Thursday, May 14, 2015

book review: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

translated by William Weaver 

The backstory: Invisible Cities is one of the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die. It's also Mr. Nomadreader's favorite book of all time and one of the first two selections for The "Darling, but..." Book Club.

The basics: Invisible Cities is mostly a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, in which Polo describes the cities he's seen on his journey to and from Venice and the Mongol Empire.

My thoughts: There's a lot of pressure when you read your favorite person's favorite book. Mr. Nomadreader and I have been discussing this book for years, as it's themes of cities and travel come up so frequently in our lives. Yet when we started watching "Marco Polo" on Netflix this winter, and I kept pausing to ask questions because I didn't know enough about that historical period to be able to follow (my world history pre-1900 is embarrassingly bad), I discovered that the plot of Invisible Cities is actually conversations between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. Although I knew both of their names, I didn't understand their historical connection (again, embarrassing, I know.)

Invisible Cities is very much a book of ideas. As such, it is at times utterly brilliant, but at times I also found my mind wandering a bit. It tackles big ideas about time, place, and space in beautiful ways:
Kublai Khan had noticed that Marco Polo’s cities resembled one another, as if the passage from one to another involved not a journey but a change of elements. Now, from each Marco described to him, the Great Khan’s mind set out on its own, and after dismantling the city piece by piece, he reconstructed it in other ways, substituting components, shifting them, inverting them.
I can absolutely see why people love and revere it, as there are passages I love and revere in it, but I can also see how it's a frustrating read for some people.

Favorite passage:  "By now, from that real or hypothetical past of his, he is excluded; he cannot stop; he must go on to another city, where another of his pasts awaits him, or something perhaps that had been a possible future of his and is now someone else’s present. Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches."

The verdict: Invisible Cities is part poetry and part prose. It's both an intimate conversation and a book of big ideas. It's abstract and concrete. It's haunting, but at times it's too mellow. It's a book I imagine benefits from re-reading with a pen in hand to make notes about connections between different cities and different tales. It's not my favorite novel ever, but I see why Mr. Nomadreader loves it so much. Perhaps if I had discovered it at a different time in my life, it could be my favorite too.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 173 pages
Publication date: 1974 (English translation)
Source: personal copy

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Invisible Cities from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

book review: The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato

The backstory: The Ghost Network is my May pick for The "Darling, but..." Book Club. Within the first few pages, I knew I had to make Mr. Nomadreader read it.

The basics: Told in a nonfiction style, complete with frequent footnotes, The Ghost Network begins with the disappearance of Molly Metropolis, a famous pop singer. Through interviews with Metropolis's inner circle and journals, The Ghost Network reads like a mystery, a biography, a history of an anarchist fringe group or mapmaking or the city of Chicago, a work on city planning, and a work of philosophy. It is all of those things, and it is none of those things.

My thoughts: I don't think my description of The Ghost Network can do it justice. It's so original, and it has so many fun discoveries in it, that I'd rather keep my description vague. I knew very little going into this novel. I think the notes in my review spreadsheet called it a feminist debut mystery. And it is, but it is so much more. As I read the first few sections, I found myself wishing Molly Metropolis were real: "She created a scene where people could claim non-conformity by listening to music made by the most popular artist in the country. And she made that paradox feel logical. Her inexplicably powerful charisma trumped better judgment."

From the first pages. Disabato captivated me. It's no secret I love both low-brow and high-brow pop culture, and Disabato gets the fun of both. The worlds she combines are amazing. Some of the lines between fiction and nonfiction are blurry, which I adored. Disabato has created a world that is both playful and smart, like Molly Metropolis herself:
"Molly loved secret histories. She also loved contradicting accounts of the same historical events. She liked ambiguities. She liked answer-less questions. She told me that she was investigating the world that traditional maps hide from us." 
Favorite passage: "The Situationists still aren't widely known by name, but psychogeography has become fashionable again. Everyone likes to decorate with old maps; they fetishize the idea of transcending their borders."

The verdict: Disabato masterfully blends the high-brow and the low-brow. It blends fiction and non-fiction. It's part mash-up, yet it's refreshingly original. It's compulsively readable. It's smart and funny. Catie Disabato, I want to be your friend, but I fear I might already be too much of a fan.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 290 pages
Publication date: May 5, 2015
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Ghost Network from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Catie Disabato's website and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

review rewind and giveaway: Ways of the Dead by Neely Tucker

Today, in honor of the paperback release of Neely Tucker's first mystery novel, The Ways of the Dead, I'm reposting my review from last fall. It made my Best of 2014 list (#6!) I'm also thrilled to offer a copy of the paperback to one lucky reader in the U.S. The second Sully Carter mystery, Murder, D.C. is out June 30, 2015. Look for my review on June 29th!

The backstory: The Ways of the Dead is the debut mystery by Neely Tucker, a veteran journalist and memoirist.

The basics: Set in the late 1990's, The Ways of the Dead opens with the murder of Sarah Reese, the fifteen-year-old white daughter of a U.S. federal court judge. Veteran newspaper reporter Sully Carter, who like Tucker himself spent years covering foreign wars, notices a pattern of other dead young women on the same block, but the others are poor and not white. While the police actively pursue Sarah's death and mostly ignore the other deaths, Sully uses his contacts and press badge to follow the whole story.

My thoughts: I majored in journalism in college, and although I ultimately opted not to make my career in the field, I am drawn to tales of journalism, both in fiction and in non-fiction. As a journalist writing a novel whose main character is a journalist, Tucker brings great authenticity to the character of Sully. I loved the details of the news business, particularly how well steeped in the setting they were. I often have to remind myself how long ago the late 1990's were, but when presented with the antiquated technology Sully used, it was pretty obvious.

I typically prefer my mysteries to feature law enforcement, but the set-up of this mystery would be unlikely, if not impossible, to tell via a traditional investigation. It takes a journalist to see the patterns, and his neighborhood contacts, including those in law enforcement, share with him what they wouldn't share with others--mostly due to his long-established relationships with those contacts, but also to his reputation as a journalist. Tucker writes with reverence for the veteran journalist.

As much as I enjoyed the elements of journalism infused throughout this novel, it's much more than that. The mystery is superb, but what I most liked about it was the depth of character and social commentary that only served to enhance the mystery. The Ways of the Dead is reported to be the first in a series, and Tucker does a great job establishing Sully as a character, while also leaving many opportunities to continue to explore his past in future novels. So much of this mystery hinges on issues of race and class, and Tucker explores these social issues thoughtfully within the story itself.

The verdict: The Ways of the Dead is an astonishingly good debut mystery. Tucker tells a complicated mystery in a straight-forward way. The cast of characters is large, and the story covers a multitude of themes, but the narrative moves quickly and doesn't get lost in the details. Instead, as the case gets more complicated, these details make it ever more compelling. I'm already eagerly awaiting the next novel from Tucker.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 272 pages
Publication date: June 12, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Ways of the Dead from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Neely Tucker's websitelike him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, May 11, 2015

book review: A Good Killing by Allison Leotta

The backstory: This spring I've flown through all of Allison Leotta's Anna Curtis series, starting with her debut mystery Law of Attraction, and continuing with the e-short story Ten Rules for a Call Girl, and the novels Discretion, and Speak of the Devil. With this week's publication of A Good Killing, I'm left waiting for Leotta to write more and pondering which mystery series I'll dig into next.

The basics: A Good Killing opens shortly after the events of Speak of the Devil. A frantic phone call from a friend in Anna's Michigan hometown alerting Anna to the death of their town's beloved football couch. Her sister, Jody, is the lead suspect. Anna flees for Holly Grove to help Jody and escape the chaos of her life.

My thoughts: A Good Killing is a departure from the earlier Anna Curtis novels in many ways. I'm so glad Leotta changed things up with this novel, given the state of Anna's life in D.C. Perhaps the timing was convenient, but it works. Anna and her sister Jody share narration duties. I was confused at first, as it took me a few pages to realize Jody was narrating from her high school years. Jody's narration is aimed at Anna directly, for reasons that become clear later.

Anna has often struggled to understand lawyers who work as defense attorneys, and I appreciated seeing her struggle with being on the other side. I'm curious to see how this experience shapes her perspective in cases going forward. Many of the courtroom scenes were written similarly to Michael Connelly's Mickey Haller books; Leotta explains the why and how without breaking up the momentum and drama of the trial itself.

Favorite passage: "We tend to rise or sink toward others' expectations of us. It takes a lot of conscious will not to."

The verdict: A Good Killing is a departure for Anna Curtis and Allison Leotta. I loved seeing Detroit through Anna's eyes, and I enjoyed seeing her work as a defense attorney. The mystery wasn't as surprising as I might have hoped, but Leotta's skillful incorporation of so many relevant sub-plots more than made up for it. A Good Killing will keep me thinking about many of the social issues it addresses.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: May 12, 2015
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy A Good Killing from Amazon (Kindle edition.) Better yet: start with Law of Attraction. Buy it from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Allison Leotta's websitelike her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sunday Salon: Introducing the "Darling, but..." Book Club

The Sunday There's no one in the world I love to talk to more than Mr. Nomadreader. And as someone who really likes to talk about books, Mr. Nomadreader and I have battering around the idea of a two-person book club for years. We finally started it last month:

The basic logistics
1. We each pick one book a month, so together we'll read two books each month. We are aiming to pick books we haven't read, although I've already sought (and was awarded) two exceptions for books I happened to be reading and thought he would love (and that would be interesting to discuss.)

2. Each year in our birthday month (August for me and September for Mr. Nomadreader), we're allowed to pick a book we've read before. I am already debating which of my favorite books from the last few years to pick in August!

3. I've invited Mr. Nomadreader to contribute to the blog, and we may play around with joint reviews, interviews about the book, and guest posts about our shared reading. It may vary based on the book. Regardless of what form it takes, I'm excited to bring a different perspective to the blog a couple of times a month.

4. Neither of us is allowed to pick Infinite Jest. If we do, it counts as two months. The rule will be similarly amended for books that are really long or otherwise daunting.

April 2015 picks
We kicked off our book club in April. I picked The Bees by Laline Paull because I was deep in Baileys Prize reading, and I thought it might be the title from the longlist that Mr. Nomadreader most liked. I've already reviewed it, and he's still reading it (we're getting a slowish start to our book club!) We've been chatting about it periodically. I hope to bring you our shared thoughts soon. Mr. Nomadreader was granted an exception (aren't we generous?!) and picked one of his all-time favorite books, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. I've been meaning to read it for years, and I'll be reviewing it for you this week.

May picks
I picked The Ghost Network, the debut novel by Catie Disabato. I knew in the first few pages that Mr. Nomadreader would love it. I devoured it while traveling for work last week, and I'll be reviewing it Wednesday. Mr. Nomadreader debated for weeks, but he finally decided on The Lost Boys Symphony by Mark Andrew Ferguson. I'm debating if I want to read it or listen to it, but I'll be starting it soon.

June picks
I've already picked my June book, but I'll keep you guessing for now because it hasn't been released yet. I will say only this: I rated it six stars out of five, and it's my favorite read of 2015 so far. I'm planning to re-read it this month, and y'all know I hardly ever re-read books. It's that good.

First thoughts
One obvious benefit of The "Darling, but..." Book Club is that it has Mr. Nomadreader reading more again. He loves to read (and majored in Literature), but doesn't make as much time for it as he wants to. It also pushes me outside of my comfort zone. I don't think it's a coincidence that all of our picks so far have some level of science fiction present. We don't just want to talk about great books. In fact, I'll settle for not great books that have lots of interesting ideas to discuss present. I hope to pick some nonfiction titles too. There's something particularly magical about two people who know each other so very well picking out one book a month for each other to read and discuss. It's the highest level of book concierge you can get. Mr. Nomadreader and I may not always agree on books (or other things), but we always love to talk about things. Being forced to read one book a month not of my own choosing, but picked by someone who knows me better than anyone else in the world, is pretty fun so far.

Now tell me: if you have a significant other (or best friend), do you pick books out for each other?

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, May 4, 2015

book review: The Green Road by Anne Enright

The backstory: I've previously read and enjoyed Anne Enright's fiction (my review of The Forgotten Waltz) and nonfiction (my review of Making Babies.)

The basics: The Green Road is the story of Rosaleen Madigan and her children. It begins in 1980 with the shock of Dan declaring he's becoming a priest. We spend time with each of the four Madigan children (plus Rosaleen) in different cities (and countries) in a different year before they each come home for a holiday.

My thoughts: In some ways, the first five parts of The Green Road would work as stand-alone short stories. There are some references to the family, but Enright lets us get to know each character individually. Oddly, my least favorite section was Hanna's, which comes first, and Hanna is the character I felt like I knew the least about in the first half of the book. Still, Enright's writing shines:
"The darkness of the theatre was a new kind of darkness for Hanna. It was not the kind of darkness of the city outside, or of the bedroom she shared with Constance at home in Ardeevin. It was not the black country darkness of Boolavaun. It was the darkness between people: between Isabelle and Dan, between Dan and the priests. It was the darkness of sleep, just before the dream."
I won't tell you where each of the Madigan children spend their stand-alone chapters, as seeing where and when they are, as well as what they're doing, is part of the fun. When the novel brings the family back together again, it felt like I was part of the family reuniting. Seeing these characters, all of whom I knew so well, interact together added depth to their individual stories while also advancing the larger story.

As an American reader, I was also struck that Irish readers may interpret this novel differently than I did. It's certainly a global story, but for me, it is the story of one fascinating family. I suspect it might also be powerful cultural commentary on Ireland. I'll be seeking out Irish reviews of this novel to test my theory.

Favorite passage: "Because death is not the worst thing that can happen to you. Everyone dies. It's the timing that matters. The first and second of it. The order in which we go."

The verdict: The Green Road is an accomplished, engaging novel. Enright's writing is luminous--it's filled with wisdom about life and her characters. As I read, it was clear I was reading a masterpiece. I'll be cheering for this book to find a spot on the Booker Prize longlist this year.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: May 11, 2015
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Green Road from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

book review: Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

The backstory: Veteran comic artist Roz Chast's graphic memoir was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award (non-fiction), one of the top 5 New York Times nonfiction titles of 2014, and a finalist for the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award (Autobiography.)

The basics: Chast, an only child, recounts her struggles with her parents, who lived into their 90's, refusing to plan for their death.

My thoughts: I've enjoyed Roz Chast's cartoons in The New Yorker for a long time, which makes sense given the back of this book tells me she's been drawing them for the magazine since before I was born. Parts of this memoir resemble comic strips, but I was surprised to see some pages have exclusively text (handwritten.) Chast plays with format in interesting ways in this graphic memoir, but it's her more traditional images I found most entertaining.

What I liked most about this memoir was Chast's ability to provide some levity to the darkness. She writes honestly about the frustrations of caring for two very old parents, but she lightens the dark subject matter well. One particular joke about sweater shopping with her father kept me laughing for several minutes (and made Hawthorne join me laughing, as no one laughs alone when he's in the room (he was playing with toys on the blanket next to me while I read.)) While I appreciated the moments of levity, I also find myself wishing Chast pushed some pieces of the memoir a bit farther. Her focus was relatively narrow--her relationship with her parents, their relationship with each other, and the financial stress growing old puts on people. She frequently mentions her children, and I found myself wishing she told that side of the story too. As a new parent reading this memoir, I found myself thinking more about not leaving a mess for Hawthorne (who will be an only child) than worrying about my own parents (and in-laws) living into their 90's.

The verdict: Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant is at times laugh-out loud funny. At others it's deeply poignant. At others Chast's understandable frustrations manage to somehow be both. It is both an emotionally honest memoir and a nuanced tribute to her parents and their often frustrating relationship. Surprisingly, the two visual highlights for me were not Chast's comic drawing but the actual pictures of her parents apartment she inserts and the more life-like drawings she creates in her mother's last days and weeks of life.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 240 pages
Publication date: May 6, 2014
Source: library 

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Roz Chast's website.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

book review: God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

The backstory: Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

The basics: God Help the Child is the story of Bride, a blue-black-skinned woman whose mother hated her skin color. Despite this tension, Bride grew up to be a confident, successful woman. Through Bride and those associated with her, Morrison tells stories of the long-reaching impacts of love and abuse in childhood.

My thoughts: I spent much of my time reading this novel thinking "If I didn't know Toni Morrison wrote this novel, I would never guess" and "I don't know what to think about this novel, but there's something odd or weird about it, particularity the magical realism." ...That changed once Booker began narrating. Suddenly, Morrison was back, and the novel really came alive for me with sharp-witted observations: "All he did from freshman year through sophomore was react--sneer, laugh, dismiss, find fault, demean--a young man's version of critical thinking."

As expected there was lush, beautiful language throughout, but I couldn't get a sense of what kind of novel Morrison was trying to write. Often it felt like a novel of ideas. The themes of child abuse and love turned up in similar and different forms frequently. In this sense, it felt heavy-handed. I found Bride's narration disjointed; she didn't strike me as an actual person. Aside from Booker, the characters felt like vehicles with which to advance Morrison's ideas. Thus, the novel, despite its moments of brilliance and strong writing, felt forced. It veered more toward fable than realistic contemporary fiction. I struggled with the moments of magical realism, as I felt they were intended to be more symbolic than realistic, yet they were written realistically.

There were odd moments of contemporary commentary too: "Black sells. It's the hottest commodity in the civilized world. White girls, even brown girls have to strip naked to get that kind of attention." and "Since real public libraries don't need or want books anymore, they send them to prisons and old-folks' homes." As a reader, I wasn't sure what to make of these passages and many others.

Favorite passage: "They will blow it, she thought. Each will cling to a sad little story of hurt and sorrow--some long-ago trouble and pain life dumped on their pure and innocent selves. And each one will rewrite that story forever, knowing the plot, guessing the theme, inventing its meaning and dismissing its origin. What waste. She knew from personal experience how hard loving was, how selfish and how easily sundered. Withholding sex or relying on it, ignoring children or devouring them, rerouting true feelings or locking them out. Youth being the excuse for that fortune-cookie love--until it wasn't, until it became pure adult stupidity."

The verdict: There are moments of brilliance and startling clarity in this novel, but too often things were uneven. Morrison makes strong points, but the characters and events read like a fable more often than not. The combination of fable, satire, magical realism, and realistic fiction muddied the narrative and distracted from the moments of brilliance.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 192 pages
Publication date: April 21, 2015
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy God Help the Child from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, April 27, 2015

audiobook review: A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

narrated by Kimberly Farr

The backstory: A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler's twentieth novel, is on the 2015 Bailey Prize short list.

The basics: A Spool of Blue Thread tells the story of the Whitshank family over four generations in Baltimore.

My thoughts: For years, Anne Tyler was one of those authors I was embarassed to not have read. When The Beginner's Goodbye came out three years ago, I read it and was disappointed. There were some highlights, to be sure, but I found it uneven overall. When A Spool of Blue Thread came out, I was intrigued, as I love family sagas, but the first reviewers expressed disappointment, so I thought I would skip this one and revisit her earlier acclaimed novels. Then, when it was longlisted for the Baileys Prize (and since short listed), I knew I would read it. I opted for audio because it was available immediately at the library.

Tyler drops the reader right into the Whitshank family in an unclear year. There were some clues, but I spent as much time trying to get my bearings as I did trying to get to know the Whitshanks (this experience may have been exacerbated on audio.) This beginning allows Tyler to cover a lot of ground very quickly and to introduce the reader to Red and Abby, and their four children, very quickly. The first half of the novel is mostly straight-forward, so when the action jumped back fifty years to Red and Abby's courtship, I was surprised. (I adored that technique in Monique Roffey's phenomenal novel White Woman on the Green Bicycle. It was less successful here because it didn't feel the only or obvious option; it felt a bit like a gimmick.)

For the most part, the non-linear story worked here, and it allowed for a few retroactive surprises to have more power. But as each time jump came, it took me awhile to engage with the story. Tyler writes fascinating, well-rounded characters in this novel, and to jump away from so many with each generation jump had me spending as much time missing the younger Whitshanks as it did trying to get to know the older ones (when they were the younger ones.) Ultimately, I liked the narrative technique, but at times it was clunky. Most notably, I found the ending abrupt and anti-climactic. When the audiobook ended, I was genuinely surprised the last scene was the last, as it felt so inconsequential. Perhaps that was Tyler's point, but it was a let down after a novel of so many interesting moments, both every day moments and life-changing ones.

The verdict: A Spool of Blue Thread is a good, entertaining family saga, but I wanted it to be great. While the non-linear storytelling enhanced some elements of the story, it also made for a rather abrupt and anti-climactic ending. I enjoyed the listening experience more than I enjoyed the book over all, as it wasn't as good as other multi-generational family sagas I've read lately. While I liked it, I don't think it will be a book that sticks with me or keeps me thinking about its characters now that I've finished it.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 13 hours 23 minutes (368 pages)
Publication date: February 10, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy A Spool of Blue Thread from Amazon (Kindle edition.) 

Want more? Like Anne Tyler on Facebook.

P.S. The British cover is so much better for this story!

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Best of Instagram: #BooksandBooze and #HairByHawthorne

I adore Instagram. I follow a mix of my Facebook friends (people I know or once knew) and those I follow on Twitter (mostly bookish folks from around the world and locals.) My feed is filled with babies, books, and travel, which are three of my favorite things. I post more photos of Hawthorne on Instagram than anywhere else. He has two of his own hashtags: #nomadbaby (sometimes others try to post with it) and #HairByHawthorne, which is dedicated to the times he styles his own hair comically:

But my favorite hashtag not related to Hawthorne is a brilliant Book Riot invention: #BooksandBooze. I am a reader and a drinker, and this hashtag makes me so happy because I am clearly not the only one. Mr. Nomadreader and I work opposite schedules, and the nights he's at work until after I'm asleep are my #BooksandBooze nights. Here are some recent favorites:

You can catch all of my posts related to books, booze, Hawthorne, and other things by following me on Instagram.

Now tell me: what are your favorite hashtags and users on Instagram?

Friday, April 24, 2015

book review: Slow Dancing with a Stranger: Lost and Found in the Age of Alzheimer's by Meryl Comer

The backstory: Slow Dancing with a Stranger: Lost and Found in the Age of Alzheimer's was one of my book club's picks in March.

The basics: Veteran journalist Meryl Comer tells the story of her husband and mother dealing with Alzheimer's and advocates for change in how we care for those afflicted with Alzheimer's.

My thoughts: I was really excited to read this memoir, as Alzheimer's runs in my family, even though I was sure it would depress me as it's such a horrible disease. Instead, I soon found myself hating this book and rolled my eyes through most of it.

I like memoirs. I often call the memoirists I most enjoy brave because they bare their souls and show their weaknesses. They tell truths that aren't always told. They are honest about their faults. They share the moments of which they're proud and of those they aren't. Unfortunately, Meryl Comer does not do any of those things in this book. It's hard to even call it a memoir, as it utterly lacks reflection or emotion. After about fifty pages, I found myself referring to the author as "Saint Meryl" because she could do no wrong.

Comer begins by telling how she and her husband fell in love. I am a sucker for these stories, yet her writing didn't convey the love and passion she must have felt. Thus, when she transitioned to the initial decline of her husband's brain (he has early onset Alzheimer's, a particularly heinous disease in my opinion), it didn't have the emotional pull I would have expected. This book soon becomes more of a manifesto than a memoir, but by that point I was so irritated with Saint Meryl I didn't even care.

I missed book club last month, but I hear the reactions to this book were split. Some loved it and others hated it. I'm clearly in the hated camp, and it's a shame. There are many moving stories to tell about Alzheimer's, and Comer was positioned to do so. At the height of this book, she was single-handedly caring for both her husband and mother in her home as they both struggled with Alzheimer's. I wanted to sympathize with her plight, but Comer wouldn't acknowledge anything she did was hard.

When this book was first picked for book club, I typed it into Goodreads and two titles came up: this one and an erotica novel. I joked that I hoped we were reading the Alzheimer's memoir rather than the erotica. Half way through this book, I changed my mind.

The verdict: If you're looking for a manifesto advocating for changes in the healthcare system related to Alzheimer's with some personal story thrown in, then you might enjoy Slow Dancing with a Stranger. If you're looking for an emotional, reflective memoir about a spouse's battle with Alzheimer's, you'll likely find yourself rolling your eyes at Saint Meryl as much as I was. I wanted more emotional intimacy. I wanted more of this story rather than a general exercise with a familiar disease.

Rating: 1 out of 5
Length: 240 pages
Publication date: September 2, 2014 
Source: library

Convinced? Buy it! Buy Slow Dancing with a Stranger: Lost and Found in the Age of Alzheimer's from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Meryl Comer's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

audiobook review: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

narrated by Mozhan Marno

The basics: Anna Benz is a bored American housewife who has been living in the suburbs of Zurich, Switzerland with her Swiss husband for ten years. They have three children, but Anna is lonely and has not learned the languages of Zurich. As she begins taking a German class, she also begins an affair with a Scottish man in her class.

My thoughts: There's been a lot of discussion about Anna's likability. I'm not a reader who needs characters to be likable, but I do need them to be interesting and somewhat relatable. Anna is quite interesting, as she keeps secrets from her psychotherapist, her family, the reader, and to some degree herself. And she makes terrible decisions. Repeatedly. Yet I never became frustrated with these decisions, as I could always understand why Anna made them, even as I acknowledge anyone else making them would be mad.

After hearing Mozhan Marno, one of my absolute favorite narrators, was doing the audio for Hausfrau, I took the galley out of my TBR and pre-ordered the audiobook. Marno brought Anna to life and infused her with the appropriate varying amounts of sadness, despair, and despondency. She made Anna a puzzle as her voice shifts as Anna interacts with different people. For a book filled with depression, I wouldn't call it a depressing read. One unfortunate marketing quote claims Hausfrau is a cross between Madame Bovary and Fifty Shades of Gray, by which I think was meant: Jill Alexander Essbaum wrote a literary novel with some graphic, erotic sex scenes. (I only made it through one paragraph of Fifty Shades, not because I'm a prude but because the writing was unbearably bad.) The sex in Hausfrau is notable. Sometimes it's hot, sometimes it's destructive, and sometimes it's both.

Perhaps my favorite part of Hausfrau was how Essbaum used German grammar as parallels for Anna's mental state. Through her German classes and her visits with her psychoanalyst, Anna narrates connections she finds between herself and the structure of language. It's clear in these moments that Essbaum is a poet. Her grasp of language, syntax, and construction is paralleled beautifully by her nuanced grasp of Anna, emotionally and pscyhologically.

The verdict: Hausfrau reminded me a lot of The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, a novel I wish had gotten as much attention as Hausfrau is getting (not instead of, but in addition to.) It's unfortunate that so much of what I read compares it to a couple of well known classics because while the description (bored housewife in Zurich has affairs to combat boredom and depression) is accurate, it doesn't capture the depth and quality of what Essbaum does here, which is to tell a good story plotwise, but also to have layers of depth running through it.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 9 hours 43 minutes (336 page)
Publication date: March 17, 2015
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Hausfrau from Amazon (Kindle edition--only $5.99!)

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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

book review: Speak of the Devil by Allison Leotta

The backstory: Speak of the Devil is the third book in Allison Leotta's Anna Curtis legal mystery series, which begins with Law of Attraction, continues with the e-short story Ten Rules for a Call Girl and Discretion.

The basics: As Speak of the Devil opens, Anna is proposing to Jack. Simultaneously, detectives, armed with a search warrant Anna signed, are about to raid a brothel. Unbeknownst to them, a vicious gang, led by El Diablo, the titular devil, is also storming the brothel.

My thoughts: While it's hard to call any of federal sex crimes prosecutor Anna Curtis's case happy, this case is particularly horrid. I winced several times in the first ten pages, but Leotta hooked me from the very first page. She manages to set up a complicated story quickly, and I couldn't devour this book fast enough.

One of the things I most appreciate about Leotta's books are how much happens in both Anna's professional and personal life, both during each book and in between them. (Michael Connelly similarly ages his characters and moves storylines along quickly, and y'all know I love Michael Connelly's books.) Until this novel, while I've enjoyed the mysteries and thrills of the legal storylines, Anna is what kept me coming back. With Speak of the Devil, the mystery takes center stage for the first time, and it firmly establishes Leotta as one of the best mystery storytellers around. There's a huge twist in this story that left my mouth hanging open for minutes. It was perfectly executed and completely shocking. And where Leotta takes things after the twist are as good as the twist itself.

The verdict: Speak of the Devil is Leotta's breakout mystery. Once again, Anna is a character to root for, and Leotta moves her personal story ahead at a satisfying pace. What sets Speak of the Devil apart from her prior books is that this time, the mystery is the best part, particularly one of my favorite twists ever...across literature, film, and television. Speak of the Devil is a smart, thrilling page turner, and I hope A Good Killing (out May 12, 2015) is just as good.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 289 pages
Publication date: August 6, 2013 
Source: Scribd

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Speak of the Devil from Amazon (Kindle edition.) Better yet: start with Law of Attraction. Buy it from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Allison Leotta's websitelike her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

audiobook review: The Bees by Laline Paull

narrated by Orlagh Cassidy

The backstory: The Bees is on the 2015 Baileys Prize short list.

The basics: The Bees is the story of Flora 717 and her hive. Flora 717 is born a lowly sanitation worker, born to clean the hive and remove the dead, but she exhibits traits beyond her social status.

My thoughts: When I heard that The Bees was actually about bees, and that they were the only characters, I didn't quite know what to think. How would Paull bring them to life? Could she make me care about a bee (I am allergic enough to bee stings to not enjoy their presence.) She did. I was utterly enchanted with Flora 717 and cared what happened to her.

The Bees works on two levels. First, the story itself is interesting. I didn't think I knew a lot about bees, but as I listened, I realized how much I do know about bees and their lives. Flora's thoughts, feelings, and journeys kept me listening. What elevates the novel, however, is how perfectly the realities of a beehive mimic the tropes of dystopian fiction. The Bees is both science fiction and realistic fiction, and I loved this duality. At one point I said to myself, "so basically, Flora 717 is divergent!"

While I thoroughly enjoyed The Bees, I really disliked its closing scene. The novel opens with humans in an orchard talking about the hive the reader soon enters. Appropriately, it ends with a similar scene outside the hive. I understand what Paull was doing--grounding this fictional tale in our reality, but it didn't resonate with me the way the bees themselves did.

The verdict: Ultimately, I loved the idea and construct of The Bees a little more than the story itself, and I wish Paull would have omitted the opening and closing scenes. It's a fascinating, thought-provoking, original debut novel, and I look forward to discussing it with others.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 10 hours 16 minutes (357 pages)
Publication date: May 6, 2014 
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Bees from Amazon (Kindle edition--only $1.99!)

Want more? Visit Laline Paull's website and follow her on Twitter

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!