Monday, August 31, 2015

13 Rue Therese

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

Summary:
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

Summary:
"'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

Summary:
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

Summary:
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.

Summary:
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 fiancĂ© 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
 
Summary:
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

Summary:
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?

Thoughts:
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?