Posts tagged ‘Books’

Let’s all go to Tuscany, shall we? – “My Italian Bulldozer” by Alexander McCall Smith

I cannot say enough about how much I loved this book.  It is just…well, lovely.  As always Smith has such a style that  makes me walk away feeling lighter and happier.  His writing is not shallow but it has a quality that allows him to address some fairly tough things with self-effacing humor and perspective which, if we are honest, is something we could all use a lot more of in our lives.

We meet Paul Stewart, a writer of famous lifestyle-foodie books, at the point of his life where he finds himself alone after a four year relationship has ended. It seems his girlfriend, Becky, enjoyed her work-outs with her personal trainer a bit too much and has left him for work-outs of an even more personal kind.  Paul with the help of his editor, Gloria, decides that the best way to move-on is to head to the small Tuscan town of Montalcino and finish his latest book about food in Tuscany.

After landing in Pisa, with a few mishaps (including a brief stay in prison), Paul finds himself in need of a rental car with none available.  Luckily, he finally finds a vehicle.  So, of course, Paul heads to Montalcino in his rented bulldozer.  Yes, even he admits it is ridiculous. Unknown-1.jpeg

Paul then spends  his time in Montalcino writing and meeting the quirky locals – the local wine-maker who is depressed about land borders, the local school principal who is spending his summer reading the paper at the local cafe and judging the youth who walk by, the hotel proprietor who knows everything about everyone.

This story is not brilliant in and of itself but it is the experience of reading at its best.  Everything Paul sees and eats and experiences you long to be a part of.  I am bound and determined to get to Montalcino and eat their mushrooms, drink their wine and stare out on the countryside while I write my world-renowned books. Okay so the last part about writing not reasonable but the rest can happen.   You also love all of the characters because they are just the kind of people you want to meet on vacation so you have stories to tell later.  I was sad when I had met all of the characters and was coming to the last few pages.

I read somewhere that Smith’s books are palate cleansers because they are light and easy reads.  This is an underestimation of what Smith does.  His books feel like palate cleansers because he writes deftly and doesn’t need a lot of heavy plotting and escapades to make his stories beautiful.  Whether he is writing about Botswana or Scotland or Italy, he clearly understand people and culture in way that brings the reader along.  He has a humor in a lot of his writing that matches P.G. Wodehouse wit for wit but never in a way that feels too snarky.

I also read a review of Smith in the Times that said that he writes books as easily as baking a cake because he writes so many.  The best part of this for readers is that means getting through all of his books will take some time.  And it is always time well spent.

Now all of that said, where shall we stay in Tuscany?

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June 11, 2017 at 6:45 pm Leave a comment

But wait there’s more- “Truly Madly Guilty” by Liane Moriarty

Moriarty is pretty hit or miss for me.  She is experiencing a surge of new readers because of the HBO miniseries “Big Little Lies.”  And that is great because some of her books are quite fun.  But a fun read for me also has to be well written and some stories even a good Reese Witherspoon series can’t save.  This was one.  

Now in all fairness, Moriarty has some pretty good character development in “Truly Madly Guilty” and her writing is, as usual, pretty good.  But sadly the story for her has become contrived and formulaic.  

An event happens that is alluded to in the beginning – you the reader are in the dark – and all of the characters have a perspective on how that event changed them.  The effect of the before and after.    You as the reader find out what happened about two-thirds of the way into the book.  Then it is all about the aftermath for the characters, a resolution, a pat on the back and you are on your way. 

This technique of keeping the reader in the dark so it is suspenseful while all of the characters know everything that has happened is not necessarily a bad technique.  In fact, it is one of the top ten ways to keep readers  engaged and has been used for centuries. But it is quite the favorite of a lot of authors right now and it is getting wearisome.  Moriarty used this technique in “Big, Little Lies” and I feel like her publisher said “write that again but different storyline that maybe Nicole and Reese will like too.”

This technique of “but wait there’s more” means that the writer is relying on the hook not your investment in the story or the characters.  And frankly, a good hook isn’t enough for me.  I want the author to do more.  

I am not done with Moriarty, I think she has more good stories if she can move past the formula that was her biggest hit and maybe move to a more character-driven story or something with a straight timeline so the story carries the reader.   So, I will stick it out.  

Until then I am reading the new book from Paula Hawkins that has many characters all who know something the reader doesn’t know…but wait there’s more (*sigh*).   

June 5, 2017 at 3:43 pm 2 comments

The story of the used book’s margins -“Swimming Lessons” by Claire Fuller

My local library is pretty amazing.  It has been even more fun to go with 61iF2AsxQEL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgmy eight and a half year old (she would want me to include the “half”) and let her browse for books while I do the same.  I ran into “Swimming Lessons” on the new book shelves and, though I was a bit wary about the premise  (a story told through letters seems overdone), I decided to carry it on home.  And then I read it in two days because well, it was that good.

The story itself is not completely original. Woman, here Ingrid, has plans to be an independent, career woman and adventurer.  Instead falls for her womanizing professor, gets pregnant and thus finds herself stuck in the role of housewife, mother of two.  But while the premise is very familiar the weaving of the story is too amazing to not give it your full attention.

“Swimming Lessons” picks up at the end of the story, as Gil (aka philandering professor) looks out the window of a used bookstore and swears he sees Ingrid, who has been presumed dead for over ten years.  He chases her and ends up injuring himself.  His adult daughters, Nan and Flora, must come home and take care of him in their childhood home on Dorset Beach which is now filled with towers of used books.  As an aside, I can picture these towers vividly and feel that this  may be my house in about 15 years.

The story plays out with one chapter about Nan and Flora tending to their father while dealing with their history and childhood and then the next chapter is a letter from Ingrid  to Gil documenting their life together.  Before Ingrid disappeared off the shore of their home, she spent time writing Gil letters and placing them inside books through-out their home, carefully choosing the book that best suited the letter (a story about a cocktail party placed in T.S. Eliot’s play “The Cocktail Party”). This telling of Ingrid’s story is so heartfelt and lends such a wonderful prospective to what is happening in the proceeding and following chapters as Nan and Flora care for their father.  The letters add a backstory but also an emotional undercurrent that really moves the story in a thought-provoking and unexpected way.

Fuller’s writing and understanding of families, relationships and loss makes this book a meaningful experience for the reader.   I will say at the end you will not have all the answers you want, but you will have all the answers you need to keep you thinking and wondering.  That usually annoys me but here Fuller wins because she does it so well.  I have to say this is one of the best books I have read in quite a long time (with the exception of “Homegoing”).

The lesson here is if you keep returning to that same book on the library shelf and are skeptical – just check-out it.  The worst thing that can happen is you don’t like it and then you just pick another book. Unless you are me and you don’t return it on time and need a budget for library fines. But that is a story for another day.

Happy reading!

May 27, 2017 at 11:04 am Leave a comment

Dear Diary, I read a Sci-Fi book – “The Girl with All the Gifts” by M.R. Carey

SPOILERS ALL OVER THE TOWN IN THIS REVIEW  (Okay you have been warned).

This book is amazingly clever.  Truly.  How the beginning and the end tie together is one of those gr17235026.jpgeat “oh wow!” reading moments that are really fun (and rare) when they happen.

The novel opens with Melanie, a young girl, who lives in a cell.  Each morning, armed guards come into her cell and strap her down in a chair and take her to her classroom with other children also strapped in chairs.  No one touches her, no one hugs her, and the guns and harsh reprimands seem to indicate that she is different from the people who guard her.

But one teacher, Ms. Justineau, seems to like Melanie and Melanie looks forward to the days when Ms. Justineau is in the classroom.  She reads the children stories, answers their questions, and seem to genuinely care about Melanie.  And life would have continued this way,  but then Melanie is taken beyond the steel door at the end of the hall.

On the other side of the door, Melanie finds herself in the laboratory with clear plans on the part of the cold and calculating doctor that she be dissected and placed in jars. At the moment that a scalpel is at Melanie’s head, the army base (as we find out) is attacked and zombies or “hungries” swarm into the clinic and begin attacking.  It is in this attack and the stopping a man from attacking Ms. Justineau that Melanie begins to realize what she is.  A hungry.   But a different hungry.  A thinking, talking, feeling hungry.   And so the question for the humans that remain, after a fungus has turned so many into hungries, is why are these children and specifically Melanie different?   Will she lead to a cure that could save everyone?  And that is all I will give away here.

In truth, the middle of this book made me a little road-weary and in parts felt a bit like “The Walking Dead.” But, overall this book is a brilliant take on the  genre.  The depth of the characters, the struggle of defining what makes us human, the pain of our pasts all are interwoven into what otherwise could have been a stereotypical apocalyptic-zombie book.

And all of that said, I am also proud of myself that I made it through an entire sci-fi book without even an eye-roll.  So there’s that.

 

October 17, 2016 at 8:44 pm 2 comments

When You Make Assumptions…- “Lilac Girls” by Martha Hall Kelly

This book, like approximately 60% of any book being published right now, is set during World War II.   While I do understand that WWII as a device is extremely compelling for writers I  wonder when this trend will begin to tamper off.  Honestly, it is getting a little wearisome.  And this was my mind-set when I started “Lilac Girls” – oh look another WWII book.  Which is too bad because this book is well researched, well written and two of the characters are based on real people.  Unfortunately, at the time I read this book I did not know it was based on real people. So please forgive my assumptions which will be included in this review for your amusement.

25893693.jpgThe novel covers the life of three woman during WWII, dedicating each Chapter to one of the woman and the story flits back and forth.  There is Caroline, a former broadway actress and blue-blooded New Englander, who lives in New York City and volunteers her time for the French Consulate helping French orphans.  Across the ocean, Kasia Kuzmerick is living in Poland and is one-quarter Jewish when the Nazis invade her town.    Herta Oberheuser is a young German doctor looking for employment and a way to be independent and financially secure.

The three lives come together in both harrowing and beautiful ways.  Kasia becomes a part of the Polish resistance, only to eventually be taken to Ravensbrück when captured by the SS.  Herta finds a position at a wonderful spa-like resort (also Ravensbrück) doing medical experiments on political prisoners, including Kasia which she seems to excuse by the mind-set that are meant to be executed anyway.  And Caroline falls in love with a married man, prunes lilacs and after the war raises money for the women who suffered from the experiments of Dr. Herta Oberheuser.

As apparent by my description, as I read the book, I found Caroline’s story to be the least interesting and the most drawn out. Again, I had no idea this was based on a real life, so I was a bit confused as to why this character’s story mattered.  Now that I am not as ignorant as I was before realize that Kelly had some limitations here with Caroline.  Her real story does indeed have a lot of parts to it, as most lives do, and I admire Kelly for trying to write so much about Caroline.  She was quite the hero in multiple ways through-out the war but particularly in helping the women who had cruelly suffered both medically and psychologically from the camps. So I am that jerk who feels like her story lags a bit (I really am sorry about that).

I do think one of the short-comings of the book is Herta’s story.  At the beginning, Kelly seems committed to examining Herta’s choices and explaining how she ended up becoming who she was and doing what she did.   But in the middle of the book, Herta’s voice seems to end. I am unclear if Kelly wrote chapters here that were removed or if she just felt like she couldn’t push that envelope further.  Either way, it seems that it would have been interesting to follow Herta through her arrest and her time in prison to her release and reentry into society.  If the book starts with these three stories then it seems disjointed that it somehow become two stories instead.

To Kelly’s credit, this first book is quite a feat.   I will also admit I came to this book with assumptions and a bit of an attitude.  Needless to say, Kelly as a writer has my attention and I look forward to her next book.

But seriously writers, there really are other wars to write about. I promise…

 

October 12, 2016 at 6:31 pm Leave a comment

Easier isn’t always Better- “Furiously Happy” by Jenny Lawson

I need to admit that I “read” this book by listening to it on audible.com.  And yes, that is kind of a shameless plug for audible.com because now I am addicted and childishly excited when it is time for my monthly audible credit.  In my house yesterday was called “Audible Tuesday.” Okay plug over.

cover225x225.jpegThis memoir is about Jenny Lawson’s struggle with depression, anxiety, an auto-ammune disorder, and a number of other things that make life a bit of a challenge.  But those challenges in Lawson’s hands are hilarious.  Between explaining how the TSA is just collecting things for the zombie apocalypse to how God made the appendix to her love for taxidermy, Lawson takes those things that occupy her life and mind, in that endless cycle that all those who suffer from anxiety understand, and makes it funny and poignant and then funny again. It is a rare art form.

She admits that life is sloppy and scary, that self-sabotage is easy to do. But Lawson is also able to look at life in way that makes even the biggest issues seem manageable.  And as someone who can obsess about how it is even logistically possible to get my bag from one plane to another in a twenty minute lay-over or who finds herself staring at a book shelf for longer than I care to admit thinking about how important a new book lay-out might be for my sanity, I appreciate Lawson’s take on things. Yes, things could be easier without all of the things that Lawson faces, but just because it is easier doesn’t mean it is necessarily better.

This book is likely not for the easily offended or for the parent who finds every moment of parenting sacred and magical (do those people exist?) or for the person who is completely sane (do those people exist?).   But for the rest of us fumbling through life, anxiety-ridden, and worried about how many pens we have on hand, this book is for us.

 

 

October 5, 2016 at 10:45 am Leave a comment

Sometimes a Good Book just falls in your Lap

I know it has been 9 months since my last book review and I am sure you have frequently, if not daily, thought “how can I know what to read? How can I go on?” So never fear. I am back.

I have still been reading, I just seem to not have gotten around to blogging about it.  But let’s ease back into it with a list – phew, I don’t want to dig too deep this time around.  I have read some good things and some not so good but here are some fun reads I fell into:

  1. 26192646.jpg“Sweetbitter” by Stephanie Danler: This book is getting a lot of press and for good reason. This lady can write.  It is beautifully done.  The story of Tess leaving behind small-town Ohio, landing in New York City, and getting a job at a high-end restaurant is all consuming for both her and the reader.  The description of tastes, the world of dining behind the scenes, hot kitchens, and copious amounts of drug-use are all spot on.  I didn’t as much find the over-arching story as interesting as everything else, but that really is not the most important thing about this book. It is that good.
  2. “Eligible” by Curtis Sittenfeld: Let me say I hate reimagined books. This retelling of “Pride and Prejudice” made me cringe but it was Sittenfeld so I had to try.  And honestly, it was really fun.  The Bennetts are living in Cincinnati, Ohio (Ohio is so popular). They are overextended and double mortgaged.  There are Bingley and Darcy, rich surgeons, who have just relocated from LA to work in the Cincinnati region.  Lydia and Kitty are cross-fit fanatics.  All of the Austen characters fall right into our current culture and it is a great fit.
  3. “The Little Paris Bookshop” by Nina George: The story of Monsieur Perdu w23278537ho is the apothecary of books to heal is so wonderful and made me smile (and tear up) often.  I have also decided that surely it is reasonable to believe that someday I too will own a barge of books that I can travel with from Paris to Provence.  This will happen…probably.
  4. “Triptych” by Karin Slaughter: I have no idea how I am just stumbling onto this author but her suspense writing is so, so good. She is coming to speak at my local library next week so I started reading her books and all of them are fun.  Her writing is very, very graphic so it is not for the faint of heart but for suspense novels these are some of my favorites I have read.  “Triptych” has been my favorite so far out of all of them. I also loved “All the Pretty Girls” and “Cowtown.”

Someday  I will get up the courage to post about “Hillbilly Elegy” which made me yell at the author when I finished.  Although the author was not in the room, and likely could not care less about my opinion, I wished he had been in the room hearing my strongly worded opinions because great gravy, that book was so frustrating.   As an aside, feel free to use “great gravy “as you see fit. An aside to the aside, if you are under the age of 70 you probably should never see fit to use that phrase.

Okay, keep on reading.  And most importantly, happy autumn!!!!!

 

 

 

September 23, 2016 at 2:19 pm Leave a comment

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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.

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