Monday, January 2, 2017

Readin' in the Rain -- Commonwealth (Patchett), Mercury (Livesay), I'll Take You There (Lamb)

Yes, I've been mighty remiss in my review-writing.  Working full-time after years of disability IS rewarding, but it is also tiring.

And, then, there's simply the fact that none of the books I've read recently have really compelled me to write a rapidfire, excited review. The first two are decidedly mediocre reviews....there's good in both, but it fights against the not-so-good.  The third is a bit more on the positive side. While I hate writing reviews with a negative slant, I also believe they are important.  In addition to the value they carry in and of themselves (i,e. helping people who are deciding on their next read, creating a "conversation" of sorts with other readers), they also give value to my reviews overall since they increase the validity of the positive ratings. This may all tie back to a kids' movie review show that was on during my childhood about which my stepdad routinely griped "they like everything!"

Commonwealth is the story of a family tree that grows from an infidelity. When Bert attends a christening alone, he ends up kissing Beverly, mother of the child. This sets off the end of two marriages and throws six children into a modern and evolving family tree. We see these players at the day of the christening and at many points over the decades to come. I'm not sure how to say more without saying too much....

This is the type of book I tend to love. It is filled with flawed, multi-faceted characters who matter more than the plots they inhabit. And yet...as I write this a month after finishing the book, I really remember none of them. What I do remember is that I was ready to move on far before the last page and it took a lot of work to keep going. There were interesting moments...including moments spread all across the pages...but it just never held me. I mixed up the siblings, and maybe I was supposed to but that isn't for me.

Two stars. This book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an open, honest review.  Read Patchett's Bel Canto instead for a much better ensemble. 

I'll open with a disclaimer -- I'm terrified of horses. I can absolutely see their beauty and their power, but put me too close and I'll cry.

Mercury is a portrait of a marriage in decay and a woman obsessed. The first half is told by Donald, the second by his wife Viv. Donald is an optometrist in the Boston area who misses his previous work as an eye surgeon and is still grieving the death of his father, To some extent, he knows that his wife Viv has gotten lost in the shuffle of life. Viv is working at a stables, bringing back a childhood passion for riding and competing. A horse named Mercury is brought to the stables and Viv becomes truly and wholly obsessed, although Donald misses most of the signs that this is going beyond typical love for an animal. There are other players in the story...Donald's good friend who is legally blind, a childhood friend with whom Donald stopped corresponding after a move (I think they were 8ish) which he still regrets, Mercury's owner, and a handful of others. Some see more of Viv's obsession than Donald does, but no one imagines how far it will go.

I don't need to like characters, but I feel like a good book leaves me feeling like I understand them. Here, that simply didn't happen. I certainly didn't get Viv's true, deep obsession with Mercury and the lengths she'd go to protect the horse. While I understand Donald's various distractions...his grief, feeling "stuck" professionally, etc....I didn't get his complete blindness towards his wife's growing emotional/mental imbalance. Further, while I like the concept of looking at blindness from a physical and metaphorical standpoint, it was a bit too heavily telegraphed here.

This certainly isn't without its merits. There IS some lovely writing here. It IS character-driven which I like and they are well-rounded which is essential. There also are enough events for those readers who get frustrated with books where very little actually happens. I also liked seeing the same moments from Viv's perspective after seeing them through Donald's eyes.

Sadly, however, the negatives outweighed the positives and I'm at two-and-a-half stars, probably rounded down where sites force my hand to pick "full stars." I tried to like it (despite the horse!), but I just wasn't drawn in. Might be better for a horse lover. Best-suited for someone who wants a balance of action and character with an accessible chunk of psychology and the examination of a marriage and a woman in turmoil.

I received this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

An opportunity to read a Lamb book free of charge (in exchange for a review) is one I'm not likely to pass up. Ultimately, this is far from the utter triumph that is She's Come Undone (or The Hour I First Believed & I Know this Much Is True but that didn't make the impression on me that Undone did), but I still enjoyed it.

Felix is a film-lover and film-scholar. He is also the younger brother to two powerful sister, an ex-husband to another strong woman who is an ardent feminist, and the father to a twenty-something woman making her way as a writer. Felix is in an old theater when he is visited by two spirits who, in scenes interspersed with his current day life, show him scenes from his past and even put him firmly into the "film" so he can re-experience moments of his childhood.

There is a LOT in here...a look at the good and bad of beauty contests, an examination of women's evolving place, a brush with eating disorders, a lot about family.  For the most part, Lamb is skillful enough to balance it all, but it still is a bit much at times. I wasn't too fond of the concept of the ghostly visitors, but I liked how it allowed Felix to experience moments both as they happened and with the knowledge of what was to come. Some of the story regarding his middle sister (to say more risks spoiler-territory) could have been a separate book (or maybe a short story) and I think the book would have improved from a few harsh cuts. The reader was also spoon-fed too much of the political/social message about feminism.

Still, it's Lamb and he's magic. He understands the inner workings of people (ok, mostly of women since even with a male narrator, the women dominate the story). I'd put it someplace between 3.5 (solid score for me, worth reading but not worth raving) and 4 stars (veers towards being worth a recommendation, worth a reread some day). I think it would be a good book club read. It isn't his best work...it doesn't even come close...but it is a good book and I enjoyed the visit to its world.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Interplay of Place and Person: Reviews on Another Brooklyn (Woodson) and The Bones of Grace (Anam)

For the first time in many years, your friendly reviewer's body is allowing her to work a full-time job.  I'm quite tired as my body adjusts, so my reading is slow...but always present.   I prioritize writing reviews for the books I receive in return for a review, but I also have a growing list of books I actually purchased that I'd love to review some time. 
When August returns to Brooklyn to bury her father, her mind (and heart) fills with the memories of her girlhood in the 1970s.  August arrived in Brooklyn with her father and brother at the age of eight.  In the earliest days, she watches from a window and becomes particularly entranced by a set of young girls who are clearly the closest of friends.  In time, as her father gradually allows her to venture out, August becomes part of a tight-knit group of young black girls coming of age in Brooklyn in the '70s.  The reader gets glimpses into lives that are very different and yet tied by the shared experience of their environment.  One girl is pressured to succeed and become a lawyer, one feels the pressure of her family's religion, one hides the dark side of her own family's secrets.  In August's own home, she feels the influence of the Nation of Islam and is impacted by her father's girlfriends and her need to protect her younger brother.  Together, the girlfriends, experience budding sexuality and burgeoning adulthood amidst a rapidly changing city that sees white flight, drug problems, and sexual violence.  It is clear from the start that the girls will drift apart, but they are a fundamental part of each other, a part they even call "home" for a time. 

This is a novel of place first and characters second.  While I'm a character-driven reader, I appreciated Woodson's ability to plunge her reader into a very specific time and place.  The reader sees Brooklyn along with the young girls and watches as the city and the girls themselves evolve.  There is beautiful and evocative language here and the author is a clear talent.  In some ways, it is high praise to say that I wanted more, but it is also why there was a bit of disappointment for me as a reader.  I also wanted a bit of a deeper connection with the characters themselves, even though I know the place was the main, an most developed character.

Certainly a lovely read, just not full enough in some ways for me.  Four stars.  Great for what it is, a short novel looking at a very specific place and how it shaped the lives of the young black women coming of age amid its chaos.  Many thanks to the publisher for providing me a reviewer's edition in exchange for an honest, unfettered review.

I'll start with two "points of order."  First, this is the third in a series of books about different members (and different generations) of a Bangladeshi family.  I did read the second, The Good Muslim, but didn't read the first and each book is fully capable of standing on its own.  Reading the others might help provide insight into the family members at the edges of the subsequent novels, but it is by no means necessary. Second, like with the prior book, I received this from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased, honest review.

To a large extent, this book is a letter to a lost love.  Zubaida is working as a researcher in anthropology when she meets Elijah at a classical concert.  They have a very intense but brief period together before she leaves for a dig in Pakistan where they are hoping to uncover the "walking whale," an important link in a very unique (and apparently quite real) evolutionary chain. The dig is halted very suddenly (I won't reveal details) and Zubaida chooses to return to Bangaldesh and marry a childhood friend rather than pursue what she knows is a truer love with Elijah.  A series of events at home eventually send Zubaida to a very different world where a filmmaker is trying to tell the story of shipbreakers, men (and children) who engage in the very dangerous work of tearing apart old ships for their parts. 

Honestly, there's more to the plot but I hesitate to say too much.  And that also goes to the heart of my problem with this novel, it simply takes on too much.  I enjoyed getting to know Zubaida and could very much feel the way she is torn between true love (and career) and her past (and culture, family, and expectation).  There were moments where I loved this book and the characters in it (who are all very realistically flawed), but it also just overwhelmed me.  

It all combines to a 3.5 rating.  Recommended to readers interested in the pull between culture/tradition and the life one is drawn to by the heart.

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.