Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Ok, so my bookshelves are sagging and I had this idea (it being the end of 2011 and a good time to do away with the old) that I'd go through my books and find some I could donate to the local library. (They sell them at their little shop.) The problem is that I picked up this book--one I had read (according to my note on the front cover) with my bookclub in August 2009--and started reading it again. Instead of sorting books, I reread the whole thing.
Not only did I stall out on the sorting project, I think I may keep this slim volume. It's a debut novel by a good writer, about a 53-year-old failed-poet-turned-translator who made hash of his life through his 20s and 30s--married, had a kid, alienated them, spent a lot of time with Mr. Smirnoff. Now he's been invited to his daughter's wedding, and he's trying to get there, except that American Airlines has him stalled at Chicago's O'Hare, and he's going to miss the wedding (like he's missed his daughter's whole life). What starts out as an angry letter to AA turns into a meditation on his life, where things went wrong, and the difference between loving the *idea* of something and loving the thing itself. It's funny and heartbreaking all at once. He also plays with language, which I always like: "They say a watched pot never boils but baby it's tough not to watch when you're neck-deep in the pot.""I take an oversized amount of pride in the fact that I've never worn a wristwatch since my thirteenth birthday when my father gave me a Timex and I smashed it with a nine-iron to see how much licking would stop its ticking (not much, as it turned out)."
It's going back on my shelf. I need to find some books I don't like.

Friday, December 16, 2011


An engaging, inspiring read about the two teachers who started the KIPP Schools (Knowledge is Power Program) to help low-income, at-risk students graduate from high school. The two teachers Mathews describes, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, began their careers in the Teach For America program; they're doggedly persistent and passionate, but humble, openly admitting that they don't have all the answers and that they made plenty of mistakes along the way. The book isn't polemical but offers plenty of insights about education and what worked for these teachers and these kids.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Nancy E. Turner, THESE IS MY WORDS

I stayed up until 3 a.m. last night reading this one--one of my new TOP 10 picks for the year. Based on the story of her great-grandmother's life in the Arizona Territories (1881-1901), Turner wrote the book as a diary that Sarah Prine begins in her late teens as she and her family set out for Texas, with horrible consequences. Part historical tale, part love story, it's gritty and real and poignant. Even the marginal characters are round and well-drawn, with their own wishes and histories. It took me about 20 pages to get in and then I did not put it down; it reminded me of Mrs. Mike, another memoir about a girl carving out a life in the wilderness. This book won the Arizona Author Award and was a finalist for the Willa Cather.


Enjoyable debut mystery novel starring an investigative reporter (by a former reporter for The Washington Post). Plenty of murder and some good twists, though there are marks of the "first novel"--things like a page and half on why the newspaper industry is having financial problems and characters whose psychology shifts a bit from beginning to end. But it's an engaging read, and I'd recommend if you're in the mood for a mystery.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Annemarie Selinko, DESIREE

The fictionalized autobiography of Eugenie Desiree Clary, daughter of a silk merchant of Marseilles, former fiancee to Napoleon, and wife of Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, later King of Sweden. (Yes, she was a real person, with an almost unreal life.) One of my favorite novels as a teen, it was written in 1951 and translated from the German; it's a good old-fashioned, well-researched, thoroughly engaging read. Takes you through French history from the late days of the Revolution through Napoleon's campaigns, and his death, yet remains Desiree's story. First lines: "A woman can usually get what she wants from a man if she has a well-developed figure. So I've decided to stuff four handkerchiefs into the front of my dress tomorrow; then I shall look really grown up."

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Kathryn Erskine, MOCKINGBIRD

A beautifully written middle-grade about a girl with Asperger's who must come to terms with her older brother's death during a high school shooting. Wonderfully layered, written so words and images play. The "Mockingbird" is (of course) from "To Kill A Mockingbird," which movie Caitlin has watched; her brother calls her Scout; at the time of his death he was working on a chest as part of his Eagle Scout badge. It all fits together, sometimes in unexpected ways. National Book Award Winner.

Michael Morpurgo, WAR HORSE

A well-written middle-grade (a runner up for the Whitbread) that has captured the attention of plenty ... partly because now it's been turned into a Broadway show and a major motion picture. I found myself making comparisons with Lassie Comes Home (the desperate trek back to the one True Master) and Black Beauty (there's even a scene, as with BB and Ginger, when Joey, the War Horse, sees his friend and former harness-mate dead, having been worn to pieces by man's cruelty). In Black Beauty, Anna Sewell constructed an argument against animal cruelty (remember the bearing rein?!); here, Morpurgo has an antiwar message. I don't mean that this book is a re-do or even derivative--only that there are deep mythic structures of homecoming, longing (for love, for peace), and loss that I think tend to find their way into books about anthropomorphized animals because they are so painful; but, as in fantasy novels, we can read about them at one remove from ourselves.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Stephen Kelman, PIGEON ENGLISH

Shattering first novel about a boy from Ghana who has just moved to the London projects with his mother and two sisters. He's eleven and observant (which is charming for the reader, but deadly for the boy), and despite the senseless murder that opens the book, and the fallout from it, his voice remains frank and hopeful: "Manik's papa's quite hutious. He's always red-eyes. He knows swordfighting. Asweh, I'm glad I'm not Manik's enemy! Manik's papa put my tie on for me and made the knot. He showed me how to take the tie off without untying it. You just make a hole big enough to get your head through then you take the tie off over your head That way you don't have to tie the tie every day. It even works. Now I'll never have to tie my tie my whole life. I beat the tie at his own game!"
Harri has several (human) friends and also finds a friend in a pigeon that flies into his window--a benevolent pigeon whose voice comes in italics and who is an intermediary between the boy and God. (Sounds bizarre, but it works.) The narrative has two levels--Harri's 11-year-old related experience of the violent events around him and the reader's experience, for the boy's narrative reveals more than he knows. Beautifully done.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Books for the young reader: Between Judy Moody and Twilight

Do you have one of those Avid Upper Middle-Grade Readers?

Signs include: anywhere from 1-6 books lying half-read, spine-up, on furniture around the house at the end of the day (which you know you shouldn't pick up, teaches them all the wrong habits--grin); the phrase "Yeah, Mom, at the end of the chapter" uttered when asked to do chores; a flashlight under her pillow; a sensory dysfunction that manifests itself as an inability to hear when her olfactory organ is in a book.

I'm often asked, what do you let your 11-year-old reader read? People will tell me their daughters (it's usually girls) can read virtually anything (so far as skill level, sentence structure, and vocabulary) but need themes that are emotionally relevant for a middle-grader (roughly age 8-13). She's beyond Judy Moody, but not ready for Twilight. Well, here is my list of titles (supplemented by suggestions from my own AUMGR). Some of these are reviewed elsewhere on my blog.

Do you have any to add? My daughter's burned through these, and I'm still looking!! : )

Relatively new releases (as in things that weren't around when I was an AUMGR)

Diane Stanley, The Silver Bowl
William Goldman, The Princess Bride
M. Ende, The Neverending Story
Rebecca Stead, When You Reach Me
Michael Mopurgo, War Horse (will be a movie soon)
Sharon Creech, The Wanderer and Walk Two Moons
Michelle Houts, The Beef Princess of Practical County
Andrew Clements, Things Not Seen and Things Hoped For
Julia Durango, Sea of the Dead (historical adventure)
Gennifer Choldenko, Al Capone Does My Shirts and sequels (historical, about a boy whose father takes a job on Alcatraz, by turns funny and poignant)
Linda Sue Park, A Single Shard
Ann Rinaldi, Cast Two Shadows; The Fifth of March; The Coffin Quilt; The Hidden Staircase (verges on YA, complicated themes); this writer offers solid historical fiction about girls; well-drawn plots and settings, ie. Civil War, the Hatfield-McCoys, a New Mexico convent; some are better than others)
Patterson, Bridge to Terabithia (must confess I've never liked this one, but my daughter does)
Gail Carson Levine, Enchanted (she has other titles as well, in this vein) and Two Princesses of Bamarre
Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book
Paula Fox, The Slave Dancer
Ann M. Martin, A Corner of the Universe
Laurie Halse Anderson, Fever, Chains and Forged (but maybe steer clear of her novel Speak, about date rape, for this UMG group)
Kirby Larson, Hattie Big Sky
Karen Cushman, The Midwife's Apprentice
Kate DeCamillo, The Tiger Rising
Hale, Princess Academy
Lesley Blume, Tennyson
John Grogan, Marley & Me

Classics (books I read as an AUMGR)

(NOTE: these books often depended less on immediate thrilling action and--hate to say it--tend to be better written than some of the fare out there these days; if your child is reluctant, read some aloud; sometimes it "takes")

Madeline L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time, Wind in the Door, Swiftly Tilting Planet
Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie series (the later ones, esp. Little Town on the Prairie, are better for AUMGRs; early ones are a bit "young")
Carol Ryrie Brink, Caddie Woodlawn (tomboy girl growing up in Wisconsin; good for younger AUMGR)
Elizabeth George Speare, The Witch of Blackbird Pond (historical adventure/romance, but clean)
Scott O'Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins; Thunder Rolling in the Mountains; The Black Pearl; Streams to the River, River to the Sea
JC George, Julie of the Wolves
Louisa May Alcott, LIttle Women
LM Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables series
Irene Hunt, Up a Road Slowly (for older AUMGRs; this is probably my favorite UMG/YA book ever; Witch of Blackbird Pond is #2) and Across Five Aprils
CS Lewis's Narnia series
Benedict and Nancy Freedman, Mrs. Mike (16-year-old Katherine moves from Boston to Canada, meets a Mounty, marries; true story, great voice)
The Diary of Anne Frank (for older)
Doughty, Crimson Moccasins

Adventure and other series: If your reader gets hooked, you are off the hook for finding a new book, for a bit. I've starred the books that have high "boy" appeal.

*John Flanagan's "The Ranger's Apprentice" series about a young boy who trains to be a spy in a fantasy world that sounds a lot like England/Scotland (about 10 books in the series)
Brandon Mull, The Fablehaven Series
The Penderwicks (and sequels)
Trenton Lee Stewart, The Mysterious Benedict Society and sequels
*Barry/Pearson, Peter and the Starcatchers series (about Peter Pan before he was Peter Pan; about half a dozen in the series)
*Chris Bradford, The Young Samurai series (may be too scary, dark for some; I'd recommend for the 10+ crowd)
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (OK, the premise is dark ... kids fighting kids to the death in an arena at the direction of evil politicians ... but it is "clean," with no sex, no swearing; it is primarily a book about teenage alliances; and Katniss the heroine rocks. NOT for every reader, but for some older middle-graders.) This is the first in a trilogy; the others are Catching Fire, Mockingjay (and the good guys win); compulsively readable
Kathryn Lasky, Guardians of Ga'hoole series
Anything by Rick Riordan--he has three series out right now, my daughter says
Sarah Prineas, The Magic Thief series
The Royal Diaries series from Scholastic (Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, etc.)
Jessica Day George, Dragon Flight series
Angie Sage, the Septimus Heap series (Magyk is the first)
Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass trilogy
Harry Potter (of course)

Sunday, October 16, 2011


The author is a poet (*Primitive*, 1991 and *Ashland*, 2003), and some of the language makes me a bit envious, wishing I'd written it myself. It never sounds as good out of context, but here's some excerpts: "the horses began to walk alert, their ears scissoring with curiosity"; "the ground around them [was] poxed with fallen fruit that lay in layers of years, squelching beneath the horses' hooves"; he had a "look on his face that would etch glass." Much of it made me want to reread the lines for their sound and freshness.
But the plot felt thin to me. A woman kills her husband (he's unambiguously rotten; he abandons her on their honeymoon night to gamble, losing $50 and a watch, and then cheats on her); and his two brothers chase her through the West in 1903. That's the story. In the wilderness, she meets a man who takes care of her and sleeps with him; she meets a man who takes care of her and then meets his wife; she meets a man who takes care of her and moves in with him. (The narrator recognizes the repetition: "Here she was, wandering behind a man again.") Finally she gets caught by the two brothers. Breaks out of jail. Hooks back up with man #1.
There's plenty of tension in the "chase" narrative ... I (for one) know those frightful nightmares of being chased by someone who comes closer and closer and nearly nabs me. But aside from the fact that she's not very good with horses or snares, we don't know much about the widow Mary. Maybe that's why I just didn't care that much about her, whether she lived or died, whether she was caught or not. Another reader might feel differently, maybe especially if they like stories set in the American West at the turn of the century.
But this was Adamson's first novel, and I would give her next one a look.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


By turns heart-rending and hilarious, this is Fuller's memoir of her mother, who, it seems at the outset, has not quite managed to forgive her daughter for writing what she calls the "Awful Book" (the title is never named; I imagine she means DON'T LETS GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT, which laid bare Alexandra's peculiar and at times traumatic childhood).
Prose is lovely and quirky and witty as usual. Opening line: "Our Mum--or Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, as she has on occasion preferred to introduce herself--has wanted a writer in the family as long as either of us can remember, not only because she loves books and has therefore always wanted to appear in them (the way she likes large, expensive hats, and likes to appear in *them*) but also because she has always wanted to live a fabulously romantic life for which she needed a reasonably pliable witness as scribe."
The cover shows Nicola with her first best friend, a chimpanzee, who is dressed in a blue jumper that matches her own. It's all very curious ... otherworldly ... and at times painfully sad. Nicola loses three of her five children, survives a brutal war, and relocates again and again with her husband, the pair of them seeming at various times happily aimless, uneasily restless, and searching for something unnamable. But by the end, it seems that the Awful Book has become something of a joke that the mother and daughter share, and that Nicola's governing characteristic is her resilience.

Geraldine Brooks, CALEB'S CROSSING

Another wonderful historical novel from Brooks, this one set in the 1660s on the small island of Noepe (Martha's Vineyard) and at Harvard. Narrated by a Calvinist minister's daughter, Bethia Mayfield, it begins with pages that she writes, from the time she is 15, as she looks back on her friendship with a boy she calls Caleb, a Wampanoag who eventually goes to the "Indian College" at Harvard, created for their conversion. As usual with Brooks, many of her sentences sing: "The tasks stretch out from the gray slough before dawn to the guttered taper of night. ... I love the fogs that wreathe us all in milky veils, and the winds that moan and keen in the chimney piece at night." Caleb's father Tequamuck is a seer who predicts the destruction the Europeans will bring; it's embodied in the brilliant, passionate boy who tries to cross from one culture to the other. Knowing how the story would end didn't matter; I found myself dreading it all the way.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Erik Larson, IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS: Love, Terror and an American Fami

Like many other people I know, I loved Larson's DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY. But I was disappointed in BEASTS; I have to confess I read the first few hundred pages but didn't finish it. I think the topic of an ambassador's family in 1930s Berlin is fascinating and important; but while DEVIL had that wonderful dual-plot structure (vicious murders/building of the World's Fair), this book seems to be structured as a serial accounting of the different Nazis that the ambassador's daughter flirted with, talked with (including Hitler), or slept with. Part of my problem was that I didn't find her engaging as a character--although perhaps my expectations are unfair, the result of 20/20 hindsight, an understanding she couldn't possibly have; she is by turns persistently astonished by what she sees around her and sympathetic to Germany's right to rise up.


A good murder mystery/midwest tale. Told in two time periods: when Jody is 3 and her father is killed and her mother disappears; and when Jody is in her twenties and the supposed murderer Billy Crosby is set free by his newly-minted lawyer son. There are very few cliches here--Billy doesn't reform; and the murders mount. But once I found out whodunnit, I felt vaguely disappointed because although there were many clues (as to whodunnit) that pointed to other people, there were few (if any) clues, psychological or circumstantial, (and I breezed back through the book) pointing to the person who had. I always find that a bit of a trick. But Pickard writes wonderfully--some moments just lift off the page.

Monday, August 8, 2011


The battle of the Pacific in WWII.
This is how I get my history lessons, having done a bad job with social studies in high school. But I have to say I've been disappointed in his last two books. The first ones Shaara wrote--particularly on the Civil War and WWI--were so tightly woven, and layered, with the story told from a variety of perspectives and every voice different. War is a horror, of course; but these earlier books were more about history and individual experiences and fears. These last have felt rushed and less carefully written, and capture much less of the personal experiences of the soldiers and airmen involved. I found myself missing them.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Hillary Jordan, MUDBOUND

Wow, what a knockout of a novel. (I'm not the first to say so ... my friend Barbara thrust it at me, insisting it was one of the best things she'd read in a while ... oh, and it won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction.) Set in the Mississippi Delta during WWII, it tells the story of a white man's farm where sharecropping still takes place. Told from five different perspectives ... yes, they all sound different, hooray, the white soldier doesn't sound like the black midwife ... it's a story about money, rage, racism, what war does to people, how war and race intersect, what fathers do to sons, how our private fears and longings can have profound public consequences. The only part that jarred--and this is because the book feels so very fresh and original in other ways--was the part where the black soldier Ronsel liberates Dachau. I've already read accounts, including how Americans gave out chocolate and unintentionally killed people. But that's the one little bit that felt recycled (and I'm not saying it didn't belong) in an otherwise original, suspenseful, brilliant book.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


An unusual novel, about a girl named Rose who, beginning on her 9th birthday, can taste people's emotions in her food. So she can taste when her mother is depressed, angry, cannot choose which of her many talents to pursue, begins to have an affair. Her brilliant brother Joe also has an unusual talent--he turns into furniture and disappears. Near the end of the book, the father of this curious duo--whose own father wore a "strap" around his nose because he could smell things about people--admits to Rose the reason he cannot step into hospitals: because he senses that he might discover his special talent. She longs to drag him to a hospital, but he refuses. The book is thick with physical details (tastes, smells, sounds); the effect is strange, both real and allegorical, and I felt a lingering sadness after reading.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Patricia Reilly Giff, WILD GIRL

Tween novel about a girl named Lidie, a talented horse rider, who dreams of racing horses. Her father and brother left Brazil years before to start a life, planning to send for her. The novel begins the day she leaves Brazil to join them in New York. There, she discovers the difficulties of navigating other people's expectations. She must assimilate to a new environment (her English is not fluent, and her teacher doesn't understand that she is advanced in math) and find a way to reintegrate herself with her father and brother, who still think she likes pink and Minnie Mouse and doesn't know how to sit a horse. Told partly by "Wild Girl," a filly her father has bought and partly in first-person by Lidie.

Carolyn Marsden, MOON RUNNER

A brief, delicately drawn book about a girl who learns that she likes to run and then must choose between beating her best friend in a race (and possibly losing the friendship) or losing on purpose. Her coach lets her join the relay and she and her friend can race and win together.

Sherri L Smith, FLYGIRL

An engaging historical YA about a black girl from 1940s Louisiana, Ida Mae Jones, who's light-skinned enough to pass for white and who learned how to fly a crop-duster from her father. After Pearl Harbor, when the Americans join the war, she wants to apply for the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots), ferrying and testing aircraft. But she has to pass not only her qualifying pilot tests in the very Jim Crow town of Sweetwater, Texas but also the "white" test and the "woman" test (in a wholly male Army). Some clumsy bits early on, with scenes that feel a bit inserted to "show" the conflict between her old life and new, vis-a-vis a black boy she knew in school and her best friend Jolene, who is too black to pass. But once Ida Mae reaches Sweetwater, Texas, the story rolls out wonderfully, with Ida Mae courageously trying to found her identity on what she does (fly) rather than her skin color.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


An historical novel about a 19-year-old female "horse whisperer" named Martha Lessen during WWI, who creates a circuit for herself of twelve horses that need to be "broke" among a group of farms in Oregon--but she does it the good way. It's a coming-of-age story, about a young woman finding her somewhat unconventional place in the world, and a romance (with both horses and a man named Henry), but I loved best how some of the minor characters are so well sketched, how Gloss captures voices. She has a wonderful, sometimes wry, turn of phrase, sometimes for the narrator (it's told in 3rd person) and sometimes to give us an immediate feel for her characters. "There was turnip and carrot in the soup, and a chicken may have run through the pot on its way to somewhere else, or more likely this was one of the meatless days that had become patriotic in the last few months." And Louise (whose husband first gives Martha a job): "Well my goodness, I have a sister and a cousin both named Martha, so that's a name will come easy to my lips." An enjoyable read, especially for those who love horses, and clean enough for tweens and up, I think. Gloss's earlier book THE JUMP-OFF CREEK was a finalist for PEN/Faulkner, and I liked this one enough that I'll go find it.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Chris Bohjalian, SECRETS OF EDEN

A literary murder mystery, set in a Vermont small town, in which George strangles and Alice and then kills himself with a gun (or so it seems). The story is told from the points of view of the Baptist pastor of the town (Stephen Drew), the investigator (Catherine), Stephen's new girlfriend who writes about angels (Heather) and whose parents enacted a similar murder/suicide drama, and Katie, the daughter of Alice and George who tells the truth at last. It's well-written and suspenseful; each of the four voices sounds different. (So often multiple points of view sound too much alike.) My only gripe is that Catherine felt like a "stereotypical" woman investigator, tough-talking, sensitive underneath, and willfully wrong about what really happened. But a good read.

Friday, July 15, 2011


Think "Journey to the Center of the Earth" times two. The split account (although the first, Bill Stone's adventure, gets many more pages than the second) of two men (and their crews, some of whom are women) exploring supercaves. The American Bill Stone explores Cheve Cave in southern Mexico; and the Ukrainian Alexander Klimchouk goes into the freezing supercave Krubera in the Republic of Georgia. Both are trying to find the deepest cave on earth. For those who liked "Into Thin Air" or books of that ilk, this is a good one. The accounts of near drowning (and drowning) in silt-filled water thousands of feet below the surface gave me nightmares.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


This enjoyable debut novel gives us two stories in one: the first is a story about a woman named Marina who worked at the Hermitage to wrap and ship paintings out of the Leningrad museum as the Nazis approached the city. From the title (a reference to the many Madonna paintings in the museum), I expected this to be the main storyline. But I came away feeling (in a good way) that it is not; this novel is about memory and how the pieces of past and present fit together, in much the same way the vehicle and tenor (though those categories can be problematic) fit together in a metaphor. The second story is about Marina, now in her eighties and living in the US, experiencing Alzheimer's. Dean has written the narrative in temporally disjointed "fragments"--bouncing from the events of 1941 to present day and back to the short lectures about artists and paintings that Marina would give as a docent. In 1941, another Hermitage worker, Anya, explains to Marina a memory trick: when she had to memorize the entire Law of God, all the Roman emperors and their reigns, etc. she created a memory palace, where the rug, or door, reminded her of x or y, so she could remember it. Marina begins to create her own memory palace, to remember the palace (Hermitage) and which paintings were in which rooms. (This is why I feel the book plays with notions of memory, metaphor, and literal meanings.) In the end, when Marina goes missing (like a painting), her family searches for her, and we readers (privy to her memories the way her children and her husband are not) understand the logic of what she's done.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


Another very good, beautifully written YA novel from the writer of WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED, with the same sort of high stakes and rich emotion. 17-year-old Kit Corrigan from Providence goes to New York to pursue her dream of becoming a dancer and actress. Providence and New York are linked through her--because she connects Billy Benedict, the angry boy she loves, with his father Nate, who is a mob lawyer and longs to make amends by giving Kit an apartment in New York when she desperately needs it (though there are "strings attached"), with her father who once was Nate's bootlegging partner, and with her aunt Delia who was once Nate's mistress in that very apartment. Her past is full of lies and bribes, deaths and sudden disappearances that she doesn't know about or understand, and this book slowly unwinds that past until she does.

Saturday, July 9, 2011


There's been so much praise for this book that I don't feel I need to add any. It's a triple narrative: the story of a black woman with cervical cancer whose cells were taken without her knowledge by a (white) researcher at Johns Hopkins in the mid-1900s; the story of the field of cellular research, including its uneven development; and the story of a persistent journalist trying to write Lacks's story with erratic, emotional help from her (impoverished, dysfunctional) family. Told with compassion and in a straightforward voice, it's a page-turner. (Who knew the story of some cervical cells could be such a compelling read?) Plenty of complexity and many gray areas.


A great upper-middle-grade novel. Otherworldly, set in Baja California. The protagonist is a boy named Ramon Salazar whose father runs a fleet of boats that hunt for pearls. Ramon goes off on his own to find a huge black pearl that seems to have evil powers--an ability to encourage people's ambition, desire, and greed. Great reading for the tween set.


This novel is brilliant and sharp-edged and so clever I felt like my neurons were firing faster when I was reading it. It's sort of like a double serving of Starbucks latte, particularly chapter 9 by Jules Jones who is brilliant and manic. (Each chapter is focalized through a different character, with a distinct voice, either in third or first person.) Even her most incidental descriptions are cuttingly original. It's never ideal to take an author's words out of context because they never sound as clever but here are a few, of many: Sasha had commandeered two seats at a low table, a setup that made [her uncle] Tom feel like an ape, knees jammed under his chin. * [I wondered] how my ex-wife had managed to populate New York with thousands of women who looked nothing like her but still brought her to mind.
However, I found myself having a hard time caring about these characters--the pathological shoplifter, the schizophrenic who throws a fish onto his old friend's desk, the uncle who takes money from Sasha's mother to find her in Italy but instead spends all his time looking at art, the famous music exec who cheats on his wife with young girls hoping to make it big in the music industry. Maybe this is supposed to be a Fateful Warning to those of us who might live to see the world in the last chapter, where everyone texts instead of talks and global warming has turned New York City hot in January. Maybe it's because I'm coming off of Julia Glass, but I feel like there is very little softness, or compassion, or forgiveness in this book. Maybe that's the point.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


A beautifully crafted novel about the feelings and events and histories that bind people together. I found it interesting that Glass linked this book back to THREE JUNES through the character of Fenno. It's almost as if she created the link between those two novels to suggest (go meta? we do have a psychotherapist in this novel, named Alan) the ways that connections among people (characters) become apparent over time (through plot). In this novel, a group of about a dozen characters with seemingly disparate stories begin to forge connections--through an act of generosity such as helping to take care of a box of stray puppies, a common interest such as high-end cooking, a similar experience such as being a single adult wanting to adopt a child. Glass's characters are flawed but mostly kind, and though the book ends with 9/11 (the "crash" that brings together nearly everyone who survives) it's an optimistic novel. I loved how layered the novel is--there are references to everything from the lyrics to Broadway musicals to a dozen children's books to cooking recipes with esoteric spices. When I was in grad school they called this "intertextuality"--and I guess I see this novel drawing the links among all these texts as a metaphor for the links among these characters. Not that this is a novel with a message, but it's easy to take away the idea that we have only to look carefully (or be thrown into a particular situation) to see the connections.

Gennifer Choldenko, AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS

A solid middle-grade novel about a boy who moves to Alcatraz during the 1930s. His sister Natalie has something "wrong" (we might call it Asperger's); his father works two jobs at Alcatraz and is never around; his mother struggles to find a cure for Natalie; his neighbor is a pretty troublemaker who lures him into her schemes. Well-written, realistic but clean read for the tween crowd.

Tony Earley, JIM THE BOY

Written in 2000, a charming story of a boy growing up in 1930s in a small town in North Carolina, with a heap of uncles and a single mother because his father (Jim the dad) died right before Jim the boy was born. It's told in third-person but focalized through the ten-year-old Jim's perspective. First line: "During the night something like a miracle happened: Jim's age grew an extra digit. He was nine years old when he went to sleep, but ten years old when he woke up. The extra number had weight, like a muscle, and Jim hefted it like a prize." But despite the wide-eyed boy's perspective that this first line suggests, Jim is no saint and this story isn't just sweet--it alludes to some fairly grisly pieces of American history, a mother who is too wrapped up in her husband's death, a horrible grandfather, the clash between mountain-folk and town-folk. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


This memoir is very engaging--and by turns harrowing, insightful, other-worldly. Retief's father is a computer programmer for the research department at Kruger National Park in South Africa, so among other things young Retief learns that there are 517 varieties of birds in the park and how it feels to come to school and find four lions on the basketball courts. The plot arc that governs the book, it seems to me, is Retief learning (or mislearning) about the links among sexuality, race, and violence and then unlearning them. So if at age 12 he links sexuality (and homosexuality) with violence because of the white prefect John who sexually and physically abuses him at his boarding school (I was physically wincing through this section), he unlearns the link later and begins to connect sexuality with love. Several times he writes about "that great cycle of apartheid violence--the apparatus whereby white boys are bullied when young so that they later they will know how to beat blacks into continued submission." I don't mean to make this sound like a "teaching" memoir--it's compulsively readable--but it provided a window into a world I don't know.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


This novel reminded me of Jane Austen. Not only does it concern "three or four families in a country village" in England, but there is a gently satiric tone that recalls Austen. This novel, set in Edgecombe St. Mary, portrays an older gentleman (with a fairly obnoxious money-driven son, at moments as ridiculous as Mr. Collins) who falls in love with the Pakistani shopkeeper Mrs. Ali and sends shock waves through the town. Mrs. Ali is almost an Elizabeth Bennet, with a sharp-eyed wit. A friend told me the book was "too slow"; but I didn't find it so. It is not a "page-turner," but as in Austen's novels, the plot turns on small events, gestures, or a word spoken out of turn, with the utmost attention paid to delicate shades of feelings.

Thursday, May 26, 2011


I loved this book. Unexpectedly.

It's from a dog's point-of-view, which has been done before (and sometimes not very well). This "dog-teller" conceit provides a knowledge "triangle": on one side are the humans who know some things; Enzo provides a second side of the "truth" that only he can provide: Eve's not moody; she smells funny because she's got something wrong inside. Zoe's not willful because she's two; she's refusing to eat her chicken nuggets because they've gone bad. And what Enzo reports, we clever readers can piece together with what we know about the world (side #3) so we know even more than the dog! (Kudos to us.) Also, the governing metaphor of life as car-race has also been done before, although not so well or with so much good, feels real detail. (Tom Cruise in a bad movie ... ?)

But never mind what's been done before, differently, or not so well. This book is tender and true, with very few false notes. No perfect characters and several infuriating ones, whose worst comes out when they have to confront the worst. A very good read ... even for those without dogs. Bring kleenex.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Christina Haag, COME TO THE EDGE

A well-crafted memoir by the actress Haag who had an on-again, off-again romance with John F. Kennedy, Jr. This is not a prurient memoir, for those who are looking for the ugly "skinny" on the Kennedy family. This is Haag's story, and she begins with her affluent childhood and her schooling with the nuns at the Convent of the Sacred Heart on the Upper East Side; then her days at Brown and Juilliard for training in acting; her years spent taking parts in plays and bits in movies until she hit her stride; and her years of being, quite tenderly and deeply, in love. Most interesting to me, so far as insight into John Jr.'s psyche (which I must admit has never really captured my interest), was the episode when CH and JJr are vacationing in Jamaica. She has a broken leg; the two of them are in a kayak, without the rubber apron, without a bailer, quite ill-prepared. John pushes to try to make it to shore, to the beautiful beach, and despite her fear and resistance, they go. They nearly die trying to get in; then they nearly die trying to get back out. Afterwards, Christina is still shaken, angry and upset. "We could have died!" she tells him. "What a way to go," is his response.


I was looking for a tale about 1790s British nautical history and found it here. Swashbuckling popular yarn, complete with a gangly hero who proves his worth unexpectedly. Dated 1948.


This book tells the story of the great migration of six million Blacks from the South to the North over the course of about three generations. She slips back and forth between the biographical tales of three particular people (Ida Mae, who moved from Mississippi to Chiciago; George, Florida to Harlem; Robert, Louisiana to Los Angeles) and a general, well-researched historical discussion (that at times repeats). But the historical discussion is broad and astonishing. It addresses social, geographical, economic, and political aspects of race relations from 1920s-1970s; it also debunks several "myths" about blacks moving North that have unfortunately been taken, and perpetuated, for truths. Half-way through this book, I found myself amazed that race relations in this country are not worse than they are.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Brilliant and poignant. Set in contemporary India, two women's lives cross and re-cross in ways they don't find out until later. Ties of gender overruled, in the end, by class lines. Beautifully done.

Elizabeth Brundage, THE DOCTOR'S WIFE

What's interesting is EB puts the ending first ... the doctor is almost murdered and thrown into a basement. The rest of the book is finding out how he ended up there. My only gripes (and they're minor) are: (1) there is no nuance to the representation of the pro-lifers ... they pretty much all come off as complete whack-jobs (I'm pro-choice); (2) at the end, after she's made some astoundingly bad choices, the doctor's wife pretty much gets off scot-free. However, it's harrowing, dark, and a compelling page-turner ... I'd buy another by her ... but right now I am feeling in need of a very lite joke book.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Nothing to do with Tiger Moms! A beautiful, lyrical book, equal parts raw experience and magic. Natalia, a doctor, bravely crosses a new border in a war-torn countryside to bring desperately-needed vaccines to an orphanage; but to find her grandfather who recently died, she must listen to stories of a deathless man who gambles with her grandfather for a copy of The Jungle Book, and a tiger that was tamed by a deaf-mute and then chewed its own legs off. I found myself unevenly engaged--some parts were more compelling than others--but it's a very good debut novel by a writer who is only 25 (and looks about 16, by her picture).

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Good writing and a wicked, twisted plot, set in Victorian England (my favorite). Two girls, set against each other by a vicious swindler only ever called "Gentleman" and a woman whose maternal instincts are ... shall we say, awry. Great historical details and plenty of evil and murk. My one gripe is the repetition: part 1 is told by Sue; part 2 is mostly the same events, told by Maud; part 3 is back to Sue. And I'm not sure that part 2 couldn't have been cut down to represent just Maud's childhood, until the Sue and Maud plots cross ... especially since I found the two girls' voices very similar. But a great, thrilling read.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Chris Cleeve, INCENDIARY

Almost as harrowing as LITTLE BEE. He wrote this one first; I've never seen the movie; I'm not sure I could watch it. This novel probably has one of the most compelling first-person voices I've read--I almost wrote heard--it's that much of a "voice"--in a while. She loses her son and her husband in a bombing; and this narrative is an open letter to Osama bin Laden. Opening lines: "Dear Osama they want you dead or alive so the terror will stop. Well I wouldn't know about that I mean rock 'n' roll didn't stop when Elvis died on the khazi it just got worse. Next thing you know there was Sonny & Cher and Dexys Midnight Runners. I'll come to them later. My point is it's easier to start these things than to finish them. I suppose you thought of that did you?" One of the many elements that makes this novel almost poetic is the way the content and theme go hand-in-hand. If you've read LB, you can guess this book (INCENDIARY) is not going to have much in the way of closure. And that's part of the wretchedly sad point. There is no finish. And in this book, he suggests this from the shape and content of these first sentences to the structure of the whole narrative arc. Painful, but good.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Joyce Carol Oates, A WIDOW'S STORY

JCO's memoir of the four months following her husband's sudden death from pneumonia. Heartfelt, sensitive, at times sharp, and beautifully written. It took me a full week to read; it's too intense to be read quickly. Comparisons with Joan Didion's YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING are inevitable, although I found the books quite different in tone. The small bits JCO writes about the doctors and hospitals I found alarming and infuriating ... her husband died of an infection acquired at the hospital; the nurse Jasmine is horridly insensitive and inappropriate; her own doctor (Dr. M--, with the exception of Jasmine, JCO names no names) stupidly misdiagnoses her shingles the first time around. But mostly I was left with a feeling of astonishment--that everything she wrote about--the visits to and from friends, the Fed-Ex and UPS sympathy deliveries, the emails and letters, her life with the cats, her lectures, planting the garden, the "death tasks"--happened in four months. Also very interesting was how she finally read the partial manuscript that her husband left behind, in which he represents her (as the character "Vanessa") and she speaks of the artist's need to be able to write and let go.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


This reminded me of Jamie Zeppa's memoir of her two years in Bhutan. In this, the young American Grennan signs up for 3 months of volunteer work with children in Nepal (he claims it's a great line to use in bars) and gets sucked into loving these orphans, many of whom were trafficked away from their families. At the time when the Maoist rebels and the King's forces are at war, he tries to reunite the children with their parents, begin an orphanage, and start Next Generation Nepal. An engaging read.

Monday, February 28, 2011


This one was given to me by one of my most trustworthy reader friends (i.e., I don't think he's ever passed me a dud), but he warned me that this is not a page-turner. And he's right. It's a book to relish rather than race through--in fact, I found myself turning back at times to reread pages. At points, I found it a bit "writerly," with its metaphors. But most of it is genius. The plot? A young Dutch man (de Zoet) is a clerk for the Dutch East Indes Co., in 1799 on Dejima, a small island in Nagasaki Harbor. He's betrothed to Anna (back in Holland), but falls in love with Orito Aibagawa, a midwife with a startling burn on her face. Then Orito is spirited off to a strange shrine where the women are "engifted" by monks, only to have their newborns vanish. I won't tell any more (that's enough of a spoiler). Although the main "action" takes place over only a year, the novel has the feel of an epic. And (perhaps not surprising, giving the time period) it felt to me to have many of the same themes as late-18th and 19th-century novels. Trollope comes to mind first, with his themes of corruption and honor, how everyone has a price, whether it's money (easy to refuse, though most characters in this novel don't) or a beloved friend's life (much harder). Also Dickens, with his consciousness about language and representation (especially during the scenes where Jacob has to translate words like "repercussions" and explain the criminal connotations of the phrase "in broad daylight"); and the depictions of how vilely cruel one person can be to another.

Perhaps the thing I loved most was the cast of characters beyond Jacob; they all had such distinct voices. Excerpts never quite do a novel justice, but here is Fiacre Muntervary, explaining how he became a thief and prisoner: "We pawned Da's tools, but soon enough me, ma, five sisters, an' one little brother, Padraig, were living in a crumbling barn, where Padraig caught a chill, an' that's one less mouth to feed. Back in the city I tried the docks, the breweries, I tried feckin' everything, but no luck. So back I went to the pawnbroker ... and he says '[Your father's tools're] sold, handsome, but it's winter an' folks need coats. I pay shiny shillings for good coats. You understand me?'" And here's Van Cleef, on how he ended up in bed with his aunt Gloria: "Oh, lawful wedlock, awful bedlock yes, yes, ... Batavia-born I was, but sent to Amsterdam to learn the gentlemanly arts: how to spout bastard Latin, how to dance like a peacock, and how to cheat at cards. ... My 'aunt Gloria' was four years my junior and one-third the age of her proud groom [my cruel uncle] ... Gloria, you must remember, had rarely gone beyond the Singel Canal. Java was as far off as the moon. Farther, in fact, for the moon is, at least, visible from Amsterdam."

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Stacy Schiff, CLEOPATRA

This was another bookclub pick, and it seemed a sure thing. (As a side note, does anyone out there remember the movie The Sure Thing? I first saw it in college and caught part of it on TV the other night. Wow, Cusack was young back then. Oh yeah, so was I. Hm.)
Anyway, CLEOPATRA is everywhere. It's been on the bestseller list for weeks. It has received glowing reviews. Schiff is an acknowledged talent. So I was perplexed when everyone in my bookclub except for two hardy souls bailed on the book. Most gave it the required fifty-page try before pronouncing it "a slog," "unengaging," and "disappointing." Then, while traveling recently, I saw a friend who belongs to two bookclubs in the midwest. She said that with only one exception, everyone in both clubs had disliked it and failed to finish it.
So I sat down to study the book, curious to find out why it didn't seem to engage this disparate group of readers (most of whom are pretty omnivorous).
I think part of the problem is that--as with a trailer that doesn't quite match the movie--we have a certain set of expectations when we open a book called CLEOPATRA, as opposed to a book called, say, TAXATION IN THE 1960S. The book cover is marvelous, exotic, coy--the model's shoulders are draped in vibrant red that shades to rich purple; her hair is tidily pinned, but tendrils escape; her face, turned away, is barely visible but beautiful all the same. We've all read the myths and stories about Cleopatra. They're sensational, larger than life, intriguing. And perhaps unconsciously, we approach this book expecting to be intrigued, engaged, passionately interested from the first page.
But this book lacks two of the ingredients that tend to draw readers in: dialog and scenes. For example, at one point early on, Schiff describes Cleopatra's education: "Aeschylus and Sophocles, Hesiod, Pindar, and Sappho, would all have been familiar to Cleopatra and the clique of well-born girls at her side. As much for her as for Caesar, there was little regard for what was not Greek. She probably learned even her Egyptian history from three Greek texts. Some schooling in arithmetic, geometry, music, and astrology and astronomy ... She read aloud or was read to by teachers or servants." I'm not saying this sort of synopsis is a flaw. But I think most readers would be more engaged by a scene showing Cleopatra with her tutor.
So then I wondered if Schiff was reluctant to perform this smudging of the line between biography and historical fiction. I love historical fiction. I willingly--no gladly!--suspend my disbelief. I'm thinking of the works of, say, Jeff Shaara, in which he imagines the arguments between Eisenhower and Patton, for example. I don't believe for a minute that Shaara is accurately representing the words that were said between the two men (or that he expects us to think he is). But I'm thoroughly sucked in. And consider UNBROKEN. For all the accomplished research, the book is a page-turner because we are provided harrowing scenes, with dialog (accurate or not--and let's not even get into the problems of translating the Japanese to English). In striving to win readers to their version of the "truth," these writers (Shaara and Hillenbrand) could be said to sacrifice "accuracy." And if Schiff wants to stay closer to biography than historical fiction, so be it. But then a friend told me that she was listening to NPR and Schiff described the work as historical fiction. (I confess I haven't looked up that NPR string.)
Schiff's scholarship is ambitious and thorough. I'd say that a successful read of this book may simply require managing expectations. That said, I'd be interested in another book about Cleopatra. If anyone out there knows of a good one, please comment.


This was a bookclub pick. I cannot say I enjoyed it very much. (Spoiler alert.) The plot hangs on an unlikely device: two girls are switched at the hospital just after birth. And it just so happens that the two girls, who were born on the same day, have a father in common! This man (he cheated on his wife one night in the middle of a storm) says nothing to fix the mistake. In fact, when his wife mentions her concerns, he stonewalls her.
The book is told from the two girls' perspectives, in alternating chapters. (We're seeing a lot of this in novels of the last few years; when done well, as in Little Bee or The Postmistress, it makes for an interesting read.) The problem is that in this book, the girls' voices are virtually indistingishable from each other. However, their appearances are not--so much so that the reader catches on to the fact that the daughters have been switched someplace before the middle of the book. How is it that most of the characters fail to notice that one girl is short and sort of dumpy and dark and likes plants (like all the girls in the farmer's family) and one girl is tall and blonde and beautiful and loves to draw (like the artistic mother in the other family)? The "good daughters" metaphor is forced to work hard ... toward the end, we're told that strawberry plants create daughters who are exact replicas of their parents.
I think this book will appeal to those who like Jodi Picoult's work (especially My Sister's Keeper). But it had too much melodrama for me.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


A fun read. Short, lively stories (5-10 pp.) about a young man's adventures over the course of several years. Getting lost on a river with two friends, a first aid kit and some ramen noodles. Nearly being drowned. Being chased by a lion. Overrun with mice. Infatuated with birds. Tipped badly. Tipped well. You get the idea.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

David Benioff, CITY OF THIEVES

I reread this last night. It stands up to a second reading. Don't be thrown by the fact that the protagonist of the story--a young Russian, age fifteen, in 1940s Leningrad--has the last name Beniov and that the story begins with a frame narrative (purportedly) about David Benioff interviewing his grandfather. It's pure fiction. But Benioff wrote the screenplay for KITE RUNNER years ago, and this book reads like a movie--fast-paced and intensely visual. It's the story of two men--the young Beniov and Kolya, a brash, lewd, sly Cossack--who are granted a reprieve for their respective crimes (looting a dead German paratrooper and desertion) and sent by a high-ranking Russian officer to find a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake. In Leningrad people are eating rats and there are no eggs, so the men leave, crossing German enemy lines. No more or I'll spoil it. Nearly everyone I've given the book to liked it, including all the members of my book club, my husband, and my former English teacher. (That's rare.)


My sister went to Bhutan a few years ago and read this book on the plane on the way over--because it was one of the few books she could find written about Bhutan, a small country squeezed between India and Tibet. (It is closed to most tourists, but it is typical for my sister that she knew someone who knew someone in the royal family and was allowed in.) It's a treasure of a memoir, of the "woman immersed and transformed by another culture" ilk, and I found it more satisfying than EAT PRAY LOVE. Zeppa, a young Canadian woman, abandons her thoughts of entering a Ph.D. program to teach English in Bhutan for two years. She spends her first five months in a tiny rural village with sporadic running water, and her remaining time at a university, where she falls in love with one of her students and converts to Buddhism. It's by turns hilarious and poignant and thoughtful.
The best part of my sister's story about this book is that one night she and her friend found themselves in a bar in Bhutan. My sister had a long conversation with one man--extremely good looking, articulate--and finally asked if he's married. He replied, "I was ... I married my English professor .... but my wife and I are divorced, and she moved back to Canada." My sister stared. "Were you married to Jamie Zeppa?" "Yes." (This, too, is the sort of thing that happens to my sister.)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Laura Hillenbrand, UNBROKEN

Holy cow, this one is heartbreaking. Hillenbrand brings the same sort of energy, the same strong plot arc as she drew for SEABISCUIT, to the life of Louie Zamperini, one-time Olympic runner, bombardier on a B-24 in WWII, and survivor of Japanese POW camps. When his plane goes down in the Pacific, he and two other men float for 47 days on a poorly equipped liferaft, with sharks circling. Then he's taken to one horrifyingly inhumane Japanese camp after another, persecuted by a sadist called "the Bird." At times, I had to skip paragraphs and go back to them after I read ahead to find out how he survived. By page 200, I was jumping ahead to the end of the book. Ultimately, it's a story of courage and forgiveness, of letting go the desire for revenge that, left to itself, can bind us to our pasts. But be prepared to stay up half the night reading it. Or wake up in the middle of the night needing to finish it. Yes, it's 4:30 a.m. in Arizona.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Elizabeth Strout, AMY AND ISABELLE

Brilliant and terrifying. In a claustrophobically small mill town (I found myself thinking of Richard Russo), 16-year-old Amy's math teacher begins to molest her, and her mother Isabelle has no idea. Estranged from other people in town (and from her daughter) by what she imagines to be her own dark secrets, Isabelle only finds out because her boss comes upon Amy and Mr. Robertson in his car. Ultimately, the novel is somewhat redemptive--Isabelle finds her place by sharing the truth; but Amy is already almost gone. I'd compare the emotional intensity and the skill of the writing to that of LITTLE BEE.
By the way, has anyone out there read Chris Cleave's newest?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Very enjoyable, as with all Smith's work ... I've realized the reason I like him is he's a bit akin to Jane Austen ... and this book has some of her impulse ... with her "three or four families in a country village" in England. This (Smith's) novel is a small window, with a few characters, to provide a view of what life in the country was like during WWII, when foxes were making their way into henhouses against all efforts to stymie them with slats of wood, and when a Polish airman refuge might really be a German, but he played the flute beautifully. The one peculiarity with this book, and it's not a gripe, really, is that the first 253 pages carefully and delicately represents a short period of time--five or six years, during which La leaves London, moves to the country, plants her vegetables, begins her orchestra, and the war ends. Then in the remaining 40 pages, La goes from 34 years old in 1945 to 50 years old in 1961, with the only consistency being the two times she sees Feliks (the Polish refugee with whom she'd fallen in love). But the book charms.

Paul Auster, SUNSET PARK

Very good. A group of four troubled people, squatting in a Brooklyn house. As is usual with Auster, the characters are round, flawed, psychologically coherent. Miles, one of the four, and the figure at the center of the novel, has run away from his life for seven years, after he shoved his brother into the street, in the middle of a fight, and a car came around the corner, just at the wrong moment. Interesting that Jennifer Donnelly uses the same trope--accidental responsibility for a younger sibling's death--to pitch her heroine into the same trajectory of loss and recovery. Except with Auster's novel, the ending is bizarrely without closure. Just as Miles seems to get it together, he loses it again. And maybe that's the point.

Monday, January 10, 2011


OK, I am a wuss. I wince when I bump myself, say, on the corner of the desk. From now on, I will think, at least I am not shivering in 200 mile-an-hour winds, crouched behind a rock wall, eating freeze-dried spaghetti and suffering from oxygen deprivation. A friend (with whom I hiked the Grand Canyon) passed me this book, partly because the author used to teach at my daughter's school; it turns out he went to my husband's high school, too. The author is blind, and he has climbed some of the world's toughest mountains, including Everest. It's a great story, a good read; he tells his story with plenty of humor, and also some pointed and wry insights about how the world treats, and what the world believes about, blind people.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Cassandra Clare, CLOCKWORK ANGEL

YA, and angels instead of vampires, set in late Victorian London (OK, I'm a sucker for all those historical details). Page-turner for those who liked Twilight series.


Usually I love anything David Liss writes ... and I've recommended his books, particularly THE WHISKEY REBELS, to many friends. But this one ... was it just the holidays? Is that why I couldn't quite slip into his world, because I was too busy in my own? Not sure. But I didn't enjoy this one nearly as much as some of his others. It felt to me ... almost as if he weren't very interested in the fate of Mr. Weaver anymore. Plenty of twists and turns to the plot, though, and as usual, his historical setting feels very rich.

Tatiana de Rosnay, SARAH'S KEY

Like HOTEL, this book takes as its topic another powerful moment in history--the night when French police conspired with Nazi Germany to round up hundreds of Jews and put the on busses into the Velodrom d'Hiver, an enclosure in Paris, where there was no sanitation, next to no food or water, and many died ... and from thence, to Auschwitz. Told in a double-narrative (we're seeing so many these days) between Sarah (1940s) and Mlle. Jarmond (2000s). The personal story at the core of the narrative concerns young Sarah, who, instead of bringing her little brother along when she and her mother and father were dragged out of their apartment, locked the boy into a secret cabinet, promising to return. He died there. Years later (again, the parallels with HOTEL!) an American-French journalist, Jarmond, discovers that her husband is renovating that apartment, bequeathed to him by his father. She is determined to find out what happened to Sarah's family and discovers that Sarah went to America and passed herself off as non-Jewish and French. This is a remarkable story. But I found myself bothered by the romance/baby plotline ... her husband is having an affair with an old flame, a midlife crisis, and Jarmond becomes pregnant; her life-and-death decision about whether to keep the baby (her husband doesn't want, and will divorce her over) is, I think, somehow supposed to parallel and add depth to her decision about whether to pursue the story of Sarah, which her father-in-law is dreading (because he was there at the apartment the day Sarah came back, opened the compartment with her key, and found her brother dead). There are some wonderful sections, especially in the Sarah parts; but the ending (SPOILER ALERT) in which Jarmond ends up marrying Sarah's son feels too tidy to me.


God knows this is a powerful topic: the camps into which Japanese Americans in Seattle (and other areas) were thrown in the early 1940s. Plotwise, this is a love story about a Chinese twelve-year-old boy (Henry) who meets and falls in love with a Japanese girl (Keiko), partly because they are the only two scholarship kids, working in the kitchen, at their school in 1942. Years later, in 1986, he sees the Panama Hotel being excavated ... and realizes that this is where many Japanese stowed their personal valuables and treasures that they could not bring with them into the camps. The most painful and touching moments for me were between Henry and his miserable, angry father, who lives half his mental life back in China, fighting with Chiang Kai-Shek against the Japanese. When Henry becomes friends with Keiko, and visits her in the camp, his father disowns him; even on his deathbed, his father doesn't forgive him, and instead confesses to keeping Keiko's letters from ever reaching Henry--"I did it for you". But I found Henry's dialogues with his son Marty awkward ... at times Henry sounds like he can barely speak English -- "My son is graduating soma como lode" (p. 38). But at others, Henry speaks with absolute fluency--because his parents refused to let him speak any Chinese from the time he was 12. Sometimes, the 12-year-olds seem precocious ... Keiko says, "Henry, this isn't about us. I mean it is, but they don't define you by the button you wear. They define you by what you do, by what your actions say about you ... They see you as a person." And I'm not sure the phrase "street cred" was around in 1986. Maybe? But it's a touching story, and while it's focalized through Henry, the third-person narrator lends an eerie distance that keeps me a bit uneasy through the whole book ... reminded me that I cannot know this experience, not really; there are some people who knew it firsthand. I can only ever be at a distance.