Tuesday, October 15, 2013


I usually love historical murder mysteries, but for some reason I just couldn't connect to this one. It's set in 16th-century Japan, and while the author has clearly researched the period and included some curious and interesting details, I didn't feel a sense of otherness, of "atmosphere." Maybe it's phrases like, "he did all he could to discourage the foolish crush." After page 100, I found myself skipping passages and pages. I didn't much care about Hiro (the detective) or the Portugese priest. They're out to prove the innocence of a girl in the teahouse, but I didn't understand why the victim's family assumed she'd done it when there were other people in and out of the teahouse that night. I also don't tend to like books that have a cliff-hanger  ending most of the chapters, and this one does. "He had almost reached the shadowed space when a voice yelled, 'Help! Murder!'" But this novel gets 4 stars on Goodreads, so I may very well be an outlier here. : )

Monday, October 14, 2013

A C Gaughen, SCARLET

A fun YA about a girl who cross-dresses as Will Scarlet to escape her past. My teenage daughter loved it--partly because this girl is no simpering ninny, but a daring thief who's proficient at knife-throwing and rock-climbing. Truthfully, I felt the plot relied too heavily for its drive on the romance between Scarlet and Robin Hood, and Scarlet is amazingly obtuse about Robin's feelings toward her. The author could have done more with the evil Sheriff of Nottingham plot. But I liked the voice--it's different, spunky, has an edge and some humor. A good read!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

John L. Parker, Jr., ONCE A RUNNER

Not a book I would've picked up on my own; it was given to me by my cousin Mike, who is an avid runner himself. But I liked this one. The voice is not one I've heard before--very masculine, at times awkward, skittish, like the author is trying to put his feet down lightly. It feels appropriate for the voice of Quentin Cassidy, a college runner at a fictional university, who aims at running the mile in under 4 minutes. But the politics at his college intervene, and he finds himself without a college and without even an identity as a runner. But running is a solitary, extreme endeavor ... and with the help of a mentor, he finds his way back to the track. Some of my favorite lines: "He braked his wildly skittering heart."About running, to his sometimes girlfriend Andrea: "the thing itself is the absence of compromise. There are no ... deals available. I wish there was some way to explain that. The thing ... doesn't dilute.""And fate, of course, swings to and fro on tiny hinges; a cable is misplaced and a king assassinated; a vacuum tube blinks and a ship is lost with all hands; a general fails to get laid and thousands are firebombed ..."

Michael Northrop, TRAPPED

YA about a group of seven students trapped inside a school during a blizzard. As the snow climbs higher and higher, tensions and troubles escalate. Stories of sequestered teens often remind me of The Breakfast Club (anybody remember that movie? Molly and Judd and the earring?), though this book is life-and-death, the way so much YA is now. Sometimes I wish more books generated their raw emotional power by way of the interactions among the characters.

Amy Fellner Dominy, OYMG

I read this debut YA last year, after meeting the (friendly and funny!) author at a local writing conference, and just reread it. A Jewish girl goes to a debate camp located in a Christian school. There's prayer and Jesus ... but there's also a really cute boy named Devon and a scholarship at stake. The book traces Ellie's journey from being able to debate any side of a question to finding her true voice and figuring out what she really needs and wants to say. Charming, heart-felt, funny.


The title is taken from Roosevelt's "Man in the Arena" speech; the book is about vulnerability and the power we can find when we fess up to our fears and challenges without numbing ourselves to the anxiety they can create, or defaulting to "coping strategies" like perfectionism, which, as she points out, is a hustle. She explores differences in the way that shame feels to men and women; describes a practice that she calls "Wholehearted parenting;" and even discusses (my own personal soapbox) the cruelty that attends binary (Viking/victim) thinking. (She even brings up Derrida!) I liked this book--found it inspiring, thought-provoking, big-hearted, compassionate--and will look for her others. Thanks to my friend Nicole for sending me this one!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


I'm a sucker for all things Victorian YA, so I picked this up. Molly Fraser, age 16, is kicked out of her position as a servant in a wealthy household and, based on her experience of laying her cool hands on a dying girl's neck, decides she wants to be a nurse and applies to be included in Nightingale's nurses headed to the Crimean War. There she befriends Emma, a former prostitute. Molly falls sort of in love with a doctor, but remembers fondly young Will who was a valet in her former household. The cover asks, "Can a young nurse's love survive war?" But a love triangle (sketched lightly) just isn't as compelling, to me, as some interesting plot elements that could have come naturally to a book set in a war zone. I liked the research, though, particularly the parts about Mother Seacole, the Jamaican who set up as a nurse separately from Nightingale.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Cathleen Schine, FIN & LADY

Flippant and well-written but coy; I didn't feel the heart of the book was revealed until quite near the end. Set in the 1960s NYC (a wacky time, sketched well here), most of the book is focalized through Fin, who loses both his parents by age 11.  He is left to a guardian, his 20-ish half-sister Lady, whom he remembers mainly from a frantic trip he once made with his two parents as they raced around Europe to find her in Capri and make sure she aborted her illegitimate child. Lady is a spoiled rich girl who lived uptown when her parents were alive but moves to Greenwich Village with her black maid Mabel and Fin and his dog Gus. Trailed by a trio of hapless suitors, each of whom Fin must call "Uncle," Lady flirts with political activism (getting put in jail for a night is an adventure; Fin tags along), charms anyone she likes, puts Fin in a ridiculous "progressive" school where he doesn't learn math, and doesn't want to marry yet doesn't want to be alone. (SPOILER ALERT) When finally Lady returns to Capri and meets a man she loves, he is (of course) as unavailable as she ever was to the men who loved her; she becomes pregnant with his child. This time, she keeps the baby; and when she dies in a tragic accident, Fin (age 18) becomes the guardian to the baby girl (the elusive "I" of the book, somewhat a mystery throughout). But Fin is willing to remember and acknowledge his own difficult childhoood to spare Lydia the same. I enjoyed this book, but I was exasperated rather than charmed by selfish, narcissistic Lady (as I think we are meant to be). The book ends, in the voice of grown Lydia, with a sweetness that is tempered by Lydia's delicate allusions to how angry Fin later felt about Lady's crazy, misguided attempts at parenting. The fact that Fin doesn't marry, even into his 60s, perhaps speaks to how people can rise above their dysfuctional childhoods only so far; it's left to the next generation to be able to observe the whole picture at one remove, and have compassion for the 20-ish girl who's suddenly saddled with a child and does something, which is better than nothing at all.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


The author, a former medical director, uses 12 patients (he's one of them; he was diagnosed with cancer and underwent chemo and radiation) as "windows" into 12 different systemic and ethical problems--illegal immigration, the foster care system, alcoholism, compliance, organ donation, etc. The writing is uneven at times; he ostensibly quotes patients, but their voices sound surprisingly like his own; and sometimes stories/chapters end with a strange abruptness. But I like this sort of book for the way it broaches topics and doesn't present pat, black-and-white answers. It serves as an invitation for people to think about complicated issues; and it shows just how many facets of our society are linked with healthcare. Some of my favorite lines: "How people die and how we participate in their deaths is as much about us as about them. Our own humanity is at stake. In a society that is increasingly mesmerized by efficiency, measurement by numbers and a bottom-line mentality that extols profit and wealth over any other human value, the risk is clear to everyone I work with. When health care is now measured by a 'medical loss ratio,' and the percentage of spending on health care is considered a 'loss,' then we are really lost."

Thursday, July 25, 2013


Thanks to my cousin Kate for this one--probably one of the cleverest, most heartbreaking books I've read all year. It's a YA heroine in an adult tale, about Blue, a precocious seventeen-year-old, who explains in the introduction that she will "write about my childhood--most critically, the year it unstitched like a snagged sweater." This unstitching is largely due to her father, the narcissistic and charming Dr. Van Meer, who drags her from second-rate university to second-rate university as he writes his Grand Manuscript. Throw in an eccentric and charismatic high-school teacher named Hannah who teaches film and collects unusual students. Add in about a thousand references to books, films, music, TV (I had the feeling I was working a crossword puzzle the whole time, but it's done so that I felt very clever for solving the clues!) and some lovely, imaginative prose (I have underlines everywhere, sentences I wish I'd written myself). But the cleverness is the lesser part of the book; Blue has heart, and she lays bare the most painful moments of adolescence--how it feels to find out that boy you love thinks you kiss horribly and is telling everyone, to find out that all the people you thought were your friends aren't, to find out your parents are capable of anything, and that to survive it's good to be somewhat like a goldfish. Five stars for this one.

Thursday, July 18, 2013


It's a ridiculously long subtitle and sounds pretty negative. But this book, by a Harvard psychologist, is for the most part compassionate, positive, forthright, and insightful. It identifies some of the tensions and difficulties involved in parenting today, and suggests ways to create morally aware children. These are kids who have traits such as the ability to appreciate others (and their differences), to empathize, to recognize their responsibilities to their families and communities, to understand increasingly complicated contexts (as in, looking beyond themselves). While it is not dogmatic, it does offer some realistic suggestions and urges conscious choices about our parenting. I would LOVE other people's thoughts on this one.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Veronica Roth, DIVERGENT

I have to admit I winced at the opening: a girl looking in the mirror. It's a rookie writer strategy to convey what a first-person protagonist looks like. But my friend Evan and my daughter Julia both said the book was worth reading ... Julia read it in one day and then started it over because the library was closed and she couldn't get the next one in the series. I have to admit, it's a page-turner. Like Hunger Games and others of the ilk, it's a story about two exceptionals (one boy, one girl), told from first-person girl perspective, who are chosen in some way, and must prove their worth and save the world (as the romantic tension grows). But it's a fun read. Yes, I will go see the movie : )

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Antony Beevor, THE FALL OF BERLIN 1945

On page 360 (of 431), Beevor writes, "During heavy shelling, [civilians] made their way underground from cellar to cellar. 'When will this nightmare end?' German women asked her." I was asking the same thing. The book is very well written (and seems scrupulously researched) but I apparently like my history leavened with a bit of fiction (or my medicine taken with jam?) and a character or two that I can like, or at least care about. Jeff Shaara's books make me turn pages compulsively ... FALL OF BERLIN felt like one long shelling (throw in raping and pillaging, too, for good measure) after another, and the anecdotes that brought it to life for me were few and far between. I couldn't keep track of the fifty different armies, and after a while I realized I didn't care. They were too much alike. It's horrifying, the whole thing--the viciousness, the violence toward civilians, the vengefulness, the lies, the reshaping of history to suit different agendas, the posturing. It's a good book if you're interested in the topic--but it is not, shall we say, a summer hammock read. (I know, I know. What was I thinking?)

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


I didn't love Faye's first novel (Dust and Shadow), but I loved this one. Set in NYC in 1845, when the first police force was being created and the potato famine is driving the Irish to NYC in droves, newly-minted Inspector Timothy Wilde finds himself investigating a sordid crime that seems to be motivated by anti-Catholic sentiment. Faye knows her history and crafts her secondary characters really, really well--they're all odd and interesting and "round." Wilde's voice is clear, sharp, original. Totally enjoyable. : )

Monday, June 24, 2013

Marie Lu, LEGEND

Another post-apocalyptic in America YA. I really wanted to like it, but I felt a lot of it was material I'd seen before: a plague, a chase through sewers (the author says she took her inspiration partly from Les Mis, but it's a significant part of the third book of Hunger Games too), an annual Trial of the adolescents, a Trial Stadium, a fierce desire by the boy to save his younger sibling, a love-story triangle. Maybe there's simply too much post-apoc YA out there right now for anything to feel truly original. It's told in alternating viewpoints, a boy and a girl, and they are both beautiful, both exceptional in every way, the only two who scored perfectly in the Trial; they are pitted against the villain Commander Jameson, who is evil through-and-through, with a teenage sense of sarcastic humor. She "smiles again and snaps her fingers at the soldiers behind her. 'Believe me when I say I would love to stay and chat with you, but I have a training suession to lead.'" My teen daughter loved this book, as well as the next (Prodigy).

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


A debut YA that has a lot good about it, including real teen tragedy, sincere feeling (particularly the painful unrequited love, owww, those stories always get to me) and some nice writing; but overall it felt somewhat incompletely conceived. Maybe I felt put off because the cover jacket says the story is about "Tim Macbeth"--but the first chapter, and the real-time frame story, is actually about (and focalized through) Duncan, who listens to a collection of CDs that Tim, a senior last year at this boarding school outside NYC, left him, and which narrate events from the previous year. (Jay Ascher handled this narrative strategy better in 13 REASONS WHY.) This is really a "twinned story," with Duncan (now a senior) in a faintly parallel position to Tim's of the previous year. Tim obsesses over Vanessa; Duncan likes Daisy. Tim is an outsider at the school partly because he's albino; Duncan is an outsider just because he's not all that popular. I like "twinned" stories, and these two were different enough and yet like enough that it could have worked. But the set-up is a bit overwrought--the coincidence of Duncan getting Tim's room, Duncan's (strangely) deep anxiety about getting the room, his compulsion to listen to Tim's story, his secrecy about it which leads to (unnecessary and quickly resolved) misunderstandings with Daisy. And I guess I wish Duncan's story felt like the primary one, and that what he learns from Tim resonated more meaningfully, and over more chapters. That said, I think this author has teenage voices down and understands their concerns; I would give a second book by her a try.

Monday, June 17, 2013


A really interesting, well-researched book, similar in tone and theme to a Malcolm Gladwell, maybe slightly more academic. Cain draws together research from across decades and disciplines to talk about how Western culture (particularly America) tends to value the extrovert and undervalue the introvert's skills. She situates this trend historically and then draws on all kinds of anecdotes to show that introverts actually tend to have better and smarter ideas but present them quietly, which means they are often not taken seriously. She is a self-confessed introvert, and sometimes the extroverts in this book come across as a bunch of carousing, quick-draw, results-oriented yahoos. (Early on, she describes going to a Tony Robbins seminar. I have to admit, I went to a TR seminar once for work, back when I was about 23, and I too was a little freaked out by these people jumping around cheering.) I am often wary of binary categories (maybe because I am exactly split Extrovert/Iintrovert on Meyers Briggs?) and I think most people I know believe that these things exist on a continuum. But Cain nuances the categories productively, in several different ways. She also has a chapter on helping your introverted child thrive, which I appreciated.
Has anyone else read this yet? Would love to hear how this book felt to someone who is a real extrovert or a real introvert ... being a fence-sitter myself ...

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Elizabeth Wein, CODE NAME VERITY

It won the Printz Award for YA fiction (like another favorite of mine, A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly), but this is a crossover novel, a good read for adults too, about two girls who take part in WWII: Maddie, Jewish granddaughter of an English bike-shop owner who knows how to fly a plane, and Julia, Scot aristocracy, who knows three languages and becomes a spy. In October of 1943, Maddie is flying Julia into France when the plane is hit, and Julia is taken by the Gestapo for interrogation. Wonderfully well done, beautifully written, first from Julia's perspective, then from Maddie's. My only gripe is that despite their class and ethnic differences, the two voices sound very similar--down to the ALL CAPS they use for emphasis. But the story is absolutely amazing, all the way to the last bit. Would definitely recommend.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Peter Heller, THE DOG STARS

Hunger Games for grown-ups, recommended by my friend Evan. In a post-apocalyptic universe, where most people have died of the flu, Hig (who pilots a Cessna) and his dog (co-pilot) coexist uneasily with an angry, gun-obsessed neighbor. But one day, when Hig is out flying, he hears a voice on the radio from beyond their little realm--and he takes off to look for what's Out There. It's told first-person, and Hig's voice is a bit difficult to adjust to at first; he drops pronouns, scatters references, abbreviates phrases, which I think is Heller's way of reminding us that language is community property; when the community vanishes, language begins to go as well. But the language is also, at times, lovely. (Heller is a poet.) Like here: "I set down the pack and breathed the smell of running water, of cold stone, of fir and spruce, like the sachets my mother used to keep in a sock drawer. I breathed and thanked something that was not exactly God, something that was still here." I think I have to be done with post-apocalyptic books for a while (not exactly hammock summer fare, as another friend would say), but this was a good one.


A very well written memoir by a woman whose mother left a horrifying family situation in South Africa to recraft a life for herself in London. The mother Paula said nothing to the author Emma for many years about what she endured in Africa, and after her mother's deaht, Emma, who is a journalist by trade, spent months digging up records and interviewing family to find out what had happened there and why her mother bequeathed her a gun. Compassionate, thoughtful, and productively messy, his book raises all sorts of questions about what it means to protect your child--either with silence(because some stories just should not be told to children) or by making conscious choices not to do what your parents did; and about when exploring the past crosses the line from enlightening to exhausting. The preface opens: "My grandmother thought she  was marrying someone vibrant and exciting, a man with wavy hair and tremendous energy. He was a talented carpenter, a talented artist, a convicted murderer, and a very bad poet."

Monday, May 6, 2013


Recommended by my cousin Mike, this was one of those books that I'd never heard of but I should have. At dinner one night with family, someone asked what I was reading lately, and I mentioned this book. Half the table exclaimed, "Oh, I read that!"
Anyway, Mike said he laughed out loud through parts of it (and, yes, there are some funny parts, like when Paulsen hitches up his Schwinn to a few dogs--but along comes the rabbit, and the dogs take off, and he flies off the bike and must watch as the bike is dragged off into the wilderness, while he must trudge miles and miles home). But I found myself cringing through much of it and jumping ahead in the book to find out how he got out of the latest disaster--fifty degrees below zero, harrowing escapes, thin ice, and the sled is always tipped over or on the verge of tipping over. My favorite parts include some lovely small portraits of the people he meets along the way.


No, this isn't the sexy thriller Fifty Shades of Gray. It's Sepetys's first YA novel, about a 15-year-old girl who is sent to a Siberian camp in 1941. It's well-written and engaging, definitely worth a read; but though the subject matter is harrowing, it didn't tug at me like Out of the Easy (her second).

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Mary Karr, LIT

Unlike BOSSYPANTS (see previous blog entry), I did NOT read this memoir in two hours on the plane ride home. It is a brilliant, poetic, and at times harrowing account of Karr's early adulthood, post-college, marriage, first five years of motherhood, and years of drinking and getting sober (several times over). "Lit" in the title means both "literature" and "drunk," and the two categories of experience are profoundly intertwined. I'd put this in my top 5 for this year so far. I liked it better than Glass Castle or Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight or Dry--and I loved all those.


A very very fun read, and just what you'd expect from Fey. She's willing to show pictures of her terrible shag haircut and tell ridiculous stories about her childhood (the one about getting her period and not knowing what it was--because she thought it was blue like laundry detergent--that's what the ads on TV made it look like--that story made me howl). But she also sketches portraits of people she loves, makes light of how hard she works, fesses up to her worries and mistakes, and pretty well lays waste to those who sustain the sexism in her industry. I read it in two hours on the plane ride home, quick and enjoyable.

Friday, March 29, 2013


Sandberg, the COO of Facebook (and formerly a top exec at Google), has written an inspiring, engaging book that challenges women to recognize, examine and question the ways they unconciously hold themselves back--the way they keep themselves away from the discussion table instead of leaning in, the way they hesitate instead of jumping in. She mixes research with anecdote; there's something of Malcolm Gladwell's style to it. Most of what she has to say is very smart, although some of what she has discovered along the way (her "aha" moments) seem a bit simplistic (like when there are two people in a room, they each have a separate, but valid truth). I have to say that her story about coming from a high school in Florida ("think Fast Times at Ridgemont High") to Harvard resonated and made me laugh: she tells about how she's sitting in a class and the professor asks them if they've read two books--I think they were the Odyssey and the Aeneid; a bunch of kids raise their hands (she doesn't). Then he asks if they've read them in the original. The original what? she wonders. That was so like my experience ... getting to Cornell just miles and miles behind other students.
But I loved the book, tore through it in an evening. I think it should be required reading for all young women, somewhere around age 20, as they're beginning to find their place in the world and claim their autonomy. I'll ask my daughter to read it eventually.

Thursday, March 28, 2013


I have to confess I was both fascinated and horrified by the premise of this book--that a mother, concerned about her 7-year-old's weight (she is medically obese) puts her on a rigorous and rigid diet, with red light, yellow light, green light foods and constant monitoring of weight, calories, portion sizes, and the foods she eats on playdates. By the end of the year, the 8-year-old girl has lost the weight to bring her to the borderline of normal/overweight; and she can name the calorie count for every food in the camp cafeteria.

Ok, so I need to own my backstory here. I wrestled with my weight until my 30s, when I came around to thinking that diets don't work (for me--and according to some statistics, approximately 97% of the people in America who diet gain it all back) and when I read most of Geneen Roth's work (as well as books by other writers and therapists who think food is too intimately tied up with issues of femininity, power, deprivation, and emotional drama to solve with simple calorie counts). So I began this book by thinking that I am worried for this daughter. She's being set up for an emotional relationship with food; an eating disorder; a perpetual obsession with food ...

But I think Weiss makes an interesting point--that society needs to open up about this issue and face the fact that there is no winning until we start having honest, extended, non-judgmental conversations about childhood obesity. The fact is, Weiss was damned for letting her daughter become overweight and then damned for trying to do something about it. And that's pretty crazy. My heart went out to her when this became clear. 

I did find myself wondering, if she'd read Roth (or any of the other theorists about emotional eating--and she may have, but she does not mention them anywhere), if she might have found a different approach. But I applaud her willingness to share her experience. She doesn't ever say that "this is the way to deal with your child's weight issue"; she is very good about claiming her experience as her own without foisting it off as a solution for anyone else. This is a very readable, humble, and intimate memoir about loving a child and trying to do the best she can. God knows I've made plenty of parenting mistakes myself and am always glad to hear I'm not the only one who's not sure what the heck I'm doing. 

Erin Morgenstern, THE NIGHT CIRCUS

A fanciful, entertaining, imaginative read, set in late Victorian England (mostly ... although the circus travels by magic train all over the world, so we end up in cities from Budapest to Boston). Two children, Marco and Celia, who are pitted against each other by two master-manipulators, grow up to be extraordinary magicians; alas, it's a contest to the death and they fall in love with each other. I confess that at times I found the descriptions of the circus overly elaborate, and the inventions almost too clever. At other times, conversations that felt important were glossed. But there are some great characters--particularly the secondary characters of the circus, a very entertaining bunch. I'd love to have dinner with them : )

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Andrew Miller, PURE

1785 Paris. A young, ambitious engineer named Jean-Baptiste Baratte is commissioned to remove all the bones from the cemetary Les Innocents in the middle of Paris to the outskirts. A broad cast of characters and some brilliant writing. My favorite description of a man's visage: "Two black nails hammered into a skull." This is not a plot-driven book; but it's a book to savor. Won the Costa Best Novel Award 2011.

Ruta Sepetys, OUT OF THE EASY

A very good YA, set in 1950s French Quarter, New Orleans. Seventeen-year-old Josie Moraine's mother is a prostitute who's as narcissistic and selfish and foolish as they come. So Josie's grown up early, with the help of Willie (the benevolent Madame) and a few other interesting characters (generous older man, kind prostitutes who look out for her). Man comes to town, ends up murdered--and Josie's mother has something to do with it. With the help of an Uptown girlfriend, Josie discovers that she wants to go to college, far away from the Big Easy; and while the obstacles are somewhat predictable, the book doesn't take the easy way out. Loved this one.

Alex Grecian, THE YARD

A good first mystery novel, set in my fave time period ... late 1800s London. Plenty of sordidness ... dead bodies hacked to pieces and put in chests, corruption, a medical man on the verge of figuring out fingerprints, a twisted tailor, abused children ... but at times the plot felt unwieldy, too many Inspectors running around, duplicating their roles. But a fun read, lots of historical detail.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Frances O'Roark Dowell, TEN MILES PAST NORMAL

Well-written, younger YA, more sweet than edgy, but a very engaging 14-year-old narrator who lives on a farm with goats and feels like an outcast as a freshman in high school. No big surprises here--Janie makes a couple outcasty friends and then meets a cool guy who doesn't care if she's different and offers to teach her bass guitar ... and there's a school project that involves an old man who (of course) dies. But the voice is fresh and honest and funny ... and having a 12-year-old myself, I passed this one right on to her after I finished; she liked it too. Would definitely recommend to the 7th-grade girls my daughter hangs out with ...


My friend Ashley sent me this one. It's a memoir, about a girl with a narcissistic, alcoholic mother (read: wounds, distrust, and enmeshment taken daily with her breakfast), and the girlfriends she makes on her way to age 40-something. I thought it was beautifully written--literary and even poetic rather than pop. The number and range of very deep friendships that Sonnenberg has boggles my mind--and she recognizes and recounts the rhythms and limitations of these kinds of friendships--the plunge, and sometimes (inevitably) a sense of loss. Has anybody out there read her first one, HER LAST DEATH?

Thursday, February 14, 2013


A Viennese Jew comes to England on the eve of WWII as a housemaid at one of the great English houses. Downton Abbeyish ... except this NYT Bestseller didn't really engage me, though I felt it had a lot of potential.
Elise falls in love with the young man of the house, Kit (short for Christopher), and he falls in love with her; so does his father (also Christopher). And what do you know? There's friction between father and son. But that's really all that happens. Despite the historical period--one of the most written-about periods ever, because there's so much tragedy and pain, so much a sense of evil and fear, longing and partings--the novel passes time rather than having a satisfying arc. I felt a lack of plot--the strongest one being the "which one will she love" romance; but I didn't feel the passion build, or retreat, or tantalize, or restrain itself or explode. I don't like novels where the most eligible, wealthy men all fall in love with the heroine. The characters felt flat to me (her friend Polly's flowing red hair is shorthand for her character); Elise's sass feels contrived: she dresses like a man, shakes her fist at an airplane. However, NS has some elegant, lovely language, especially when she is describing the countryside: "Rabbits hurtled through the long grass, white tails flashing in the morning light. In the distance I heard the roar of the sea, the pull and crash of the tide across the pebbles." She also has some wonderful characterizations for minor characters: "Mrs. Ellsworth would not scold me but she'd rub at the mark with a cloth, her stooped back eloquent in reproach." And I did finish the book; as it is a NYT Bestseller, clearly plenty of people enjoyed it.

Megan Abbott, DARE ME

Take cheerleaders, cell phones with cameras, a narcissistically troubled coach, a good looking Army recruiter, and a gun. Mix. I knew Megan years ago in grad school, and read one of her previous noir novels. This is a departure, and a daring, scary one (maybe partly because I have a 12-year-old daughter?). She has some beautiful turns of phrase: "we are all pretty drunk, Coach maybe even a little bit, that bloom to her face and her tongue slipping around words ..." "His year in Afghanistan [was] nothing like the dark hole her loss drilled into him." Definitely worth a read.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


My pal Alice recommended this one; it's good non-fiction, about the rise and very brief presidency of Garfield--about whom I knew next-to-nothing before I read this. Political biography meets Devil in the White City. Found the first half a very good read, slowed a bit after Garfield is shot, but still good.

Friday, January 11, 2013


I probably wouldn't have picked up this book except that one of my Very Reliable Friends suggested it. The novel begins with two middle-aged men in a convertible, on their way to jack off at a sperm bank because they're participating in a medical trial for $75 a time. Not a lot of anything sweet or sentimental in this book, but it's wry and funny and painful. JT writes these male characters with a kind of raw but tender truth, that I don't see very often. The plot and tone reminded me a bit of Dear American Airlines--the middle-aged man looking back on his mess of a life with all kinds of regrets, and then a crisis hits. A quick read, and definitely worth one.