Friday, October 30, 2015

Two Works About Art: The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto (Alborn) and The Improbability of Love (Rothschild)

...and two more books added to my shelves....oddly, given that they came from two different publishers, both focused on the power of art to impact artists and audiences...
This is a difficult book to describe.  It is set at the funeral of Frankie Presto, a gifted musician whose life begins in a tucked-away room of a burning church and continues to be marked by the extraordinary despite Frankie's desire to be left to be more ordinary and simply revel in his musical gift.  Music is the primary narrator, although the book also has "interviews" with numerous people, both real (but fictionalized) and not-so-real. Through Music and the others, we learn Frankie's life story, a journey marked by a powerful love for both Music and a woman he meets when she's just a young girl in a tree.  Frankie also possesses six magical guitar strings that allow him to make a profound impact on six lives.

Portions of this book are almost heart-breakingly beautiful.  In particular, I loved the image of various talents surrounding babies as colorful lights; the baby grabs at a particular light and is gifted with that talent for life.  I liked that Frankie's life included missteps and also miracles, creating a rounded and real character amid a tale of magic strings.  I'd never read Alborn (he wrote Tuesdays With Morrie and many other bestsellers, often weaving in a philosophy of life) and was a bit uncertain about whether he'd be a good fit.  I didn't find this drippingly sentimental but it was very much an emotional journey.

Still, I wasn't really drawn to Alborn's decision to weave numerous real figures into fictional Frankie's journey.  It was a distraction for me, particularly since I'm not really a music person so I'd often spend time wondering if a given name was real or fictional.  There were also a few plotlines that didn't work for me like the Woodstock scene that unravels in several chapters or some of the moments involving the physical guitar played by Frankie.

Four stars.  I think this book would be best-enjoyed by someone who has a deep connection to Music and could truly appreciated how Frankie relates to his gift.  A copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Annie is nursing a broken heart and stalled career when she stumbles upon a small painting in a thrift shop.  While the reader knows from the start, it takes much longer for Annie to realize the painting is a lost, important work by a famous artist.  The opening scene, which in the novel's timeline occurs after much of the rest of the book, shows the preparations for an auction featuring the painting and introduces several heavy hitters expected to lead the bidding.  In addition to chapters narrated in the first-person by the painting, other chapters focus on Annie, a love interest who happens to be in the art world, Annie's boss (who is one of those heavy hitters), and several other characters.  

There are too many story-lines to identify them all here, but they include: Annie's relationship with her alcoholic mother; Annie's endeavors as a high-dollar chef with an interest in elaborate theme events; Efforts by more than one person to track down the painting; and A WWII story involving family, lies, and Hitler's art squad.  Characters range from a flamboyant and extravagant man who makes helping people rise socially a business and an art; the smitten love interest, Jesse; a wealthy woman brought up in the art world; and, of course, the painting.  Oh, and there's a lot about art, food, and, as the title promises, love.

There's so much here that it's hard to start...and perhaps that's where I can start.  There's a LOT in this book and not entirely in a bad way.  It keeps the reader alert and engaged and gives backstories to many of the players, although it does go a smidgen too far into "throw it all in the pot" realm (common for first-time novelists like Rothschild).  It took me quite a while to get a handle on all the names (tip: flag the descriptions in the intro chapter for help!).  However, I enjoyed the range of players even despite this struggle which says a lot about the author's talent for crafting characters.  I wouldn't say they are perfectly fleshed out, some are pretty one-dimensional, but there's talent in the crafting.  I got a bit tired of the gushing over the painting and its depiction of love, but I still wanted to pick the book up every night.

All in, this is a solid novel but not a favorite book.  I think it falls at the upper ends of my 3.5 star range (of 5).  I'll round up to 4 when ranking systems require it without hesitation, but it just isn't quite a "true" four for me.  I'm not a follower of art (although the novel certainly suggests there is value in even lay opinions on art) and imagine it might read differently to an aficionado.  There are clear viewpoints presented, a clear underlying belief in the power of art and love.  I found characters and plotlines that I really liked and others that felt too thrown in.  I loved the food scenes, but they seemed superfluous (another see-saw-like opinion...).  There are too many coincidences for my taste but (yet another teeter-totter) it bothered me much less than it would in other hands.  This can't be called an easy novel given the attention it demands if the reader wants to keep track of all the plots and characters, but the writing is smooth and inviting.  I wanted to read it, but I didn't feel the need to slow down to avoid leaving it behind (a hallmark of a great novel, in my opinion).  

Who might enjoy this book?  I think it needs to be someone who enjoys some form of art, be it painting or writing, and believes it can be transformative.  I can't say what having a background in painting and visual arts in general would impact the read.  At the risk of abusing two overused categories, the book is a good middle ground between "chick lit" and "serious literature" and it worked well as pre-bed reading that was more serious than easy-to-interrupt airplane fare and books where the reader needs to work to parse each line.

A copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Wishing for the Elusive Half-Star: Reviews on Life After Life (Atkinson; 3.5 of 5) and The Canterbury Sisters (Wright; 2.5 of 5)

Really, I was NEVER overdue with a library book or school assignment...and don't really have a due date for these reviews (only time I did was for "blog tours" and those were on time!), but I've let these linger a are two for books I purchased on my own, soon to be followed (hopefully!) by two supplied by their publishers...
While most reviews for Life were definitely positive, the reviews among my friends (book-review-friends and in-real-life-friends alike) were mixed and largely mediocre.  But I love Atkinson and was still in a quiet-spell for reviews so I took a chance.  My own take -- fine, even good, but not great.

This book presents the unique lives of Ursula Todd.  After a brief preface, we watch in on a birth only to find the child strangled by the umbilical cord.  The next chapter is the first of many do-overs, this time she lives, but not for long.  In the subsequent chapters, small variations make all the difference in Ursula's survival and, eventually (after a series of life-or-death matters), in her path.  Ursula is born in England just prior to WWI and while (when she lives long enough, of course) that conflict shapes some of her earliest years, she really grows up during the period between the wars ans it is the WWII chapters that are the book's most dramatic.  There are many themes swirling about from the nature of time, to the purpose of life, to the similarities and differences between bitter enemies.

As several of my friends commented, this book would have been well-served by sharper editing.  I understand some of her reasons, but Atkinson could have lost quite a number of pages and ended up with a piece that was better for it.  That caused it to simply drag and also made for more than a few times when I back-pedaled through pages trying to recall a missed detail.  Still, there were some great characters, both major and minor.  I was particularly interested in how. and I'm trying to avoid spoilers, a sexual moment shaped the course of Ursula's life (I could see that alone supporting its own work!).  I also really enjoyed the portrait of WWII from a perspective I've only seen a handful of times despite having read a good deal of historical fiction set in the time-frame  And I'd be remiss not to praise Atkinson's prose.  

So, I end at a 3.5 star rating (of 5) that I'll round up to 4 on one site and 3 on another since two force me to pick but I am really feeling quite firm on the half.  You need patience, an interest in detail, and a willingness to re-read the same moment again (though, eventually, you do progress enough that it stops starting from birth each time...honestly, at one point, I feared that might never occur).  Rewards: language, character, moments of humor, and thought-provoking-issues aplenty.  Yes, this has been done in modern cinema, more than once, but this is certainly a more literary turn for the tale of moments tried and re-tried.

This book appeared on some recent list of books for 30-something women and I was intrigued.  Not only did I study the Canterbury Tales in AP English in high school, I took an entire Chaucer course in college that focused on the Tales plus an additional class dealing with medieval literature and art that also touched on Chaucer's works.  That is what drew me in, but the read proved to be rather dissatisfying.

Sisters opens on Che, a wine critic who recently lost her (rather eccentric, to put it mildly) mother and was left by her longtime boyfriend.  Che's mother leaves her with a final task, to spread her ashes in Canterbury, a request that includes an implicit direction to walk the famous trail.  Che ends up doing so with a group of women who decide to spend the trip sharing tales of love.  And, of course, there are a few (mis)adventures along the way.

I think I expected too much here.  I knew I was wading into a bit of "chick-lit"-land and I was okay with that.  The truth is, however, it takes a rare piece of "chick-lit" to truly capture me and to become more than just mind candy.  I think I was more interested in Che's reaction to a few wines than any of the characters themselves.  That said, it did pass the time and it wasn't bad, it just wasn't good (okay, the ending was pretty bad) and I'd hoped for more.  Perhaps my own fault to a degree, but I can't go over 3 stars and would be tempted to say 2.5 if not for small moments and because a lot of my opinion is tainted by the odd turn towards the end of the journey. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Thinking About Context and Content: Reviews of Trigiani's All the Stars in Heavens and Dicks' Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend

Again, intentions have failed to translate into actions as far as blogging goes for me.  I love that my work world these days involves words, but it does make it more challenging to blog on my own at least while I'm still far from full-strength.

Regardless, I have still been reading and thus....

Memoirs is narrated Bodo who we learn quite early on is not like the rest of us.  Bodo is an imaginary friend and in this world imaginary friends are real but can only be seen by their imagine-r and by other imaginary friends.  Key to this world is that the Friends only exist as long as the person who imagined them believes that they are real.  This means some disappear almost instantaneously and that Bodo is quite old at 5.

The Friends we meet in the book are hugely varied and they are (as I note below) the book's biggest asset.  Some are very nearly human in appearance, often missing a small detail like the ears that a child might neglect to include in a sketch of a person, while others are wholly different like the one Friend who is pretty much a blob-like ink-blot-style creature.  They can typically leave their imaginer and explore the world, though this all depends on what the imaginer envisioned (i.e. some pass through walls, only a few need sleep).

Bodo is imagined by Max  The book avoids labels but it is clear Max thinks differently than most and is probably on the autism spectrum.  His parents fight a lot about Max, as I understand is quite common, and he is largely a loner.  Bodo is wiser than Max; he can think beyond Max's own abilities b/c that's what Max envisioned when he imagined Bodo. Bodo worries as Max struggles socially while also knowing Max's needs are unique.  Bodo also knows something is amiss when one of Max's teachers seems to take an unusual interest in Max, this interest serving as the starting point for most of the novel's plot.  Ultimately, Bodo fights to help Max within the unique limitations of his kind and while also dealing with his own emotions.

I came to this book both because of prior experience with the author and because the idea was utterly fascinating.  I loved the various Friends that populate the novel and the fact that they aren't all bubbly perfect.  I also saw a great understanding of the trials of childhood and how intense they can be.  However, I just didn't "feel" the main thrust of the action, never fully believing the storyline with Mrs. Patterson.  Certainly, Max wouldn't have understood her motives even despite seeing some of her story, but I think the author could still have weaved more in to make it ring truer.  I particularly disliked the store's storyline (I hesitate to specify more for fear of spoiling other readers) which felt completely thrown in, like it was one more idea Dicks had and he just wanted to include it as well....that impulse worked for me with the varied Friends who must have been fun to create, but not so much with the narrative thrust of the action.

Three and a half stars.  Loved the idea and the world Dicks creates but never connected with the main action of the story.

Stars is set in the grand age of Hollywood, a world somewhat apart from the struggles most of the country felt in the 1930s and dominated by the studio system.  There are two protagonists (is that a contradiction? if so, there are two main characters...).  One is Loretta Young, based on the real-life young actress known in large measure for her "romantic" entanglements (I'll get to the motivation behind those quotes).  The second is the fictional Alda, a woman who finds herself rejected from a convent after expressing too much of a connection to a young woman giving birth and putting her child up for adoption.  Alda is sent to serve as a secretary to Loretta and becomes more of an additional sister.

There are a lot of women in this book, including Loretta's mother and three sisters (there are two absent fathers in the mix).  Some of them blend a bit, but generally they are the support system that allows Loretta to shine as a young starlet.  Then there are the men, namely Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable who fall for Loretta.  Her relationships with these two (married) men account for a large portion of the story and stand in contrast to Alda's own love story.  Throughout the book, the characters are all affected by the odd world of the studio system and its strict moral code which is certainly more show than substance and much more of a concern for women than men.

First, the matter of history -- Reading other reviews and taking a brief look at the real Loretta, I leaned that in her later years she said that she had been raped by Gable.  In the book, this relationship is a story of star-crossed lovers.  Part of me wants to ignore the facts (well, the facts according to Young) and just settle in to the fiction, but it does haunt the novel and I can't discuss the book without reference to the disparity even if I'm not wholly sure what I think about the matter.  It does provide an interesting context that further emphasizes the powerlessness of women and the impact of the cult of celebrity then and now.  Even though it would never have been discussed in the day, it is also very clearly not the story presented in the novel.  The tie between fiction and reality is always complex, but much moreso in a novel built on real characters.

Moving on -- I liked the world of women in this book much more when it was apart from the world of romance.   I loved seeing Young's family interrelate and the warmth between Loretta and Alda is the highlight of the novel.  I really cared much less for the stories tied to Tracy and Gable.  In truth, I'm not a big fan of the romance genre.  I didn't care for my first into to Trigiana (Big Stone Gap, not that it is purely a romance story) but absolutely loved my second, The Shoemaker's Wife, falling for the rich world much more than the underlying love story even then.  I could never see Loretta's attachment to either of the men.  I did enjoy Alda's love story much more, but that also didn't really ring real.  I wish the men and the romances were more secondary to the plot, I'd have liked that book much more.  Loretta, the fictional one at least, was so strong and came from a family of strong women.  Like her mother, she took control of her life and her economic destiny, exercising an independence unusual in her time.  She got so lost, however, when it came to the heart.

Still, I did enjoy my visit to the golden age.  Three and a half stars, a rating that falls pretty average for me and means I did enjoy the book but don't feel the need to tell others about it or have any impulse to revisit anytime soon.  I was more than ready for the book to be done, but I also never felt weary of the tale.  This review is based on an advance reader's copy provided by the publisher but contains my unbiased opinion of the work.