Friday, December 30, 2016


I've seen these words in several other reviews of this 1996 novel: strange and lovely. The premise, on the surface, sounds a bit creepy: a spinsterish librarian falling in love with an 11-year-old boy, who happens to be six feet tall already and still growing. But I like an author who takes up a challenge--to make a story like this not just accessible but meaningful and heartbreaking. Some of the sentences gave me serious writer envy; many verge on poetic. Though the trajectory of the book is poignant and even painful, I found myself scribbling smile faces in the margins because the narrator's voice (Peggy, the librarian) is by turns wry, self-deprecating, shrewd and honest. McCracken gives her a clever turn of phrase, interesting ways of representing things. On their journey by train to NYC: "Hours later, we hit the tunnel that led to Grand Central. A shame, I thought, that trains couldn't just ride straight into the city, proud and unhidden. Trains had to senak up on Manhattan, underground, in the dark." "New York beckoned ... Not the way Cape Cod is always beckoning, its curled finger saying to the whole rest of the country, come a little closer, till on the Fourth of July weekend the rest of the country is unaccountably standing on a beach in Provincetown, wondering: How did I get here?" Worth the read.

Saturday, October 1, 2016


For the past five days, I've felt a dark shadow around the edge of my thoughts because of this book. I felt for Theo, the 13-year-old whose mother dies in a terrorist bombing at the Met. In the aftermath, Theo's life devolves step by wretched step ... with the dysfunctional Park Avenue family that takes him in; his stay in Las Vegas with his addiction-riddled father, who has men coming to the house with baseball bats, and his trashy girlfriend Xandra; his friendship with Boris who seems hell bent on self-destruction. At this point in the book, I had to jump forward fifty pages or so just to make sure Theo gets out of Vegas. But even after Theo's return to New York, to the home of someone trustworthy and kind, he lies and cheats and swindles his way into a position where I wondered, how on EARTH can he dig his way out of this? 

I was struck by how, even with a decent family, a teen is in danger; and without one, he is on the verge of destruction; after Theo's mother dies, all the counselors and teachers are well-meaning but seem unable to empathize authentically and incapable of helping him. The safety net feels very fragile, if it even exists. That's what felt so terrifying and painful; it's like watching the proverbial runaway train. 

And yet the book is so beautifully written, I couldn't stop reading. I did enjoy all the references that were like a series of winks to anyone who ever lived in NYC: the Temple of Dendur, Gristedes, the Paris Theater, the bicycle messengers, Barneys; and more broadly to the cultural referents of our time: to *The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe*; "Potter," which is Boris's nickname for Theo; the bus ride from Vegas ("They tried to sell this whole family-friendly package a few years ago, but it didn't wash"), through "Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse"; and "that man who landed the plane in the river a few years back and saved everyone, remember him?" (recently turned into the movie SULLY). It gives this book a feeling of being a story that is, to some extent, about Every(wo)man. In the end, there is some redemption, even a sense of something learned at great cost (deep sigh of relief). And the book feels unforgettable to me.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016


This book straddles the two genres of memoir and social commentary; and it's insightful in both directions. In a voice that is forthright, authentic, and true to his roots (i.e. at times downright profane), Vance surveys his life thus far, from early childhood to his graduation from Yale Law. His childhood was divided between his hillbilly grandparents' home and his mother's increasingly dysfunctional series of homes, complete with addiction, violence, and a rotating door for men. This is an unflinching look at what it feels like to be a child with undependable people around, people who scream and throw things, who lose their temper and fight fiercely for "honor"; but it also points to the ways that high schools and government agencies (such as Child Protective Services) fail poor children in Appalachia because they don't understand the nature of the extended family systems and people's deep-seated distrust and failure of faith that any effort or hard work will improve their situation. It's about how hopelessness is sewn into the fabric of a culture. But it's also a memoir about Vance finding his way out: he graduated high school; joined the Marines for four years during which he developed his own sense of adult agency; went to Ohio State U; and then graduated Yale Law. One of my favorite chapters comes at the end where he shares how he has had to learn a new way of handling conflict, with the help of his fabulous wife Usha (also a grad of Yale Law). He explains that his sister Linsday told him that "When I fought with Kevin [her husband] I'd insult him and tell him to do what I knew he wanted to do anyway--leave. He'd always ask me, 'What's wrong with you? Why do you fight with me like I'm your enemy?'" Like his sister, Vance has to learn better ways of working through conflict, and he admits humbly that he still struggles with it. He also asks the messy questions about sympathy and accountability: "How much is Mom's life her own fault? Where does blame stop and sympathy begin? ... At some point, Lindsay says, you have to stop making excuses and take responsibility. ... No person's childhood gives him or her a perpetual moral get-out-of-jail-free card. ... but can people like us ever really change?" It's a message of hope that he provides at the end, that people can grow and change and see that "the very traits that enabled my survival during childhood inhibit my success as an adult. I see conflict and I run away or prepare for battle. This makes little sense in my current relationships, but without that iattitude, my childhood homes would have consumed me." He's clear about the difference between the two worlds he knows; and without being preachy or judgmental, he shares what he's learned from both.

Thursday, September 8, 2016


I found this to be a rather odd book. Much like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, it has two distinct plot lines. One is the story of the rise of Hitler and Rosenberg's role in developing and disseminating toxic and vicious anti-Semitism for the Nazis; the second is the discovery of Rosenberg's diary and how it was smuggled out of Germany by Kempner (a prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials), concealed, misplaced multiple times, chased down across the Atlantic, and finally preserved in the Holocaust Museum.

I find I have to read books about Nazi Germany in small doses; the horrifying events and the descriptions of the viciousness of the individual Nazis are just too much to take in and too disturbing to read in long swaths. But this book provides one of the best overviews I've seen with respect to the rise of the Nazis, the terror they instilled, the wishful thinking by so many, the overwrought pretexts and lies the Nazis used to justify their actions, and the "logic" that underpinned everything from the looting to the killing. A well-researched, careful book.


My bookclub is reading this, together with To Kill a Mockingbird, this month. To say I felt conflicted about reading it is an understatement. I'd heard so much about how reading Watchman ruins Mockingbird, how Watchman reads like a rough draft, how it makes you hate Atticus because he's become a racist, how Harper Lee was exploited in order to obtain the manuscript, how it raises the question of whether Lee even wrote Mockingbird. (There is a rumor that her friend Truman Capote might have written, or edited, or ghost-written Mockingbird, a rumor that has largely been disproven.) So while I bought the book five months ago, I only began it five days ago, procrastination being one way of avoiding a wince-worthy experience!

If I consider Watchman on its own merits, I didn't find it nearly as shabby a book as I'd heard it to be. Granted, the characters are less appealing. Where Scout is consistently and wonderfully vulnerable and spunky, 26-year-old Jean Louise, coming home from NYC, vacillates between brittle and mouthy and self-absorbed. And Atticus is not the hero he is in Mockingbird; in this book, his willingness to stand up for Tom Robinson is attributed not from a sense that everyone, even a black man accused, deserves the best legal representation he can provide--that is, from a devotion to a humane ideal. It is the less personal devotion to the law. But these aren't real people, after all, and I didn't mind that so much.

What I found a bit surprising were some elements that felt incomplete, or inept. For example, I didn't like how Henry/Hank (why the switching between names?), Jean Louise's love interest seems to exist mostly to provide a thin "should I marry him or not" plot for Jean Louise; and as a character, he is flat, serving largely as a way to illuminate aspects of Jean Louise's character. (He often hints to the reader how we should interpret JL's speeches.) 

The stakes in Watchman are not nearly what they are in Mockingbird, and this has to do with the plot. Certainly both books have to do with race and the south. But in Watchman, the plot is more about Jean Louise letting go of her father as a perfect model conscience, and figuring out that Henry isn't the one she should marry, than about race. In fact, much of what Jean Louise learns about race in the South is through a lecture that her uncle provides in the last 1/8th of the book. Thus, Watchman is a novel about an individual character more than a cultural concern, if that makes sense. A plot about a girl discovering her identity isn't as effective a way of introducing the problem of race as the trial of Tom Robinson (front and center in Mockingbird).

But I did like that Watchman ends in a way that doesn't put Atticus and Jean Louise (or anyone) neatly into the camp of Good or Bad. In some ways, it is a more "mature" ending, though perhaps not as satisfying as Mockingbird, in which Atticus transcends Maycombe's racism and Boo thwarts Bob Ewell's viciousness so completely. And if Jean Louise is a little too disparaging of Maycomb (in some wry scenes with the Maycomb ladies), that also feels "real" for a 26-year-old coming home from NYC. All in all, I'd give it 3.5 stars out of 5. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Fredrik Backman, A MAN CALLED OVE

I'll own straightaway that this book made me cry. I finished it on an airplane, and my seatmate kindly pretended not to notice me swiping away tears. But I also feel somewhat ambivalent about some elements of the novel. The protagonist Ove is 59 and a curmudgeon--disagreeable, bitter, inflexible, and at times truly lacking in empathy. With each chapter, the author doles out the backstory--the various betrayals, disappointments, experiences with cold-hearted white-shirted bureaucrats, and very real tragedies--that have led Ove to his current stony, emotionally disengaged state. So, with each chapter, the reader enacts the "evolving-empathy" trajectory that, toward the end of the book, Ove will embark upon too. (Ove plus L equals Love?) But I felt that the author didn't quite take Ove's pain seriously; there is an outrageous and even absurd quality to representations of Ove's behavior (e.g., his tantrum at the computer store) that made me laugh and reassured me from the start that Ove would rediscover his good, kind heart by the end. Perhaps I also felt shades of other books in here; Ove reminded me of the dour French chef Madame Mallory in *The Hundred-Foot Journey*, whose heart is softened by the exuberant Indian family who moves in across the street. In this book, it's an exuberant Indian woman, her husband, and her two lively children who begin to lure Ove back to the world of feelings. And as for the cat ... well, I couldn't help thinking of Blake Snyder's book "Save the Cat: The last book on screenwriting that you'll ever need," so named because one of the ways to make a tough or potentially unsympathetic character sympathetic is to have him do something like ... save a cat, which Ove does, eventually. Still, I enjoyed the book; I'm a sucker for any book that deals with empathy; and I'd read another by Backman.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Elizabeth Strout, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON

This is a quiet book; it is the first-person recalled conversation between a woman (Lucy) who is in the hospital for several weeks for an operation and recovery; and her mother, who comes to visit her from a tiny town in Illinois. It largely concerns Lucy's poverty-stricken, desperate childhood, and how she made the transition to living in New York City, married and with two children, and becoming a writer. (The voice feels deeply authentic, and I couldn't help wonder how much the narrative voice leaned on Strout's own experience.) The prose is even in tone, not at all hysterical or overwrought; but the memories are wildly uneven--from Lucy reading books in a quiet classroom after school (to stay warm, and avoid going home to the garage, where they live) to being locked in a truck for a day, with a snake, while her parents are at work and her older siblings at school. People might gripe that this book "tells" instead of "shows"; I would not say so at all. (To me, "telling" is not the same as reporting events that happen off-stage, or in the past; it's when events happen on stage and the author writes "she was mad" instead of "she hurled the pot at his head." But not everyone would agree with my definition.) This book is, for me, about empathy; how it happens unevenly, how the mother who is incapable of empathy when Lucy was young has developed a crack here and there, but is still largely unenlightened and too fragile to cope with anything real; how marriage shines a bright light on childhood scars; how recovery happens through contact with people who are steady, who are honest, who know how to listen and love. It's a quick read (an hour or two) and worth it.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Geraldine Brooks, THE SECRET CHORD

Geraldine Brooks's earlier novels Year of Wonders and March are still two of my favorites; but this one didn't resonate with me the same way. It's the story of King David, told by his prophet Natan; parts were familiar to me (the slaying of Goliath) and parts not; it's full of war and political intrigue and rape. The use of a secondary character to tell a fiery protagonist's story is often an effective device; but I didn't feel that Natan's point-of-view added as much as it might have, partly because his character did not change throughout; he begins and remains the prophet. (Often, for me, the dual change in two characters can create all kinds of good dramatic tension.) As usual with Brooks, some of the language and phrases just sing--"[I saw] the sinews of his back, taut with the strain of the pulled bow"; "her face was tilted upward, to catch a meager shaft of light." But at times I was pulled up short by certain words that felt very contemporary--"scar tissue" (mid-19th-c), the feet on the stones beating a "celebratory tattoo" (1500s), and the phrase, "Well, you might have suckered my brother but you don't fool me." I will always read Brooks's books, however, and look forward to her next.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016


I was a wreck reading this book. I got halfway through and had to flip to the ending to find the conclusion of the Blythe sisters' story. No small feat, as this book shifts among Edie's story (1992) and the Blythe sisters' (1940-41) and even Meredith's (Edie's mom). But as I got close to the end of the book, and understood more about what I'd read when I jumped forward, I couldn't bring myself to reread the ending. (This makes me sound a wee bit over-invested, I know.) One of the things I loved about this book was how steeped in literature it is--and it feels quite intentional that Edie, an avid "readie," daughter of a woman who once longed to be a writer, tells the story (in first-person) in a way that calls to mind elements of King Lear and Great Expectations; the three Blythe sisters could be the three weird sisters from Macbeth ... or Lear's daughters ... there are elements of the oldest daughter Percy that felt like ruthless Goneril or Regan; central to the novel is the (fictional) best-seller about the Mud Man, ostensibly written by the father of the Blythe sisters but rooted in true horrifying events. The writing is at times a bit overwrought, but mostly it's exquisite, even in the briefest descriptions: "That short hairpin smile." "... a set of tall iron gates, once grand but listing now at broken angles. Leaning, one towards the other, as if to share a weighty burden." "[He] scraped against the shallow floor of his own limited experience." Toward the end, it seemed there was one turn of the screw after another--and it began to feel like almost too much heartbreak for even this long, expansive novel--though the ending, with the last-minute reveal of Juniper's act of kindness and Edie's reconciliation with her mother, offers a shred of redemption.

Saturday, July 23, 2016


This book doesn't argue that it doesn't matter where you (read: "your kid"; this book is aimed at parents) end up at college; it does argue against the notion that if your kid doesn't go to the Ivy League/Stanford/MIT, they're doomed to a lesser life. On the surface, that doesn't sound like much; but the anecdotes about the crazy things that happen during the college admissions process (Bruni has plenty of good ones, including one about a girl who wrote in her Yale admissions essay about urinating on herself rather than leave an engaging conversation with a teacher, to prove her passion for education) makes me think the premise is worth examining. He also reminds us that in the name of recruiting, universities do things that are misleading bordering on unethical to drive up the number of applications, in order to lower their acceptance rate, which increases their bond rating; and he exposes the flimsiness of the basis for the USNews rankings. Bruni (U of NC) provides plenty of examples of people who have not gone to the Ivy League and have done very well, including senators, Fulbright scholars, CEOs and your average famous folk: Condoleeza Rice (Denver); Joe Biden (Delaware and Syracuse); Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb (RI School of Design); Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks (Northern Michigan U), etc. What emerges from their stories (which he relates in detail) is that during the college years, they all had a solid work ethic--a desire to find mentors, explore new interests, develop their leadership skills, and so on, which is--perhaps--more likely when one is not quite so small a fish in a huge college pond. At the very least, it argues for at least considering colleges beyond the highly competitive ones. At one point he notes that this is all driven by fear--a quite illogical one--that without this ivy-green ticket, the kid won't be happy. And that's what we all want for our kids, right? Fair enough. But as he points out, happiness is often the way we conduct the journey, the *way* we attend college; and the focus on *getting in* to the exclusive college sometimes leads the kids to feel like, "Ok, I did it. I'm done." Bruni's story about how he taught at Princeton and was pressured to overlook a student's cheating, to give him a do-over, feels really bad to me. Of course it happens elsewhere, too; but what are we teaching our kids? That once your ticket is punched, you can sit back and wait out those four years? What a sad thing--when those four years can be a dedicated time to think and reinvent and get out of our comfort zone and grow.

Sunday, July 17, 2016


This is the first I've read by Julie Mulhern, and this mystery is different in tone than any I've ever read--and I'm trying to figure out exactly why. It's a quick-read cozy, with an almost-40, professional painter protagonist named Ellison; there are seemingly multiple attempts on her life that are outright violent--a bullet, a firebomb, a car accident, a poisoning--yet throughout the entire book, I found myself smiling at Ellison's wry one-liners. There is at once a lightness about the book and an intense pain--which to me came less from the attempted murders than from the characters in this fairly dysfunctional family--characters who are petty and selfish and self-sabotaging and full of secrets and yet still care about one another. The protagonist makes allusions several times to her first husband (dead) ... I'll be interested to read that one!

Friday, July 15, 2016


This is an important, well-written, and accessible book. I buy Duckworth's formulation that our culture's focus on "natural talent" potentially keeps us from recognizing that talent might count, but effort counts *twice* when it comes to achievement. I grew up believing that having to work at something was a sign of inferiority, that persevering was what you did if you weren't clever enough to succeed right away. I had to unlearn that idea, painfully, when it came to trying to get my own book published. Grit is, as Duckworth points out, about falling down seven times and getting up eight. It's about hanging onto the idea that if we haven't accomplished something, we just haven't accomplished it *yet.* Grit is something that can be developed--largely as a result of rewriting the stories we tell ourselves about the world and how it works. This book mingles scientific studies; psychological insights; practical guidelines for cultivating grit in ourselves and our children; and anecdotes from CEOs and West Point grads and football players and coaches.

I was somewhat surprised that Duckworth didn't engage with the work of Brene Brown, whose recent book RISING STRONG has a lot in common with GRIT. From the cover of RISING STRONG: "If we are brave enough, often enough, we will fall. This is a book about what it takes to get back up." Like Duckworth, Brown is a Ph.D. and an avid researcher into human behavior; they both lean on both science and personal anecdote in their books; both have presented TED talks and have published books to acclaim; they both run their own institutes. Brown's groundbreaking previous book DARING GREATLY draws its title from Roosevelt's "Man in the Arena" speech--which Duckworth quotes at length toward the end of her book. (It IS a knockout passage, worth quoting.) Duckworth's ideas stand on their own, of course; but I think it would be interesting to see what Brown and Duckworth might come up with, working together.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


I bought the book because my family had just returned from Italy, and I found it was just the right time to read Hales's conversational presentation of Italian history and culture through the lens of the evolving language of Italy--what she calls "the wiliest of Western tongues." The book itself--with chapters on religion, music, art, literature, food, film, love, and curses--reminded me of the stroll I took in Venice one morning, when the streets were still empty ... where I saw a man, cigarette cupped in his hand, walking his tiny dog past one of the old wells in a square; and street sweepers in their sea-green shirts wielding their long-bristled brooms over the stones; and where I smelled the bread for the day coming out of the ovens. It felt like the real city before the day's cruise-ships arrived. Hales's pages are full of anecdotes and curious factoids, the twists and turns to the language, that tickled me, surprised me, made me think. For example, "The manhole covers of Rome are still emblazoned with S.P.Q.R., the Latin abbreviation for the Senatus Populusque Romanus, the senate and people of Rome. Italians joke that it really stands for sono pazzi questi romani--These Romans are crazy." She emphasizes the uneven progress of what came to be "Italian" from Latin, through Greek, through the various waves of Germans and Saracens, and which was consolidated from (and despite) the various local languages: e.g., watermelon is "cocomero in the south, anguria in the north--and an insulting way to say 'blockhead' throughout Italy." She explains how "ancient Romans, such as Gaius Julias Caesar ... bore three names: a basic first name, a clan name, and also a family name that was handed down. By medieval times, the latter two names disappeared ... which became confusing ... Occupations inspired names ... such as Botticelli for 'barrel maker' (the nickname later given to the artist Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filpepi, better known as Sandro Botticelli, whose brother made barrels)." She takes us along on her discovery of new foods and friends, and it was a treat being in her company.

Sunday, July 3, 2016


I'm a sucker for a book that takes me to the seedier portions of mid-eighteenth-century Lisbon. I think *A Conspiracy of Paper* is my favorite of Liss's books, but I enjoyed this one. As a boy of thirteen, Sebastiao flees to save his own life, leaving behind his parents to face the Inquisition; when he returns, years later, he has changed his name and is bent on revenge. But it is complicated at every turn by misinformation and mistaken loyalties. Part of the reason he comes back is to seek out Gabriela, whom he'd loved before he left, only to find that she's married. And, in my favorite scene in the book, she speaks practically, skewering any romantic notion he had of returning and taking up where they left off. She speaks of the kindess shown to her by her husband, and finishes: "So stop pretending we're children. All of that is gone. ... You look at me and do not see what is there, but what you wish to be there." At one point, he says, "There are things more important than revenge"; but I felt like in some ways this scene with Gabriela provides the moral center of the book.

Donna Woolfolk Cross, POPE JOAN

I read this partly because my family was planning a trip to Italy; and I found the book interesting for several reasons. First, I grew up Catholic and never, ever heard about a female pope; but the historical evidence (the author synopsizes it in her notes; I always appreciate that!) is pretty conclusive. Second, I felt like the book (written in 1996) was ambitious and well-written but oddly dated. (I felt this way about Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth--another blockbuster success; did anyone else find this book had a similar feel to Follett's epic?) I'm trying to put my finger on why I wasn't swept up into the story. I agree with some of the other reviews that the number of last-second escapes by Joan-as-John is pretty unbelievable; and I think generally historical fiction written now is grittier and less melodramatic. But I think my biggest difficulty is that the secondary characters are fairly one-dimensional. There are plenty of baddies (my, the Dark Ages were dark and scary)--raiders who plunder and rape, thieves with no conscience, flagrantly corrupt members of the church, and men who are willing to set fire to Rome, kill people, and pay out fortunes in the unending grab for power. There are also (many fewer) unambiguously good folks. But there are very few characters in the gray zone. Joan herself doesn't really have any faults aside from outspokenness; but even that comes off as a sign of her spiritual superiority, her willingness to put herself at risk by speaking up for the wronged and the poor and the powerless. Perhaps as a result, my favorite parts, actually, were about the city of Rome itself--the building of the wall that brought St. Peter's inside the city, the repairs of the aqueducts, the way the pagan buildings were stripped and their materials recycled for the Catholic church. All of that was woven in very adeptly, without making me feel like I was getting a history lesson. That's a real accomplishment!

Saturday, July 2, 2016


Dessen's YA books are what I'd call "quiet"; there's no apocalypse or threat of death to the protagonist, or an evil villain to be destroyed. (Frankly, I tend to like this type of YA better than the other.) Dessen captures the pain and difficulty of contemporary teens; the dialog feels authentic; the narrator is observant and honest ("I was getting side-eyed all over the hallways"); the parents and coaches are usually neither completely clueness nor perfectly evolved; her secondary characters don't simply exist to fuel or foil the protagonist's plot. The situation in this book is one that could be pulled out of newspaper headlines--Sydney's older brother Peyton makes a series of progressively worse decisions, ending with him being convicted of drunk driving and nearly killing a boy who was out riding his bike. If the refuge provided to Sydney by the Chatham family, whom she meets soon after the trial, feels a bit too ideal, I still bought it, largely because the Chathams had their own internal dynamic that wasn't centered around Sydney. I usually enjoy Dessen's work, and I liked this one, too.


Entertaining and engaging. Molly is a plucky Irish heroine, dropped into the household of Senator Barney Flynn, to uncover the fraudulent spiritualists, the Sorensen Sisters (possibly based on the Fox sisters from upstate New York in the mid-1800s?). I love when the historical background unfolds organically rather than being plunked in for "atmosphere"; Bowen is wonderful at feathering in the details lightly, so they are part of Molly's daily existence rather than set out to "show" what life is like in New York circa 1900. Brava! (less)


I liked this one very much. Having read *West With the Night* (Beryl Markham's memoir about training race horses and flying planes), I was a bit leery of a fictionalized treatment. But McLain caught a good deal of Beryl's voice, and so much about Africa in the 1920s, plus aspects of Markham's life that are completely omitted from Markham's own account (including her husbands!) that I was very satisfied. Plus, many of her sentences just sing, in a way that caused me some serious writer's envy :). Many of her more poetic bits are reserved for the scenery of Africa or other characters; her dialog is brisk and brief. "It's not at all long before the last bits of light rinse from the ragged edge of the sky, and then there's only the rain and the smell of petrol." "High overhead, ribbons of stars swirled like milk and a sickle moon lay hard and bright on its side." Of Denys Finch Hatton: "There was an ease and a confidence in him too, that seemed to pull the room toward him, as if he were its anchor or axis." She reuses some traits--several women have feathery brows, and there is a bit too much "bolting." But these quibbles are tiny. I read the book in one day, on a plane home. Would recommend to most of the women readers I know.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


I liked this better than I thought I would. It's a version of the Cinderella story: Lou Clark is a twenty-something girl, aimless, poor, recently let go from her job at a tea shop, and underappreciated by her family (her mother even behaves with evil step-motherish coldness at one point). The fairy godmother appears in the guise of a job counselor, who finds her a position taking care of Will, now a paraplegic, but formerly a wildly successful banker, world traveler, and scion of a rich family; there's even (yes) a castle. But (spoiler alert!!) Moyes doesn't give us the cheap, romantic, happy ending. Will has promised his parents he'll give them six more months, and then he is allowed to go to Switzerland for assisted suicide. Lou gives him months of happiness, but she doesn't change his mind. If she had, I'd have hated the book; but Moyes doesn't back down, and the book acquires a surprising depth by having Lou (and the reader) recognize the ultimate grace occurs when we allow others to make their own choices about life and death, and to understand that it isn't about us.

Sunday, June 12, 2016


I realized half-way through that this book reminded me a good deal of *Code Name Verity*, another book I liked very much, a YA about two heroic girls in WWII, each doing dangerous work, with the more heroic of the two dying as the other watched, near the end. Even having two different viewpoints was similar, though *Nightingale* switched back and forth frequently. It's a painful read at parts ... and (spoiler alert) I found myself wondering if it was necessary that it was kept secret that the first-person narrator, in present day, who has been invited to France to attend a ceremony celebrating the heroic women, is the sister Vianne instead of the more heroic Isabelle (the eponymous heroine). But I realize it had to be so, so that we don't know Isabelle dies in the end. Toward the end of the book, the atrocities committed by the Nazis came at me like a jackhammer ... but felt (wretchedly) true. Some of the metaphors are so spot on, from page one: "My skin has the crinkled appearance of wax paper that someone has tried to flatten and reuse"--genius because that tells us not only what this woman looks like, and how old she is, but the fact that she's the sort who is so thrifty she would reuse wax paper. A lovely first line: "If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are."

Saturday, June 4, 2016

David Levithan, EVERY DAY

It's an original premise ... a 16-year-old wakes up every day in a different body, falls in love with a girl in one day (in retrospect, it's funny that *that* is what my suspension-of-disbelief snagged on), so much so he's willing to risk changing how he minimizes his effects on his hosts' lives. But hey, a novel begins on the day everything changes.

This book felt akin to *Forrest Gump*, for me, because it provided such a rapid and comprehensive "survey"--not so much of events, as FG did (from the Vietnam War to AIDS), but of people, both teens and parents. This makes the book feel a bit like a parable for adolescence. We have the mean girl, the fat boy, the nice boy who's into computers, the girl who's hungover, the girl who's suicidal; we have the type-A parents, the absent parents, the grandmother who watches TV, the caring parents, the single dad. We see why the boy (I call him a boy b/c the first host is a boy, and his heterosexual romance with the girl is the one consistent thread from host to host) comes to a certain kind of experience-laden wisdom. At times, he felt preternaturally adult and wise. My favorite line: "Part of growing up is making sure your sense of reality isn't entirely grounded in your own mind" (p.123).

Tuesday, May 24, 2016


I have to admit, I don't usually go for cozies ... but I enjoyed this one, the second in a series featuring a former-MI5-agent-turned-Anglican-priest in the small town of the charmingly named Nether Monkslip! And if he is virtually flawless--a total hottie who's brilliant and charming and does dishes, for God's sake--well, perhaps all the better. In this book, the dysfunctional Footrustle family gathers at Chedrow Castle for Christmas, and the lord and his twin sister both die in the same day, although not in the same way. Naturally, suspicion falls on one of the visitors. Max heads to the castle to assist the police and solve the crime. To be honest, it felt to me as though Max pulled the solution out of thin air at the end; perhaps this was because clues such as the barcode on the apple were withheld from the reader. But I enjoyed this book, largely for (of all things) the humorous asides and the references to everything from Harry Potter to Madame Defarge to Sense and Sensibility. I kept scribbling little smile faces in the margin, next to phrases: "The large portrait of a man whose mustaches deserved a painting all to themselves ..."; "Oscar has been called the Voldemort of Fleet Street"; and the plain-speaking servant: "It was as if she thought we were all living in some daft production of Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016


I found the premise hilarious: Henry James, depressed over his sagging book sales, goes to the banks of the Seine, where he plans to throw himself in. (OK, maybe that doesn't sound funny, but wait.) There, he meets Sherlock Holmes, who is depressed because he is beginning to figure out that he's only a character instead of a real person. Add a murder mystery. Add cameos by just about everyone from the late 1800s (Wilkie Collins, Henry Cabot Lodge, John Hay, George McClellan, Mr. Lincoln, etc.), and the World's Fair in Chicago. Twist what you think you know about Professor Moriarty and Irene Adler and Dr. Watson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Add in the sort of cleverness you find in Shakespeare in Love. (Here's an example: "The turn of the social screw at the dinner party [Henry James] had attended including inviting five couples . . . who were comprised of four of the women having illicit affairs with no fewer than five of the men present.") I wouldn't say this book is a quick and easy read--it's dense and you have to be paying attention--but I totally enjoyed it.


I liked this mystery, the first in a series set in Venice. (My family is heading there in June for a few days, so I enjoyed peering up and down the streets.) This is not a thrilling nail-biter filled with stakes that ratchet up predictably every twenty pages, but--like its protagonist, Guido Brunetti of the Venice police--understated, intelligent, observant. Some of the writing is just marvelous. One of my favorite lines: "The man looked to be about the same age as Paola, though he had clearly had a harder time getting there." I will definitely read another by this author.

Amy Fellner Dominy, A MATTER OF HEART

A Matter of Heart is by my friend and fellow Arizonan Amy Fellner Dominy. This is authentic, heartfelt YA, about a competitive swimmer who discovers, partway through her sophomore year in high school, that she has a heart condition. The relationships with her parents are drawn beautifully, partly because Dominy sketches the relationship between the two parents as well as Abby's relationship with each; and the coach is neither the usual benevolent or malevolent "type." Wonderfully written, without relying heavily on the overheated prose that seems to be all over YA now. I would recommend to any smart teen girl and will hand it to mine next.


I know, everyone is reading it. And, probably, everyone should be reading it. It’s heartbreaking, empathic, beautifully written; it reaches far beyond the hackneyed message of "make the most of what's left.” The author, a neurosurgeon who died of lung cancer at 36, asks openly, how do we find our values, in the middle of crisis, when life has been upended? And then how do we find them again, the next day, when something else has changed? One of my favorite parts of this book was his acknowledgement, early on, that "a word meant something only between two people, and life's meaning, its virtue had something to do with the depth of the relationships we form." He draws on his undergrad and M.A. in English--he references dozens of authors who wrote about the passage of time, from Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" on--and it adds a depth and reflexive humor to the entire book. Another of my favorite bits, alluding to the "pair of claws” in "Prufrock": "For the last several months, I had striven with every ounce to restore my life to its precancer trajectory, trying to deny cancer any purchase on my life. As desperately as I now wanted to feel triumphant, instead I felt the claws of the crab holding me back. The curse of cancer created a strange and strained existence, challenging me to be neither blind to, nor bound by, death's approach." I think readers who liked Atul Gawande's Being Mortal would appreciate this.

Friday, January 29, 2016


My friend Lucy gave this to me for my birthday, and I'm so glad she did because I probably wouldn't have picked this graphic novel up on my own. I'm so word-oriented that it took me a while to get used to switching back and forth between the captions and the illustrations, but it's darn clever. And honest and painful. The "Fun Home" is actually the funeral home (just one example of the Bechdel's playfulness with language, turning things upside down and inside out) that her father runs. A good deal of the book is about her conflicted and complicated relationship with her father, and I won't spoil by telling why.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Colm Toibin, BROOKLYN

Beautifully written but peculiarly distancing. Perhaps Toibin wants to create in the reader the feeling of estrangement that Eilis feels because she moves from Ireland to Brooklyn and eventually feels like a stranger in both places. It's written in the third person, focalized through Eilis; but we get passages like this: "George seemed at a loss as he stood sipping his drink. He said something to Nancy and she replied. Then he sipped his drink again. Ellis wonderied what he was going to do; it was clear that his friend did not like Nancy or Eilis and had no intention of speaking to them; Eilis wished she had not been brought to the bar like this. She sipped her drink and looked at the ground." We at times have intimate access to the shades and shifts of Eilis's thoughts and feelings, and yet I felt often as if I were looking through a murky glass at the scene; for that reason it took me about 40 pages to become immersed in the book. It's a quiet story but compelling, and some of Eilis's humor (when we get to hear her speak) is very wry and even caustic. My only issue with books like this is that they remind me of Ally MacBeal (because every male character fell in love with her at some point). Perhaps because we don't hear Eilis speak very often, I can't figure out what is so exceptional about her that Father Flood meets her and almost immediately pulls all kinds of strings to bring Eilis to the US and then digs up people to pay for her tuition at bookkeeping school and advocates insistently on her behalf; the boy Tony sees her and almost instantly falls in love with her and his brother Frank develops a crush on her; when she returns briefly to Ireland, Jim Farrell sees her and falls desperately for her. Am I jealous? :)