Saturday, December 22, 2007

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

When the 20's were bursting out all over, we find the antithesis of the Fitzgeraldian hero, a 40 something, unoriginal humpty dumpty, but groomed sort of fellow called Babbitt. Babbitt's secret desire is to live again, not in the suburban sense, but in a wild and colorful way, and he supresses it until he finally erupts and makes a complete hind end of himself. He throws away his Boosterism, his faithful but bland wife, and converges on his quiet midwestern city of Zenith with a fervor that will rock the tabloids and fuel the gossips until the second coming. Realizing that the futility of his efforts will not free him from the dyed in the wool masses, Babbitt submits to becoming a cog in the machine and finally realizes his ambitions through his offspring in a sarcastic salute to Zenith and to the world. Hurray for all the Chicken Croquets and Lettuce Sandwiches that are consumed in this book, and a toast to Sinclair Lewis who has had entirely to many already.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Year of Living Biblically

A.J. Jacobs likes to pull stunts, get book deals, and write about them. In addition to being a regular writer for Esquire magazine, he's written a book called The Know-It-All, where he told about his adventures reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. This time, he vows to adhere as literally as possible to all the laws in the Old and New Testaments.

I found this book entertaining and intriguing. Jacobs is thoughtful and funny. His adherance to the laws is most obviously manifested as he grows out his beard and wears white clothes with tassels on the end. One particularly hilarious episode is in the beginning, when he cannot touch his wife for 7 days, or sit anywhere that she has sat, because she might be unclean. His wife, being a modern woman, is a little resentful about what this particular law implies. She retaliates by sitting in every chair in their apartment, thereby making it impossible for him to sit down anywhere.

Jacobs is an agnostic with a Jewish background. He comments freely about his fluctuating viewpoints on God and religion. He examines carefully the impact of doing good deeds and following rules...all the rules...and what effect this has on his inner thoughts. The reader also gets to follow Jacobs and his wife through their quest to have another child...which works out a little differently than planned.

Jacob performs a stunt, but it is one that he carries through thoroughly as he can, and his modern-day thoughts and humor make this a book for anyone, regardless of spiritual choice.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Snowflower and the Secret Fan

I have had Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See on my "to read" list forever, and saw the library owns it on audio through Overdrive, so I thought that was a better way for me to catch up on my reading list. I really enjoyed this book, especially because it focused on so many cultural and historical practices of China. I had never studied in depth any of these like foot binding, and arranged marriages, but See was able to make the facts and stories so interesting that it was a very quick listen. I really felt drawn to the characters with the unbelievable trials they went through as the novel described two friends over many decades of their lives. The traditions and the pain and joy they went through seemed so real. I also thought it was a great book to listen to because it was such good storytelling.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Devil in the White City came to me highly recommended, but I can't say I was overly thrilled. I was under a time constraint and so was forced to listen to it on audio, which, truth be told, is not my favorite way to read a book, though I feel very efficient.

Perhaps I wasn't intrigued with the serial killer, Holmes. Larson wrote about Holmes childhood with a little too much bias, in my opinion. I felt myself thinking in frustration, "He (Larson) can't KNOW that!" There are several incidents were Larson makes conjectures about Holmes reaction to stressful events or his attitude toward animals. Since there doesn't seem to be any proof of his reaction or attitude in either situation, I would have preferred that Larson kept his account a little more objective, at least during this portion of the tale.

Perhaps I wasn't intrigued by the development of the World's Fair in Chicago. It seemed that Larson went over every painstaking detail 10 times - the committees, the architecture, the bad weather plaguing it all. There were moments during this portion that captured my interest - particuarly when it was revealed (finally) what the structure was that would "out-Eiffel Eiffel." I also enjoyed the moments that involved Frederick Law Olmsted, who was also developing the grounds for the Biltmore House in North Carolina, which is a place I've visited three times. His view of landscape architecture and his ability to plan 40 years in advance were very impressive. I just couldn't get a sense of the buildings somehow.

I'm in the minority on this one. Others I've talked to find this book one of the best non-fiction books they've ever read. I just found it too slow and detailed - and I'm not usually one to shy away from detail. Perhaps I just don't respond to being read to. On this one, it might be best to NOT take my word for it.

Monday, July 02, 2007

One Thousand Secret Suns

One Thousand Secret Suns by Khaled Hosseini is one of those books that, when people ask me how I liked it, I have trouble answering. I want to say I loved it, but how can you love a book that deals with so much pain? And yet, several of the characters are true-to-life, multi-dimensional, and ultimately triumphant.

Like Kite Runner, One Thousand Secret Suns is set over several decades in Afghanistan beginning in the 1970s. We are introducted to Mariam at age 15 , who longs for her father and ultimately feels responsible for her mother's death. We see Mariam become involved in an arranged marriage with a man 30 years her senior, Rasheed. Initially, things are not actually too bad, though her new husband makes her wear a burqa. Our Western sensibilities are horrified at the idea, but Mariam actually feels cherished and able to observe her world without reserve behind her burqa. Her situation quickly deteriorates when it becomes evident that she cannot bear children.

We then meet Laila, who is eventually orphaned by war. She becomes Rasheed's second wife, which is rather timely since she has become pregnant just before she is orphaned. Laila is Rasheed's adored second wife, but eventually her rebelliousness results in beatings, just as they have for Mariam. In the meantime, Laila and Mariam build a bond together against Rasheed, and Mariam is finally able to experience love.

Although the end of the tale is a little too neat for my taste, and there is a plot twist at the end that seemed a little formulaic, Mariam is a truly heroic character to me. She has done what her mother said that all women must do: endure. How she does this is subtle and real, with no histrionics. She is just a woman who continues day after day, and does what she can for those she loves.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Set This House in Order

How do you write a book about 20 characters when you only have 2 physical bodies with which to work? Have the two main characters be people who suffer from MPD (multiple personality disorder). Step back, and enjoy the ride...

The reader is immediately introduced to Andrew Gage, who is a very well-adjusted, aware, multiple. Andrew has even developed some good jokes about being multiple - for instance, he will always win in a vote because he always has everyone else outnumbered. Andrew has worked with a psychologist for several years, and has chosen to keep all his personalities separate. Andrew is in control of the body, but is aware of the existence of his other personalities, and often has running relationships with many of them. The scene where they all eat breakfast is one of the most entertaining and illuminating of the novel.

Andrew is introduced to Penny, who also has MPD, but is not aware of it. She is currently living a tumultuous existence where she loses time frequently. She has several personalities, but is unaware of them, and therefore has no say in who has control over the body at any given time.

Andrew reluctantly agrees to reveal Penny's disorder to her. This results in Andrew further addressing facts about his past that even he or any other of his personalities knows about. Andrew and Penny go on a rolicking road trip and find that some of their respective personalities become kindred spirits.

Ruff describes the process of dealing with MPD with such sympathy and accuracy, it is difficult to believe that he is not a multiple himself. Characters who shouldn't be sympathetic become quite endearing in their own way, and somehow one can empathize with Andrew and Penny and what it would be like to deal with all their personalities.

Set This House in Order must be read slowly, but it is thoroughly engaging and one of the most unusual book premises that's been explored in a long time.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Dickens World

Not a formal review but I have to say I am exceedingly excited about a new theme-attraction I heard about yesterday on NPR that opens today. It is Dickens World, that's exciting journey all about the world of 19th century England centered on the works of Charles Dickens. Located in Chatham, it features Scrooge's haunted house, Fagin's Den, the dockside, streets and alleys...all the sights and smells (I don't know if I'm too enthused about smelling the dockside, I think they were still using the Thames as a sewer in Dicken's time). The Dickens World web site doesn't have too many pictures, just a time lapse streaming video of the construction site. NPR Marketplace has an inside construction view and the picture towards to bottom of the article features the London sewer boat ride (very Our Mutual Friend). So the next time you happen to be near England, stop by and step into another era!

Monday, April 30, 2007

Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell

Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell is a great book to read when it's 98 degrees outside because it inexplicably made me feel cold through and through.

This short novel is set in the Ozarks in an unspecified time period. Although there are hints at modernity - headphones, New Age sound tapes, and meth labs are mentioned throughout - the pervasive feel is that it takes place in the early 20th century.

Woodrell tells the story of a week in the life of Ree Dolly, a 16-year-old who is hardened far beyond her years. Her father, who cooks meth, has disappeared and her mother has some sort of mental illness. Ree takes care of her two younger brothers and worries about their future. At the beginning of the novel, we learn that Ree's father has a court date for which he put up his house and land as bail. If he doesn't make his court date, their house and land will be repossessed. During this week, Ree must find her father in order to save their home.

This book depicts lives that are cold and dark. I got the feeling that the sun never shines where Ree lives. Ree's family is hardened and callous, but a few of them - Ree, her best friend, and Ree's Uncle Teardrop - have glimmers of morality and steadfastness that make them highly sympathetic. Ree herself is smart, responsible and realistic, and one cannot help but hope that she can figure out a way to save her family and herself.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Pulitzer, anyone?

Are you up to date on your Pulitzers? They were just announced yesterday and the winner of the fiction category was Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Everyone's raving about it seeing how it is an Oprah book selection and she provides author info, reading guides and all that other good stuff on her website. Malcolm Library Book Chat also had this as their book club book earlier this year so we do have multiple copies. Other winners include The Race Beat by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff (about the civil rights movement) for best history, The Most Famous Man in America by Debby Applegate (about Henry Ward Beecher) for best biography and The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright (about Al-Qaeda and 9/11) for best general nonfiction. Check the Pulitzer website for a complete listing of all their winners.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

NonFiction – Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Business by Stacy Mitchell

This is a very interesting in depth look at the impact of large chain stores with in the United States. Mitchell, head of the American Independent Business Alliance, is very convincing and illustrates many of the negatives that can come about when a large chain retail store opens in a community. Many of the arguments against the expansion of large chains are quite obvious while others are more subtle but still convincing. For example, she spends a good deal of time discussing job loss and creation. Often a community or local government will embrace a large chain by stating how many jobs it will bring to the community. However, as large chain stores open and grow local small businesses, lacking the resource to compete, close over time. Therefore, a community experiences more job loss than job gain over a period of a few years, but since this is subtle it goes unnoticed. One issue I did have with the book was that the author did not discuss any benefits a chain store brings to a community as I am sure there are some. Mitchell concludes with the argument that it is time for governments and communities to step in and level the playing field so that small business can compete against large retail chains. Only time will tell if this will happen.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn

I was completely misled in thinking this novel by Deanna Raybourn was a typical historical romance offering simply because I knew that the publisher, Mira, is an imprint of Harlequin. But I was completely enthralled in this mystery debut. At their own dinner party, Lady Julia Grey’s husband, Edward, dies a sudden and not so unexpected death. A weakening heart condition had Lady Grey prepared for the eventuality of his death but not for the doubts of a private inquiry agent, Nicholas Brisbane. It is only after a year’s worth of accumulating suspicion that Lady Grey engages the services of Mr. Brisbane into the possible murder of her husband. The year has given Julia time to emerge from her repressive marriage and slowly grow stronger in self sense of self and she is determined to assist Nicholas. They are at constant odds with each other leading to a tremendous amount of romantic tension. But, instead of romance being the focus of the story, the search for Edward’s killer takes center stage leading Julia into a sordid and dark world. The historical detail, strong characters and at times, the almost gothic overtones proved to make for a strong storyline. I shall definitely put Deanna Raybourn on my author watch list!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

NonFiction - Cold Burial By Clive Powell-Williams

The story of Jack Hornby, Canadian frontiersman, and his young cousin Edgar Christian and friend Harold Adlard is a tale of inspiration. The author, Clive Powell-Williams, tells the story relying upon the diary and letters from the party as they travel across Canada to their winter home on the Thelon River in 1926. We soon discover that Jack, though notorious for exploits on the Canadian frontier, is not an accomplished frontiersman. His decisions as he leads the two young greenhorns into the tundra end up costing the lives of all three men (due to starvation). Most of the story is told from the diary that Edgar (only 18 at the time) kept. Edgar’s diary reflects how all three stayed positive and fought to the very end before succumbing to death. In fact, during World War II the Nazi party printed this story in German as an mandatory read for young recruits illustrating the importance of duty and a never give up attitude. Overall this is well written as Clive often includes excerpts from Edgar’s diary to give an insight to what all three were experiencing as they tried to survive on the Thelon.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Nanny Diaries

I recently finished The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus in an easy two days. I was pleasantly surprised by this book and enjoyed it all the way through. The good and the bad are well presented in this novel, and I think the two authors’ experience as nannies helped make this book funny, but also tender hearted in the end. A conveniently named Nan, is a young college student who nannies part time. She seems experienced in her stories of interviewing for jobs, getting jobs and keeping jobs. But this story is focused on one four year old Grayer. He is sometimes sweet, sometimes rotten, but completely cute and in need of his parents. Nan goes through school as well as finding a new boyfriend while working for the Xs. They ask her to do the impossible, she misses important events, and she is talked down to. The things that Nan and other Nannies go through are almost unbelievable. She is frustrated with her position, yet she finds the time to become emotionally attached to Grayer, and has a hard time telling the Xs “no.” I picked it up because I heard about the movie coming out (in April) and wanted to read it before seeing it. I hope it is as great as the book!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Edgar Award Nominees 2007

Due to some shuffling around of positions at work, I haven’t had a chance to read much of anything or find the time to report on the novels I have had a chance finish but all that aside…the Edgar Award nominations have been announced for all those mystery lovers out there. The awards for books published in 2006 will be given out April 26, 2007 in NYC. So, out of the nominees for hardback books, I have read four. For the Best Novel Nominees … you can read back to my post on The Virgin of the Small Plains by Nancy Pickard. Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris dealt with life in an uppercrust Brit prep school and the child of the school’s caretaker, flash forward to about 20 years later (if I remember right) and we revisit the school as someone with a vendetta takes on the school and its faculty one by one, in a mystery way, not a horror way and very good with an ending to which I never saw coming (but then again, I’m one of those reader’s that do NOT try to figure out who-done-it, I just go along for the ride!) I also have to mention that The Janissary Tree by Kevin Goodwin is sitting, right this moment, on my bookshelf and I keep looking at it knowing I have to read that (and a million other things) soon. Out of the Best First Novel by an American Author… Sharp Objects was very psychologically intriguing and I normally don’t go reading about people with the afflictions this young reporter had but by the time I realized what was going on, I was already sucked into the story and it was too late to stop, also loaded with tons of dysfunctional family life. And I have commented on another post about Holmes on the Range by Steve Hockensmith but let me reiterate, if you want a super fun Holmesian western mystery out with the cowboys, this is definitely the book for you. I eagerly await the second installment of the adventures of the Amlingmeyer brothers in their second book, On the Wrong Track, due out March 6th. And of course, A Faithful Spy by Alex Berenson and A Field of Darkness by Cornelia Read are sitting on that same bookshelf by The Jannisary Tree (need to get to those soon!) Anyway, check the partial list and see you see anything to put on your “to read” list and for more categories (like the Best Motion Picture Screen Play category to go on your “to watch” list…go to the Mystery Writers of America complete nominees list)

Best Novel Nominees

  • The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard (HarperCollins)
  • The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Gentleman and Players by Joanne Harris (HarperCollins - William Morrow)
  • The Dead Hour by Denise Mina (Hachette Book Group - Little, Brown and Company)
  • The Virgin of Small Plains by Nancy Pickard (Random House - Ballantine Books)
  • The Liberation Movements by Olen Steinhauer (St. Martin's Minotaur)

Best First Novel By An American Author

  • The Faithful Spy by Alex Berenson (Random House)
  • Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (Crown - Shaye Areheart Books)
  • King of Lies by John Hart (St. Martin's Minotaur - Thomas Dunne Books)
  • Holmes on the Range by Steve Hockensmith (St. Martin's Minotaur)
  • A Field of Darkness by Cornelia Read (Warner Books - Mysterious Press)

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Not-So-Grown-Up January Book

This month's book club read is A Long Way Down By Nick Hornby.
Here is a brief summary from the book jacket:

"In his eagerly awaited fourth novel, New York Times-bestselling author Nick Hornby mines the hearts and psyches of four lost souls who connect just when they've reached the end of the line. Meet Martin, JJ, Jess, and Maureen. Four people who come together on New Year's Eve: a former TV talk show host, a musician, a teenage girl, and a mother. Three are British, one is American. They encounter one another on the roof of Topper's House, a London destination famous as the last stop for those ready to end their lives. In four distinct and riveting first-person voices, Nick Hornby tells a story of four individuals confronting the limits of choice, circumstance, and their own mortality. This is a tale of connections made and missed, punishing regrets, and the grace of second chances. Intense, hilarious, provocative, and moving, A Long Way Down is a novel about suicide that is, surprisingly, full of life."

We will discuss this book at the next meeting. It will be held on February 1st, 2007 @ 6:00pm

If you're interested in joining the Not-So-Grown-Up Book Club please visit the James I. Gibson Library or contact us at 564-9261.