Monday, October 31, 2011

Every Last One - Anna Quindlen

This book was a little too creepy for me to recommend.  Mary Beth is the mother of three teenagers.  Her precocious daughter is a senior in high school - a fabulous writer with her eye set firmly on the future.  Her son Alex is a popular athlete, but his twin brother is reserved and on the verge of a clinical depression diagnosis.  The family appears fairly normal, though when her daughter breaks up with a long-time boyfriend who seems a little too obsessed for his own good, you know things are going to get bad quickly.  The dramatic act doesn't happen until about half-way through the book - and while I anticipated it, it seems too extreme.  And then there were some strange elements thrown in but never fully explored - in particular a past affair by Mary Beth and the mental illness issues surrounding the mother of the former boyfriend.  Perhaps like real life, it just seemed like there was too much going on - and nothing really fit together.  Of course part of the point of the book is the seeming randomness of life, while still maintaining the illusion that everything is preventable and knowable, that in the most tragic of circumstnaces, when no one is at fault, we are still all a bit to blame.  In general, I like Quindlen's writing - she is a good story-teller, and while her subject matter is often difficult, she's still an easy read.  This one may have hit too close to home in terms of the work I do - made me overly critical.  It did make me think -and was a reminder to me to appreciate my son and pay attention to him more closely.  But, ultimatley, it was quite a downer and not exactly what I'm looking for in my books these days.

This Burns My Heart - Samuel Park

This book was written by a friend from my freshmen dorm - I previously read and enjoyed his book Shakespeare's Sonnets, and I was eaget to read his new one set in Korea and based loosely on the life of his mother.  The heroine of the novel, Soo-Ja Choi, is eager to move to Seoul and become a diplomat.  But her family and tradition expect her to get married and have a family.  In the hopes of tricking a man into making her dream come true, Soo-Ja marries the first option that comes along - a weak individual she is sure she can bend to her will.  Instead, Soo-Ja finds herself at the mercy of cruel in-laws, and pining after the man she believes she should have married.  Much of this book was painful to read.  Soo-Jais trapped by decisions she makes as a very naive young woman - decisions made out of obligation and incomplete information, and they are decisions that end up affecting her entire family - financially and emotionally.  But, throughout the story, I kept pulling for Soo-Ja, hoping that she would find a way to happiness - and finally change her fate, rather than simply enduring what she thinks life has thrust upon her.  Of course, the fact that I know the author impacts my view of the novel - I loved it and am so impressed by Sam's writing and his courage in sharing it with the world.  But, I think that my review would be the same even if I didn't know him.  This Burns My Heart is filled with so many of the fears, anxieties, and hopes that I believe all women who long for independence hold in their hearts - and I am impressed that a male author was able to access those feelings so accurately.  A definitely favorite for the year.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Family Fang - Kevin Wilson

As the result of a facebook post requesting book recommendations, my friend Lucy recommended this little gem.  The Fangs are a family of performance artists - the parents setting up scenarios at local malls to see how the public reacts, all in the name of art.  Kind of like an espisode of Punk'd or Candid Camera.  The two Fang children, Buster and Annie are caught in the middle of it all - forced unwillingly by their parents to be characters in these strange and wacky plays.  As adults, Annie and Buster have become artists of their own, but continue to rebel against their parents' way.  When their parents try to pull-off their ultimate masterpiece, Buster and Annie are left to determine the meaning of their art, whether it has any value at all, and the price they have paid to be a part of this very strange family.  Plot-wise, this was very different than anything I've read in a long time.  It reminded me of something Chuck Palahniuk would have come up with - with everything so twisted and confused, it was sometimes difficult (for the reader and the characters) to figure out what was real and which way was up.  The writing is clever and the dialogue witty.  I didn't particularly like any of the characters, but I found it all very worthwhile.  A definite thumbs-up for Wilson's performance.

Dead in the Family - Charlaine Harris (Sookie Stackhouse #10)

I'm back on the Sookie Stackhouse series - I think after this one, there are only two left (though I assume she is still writing?) was nice to get back into the lives of literature's most famous telepath. Not much happens plot-wise in this book,but Sookie does learn that there is a dead body on her property, and she goes through her usual death-defying shenanigans to avoid being blamed for the murder and becoming a victim herself.  Typical banal conversations - but some fun interactions between characters, in particular Sookie and her 5-year old cousin, himself a budding telepath.

Let's Take the Long Way Home - Gail Caldwell

Dealing with loss is such a tricky business.  But, I have found in the past that reading books about it from people wiser than I has given me perspective, and helped me better learn how to grieve my loss, while still honoring the wonderful memories I have of the people I wish were still here.  Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking is probably the best example of a book I think everyone who has lost a loved one should read (though of course it does not cover all manner of loss).  Gail Caldwell's memoir deals with the loss of a best friend.  It took me awhile to get into this book.  I had trouble identifying with the friendship between Caldwell and fellow writer, Caroline Knapp.  They bond over their relationships with their dogs - and I think this is where couldn't connect- I don't have a pet, and while I recognize the importance of this bond,  I have never experienced it.  But, it is central to the friendship between these two women. Mostly, I found the first two-thirds of this book boring and tedious, and of course given the weighty subject matter, I felt guilty for thinking that - but because I couldn't identify with the relationship, I think I had a difficult time connecting with the obvious loss.  Once Caroline dies (and obviously, you know she's going to from the get-go), it was then that I started to see Caldwell more as a human being with understandable emotions - her pain was real and her ability to express her attempts to cope with the loss became seemingly tangible. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Weird Sisters - Eleanor Brown

This sort of book is right up my alley - it's a story about family with a pretty happy ending - three sisters (who don't actually seem that weird to me), each different in personality:  there's Rosalind, the oldest responsible one; Bianca, the middle sophisticated one; and Cordelia, the youngest vagabond dreamer.  Named after some of Shakespeare's most notable women, they strive to resemble and at times defy their namesakes.  Their father is a Shakespearean scholar in a small town, and all the sisters flock home when their mother is diagnosed with cancer.  They each have troubles of their own, but not quite ready to share them with each other.  The book is narrated in the first person plural - as if written by the sisters as a collective whole.  It annoyed me at first, but as I got used to it, I really settled into the storytelling, and I thought it worked well.  I found the Shakespeare metaphors and lines a bit forced, but overall it did give the people personality, and made the book more than just another one about a dysfunctional family. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Twelve Angry Men - Reginald Rose

This appears to be the first play I have reviewed for my blog...I don't often read plays because I find it difficult to keep all the characters straight, and I find that my interpretation of how to read the lines never makes the play as funny or poignant as the performance on the stage.  That being said, being able to take the time to read and re-read lines and passages sometimes (often in the case of Shakespeare) makes me better understand what the characters are trying to do.  Twelve Angry Men is not a complicated play at all, but the characters are referred to by their Juror numbers, not by their names, so I did have to pay particular attention to keep them straight.  The basic plot of this famous story is that 12 jurors have just sat through the trial of a 16-year old boy accused of stabbing his own father to death.  The boy faces a mandatory death sentence and the jurors are deliberating his fate.  The initial vote is 11-1 in favor of a conviction, and the rest of the play features the lone hold-out positing reasonable doubt in various aspects of the trial - from the boy's alibi to the eyewitnesses to the uniqueness of the weapon.  While frustrating at time - particularly given the lack of seriousness with which some of the jurors take their jobs (one guy just wants to get out to see the baseball game) - it is a fascinating play by play of the problems with our so-called justice system and with evidence and burdens of proof.  I like this play for anyone who thinks criminal cases are cut-and-dry - or that a single person doesn't have the power to persuade many.  I first read this play back in high school when I wrote a paper for my Civics class on the right to a jury trial.  I don't think the possible death sentence ever played into my observations about the play.  Now given the work that I do, the play has taken on more complex meaning for me, and it was definitely an interesting read - very impressive that so many ideas could be crammed into so few pages.