Book Reviews

  • The Strange Tales of Marisha Pessl
    Marisha Pessl specializes in strange titles, not necessarily designed to entice the reader. Her first novel is entitled Special Topics in Calamity Physics. It took several years before I took a gamble with that one. Her second one, Night Film, was one I considered more accessible, but of course by then I’d experienced her first and knew that I’d read anything she put on paper. Special Topics JPEG                  Night Film JPEG Pessl’s works are complex. They are long books. Special Topics is 528 pages, and 640 pages are need to tell Night Film. I am sure some reviewers may say they are too long, could be tightened up, and drag in the middle. That all might be true, except that to remedy any of those faults would be at the sacrifice of her incredible descriptive prose, the weird quirks of plot changes you’d never expect, and the in-depth characterization of some highly unique protagonists. I wouldn’t miss a word. Pessl is remarkably well-read to use all the literary references she works into her manuscripts so elegantly on point. (Special Topics is written as a course outline of study, with each section titled with a different literary work.) Both are mysteries that start with a questionable death in the first pages, and the remaining hundreds of pages involve a lot of head-scratching, marveling at weird scenarios characters get themselves into, and ultimately a long denouement to some very unpredictable endings. I can’t go any deeper into the details without creating spoilers. These are books that have to be experienced, and they will haunt you for years afterwards. Highly recommended.
  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette
    Where-d-You-Go-Bernadette This is at heart a story of how the eccentric, creative and brilliant souls among us can find living in the real world a challenge beyond even their special capabilities. Bernadette is a Seattle misfit. Cast in the role of a private school parent, she just can’t rise to the level of expectations from her fellow parents and has alienated most of them. A brilliant architect with two major projects that have given her national fame, she has forsaken the field of architecture for reasons eventually disclosed about midway through the book. As the story begins, she has become a recluse who depends on a personal assistant in India to electronically manage as many of her tasks as she can. Her husband, equally brilliant in his own field of software development and electronics engineering, is fully absorbed into the fabric of the Microsoft workplace. He doesn’t understand many of the eccentricities of his wife but cares deeply about her. Still, even that has its limits. To disclose more would steal from the reader the joy of discovering many of the book’s most special moments, and I don’t like spoilers. But it is safe to disclose that the writing in remarkably witty, and the format is unique. The narrator is Bernadette’s daughter, Bee, whose story of her mother’s disappearance is told in first person, interspersed with emails, text messages, letters and medical or legal reports drawn from all the other characters. The story is a wild ride from beginning to end with the incredibly absurd becoming totally believable by the careful construction of the facts by the author. For those living on the West Coast and certainly in the Seattle area it’s a great satire of the lifestyle there with what I imagine are a lot of “in” jokes that are far beyond those of us who are on the outside. But it’s a story that would appeal to and entertain anyone living in the high-intensity work world peopled with some who have more money than they know what to do with or others with far too much intelligence to know how to function in the real world. It is witty, funny, and heart-warming. I took a chance on this one and came out a winner. I hope you give it a try yourself.
  • Still Life With Breadcrumbs by Anna Quindlen
    51S5MMf7tjL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_ IMHO every novel that Anna Qundlen writes is a jewel, a distillation of exquisite language, offbeat point of view, and brilliant wit. I would describe Still Life with Breadcrumbs as a small jewel, narrower in scope than her earlier novels in both story line and characters, but still packing the punch of a rare diamond. Still Life is the story of a life traveling (it seems) in reverse, despite the fact that the heroine would describe herself as over-the-hill and past her prime, wondering what’s to become of her in her old age. A well-known and highly respected photographer, she’s been reduced to having to add background information to her press releases so that people will know who she once was. We meet her when she is divorced, saddled with two aged and each-incompetent-in-their-own-way parents, worried about finances to the point that she is unable to afford to live in her own NY apartment and has chosen to lease a cottage in the upstate mountains to save money. There she meets characters any of us might cross paths with in a 7-11 or local diner and likely not notice. Quindlen does, and she paints them with pinpoint accuracy in all the shades of their humanity, both noble and flawed. The coffee shop owner who really wants to serve a true English tea, the parents who have each turned into themselves in their own way as they struggle with their final years, the roofer with a secret life. And the huge impact that just a little bit of insanity or alcoholism can have on a small town. It’s all here with Quindlen’s remarkable economy of style and in this case an unusual POV that hops easily from past to present to future and back, always taking you by surprise. Well-done! Highly recommended.
  • The Mystery of Mystery
    Sherlock Holmes Earlier this year, I was finally seduced into the world of mystery writing. It was a long struggle, as I’ve never been much enamoured of mystery writers or their stories. Too many coincidences, too much unnatural infrastructure built up in stories written by Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle to make me want to spend much time there. Even Nancy Drew, which I read feverishly as a pre-teen, eventually proved it was a genre that was formulaic and, after a couple dozen, predictable. It was easy to set aside for more challenging fare. Then I discovered by chance some Regency romance mysteries with the Lady Jane Grey series (Deanna Raybourn) and the Lady Emily Mysteries (Tasha Alexander.) From there it didn’t take long to make the leap to the 1930’s where Rhys Bowen’s heroine, Lady Georgiana, a penniless royal, frolicks through a life of poverty amidst the aristocracy while discovering dead bodies right and left…and solving mysteries along the way. On a more subdued note, the Maggie Hope mystery series of Susan Elia Macneal, are well-crafted, darker novels set in the early years of World War II where Maggie’s skills as a brilliant mathematician bring her to the attention of Winston Churchill and to a host of cryptographic puzzles. My most recent rich find has been Dick Francis, and his stableful of mystery stories all loosely based on his life experience as a steeplechase jockey in England. Having read a good dozen already, I know I can count on a steady, cool-headed hero who is always willing to take some kind of physical beating in the interest of solving a mystery and a villain (or villains) that generally holds out until the final pages to make himself/herself known. I am absolutely hooked, and the mystery is why it has taken so many years for me to find myself back at home again in this crazy world of whodunit.
  • A Good “Should” Book–Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner
    All of us have that list or pile of books that we should read for any number of good causes, but somehow they remain at the bottom of the pile as we engage more easily in the books we want to read. In this case, my purpose was to learn more about the history of Germany between the two World Wars to flesh out my understanding of characters I’m creating for Mismatch, a novel set in 1945 and dealing with US involvement with providing aid to the Nazis during World War II. When I discovered Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner, a memoir of a young German who was a youth playing with toy soldiers during World War I and who came of age during the years that Hitler and the Nazis came to power, I felt I’d found what I needed to learn more of the social impact of this change of order in Germany. Still, it took a while to commit to reading it. When I did, I found this and much, much more. For those of us studying this period in hindsight, it is very easy to get bogged down in questions about how the German people could have bought into Hitler’s agenda or not known what was going on regarding the extermination of the Jews. After reading this account of the subtle and insidious ways that Hitler used to permeate the German people with his credo of hate towards the Jews and his propaganda that built on what they wanted to hear, for the first time I could understand how a rational people could ultimately be lead to irrational actions. It also enlightened me to how many people in Germany at that time did not buy into Hitler’s agenda and were acutely aware of how their way of life was being changed forever, and how painful it was when some (like the author and his family) came to that terrible realization that they could no longer live in their native country. Knowing how everything ended for the German people, it was hard not to shout out a warning to the author not to delay, not to keep hoping that it would never get worse than this. Perhaps what this book drove home best was the humanity and vulnerability of the people involved and how many more basic human life decisions were made compared to the calculated political decisions being made at higher levels. The book stops abruptly before World War II begins, and the manuscript wasn’t discovered until decades later. So much has been written and interpreted about the war during the time the manuscript was not available that it is most refreshing to find a journalistic account of that time period untouched by those interpretations. Ultimately it is an intensely human story, made even moreso as it captures on such a personal level one of the most inhuman time periods in history. I highly recommend it.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter
Any ruin contains a silent history that speaks to the viewer from many different levels. The artist sees the compilation of lines, colors and textures that the aging process produces. The historian has that special sense that can hear the voices of the people who lived and maybe died there. The traveler may see it as a destination or merely a point of interest along the way to where he really wants to go. As always, we interpret life through our own lens and usually see what we’re searching for at that point in time.

Jess Walter has taken this process to a new level by weaving stories, locations, and people both real and fictional to produce a novel where the Beautiful Ruins could be any of the above. It is a fascinating story of how the serendipity and the randomness of life events can coalesce into a unified whole, if you but know what to look for. I marvel at the planning alone it must have required to take events from the early 60′s and relate them so exquisitely into a setting in the current time to create a unified whole. His characters are each unique and so very, very human; even Richard Burton. I’ve always believed that most of us are mainly bumbling along through life most of the time. Walter proves this point in his book in such a way that, unless you’re looking carefully and closely, you don’t see the intricate infrastructure he’s built in such a seemingly effortless manner to present this sense that life in its consummate unpredictability eventually prevails. Some elements of the story are patently absurd, and yet they fit in perfectly with the story and the point the author is trying to make.

I listened to the Audible version narrated so expertly by Edoardo Ballerini. It was a delicious experience hearing his beautiful Italian interspersed with the American English of most of the characters. He portrayed flawlessly men, women, the arrogance and self-centeredness of Hollywood and the naive but practical inhabitants of a miniscule Italian village cut off from the rest of the world. I highly recommend it for a remarkable adventure through Italy, Hollywood, and along multiple paths through people’s lives who each, in their own special way, may constitute a beautiful ruin.

wild-by-cheryl-strayed

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
The cover says it all: If you’re lost, get a guide and put one foot in front of the other until you’re found. In a sometimes gut-wrenching expose of the challenges of her short life of 24 years, Strayed opens her heart and her life to show how she found her own resurrection. Admittedly unprepared for the adventure, she discovers too quickly how much, measured with every toenail she loses along the way. Very little of what she describes would motivate me to want to pick up a similar challenge, but I found myself envying her courage to face in such a forthright manner her many early mistakes. It made all of her triumphs, not least of which was finishing the trail, that much more meaningful.

There were so many opportunities when Strayed could have embellished her accomplishment that she didn’t take, that I believe it is all true, and I value highly honesty in a memoir. Fortunately the book moves along rapidly; you never feel the tedium that must have accompanied her on many miles of the 1,000 mile trail. That said, the character growth she acquired and portrayed in her writing during that six month period of her life is astounding. I highly recommend this book as a unique variation of “A Walk in the Woods.” It is very difficult to put down, once you’ve started your own journey along with the author.

Black and Blue

Black and Blue, by Anna Quindlen
Spousal abuse is a challenging, difficult topic to both write and read about. I put off reading this book for some time, despite having read several other gems in Quindlen’s repertoire and knowing the quality of her work. And though it was still a hard book to take in, the skill with which she developed every character in this book made it well worth the effort. Spousal abuse doesn’t happen in a vacuum between a husband and wife; children and families are equally victimized and scarred for life, and Quindlen uses every bit of her remarkable writing expertise to make this point. As well, Quindlen used those skills most effectively to show the birth and evolution of an inherently flawed relationship.

Phimister’s verbal portrayal of every character was equally well-done. She captured well the painful suffering and confusion of the main character as well as her moments of joy, but easily slipped into the voice of a Bronx cop, an aged holocaust survivor, an eleven-year old boy and a Southern belle. Her reading was thoughtful and sometimes pensive, totally fitting a story wherein the main character is struggling to understand what happened to her life.

There are some stories in life where there can be no happy ending. This is certainly one of them, but it still ends on a note of realistic hope for the future, and I thank the author for that. I highly recommend this book.

The Marriage Plot

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Three characters dominate this story, and they are exquisitely developed through the course of a couple of years by the brilliant writing of Eugenides. Each is flawed or challenged, some more so than others, and each spends the novel’s time overcoming those challenges or learning to live with those flaws. That said, I kept waiting and hoping at some point any of these characters might become truly likable. It never happened.
There are many literary references throughout this book that would probably add another dimension if you researched them all further. But the basic story line of “the marriage plot” is one that has been told many times over. This was a new opportunity to breathe some life into it, writing about it from a more contemporary perspective. However, Madeleine never really springs to life. The men still seem to be living far more interested lives, and she’s reacting to them more than creating her own. Perhaps the point of the story might have come off better written by a woman?
The narration was excellent, and the narrator created with skill a believable woman in Madeleine and the critical differences between Leonard and Mitchell.
I chose this book because I’ve read Middlesex and was impressed with what Eugenides could do with such a unique and challenging topic as hermaphroditism. In this book, he’s tackled a more universal problem, taken fewer words to accomplish his goal, and made a good attempt to turn out an excellent novel. I simply wish that by the end I had cared more about what happened to the characters.

Audible Review:

The Chaperone, by Laura Moriarty

Well-done, well-researched, and performed with the excellence only Elizabeth McGovern can achieve. Moriarty takes a brief slice of Louise Brooke’s life, a few weeks spent in New York at the beginning of her career, and weaves a rich, full life history of a woman who served as her chaperone whom history has absorbed into anonymity. Moriarty achieves the equivalent of high drama with the details of an ordinary life, doing it with incredible attention to detail that reflects the spirit, politics and morals of the time, ranging from the 1920’s through the 1970’s. It’s a broad scope, and while the last part of the book races through decades toward the inevitable end of a life well-lived, her meticulous treatment of the critical moments in a life that can change the course of a life is drawn with great care and sensitivity. I highly recommend it, especially in its Audible format narrated by Elizabeth McGovern, who can perform a petulant teenager and a German immigrant with equal expertise and credibility.

Audible Review:

Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English

A slow-starting, but ultimately very moving story of a Jewish couple who move from Germany to England in advance of WWII and who do their utmost to become “English.” One of them succeeds while the other can’t let go to the old family traditions. For each of them, their ultimate challenge comes in the form of a golf course Mr. Rosenblum is intent on building to satisfy the final requisite of being truly English.

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