Monday, June 12, 2017

The Nix by Nathan Hill

A struggling college English professor finds the jolt of writing inspiration he needs when his estranged mother is very publicly arrested for assaulting a Senator.

The novel juggles several storylines: grown men stunted by their addiction to an online quest game, a childhood friendship's long-lasting impacts, the radical 70's story of his mother, childhood tales of folklore and fantasy.

I really enjoyed the story - the hopping between time periods and characters kept it fresh, yet every divergence presented characters you felt strongly about (sometimes pity, other times irritation and even hatred). The overall theme that everyone's haunted: by the past, by expectations, by a decision made or an action not taken.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

In a sweeping, multi-generational storyline, a modern American tells the complete story and history that led to his fantastical intersex existence.

This book won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and we chose to read it for the library's book discussion. A lot of ink was spilled by reviewers who criticized the words used and treatment of Cal's medical condition, but I think it's a fantastic read and a really good book to talk about after you've finished it. Beyond the gender conversation, there's a lot to discuss: the immigrant experience, chasing the American Dream, race relations.

And aside from that - and maybe most importantly - it's really a great story well told. I listened to the audiobook (excellently read by Kristoffer Tabori) and Callie became a friend during the 21-hour duration of the book: I wanted to know what happened to her, how she felt, how Cal emerged, and how he coped. Her experience was not in any way similar to my own, and I wanted to see the world through her eyes and experience her remarkable family.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Unmentionable: the Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill

In this snarky, casual book, the modern reader receives a no-holds-barred look at what hygiene, fashion, and society were REALLY like for women in the 19th century.

BBC melodramas, romance novels, and the balm of time have worked a true magic: the past has become so sanitized and glossy that we pine for the days of chivalry - completely forgetting that there was poop everywhere, the ownership and operation of your vagina was a medical mystery, and a stricter-than-strict social code of mores meant you were hardly allowed to speak.

This is a funny book that puts you right into the action. The author is speaking directly to YOU the reader, and even responds to your questions and complaints as she imagines you'd be having them. Not in any way scholarly, but certainly educational!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Night Film by Marisha Pessi

The death of a famous, reclusive director's daughter prompts a disgraced journalist to reopen his notebook and investigate. Was Ashley Cordova cursed, or merely tragic?

Scott McGrath is driven by revenge and shame into reopening old sores - Stanislav Cordova was the man and the story that destroyed his reputation as an investigative reporter. Looking into Ashley's short life is a side door that leads Scott into a dark place he never really left, years ago.

NOTE: a lot's been said in other reviews about the "enhanced content" that accompanies this book. The included PDF had articles, webpage screenshots, etc.  I listened to the audiobook and didn't realize my narrator was also describing that additional material until I was almost finished with the book - it had been seamlessly integrated for audiobook listeners.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

In a series of short stories we discover one man's effect on popular music in the past, the present, and the near future. Also, we see the world around him and it's interconnectedness.

Bennie was a punk kid in a rotten band who couldn't get a date. Bennie is a record company owner navigating a new world of tech. His long-time assistant takes care of everything - and pockets quite a lot, too. Her best friend in college met a terrible end. Her son is interested in pauses during songs.

This book won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and I have no idea why I have not read it until now. It's all the things I love: music, fandom, quality writing, interconnected short stories.

Friday, May 19, 2017

All Grown Up by Jami Attengerg

What is adulthood, really, if you don't get married or have a family? No mortgage, a steady but boring job, no serious responsibilities ... things are less complicated for Andrea Bern than for many other 40 year olds. So why isn't she happy?

In vignette stories we get an idea of Andrea's life: a friend's wedding, getting to know a neighbor, conversations with her therapist, on a date, on the phone with her mother, watching a coworker give her first big presentation. Andrea's featherweight life is a contrast with her brother's huge and heavy responsibility to his own tiny family.

It's funny and a little sad, but very well written and quick to consume. The story is complex in the way life really is, and I understood this character because I have been her, at times. Loved it!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Love, Alice by Barbara Davis

In the 1960s, a young English woman is sent away in shame. In the now, a young widow wonders where things went so wrong. The two stories meet and intermingle under the guard of a sad South Carolina cemetery angel.

The most famous marker in the cemetery sits not far from Dovie's fiance's headstone, where she visits every day to eat her lunch and wonder why he committed suicide. But one day her attention is drawn over to the Tate angel when an elderly woman leaves a letter (and her glasses) there.

Dovie's beating herself up about something she had no control over, and she's falling apart at the seams. Suddenly, it's much more interesting to get involved in somebody else's drama, even though she can clearly see this meddling is going to be bad for her career and future.

I'm not sure why I picked this book up, and I'm even less sure why I kept reading - it's way too saccharine for my taste, but I persisted. It's not a bad book - if you like romance novels and fated love stories you'll enjoy it. There are twists and minor surprises along the way. It resolves well. (Blech.)

Monday, May 1, 2017

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

Something happened in the backyard, with six adults and three children in attendance, and everybody has the feels about it.

But you'll have to wait more than 200 pages to find out what happened, because the author keeps you in suspense through half the book as chapters flip back and forth between "we still haven't recovered from the barbecue" and "the day of the barbecue."

If I hadn't been reading this for book discussion, I probably would have quit at about page 25: too glossy and suburban for my taste. But I can't actually say I disliked the book overall - I'm gonna give it more of a meh, with bonus points for the quality of discussion that can (and did) spin out of it. Friendship, marriage, responsibility, guilt, sex, mental health - it's all in there.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Other F-Word by Natasha Friend

When a severely allergic teenager decides to track down his sperm donor in order to do genetic testing, he ends up with more than he bargained for: a passel of half-siblings, too.

I loved this book - it does a stellar job dealing with all the conflicted feelings about "genetic source material" since there are so many diverse families involved: the book includes lesbian parents, heterosexual parents, mothers who gave birth and mothers who did not, kids with siblings, singletons, and even twins who disagree about this life-altering decision. There's a best friend who's adopted, which allows a conversation about the decision to donate sperm versus giving away a baby. The kids are teens - so they're a bit more adult in perspective and yet still very involved in family units. They're in turn curious, scared, anxious, and unexpectedly delighted to find someone with whom they share DNA.

And in spite of all these emotions and potentially heavy subject matter, it's a quaint book that's funny and utterly captivating. I'm not giving too much away to reveal the story's also about teen crushes, bullying, troublemaking/underachieving, and childish grudges. Highly recommended.


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

Grief can make you do weird things. In Petula's house, it's made Mom a cat hoarder, it's made Dad a workaholic, and Petula has turned to statistics, probability, and news of the strange in an all-out effort to reduce risk and stave off danger in all its disguises.

When the kids in (lame) art therapy class realize they're actually becoming friends, together they find ways to move past their problems and let go of some of their fear. Petula may even learn to walk the short way home past the construction site. But a big secret changes everything, and they're all forced to reevaluate their hearts: forgiveness may be harder to conquer than fear.

I loved this book, and I read it in a single sitting. They're quirky, fun teenagers with relatable lives and fears. They're each working through some heavy shit, and together they may just make it out alive.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man's Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut by Rob Sheffield

With each chapter titled by a song, music critic Rob Sheffield uses this memoir to tells stories about his sisters, their influence on his listening (and fashion), and his ongoing affection for 1980s pop music.

His summer as an ice cream truck driver (titled not with Van Halen's "Ice Cream Man" but with Prince's "Purple Rain"), his almost-seduction by a former teacher, his love of cassingles, a season in the discos of Spain, his high school wrestling career - these are all stories told with nostalgia through their links to songs of the 1980s.

You don't have to love the music to understand the book, but it helps (it also helps that I'm roughly the same age as the author with a similar familiarity to John Hughes movies and MTV) But Sheffield is a guy who writes about music and its effect on our emotions in a really accessible way (see also Love is a Mixtape). This is really a series of stories about growing up and figuring things out.

He's a brave man to admit some of his more bubblegum proclivities, to sing the praises of recreational karaoke, and to analyze what it is about Duran Duran that makes them so irresistible (along with their baffling career longevity). Also, it's adorable the way he dotes on his sisters.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

After meeting in a college art class, Sharon and Mel(ody) become inseparable, their lives absolutely intertwined as they start their own animation company, drink and smoke, work, and even live together in the studio. Just as they're becoming legitimate stars, an unexpected emergency derails everything.

The book's about creative energy and inspiration, and it's about friendship and how close two people can be and still not really see one another. These women mine their personal lives to make intimate, biographical films, but not everyone is estatic to find themselves part of the movies.

I loved this book - they're self-absorbed, self-destructive artists in the prime of their lives. But they're forced into a delayed adulthood that ultimately expands their perspective and their work. It's sometimes hard to watch them sleepwalk through life with such oblivion - hard to watch because it's easy to recognize yourself in these characters.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

When Tom returns to Australia from the WWI battlefield, he's alive and whole but broken inside. He takes a solitary, regimented job on a remote lighthouse, but didn't count on meeting the headmaster's engaging daughter before he set off.

The trajectory of his life is changed with Isabel - suddenly the tiny island of Janus isn't so lonely with a lovely wife and a happy life. Starting a family becomes an exercise in resilience and heartbreak until the day an infant girl and a dead man drift ashore in a boat and they decide to keep the child as their own. On Janus it's easy to forget the impact this decision has on the rest of the world, but eventually the couple discovers the full implication of their deceit.

This is a gorgeous book, emotional and gripping, yet lyrical and dreamy, too. You're lost in the descriptions of time and place, of the feel of the wind and the wonder of the lighthouse's works. It's also rough on your heart because there are no easy answers - everyone involved is fallible and imperfect. There are no true black-and-white answers to this novel's dilemmas.

We read this one for the library's book discussion group, and it was the spark for some very interesting conversation. It's recently been released as a film, and I'm interested enough to make time for that, too, in the near future.




Monday, March 6, 2017

The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton

As the second generation growing up on a Wisconsin apple orchard, Mary Francis Lombard has a contented life full of farming and extended family. She can't imagine a different life, or even one she'd prefer.

The child narrator of this adult fiction novel offers a unique perspective on the family and business of the orchard - she sees the world through a kid-shaped window and often doesn't necessarily understand what she sees and hears. She's precocious and curious about the grown-ups but often believes her own fictions rather than the truth. The adult relationships around her take on a fuzziness; they're less important than the make-believe war between cousins or the wonder of a new teacher.

This is a quiet novel of rich characters and small dramas. There's a lot of family and almost-family at the orchard - it's practically a commune and various relatives share several houses on the farm. There's also a caring, tough female "hired man" who suffers a great and terrible love story.

I loved this book, and since I have friends who own an orchard I understood more than I otherwise might have about the seasonality of the work to be done. The small dramas of the story make for a quiet novel about family and growing up, and an overall excellent read.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Blessings by Anna Quindlen

On a fading family estate, an abandoned newborn baby changes the lives of both the troubled young caretaker who finds her and the home's former socialite matriarch.

A main theme of the book is secrets - everybody's got 'em - and how the weight of those secrets affects their lives. Nearing the end of her life, Lydia Blessing is starting to have a different perspective on the choices she's made in life. Even the baby is both a mystery and a secret.

Skip's a good guy with bad friends and decisions to make on the direction of the rest of his life. He went to jail rather than rat out his friends, but now that he's on parole he's inspired not to fall back into the old comfortable ruts. His raising the baby is destined for failure, but everyone seems willing to overlook that fate for awhile, anyway.

We chose this for the library's book discussion, and I worried this book was would be too saccharine for my taste. It is sweet, but I loved that it didn't work out as tied-in-a-bow as I'd worried, and the characters were more complex that anticipated. It's more a slice-of-life story than the parable for clean living I'd anticipated.

Also, I listened to the audiobook, which was read by actress Joan Allen - quite the A-list talent!

Monday, February 27, 2017

Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman by Lindy West

It's hard to imagine anyone intentionally becomes an internet writer once you know what Lindy West has been through with trolls, online stalking and spamming, and more. And yet they do because like Lindy proves, there may be a bright future ahead if we can steer this thing in the right direction.

I found this book at an ideal time - I'm more and more aware that we each have a voice, and Lindy's using hers by taking up the feminist flag for acceptance and compassion concerning body image, rape, and reproductive rights. I listened to the audiobook read by the author, so this memoir was much like a conversation with a friend: listening to her stories, sharing in her joys and griefs, anger at her misfortunes.

This book is truly excellent. Lindy's got a way with words and she's got a great sense of humor, but the book's also frequently heartbreaking. She's developed quite an armor without losing her humanity.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

Where, you ask, is the most dangerous place on earth? The American high school, of course.

This book is considered a novel, but it's almost a series of short stories. Perspective constantly shifts between students, and only a young, new English teacher pops up again and again with an embroiled outsider's perspective on the kids' drama.

The book takes these students from 8th grade through senior year. They study (or not), they party, they get in trouble, and they try to figure out what the world has to offer. We see their actions through the lens of other students (and their teacher), we see their roles in the social caste system, and sometimes we see things from their perspective, too - which often brings new information that alters your reaction to their behavior.

Pretty much they're all self-absorbed shits (they're teenagers - that's the default setting!). But Miss Nicholl isn't too far distanced from her own youth, and her naivety helps illustrate that maturity isn't a threshold you step over, it's more of a series of steps toward an unattainable goal.

The roiling dramas of high school is a near universal touchstone, even if you didn't grow up in this new, technological age, and this is a really, really good book full of complex characters and horrifying, realistic events.

It's being marketed as an adult novel, but it's very much like many of the young adult books being published today (I think the difference is the insertion of an adult rather than an all-teen perspective).

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer

On the run from the same government she once worked for, Alex (not her real name) is a human knot of neurosis, suspicion, chemical booby traps, deadly weapons and taciturn distrust. But the whole situation shifts when a lethal trap misfires and she ends up partnering with her would-be assassin to turn the tables and take down their pursuers.

Yes, I listened to 17 hours of this book. And the book was OK - probably even good because I did actually spend 17 freaking hours of my life with it - but I'll only recommend it with a shrug.

It's a government agent novel, with espionage and backstabbing and digital footprints and lots of "trust no one." Yet there's still plenty of time to ponder the luxury of the curls in his hair - my god those curls (she's obsessed). It turns into a romance of unlikely partners that smolders and stalls so long I wanted to beg them to just consummate and put us all out of our misery! (maybe I used slightly stronger words)

Do you like that kind of thing? Then you'll love this.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

Two New York City kids get to know their grandmother (and learn about their whole family, really) when they're sent to spend a summer in Barbados.

Teenager Dionne is sure Bird Hill is hell; her mother's always threatened with "sending her home," and she's not sure what she's done to deserve this punishment. Her younger sister, Phaedra, is more accepting of the trip, making friends and exploring this new terrain.

It's a heartbreaking, heart-warming story of family and disappointment and love and growing up. Again and again, men prove to be a disappointment, but the warmth and strength of the community's women buoy the spirit and the story.

The audiobook, read by Robin Miles, was simply INCREDIBLE and added a rich layer to the story's depth with the various accents and patois. We chose to read this title for the library's book discussion, and I'm glad we found it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

One of Us by Tawni O'Dell

Danny Doyle overcame a tragic, white-trash childhood to become a slick TV-ready criminal psychologist, but when his beloved grandfather becomes ill, Dr. Sheridan Doyle is forced to revisit his past. On a whim, he finds himself helping an old friend with a murder investigation that has stirred up generations of bad blood and ill will in this small Pennsylvania town.

Scarlet Dawes is the mine owner's daughter, rich and spoiled ... and a complete psychopath. Chapters alternate perspective between Danny and Scarlet, so we know right away that she's guilty. But maybe that's not the real mystery.

I love Tawni O'Dell's Appalachian mining town fiction - she's got such a good voice for the small town people in these depressed communities. This one's got intense suspense and a lot of history - but also a lot of fashion: both Danny and Scarlet love proving they're no longer po-dunk, with all their designer labels!

I listened to the audiobook - read by Nick Podehl and Amy McFadden - and the eight hours passed in no time while I was wrapped in the drama.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman

I love everything from Neil Gaiman, and I especially adore the audiobooks where he reads it himself. So pretty much, I loved this collection of poetry and short stories from 2006.

Many of these stories have links to other Gaiman works - one was an early idea for The Graveyard Book, and one that's part of the world of American Gods. Many have won awards. My favorite is a backwards, unwinding of the book of Genesis.

In an audiobook this collection of vignettes could be a bit confusing (I found it hard to hear the breaks between stories, sometimes - to know I was moving into a new world). Also, sometimes I have to review poetry more than once for it to more fully absorb. To solve these challenges, I also kept a paper copy of the book for reference and review.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars by Jessica Abel

Come on, with a title like that you know I had to check it out!

In the future, former Earthlings now are farming Mars for water. Many were contracted into virtual slavery in the process, so contracts have a bad reputation as being exploitive and evil.

Which is why no one's exactly celebrating when Patricia Nupindju rashly signs as a skategirl with the hoverderby league, leaving her farmer family in a lurch without the help - both her labor and her mechanical aptitude.

This volume is an interesting setup - it lays the groundwork for a longer, more detailed story. I especially enjoyed the "wikipedia" entries at the back that give more in-depth explanation of immigration, terraforming, and hoverderby.

I'll be looking for the next volume (fall 2017) to continue the drama.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Over several decades, the owners, editors, and reporters of a Rome-based English newspaper deal with one another, the quick-turnaround news cycle, family, life abroad, and the decline of print journalism in this comic novel.

The book's like an interconnected series of short stories - vignettes of life from the modern-day editor of the paper, the original founder, his descendants, the copy editors, a wanna-be stringer, and more. There's love, there's hate, it's funny and it's sad.

I really liked this book - it's a gossipy bit of behind the scenes in the world of journalism. I've been listening to the audiobook in the quilting studio, and it's been sort of like serial television: office rivalries and home life and a lot of the challenges of expatriates in Italy.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Sabotage

by Neal Bascomb

One of the oft-forgotten stories of WWII is that of the people who resisted Nazi occupation within their homelands. While Norway was able to remain neutral in the first world war, scientific discoveries made that country uniquely attractive to Hitler's regime.

This book details the ways in which Norwegians worked to prevent the Nazi's from gaining access to one of the most crucial components of their scientific process to become the first nation with an atomic bomb. The Vemork hydroelectric power station was capable of producing heavy water, an element determined to make such a weapon possible. Hitler's team of scientists encouraged use of the plant and so it became a target for the resistance.

In a country without its own military, civilians became spies and warriors. This book chronicles the ways one group of men worked to overcome the highly trained military that had overtaken their homeland. These individuals survived treacherous winter conditions, crossed the sea to be trained with British soldiers, and outrun soldiers on a massive manhunt. They become spies and saboteurs in hopes of preventing their homeland from having any part in one of the most devastating atrocities ever committed by man.

I was riveted by this story and pictured some of the mentioned locations clearly. I gasped aloud when towns where mentioned where my ancestors once lived. I cheered for each victory the locals managed and when they were able to provide compassionate care for wounded and starving resistance fighters. Since reading this title, I've purchased it as a gift, and recommended it to history buffs and everyone I know with Norwegian heritage.