Sunday, May 27, 2018

What We Carry: The Things (Property: Stories Between Two Novellas by Lionel Shriver) and Memories (The Lost Family by Jenna Blum)

When I opted to read a free advance copy in exchange for an unbiased review of Property, I felt a bit conflicted. To the extent the words make sense, I enjoyed We Need to Talk About Kevin. I haven't, however, been a fan of the two other pieces by Shriver that I've read, even putting aside the diss on my alma matter (prep school star "So I tossed it. I didn't apply to Yale or Harvard, but Haverford.") in The New Republic. And I'm not usually a huge fan of short stories. Yet, something drew me to this one and, unlike with the last two attempts, I'm glad I did.

As the title hints, this collection has two longer short stories and a series of shorter ones sandwiched in between. They all revolve, in one way or another, around property...from a gift spurned to a home shared to mail undelivered. It could have felt like a gimmick, but it didn't because each story was unique and took a different approach. I greatly enjoyed The Standing Chandelier, which could sound like a trope itself with a friendship between a man and a woman threatened when the man falls in love with a woman, but managed not to feel like a story I'd heard before. I think one of the shortest tales, about a mail man who simply -- though strategically enough to avoid being caught -- stops delivering some of the mail, was among my favorites (the ending was the best part!).

An enjoyable collection for people who enjoy words and pondering the many ponderings they can inspire. 4 stars. 

The last review I wrote was a book I went into with a heavy dose of skepticism. In contrast, this one fell into my traditional wheelhouse. I've read a good deal of Holocaust-related (or -adjacent) fiction and I fall for characters more than story-lines. But, while it started strong, i came away from this one fairly disappointed.

Peter is a chef. When we meet him, he's working in his own fancy restaurant and he's about to meet a woman he'll fall in love with almost instantaneously. But, Peter is very much a man haunted by his past. His restaurant is named after his first wife, who perished along with their young twin girls in the Holocaust. Peter survived, a fate filled with irony since his wife was not Jewish but merely "guilty by association."

Peter goes on, in time, build a new family. But there is a void that they all feel, a void possibly enhanced by Peter's silence.  Other plotlines are too spoilery, though a brief mention of some biological family....called cousins but at least once removed and who lived in the U.S. during the worthwhile.

I really enjoyed the early sections of the book, esp a notable scene from early in Peter's chef days (he was from a wealthy family and the career choice was not popular w his family...nor was the non-Jewish wife) and scenes of the family during the fearful build-up of Hitlervs power.  Sadly, the book really fell off track for me in the present day narrative, esp after a bit of a time jump. I dont need to love every character and I could see her motivations, but the protagonist of the latter section just didn't work for me. Nor did the somewhat predictable outcome for the youngest primary character.

3.5 stars. Interesting portrait of the ripples created by one person's trials on those around him. Just wish the narrative took a diff path...I liked that it focused on after vs the time Peter spent in the camps but maybe would have been better without the present day time jump.....

Based on a free advance copy in exchange for an unbiased review. Typed on my phone so apologies for typos.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Real characters, New settings: Magical Realism in Fine's What Should Be Wild (A GEM!) and Dystopian Fiction by Erdich with Future Home of the Living God

I won't even pretend I'm going to catch up, but I suppose the benefit of having a few books in my "to review" column is that I can actually present two with a genuine theme. Both of these books involve real characters amid an element of the unreal. In one case, the book would likely be labeled magical realism, while the other is more likely to find itself in the dystopian fiction category.

I'll lead with one that I consider a true gem.

I can't say I'm typically a fan of the books folks categorize as magical realism, but this....this felt both real and was like magic in its ability to transport me into its little world.

Maise has never felt a kiss on her cheek, a warm hand in hers, skin-on-skin. With a simple touch, she can kill. Or, alternately, she can revive. There's a beautiful description of her toddling across a lawn, leaving a brown trail of dead grass behind her; they even had to coat the wood used to build their old home or else it would come alive with her touch. Maise's mother died while carrying her and her scientist father most certainly loves her but also treats her as more of a study subject than a daughter. The woman who serves as a housekeeper, nanny, grandmother, and more loves Maise too but also, as Maise learns, has a life outside her job too.

While this is mostly Maise's story - a coming-of-age tale about learning about the worlds and about herself - it is also the story of women who came before. For centuries, there have been women who simply vanished into the woods. We meet them too, women who never felt quite like they fit in the world and are now trapped in someplace other.

To say much more might be to say too much.  I might already have done so. But this book captured me. The language was lovely. The women were strong and powerful, but also flawed and uncertain of themselves. The love is flawed too, from the father-daughter relationship to the relationship with oneself. I can't easily voice (read: type) what it was about this book that captured me, but I was drawn into its world and wanted to know what happened to every character.

There were a few places/subplots that I didn't care for, but this still ranks as the best book I've read in some time. You need to be willing to suspend disbelief, but you'll be rewarded it you do. 4.5 stars, happily rounded up to 5 when that isn't allowed (but still 4.5 given the few pieces that didn't work for me). I can only return to where this review started, the book finds real (fleshy, full) characters and real internal struggles (loving, fearing, growing) in a world with a bit of magic.
(Review based on an advance copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review)

There's an undercurrent of a tale told before, a woman who loves the parents that raised her dearly seeks out her birth family, motivated to action in part by her own pregnancy. She is the teller of this tale, and she is telling it to her unborn child.

Then there's the twist that moves this woman's tale into the dystopian category -- not only has evolution halted, it seems to be moving backward. And humans do not seem to fit into nature's plan. Pregnancy rates seem to be falling, maternal and infant mortality rates are climbing, and many of the babies that are born seem to be something other. In an early review note, I wrote that it is "a society in which wombs have been a commodity." It is hard to decide whether the natural events or man's reaction to them (which includes registries and efforts to corral pregnant women) are more disturbing.

3.5 stars. I found the concept and, in particular, the portrayal of how society might react in response to the unexpected events quite interesting. It is without question disturbing, but it is well-crafted. Erdich is certainly a true talent. Still, a lot of parts dragged which feels odd to say after the plot summary. I tired of the book. Also, I am not someone who needs a neat and tidy ending, in fact I prefer books that leave shades of grey and where the characters journey on after my "visit" to their world. But this book left too much unresolved for my taste. Also, there is an element of Native American spiritualism, which I did like but which also sometimes felt like it was from a totally different story/book.
(Review based on an advance copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review)

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Ruined House (Namdar) and Fools and Mortals (Cornwell)

Two VERY different books...I won't even try to connect them....
So, if you are anything like me, this book may send you searching for a quick primer on how to read ancient Jewish texts. The good news is there's lots of information online and it is actually kind of interesting. The bad news is it isn't always easy,

The main journey in this book is Andrew's. On the surface, he's a successful academic who manages to keep a positive relationship with his ex-wife, his daughters (one grown, one teen), and his young (former student) flame. However, his life starts to slowly dissolve when he finds himself beset by strange dreams - waking dreams or perhaps visions - an intense religious nature. Although he identifies as a Jewish man, he largely attends services on the high holidays and it is more of a cultural identity than a religious one, making these visions particularly perplexing. As these moments grow in intensity, other elements of his life seem to unravel from articles that just won't get written to confrontations in his personal life to an odd obsession with strangely pornographic websites. It's a midlife crisis, but not a typical one. And, to bring back in that first paragraph, the book is peppered with (fake) Talmud sections detailing and explaining elaborate rituals centered around Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year.

This is the kind of book that leaves me searching for the right words, both to fully describe the text itself and to describe my experience with it. I can't say I truly liked it...I definitely didn't like Andrew (I don't think the reader is expected to....and I can enjoy unlikable protagonists in the right hands) and he wore on me more and more as the book progressed. The sections that mimicked the Talmud fascinated me in the beginning but they also wore on my patience and part of me found the whole conceit a bit offensive (my honest reaction as something of a secular/cultural Jew myself, even if it is by a Jewish man who hails from Israel and originally wrote in Hebrew).

Two and a half stars..rounded up to three because there is some (often strangely) beautiful language here, but it generally left me perplexed. This review is based on an advance readers edition received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I must admit, when this ARC arrived from the publisher (provided free of charge in exchange for an honest review), I did a double-take and it took me a moment to remember that I had indeed asked for it. After all, Cornwell isn't my typical fare. I may like literary fiction set in another time, but true historical fiction is rarely my cup of tea, especially that surrounding war and kings and such. But, this is a bit of an atypical Cornwell novel.

The protagonist is Richard Shakespeare, William's fictional younger brother and a struggling actor. He's typically been relegated to playing women's roles and yearns for meatier (and manlier) dramatic fare (plus, there are younger men who are better suited to the female leads). Through most of the book, the troupe is rehearsing A Midsummer Night's Dream for a wedding presentation while Will puts the finishing touches on some play about two star-crossed lovers (truth: my least favorite WS play). Along the way, there's a love interest and some intrigue associated with a new competitor looking for plays to showcase in a new theater. 

This was a fairly quick read and generally a fun one. It did drag in places and there are parts of the story that just wrapped up a little too quickly (and off of the main stage, although we get glimpses of its resolution). Yes, the ending was somewhat predictable, but once you know whether you're enjoying a comedy or a tragedy, so is Shakespeare. The characters were fun and there were enough plot lines to keep the reader's interest while also avoiding becoming too many moving parts. I also enjoyed that Cornwell is clearly a researcher and I learned a good bit along the way, including from the author's note which addresses how theater really evolved in the early Elizabethan age (although I imagine it helps to have a basic handle on WS's works and times).

Four stars. Nothing too taxing, but definitely best for someone who enjoyed rather than loathed their own experiences with Shakespeare.