Friday, December 19, 2014

Book Review: The Way Life Should Be

Christina Baker Kline has a lot of great stories brewing around in her brain. She's published two other novels just this year  (Sweetwater, Desire Lines)  as well as the best-seller Orphan Train. And I've got to say: I'm impressed. These aren't literary masterpieces, but they are darned enjoyable reads.

The Way Life Should Be follows a well-used storyline: girl (Angela) and guy meet via internet. Girl loses job and on a whim, moves to guy's state. Guy ends up being a jerk. Girl ultimately lives happily ever after. It's been done before; it will be done again and again. But Kline isn't really about the plot—she's about insights, the I-know-that-feeling-exactly moments and the moments of pure poetry. Her characters are incredibly vibrant—they are people we know without being stereotypical. She is not only a close observer of how we humans behave, but she really captures those thoughts we thought no one else had. I love that.

A bonus in this novel: lots of recipes. I know: it sounds corny. But part of the story line is that Angela learned to cook from her Italian grandmother, and I am always happy to read about fabulous food being cooked and eaten among friends. I've bookmarked the "Pasta with White Bolognese" sauce to try on of these days.

Ultimately, this is a novel about finding one's place in adulthood—where do we fit in? Who is our family? When does my real life actually start? This is a quick, happy, familiar (in a good kind of way) read—perfect for those times you don't want to invest in something heavy. And—there's always pasta and pound cake.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Book Review: Gone Girl

We had Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl on our Book Club list to read in spring, but when we saw that a movie was coming on this fall, we decided to read it now and then go see the movie together.


(And that goes for the movie and the book)

First of all, the book itself was completely captivating. I could not stop reading it, even when I was kinda flinching at the language and the amount of graphic sex. We did but out a book club warning for some of our more sensitive members, who opted out of reading this one.

I was completely surprised by the plot's twists and turns. Flynn is an astounding writer. This is the kind of book that leaves me utterly impressed, wondering, "How did Flynn do this?"

The plot seems obvious at first: Nick, the husband, an obvious jerk, kills his smart, beautiful wife Amy. But this is a psychological thriller (not my usual genre, but why??), and so we know there are going to be layers to the story. But I didn't try to guess the layers, and I let myself be completely swept up in the story. It was a wild ride.

And that's about all I can say about the book without revealing anything. It's amazing.

And the movie did not disappoint. The movie wasn't nearly as graphic as the book, although there was plenty to be disturbed about. In other words, it totally deserves its R rating. Usually I like to wait a year until I see the movie version of a book so that I forget most of the details. But we all felt like the movie, while omitting a lot of background information, was quite true to the book. Nothing major was changed. Some of us said that they just didn't picture the characters looking like the actors, but besides that, we all agreed it was excellent—though disturbing.

I'm thinking about checking out Gillian Flynn's other novels, although I may need to read some fluffy books before I do. She is not for the faint-at-heart, but she is soooo worth it.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Book Review: The Pearl That Broke Its Shell

I have to admit: I came this close to giving up on this book by Nadia Hashimi after about 50 pages. I  could not follow what was going on, couldn't engage with the characters. And just as I was about to call it quits, everything started clicking. And I'm glad I didn't give up.

The novel traces the lives of two women, Rahima and Shakima, in Afghanistan nearly a century apart. The premise of the story is that both women lived as boys for a time during their youth, and thus they experienced the amazing freedom that comes with being a boy vs. the oppressive life of living as a woman.

Rahima is the contemporary story. She is the third in a family of five girls. Because her father is a drug addict and a soldier, the family desperately needs a son to be able to do all the things women are not allowed to do. When Rahima is nine, she becomes a bacha posh, which is apparently a bizarre Afghan custom that allows young girls (in sonless families) to dress as boys and navigate the world as such until they reach puberty.

Rahima experiences this incredible freedom for several years: going to school, trading in the marketplace, playing in the streets with the boys, even being treated as a son in the home. But then at age 13, her father makes a deal with the local warlord and gives his three oldest daughters, ages 13-15, in marriage to him and his relatives. Rahima becomes the fourth wife of this abusive warlord who is 30 or 40 years her senior. Needless to say, her life is filled with nothing but horror in a home ruled by cruelty, fear and jealousy.

Rahima's one saving grace is her unmarried aunt, who, from her earliest memories, has told her stories of her great-great-great grandmother, Shakima. These stories carry Rahima through her childhood and give her hope for her future. Shakima's childhood was made up of one tragedy after another. She dumped hot oil on her face as a toddler, scarring her horribly. By the time she was twelve, her beloved mother and siblings had all died of cholera, leaving her and her brokenhearted father to maintain the farm and home. Shakima becomes her father's son, working in the fields as hard as any man. When he dies, Shakima is forced to live with her extended family, who hate her. Ultimately, Shakima becomes a palace guard for the king's harem: a job that requires she dress as a man.

I think what struck me the most in this novel is how little the life of women changed in the hundred years separating Shakima and Rahima. It's really incomprehensible to me. As I consider my own great-great-grandmother, I realize that, although I certainly have more freedom and different expectations as a woman than she did then, she had more rights as a woman than Shakima and Rahima could ever imagine. There really isn't anything happy about this novel, although one does come away with hope for both Rahima and Shakima and intense gratefulness for living in a country that doesn't (as a whole) delight in the oppression of women.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Book Reviews: Sweet Water and Desire Lines

I was excited to have the opportunity to review two new novels by Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train. The first one, Sweetwater, I must admit I approached skeptically because the setting of the novel is just down the road from me in Sweetwater, Tennesseee. Kline was born in England, after all, and grew up in Maine and the "American South." Who says "American South"? Surely not anyone who knows anything about the South.

I was prepared for a stereotypical portrait of a small town in East Tennessee, where everyone is a dumb redneck or a suppressed genius who dreams of getting out of the small town but gets pregnant instead. I was pleasantly surprised to encounter almost none of the silliness that often accompanies contemporary novels set in the South. (There was once scene, early on, in which the main character hears singing from local churches as she drives down Interstate 81 on a Sunday morning. Nope. I've been on I-81 a hundred times, and there is no singing to be heard above the traffic from cute little churches along the way. That was a romanticism I could have done without.)

Sweet Water is the story of Cassie, a sculptor in New York City, who inherits the family homestead in Sweetwater, TN, upon her grandfather's death. Cassie knows almost nothing about this side of the family; her mother died in an accident caused by this grandfather when Cassie was a little girl, and bad feelings abound. But Cassie is at that stage in life when she needs to make major changes or suffer a bland and directionless life, so she moves from NYC to rural Tennessee.

Interspersed with Cassie's story is that of her maternal grandmother, whose chapters reveal a woman trapped in a miserable marriage to Cassie's philandering grandfather. There are all kinds of family secrets surrounding the death of Cassie's mother and the events that led up to the accident, and Cassie is determined to find them. First, she has to crack her grandmother's tough shell.

Somehow Sweet Water really resonated with me. Part of it was Cassie's determination to find her place in her extended family. Having a large extended family of which I've never been a part, I understand that desire to be included—to know the secrets and the back stories that everyone else knows so well. I liked that Cassie and her grandmother managed to break through the barriers and finally share some truths. And again, I appreciated Kline's treatment of rural Tennessee. It was neither overly sentimental, stereotypical, nor critical.

I just finished Kline's Desire Lines, which I read in about a day because I couldn't put it down. The story centers on the mysterious disappearance of Jennifer, the perfect girl-next-door who disappeared the night of her high school graduation. Ten years later, her best friend, Kathryn, comes back home to Bangor, Maine, when her live unravels. She's given the task of writing an article about Jennifer's disappearance, and, in doing so, Kathryn has to come to terms with how little she knew about Jennifer and how little she knows about herself.

Again, Kline touches on familiar areas to me. And again, a lot of that has to do with back stories and reflecting upon what was really going on way back then. You know that feeling, when peering back into one's life, that you really had no idea what all was beneath the veneer? That so much else was going on, and you wonder how you could have been so oblivious—or, sometimes, so intentionally ignorant?

Sweet Water and Desire Lines are both fantastic books for when you need a fast read that sucks you in and keeps you captivated. Neither books is a literary masterpiece. They both have some holes that leave you kinda wondering what just happened. But I'm OK with that. Kline is an excellent writer. Her dialogue is great and her whole exploration of the story-beneath-the-story really appealed to me.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Book Review: Riding the Bus with My Sister

This was our book club pick for June, selected by me because I absolutely adored Rachel Simon's Story of Beautiful Girl. Riding the Bus with My Sister is Simon's story of a year she spent reconnecting with her sister, a mentally challenged woman who spends her days, well,  riding the bus.

As the story opens, Simon is moved by guilt and obligation to visit her sister Beth, who lives alone in mid-sized town in Pennsylvania, a couple hours away from Simon. They are both in their late 30s and have left behind a difficult and at times dangerous childhood. Their parents, though divorced, clung to one family mantra: Beth will never be institutionalized.

Simon and her siblings see Beth's life as wasteful and depressing. All day, every day, Beth hops on one bus after another, riding around the city and, as they see it, annoying people. They want her to get a job or volunteer—to do something. But riding the buses is Beth's world, and when Rachel visits her sister, she is issued a challenge: ride the bus with Beth for one year.

At first Rachel, a dedicated workaholic, balks: she doesn't have time for this nonsense. But something nudges her to say yes, and so she heads over to Beth's one day each month to spend 12 hours riding the buses. And in the course of the year, Rachel discovers who her sister really is—and finds out a lot about herself, as well.

The story alternates between vignettes of the bus drivers—men and women whom Beth has carefully selected as the most caring, sensitive people; flashbacks from Beth and Rachel's tumultuous childhood; Rachel's own adult life; and Rachel's discovery of who Beth really is.

It's all done beautifully and with great honesty. I loved every part of this book, although I had to devour it quickly in order to have it read in time for our book club discussion. This was a fantastic choice for our book club, although our discussion was rather limited as we conducted it in a noisy restaurant! I'm going to spend this evening watching the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie based on the book—and then I'm hoping I can find more books written by Rachel Simon!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Sunday Salon: Mid-Year Review

Books Read and Reviewed January—June

Books Read But Not Yet Reviewed
The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)
Blessings (Anna Quindlen)
Skylight Confessions (Alice Hoffman)

Best Books So Far
Sadly, nothing so far has been knock-my-socks-off amazing. But I must say I really loved the last four books—the ones I haven't yet reviewed and Lee Smith's Last Girls a whole lot. Well, and of course, The Book Thief—but that is a multiple re-read.

Book Club Books
Labor Day (Joyce Maynard)--(January)
Winter Wheat (February)
Girls of Atomic City (Denise Kiernan)-- (March)
Jane Eyre (April)
And...I think we missed a month. I didn't re-read Winter Wheat or Jane Eyre, but I did bring a paper on Jane Eyre that I had written in college!

Movies From Books
Labor Day (book club outing)
The Fault in Our Stars (I actually haven't read the book, but I've been assured it's close)
The Book Thief (Watched with my World Lit class. A good movie but very disappointing after reading the book)
Great Expectations (loved the Masterpiece Classic on Netflix. Really fabulous.)

Added to TBR List
  1. 41 False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers by Janet Malcolm
    Alena by Rachel Pastan  
  2. Americanah by Chimanda Adichie
  3. The Baker's Daughter by Sarah McCoy   
  4. Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story by Diane Setterfield
  5. Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior
  6. The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez 
  7. China Dolls by Lisa See
  8. Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee
  9. Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (The World As Home) by Janisse Ray
  10. Glow by Jessica Maria Tuccelli
  11.  The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  12. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  13. The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
  14. Guests on Earth  by Lee Smith 
  15. The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons 
  16. In My Father's Country by Saima Wahab 
  17. The Invention of Wings by  Sue Monk Kidd 
  18. The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
  19.  The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian 
  20. Long Man by Amy Greene 
  21. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. 
  22. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton 
  23. Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills
  24. The Orchid House by Lucinda Riley
  25. The Plague of Doves  by Louise Erdrich
  26. A Prayer Journal by Flannery O'Connor 
  27. Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah 
  28. The Rest of the Story by Phan Thi Kim Phuc
  29. Snow by Orhan Pamuk 
  30. Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen
  31. Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis by Lauren F. Winner     
  32. A Thousand Mornings: Poems by Mary Oliver 
  33. The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan 
 Yeah, that kind of makes me dizzy. Why have I added so many books already this year, and read so few? 

I just noticed that on my mid-year post from 2013, I posted all kind of literary pictures from our trip to Paris. No such excitement this year! But I am most excited about read Amy Greene's The Long Man.

And that's it so far for 2014!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Book Review: The Last Summer (of You and Me)

Author Ann Brashares is the creator of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, that fabulously fluffy teen series about a pair of jeans circulated among four best friends that does wonderful things for all of them. The Last Summer (of You and Me) is her first novel for adults, and it is definitely a beach read, bordering on a fluffy teen read and definitely a coming-of-age story.

The story mostly takes place on Fire Island (off the Northeast coast somewhere), and I'm always a little envious of great island stories—families who take the ferry over to some island every summer to their fabulous beach house. I mean, I live in Tennessee, so of course this all sounds terribly exotic and dramatic. And beachy. Who are these people?

Still, because I grew up in New York and had lots of friends with summer cottages on the lake, I get it, at a certain level. Anyway, the story is about next-door-neighbors on the island: two sisters and the boy-next-door. It's not what you think: the sisters don't fight over the boy. It's a more complicated relationship among the three, and I think it all made sense in the end. I think. It wasn't all terribly clear, and I was really more drawn into the story of Alice and Paul and not so much the story of Alice's sister, Riley, who lacked any depth but had a rather major role.

While not a perfect book and certainly not a literary masterpiece, this is definitely perfect when you are in the mood for something kinda sappy, pretty sweet, and a little sad.