Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Rambler's Summer Reading: The Bridge Ladies (Lerner) and And After the Fire (Belfer)

I typically read in the evenings, but summer has afforded options for both beachside and poolside reading.  I'll take it!

I rarely read memoirs, but I was drawn to this selection when offered the chance to read and review an advance copy by the publisher.  Having returned to her native Connecticut, Lerner becomes intrigued by her mother and the other women that make up her mom's bridge circle.  These are Jewish women who live in a upper-middle class suburb and who are devoted to each other in a very unique way.  She speaks in-depth to all of the women about their youth, their loves, and their lives.  Lerner had longed struggled to differentiate herself from he mother, but now tries to truly get to know her mother as a fellow woman.  In the process, Lerner also learns to play bridge herself and appreciate the complexity of the game and the relationships built around it.  Of course, she also finds she learns a bit more about herself in the process.

I enjoyed this book which often felt more like a novel than a memoir.  It took me some time to be able to keep track of all the ladies, but I appreciated seeing both the similarities and the differences in a group of women who came of age in the same time period with similar expectations (largely centered on finding a husband who would provide well and then raising a family).  The "cast of characters" includes some truly interesting women who might seem, on the surface, a bit bland to a more "modern" audience. 

I didn't love the book, but I definitely liked it so 3.5 stars (I'll round up where I can't pick half-stars, but I really do like my 3.5!).  I think it is particularly well-suited for women who might be the daughters or granddaughters of these ladies.
This book spans centuries with the story tied together by a piece of music.  The piece is by Bach and thus inherently considered a masterwork, but it also contains highly Anti-Semitic words.  In the modern-day tale, Susanna finds the piece when cleaning out her uncle's belongings after his death.  Susanna is a newly divorced woman living in NYC, coping with the aftermath of an attack, and working in the non-profit arena.  She takes on the role of the piece's caretaker and devotes substantial time and energy to learning more about it and understanding where it came from and why her uncle kept it hidden for years. 

The modern-day story is interwoven with the story of the piece's prior caretakers starting with a relative of Bach gifting the piece to a young Jewish woman in the latter 18th Century.  A substantial part of the book is about this woman's life, a life she devotes to the arts and to her extended family.  We also watch as the piece is handed to other caretakers, building up to the book's opening scene which depicts the transfer of the piece from a young woman to Susanna's uncle in the days following WWII. 

I enjoyed this book (I read an Advance Readers' Edition supplied to me by the publisher), but it did eventually drag a bit for me.  I definitely preferred the storyline(s) depicting the piece's past caretakers to the modern day story.  The book raises a lot of questions about art as all of the caretakers, including Susanna, struggle to with the conflict between the piece's beauty and the hateful words it contains.  These are interesting issues and I enjoyed thinking about them alongside the characters.  I did get a bit tired of Susanna's story.  I appreciate well-rounded characters but it felt like Belfer tried to put too many ideas into the narrative and tried to hit too many genres (a bit of romance, a bit of growing past tragedy, etc). 

3.5 stars -- Like but not love. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Two Very Different Novels: A Disturbing Look at Teenage Ties (Girls on Fire, Robin Wasserman) and a Stirring Portrait of Family and Community (LaRose, Louise Erdich)

I like to try and tie books together with some sort of theme or even just an apt post title when I'm posting multiple reviews.  I keep failing with this pair since these were such completely different experiences.  I'm posting in the order I read them which also puts the harsher review first and the more positive one second (I always did prefer bad news before good)....
It is the '90s in a small, rural town in Pennsylvania.  Hannah is a quiet girl, the type who gets lost in the crowd, when suddenly Lacey appears on the scene.  Lacey is new to town and she is anything but invisible.  Hannah and Lacey become the closest of friends and Hannah adapts much of Lacey's world including her rebellious attitude, goth-like fashion, and her love for all things Kurt Cobain.  She even adopts a new nickname, Dex.  The friendship develops in the wake of a popular boy's suicide and a cruel bullying incident involving his popular girlfriend Nikki, who is nearly but not quite a third protagonist.  Dex and Lacey's tie takes extremely dark twists and turns with sex, drugs, and violence abounding, all building to an explosive conclusion. 

This is NOT a happy teenage story.  It is VERY dark and readers need to know that (a few moments of bubbly-girlhood only serve to make the dark moments darker).  There are moments that make my stomach turn even as I write this review.  It is hard to put that aside.  I certainly believe there is a place for dark fiction.  I believe that some of the very best books make the reader a bit uncomfortable.  However, I feel like that discomfort needs to serve a purpose and I have trouble finding one here.  I can see the power of Wasserman's prose and I can see that there is an audience for this book.  It's just not really me. 

There is POWER here and the book deserves praise for that.  I want to recognize that Wasserman certainly has a talent and there are moments that are drawn in very vivid, real-feeling prose.  Still, I was anxious for it to be over and felt like the story just kept piling more and more damage and darkness to the narrative.  It is tough to place a rating on this book because I want to recognize the strengths of this book, but I always promise an honest review (I received an ARC from the publisher) and I end up at 2-2.5 stars.

LaRose opens with tragedy.  Landreaux is hunting a deer, just at the border of reservation land, when he mistakenly hits and kills his neighbor's young son.  Landreux and his wife, Emmaline, choose to follow an old tribal custom and give their own son, LaRose, to Nola (also Emmaline's paternal half-sister) and Peter, the grieving parents.  The arrangement evolves over time and it becomes abundantly clear that the young boy is wise and spiritual beyond his years and he binds the families together while also causing jealousy and resentment at the same time.  The reader learns that he is just one in a line of Larose's, all the rest female, and the reader is taken through time to meet the original LaRose.  Also figuring into the narrative are a minister who has been working on the reservation (and is in love with Emmaline) a childhood companion of Landreaux's whose life took a very different path, and Larose's siblings (in both households). 

I'll start with the broad statement that I very much enjoyed this book.  There are some truly captivating characters, including some who take paths I never expected.  I loved the aura of the Native American heritage that pervades the entire novel, including the elderly reservation residents in the modern day and the LaRoses in the part who struggled to find their place at the intersection of two worlds.  My primary issue with the book is simply that it tries to include far too much.  I can't possibly hit every topic and keep this review reasonably succinct.  I'd have preferred if the author cut at least a few of the storylines.  I do appreciate that the book attempts to paint a big picture of a community at the same time as it is about one little boy, but there are still a few too many branches on the tree.  Still, the writing is gorgeous and evocative.  This is an emotional novel, but while much of it is quite sad it still left me with a feeling of hope and an appreciation of the beauty of its world.

Four out of five stars.  With thanks to the publisher for providing an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Three reviews:Free Men (Smith), Rare Objects (Tessaro), Father's Day (von Booy)

I feel like I've been flying through books lately.  Luckily, my lovely folks at Harper help me keep the shelves stocked (let's pretend I have the new place organized enough for that to be literally true)!
This is the story of four men, three who are fleeing their pasts (and a major shared event in the book's present) and one on their trail.  We are taken through the pasts of all four men and we follow them as they strive towards their different futures.  Bob is a recently escaped slave seeking to journey west in the hopes of finding his own land where he can one day bring his family and live free.  Istillicha has left his Creek tribe after a dispute with the leader who grabbed power after Istillicha's father's death. The third member of their group is Cat, a poor white man, perhaps a bit intellectually impaired, who lived through an abusive childhood, time in an orphanage, and being given to the service of a doctor. Tracking them is Le Clerc, a Frenchman who is supposed to be hunting the men but also finds himself compelled by the developing relationships and desires.  The reader hears each man tell his story and watches as the present unfolds.  

I enjoyed this book, provided to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest review, but can't say I loved it.  It is a story of the search for freedom, in all the many ways that word can be read.  The characters are interesting and I was especially drawn by Cat.  I didn't find Le Clerc nearly as interesting, however, and some of the events of the men's shared journey left me wanting something meatier.  I had some trouble fully buying the event that bonds the men together, which oddly didn't bleed over into the well-imagined relationships that develop.  

This is certainly not a happy tale.  Each man comes from a painful past and their path together is cemented by a bloody event.  However, it is a compelling read particularly for people interested in the vast range of experiences that made up late 18th Century America (notably, and fascinatingly, politics and the Revolution seem pretty meaningless to these men).  

Three-and-a-half to four stars.

Maeve has returned to her native Boston after having fled to New York in search of a more vibrant life.  Her journey ended with a stay in an asylum where she met an intriguing young woman wearing pearls before shock therapy.   Back in Boston, in the midst of the Great Depression, Maeve hides her Irish roots (literally, I suppose, since she dyes her hair) and takes a job in an antiques store.  The store's owners include a kindly older gentleman and a mysterious adventurer who sends his finds back to the store.  May, as she's now known, eventually reconnects with the woman in pearls when she is sent to deliver a special find to the home of a wealthy family.  The friendship that develops changes May's daily life (she grew up quite poor and with only her mother as family) and threatens her well-being because of the casualness of alcohol in her new crowd. 

This is definitely a novel of characters and I like characters.  May is intriguing and, while I'm not sure I liked her, I was interested in her story.  Some of the other characters weren't as well-drawn, even May's friend who has more than one secret but never quite felt real to me.  Nonetheless, this is an easy and enjoyable read with some lovely, quotable language tucked inside.  I might liken it to potato chips, enjoyable and fast but not the truest of sustenance.  Still, I think it is worth taking for what it is and I'll give it 3.5 stars (I'll balance out the review sites between 3 and 4).  Thank you to Harper for supplying the book in exchange for an honest review. 

Aside from a few "flashback"-like moments, this book is generally told in two parts that are interspersed throughout the novel.  The earlier time period involves the aftermath of Harvey's parents dying.  A social worker decides to seek out the young girl's estranged uncle, a man with a history of violence and alcohol abuse who has been living a very solitary existence.  We watch the two learn to be family and we also see them many years later when Harvey is living in Paris.  This second time period involves Harvey anticipating her uncle's (whom she now calls her father) arrival and his visit.  The pair have come to love each other deeply and the visit includes several meaningful Father's Day gifts but Harvey is also a bit nervous because she intends to discuss a secret she's learned about their past. 

This novel (received free of charge from the publisher in exchange for an honest review) fell a bit flat for me.  I like the idea behind it, but I never really felt compelled to dive into the story.  The characters had their faults (well, at least the uncle did), but it still didn't feel like a fully rounded story and I never really believed in either protagonist.  I felt like I was supposed to feel a whole lot more than I actually did.  I don't mean to say it was a bad book, more kinda "meh."

That all said, it was an easy read of the sort that might fit a commuter looking for a simple book to pass the time.  Two (labeled "it was ok" on at least one review site) to two-and-a-half stars.