Thursday, March 31, 2016

Eligible: A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice

Title:  Eligible: A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice
Author:  Curtis Sittenfeld
Publication Information:  Random House. 2016. 512 pages.
ISBN:  1400068320 / 978-1400068326

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

Opening Sentence:  "Well before his arrival in Cincinnati, everyone knew that Chip Bingley was looking for a wife."

Favorite Quote:  "I've never met anyone with your interest in other people. Even when you're judging them, you do it with such care and attention. I can never predict who you'll like or dislike, but I always know your reasons will be specific and you'll express them with great passion."

I should start by saying that Pride and Prejudice is perhaps one of my all time favorite books. I have read it multiple times, and find myself enjoying it each and every time. When a retelling or spin-off comes around, I am enticed into reading it. At the same time, I am hesitant to read it because can a retelling ever really measure up to Jane Austen?

A few years ago, I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and enjoyed it because it was so true to the original story and yet so far out there with zombie mayhem. The storyline comparisons hold in that book, and the introduction of zombies is just funny. Longbourn tells the story of the "downstairs" in the Bennett household; this story presents an alternate view that may be true to the times but not the view for me. Death Comes to Pemberly is a murder mystery set in the "happily ever after" of the Pemberleys, and I suppose I prefer the "happily ever after" to stay untarnished.

Eligible is a modern day retelling of Pride and Prejudice. It is an actual retelling, following the gist of the original but set in modern times. For me, the premise of the book does not translate. Marriage, and the quest to marry of daughters, is the central theme of the original; it works for the time and place. Adult children, particularly daughters, living at home is also appropriate to the time and place of the original; it conjures up an entirely different image in modern day living. Modern day mothers may have the same concerns about their daughters today; however, even when the age of the daughters is changed to almost forty years old, the role of women has changed so significantly that the premise does not hold the same weight.

Putting aside that comparison to the original, Eligible on its own is still unfortunately not the book for me. None of the characters are particularly likable, sympathetic, or even strongly unlikable. Mostly, they come across as self-centered and self-indulgent. Largely, this is in part to the main way in which this book "modernizes" the original story. This "modernization" includes the introduction and repeated discussion of racial and sexual prejudices, affairs with married men, hate sex, reality television, and other such "modern" topics. Many of us modern day women manage to lead entire lives without such ideas touching our lives. It is certainly unpleasant to see them in the retelling of a classic that relies on the propriety and sensibility of a few strong characters.

This book is part of the The Austen Project, a publishing project that seeks to match six bestselling contemporary authors with Jane Austen’s six complete works. This is the first book I have read in this series, but apparently the fourth to be published. The first was Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope; the second was Northanger Abbey by Val McDermit; and the third was Emma by Alexander McCall Smith. Based on my experience with this book, I doubt I will read the others. However, I do wonder how differently the authors deal with the different stories. For this one, the modernization does not work for me; neither do the characters and story standing on their own, without any comparison.

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

Monday, March 28, 2016

Only in Naples: Lessons in Food and Famiglia from My Italian Mother-in-Law

Title:  Only in Naples: Lessons in Food and Famiglia from My Italian Mother-in-Law
Author:  Katherine Wilson
Publication Information:  Random House. 2016. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0812998162 / 978-0812998160

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

Opening Sentence:  "In Greek mythology, Sirens hang out on the rocky cliffs near Naples with their gorgeous curly hair, singing songs that entice sailors to the coast."

Favorite Quote:  "... your behavior inside your home is the real indicator of your character. Not in the workplace, not in school. Sure, it's nice to look good when you leave your home, and make a bella figure. But in terms of your identity, the most important thing is who you are with your parents, with your children, with your cousins. Th most important thing is how you behave with he people who really matter."

A memoir filled with family and food in the beautiful setting of Naples, Italy holds such promise. I enjoy memoirs. I enjoy travel writing. I enjoy food writing. I enjoy family stories. I really expect to enjoy this book for I expect it to be a combination of all these things. It is, to an extent, but unfortunately not in a way that I find enjoyable.

First, for a memoir, this book presents a lifestyle that I find myself completely unable to relate to. Katherine Wilson is the great-granddaughter of the founder of Wilson Sporting Goods. She is in Naples on an internship but really for "an experience abroad ... footed by my parents' dollars." Naples is not her destination of choice; rather "the serene splendor of Tuscany would have been appropriate for an upper-class girl like me." The internship consists of starting with a late morning coffee going into two hour lunches. Her inherited trust funds are "enough to allow me to buy an apartment in Italy."  What is interesting is the very casual way in which this lifestyle is presented. It seems as if privilege is so taken for granted that it is not viewed as privilege. That tone makes it not the book for me.

Second, for a travel memoir, the book does not really describe Naples or the other places where Ms. Wilson travels. The story is not really about the place, but rather her experiences at a given time in her life. The experiences are centered around the American consulate and the Avallone family home. The Consulate is described as "a big white square building on the waterfront of Mergellina, the port where motorboats leave for Capri and Ischia." The book then unfortunately includes no descriptions of Mergellina, which could be beautiful as my imagination of Italy suggests or not. Having never been to Naples, I expect to see it in this book. I except to be taken along to the splendors of Italy; unfortunately, the book ends up in the Avallone's kitchen.

Third, for a food memoir, I expect food and recipes to be a more integral part of the book. Throughout, the book hints at the author's issues with weight and diets, but this is not explored. This book also has food and recipes, but they seem incidental to the story. They seemed to be consciously made a part of the book to make it a food memoir. The recipes included at the end are more story than direction, with instructions to put on an apron, take off your rings, and keep your pants on. The book seems as if it is trying too hard to be funny; I would rather have a straight-up authentic recipe from her mother-in-law.

Fourth, for a family story, this book lacks the warmth I expect. It's unclear whether the book is aiming for humor, or if the somewhat uncharitable tone towards other people is unintentional. For example, "Salvatore arrived in America with gel in his hair, wearing a checked dress shirt tucked into beige pants. He was carrying a man-purse..." The family members unfortunately come across almost as caricatures.

I expected to really like this book based on the title and description; I still feel like given all the elements it was supposed to be about, I should like it. Unfortunately, it is not the book for me even though the fact that it is about a young woman, food, family, and travel says it should be exactly the book for me.

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

Friday, March 25, 2016

Lilac Girls

Title:  Lilac Girls
Author:  Martha Hall Kelly
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2016. 496 pages.
ISBN:  1101883073 / 978-1101883075

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

Opening Sentence:  "If I'd known I was about to meet the man who'd shatter me like bone china on terra-cotta, I would have slept in."

Favorite Quote:  "Don't waste your energy on hate. That will kill you sure as anything. Focus on keeping your strength. You're resourceful. Find a way to outsmart them."

Every time I read a fiction or non-fiction book about World War II, I learn about some new atrocity human beings committed against other human beings. Unbroken tells of Japanese prison camps. The Nightingale highlights the suffering of two women in the French resistance. A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding presents the Japanese perspective on the atomic bomb.

Lilac Girls brings to life the story of the Ravensbrück "rabbits". Ravensbrück was a German concentration camp used to house only women from 1939 to 1945. Over 100,000 women were in Ravensbrück over these years. Only about 15,000 survived. These women came for different ethnic backgrounds and different religions, although a little less than half were Polish.

The "rabbits" were 86 women whose treatment at this prison defies descriptions. What happens to the "rabbits" is at the heart of this story; so, I won't say more. Just that I am still horrified, all the more so because although the book is fiction, the history is frighteningly real. Note the book is not for the faint of heart; it graphically describes many of the atrocities committed against these women.

Lilac Girls brings this terrible history to life through the voices of three women - three completely different perspectives in alternating chapters. Two of the three main characters actual historic figures. Caroline Ferriday was a New York socialite, whose work with the French consulate led her to work with other survivors of the war. Herta Oberheuser was a German physician. Kasia Kuzmerick is a composite based on the known history of the Ravensbrück camp; this character is portrayed as a young Polish girl, who is a victim of the war.

The book starts with Caroline, but of the three, I find her story the least engaging. In fact, at times, her chapters are a jarring note in the book. No matter how different their perspectives, Herta and Kasia's share a world of despair, cruelty, and harshness. From that bleak world, the book goes to Caroline's world of social outings, good works, and even a romance. Having done a little research on Caroline Ferriday after reading this book, I learned that she is considered a hero of the war. In fact, she was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French Government for her work. It is unfortunate that her sections of the book still place such a heavy focus on parties, dresses, and romance.

I find myself rushing through Caroline's chapters to get back to Herta and, even more so, Kasia. Herta's story is one of idealism that morphs into extremism. She justifies her work in the name of patriotism. It is horrifying to watch. This young woman starts off seeking to be a female pioneer in a traditionally male profession. She turns into into a torturer and murderer. Difficult as it is to read, this evolution adds immense depth to this story.

Kasia's story is the heartbreaking one. She is a young teenager whose family, whose childhood, and whose very life is destroyed by the war. Her lost innocence and her will to survive and protect those she loves is the heart of this book.

As a book, it took me a while to get into the story. The book spends time building the three women's back stories which are unrelated. That fact and the alternating chapters give this book a slow start. However, gradually, I find myself more and more engaged and reading quickly to see what happens next. Interesting, this World War II novel does not end with the end of the War because that was not the end of the story of the Ravensbrück rabbits. The book brings that history to a close.

This debut novel is a emotional telling of a horrific history and a story that draws me in emotionally. I look forward to reading more from the author.

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

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams

Title:  Louisa:  The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams
Author:  Louisa Thomas
Publication Information:  Penguin Press. 2016. 512 pages.
ISBN:  1594204632 / 978-1594204630

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

Opening Sentence:  "Louisa Catherine Adams waited at the doors."

Favorite Quote:  "Wherever she lived, she was always pressing her nose against the glass, not quite sure whether she was looking out or looking in."

"She was certain she would not be remembered like her husband, John Quincy, or her father-in-law, John Adams, or her son, Charles Francis Adams, men who considered themselves architects of American history."

"In John Quincy's famously massive diary - some fifteen thousand pages in fifty-one volumes - Louisa appears very little, even when he was pursuing her. Except when she was ill, he rarely recorded anything particular about her - not the way she looked, or the things she said, or the way she made him feel. She was merely marked as present or absent, sick or well. This doesn't mean he didn't think of her - indeed his silence was often telling; it may suggest he thought of her much more than he wanted to admit."

The above three passages occur within the first couple of chapters of this biography of Louisa Catherine Adams, wife of the sixth President of the United States, John Quincy Adams. She titled her own attempts at memoirs with the unassuming titles, Record of a Life, Narrative of a Journey, and the Adventures of a Nobody. Previous biographies written about her have referred to her as the "Other Mrs. Adams."

Admittedly, I knew nothing about Mrs. Adams prior to reading this book. This introduction and these references pose a woman, perhaps shy, perhaps retiring and in the background as her husband finds his way to the Presidency.  The book paints a somewhat different picture of the unusual route Louisa found to the height of American politics and of the critical role Louisa Adams played in her husband attaining the Presidency.

The book is first and foremost Louisa's story. The writing style is part story with almost a diary-like feel with many personal details. I learned that Louisa Adams is the only first lady not born in America. I learned that through she became well known for her dinners and evenings, she preferred a quieter life. I learned that she suffered from many ailments throughout her life. In this way, this detailed history remains very much the story of a life.

At the same time, this book is all history chronicled with quotes, document excerpts, names, and dates. Through Louisa Adams' story, the book presents an image of that time not only in United States history but also the world. Louisa Adams was born in England, grew up in France, met and married John Quincy in England, and traveled through Europe and America. She was daughter-in-law to John Adams, the second United States president. She became the First Lady of the United States. With its focus on Louisa Adams, this book provides a unique perspective on this time in history.

The details of the book capture the history and demonstrate the extent of the research. The meticulous notes and index at the end are great research tools for an academic audience. The details are also where I falter in this book. I find the level of detail a little overwhelming. I find myself researching other sources to learn the history more succinctly and then going back to sections in the book to focus on the personal details. A summarized historical timeline to provide context within the book would help me immensely. I picked up this book as a casual reader with an interest in history. I noted this book was about a time period and a person about whom I know very little - a perfect opportunity to learn more. I enjoyed learning about Louisa Adams, but perhaps, I am not a serious enough reader for this book.

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

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Two Family House

Title:  The Two Family House
Author:  Lynda Cohen Loigman
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2016. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1250076927 / 978-1250076922

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:  "She walked down the stairs of the old two-family house in the dark, careful not to slip."

Favorite Quote:  "We always think our own grief is the worst - worse than everybody else's. But the truth is, we never know for sure what the people around us are feeling. I have had some bad things happen, but then a lot of wonderful things happened to me, too. An awful thing happened to you yesterday. But you mustn't let it ruin the happiness that lies ahead for you, dear."

In 1940s New York City, two brothers, Abe and Mort, link their life together. They work together, as co-owners of a family business although one perhaps would have chosen a different path. They happily live in two portions of the same house. They marry women, Helen and Rose, who become the best of friends. The start families at the same time.

In that, differences begin to arise. One brother becomes a father to four boys. The other brother fathers three girls. One mother wishes for a daughter to balance the tempest that are her boys. The other mother feels the burden of not having given her husband a son, no heir to carry on his name. Cracks exist in the seemingly peaceful and loving togetherness of these two families. Stereotypes? Absolutely. Realistic? Completely especially given the 1940s - 1950s culture that is the setting for this book.

Then, one final chance presents itself. Both women find themselves pregnant. A stormy night finds the two husbands away and the two women in labor. Two children are born minutes apart on that same night - a boy and girl. The mother with four boys gets its girl, and the mother with all daughters claims a son. Life continues happily at least on the surface. Yet, the cracks in the households, particularly in the friendship between the two women, deepen as the years pass.

Why? As a reader, I am pretty sure I know why, but I am still swept away in the ramifications of one decision that lead to both joy and immeasurable sadness. The power of this book is not in discovering what happened that night. That is not really a mystery. The power is in the ripples that decision causes for the individual characters and the changes it brings in their day to day lives and their relationships. A woman becomes a mother to two children even though only one is hers. A mother sinks into grief and depression with thoughts of what she has done. A man with old-fashioned, orthodox ideas about boys and girls learns to break stereotypes. This becomes a book about parenting - the love, the guilt, the joy, the sadness. It becomes also about our children's capacity to change us forever, and the different ways that manifests itself in different people.

This book has a very insular feel to it; it is completely and absolutely about this family. The world outside seems to recede far away as the reader is pulled into the world of this family. The story is told in chapters that alternate between the voices of Abe, Mort, Helen, Rose, Judith, and Natalie, one of the two children born on that night. That seems like a lot of narrators, but in this case, it works. Nowhere does the story lose continuity, and nowhere do I find myself checking to see who is telling the story. It just works. All the narrators are believable, and all make me care about this family.

I race through this book in a day, completely absorbed in the characters and story. Even though the book does not lend itself to a sequel, I want one just to know what happens to these characters. They become real, which perhaps is the best recommendation I can give for a book.

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

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Miller's Valley

Title:  Miller's Valley
Author:  Anna Quindlen
Publication Information:  Random House. 2016. 272 pages.
ISBN:  0812996089 / 978-0812996081

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

Opening Sentence:  "It was a put-up job, and we all knew it by then."

Favorite Quote:  "For years I thought it was pretty remarkable that I'd managed to hide from my mother what I'd done that winter, but later on it occurred to me, maybe because I knew so much about about my own kids that they didn't know I knew, that my mother had known all along. There's a way you can let things happen without acknowledging them and so having to act as though you approve of them that comes in handy for a mother."

Miller's Valley is a definition of home and family. Is home a place, a feeling, a person, a time or a combination of all these things? Is family the one you are born with or the one where you find love? What indeed defines love? The themes of love and family and its many manifestations permeate this book through the different characters.

Fundamentally, this book is a story of Mary Margaret "Mimi" Miller, a young woman who is surrounded by the cares of her family and whose dreams go beyond the reaches of her family. It is a story of a young woman who makes difficult choices to forge her path. It is the story of a young woman who is watching her community dismantle in front of her eyes. It is these struggles that make Mimi Miller an engaging character and one I find myself caring about and cheering on.

Miriam and Bud Miller are Mimi's parents. Miriam is a nurse. Bud can fix anything. Together, they also run their Miller's Valley farm. Their relationship is not explored in depth in the book, but reflections of a marriage that has lasted a long while come through. Arguments and stated and unstated compromises come through. They display love as a verb, as something you do, not something that just is.

Mimi's Aunt Ruth, who lives in a separate house, but on the Miller property is a recluse who does not leave her home. Her back story emerges at the very end, but seems unnecessary.  It has to do with family and with a love lost. However, sometimes, family secrets are best left secret without an offered solution. Her life drowns in her sorrows of love lost.

Young Tommy, Mimi's brother, is a rebel, seemingly good at heart but in and out of trouble. He is always on the periphery of Mimi's life, particularly after his return from a tour of duty in Vietnam. The impact of the war sends his life in a downward direction. Those who turn away and those who continue to love him again show love and family persevering though his actions again and again drive a wedge in that love.

LaRhonda, Mimi's friend, shows a direct comparison to Mimi's own life. LaRhonda is an indulged only child while Mimi works for everything she has. LaRhonda's goal is marriage and children; Mimi's goals lie elsewhere. Their friendship ebbs and flows as their own choices lead them in different directions. Although a seemingly minor character in the book, LaRhonda seems to hold up a mirror to Mimi's life.

Donald is also Mimi's friend, perhaps her best friend for the limited time they are given together. Donald's family is his grandparents who offer love and stability and his mother who takes off with him or "dumps that poor boy on his grandparents whenever she cares to." Though he does his mother's bidding, it is clear through the book where his heart lies. Distance and time do not change his love.

Underlying all the personal stories is the story of Miller's Valley itself, a valley that has been home to the Millers for generations. Slowly, this home is dying, and people are being driven out because of a dam and because of flooding. People in the Valley love their home, but other forces prevail. They forgo that love and leave.

In this way, this book reminds me of Swift River by R C Binstock. Both are about a community being willfully destroyed to make way for progress. Both are about a small, relatively self-contained community. Both are told through the eyes of a young woman as she grows up in this environment. Both are about family, connections, and ties to the land. Miller's Valley the place is home, but is home really a place?

Together from all these pieces, Anna Quindlen creates a picture of Miller's Valley and of ordinary people - that I as the reader care about - living life with all the struggle and love it has to offer.

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

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Country of Red Azaleas

Title:  Country of Red Azaleas
Author:  Domnica Radulescu
Publication Information:  Twelve. 2016. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1455590428 / 978-1455590421

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 started out in life under a Communist leader and a Hollywood name."

Favorite Quote:  "One is so often mistaken about what is real and what is not real. But a boot kicking you in your stomach in always real and you can't mistake it for not real. And you can't mistake the dead bodies strewn next to you for the images flickering on the walls of a cave."

The Country of Red Azaleas is the city of Sarajevo in the heart of what was once Yugoslavia and is now Bosnia and Herzegovina. Lara is a young girl growing up in Belgrade. She meets Marija, who moves to to her school from Sarajevo. The girls end up best friends, inseparable and sharing everything as they grow up.

Then, the war arrives with the fall of Communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union and of Yugoslavia. The girls find themselves as college students, making grand protest statements. Then, the war gets worse. Lara meets Mark, gets married, and leaves for America. Marija remains behind.

The book description creates a picture of a story of war. The beginning sets up two perspectives on the war - Lara who leaves, and Marija who stays. In this, the book reminds me of other books like Island of a Thousand Mirrors and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena that describe the atrocities of war and the victims on each side.

However, that is not where this book goes. I don't know quite what to make of this book. It takes a lot of dramatic turns, where the story seems to completely shift focus. At certain junctures of the book, I find myself flipping back asking where did that come from? It's hard to describe without giving the plot away. Let's just say not all the shifts flow and not all seem necessary.

This book is partly a story of war, but mostly, this book is Lara's story, told from her perspective. The book description also compares it to Elena Ferrante's work, which takes a similar approach in describing a friendship through the lens of one person's eyes.

This book though is not a complete story of friendship; it is more a biography of Lara's life, a story of love, marriage, parenthood, and a search for Marija. Most of all, this book is a story of Lara's discontent. For most of the book, Lara comes across as a desperately unhappy person. The ending reveals the root of her discontent, but it seems almost an afterthought. Unfortunately, for most of the book, Lara is not a sympathetic nor even a likable character. An unlikable main character can be at the heart of an amazing book, but in this case, Lara is not the character I want to know more about. Marija is.

Marija is the one who stays and lives through the war in Sarajevo. Her brutal journey is revealed in bits and pieces but again only through Lara's eyes. Comparatively, Marija comes across as the more stoic, stronger character of the two. It is her story that I want to know not really Lara's. That leaves me an unsatisfied and frustrated reader at the end of this book.

What keeps me reading though is the writing itself. The story does not capture me, but certain thoughts and expressions in the book capture my attention, such that I find myself highlighting the passage them and re-reading them. In all, the story of this book is a scattered, but the writing engages me enough to carry the story to its conclusion.

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

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Three Martini Lunch

Title:  Three Martini Lunch
Author:  Suzanne Rindell
Publication Information:  G. P. Putnam's Sons. 2016. 512 pages.
ISBN:  0399165487 / 978-0399165481

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

Opening Sentence:  "Greenwich Village in '58 was a madman's paradise."

Favorite Quote:  "In those days, I straddled more than a handful of worlds, which is also to say I belonged wholly to none."

The urban dictionary defines a three martini lunch as a leisurely (three martinis = three hours) lunch taken by professionals and executives for business purposes. Deals are brokered, and careers are made or derailed through the course of a three martini lunch.

Though no longer common in the business world, the term and the concept remains part of our urban language. This book dives into deal making and career forming in the book publishing industry in the 1950s and 1960s in New York City. The book embodies the industry and also the prejudices and divides of the day by telling the story through three main characters.

Cliff is, so to speak, to the manor born. His father is an executive at one of the publishing house. Cliff is a Columbia drop-out but fancies himself quite the author. He has an estranged relationship with his father but still hopes to use that connection to further his writing career. He has a sense of entitlement about him. Can connections and wealth overcome a lack of talent?

Eden Katz, a. k. a. Eden Collins, comes to New York from Indiana - a small town girl with big city aspirations. She starts off as a secretary with a goal of being an editor. She is young and idealistic. Her journey from Katz to Collins and back again symbolizes her growth but also highlights prejudices that existed at the time. Her path is neither easy nor straight. Can sheer determination and hard work overcome the prejudices that stand in her way?

Miles is a Columbia University graduate and a truly talented writer. He is also African American born in Harlem. The color of his skin closes many doors and places many obstacles in his way. His journey to his father's past becomes his path to the future. Can his talent shine through people's judgements about the color of his skin and his personal life?

The story of these three young people intersects over the years and draws together a picture of the time and the industry. The sections of the book alternate between the three and all tell the story in first person, giving the reader three completely different perspectives. Through their eyes, we see the publishing industry, the society of Greenwich Village, Beatnik culture, racial and religious prejudice, and the societal view of homosexuality at the time. The book paints 1950s and 1960s New York with a broad brush, covering a lot of ground.

This book builds at a very slow burn. At over 500 pages, this story takes a while to develop. It is particularly slow to start, with the first half of the book seemingly more focused on painting a picture of the scene rather than moving the story forward. The characters and events start to build much more quickly well into the second half of the book, yet the book always seems more about the time period. A beautiful period piece that makes a good book. An engaging story that, more succinctly told, would make a great book.

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

Sunday, March 13, 2016


Title:  Koreatown
Author:  Deuki Hong, Matt Rodbard
Publication Information:  Clarkson Potter. 2016. 272 pages.
ISBN:  0804186138 / 978-0804186131

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

Opening Sentence:  "You're holding a Korean cookbook in your hands, and there's a bright, unapologetically funky, sometimes spicy, oftentimes bubbling, impossibly interesting future awaiting you."

Favorite Quote:  "Today, Asian flavors are hybridizing modern cuisine. It's not 'fusion.' It's bigger than that, as these cultures have just become an everyday part of our culinary language."

Koreatown. The name says it all. This book is a survey Korean American cooking with recipes and stories gathered from around the country. As such, it is an introduction to both Korean American food and Korean American culture.

A disclaimer before I share my thoughts on this book. I am familiar with Korean flavors only through food served at local Korean restaurants. I am experienced in the kitchen and enjoying cooking and trying foods from different cultures. I do not know and have not cooked with many of the ingredients unique to a Korean kitchen, but I want to learn. That is precisely my reason for picking up this book. I am looking for an introduction and a greater understanding.

This book is successful in doing that to an extent. It does provide an introduction to culture and foods. This book is, however, very busy in layout and organization which at times makes it seem a little overwhelming even for an experienced cook.

The organization of this book is difficult to categorize. The book does provide a table of contents, an index, and a glossary. Each chapter has a different focus as is common in many cookbooks. In this case, the areas of focus differ between ingredients, methods of cooking, and course of the meal, and occasions. The chapters in the book are as follows:
  • Introduction
  • Ingredients and equipment
  • Kimchi and banchan (small plates)
  • Rice, noodles and dumplings
  • Barbecue:  Grilled, smoked & fried
  • Drinking food:  pojangmacha
  • Soups, stews and braises
  • Respect: guest recipes
  • Sweets and desserts
The ingredients and equipment section of the book is about eleven pages long and goes through "some products you might not know, as well as touch on some common items that are used slightly differently in the Korean kitchen." This is the textbook component of this cultural tour, providing a helpful list of ingredients and their Korean names and a short list of online list to purchase them. Also included on the list are things like more familiar items disposable plastic gloves and a MagicBullet because they form an integral part of this cuisine.

The most surprising of the sections is "Drinking Food." According to the book, eating and drinking alcohol go "so hand in hand that it's often hard to separate the two," and a pojangmacha refers to a place to eat and drink. Thus, you may think this section becomes the equivalent of snacks or bar food.  It isn't. The recipes range from a dish including Fritos to a whole roasted chicken to a hangover stew. Fascinating but the organization makes it a little difficult when I go looking for a recipe for dinner.

The layout of the book is also a little overwhelming. Different color pages. Different color fonts. Different fonts. Photographs. Photographs that look like illustrations. Illustrations. Side articles about ingredients, restaurants, or people's experiences with Korean food sprinkled throughout the book with no visual offset differentiating them from the recipes.

The recipes themselves are consistent - a title in Korean and English, an ingredient list set off to the side of the page, a story to introduce the recipe, and numbered paragraph instructions. I appreciate the  expected recipes for foods like kimchi and bulgogi and am intrigued by the more "fusion" oriented recipes like a barbecue marinate including coke and Kimchi White Chocolate Snickerdoodles. This tour of Korean food includes a lot to explore.

Overall, the book is interesting but a little difficult to navigate. Perhaps like Koreatown itself for a novice?

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

Friday, March 11, 2016

Modern Girls

Title:  Modern Girls
Author:  Jennifer S. Brown
Publication Information:  NAL. 2016. 384 pages.
ISBN:  045147712X / 978-0451477125

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

Opening Sentence:  "My lower back ached as I sat, shoulders rounded, hunched over like a number 9, on the wooden stool at my desk at Dover Insurance."

Favorite Quote:  "It was possible, I found, to both mourn a loss and yet be grateful it happened."

Two women. Two unplanned and unwanted pregnancies. Two months - August and September 1935. Two agonizing decisions.

Rose and Dottie are mother and daughter. At age 42, Rose is happily married. She has birthed and raised her children; she has unfortunately had to bury some of her children. She has been the dutiful daughter, wife, and mother. At this point, she is ready for the next chapter in her life and has no wish to start over with a new baby. She thinks her days of motherhood are over and is completely surprised when she finds herself pregnant again.

Dottie is only nineteen. She has just been promoted to head bookkeeper at her job. She is in a stable relationship which she hopes will soon lead to marriage. She is a dutiful daughter and a "good girl." Her mother dreams of college and a career for her. Her life is just beginning. One argument and one careless night lead to an unexpected, unplanned, and unwanted pregnancy.

Both women are at a crossroads. What choice will they make?

As the story alternates between their two perspectives, I respond more to Rose's story. She exudes a quiet strength and fortitude that perhaps comes only with age and experience. Her worry is for herself and for Dottie, who, no matter what, is her baby girl. Dottie's thoughts and actions, particularly towards her mother and towards her fiancé Abe, demonstrate a self-centeredness. Perhaps, that stems from her youth. Perhaps, that is her character. Perhaps, that stems from the fact that those appear to her to be the only available choices.

This book is set into the cultural context of Depression Era New York City. This aspect of the book is implicitly critical for in that time and place, choices for women, even the "modern" girls, are limited. Marriage is the only road to respectability. Any impediments must be quietly, secretly dealt with and can only be dealt with in the back alleys and basements. A girl's life is staked on her reputation and her virtue.

This book is also set into the Jewish culture of the Lower East side. This context is highlighted throughout the book. Yet, for me, this cultural construct is not central to the book. This book could just as easily be set in an entirely different culture for the idea of the "good girls" is a universal one, occurring across cultural heritages and religious beliefs. The book does not really get into the moral/ethical decision Rose and Dottie must make; it focuses instead on the pragmatic decision. What is their best choice for moving forward with life? What is the choice they can live with?

Beyond the cultural commentary, this book covers only a short period of time and focuses solely on the immediate decision Rose and Dottie must make. As such, the book feels like a prelude to a bigger story. The ending feels like the beginning of something new. As such, the story is not completely satisfying because it feels incomplete. It feels as if a sequel or a series is planned. Wonder if there is?

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

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Rejected Writers' Book Club

Title:  The Rejected Writers' Book Club
Author:  Suzanne Kelman
Publication Information:  Lake Union Publishing. 2016. 272 pages.
ISBN:  1503934144 / 978-1503934146

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

Opening Sentence:  "'Come and live in the country; you won't regret it!' The advertisement in a glossy real estate periodical improved us."

Favorite Quote:  "Verbal tennis is about the most exercise we get."

A family secret meets small town life meets Thelma and Louise is the essence of this book. I picked this book solely because of the cover and the title. For an avid bibliophile, the combination of authors (rejected or otherwise) and book clubs is hard to resist. The fact that the book makes a perfect, light-hearted beach read is an added bonus.

Meet Janet Johnson and the Rejected Ladies. Janet is a librarian (the book theme continues!) and a relative newcomer to Southlea Bay, Washington. She is looking for friendship and a place to belong. In her life are her husband, who seems to spend his time with household projects, in particular trying to capture raccoons on their property, and her daughter, who seems to be a bit high maintenance.

The Rejected Ladies are a club of Southlea Bay women who bond over two things. One, they are all storytellers. Second, publishers have rejected their manuscripts (more books!) multiple times, a fact that they have turned into a cause for celebration.

The adventure starts when a founding member Dorie violates the basic premise of the club. She is no longer a "rejected lady." Some publisher has the audacity to accept her manuscript. Worse, Dorie discovers that she has inadvertently included a secret in the manuscript. She needs to get that manuscript rejected and back because she must protect her secret and because her bond with the rejected ladies is more important to her than being published. She asks Janet and the Rejected Ladies for help.

Cue the road trip in a car crammed with people and a trunk full of frozen meals for the road. The road trip of course leads to further misadventures. Cue road closures, car breakdowns, forced hotel stays, and new relationships.

The book includes a lot of characters, from the Rejected Ladies and Janet to their families to the cast of characters they meet along the way. After a while, I stopped keeping track of who is who except for the two main characters - Janet and Dorie. The adventures of the rest tumble together, creating the community and warmth around Janet and Dorie. Some of the situations they find themselves in are sweet, and some are laugh out loud funny.

What happens in this book is not nearly as important as how it happens. The community and the bonds of family and friendship that stem from the Rejected Ladies are really what is at the heart of this book. Janet and her husband are a comfortable old married couple; shared love but separate refrigerators are the keys to their marriage. Janet is realistic about her daughter and loves her, aggravations and all. The Rejected Ladies come from different backgrounds and different perspectives; their friendship is their bond. They are tolerant of each other's foibles and stand behind each through everything. This book is full of the kind of friendships that, if you are lucky enough to find the, you hope you will hold on to throughout your life.

A sweet book that will leave you smiling.

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

Monday, March 7, 2016

Hard Red Spring

Title:  Hard Red Spring
Author:  Kelly Kerney
Publication Information:  Viking. 2016. 448 pages.
ISBN:  0525429018 / 978-0525429012

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley and the Penguin First to Read Program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The cave in Father's mountain was just big enough for a little girl to walk inside, though Evie had never done so."

Favorite Quote:  "History repeats itself, but revolutions always think they're different."

Hard Red Spring is a history of a country told not through the eyes of its citizens but through the eyes of expatriates. Each of the four sections of the book centers on an American. The first is young Evie in 1902, an eight year old girl brought to Guatemala by her parents who dream of riches. The second is Dorie in 1954, the wife of the American ambassador to Guatemala. The third is Lenore in 1983, a missionary coming to Guatemala to do God's work. The fourth is Jean in 1999, a mother looking for the roots of her adopted daughter. All four women are connected through their history with Guatemala.

When I first realize the narrative voice, I am not sure. How do you tell an effective history of a place through the eyes of outsiders? However, then, the story takes over. When names and references to the past come come up, these "outsiders" may not recognize them, but I, as the reader, do. The information comes slowly and casually for the characters recounting it do not recognize the significance of a name or a place. The reader does. Sometimes, the connections startle, and sometimes they shock. Sometimes, I want to warn the characters of what I know. Of course, I can't, but that leaves me completely engaged in their story; this approach puts the reader at the heart of the story.

It is quite a story. For young Evie, it is the story of an adult world that she does not understand; it is a story of innocence lost. For the other three women, it is the story of despair, sorrow, loneliness, violence, and ultimately, love. For each of them comes the realization that the reality of life is nothing like what they expected it to be. It is harsher and darker than their vision; what is left to them is what they make of it or how they manage to deal with it.

The Guatemalan history surrounding them is a hundred years of economic instability, political unrest, racial strife, revolutions, and guerrilla warfare. Tied into these domestic upheavals is the contribution of foreign, particularly, US influences. This book confronts the political and fundamentalist religious beliefs that contribute to the unrest. It tackles the prejudices and clash between cultures - American, Guatemalan, and Mayan/Indian. It personalizes this history by placing it as the context of the story of these women. It turns factual history into an emotional story.

Note that the last few pages of the book present a historical time line. My recommendation would be to read this timeline first. I know very little about Guatemala's history; the timeline provides the historical context for this book. Having that brief introduction to the actual history serves to enhance the fiction that relates the history in such a personal way.

At times, the style of the book reminds me of the books of James Michener and Edward Rutherford. This book covers a century of history; the pace of the book is dense and slow at times. The connections between the people follow through all four sections, keeping the story line going, but the focus throughout remains the place. The symbolism and mythology of the mountain, the corn and the wheat fields, and the quetzal bird carries throughout the book and ties the story to the land  - Quetzaltenango or Xela, Guatemala. A memorable story.

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

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The City & The City

Title:  The City & The City
Author:  China Miéville
Publication Information:  Del Ray. 2009. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0345497511 / 978-0345497512

Book Source:  I read this book for a book discussion at my local library.

Opening Sentence:  "I could not see the street or much of the estate."

Favorite Quote:  "We are all philosophers here where I am, and we debate among many other things the question of where it is that we live. On that issue I am a liberal. I live in the interstice yes, but I live in both the city and the city."

I did a double take when I realized that the name of the book is not The City but rather The City & The City. How unusual. Having read it, the title is perfect. For the setting - the cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma - is the main feature of this book. The setting is what I find the most captivating, much more so than the story itself. The setting is what I will remember from this book, much more so than any character or any aspect of the plot.

For, Beszel and Ul Qoma are like no other cities ever seen. The descriptions make them sound as if on the other periphery of Europe. Not unusual. One is old and decrepit; the other seems much more vibrant. Again, not unusual. What is unusual is the fact that the two cities appear to occupy the same physical space. However, the two are distinct, unique, and very separate - in language, in culture, and in politics. Between them lies a border - a real, imagined, or perceived boundary that both sides work very diligently to maintain.

How is this possible? The book describes a system of crosshatches. Picture a grid of a geographic area. Specific squares lie completely and totally within one city. However, where the squares of the two cities touch, a "crosshatch" develops. Citizens of each city stay within their designated squares but may be together in a crosshatch. However, even within a crosshatch, both sides profess not to see the other. "It works because you don't blink. That's why unseeing and unsensing is so vital. No one can admit it doesn't work. So if you don't admit it, it does." If someone - anyone - crosses from one city to the other, a breach occurs. And, it is firmly dealt with.

This book may have a deeper philosophical point to make about the real world. The naming of the characters and places and the differences in languages overall hint at similar, real life situations. The politics of nationalists and unificationists can also be interpreted to apply to the real world. However, as a reader, I choose not to see any deeper association, taking the descriptions as an imaginative creation of a world apart. This allows me to sink into the descriptions and the fantasy of the story.

The layers of the city, the different languages between the two, and unusual names makes this a multi-layered story that is sometimes challenging to follow. Remembering which character originates in which city and which city the action is taking place in at any given time means that this book takes some getting used to. The fantasy world takes some time to visualize; that becomes even more challenging when the layers of the city are itself part of the mystery of this book.

Really, the setting of this book is the story. The plot line involves the murder of a young woman. The body is found in Beszel, but the investigation leads much much further. From the appearance of the young woman, the initial thought is a prostitution transaction gone wrong; the investigation goes much deeper into politics, research, power, and an understanding of what truly lies between the two cities. On the face of it, the book is a crime novel with its police investigations and procedures. Underneath is a weird, imaginative, ruthless, and memorable fantasy world.

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

Thursday, March 3, 2016


Title:  Liar
Author:  Rob Roberge
Publication Information:  Crown. 2016. 272 pages.
ISBN:  0553448064 / 978-0553448061

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

Opening Sentence:  "You have your first girlfriend and you are, as far as your ten-year-old self knows, madly in love."

Favorite Quote:  "Knowing something may make it a fact, but feeling something makes it a truth."

Our memories are not linear. Our memories are not fact, but they are our truth. Our memories are a compilation of the big things in our lives and of all the ordinary minutiae of our lives. Our memories are of events that happen to us and of the events of the world that impact us. Our memories, to some extent, define who we are.

These are all concepts most of us realize and understand. The question to think about is what would happen if we were to lose those memories? Who would we be? If we knew we would lose our memories, which ones would we try and preserve?

Rob Roberge's memoir Liar is his answer to these questions. This book represents the memories he seeks to preserve, knowing that he has a progressive disorder that may over time destroy his memories.

Memory is not linear, and that fact is abundantly clear in the style of this book. The book is divided into chapters although I am not sure why; the chapter don't seem to serve a purpose. Within the chapters are short, dated snapshots of events and thoughts. These are not chronological and not even topical. They drift as memories and thoughts do. This does make the book difficult to follow. A chronological story would not have the same impact as this one, but at the same time, I wish I had a chronological cheat sheet to put some of the snapshots into context. A picture of life emerges from these snapshots, but I wish I had a frame to put around that picture.

Memory is often the rose-colored glasses through which we see our lives. Not in this book though. If you have the choice to preserve memories, would you preserve the most joyous moments of your life or the painful ones or both? Rob Roberge has lived most of his life with mental illness and a drug addiction. His struggle is clearly the focus of this book, and many of these memories are not happy, pleasant ones.  Rather, much of the content is dark and disturbing. These are memories he is choosing to preserve and share. So, this book is not just about saving all his memories; it is about selectively presenting the memories that document his challenges with mental illness and addiction.

Reflecting on a memory is sometimes like watching a movie play in your head; you watch your own self in that past. This book has somewhat the same feel. Rob Roberge chooses to tell his story in the third person - "you" - reinforcing that point. You are the topic of this book; you are the main character. This is your life. At the beginning, I am not sure this approach will work for an entire book, but it does. The writing style serves to pull the reader into the book and the situation. I know that the book is not about me, but, at the same time, I am personally engaged by the word "you."

We know that memories are not fact but only our truth. With Rob Roberge's history of mental illness, his memories tinged by drug-induced phenomena, and his illness, he realizes that not only are his memories only his truth but also that he is even unable to see them as true. They may be or not. Hence, in seeking to preserve his truth of life, Rob Roberge's book becomes Liar.

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

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

At the Edge of the Orchard

Title:  At the Edge of the Orchard
Author:  Tracy Chevalier
Publication Information:  Viking. 2016. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0525953000 / 978-0525953005

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

Opening Sentence:  "They were fighting over apples again."

Favorite Quote:  "... sometimes that's what you have to do - go back to go forward."

A story of a marriage trying to survive in difficult living conditions, a story of a young man escaping his past, a history of a young United States, and the beauty of trees are the four main elements of this book.

First is the story of James and Sadie Goodenough in northwest Ohio in the 1830s. Coming from Connecticut, they find themselves in a swamp in Ohio, settled where their wagon broke down. They are two incompatible people struggling in an inhospitable environment. The swamp closes in on life with its oppressive mud, its inability to be farmed, and the diseases it brings. James is a dreamer but also abusive. Sadie is an alcoholic, an abuser, and an unhappy person. Neither the environment nor the characters are likable. Yet, the characters, the story, and the environment show depth and leave a lot to be explored.

Second is the story of Robert, one of the Goodenough children. As a child, he is depicted as different, as a sensitive soul. As an adult, his story is much flatter and much more ordinary. He is a man running from a troubled childhood. He is a wanderer until something and someone catches his passion and interest. Eventually, his past comes to catch up with him. The characters in this part of the story are much more likable but lack the shadows and depth of James and Sadie.

The third element of this book is the history. James and Sadie's story brings to life the history of progression west, settlement, farming, revival meetings, survival, and John Chapman better known as Johnny Appleseed. I know the history of Johnny Appleseed; it is interesting to see him as a man with a pretty major role in Sadie's story. Robert's story is set in the history of the Gold Rush and of California.  The history in this book forms the background of the book; it is the setting for the story, but it is not the story. This story is all about these characters and their individual lives and actions.

Finally, this book is all about the trees - the apple trees of James' childhood, the seedlings that Johnny Appleseed brings, the apple trees that become a bone of contention between James and Sadie, and the redwoods and sequoias that become Robert's life work. The nature of these trees and the appreciation for their beauty and their fruit adds a beautiful environmental element to this book.

The story line of the book starts with James and Sadie. About a quarter of the way, it suddenly switches to letters from Robert showing his journey from the family farm in Ohio to California. The story winds its way back to the reason Robert leaves the farm, but not until much later in the book. The conclusion to James and Sadie's story comes abruptly but not until about two-thirds of the way through the book. It brings with it a greater understanding of Robert's actions, but it comes a little to late to elicit that emotion for Robert. Robert's story is the focus of the book, but James and Sadie's story is the more interesting one.  That's the one I wish I read more about.

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