Saturday, February 27, 2016

Books Read in February

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout (pub 2014)
The story: Jim and Bob Burgess are middle-aged NYC lawyers, brothers who are as different as they can be. Jim is brisk, successful, rich, well-respected. Bob can't seem to do anything right. He's divorced, childless, sad, and lonely. Also, he accidentally killed their father when he was four-years-old. When their sister Susan's son accidentally commits a hate crime, Jim and Bob have to return to their tiny hometown in Maine to take care of things. Nothing works out right, and all their lives seems to crumble after they reunite in Shirley Falls to "fix" things with Susan.
Me: Oh man. I really loved this book. I had one of those glorious read-on-the-couch all afternoon days, and I was so bummed when I came to the end of the book—even though it was a great ending. Strout's last novel was the Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge, which was fantastic, so I was really excited to read this one. This is one dysfunctional family, this Burgess clan, but you really have to root for them. Strout has created some big personalities that we come to know intimately. I miss them already, even though they were often kind of jerks— especially to each other. In the end, it's a story of redemption and family bonds that is beautifully, powerfully written.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. (multiple reread)
The story: Ah, the terrible tale of Ethan Frome, the quiet, desperate man who falls in love with his wife's cousin. If you don't know the story, you probably had a terrible high school English experience. ;)
Me: I've read and taught this so many times, but I still love it. It's so sad. So desperate. So hopeless. It's always great fodder for discussion with young minds who are reading it for the first time. We watched the movie together, too, and the kids found it hysterical.

Train to Trieste by Domnica Radulescu (pub. 2009)
The story: Mona Manoliu is a young Romanian girl who falls madly in love with Mihai, a young man she meets while on summer vacation in the mountains. They have a wild, passionate love affair before she returns home to Bucharest. It's 1977, and Romania is a mess as the Ceausescu regime starves and bleeds its people. Mona's father is a revolutionary, and they live in constant fear that he will be arrested, tortured, and executed. Over the next few years Mona falls more in love with Mihai, but at the same time she suspects that he is part of the secret police. Her life is a constant torment of love and fear, suspicion and regret. Eventually she realizes that her life is in danger, and she flees to the U.S. as an indigent immigrant. She has absolutely nothing but her college transcripts, and she manages to make a solid, but quite sad, life for herself in America. She discovers from friends that Mihai was shot, and eventually she returns to Romania to find out what happened to him.
Me: I loved this book. My son actually found it in a thrift store, read it, and thought I would love it. I did. Radulescu is a beautiful writer. The novel is filled with passion and color while Mona was in Romania, but it was drab and rather depressing in America. I thought that seemed fitting, though, as Mona's life as an immigrant was just hard. I'm not sure I've ever read a novel before that takes place in Romania, and I really appreciated the vivid descriptions of a beautiful country in a brutal political time.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Books Read in January

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
The story: In an little English village in the 1950s, an 11-year-old girl stumbles upon a murder scene in her own backyard and resolves to solve the mystery. Dubbed "a combination of Harriet the Spy and Sherlock Holmes," Flavia de Luce goes about the village and outskirts finding clues and digging into the past. She's also a budding chemist with a special penchant for poisons, which could have been interesting but wasn't.
Me: T-e-d-i-o-u-s. I don't have a proper appreciation of precocious 11-year-olds, bumbling and blustering, or British wit. This is one of those books that has been recommended to me several times and I've always meant to read it; however, I cannot even fathom the obsession with this book. Yawn. (This was our January book club pick.)

The Bohemian Gospel by Dana Chamblee Carpenter
The story: Mouse is an orphan, raised in an Abbey in 13th century Bohemia. Her past is shrouded in mystery. She doesn't know where she came from or who her parents were—or why she has strange and amazing powers. She is training to be a healer, and when the young King Ottakar shows up at the Abbey with life-threatening injuries, she must put her skills to use to save him—or else. When he's healed enough to travel, he orders that she accompany him back to his kingdom as his personal healer. Things heat up between them, despite the difference in their social class, but this isn't a Cinderella story. Ottakar's life is in danger, and Mouse must contend with her own set of horrible problems. The story is filled with mystery, a love story, a tragedy, and supernatural elements that make it quite fascinating.
Me: This isn't my usual genre—a mixture of magical realism, fantasy, and historical fiction—but I loved it. Carpenter is a wonderful storyteller. Her writing is beautiful, and Mouse was a fascinating character. I felt immediately immersed in Mouse's world. It felt kind of enchanted, kind of horrifying, and very entrancing. I was a little confused at a few points in the novel, but I didn't care. I was reminded greatly of Isabelle Allende's novels, and also of Shannon Hale's The Princess Academy. Highly recommended.

Inside the O'Briens by Lisa Genova
The story: The O'Briens are a typical family—they go to work, they fight, they make up, they plan for the future. Joe is a Boston cop, and lately he's been prone to fits of anger and exhaustion. His wife is worried and insists that he see a doctor. What they find out shocks them to their core: Joe has Huntington's disease—and there is a 50% chance that each of their four adult children might also have it. The novel takes us through Joe's diagnosis and subsequent story and also follows his children as they decide whether to find out if they do or don't have the gene.
Me: Lisa Genova never disappoints! Still Alice was incredible. Love Anthony was sad and lovely. Left Neglected was fascinating. Genova holds a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard, and, naturally, her books all explore neurological disorders. That could sound tedious or didactic, but she is neither. Ever. Genova has a gift for making her characters so knowable, so relatable. And then: WHAM! These characters must contend with a medical disorder that Genova explains so wonderfully. I always feel more knowledgeable and more compassionate with each book I finish. I'm greedy, I know, but I can't wait for her next one. Highly recommended.

The Day the World Came to Town by Jim DeFede. (Nonfiction)
The story: 15 years post-9/11 and I've never heard this story. On Sept. 11, all air space into the United States was closed after the terrorists' attacks. But all of these planes were in midair—where were they supposed to land? Gander, Newfoundland, had once been an important landing spot, and this seemed to be the best place for 38 passenger planes to land. The people of Gander—a sleepy town of around 10,000 people—were called into action. They turned every available space into living quarters for nearly 7,000 passengers. Hotels were filled with pilots and flight attendants. The people of Gander fed them, clothed them, entertained them, and comforted them.
Me: This is a great story about the goodness of human beings. This community gathered together and organized at a moment's notice, doubling their population for four days. They opened their homes to strangers, brought their own towels and blankets and clothes to these people, and shared their lives with folks who just wanted to get home. In turn, the passengers—many of whom had loved ones in New York City— were grateful and patient, absorbing the goodness of the people of Gander. It was a wonderful story—a great one to read if you think our world is headed downhill. (This was our February book club pick.)