Posts filed under ‘August 2013 reads’

Living up to a name – “Wise Men” by Stuart Nadler

“Wise Men” by Stuart Nadler, Published in 2013

I really, really loved this book.  I read it in two days just because I needed to find out what was going to happen. The writing is great, the characters are interesting and the story was engaging – it is the grand trifecta that makes a reader smile.

The book is set in three different times in Hilly (Hilton) Wise’s life.  It begins when he is a teenager in 1952.  Hilly’s father, Art, is an ambulance chaser barely making ends meet by spending his nights sitting in the hospital waiting room hoping to snag his next great case.  When a Boston Airways plane crashes killing some passengers and injuring others, Art takes on the airline. Almost overnight Art becomes a famous and wealthy attorney representing injured passengers in all kinds of airline lawsuits.  And so Hilly’s life completely changes.  Most notably, his father buys a house right on the ocean in Blue Point, on the tip of Cape Cod.  The house comes with the previous owner’s “boy” – Lem is an African-American man who takes care of the property.

As the Wise family moves into the property and settles into a summer on the Cape, Hilly struggles as he watches Art’s severe treatment of Lem.  Art uses Lem to courier papers and files between his house and his partner Robert’s house down the beach.  Lem is sent on countless trips down a broken, dangerous boardwalk balancing large stacks of legal documents in the sweltering summer heat.  It is uncomfortable to watch for Hilly and it is uncomfortable to read for the reader.  The pivotal moment of the summer in 1952 comes when Hilly meets Lem’s niece, Savannah.  She is beautiful and engaging – she finds Hilly’s awkwardness endearing.  She is also living in extreme poverty.  Hilly begins trying to save Savannah from her plight and all of this leads to an evening where Hilly and Savannah’s relationship is discovered which, in 1952 America, is both dangerous and heartbreaking.

The end result of all of this is that Lem is sent to prison and Savannah disappears from Hilly’s life.  The second part, set in 1972, and third part, set in 2008 , of the book are Hilly’s life and his time spent trying to make up for what happened in 1952 and his attempts to find Savannah.  He also spends his life trying to make sense of his father and his father’s role in Lem’s demise.

Hilly does, by all accounts, go on to have a full life but it is a life consciously haunted by Savannah.  He sees her everywhere and in everything.   She becomes a force for him.  It is also a life unconsciously haunted by his famous, wealthy father.  Hilly is not him, will not be him, will not take his money, will not let him invade his life, and on and on.   At the end both Savannah and his father reach a resolution with Hilly, each in a unique way.  And for the reader, maybe it is not the end you want or even foresee but somehow it is perfect.  It flows and gives the characters a new depth and some important hindsight.

Let me be clear (because the synopsis I read of this book was not), this is not a love story.  This is a story about relationships between fathers and sons, between marital and business partners, between races, between classes, between our past and our current selves.    It is packed with lessons about these relationships and how we fail each other only to then try harder and then fail again.  This book is a gentle reminder that our relationships give us the opportunity to become wiser and better, whether we do or not is entirely up to us.

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience which is the bitterest.  – Confucius

Other reviews to check out:

– From These Little Words

– From Isabel Costello

– From The Book Jam Blog (which is where I got this recommendation and their book recommendations are always awesome)


August 29, 2013 at 5:18 pm Leave a comment

An enigma, wrapped in a riddle, entwined with a mystery… – “The Cairo Diary” by Maxime Chattam

Cover of "The Cairo Diary"

Cover of The Cairo Diary

The Cairo Diaryby Maxime Chattam, Published in 2007

There is something to be said for an author starting his book with a note to the reader.  In this book, Chattam starts by suggesting what music would fit well with the reading of this book. It is a great idea and I liked this connection with the author immediately.  And this book was alright. It is a suspense novel and there is suspense for sure. Unfortunately, while Chattam’s musical accompaniment is a nice suggestion, the book doesn’t need music, it needs an ending.

The French government owns the monastery at Mont-Saint-Michele (or at least according to this book it does).  They allow monks and nuns to live and care for the monastery and in exchange the government will occasionally drop off a French citizen who needs to disappear for a while.  No questions asked.

In the winter of 2005, Marion becomes a witness to some kind of government cover-up.  For her own protection, and after an assault which resulted in a split-lip, Marion is whisked away by secret police to stay at Mont-Saint-Michele until the scandal is over and she is again safe to return to her life in Paris. Marion finds her new life a bit quiet but on a trip to an old library in a neighboring town Marion finds an old copy of an unfinished Edgar Allen Poe novel.  However, when she opens it she finds that the book has been cut from the binding and hidden inside is a diary written in 1928 by a Jeremy Matheson.   Matheson was a British police officer stationed in Cairo.  In the year that he wrote the diary, he began investigating the murders of several young children.  All children were lured into a quiet part of bustling city and gruesomely mutilated.

Of course, Marion is immediately intrigued by the story and inexplicably steals the book from the library.  As she reads the diary things begin to happen – mysterious notes are left for her, a hooded man seems to be following her and, she can’t be sure, but it appears that someone has searched her rooms.  All of this eventually leads to who the killer is in 1928 and how this story connects to Marion’s life.

Without giving away too much, the ending is rough.  Chattam seems to think that the best suspense is in the “gotcha” moments and he uses them a lot.  With all of the twists and turns you can’t help but feel like you have a terrible case of whiplash.  I am afraid the simple questions of who? where? with what? is not a simple Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with the candlestick.  But instead it is a “maybe, sort of, but wait there’s more…just kidding” kind of mess.  Don’t get me wrong, complicated is okay if there is a reason for it.  But straight-forward and simple can also be an author’s best tool.

I have no doubt that Chattam is smart, his writing is good, but if he could entertain the reader without exasperating them that would be good too.  Please note,  I won’t hold any of this against Mont-Saint-Michele and anytime the French secret police want me to stay there for free I am all in.

August 19, 2013 at 5:40 pm 2 comments

Yelling at books is a form of therapy – “Big Brother” by Lionel Shriver

“Big Brother” by Lionel Shriver, Published in 2013

I cannot express enough how angry the end of this book made me.  Not only did it piss me off that I spent all that time reading the entire book, it also just pissed me off because I didn’t get any of the closure that I needed.  And let me be clear, this is not a “the writer really channeled into some deep emotion in me” kind of pissed off. This is a “the writer told a whole story and then changed her mind at the end with an eighth grade writing technique that should never be used by adults ever” kind of pissed off.

Pandora is a wealthy, successful business woman who has made her money selling made-to-order pull-string dolls that can be fashioned to look like and talk like your favorite, annoying loved one. She is married to a furniture artist,  who takes his health very, very seriously – between the biking and the quinoa eating he is truly the picture of physical health.  She also has two step-children.  So life is pretty stable and good, for the most part. Except she has other family as well – mainly her brother, Edison, a marginally famous, good-looking jazz pianist.

Edison is down on his luck so Pandora agrees he can come and stay with her for two months until his upcoming jazz tour in Portugal and Spain. When she goes to pick him up at the airport, not only is he being wheeled off the plane in a wheelchair, he has gained over 200 lbs.  Pandora spends the next two months watching her brother spoon powdered sugar into his large jowls while whipping up batch after batch of chocolate chip pancakes.  Of course, Pandora’s husband is appalled and sits in the corner eating his flax-seed, protein something or other with a brooding sneer.

When Edison finally admits that he really doesn’t have an upcoming tour and that he has lost everything while eating his way to the grave, Pandora decides to take him on as a project. She and Edison move into an apartment to lose weight – it is a project that will last a year with the ultimatum that if Edison has one slip up it is all over.

The U.S. has an issue with obesity that Lionel is trying to tackle here. We eat to fill ourselves – not our physical emptiness but our "Big Brother" Lionel Shriveremotional emptiness.  I get where she is going with this.  You can be successful and fat, you can be a failure and fat. 20 lbs overweight or 200 lbs overweight, either way there is a discipline and self-indulgence problem. Lionel also uses Pandora’s husband to show that you can go to the other extreme. If your dieting and work-out regime makes you feel you are somehow superior then it is likely filling a vacuum for you as well.  There is clearly a healthy balance of enjoying life and caring for our well-being that we all should strive to meet. Lionel’s message is interesting and overall I think true.

BUT, then I read the last ten pages.  And I wanted to yell “please make it go away. why?????!!! WHY???!!!”  Sadly, this is what I will remember about the book, not the characters, not the message, just the terrible, terrible ending.  It might still be worth reading but you have been warned and there are always lots of other books to read. May I suggest “We should talk about Kevin”?

Other reviews to check out:

August 13, 2013 at 5:30 pm 2 comments

Remembering the world is a big place- “Prep” by Curtis Sittenfeld

Cover of "Prep: A Novel"

Cover of Prep: A Novel

“Prep” by Curtis Sittenfeld, Published in 2005

This book was a pretty great find. Somehow, I have not discovered Ms. Sittenfeld sooner but coming across this book was a happy thing.  There is nothing like finding a new writer to love.

Lee is just an ordinary, intelligent 13-year-old girl growing up in the midwest.  On a bit of a whim, she applies to a prestigious boarding school, the Ault School, outside of Boston.  Like most middle class families, her parents have never really heard of anyone going to boarding school but don’t worry about it until Lee actually gets accepted and then receives a financial aid scholarship. Suddenly, Lee’s crazy dream of attending Ault becomes a reality.  So the fall of Lee’s freshman year in high school she finds herself on a strange campus watching her father drive away.

What follows is Sittenfeld’s amazing detailing of the next four years of Lee’s life at this private, elite boarding school.  Her freshman year, Lee has two roommates, one who barely speaks English and the other one who is solely focused on moving up the popularity ladder. She feels out of place, unpopular and very, very alone.  She is not the brightest, the prettiest, or the most talented.  Instead, Lee is average and awkward.  She feels everything that every kid feels when they are 14 years old.  Also like every teenager, Lee is in love or lust or at the very least enamored, with a new person each week.  Until she finally picks her permanent high school crush – who of course (as you can guess) will use and abuse her through-out her years at Ault.

And so it goes.  Each year at Ault, Lee starts to relax, finds where she belongs, but is never truly comfortable in her own skin.  There are lots of moments in this book where you cringe because Lee is just trying so hard.  She wants to be funny, she wants all of the rich, beautiful, popular kids to like her.  She goes to great lengths to appease.  Lee can also be cruel, foolish and self-absorbed. All of this can be painful to read. But she is also endearing. Lee is quirky and self-effacing, she is parts of every teenager – you see yourself in her.

Sittenfeld has captured everything that is high school.  High school is bizarre.  It is like a terrible, wonderful, confusing four year long guessing game.  Who is your friend? Who is your enemy? Did anyone see you embarrass yourself? Was that moment really embarrassing? Are you pretty enough, smart enough, cool enough? Did you laugh too hard or not enough or should you have not laughed at all?  Will she invite you to her party? Will he ask you to the dance (will anyone ask you to the dance)? No one asked you to the dance so you shouldn’t go, right? Everything is uncertain. You are awkward and uncomfortable and lonely.  For those four years high school is your world.  One very small, narrow world.

But as Lee learns – though not until the end, not until she is ready to learn it – the world is not defined by high school. It is just a part of growing up.  When you are in it your failures seem devastating and your successes feel like the best thing that will ever happen. You will go on and as you do these failures and successes will get smaller and smaller. Because it is just four years of what we can hope will be a long, beautiful life.

As you go with Lee through her experience, you want to hug her and tell her “this too shall pass” (or something equally cheesy).  And though you know she would just roll her eyes at you and think “whatever, weirdo” you also know that secretly, deep-down, she will think “oh thank God.”

Other reviews to check out: 

August 4, 2013 at 9:38 pm 3 comments


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