Archive for the ‘Literary’ Category

Review of You Should Have Known, by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Saturday, September 6th, 2014

you_should_have_known_largeYou Should Have Known

By Jean Hanff Korelitz

Grand Central Publishing, New York, 2014. 438 pages.
Starred Review

I started reading this book with a certain sadistic glee. The story is of a therapist, Grace Reinhart Sachs, who has written a book called You Should Have Known. Here Grace is talking about her book with a reporter from Vogue:

“Look, I’ve been in practice for fifteen years. Over and over I’ve heard women describe their early interactions with their partner, and their early impressions of their partner. And listening to them, I continually thought: You knew right at the beginning. She knows he’s never going to stop looking at other women. She knows he can’t save money. She knows he’s contemptuous of her – the very first time they talk to each other, or the second date, or the first night she introduces him to her friends. But then she somehow lets herself unknow what she knows. She lets these early impressions, this basic awareness, get overwhelmed by something else. She persuades herself that something she has intuitively seen in a man she barely knows isn’t true at all now that she – quote unquote – has gotten to know him better. And it’s that impulse to negate our own impressions that is so astonishingly powerful. And it can have the most devastating impact on a woman’s life. And we’ll always let ourselves off the hook for it, in our own lives, even as we’re looking at some other deluded woman and thinking: How could she not have known? And I feel, just so strongly, that we need to hold ourselves to that same standard. And before we’re taken in, not after….

“Imagine,” she said to Rebecca, “that you are sitting down at a table with someone for the first time. Perhaps on a date. Perhaps at a friend’s house – wherever you might cross paths with a man you possibly find attractive. In that first moment there are things you can see about this man, and intuit about this man. They are readily observable. You can sense his openness to other people, his interest in the world, whether or not he’s intelligent – whether he makes use of his intelligence. You can tell that he’s kind or dismissive or superior or curious or generous. You can see how he treats you. You can learn from what he decides to tell you about himself: the role of family and friends in his life, the women he’s been involved with previously. You can see how he cares for himself – his own health and well-being, his financial well-being. This is all available information, and we do avail ourselves. But then . . .”

She waited. Rebecca was scribbling, her blond head down.

“Then?”

“Then comes the story. He has a story. He has many stories. And I’m not suggesting that he’s making things up or lying outright. He might be – but even if he doesn’t do that, we do it for him, because as human beings we have such a deep, ingrained need for narrative; especially if we’re going to play an important role in the narrative; you know, I’m already the heroine and here comes my hero. And even as we’re absorbing facts or forming impressions, we have this persistent impulse to set them in some sort of context. So we form a story about how he grew up, how women have treated him, how employers have treated him. How he appears before us right now becomes part of that story. Then we get to enter the story: No one has ever loved him enough until me. None of his other girlfriends have been his intellectual equal. I’m not pretty enough for him. He admires my independence. None of this is fact. It’s all some combination of what he’s told us and what we’ve told ourselves. This person has become a made-up character in a made-up story.”

“You mean, like a fictional character.”

“Yes. It’s not a good idea to marry a fictional character.”

Grace has a beautiful life, with a son Henry at a fine private school and a wonderful husband who’s a pediatric oncologist. Grace doesn’t tell reporters that when she met her husband, she just knew that he was the one for her. It’s sad the way most of her other friends have fallen out of her life. But Jonathan is enough. And too bad that he had such a rotten childhood, and his parents didn’t even come to their wedding.

The reader is not surprised when Grace’s beautiful life begins to fall apart.

Like I said, I rather expected to be gleeful. Here’s one who says you should have known, but in some cases, how can you possibly know?

However, as I read the book, my sympathy for Grace grew to be huge. Yes, she should have known. She had warning signs. But you have complete sympathy for her, since when you’re in love, it’s pretty hard to imagine that this wonderful person is actually a sociopath.

This book actually pairs very well with the dating advice book I recently read, How to Avoid Falling in Love with a Jerk. The problem in You Should Have Known is letting yourself fall in love before you really know the person. Then as you do get to know them, you’re already ready to overlook any flaws, which may come back to bite you later.

So in that sense, this was a therapeutic book to read as I’m starting to date again after my divorce! Nothing like a cautionary tale not to let myself be too swayed by a handsome face!

As for the book itself? I grew to have nothing but sympathy for Grace as her life fell apart and even her story of her marriage in the past had to be modified. And as she tried to figure out how to carry on and how to start life again, I was completely rooting for her, completely on her side. And the book was also therapeutic in thinking about my own marriage. No, my husband wasn’t as sociopathic as Grace’s husband. But some things, on an emotional level, were awfully resonant for me. So if I was applauding Grace moving on with life and putting her marriage behind her, why was I reluctant to do the same?

And the book was lovely, too. We feel realistically hopeful for Grace by the end. It’s not going to be easy for her or her son. But we feel like they’re going to make it.

So therapy, a cautionary tale, and an excellent story all in one package. If the author is saying Grace should have known, at least she’s saying it with compassion.

HachetteBookGroup.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

Please use the comments if you’ve read the book and want to discuss spoilers!

Review of Chestnut Street, by Maeve Binchy

Sunday, July 6th, 2014

chestnut_street_largeChestnut Street

by Maeve Binchy

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2014. 368 pages.
Starred Review

Maeve Binchy died in July 2012, so this is a posthumous publication. Her husband, Gordon Snell, explains at the front:

Maeve wrote the stories over several decades, reflecting the city and people of the moment – always with the idea of one day making them into a collection with Chestnut Street as its center. I am very pleased with the way her editors have now gathered them together as she intended, to make this delightful new Maeve Binchy book, Chestnut Street.

This book reminds me more of Maeve Binchy’s earlier books than the later ones – it is composed of many short stories, all including someone who lives on Chestnut Street. Her later novels are similar, but have longer stories, with more of the threads intertwined between stories. A few of the characters do appear in passing in additional stories, besides the ones where they are featured, though there’s definitely not the unity of theme found in her later books.

That said, these are some truly delightful stories. Maeve Binchy knows human nature. So many of these stories, short as they are, leave you with a smile or an insight or just a good feeling that someone made a great choice. I liked that they are short, since that way there are more of them, though it did make it take longer to read – because after a few stories, I found myself wanting to give an appreciative pause rather than barrel on to the end, as I will with a good novel.

A wonderful chance to treat yourself to Maeve Binchy’s characters one more time.

maevebinchy.com
aaknopf.com

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Fiction/chestnut_street.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

Please use the comments if you’ve read the book and want to discuss spoilers!

Review of The Right Attitude to Rain, by Alexander McCall Smith

Sunday, April 27th, 2014

The Right Attitude to Rain

by Alexander McCall Smith
performed by Davina Porter

Recorded Books, 2006. 8 CDs.

I started the Isabel Dalhousie series years ago, but lost interest. Now I’ve discovered the way to read them — on audio, when one can be entertained by the lovely Scottish accents.

It’s misleading that these are shelved in the mystery section, because they’re not traditional mysteries. Yes, a crime occurs — in the last part of the book, on the last CD. But Isabel doesn’t solve it, she philosophizes about it.

Isabel is a philosopher, independently wealthy, and the editor of an ethics journal. She keeps saying that she thinks too much, but the listener does enjoy the digressions which her thoughts take.

In this book, most of her musings are about her relationship with Jamie, a man 14 years younger than her, whom she has fallen in love with. So she thinks about every possible side of the ethics of that relationship. And Jamie was once the boyfriend of her niece Cat, so there’s that to consider as well. Meanwhile, Isabel’s cousin Mimi and her husband are visiting, and the whole group is invited to a house party given by a wealthy Texan and his fiancé. But is the fiancé just after his money? That’s what it seems like to Isabel.

Alexander McCall Smith’s books don’t have a plot that progresses at a rapid pace, and I think that has a lot to do with why I stopped reading this series. But listening to it in the car on the way to work and back is a delightful way to approach it. I find myself smiling at each new diversion and thinking about the philosophical implications during my day, but I haven’t had too much trouble shutting the car off when I get to work. (There were a couple times…) This book makes a pleasant travel companion, and I’m going to be quick to take up the next book in the series.

recordedbooks.com

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Fiction/right_attitude_to_rain.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library audiobook from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

Please use the comments if you’ve read the book and want to discuss spoilers!

Review of Sense & Sensibility, by Joanna Trollope

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

Sense & Sensibility

by Joanna Trollope

Harper, 2013. 362 pages.
Starred Review

Sense & Sensibility, by Joanna Trollope, is simply a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility. You come away from it feeling like this is exactly how Jane Austen would have written it if she were writing today. There are no gimmicks. And don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the gimmicks — like a science fiction retelling of Persuasion. But this is the same story told in modern times.

And I loved it! Sense and Sensibility is not one of my favorite Austen books, but even knowing what would happen, this one kept me up reading all through the night. A little thing that bugged me in Jane Austen’s version — that Marianne is so fragile she gets sick if she gets wet — was nicely explained by Marianne’s asthma, which is what killed their father.

I don’t have to tell you the plot, because this is really for people who’ve already read Jane Austen’s version. Joanna Trollope did a magnificent job of modernizing it to today’s situations and sensibilities.

As I write this review, I looked at the website mentioned on the flap, theaustenproject.com, and I learn that this is the first of Jane Austen’s six novels to be rewritten. I’m not sure how I will feel when they start tackling my favorites, like Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, but this first one is so excellent, that bodes well for the rest of the series.

joannatrollope.com
theaustenproject.com
harpercollins.com

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Fiction/sense_and_sensibility.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

Please use the comments if you’ve read the book and want to discuss spoilers!

Review of A Week in Winter, by Maeve Binchy

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

A Week in Winter

by Maeve Binchy

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013. 326 pages.
Starred Review

Maeve Binchy died in July 2012, shortly after finishing this book. I’m so glad to read it, but so sorry to know it’s the last. Like all her books, A Week in Winter is a warm and cozy read that looks right into people’s hearts and lets us see intertwined lives touching one another.

A Week in Winter doesn’t have the punch of some of Maeve Binchy’s books, but it’s a warm and friendly way to say farewell. The book starts with Chicky who grew up in Stoneybridge, on the Irish coast, and ran off to America with a boy who came for the summer.

Chicky’s family thinks she’s a wicked fool to run away with him. So Chicky doesn’t tell them what’s really happening:

She wrote home week after week and believed in the fairy tale more and more. She started to fill a spiral notebook with details of the life she was meant to be living. She didn’t want to slip up on anything.

To console herself, she wrote to them about the wedding. She and Walter had been married in a quiet civil ceremony, she explained. They had a blessing from a Franciscan priest. It had been a wonderful occasion for them, and they knew that both families were delighted that they had made this commitment. Chicky said that Walter’s parents had been abroad at the time and not able to attend the ceremony but that everyone was happy about it.

In many ways, she managed to believe this was true. It was easier than believing that Walter was becoming restless and was going to move on.

Chicky does quite well, even after Walter leaves her. When her nieces talk about coming to visit, the kind husband of her letters suffers a tragic accident. And then, after some time, she goes back to Stoneybridge and purchases the Stone House on the water, using a “legacy” that is really her own hard-earned savings. She works with the last remaining Miss Sheedy (of the three sisters who had owned the house) to make it into a hotel.

Next, we take a look at Rigger, the son of one of Chicky’s friends. He gets into trouble, and needs to leave Dublin for awhile. He comes to work for Chicky, and meets a girl and starts settling down.

Then there’s Orla, Chicky’s niece, wanting some change after her best friend in Dublin gets married. She comes to work for Chicky, only for a year.

And then we start looking at the guests who come for opening week at Stone House. Winnie thinks she’ll book a vacation with the man she loves — and ends up taking it with the mother who has him under her thumb. There are people from all over the world — a Hollywood movie star, a Swede who’s meant to take over his father’s business but is interested in music, a husband and wife who are both doctors, and more. With each person who comes to visit, we get to look at their life leading up to this momentous week, as well as at how the week changes them.

The story is gentle and cozy. No big earth-shaking moments, but lots of rejuvenating ones and life-changing ones for the guests involved. One guest does manage to shake off the charm of the place, but most will leave the better for their vacation.

And the reader is the better for the vacation, too.

I’m so sad this is Maeve Binchy’s last book. She knew how to show her readers what’s really important.

maevebinchy.com
aaknopf.com

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Fiction/week_in_winter.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

Please use the comments if you’ve read the book and want to discuss spoilers!

Review of The Actor and the Housewife, by Shannon Hale

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

The Actor and the Housewife

by Shannon Hale

Bloomsbury, New York, 2009. 339 pages.
Starred Review
2012 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #6 Non-fantasy Fiction

This is the one book by Shannon Hale that I don’t own, and that I didn’t read as soon as it came out. Why? Well, I knew it’s about a Mormon housewife who becomes good friends with a heart throb actor. I’ve always believed that men and women can be friends without hurting their marriages. But when this came out, I had just been burned. My own marriage had imploded. My husband claimed he was friends with a young female co-worker, and it turned out that was just a cover for something else, and our marriage didn’t survive.

But this book is not a treatise on marriage and friendship. If you want that, I highly recommend NOT “Just Friends,” by Shirley Glass. (A nice rule of thumb: Where are the windows and the walls? If the walls are around the marriage and the windows around the friendship, good. You should be able to talk with your spouse about the friendship, rather than the other way around.) This book is a story. It’s a story of a good friendship, but most of all, it’s a story about a great marriage.

Now, it’s not easy on the marriage for Becky Jack to be great friends with a handsome actor. She wrestles with what’s right. Her husband wrestles with what’s right. She even talks with her bishop about it. But let me say it again: This is a great story! These people seem real and alive and this is about a funny, poignant, and difficult situation and how it affects two families and the people around them.

As a matter of fact, I hadn’t decided which book I was going to read next when I checked it out. I brought several candidates upstairs, and thought I’d just read a few pages to decide if I wanted to read this next. . . and ended up finishing the book at 5:30 am the following morning. This was NOT what I had planned. It wasn’t remotely a good idea. But wow! What a good story!

Becky and Felix Callahan meet, by a fluke, when she is in Hollywood, looking over a contract for a screenplay she’s sold to his producer. She is hugely pregnant and not at her best. Then they end up being at the same hotel. They share a ride, have dinner. One thing leads to another, and they become friends.

The book is about a long and wonderful friendship. It covers a span of many years, with high points, hilarious moments, awkward times, and big setbacks. In the long run, the book is even more about Becky’s marriage. Becky thinks a lot about how she can be friends with this Hollywood star, yet still be fully and completely in love with her husband. It works.

Here’s a bit where Becky has just met Felix and ends up sharing a ride with him to the hotel:

Becky sneaked a glance at Felix before returning her gaze to the window. That whole exchange had felt as unaccountably familiar as Felix’s presence. She had an ah-ha moment as she thought, Augie Beuter! That’s who Felix reminded her of — well, actually, the two men looked and acted about as much alike as Margaret Thatcher and Cher. But the way she and Felix had followed each other’s lead, the way their conversation flowed together, tuned for an audience, that’s how she and Augie used to be. He’d been her assistant editor on the high school paper and partner in debate club. Their five-year best friendship ended when they both married other people. Augie Beuter — she hadn’t seen him since her wedding, and she still missed him.

I don’t have room to insert one of the many scenes of their back-and-forth banter. You can tell they are indeed friends. Their two worlds are completely different, but their story is truly a delight.

squeetus.com
bloomsburyusa.com

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Fiction/actor_and_the_housewife.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I write the posts for my website and blogs entirely on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

Please use the comments if you’ve read the book and want to discuss spoilers!

Review of The Call, by Yannick Murphy

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

The Call

by Yannick Murphy

Harper Perennial, 2011. 223 pages.
Starred Review

It took me quite awhile to look at the back of this book closely enough to realize that Yannick Murphy is a woman. She gets the voice of a man, a veterinarian in New England, exactly right. Or at least what a woman thinks of as exactly the voice of a man, I suppose.

You’ll get the format of the book right from the start. Here’s how it begins:

CALL: A cow with her dead calf half-born.
ACTION: Put on boots and pulled dead calf out while standing in a field full of mud.
RESULT: Hind legs tore off from dead calf while I pulled. Head, forelegs, and torso are still inside the mother.
THOUGHTS ON DRIVE HOME WHILE PASSING RED AND GOLD LEAVES ON MAPLE TREES: Is there a nicer place to live?
WHAT CHILDREN SAID TO ME WHEN I GOT HOME: Hi, Pop.
WHAT THE WIFE COOKED FOR DINNER: Something mixed-up.

CALL: Old woman with minis needs bute paste.
ACTION: Drove to old woman’s house, delivered bute paste. Pet minis. Learned their names — Molly, Netty, Sunny, and Storm.
RESULT: Minis are really cute.
THOUGHTS ON DRIVE HOME: Must bring children back here sometime to see the cute minis.
WHAT CHILDREN SAID TO ME WHEN I GOT HOME: Hi, Pop.
WHAT THE WIFE COOKED FOR DINNER: Steak and potatoes, no salad. She said, David, our salad days are over, it now being autumn and the garden bare except for wind-tossed fallen leaves.

Yes, the story does get more complex, but always follows the same listing format. His responses about the items get much longer, waxing into many paragraphs. For example, here’s a section only a few pages in:

WHAT THE WIFE SAID AFTER DINNER: Whose sneakers are these on the floor? Who left the butter out? Whose books are these? Whose sweater? Whose crumbs? Can’t you clean up after yourselves? Don’t leave a wet towel on your bed. Flush the toilet. Can’t anyone flush the toilet? These papers will get ruined on the table in the kitchen. Do you want your papers ruined?
WHAT THE CHILDREN DID: Ran outside.
WHAT I DID: Ran outside. We went and looked for trees that would be good for raising my deer stand. There’s a hill and ridge below where a stream runs through. There are game trails going down the ridge. There is already a wooden deer stand there someone put up long ago where Sam could hunt from while I hunted from my tree stand at the same time. This would be a good place for my stand. I thought I could use my stand for other things other than hunting, too. I could stand in my stand at night and call to the owls. I could stand in my stand at night and look for the bright lights in the sky, the object moving quickly back and forth, but then I remembered there was a warning that came with my stand. The warning said never to strap yourself into the harness in darkness because you may make a mistake, you may not be able to see where your leg should be going through a loop. You could be strapped into nothing. Also, you may not see a rung as you’re climbing down the stand. Your footing will have no purchase. You will fall like a shot bird from a branch, head over heels to the forest floor heavily strewn with needles of pine.
WHAT SAM DID: Imitated me standing in the stand and falling out and landing with my head on a rock.
WHAT MY DAUGHTERS DID: Jumped on top of him as he lay with his head on the rock being me.
WHAT I SAID: Shhh, if you want to see something in the woods you have to be quiet.

Several themes develop. Those bright lights in the sky at night continue to dance around, until he’s convinced there’s a UFO overhead. He’s supposed to go see the doctor. But much worse is what happens when his son goes hunting for the first time, and the aftermath.

I had planned to turn this book back in because I hadn’t started it and my pile was too big, but when I read that first page, I couldn’t resist. There’s something so inherently funny about this understated way of looking at things, and the progression of his thoughts. Is there perhaps some superiority in thinking this must be exactly how a man thinks? Perhaps. But there’s a lot of humor, too.

And the story? There is one, and it’s a lovely one; a story about life and living it and enjoying every detail.

If you find this beginning irresistible, as I did, you will know that you need to read this book!

yannickmurphy.com
harperperennial.com

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Fiction/call.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I write the posts for my website and blogs entirely on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

Please use the comments if you’ve read the book and want to discuss spoilers!

Review of Gold, by Chris Cleave

Friday, July 6th, 2012

Gold

by Chris Cleave

Simon & Schuster, New York, July 2012. 326 pages.
Starred Review

Gold is perfect reading for before, during, and after the Olympic games. It’s a story of a long-time rivalry between Zoe and Kate, the two best women’s cyclists in the world, good friends both on the United Kingdom team. They were first scheduled to compete against each other in the 2004 games, then in 2008, but something happened each time so only one got the Gold. Now the 2012 games are approaching, and both are at the top of their form.

We learn their story as we follow the build-up to the Olympics. Their rivalry isn’t only on the track, and each have their own motivations, their own insecurities, their own inner demons. There’s also a little girl in their lives who has leukemia. They thought it was in remission, and little Sophie doesn’t want anyone to know when she’s feeling bad. But that’s not always a good idea.

I laughed that Sophie is absorbed with Star Wars and uses Star Wars to fight her leukemia, because in Little Bee Chris Cleave had a child who lived in his Batman costume. Super heroes and story do have a way of helping those who are powerless feel much more powerful.

Here’s Sophie thinking about her family:

She leaned her back against the wall and closed her eyes. That half a minute of talking with Ruby had wiped her out. It was good, though. Mum had seen it. Dad had seen it. That counted for an hour when they wouldn’t worry. After that she knew she would start to see the lines creeping back into their faces, and hear the sharp edge coming back into their voices, and notice the little sideways glances they shot at her while they pretended they weren’t looking. They would start to have arguments with each other, about stupid things like training hours and long-grain rice, and they wouldn’t even know why they were doing it. She would know, though. It meant that they were scared for her all over again, and she would have to do one of the things that made them forget it for another hour.

If you were in the car, you could kick the back of the seat. That made them annoyed, which was the opposite of scared. If you were in the house, you had more choices. You could answer back or be lippy, which made you seem less ill. You could do a drawing. You could hurry up the stairs and make a lot of noise so they noticed you doing it, even if you had to lie down on your bed afterwards for ten minutes. You could make it look like you’d eaten all your toast, even if you had to post it down your T-shirt and flush it in the toilet later. You could play boys’ games like Star Wars that had fighting and spaceships and made you look tough, even if you weren’t tough enough to ride a bike.

This book didn’t feel as momentous and weighty as Little Bee, but that’s a good thing. I’m not sure I could have handled that big an emotional punch. It was still a powerful book, and I definitely found myself thinking about it long after reading it. Gold explores motivation, competition, friendship, the search for excellence, and what makes a family. It definitely put me in the mood for the Olympic Games this year.

chriscleave.com
simonandschuster.com

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Fiction/gold.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on an Advance Reading Copy I got at ALA Midwinter Meeting.

Review of State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

State of Wonder

by Ann Patchett

Harper, 2011. 353 pages.
Starred Review

I got to hear Ann Patchett read from this book almost a full year ago, when she spoke at the Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University in Fairfax, sponsored by the Fairfax Library Foundation. It’s been a long time to wait for it to come out! Though it didn’t exactly make me excited to read the book — the passage she read involved an Anaconda on a small boat in the Amazon, and it was portrayed all too vividly. But I did know from that reading that the book would be well-written, vividly described, and definitely exciting!

I was right about all of that. Her writing is so evocative. She deeply pulls you into the lives of her characters — who are definitely individuals, with very particular, very unique lives. But it doesn’t take long reading to feel like you know these people, to completely believe that their lives and complex histories are exactly as described.

The story is rather exotic, taking our character to a remote tribe in the Amazon jungle. The beginning sounds completely normal, but momentous:

“The news of Anders Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope. Who even knew they still made such things? This single sheet had traveled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man, a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world. Mr. Fox had the letter in his hand when he came to the lab to tell Marina the news. When she saw him there at the door she smiled at him and in the light of that smile he faltered.”

Anders shared an office with Marina. They were doctors working for a pharmaceutical company. Anders had gone to Brazil to check on the progress of the elusive Dr. Swenson, developing a valuable miracle drug for their company, exploring the late-life pregnancies of a remote jungle tribe. He was supposed to hurry Dr. Swenson along and ask her to bring most of the work back to Minnesota.

But they got an aerogram that Anders died of a fever. They buried him there.

Naturally, that doesn’t satisfy anybody. So Marina goes to find out how he died and to check on the progress of the work while she’s at it. But Dr. Swenson’s work is so secret, no one even knows where she is, and the first step is to wait in a city outside the jungle until she comes in for supplies. What’s more, Marina has some baggage. Years ago, Dr. Swenson was her advisor in her medical residency. But Marina had an accident in performing a Cesarean section, and transferred out of obstetrics and gynecology to pharmacology. She, along with all the residents, idolized Dr. Swenson. But she understands that nothing but the work is important to Dr. Swenson. So she is not surprised when Dr. Swenson doesn’t even remember her.

And there’s so much more going on. I won’t tell any more, so you can enjoy discovering it all in the delightful way Ann Patchett gives it to you, as if you’re learning it from the people themselves. This book is so richly textured, with layers and layers of meaning.

The story is rather exotic, since it takes you to the Amazon. And, yes, Ann Patchett did go to the Amazon when researching this book. You can tell in details like the way an anaconda smells.

I see in my notes from her talk that she says that when writing “you have to know the characters first — like knowing people.” And her characters are indeed like real people, each with their own unique history and hang-ups and interests. You will be fascinated when these people you’ve come to know get plunged into extraordinary situations.

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Fiction/state_of_wonder.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Minding Frankie, by Maeve Binchy

Monday, June 6th, 2011

Minding Frankie

by Maeve Binchy

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011. 383 pages.
Starred Review

Maeve Binchy’s books always end up keeping me reading until the small hours of the morning. Why, oh why, didn’t I know better than to start reading this book late at night, thinking I could stop after only one chapter? It’s not that the plot is exciting or action-packed, but you definitely get to caring about these people and want to find out what happens to them.

I do love the way she brings characters we’ve already seen in her other books. You don’t by any means have to have read the other books, but you have the sense that these are old friends. Everybody has a story in Maeve Binchy’s books, and in each book she focuses on a set of intertwined lives and the beautiful way they get through.

Minding Frankie is about the birth of a little girl.

Josie and Charles Lynch live in 23 St. Jarlath’s Crescent with their son Noel. They had always hoped Noel would be a priest, and set aside money early on for that purpose. Noel, however, was definitely not interested.

“Not so definite, however, was what he actually would like to do. Noel was vague about this, except to say he might like to run an office. Not work in an office, but run one. He showed no interest in studying office management or bookkeeping or accounting or in any areas where the careers department tried to direct him. He liked art, he said, but he didn’t want to paint. If pushed, he would say that he liked looking at paintings and thinking about them. He was good at drawing; he always had a notebook and a pencil with him and he was often to be found curled up in a corner sketching a face or an animal. This did not, of course, lead to any career path, but Noel had never expected it to. He did his homework at the kitchen table, sighing now and then, but rarely ever excited or enthusiastic. At the parent-teacher meetings Josie and Charles had inquired about this. They wondered, Does anything at school fire him up? Anything at all?”

Later, Noel got an office job instead of continuing his schooling.

“He met his work colleagues but without any great enthusiasm. They would not be his friends and companions any more than his fellow students at the Brothers had become mates. He didn’t want to be alone all the time, but it was often easier….

“He took to coming home later and later. He also took to visiting Casey’s pub on the journey home — a big barn of a place, both comforting and anonymous at the same time. It was familiar because everyone knew his name.”

Meanwhile, Noel’s parents aren’t sure what to do with the money they had saved to train Noel for the priesthood. And then Charles Lynch is told they don’t want him at his job any longer.

Into this home comes a woman from America, Charles Lynch’s niece Emily. Emily’s father moved to America years ago, and never kept in touch with his family. The family isn’t sure what to expect, but Emily is the sort of person who changes people’s lives by getting to know who they truly are.

She helps Charles and Josie realize what they really want to do is build a statue to St. Jarlath. And she helps Noel realize that he’s an alcoholic and needs help.

But then Noel gets a life-changing phone call. A woman he knew once and spent a drinking weekend with wants him to visit her in the hospital. She tells him she’s pregnant, and he’s the father. And she’s about to die of cancer.

So the book is about Noel trying to get his life together and be a father. The social worker assigned to his case doesn’t think he can do it. But thanks to Emily, there is a community of people around St. Jarlath’s Crescent who care and who help him with minding the little girl, Frankie.

That description doesn’t sound like a book that would keep me up reading through the night. But Maeve Binchy’s books are about Community. The characters are quirky, and some are powerfully flawed, but as we watch them working together, helping each other, working out problems, making mistakes, being wonderfully kind, we get hooked into their stories.

Another uplifting and life-affirming book by Maeve Binchy. I highly recommend getting to know the wonderful people who live in her books.

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Fiction/minding_frankie.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.