Monday, July 18, 2011

Two Quick Reads, Very Different Reviews: The Family Fang & This Beautiful Life

I confess...few things make me smile more than a nice stack of books on my "To Read" pile.  It did diminish more quickly than normal though b/c these were both quick reads.  I've mentioned it before, but I only put my ARC (fancy speak for Advance Reader Copies) reads here, though I have pondered a sub-blog on books after seeing one recently.  Anyway, I do review most books I read and the other reviews go on Amazon (though they don't let me post before publication) and also Goodreads.  You should "friend" me on GR (and be a follower here...'cause I'm obviously fascinating).

I really wasn't quite sure what to expect when I opened this book (which Harper provided to me in return for my honest review).  What I found was an often comic look at a family with an edge of commentary on society, art, and parenthood.  Caleb and Camille Fang have dedicated their life to their unique style of "art" which generally involves creating some sort of unannounced public spectacle and watching the unsuspecting "audience" react.  They initially feared children might be a barrier to their unusual work, but instead they found adding the children (Annie and Buster, or "Child A" and "Child B" in showcases where they display film documenting the events)to their events gave them even more to work with.

The book's present looks at Annie and Buster as young adults struggling to find their place in the world.  They both find themselves back home after having decided to leave their parents lifestyle behind.  When their parents go missing under curious circumstances, they have to decide if they are really crime victims or are just framing another Fang event.  The chapters go between this present and moments in the past featuring past Fang events.

This was an easy and quick read.  I can't quite say I loved it, but I did really enjoy it.  I think Wilson does a remarkable job of creating a comic and fun story with a really complex undercurrent that asks how the Fang lifestyle of spectacle and art impacted the children who were often pawns in their parents work.  I like that the reader is given a lot of room to make their own conclusions about the art and the social ramifications of it.  I'm torn on my opinion of the ending, which did have elements that caught me by surprise.  But I'm more than confident giving it a full 4 stars out of 5.  Quick read that will amuse and give you plenty to ponder.
I'll admit my bias here and note that I can be a bit skeptical of the "ripped from the headlines" style of plot.  I will glance at such a book with a bit of curiosity but tend to live my headline ripping to Law & Order types (though I really only like the Lenny-era reruns).  I was curious though and hopeful when I started this book, provided to me by Harper in exchange for an unbiased review. 

The Bergamot family is the picture of an upper-middle class family with a working dad, an educated mom who now stays home, a teenage son trying to fit in to a new school, and a kindergarden aged daughter adopted from China.  They recently relocated to NYC from the quiet world of Ithaca for the father to explore a job offering both financial and personal rewards.  This world, still one in transition as they all gain their footing in the city society, is blown apart when a younger teen girl (13 to his coming-up-on 16) sends a (disturbingly) pornographic email to the teenage son in an attempt to show him she's not too young for him (his rebuff of her at a party).  The son sends it to another boy, largely out of shock and not knowing how to respond, and it snowballs from there passing to the whole school and eventually pretty widely beyond that.

The author explores how this incident impacts the full family from the father's work world to the mother's social circle as well as the school lives of the children.  I appreciated that the author followed the whole family rather than focusing on one member and explored the different ways one event can hit different individuals.  I just didn't feel it went deep enough.  We do get to visit the thoughts of Mom, Dad, and Son with chapters focusing on each character.  I appreciated this tactic but it still felt substantially lacking.  I do not need to like characters in the books I read but I need to be interested in them and I just wasn't.  I will note (w/o any true spoilerage) that the ending gives a peek into the future of the characters that I actually found more interesting than the main book itself.

The last few pages aside, I'm inclined to round down on this one.  I want to give it 2.5 stars but neither GR nor Amazon allow halfs so I'm going to go with 2 stars out of 5.  I always feel a bit bad writing a negative review but also think good reviews are meaningless if one isn't honest with the other end of the spectrum.  This just didn't "do it" for me.

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