Thursday, July 31, 2014

Elizabeth Is Missing

Title:  Elizabeth Is Missing
Author:  Emma Healey
Publication Information:  Harper. 2014. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0062309668 / 978-0062309662

Book Source:  I read this book based on its description.

Favorite Quote:  "Nowadays ... the colors seem faded, as if I live in an old photograph."

Fragments of memories. That's all Maud has, as she slowly loses her memory.  Fragments that she holds onto. Fragments that worry her. Fragments that she tries to puzzle through to capture the connections.
  • "I have an idea there was something I had to remember about Elizabeth."
  • "If I were to grow some summer squash ... where would I best plant them."
  • "the mad woman"
  • "Never knowing ... about Sukey"
Maud is an elderly woman living alone. Her daughter lives nearby and cares for her mother. Many of the other people in Maud's life have passed away. Her friend Elizabeth is a constant in her life. Yet, Maud has not seen Elizabeth recently. As far as Maud is concerned, Elizabeth is missing.

Maud tries to figure out what has happened to Elizabeth. Unfortunately, Maud's own mental state prevents her from comprehending and remembering what she has been told about Elizabeth - by her daughter and by Elizabeth's son.

Tied into Elizabeth's "disappearance" are also Maud's fragmented memories of another mystery - another disappearance. The reader learns that Maud's sister Sukey disappeared years ago when Maud was still young. The disappearance was never solved. No answer ever emerged. Through the course of this book and through the fragments of Maud's memories, the mystery is solved. To me, the mystery is just a sideline of this book.

The bigger focus of the book is Maud herself, and the heartache of the process of aging and of losing who you are. The book displays it from Maud's perspective - the inability to remember, the slow deterioration, the feeling that a thought is just beyond your grasp. It also has glimpses of the frustration and despair of Maud's daughter - the piles of food her mother brings home regardless of the piles already at home, the calls to the doctor, the wanderings.

That aspect of the book is a sad story, and unfortunately one often seen in real life. That makes the book much more interesting than the supposed mystery in the book. The fact that the story of loss and  dementia is told in Maud's own voice makes it that much stronger. Because fragments are presented, as a reader, I have the experience of trying to figure out the fragments, to put together the complete picture, and to feel that the piece to bring it all together is missing. On the other hand, this very aspect also makes the book disjointed and difficult to read at times.

The biggest issue with the book is that it really does not have enough substance to be a 300 page book. The scenario starts to repeat itself. Maud gets confused. Maud gets lost. Maud's memories, if found coherently, will solve the mystery of Sukey's disappearance. The loss is real, and the sadness and frustration is real. I just don't need an entire book to feel it. The story is a good one, but it could have been told as a short story or a novella. Parts of the book should have gone missing.

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

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Humans of New York

Title:  Humans of New York
Author:  Brandon Stanton
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2013. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1250038820 / 978-1250038821

Book Source:  I read this book because I have followed the project for a while and wanted to see the compilation in book form.

Favorite Quote:  "The people in these pages are very dear to me. By allowing me to take their photo, each one of them helped me to realize my dream. And I am so thankful for their participation."

I have been following the Humans of New York project for a few months and reading up on the phenomenon it has created. So, when I saw the book, I instantly picked it up.

Brandon Stanton was not a photographer. He got his first camera in January 2010 while he lived and worked in Chicago. In July 2010, he lost his job. Over the next couple of months, he slowly travelled from Chicago to New York, taking pictures all the way. Upon his arrival in New York, his thoughts were, "What struck me most were the people. There were tons of them. And they all seemed to be in a hurry."

Over that summer, he took over 600 portraits in the city. His intent was to create a photographic census of New York City. The plan was to take 10,000 portraits and plot them on a map of the city.

He had a blog and some visibility. A friend, then, introduced him to the power of social media, creating a Facebook page. This was followed shortly by a Tumblr blog.

The project then expanded to include interviews and short statement from the person/people pictured. In a Mashable interview, Brandon Stanton had this to say about the progression: "It went from photography to pictures of people; from pictures of people to portraits of people; from portraits of people to captions with the photograph. It went from captions to stories to where it is, fully formed, today — which is these very deep interactions with strangers on the streets." ("The Human Behind 'Humans of the New York," October 2013)

With the power of social media, the project has gone viral. As of today, the Facebook page has over 8.3 million followers!

The project is being incorporated into teaching curriculums. It has also spurred many many similar projects all over the world, from San Francisco to Sydney, from Pakistan to the Fiji Islands. This year, a project has even begun around the fictional world of George R R Martin's Game of Thrones series.

What amazes me about the project is:
  • The diversity that the project encompasses - race, religion, age, and along every other line. Perhaps, that reflects the diversity of New York City, but it takes a special person to still capture so many different elements of it.
  • The very personal nature of the portraits and stories - Many of the stories that accompany the portraits are intensely personal. What is it about this storyteller and about this project that enables people to share the information?
  • The viral growth of the project - over 8 million followers in a couple of years and thousands of comments on every Facebook post.
This book published in 2013 is a compendium of some of the portraits and stories featured in the project. The dedication of the book reads, "To the City of New York - I had this crazy, juvenile idea that you were going to make all my dreams come true and you did."

 The book itself is a collection of about 400 of the portraits that Brandon Stanton has done. Some have short narratives to go with them, and some just have annotations as to where the scene was captured. Upon its publication, 30,000 copies of the book were pre-ordered, and it climbed to the top of the bestseller list.

So, what is the fascination? For me, I love the combination of words and photography, and the use of both to tell a story. I love the idea of capturing life and ordinary people in a positive and warm way and in a way to allow them to share their stories. I love the diversity. I know I look forward to the daily posts.

Next year should see the arrival of a new book, Little Humans. I can't wait!

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

Friday, July 25, 2014

Home Leave: A Novel

Title:  Home Leave:  A Novel
Author:  Brittani Sonnenberg
Publication Information:  Grand Central Publishing. 2014. 272 pages.
ISBN:  1455548340 / 978-1455548347

Book Source:  I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Favorite Quote:  "You choose your friends and your boyfriends, your colleges, your curtains, your type of bread, your granola, your poison, your pants, your tattoo, your postcards at the museum shop. But not your losses."

The back cover of this book describes, "And what does it mean when home is everywhere and nowhere at the same times? With humor and heart, Brittani Sonnenbrg chases this wildly lovable family through the excitement and anguish of their adventures around the world."

The family is Chris, a man whose carrier takes him around the world; his wife Elise, who follows along; and their daughters Leah and Sophie, who have each other as the constant in every move.

According to the US Department of State Foreign Affairs Manual, "the purpose of home leave is to ensure that employees who live abroad for an extended period undergo reorientation and re-exposure in the United States on a regular basis." It is a benefit offered to employees who work oversees - away from home.

Based on the description, I expected a book about family and about kids growing up as "third culture kids." Third culture kids (TCK or 3CK) are children who spend a bulk of their childhood outside of the native culture(s) of their parents. With today's global economy, more and more research is being done on the benefits and challenges of such a childhood. The term is also being used to now describe adults who grew up in such a family situation.

This topic and scenario is not completely what the book is about. Instead, the book is also about ghosts, literal and figurative. In the first couple of chapters, the reader learns about the background of Chris and Elise and the reasons that both have traveled far from their childhood home. About 30 pages into the book, the reader learns about the devastating loss this family suffers. These ghosts of the past become the crux of this book.

It's almost like two stories. This family has a very definite before and after - before the loss that almost destroys the family and after. The portions of the book dealing with the time before are about the expat experience and about living and adapting to new cultures - a journey through the world. The portions of the book dealing with the time after are about loss, grief, and the possibility of recovery - an emotional journey.

The story is told in an nonlinear fashion, with each chapter jumping to another time period and often another location. The first half of the book jumps back and forth in time. The remainder becomes a more chronological approach. I found myself constantly referring to the chapter title, which identifies the time and the place, to keep a handle on where I was in story. Sometimes confusing but eased by the chapter titles. A table of contents with the chapter headings would be most helpful.

The nonlinear approach, for me, also keeps the emotions of the book in a state of flux. It becomes difficult to vest into the characters' experiences because chapter to chapter, you are pulled to a different part of their life and a different perspective. This structure creates a somewhat detached feeling throughout the book.

My favorite part of the book is the perhaps the first chapter. It presents Elise's back story from her home in Vidalia, Mississippi. It is a sad and shocking story and explains her need to reinvent herself. What makes this chapter the most fascinating one of the book is that it is told from the perspective of her childhood home. Yes, the perspective of a house. It took me a couple of pages to figure that out. At that point, I went back and started reading it again. I wish the book had continued with this form of narration and lived up to the promise of that first chapter.

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

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Girl in the Road

Title:  The Girl in the Road
Author:  Monica Byrne
Publication Information:  Crown. 2014. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0804138842 / 978-0804138840

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

Favorite Quote:  "I think there are more things in heaven and earth than can be dreamt of in our philosophy."

Where to even begin talking about this book except to say that this is not the book for me. Many reasons, but one stands out. A scene in this book describes an act of pedophilia. That, in and of itself, is not a reason to dislike the book. Many books have taken on this issue. What makes this scene so unbearable for me is that it is not presented as a horrific crime against a child. The scene is described and then also referenced in a memory, and neither clearly labels it as the terrible terrible obscenity that pedophilia is. I simply cannot get past that.

Now, the rest of the book. The premise of the book holds promise. It is a futuristic mythical story of the journeys of two women and a bridge across the Arabian Sea, reaching from India to Ethiopia.

The Trails is a energy harvesting bridge that was designed to span the Arabian Sea. It is illegal to be on the bridge; yet, many people attempt to become "walkers" and explore the Trail or escape their life on land. For those on land, the Trail has taken on a life and existence of its own - with laws and legends surrounding its existence. No one has ever returned from venturing on to the Trail.

Meena is a young woman seemingly all alone. She was raised by her grandparents in India, and all she knows of her parents is that they died in Ethiopia. She feels as if she is being pursued and decides to escape India. She becomes a "walker" on the Trail. Her desire to escape become mixed with a desire to get to Ethiopia and search out the person responsible for her parent's death.

Mariama is a young girl attempting to escape trouble in her African home. She is taken in by a caravan bound for Ethiopia. Her story happens about 40 years before Meena's.

Along their journeys, both encounter difficulties and meet many different people. Eventually, the two stories collide.

The book describes Meena's journey and Mariama's journey concurrently, in alternating chapters. The different time periods and the relationships are not made clear. I found myself flipping back and forth to try and remember the point at which what I was reading at the moment had been referenced before. I almost feel like I needed an index of characters and cultural terms to help clarify.

The book is also overwhelming because it attempts to address so many different issues - gender identify, sexual preferences, technology and environment, cultural upheaval, political statements, to name a few. It feels like the book goes from issue to issue to issue, without really delving into any one.

The book for me is also hard to enjoy because neither Meena or Mariama are really likable or really developed as characters. I am still unclear as to what events triggered each to venture on this journey. The book does not present their back story or the events that led them to that point. Without any background, it's difficult to understand their motivations or actions. Many of their actions themselves- including self-mutilation described as "a self-perpetuating recreational activity" - are questionable in and of themselves and even more so without the context of the characters' background to suggest a reason.

It seems that this books sets out to make a philosophical point, but it tries too hard and gets lost in the process. The book is certainly memorable, but, unfortunately, for me, not in a pleasant way.

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

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Forgotten Seamstress

Title:  The Forgotten Seamstress
Author:  Liz Trenow
Publication Information:  Sourcebooks Landmark. 2014. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1402282486 / 978-1402282485

Book Source:  I won the book through the GoodReads First Reads program. That copy never arrived, but I read the book anyways.

Favorite Quote:  "Your history is what makes you who you are, doesn't it?"

It's 1970. A student interviews an elderly resident at an insane asylum for her research. The resident Maria weaves a fantastical tale of being raised in an orphanage, put into service at Buckingham Palace, developing a relationship with the Prince of Wales, and being committed to an insane asylum. Are these the delusional rants of an insane person or the truth?

It's 1911. Two young girls Nora and Maria live at an orphanage. Neither has a family; each is family and friend to the other. They excel as seamstresses, particularly Maria. They are chosen to join a "grand" household. They live in the downstairs and work under the head seamstresses. Years pass, and "situations" arise. As a result, Maria in brought to what she thinks is a hospital for care. She ends up committed to an insane asylum for the bulk of her life.

It's 2008. Caroline Meadows is coping with a broken relationship, a loss of a job, a dream of a career, and a widowed mother who needs more and more care. In helping her mother clear the attic, she discovers a beautiful quilt in her grandmother's thing. The quilt contains a lovely inscription: "I stitched my love into this quilt, sewn it neatly proud and true. Though you have gone, I must live on and this will hold me close to you."

Intrigued, Caroline starts research her grandmother's history to discover the provenance for the quilt. This leads her to the insane asylum and to Maria's story and to a history of her own family.

Weaved into this book is a brief history of the May silks. In 1893, Princess Mary of Teck wore a dress at her wedding to Prince George (King George V). The dress and those of the bridesmaids were made of fabric specifically designed for the occasion by a British designer named Arthur Silver. The fabric was embroidered with a motif of rose, shamrock and thistle trimmed with orange blossom and lovers knots. Although the time period of Maria's life is about 20 years later, the fabrics still play a role in her life and her legacy.

The book chapters go back and forth through Maria's interview and through Caroline's story. Through the interviews, we learn of what happened when Maria and Nora joined the royal household and how that journey led to Maria being committed to an insane asylum.

What I enjoyed about the book is that both Maria and Caroline are developed as characters, and both stories are developed. The movement between the two is fluid and maintains the continuity of the book.

Caroline's story is not an unusual one. She is a young woman at a crossroads in life. How does she dealing with an aging and ill parent? Does she continue in a job path that provides financial stability but does not fulfill her dreams? Does she dwell on a relationship ended or does she leave herself open to more? Does she take the safe path or does she reach out and take the risk? An interesting story but it does not stand out on its own.

I particularly enjoy Maria's story and Maria as a character. The use of an interview to tell the story in her own words works really well. That perspective captures her emotions and excitement and desperation as a young girl in circumstances beyond her control. The fact that the interview is conducted over fifty years later enables the story to include the hindsight and reflection that comes with age and the passage of time. "It's hardly surprising that I almost forgot who I'd once been. They stole the real Maria away from me." Maria's character and the way her story is told move this book beyond others like it and make it memorable.

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

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Secrets Sisters Keep

Title:  The Secrets Sisters Keep
Author:  SinĂ©ad Moriarty
Publication Information:  Penguin Ireland. 2014. 400 pages.
ISBN:  184488337X / 978-1844883370

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

Favorite Quote:  "I looked around at my wonderful, colorful, crazy, dysfunctional, warm, supportive, close family and felt so happy."

Anna and George are parents to four close-knit siblings - sisters Julie, Louise, and Sophie and brother Gavin.

Julie is a stay at home parent to four boys - a set of triplets and a younger son. She is supposedly living the good life. Her husband recently came into an inheritance, and the family tries to get used to their new lifestyle - a new house, a new school for the kids, new people to meet. Julie is unsure about the transition and about what more life holds.

Louise is a successful attorney and single mother to young Clara. Her career is on track, and Clara appears to be well ahead academically compared to children her age. The two of them have their set routines, and Louise thinks it works for them. A relationship may be lacking, but overall, Louise seems satisfied with the direction her life is taking.

Sophie is still recovering from her divorce. Her husband has found himself someone younger and seems happy. Her daughter Jess is enamored of her father's girlfriend. Sophie is struggling with self-esteem and concerns about her appearance.

Gavin is a drifter, never staying long at a job and never staying long in a relationship. His family has gotten to the point that they feel he will never change.

Through all their individual struggles, the family stands together. They cheer each other on when the occasion requires, and intervene when they think necessary. As the book goes on, though, it is clear that each sibling has parts of their lives and concerns - their secrets - that they don't share. The individual chapters are written from the perspectives of the three sisters; thus, each provides an insight into the life of that woman.

The overwhelming feeling of this book is one of family always coming together - through good times and especially through the bad times. It is a feel good book from that perspective. Not every concern is resolved, but the love and support shine through. For all the concerns, there is also plenty of laughter and fun. The siblings drive each other crazy at times, argue at times, but are always there for each other.

I have only read one other book by the author (Mad About You). As with that book, this book deals with every day life and every day issues. Things perhaps work out easier than they do in real life, but still the characters come across as real. The three sisters are different from each other, such that many different readers may see part of their life reflected in one of them. Somewhat predictable? Yes. An enjoyable story nevertheless? Yes.

This book is the second in a series, but I have not read the other. This one read beautifully as a stand alone book. A perfect chick-lit, summer beach read!

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

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Fortune Hunter: A Novel

Title:  The Fortune Hunter: A Novel
Author:  Daisy Goodwin
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2014. 480 pages.
ISBN:  1250043891 / 978-1250043894

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

Favorite Quote:  "Ah, but you are young and we all have great opinions when we are young. I think when you are a little older you will see things differently."

Elizabeth or "Sisi", Empress of Austria, was considered one of the beauties of Europe in the nineteenth century. Married at the young age of sixteen, she often looked to escape from her duties at court. She travelled extensively in the pursuit of her passions, riding and hunting.

The "fortune hunter" is Bay Middleton - Captain William George "Bay" Middleton. He did not come from money, but earned his way into society as an officer and as one of the best riders of time.

Charlotte Baird is the young heiress about whom little is known except for her relationship with Bay Middleton. In the book, she is characterized as forward thinking and more emancipated than many women of her times. Her fortune perhaps allows her this luxury and the luxury of pursuing her interest in photography - unusual for this time and place.

This book touches on the brief period in history when the lives of these three individuals intersect. Bay meets Charlotte through her brother Fred during the London "season". He knows that she is the heiress to a large fortune. He is intrigued by her personality. His motives, of course, are questioned, "Would she be quite so sweet if she didn't have sixty thousand a year? Hard to tell. Man like you is bound to fall for the rich ones."

The arrival of the Empress Sisi becomes the talk of the town. Sisi hears about Bay's skills as a horseman and asks for him to be her pilot (guide) during the hunting season. He cannot say no. The relationship develops into much more. Rumors and scandals abound, putting Bay's relationship with Charlotte into jeopardy. A relationship will a young, eligible heiress may have a future. A relationship with an already married Empress has none. What choice will be made? The intrigue surrounding these relationships is the crux of this book.

I love historical fiction for it often introduces me to history I don't know and little known history that may show up in the textbooks or other narratives only as a footnote. I love how fiction can sometimes bring a history to life by grounding it to a more personal story. This book unfortunately, is more romance than history. It is about the triangle between these three people. That focus makes it not the book for me.

Based on a little research, I also knew how the story ended before I read the book. The decisions made by Charlotte Baird to me conflict with her characterization as a strong, independent young woman. The attitudes presented in the book perhaps reflect the way of thinking at the time:
  • "He may well want to marry you, why wouldn't he? You are clever, lovely and extremely rich, but you are not the only woman in his life."
  • "It takes time to make the right match."
  • "Way I see it, you dance to the Empress's tune until she gets tired of you, which she will one day. And then you go back to Charlotte Baird and ask her if she will still have you. My guess is that once she has got over her missishness, she will come around alright. Women like a man who is in demand."
While that thinking may reflect the time period, the book portrays Charlotte Baird throughout as a young woman who makes her own choices. She pursues photography, a little known art form at the time and an even less acceptable past time for women. Her fortune allows her independence and the ability to speak her mind. She asserts both rights. Thus, her decisions in her relationship with Bay Middleton seem jarring in context. So, while her choice is the one that history tells us was made, it is unpalatable for me in the story of the romance. That too makes this not the book for me.

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

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley

Title:  A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley
Author:  Neal Thompson
Publication Information:  Crown Archetype. 2013. 432 pages.
ISBN:  077043620X / 978-0770436209

Book Source:  I received this book through the Crown Publishing Group Blogging for Books program. The book was delivered through Edelweiss.

Favorite Quote:  "When the reporter asked Ripley to describe the most unusual thing he'd ever seen, Ripley said he hadn't seen it yet:  'If I had, I would lose my ambitions and I would not travel any more.'"

"And yet, the phrase Ripley coined remains part of the English lexicon nearly a century later. In 2011, "believe it or not" appeared more than twelve thousand times in the New York Times and on its website, and a mid-2012 Google search landed more than seventy million "believe it or not" hits." A Google search today netted me about 266 million web hits, over 73 million video hits, over 1.5 million book hits, and over 30 million news hits!

I have been to several Ripley museums and pored over many of the books with my children, but before reading this book, I had no idea of the man behind the "believe it or not" phenomenon.

Ripley was born in Santa Rosa, California. He lost his father at age fifteen. His mother supported the family by taking in boarders and doing laundry. Ripley contributed to the family income with part-time jobs. In school, he was a good athlete but shy, always hampered by his appearance, particularly his teeth.

He always had a fascination with drawing. He sold his first cartoon to Life Magazine at age 16. He was paid $8. He went on to pursue a career as a cartoonist with the newspapers, first in San Francisco and then in New York. He also developed a passion for travel, as his newspaper jobs sent him to different parts of the world - from the Olympics in Antwerp to trips around the world. Throughout, he captured the little seen aspects of his world.

One journalist "described him as 'a special institution' who found his life and the world around him endlessly interesting and exciting, who felt compelled to share that shameless enthusiasm with his fans - and with anyone else who'd listen."

The New York Globe printed the first Believe it or Not cartoon in December 1918 with the title "Champs and Chumps." The title was changed to "Believe it or Not" in 1919. With the initial success came syndication and eventually radio and TV. Ripley brought to America entertainment from far off places. As his researcher Norbert Pearlroth said, "Our daily life is so cut and dried that we get relief from fairy tales ... Except his fairy tales are true, and this excites people. They like to learn that nature makes exceptions. These are fairy tales for grown-ups."

His personal life was a lot more scattered than his professional life. As success came, he was surrounded by a melee of people. He had many different relationships, "collecting women" as he collected his stories but never being able to settle into the stable loving relationship he so craved.

Robert Leroy Ripley died suddenly at the age of only 59, but his legacy continues - in corporate hands but still bearing his name.

This book is a fascinating insight into the world and life of Robert Leroy Ripley. It is a narrative account of his life beginning with his birth in 1890 to his death in 1949.  The narrative nature of the book works for the most part because his life and his work are interesting enough to not need literary embellishment. A few portions of the book do tend to take on the tone of "this happened...and then this happened...and then this happened." Mostly though, the events and the people themselves maintain the interest of the book.

Sprinkled throughout the book are "Believe it or not" facts. For example:
  • A feud between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst coined the term "yellow journalism."
  • The first use of the term "jazz" for music is attributed to a sportswriter names E. T. "Scoop" Gleeson.
  • Walt Disney's dream as a teenager was to be a sports cartoonist, but he was turned down by the Kansas City Star and other newspapers.
While these snippets may not relate directly to Ripley's life story, they add to an understanding of how wide his interest and research spread.  "His life's mission was to prove to readers that veracity and reality were elusive .... and that sometimes you can't recognize truth until someone shines a light."

A New York American advertisement once said, "There's a little bit of Riplianism in all of us," that everyone harbors a "fascination with the apparently untrue facts of life." That perhaps explains the fascination his work and the work of those who continue his legacy still holds for adults and children around the world.

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

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Illusionists: A Novel

Title:  The Illusionists: A Novel
Author:  Rosie Thomas
Publication Information:  Overlook Hardcover. 2014. 480 pages.
ISBN:  1468309900 / 978-1468309904

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

Favorite Quote:  "Devil well knew that apart from endless practice it was audacity, force of personality and the glamour of the stage itself that created magic out of mere mechanics."

A young man who reinvents himself as a showman with the name "Devil." A dwarf who is a performer and a thief. A young woman who who is quite modern and independent for the times. A friend who is master wax modeler. An inventor whose life revolves around the automatons he builds. These are some of the characters who populate The Illusionists.

Chance brings them together in London in the 1870s. From then on, their futures are inextricably linked. Devil's ambition is to one day own his own theater. Some share that dream with him; some wish to see him fail. Carlo is the performer who both fights and takes advantage of his physical differences in his search for fame. Eliza falls in love, but also works hard to forge a relationship that is a partnership between equals. Jasper has known Devil since childhood; he knows his background and his secrets. Jasper has chosen a path different than Devil's, different yet linked. Heinrich Bayer is a man of science who embodies his automaton creation with human feelings and relationships.

They come together at the Palmyra Theater, a decrepit concert halls that many including Devil wish to bring back to life as a performance theater. Interestingly, the name Palmyra is the name of an ancient city in what is now Syria. It is first mentioned in history in the Babylonian records from the second millennium BC. Its use in this book may be related to the fact that aside from the temple, the most notable remain found in Palmyra is a Roman theater dated to the first century AD. The reader is in fact introduced to the theater, "It was named the Palmyra, yes. That's a town in Arabia, you know. Something like Babylon. What a name, eh?" An interesting historical tidbit in what is otherwise a fanciful book.

The book has ups and downs, but not a major conclusion or event. It seems to simmer along. The characters move towards their goals; they encounter hardships and help. Successes and failures. Yet, a climax never develops. I waited for something more that never really came.

This book perhaps suffers from the comparison drawn for the book. I loved the first Rosie Thomas book I read, The Kashmir Shawl. That book enveloped me in its story and the emotion. Also, it surprised me in that it did not end up where expected. The Illusionists does not elicit the same response. The characters are much less sympathetic, and the story is much darker and slower. Also, this book has a much darker central theme; it is about ambition and how far people will go to accomplish a goal.

This book has been likened to The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, which I loved. For me, this book suffers by the comparison. For one, the imagery of The Night Circus is beautiful and magical; it creates and becomes the illusion of the book. The Illusionists is more about the characters and plot than the imagery. It is about the relationships, the intrigue, and the machinations, not just the illusion. As such, this book ends up with a much more pragmatic "down in the trenches" tone. The magic and the illusion in the book is there, but the book is much more about the mechanics behind the illusion. I guess I would have preferred the illusion.

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

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Frangipani Hotel: Fiction

Title:  The Frangipani Hotel: Fiction
Author:  Violet Kupersmith
Publication Information:  Spiegel & Grau. 2014. 256 pages.
ISBN:  0812993314 / 978-0812993318

Book Source:  I read this title based on the title and based on the fact that it is about Vietnam, a part of the world I have not read much about.

Favorite Quote:  "And there are many, many worlds within this one. Worlds alongside each other, worlds, that overlap each other; you might not even know if you wandered into one that wasn't your own."

Violet Kupersmith brings to life nine tales of her native Vietnam. The stories are ghost stories based on old Vietnamese folk tales and legends. This book reinterprets the stories into a more modern and current world - the one after the Vietnam War and the one incorporating the immigrant experience of the Vietnamese people.

The stories include:
  • A couple who are caught at sea in a storm and who come face to face with a ghost.
  • A young girl who is sent to Vietnam to supposedly visit her grandmother but who encounters and learns from a ghostly banh mi vendor.
  • A ghostly young woman who takes up residence in an unoccupied room at Frangipani Hotel.
  • A ghoul who searches for a body
  • A victim of a murder who seeks closure
Violet Kupersmith is the daughter of Vietnamese refugees and is only in her twenties. This collection of stories is her first book. She began writing this book as a college student and finished it during her time in Vietnam as a Fullbright scholar.

As a cultural study, this book was not what I expected. The only reading I have done related to Vietnam has been related to the Vietnam War. I was hoping to learn more and better understand the culture. That did not happen. In fact, I walked away feeling I needed to better understand the culture and then come back and re-read the book. Perhaps, I would understand them better, and the stories would create more of a reaction.

As ghost stories, the tales of this book are not particularly scary. The writing is very atmospheric, but the stories themselves do not elicit an emotional response from me. Perhaps, that is because I am missing the cultural context; perhaps, it just is. I am not sure. My basic reaction at the story's end was, "And ..... what's next?"

The writing is very atmospheric. In a way, the tone is similar to that of The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman - tales of fantasy and mythology. Yet, these stories do no elicit the same response for me that Neil Gaiman's book did. One key difference, of course, is the short story format. These stories end somewhat abruptly, while Neil Gaiman's book fully delves into and develops a single story. These stories in this book also tell of an event or circumstance happening, while Neil Gaiman's book is an adult's retrospective on a childhood event. That perspective perhaps allows for more reflection than a description of ghostly occurrences.

Regardless, while the stories themselves do not move me, I do appreciate Violet Kupersmith's debut writing and will look for her next work.

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

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Land of Love and Drowning: A Novel

Title:  Land of Love and Drowning: A Novel
Author:  Tiphanie Yanique
Publication Information:  Riverhead Hardcover. 2014. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1594488339 / 978-1594488337

Book Source:  I received this book through a publisher's giveaway free of cost in exchange for an honest review. The book was delivered via NetGalley.

Favorite Quote:  "It does not matter, ultimately, what they heard or even what they knew. It is how they interpret the story that will make all the difference."

I almost gave up on this book at the start. It begins with reference to incest, extra-marital affairs, and self-induced abortions. Disturbing topics. Not ones I really wanted to read more about. However, I persevered, and I am so glad I did.

The themes do recur throughout the book, but the author weaves a beautifully written story of a place, a time, and two young girls with a lot of sadness in their lives. The place is the Virgin Islands. The time is the early 1900s when the Virgin Islands transferred from Dutch control to US control. The two girls are sisters, Eonea and Anette, daughters of sea captain Owen Arthur Bradshaw and his wife Antoinette.

The Virgin Islands were so named by Christopher Columbus in 1493. They were ruled by a variety of empires, with the longest rule by the Danish. The Danish gained control over the islands in the 1750s and retained control until 1917. At that time, the United States purchased the islands under the Treaty of the Danish West Indies. Transfer Day, celebrated as a holiday, was on March 31, 1917.

However, with the transfer came many unexpected side effects that all play a role in this story. Prohibition jeopardized one primary island business - the production and sale of rum. The islands' status as a US territory not a US state limited their rights in the country; even citizenship did not come to the islanders until the 1920s. The vision of the United States as the land of opportunity created a desire of the islanders to come to the mainland; most, however, found the reality not so opportunity filled. The tension of race relations in the United States carried over to the islands and their inhabitants, who had not felt the discrimination before.

Surrounding all these political and economic changes is the culture of the islands themselves. The myths and legends passed down from generation to generation and the spiritual practices of the Obeah beliefs create a blanket of mystery and magic around this ever changing landscape.

Within this historical context is the very complicated Bradshaw family. The family seems to go from challenge to challenge and disaster to disaster. Without revealing too much, let's just say that unplanned pregnancy, death, abandonment, relationships that should never have been, and emotional and economic losses all play a role. At the center of the maelstrom are sisters Eeona and Anette.

Eeona is the older one. She is "so beautiful that many call her pure and they think on the virgin hills. Or they call her pristine and they think of the clear and open ocean. Or they might use terms such as untouched or undefiled, but then they are cautious because they know that their words alone might spoil her." As the older child, she is the one who remembers the life before when the losses start to pile up. She is the one who spends her life trying to find her way back.

Anette is the younger one. The reader meets her before she is born. She is of the islands, speaking and telling her story in that island dialect. She knows very little of what came before. At one point in her life, she thinks, "This was either a major mistake or this was the man of her life. That these two things could be the same thing did not occur to her." This juncture and this relationship becomes a defining force in her life and in the life of those around her and those who come after.

The two girls and the tenor of the book remind me of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Both stories sometimes create the feeling of watching a train wreck. You know it's coming. You know it can't be prevented. You watch it happen, and watch the carnage in the aftermath. Yet, you continue to pull for the main characters and hope that somehow things will work out for them.

The author tells this story using multiple voices including Eeona, Anette, and the "old wives." We never meet the old wives. Yet, they provide commentary on the story throughout and provide some of the Obeah legends. "To be fair, it is all maddening. These myths that conflate and grow into one another ... Even myths must have their rebellions. Even we old wives must have our secrets." These commentaries add to the lyrical nature and the beautiful writing of the book.

The central theme of this book is unpalatable and disturbing. The writing, in contrast, in lyrical and beautiful. Together, they make for a book that kept me engaged from beginning to end.

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

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing: A Novel

Title:  The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing: A Novel
Author:  Mira Jacob
Publication Information:  Random House. 2014. 512 pages.
ISBN:  0812994787 / 978-0812994780

Book Source:  I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Favorite Quote:  "It's easy to look back with rosey-posey glasses when you live on the other side of the earth itself, nah? But those of us that live here, we have to deal with realities, you see. So it's quite different for us."

Thomas and Kamala Eapen are immigrants to the United States. They left India in search of a better life. Their children Amina and Akhil are born and raised in New Mexico. They feel the pull of their parent's desire to hold on to the Indian culture and their desire to fit into the adoptive home. Back in India are the family Thomas and Kamala left behind.

We meet the Eapen family at three crucial junctures in their lives.

First, we meet them in the 1970s as they return to India for a visit. They return to Thomas's childhood  home where his mother continues to live with Thomas's brother and his family. Thomas's mother still hopes that Thomas will one day return "home." The gaps and the tensions between the family are revealed, in particular the idea of those who leave and those who are left. Harsh words are said that can never be remedied. The guilt of those words continues to haunt the Eapens long after.

Then, we meet the Eapens in their Albuquerque home in the 1980s. The children are growing up. Friends have become family. The future looks promising. Yet, tensions exists. These tensions are exacerbated by a huge tragedy, "a grief so profound it can bring people closer to the dying than the living."

In the 1990s, we see Amina, an independent young woman forging her own path in Seattle. We see the pull of her mother as she tries to have Amina come "home" and follow a path that she deems suitable. In this way, the struggle is the same as it was between Thomas and his mother, the pull of "home" and the need of a child to create his or her own destiny. However, a phone call from her mother expressing concern from Thomas's health quickly pulls Amina home. It brings her face to face with the tragedies of the past and how they continue to impact her family in the present.

Then, of course, there is the cryptic title of the book. Sleepwalking medically is a low state of consciousness in which a person performs tasks they would normally perform in a fully conscious state. This story has a character who is a literal sleepwalker. Yet, is this a figurative commentary on the way many people live their lives - going through the motions but not truly present in the moment?

That is pretty much what I found myself doing throughout this book. For some reason, the book did not pull me into its world. I really thought it would. As a first generation immigrant, I expected to relate to the emotions and situations. I did enjoy reading about the immigrant experience described in the book. However, that aspect ended up being a relatively small component of the story.

I am not entirely sure why I did not become immersed in the book. My reaction is that it was simply too much. From Thomas' memories to Kamala's wishes for Amina. From Amina's secret photographs to her photograph that gains her notoriety. From accidents to illnesses. From family to friends. From the past to the present. For me, it is all too much - too much going on in the over 500 pages of this story to fully appreciate any one aspect of the story. I feel pulled in too many different directions without being able to fully explore any of them.

An intriguing reading experience, but for me, ultimately not a completely satisfying one.

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