Blog Archives

“Carry The One” by Carol Anshaw

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One night 25 years ago, a group of friends – hazy from the drinks and romance of a summer night – left a wedding and wound up killing a young girl who ran in front of their car.  These friends – Siblings Alice, Nick, and Carmen (the bride), and their “lovers” Maude and Olivia – never forget this event.  In many ways, some subtle and some broad, this accident colors the rest of their lives.

Carol Anshaw’s book is so wonderful, because it’s such a normal read.  Yes, this group of friends killed a girl, and Olivia (the driver, a little stoned at the time) goes to jail, but after a while their lives go on.  They marry, get divorced, have their own kids, pursue careers, travel, and deal with addiction and emotions.  Their lives, though forever tied together by a tragedy, don’t end in that second.  The girl, Casey Redman, is always with them, and one of the friends even maintains a relationship with the girl’s mother.  “Carry The One” is a fascinating slice-of-life read.  There are no otherwordly happenings – Casey doesn’t show up in the final moments and teach them a lesson or anything.  The book is about little moments and ordinary relationships, and it’s simply stunning.

**Also, as a Chicago resident, Anshaw’s vivid setting of the book in the streets of the Windy City is fun.  When she references the punks at the Dunkin’ Donuts at Clark and Broadway, or how thick the hot air inside an El car can be, we know immediately what she means.**

 

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“The Penny Pinchers Club” by Sarah Strohmeyer

pinchAfter the heartbreaking read that was “We Need to Talk About Kevin”, I needed something light and fluffy.  With one walk to the library, I found Sarah Strohmeyer’s “The Penny Pinchers Club” and I can’t imagine there being a more frothy, pink, easy-breezy piece of chick-lit in the world.  I hope that sounds like a compliment, because it’s intended as one.  Some books seek to change your life, or showcase the genius talent of the author, and some books are pure entertainment.  “Popcorn Reads” are one way of describing these books.

Frugal living is one of my interests, so the plot of this novel – overspending New Jersey housewife thinks husband is cheating on her, so she embarks on a frugal way of life in  order to save money to live on post-divorce – appealed to me.  Indeed, it was full of the kinds of tips you’ll hear on episodes of “Extreme Cheapstakes” or “Extreme Couponing”.  (“Put your appliances on a power strip!” “Buy in bulk!” “Coupons!”)  The book is silly, but it’s a fun read — I finished it in one evening – and, even if you see what’s happening before the main character does, it’ll be fine.  This isn’t a book designed to ignite a revolution, but it’d be nice to read on a beach or a plane. I enjoyed it. The end.

“We Need To Talk About Kevin” by Lionel Shriver

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Once in a while a book comes along and immediately sucks you in, then holds you by the throat for a while, then punches you in the gut in the climactic moments.  You read the book in one sitting, terrified and engaged, and when you finish the pages you realize you’ve just read a game-changer.

Welcome to “We Need To Talk About Kevin”, Lionel Shriver’s bestselling novel of parenting, young men, violence, and an all-too-common scenario.

As a reader, you know where the book is going before you begin. Through his mother’s letters to her estranged husband after the events of that Thursday (the only thing she can call that fateful and blood-filled day) we bear witness to the life story of Kevin Khatchadourian leading up to his terrible school massacre.  As Eva pours out her honest side of the story – she was a distant mother but noticed his dangerous oddities his entire life long, but young Kevin was the light of his father’s life and played both his parents every day of his life.   Eva’s letters are often hard to read, but they’re compelling, and it’s not a book with easy answers.

I was riveted and stunned by this book – though I knew what it “was about” there were moments where I felt like I’d been slapped with surprise.  “We Need To Talk About Kevin” is a masterwork of a novel, delivered to the world at a time when (perhaps) we need it most – a time when school violence has become so common that even something has horrific as Newtown Elementary doesn’t have the power to affect change in policy due to bog-money organizations and shady politicians. “..Kevin” is another voice on the side of the human casualties of these events, and one that deserves to be read widely and loudly. It’s amazing.

Also, reading it as the parent of a son is extra-mind-blowing.

**There’s also a recent film version of  this book, starring Tilda Swindon and John C. Reilly.  I have no doubt it’s wonderful and brilliantly-acted, but I don’t think I have the stomach to watch it. Time will tell. **

I’m back! — “Space” by James Michener

[Friends! I’m back – After a few months of trying to figure out how the Mom of an active/awesome/curious toddler can sustain a love of reading a lot, I might have figured it out – so hooray! Reading again!  What did I miss?!]

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James Michener is not someone you simply pick up and read in your spare time.  You have to commit.  You have to man up.  You have to want it. After putting in the time and enjoying his “Hawaii” and “Alaska,” I decided recently to tackle his “Space.” Having finished the book, I have to say it’s my favorite Michener novel I’ve yet encountered.

It’s still a challenging read.  The author likes to load his stories with huge casts of characters and tons of history, and the whole thing is sometimes overwhelming.  “Space” manages to be an enjoyable novel while, at the same time, teaching  us about the contributions of all the folks who helped America get to space – German scientists, Marines, American Politicians.  It’s the human stories that take the reader through the (occasionally daunting) history of man’s journey into space, and the whole thing is really smart.  It would be a good way to introduce someone to these events without a dry textbook.  I’m glad I took the time and read the book.

It seems “Space” was made into a mini-series starring James Garner? I might have to track it down.

 

 

“Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” by Seth Grahame-Smith

abeHappy Halloween, Everyone!

October has passed in a flash – my son turned two, I traveled to my hometown for a weekend, and in between Halloween festivities I’ve also been sick for the last three weeks.  This has all conspired to equate to an October hardly full of scary reads.

However, I managed to get through one book that I think counts as seasonally appropriate — and I enjoyed it tremendously.

“Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” is not actually as stupid as you think it’s going to be.  That’s saying a lot, considering it came along at a time when every publisher in the world seemed to be going — “Ooh! Let’s put [insert horror monster/element here] together with [insert literary classic or historical figure here] and it’s sure to be a bestseller!”

This trend, of course, happened thanks to Seth Grahame-Smith, the author of the very book I’m discussing here.  Mr. Grahame-Smith, a writer of considerable talent and cleverness, had previously given the world an utter treat of a novel called “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies,” and it launched a million imitators. Some were okay. Most were not.

At the height of this craze, Mr. Grahame-Smith turned his attention and considerable writing skill to perhaps the most famous of presidents, our own axe-wielding Abe, and managed to create a tale that is not unlike Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”  Through the device of a modern writer given Abe’s Journal and papers, and historical records and speeches, we’re taken back in time to see the REAL history of slavery, The Civil War, and Lincoln’s enduring legacy — and this time, vampires have been added, and it’s pretty darn brilliant and totally works.

And there’s an appearance from a quite famous literary figure who fits right in. All I’m saying.

I enjoyed this book, and I didn’t really expect to. I’m also in love with the ending, which made me smile.

[Note: Nope. I’m not watching the movie. Don’t ask me.]

Have a safe and happy Halloween, friends!

 

Three wonderful books…

Short and snappy – It’s summertime outside!

hedgehog“The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery

Once in a while a book comes along and effortlessly charms the reader. That’s this book.  It’s the story of a middle-aged concierge and a tween girl who work/live in a fancy French apartment building, and both pretend to be boring and dull when in reality they’re the most vibrant people in the whole place.  One day, a Japanese man moves into the building full of haughty tenants, and things begin to change.  It’s one of the smartest books I’ve ever read, and witty as can be at the same time.  It’s absolutely brilliant and I couldn’t put it down.

madding“Far from the Madding Crowd” by Thomas Hardy

When I began this “read all the books I own and have never read” project, this is exactly what I was hoping for – that somewhere in my collection would be a gem like this, a book I will probably love forever.  The adventures of Bathsheba and her lovers in the rural countryside make for a simple and fascinating portrait of a woman who has power in a world where most women don’t. Having never really encountered the works of Mr. Hardy before, I had no idea what to expect (and also, the summary on the back cover of my edition is REALLY not accurate) but I feel like I have a new favorite. I’m going to hunt down the movie adaptation pronto – apparently Julie Christie is in it?!

nobel“Beloved” by Toni Morrison

Maybe my reading of Ms. Morrison’s works is colored by the fact that, having heard her speak recently, I can hear her voice reading her words.  “Beloved” is a sensational piece of literature – an absolute masterpiece. Ms. Morrison never dumbs anything down, and expects a lot of her readers, and this book is no exception – things aren’t always spelled out clearly, and there’s a lot of things that happen that could be debated – but that’s the magic. Loved it.

Oh, and it won the Nobel Prize for Literature. So there’s that. 😉

“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” by Michael Chabon

kavalierReader-friends, seriously. Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” is one of the best books I’ve ever read in my entire life.  Like, for real.  EVER.

It also won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, in case you don’t believe me. 😉

Combining historical fiction – both of World War Two and the birth of comic books in America – Chabon weaves a stunning tale of the lives of two cousins; Ambitious Brooklyn Boy Sammy Clay and talented Czech artist Josef Kavalier.  Together, these two poor kids create the characters that will build them (and the company they work for) a comic book empire, while dealing with the ramifications of the war on Josef’s family members back home, and Sammy’s self-discovery of his sexuality.  There’s a free-spirited female artist, Rosa, who inspires a comic book character, as well as Josef, and winds up forming the third point of an unusual “love triangle.” There’s tragedy and humor and delightful interludes where we hear the story behind these comic book creations.  There’s also magic, and scheming, and Salvador Dali and Orson Welles even make appearances.

You know you want to read it. You won’t be sorry.

 

“Dead Until Dark” by Charlaine Harris

deaduntilI pledge my undying allegiance to HBO’s super-hit show, “True Blood.” From episode one, I have been totally hooked on the adventures of telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse, her brother Jason, vampires Bill, Eric, and Pam, bar owner Sam, fabulous fry cook Lafayette, and the rest of the residents of Bon Temps, Louisiana.

But I’d never thought about reading the books they were based on.  Enough people had told me that the books and the show aren’t the same, and I thought I’d keep my loyalty to the show.

And then I found “Dead Until Dark” for a dollar at a used bookstore, and I bought it.

In need of a light and fast read, I picked it up the other day — and finished it in under 12 hours. Like the pilot season of the TV show, things happen frequently and fast once Sookie meets and falls for the enigmatic southern gentleman charms of one Vampire Bill Compton.  Harris’ writing won’t be winning any major prose awards, but who cares? “Dead Until Dark” isn’t supposed to be poetry.  It is a steamy, twisting, supernatural adventure – and it’s fabulous.

For the record, you don’t have to have seen the show or read the book to easily follow/understand the other. They’re the same, but they both stand alone.  Series creator Alan Ball (writer of “American Beauty”) has done a masterful job at bringing the dark fun of the book to the small screen, with almost all the books characters in tow.  My adoration of the show absolutely colored my reading of the book.  It’s hard not to see the brilliant performances of actors like Nelsan Ellis, Ryan Kwanten, and Kristin Bauer once you’ve watched the show.

I love “True Blood.” I mentioned that, right?

(The book also reminded me of one of my favorite characters from the TV show, who doesn’t survive season one.)

Will I read the rest of the books? Who knows? I’m currently enjoying the new season of “True Blood,” and might read another of the Harris books during the (almost year long) season break.  It doesn’t matter – I definitely enjoyed “Dead Until Dark.”

“The Descendants” by Kaui Hart Hemmings

kaui(That’s George Clooney on the cover of this book alright. In fact, Mr. Clooney having made the film version of this book – and my desire to see said film version – is the reason I grabbed my copy of “The Descendants” from the used bookstore where I located it.)

Kaui Hart Hemmings has written an incredibly readable – and weirdly hopeful – book about a family in shambles trying to put together whatever pieces they can track down.  Matthew King, patriarch, is faced with a wife in a coma and two daughters ages seventeen and ten.  The time has come to remove the wife from life support, but before they can do that friends and family need to be notified, and secrets need to be fully revealed.  It’s a book that manages to be about death and dark things without ever going too depressing.  Thanks largely to the teenagers involved, it’s even quite funny.  And it made me want to go back to Hawaii – not that I need much pushing to want to do that.

I read “The Descendants” in one breezy afternoon, and suggest it as a summer read.

“Augusta Locke” by William Haywood Henderson

lockeAgain, there are books I’m reading now (as a mother) that resonate differently with me than they would have pre-having my son.  William Haywood Henderson’s “Augusta Locke” is one such novel. It’s the story of Augusta “Gussie” Locke, who leaves her family behind as a teenager and makes her way through Wyoming for the rest of her life, trying to get work, meeting people, sometimes dressing as a man, having a daughter of her own, and trying to find a place in the world while still remaining a wanderer.

Now, I don’t love this book. I probably won’t keep it on my shelf, because I know I’ll never re-read it.  That said, it’s a well-written book, with prose that perfectly conveys it’s rural western setting and quickly defines characters.  There were certain sections of it – such as a sequence where Gussie’s daughter earns the over-attention/obsession of a woman who lost her own son years ago – that are breathtaking, and terrifying to read as a Mom myself.   Gussie is a perfectly imperfect heroine, and no one in the book is entirely likable – just like real life, right?

More than once, it brought to mind “The Grapes of Wrath,” which I totally mean as a compliment.  Take that as you will – if you liked Steinbeck’s epic classic, “Augusta Locke” might be one you should read.