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

Saturday, December 26, 2015

"Deep Water" by Patricia Highsmith

Sam and I have a weird thing going on with books. Somehow, if one of us reads a book first, generally the other one never gets around to it. It doesn't matter how intrigued we may have been ahead of time. Once one of us has read a certain title, the other of us allows it to drift deeper and deeper into the To Be Read pile until it finally disappears.

There are rare exceptions, however. You may have gathered that The Girl on the Train was a very good example of this, and I'm happy to tell you that Deep Water is another one. This is a compelling and creepy tale, full of suspense in typical Highsmith fashion. It's the story of calm, mild-mannered Vic Van Allen and his attention-seeking wife Melinda, whose hobby is philandering. For years Vic has placidly turned a blind eye to his wife's string of boyfriends. Then, without even making a conscious decision about it, it turns out that Vic has had enough. When talk isn't enough to put a stop to it, he takes action. The last fifty pages had Sam's heart pounding throughout, and that was enough to convince me that I wanted to be sure to read this one too!

Back to our usual "one reads/the other doesn't" habit: I think subconsciously we use each other to weed out the bad, the mediocre, and the not-quite-great. It's quite a useful thing, actually. We all know there will never be enough time to read ALL the books, so guiding each other to narrow the selection to the best ones can't be a bad thing.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

"The Buried Giant" by Kazuo Ishiguro

We read this together over the past several weeks while we were putting our littlest one to bed. I think the story suffered somewhat from the fragmentary nature of reading it in such small increments but Sam disagrees, so for the first time we're going to write a joint blog post.

SAM: I've now read all of Kazuo Ishiguro's books - he's one of my favorite writers - and this was one of his most ambitious and unusual novels. Where Never Let Me Go ventured into science-fiction territory, this is a similarly bold and risky step into fantasy. In tone, it's somewhere between Game of Thrones, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Lord of the Rings, and A Once and Future King. And yet it is very definitely a Kazuo Ishiguro book. It's something in his voice and in his obsessions, I think. The themes of amnesia, of an imperfect but enduring marriage, of parents separated from children, longing, sadness, hope, are all here, just as they were in When We Were Orphans, for example. But here, we are in England in the Middle Ages - just after the reign of King Arthur - instead of Hong Kong in the 1950s. I don't want to say too much about the plot because, like most Ishiguro books, it is a delicately constructed mystery with no obvious solutions, not easily reducible to a synopsis, but in spite of reading only a few pages each night (while getting our two-year-old ready for bed) I found it quietly fascinating and compelling.

KATHY: Well, I did too, of course. I'm not saying that I didn't enjoy it because we only read little bits every night. However, I am saying that the reading experience might have been improved with a better reading schedule. As it was, every evening when we picked the book up we felt a little bit lost and needed time to re-orient ourselves. Or maybe it was just the mist of Querig clouding our minds?

SAM: Yeah, I think listening to it read out loud (because Kathy was the designated reader) made it slightly more difficult for me to get my head around switches in viewpoint and jumps in the timeframe. But that would have been true for almost any book. This was also a very allusive novel - to the point where I almost wondered if it was an allegory - and had me thinking about it for days after I read it. There was one passage (the one near the end about the buried giant) where I said, 'wow, is this about ISIS?!' And Kathy said she'd just been wondering the same thing. Though of course she can't remember that now. Querig again... I do feel pretty sure the boatman would have let us go to the island together, don't you?

KATHY: I'm sure he would've, Querig or no.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

"The Distant Hours" by Kate Morton

The sad day has come. My illusions are dispelled. I officially no longer find Kate Morton magical. Each book I've read since The House at Riverton has speeded my realization. Yes, her books have intricate plots, great stories, and I love the secrets and mysteries, but they no longer float above the regular bookshelf rabble; they have come down with a thud.

I loved The House at Riverton and it made me expect great things from Morton's other books. But I'm not sure I can say Riverton was the best of the four I've read, or even that it's really my favorite. Maybe if I'd read Hours first it would have had the same effect on me as Riverton. I do think, though, that I've found Morton's four books to be too much of the same thing. An older generation with terrible secrets, a younger generation prying their way into the past. Different characters and slightly different settings, and of course different secrets, but somehow nothing new.

That's not to say it wasn't fun! I have read books I've had to force my way through, and this certainly was not one of those. Morton's stories grab me by the arm and whirl me into a vortex. Hours mostly takes place in a castle, with three old spinster sisters whose father had penned The True History of the Mud Man years earlier. There is madness, and destroyed love, and death, and betrayal, covered by layers of lies meant as protection of loved ones. And there is a young woman with her own link to the castle who is peeling back those layers. Even so, I was left thinking I probably wouldn't bother reading any more of Morton's books. (Though I would love to read The Mud Man!)

Only I just noticed that Morton had a book out this year called The Lake House, and I feel my resolve beginning to crumble . . . time will tell if I'll be able to resist it.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

"Haunted" by Chuck Palahniuk

What a great title for this month, and how fitting that I am posting about it on Halloween! I was selecting my next read based on the books I could see from my reclining position in bed. I briefly thought I might pick up Children of God by Mary Doria Russell, but when my eye fell on Haunted, I decided that sounded perfect for October. It's just too bad I don't have time to squeeze Christopher Moore's Bite Me into the month as well. Maybe next Halloween.

Anyway. Back to Haunted. Did you know the cover glows in the dark? I'm a sucker for gimmicks like that. And this time I was pleased to find that the cover wasn't the best part of the book.

Haunted is basically a novelized short story collection. There are 23 mostly-unrelated stories linked together by a writer's workshop. (And that summary of the book could be likened to describing Adolf Hitler as the leader of Germany during World War II. It's a true statement, but it leaves a LOT out.) So here are the details.

First, about the title itself. I was kind of expecting ghosts and supernatural phenomena. I was wrong. We're looking at a different type of "haunting"--the kind that comes with unsettling, could-be-true stories that imprint themselves on your mind and stick there forever. So, really, this book wasn't especially Halloweenie. But (despite my misinterpretation of it) the title certainly wasn't false advertising.

Second, the stories. They're definitely Palahniukian. All the way through, I was thinking what a disturbed (but inventive!) mind the author must have. This book is full of the sort of thing you come across on the internet and then wish you hadn't--like that gruesome, sordid, indecent news piece you might, in hopes of attenuating its effect on you, try to tell yourself was made up or exaggerated. And then I read the Afterword, where Palahniuk refers to these as "mostly true stories." Seriously?? That knowledge makes me less fearful of what he might come up with next (or what he might do) and more unsettled by the stories themselves.

Third, the matrix for the stories. I found it the only disappointing part of the book, as it was inferior to the stories themselves. The things that happened during the "writer's workshop" were too obviously present purely for shock value, seeming pointless and impossible to relate to. But it was interesting that this part was written in first person plural. I expected the narrator to eventually be revealed as a specific member of the workshop and was somewhat disappointed that that never happened.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

"Bloodroot" by Amy Greene

This was another excellent book--one that I wish I could still be reading right now. I'm sad that it's over, but I can put a positive spin on it: I feel lucky when I have the opportunity to experience such a good book.

Speaking of good books . . . Why does it often take me so long to get around to reading them? I've had this one for five years, and I'd heard it was great before I bought it. So I've had Expected Awesomeness on my bookshelf for five years without doing anything about it. It probably has something to do with fear of disappointment, and it's also related to Obligation Reads (which was more applicable back when I was in a book club). I think in this particular case it was also because several years ago I suggested to Sam that we should read this together, but he refused because he hated the title. (Now that I've read the book, though, I know it was by far the most fitting title possible.)

Bloodroot is a multi-generational story of a cursed family. Six narrators share their points of view, from the oldest (Byrdie) who is a great-grandmother to the two youngest (Johnny and Laura). All of the characters are tied together by Bloodroot Mountain in eastern Tennessee. We hear how each woman falls in love, and then we watch the tragedy-tinged direction each love takes.

I'm not sure how I feel about the epilogue. In a way it was satisfying--it answered every question--but somehow being left with no ambiguities is disappointing. It's not that the answers themselves were disappointing, but that I was left with nothing to wonder about.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Baudelaire Poems

I've had a cute little "Everyman's Library Pocket Poets" edition of Baudelaire's works as (ahem) my restroom reading for the past few months. (In case you haven't yet discovered this, poetry is a great format for quick visits. It eliminates all the fuss about trying to remember where you were in the plot--since there isn't one--and you rarely end up hanging around longer than necessary in order to see what happens next. I have just realized, by the way, that it's a good thing I didn't start reading The Girl on the Train while I was sitting on the toilet. I wouldn't have gotten up for two days straight, my feet would have gone so numb that they would never have recovered, and I would have been fired for job abandonment. But I digress.)

I've no idea where I got this notion, but I somehow expected Baudelaire's poems to be romantic, albeit in a sort of erotic and edgy way. Well, I got the edgy right. And a lot of them are about love, but I definitely can't call them romantic. Like the one where Baudelaire describes roadkill in detail before addressing his love and basically saying, "My Beauty, someday your lovely body is going to rot just like that!" That poem, by the way, is aptly titled "Carrion".

A word about translation. I'd often wondered what I might be missing by not reading Baudelaire's poems in the original French. (The short answer: not much, because my French isn't good enough. I personally would miss more by trying to read it in French.) But a translation can certainly make a difference. Look here to see four prior English translations of one poem in this collection. It's amazing how varied they are! And Richard Howard's version in my Pocket Poet book gives it yet another individual twist. It's also, I think, more natural-sounding and fluid than any of the other four. The only thing Howard doesn't do is attempt to replicate the rhyme scheme of the original, but I think he was right to abandon the restriction of rhyme in favor of retaining the sense of the original with lyrical expression.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

"Tattercoats and Other Folk Tales" by Winifred Finlay

I saw this old book in the children's section at the library a few years back, standing on a special display shelf, but I did not borrow it at the time. I can't remember why--maybe I was already in the middle of reading something else? But it obviously stuck in my mind, because I later made a note to get it next time we were there. However, when I looked it up the next few times, the card catalog always showed it was checked out. The perils of having had a spot on the special display shelf, I suppose. Then I forgot to look for it for a long time . . . until last week. First I looked for it under FIN on the fiction shelves, but it wasn't there. Then I checked the card catalog and saw that the library doesn't categorize this book as fiction! It was in the non-fiction section! What's that about? I'm not sure whether to chalk that up to wishful thinking, stupidity, not paying enough attention, or a librarian with a sense of humor.

I may have mentioned [many times] before that I enjoy a good children's book on occasion, with an emphasis on fairy tales and magic. This one was no exception. In fact I loved it so much that I began to consider buying my own copy. I want to read it to my kids at bedtime, even though the majority of them are too old for it and the youngest one is probably too young to appreciate it. I don't care--I'll read it to anyone willing to sit relatively still in my general vicinity. I'm not a fan of the cover art (the library book is dust-jacketless, so it's just a plain green binding, and I much prefer that) but the stories inside are lovely. And all the better because they are neither retellings of the most common fairy tales, nor are they the jarring modern-style updated versions; these are actually new stories that I'd never heard before. They have a lot of familiar elements, but they're just different enough to feel unique. And they're told in the gentle old-fashioned language with repetition of details that one would expect from these sorts of stories.

Now I just have to decide whether to go ahead and buy a copy now, or hope someone gives it to me as a Christmas gift . . .

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

"How to Behave So Your Children Will Too" by Sal Severe, PhD

This book wasn't quite what I expected. Based on the title, I really thought the book would focus on my own behavior. I thought there was some kind of system of words and actions I hadn't yet discovered in almost sixteen years as a parent--a way of behavior that my children would see (or maybe even just absorb subconsciously) and then magically mirror in their own lives--and this book would reveal the essentials.

Unfortunately, this book is not magical. It's not even very unique. It's just another child-rearing book full of discipline suggestions. It doesn't really address a parent's behavior in general; the only recommendations it makes for the parents relate to the way they handle their children rather than the way they handle themselves.

Can I set aside my unrealistic expectations and judge this book more objectively? Seeing it for what it is, I am still disappointed. Most of the ideas in this book are either common knowledge (never give in to a tantrum) or suggestions for complicated charts and systems I can't be bothered to try (partly because it would take too much effort, partly because I'm too doubtful concerning the likelihood of success). I do wonder whether Dr Severe (who isn't as harsh as his name sounds) was merely spouting all of the well-known parenting lore, or whether this book (unbeknownst to me) is actually some sort of nationwide parenting Bible and all of the current parenting lore originated here? (It's plausible. The book is nearly 20 years old.)

I won't call this book a complete waste of time. I satisfied my curiosity (even if the satisfaction came in the form of disappointment), and I am renewing my imperative to be consistent with my children (a helpful parenting tool I was already aware of and did not learn from this book, but one I must admit I've been a bit lazy about). It's just unfortunate that my ego is telling my superego, "Yeah, good luck with that."

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Wait . . . I wasn't finished . . .

I found this kitty on Pinterest.
Originally from
. . . Or, How I Wish I Hadn't Finished.

I am now suffering from Reader's Remorse. I knew it was going to happen before I'd even gotten anywhere near the end of The Girl on the Train. I knew that once I reached the end I would wish I hadn't . . . I would wish I could still be reading it. I tried to slow down, I really did. But TGOTT is the sort of book that would not allow me to slow down.

And now I'm left with the depressing feeling that my next book can't possibly compare to my last one.

"The Girl on the Train" by Paula Hawkins

YES. This is why I read books.

I know this isn't news--you've probably heard this an infinite number of times since January--but this book is riveting. I first heard about it when my husband read a review calling it the new Gone Girl (which I loved reading). Further reviews made it sound like maybe it wasn't *that* great, hence my delay in reading it, but finally my curiosity got the better of me and I bought a copy for, um, my husband's birthday. (That was my excuse, anyway.)

This is basically a murder mystery/thriller where both the past and the present are revealed in a tantalizing strip-tease of words. There's a disappearance (or maybe a murder?), more than one unreliable narrator, and a torrent of jealousy and affairs and duplicity and alcoholic amnesia. And (unless the brilliance of critical mass has blinded me to its flaws), the plot was fitted together so tightly and cleverly. Well, OK, maybe I guessed the truth before I was even halfway through the book, but I wasn't sure until much later, and I was more impressed with my powers of deduction than disappointed by the guessable solution.

If I try to look at it objectively, I can't convince myself that this book was actually amazing. I can't point to anything about the writing or the ideas or the characters that causes this book to stand head and shoulders above the rest. But it completely SUCKED ME IN and I LOVE that.

It does make me wonder, though. What makes this or Gone Girl so appealing when I was so negative about Transgressions? I don't think I've had enough time to put my finger on the difference.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

"Notes on a Scandal" by Zoë Heller

What was she thinking?

That's actually the original title of this book; Notes on a Scandal was initially just the subtitle. But once the story was made into a Major Motion Picture, the title of the movie became the title of later editions of the book. (I hear that's often the case.) As much as I hate the thought of a book changing as a result of its movie adaptation, I think this change was a good one.

Throughout the story, the titular notes are recorded by Barbara, a lonely, obsessive older woman who teaches at the same school as the perpetrator of the scandal: attractive 40-something Sheba who is pursued by a 15-year old student and eventually ends up having an affair with him. And, since all of the information we receive is filtered through Barbara, do we ever really know what Sheba was thinking?

Even if all we get is Barbara's spin on the situation, I think hearing it through a third party was important in allowing the reader to sympathize with Sheba. Barbara was able to humanize the "how could she" element of the teacher/student story that comes up in the news every now and then. I was grudgingly forced to see how she could have finally ended up in a mess, and how it wasn't a simple, cut-and-dried, snap decision. Even so, I never did get rid of the "she shouldn't have" attitude. As the adult in the equation, it was Sheba's job to realize where to draw the line.

I enjoyed reading the book (even if Sheba was a bit squicky and Barbara was a bit creepy) and have enjoyed mulling it all over since I finished reading. Why, exactly, was Barbara recording all of the details of the scandal? Her claim was that she thought it would help in court; however, she either didn't realize her notes would only serve to incriminate her (as an accessory), or that wasn't her true reason. And how, exactly, did Sheba feel about Barbara? Perhaps she initially allowed her friendship with Barbara to develop because Barbara seemed to offer support rather than judgment . . . but by the end it's difficult to tell if Barbara is still around because Sheba doesn't have the energy to end the friendship, or if Sheba actually appreciates Barbara's presence.

I was a bit disappointed in the ending; I guess I wanted something to happen. But when I mull over possible conclusions, I can only come up with what seems to be the inevitable trial and prison sentence, which I can't see adding anything to the book.

I know this may be the most boring blog post I've ever written, but at least it's done now, so I can start reading something new . . .

Friday, September 11, 2015

"Transgressions" by Sarah Dunant

TRAIN WRECK. That's my two-word review of this book. You know, the sort of thing that is horrible and disgusting but you just can't look away from it.

I find it odd that I should have enjoyed Dunant's Birth of Venus so much (though admittedly I didn't love it) but couldn't get on board with this one. It started well enough, at least maintaining my interest if not knocking my socks off. However, when what seemed intriguing (a possible poltergeist--hey, I didn't say it was realistic) turned out to be merely sordid (a stalker--sorry, was that a spoiler?), and then I found it impossible to identify with Elizabeth's reaction to said stalker, I knew this book was not for me. The promise of the synopsis on the back cover was not being fulfilled. 

And yet I could not stop reading. 

The story starts with a young-ish woman who lives alone in a posh old London house which she used to share with her long-term boyfriend. It's been several months since she kicked him out after finally admitting to herself that things weren't working out between them. She has become a bit reclusive, throwing herself into her work as a translator of Czech novels and forgetting the world around her. When odd things start to happen in her kitchen, at first it's not clear whether Elizabeth has maybe just gone a bit crazy through loneliness, or whether something more sinister is afoot. So of course I had to keep reading until it was revealed that the latter was the case (although the possibility of the former was never really fully dispelled). I'm not sure what my excuse was beyond that point.

I couldn't help but wonder why the title wasn't Trespasses insteadThe two words can be nearly synonymous, and it seemed a better fit, given the stalker-y theme. Or maybe it would have been too obvious a choice? The author certainly didn't go for the typical cliches here. I guess I can applaud the avoidance of the expected, but that wasn't enough for me. 

Coda: this book did not completely turn me off to Sarah Dunant. I'm willing to give her another chance by reading this, if only for the subject matter. 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

"Affinity" by Sarah Waters

You know you're really on vacation when you read an entire book in 24 hours. In regular non-holiday life, I think the only way I could read a whole book in one day is if it were very very short. Or maybe if I cut out sleeping altogether.

Anyhow. Affinity was a good read! It was very reminiscent of Fingersmith (in terms of Victorian lesbian love and betrayal) but was a fun and compelling read in its own right. And though some of it was a bit predictable (possibly only due to my previous Waters experience), I also made a few wrong guesses, and found a surprise or two as well.

I would like to take a moment here to digress about interpretation. Some stories are not open to it whatsoever, being laid out in an obviously plain and straightforward manner. Others, however, are less direct, hinting rather than explaining clearly, giving the reader the opportunity to draw his or her own conclusions. (Books like that are awesome, by the way.) Not for the first time (I definitely had this same experience with Anita Shreve's The Last Time They Met, and surely other times that are not coming to mind at the moment), I became aware that my conclusions, though they seemed solid, were not necessarily the ones that every reader would reach. If you've read this book and you want more details, read here to the part at the end (about Peter Quick) and know that the understanding expressed there is not the understanding I reached in my own reading experience. (If you haven't read the book, though, don't follow that link unless you relish spoilers.)

So, back to Affinity. It's the story of a repressed Victorian spinster (the young-ish kind, not an old lady) named Margaret who has suffered from depression, suicidal tendencies, the death of her father, and unrequited love for Helen, who overthrew their budding relationship for a more conventional life; Helen has married none other than Margaret's own brother. Margaret's psyche is in a state of healing, and a wrong-headed but well-intentioned family friend has suggested that a good method for helping her along would be for her to volunteer as a Lady Visitor at the dank and oppressive local women's prison. Margaret is meant to be a role model for the imprisoned women, and perhaps to see that her own life isn't so bad after all, but instead she develops an affinity for the beautiful young medium Selina Dawes, who was convicted (wrongly?) of fraud and assault after a seance gone wrong.

The first chapter of this book did an amazing job of drawing me in. I was trying to choose one of five books, and during my selection process I read the first few lines of each; once I did that with this one, I was sucked in. I knew I had to read the rest of this book. If the first chapter hadn't been so great I think I might have found the next few a bit slow, but I weathered the slightly sluggish pace with alacrity, knowing I was working towards discovering the answers to the questions whirling in my mind.

Now that those questions are laid to rest (to my satisfaction, even if my understanding of the ending is not the same as yours) . . . that mention of cutting out sleep altogether has been bothering me. I think it's time to reassure myself with a nap. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

"Waterland" by Graham Swift

Waterland was my first introduction to Graham Swift. My sweet and thoughtful husband bought a copy for me about six months ago when he saw it at a secondhand bookstore (and I believe him, even if I have no memory of this) because, having read it about fifteen years ago, he knew I would like it. And, as usual, he was right.

This story takes place in the Fenlands (basically reclaimed swamps) of England. It is full of secrets and mysteries (just my thing!), both from the present and from various times past. It's as if everything is hidden under a heavy cloth. As the story unfolds, the narrator gives us glimpses under this corner and that, gradually allowing the outline of what's hidden to be seen. (Have I used that analogy before, in describing another book? I feel like I must have. But I don't care, because it works nicely, and preserves the effect of reading this novel.)

The narrator is a history teacher who finds himself following tangents during his lectures. He ends up relating his personal history rather than what would be expected from the syllabus. There's death (or murder?), war, kidnapping, insanity, really strong ale, incest, a potatohead, and emerging sexuality. And eels. Can't forget the eels. But it's not at all maudlin or melodramatic, as such a list might suggest; it's all treated with subtlety and suspense.

I'm somewhat surprised I was previously unfamiliar with Swift, who has had nine novels published over the past 3 1/2 decades. I'll definitely want to try another one of his books at some point. And I think I know which one will be next: Last Orders. Not only did it win the Booker Prize in 1996, but my copy of Waterland includes it in the same volume. Can't beat that kind of convenience.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

"The Scapegoat" by Daphne du Maurier

I feel like I've been on a bit of a Daphne du Maurier binge recently. Though I guess it hasn't been as excessive as all that, encompassing only two books: The Scapegoat and a (not very short) story collection entitled Don't Look Now. (I'm actually not even finished with the stories yet--it's our current bedtime read.)

It's been an enjoyable time, as binges go. I have loved du Maurier ever since reading Rebecca in high school, though I haven't made it very far through her body of work. I find her writing suspenseful in an understated and subtle way. In general.

The Scapegoat is the story of an English man--a perfect French speaker--who happens to run into his exact double in France (one of a small handful of unlikely plot devices, but I was able to forgive it with a little effort). John and Jean spend a drunken evening discussing their shock and amazement and joking about the possibility of switching lives . . . or, John thought they were joking, anyway. He wakes the next morning with a hangover, all of Jean's belongings, and none of his own. Half bewildered and half outraged, John slides into Jean's life, missing every opportunity to rectify the situation.

Don't Look Now includes one of du Maurier's more famous short stories, "The Birds." Having read it, I'm now almost certain that I've never seen the Hitchcock movie based on the story, and I have no idea how that happened. Hasn't everyone seen it? On the other hand, as the owner of two parakeets, I'm not sure I want to see it . . .

So, everything considered, good times were had by all. My only problem with du Maurier is that I feel like she can't always pull off the ending. I'm not sure I was on board with the way things were left between Jean and John. The end of the eponymous story in Don't Look Now was almost silly. And "The Birds" left things completely unresolved . . . although I suppose that gives the reader the ability to ponder what might happen next, and why it happened at all.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

"The House of Velvet and Glass" by Katherine Howe

Here's a book that looked as if it ought to have reached critical mass but sadly never did. Several things on the back cover grabbed my attention: the way the Titanic is woven into the story without being its main focus (that ship captured my imagination from the first time I heard about it, long before Jack and Rose); the mention of a medium's scrying glass (how would this sort of thing be treated outside of Harry Potter?); and the reference to "a final shocking twist that will leave readers breathless."

Well, there was nothing wrong with this book. I don't have complaints about the writing, or the characters, or the plot. It wasn't boring, and I didn't have to force myself to read it (although I was never especially eager to read it, either). All the same, it was disappointing.

This is the story of grieving Sibyl Allston of Boston. I'm not sure if her age is ever mentioned but I would guess she was in her early 20s when her mother and younger sister were lost on the Titanic. Her father is remote and seems emotionless; her younger brother has made a mess of his life, as is evident when Harvard kicks him out just before graduation. Sibyl feels guilty (she'd been jealous about her sister's trip; now she can't help but feel relieved that she didn't get to go) and deals with this by trying to contact her dearly departed with the help of a medium.

I enjoyed reading the scenes that took place on the Titanic (although I couldn't help but picture the movie instead of being guided through my own imagination) and the treatment of the occult satisfied my curiosity. But I'm oddly left wondering what the "shocking twist" was supposed to be. I can think of a few small surprises at the end, but not one major one. And none of them affected my breathing in the least.

I feel like there are people out there who must have loved this book, and I wish I were one of them. Instead, because it was lukewarm--neither hot nor cold--I will spit it out of my mouth.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Two books by Janet DeLee

I hardly ever accept review requests. This is partly because I prefer to spend my limited time reading books of my own choosing, but mainly because I'm rarely sent a synopsis that piques my interest. And of course there's always the sad but true point that an unknown book carries a higher risk of increased suck factor.

However, for once, a review request caught my eye: the story of a group of dreamers in an Ideal Life Club, meeting to encourage each other towards their goals, with a few ghosts thrown in. I liked the cover photo (if not the title font), too. So I decided to take a leap and accept the request. AND just after replying in the affirmative, I looked DeLee up on Amazon and found she lives 3 hours away from me, she loves Italy and gardening, and this book is her second with the same main character. So I quickly emailed again and greedily requested a copy of her first book too. She replied and said she would send both as long as I read the new one first.

As promised, I read Taking Leaps & Finding Ghosts before Creating an Ideal Life. Though the writing style of TL&FG did not jive with my preferences, I still found myself engaged by the experiences of the characters. And I liked the suggested method of working towards making dreams reality:
1. Write a visualization of your goal. 
2. Write a statement of affirmation. 
3. Write at least one step towards actualization. (And, of course, take the steps you commit to.)

I almost didn't read Creating an Ideal Life immediately afterwards, but we're on vacation and I only brought one other book with me. I picked up the other book (du Maurier short stories) and had only read a few pages before Sam reminded me that I'd promised to read that one with him. So Creating an Ideal Life it was! The writing style was slightly more in line with my tastes, but the best thing about the book was that most of it detailed the main character's solitary travels in Italy, mirroring my own experience of six years ago. Though our trips were not identical (we did not visit all of the same places, and my trip was much shorter than the one in the book), it was similar enough to bring back great memories. But I think I would have enjoyed the vicarious armchair trip even if I hadn't had a similar holiday of my own. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

"Gut" by Giulia Enders

For this book, I should get the "Why Are You Surprised?" award. It's a book about the workings of the gastrointestinal system, and I didn't really enjoy it. (I was tempted to say it was crap, but it wasn't that bad.)

Part of my problem with this book was its tone. I wasn't prepared for the silliness. A bit of irreverence, sure--that's to be expected in a book about the production of poop--but this was something other than irreverence. I assume the goal was humor and clarity for the layman; the result was a book crowded with euphemisms, the entire thing seeming more suited for children than directed at adults. Of course I'm not suggesting it would be improved if it were more dry and dull (I'm not that old and boring), but perhaps my slightly scientific mind was a bit insulted by passages like this, regarding food poisoning by Salmonella:

"...It is better for the gut to flatly refuse entry to Salmonella, however rude that may seem. After a visit to the toilet or a retching session into a sick bag, you should not take them by the hand and show them what life is like in the outside world. They should be given the cold shoulder by washing with very hot water and soap to let them know: it's not you, it's me--I just can't deal with your clinging personality." 

I don't know. Maybe I just don't have a sense of humor. 

It's not like reading it was a complete waste of time, though. I did learn a few things, my favorites of which I have noted below:

1. Olive oil should be kept in the fridge. What?? I've never done that, and my olive oil has never gone bad. I even checked our current bottle in use and the label doesn't say a thing about refrigeration after opening. However, refrigeration of olive oil isn't to keep it from going bad: according to this book, it's to limit the number of free radicals it captures. (A side note: I also need a "You're Doing It Wrong" award. Olive oil should not be used for frying! Fine oils are too sensitive and are chemically altered by high heat.) No plans to change my beloved olive oil habits at this point but I am filing this info away just in case.

2. When you vomit, you might not only be expelling the contents of your stomach; the emesis could be composed of slush from the small intestine as well.  Too gross for you? Come on, you had to expect to hear a few disgusting things, given the subject matter.

3. Speaking of disgusting things: fish and birds can vomit (there's a pretty picture), mice and horses can't.

And that's it... the end.

The final illustration of the book.
THIS is the type of irreverence I can get on board with.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

"The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing" by Marie Kondo

I first came across this book at Books-A-Million (of course). The peaceful cover and pleasing size caught my eye, as well as the lovely words in the title. (Magic, decluttering and organizing. Harry Potter for neat freaks!) I picked it up and caressed it just a little bit, and then read half of it while standing in the middle of the store.

Ultimately I decided not to buy it. Probably solely because it was $17 and I was trying to save money. But I kept thinking about it and thinking about it and thinking about it and finally, weeks later, I gave in. I wanted to own the magic. As someone who LOVES the state of being tidy, if not the action of doing the tidying, I want to know The Best Way to Get Tidy and Stay That Way.

After reading TLCMOTU, I find myself left with oddly conflicting opinions. Somehow I simultaneously loved the book while disagreeing with almost everything the author wrote. Kondo's approach to tidying is two-pronged: first, get rid of almost everything you own. Second, put it all away and keep it tidy. (OK, so she goes into a little more detail than that.) But the amount of discarding she suggests sounds so wasteful. And she wanted me to begin organizing by piling everything up in the middle of the room? Ugh, sounds too much like packing and unpacking, which I HATE. Empty my purse every night and re-fill it every morning? Ditto. Plus, ain't nobody got time for that! Speak frequently to your clothes and belongings to thank them for their service? Weird. Remove everything from the shower after each use (and dry it all off before storing it in a cabinet)? Insane!! The moment you first encounter a book is the right time to read it? OK, so I grudgingly admit that this is probably correct, but I encounter too many books and have too little time to follow this rule.

However. You should SEE my T-shirt drawer now. I am so proud of it. I would post a picture except I'm not going to. AND I have a wonderful new ability to get rid of useless junk, although certainly not to the extent that Marie would suggest . . . and I still feel guilty for giving my younger daughter's zebra-striped fedora to the little girl next door. (Hey, I warned her if she wouldn't put her things away I would give them away . . . ) Final verdict? I think this book would be more helpful for someone in a teeny tiny apartment.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

"The Virgin Blue" by Tracy Chevalier

I've now finished my fourth Chevalier. (Three to go . . . eventually. You know how it is.) As expected, I can't fault the writing (not that I ever want to, but with some books I just can't help it) and enjoyed the reading.

This is a dual story about the lives of Ella Turner, contemporary American living in France for the first time after a very recent move, and Isabelle du Moulin, a young French woman of the 16th century. The book follows Ella as she researches her genealogy and navigates the relationships in her life, and spins the story of Isabelle's marriage, while revealing links (a number of which rely on magical realism) between the two women.

The Virgin Blue is not Chevalier's strongest book, and unlike some books where I'm not sure whether they would be too girly for my husband, I'm sure about this one. It would be. But I've certainly read worse.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

"After the Crash" by Michel Bussi

This certainly wasn't the most amazing book I've ever read. I could pick apart the characters (which were flat and uninteresting--and, in some cases, difficult to relate to), or the plot (which was generally predictable, though I was pleased to find myself surprised by a few details), but that feels like it would take too much effort to be worth the trouble. After all, this book isn't even masquerading as great literature. It is what it set out to be: a thriller to entertain the masses. Something fun to read when you want nothing more than to allow your whole self--brain as well as body--to relax and unwind.

And it did entertain me. It kept me reading. This was a sort of murder mystery. It takes place in 1998, though frequently the reader is taken back 18 years to uncover the details of a plane crash in the French Alps in 1980. As you can see from the book's cover, all of the plane's passengers died except for a baby girl. Only problem is, there had been two baby girls on the plane, and no one can prove the identity of the surviving baby.

The only other thing I can think to say is that it was slightly surreal to hear about the Germanwings crash that occurred in the French Alps as I was reading this book . . .

Sunday, March 15, 2015

"The Paris Wife" by Paula McLain

I've read an embarrassingly small number of Hemingway's works. If I remember right, I haven't gotten beyond A Farewell to Arms (which I loved, and which broke my heart) and The Old Man and the Sea (which was simple and powerful, though I found it slightly less absorbing). After reading The Paris Wife, I'm definitely adding the following to my TBR: The Sun Also Rises (the one about watching bullfighting in Pamplona) and In Our Time (a collection of short stories), both of which were written while Hemingway was married to his "Paris wife"; and A Moveable Feast, a posthumously-published memoir of his Paris years.

But Hemingway's writing was not the focus of The Paris Wife. Of course, writing was a major part of Hemingway's life, and Hemingway was a major character in this book. But the book is narrated by Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson, and though the formation of several of his major works looms large in the background, the core of the book is their marriage: its birth, five years of ups and downs, and its sad, slow strangulation and death.

This book paints a fascinating portrait of the glittering literary circles found in 1920s Paris, touching on the Hemingways' friendships with the likes of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, but all of that is just the landscape behind the story of Ernest and Hadley's doomed marriage. Hemingway, unsurprisingly, lives large and lives intensely, and it's his desire to Have It All which drives their relationship to destruction. It was really kind of agonizing to watch its unraveling in the pages of this book.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

"The History of History" by Ida Hattemer-Higgins

Shortest blog post ever:

When I first heard about The History of History, I told my husband it sounded like "our kind of book." Several years later, I've finally read it and found that I was right, but I'm going to be lazy and direct you here instead of describing the story to you in my own words. (I don't think I can improve upon Greg's post.) Now, please excuse me so I may continue feeling haunted.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"Light Years" by James Salter

I finished reading this on a plane ride. During the same trip, I watched the movie Boyhood. I mention this fact because the two narratives were in some ways very similar: meandering, lifelike, oddly compelling, encompassing the changes that happen to people over years, through childhood and also parenthood/adulthood. But they were also very different, and the biggest difference was probably the overall feel: Boyhood, while bleak or upsetting in parts, is basically optimistic, cheerful. Light Years, though studded with moments of sweetness and glory, is essentially a downward spiral. Age, it says, strips away everything, leaving you without children, without love, without hope. It's hard for me to express just how strongly I disagree with this view of life.

In spite of this philosophical flaw, however, I really enjoyed large parts of Light Years. James Salter is not a particularly famous name, but apparently he was one of John Updike's favorite writers, and it is easy to see why. His prose here is deeply sensual and evocative, and in the early chapters I felt as if I were living with Viri and Nedra and their daughters in the large, old, perfectly described house by the Hudson River in New York State. And what a pleasant life it was: endless summer days, delicious meals, champagne, intellectual conversations, interesting friends...

Certainly, the characters in Light Years move in a social circle several strata above those in Boyhood (and above mine, for that matter). But maybe this is precisely why they descend so quickly and inexorably into existential gloom? It has to be either that or the era, I think (1950s to 1970s: Light Years was published in '75), unless Salter was simply a depressive man. Certainly, the absence of financial worries and - in Nedra's case - work, does seem to leave them a little too free to make a gigantic, steaming mess of their perfect lives.

Nedra, the central protagonist, is a very difficult character to like. At the end of the second chapter, two visitors to the house talk about her on their way home. 'She's a very generous woman,' says the husband. 'Generous?' queries the wife. 'She's the most selfish woman on earth.'

Turns out they're both right. Nedra is certainly generous in her affections, physical and otherwise (and one of the novel's greatest strengths is the precisely evoked - and, frankly, very hot - sensuality of her bedroom adventures), but she also seems utterly indifferent to the effects her actions have on anyone else. Curiously, this is presented in the novel as some sort of triumph - how free she is, how courageous! - though I did wonder whether the author meant all of this ironically, whether the portrait of Nedra was in fact a sly character assassination of a cheating wife.

Either way, my fascination and pleasure in the novel were gradually dimmed as it went along. And in the end, for all of its stylishness and intelligence, Light Years left me cold.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

"The End of the Affair" by Graham Greene

I'm in the habit of reading books cover-to-cover, beginning to end, including all quotes and introductions preceding the actual text. Nerdy of me, I know, but it satisfies my completist bent. No matter how many times the intro has spoiled a book for me, it stupidly had never crossed my mind to change my habit (how can I *not* read the intro??) until I whined to Sam about the spoiler before this book. (Never mind what information is "given in the first chapter": I don't want it until I read it in the book!!) Sam's simple but brilliant advice? "Why don't you read introductions after you've read the book?" Once I'd gotten over my shock at this suggestion ("But they put it at the beginning!") I quickly began to see the wisdom of it, and I'm eager to try the new plan next time. (I just hope I remember it.)

Other than my intro/spoiler rant, I must admit that I knew even as I read that I probably wouldn't come up with much to say about this novella. It's not as if I didn't enjoy it--the story was interesting and thought-provoking and engrossing--but it was a bit of a downer that made me feel quiet and introspective. It told of an author, Maurice Bendrix, whose affair with Sarah Miles had ended abruptly two years before. His obsession with her, rather than titillating, was depressing and destructive.

This was my first foray in to Greene, and I appreciated his way with words and his unconventional perspective. His use of religious themes reminded me of Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday (although I don't recall any further similarities). I am drawn (though not in a chomping-at-the-bit way) to try more of Greene's works.

Note: the book cover pictured doesn't match that of the copy I read, but #1, I couldn't find a picture of this copy; #2, I was too lazy to take a photo myself; and #3, I like the cover pictured here better anyway.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

"A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan

My feelings about this one changed as I was reading it, from weary cynicism to excited wonder. I can't remember how I first heard about Goon Squad - I just knew that it was critically acclaimed. After reading the first two chapters, though, I was convinced that all that praise was just the usual empty hype. The writing seemed unremarkable to me, the tone that of the usual bored irony, the characters and themes tired, almost generic. A young kleptomaniac woman talking to her shrink; a divorced, middle-aged record producer with erectile problems and a difficult relationship with his son, who also has a shrink and is bothered by the cleanness and precision of digitally recorded music... None of this struck me as fresh or original or interesting, just a lukewarm rehash of David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, and a dozen other contemporary, quasi po-mo American authors.

But, as it went on, the book veered off at unexpected tangents, suddenly reversing twenty years into the record producer's past - an episode narrated by a girl with a crush on him - and then into the even deeper past of the record producer's mentor... The chapters are actually short stories, and you could read them on their own, or in any order you like, but their arrangement here gives each and every one of them added depth and allusiveness. Which is, I think, why the book improves as it goes along: because what Egan is creating here is not the usual flat, linear tapestry of narrative, but a sort of multi-dimensional sculpture, with tunnels and lenses and mirrors, characters and events magnified and reflected and inverted by the episodes that come before and after.

Somehow the writing seems to improve as it goes along too, although that may have been my imagination. Maybe I just got used to Egan's style, or maybe I realized to what extent her prose mirrored the characters whose viewpoints we were sharing? In any case, the real star of the show is not the book's style, but its structure. Which might sound boring, but isn't. In fact, I found it really thrilling. The usual metaphor for chronologically mixed-up narratives - a jigsaw puzzle - is inadequate here. Goon Squad is more like the three-dimensional chess that they used to play in Star Trek (and The Big Bang Theory). I found myself wanting to chart the characters' relationships and the timeline on a graph, the way one of the characters (a twelve-year-old boy with slight autism) charts the length and position of pauses in rock songs.

I didn't, of course, because I'm not that anal, and life is too short. But maybe Kathy will do it, when she reads the book? Or, more likely, she'll google it and find a chart that someone else has made. I'm too lazy to even bother doing that. I loved this book, though, and will definitely look out for other fiction by Jennifer Egan.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

"White Oleander" by Janet Fitch

I don't know why I'm hesitating to say I loved this book. Maybe it's the fact that my copy was endorsed by Oprah's Book Club? I watched the movie more than four years ago and thought it was great, and I must admit I really enjoyed the reading experience. (Also, this may be one of those rare cases where the book and the movie are both equally amazing!)

White Oleander tells the story of a teenage girl's odyssey through the foster care system of southern California. Astrid Magnussen is a blank slate who is strongly influenced by her ever-changing environment. Chameleon-like, she adapts externally to fit in at each new foster home in the series she endures. It's not until the end, when Astrid has developed her own sense of self, that I realized she took a part of each home with her as she went; that little bits of all the disparate elements of her life can be seen in the person she has become. Which I suppose is true for everyone, but many people don't have such varied experiences.

Speaking of which . . . I had a thought at the end of the book that kind of ruined the experience for me just a little bit. After all the things that Astrid went through, I couldn't help but think it seemed more like a compilation of Foster Daughters' Incidents of Peril than the story of one girl. It almost defied belief that one person would have had such a run of bad luck. On the other hand, the story reminded me of The Glass Castle--though Astrid's life was actually slightly less horrifying--and I had no trouble believing that Jeannette Walls' childhood was real. But it's probably a good thing that I found Astrid's story to be a bit beyond belief.  Though it felt plausible (in parts if not as a whole) and immediate, I subconsciously retained the comfortable knowledge that it was safely in the realm of fiction.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"The Secret Keeper" by Kate Morton

You know that rule I made for myself in order to keep my blog current and avoid a backlog? The one where I can't start reading a new book until I blog about the previous one? That rule has been torture this past week. Blame it on bad timing. I didn't finish reading this book until the part of the week where so much is crammed into my days between waking and sleeping, I hardly have time to take an extra breath, let alone sit down and write a blog post. I mean, I could have squeezed in some reading here and there (if I'd allowed myself to break my rule), but there was certainly no time for writing. SO I have been bookless, reading nothing, for the first time in memory. And I have hated it.

Last night Sam convinced me it would be OK to break my rule just this once. It is my rule, after all. I suppose he was looking out for my best interests and helping to retain my sanity (and, by extension, his). It was such a relief to crack open a fresh book, even if I only had the time to dip in my little pinkie toe. (Addicted to books much?) And now I have a brief opportunity to write about the previous book, so my rule isn't too broken.

Once upon a time I expressed my opinion that Kate Morton's books are great, big, thick bundles of awesomeness. I now feel obligated to admit my assessment might have been premature. Yes, I loved The House at Riverton; I was sure I would love The Forgotten Garden, but unfortunately I had to settle for Liking It A Lot. Now, somehow, I haven't even read The Distant Hours yet. (What? I bought a hardcover copy because I couldn't wait for the paperback! Obviously I *could* have waited for the paperback, which came out in 2011.) And somehow I completely missed the publication of The Secret Keeper. It flew under my radar until I was Christmas shopping last month and found it at my home away from home, Target. It didn't take me long to decide that someone needed to give it to me for Christmas, and that someone needed to be me.

So, almost a month after Christmas, the story of The Secret Keepers is behind me rather than before me. The riddles are revealed, the mysteries made known, the secrets spilled. Laurel Nicolson, English character actress in her golden years, has unearthed all the answers to the question of who her aging mother was in the years before marrying and having children. And, in keeping with my awesomeness assessment adjustment, I enjoyed this book, but it did not rise above entertainment. Not that I have a problem with entertainment! Fun is one of my most favorite things to have! But it's always a bonus when a book offers something more. The Secret Keeper didn't amaze me or cause me to think new things. At least I didn't feel like I was killing off brain cells, I didn't want to re-write half of it or find any mistakes to correct (that I recall), and I didn't scoff at it. And I did appreciate a good twist towards the end (which I won't reveal, out of the kindness of my heart).

New Kate Morton assessment: bundles of fun. There are worse things!

Monday, January 12, 2015

"Strangers on a Train" by Patricia Highsmith

I saw the Hitchcock movie of this book (and loved it) years and years ago, without even realizing it was based on a novel. Then, much more recently, I saw two other movies based on Patricia Highsmith novels: The Two Faces of January and The Talented Mr Ripley. They were both really dark, tense and compelling, but also oddly funny, in a twisted way, which was also true of the Hitchcock movie. When I found out one writer was behind all these stories, I knew I had to read her.

So, Kathy bought me this novel plus three of the Ripley series for Christmas. I chose to read Strangers on a Train first because it was Highsmith's debut. I don't remember many details about the film version, but in my mind it is a lighter, cleaner, neater story than the one in the book.

Highsmith's prose is good - elegant without being overwritten, taut without being clichéd - but I think it's her psychology, rather than her sentence-making, that really lifts her above the average thriller/noir crowd. You inhabit the skulls and lives of two very different characters in this book - one of them a psychopath, the other not - and yet it's what happens to the non-psychopath that fills you with dread, that makes you think: 'there but for a twist of fate...'

Strangers on a Train reminded me of two of my favorite novels: Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Like both those books, it is essentially about the thousand tiny, banal pressures and fears and desires that might lead a sane, intelligent person to murder another human being, and - most of all - about the horrifying, life-staining guilt they feel afterwards.

Kathy asked me just now if I enjoyed it, and I said 'Maybe enjoy isn't the word I'd choose, but it's really good'. Perhaps it seemed even darker than it was due to my state of mind last week, in the wake of the Paris shootings, but I think even on a beach vacation this is a book that would worm its way into the depths of your mind, would unsettle and disturb you. It was never less than compelling, but I must admit I feel a certain relief at having come to the end of it. It was more twisted and less funny than any of those three

All the same, I am excited to have discovered a major writer with a huge body of work, almost all of which is new to me. This is similar to how I felt after reading my first Ellroy novel, or my first Philip K. Dick novel. With one difference: I am not going to plunge myself into a Highsmith binge - not right now, anyway. I think I'll wait till the days are longer and the air is warmer and the grass is greener. I need something less bleak to get me through the winter.

POSTSCRIPT: We watched the Hitchcock movie version of this a couple of nights ago, and it was not as good as I remembered. Either that, or it just suffered in comparison to the book. It certainly seemed far more dated than the book: a superficial melodrama, where the book was a naturalistic thought-experiment. And, crucially, it chickened out of the central question: why a normal, intelligent, 'good' person would murder an innocent stranger and how they would feel afterward. So, despite the fact that it was directed by one of the greatest directors of all time and the screenplay co-written by a noir legend (Raymond Chandler), if I were Patricia Highsmith, I would have been pretty upset by this adaptation (though, apparently, she praised it when it first came out). The good news, very recently announced, is that David Fincher is to make a movie version of the book - and I really hope that's what it will be, rather than a remake of the original movie - entitled simply Strangers. I have great expectations for that film, as Fincher did not flinch from screening the darkest, subtlest elements of Gone Girl. I can also totally imagine Ben Affleck as Guy Haines.