Thursday, July 30, 2009

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld (Jill's review)

American Wife
By Curtis Sittenfeld
Completed July 30, 2009

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld is, according to the author, 15 percent based on the life of former First Lady Laura Bush. I feel obligated to express that I am not a fan of George W. Bush’s presidency, and the quiet, submissive nature of the First Lady also bothered me. So, with this bias, I approached American Wife with much hesitation.

The story is told from the perspective of Alice Lundgren, a bookish Wisconsin teenager, who later married the boisterous Charlie Blackwell. Alice came off as intelligent, articulate and guilt-ridden throughout most of the story. She was plagued by a car accident from her teenage years, where she killed her love interest on the way to a high school party. Later, she was guilty about stealing her friend’s love interest (Charlie), Charlie’s drinking and drug use, the Blackwell family’s enormous wealth and the thousands of deaths resulting from the war that marked her husband’s administration. Sometimes, Alice acted upon her guilt and tried to make up for these situations; while other times, she kept her mouth shut.

Alice was very human, and her marriage to Charlie was quite realistic – a series of compromises and confrontations that made them a strong couple. Charlie was charismatic but needed the support of others to make decisions. He came across as rude and insulting at times, but when Alice dug her heels in (which was rare), he did concede without issue.

I will not venture to guess how accurately Sittenfeld’s characters depicted their real-life counterparts, but it did make for an interesting story. At times, American Wife was bogged down with too many details, and I wish Sittenfeld spent more time showing Alice as the governor and president’s wife. We learned so much about Alice through her younger years – I almost felt cheated not learning more about her in such public roles.

We will never know what made First Lady Laura Bush tick, but this book, if nothing else, reminds readers that we only see what the media and public relations people want you to see. Sometimes appearances are different than actuality. ( )

Sunday, July 26, 2009

La Cucina by Lily Prior (Jill's review)

La Cucina
By Lily Prior
Completed July 25, 2009

La Cucina by Lily Prior is exactly what its subtitle suggested – a story of rapture. Set in Sicily, this story centered on Rosa – a librarian who used cooking as a way to deal with life’s stresses. She met “L’Inglese” – an English chef – at her library, and immediately sparks flew between them. Between the great food and sex, the two shared a wonderful summer of love under the sun. This part of the novel was steamy in more ways than one!

Then, L’Inglese disappeared, leaving Rosa in total despair. She returned to her family’s farm, spending time with her aging mother, her gaggle of brothers and the great “cucina” where she could cook away her sorrows. At the farm, Rosa rediscovered the joys of farm life and being surrounded by those you love.

La Cucina was, at the basic level, a story about delicious food and sex. For the latter, this book will not be everyone. The sex scenes were gratuitous but not vulgar, but if you don’t like to read about sex, then stay clear of this book. If you love food, however, this is the book for you.

This was the debut novel by Lily Prior, and her “rookiness” showed. Her depictions of Sicily – the sights, sound and smells – were rapturous in themselves. However, the pace of this novel was off, especially at the end where a hundred (important) things were crammed in. I wish Prior made another revision to tighten the time frames. But La Cucina kept me turning its pages, hoping that Rosa found peace and love. In the end, that’s really what I wish for in a book. ( )

Friday, July 24, 2009

What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn (Jill)

What Was Lost
By Catherine O'Flynn
Completed July 24, 2009

In What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn, characters experienced many versions of loss – from deaths to missing friends to lost ambitions and broken hearts. Central to this story is Kate Meaney – a precocious girl who fancied herself a junior detective. One day, she turned up missing. Neighbors and the press blamed Adrian, Kate’s friend, for her disappearance, and he could never shake the community’s suspicions. He ran away, leaving behind his parents and younger sister.

Fast forward 20 years to Kurt and Lisa. Lisa, Adrian’s sister, was the assistant manager of a local music store, and Kurt was a mall security guard who was haunted by the memory of Kate and his deceased wife, Nancy. Lisa and Kurt became friends and then romantically involved, not knowing that Kate’s disappearance would connect them in many ways.

The story of a missing child is never easy to read, and after O’Flynn masterfully showed Kate to her readers, her disappearance made it even harder. Kate was smart, likeable and unforgettable – the kind of girl you root for in a book. You wanted her disappearance to have some closure, despite the sadness.

I can’t say the same for the other characters in this book. O’Flynn was at her best creating Kate – I wished the whole book was Kate’s narrative. The other characters were regular, and their voyage of self-discovery was predictable. Inexplicably, O’Flynn included narratives from anonymous mall shoppers at the end of some chapters, which added nothing to the story.

What Was Lost was the first book by Catherine O’Flynn, and her writing holds a lot of promise. I was not as mesmerized by this novel as other readers, but there were parts of this book that were outstanding. I will definitely read another book by O’Flynn, hoping her future characters spring from that same creative place where she created Kate. It’s there where O’Flynn shines. ( )

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville

The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville

Three times married Harley Savage is a master quilter and has a "dangerous streak." Douglas Cheeseman is a gawky engineer who's former wife has described him as a "bridge bore." They both arrive in Kararakook, NSW, she to help set up a pioneer heritage museum and he to direct the tearing down of the old bridge that has been deemed unsafe. Their developing relationship is explored in Kate Grenville's 2001 Orange Prize winning novel and within its' 400 pages lies a gem of a story.The beauty of this book is the detailed development of these two quirky characters, both so unsure of, and reticient to share too much of, themselves. Grenville masterfully, brings them together, and because of her attention to detail, you find yourself cheering them on and hoping that the author doesn't disappoint in the end. She doesn't. Douglas states early on the main theme of the book, "How do people get on?" We find, through these two and other characters, all flawed in their own ways, that most of us struggle with that question in one way or another. Later in the book, Harley states, when talking about the quilt she is making for the town, "Donna's pieces had got her excited, but everything looked good in the beginning. It was only later, putting the pieces together, that it turned into something less than you had hoped. It seemed she would never learn that was the way things always were." Just like life itself.Grenville uses many metaphors to relate her theme through the quilt and the bridge (the Bent Bridge), because they are both alike in many ways. From a distance, through the window, Douglas watches Harley work on the quilt, fitting pieces together, playing the light and the dark off of each other,allowing them to fit without concern that their seams line up, making it all come together so beautifully. At another point, Douglas explains to her what a beautiful, natural product concrete is, how it has no form of its' own until you determine what it will be, how when you combine the flexibility of steel with the strength of the concrete, you get the best outcome for a bridge that will last forever. And isn't that what relationships are all about? The fitting together, playing off of each other, combining qualities of each to complement the whole? Grenville does this so adroitly that I caught myself holding my breath at the beauty of it. The book's title explains, through the characters, what we all expect of ourselves and yet have a very difficult time maintaining. And through the secondary character Felicity, we learn that the idea of perfection is, in itself, flawed.I can't say enough about the beauty of this book. The elegant prose is only part of it. It's also the emotional wallop it provides and its' ability to make the reader sit back and think, "I know exactly what she's/he's feeling. Wonderful read!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (Jill)

By Sarah Waters
Completed July 21, 2009

The story of Fingersmith reminded me of a crazy car ride with no seat belts. Sarah Waters expertly led her readers through plot twists and turns, leaving you near-breathless as you wrapped your head around colorful characters and tricky plot advancements. When I was done reading Fingersmith, I had to pry my hands off the book.

It’s hard to summarize Fingersmith without revealing spoilers. Suffice it to say, this book is set in Victorian England and includes a drafty old house, a crazy uncle, a secluded lady, a pickpocket, an opportunistic bastard and sex. While it sounds like another formulaic Gothic novel, trust me when I say it’s not. Dickens could have created the characters but only Sarah Waters could have delivered them in such a fashion.

Fingersmith wasn’t without flaws and some believability issues, but who cares when you’re ensnarled in good Victorian fiction? I especially loved the exploration of female love and companionship during this time. Many scholars have speculated about how intimate Victorian girls were, who often hugged, kissed, held hands and shared beds for warmth. It’s nice to read how true this affection could be between girls from this era.

For fans of historical fiction, I would highly recommend Fingersmith to you. Fast and furious, I believe most readers will find this stout book to be a real gem. ( )

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Laura's 2009 Goals and Progress

The Orange Prize is my favorite award after the Booker Prize. In 2008, my Orange Prize Project goal was to read 4 winners or shortlisted works, and I read 5. In 2009 my goal is 8. I plan to complete the winners list, including the 2009 winner. I'll be doing most, if not all, of my Orange reading during "Orange January" and "Orange July. "

Orange Prize Winners Read in 2009 (Books will be listed as completed)
2008 - The Road Home (Tremain)
2003 - Property (Martin)
2000 - When I lived in Modern Times (Grant)
1999 - A Crime in the Neighborhood (Berne)
1998 - Larry's Party (Shields)
2009 - Home (Robinson)
1997 - Fugitive Pieces (Michaels)
1996 - A Spell of Winter (Dunmore)

Orange Prize Shortlist Books Read in 2009 (Books will be listed as completed)
1998 - The Ventriloquist's Tale (Melville)

(My complete List of Orange Prize Fiction Winners & Shortlists read can be found here)

Laura's Review - Fugitive Pieces

Fugitive Pieces
Anne Michaels
294 pages

I'll get right to the point: I was disappointed with Fugitive Pieces. Most of the book is the story of Jakob, who is orphaned during the holocaust, and taken in by a Greek scholar named Athos. After the war they move to Canada, and Jakob grows up to become a poet. Then, about 2/3 of the way through the book, the narrative shifts to Ben, a young professor whose life briefly intersects with Jakob's.

I had high expectations for this Orange Prize winner written by a well-known poet. The language was, indeed, lovely. Jakob's story in particular was well told and poignant in parts. But that wasn't enough for me. By and large, I failed to identify with the characters, and didn't care much about the outcome of their lives and relationships. ( )

My original review can be found here.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Laura's Review - A Spell of Winter

A Spell of Winter
Helen Dunmore
313 pages

Catherine and her brother Rob come of age in their grandfather's house at the turn of the 20th century. Their mother left them when they were young, their father died, and they were raised largely by household servants. Their grandfather is an eccentric recluse, and any discussion of their parents is taboo. Catherine and Rob turn to each other for protection and to sort out their cruel and confusing world.

And that's when things get creepy. Although it's not a suspense or horror novel, A Spell of Winter unfolded in a similar way, where the reader anticipates an awful event and can only watch it happen. Several times I said to myself, "no, they wouldn't ..." But the siblings' emotional instability leads them to say and do some pretty bizarre things. And then suddenly World War I broke out and the novel took another turn. The pace accelerated, and the latter part of the novel was rather disjointed, as if Dunmore was using the war to tie up a lot of loose ends.

The book jacket on my copy of A Spell of Winter led me to believe this was a novel about emotional healing: "... as Catherine fights free of her past, the spell of winter that has held her in its grasp begins to break." The creepier parts of the book were more convincing than the supposed healing, which happened far too quickly given Catherine's lifetime of hurt and repression. A Spell of Winter was the first novel to be awarded the Orange Prize for Fiction, but it doesn't live up to some of the later winners. ( )

My original review can be found here.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn (Jill's Review)

I Was Amelia Earhart
By Jane Mendelsohn
Completed July 16, 2009

What happened to Amelia Earhart and her ill-fated flight across the Pacific? The world may never know, but isn’t it fun to speculate? Did the Japanese shoot down her plane? Did she run out of fuel and dive into the ocean? Or, as Jane Mendelsohn proposed in I Was Amelia Earhart, was she was marooned on an island, living off fish and coconuts and having great sex with her navigator?

I Was Amelia Earhart is a speculative account of this famous aviator, who admittedly, I know little about. Amy Adams recently portrayed her in the movie Night at the Museum, and her depiction of Amelia inspired me to grab this book for Orange July. While Adams’ Amelia was spunky and fearless, Mendelsohn’s Amelia was troubled, depressed and suicidal. Lost in an unhappy marriage, Amelia took advantage of the worldwide flight to test her limits, not caring if she lived or died. It wasn’t until something bad happened on the flight – and her subsequent survival on a deserted island – that Amelia found happiness. All her life, Amelia wanted to be free. Coincidentally it wasn’t flying but seclusion that gave her this precious gift.

Short and sweet, I Was Amelia Earhart speculated into the “what ifs” of Amelia Earhart’s fate. Though I disliked the ending, I enjoyed Mendelsohn’s writing style (almost dream-like) and her development of a complicated heroine. It has inspired me to learn more about this famous woman. ( )

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (Jill's review)

Fugitive Pieces
By Anne Michaels
Completed July 14, 2009

I have never been so bewitched and confused by a novel as I was reading Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels. Michaels poetically told the story of Jakob Beer, a poet himself, who survived the Holocaust after being rescued by a Greek geologist. The first part of Fugitive Pieces depicted Jakob’s life as a young man, living in Greece and Canada. The second half of the book was the narrative of Ben, an admirer of Jakob’s poetry, whose personal life was spiraling out of control.

Jakob and Ben share many parallels – both were affected by the Holocaust, survivors’ guilt and a strangling inability to show their love. For me, Jakob’s story was more fascinating. His nightmarish grip on dealing with his sister’s death was haunting. His love for Athos, his surrogate father, and his second wife, Michaela, showed hope. And his recollections of World War II were heart-breaking. All in all, his tale was more humanizing.

To find these story lines, though, the reader must wade through Michaels’ prose. To say it was beautifully written would be an understatement. However, there were times when I read a paragraph and scratched my head, wondering why it was part of the book. The meandering prose was distracting only because I could not fit it into the larger storyline. Perhaps Fugitive Pieces is a book best read twice.

With that said, I can’t say I regret reading Fugitive Pieces, but it’s definitely not a book for everyone. I usually recommend a book based on other titles or genres, but I can’t for Fugitive Pieces. It stands alone as a beautiful but tangled book about love, loss and the power of the human spirit. ( )

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (Jill)

The Namesake
By Jhumpa Lahiri
Completed July 10, 2009

A tale of family relationships and the immigrant experience, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri explored the lives of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, who settled in Boston from India, and their children, Gogol and Sonia. The first part of the book expressed Ashima’s difficulties with settling into her new home. While expecting their first child, the couple waited for a letter from a grandmother, which would detail the names of their child. The letter never arrived, forcing Ashoke and Ashima to choose a name for their son, settling on “Gogol,” who was a Russian writer who was influential on Ashoke as a young man.

The story then transitioned into Gogol’s life – and his discomfort with his name. Before college, he changed it to Nikhil, attempting to shed the Indian and family ties that he felt bound him. We follow Gogol through college and architectural school, dead-end relationships and a cultural restlessness. It wasn’t until the unexpected death of his father that Gogol began to feel comfortable with his Indian heritage – though too late to share with his father.

The Namesake spoke in a whisper but delivered strong messages about ancestry, family and culture. I believe Lahiri is a short story writer at heart, and her chapters throughout The Namesake could have stood alone. I found the ending to be endearing, leaving me with hopefulness for Gogol and his family.

Fans of Jhumpa Lahiri should definitely put The Namesake on their shelves. I look forward to reading her latest short story collection, The Unaccustomed Earth very soon. She is one of our most talented storytellers. ( )

Laura's Review - Home

Marilynne Robinson
325 pages

At 38 years old, Glory Boughton has returned to Gilead, Iowa to care for her aging father, the Reverend Robert Boughton. Boughton is a retired Presbyterian minister, and a good friend of the Congregationalist minister, John Ames (the main character in Robinson's Pulitzer-winning book, Gilead). Glory is recovering from a failed relationship and is simultaneously resentful of and thankful for her new routine. One day, her older brother Jack comes back into her life after 20 years away from the family. Jack had a troubled youth in Gilead, and his years away not been much better. He has been in jail, he has an alcohol problem, and there is a lingering issue regarding his relationship with a woman named Della.

It's not clear just why Jack decided to return to Gilead, but both Glory and his father decide to give him a chance. The story moves along at a leisurely pace, much like a lazy summer day. Jack finds much-needed stability, tending to the garden and minor repairs around the house. Glory finds companionship, love, and understanding that she didn't think possible from Jack. And yet, Jack's demons never completely leave him. His status with Della is uncertain. While he achieves a kind of reconciliation with his father, tensions do flare from time to time as Robert is unable to completely let go of past hurts. Jack's relationship with John Ames is also tenuous. Eventually, Jack takes the only reasonable action to alleviate his pain, although as the reader we know it will never really go away.

This is a sad, moving, and yet also surprisingly uplifting book of family relationships, redemption, and grace. Highly recommended. ( )

My original review can be found here.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Laura's Review - Larry's Party

Larry's Party
Carol Shields
339 pages

Larry Weller is an average guy who moved from young adulthood to middle age in a pretty average way. He received a diploma in floral design, choosing the profession more by accident than by choice, and moved "up the ladder" in a small floral chain store. On his honeymoon he became fascinated with garden maze design, and made this the cornerstone of his career. He struggled to form meaningful adult relationships with parents, siblings, and women. But as Larry moved from this twenties through his thirties and forties, he matured, "found himself," and made peace with key figures in his life.

Reading Larry's Party is like watching selected scenes from a movie. Each chapter covers a short time in Larry's life and is self-contained, almost like a short story. Shields provides details as if previous chapters had not been written; for example, well into the book she described Larry's parents, and his education, even though earlier chapters covered these aspects of his life in detail. At the beginning of the book, Larry is in his late twenties; by the end, he is 47 -- the same age as I am now. I could relate to Larry's journey through adulthood, and think this book may be more enjoyable for older audience. ( )

My original review can be found here.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Laura's Review - A Crime in the Neighborhood

A Crime in the Neighborhood
Suzanne Berne
285 pages

One summer evening in 1972, a young boy was brutally murdered behind a suburban shopping mall. His death sent shock waves through the neighborhood; this crime was unprecedented. The murder and related events are retold by Marsha, a 10-year-old girl. She becomes a bit obsessed with the murder and imagines herself a private investigator, collecting "evidence" in a notebook. But at the same time, Marsha's own life has been turned upside-down by dysfunctional family relationships. The reader quickly realizes Marsha may not have a firm grasp of the situation.

In fact, over the course of the novel several "crimes" are committed: husband-wife betrayal, deceit between siblings, squabbles and mistrust between neighbors. Some are incidental; others have significant after-effects. Suddenly it becomes clear that solving the murder is not the point of this Orange Prize-winning novel. It starts out as a mystery, but ends with insights on a deeper crime: man's inhumanity to man. Recommended. ( )

My original review can be found here.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Laura's Review - The Girls

The Girls
Lori Lansens
343 pages

Rose and Ruby, "the girls" in this novel, are conjoined twins. In fact, at 29, they are the oldest surviving craniopagus twins (joined at the head). Raised by Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash, they now live independently and work at the town library. Rose, the more intellectual and bookish of the two, sets out to write their life story. She asks Ruby to contribute her own writings. The result is The Girls, a story that is both enlightening and touching.

Rose and Ruby have overcome a myriad of physical challenges just to live life day-to-day, and are faced with numerous medical issues. They can only view each other through mirrors. This means that although they have spent every moment of their lives together, their experiences and observations are sometimes vastly different. They have also kept secrets from each other. There is a scene where one twin observes a situation she knows will greatly disturb the other twin (who cannot see the situation herself). This is revealed in the novel but, because the twins do not share their chapters with each other, only the reader knows the full story.

Lori Lansens does a brilliant job of describing the significant challenges faced by conjoined twins, while also portraying the twins as everyday people possessed of typical emotions, ambition, and dreams. I also appreciated Lansens' technique of intertwining the twins' stories, revealing different aspects through each girl and allowing the reader to form the full picture of their lives. All in all, quite a thought-provoking read. ( )

My original review can be found here.