Thursday, April 28, 2016

If Walls Could Talk : an intimate history of the home

by Lucy Worsley

Another book in the category Curious Histories of Mostly–White People Things. Of course, if you live in North America or Europe or an urbanized area just about anywhere in the world, no matter your color or culture, these Things are yours now too: bathrooms, bedrooms, kitchens, housing and households of a certain size, expectations of privacy are all being globalized, for better or worse.

Anyway, this book is an interesting and nicely written exploration of the historical, and changing, cultural significance of the objects and activities which make up that thing we call a home. It covers a broad range of topics, so my recollections are of random tidbits of information:
  • spits for roasting meats were turned by a type of dog specially bred to be a size and shape that would fit inside a hamster wheel–like contraption attached to the spit
  • people in olden times went to sleep early (when it got dark) but often got up for a few hours to do stuff in the middle of the night before going back to sleep for a few more hours
  • royals wiped their butts with cloth napkins
  • we all should be more grateful for modern toilets and sewers
History is more than great people and geopolitics. The details of everyday life in the past are fascinating. I recommend this book for readers who like to think about historical settings and "period details" more than supposedly significant events. Also good for trivia buffs and amateur sociologists.

One D.O.A., One on the Way
Why Did I Ever

by Mary Robison

I read Why Did I Ever quite some time ago, but I've never forgotten the author's unique and biting sense of humor — sarcastic, world-weary, nothing's sacred, whip-smart, everything's fucked. Both books are fairly short and enjoyable, assuming you appreciate the caustic wit, and both feature a female protagonist who works in the film industry, either in the South or from the South. Both books also consist of short, diary-like entries, epigrams and lists. (One D.O.A. has lists, anyway; I don't remember if the other does.)

Published in 2001, Why Did I Ever features a character trying to manage her ADD while struggling as a screenwriter and navigating various personal crises. One D.O.A., One on the Way came out in 2009 and is narrated by a location scout married to a lazy scion of an old-money New Orleans family; she's trying to train an intern, even though all the work has moved to Shreveport since Katrina, and inexplicably having an affair with her husband's identical twin, perhaps only because she can't always tell which one is which. A number of the lists in the latter book detail the myriad ways New Orleans remains a shambles several years post-hurricane.

If you think you're a match for this type of humor, I give a hearty recommendation for both of these books. The author has written a few collections of short stories, but I haven't tried any of them.

Monday, April 18, 2016

We Were Liars

by E. Lockhart

I wound up really liking this book, though I put off reading it for a long time. When I first heard about it, the description kind of turned me off, and the fact that it was getting lots of hype didn't help either. I have read another book by the author that I enjoyed (Fly on the Wall), so I eventually checked this one out after seeing yet another mention of it somewhere.

The book is fairly short, and the story is very gripping, with a surprise twist that you know is coming but probably won't guess. I thought I knew, I had some ideas... but I was wrong! And the reveal felt very exciting, which is a testament to the excellent writing, because the twist could easily have been flubbed. You've got some rich kids who spend summers together on a private island (you can see why I was a bit turned off...) and some kind of incident that happened a couple of summers ago; one of the teens (protagonist) can't remember what happened, and no one else will talk about it. The dark side of family wealth and fundamental unfairnesses related to social class are not ignored, and in fact they are fuel for the development of the plot, so the story is more than just a bunch of spoiled rich kids (even though it kind of is).

A very good YA book overall — some romance, some tragedy; tension and the right pacing/length. I would definitely recommend this book to lots of teens, and I might try to get my mom and sister to read it on vacation.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Cottage in the Woods

by Katherine Coville

Squeeeeee! I sometimes feel silly when I find myself rooting for a happy ending, but this book for middle-schoolers had me anxiously hopeful and, finally, grinning ear to ear. Good wins! Acceptance, tolerance, and friendship rule! Love wins!

Anyway... This book is pretty weird but also fantastic. A twist on the story of Goldilocks told from the point of view of a young she-bear governess, with elements of Victorian/Regency romance and tons more fairy tale references. The language and styling are spot-on without being overwrought or distracting, and excitement comes in the form of both danger and romance, while a subplot promotes social values and diversity. My only complaint is the lack of illustrations (other than the book cover); too many would have made the book babyish, but some of the more colorful characters were begging to be sketched.

I'm not sure at what age girls start reading Jane Austen, so I'm a little unclear on the target audience. The book, with its mix of animal and human characters, is certainly kid friendly, even if there are some slightly scary bits, but I don't know how much the love interest and historical social setting would appeal to pre-tween readers. Meanwhile, the book has plenty for adults to enjoy. But I could also see a precocious 2nd or 3rd grader loving it.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

At Last

by Edward St. Aubyn

Another funeral book ... I do hope an unfortunate trend is not developing. (I'm doing catch-up reviews out of order, so I haven't actually read these books in proximity to one another.)

Compared to the last two funeral books I wrote up (This Is Where I Leave You and The Mathematician's Shiva), this book features a family that is much more dysfunctional, and not in a wryly funny way. Bits of black humor do appear, however, in the form of social class absurdities and the protagonist's acidic wit and nihilism. But is there hope "at last" for Patrick Melrose, subject of four other novels by this author? Though denied an inheritance by his always-withholding mother's eccentric will, he might, with her death, at long last be released from the poisonous tendrils of his parents' warped relationship.

Edward St. Aubyn is a great writer of psychological fiction that really gets the reader inside the character's head. (Not to be confused with the genre of psychological thrillers.) I think maybe he's more widely read in the UK than the US. I've never met anyone, as far as I know, who's read him, but his books usually have a modest waiting list at the library. Maybe he's a writer's writer, and critically acclaimed, but I guess his type of fiction isn't blockbuster material, no matter how fine it is. (His 2014 book, Lost for Words, is a lighthearted satire and may have wider appeal.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The North Water

by Ian McGuire

I've only once before encountered the word pong used in the sense of "an odor," and the author's use of it in this book is spot-on: what smell could be described as a pong if not the stank of a bunch of dudes on a whaling ship in 1800-something? Richly descriptive, with a soup├žon of period-appropriate slang and (presumably) well-researched whaling industry jargon, the book's language flows easily and speeds the narrative tension without sacrificing atmosphere or forgoing the occasional fifty-cent word.

Set against the blinding white of Arctic summer, the plot certainly offers a stark good vs evil contrast, while the protagonist's journey involves moral ambiguities and second chances. Being a relatively short thriller, though, this book has nowhere near the philosophical depth of Moby-Dick, however tempting the comparison may be. But a gripping and visceral tale is exactly what I needed when I found this book, and I can heartily recommend it on its own terms.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

The Book of Joe
This Is Where I Leave You

by Jonathan Tropper

Both of these books made me laugh, and The Book of Joe also made me cry. I definitely like this writer and have recommended him to various people for various reasons. He has, I think, a good grasp of adult male psychology, with a mix of humor, sadness and realistically complex emotions and situations, so that angle can be handy for recommendations.

The Book of Joe is a you-can't-go-home-again type of story, except of course you can — and, my, how you've changed! And look how coming home again changes you even more! (I'm mocking the you-can't-go-home-again concept, not the book.) The story is about family relationships, and about the friendships of our youth, what's left behind, what remains regardless of our leaving, what could/should be kept or gotten back. Several tragedies are happening concurrently, yet lighter moments and redemptive possibilities keep the story from becoming too heavy. (But, as stated, I did cry, maybe even more than once.) As someone who's lived far away from most of my family for 20 years, a lot of this stuff resonated with me.

This Is Where I Leave You is a funeral and a divorce (and more: each character has his/her issues), but with humor and Jewish self-deprecation. In the movie, Tina Fey's character punches a guy in the face, and the main character is played by Jason Bateman (who is one of my imaginary celebrity husbands). Again, lots of real emotions and struggles, but leavened with humor.

Everybody Knows What Time It Is: But Nobody Can Stop the Clock

by Reginald Martin

1. Show, don't tell.
2. All-caps/bold/underline WTF?
3. Learn difference between apostrophe and open single quotation mark.

Above are my notes from immediately after reading this book. I think I may not have finished it because I disliked it so much. I found the writing so weird that the actual content is inscrutable.

According to one summary/review I found, the book is "written in one of the most unique prose styles to appear in recent years" — "unique" is sometimes a kind word when one has nothing nice or coherent to say.

This other summary from the library catalog effectively conveys the book's unintelligibility: "This book is not just a record of the past. It is a continuous acting agent in the lives of man, an agent or an aspect that will continue to have its way with man if man refuses to recognize and embrace history as a constant instead of as a dead artifact."

The Andy Cohen Diaries: a deep look at a shallow year

by Andy Cohen

I don't understand the Real Housewives of [Whatever] phenomenon that he's responsible for creating, but I love me some Andy Cohen. He's hunky but not intimidatingly hot, cuz he's also a little bit adorkable, and he's not just funny, he's hilarious. Doesn't hurt that he's probably pretty well off... He seems like a lot of fun.

I found this book very entertaining, dishy without being mean, honest and open-hearted. It records a year of his life in diary form (duh), and it's (I don't want to say surprisingly) well-written. Not sure if he had a ghost writer, or how much editing happened, but I'm not really surprised that he's a decent writer. He's generally creative and smarter than one might assume based on his television persona.

When someone asks for a fun, "mindless" read, this book would be an excellent recommendation. I hate to call it fluff, and I put quotes around that other word because I believe it is thoughtfully written, even if it won't make you think very hard while reading it. A very good book for traveling.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Shame and Wonder: Essays

by David Searcy

This book got a glowing review in Publishers Weekly, and I'd been meaning to read more essays (not the persuasive sort, more like musings or commentaries). The author is a Texan, which promised (the book review promised!) an outlook different from my own and a landscape alien to me. Well, ho-hum. I don't know, I just wasn't feeling it. I gave it the old college try. My only regret is that I hung on too long trying to get into it, and now I'm falling behind on my backlog of books.

My next book up is meant to be a thriller, but I also picked it up on the strength of a PW review. Come to think of it, PW gave a very good review to Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend, too, and I have trouble believing that teen book will be any good. Consider yourself on notice, Publishers Weekly.

Gypsy Boy: my life in the secret world of the Romany Gypsies

by Mikey Walsh

Sometimes you read a memoir in which the writing is so good that it doesn't matter if nothing momentous happens; sometimes you read a memoir in which the story is so compelling that the writing just needs to be not terrible. This book is the second kind. Not to say the writing is less than okay, because it's fine, very readable, but it's not the strong point.

I have to admit the idea of a gay Gypsy gave me an inappropriate tickle, much like thoughts of gay Mormons or gay Amish. Very privilege-y and ethnocentric of me, I know, but in any case nothing titillating occurs in this book. The author is sexually assaulted by a relative, and he does have a romantic relationship at the end, but no fun sexy bits.

Still, a really interesting look and insider perspective on Romany culture, and a first-person chronicle of a difficult personal journey. Quick, gripping read. A sequel has been written, but I don't feel all that motivated to read it.

Monday, April 04, 2016

How to Be Both

by Ali Smith

I once tried to discuss David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas with a friend, only to realize after ten minutes that she was talking about The Cloud Atlas by Liam Callanan. How to Be Both is a little bit like that, on purpose. Two stories, more cross-referential than intertwined, compose this brilliant book, which has two published versions with the same two stories in different order. I don't remember if my copy was "Camera" then "Eye," or "Eye" then "Camera." Imagine the possibilities of a book discussion group in which some people read one version and some read the other.

I really enjoyed the writing in this book. I found myself re-reading passages, flipping around through the pages to hunt for connections and clues, and even posted some choice quotes online. The two stories are set in very different times (1400s and 1960s, I think) and are superficially very different to one another, despite the appearance of a particular Italian fresco in both. They are thematically related, however, and "inform" one another (in the parlance of literary criticism). So in a sense it's a complex novel of ideas, but also one that's just damn good reading.

What it is the book about, though? A teenage girl's coming of age in England and a Renaissance artist with a secret, but telling you that doesn't really help. It's also, as the title indicates, about being two things at once, which is also like being neither thing, and it's about how we tell ourselves and show others who we are. To whom should one recommend this book? Anyone who enjoys literary fiction and those who have enjoyed books by Barbara Kingsolver, Donna Tartt, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jeanette Winterson, Virginia Woolf. (Those last three could constitute a little bit of a clue that I hope won't spoil anything.)

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Full Service: my adventures in Hollywood and the secret sex lives of the stars

by Scotty Bowers

This book didn't feel as scandalous or subversive or titillating as I though it ought. Which says something about me (that I'm jaded, or that I'd hoped I wasn't) or about the world (that, in my little corner of it at least, society has progressed beyond some of its prudishness about sex; or, if it hasn't, maybe these particular secrets simply weren't really secrets anymore). Perhaps I already knew these "secrets" because I'm gay? I promise you, we don't have some kind of gay intranet or newsletter that tells us all the celebrities who are "secretly" gay, but straight people still ask me as if I would know something they couldn't have learned just by reading gossip blogs or tabloids or even People.

Anyway, this bisexual author apparently made quite a few connections, so to speak, and arranged many more in the hidden gay Hollywood of the 1950s-60s-etc. He worked at a gas station that served as a sort of mini-brothel (it had restrooms and a trailer or two) and referral service for gay and lesbian celebrities and other well-heeled homosexualists to meet the (usually) younger gay, lesbian, and hetero-flexible freelancers with whom discreet arrangements were possible.

The writing is serviceable, leaving the story to do all the work. I was by no mean bored, but I wasn't enthralled either. A quick read, dishy enough even if some of the revelations are old news. Katherine Hepburn apparently had very bad skin, requiring lots of makeup, lighting and soft focus, and also was rather unpleasant and unliked.