Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Language of Flowers

Lately, I've read a lot of things I don't love. Some I haven't even finished. Perhaps it's my attention span (distracted by moving and Christmas, etc.), or maybe there's some stuff out there that just isn't that great.

There are two exceptions to my ho-hums: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh was beautiful and painful and haunting and believable and lovely. It's been out a while, but I hadn't ever read it. Diffenbaugh has a new book out recently that I might pick up...although I fear being disappointed.

I've also recently read Joyce Carol Oates' memoir The Lost Landscape. I adore Oates' writing and, as my husband says, if she wrote the phone book I'd probably say it was brilliant. But this really is a beautifully written look at how a writer becomes a writer. It isn't, as far as I'm concerned, overly writerly or overly sentimental. It is just Oates with her quirky sentences and sometimes meandering thoughts. They way she draws a picture that is at once calm and troubling. The way she says something once and leaves the reader with a haunting reverberation.

I'm currently reading Megan Mayhew Bergman's Almost Famous Women which I'm finding has more hits than misses. The stories are strong and well-crafted and most of them hit that just-right balance of quirky and sane.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Life After Life

Kate Atkinson's Life After Life plays with structure in a way I found riveting. The story centers around Ursula Todd, a woman born in the early 1900's who lives her life over and over again in order to right some of the wrong choices she has made. Atkinson boldly begins the story from the beginning over and over again. Sounds boring and tedious? And yet, it isn't. Because she adds layer after complicated layer, more and more details, shifting points of view. And then, several chapters in, we begin over in a later spot in Ursula's life, she des later, we begin again. This book felt like a very complicated puzzle but one I was happy to stay with because the characters were so compelling and familiar yet interesting. This is not a case where the unusual structure is a gimmick. It serves the story by creating the feeling of reinvention. And Atkinson deftly keeps it interesting by, magician-like, revealing another angle, another facet, another possibility. This is not the novel for the reader who wants a straight narrative. You might finish this novel and be not-quite-sure what happened, really. I adored it.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Station Eleven

This book took my breath away. Do not go by the flap copy of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Trust me, and Kathleen, who recommended it to me. Yes, this is a post-apocalyptic book and yes, it is by it's very nature gloomy at times. But it isn't all doom and gloom and people looting and murdering. Yes, there IS that, but there are so many moments of beauty, of quiet, of reflection. This is a book about love and hope. This is a book with characters you will not soon forget. I think this would be a book that parents could read with their teenagers. There's much to talk about but the "message" isn't stilted or heavy. It is wrapped neatly in some plot. But mostly those characters. Back and forth through time, the story takes us in and out of a post-plague world, connecting lives and thoughts. It is so good.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

I know it's been a few years since everyone was talking about Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk but I finally got around to reading it this week. It lived up to the hype (which so often doesn't happen that I expect it to not happen). This novel is funny, and sweet, and irreverent, and nasty, and honest, and disturbing, and ultimately hopeful. While Billy Lynn and his Bravo troop are home on leave from a tour in Iraq, they are "treated" to a Dallas Cowboys game that is at once hilarious and pathetic. Fountain uses extremes and uses them well--the poverty Billy comes from, the excess of American football and Americans in general, the equal parts love and hate we have of war and by extension the soldiers who fight in those wars, our mad desire for success at any cost. Our desire to hear that everything, always, is going to be all right. And, to make the novel even more unbelievable, there is a movie executive hanging around the Bravos, promising to tell their story on the big screen. But, as unbelievable and excessive as it all is, it's totally, heartbreakingly believable. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Summer Reading

I've been listening to a fair amount of books on CD in my car (right now a novel by David Liss whom I'd never heard of...I'm quite liking it...more on that later). A few weeks ago, I picked up Helene Wecker's The Golum and the Jinni on CD and popped it in my car on the way to work. It was so immediately enchanting that I drove around the block once, twice, reluctant to go in and start my day and leave this fantastical world. I'm not usually one for straight out fantasy or science fiction novels (although sometimes I am) but this book is deeply anchored in universal human experiences. The immigration experience runs as subtext (perhaps not just subtext) throughout the novel, but also the feelings of isolation, oddness, loss, fear, friendship, love, forgiveness of self and others. It's a big book, both literally and emotionally, and a few years ago I'd picked it up to read and couldn't get into it. But, the audio book swept me up and swept me away in exactly the way I want from a book that is part fairy tale, part something else entirely.

As I've said before, I love a good mystery. And summer is the perfect time to sit outside with one. These last few months, it seems people at the library where I work have been all kinds of crazy about Tana French. I'd never read her before, but I picked up The Secret Place and really enjoyed it. This particular novel is set in a girls' boarding school in Ireland. There are the usual cast of characters--a detective usually assigned to Cold Cases, a newish female detective, a protective Matron. And they're all well-drawn and interesting. But the girls are where the novel really crackles and spits. They're teenagers, yes, but French has a handle on how they see the world. These are not innocents. I particularly loved how French uses language to get the reader into a story--pointed sentences, word choice, changing points of view...I found this book captivating.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Wonder Garden

Thanks to a recommendation from my friend Kathleen, I had the immense pleasure of reading Lauren Acampora's The Wonder Garden. When I asked Kathleen if it was a novel or short stories she said "both." I might say "neither." It doesn't really matter. We could argue as to whether each story is a story or a chapter, but why bother. I'd rather talk about this strange suburban town, these wonderfully off-center characters, the somewhat (and sometimes not somewhat) creepy things they do. Acampora's characters are honest, even when they are pretending not to notice cracks in the fa├žade. They are charming, even when they are doing bad things. Maybe Old Cranbury isn't a town you'd want to visit, but for me it felt like places I've known, and that makes the characters who inhabit it all the more strange and wonderful. For me, this book felt like a cross between Olive Kitteridge and Kissing in Manhattan. A palpable place inhabited by familiar people doing odd things. If you are looking for a world in which every thread is neatly tied into a bow at the end, this book is probably not for you. Acampora leaves room for the reader to imagine the fates of characters we meet once, and then again, and then sometimes again. I was charmed and delighted by them all.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Girl on the Train

I'm always skeptical of books that get a lot of attention because I wonder if they're really good, or if everyone just doesn't want to be the first person to say "eh. Not that good." But, one of my coworkers said she enjoyed listening to Paula Hawkins's The Girl on the Train so I figured I give it a go.

I know a book is good when I can't wait to get in my car. When I drive around a parking lot a few extra times. When I make up errands just so I can drive more. This was that kind of book.

I'm a sucker for deeply flawed characters anyway and this novel, with the three women at the center, each caustically telling her own story, certainly fits that criteria. These are not necessarily women you'd want to be friends with, and some may say they are hard to root for. But I was deeply fascinated by each one of them--of their honestly, their self-deprecation, their failure to act when action would have been a very good thing.

The story itself is not one that we haven't heard before but it's a mystery, tried and true. And, I thought, well done.