Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Opening with a "snapshot" of the main character, College Girl instantly becomes a story that the reader knows they will be able to relate to, in that the protagonist has flaws. She could be any one of us. She knows she is attractive to some, but not all. She is curvy and not tall and not short. Her nails have been chewed and she gets pimples frequently. Her lips are full and her stomach is flat.
Natalie is a senior at the University of Connecticut. She is unique but she still has the exact same insecurities anyone has at that age. It is how she copes with these insecurities that makes her different and ultimately leads her down a destructive path. She is incredibly likeable though, which creates an affinity between the reader and Natalie. Thus, she is easy to cheer for; everyone will want her to succeed at finding her true self.
It is unfortunate that so many of the people in Natalie's life are self-centered. Their faults and inability to be there for Natalie will either break her or give her a greater resolve to surmount the obstacles in her path.
Patricia Weitz has done a laudable job of creating a world that any reader can identify with; Natalie's boyfriend is the same jerk I dated in highschool. And after I broke up with him, I dated another one just like him in college. College Girl is comforting because it proves that all of us experience these situations at some point in our life.
College Girl is a fast book that is incredibly easy to read. It evokes a full of emotions: happiness for Natalie's good grades and attractive suitors, sorrow at the destructive path Natalie goes careening down as she tries to make herself more loveable. Every character is someone we have known at one point in our life, so the image of each participant in the book is easy to conjure up in our minds.
I recommend reading College Girl; anyone who has ever gone to school, struggled with self-image or dated will enjoy this story of searching for, and finding, one's true self.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
In true Frank Delaney fashion, Shannon is a novel that carries the reader straight into the heart of Ireland and into the homes of its inhabitants. With legends of how Ireland came to be, to delineations of Ireland's topography, Shannon is a story deserving of high praise.
In 1922, a priest named Robert Shannon journies to Ireland to find his roots and hopefully find himself along the way. He is a victim of shell shock after being stationed in France during the war. Though he was there as a chaplain, his heroics left him in a state of great mental distress. The American Archdiocese has decided to sent Father Shannon on a trip; the reader later discovers that they have an ulterior motive for sending him away. His being gone is their way of covering up something. That something is known only to a few.
Shannon begins with hooking the reader to a character that can be instantly empathized with:
At the vulnerable age of thirty, Robert Shannon lost his soul. Nothing is worse; no greater danger exists. Only sinners lose their souls, it's said, through the evil that they do. Not Robert Shannon. Incapable of anything but good, he lost his soul through savagery that he witnessed, horrors that he saw. And then, as he was repairing himself and his beliefs, he was ravaged further, in the pursuit of his own faith.
When you lose--- or have ripped from you--- the spirit that directs you, you have two options. Fight for your soul and win it back, and you'll evermore be a noble human being. Fail, and you die from loss of truth.
Frank Delaney assists the reader in seeing the land through which Father Shannon travels, by using subtle, peaceful images. As a result, it is simple to walk next to Father Shannon as he makes the journey to self-forgiveness:
They trudged happily through moorland, which turned into meadow. High skies took clouds across the sun now and then, and the patches of sunlight warmed their shoulders. Cows looked at them but did not feel moved to rise from their pools of grass. The meadow grew pooer: Clumps of mauve sedges interspersed with thin swaths of hay, coarse grasses, and a straggly hedge of thorn to which some white blossom still clung. Far ahead of them, at the eastern top corner of the moor, sottd a grove. They trudged through the spiky grass.
Within the grove lurked a stand of water, from which a clear stream flowed over a brown bed. Dense bushes crowded low to the water's edge. No life could be seen in the pool, it was too dark. Now and then a lazy bubble rose in the center, as though an underwater giant burped.
I've said it before and I will say it again: Frank Delaney is an admirable author of both physical and emotional journies. He knows his niche and he excels at it. It would be impossible for someone to read his books and not fall in love with Irish lore and land. Shannon is definitely one of his very best works, in that it is not merely a tale of discovery, it is also a story steeped in history and wrapped neatly with a hint of intrigue. Any reader can be assured of not being disappointed with Shannon by Frank Delaney.
Though this book is a couple of years old, I still wanted to read and review it. Partially because the subject matter is dear to my heart, but also because Tipperary did not fare as well in reviews as Ireland, also by Frank Delaney.
So, did I like it?
My answer would have to be a resounding yes! Granted, Tipperary starts off requiring the reader to think a little more than some novels. Frank Delaney gave the book two narrators in two different time periods. Ultimately in doing so, it truly works to the reader's advantage.
The first narrator is Charles O'Brien. Born in 1860 in Tipperary, he is the son of well-respected parents who run their own farm. Charles has no interest in taking over the family business so he sets out to become an herbal healer to the country folk of Ireland. After apprenticing with Dr. Egan, Charles gains a bit of notoriety for his skills and gets called to Paris to treat Oscar Wilde, a fellow Irishman. There, he meets April Burke, young at the age of eighteen, especially in comparison to Charles O'Brien's then age of forty. Age knows no bounds, and Charles immediately falls in love with April, only to be rebuffed time after time.
The second narrator is a man in the next generation who has found Charles O'Brien's journal. This second voice is actually what gives the novel validity and depth because he explains what O'Brien is talking about in relation to what else was going on in history at that point in time. Partway through the story though, you discover that this second voice is not just a very helpful guidebook. He is actually linked to the characters the reader comes to embrace.
Tipperary is a multi-faceted book about Ireland and her geography, her history and her traditions. It is a book about war and rebellions, about genealogy and roots that run deeper than can be seen from the surface. Tipperary is a book about love of land and family; it is a story about the many passions of life.
Reading Frank Delaney's Tipperary will enthrall the soul and make the reader wish for the spell to never be broken. It is a delightful journey of highs and lows, of trials and felicity. Tipperary must be traversed by anyone who thrills at finding passions in life.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
There is a certain way one is expected to live in the south. Don't hurry. Treat everyone with kindness. Love God. Eat lots of fattening food. So what happens when you take a boy out of Mississippi and place him in California? Well, you can take the boy out of Mississippi, but you certainly can't take Mississippi out of the boy.
Truely Noonan and his sister Courtney are both transplants from Mississippi to California. As adults, they are both smart and hardworking, making them very successful and wealthy. They have something else though; they have an ability to love their neighbor and always try to do right by them.
Even though Truely and Courtney are struggling to deal with the ends of their own marriages, they befriend a troubled young man named Arnold. Arnold has no father, his mother is in prison, and his best friend has been badly injured in the war.
Truely and Courtney take it upon themselves to show Arnold a better way of living. They give him a place to stay and help him get an education. Most importantly, they never stop believing in him. They grow to love Arnold, like a parent would their child. In the process, they all learn that family does not have to be blood, and home is wherever your "family" is.
Nanci Kincaid has written a truly remarkable story that is enjoyable to read. It is a comment on the dysfunction in every family and how true family will still be there in the end. She defines every character the minute they are introduced to the story, making the the reader honestly care. Truely is the first character we meet:
Hinds County needed rain. Heat rose to nearly a hundred degrees most afternoons. Already two boys had gone down, threatening to collapse of heat stroke. They'd been sent to sit under a sprawling shade tree with cups of ice chips to chew on. One spilled the ice on his head and rubbed it over his parched skull.
Truely had long ago sweat through his pads and jersey, adding a couple of pounds to his misery. It occurred to him that wearing a helmet in this kind of heat could cause your brain to fry. Still, drill after drill, he went at it full speed. Nobody on the field worked harder or complained less. According to his coach there was a certain genius to that. Truely liked pushing himself. He liked knowing that no matter how tough it got out there, he didn't quit. Nobody could make him.
Eat, Drink, and Be from Mississippi is a great read with an uplifting message for anyone who has ever faced problems within their family. A book about rising above the trials of life and moving beyond them, Eat, Drink, and Be from Mississippi is a heartwarming must-read.
Monday, March 2, 2009
In Erica Bauermeister's first novel, The School of Essential Ingredients, the reader can expect to be tucked into an inviting pocket of warmth. From the first page of the prologue, the story is magnetic, creating a secure environment in which any reader will languish in the details of the setting, and the images and smells (and emotions) created while the characters are cooking food.
It may sound like a simple enough premise, and it is; however, the simplicity is the beauty of it. Every element of the book is described in such an original yet honest way, the reader will feel like the ninth member of the cooking class the story revolves around.
The only caveat of this book is that if you are on a strict diet, you may have a problem adhering to it when the smells and sounds and flavors come to life on the page before you. Try to keep your mouth from watering when you read:
Once the crabs were clean, Lillian explained that they were going to be roasted in the oven. "We'll make a sauce, and it will permeate into the meat through the cracks in the shell. The best way to eat it is with your hands."
The class reassembled in their seats facing the wooden counter in the middle of the room. Lillian put out the ingredients--- sticks of butter, mounds of chopped onion and minced ginger and garlic, a bottle of white wine, pepper, lemons.
"We'll melt the butter first," she explained, "and then cook the onions until they become translucent." The class could hear the small snaps as the onions met the hot surface. "Make sure the butter doesn't brown though," Lillian cautioned, "or it will taste burned."
When the pieces of onion began to disappear into the butter, Lillian quickly added the minced ginger, a new smell, part kiss, part playful slap. Garlic came next, a soft, warm cushion under the ginger, followed by salt and pepper.
"You can add some red pepper flakes, if you like," Lillian said, "and more or less garlic or ginger or other ingredients, depending on the mood you're in or the one you want to create. Now," she continued, "we'll coat the crab and roast it in the oven."Erica Bauermeister also masterfully brought each image to life:
The kitchen was ready. The long stainless-steel counters lay before her, expansive and cool in the dark. Lillian knew without looking that Robert had received the vegetable order from the produce man who delivered only on Mondays. Caroline would have stood over skinny, smart-mouthed Daniel until the floors were scrubbed, the thick rubber mats rinsed with the hose outside until they were black and shining. Beyond the swinging door on the other side of the kitchen, the dining room stood ready, a quiet field of tables under starched white linen, napkins folded into sharp triangles at each place. But no one would use the kitchen tonight. All that mattered was the kitchen.
There are passages in the book that prove to the reader that Erica Bauermeister "just gets it." Every mother would appreciate the lines:
"...after the children were born, it was as if no one could see further than the soft hair, the round cheeks of the babies she carried. She became the frame for the picture that was her son and daughter."
It is no overstatement to say that The School of Essential Ingredients is easily one of the best books I have read in a very long time. As each character is developed in their own chapter, the reader is witness to the evolution of strength by each person. In the end, they are all better people, happier people than when they came to the first cooking class. The entire novel is uplifting and inspiring, truly a treasure to anyone who likes a little sunshine in their life.
Monday, January 19, 2009
Dog lovers are a breed of their own and I am not afraid to admit I am one of them. Therefore, it is always great fun to find a cute book about a dog; thanks to Merrill Markoe, one more has been added to that list.
Gil is a man in his late-forties who has been through a divorce, has been cursed with a dysfunctional family and earns enough to stay alive by living in homes of the wealthy while he does odd-jobs and construction to the home. His girlfriend, Sara, of five years, "speaks" with animals and adds three dogs to the list of one that already lives with him. He loves all of them but his favorite is definitely Jimmy. Jimmy was a gift from his ex-wife and was the very best thing that ever came of the marriage.
Suddenly one day, Gil is able to understand Jimmy, as well as every other dog he meets. He is amazed at the intelligence dogs have and their ability to reason and manipulate situations. Together Gil and Jimmy start a blog written in Jimmy's voice, hoping to capitalize on it by selling t-shirts with Jimmy's image on the front. Around the same time, Jimmy starts asking about his birth mother, insisting he meet her. Before long, Jimmy is snubbing Gil in favor of his biological family. All the while, Gil is breaking up with his wacky animal-communicator girlfriend, living in his ex-wife's guest house, being blackmailed by a private investigator and dealing with his mother's pressure to "bond" more with his doper brother. It's only when tragedy strikes that Gil and Jimmy are brought back together, their relationship even stronger than before.
Merrill Markoe writes in a breezy, easy-to-read style with a flare for pointing out the humor in both human and animal antics. I found myself laughing at least every two or three pages, mostly because there is such truth in the absurd when it comes to how people and animals behave. A scene at the beginning of the book has Jimmy addressing a posse of dogs from around the neighborhood; this is the first time Gil has heard them speak and he is standing silently out of their sight.
"Can I ask a question?" said Dink. "I know you've covered this before, but... tell me one more time: Is it pee inside, poo inside, eat and play outside? And what about puke? Is that inside or outside?"
"Here's a mnemonic device. Everything starting with p is outside. P is for 'patio.' P is for 'pool,' P is for 'plants.' P is for 'poo' and 'pee.' And 'puke.'"
"Are you sure?" said Dink. That doesn't sound right. If we were supposed to poo outside, why does Gil collect it in a bag and bring it inside?"
"Because Gil collects shit. No one knows why or what he does with it," said Jimmy. "From what I have observed, I think he maintains a pretty extensive collection and that's why he--"
"No. That is wrong. I don't collect it, I'm cleaning up the yard," I interrupted, unable to keep quiet any longer. Jimmy looked up, seeing me for the first time.
"Gil! Gil! Gil!! Hi, Gil! Hey! How are you! How ya been?" he said, trying to cover up the entire incident by running over to me and jumping around. "Hey, everybody! Gil's here. Isn't it great to see him?"
They all began to circle me enthusiastically, some of them hurling themselves into the air. "Oh, boy! Gil! Gil! Gil! It's so good to see you!"
"You look amazing! Let me smell you. Hey! You had chicken for lunch, didn't you? You got any more on you? Can I have some? Where you been all day!"
"That's enough, you guys," I said. "And just for the record, after I collect the shit in that bag, I throw it out. It goes into the garbage."
"All that work to throw it out? That makes no sense," said Jimmy. "Why?"
"It stinks and attracts flies," I explained patiently.
"Yes, I'm aware of that," Jimmy said, confused. "But you still haven't told us why you throw it out."
"Nose Down, Eyes Up" is an amusing, fast-paced book that any dog owner would be glad to read. Its wit and banter lighten the load of daily life, much the same as actually having a dog's tummy to scratch. It will be fun to see what Merrill Markoe comes up with next.
Friday, January 16, 2009
Maya Angelou has more wit and charm in her little finger than most people have in their entire body. More importantly, she is honest. In "Letter To My Daughter," she recounts stories from her life that let the reader know no one is perfect, but there is much importance in always trying to be your best self.
She explains why there is so much value in respecting others. She expounds why it is crucial to not make assumptions about others, using her own humorous anecdotes. One particularly funny memory she shares is about an actress from Senegal named Samia. Samia and her French husband invite Maya to a dinner party at their home. As all the guests are standing around the edges of a beautiful carpet in the center of the room, Maya thinks to herself that her opinion of Samia has been lowered, due to the fact she will not allow any of her guests to walk on this beautiful carpet. Maya, in an attempt to experiment, walks across the rug again and again, pretending to admire artwork on the walls. The other guests watch her with half-smiles on their faces, and she thinks to herself that the guests "might be encouraged to admit that rugs were to be walked on." Soon after though, two maids come and roll up the rug and remove it, only to put down another equally beautiful rug. Then they put dishes and silverware and glasses on the rug. It is then that Maya realizes she has been walking across the tablecloth! Maya concludes with, "In an unfamiliar culture, it is wise to offer no innovations, no suggestions, or lessons. The epitomy of sophistication is utter simplicity."
The only drawback to "Letter To My Daughter" is that it is not longer. I could have read ten times the amount of Maya Angelou's thoughts and stories and poetry. It is uplifting and heartening. Every woman who reads this book is sure to find at least one ray of sunshine.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
A good book will take the reader to another time and place. If you are comfortable with that time and place being inside a cabinet in Columbine High School's library on the day of the shootings, Wally Lamb's "The Hour I First Believed" is a truly stunning read. While it is a very heavy story (I cannot emphasize just how heavy it is), it is also a book about hope and putting one foot in front of the other. It is a story about trying again and again no matter what the outcome.
"The Hour I First Believed" is a longer book; it is not a weekend read. However, it is an excellent book, both in the story development and the more subtle subtexts. The only problems I can see some readers having with it is a) the "f" word is used throughout, and b) a one-sided liberal political agenda suddenly pops up approximately two-thirds of the way through. These two factors may turn some people off.
The book opens with the main character, Caelum Quirk, picking a pizza up on a Friday night at the local pizza place. There are two young men working the shift and Caelum knows them from the school he teaches at: Columbine High School. The reader knows, of course, the havoc Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris will wreak on their classmates and teachers the following week. This makes for an intense beginning, waiting for them to show their truly demonic selves to the world. Their rampage will take place the following Tuesday.
As it turns out, Caelum's beloved aunt has a stroke that weekend, so he is called to the east coast to tend to her in the hospital. He leaves his wife Maureen behind, as she is a school nurse at Columbine and can't really take the time off. While Caelum is in Connecticut, his aunt passes away. He is devastated by the loss and is going through the motions of arranging her funeral when he learns of the shooting at Columbine. His only thought is he needs to return to his wife, though he has been unable to reach her, thereby not knowing if she is even alive.
He arrives in Littleton and starts searching for her. Finally, he finds her at another school where all the survivors were evacuated to, and he takes her home. Instantly, he realizes she is a different person. The trauma she suffered while hiding in the cabinet in the library is brought to life by Wally Lamb's attention to details. As the reader, you truly feel like you were there in the library, scared beyond all belief.
"The Hour I First Believed" is an incredible account of what happened that day at Columbine. It is also a commendable tribute to those who perished, those who were victimized and those who had loved ones involved in any capacity. More than that, it is a book about moving beyond the horrors of life. It is about cultivating a new life and becoming your best person.
To move on, Caelum and Maureen move back to Connecticut, to the farmhouse left to him by his aunt. It has been handed down through several generations of Quirks, and Caelum is not thrilled at the prospect of spending his days there. No matter how he and Maureen try to move past the terrible ordeal Maureen has been through, they are still broken people, each moving through life in different ways. The sadness of the story does not end at Columbine. There are many sad days for them to struggle through, though the reader is always hoping for the best for Caelum and Maureen.
Wally Lamb's storytelling abilities are amazing. His writing style is so easy to follow; his characters are very easy to relate to; and in the end, the reader will feel as though they were the characters in the book and have survived the horrible ordeals only to finally be uplifted.
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
I am an Anita Shreve fan.
That being said, this book was far below par for Anita Shreve. I was sadly disappointed that I was unable to enjoy it more.
"Testimony" is about some students at Avery, a boarding school in Vermont, who make a tape of one girl engaged in various sex acts with three upper-classmen. Because of one decision made by two people, everyone's life results in a domino affect.
My biggest complaint with the book was that the author wrote each chapter (each varying greatly in length) from a different person's persepective. While this was bad enough, it could be possible to make it work if she hadn't then written each of those characters from a different point-of-view. When a book changes by chapter from first-person to third-person to second-person, it takes too long for the reader to get back into that character's frame of mind. While I have always admired the fact that Anita Shreve loves to employ new or different technniques, I cannot give her credit for this story, except to say that once again she had attempted to break the mold.
The first chapter is written about Mike Bordwin, the headmaster at the boarding school. Using third-person, it in itself grabs the reader's attention, giving a false sense of secuity in this being the beginning of a good book:
It was a small cassette, not much bigger than the palm of his hand, and when Mike thought about the terrible license and risk exhibited on the tape, as well as its resultant destructive power, it was as though the two-by-three plastic package had been radioactive. Which it may as well have been since it produced something very like radiation sickness throughout the school, reducing the value of an Avery education, destroying at least two marriages that he knew of, ruining the futures of three students, and, most horrifying of all, resulting in a death.
Chapter two is written from Ellen's perspective (one of the mom's of one of the students on the sex scandal tape), but from the second-person point-of-view. I felt like I was reading my daughters' "If You Give A Mouse a Cookie" book.
You wait for the call in the night. You've waited for years. You've imagined the voice at the other end, officious and male, always male. You hear the words, but you can't form the sentences. It's bad luck to form the sentences, so you skip to the moment when you're standing by the phone and you've already heard the news and you wonder: How will I behave?
Will you scream? It seems unlikely. You are not a screamer. You can't remember the last time you screamed out loud. Will you collapse then, knees buckling, holding onto the wall as you go down? Or will you, as you suspect, simply freeze, the paralysis immediate and absolute, likely to last for hours, because to move is to have to make a life after the phone call, and you can't possibly imagine how you will do that.
The third chapter is written from another character's perspective but is back to being told from a third-person point-of-view.
The fourth chapter is written from yet another character's perspective, this time in first-person. Sienna is the girl at the center of the sex-tape scandal; the reader knows immediately that she was not completely innocent in what happened:
I'm like, if anyone touches me, I'm going to kill them. I have no money left. Do you have a dollar? I need... There's nothing in here. Just a bunch of dimes and nickels. I changed my name. I thought it up myself. My name used to be something else, but I like Sienna better. I was traumatized. I had to be in therapy for ages. You can put your life behind you and get a new start. I haven't thought about what happened in Vermont in, like, I don't know. I was the victim. I think someday I'll write a book about it.
As I said before, I have enjoyed most all of Anita Shreve's books. Unfortunately, "Testimony" misses its mark.