mainly because I totally can’t picture Drew Barrymore playing Beverly. I was thinking of someone more like Leah Remini as I read (dark hair, looks convincingly Italian, and is a sharp sarcastic talker who has perfected the eye-roll). I expect that Barrymore did well with the scenes where Beverly got high (admittedly that’s probably almost all of them) because she’s good at the dreamy, slow-speaking, happy-go-lucky characters. Maybe I’m underestimating her range, but I just don’t think Barrymore could successfully “be” Beverly as written in the book.

Or maybe I’ll have to watch the movie just to find out if I’m right?

Saturday, March 17, 2018

“The Couple Next Door” by Shari Lapena

AAAGH. UGHHHHH. I can't believe I read the whole thing. (Actually that's not true. I can hardly bear to not finish a book, no matter how bad it is.) I feel as if I just ate an entire mega-sized bag of peanut M&Ms: a little bit sick, and full of regret.

I suffer a slight twinge of guilt when I slag off a book by a living author, mainly because I imagine how the author would feel if they read my blog post (however unlikely). In this case I will assuage my guilt with the knowledge that this book was a NYT bestseller, so surely Ms Lapena won’t care if one lowly little blogger didn’t love her book. Or even if one lowly little blogger hated her book. 

I can understand why readers (including me) find the idea of this book intriguing. The Gone Girl-esque cover draws you in, and then the blurb piques your interest: Anne and Marco’s perfect little family suddenly begins to unravel after “a terrible crime” is committed while they are at a dinner party. And there is the promise of many secrets, and a shocking truth. 

But OMG, the writing was awful. Gone Girl it was not. It was pretty bad all the way through, but it certainly wasn’t helped by the resolution of the plot that was so explain-ey... and then there was that last part at the very end. It was just so stupid and pointless and unnecessary, existing purely for shock value, and not even doing a very good job of that. 

In fact, this book was so bad that I refused to read the selection from the author’s next novel that was tucked in at the end of this book, which is totally out of character for me. (Ms Lapena, if you are reading this, console yourself with the thought that I probably couldn’t have done any better if I had tried to write a book myself. Not to mention the fact that you HAVE written books, and I haven't.) There was a plot, and it wasn’t boring, but I can’t think of any other positive things to say. Other than the fact that the book was short. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

“Grendel” by John Gardner

I’ve always been curious about Beowulf, but never quite curious enough to attempt to read it (yet . . . and even if I do read it someday, I won’t reach for an original Old English version). But I have never familiarized myself with the plot. When I picked up Grendel (at The Wild Detectives) I was hoping it might be a Cliffs Notes-cum-Gregory Maguire version of Beowulf.

Unfortunately I found Grendel was more obscure and less accessible than I’d hoped. I think someone familiar with Beowulf wouldn’t describe it with either of these adjectives, but alas, we’ve already discussed the fact that I am not familiar with Beowulf. Thus, obscure and inaccessible it was.

It’s not as if I couldn’t follow the plot and didn’t appreciate the book whatsoever. It’s clearly an old tale told from a new perspective—that of the monster Grendel. To me he seemed bitter and angry, like a sullen teen but with an age-old weariness. The book appeared to suggest (without explicitly saying so) that Grendel was a descendant of Cain—that his kind were once human, but had grown increasingly less so over time. The book follows Grendel as he terrorizes Hrothgar and his people.

An interesting side note: I'd assumed Grendel was a new publication. It wasn’t until I read the bio at the end of the book that I learned the author died 35 years ago and this book was first published in 1971. That changes my perspective. I feel less “Maguire did it better” and more “Gardner did it first.” And knowing the publishing industry finds enough value in it for it to remain in print makes me think I should probably find more value in it than I did. Maybe it’s time to tackle Beowulf...

Monday, February 19, 2018

“I Am, I Am, I Am” by Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O'Farrell is a really strong writer, which I first realized when I read and loved After You'd Gone, probably fifteen years ago. Since then I've also read Instructions for a Heatwave, and I have two other O'Farrells waiting in the wings, and now I'm not sure why I haven't gotten around to reading them yet. I think that MO'F and Geraldine Brooks must be my two favorite female authors . . . and I haven't read everything of GB's yet either. But maybe I need to reframe? Rather than berating myself for not completing their canons, I can feel a little frisson of delight at what I have to look forward to. 
I Am, etc, is a collection of short stories bound by a stronger-than-usual thread, as all the stories are tied together by a common theme (made clear in the book's subtitle: Seventeen Brushes With Death). The collection is made even more unique by the fact that each chapter relates a real-life (as well as near-death) experience of the author's. It's basically a morbid memoir. 
Before reading, I found it slightly belief-defying that any one person would have almost died seventeen times during what is more than likely just the first half of their lifetime. In fact, one of the chapters is about O'Farrell's daughter, and (though I must admit I already don't remember many of the remaining sixteen incidents in great detail) I remember thinking at least one of the others had a pretty tenuous claim on belonging in this book. But as I read I found it didn't matter whether the number of experiences defies belief. O'Farrell's writing made me feel, and made me care, and made me understand. 
One passage that particularly resonated with me: towards the end of the chapter about her daughter, O'Farrell lists all of the things that might make the typical parent panic, but are nothing compared to the issues her child has dealt with; issues that have caused O'Farrell to realize, "This stuff is small; life is large." How fortunate for her readers who can come by this wisdom (and, I hope, hang on to it) without the heartwrenching experiences that wrought it.