Friday, October 21, 2016

Paris for One and Other Stories

Title:  Paris for One and Other Stories
Author:  Jojo Moyes
Publication Information:  Pamela Dorman Books. 2016. 288 pages.
ISBN:  0735221073 / 978-0735221079

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Nell shifts her bag along the plastic seating in the station and checks the clock on the wall for the eighty-ninth time."

Favorite Quote:  "You are whoever you choose to be."

Sometimes, you just need a sweet, feel good book. A book that is like climbing into your favorite pajamas under your coziest blanket with a lovely cup of tea. This collection of stories is just that, with a novella - the approximately ninety page story Paris for One - followed by short stories all about women, relationships, and choices.

Paris for One is about Nell Simmons, a young woman who has always lived by the rules and planned her life. She is the stable one, the reliable one. She knows it, and until now, has been happy with that. Now though, it seems not to work. So, she decides to do something completely out of character and impulsive. She surprises her boyfriend with a weekend trip to Paris. The only problem is that he doesn't show, and she ends up in Paris all alone. What is a timid, careful planner to do with a weekend in Paris? Run home? Re-plan? Or for once in her life, just be and see what happens?

Even in a such a short span, Nell becomes real. Her magical Paris weekend sprinkles that magic out into the world as well. I find myself laughing and crying with her. The characters around her also charm; my personal favorite character is the concierge at the hotel, who doesn't say much but still plays an instrumental role in the story. In some ways, that concierge could be this reader cheering Nell on because I know the choices I want Nell to make. I know where the story is going and I know how it's going to end. It doesn't matter, because it is such a charming and lovely journey getting there.

Paris for One was originally published as a "Quick Read" through the UK Reading Agency. The Reading Agency is a "charity whose mission is to inspire more people to read more, encourage them to share their enjoyment of reading and celebrate the difference that reading makes to all our lives. We support people at all stages of their reading journey. Because everything changes when we read." Quick Reads are just that - short, quickly read but complete stories to encourage readers. I really enjoyed the story itself, but knowing this purpose behind it doubles my enjoyment - a feel good story both in content and purpose.

The rest of the stories included in this book are considerably shorter than Paris for One, but most make a point about relationships - the importance of honesty, the key to keeping the romance alive when the details of life take over, the thoughts of the roads not taken, the path when life doesn't go according to plan, and love found in the unlikeliest of places. All are about the choices women makes in their lives and the strength they find. One story stands apart for it is not about relationships. The Crocodile Shoes is about a woman finding her confidence and her voice; is it the shoes or is the self-care they represent? Ultimately, this story too is about a woman finding and recognizing her strength.

Look at the deeper message, or enjoy the sweet, feel-good stories at face value. Either way, this book delights and charms.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Clancys of Queens

Title:  The Clancys of Queens:  A Memoir
Author:  Tara Clancy
Publication Information:  Crown. 2016. 256 pages.
ISBN:  1101903112 / 978-1101903117

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I'm the whirling dervish of Queens, spinning around and around, arms flapping, my father's boxing gloves like cinder blocks strapped to my seven-year-old hands."

Favorite Quote:  "... it took ... the lessons of time, to forever alter the way I look at people, including myself."

Tara Clancy grew up in three homes. This book yo-yos between Queens, Brooklyn, and the Hamptons - the three destinations of Tara Clancy's childhood. A converted shed in Queens was the home of her father. Brooklyn was the home of her family on her mother's side; and the Hamptons was the weekend home of her mother's new significant other. Between the three homes, Ms. Clancy moves around a lot, but in all three, she seems loved and cared for. Perhaps not well supervised but definitely loved.

With Queens in the title, I expect to hear about the city life and about the places and people of Queens. This book does not deliver on that. The sense of place is missing from this book. Most events take place at a home, in a yard, at school, or in route; these really could be anywhere. This is the story of a family but not in the context of time and place. Based on the title, I expect the place to anchor the book; it seems barely present.

This memoir is an non-linear, episodic race through this childhood. The story moves very quickly in time and place without a clear transition. At any given point, it's difficult to say how old Ms. Clancy is at that time. The range is from about five or six years old through the teenage years to young adult. Unfortunately, the progression of events is unclear, making the book quite challenging to follow and difficult to understand. The perspective of age is an important lens through which to understand the event; unfortunately, I find myself searching too hard for that understanding.

The narrative is also just that - a collection of event descriptions. This happened here. This happened there. Then, this happened. And so on. the book does not present much reflection or interpretation or emotion.

For example, one narrative that stands out is her trip to California with her mother. Her mother leaves her in a sex toy shop while she and her friend (who runs the store) go across the street for lunch. Ms. Clancy is left alone to explore and to deal with customers. Perhaps, that is not the intent, but that is what occurs. The narrative describes the event occurring, but that's it. How does this impact Ms. Clancy? What, if any, are the conversations mother and daughter have following this incident? How and why does a mother allow this to happen?

Another example is the incident with her father's gun. Her father sees her curiosity about the gun and lets her handle the unloaded weapon. At the end, he simply warns her to never touch it again. Then, the book moves on to something else. I want to know more. What impact does this have? What imprint does this memory leave?

The "why" seems to be lacking in this book. Why are these the incidents she chooses to describe? Why are these important? How do these form the person she is today? In a memoir about Tara Clancy's, I don't get a sense of who she truly is.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife

Title:  The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (The Road to Nowhere)
Author:  Meg Elison
Publication Information:  47North. 2014 (original). 300 pages.
ISBN:  1503939111 / 978-1503939110

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Mother Ina tapped her fingers on her hollow wooden belly."

Favorite Quote:  "Nobody chooses to be a victim, but after a lifetime of practice, it just happens."

The title - The Book of the Unnamed Midwife - has a positively medieval ring. The beginning of the book is medieval in tone. Young male scribes taken care of by "mothers" are set the task of copying by hand this book. The beginning is atmospheric and sets up the anticipation for what is to come.

So, what is the Book? The book is a set of nineteen journals written by an unnamed female survivor of a plague that wipes out about 98% of humanity and within that number 99% of all women. Very few people are left, and within that number, the ratio of men to women is disproportionate. This sets the tone for the themes of the book. Who are these women? What is their value in this society? How will humanity survive? Who is to be pro-creator of a rebirth? All important questions not matter what the time period of the book.

This post apocalyptic story is not medieval in the least. It begins in modern day San Francisco, where our lead character - let's call her Midwife - works at a hospital. The plague / virus  / disease comes, and she wakes up to an altered world. The name of the book and the fact that the journals appear to be revered by a new society imply that Midwife perhaps becomes in part responsible for the survival of society; perhaps major events connect the destruction of the plague to this new society; and perhaps the Midwife's Book contains the wisdom gained from this history.

Unfortunately, the book does not built to that climax; it doesn't build to anything much at all. As with The Dog Stars by Peter Heller and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, the question comes down to one of survival. Unlike those books, though, the story does not read as one of hope; Midwife's trek is a dark and violent one. For the most part, lawlessness is paramount in this world. In a world where women have become rare, they are not revered; rather, the women are turned into prized possessions. Midwife disguises herself as a man to escape notice. Keeping along with that theme, there is rape and violence against women and a lot of discussion of searches for weapons for both protection and destruction.

The book also becomes repetitive. Midwife travels alone, joining up with and then leaving a variety of pockets of survivors - a couple watching out for each other, a biker gang, and a Morman community to name a few of her encounters. She meets up with other survivors. She wants companionship. For a while, it works. Then, something triggers a departure. Repeat. The specifics differ, but the scenario repeats again and again, leaving me waiting for something more. Included with the Midwife's tale are some stories of other survivors, but these too are unsavory and violent. Since the focus of the book remains on Midwife, the role of these other stories seems simply to add to the despair; they are just dropped into place with nothing more coming of them.

Midwife herself is unfortunately not a likable character. Perhaps, it is intentional, but the character comes across as somewhat robotic. Perhaps that is a reaction to her situation, but the book needs to explain that and let the reader peek behind that monotone front. It does not. As a result, this book becomes difficult to engage with because in a book about death and destruction, I need a character whose survival I care about. Unfortunately, in this book, I just don't.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Lesser Bohemians

Title:  The Lesser Bohemians
Author:  Eimear McBride
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2016. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1101903481 / 978-1101903483

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I move."

Favorite Quote:  "I wish that I was someone else, a girl with words behind her face, not this one done up like a stone in herself."

The plot of The Lesser Bohemians is a fairly simple one and not all that unusual. An eighteen year old Irish girl named Eily comes to London alone to enter drama school. She meets a seasoned, thirty-eight year old actor named Stephen. A relationship ensues, first physical and then emotional. Along with the relationship come their back stories - the grief and baggage they both carry. Is the relationship just a physical release? Is it love? Will it survive? Does it need to? How will the two be impacted?

With nothing really new or different in the plot, this is a story that has been told many times before. What makes this book unusual is the writing style and the details that are developed in the book. Unusual can sometimes be a really good thing and sometimes not. In this case, unfortunately, the things that make this book unusual also make it not the book for me.

The writing style of the book consists of short, choppy thoughts with inconsistent capitalization and punctuation and no regard for grammatical constructs. Added to this is a lot of gratuitous cursing and repeated use of f***. It is like listening to a staccato beat with jarring notes sprinkled throughout for the over 300 pages of the book with no relief. This book is hard reading.

In addition, large sections of the book are essentially monologues as the two main characters tell each their histories. This means that for those long sections, the reader is being "told" a story rather than being shown or being made part of the story. Stephen's story is more lengthily told, but Eily is the narrator of the book; this adds even further distance between reader and story. It takes a lot of work to stay with the book because of this writing approach.

The "details" of this book are very graphic in nature. Much of this book is about physical relationships - consensually sexual ones and brutally physically abusive ones. Both are described in explicit and lurid detail. I would mark this book with a "xxx" rating even though the scenes occur so frequently that they start to sound the same and almost mundane. I don't know what to say except that this kind of reading is just not for me, and in this book, these scenes are the story.

This book is billed as a love story of two damaged, scarred, individuals. Unfortunately, I never do feel the love or any emotion through the characters. I form no attachment to either character despite their tragic backgrounds; I don't really care how the story turns out. Their scars are laid bare; the physical attraction is laid bare. Somewhere though, the love story and the individuals underneath the physicality go missing. It is lost in choppy beat of the book and in the focus on the physical descriptions.

My favorite part of this book is the cover of the book itself. I wish I had left it at my admiration of the cover.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Small Great Things

Title:  Small Great Things
Author:  Jodi Picoult
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2016. 480 pages.
ISBN:  0345544951 / 978-0345544957

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The miracle happened on West Seventy-Fourth Street, in the home where Mama worked."

Favorite Quote:  "What if the puzzle of the world was a shape you didn't fit into? And the only way to survive was to mutilate yourself, carve away your corners, sand yourself down, modify yourself to fit? How come we haven't been able to change the puzzle instead?"

“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” - Martin Luther King Jr.

This quote is the inspiration behind the title of this book. Jodi Picoult has a well deserved reputation for taking on serious human issues, often the ones being talked about in the press. This book is no different; it tackles the conversation about race, prejudice, and the justice system.

The main cast of characters are a Black nurse, a white supremacist family who are focused in their hatred, and a white public defender who would never ever consider herself prejudiced or racist. Around them, you have families and communities who each hold fast to their views.

The story is that Ruth Jefferson is a Yale nursing school graduate with over twenty years of experience as a Labor and Delivery nurse; she is also the only Black nurse in her unit. Turk and Brittany Bauer are a young couple awaiting the birth of their first child; they hold white supremacist beliefs who do not want the birth or their child attended by a person of color. They equate their demand to a customer service request no different that a woman wanting a female doctor. The hospital complies, and Ruth is removed from the case. A crisis occurs, and Ruth is accused of a terrible crime. Kennedy McQuarrie is the public defender assigned to the case. Battle lines are drawn on a much larger scale even though all Ruth wants to do is defend herself, protect her son, and live her life.

Surrounding this main plot line are others that all carry on the same conversation about race and prejudice. Ruth's mother has been a maid for the same white family for most of Ruth's life; a closeness exists but the lines are clear. Ruth moved her family to a new, mostly white neighborhood to give her son a chance at a better education. Her son Edison goes to a school, where the color of his skin separates him from most who surround him. Ruth believes that race does not matter and that people see the person not the color; her sister takes a different path. Turk and Brittany portray the background of being taught certain things about race from the day you are born and what happens if those beliefs are ever called into question. Kennedy McQuarrie is a public defender by passion and belief in doing the right thing. Kennedy's mother is Southern belle who grew up being taught certain views. The same conversation comes through in this book from so many different directions.

At the beginning of the book, I am not sure. I am not sure Jodi Picoult is the author to tell this story. I see the stereotypes appear in the characters, and this conversation needs to be about breaking stereotypes; I am not sure. By the middle, I think I know where the book is going, but I hope not; I am not sure the ending I am envisioning will move this conversation forward. Meanwhile, I am furiously reading as I tend to do with Jodi Picoult books because I want to see where she takes the conversation. Be prepared. This is not an easy book to read. It will make you uncomfortable, and it will make you think about your own views and prejudices. I think that's the point.

By the end, the questions are answered - why she wrote the book and why certain characters appear as stereotypes. Make sure you read the author's note with the book for Jodi Picoult writes about how and why this book came to be and how and why she feels able to tell the story. The book is not perfect, of course; some of the twists and changes at the end, particularly the epilogue, feel a little contrived and too neatly packaged. However, this book accomplishes its purpose to keep the conversation moving. It holds true to the quote that is its inspiration. This is a fictional story that may perhaps contribute in a small way to great change.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Rules for Others to Live By

Title:  Rules for Others to Live By:  Comments and Self-Contradictions
Author:  Richard Greenberg
Publication Information:  Blue Rider Press. 2016. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0399576525 / 978-0399576522

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Everything in this book is true."

Favorite Quote:  "The best thinking says 'the self' is a fiction (I have a piece about that), yet it's a fiction that we all believe, our most intimate experience. Maybe it's nothing more than our tendency to repeat. Maybe we repeat because when we do, we recognize the behavior and the familiarity is comforting. So the self is just the consolation of our tendencies."

The subtitle of this book reads "comments and contradictions." So, of course, the first question is whose comments? This book must be read with an understanding of the perspective. Richard Greenberg is a Tony Award winning playright who makes New York City his home. He has also twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama. This book is a collection of his rumination on incidents from his life and observations on the New York lifestyle.

The book begins with an introduction of sorts, stating the author's definition of himself as an urban recluse and an explanation of why he never writes personal essays. The rest of the book groups personal essays loosely into sometimes cryptically named topics like manifesto, city, city friends, storytelling, health/education, city friends (new and updated), and several dead women of whom I was fond.

I am clearly not the right reader for this book. I am not entirely sure what the point is. Perhaps, I am missing the theater background. Perhaps, I am missing the New York background. Any which way, I neither get it nor find myself interested.

First and foremost, this book is marketed as a collection of essays. For some sections comprising only a handful of sentences, calling them an essay is stretching the definition. Some consecutive sections comprise a description of a single incident; again, the need to breakup into sections is unclear to me. Personal journal entries, perhaps, but not essays.

Second, the book description states, "he shares lessons from his highly successful writing career, observations from two long decades of residence on a three-block stretch of Man­hattan, and musings from a complicated and occasionally taxing social life." I find the book to be mostly musings and observations; I do not walk away with lessons. I do not even walk away with the feeling that the objective is to convey a lesson. An occasional moment stands out, but for the most part, it just is thoughts meandering through life.

Third, the book description also uses an interesting combination of words - subversive, hopeful, and life-affirming - to describe the different essays. Again, unfortunately, I discover none of that in my reading of the book. It seems rather just ramblings about whatever comes to mind at the time of writing. I do make it all the way through the book, but it is a challenge.

Finally, some of the essays are self-serving. One in particular stands out. It begins as follows. "As an artist, I am incapable of selling out. I know because I've failed at it so many times." Further on, the essay comments on "problems in my efforts to write lucrative crap." Unfortunately, the essay also pokes fun at authors who by inference have "sold out" by writing "lucrative crap." Fun at a colleague's expense, particularly by name, is not for me.

I leave with the idea that either the book is trying too hard to be clever or I am not clever enough to get it. Either way, this one is not the reading experience for me.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Public Library and Other Stories

Title:  Public Library and Other Stories
Author:  Ali Smith
Publication Information:  Anchor. 2016. 240 pages.
ISBN:  1101973048 / 978-1101973042

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Here is a true story."

Favorite Quote:  "Democracy or reading, democracy of space:  our public library tradition, wherever we live in the wide world, was incredibly hard-won for us by the generations before us and ought to be protected, not just for ourselves but in the name of every generation after us."

The fact that the book has "public library" in the title is a clue as to what the focus of the book might be. It is, but perhaps not in the way you might think. This book is a collection of short stories alternating with different individuals giving their odes to the public library.

The dozen short stories are not about libraries; nor are they necessarily set in or around a library. They are not necessarily even about books. The stories are very different from each other and have cryptic titles such as "Last" and "Grass" and "The ex-wife". The topics are equally varied. The common thread between them is not libraries or books but rather language; the power and meaning and context of words play a key role in all the stories.

As with any short story collection, some of the stories call to my heart and some I read and leave without a look back. My favorite perhaps is the one titled "The Art of Elsewhere" because of its definition and description of elsewhere; again it comes back to language. What I love about all the stories is the focus on language - words themselves - that comes through the stories. "Words were stories in themselves." This is the first book I have read by Ali Smith, and I am intrigued.

The sections in between the short stories are essentially expressions of love for public libraries. About a dozen from people wrote about the role libraries play in their lives. Some contributor names I recognize, and some I don't. It doesn't matter because I completely recognize and share their love for libraries. Each one comes back to the importance of libraries and the crucial need to support and ensure that our libraries remain a funded and vibrant resource for our communities.

Libraries, of course, house books. However, their function as a community resource extends so far beyond that - as a warm, safe to place to go; as a curator of information; as an information technology resource; as an access point to the world and beyond; and so much more as libraries evolve to meet the changing needs of their communities. Unfortunately, so many communities have either lost or stand to lost this resource, and that is truly tragic.

As an avid reader, a book collector, a book blogger, and someone who calls my local library my home away from home, I love the personal commentary on what libraries mean to the individual contributors. I could read an entire book on people's love affair with libraries. This commentary does not talk about the reduction in library resources or the pragmatic efforts underway to save them. They are rather very personal statements all stating the same idea that libraries have impacted and changed each and every one of their lives.

Based on the title of the book, I assumed that this entire book is about the love of libraries. It takes some re-adjusting to what this book is actually about - a love of libraries and a love of language itself with the obvious connection that libraries are a source and resource of language. An unusual approach to the subject, but it works.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.