05 October 2009

September Book Report

OK, typing the title of this, I was still surprised to realize that it's already October! Though October is one of my favorite months in the year, so it's not that I am disappointed. Just wondering how it already got here without me really noticing ... (fyi, that was a rhetorical comment - it happened because I haven't been paying attention).

Having said that, September was not a bad month, book-wise.

Why My Third Husband Will Be a Dog: The Amazing Adventures of an Ordinary Woman, by Lisa Scottoline. First of all, I have to admit before I say anything else that I love Lisa Scottoline. She is hilarious in person, and it just makes me like her books better, since I can see her in them.

This one is a collection of pieces that she wrote for the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer, called "Chick Wit." Rather than plots and stories, these are her observations about everyday things, stories about her family, etc.

If you enjoy these kinds of things, you will like this book. If you like to read amusing things that are easy to pick up and put down without really losing the place, but that will sometimes make you think, this is a great book to pick up.

A couple of my favorite things:

1. From a piece called "Empowerment," which is about how so many people seem to wish they had superpowers. Scottoline provides a list of ten normal powers that would improve her life. Number 9 on the list? "The power to apply liquid eyeliner without it coming out like a sales chart."

2. In another piece, called "Earthquake Mary," her mother, who lives in Miami, felt the tremor from an earthquake in Tampa. A local TV news crew comes to interview her, sinceu Miami and Tampa are 397 miles apart. She writes, "My brother, who you may remember is gay, told me he put on 'his best tank top.' The Scottolines have style."

I enjoyed this book so much, and plan to keep my copy at least for now. It would be fun to be cheered up now and again when I need it, and no one else is available.

**Stardust: A Novel, by Joseph Kanon. This story takes place in 1945, when Ben Collier, recently back from his deployment in Europe with the Army, travels to Hollywood because his brother Daniel has died. Though he and his brother were separated when their parents divorced, Ben still loved and admired his older brother. (Advance Readers' Copy)

Upon arriving, he learns that Daniel's death has been ruled "accidental" and that many think he committed suicide. The more he learns about the circumstances surrounding the death, the more suspicious he becomes. He soon becomes part of the Hollywood studio system (Daniel had been a screenwriter), where he investigates further, but also becomes part of the early searches by politicians and government agencies to find Communists in the entertainment industry.

Between his concern for his brother and his surviving sister-in-law, his relationships to the local German emigre population, and revelations about his brother and his late father, Ben is soon dealing with much more than he anticipated.

Though slow in a few places, I enjoyed this book. I found the descriptions of the Hollywood studios and players of the time really interesting, and was both fascinated and repelled by the determination of certain individuals to expose members of the Communist party at any cost.

Whenever I read/see/hear something about the hunts for Communists and the McCarthy hearings, I like to think that if such a thing could happen today, that I could take the high road. Ben starts out the same way, and learns that it is all much more complicated than he imagined.

This was worth the time I spent reading it. Not perfect, but still good.

**The Promised World, by Lisa Tucker. This book starts out on a "typical" day when Lila Cole is at work in her office at a university, and her twin brother Billy is in a hotel room across the street from an elementary school, pointing an unloaded rifle at the school.

Billy is a vicitim of "suicide by police" and the book is the story of how this affects his family - his twin sister and her husband, as well as his wife and children. Going back and forth from current day to their shared childhood, we learn of the unusually close bond between Lila and Billy and how their view of the world developed based on that. There are also chapters that are narrated by Billy's wife, as well as his two older children.

This book was fascinating, if not a little bit disturbing. The characters are all rather strange, but interesting. The secret shared by the twins makes their relationship one that makes the reader wonder about them.

Without spoiling anything for those who might want to read this book, I have to say that I liked it for the most part. The end seemed rushed to me, and was really the only part of the book that was not that satisfying. (Advance Readers' Copy)

The Private Patient, by P.D. James. Another P.D. James book, this one published just last year. Commander Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard is once again called upon to solve a murder, this time at a private clinic in Dorset.

An investigative journalist named Rhoda Gradwyn makes arrangements to visit Cheverell Manor, an old house now serving as a private clinic for plastic surgery procedures. The operation to remove a disfiguring scar on her face is successful - except that she is murdered the night of her completed surgery.

As usual, James manages to make every character interesting in their own way, and makes some more obvious suspects than others. Dalgliesh and his team work methodically to see what information they can uncover, not just about Gradwyn, but about the clinic, and the people employed there.

The descriptions of places are vivid enough so that you have no trouble picturing them in your mind, and there are plenty of red herrings that try to throw the reader off the scent, so to speak. In the end, the guilty parties are not necessarily a complete surprise, but you learn information about other characters that is not what was expected.

I enjoyed the comments and thoughts of the characters regarding private vs. National Health Service care, particularly now when health care reform is being so hotly debated here in the states.

An enjoyable read!

**The Madonnas of Leningrad: A Novel, by Debra Dean. I have had this book for a few years, having won it in a blog contest from Wendy at Musings of a Bookish Kitty. Occasionally, I would think about reading it, but never felt "in the mood," until recently.

The main character, Marina, is an elderly Russian woman, living in America, and suffering from Alzheimers. Her husband is devoted to her, but he is also elderly, and not always able to keep up with her. Her grown children are anxious for their parents to move to a care facility where they can remain together, but where there father will have help with their mother.

The story goes back and forth between the current-day wedding of a granddaughter and the Fall of Leningrad in 1941, when Marina was a tour guide at The Hermitage, and helped the staff save the priceless collection from destruction.

I found this book to be fascinating, not just for the "personal" history of life in Leningrad during that time, but also as a peek into the mind and existence of someone with this terrible disease. To have your past become easier to remember than the names of your children seems so unthinkable, yet Debra Dean writes in such a way that you truly feel that you are in Marina's head.

An unusual, but very good read.

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver. Yep, Barbara Kingsolver does it again, with a book that almost demands that you keep reading. This is the story of Harrison William Shepherd, the son of a Mexican mother, and an American father. The father is indifferent to the boy, and his mother longs for romance and adventure, so she returns to Mexico with the boy.

The book is written as if it is a diary or journal of Harrison's life from his earliest memories. He details his life in Mexico, where through a series of events, he becomes the cook in the household of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Later, Leo Trotsky comes to stay when he is thrown out of Stalinist Russia. Harrison's life becomes entwined with that of these three characters, which makes for fascinating reading.

As an adult, he eventually returns to America, where his books about Mexican history become best sellers. However, when the House Committee on Un-American Activities starts up, he is called to testify because they believe he is a member of the Communist Party. Having always been a private person, this causes him a great deal of anguish, and leads to his decision which ends the book.

I found this to be a really riveting read, both for the story, and because it is not always clear who is really telling the story. The description of life in the Kahlo-Rivera household, as well as the personality of Leo Trotsky and his wife made it especially interesting to me. I also learned more about the history of Mexico than I ever expected to!

I recommend this book if you don't mind stories that take a while to tell. Even small details turn out to be important, and at least in my opinion, I didn't want to finish reading the book and have the story end.

Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger. Wow. This book is not at all what I expected, though now that I think of it, I'm not sure what I expected. All I can say is that when I read The Time Traveler's Wife, I was truly skeptical, since I am usually not that fond of time travel stories. And I loved it.

This is one of the two books I am reading for the R.I.P. IV challenge. Her Fearful Symmetry is a completely different type of book, and if someone was describing it to me, I'm not sure I would go out of my way to read it, either. I *had* to keep reading, even at a point in the story when I was kind of weirded out.

When the book begins, Robert is grieving the death of his lover Elspeth. They live in current-day London, where Elspeth is a rare book dealer, and Robert is a tour guide at Highgate Cemetery. We meet their neighbors, Martin and Marijke, who have an interesting story all their own. Eventually we meet Julia and Valentina, twin girls who are the nieces of Elspeth and live in a suburb of Chicago with their mother Edie (Elspeth's twin) and father, Jack. Elspeth leaves her flat to the twins, with the stipulation that they live there for a year before they can sell it, and that their parents are to NEVER set foot inside it.

Clearly there was some kind of major blow-up between Edie and Elspeth which caused them to lose touch with one another, but it is not clear until almost the end of the book. Julia and Valentina are quite affected by living in Elspeth's flat and meeting Robert and the couple upstairs.

A lot of this book involves life after death - is there such a thing? What is it like? How is it for someone who has died? Do ghosts really exist, and if so, what kind of powers do they have? I will admit once I learned the main "event" in the book, I was really repulsed, though not in a way that made me want to stop reading.

Niffenegger creates a fascinating cast of individuals in this story. Few of them are likable by the end. At the beginning of the story, I liked Robert and Elspeth, but by the end I was appalled by both of them. Julia and Valentina are interesting characters, but neither of them has incredible appeal which makes you want the best for them. The only characters I really connected with were Martin and Marijke, who are really (I think) supposed to be the ones with insurmountable problems. They seemed the only ones with true human feelings and thoughts to me.

But in the end, I really liked this book. It challenged me, while also making me feel like I was right there in London (where I have never been), following the characters' lives and activities. The ending was not what I expected, but after thinking about it for a few days, I guess it makes a certain amount of sense.

It really made me think, which is one of the things I liked most about it.

**Half Broke Horses: A True Life Novel, by Jeannette Walls. This is the story of the author's grandmother, Lily Casey Smith. It is called a "True Life Novel" because it is written from the stories that the author, Jeannette Walls, remembers her grandmother telling, rather than from personal papers.

Lily comes across as a pretty amazing woman, who is also a survivor. She makes her way through life in a pretty no-nonsense kind of manner, always managing to find a way to make things work, whether it is The Great Depression, or tornadoes and floods.

I read this entire book, and didn't *not* enjoy it, but I can't say I really liked it. Maybe because Walls was the one creating most of the dialogue and the arcs of the story, as she could remember hearing, but Lily seemed like someone who would not be that enjoyable to spend time with, and who was a little bit to in love with herself. She just seemed unwilling or unable to admit that she was ever wrong, or that anyone else could have ever come up with reasonable solutions.

I can see the appeal of this book to lots of people, as Lily is a strong female character, not letting her gender or her financial status hold her back from doing what she sets her mind to doing. But in the end, I was kind of glad to be rid of her. (Advance Readers' Copy)

The Brutal Telling (An Armand Gamache Novel), by Louise Penny. This was my first exposure to Louise Penny, and her Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, but now I can't wait to find the earlier ones!

The story takes place in a small village in Quebec called Three Pines. A stranger is found murdered in the village bistro, which also houses an antique store. Chief Inspector Gamache (based in Montreal) and his assistants are called in to investigate, and hopefully solve the crime.

As the story progresses, we learn various secrets held by nearly all of the townspeople, and slowly everyone seems to have something to hide. Gamache and his team keep at it, and find that the townspeople are not always what they seem.

Gamache as a character is wonderful. A detective with a truly human side, who sees everyone he interviews as an individual. His belief that treating people kindly makes them more likely to cooperate is proven correct time and time again. Even when he finds that someone who he has known and liked may be guilty, he feels bad personally while understanding that justice must be served.

This was such a good read! The setting, the characters, all of it. There were enough twists and turns to keep you reading, without a lot of incredibly improbable events popping up on every other page.

Evening, by Susan Minot. I tried with this book, I really did. I remember when it was first published, reading rave reviews about it, and thinking that some day I wanted to get around to it. So when I spotted it on the library shelf, I figured it would all work out just fine.

Hmm, not so much. The premise sounded like it would work - a woman who is dying deals with her family "taking care" of her in the present, while remembering different people and events in her life. Other books I've read of this type are ones I have found poignant and interesting, even if slightly depressing. But I couldn't even finish this book! I didn't like any of the characters, and it just felt so tedious. So it was returned to the library, me being very glad that I didn't buy it.

Sorry, but I just can't recommend this one to anyone I know.

The titles with the red asterisks (**) are ones that I would be happy to pass along to any interested parties. Leave me a comment by the end of the day on Saturday, October 10, letting me know which book(s) you are interested in having. If you are the only one, it's yours, if not I will of course draw names from a hat.

ALSO - I still have the following books that are looking for a good home. You can read what I thought about them, if you click on the links.

**Addition, by Toni Jordan. (Advance Readers' Copy)
**Under This Unbroken Sky, by Shandi Mitchell (Advance Readers' Copy)

Let me know if you are interested!


ktb38 said...

I'd love to read The promised World. It looks interesting.

Carol said...

Thanks for the great reviews!
P.S. I am always available if you need cheering up...although I am not as cool or famous as Lisa S.

Channon said...

Third husband...a dog sounds interesting, and I love Kingsolver too.

I didn't care for Glass Castle at all, so I'll be skipping Ms. Walls' next book. Sad, because she just lives a few miles from here now...

Kathleen said...

I loved The Time Traveler's Wife (and refuse to see the movie), so you've just given me additional impetus to read Her Fearful Symmetry. My goodness, woman, you sure read a lot this month!

Guinifer said...

Holy moly Rocky! That is one long list!

Mr Puffy's Knitting Blog: said...

A superlative book report! I've not read anything by P.D. James for some time - think I'll look for this one next time I'm in a bookstore.

Carrie K said...

I loved the Glass Castle so I'll more likely than not be picking up Half Broke Horses too.

Louise Penny's books sound fab.

knitseashore said...

Thanks for sharing the Niffenegger review. My DH enjoyed Time Traveler's Wife, and I thought he might like this one, but after your comments, I'm not so sure.

Why is it that so many books and movies lately are filled with characters that are so unlikeable?

Knitterary said...

Seems as though everyone is buzzing that Joseph Kanon book. Lots of strong PR for this title, though you're the first person I know to have actually read it.

I'm reading the new Iain Pears mystery, Stone's Fall, and loving it. I think you would enjoy it, too. It's so well written, almost majestic in its brilliance, and the story is compelling.


Anonymous said...

You could throw me in for The Promised World, too, please. I didn't care for Glass Castles, so probably wouldn't care much for Half Broke Horses. I do want to get to Her Fearful Symmetry. It is hard to slog through some books when you just don't like the characters. Being nosy helps most of the time, but I have gone ahead and quit some books cuz I just couldn't care about the characters.