Sunday, May 31, 2015

A Place for Us

Title:  A Place for Us
Author:  Harriet Evans
Publication Information:  Gallery Books. 2015. 448 pages.
ISBN:  147678678X / 978-1476786780

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 day Martha Winter decided to tear apart her family began like any other day."

Favorite Quote:  "A life without each other was too far away to think about; they had conquered everything when they were young, and so they were careless about the future. It held no fear for them."

The place for the Winter family is Winterfold, their home in Somerset. It is the beloved home of Martha and David Winters and the place where they raised their family. They found the place when they "had nothing much, except each other." Now, forty five years later, they still live there, and Martha "had forgotten nothing, nothing that had happened, before or afterward. The secrets every family acquires, some small - little indiscretions, tiny jokes. Some big, too big for her to bear anymore."

The beautiful watercolor-like cover of the book and this strong beginning draws me into the book, ready for a multi-generational family saga with all the messiness that life brings.

More than a saga, however, A Place for Us is a slow paced portrait of a family. It starts as the matriarch Martha Winter is turning eighty. It travels to the past before the family was a family and before even Martha and David were a couple. The surface is a picture of a beautiful family home and a marriage that has lasted decades. Beneath the surface are the secrets and the choices that show how tenuous a seemingly solid surface can be.

The book changes voices chapter to chapter. Just browsing through the table of contents reveals the following names: David, Karen, Florence, Joe, Cat, Lucy, Daisy, and Martha. The points of view reflect not only the immediate Winters family - David, Martha and their children - but also spouses and grandchildren. Each of their chapters move the main story forward but also include flashbacks to earlier times such as World War II and also address the myriad of issues facing each character aside from their role in this family. Not one seems to be leading a calm, ordinary life; some of the could be an entire book on their own.

The book also skips through multiple time periods and not in a chronological fashion. Flipping through the chapters, the time periods in some of the chapter headings are August 2012, March 1969, August 1973, November 2012, January 1983, August 2008, June 1968, March 2013, June 1947, May 2013, July 2013, August 2013, and August 1948.

This structure is especially challenging at the beginning. The first set of chapters introduce the members of the Winter family and those who surround them. The opening sentence declares that secrets are to come but gives no indication as to what that secret might be. The initial chapters are full of details of people and places - beautifully depicted details but a lot of them. I find myself trying to remember it all in case it is important later in the book. I find myself a little frustrated because I can't. No sense of importance is given to certain people or details to draw the reader's attention. As such, it becomes difficult to get absorbed in the story or develop an affinity for any one character or voice. Without that interest in at least one of the characters, the book becomes difficult to engage in as it moves forward.

This book is not bad; it's just too much of a good thing and would benefit from the idea that sometimes less is more.

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

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Simple Act of Reading

Title:  The Simple Act of Reading
Author:  Debra Adelaide, editor
Publication Information:  Random House Australia. 2015. 288 pages.
ISBN:  0857986244 / 978-0857986245

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 could not image a more perfect book than this:  a collection of essays by writers I admire about the one thing that has preoccupied me my entire life."

Favorite Quote:  "Imagination and memory are the same, seeing what you cannot actually see. Some might say that the memories we have of particular novels and the deep feelings for characters in them are as false as any dream memory or imaginary friend, but as I get older, I'm finding with my own memories and children, memory itself is a kind of secret fiction, always changing:  the stories we tell ourselves - and our children - as fictional as the stories our parents ever told us." ("In Your Dreams" by Sunil Badami)

A book about reading by writers - What a wonderful combination! The Simple Act of Reading is a collection of essays and memoir pieces by Australian authors on the subject of their love of reading and on particular books and/or authors that have had a significant impact on their lives. The directions to the authors were simple:  "Write about any aspect of the reading life that is meaningful to you, and will be to those interested in what makes writers tick."

Many pieces focus on childhood reading experiences. Some speak about specific works that impact their lives. Others write on the process of reading, for example, collaborative reading and ebooks.

Some pieces in the book are reprints of previously published articles; some are new works written specifically for this book. As is the case in compilations and anthologies, reactions to the different essays differ. Some are just interesting to read, and some touch the heart. Some are more essay, and some are deeply personal memoir pieces. Because of the essay format, the book does not have to be read cover to cover or in its entirety. In fact, I would suggest reading it one essay at a time so as to focus on the ideas in each one. Pick it up, read an essay, and put it aside. Go back to it and read another. This is definitely a book to be enjoyed over time.

In a book about books, I often find myself making a list of other books to read. This book introduces me to a set of Australian authors whose work I have not read. Through the essays they individually present, I get a sense of their writing. In addition, the books mentioned in each essay form another complete reading list. Some of the referenced works I have read; some I have not. Many references such as Enid Blyton bring back fond childhood memories, reminding me to revisit them as an adult.

What I really appreciate is that I do not have to make my lists at all. The table of contents provides the list of authors who have contributed to the book; an appendix provides short biographies. An appendix to the book includes all the books referenced, making it easy to compile a reading list.

A unique feature of this book is that all proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to the Sydney Story Factory. The Sydney Story Factory is a nonprofit writing center to support the young people in Sydney. Their motto reads, "Igniting the spark of creativity in every child, one story at a time." Programs are open to everyone, but the center particularly hopes to support non-English speaking and indigenous youth as well as other marginalized populations. The program receives support from writers, readers, the publishing industry, and other business supporters. It is based on the model of a program in San Francisco.

To quote one of the essays, "This is the almost religious, meditative transcendence of the simple act of reading:  that in losing ourselves in the lives of others, we can find ourselves, enabling us to see the world and those around us refracted in a new light - in our  own reflections." What does "the simple art of reading" bring to your life? I know mine is richer for it and richer for having read this book.

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

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Bookseller

Title:  The Bookseller
Author:  Cynthia Swanson
Publication Information:  Harper. 2015. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0062333003 / 978-0062333001

Book Source:  I read this book as this month's selection for my local book club.

Opening Sentence:  "This is not my bedroom."

Favorite Quote:  "What I've learned, what we've both learned over the years, is that nothing is as permanent as it appears at the start. "

Kitty Miller is the bookseller. Kathryn Andersson was once the bookseller. Kitty Miller runs Sisters' bookstore. She is single but surrounded by the love of her parents and her best friend and business partner Freida. Kathryn Andersson is married to Lars, the love of her life and mother to triplets. She is a stay at home parent, having given up her professional ventures for her home and family.

Kitty Miller and Kathryn Andersson are the same person. Same basic time period. Different lives. Kitty believes that Kathryn and Kathryn's life is a figment of her dreams. Dreams? Hallucinations? Secret life? Alternate life paths? That is the question.

Underneath the surface, troubles besiege both Kitty and Kathryn. Kitty's bookstore is in dire financial straits. In Kathryn's life, her long term friend Frieda seems not to be part of her life anymore. All is not well with the triplets either.

The book has an interesting premise; it's been done before, but, well done, it makes for a good read. This is also a very quick and easy beach read. Certain aspects, however, keep it from being an engrossing, memorable read.

First and foremost are Kathryn and Lars. Kathryn's choices and attitudes are often not likable, and Lars is a little too perfect. He is the perfect, understanding husband and father. He is understanding when Kathryn seems not to know who he is. He is understanding of her needs and emotions. He is even understanding of her attitude towards the triplets. He is annoyingly a little too perfect. His character reads like someone's dream, but is he real?

Second, the cover and the title suggest a much greater involvement of books. Unfortunately, books play a very small role in this story. Yes, Kitty run a small independent bookstore, struggling with a changing economy. That's about where the role of books stop. Kitty's story could easily be told with the use of an entirely different small business. The "books" part of this bookseller is unfortunately lacking.

Third, the setting of this book is the early 1960s. This time period is necessary for some of the perspectives and attitudes presented in the book. However, the book tries to hard to ensure that the reader understands that the setting is clearly the 1960s. Descriptions of the time - the actual dates, what women wore, color schemes, music, popular attitudes - are clearly and overtly stated. The references recur throughout the book. They stand out - "this is the sixties" - rather than forming a seamless background for the story.

Finally, this book touches upon some serious issues, but very lightly and sometimes unnecessarily. Many such as Kitty and Frieda's relationship, Kathryn's relationship with her son, the role of the Andersson's housekeepers come up in the book but are not fully explored. Ultimately, the book is about a woman looking for her best life. The key thing I take away from this book are the ideas that no life is perfect and that the direction of our lives can change in an instant - sometimes by choice and sometimes by chance.

Book Club Note:  This book led to a lively discussion as we had differing thoughts on the book. Our discussion always starts with a found list of questions and proceeds in varying directions. For this book, the conversation centered on two major themes. First, what is real and what is an illusion in this story? The book presents a resolution, but our group came up with several other possible theories. A fun speculation. Second, our discussion turned into a conversation about dreams in general and our respective experiences with the power of dreams. A successful book club pick for the discussion it led to.

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

Monday, May 25, 2015

Kitchens of the Great Midwest

Title:  Kitchens of the Great Midwest
Author:  J. Ryan Stradal
Publication Information:  Pamela Dorman Books. 2015. 320 pages.
ISBN:  052542914X / 978-0525429142

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

Opening Sentence:  "Lars Thorvald loved two women."

Favorite Quote:  "Still, fear is a choice, she reminded herself, and why choose it?"

Eva Thorvald is now a world famous chef; her table is one of the most coveted dining reservations around. With a price tag of $5,000 per person and a waiting list years long, being part of The Dinner by Eva is a life event.

But who is Eva? What life journey has brought her to this point?

It all begins with her father Lars, a young chef himself. The book description tells us that Lars raises Eva as a single father and starts her love of food. This book is completely not what I expected based on its description.

Each chapter tells the story of one step in Eva's culinary journey, with recipes included here and there. What is unexpected is that the chapters are truly vignettes of a time and a place, and they are written from the perspective of a different character. In fact, some of the chapters include only a cameo appearance by Eva. Thus, all we learn about Eva is through the eyes of others. Her father Lars. Her cousin Randy, the black sheep of his family. A rival Octavia. A home baker entering a contest in which Eva is a judge. The brother of Eva's boyfriend. Some of the characters are as memorable as Eva herself. Many of the chapters come to an abrupt ending, but, in this book, it works. Just keep track of the main characters in each chapter for you never know when they might reappear in the story.

The individual chapters are in turn hilarious and heartbreaking. The two saddest moments are Lars' despair when his wife Cynthia abandons him and baby Eva; and the matter of fact revelation that Eva knows the truth of her past. Although the book never reveals Eva's thoughts and emotions about her situation, they are easily imagined.

The funniest moment in the book is the discussion between Lars and the pediatrician about the appropriate diet for an infant. Lars wants to introduce his daughter to the flavors of the world, from pork shoulder to carrot cake. The pediatrician suggests breast milk and formula only for the first few months. Lars' reaction, "That's awful."

A close second is the chapter when a home maker enters her prize winning peanut butter bars into a much larger competition. This brings her into a world of ingredient lists and discussion of whether her dish is vegan, organic, gluten-free, GMO-free, locally sourced, and other such foodie topics. She wonders how people can call their concoctions food, and others wonder how she refuses to be mindful of people dietary restrictions. It's as if the two types of cooks speak a different language. A classic statement is her response to the question if her ingredients are locally sourced. "Yeah ... they're from the store about a mile from my house."

My thought at the beginning of the book ... Detailed descriptions of lutefisk and its aroma ... I am not so sure about this book. My reaction at the end ... It's over? ... But wait, what happens next? I want to know more. A fun book for foodies and non-foodies alike.

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

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley

Title:  The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley
Author:  Susan Ornbratt
Publication Information:  Light Messages Publishing LLC. 2015. 340 pages.
ISBN:  161153111X / 978-1611531114

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

Opening Sentence:  "I have a magnificent obsession."

Favorite Quote:  "Promise me, Gilly that you'll never lose your zest for life? It's the one precious thing we have. Without it, we may as well not live at all."

The cover of The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley tells us it is a love story. The first chapter tells us how the love story ends. Gillian Pugsley is dying. Her granddaughter and namesake is her joy in life. She gives her granddaughter a set of poems and reveals to her that though she loved her husband, he was not the love of her life. There was another. "My first love and in some ways a love that cannot be measured by time, a love that has never grown old." Furthermore, she directs her granddaughter, "Our story - my story - is in these poems. I love the rest to your imagination."

So, in the first chapter, we know Gillian had a first, true love. She lived a good life, but not with that true love. The remainder of the book gets at the reason why. Unfortunately, when the revelation does come, it is somewhat anti-climatic.

The story flashes back and forth across three time periods. In the present time, Gillian is at the end of her days and finally sharing her story with her granddaughter. In the 1930s, an eighteen year old Gillian leaves her Ireland home and travels to Canada, where she meets Christian. They fall unequivocally in love, but something causes Gillian to leave without telling him why. In 1946, Christian comes to Ireland looking for his "Gilly," hoping to find his true love and hoping for answers.

The nonlinear structure of the book means it jumps between the time periods chapter to chapter and sometimes within the same chapter. It becomes difficult to invest in the characters. The structure seems to keep the story at a surface level, and not delve deeper into the characters. For example, the book describes the event that causes Gillian to leave Canada. The character involved is barely introduced. The event is described in a couple of pages and ends with "Tears streamed down Gillian's face as she ran and swore she'd never return." Nothing further. The book does not reveal the immediate ramifications for either Christian or Gillian.

When Christian comes looking for her over a decade later, it is clear that he knows what happened. Yet, the book does not delve into why it took a decade for him to come looking. Warranted, their lives are interrupted by World War II, but that time period is just a mention in the book. Christian suffers a major injury in the war, but that too is not explored.

The ending of the book - the fact that Gillian and Christian do not spend their lives together - also comes about quite abruptly. It does not flow from the story that comes before but rather is something random that sadly happens in life. It seems a punctuation mark to end the story rather than a natural conclusion.

The book describes the events of this love story, but somehow, the emotions and depth seem lacking. Unfortunately, the story just never quite comes together for me.

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

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

Title:  The Watchmaker of Filigree Street
Author:  Natasha Pulley
Publication Information:  Bloomsbury Publishing PLC. 2015. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1620408333 / 978-1620408339

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 home office telegraphy department always smelled of tea."

Favorite Quote:  "Your science can save a man's life, but imagination makes it worth living."

Nathaniel "Thaniel" Steepleton works as a telegraph clerk in the Home Office in 1800s London. He lives alone and in dire financial circumstances. One day, he finds a beautiful watch in his apartment. Months later, that watch saves him from a bomb blast - one of many bombings of key London sites. Wondering why he was saved and who left the watch, he seeks out the only clue he has - the name of the maker - K. Mori. The Home Office tasks him to investigate Mori to determine if he is involved in the bombings.

Keito Mori is a Japanese watchmaker, incredibly skilled at his work. He and Thaniel forge a friendship, which alters the course of Thaniel's life - where he lives, what he does, and the other relationships in his life.

For me, this book has an a-ha moment towards the middle when I begin to see what the book is really about. It takes a while because the true main character of the book - the watchmaker Keita Mori - really works in the shadows. The book develops his character through his relationships - with Thaniel, Grace, Ito, and others. We hear very little from the watchmaker himself. This definitely adds to the intrigue surrounding the character and the story. The book sets up to be about the mystery of the bombings and about Thaniel; more truly, it is about the watchmaker and the friendship between these two very different men. Let's just say the watchmaker influences those around him through more than just his watches.

This book has many elements associated with steampunk literature. The urban dictionary defines steampunk as "a subgenre of speculative fiction, usually set in an anachronistic Victorian or quasi-Victorian alternate history setting. It could be described by the slogan 'What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner.'" That slogan is very descriptive of this book.

The historical setting and mix of the book is as interesting as the story itself. The setting is the 1800s- London and Japan. London is growing by leaps and bounds, becoming a destination for immigrants from all over. The immigrants divide over holding on to old traditions and adopting their new homeland. Irish organizations are bombing sites in London to make a political point. Japan is the world of the samurai, emperors, and traditions.

The story, however, has a modern and somewhat futuristic feel. The intricate science of clockworks and its use in what are essentially terrorist attacks plays a key role in the book. Thaniel's job, although using telegraph, is about a complex integrated communication system that can be shattered by one attack. Grace has access to laboratory facilities at the university to pursue new research as a physicist. Katsu, the automaton octopus, becomes a character in the book, described with a complex personality and thoughts even though neither exist.

An intriguing mix of old and new, this book tells a very visual tale. I am left with images of dark, foggy streets and alleyways and characters shrouded in mystery. This is the debut novel by Natasha Pulley; I look forward to reading more.

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

Monday, May 18, 2015

An Unnecessary Woman

Title:  An Unnecessary Woman
Author:  Rabih Alameddine
Publication Information:  Grove Press. 2014. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0802122140 / 978-0802122148

Book Source:  I read this book based on the cover, title, and the description of how the main character feels about books.

Opening Sentence:  "You could say I was thinking of other things when I shampooed my hair blue, and two glasses of red wine didn't help my concentration."

Favorite Quote:  "I long ago abandoned myself to a blind lust for the written word. Literature is my sandbox. In it I play, build my forts and castles, spend glorious time. It is the world outside that box that gives me trouble. I have adapted tamely, though not conventionally, to this visible world so I can retreat without much inconvenience into my inner world of books. Transmuting this sandy metaphor, if literature is my sandbox, then the real world is my hourglass - an hourglass that drains grain by grain. Literature gives me life, and life kills me."

Aaliya. 72 years old. Blue-haired. No longer married. Former bookseller. Well read. Shut-in. Well informed. Alone. Leading "the singular life of an obsessive introvert" according to Mr. Alameddine's website.

This book is absolutely and completely a character study. It essentially has very little plot. It spans a time of only a few days. Yet, the book manages to cover decades of history, both of Aaliya's life and of her beloved home. "Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities:  insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, again, and forever drama laden. She'll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is."

Much of the book is an internal dialogue. Aaliya invokes a life time of reading in a running commentary on the her life. Her memories - walking away her marriage, being divorced in a time and place with that is still unusual, living alone, stepping back from family expectations - form the background. Literary works ranging from Gabriel Garcia Marquez and William Burroughs to Leo Tolstoy and WG Sebald provide the commentary. Together, the two create a mosaic of a life.

Aaliya has spent the majority of her adult life living in the same apartment in Beirut. She has seen the city go through war, peace, and everything in between. Aaliya is alone - no husband and no children. She does have family; however, they don't understand her life choices and seem more concerned about her apartment than about her. She has neighbors, but she has always held herself apart. Deemed eccentric and outlandish, she leads her own life - a life that may now be in crisis.

At one time, she worked in a bookstore and read. Oh my, did she read! Now, she no longer works, but she still reads. Over the years, she has also taken one literary work a year and translated it into her beloved Arabic. That is her life's work, her legacy. However, no one has ever seen the work. Upon completion, she lovingly packs up her work and stores it. She has done this for 37 works of literature  - almost four decades of work, longer for some works took longer than a year. All in her apartment, and all only for her to see.

Here is an incredibly complex woman in a city with a complicated, often volatile history. The book is a history of her life through her eyes and a growing concern as she ages and as a crisis threatens what she holds most dear.

This book is quite the challenge to read for many reasons. First, it has very little plot and essentially one primary character. Second, the narrative form of an internal dialogue gives a fragmented quality to the text. A reader has to take a step back to see the image being formed. Third, Aaliya lives a life of books and her musings contain numerous references to works of literature and philosophy - many that I haven't read. The ones I know, of course, are easy. However, others lead to two different reactions. I find myself looking up the reference or just letting some go without a complete understanding. This book is definitely one for bibliophiles.

Regardless of the challenges, however, something in this book - something about Aaliya - speaks to me. She is perhaps one of the most memorable characters I have read recently. The statements about life in this book speak to me:
  • "Most of us believe we are who we are because of the decisions we've made, because of events that shaped us, because of the choices of those around us. We rarely consider that we're also formed by the decisions we didn't make, by events that could have happened but didn't, or by our lack of choices, for that matter."
  • "We needed an explanation because we couldn't deal with the fact that it could have been any one of us. Assuming causation ... lets us believe that it can't happen to us because we wouldn't do such a thing. We are different. They are the other."
  • "No loss is felt more keenly than the loss of what might have been. No nostalgia hurts as much as nostalgia for things that never existed."
A very challenging read, but a memorable character and an eloquent book.

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

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Dept. of Speculation

Title:  Dept. of Speculation
Author:  Jenny Offill
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2014. 192 pages.
ISBN:  0385350813 / 978-0385350815

Book Source:  I found this book browsing in the local library.

Opening Sentence:  "Antelopes have 10x vision, you said."

Favorite Quote:  "Every marriage is jerry-rigged. Even the ones that look reasonable from the outside are held together inside with chewing gum and wire and string."

"They used to send each other letters. The return address was always the same:  Dept. of Speculation. All of the letters are still in their house; he has a box of them on his desk, as does she." Such is the explanation for the title of this book. The "they" is a husband and wife; this book is the story of their marriage. It's really more of a long short story or a really short novel. The narrator is "the wife;" no other name is given.

At the beginning of the relationship, the speculations are all positive. You are young and in love. Anything seems possible. Things seems even more possible when you are together. As life passes, it brings ups and downs - both in individual experiences and in a relationship. Jobs, a home, children, dreams of other things, the what-ifs....And what happens if you act on some of the what-ifs.

This is a very difficult book to describe because in some ways it is about nothing, and yet it is about everything. It's about real life, being married, and growing older. It provides no answers but poses questions many of us ponder. What is necessary for a marriage to survive? What would be our breaking point - the actions from which our trust in a partner could not survive? How does that change as we grow and age? "It seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be."

The writing style of the book is surprising as well. This book definitely feels like the intent is for it to be different. It tries hard to be different, and sometimes, that intent gets in the way of the story. However, for the most part, the books successfully conveys its message and creates characters that you care about. The fragmented style of the book provides glimpses that, taken together, form a life. Much like our own memories. The big moments leave lasting impressions, but the small, ordinary moments of life are the glue that hold it together.

The book has no names for any of the characters. At first, it's a challenge, but then the book settles into a lyrical rhythm. The narrator, aka the wife, includes with her story quotes, facts, and philosophy that add insights into this marriage. Perhaps, the lack of names reinforces the universality of experience. Even with the distance created by the lack of names, I find myself vested in the character and hoping for a happy outcome.

Mind you, I don't always agree with the wife's outlook or her choices. At times, I sympathize. At times, I want to tell her to grow up. At times, I shake my head and just wonder. However, the fact that I do so for a fictional character whose name I don't even know is a testament to the author's writing. The best thing I can say about this book is that it feels real.

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

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Canterbury Sisters

Title:  The Canterbury Sisters
Author:  Kim Wright
Publication Information:  Gallery Books. 2015. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1501100769 / 978-1501100765

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

Opening Sentence:  "You know hat old Chinese curse that goes 'May you live in interesting times'?"

Favorite Quote:  "I haven't had time to add nuance to my fiction ... I'm sure I will be able to brushstroke all this in later, for it is what we humans do. We lie. Especially to ourselves. An event doesn't even have to be over before we begin telling ourselves stories about it. Softening the edges, eliminating unnecessary characters and minor details, trimming our own unwieldy interior responses into something tidy and acceptable. And thus our personal myths are born. We know what should have happened, so we convince ourselves that it must have happened, just that way."

Everyone has a story. Everyone. Sometimes what is needed is someone to listen. Sometimes what is needed is the process of telling our story so that we can rediscover it for ourselves. Telling our stories can bring us to our own reality.

Che Milan, only daughter of her hippie parents, has just lost her mother. Her long-term relationship is at an end. She is at a cross-roads and, on a whim, decides to honor her mother's last wishes by bringing her ashes to Canterbury. However, just traveling to Canterbury is not enough; she decides walking the sixty mile pilgrim trail is the true way to fulfill her mother's wishes.

She joins a Broads Abroad tour, with a guide and other American women making the same pilgrimage. In the tradition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the guide Tess suggests that each woman tell a story as they walk. "Chaucer's pilgrims ... challenged each other to see who could best articulate the nature of true love." So, the premise for the book is set. Whether real or not, each woman's story is theirs, and each has a message for the reader.

Each woman in on this trip for her own reasons - seeking forgiveness, healing, closure. The reasons are as diverse as the women themselves. On the surface, Che is there for her mother's dying wish, but is her journey really about her mother? Jean is there with her daughter Becca; the tension between them is apparent. Claire and Silvia are best friends, but even best friends sometimes don't know everything. Angelique is a public personality, but who is the person behind the persona? Steffi is their fitness monitor, but why? Valerie is the odd one, but what secret is she holding?

The women's stories touch on relationships, secrets, marriage, life, philosophy, and more, leaving a lot to reflect upon:

  • "What holds it [marriage] together? Doesn't every couple get to a point ... and you realize it would be even more trouble to turn back than it is to go forward?"
  • "No woman sees her own myth."
  • "A man who must keep his true identity hidden is the basis of so many of the superhero myths."
  • "Religion ... is nothing more than the study of other people's experiences with God. But true spirituality is the opportunity to have your own experience with God."
  • "In order to have the miracle of transformation, something must be loved before it is really lovable."

The book centers on Che, but hers is the least told story. We learn about her mother and their challenging relationship. We learn about her ex Ned. However, we learn very little about Che herself. The other women seems to develop into fuller characters through the telling of their story and through the commentary on their story. These stories and this trip seems to be what Che needs, but the books leaves you wondering what came before and what comes after for her.

The cover and title of this book are somewhat deceptive. These elements suggest a "fluff" book, a simple beach read. The content brings an unexpected depth. The book is still quick and easy to read, perfect for the beach, but leaves you with things to ponder. At the end of the day, this book speaks to the need we all have to be heard. Maybe, in some of these women, you will see a piece of your own story.

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

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Shore

Title:  The Shore
Author:  Sara Taylor
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2015. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0553417738 / 978-0553417739

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

Opening Sentence:  "When news of the murder breaks, I'm in Matthew's, buying chicken necks so my little sister Renee and I can go crabbing."

Favorite Quote:  "We have to give people what they need, not what they think they need."

Rape. Child abuse. Domestic violence. Murder. Cover ups. Drugs. Plagues. These are just some of the horrors contained in this book. This book is a series of interconnected stories from the 1800s all the way to the year 2143 all set on the "shore", a group of islands off Virginia's coast. The stories center on women and girls and often involve violence against women.

The review copy I received has a place holder for a family tree. Unfortunately, the family tree that will be in the final book is not in the uncorrected proof. I understand the premise that the characters in all stories are linked as a family. Without the family tree, the two things that are common between all the stories is the setting of "the shore" and the violence. The connections between the characters are not clear in the text and become too cumbersome to keep track of. Thus, the reading of the book becomes more of a set of short stories rather than a linked, cohesive novel. In that format, it becomes difficult to get attached to or cheer for any given character. That connection might keep the violent nature of the book in context instead of it becoming the main theme. Without that character connection, the acts of violence become the center of the book.

Based on the title and cover, the "shore" itself is a connection between and an integral part of all these stories. Virginia's eastern shore has a set of barrier islands. People have long attempted to settled the islands, only to be driven back by the ocean and the weather. Today, most are uninhabited, with some offering tourist access to beaches and environmental preserves. Beaches, marshes, and dunes form the landscape of these islands and of this story. Unfortunately, instead of being able to appreciate the natural beauty, I am left with a sense of its isolation. The visions of the horrific acts described in the book loom so large that the land itself and its wild beauty is overshadowed. The book could have been set anywhere; the "shore" becomes incidental to the content of the stories.

The back copy of the book compares this work to that of David Mitchell. For a fan of David Mitchell, that comparison sets the bar pretty high. Yes, like David Mitchell's work, this book travels across a vast passage of time, telling a story from each time period with different characters. What I love about David Mitchell's work is his ability to change his writing style from section to section. Each section is like reading a completely different book - the voice, the language, the writing style, the descriptions. Even when I am not sure I like the story, his ability to weave a tale and incorporate a world of philosophy into that story draw me in.

This book unfortunately does not garner the same reaction. Although the characters and times of the story change, the voice seems consistent throughout, making it feel like the same same story in repetition. Also, I am sure the book has some overarching themes and statements; unfortunately, I did not get to that point in my understanding of the book even by its end. This was really not the book for me.

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

Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Letter to My Mom

Title:  A Letter to My Mom
Author:  Lisa Erspamer, Editor
Publication Information:  Crown Archetype. 2015. 160 pages.
ISBN:  0804139679 / 978-0804139670

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

Opening Sentence:  "A Letter to My Mom is the third book in our letter series to date."

Favorite Quote:  "A good parent curates reality for their children. They gather up all of the good stuff - all of the knowledge, opportunity, existential wonderfulness, and more - and they say, 'Here's what the world has to offer - go enjoy it!'" [letter by Tom Burns]

Lisa Erspamer is the president of a multimedia production company and, previously, the chief creative officer of the Oprah Winfrey Network. This book is the third in the "letter to..." series. The first two were A Letter to My Dog and A Letter to My Cat. This book calls on a wide range of contributors to share their connections with their mothers with all the complexities that a mother-child relationship can hold.

Because I see this as a gift book, I would definitely recommend a print version over an e-book version. Visually, the printed book is appealing. The book is about 6" by 8", a comfortable size to hold. The paper is thick and very smooth to the feel. The pages alternate between a set of soft, pastel colors. The book uses font size and color as well as text boxes to set off key quotes from each letter. The photographs of each mother child pair included in the book make the book seem much more personal and nostalgic.

Sweetly, the first page is lined space title "A Letter to the Mom" allowing a purchaser to write in their own letter, again indicating its use as a gift. I love finding inscriptions and messages in old books. Is it possible to incorporate such a feature into an e-book?  I am not sure it can. So, stick with the printed version.

Structurally, the book has pros and cons. The book does not have a table of contents, but at the back is an alphabetized list of the contributors; the section reminds me of a yearbook, with photos and bios. Placing the author biographies with the individual letters would have been helpful, especially for the people I don't know. The biographies help convey the context of the letter, and I find myself flipping back and forth.

The book pulls contributors from a wide range of ages and contexts:
  • Two year old Stephanie writes with her five and eight year old siblings.
  • Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, writes of lessons learned when her mother left her when Sarah was only thirteen.
  • Lisa Goldman, diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, writes of the thought of her children growing up without their mother and of her mother's supportive way of dealing with her incurable diagnosis. 
  • Monica Lewinsky who opens her letter with acknowledgement of her mother's supporting during the Starr investigations.
  • Dr. Phil McGraw who remembers the little things that add up to a lifetime of love.
  • Melissa Rivers with a humorous take on the time her mother Joan Rivers lived with her and her son Cooper. (Interestingly, this letter does not include any reference to the fact that Joan Rivers passed aways between the time this letter was written and the time the book was published.)
The content of each letter is as varied as the contributors themselves. The first letter is from the editor to her own mother. As you would expect, most of the letters are of praise and love. However, not all. I appreciate that reality. Mothers and children have very complex relationships, and I am glad that including the variety of letters acknowledges that.

A lovely little gift just in time for Mother's Day.

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

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold us Well-Being

Title:  The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold us Well-Being
Author:  William Davies
Publication Information:  Verso. 2015. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1781688451 / 978-1781688458

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

Opening Sentence:  "Jeremy Bentham was sitting in Harper's Coffee Shop in Holborn, London, when he shouted, 'Eureka!'"

Favorite Quote:  "These were and remain the options:  money or the body. Economics or physiology. Payment or diagnosis. If politics were to become scientific from abstract nonsense, it is through economics, physiology or some combination of the two that the project would be realized."

The subtitle of the book - How the Government and Big Business Sold us Well-Being - indicates the author's stand on this topic. The author's note describes the style of this book as "polemical,' which implies a contentious or controversial argument. The evidence presented supports the thesis that the industry has been created and led to unforeseen results as we see depression and anxiety related disorders on the rise despite the increased focus on supposed happiness.

The book begins and focuses considerably on the work of Jeremy Bentham and the theory of utilitarianism. "This is the theory stating that the right action is whichever one produces the maximum happiness for the population overall." Tied into this is the concept of monism, which states "that all pleasures and pains can be located on a single scale." The trick is, how does one define and measure happiness? What is the scale that can capture it? The happiness industry has attempted this, to a varied degree of failure.

The dictionary defines happiness as "the state of being happy" - not a very descriptive definition. The word "happy" has many different definitions including:
  • feeling or showing pleasure or contentment
  • having a sense of confidence in or satisfaction with (a person, arrangement, or situation)
  • satisfied with the quality or standard of
  • willing to do something
  • fortunate and convenient
The happiness industry seems focused on that first definition - inner feelings and the concept of contentment. Many books such as Hacking Happiness: Why Your Personal Data Counts and How Tracking it Can Change the World speak about the concept of a happiness economy in which economic satisfaction is not based strictly on income or profit but on other measures of satisfaction. The conundrum remains. What defines happiness? What measure captures it? Can that measure be universally applied? The happiness industry seems to think so.

This book takes a historical look at how this came about. It sites research and anecdotal evidence of the increasing focus on subjective measures of well being in organizations and even economies as a whole. It includes a look at psychology, neuroscience, management and economics and the role they play in measuring happiness and in turn how metrics of happiness are used as tools in these arenas. The evidence presented ranges from scientific studies to the fact that the latest smart phones have gadgets to measure physical activity and reactions and the ability to manage money and pay for goods and services - focusing once again on physiology and economics as potential measures of well being.

This book is considerably more academic than either the cover or the description would indicate. As such, it is at times dry reading. I learned a lot, but I am unclear on what the author's call to action is, or if this books is even a call to action. As a historical perspective, this book is a great compilation for those interested in the topic. The research and project descriptions are interesting, but I feel that I am missing a prescription. If the happiness industry paradigm is being "sold" to the world and not leading to results, what is the alternative?

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

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Gracekeepers

Title:  The Gracekeepers
Author:  Kirsty Logan
Publication Information:  Crown. 2015. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0553446614 / 978-0553446616

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

Opening Sentence:  "The first Callanish knew of the Circus Excalibur was the striped silk of their sails against the grey sky."

Favorite Quote:  "Is it really a choice when we have no other option?"

The Gracekeepers tells the tale of a world covered mostly with water, and clearly divided between the "landlockers" and the "damplings." The "landlockers" hold fast to their real and reclaimed land and hold a clear distrust of the "damplings." The "damplings" make their home upon the water and find land to be disturbing and dirty.

The Excalibur is a boat - surrounded by other smaller boats. Together, they are a traveling circus. Members of this circus include Red Gold and his pregnant wife Avalon, Red Gold's son Ainsel, the orphan girl North and her performing bear, and several others. Callanish is the only main character not associated with the circus. She is a gracekeeper - someone living alone on a tiny slip of land responsible for conducting dampling burials at sea. The graces are tiny birds that are part of this ritual- why or how is never really explained.

The Penguin Random House website describes this as a book "for readers of The Night Circus and Station Eleven, a lyrical and absorbing debut set in a world covered by water." Having read and loved both books, I was excited to read this one. The book jacket states that it is inspired by Scottish myths and fairy tales; I loved The Snow Child which is based on a Russian fairy tale. I started this book, fully expecting to love it.

This book is beautifully visual. I find myself in the middle of the vast ocean on a seemingly tiny ship, with the feel of the cold water and the taste of the salt. Interestingly, this picture is not even the reality of the book. The Excalibur circus numbered thirteen members and an assortment of animals, including horses and a bear. The sail is large enough to be a big top. Even knowing this, I am left with the image of a small, worn out, and battered enclave on the wide open, desolate seas.

The book jacket states that it is inspired by Scottish myths and fairy tales. The story fully incorporates the fairy tale elements. Avalon is clearly the wicked stepmother; she is even introduced in the book in a scene where she is eating an apple. Red Gold, the circus master, is in the role of the father and king. Ainsel has the looks of Prince Charming. North is the orphaned child, hoping to find a way out. Callanish is perhaps the princess imprisoned far off from society or perhaps the misunderstood witch.

The story is so much more complex than a fairy tale. A key theme seems to be that not all is as it appears. Red Gold's plans hide a guilt. Ainsel and North do not want to live together happily ever after. Callanish has secrets in her past that lead to her lonely life; she is forever hiding her true self from the world. Performers hide their identity and relationships. Other performers make themselves appear male or female depending on how you look at them. The sail of the Excalibur is also the circus big top. A mysterious and hidden pregnancy exists.

Everything and everyone has layers and hidden meanings. Unfortunately, somewhere, the bigger picture of the story gets lost in the details of its layers. I find myself unable to really associate with or develop an affinity for any of the characters. Overall, I find a sense of sadness but not a compelling reaction to any one character - a lot seems left unexplored in the story.

I leave with a lingering picture of the environment - the water, the cold, the smallness of the land and the boat - more so than the characters or the story.

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

Sunday, May 3, 2015

A Bone to Pick

Title:  A Bone to Pick: The Good and Bad News About Food, Along with Wisdom and Advice on Diets, Food Safety, GMOs, Farming, and More from the Bestselling New York Times Opinion Write
Author:  Mark Bittman
Publication Information:  Pam Krauss Books. 2015. 272 pages.
ISBN:  0804186545 / 978-0804186544

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

Opening Sentence:  "America's food system is broken."

Favorite Quote:  "'How do we change the food system?' is a question that cannot be directly answered. ... But 'How do I change my relationship to food' is a question you can answer yourself, now, in a continuing manner."

Mark Bittman is a food expert - an expert on preparing and cooking food and an expert on the "business" of food. He is a long time food columnist for the New York Times. He is, in fact, the only opinion column writer who focuses on food for the New York Times. A quick search on the New York Times website shows almost 2,700 articles written by Mr. Bittman!

I am a huge fan of Mr. Bittman's work - both his cookbooks and his articles. I own several of his books and have read his columns as they appear in the  New York Times. This book is a compilation of some of his writings. The articles come from work previously published in The New York Times, either in his weekly opinion column or in the Sunday Magazine.

What this book does do:
  • For a reader wanting to learn about the food industry, its problems, and possible solutions, this book provides a well organized and well researched introduction.
  • For a reader who is being introduced to or is a fan of Mr. Bittman's work, this book provides a great compilation.
  • This book organizes the articles by topic, providing an overall look at the entire food system in a way that individual articles or a chronological compilation cannot. The topic sections in the book are:
    • Big Ag, Sustainability, and What's in Between
    • What's Wrong with Meat?
    • What is Food? And What is Not?
    • The Truth About Diet(s)
    • The Broken Food Chain
    • Legislating and Labeling
    • A Few Final Thoughts
  • The compilation format means that it can be read cover to cover or a reader can choose to focus topics on interest.
  • Mr. Bittman's work is very clear on the need for change. He has strong, well researched, and well supported opinions that will educate you on our food system, and he is not afraid to express them, taking on food producing giants, pharmaceuticals, and the government.
What this book does not do:
  • This book does not introduce any new writing. The articles included can all be found on the New York Times website. The articles date from 2011 to the present. Unfortunately, the older ones included in this book do not include an update as to where we are today. Admittedly, that may be because we are no further in resolving the issue, but even that would be valuable information to share and would in fact make the message stronger.
  • The review copy I received does not have an index or a further reading list. I hope the final version of the book does. That would be invaluable to a reader looking to delve further into any topic.
Change does need to happen. Mr. Bittman's message is a powerful one and a critical one. It will make you think - really think - about what you choose to buy and what you choose to put in your mouth. Read this book for an introduction if you need one to his work or to the issues plaguing our food supply. Then, follow his new writings and become a part of the change.

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

Friday, May 1, 2015

Sweet Forgiveness

Title:  Sweet Forgiveness
Author:  Lori Nelson Spielman
Publication Information:  Plume. 2015. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0147516765 / 978-0147516763

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

Opening Sentence:  "It went on for one hundred sixty-three days."

Favorite Quote:  "I've always imagined that life is a cavernous room filled with candles ... When we're born, half the candles are lit. With each good deed we do, another flickers to life, creating a bit more light ... But along the way, some flames are extinguished by selfishness and cruelty. So, you see, we light some candles, we blow some out. In the end, we can only hope that we've created more light in this world than darkness."

Should some secrets be left secrets? Can relationships survive the telling of a long buried secret? Can forgiveness heal both the giver and the receiver? When is an apology not enough? These questions form the basis of Sweet Forgiveness.

Hannah Farr is a talk show host in New Orleans. She is estranged from her mother, in a relationship with a self-serving politician, and in a ratings slump. Out of the blue, she receives a recruiting email asking her to pitch a show idea. She creates an idea that is part fact and part fiction, all based on the "forgiveness stones" that are becoming popular. Fiona Knowles is the creator of the forgiveness stones. Hannah is one of the original recipients because Fiona and Hannah knew each other in middle school.

The premise of the stones is that you send two stones to someone who you have wronged in the past. You acknowledge the hurt you caused and offer an apology. If the recipient accepts, he or she sends a stone back to you and then sends the other to someone from whom he/she seeks forgiveness. And so on. The cycle continues, creating a ever widening circle of forgiveness. Sort of a chain letter of forgiveness, if you will.

Hannah starts on this journey as a story idea for a show; it leads her down a path to her own past. Her parents divorced when Hannah was in middle school. Things happened or were said to happen; it led to Hannah losing all contact with her mother. She left town with her father as her mother started a new life with her boyfriend. Now, being forced to look back, Hannah wonders if everything really was as she has always believed. Along the way, Hannah's journey has some back-stabbing, some friendship, decisions both good and bad, and even a love story.

Hannah's story overlaps with the stories of those around her - the people in her life, like every single one of us, has things we need to be forgiven for and things we need to forgive. In seeking and giving forgiveness, the characters in the book take on some very serious issues - lying, cheating, bullying, abandonment, and child abuse. Although the book acknowledges that "sometimes 'I'm sorry' isn't enough", the conflicts seems to resolve themselves. All is not forgotten, but it is forgiven.

Unfortunately, about three quarters of the way through the book, the story veers into a different direction, introducing new characters, odd associations between characters, and a unsatisfactory resolution to one act of forgiveness. Without a spoiler, I can say that it touches on an extremely serious issue but then takes it nowhere other than "forgive and move on." Such a cursory treatment of such a universally-acknowledged, serious offense ends the book on a negative note. It ends the book with thoughts more about the act requiring forgiveness rather than the act of forgiveness.

Love the premise. Love the reminder of what the willingness to forgive can bring the forgiver. Like the fact that the book is a quick and easy read. Wish it had ended differently.

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