Tag Archives: book reviews

The Miracle Is that We Survive

27 May

“We’ve reached a critical desalination point!” – Jack Hall

“It’s going to get bad! Really, really bad!” – Sam Hall

Whenever the weather gets rough, it’s inevitable that my husband, one of my sons, or I will find a way to quote Jack or Sam. The Day After Tomorrow is so simultaneously awful and wonderful that it’s hard to resist. (We’ve no idea how Dennis Quaid or Jake Gyllenhaal managed to say either of these lines without cracking up.)

There’s a certain fascination to the idea of the world ending, partly because we all know it’s possible – and probably likely at some point – and partly because hard evidence points toward inevitable and noticeable change in our global environment. (Yes, climate change IS happening. Sorry, Republicans and conspiracy theorists.)

Last week’s tornado in Moore, Okla., and last fall’s Hurricane Sandy were near the extreme end of their respective scales, but some scientists are predicting that storms of this size will become the norm.

When we do finally agree that change is happening, how will we react to it?

We’ll continue to live and love, while finding new ways to adapt to our new situation. Colonization of a far off planet certainly seems in the cards, but it’s the day-to-day human experience that will likely stay the same. We’re creatures of habit, in a way.

That’s the way that Karen Thompson Walker presents it in her wonderful “The Age of Miracles.”

Walker envisions a different kind of disaster: the world is slowing down. Days and nights are growing longer, and the effect on nature and the world as we know it is devastating. It’s not completely debilitating, at least not yet. Julia is just 11 and  adolescence – her age of miracles – coincides with this new way of life.

This isn’t a complicated novel, either in plot or characters, and its real focus is on Julia’s coming of age. But it’s the small details that make the story special: how people cope with “clock time,” the hundreds of beached whales and the strange reaction of the cats. I found myself thinking about this alt-Earth long after finishing.

Well, I do love to ponder “what if” scenarios.

Climate change or not, the world will change, but human nature will not. We’ll continue to fight over things that don’t matter; we’ll continue to find love and lose love; we’ll continue to find ways to survive using our natural ingenuity. In the end, there is hope.

Even on the day after tomorrow.

Later, I would come to think of those first days as the time when we learned as a species that we had worried over the wrong things.

– Julia in The Age of Miracles

Libraries are Compassionate and Awesome

9 May

For almost three and a half weeks, I’ve been flat on my back and in horrible pain. I couldn’t sit or stand at all, making driving impossible. I just didn’t have the flexibility or swift reactions to navigate a car.

For that reason, my latest three library books were grossly overdue – by more than a month! Today, after finally getting a good diagnosis and better drugs, I was able to get up and move around enough to go the library to return those grossly overdue books.

“I hope you aren’t going to revoke my library card!” I joked when I got to the counter.

The librarian dismissed my comment with a wave.

I held out my money as she checked the books back in.

“That’s it. You’re good,” she said.

No fees? Nope, she’d waived them because of my condition (which, by the way, is a bone spur pinching a nerve in my neck).

See? Aren’t libraries awesome?

So, a huge shout out to Plainsboro Public Library for being so compassionate. And in return, I’m going to give them a little Twitter love: Follow them on Twitter @PlainsboroLib. They just joined and deserve to have a following.

Also, another huge shout out to my youngest son, Devlin, who DROVE me to the library. He’s just learning, and for the next few weeks he’s my official driver around town.

And so the 52 Books Project continues. I’m behind on writing reviews, and now I have new books to read. But we’ll catch up. Here’s what’s coming up:

  • The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg
  • The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker
  • We Bought a Zoo, Benjamin Mee
  • The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

Also, the new books I picked up today will follow:

  • Waging Heavy Peace, Neil Young
  • Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, Anna Quindlen
  • Live by Night, Dennis Lehane

And one more that’s on interlibrary order:

  • The Woman Who Wasn’t There, Robin Gaby Fisher

Visit your local library today, and travel the world without leaving your home.

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When Crime Novels Go Literary

7 May

Dublin Castle was the fortified seat of Britis...

I do love a good mystery or crime novel, so it’s always a pleasure to discover new talent in this genre. I first discovered Tana French’s novels in New York City’s Penn Station, where paperbacks were on a “Buy Two, Get One Free” deal.

I quickly sank into French’s first novel, In the Woods, and by the time I arrived at Princeton Junction, I had nearly finished the book.

An Irish writer from Dublin, French focuses on police procedurals, in particular the Dublin Murder Squad. But she approaches the genre with a more sophisticated literary sense.

Her stories aren’t just well-crafted, but intelligently written, with characters that are more complex and less stereotypical.

In her latest novel, Broken Harbor, French sets a triple murder against the backdrop of Ireland’s recession. Key themes explored are the modern-day narcissist and a materialistic culture. She contrasts these societal ills against the selfless love and devotion that family members have (or should have) for each other.

I remember this country back when I was growing up. We went to church, we ate family suppers around the table, and it would never have even crossed a kid’s mind to tell an adult to fuck off. There was plenty of bad there, I don’t forget that, but we all knew where we stood and we didn’t break the rules lightly. If that sounds like small stuff to you, if it sounds boring or old-fashioned or uncool, think about this: people smiled at strangers, people said hello to neighbors, people left their doors unlocked and helped old women with their shopping bags, and the murder rate was scraping zero.

Detective Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy is sent to investigate the murder of a family in a mostly unfinished luxury development, a victim of the recession. Mick has something to prove – he botched his last murder investigation – and something to hide. Broken Harbor holds painful childhood memories for him. So he has his own demons to contend with, just as he seeks to find the devil that took the lives of a father and his two small children.

Like many during the recession, the father had lost his job and found it difficult to find another. His wife does her best to keep their lives as normal as possible. To an outsider, not much appeared to change with the family. But behind the doors of their pop-up mansion, their lives are in turmoil.

Mick himself is also keeping up appearances; he goes to great lengths to keep his family problems to himself. His youngest sister suffers from mental illness, and her care often falls to him. When he takes this case, his first instinct is to protect her from the memories of what happened to his family at Broken Harbor.

French tells a good crime story, with lots of plot twists and turns, but it’s her ability to raise the genre to a higher plane that has me coming back for more. Broken Harbor won’t be her best novel; I think that’s yet to come, and I’ll keep reading her books until it arrives.

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Sweet Story, Bitter in the Telling

4 May

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Ah, unrequited love. It’s my favorite kind of love story. It can be so sweet, until it all ends so bitterly.

So it is with Keiko and Henry, who meet and fall in love when they are just 12 years old. He’s Chinese, she’s Japanese, it’s Seattle, and it’s 1942.

In Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford tells the story of these star-crossed lovers, divided by prejudice and separated physically when she’s sent off to a Japanese internment camp.

This novel garnered a lot of good buzz when it was published, and I can only assume it’s because it had a stellar marketing and PR buzz. Why anyone thought it warranted such a commotion, I can’t say.

It’s not that it’s a bad book. It’s a promising debut for what should be a teen book. Ford frames several themes in a way that’s appropriate for middle-school social studies and language arts discussions: complicated father-son relationships, prejudice and tolerance, and assimilation challenges of immigrants. He layers these on top of the historical events of 1942, specifically the Japanese internment of World War II and the deep animosity between the Japanese and Chinese.

He does a fine job of capturing the sights and sounds of Seattle, bringing to life its sights and sounds and giving a distinct feeling of place, but the plot is predictable and flat, lacking the tension that normally keeps me turning the page.

His characters are completely out of character. In 1942, Henry and Keiko are 12, but speak and act as if they’re in their 20s or 30s. Far too sophisticated for their ages. In 1984, Henry is just 52, but is presented as a doddering 80-something.

The ending ties up in a neat little bow. It’s perfect for Hollywood, but for the discerning reader, I’d like more complexity and depth.

Definitely not a keeper.

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J.K. Rowling Steps Out of the Mystic

5 Apr
English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter ...

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the Easter Egg Roll at White House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve long been an admirer of J.K. Rowling. When you look beyond the insane success of her Harry Potter books, you realize that she’s a spectacular writer with an unsurpassed imagination.

I loved the Potter series for the dozens of inventions and complex characters that Rowlings conjured. In the distance between the books and the movies, I think people forgot just how remarkable a writer and dreamer that she is. Though many of the items in her books were just a half step from reality – the moving images on newspapers and the game of quidditch – it’s her ability to wind up the tension in the plot or develop complex characters that is so admirable. Professor Snape and Moaning Myrtle are two characters that could easily have been one-dimensional, but were much more nuanced as the story progressed.

I read once that Rowlings envisioned writing the Potter novels for adults, but the publisher persuaded her to write the series at a level more suitable to children. And of course, that’s how they marketed it.

We knew she’d write a novel for adults someday, and now we have it: The Casual Vacancy. I didn’t expect to like this novel. It’s hard to compete with something of the magnitude of Harry Potter. I can’t say I’m disappointed, because I hadn’t set the bar very high.

The story focuses on a town councilman whose sudden death sets off a battle for his seat, examining the tensions between parents and their children, the rich and the poor, and between friends and acquaintances. Rowling evokes at least one British news story of the 90s, but I’d lost interest long before the book reached that part.

The Casual Vacancy has its moments. The writing is there, and the characters show hints of complexity. It’s the plot that’s missing. In all fairness, I read the first half of the book and skittered through the rest. The tension that drives stories simply wasn’t there for this one, though early on, I had high hopes.

Consider this family’s breakfast table conversation.

“Goes to show, doesn’t it?” he said portentously. “Got to watch yourself.”

That’s wise, thought Andrew, with furious contempt; that’s profound. So it was Barry Fairbrother’s own fault his brain had burst open. You self-satisfied fucker, Andrew told his father, loudly, inside his own head.

At this point, as I wonder who to root for, I’m leaning toward the son. What we see of his father, Simon, in the first few pages is entirely unlikeable. So I think he’s picking on the son without reason. Then this:

Simon pointed his knife at his elder son and said, “Oh, and by the way. He’s going to be getting a job. Old Pizza Face there.”

Startled, Ruth turned from her husband to her son. Andrew’s acne stood out, livid and shiny, from his empurpling cheek, as he stared down into his bowl of beige mush.

“Yeah,” said Simon. “Lazy little shit’s going to start earning some money. If he wants to smoke, he can pay for it out of his own wages. No more pocket money.”

Ah. Now I understand the source of the rage bubbling under Simon’s surface. Typical parent-teen conflict. Or is it? Read on, and I might change my mind again – maybe I should side with Andrew.

This is the true magic of Rowling’s writing. I just wish it hadn’t faded so early in the novel.

Still, I look forward to her next book for adults. I suspect she’ll find the right mix of subject matter, plot, character, and tension.

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This Is Not My Person Anymore

5 Mar

When you become a parent, there’s that moment when you first see your child, after you’ve counted all the fingers and the toes and scrutinized every millimeter of skin for imperfections or mistakes, when you accept responsibility, completely and absolutely – and forever.

As it turns out, forever is both open to interpretation and impermanent.

This weekend, we visited our 20-year-old son at college. On Sunday morning, after grilling him continuously for 36 hours on whether he needed money, groceries, roach poisoning, and other essentials of college life, I knocked on the door of the hotel room that he and his younger brother were sharing while we were in town.

He was shirtless when he answered the door. “What’s this on your back?” I asked, when he turned slightly to the side at one point in the conversation. I reached up and pressed my finger on a large mole at the top of his back. I’d never noticed it before.

The dermatologist, he said, told him not to worry about it. It was a cosmetic flaw that could be removed if he wished.

For a few seconds after he shut the door, I stood in the hall, pondering the ribbed, yellowing wallpaper of the chain hotel. Then it hit me. He was not my person anymore. He paid his own rent, bought his own groceries, earned his own part-time pay. He visited the doctor without me.

I doubt I embarrassed him with this familiar act of touch. But it suddenly occurred to me that it was a fast fading right. I don’t own him anymore.

The revelation was at once shocking and exhilarating.

Did I have a hand in creating his ownership of self? I believe I did, but at what point did I/do I cease ownership?

Cover of "We Need to Talk About Kevin: A ...

Cover of We Need to Talk About Kevin: A Novel

Eva Khatchadourian wrestles with this question in “We need to talk about Kevin,” Lionel Shriver’s 2003 best-selling novel. Kevin has massacred several of his classmates, and Eva is left to wonder whether her son is a sociopath or if she is somehow to blame for his actions.

It’s a nature vs nuture debate. There’s a primal feel as both mother and son circle each other tensely throughout the novel, but by the end, we realize that it’s all an elaborate, intellectual game of chess. The pawns don’t make out well in this game.

Shriver’s a much better writer by the time she pens this novel. I came to “Kevin” by way of her latest novel, The New Republic.” The latter was a book club pick, chosen because some members had read and enjoyed “Kevin.”

The problem with “The New Republic,” a barely readable book, is that Shriver wrote it before “Kevin” but published it after. She still had her training wheels on, and it shows.

It’s not often that you get to witness the evolution of a writer. I read both books side-by-side (both library books: one in hardcopy, the other an ebook). Given the accolades of my fellow readers, whose opinions I trust, I was puzzled by “The New Republic.”

Shriver had that annoying predilection that immature writers have to show off newly acquired vocabulary, taking every opportunity to insert a dollar word where a nickel word would’ve done nicely. (To be fair, I read this immediately after Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild, a simpler text yet with equally as vivid imagery.)

In “Kevin,” Shriver has found the right balance between $1 and 5 cents. Her sentences are fluid and natural. They draw you in.

Characters drive narrative, and when they’re flatly drawn, the novel is much like a balloon without the air. That’s the case with “The New Republic,” but not with “Kevin.” Eva is full of contradictions and doubt, easily a complex character. There’s the danger that Kevin would be written as a mere sociopathic stereotype, but he’s not. The way Shriver creates him, “is he or is he not?” is the ping pong game that the reader plays throughout the novel.

“Kevin” is a keeper. “The New Republic” is not.

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When the Holy Retire: Book Review

19 Feb

Timing is everything, as both Pope Benedict and I discovered last week. The pontiff’s resignation came as a huge surprise, because, like God, Popes are supposed to serve a lifetime. Retirement just isn’t an option.

Pope Benedictus XVI

Pope Benedictus XVI (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve written before about the troubles with the Roman Catholic Church and the steps they might take to get back on a moral path. And, I’m afraid we’ll find that there’s certainly much more to Benedict’s decision than failing health and age. In fact, the Pope will remain in the Vatican after he steps down, which provides him legal protection, immunity and security in the face of potential legal action against him.

There is a small sliver of hope that the bishops will make a change and do the right thing – really address the crisis and bring the perpetrators and their accomplices to justice. More likely though, justice will come in the afterlife.

That is, of course, if God himself doesn’t retire too.

The 52 Books Project: Book #2

What in God's NameThis is the premise of Simon Rich’s novel, What in God’s Name. This short, light novel imagines that God is the CEO of Heaven, Inc. (Again, timing is everything! Here’s Bill Keller giving advice for Catholicism Inc. I swear, this is all coincidence.)

God is tired and fed up, so he decides to retire, leaving mankind to, well, death and destruction. The angels who create miracles on Earth will soon be out of a job.

I’d read the reviews of this book before it was released, and absolutely loved the concept. Rich’s org chart for Heaven Inc. includes both the usual and unusual departments one might find in a corporation dedicated to running humankind – Prophet Outreach (where I’d be, of course, as a PR pro), Angel Resources, and – my personal favorite – Snowflake Design.

The story centers around two Angels in the Department of Miracles, desperate to stop the world from ending. In the meantime, God is busy planning his new restaurant. They cut a deal: if the Angels make two earthlings fall in love, God won’t end the world.

The book is best when it’s up in Heaven, roaming the halls of the giant corporation and peeking in on the modern tools God has to keep up on Humans (interactive TV!). Say what you will about God, but at least He has moved into the 21st century. In a move that might seem familiar to some, he even writes a resignation letter.

After much consideration I’ve decided to resign as CEO of Heaven Inc. It’s been a fun ride, but part of being successful is knowing when to quit.

Sound reasoning – and good advice too, I suppose, if he decides to share it with anyone. Right? Oh, and he attached FAQs. It’s a bit more buttoned up in Heaven Inc.

Down on earth, though, the story creeps along. I can’t get too vested in these humans, hapless as they are. And I’d hoped there’d be more “LOL” moments, especially since Rich once wrote for Saturday Night Live.

It’s a fun, ethereal read, though, and you’ll be done with it in 24 hours. I know at least one person who will soon to have extra time on his hands and may want to pick it up.

Next week’s review looks at the evolution of a writer. Lionel Shriver’s The New Republic and We Need to Talk About Kevin, read side-by-side provide some fascinating insight into how a good writer learns to be great.

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