Saturday, November 28, 2009

Day After Night - Anita Diamant

This is the latest from the author of The Red Tent and Good Harbor. While countless books have been written about the Holocaust, people being taken to concentration camps or fighting for survival within those camps, Diamant's story takes place in an internment camp for Jewish immigrants. The people in the camp managed to escape Nazi Germany only to find themselves detained behind barbed wire by a British army refusing them entry into Palestine. In 1945, more than 200 of the detainees were rescued by a special operations unit of a Jewish underground militia organization in Palestine. With this true event as a backdrop, Diamant tells the story of four young women in the camp. Each one has a different story of survival - and the price they paid for their own lives. They each live with secrets and nightmares, unsure of who to trust, and forgetful of how to love. They carry guilt and shame with them for atrocities they themselves did not commit. But, they work together to relearn how to live their lives in a new camp and later in a new country. Like any work about this period in history, Day After Night was a difficult read for me. It is filled with so much seemingly avoidable sadness, but at the same time, is a reminder of the strength of the human spirit, and the desire to live on even when faced with the worst the world has to offer.

Friday, November 27, 2009

That Old Cape Magic - Richard Russo

When I think of Richard Russo, I think of a wonderful storyteller who creates loveable, though not always entirely likeable, protagonists. Though his Empire Falls had enough literary weight to merit a Pulitzer, I remember it for its fabulously engaging plot. The same with Bridge of Sighs. So, when my mom told me that his latest, That Old Cape Magic, was a "quick read" that I would finish in "an hour," I knew she was exaggerating, but I also knew it meant that this would not be Russo at his finest (at least where I was concerned). As in many of his other books, including the funny Straight Man, Russo sets his characters up in the world of academia. Main character, Jack Griffin, is headed to the Cape for a wedding in which his daughter is a bridesmaid. He has decided to go on ahead of his wife, who stays behind at campus to work. A little concerned about what this means for his marriage, Jack is determined to improve upon the summers he always spent on the Cape with his bickering and snobby intellectual parents. But, he finds it hard to escape his past, as he takes his father's ashes along to scatter, and his mother insists on calling him at all the wrong moments to make him feel guilty or ashamed of his actions. The book then jumps a year ahead, with Jack returning yet again to the Cape, this time for another wedding, and in quite a different position vis-a-vis his family. Throughout the novel, Jack struggles with his inner demons - the paths he should have taken, but have been long foreclosed, the things he should have said, the people he should have loved. While Jack as an individual character is classic Russo, in terms of his contradictory nature and his apparent inability to find happiness in his own skin, the story itself lacked Russo's usual complexity. The book flap warned that this book is unlike anything Russo has ever written. And it was right. The plot was vague, and the direction aimless. Sadly, it was just missing That Old Russo Magic.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Pictures at an Exhibition - Sara Houghteling

For awhile, I was reading quite a number of books about art theft, art fraud, and art stolen during the Holocaust (including Noah Charney's The Art Thief, and Edward Dolnick's books The Forger's Spell and The Rescue Artist). So, I was a little reluctant to pick this one up, even though it is written by the fiance of my friend Daniel (and author of The Piano Tuner). But, I'm glad I did. Pictures at an Exhibition takes place in Paris, and chronicles a young man's quest to recover his father's paintings which were looted by the Nazis during WWII. While the book is fiction, Houghteling's background in art history comes through in her historical detail and meticulous descriptions of the missing art. The writing is beautiful, and I often found myself so lost in passages, almost to the detriment of the overall story. I was impressed with how seamlessly the story turned from the art museums and auction houses, to the main character's world of medicine, while all the while incorporating a love story and the mystery of the lost paintings. Pictures at an Exhibition is suspenseful and filled with family secrets, while at the same time written so beautifully as to be its own work of art.

The Girl with No Shadow - Joanne Harris

I read Joanne Harris's popular novel Chocolat and saw the movie based on it so long ago that I can barely remember what it was about - other than a chocolate shop in France. But, I do recall enjoying it and finding it quite magical. So, while at Denver's famous Tattered Cover bookstore ( with Sara recently, I was excited to discover this sequel. The Girl with No Shadow opens with Vianne and Anouk (of Chocolat fame) in a new city under new identities, Yanne and Annie. Yanne is struggling to keep her new chocolaterie afloat. She is dating her landlord, a successful businessman who wants to marry her, but has no love for Anouk or Yanne's reticent four-year old, Rosette. Anouk, now almost a teenager, is having issues herself, trying to fit into school but knowing that there is a strange power within her yearning to break free. Suddenly, the wind blows Zozie into their lives. A stranger with no apparent history, Zozie ingratiates herself into their lives, bringing prosperity, but at a price. Harris tells her story from the alternating perspective of Yanne, Anouk, and Zozie (a device I am slowly becoming so tired of). We see Zozie's scheming, and the mesmerizing effect it is having on everyone, particularly Anouk. It's clear to the reader from the outset that if Zozie has her way, things will not end well, but throughout the novel it does not become entirely clear why Zozie has chosen Yanne's life to destroy. I enjoyed the magic aspect - reminding me fondly of Alice Hoffman's books - but in the end, my dislike for Zozie was so strong that I could hardly bring myself to read the climax, but I'm glad that I did - and the return of Roux (Yanne's ex-flame) brought hope to an otherwise bleak story. The book takes place during the Christmas holiday season, so this is a perfect time of year to read it. It made me hungry for big cups of hot chocolate, and convinced me to go back and reread Chocolat.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Goldengrove - Francine Prose

Goldengrove opens with the death of 13-year old Nico's older sister. Nearby when the death occurred, Nico carries with her a tremendous amount of guilt, and the feeling that it should have been her - the less talented and loved daughter. While her father seeks refuge in his quiet little bookstore, and her mother turns to a friend dispensing questionable advice, Nico wonders what will keep her family together after such a significant tragedy. In the hopes of finding answers, Nico befriends her sister's boyfriend, Aaron - the only person who seems to understand the tremendous weight of what has happened. As a young woman coming into her own, Nico is confused by her feelings of loss, and her strong attachment to Aaron. There is a sense of danger and impropriety from the first pages of this novel, and Prose carries the tension through to the end. I did not find anything particularly different or enlightening in Prose's telling of family tragedy, but focusing the narrative on Nico's coming of age, was compelling.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Mountains Beyond Mountains - Tracy Kidder

This is Greg Mortensen's Three Cups of Tea set in Haiti. I've never read Tracy Kidder before, but have heard that he is the master of the non-fiction narrative. Here, Kidder tells the story of Dr. Paul Farmer - a Harvard educated doctor driven by the need to make the world a better and safe place for everyone. He devotes his life to eradicating TB and bringing world-class medical care to a desperately improverished town in Haiti. Like all people of this undaunted and perservering ilk, Farmer is full of pithy sayings - most of the "never say never" variety. Kidder does a wonderful job chronicling Farmer's life story - how he came to be in Haiti, and how he has earned the respect and admiration of the people he serves. But, I was glad to see that Kidder did not ignore the impact that Farmer's choices have made on his own personal life. Farmer's desire to put the needs of an entire community before his own, often it seems, prevented him recognizing the needs of his own family and friends. At times Kidder's thorough discussion of the medical and political morass encompassing Farmer's work was a bit tedious. But, overall this was a truly inspirational story about the difference one man has made by dedicating his own life to change, and encouraging so many others to do the same.

Nocturnes - Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro's novels are among my favorites. He has a way of playing with memory and reality that really sticks with me. So, I was quite excited when his collection of short stories came out. While each of the five stories features different characters, they all feature music as an important centerpiece. For each of the main characters, music is a way to find meaning in a world in which they would otherwise be lost or alone. For some this brings comfort, for others a sense of torment. While Ishiguro's writing is as beautiful as ever, I felt that the short story form just did not highlight his talents the way his novels have. With each of his novels, I always had a sense of impending doom and building anticipation. The short stories, on the other hand, carried with them more of a feeling of resignation. There wasn't enough time to come to uderstand the complexities of the characters or to care about their conflicts. I did not have the same feelings of affection and wonder that I usually get from his books. Instead, I was left with a bit of disappointment - and hope that another novel is yet to come.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Juliet, Naked - Nick Hornby

On a recent work trip to Pueblo, Colorado, I failed to pack enough books to get me through the inevitable airport delays. So, I had to hunt down a Barnes & Noble, and pick up a book I've been waiting forever to get from the library. As I've stated many times on this blog, I love Nick Hornby. His books are always entertaining and easy to read - they are like comfort food for the mind. Plus, Jake also likes him, so I know I could pass this one along when I finished. Juliet, Naked starts with the floundering 15 year relationship between Annie and Duncan. Duncan is obsessed with one-time famous American singer Tucker Crowe. So obsessed that he manages a website devoted to interpreting and re-interpreting lyrics to songs written decades earlier. When Crowe releases an acoustic version of his most successful album, Duncan is in seventh heaven - and rushes to his computer to share his discovery with the world. Annie, on the other hand, thinks the acoustic version is basically garbage. Their difference of opinion causes them both to reevaluate their relationship. Can Duncan really love someone who is so clearly unable to recognize genius? Can Annie waste any more of her life with someone so irritatingly enamored with a musical has-been? And so, Annie posts her own review of the album - a review which catches the eye of Tucker Crowe himself, igniting an email correspondence of monumental significance. In typical Hornby style, this book captures the personality of the masculine loser/possible diamond in the rough perfectly, and provides an honest assessment of relationships that is filled with both resignation and a glimmer of hope. Juliet, Naked is not Hornby's best work, but it does have a few laugh out loud funny lines, and brought me the happiness I needed in the middle of my bleak work adventure.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Labor Day - Joyce Maynard

Thirteen year old Henry is a bit of an outsider. He lives with his single mother, Adele, who is afraid of venturing outside of her house. Henry sees his father once a week for dinner at Friendly's - along with a step-mother who doesn't much like him, a step-brother who has the athletic talent Henry can't even dream of, and his baby half-sister. Henry doesn't have much in the friends department, and spends most of his time trying to figure out how to make his mother happy, and thinking about girls he'll never have the courage to speak to. Then, at the beginning of the Labor Day weekend, a stranger named Frank approaches Henry in the store and asks for a ride. Over the rest of the Labor Day weekend, Frank teaches Henry how to throw a baseball and how to bake a pie with the perfect crust. Frank also sweeps Adele off her feet and threatens the safe two-person family Henry has come to rely on. Relieved that his mother's happiness is no longer dependent upon him, but feeling isolated from the one person who always loved him best, Henry finds himself confused and unsure of where his loyalties lie. Labor Day is a compelling coming of age story. While I didn't find the writing anything special as I was going along, the final chapter really hit me emotionally and made me see why Maynard is such a popular author. I have another one of her books, The Usual Rules, on my shelf at home and I'm eager to get to it, along with all her others.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Promised World - Lisa Tucker

Lila's entire world revolves around her twin brother Billy. Despite her marriage, and her prestigious university professorship, she worships her brother and struggles mightily for his approval. She defers to his opinions, is blinded to his faults, and relies on him to remind her of a past she simply cannot remember. Then Billy takes his own life, leaving behind his estranged wife and their three children. Suddenly, Lila's world unravels and her connection between reality and fantasy becomes increasingly tenuous. While her husband Patrick tries to understand what is going on, he delves deeper into Lila's past uncovering lies about her parenthood and discovering that her inability to remember is the result of tremendous trauma and manipulation by those closest to her. The book is told from the perspective of the various characters - and through Billy's wife and children, we learn that while imaginative and doting, Billy was also marked by mood swings and indecipherable musings. His desire to raise his children in the safe environment he never had seems noble, until his fears of a family curse and need to cleanse himself of his evilness hint at a much greater mental illness. As the secrets about Lila and Billy's past come crashing down, the book takes on a frenzied pace - Lila's memories come back in confusing snapshots - she remembers partial scenes and snippets of conversation, there is a difficulty in untangling reality from what she was told to believe and by whom. The same confusion has been visited by Billy upon his own children who want to preserve his memory and make him proud, but end up hurting and trusting the wrong people along the way. I felt like Tucker tried to take on too much with this book in terms of themes and conflict, but at the same time took too long getting to the heart of the story that by about half-way through I was exhausted with the characters. While the subject matter certainly interested me, the end left too many questions and frustrations on the table.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Christmas Train - David Baldacci

Even though compared to most places in the country it doesn't really get that cold where I live, I still like to celebrate what I consider to be the wintery season with a nice peppermint mocha. With a handmade scarf wrapped around my neck, the perfect way to round out the picture is with a cheesy happy-ending holiday story. Thankfully, my mom delivered with this ridiculously silly, predictable, and sappy story by David Baldacci. As she said - it's kind of like Nicholas Sparks. You have to be in the right mood, but you know even when there are bumps along the way, it's going to end up picture perfect, and sometimes that's just what we all need. Tom Langdon, a world-traveling reporter, decides to take a train cross-country from New York to Los Angeles to see his on-again/off-again girlfriend for Christmas. He plans to write a story about it, and sets off to interview the various people working for the railways, as well as the passengers who prefer trains to planes and automobiles. When a young engaged couple announces their intention to get married aboard, Tom reminisces about the one who got away, and the reader knows straight off that Tom is going to get his second chance at love one way or another. This was a fast read, and at any other time of year, I would have wished it went faster. It is not particularly well written, suspenseful, or engaging. But, it still warmed my heart. There's just something about trains and Christmas...and peppermint mochas...I just love this time of year.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Her Fearful Symmetry - Audrey Niffenegger

Years ago, my mom and I went on a trip together to Ashland, Oregon where I read Audrey Niffenegger's first novel, The Time Traveler's Wife. I was so engrossed in it that we were almost late to see The Tempest. So, it was only fitting that this week, while on vacation on Kauai with my mom (and husband) that I decided to bring along her second novel. Her Fearful Symmetry takes place mostly in Elspeth's flat in London. She has recently died of cancer, and left her place (minus her important diaries) to her twin nieces from America, Julia and Valentina. The girls move to London, never having done anything apart from each other - despite their obvious differences in temperment and interests. They learn to navigate the city, and try to understand the relationship between their Aunt Elspeth and their own mother, who just happens to be Elspeth's twin. Valentina develops a relationship with Robert, a cemetery tour guide, and Elspeth's old beau, while Julia gravitates to Martin, the shut-in upstairs suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder. All the while, Elspeth's spirit remains in the flat, growing stronger by the day, attempting to communicate with the people she's left behind, and determined at any cost to return to the land of the living. While this book took some clever turns, they were for the most part predictable. I came to root for Valentina, Robert, and Martin - but their ability to be easily manipulated by Elspeth and Julia left me saddened and uncomfortable. At times, I felt as if Niffenegger was so intent on developing secrets in the first two-thirds of the novel, and then spilling them all the in the final third, that she failed to take the time she really needed with her characters. It is the same weakness from her first novel - the cleverness of the time travel often overshadowed the actual relationship between the characters. Though, I felt the emotions in the The Time Traveler's Wife much more acutely - crying quite a bit at the end. While Her Fearful Symmetry features the same themes of lost love in a variety of contexts, I just didn't feel as strong a connection with the pairings. This was certainly an enjoyable read - especially lying on the beach under a palm tree, and while being lazy on the lanai, but not as memorable as her first one.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Girl Who Played With Fire - Stieg Larsson (Millenium Series #2)

In this follow-up to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander, a genius hacker who has been declared incompetent by a Swedish court, finds herself at the center of a multiple homicide investigation. Her appointed guardian is found shot, along with two journalists, and Lisbeth's fingerprint is on the gun. The only link between Lisbeth and the journalist victims is her old pal Mikael Blomkvist. With Lisbeth in hiding working behind the scenes to figure out the mystery, Blomkvist tries to convince the police that they're barking up the wrong tree. The answer lies somewhere in a complex sex ring scandal involving an enigmatic man named Zala, and a bonecrushing giant whose only goal is to make sure Lisbeth doesn't make it to the truth. While I don't think you would necessarily need to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo first to enjoy this great thriller, I think I was immediately taken in by it because of my familiarity with the characters. Lisbeth's background is heartbreaking and her attempts to make it on her own, while consistently throwing away all efforts from help of the people who care about her, is both frustrating and tragic. The mystery itself takes a number of wild turns, while following up on a number of characters Larsson introduced in the first novel. The third and final book in the series, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest was apparently just published in the United States on Halloween - I may have to break my library borrowing policy and snap it up the next time I'm in an actual bookstore.