Saturday, June 10, 2017

Two tales of people, place, and identity: Kiss Carlo (Trigiani) and No Other World (Mehta)

Summer has descended upon Northern Virginia. I've been enjoying reading in the cozy chairs we bought for our sunroom. Sadly, it will soon be too hot in there to breathe till Fall. Luckily, there's a pool nearby!

I'd find it hard to say "no" when offered a taste of Trigiani. I truly adored The Shoemaker's Wife. Still, I've also glanced at other novels she penned and felt immediately turned off. But, the adoration won out and I happily signed up to receive an advance edition of this novel (which came with lipstick!).

Although it takes a few trips...including to Italy and to a small town in PA...this book's heart is in Philadelphia. Nicky is growing up in a bustling family, adopted by an Aunt and Uncle when his mother passed and raised alongside their three sons. He eventually becomes part of the family taxi business, a thriving affair in 1949 as the economy bustles after the war, with their main competition coming from the uncle's estranged brother. Still, Nicky finds himself drawn to a small struggling theater company and works there part-time for years before revealing the secret to his longtime girlfriend just as he's thrust onto the stage when the company is shorthanded. This story develops alongside the story of a small PA town getting ready to welcome an important visitor from the town's struggling sister city in Italy.

And, well, to avoid saying too much (which some summaries do), I'll just say it all gets thrown in a jar and shaken.

I really wanted to love this book. I did FEEL the place, possibly more vividly since I'm half-Italian and grew up just outside of Philadelphia, and that's a credit to Trigiani. She paints several places beautifully. While her characters are interesting, they don't feel nearly as real as the places do. I certainly cheered for Nicky, but I got a bit weary as the story mixed him up into plots that seemed thrown together at random. It would have been a much better book if it was, well, several books. I could have handled some loose connections tying together a trilogy, though even then I feel like the overlaps would have needed to be minimized. There's just too much going on and Nicky is in the middle of all of it, when he just shouldn't be.

There are some great aspects of this book. As I've mentioned, she's a master of place. And I just loved Hortense, the taxi company's dispatcher, although her storyline follows Nicky's to the small town and loses me a bit (hers is a good tale, just felt too forced). And Calla, the daughter of the aging owner of the theater, is a pretty cool lady too. But, the fact that there was too MUCH, too MANY plots tied too loosely together, dominated and knocks what could have been a four-star novel down to three.

This is a story about family, culture, and identity. Kiran is born to a couple who immigrated to America from India in search of the American dream. In some ways, they have it. They are doing fine and living in a nice town in Western NY, but Kiran feels like he doesn't quite belong. He questions how he fits, both in his nation and in his own home. The book also introduces us to the uncle who stayed behind in India and eventually to his son as well, providing the reader different eyes on the story. Although Kiran is the protagonist, we also see stories he doesn't, including his mom's brief affair and his cousin's struggle during his brief visit to the U.S. As Kiran grows and becomes aware of his own identity as a gay man, other questions arise that make the study in identity even broader.

I liked the roundness of the characters here. We see imperfections and secrets and we see how even those who look at ease feel a bit lost. I enjoyed this book, but it didn't stay with me much beyond the last place. I also felt like a few of the storylines...the early mention of one girl's death on 9/11, the key moments in Kiran's trip to India...felt forced into the story like ideas the writer wanted to be sure to get on the page.

This DID feel real at many points and I think it would connect on a deeper level with first-generation Americans and also with those who know what it feels like to be gay in a culture that won't utter the word. 

Three and a half stars. Provided to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Blaze with Smoke that Lingers Long After, A Burst that Burns Bright but Fades Fast: Night of Fire (Thubron) and The Comet Seekers Sedgwick)

Time marches on. Spring is here, summer is looming. Sitting in our lovely sunroom and committing myself to at least getting two reviews churned out. The truth is that I do love writing these, but somehow it is also incredibly draining so I'll leave a third ARC review for another day along with several reviews of books I actually purchased (those reviews I owe to myself and, in a hard-to-define way, the authors...these are owed in a much more concrete, direct fashion and promised to the lovely folks a Harper who help keep my nightstand stocked)

This book is at once extraordinarily complex and extremely simple. The title succinctly conveys the least that of the present old, (clearly dangerous) Victorian home that has been divided into apartments is burning with six tenants (including the landlord) trapped inside. As we see each tenant's room catch aflame, we journey into the past and dive fairly deep into each individual life. There is the lone woman, a naturalist, whose love of butterflies is the force that pushes her story forward. There is the priest, whose story focuses on the last months of his training and the other young men who are on the same journey (both a physical one and a spiritual one). There is a neurosurgeon whose life's work involves a deep connection to memory, both as a fragile product of the brain and as something wholly different. As other reviews note, there are many recurring themes and motifs in the individual stories from the suicide of an acquaintance to the presence of butterflies.

I am a character-driven reader...I read to experience lives that are not my own (I'm a people-watcher and I'll strike up a conversation with anyone, but deep connection is hard for me)...and this is a character-driven book. In some ways, its style is one that has been very much overdone in the past 5 years or so, a series of interconnected but stories that create a product in a grey zone between novel and short story collection. Yet, there is also something new and different here.

Thubron's characters are amazingly deep despite only living for a few dozen pages. They are all complex and compelling, though certainly every reader will find one or two stand out (for me, the naturalist was most fascinating while the priest dragged a bit). The brief overlaps are far too numerous to appear as coincidences and yet are, purposely, never really fleshed out. There are some answers suggested, but none proffered as the answer/explanation for what is really happening and what is being said.

I think this is a novel that would benefit from a circular read that wraps back and starts again the moment it finishes. I can't claim, however, to have given it that treatment and don't know when it'll find its way to the nightstand again. Still, a solid 4-star book (5-star scale, book provided free of charge by the publisher in exchange for an honest review).. Recommended for character-driven reader who are ready to fall into a story and to ponder deeper meanings that belie the very simple description of the present day action.

I must confess to start that I finished this book, provided to me by the publisher is exchange for a review, several weeks ago. Sometimes I think delays (which I admit are quite common these days!) hamper my ability to write a review, other times I think that a delayed review can be far more telling...esp with my very odd memory..and capture the essence of a story more than an immediate write-up could.

This novel has two primary protagonists but also touches down in moments across several centuries. At the simplest level, it is the love story of Francois and Roisin. At another level, it is an ode to comets. At its core, it is about time, about love, about memory, and about the past that is always present in, well, the present. It begins at the end of the story, when Francois and Roisin are (finally, an odd word for a preface but an accurate one) connecting under the Antarctic sky. The reader is then taken back in their lives. Roisin's arc centers on a love of the night sky and a complex relationship with a cousin, a relationship that is intense in youth (intensified by being taboo) and teeters on the edge of soul-matehood but is tested by different destinies and dreams. In Francois's story, the focus is on his tie to his mother who is either insane or possesses a deep, inherited gift that allows her to see deceased relatives whenever a comet passes overhead (it is these predecessors whose stories are told in the chapters dating back much further in time, always tied to the appearance of a comet).  

There are moments in this book that feel so very intense. And there are moments that feel desperately disappointing, when the writer falls back on what feels like too-simple tropes (e.g., near-misses in the histories of the two protagonists). There are moments of magic and others that feel forced (including the connection to a famous tapestry and the characters depicted thereon). I did enjoy the lessons about history and science and appreciated the research that went into the book. And overall, and I recognize this is such a wimpy statement, I think I liked it. But, like a comet blazing across the horizon and then disappearing into the dark, it faded very fast.

3.5 stars. Readers should be looking for love stories that can be more about history than romance, for a heavy dose of magic, for a little bit of science, and for a lot emotion....but also ready to accept a few literary foibles and a story that burns hot at moments and fades near-to-dark at others. 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Meh...A Rare Did-Not-Finish (Marrow by Elizabeth Lesser) and a Mixed Bag (Mister Monkey by Francine Prose)

(Insert usual comments about how I need to get on here more often. There are a number of books on my "to be reviewed" shelf on Goodreads, but I've written up two of the reviews and might as well get some of those reshelved! Sadly, neither is a particularly positive review, but there ARE some books on the shelf that will get positive reviews (when I get to them...)!)

It is rare that I close a book and put it on the shelf unfinished. It feels like a defeat to me and like an insult to the book. However, after a bit of internal turmoil, I did just that with Marrow. I'm not going to give it a rating in terms of stars, but I think it still warrants a short "review" of sorts.

I'm definitely more of a fiction gal, but I was drawn to Marrow when it first came to my attention (note: I received a review copy from the publisher free of charge). I finally pulled it down to delve into (life has been more than a bit busy) after hearing the author talking about some related items on NPR. I was interested in how the two sisters came to know each other, how they accomplished the merger of souls as they went through the donation process. I got a few glimpses of this and enjoyed a few pages here and there about the very different childhoods that can be had within the same walls.  However, the portion devoted to this was so tiny. Much more of the book, at least in the just-shy-of-100pps I read, was something akin to either a self-help book crossed with a primer on the author's view of the life (a mix of various social science disciplines).

I didn't want that and I almost began to resent the time I spent on the book. With time a precious commodity of late and truly needing my reading to be about pleasure and to help me feel refreshed rather than drained, I put this aside.

First things first...this is about a children's play that involves a monkey played by a young boy. It is not, however, a children's book.

Okay, moving on. This novel follows a number of people both directly and tangentially tied to a mediocre production of a fairly mediocre play based on a beloved children's novel. Early on, the reader experiences a particularly notable showing in which the young boy, a gymnast on the verge of puberty who has a wreck of a stage mother as his primary parent) who plays the monkey wreaks a bit of havoc including sexually assaulting one of the adult actresses (he's supposed to jump in her arms, he...well...humps in them instead). This episode factors into a number of the different narratives the reader comes across as Prose takes them from one character to another to another, with each character serving as the protagonist for one chapter.

As I suppose is common with this sort of book, I found myself really enjoying some chapters and hurrying to get through others. The word "zany" pops up in many reviews...both in reference to the book and to the play at the center of its orbit...and that's pretty much the best way to sum it up. Zany but also, at times, dark. Along those lines, I feel like it was far from a serious read, although it did have some serious moments and serious thoughts including a lot about destiny, loneliness, and even the suitability of evolution as a topic for children. Honestly, I finished it a while back and while I remember my response to some characters' tales, I can't really remember a feeling about the book as a whole. I think that probably sums it up best. 

3 stars. That falls a bit below my somewhat standard 3.5 which is what I'd usually give a book that I  generally enjoyed but didn't feel all that strongly about. The lower score meshes with the fact that I enjoyed parts of it but was very much ready for this book to end. I received this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

It doesn't bother me and I imagine it is evident from the summary and the reviews one can find here and elsewhere, but both sex and religion (largely in reference to the aforementioned issue of evolution) come up.