Sunday, December 12, 2010

Bitter is the New Black, by Jen Lancaster

Okay, the full title is Bitter is the New Black: Confessions of a Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smartass, Or, Why You Should Never Carry A Prada Bag to the Unemployment Office, but that most decidedly does not fit into the space provided for post titles. Which is Jen Lancaster all over.

At the outset of this book, I couldn't find much to like about the author. She was all of the things she claims to be in the title, with the addition being of Republican sorority girl. Not exactly my cup of tea. By the end, however, she had discovered both humility and compassion, and had changed her attitude towards the benefits of conspicuous consumerism. All of which make her much more likable, but not intrinsically different. That is one of the things I love about this book; it's about realigning her attitudes and habits, not about changing who she is. Very refreshing when you've read too many books/seen too many movies that are described as "stories of redemption."

It's also good to remember that I do not have to either agree with the politics, or admire the lifestyle, of an author to enjoy her work.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff

Here's a weird fact: the cover of this book is almost exactly the same as that of the first polygamist novel I read; a nice thick braid gracing the back of a woman's neck. Apparently this is an icon of fundamentalism.

The 19th Wife is very long. It consists of two interwoven stories; one set in the present, spanning only a week or so, the other encompassing a woman's entire life in the middle of the 19th century. Jordan is the child of a modern polygamist sect, who was abandoned on the highway as a teenager at the behest of the Prophet. Boys, of course, are competition for church elders (there are just not enough women to go around) and thus are thrown out on the slightest pretext. Jordan's mother, his father's 19th wife, is accused of killing her husband, and her son feels compelled to clear her name. Despite the fact that she agreed to his abandonment. (There is a lot of mother-worship in this book, which I am heartily in favor of.) The other story describes the early days of Mormonism as seen through the eyes of Ann Eliza, who was Brigham Young's 19th wife, but who eventually renounced polygamy. She is credited with helping to end the institution, as least as sanctioned by the Mormon church. See? Just the synopsis is long, and I'm leaving out a lot.

I really enjoyed this book, although I found the accounts of the Pioneers of Mormonism a little too long. I've always maintained that people in the 19th century had a lot of time on their hands. Literature from that period goes on and on and on, and so, apparently, do the memoirs and letters. That said, this is a really great, if biased, history of the Mormon Church. The present-day portion on its own would be a good solid YA book, although the protagonist loses a lot of his edginess during the course of the story, which to my mind diminishes his appeal.

David Ebershoff clearly did a lot of research while writing The 19th Wife. I get most of my knowledge of history from fiction, so it's always nice to know it's authentic. Overall worth reading, particularly if you have a lot of time on your hands.

The Broken Shore, by Peter Temple

If I were a fan of crime fiction, I would have loved this book. I am possibly missing a tiny strand of DNA, as the other members of my family devour mysteries and crime dramas with relish. Then again, all of them are also blessed with a terrific sense of direction. Perhaps the two are related?

So, from the perspective of someone who does not particularly like dead bodies littering her reading material: This beautifully written book takes place in a small town on the coast of Australia. The title character spends lots of time hiking broodily through the countryside with his dogs. He has some sort of complicated back story, which includes being responsible for the death of another cop. He's your typical loner detective; injured in both body and psyche, with an admirable sense of justice and a little too much dedication to his job. Originally I thought that I'd stepped into a series midway, and thus didn't understand his past and how it affected this particular story, but apparently this is the first Joe Cashin book. The reader unravels the mystery of the protagonist's life as he uncovers the truth behind a local murder. Layers upon layers.

This is a great book. I'd like to say that if it is in fact the beginning of a new series, I will read every one. But to be honest this is just not my genre. However I would heartily recommend it to anyone who does like crime fiction; the imagery of the landscape and the deft handling of the racism at the center of the story are both really well done. The outcome seemed very improbably to me, but then I feel that way at the end of just about every mystery novel.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson

What can I say about a book that has been reviewed already by the likes of Thomas McGuane, and received many prizes, and sold a gazillion copies? I'll be brief; you've probably already read it, or heard about it, but in case you haven't, here is why you should put it at the top of your list.

It is a gorgeous book, written in a spare, eloquent style. Although it's not long, it manages to encompass several lives and many complicated events. I was curious about the translation; it felt almost like broken English, and I wondered if that was the intention. It turns out that the author worked with the translator to craft English sentences in such a way that they would imitate Norwegian. It is successful. The main character also sounds very much like a man in his 60's.

The basic story is that 67 year old Trond, having lost both wife and sister, sets out to live in a remote part of the country, alone. He runs into an acquaintance from his youth, which sets off both recollections and ruminations of the summer he turned 15. So here we have a coming-of-age story, an end-of-life story, and a that-was-the-year-everything-changed story all rolled into one. Set in a magnificent landscape. Read it, it's great.

Here is a wonderful interview with the author. I read it and thought, of course this man wrote this book, it was inevitable.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

I can't remember the last time I picked up a work of non-fiction (that was not a memoir) and liked it so much. This is one of those books which displays great scholarship and is still eminently readable.

I recently discovered the t.v. show Hoarders. It's fascinating, but very reality-show-tabloidish. I kind of feel like a junkie whenever I watch it, and suffer the guilt associated with being entertained by other people's dysfunction. In contrast, this book offers empathetic insight into why otherwise well-adapted people end up living under piles of junk. That, to me, is one of the most enlightening conclusions the authors reach; many hoarders really are pretty normal in other aspects of their lives. The team has done a lot of compelling research into the reasons for the disorder, and found that they are quite varied.

Here's the thing about extreme behavior: once you start to look at it closely, you realize that you yourself, or people you know, engage in milder versions of it. In terms of hoarding, this applies, obviously, to those of us who hold on to too much stuff. But I can also see, in myself and in my friends, hints of some of the underlying issues that cause people to hoard in the first place.

The revelation I find the most fascinating is the idea that hoarders avoid throwing things away because it causes them discomfort. It is easier to ignore the walls of junk piling up than to confront the feelings that accompany getting rid of something that might someday be useful. Avoidance of distress is certainly a tactic I can relate to. Interestingly, many of the people in this book found that when they experienced the distress of throwing something away, it really wasn't all that bad. Their fear of unpleasant emotions far outweighed the reality of those emotions. That is something I can really relate to.

One of the reasons that I spend so much of my free time reading is that I want to understand why we are the way we are. This book shoved me a whole lot further down that path, while simultaneously keeping me entertained.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Lean on Pete, by Willy Vlautin

I wish I were as talented a writer as Willy Vlautin. Then I'd be able to explain how the combination of his writing, and his music, and his attire, and his interview style all touch me. I have always been fascinated by a certain type of male writer. The kind who is really smart, mostly blue collar, who determinedly pursues his quirky interests, and does not seem to be concerned about the trappings of success. Manly, but emotional. In my mind, he drinks and smokes and is handy, and he reads a lot. Maybe he's an amalgamation of Raymond Carver and David James Duncan and a guy I had a huge crush on in my twenties. As far as I can tell, Willy Vlautin is the embodiment of this literary archetype, the moody writer of my dreams.

I wouldn't be so enamored of Willy Vlautin if his novel Lean on Pete wasn't so incredibly good. My friend Craig gave it to me, and told me to pass it on when I finished it, and it is now my mission to get that book to as many people as possible. Let me know if you want to be the next one to read it... I just discovered that it is also the subject of the Multnomah County Library's Pageturners monthly book discussion groups. Willy himself has been participating in these discussion groups at branch libraries for months. Unfortunately I can't make it to either of the remaining ones. Damn.

Lean on Pete is set partly in Portland, and of course it's always more fun to read books that are set in familiar locations. It's the story of Charley, a fifteen-year-old whose life is spiraling into a pit of deprivation and loneliness. As his situation becomes more difficult, Charley shines with a grubby glow. The story is told on the fine edge between brutality and hope; despite the injustice and sorrow that pervade his life, Charley doggedly pursues his plan of tracking down his long-lost aunt. That he is doing it in spite of the adults he encounters seems unsurprising to him.

As a parent, I am often party to conversations about how resilient children are, and how much more self-sufficient than we give them credit for. This book reminds me that children hide a lot of anxiety and pain as they strive to live up to expectations. Charley proves to be very adept at making his way alone in the world, but the reader is left wishing that he didn't have to.

Vlautin's writing style is lovely. Spare, clean, unsentimental. This is one of the best books I've read this year, and I heartily wish that I still had the experience of reading it ahead of me.

Here is an interview from It's a few years old, but is my answer to "why do you want to be Willy Vlautin?"

And here is a Powell's question and answer that makes me like him even more.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi

It was only after I read someone else's review of Ship Breaker that I realized it is classified as science fiction. Which made me wonder about the definition. This book is set in the future, but does not contain any of the elements I generally associate with that genre; gadgets, new theories of physics, stuff like that. All of the definitions provided to me by Google run something like this one, found at Wikipedia: "Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with the impact of imagined innovations in science or technology, often in a futuristic setting." Although climate change is not exactly an innovation, it is certainly the possible result of science and technology, so I guess it counts.

This is a book that would make a great video game. (I say this despite having very little experience playing video games.) It is fast-paced, and has lots of great lingo. It is a teeny bit violent, and the characters are pretty much super-human in their ability to take a licking and keep on ticking.

The protagonist is Nailer, a teenaged boy with an abusive father and a job as a light crew scavenger, scurrying through the wreckage of oil tankers to gather copper wiring for resale. In this bleak and not-too-distant future, category 6 storms are the norm, New Orleans is long under water, and now obsolete tankers rust on the beaches of the Gulf Coast. Electronic technology is still up and running, but fossil fuels are a thing of the past. Nailer makes a discovery which could make him king of the salvage yards when he happens upon a modern clipper ship wrecked on an outcropping of rock. He has to make the kind of moral choice that drives fiction: save the girl or go for the gold. The rest is nail-biting action.

Society in this novel has followed its current trajectory: the rich are richer and the poor are in trouble. Nailer's commentary on family, loyalty and desperation are very touching. I always love a stand-up guy as hero, and I'm also enjoying the boy--on-his-own-in-trouble genre, which is far less upsetting to me than the girl-in-trouble-and-messed-with-by-men genre. This is good YA - a little more action than is generally my taste, but a fun read.

I'm putting Paolo Bacigalupi's first novel, The Windup Girl, on my list. It won the Nebula Award, and tied for the Hugo. It sounds timely and fascinating...

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Kids Are All Right, by Diana Welch & Co.

I read this back in October, but never managed to post about it. It's an interesting family memoir, written by four adult siblings, in rotating chapters. Two of them are professional writers, the other two decidedly not. I liked that each of the four has a distinct voice; the two who are not writers have not had their prose cleaned up or polished, and thus sound genuine.

It's always fascinating to hear a group of people talk about common past events. Each person's account is different, colored by perspective, emotion and age. These kids had a complicated family, and ended up spending a fair amount of time away from one another. I get the feeling that in this book they are not only telling their family story, but learning about the portions of one another's childhoods they did not get to witness.

The story itself is another from the my-screwed-up-childhood genre. While their story is a lot less hair-raising than many I've read, the Welches had a pretty hard time of it. A reminder to get the custody worked out before you check out.

Tender at the Bone, by Ruth Reichl

I don't usually read non-fiction. I like a good story, and if I accidentally learn something along the way, so be it. I do like memoirs, though, particularly if they involve seriously dysfunctional families. One advantage, as far as I'm concerned, is that the story happened (more or less) the way it happened, and if I don't like the way it turned out I can't blame the author.

Now, I am not a foodie. I own only a handful of cookbooks, I don't watch the cooking channel, I buy Costco olive oil, and when I was married I was very happy to let my husband do all of the cooking. Which indicates to me that Ruth Reichl is a terrific writer, because I loved this book. That her entire childhood is told through the filter of food is clearly not a clever device; she actually remembers her whole life according to what was being served and by whom! There is certainly some dysfunction (does every good memoirist have a bi-polar mother?), but mostly there is just good storytelling. In fact, I found myself thinking that my own life would seem much more interesting if I could but find a unifying theme running through it.

After reading this book, I spent a long time trying to remember specific meals from my childhood. There are a few, but when it comes to culinary training, I mostly remember my sister and mother experimenting in the kitchen together while I snuck off to my pine-needle fort in the woods.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Little Bee, by Chris Cleave

"When I was a teenager in the 1980s, we thought of asylum seekers as heroes. The hundreds who died while trying to cross the Berlin Wall, for example. Or the pilots, performers and scientists who defected from the Soviet Union. Or the heroes of previous generations – Sigmund Freud, who fled to London to escape the Nazis, or Anne Frank, who could not flee far enough. Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Joseph Conrad – all of them refugees – I could go on and on. When horror and darkness descend, asylum seekers are the ones who get away. They are typically above average in terms of intellectual gifts, far-sightedness, motivation and resilience. These are the people you want to have on your side. It will be a monument to our hubris if we allow ourselves to start thinking of them as a burden."

This is just one of the inspiring paragraphs I found on Chris Cleave's website. I could spend all day there - what an interesting and engaging guy.

I really loved this book. One of the greatest things about it is the blurb in the front of the dust jacket. I have returned it to the library, and so can't quote it verbatim, but it basically says that the book is great, that the story hinges on the choices made by two women, and that to say more would ruin the story. All true! I might well have passed it by had I known more about the story. In fact, this is the last book I will read for a while that includes the abuse of teenaged girls by men. My heart can't take it - I have girls verging on their teens, and it is too painful to think of them in similar situations.

Don't you hate it when reviewers say "this is an important book"? I feel disinclined to read any book thus heralded. But I think that this novel may in fact be important: the subject is one which we should, in the western world, understand. But it is pure story; there is no lecture, no sense of being enlightened Concerning an Important Fact of Life. It is well-written and entertaining, the two narrators are charming. One even has a terrible boyfriend who, despite her intelligence and success, she continues to adore. Just the kind of flaw that makes a character seem real.

Then the ending. Well. Really? I just couldn't see it, though I can understand why the author wanted it to end that way. Chris Cleave got a lot of things right in this book, primarily Little Bee's voice. I get the feeling there will be a lot more books, and I look forward to seeing him get better and better.

I kind of want to read Incendiary, Chris Cleave's first novel. But if violence against girls is hard to take, how much more painful to read about a mother losing her child? I will wait for a time when I feel a little more thick-skinned. Until then I will peruse his website in a manner verging on stalkerish.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Chosen One, by Carol Lynch Williams

Wives are kind of like potato chips; it's really hard to stop at just one. So in honor of the maritally enthusiastic, September is polygamy month! I've got a few titles lined up, and have started the series with this fantastic YA novel. I read this in two sittings, but would have finished it in one, if my pesky children hadn't needed feeding and attention. Perhaps I should find a couple of wives to take care of them so that I can spend more time reading...

Where I heard about this book
: I found it in my hunt for polygamy lit, mostly performed on the Multnomah County Library website.

What I thought of this book
: Fantastic. All the stars in the firmament for this wonderful novel.

13 year old Kyra has one father, three mothers and 19 siblings (so far). She also has an unpromising future on the compound of The Chosen Ones, a breakaway Mormon sect. Kyra's greatest assets are her love for her family and her independent spirit; unfortunately, independence is not a trait the Prophet is fond of, particularly in young girls. He makes it very clear to Kyra and her family that if she resists early marriage to an elderly relative, her entire family will suffer. Smart, intrepid and self-reliant, Kyra is unwilling to fall into line, but also not crazy about the idea of tearing her family apart.

This novel is YA at its best. I had to forcibly stop myself from skipping to the end to see how it turned out. Williams does a great job of describing the no-win situations of her characters. Kyra is an engaging protagonist, who will not be dominated by the leaders of her community, nor by the mute fear of her family.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Bones, by Seth Greenland

First, let me say that I really hope that this book is made into a movie. It will be funny and edgy in that great Hollywood kind of way; Seth Greenland is a talented writer, good at the one liner and the film/lit reference, which always makes the reader, or viewer, feel smart and with it. I must admit that I am a tiny bit tired of the entertainment industry as entertainment: don't they already control the world and most of its content? That, however, is more a matter of my literary choices, and less a matter of the quality of this book.

That being said, I loved the first 3/4 of this book, and was frustrated by (surprise!) the ending. I had it pegged for the perfect vacation read, but I think it would hold up best if you read the very end just as your plane was landing, while you were filled with the sentimentality of exhaustion and longing that comes with the end of a trip.

Okay, plot. This book is about two friends, more or less. One is an extremely, if inadvertently, successful TV writer. The other is a very talented and moderately successful stand up comic. As the writer's star rises, the comedian's is setting. Jealousy ensues on both sides, as no one has quite achieved the life he envisioned. Fate pulls them back into the same orbit, and a series of poor decisions drives the story to its wacky conclusion. It's written in a sardonic, visual style. I pictured the whole story taking place onscreen.

What I liked about this book
: The characters are sympathetic, the writing is very engaging.

What I didn't like about this book: Tenses. For heaven's sake, don't mess with the tenses. I was unable, ultimately, to determine whether the author was using the present tense as a literary device, then deliberately switching to the past, or whether the publishers simply forgot to hire a copy editor. Either way, it was damned annoying.

The ending. Both the very end, and the penultimate journey. I think that if you are going to go that far over the top, and introduce a lot of bad guys and weapons and getaway cars, it's just not cool to get all rainbow-hued and sappy at the end.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Deaf Sentence, by David Lodge

This novel is far milder than David Lodge's usual fare, which generally features bitingly funny satire and hilariously over the top plot twists. This kinder, gentler Lodge is still very funny, and nails his characters in a way few can imitate.

Where I heard about this book: Looking for something funny to read, I checked out the Lodge shelf.

What I thought about this book: It was chugging along at 4 stars, but an anemic ending brings it down to 3. And a half.

What this book is about
: Desmond Bates is a retired professor of linguistics who is well on his way to becoming deaf. His inability to hear much of what is going on around him leads to some very funny situations, such as his inadvertently making a date with a comely young American student. It is also the basis many touching ruminations on community and isolation. David Lodge is himself a victim of hearing loss, which is probably the basis for his gentle treatment of the subject. Unfortunately, he is shade too gentle with the somewhat pompous Bates, and lets him slide easily out of the difficulties he's created for himself. The gorgeous setup of Desmond's accidental relationship with the increasingly odd American, his tough-as-nails wife and his senile and uncooperative father begs for a major fall. He is allowed, however, to slip through the trap unscathed. The novel ends up being amusing and sweet, but misses the wickedly funny mark Lodge usually hits.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Sweet Mary, by Liz Balmaseda

I don't really have much to say about this book. It was entertaining, it started out much more strongly than it ended, the heroine was engaging. I don't really expect thrillers to adhere to the laws of reality, but this one stretched, to the point of discomfort, my ability to believe. The things I did like about it: Miami is just a really cool place to set a book. The protagonist was likable, as were her family and friends. The good guys were vindicated, the bad guys got theirs. (Not much of a spoiler - you expect this from the outset.) If there were a sequel I would probably give it a chance.

Where I heard about this book: Browsing at the library again - I am truly a geek. I chose it because it had a Carl Hiasson quote on the cover.

What I thought of this book
: Okay. 2 stars.

What this book is about
: Mary, a successful single mother, is arrested in her house, in broad daylight, in front of her child, accused of being a drug lord. It is a case of mistaken identity, which Mary is determined to clear up. A sort of typical woman-as-amateur-sleuth story ensues, replete with rekindled flame and spunky best friend. I only wish that the end had lived up to the promise of the beginning - I engaged in a lot of eye-rolling before I reached the end.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

The silver lining to my hour and a half wait at the doctor's office (I never did manage to see him, but that's a managed care horror story for another time), is that I persevered through the slow beginning of this book. Once in, I enjoyed the careful combination of erudition and entertainment. The ending, unfortunately, was not terrific. I admit to being a pretty harsh judge of endings, but honestly, after the work that went into all of the palatable-for-the-public philosophical musings in this book, I think we could expect a little more subtlety. Here's a nice review from the Guardian; their reviewer is a little more enthusiastic and doubtless more thoughtful than I.

Where I heard about this book: Can't really remember - it was reviewed everywhere.

What I thought of this book
: Pretty good - 3 1/2 stars.

What this book is about
: Narrated alternately by its two main characters, this book consists of the musings of a middle-aged concierge and one of the residents of her building, a world-weary 12 year old. Both are unusually brilliant outsiders, with penchants for philosophy and Japanese culture. They are ultimately saved from their parallel states of solitude by the mysterious stranger who comes to live in their midst. And, of course, they're all French, so they easily sound much smarter and more interesting than the rest of us.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Insignificant Others, by Stephen McCauley

I could have read this book quite happily for the rest of the summer. The pace is really nice; things keep happening, but not at breakneck speed, and the characters and situations evolve in a way that seems natural. In short, this novel seems legitimately like a slice of life. In fact it wasn't until I'd finished it that I realized how profoundly the protagonist's life had changed during the course of the novel. Which is also, I think, like real life - it takes a little time and distance to see the changes time and experience have wrought.

Where I heard about this book: My friend (and talented author) Nina introduced me to Stephen McCauley 20-some years ago, and reminded me about him just recently.

What I thought of this book
: Excellent. Not only a good read, but relaxing and reassuring in a way I can't quite put my finger on.

What this book is about: A middle-aged man gay man living in Boston. This is one of those books in which the protagonist is living a comfortable life, and is managing quite nicely to overlook the things that might make it seem less than ideal. Like the fact that his "insignificant other" is a man with whom he feels more of a connection than the guy he's been living with for the past 8 years. Or that his exercise addiction is more than a little unhealthy. Or, well, the list goes on. Luckily for the reader, events conspire which knock him out of his comfortable rut. The result is very entertaining, though not comedic. In short, a perfectly dramatic book in which nothing unbelievable or over the top happens. Hooray!

I really, really covet this blue chair and Stephen McCauley's ability to be so handsome and photogenic.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Nuclear Age, by Tim O'Brien

Damn. I promised myself that I would not finish any book that I didn't love. Or at least really like. And yet I read this book until the bitter, bitter end, probably because I have loved the other books I've read by this very talented author.

Where I heard about this book: Browsing at the library.

What I thought of this book: Painfully frustrating.

What this book is about: A guy who is deathly afraid of worldwide annihilation via nuclear warhead. It moves back and forth between the present, in which he is digging a bomb shelter, and the past, spanning his childhood and early to mid-adulthood. The protagonist is best described as a passive activist. As a college student at the dawn of the Vietnam war, William makes a stab at goading his oblivious classmates into sharing his terror of the bomb. He is drawn into a group of anti-war activists, who more or less babysit him as he hides out from the draft. The message of this book seemed to me to be this: if you do absolutely nothing in your life, you will get the girl, be richly rewarded financially, and have the complicated aspects of your life seen to by other people. This flies in the face of my experiences thus far!

Reasons I finished this book despite not liking it much
: I really, really like the other books I have read by Tim O'Brien, and I was compelled to find out what happened in the end.

Monday, July 12, 2010

This Is Where We Live, by Janelle Brown

A friend gave me the first of Janelle Brown's books, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, this past winter. I was skeptical, as it was clearly being marketed as chick lit. This is a genre I really want to like; these novels generally have all the components of great, fun literature: quirky heroines, on-the-edge-of-believable situations, lots of drinking. Unfortunately, most of the ladies' lit I've read starts with mediocre writing and devolves into predictable and annoying plotlines. But luck was with me this time, as I had discovered my new favorite ladie's lit author. Having completed this second of Janelle Brown's books, I am slightly depressed at the realization that she probably won't have another ready for my consumption for a couple of years. So, Janelle: get plenty of rest, exercise regularly, and don't get caught up in any needless charity work, because I'm counting on you to be prolific.

Where I heard about this book: Having really enjoyed her first novel, I looked her up on the always helpful Multnomah County Library website. I think I was the first to borrow this book - it was pristine! And still is, mostly. I did warp a few pages while reading it poolside...

What I thought of this book: Hooray! Perfect fun.

What this book is about
: Claudia and Jeremy are a mid-thirties almost-power couple. You'd think an up and coming movie director and a minor rock star would be able to buy a $600,000 house in the Hollywood hills and live happily ever after, right? The earthquake that rattles their foundation is as nothing when compared to the real estate crash that follows. The ensuing panic sends each of them back to their roots: Claudia the Midwesterner makes to-do lists and compromises, Jeremy the nomad itches to cut their losses and flee. Add an exotic ex-girlfriend, odd roommate, visiting in-laws...

This novel has a great, indeterminate ending. I hate it when all the loose ends are tied up and nothing is left to the imagination.

are Janelle's five top picks for novels about/set in California. And for good measure, here are her next five.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

e squared: a novel, by Matt Beaumont

Oh, sequels.

First, the things I really like about this follow-up to the hilarious e: Rather than telling the story purely through email messages, Matt Beaumont has added blog posts and IM messages to the mix in this second novel of ad-agency as microcosm. His take on post-modern office excesses are hilarious, featuring an extreme-sports crazed partner, a staff hairdresser, and decor that includes an isolation tank. Again, the author manages to distill the personalities of his characters merely through their electronic communications, both personal and professional. Which is still an amazing feat.

What kept me from enjoying this book as much as its predecessor is its over-the-top-and-then-some plot lines. I started rolling my eyes about a third of the way in, which impacted my ability to care much about the outcome. I did, however, read it pretty avidly right to the end; silly entertainment is one of the things I appreciate in literature. Read it if you're up for a farce and don't really care how far your suspension of disbelief is stretched.

Where I heard about this book
: I sought it out after reading e, which I loved.

What I thought of this book: Pretty good. 3 1/2 stars.

What this book is about: It's a satire of modern life, set in a London ad agency. It features several of the characters from the previous book, but adds a lot of great new ones.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

I want that job

I was just at the Multnomah County Library website, making sure that I have enough books on hold to ensure the next month's reading. I looked up The Lonely Polygamist (which, incidentally, looks like a really entertaining read) and found this in the info section:


Middle-aged men -- Fiction.
Polygamy -- Fiction.
Bereavement -- Psychological aspects -- Fiction.
Families -- Fiction.

Who, I wonder, gets to choose these subject headings for the books in the catalog? Are they provided by the publisher, or culled from reviews, or are they the result of careful study of the works? Probably the first, but I will fantasize that there is a bookworm out there who gets to spend her time reading whatever she wants, then chooses how each book should be classified.

As it turns out, these lists are searchable, sort of like labels on blogs. I would certainly have spent a chunk of time viewing all the fiction that is categorized as 'Middle-aged men'; however there were not many titles listed. (Hard to believe, surely ought to be reformed.) 'Polygamist - Fiction' looks a little meatier, and may provide some inspiration for future reading lists...

I move that a Federal Department of Categorization of Literature be formed immediately, and I humbly nominate myself as its head honcho.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld

After my last taste of YA fiction, I thought I'd stick with it for a while. This one was a really fun read, though I wouldn't rank it among the YA greats.

Where I heard about this book: My 12 year old just finished it and loved it.

What I thought of this book: Good. 3 1/2 stars

What this book is about
: Set in the future, Uglies is a combination coming-of-age/redemption story. In a bid to level the playing field among humans, the powers that be have developed a surgery that makes everyone equally gorgeous. These newly formed 'pretties' are then sent to the city to party their lives away.

Tally is still an ugly, eagerly awaiting her 16th birthday, when she will be made pretty. Enter Shay, another on-the-cusp ugly who would rather run away than submit to the operation. The girls bond over the joys of being adventurous-but-not-really-bad teens, including out-of-bounds hoverboarding; a kind of skateboarding done midair. Tally wants to be pretty, however, and has no interest in joining her friend on a perilous journey to the the countryside to live with a mythological band of rebels. She is ultimately forced (by evil authority figures) to betray her friends, and then turns around and does her best to save them.

This novel has a little bit of everything that makes YA great: adventure, best friends, romance, normal kids who act heroic, and a celebration of nonconformity. It reminded me of what I loved about literature as a child. I would spend hours imagining myself inside my favorite books, usually as an additional character I'd invented, spinning my own subplots. While reading Uglies, I started to picture myself joining in with Tally and her friends as they peformed 'tricks' and hoverboarded around the city. Much as I love grown-up books, I rarely get his feeling of wanting to be part of the action.

Uglies was intended to be the first in a trilogy. The series has now expanded to four books. The author's website describes the newest as the 'last in the series'. I wouldn't run out and get the others, but if they appear on our bookshelves I'll read them.

Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee

I slogged through about 50 pages of this book before throwing in the towel. I kept hoping that the story would take center stage, and the long musings on literary theory would come to an end. Alas, this is a book about a writer's writing, more than about a writer's life. Turns out I'm not all that interested in the study of literature, I just like reading it.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Get out your flashlight..

I almost hesitate to recommend this site, because it is sure to be blamed for hours of procrastination. But since you're going to waste those hours websurfing anyway, why not spend them here?

Flashlight worthy books has reading lists for every subject imaginable, as well as lists of favorite books by authors we admire. I love their categories - these lists are for readers of every kind of literature, not just the critically acclaimed, but they are still "best of." My current favorite is: Books That Make My Brain Melt (In a Good Way). Isn't that enticing? In fact, I want to read every book on this list. Except for the one about banking...

Wayward Women: Great Books Where Women Hit The Road is another I had to check out. After a while I started to feel like my brain might explode as I tried to calculate how many books I can read in the remainder of my lifetime. And oops, it's time to go and I never did fold that laundry.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

Odd, the way you'll read a book and then immediately find another similarly-themed one. This is my second-in-a-row fictional autobiography that is based pretty closely on the life of the author. And I'm pleased to say that it was every bit as good as the last one. Whenever I read really great YA fiction, I wonder why I don't spend more time reading really great YA fiction. It is often so much more satisfying than grown-up lit.

Where I heard about this book: Tessa, greatest officemate ever.

What I thought of this book: Fantastic! 5 stars and many moons!

What this book is about: This is the diary of a misfit 14 year-old Indian. He's already an outcast on the rez, so it doesn't seem that things could be much worse at the area's only good high school. Except that it is populated exclusively by white kids who aren't too fond of Indians. And his fellow Indians consider his bid for a better life a betrayal. Nevertheless, Junior grabs what may be his only chance to escape a future of alcoholism and despair. This is one of those amazing books that makes you laugh even as it's breaking your heart. The hero is funny and honest and self-deprecating and extremely likable.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Requiem, Mass. by John Dufresne

I wish I knew how to describe John Dufresne's style, because it is my favorite kind of writing. It's fast and furious, and a little disjointed, sort of like a busy Saturday morning with lots of coffee. I devoured this book, both because I loved it, and because I felt like I had to read really fast to keep up.

Where I heard about this book: I found it on the library shelves. With a name like that, who could resist?

What I thought of this book: Terrific. 4 1/2 stars.

What this book is about: Wow. Hard to distill. It's told from the point of view of a middle-aged author, who originally writes the story as fiction, then is convinced to take the plunge, admit it's a memoir, and use real names, places and events. It follows his childhood in a wildly dysfunctional but entertaining extended family. This story is interspersed with segments of the protagonist's adult life. I must admit that I considered a few of these me-as-an-adult sections to be unwelcome distractions from the more compelling story of his childhood. My only other complaint about the novel is that there were so many characters that I had trouble keeping them all straight, particularly the family whose names are all colors. Otherwise this was a thoroughly enjoyable book.

I discovered that the main character in Requiem, Mass., Johnny, bears more than a passing resemblance to John Dufresne. I love the way the author talks, in interviews, about memoir and fiction. I'm paraphrasing here, but in essence he says that memoir is always half-truth, as memory is unreliable at best, and always biased. Fiction, he maintains, is in many respects more truthful; an author knows his characters better than he can ever know himself, and events are crisply imagined, not dulled by hazy recollection.

Here is an interview transcript I really enjoyed - John Dufresne sounds like someone who is easy to talk to; a serious writer who describes his profession in terms the rest of us can understand.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Nocturnes, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ordinarily, when I am engrossed in good fiction, the author is far from my mind. While reading Ishiguro, however, I often picture the author. I can't help thinking that he must be an interesting dinner companion; he is so well-spoken, and in photographs and interviews appears neat and relaxed, but there's a seriously whacked sensibility under that proper exterior. Then I read an interview with him in which he described his "buttoned-up unreliable narrators." Hmmm, perhaps I am confusing him with his characters. Still, I love that his writing is so elegant and simple and accessible, and yet off-beat.

Where I heard about this book: Everywhere.

What this book is about: Great. 4 stars.

What this book is about: 5 stories about evening and music. They are longish, and were conceived as a group - there is more holding them together than the shared theme of music. As per Ishiguro, they evoke a sense of melancholy. The whole is more, to me, like a jazz album than a classical one. There is the uptempo section and the slower, sadder riff. The overall impression is that humans are prone to folly, but can create a little magic while falling on their faces.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan

A pox on large print! I somehow ended up with the easy-to-read edition of this book, and felt shouted at the entire time I was reading it. I am trying to blame that for my huge disappointment in this novel. Which is sort of interesting, given all this Kindle debate - does the delivery system affect one's enjoyment of the product? Hard to say definitively; I've never read a book on a Kindle, and honestly I've always figured it wouldn't make much difference to me. But if I ever get a LARGE PRINT book again I will be tempted to send it back and wait for the original.

Sadly, I really don't think it would have helped to have a brand new, signed, hardbound copy. Ian McEwan is one of my favorite authors, I adore Booker Prize winners... what can I say? I figured I would love this book. Instead, it seemed contrived, predictable and silly, though amusing at times. It is interesting to me that I feel just a tiny bit guilty disliking an award-winning work by a writer I like so much. Kind of like seeing my child's artwork pinned up on the classroom wall and thinking that the lines are awkward and the colors clash.

Where I heard about this book
: Trying to catch up on all things McEwan.

What I thought of this book
: Sigh. 3, no, 2 1/2 stars. He is a good writer.

What this book is about
: A satire about two old friends who reconnect at a funeral. Over the course of subsequent weeks they make one another a promise, get angry, forgive, get angry again, and come up with a ridiculous plot for revenge. What exactly is being satirized? The press, politicians, celebrities; the usual suspects. I'm glad it was short - I probably would have made myself finish no matter the length.

is a new book website I've found. It's got review summaries, a review consensus, and a list of grades from various respected sources. Kind of like the rotten tomatoes of books. They describe their site as follows:
A selectively comprehensive, objectively opinionated survey of books old and new, trying to meet all your book review, preview, and information needs.
Which would make me obsolete, to say the least, but check them out, anyway.

This is what I found there for Amsterdam.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Moonlight In Odessa, by Janet Skeslien Charles

I may just have found my new favorite sub-genre: mail-order bride fiction.

Where I heard about this book
: Found it while browsing at the library.

What I thought of this book
: Fun! 3 1/2 stars

What this book is about
: A feisty intelligent young woman in Odessa seeks both a future in America and a loving husband, so naturally she ends up dating Americans on wife-finding junkets. This is good chick lit - it's got all the elements of a cheesy romance novel, but is much better. The heroine is great, the writing is good. What makes the book really stand out is the description of life in post-Soviet Russia. The phrase "as we say in Odessa" became slightly tiresome after a while, but this glimpse into the life of a modern Russian woman was fascinating. As with all formulaic novels, the obvious plot twists take some forbearance, but it's a quick and entertaining enough read that the reader doesn't get too bogged down. I'd recommend this for airplanes, beaches or sick days.

Here's an interesting look at several covers designs for the novel - the ones that were used in different countries, the one that wasn't chosen - a part of the novel that impacts the readers, but to which we rarely pay much attention.

Expecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth, and Everyday Magic, by Martha N. Beck

Let's hear it for everyone who did not go to Harvard! According to this book, it is a wretched place full of striving, uncaring people, which will turn you into a workaholic automaton. I wonder if Martha Beck, in her current enlightened state, would now find that Cambridge is full of self-reflective loving people looking for the same. It strikes me that she was not exactly inviting joy and empathy into her life while she was there. She did, however, learn to look past academic success to the greater joys of being human.

Where I heard about this book
: Anne again!

What I thought of this book
: Very interesting and a quick and compelling read. 4 stars.

What this book is about
: An insanely busy PhD student and her even busier husband discover that she is pregnant with a Down syndrome baby. They both have a lot of paranormal experiences, which she chalks up to the unborn child attracting angels, positive energy, call it what you will. This book is about letting go of societal standards of success, and enjoying and appreciating life as it is. Ironically, I read this book when I was sick; I should have just stayed in bed and rested until I was healthy, but kept trying to return to work, which made me sicker. Which just goes to show the importance of the author's message - letting go of productivity-at-any-cost really is good for you. Alas, it can be hard to do. Martha Beck and her husband really struggle with this throughout the book.

Martha Beck is now a life coach and motivational writer. She has other books, most of which don't interest me all that much; they are very much in the self-help genre, which I generally avoid like the plague. This one, however, looks interesting - Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith. I am a sucker for this kind of memoir, if well-written.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

e by Matt Beaumont

If I were to return to school and slog my way through a PhD so that I could teach literature, my specialty would definitely be office lit. Come to think of it, having just such an odd specialty might help snag me a place in a PhD program... But no, I am a happy amateur reader. And happy to have read this very entertaining book.

Where I heard about this book
: My sister Anne and Carie, with whom I used to work at the library.

What I thought of this book
: Great. 5 stars.

What this book is about
: Told entirely in email, this is the story of the inner workings of an ad agency over the course of two very busy weeks. Matt Beaumont manages to create fully realized characters merely through their messages to, from and about one another. A great comic tale full of intrigue, ego, betrayal and political maneuvering, this is one of those beautifully rendered satires that remains oddly credible in spite of the outrageousness of both its characters and plot twists. Upon browsing Beaumont's website, amusingly titled, I've decided to put not only all of his novels on my reading list, but also every book written by his wife, Maria Beaumont.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Rotter's Club, by Jonathon Coe

I would certainly have liked this book better if I could have kept the characters straight! I'm not sure whether to lay the blame for this with my faulty memory, but somehow all of those boys-from-the-80's names sounded the same to me, and I kept having to look up which one was Doug, and which Philip and so on. I can't say that I didn't like this book, but I'm not sure what the point was. Oddly, though, when I heard that there is a sequel I was immediately interested. We'll see if I actually get around to reading it.

Where I heard about this book
: My long-lost friend Mark.

What I thought of this book
: Good. 3 1/2 stars.

What this book is about
: A bunch of school friends in 80's Birmingham England. The story encompasses their families, which are intertwined through work and sex. The book follows the kids through high school, examining all of the usual coming-of-age themes: romance, cliques, parents, struggles to be independent. The characters are compelling, but apparently the boys are too much alike because I kept mixing them up! I would recommend this book to someone closer in age to the characters than myself.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The FInancial Lives of the Poets, by Jess Walter

I always love reading novels in which I think I'd feel at home. I also love novels which are predicated on the idea that life could change into something completely unrecognizable through a series of small events and choices. Because I think that life really is like that, but is not usually written that way. This novel is both of those things. The characters are not very different from me and the people I know. And although Matthew Prior makes some eccentric decisions in his desire to fix his downward-spiraling life, his actions are not really any more bizarre than those any one of us might make when pushed to the edge by the stress of modern living.

The falling man featured on the cover of the novel is eerily similar to the one from the Mad Men intro. Coincidence, or savvy marketing? My guess is the latter. Kind of a stroke of genius, if you ask me. Here's a really great video ad for the book, along with a nice little review.

Where I heard about this book
: NPR's Book Notes

What I thought of this book
: Fantastic. 4 1/2 stars.

What this book is about
: Matthew Prior wakes up one day to discover that he is out of a job, his wife is having a My Space affair, and his house is due for repossession within the week. Yikes. Another victim of the only-way-is-up 90's and 00's. The novel follows his increasingly misguided efforts to pull himself out of both financial and romantic ruin. This is an extremely entertaining book, with a charming character at its center. The best part, to my mind, is that every chapter begins with a poem, in a different style and structure each time.

Which brings me to Jess Walter's website. He and I clearly have similar taste in novels, so now I have even more books to add to my reading list courtesy of his Great Books sidebar. And for 2010 he is writing a haiku review of the books he likes. Which puts him squarely in the sexy authors category.

See his recommended reads and haiku (haikus?) here.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

400-some pages have rarely flown by so quickly. I had such a hard time putting this book down - it is responsible for several later-than-intended nights. After passing this book by for weeks, I'm glad I finally picked it up. I had expected it to be depressing, but found it instead uplifting, despite several heart-wrenching scenes and the general awfulness of the theme. It struck me in the same way the show Mad Men does - I know that things were unfair and bias rampant in this era, but seeing it up close is kind of horrifying.

Where I heard about this book
: My best book recommender, my sister Anne.

What I thought of this book
: Great. 4 1/2 stars.

What this book is about
: Set in Jackson Mississippi in the early sixties, this book describes the lives of white Southern women and their black "help". It is told in the alternating voices of three characters; one white, two black. I found each voice distinctive and authentic; this book is all about stereotypes, but the author manages to keep these people sounding realistic, if slightly exaggerated. By the end I really did have a great sense of hope for unity and the end of racism, which is in itself a pretty good reason to have read this book. I also loved how lots of subplots were woven in. Altogether the story should have been a lot less believable than it was - surely the sign of some good writing.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

It's annoying to dislike a book because of the way it has been marketed, but there you go. I liked several of these stories, but I really hated the conceit of stringing them together by including the title character in each. Olive Kitteredge is tangential, to say the least, in quite a few of the stories, set in a coastal town in Maine. I'm not sure why the author chose to use her as the thread - the location itself seems to me to be a much more reasonable point of connection.

So I disliked the structure, and could have done without a few of the stories. What I really liked about this book, though, was the depiction of life in a small northern town. A native of the upper reaches of New England, I am drawn to literature that describes the gritty, spectacular landscape, as well as the quirky mentality of its residents. Russell Banks does a really terrific job depicting New England in all its beauty and ugliness, as does Carolyn Chute. In Olive Kitteredge, Elizabeth Strout gives us a realistic picture of year-round life in small-town Maine.

Where I heard about this book
: It won the Pulitzer last year.

What I thought of this book
: Good. 3 stars.

What this book is about
: A collection of short stories in which the prickly, usually unpleasant Olive Kitteredge either features or makes an appearance.

I like the subjects of love and lust as seen from the point of view of the beyond-middle-age set. There are several happy but not really all that great marriages at the heart of these stories, a topic which I always find fascinating.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity, by Kerry Cohen

If you were the teenage girl who didn't get much attention from boys, this book will finally make you feel better about that. Otherwise, I wonder if there are any readers who won't recognize the painful yearning and stabbing self-doubt in this portrait of a girl trying to come to terms with her sexuality. Kerry Cohen describes these emotions in such a beautifully succinct manner - you don't have to be a loose girl yourself to recognize her motivation, although if you were/are you will be thrilled to finally find your experience described with such accuracy and understanding.

Where I heard about this book
: Goodreads - someone else had it marked as to-read and it sounded great.

What I thought of this book
: Fabulous. 5 stars.

What this book is about
: The memoir of a girl who turns to promiscuity to get the attention she craves.

I love that this book is just over 200 pages, but satisfyingly spans an entire adolescence and young adulthood. I really like that the author avoided telling every excruciating detail of her life - the downfall of many an autobiography. One of my few complaints is that as Kerry grew up I kind of lost track of how old she was - did she meet her husband in her early twenties, or much later?

At first I was slightly annoyed at what I saw as glossing over the whole recovery issue; it seemed as though she just sort of got over it, which is rare with addictive/compulsive behavior. Upon further reflection, however, I realize that recovery is really boring to read about, and is in fact where many memoirs tend to bog down. So never mind.

I really haven't felt so personally touched by a memoir in years. Kerry Cohen also writes YA lit, which I'll bet is great. I like her website - see it here. And she lives in Portland! I'm very disappointed that I can't see her at Powell's this week.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

We Are All Welcome Here, by Elizabeth Berg

I am quite sure that I've read several books by Elizabeth Berg, but I can't for the life of me remember them! I looked at the author's own synopses, and found that only one really rang a bell. This does not in any way discount the pleasure of reading her novels; in fact I'm pleased that I get to read them for the first time all over again. This is more comfort reading for me - although the stories are often rife with illness, abuse and heartbreak, they are also somehow uplifting and give me a feeling of comfort.

We Are All Welcome Here is told from the perspective of a somewhat bratty 13 year old who lives with her disabled mother and their prickly caretaker. I loved that all of the characters are sort of cranky and annoying, particularly Diana, the daughter, and Peacie, the housekeeper/nurse/nanny. They seemed very real to me. The novel encompasses all kinds of issues, dwelling mainly on bigotry of various kinds and motherhood in all its complexity. I enjoyed it thoroughly and completely forgive the few improbable events.

Where I heard about this book
: I found it when seeking comfort literature at the library.

What I thought of this book
: Very satisfying. 4 stars.

What this book is about
: A thirteen year old girl who lives with her quadriplegic mother, their relationship with each other and with their caretaker. Set in the sixties, it contains racism, civil rights strife, sexism, romantic yearning, classism, improbable romance... it's actually downright brimming with issues!

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

This is the second book this month that I've read quite a bit of, liked a lot, and then put down. In this case, I just couldn't face the whole Jewish child during WWII thing. It is so well conceived and written that I expect to return to it at some point - maybe on a Mexican beach when I am far from my own . Not a good pick for a particularly busy and illness-filled February.

Homer and Langley, by E.L. Doctorow

It is hard for me to talk about this book without overusing the word 'amazing'. I absolutely loved it. I'd been looking forward to it for months, which can of course lead to 'it's not as good as it sounded' disappointment (see Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), but I was charmed and my hope validated. I love to be reminded that there is a reason that really famous authors are so, well, famous. This is a story told by a master of the art.

Where I heard about this book
: It was all over the literary news by the time it appeared on booksellers' shelves.

What I thought of this book
: Perfect.

What this book is about
: This is a fictionalized account of the lives of Homer and Langley Collyer. They were New York brothers famous for practically barricading themselves for decades in their Fifth Avenue mansion as it disintegrated around them. They were hoarders; after their deaths in 1947 over 130 tons of debris was removed from the house, which had to be demolished. Recluses and hoarders! Ripe fodder for fiction. The incredible thing about this novel is that it is written with such delicacy and grace. The story is told by Langley, the younger brother, who is blind. He interprets his situation without being able to see it, year after year. The eccentricities of his brother and the accumulation of objects in the house both seem somehow reasonable as told from his perspective. As I imagine is the case for any recluses and hoarders. It's the insider view that makes this story so compelling.

I am sometimes nervous about reading fictionalized accounts of history - I am afraid that I will come to believe that it is truth, and forget that a lot of it is made up. This account of the Collyer brothers may bear little resemblance to the actual men. It is, however, an accurate picture of a family. Not a normal one, but a family fueled by love and in which the quirks and oddities just play out to a more exaggerated end than for most. We should all be so lucky as to have our lives re-imagined for us by E. L. Doctorow!

Here is the Wikipedia entry for the Collyer brothers. You can see why E. L. Doctorow was inspired by their story, which is one he grew up with. I was originally captivated by the idea of recluse/hoarders, but I was unprepared for how un-sensationalist the book is. Hooray for great novels!

Have you been dying to know? The E in E.L. stands for Edgar. Using initials instead of names puts both Doctorow and Salinger firmly into my pantheon of sexy authors.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Misalliance, by Anita Brookner

Here is one of the many things I love about Anita Brookner - she didn't publish her first novel until she was 56! For those of us still hoping to make a bold and successful career move in middle age this is very heartening. Well, okay, maybe she'd already had a great academic career prior to becoming a novelist, but still...

There are many things to love about The Misalliance. Foremost is the prose, so carefully and elegantly crafted. Honestly it makes me feel smarter just to read such well-written language. This is my favorite phrase: "...vainly seeking transcendence, or at least translation, in whatever wine happened to be available that evening." I literally sighed with pleasure while reading this novel.

Second are the beautifully elucidated characters. Many are almost easy to dismiss as annoying, manipulative or arrogant. But for each there is at least one heart-twisting moment in which we see that they are flawed, and so deserve a measure of compassion.

Third is the plaintive question at the center of the book - what is it that makes men want (and continue to want) the women they choose? I happen to love novels in which the characters do a lot of soul-searching and come to many startling and profound conclusions about their personalities, so this one was right up my alley.

Where I heard about this book: I found it while browsing at the library. I'd been meaning to read something by Anita Brookner and there it was.

What I thought of this book
: Great! 4 1/2 stars

What this book is about: A middle-aged, middle-class British woman who has been divorced for about a year. She struggles to fill her days with appropriate, even meaningful, activity. A chance meeting with a small child and her disorganized mother inspires her to come to some conclusions about herself and about romantic relationships in general.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larson

Honestly, I don't really get what all the fuss is about. I thought this book was good, and I love the glimpse into Swedish life, but the main mystery seemed far-fetched, and the subplots somewhat tiresome. I was enthralled by Lisbeth Salander at first, but she seemed more and more two dimensional and less and less believable as the novel progressed. In general this book was, to me, like so many thoroughbreds - quick out of the gates but slower and slower on the turns until they're merely trotting to the finish.

Where I heard about this book
: Umm... everywhere?

What I thought of this book
: It was good. 3 1/2 stars.

What this book is about
: A murder mystery set in Sweden.

Here are the two things I loved most about this book: The author pays homage to his favorite crime writers by mentioning that the main character is reading their books. This same character is constantly eating fantastic-sounding Swedish snacks featuring things like pickles, eggs and herring. Overall it made me really want to travel to Scandanavia; it sound gorgeous and sane, and is everyone there really so practical and smart?

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Interrogative Mood, by Padgett Powell

Where did Padgett Powell learn to form such elegant sentences, interrogative or otherwise? When reading such beautifully crafted prose it is a toss-up, to me, whether the joy resides in the story or the language itself. That said, this book has no story. It consists of 164 pages of questions; the reader must decide whether or not there is a narrative contained within this structure.

Where I heard about this book: It got a lot of press when it came out, and I've now heard and read about it in various places, though I have yet to speak to anyone else who has read it.

What I thought of this book
: I loved it. Many stars.

What this book is about
: Difficult to say. I would say that it is equally about the author and the reader, without any pesky characters interfering. The questions posed cover a wide variety of topics, some of which come up repeatedly. They are particular to the author, and to the era in which he has lived, and will be of varying relevance and interest to his audience. An inherent dialogue is formed between reader and writer that is unusual in a novel. These questions do not necessarily beg answers; I found that there were some I pondered, some I merely noted, and many that stirred thoughts that I didn't take much time to examine as I flew past to the next.

* A note a week after reading this book: It won't leave me alone! It pops into my head at least once, often several, times a day. Love books with staying power...

Here's and interview with the man himself embedded in a story about the book.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby

This is one of my very favorite books. If I had my way this would be required reading for everyone, as lessons in both elegant use of language and grace under extreme circumstances.

I recently bought this for a friend, and as it's quite small I was able to read it again in just a few hours. I must have first read it soon after it came out, in 1997. In fact I have it firmly intertwined with memories of my first home in Portland, but as the book was not yet published when I lived there that must be yet another unintentional autobiographical falsification. Or hallucination? I do remember quite clearly being devastated upon learning that Bauby had died soon after the book was published.

Where I heard about this book
: Hard to say, after all these years, but most likely NPR.

What I thought of this book
: At the risk of being effusive, I think that it is worthy of all the stars in the firmament.

What this book is about
: It is the memoir of a man who has suffered a stroke. He is completely intact mentally and emotionally, but is only able to communicate with the world by blinking one eye. He's got a lot to say, but must spell it out painstakingly letter by letter with the help of an assistant. Making him one of the great editors of all time.