Monday, August 31, 2015

13 Rue Therese

13 Rue Therese
By: Elena Mauli Shapiro (her website)
Little Brown and Co., 2011

A woman plants a box of strange objects in the office of a new professor, Trevor Stratton.  Trevor uncovers the life and loves of Louise Victor Brunet.  The book includes objects Shapiro recovered from the actual Louise Brunet and used to shape the story that Stratton unfolds.

My Thoughts:
1. A unique book for sure!
2.  Lots of sexual tension, Shapiro does an excellent job of making you feel it.
3.  The dialogue is forced and the plotline following Stratton is strange and confusing.

An interesting book, but not something that really spoke to me.  (2/5 stars)

Recommended To:
Those who can forsake realism.  Fans of the more abstract.  Anyone looking for something unique and different.

Food for Thought:
Is it ethical to use literal fragments of an actual person's life to craft a work of fiction?  How much of fiction can be justifiably tied to reality?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Psycopath Test

The Psycopath Test
By: Jon Ronson (his website)
Riverhead Books, 2011

"'There is a societal push for conformity in all ways,' [Allen Frances] said, 'There's less tolerance of difference.  And so maybe for some people having a label is better.  It can confer a sense of hope and direction."

Jon Ronson explores the world of psychiatry, in particular, those diagnosed as psycopaths.  Throughout his journeys he meets a man who 'faked' madness, a leader of a Haitian revolution, an ex-CEO, and the creator of the Psycopath Test. He examines the diagnosis, the label, what it means to the "psychopath," and what it means to society on a greater level.

My Thoughts:
1. Something about this book was very engaging.  The study of psychiatry and psychology is something that I find to be interesting.
2.  Ronson's writing is engaging.  He is pithy and funny, which makes the book difficult to put down.
3. It seems that there is no clear argument to be made.  The book is more a chronicle of Ronson's adventures than advancing any sort of opinion on the matter.  I think this is intentional, as though he is saying in psychiatry and diagnoses there is always gray; therefore, I can't possibly make any definitive statement here.

In short, the book's lack of a clear argument is a little frustrating, but the book is very interesting and will keep you turning pages regardless. (3/5 stars)

Recommended To:
Examiners of society.

Food for Thought:
Are we all a little mad to a degree?

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans
By: M.L. Stedman (her website)
Scribner, 2012

Tom and Isabel are lighthouse keepers on a remote island in Australia.  One day, a baby and a dead man wash up on shore  Tom and Isabel, desperate for a child, decide to keep the baby and raise it as their own.  The death of the man is never reported and Tom and Isabel enshroud themselves and their new child in a veil of secrecy aided by their extreme distance from civilization.

My Thoughts:
1. This book is Stedman's debut.  I felt this was a little obvious in her writing.  Her writing isn't particularly inspired and there were points when the plot grew a bit dull.
2. The characters were not very well-developed.  Tom and Isabel seemed too one-dimensional.  Isabel the woman who yearns beyond reason for a baby and Tom the bullied husband and rule stickler.  This becomes less true in the book's final chapters, but they never fully eradicate the typecast.
3. The book's premise, on the other hand, is interesting.  The explanations of life on the remote island and duties of a light house keeper are engaging.

To summarize, I think Stedman shows some real potential.   Though this book didn't do it for me, I would be willing to try something else by her, what I viewed as the primary negatives are typical of debuts and I believe will most likely improve. (3/5 stars).

Recommended To:
Anyone looking for a good summer read.  It's a pretty easy and entertaining read.

Food for Thought:
Today I have two distinct lines of thought:
What are the limits of actions excusable by grief? 
What is the essence of the maternal instinct?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Charming Billy

Charming Billy
By: Alice McDermott (her website)
Picador, 1998

On the day of Billy's funeral his family gathers.  They discuss the man and his alcoholism.  The primary focus of conversation is what led him to drink, was his alcoholism fueled by the death of his first love, Eva.  They also discuss the effects of Billy's choices on his wife, now widow, Maeve.

My Thoughts:
1. I've made it no secret that I adore McDermott, but this book didn't enthrall me the way some of her other novels do.  The narrator jumped around a lot in time, which made the novel a bit confusing to follow at times.  I felt that a bit more delineation could have been made.
2. I, also, didn't feel that her prose was as beautiful as it is in some of her other novels.
3. The characters were as gripping and well-developed, as always.  She does an excellent job humanizing Billy.  The plot's slow unraveling of the details surrounding Billy's life help the reader to reconcile with some of his more detrimental and hurtful life choices. She inspires great sympathy for Billy and underlines the complexity of human nature and experience, ultimately the experience of love in various forms.

Recommended To:
Fans of literary fiction.  Those looking for a  moving story about the nuances of love and what consequences love, and love lost, brings.

Food for Thought:
Love can cause us to take ourselves and others down detrimental paths, how far is that justifiable?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Casino Royale

Casino Royale
By: Ian Fleming (his website )
Thomas and Mercer, 2013.

James Bond, the famous agent 007, travels to the south of France to help take down the notorious criminal, Le Chiffre.  Bond is assisted  by the stunning female accomplice, Vesper Lynd.  Bond and Lynd begin to fall in love as they work to bankrupt Le Chiffre at the poker tables, but things aren't all that they seem.

My Thoughts:
1. I never thought I'd say this, but the movie is definitely better than the book.  Fleming's writing really isn't very good.  His characters are impossible to connect with, even the dashing protagonist Bond is kept at more than arm's-length from the reader.
2.  The plot is exciting and Bond's adventures riveting.
3. Oh boy the misogyny!  I understand that this was written during a different era, but there are numerous comments about how Vesper shouldn't be working at all and is simply a nuisance.  Bond believes that her proper place is within a five foot radius of the kitchen.  The derogatory comments made me hate Bond and have ensured that I never pick up a Fleming book again.

Not my cup of tea, a bit too stereotypically "male." (2/5 stars)

Recommended To:
Lovers of action-packed thrillers.  James Bond die-hard fans, my fianc√© loved the book and though he winced at the misogyny was more willing to look past it; I will be sticking with only the films from now on.  Espionage enthusiasts.

Food for Thought:
Bond states that: "History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep changing parts."

What is the nature of good versus evil?  Is anything ever so cut and dry?  How do we justify heroes like Bond who are flawed?

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Submission

The Submission
By: Amy Waldman (her website)
Picador, 2011
A Muslim man, Mohammed (Mo) Khan submits the winning contribution to a competition to design a monument to the victims of 9/11.  The jury's blind selection sets off a firestorm of public opinion.  The Submission details the reactions of Mo, the various jury members, and supporters of both sides - allow Mo's design to stand or select a new winner.
My Thoughts:
1. What a thought-provoking book. Waldman's omniscient narrator does an excellent job of walking the middle ground between the two sides. As a consequence, the reader is free to form her own opinion about what is the "right" outcome for the monument.  Or, as was true in my case, face great indecision and constantly shifting allegiances as new details and actions unfold.
2. The characters are well-developed and Waldman provides great insight into their personalities and the history that provides a rationale for many of their decisions.
3. The writing itself isn't anything to get excited about, but certainly isn't lacking either.
In short, the book's plot is designed to make the reader question the morality of "fairness," and in that respect is excellent.  In fact, the ideological battle trumps and obscures any flaw of the book and outshines any other positive. (5/5 stars)
Recommended To:
Anyone looking for a thought-provoking read. Basically anyone who likes a book of some substance.  Perhaps fans of Hermann Koch's, The Dinner.
Food for Thought:
A quote to raise a question: "Empower the public [to vote via forum if Mo's design is constructed] and anything ugly or challenging or difficult or produced by an out-of-favor group will be fair game"

The questions being, how far can we allow controversy in art?  How heavily do we need to weigh public opinion when looking at national remembrance?  What is the role of censorship and/or trigger warnings in our society, how much attention should we pay to those?

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The War that Ended Peace

The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914                                        
By: Margaret MacMillan  (her website)
Random House, 2013

The War that Ended Peace is a history of the early 20th century leading up to the First World War.  MacMillan examines the events, treaties, and relationships between the major European countries and the personalities of the key players and leaders.  MacMillan focuses much of her attention on the actions of various leaders and their jostling for power.  At the book's heart lies the question of inevitability -was the war inevitable?  Had a single leader acted differently in just one incident could the course of history been altered or was the period so dominated by hot-headedness that the sequence of events leading to war would have happened regardless of what those individual events entailed?

1. The book was well-written, which enabled me to comprehend a complex morass of treatises, dates, and personalities with relative ease.  The book is so full of information that it can be a bit daunting, but MacMillan's ease of writing makes up for that challenge.
2. MacMillan easily drives home her main thesis surrounding the question of inevitability.  She does not belabor her point, but at no moment in the book does she waver from her intention.  She does not get pedantic or lose the reader with excess information that distracts from the main goal.
3. I read the book on my Kindle, which caused some formatting issues - primarily random question marks in the various Russian names.

On the whole, the book is a solid, informative history of the actions that led to a war and the altering of European society.  It is packed with information, however (this at times makes it a bit of a slog to get through), so be sure to go in alert and ready to pay attention and learn. (3.5/5 stars)

Recommend To:
Anyone interested in foreign policy relations and military history.  Targeted to an audience with a more serious interest in the history of the period, though written and clearly marketed towards a popular versus academic audience it isn't as accessible as other popular histories I have read.

Food for Thought:
Can any historical event be truly inevitable?

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Dinner
By: Herman Koch
Hogarth, 2013

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One evening in Amsterdam, two couples meet at an extravagant restaurant for a seemingly banal dinner.   Narrated by the husband of one of the couples, the novel progresses through the various courses of dinner.  As the courses are brought to the table and then whisked away by attentive servers, the tension between the two couples builds.

This novel is great because of its slow burn.  You can feel an underlying tension from page one, which slowly mounts.  This underlying, but yet-to-be-ascertained source of tension kept me turning pages well past my bedtime!

Another key element of this tension is a narrator who is revealed as increasingly unreliable.  Koch's ability to gain and then destroy your trust makes this book such an interesting read.

Recommend to: Anyone up for questioning morality.  Those people who get excited about unlikable characters and a novel with a slow buildup.

Food for thought (see what I did there, I'm punny): What actions are excusable based on parental love?  What are the boundaries for parents seeking to protect their children?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance
By: Carla Kaplan
HarperCollins, 2015

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Miss Anne in Harlem tells of the experiences of white women who attempted to pass as black during the Harlem Renaissance.  These women, for various reasons, were drawn to the culture and opportunities in Harlem and sought to align themselves with the area's primarily black population.

Coincidentally I read this book at a time that appears to have greater significance than I had ever expected.  Shortly after finishing the book, the scandal over NAACP chapter president, Rachel Dolezal, erupted.  Harlem's Miss Anne personaes and Rachel both shared a notion that race is fluid, a social construction.  Kaplan refers to one of Harlem's famous Miss Anne's belief that race was a social idea by saying: "Her insistence that race is a constructed idea, but one we cannot afford to ignore is an important double insight."   Decades after Miss Anne, Dolezal makes the same claim.  The question, currently, is: is it a constructed idea?

Today, just before I sat down to right this post, the news of the arrest of the man who perpetrated the Charleston shootings circulated through the news.  This added a whole new level of gravity to this post about the complexities of race.  As opposed to writing a traditional book review, I think that this is an appropriate time to lament the current state of race relations in our country.  On the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, racism still runs rampant through our country.  As President Obama pointed out in his address after the shootings, other civilized nations don't have these problems. This past year should be a wake-up call to America that we have a systemic problem, engrained for centuries, that we collectively need to work to change.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern
By: Joshua Zeitz
Crown Publishers, 2006

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Flapper is an interesting history of the Jazz Age.  Zeitz breaks the book into three parts covering culture, fashion, and the Hollywood scene.  Within each of those parts, he presents the reader with the factual history of the flapper through examples of famous flappers: Zelda Fitzgerald, Lois Long ("Lipstick") of the New Yorker, Colleen Moore, Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, and Coco Chanel.  Through the madcap antics of these women, Zeitz explains the cultural shift that occurred during the period, the women threw off the conventions of the Victorian era and embraced a newfound liberation.  The books last line sums it up perfectly: "The flapper was, in effect, the first thoroughly modern American."

I really enjoyed this history by Zeitz.  I found his thesis, that flappers were liberating themselves from traditional gender expectations and advancing their own form of feminism, particularly interesting.  I am always a fan of books where women bend/break the rules and assert their individual rights and freedoms.  By calling attention to specific women who helped to shape the quintessential image of the flapper, Zeitz makes the book more relatable (we all know Zelda and Coco).  He also encouraged me to add many of the biographies of these women to my TBR pile.  And Flapper sold me on its premise that flappers were among the first modern women.   In short, the book is engaging and informative.

This book would be a great for those with any interest in women's history (those with a  background in history or arm-chair historians) and also those who are just looking to flesh out their Fitzgerald obsession.

And now I'd like to leave you with this question: How do seemingly frivolous cultural phenomena influence greater societal understandings of gender?   Are any current trends/movements achieving a similar end today?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Children Act
By: Ian McEwan
Doubleday, 2014

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Fiona Maye is a judge on the Family Court in London. It is her responsibility to rule on situations regarding the welfare of children.

Beneath the pragmatic exterior, Fiona is battling some marital strife with her husband of many years, Jack.

On the night that Jack leaves home, Fiona is asked to preside over the case of a seventeen year old Jehovah's Witness who is denying a blood transfusion. The beliefs of the young boy and her struggle with her husband will keep readers engaged in Fiona's story.

The plot of the McEwan's book is gripping.  While Fiona's marital troubles elicit empathy, they didn't capture my attention the way the case unfolding in her courtroom did.  This book encompasses several moral dilemmas that I found particularly fascinating: is a boy, a year away from legal adulthood, capable of making mature decisions regarding his well-being (can he decide as an adult); what is the role of religion in life-saving treatment; what are the influences of a parent's religion on a child?  The gray nature of the legality of this book is what kept me turning the pages.

Once the case was resolved, I found myself gripped by the characterization of the key players.  I could relate to all of McEwan's main characters and found that closeness was driving me to the end of the book at a quick pace.

I'd like to try a new thing with these posts and that is to leave you (if anyone is actually reading these!!) with a question to ponder.  I would love to hear any responses you may have to the book/what I view as the meta-question of the work!  That being said, my question is how should we treat the religious concerns of minors in a court of law - where do we need to draw the line for both religion and the state?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad
By: Eric Foner
W.W. Norton, 2015

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Between 1830 and 1860, five thousand slaves escaped to freedom annually, most of them were young, single men.  Gateway to Freedom is an interesting history of the Underground Railroad.  More broadly, and perhaps more applicably, Foner details the various methods that slaves used to escape from slavery in the antebellum period.  He points out that while the Underground Railroad presents an image of organization, the Railroad was really more a series of ad hoc individuals doing their best to help many escape to the North and to freedom.  In particular, Foner focuses his attentions on the New York City vigilance committee, which was the precursor to what we understand more commonly as the Underground Railroad.

One of Foner's most interesting points is the hypocrisy and inherent contradictions in the arguments of many southerners.  Southerners argue that secession was rooted in a desire to wrest control of governance from the Federal government and bestow the majority of policy decisions on the states.   Contradicting this premise, during the antebellum period slave owners fought for a sweeping, national fugitive slave law that would infringe on the rights of individual states.  Foner points out the hypocrisy of  this argument: anti-federal power, except when it is protecting the rights of slave holders.

In addition, I enjoyed learning about the politics and tensions that existed among northern abolitionists and Underground Railroad orchestrators.   During the antebellum period there were underlying tensions between the Garrisonians and those who wanted to use the political system to fight the slave system. Additionally, there were tensions between those who favored helping fugitives versus those who felt only total abolition was enough.  The political theatrics underlying this noble cause fascinated me.

My favorite part of this book, however, were the stories of the individuals. In Chapter 7, Foner presents the reader with numerous, true stories of escape.  These escape stories buoyed my belief in human resilience and ingenuity. 

I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in the Civil War or basically any history "buff."  As a student of Civil War history myself (yes I am waxing nostalgic for my undergraduate days), I feel this book was well-researched and argued.  A definite win.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Live by Night

Live by Night
By Dennis Lehane
William Morrow, 2012

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Live by Night is your typical gangster story.  Set in 1920s Boston and Miami, Lehane tells the tale of Joe Coughlin who finds himself running part of an organized crime syndicate in Florida.  In even more stereotypical fashion, Joe finds himself consistently running into trouble with the leader of a competing crime gang, who of course hates Joe because they both fell in love with the same woman.

My mom bought this book awhile back from the discount shelf at Barnes & Noble; she probably went home and plowed through this and the other 8 books she bought in a weekend.  It then sat on the shelf for several months until she foisted it into my hands.  What I'm trying to say is this isn't my typical read.  That being said, I actually liked it.  Lehane has  a way with story-telling.  His crime drama sucked me right in with its cliff hangers.  While the plot checked all the boxes of the definition of a crime drama, Lehane puts enough personality into his books that they don't read generically.  Additionally, the ending was a bit surprising.

As I've already said this isn't my usual type of book selection and aside from the generous donation from my mom, I also read this book because we had tickets to see Lehane speak live at the Carnegie Music Hall.  Let me be absolutely clear: I loved Lehane's talk!  While his books are dark, Lehane is witty and full of humor.  He had me laughing aloud (literally) the entire time.  He does a great Irish accent and imitation of his Irish ancestors.   His sense of humor caught me off guard because of the dark nature of his books.  All around a great entertainer and even if you haven't had the chance to read his books you should definitely take up that opportunity!

I'd recommend this book to anyone looking for an easy and engaging read...a recovery book perhaps?  Or anyone interested in crime drama (or what Dennis Lehane calls Urban Fiction).  I'd recommend his talk to anyone at all!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch
By: Donna Tartt
Little, Brown and Company, 2013

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Donna Tartt's novel, The Goldfinch, relates the story of  a boy, Theodore Decker, who loses his mother in a traumatic way at a relatively young age.  In relation to his mother's death, he procures a small painting of great renown.  Tartt then follows the boy through his youth into early adulthood with the painting constantly hovering in the background.

Very rarely does a book leave me feeling so conflicted.  While last year reviewers and book clubs raved about this book, I can't say that I agree.  Let me be clear, I liked The Goldfinch, but I didn't love the book.  I wavered between boredom and utter enthrallment while I read this book.

I felt that Donna Tartt did an excellent job developing her characters.  Each character within the book is endowed with realistic complexity and great description.  As cheesy as it sounds, I could actually envision the characters, particularly Hobie.

What frustrated me about this particular book was the uneven pace of the plot.  At times I simply couldn't finish the pages fast enough as the events advanced at a rapid and suspenseful pace.  At others the book plodded along full of the mundane and disinteresting.  However, I think that was Tartt's intention.  She made you forget about the painting only for it to resurface with a jolt, just as it would have for the "hero" if he can be called that experienced.

The questionable nature of the "hero" brings me to my next point.  Theo simply wasn't a likable or relatable character.  I understand that he was supposed to be scarred by the tragedy that took his mother, but I found him contemptible and dull, which contributed to my inability to be truly interested in the book.

In conclusion, I don't think that I will ever re-read The Goldfinch, I never reached a point where it was a drag to finish.   Overall my review would be that the book was just so-so, which I understand is in contrast to the majority view. 

I'd recommend this book to book clubs because I think that it could spark some good debate with varying opinions on the likability of the book.  It is isn't a difficult read so I'd recommend it for a good lazy Sunday afternoon as well.

Monday, March 30, 2015

After This
By: Alice McDermott
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2006

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Let me just start out by saying that I might be a bit biased in this review.  The bias is rooted in the fact that I absolutely adore Alice McDermott's writing.  When I finished her novel, Someone, I immediately added every other book she has written to my to-be-read list.  I feel the same way after reading After This.  I want to drop all real-world responsibilities and devour the rest of her novels; unfortunately, I have some semblance of a life outside of reading (work, wedding planning, law school decision-making, sleep).  How I wish that I could just abandon it all though and plow through the rest of her books!

After This follows the life of a working-class family in New York during the 1950s and 1960s.  McDermott focuses her attention on the growth of the couple's children and the marriage behind it all.  The ordinariness of the characters makes the novel relatable.

What makes the novel so enthralling is McDermott's writing style.  Her writing is simply beautiful.  She tells a story that Is devoid of the typical plot triangle/development; instead, McDermott unveils what seems like a stream of ordinary lives in her characters' lives.  The plot develops subtly, slowly unfolding around the reader.  McDermott manages to keep even the mundane interesting, however with her description.

I simply cannot get enough of McDermott's writing style and you can rest assured that many reviews are to follow of her other books.

I would recommend this book to basically anyone.  It has quickly become one of my favorites, which I practically jammed down my mum's throat in my attempts to get her to read it as well.  I just love stories that chronicle the ordinary, American family so if you fall into that boat also then this is definitely one for you!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

1421: The Year China Discovered America

1421: The Year China Discovered America
By Gavin Menzies
William Morrow, 2003

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This is a difficult book to start a blog with for several reasons.  First of all it's not the typical literary fiction that most blogs feature.  Instead, this book is a dense history of a seafaring voyage by non-western people  (in other words, a book that most people would probably overlook).

Furthermore, I wasn't particularly fond of this book.  It seems a little unfair to start off with a book that I didn't like; I worry that it might give people the impression that I'm a harsh critic, full of negativity (which I don't believe is true)!

Nonetheless, this is the situation that we find ourselves in so here goes nothing.  There are several reasons that I was not fond of this particular book.  First of all, Menzies relies very heavily on speculation and consistently mistakes correlation for causation.  He consistently says that the Chinese "must have" landed in x place because that's the way y current in the Ocean forces all boats.  In other words A caused B, which inevitably led to C.  While that seems logical enough we don't have any proof that A occurred in the first place, which means it's not sufficient evidence to prove B and certainly not C.  Upon any sort of questioning or examination, Menzies entire theory pretty much falls apart.

The second reason that I didn't like Menzies book also pertains to his evidence and reasoning.  When, during his travels,  Menzies would find evidence that backed up his point, like a sunken ship or archaeological dig site, he would say that he was testing the evidence, but needed to move on and would post the findings on his website (which you can find here) once they proved conclusive.  What I understood from these assertions was that Menzies was too impatient to substantiate his evidence; or worse, his evidence disproved his point so he didn't want to undermine his point by being honest.  As a whole, it completely undermined his theses credibility in my eyes.

On a more positive note, I'd like to focus on what I believe Menzies did well.  He provided a very interesting history of maritime currents.  He explained in great detail the way the oceans move ships around.  Menzies also provided a very interesting history of early cartography of the Americas, maps that aided many generations of future explorers, including Columbus.  Lastly, Menzies tells a great story.  While I don't believe his argument, I found his writing to be engaging and at the very least thought-provoking.

While I wouldn't recommend this book to any historians or skeptics; I would recommend it to those who are fascinated by "what ifs" and speculation.