October 26, 2017

Book Review: Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer


Here I Am

by Jonathan Safran Foer

Genre: Contemporary Literary Fiction
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Length: 571 pages
Published: August 2016
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble
Notes: Jonathan Safran Foer is the acclaimed author Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Everything is Illuminated, and Eating Animals. In my opinion Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a genius 5-star read and I've reread it several times.

My Goodreads Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"In the book of Genesis, when God calls out, 'Abraham!' to order him to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham responds, 'Here I am.' Later, when Isaac calls out, 'My father!' to ask him why there is no animal to slaughter, Abraham responds, 'Here I am.'

How do we fulfill our conflicting duties as father, husband, and son; wife and mother; child and adult? Jew and American? How can we claim our own identities when our lives are linked so closely to others’? These are the questions at the heart of Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel in eleven years--a work of extraordinary scope and heartbreaking intimacy.

Unfolding over four tumultuous weeks in present-day Washington D.C., Here I Am is the story of a fracturing family in a moment of crisis. As Jacob and Julia and their three sons are forced to confront the distances between the lives they think they want and the lives they are living, a catastrophic earthquake sets in motion a spiraling conflict in the Middle East. At stake is the very meaning of home–and the fundamental question of how much life one can bear.

Showcasing the same high-energy inventiveness, hilarious irreverence, and emotional urgency that readers and critics loved in his earlier work, Here I Am is Foer’s most searching, hard-hitting, and grandly entertaining novel yet. It not only confirms Foer’s stature as a dazzling literary talent but reveals a mature novelist who has fully come into his own as one of the most important writers of his generation. 


Quote: 

"You only get to keep what you refuse to let go of."

Excerpt: (from Part One, Chapter One)

"When the destruction of Israel commenced, Isaac Bloch was weighing whether or not to kill himself or move to the Jewish Home. He had lived in an apartment with books touching the ceilings, and rugs thick enough to hide dice; then in a room and a half with dirt floors; on forest floors, under unconcerned stars; under the floorboards of a Christian who, half a world and three-quarters of a century away, would have a tree planted to commemorate his righteousness; in a hole for so many days his knees would never wholly unbend; among Gypsies and partisans and half-decent Poles; in transit, refugee, and displaced persons camps; on a boat with a bottle with a boat that an insomniac agnostic had miraculously constructed inside it; on the other side of an ocean he would never wholly cross; above half a dozen grocery stores he killed himself fixing up and selling for small profits; beside a woman who rechecked the locks until she broke them, and died of old age at forty-two without a syllable of praise in her throat but the cells of her murdered mother still dividing in her brian; and finally, for the last quarter century, in a snow-globe-quiet Silver Spring split-level: ten pounds of Roman Vishniac bleaching on the coffee table; Enemies, A Love Story demagnetizing in the world's last functional VCR; egg salad becoming bird flu in a refrigerator mummified with photographs of gorgeous, genius, tumorless great-grandchildren.

German horticulturalists had pruned Isaac's family tree all the way back to the Galician soil. But with luck and intuition and no help from above, he had transplanted its roots into sidewalks of Washington, D.C., and lived to see it regrow limbs. And unless America turned on the Jews--until, his son, Irv, would correct--the tree would continue to branch and sprout. Of course, Isaac would be back in a hole by then. He would never unbend his knees, but at his unknown age, with unknown indignities however near, it was time to unball his Jewish fists and concede the beginning of the end. The difference between conceding and accepting is depression.

Even putting aside the destruction of Israel, the timing was unfortunate: it was only weeks before his eldest great-grandson's bar mitzvah, which Isaac had been marking as his life's finish line ever since he crossed the previous finish line of his youngest great-grandson's birth. But one can't control when an old Jew's soul will vacate his body and his body will vacate the coveted one-bedroom for the next body on the waiting list. One can't rush or defer manhood, either. Then again, the purchase of a dozen nonrefundable airplane tickets, the booking of a block of the Washington Hilton, and the payment of twenty-three thousand dollars in deposits for a bar mitzvah that has been on calendar since the last Winter Olympics are no guarantee that it's going to happen."


My Book Review: 

Trademark JSF-style, but dripping with marital bitterness and *extreme* crudity thrown in (seriously crass, even if you're a JSF fan it's unending).

The novel details the breakup of Jacob and Julia's marriage, their identity and faith crises, emotional detachment from their children, their children's pain, and a Middle Eastern earthquake and resulting war.

As usual, Foer excels in depicting coming-of-age and elderly male voices and his insights into Jewish identity are powerful. While both Jacob and Julia are greatly unlikable, Foer positions the guilty husband as the misunderstood, pained victim and his wife (the *only* female character of any substance in the novel) as nothing short of a cruel monster. This portrayal here of the sole depiction of womanhood as nothing short of a one-dimensional demon is annoyingly transparent given Foer's   recent divorce and makes for uncomfortable reading.

At times the writing of Here I Am is without a doubt four-star quality, but the crassness could sink this ship for many.

August 31, 2017

Book Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini


A Thousand Splendid Suns

by Khaled Hosseini

Genres: Historical & Contemporary Fiction
Publisher: Riverhead
Length: 372 pages
Published: May 22, 2007
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Audible
Note: Khaled Hosseini is also the best selling author of The Kite Runner, an equally amazing read. I have not yet read but look forward to reading his latest title, And the Mountains Echoed. If you've read that, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

My Goodreads Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


Official Book Summary:

"Born a generation apart and with very different ideas about love and family, Mariam and Laila are two women brought jarringly together by war, by loss and by fate. As they endure the ever escalating dangers around them—in their home as well as in the streets of Kabul—they come to form a bond that makes them both sisters and mother-daughter to each other, and that will ultimately alter the course not just of their own lives but of the next generation."

Quote: 

"I will follow you to the ends of the world."


Excerpt: (from Chapter One)

"Mariam was five years old the first time she heard the word harami.

It happened on a Thursday. It must have, because Mariam remembered that she had been restless and preoccupied that day, the way she was only on Thursdays, the day when Jalil visited her at the kolba. To pass the time until the moment that she would see him at last, crossing the knee-high grass in the clearing and waving, Mariam had climbed a chair and taken down her mother's Chinese tea set. The tea set was the sole relic that Mariam's mother, Nana, had of her own mother, who had died when Nana was two. Nana cherished each blue-and-white porcelain piece, the graceful curve of the pot's spout, the hand-painted finches and chrysanthemums, the dragon on the sugar bowl, meant to ward off evil.

It was this last piece that slipped from Mariam's fingers, that fell to the wooden floorboards of the kolba and shattered."

My Book Review: 

A heartbreaking story of two generations of Afghanistan women whose lives become painfully intertwined.

Mariam is a character whose story you can't easily forget and without a doubt one of the most heartbreaking stories I've ever read. As a child she lives with her mother and is neglected by her father as her birth was the result of an affair. Though her father is a bigamist, her birth outside of a marriage relationship ostracizes both Mariam and her mother from the community. While she sees her father on rare occasions, Mariam feels desperate to spend more time with him and against her mother's wishes, travels to the city to his home. Her father refuses to allow her entrance and shuns her, leaving her alone overnight in the street. When one of her father's servants takes her home, Mariam discovers her mother has taken her life. Devastated and feeling a seeming burden to everyone around her, her father arranges a marriage to do away with her. Mariam's husband is not only a stranger, but much older and verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive.

A generation younger than Mariam, the novel next tells the tale of Laila, a young girl whose childhood is far happier as she's raised in a loving and warm home. When Mariam's husband takes a pregnant Laila as his second wife, the tension between the two women and the secrets they carry creates a dramatic, painful, and yet beautiful story of friendship between women fighting to survive.

Though the story is for a mature audience, I cannot recommend it enough. Its portrayal of the lives of women in Kabul is unforgettably powerful.

August 29, 2017

Book Review: A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel


A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana

by Haven Kimmel

Genres: Memoir, Humor
Publisher: Doubleday
Length: 275 pages
Published: March 20, 2001
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Audible

My Goodreads Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars



Official Book Summary:

"When Haven Kimmel was born in 1965, Mooreland, Indiana, was a sleepy little hamlet of three hundred people. Nicknamed 'Zippy' for the way she would bolt around the house, this small girl was possessed of big eyes and even bigger ears. In this witty and lovingly told memoir, Kimmel takes readers back to a time when small—town America was caught in the amber of the innocent postwar period—people helped their neighbors, went to church on Sunday, and kept barnyard animals in their backyards.

Laced with fine storytelling, sharp wit, dead-on observations, and moments of sheer joy, Haven Kimmel's straight-shooting portrait of her childhood gives us a heroine who is wonderfully sweet and sly as she navigates the quirky adult world that surrounds Zippy."

Quote: 

“But I think that what you'll discover more and more as you get older is that most people aren't thinking about you at all.”



Excerpt: (from the Prologue)

"If you look at an atlas of the United States, one published around, say, 1940, there is, in the state of Indiana, north of New Castle and east of the Epileptic Village, a small town called Mooreland. In 1940 the population of Mooreland was about three hundred people; in 1950 the population was three hundred, and in 1960, and 1970, and 1980, and so on. One must assume that the number three hundred, while sacred, did not represent the same persons decade after decade. A mysterious and powerful mathematical principle was at work, one by which I and my family were eventually governed. Old people died and new people were added, and thus what was shifting remained constant.

I got to be new there. I was added and shortly afterward the barber named Tony was taken away. This was in 1965. The distance between Mooreland in 1965 and a city like San Francisco in 1965 is roughly equivalent to the distance starlight must travel before we look up casually from a cornfield and see it. Sociologists and students of history imagine they know something of the United States in the sixties and seventies because they are familiar with the prevailing trends; if they drew assumptions about Mooreland based on that knowledge, they would get everything wrong. Strangely, there has never been a definitive source of information about Mooreland during a certain fifteen-year period, perhaps because there are so few people left who can reliably tell it. Many have been added since then. Many have moved on."


My Book Review: 

Quirky, but it increasingly bothered me that there was no point to the storytelling.

August 2, 2017

Book Review - The Witches: Salem, 1692


The Witches: Salem, 1692

by Stacy Schiff

Genres: Biography, U.S. History, Nonfiction
Publisher: Back Bay Books
Length: 512 pages
Published: September 20, 2016
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Audible

My Goodreads Rating: 2.5 or 3 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff, author of the #1 bestseller Cleopatra, provides an electrifying, fresh view of the Salem witch trials.

The panic began early in 1692, over an exceptionally raw Massachusetts winter, when a minister's niece began to writhe and roar. It spread quickly, confounding the most educated men and prominent politicians in the colony. Neighbors accused neighbors, husbands accused wives, parents and children one another. It ended less than a year later, but not before nineteen men and women had been hanged and an elderly man crushed to death.

Speaking loudly and emphatically, adolescent girls stood at the center of the crisis. Along with suffrage and Prohibition, the Salem witch trials represent one of the few moments when women played the central role in American history. Drawing masterfully on the archives, Stacy Schiff introduces us to the strains on a Puritan adolescent's life and to the authorities whose delicate agendas were at risk. She illuminates the demands of a rigorous faith, the vulnerability of settlements adrift from the mother country, perched-at a politically tumultuous time-on the edge of what a visitor termed a "remote, rocky, barren, bushy, wild-woody wilderness."

With devastating clarity, the textures and tensions of colonial life emerge; hidden patterns subtly, startlingly detach themselves from the darkness. Schiff brings early American anxieties to the fore to align them brilliantly with our own. In an era of religious provocations, crowdsourcing, and invisible enemies, this enthralling story makes more sense than ever.

The Witches is Schiff 's riveting account of a seminal episode, a primal American mystery unveiled-in crackling detail and lyrical prose-by one of our most acclaimed historians."


Excerpt: (from Chapter One)

"In 1641, when the colonists established a legal code, the first capital crime was idolatry. The second was witchcraft. 'If any man or woman be a witch, that is, has or consults with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death,' read the Massachusetts body of laws. Blasphemy came next, followed by murder, poisoning, and bestiality. In the years since, New England had indicted more than a hundred witches, about a quarter of them men. The first person to confess to having entered into a pact with Satan, a Connecticut servant, had prayed for his help with her chores. An assistant materialized to clear the ashes from the hearth and the hogs from the fields. The servant was indicted in 1648 for 'familiarity with the devil.' Unable to resist a calamity, preternatural or otherwise, Cotton Mather disseminated an instructive account of her compact.

In 1688, four exemplary Boston children, the sons and daughters of a devout Boston stonelayer named John Goodwin, suffered from a baffling disorder. 'They would bark at one another like dogs, and again purr like so many cats,' noted Mather, who observed Goodwin’s family and wrote of their afflictions in 'Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions' the following year. (The 1689 volume was a salute to his father’s 'Illustrious Providences,' a grab bag of apparitions and portents, published five years earlier.) The Goodwin children flew like geese, on one occasion for twenty feet. They recoiled from blows of invisible sticks, shrieked that they were sliced by knives or wrapped in chains. Jaws, wrists, necks flew out of joint. Parental reproof sent the children into agonies. Chores defied them. But 'nothing in the world would so discompose them as a religious exercise,' Mather reported. Thirteen-year-old Martha could read an Oxford compendium of humor, although she seized up when handed a volume he deemed 'profitable and edifying,' or one with the name Mather on the cover.

To observe her symptoms more closely, Mather that summer took Martha Goodwin into his home. She cantered, trotted, and galloped about the household on her 'aeriel steed,' whistling through family prayer and pummelling anyone who attempted it in her presence—the worst house guest in history. She hurled books at Mather’s head. She read and reread his pages on her case, lampooning their author. The sauciness astonished him. 'And she particularly told me,' Mather sputtered, four years before the Salem trials, 'that I should quickly come to disgrace by that history.'

The cause of Martha’s afflictions was identified soon enough. The witch was the mother of a neighborhood laundress. On the stand, the defendant was unable adequately to recite the Lord’s Prayer, understood to be proof of guilt. She was hanged in November, 1688, on Boston Common.

Samuel Parris, the Salem minister, would have known every detail of the Goodwin family’s trials from Mather’s much reprinted 'Memorable Providences.' The book included the pages Martha wildly ridiculed. The 'agitations, writhings, tumblings, tossings, wallowings, foamings' in the parsonage were the same, only more acute. The girls cried that they were being stabbed with fine needles. Their skin burned. One disappeared halfway down a well. Their shrieks could be heard from a distance....

Soon the twelve-year-old daughter of a close friend of Parris’s began to shudder and choke. So did the village doctor’s teen-age niece. A creature had followed her home from an errand, through the snow; she now realized that it had not been a wolf at all. The girls named names. They could see the culprits clearly. Not one but three witches were loose in Salem."



My Book Review:
 
There is no doubt that a tremendous amount of effort and research went into writing this book; it must have been a long and laborious project. That being said, some of that length is felt in the pacing of this 512-page book. Though I have both studied and sought out books on the Salem witch trials previously, it was difficult to keep individuals straight and I often felt fuzzy and bogged down by detail.

Schiff's narrative makes it clear that she hopes to present this history without inserting her own interpretive framework, allowing readers to make what they will of this epidemic belief in witchcraft, yet her excessive use of footnotes do otherwise. These ancillary pieces of commentary reveal the author's skeptical view of the craze, though she tries to do so in a reserved manner. I found it off-putting that as the author of this tome, she refuses to include her views within the narrative itself, while her footnotes suggest what she thinks without doing so in a straightforward manner. I can understand Schiff wanting to present the history on its own, but if she wanted to include her thoughts I feel this would be better done in a thorough introduction or epilogue rather than through the inconsistent tone of the footnotes.

The last two chapters (after hundreds of pages of reading) are very interesting as Schiff gives some sense of what happened to each of these Salem women after the witch-craze had ended. This conclusion-of-sorts is extremely valuable and represents what is often entirely missing from other authors' examination of this time in U.S. history. I truly commend the author for this and wish more writers of historical nonfiction would include these wrap-ups. These chapters leave readers with the sense that to some extent, there were punishments without a crime and in other cases crime without consequent punishment.

The number of victims of this madness--both adults and children--is heartbreaking. As she concludes her book, Schiff does suggest that some historians believe the girls suffered from conversion disorder (a very interesting theory of which I'd like to learn more), but it's unclear if this is her interpretation which again, left me wishing her perspective was more apparent. Perhaps the best line from the book is when Schiff argues that hysteria is contagious and attention addictive. I wish there had been more information about Tituba's background and so I look forward to reading Elaine G. Breslaw's Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem.

Overall, Schiff's book is a very detailed, researched account of the infamous Salem Witch trials and well-suited to those wanting an in-depth analysis of the day-to-day proceedings of the case and its many characters. At the same time, it felt way too long. If you're interested in books about the Salem witch trials, I'd highly recommend Shirley Jackson's The Witchcraft of Salem Village.

July 31, 2017

Book Review: The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin


The Children's Blizzard

by David Laskin

Genres: U.S. History, Nonfiction, Science and Nature
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Length: 307 pages
Published: October 11, 2005
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Audible

My Goodreads Rating: 3.5 or 4 out of 5 stars


Official Book Summary:

"The gripping story of an epic prairie snowstorm that killed hundreds of newly arrived settlers and cast a shadow on the promise of the American frontier.

January 12, 1888, began as an unseasonably warm morning across Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Minnesota, the weather so mild that children walked to school without coats and gloves. But that afternoon, without warning, the atmosphere suddenly, violently changed. One moment the air was calm: the next the sky exploded in a raging chaos of horizontal snow and hurricane-force winds. Temperatures plunged as an unprecedented cold front ripped through the center of the continent.

By Friday morning, January 13, some five hundred people lay dead on the drifted prairie, many of them children who had perished on their way home from country schools. In a few terrifying hours, the hopes of the pioneers had been blasted by the bitter realities of their harsh environment. Recent immigrants from Germany, Norway, Denmark, and the Ukraine learned that their free homestead was not a paradise but a hard, unforgiving place governed by natural forces they neither understood nor controlled.

With the storm as its dramatic, heartbreaking focal point, The Children's Blizzard captures this pivotal moment in American history by tracing the stories of five families who were forever changed that day. Drawing on family interviews and memoirs, as well as hundreds of contemporary accounts, David Laskin creates an intimate picture of the men, women, and children who made choices they would regret as long as they lived. Here too is a meticulous account of the evolution of the storm and the vain struggle of government forecasters to track its progress.

The blizzard of January 12, 1888, is still remembered on the prairie. Children fled that day while their teachers screamed into the relentless roar. Husbands staggered into the blinding wind in search of wives. Fathers collapsed while trying to drag their children to safety. In telling the story of this meteorological catastrophe, the deadliest blizzard ever to hit the prairie states, David Laskin has produced a masterful portrait of a tragic crucible in the settlement of the American heartland."


Quote: 

"It was the age of confidence. Arrogance was epidemic."

Excerpt: (from the Prologue)

"On January 12, 1888, a blizzard broke over the center of the North American continent. Out of nowhere, a soot gray cloud appeared over the northwest horizon. The air grew still for a long, eerie measure, then the sky began to roar and a wall of ice dust blasted the prairie. Every crevice, every gap and orifice instantly filled with shattered crystals, blinding, smothering, suffocating, burying anything explosed to the wind. The cold front raced down the undefended grasslands like a crack unstoppable army. Montana fell before dawn; North Dakota went while farmers were out doing their morning chores; South Dakota, during morning recess; Nebraska as school clocks rounded toward dismissal. In three minutes the front subtracted 18 degrees from the air's temperature. Then evening gathered in and temperatures kept dropping steadily, hour after hour, in the northwest gale. Before midnight, windchills were down to 40 below zero. That's when the killing happened. By the morning on Friday the thirteenth, hundreds of people lay dead on the Dakota and Nebraska prairie, many of them children who had fled--or been dismissed from--country schools at the moment when the wind shifted and the sky exploded."


My Book Review: 

Set in Nebraska, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota during the late nineteenth century, Laskin's book tells the story of the infamous blizzard of January 12, 1888 that hit without warning and left behind hundreds of victims. As a childhood fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter, the harsh Midwest winters have long fascinated me.

While I learned much from this book and appreciated the vast research that went into telling the tale, I struggled with the tone and style: the narrative frequently jumps around time, place, and person, and can be a bit cold and unfeeling given the grave subject matter. The chaos, however, does reflect the disaster itself and the inability of many of its victims to do anything to save themselves and others. Overall, I really liked reading this collection of research.

Laskin's book is a very well-researched account of the impact and aftermath of the Midwest's deadliest blizzard and a great resource if you're interested in this tragic piece of U.S. history.


July 28, 2017

Book Review: The Siren by Kiera Cass


The Siren

by Kiera Cass

Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy, Mythology, Romance, Fairy-Tale Retelling
Publisher: HarperTeen
Length: 267 pages
Published: July 1, 2009
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Audible
Note: Kiera Cass is the bestselling author of the young adult romance series, The Selection.

My Goodreads Rating: 2.5 or 3 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"'You must never do anything that might expose our secret. This means that, in general, you cannot form close bonds with humans. You can speak to us, and you can always commune with the Ocean, but you are deadly to humans. You are, essentially, a weapon. A very beautiful weapon. I won't lie to you, it can be a lonely existence, but once you are done, you get to live. All you have to give, for now, is obedience and time...'

The same speech has been given hundreds of times to hundreds of beautiful girls who enter the sisterhood of sirens. Kahlen has lived by these rules for years now, patiently waiting for the life she can call her own. But when Akinli, a human, enters her world, she can't bring herself to live by the rules anymore. Suddenly the life she's been waiting for doesn't seem nearly as important as the one she's living now." 

Quote: 

“Books were a safe place, a world apart from my own. No matter what had happened that day, that year, there was always a story in which someone overcame their darkest hour. I wasn't alone.”



Excerpt:

"It's funny what you hold on to, the things you remember when everything ends. I can still picture the paneling on the walls of our stateroom and recall precisely how plush the carpet was. I remember the saltwater smell, permeating the air and sticking to my skin, and the sound of my brothers' laughter in the other room, like the storm was an exciting adventure instead of a nightmare.

More than any sense of fear or worry, there was an air of irritation hanging in the room. The storm was throwing off our evening's plans; there would be no dancing on the upper deck tonight, no chance to parade around in my new dress. These were the wose that plagued my life then, so insignificant they're almost shameful to own up to. But that was my once upon a time, back when my reality felt like a story because it was so good.

'If this rocking doesn't stop soon, I won't have time to fix my hair before dinner,' Mama complained. I peeked up at her from where I was lying on the floor, trying desperately not to throw up. Mama's reflection looked as glamorous as a movie star, and her finger waves seemed perfect to me. But she was never satisfied. 'You ought to get off the floor,' she continued, glancing down at me. 'What if the help comes in?'"

My Book Review: 

Super cheesy young adult, fantasy romance. In other words, there is a HUGE audience for this book.

The beginning is really attention-grabbing: Kahlen is on a ship with her family when a huge storm hits and the boat sinks. Though she is miraculously rescued, she loses her soul to the realm and rules of sirenhood. I enjoyed this premise, a modern-day twist on the myth of the sirens with a splash of "The Little Mermaid" and the super-villain Ursula thrown in. As a retelling, however, the story became a bit predictable and sappy near the end, but I imagine that's exactly what Cass's young readers will love about it.

At first I thought I might end up rating the book as high as four-stars--an innocent, guilty pleasure for teens against the backdrop of sirens being forced to murder to appease a possessive and controlling sea queen. The overly dramatic ending lowered my personal rating of the book, but I would still definitely recommend it to young teen readers who enjoy fantasy and romance. To these audiences, I'd also recommend Cass's Selection series as well as Allie Condie's Matched series. I'll be keeping up on Cass's future publications, too.


July 27, 2017

Book Spotlight: Dog Medicine by Julie Barton

Dog Medicine: How My Dog Saved Me From Myself

by Julie Barton

Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Penguin Books
Length: 222 pages
Published: November 10, 2015
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Thank you to Penguin Books for sending me a copy of Dog Medicine: How My Dog Saved Me From Myself! Julie Barton is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts' MFA program and wrote this memoir about a year of her life during which she suffered from depression.

Quote:

“I needed a companion who had no judgment, with whom I had no history, who would make it known that I was loved, who would never, ever hurt me.” 

Official Book Summary:

"At twenty-two, Julie Barton collapsed on her kitchen floor in Manhattan. She was one year out of college and severely depressed. Summoned by Julie's incoherent phone call, her mother raced from Ohio to New York and took her home.

Psychiatrists, therapists and family tried to intervene, but nothing reached her until the day she decided to do one hopeful thing: adopt a Golden Retriever puppy she named Bunker.

Dog Medicine captures in beautiful, elegiac language the anguish of depression, the slow path to recovery, and the astonishing way animals can heal even the most broken hearts and minds."

 
Excerpt:

"The walk from the subway to my apartment was six blocks, but I wasn't sure I would make it. I focused on the ground: the scuffed floor of the 4 train, the gum-strewn steps to 86th Street, the swirling black puddle at the corner of Lexington and 85th. I'd lived in Manhattan for almost a year, since one week after graduating from college in Ohio. I'd spent that year as an assistant editor at a book publisher in SoHo. My name appeared in the credits of two books. My boss called me his best assistant ever. I had scraped together enough money to pay my rent and bills, on time. I had caring friends and supportive parents who wanted me to succeed. And I was about to have a breakdown. 

Only a few blocks out of the subway station, bloody thoughts descended: Walk into the path of that cab speeding up Lexington Avenue. Step in front of that oncoming bus. These were not voices in my head; they were rogue thoughts, terrible thoughts that I did not know how to control."

Book received from the publisher.

July 25, 2017

Book Review: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld


Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice

by Curtis Sittenfeld

Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Romance
Publisher: Random House
Length: 512 pages
Published: April 19, 2016
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Wonderfully tender and hilariously funny, Eligible tackles gender, class, courtship, and family as Curtis Sittenfeld reaffirms herself as one of the most dazzling authors writing today.

This version of the Bennet family and Mr. Darcy is one that you have and haven't met before: Liz is a magazine writer in her late thirties who, like her yoga instructor older sister, Jane, lives in New York City. When their father has a health scare, they return to their childhood home in Cincinnati to help and discover that the sprawling Tudor they grew up in is crumbling and the family is in disarray.

Youngest sisters Kitty and Lydia are too busy with their CrossFit workouts and Paleo diets to get jobs. Mary, the middle sister, is earning her third online master's degree and barely leaves her room, except for those mysterious Tuesday-night outings she won't discuss. And Mrs. Bennet has one thing on her mind: how to marry off her daughters, especially as Jane's fortieth birthday fast approaches.

Enter Chip Bingley, a handsome new-in-town doctor who recently appeared on the juggernaut reality TV dating show Eligible. At a Fourth of July barbecue, Chip takes an immediate interest in Jane, but Chip's friend, neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy, reveals himself to Liz to be much less charming. . . . And yet, first impressions can be deceiving."


Quote:

"Sometimes it amazes me how much these defining parts of our lives hinge on chance."

Excerpt: (from Chapter One)

"Well before his arrival in Cincinatti, everyone knew that Chip Bingley was looking for a wife. Two years earlier, Chip--a graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Medical School, scion of the Pennsylvania Bingleys, who in the twentieth century had made their fortune in plumbing fixtures--had, ostensibly with some reluctance, appeared on the juggernaut reality-television show Eligible. Over the course of eight weeks in the fall of 2011, twenty-five single women had lived together in a mansion in Rancho Cucamonga, California, and vied for Chip's heart: accompanying him on dates to play blackjack in Las Vegas and taste wine at vineyards in Napa Valley, fighting with and besmirching one another in and out of his presence. At the end of each episode, every woman received either a kiss on the lips from him, which meant she would continue to compete, or a kiss on the cheek, which meant she had to return home immediately. In the final episode, with only two women remaining--Kara, a wide-eyed, blond-ringleted twenty-three-year-old former college cheerleader turned second-grade teacher from Jackson, Mississippi, and Marcy, a duplicitous yet alluring brunette twenty-eight-year-old dental hygienist from Morristown, New Jersey--Chip wept profusely and declined to propose marriage to either. They both were extraordinary, he declared, stunning and intelligent and sophisticated, but toward neither did he feel what he termed 'a soul connection.' In compliance with FCC regulations, Marcy's subsequent tirade consisted primarily of bleeped-out words that nevertheless did little to conceal her rage.

'It's not because he was on that silly show that I want him to meet our girls,' Mrs. Bennet told her husband over breakfast on a morning in late June. The Bennets lived on Grandin Road, in a sprawling eight-bedroom Tudor in Cincinnati's Hyde Park neighborhood. 'I never even saw it. But he went to Harvard Medical School, you know.'

'So you've mentioned,' said Mr. Bennet.

'After all we've been through, I wouldn't mind a doctor in the family,' Mrs. Bennet said. 'Call that self-serving if you like, but I'd say it's smart.'

'Self-serving?' Mr. Bennet repeated. 'You?'"


My Book Review: 

I'm sad to report that I found this contemporary retelling of Pride and Prejudice disappointing.

The first third of the novel is bit interesting as the author, Curtis Sittenfeld, recasts Jane Austen's characters in modern-day Cincinnati. Bingley is the former star of a reality TV dating show, but after failing to choose a match he's back on the market. Mrs. Bennet remains the same--focused on marrying off her daughters--but Liz comes across as far more unlikable than her original counterpart. The relationship between Liz and Jane feels more strained, Mr. Bennet is distant, indolent, and at times cruel (an accurate portrayal), and the younger Bennet girls are flippant, worldly, and as vacuous as is to be expected.

After the story's characters and setting have been established, the narrative is certainly readable but I felt the romance, wit, and likability of the retelling were missing. A part of the original story's success is its ability to portray Elizabeth and Darcy as both complicated and conceited, and yet truly enjoyable and relatable characters: I found I did not like nor root for anyone within Eligible; messes seemed to be of the characters' own making and the romantic relationships felt empty and shallow.

The story takes cruder turns and consequently fell short of the mastery achieved in the original tale. Retelling classics is always a risk and yet appeals to editors and writers who know it will sell well given Jane Austen's lasting legacy.



July 12, 2017

Book Review: Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

Gold Fame Citrus

by Claire Vaye Watkins

Genre: Science Fiction, Dystopian
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Length: 339 pages
Published: September 29, 2015
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Thank you to Riverhead Books and Goodreads for sending me an advanced copy of Gold Fame Citrus. It's fun to get your hands on a book before it hits the shelves. 

My Goodreads Rating: 2 out of 5 stars (Did Not Finish) 

Official Book Summary:

"In a parched southern California of the near future, Luz, once the poster child for the country’s conservation movement, and Ray, an army deserter turned surfer, are squatting in a starlet’s abandoned mansion. Most “Mojavs,” prevented by armed vigilantes from freely crossing borders to lusher regions, have allowed themselves to be evacuated to encampments in the east. Holdouts like Ray and Luz subsist on rationed cola and water, and whatever they can loot, scavenge, and improvise.

For the moment, the couple’s fragile love, which somehow blooms in this arid place, seems enough. But when they cross paths with a mysterious child, the thirst for a better future begins.

Immensely moving, profoundly disquieting, and mind-blowingly original, Watkins’s novel explores the myths we believe about others and tell about ourselves, the double-edged power of our most cherished relationships, and the shape of hope in a precarious future that may be our own."

My Review:

Before I start my review, I just have to confess that while I try not to judge books by their covers, that does not mean that they don't grab my eyes and that I don't appreciate them. Isn't the foil cover lovely?

OK, I did not finish reading this book. It's an interesting premise--struggling to survive in a drought-ridden world--but the main character, Luz, was very passive and dependent upon her male paramour for absolutely everything. I had no desire to follow her story any further. I like strong female characters: they can be complicated, make mistakes, or even be the villains, but if they are passive and resigned to be weak, no thank you.

I was also put off by romance immediately taking center stage in the plot. As readers of Jactionary know, I do not tend to enjoy contemporary romance novels. In young adult novels, if the romance is secondary it's more welcome. Gold Fame Citrus isn't marketed as a romance so this threw me and ultimately acted as strike two in why I set it aside. Having not finished it, maybe things shift in the plot later on, I don't know. I do have a couple of friends who really liked the novel, but I just wasn't the right audience for it. 

Book received from the publisher.

July 10, 2017

Book Review: Always by Sarah Jio

Always

by Sarah Jio

Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Romance, Chick Lit
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Length: 288 pages
Published: February 7, 2017
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Thank you to Ballantine Books and Goodreads for sending me a copy of Always.

My Goodreads Rating: 1.5 or 2 out of 5 stars (Did Not Finish)

Official Book Summary:

"From the New York Times bestselling author of Blackberry Winter and The Violets of March comes a gripping, poignant novel about the kind of love that never lets go, and the heart's capacity to remember.

While enjoying a romantic candlelit dinner with her fiance, Ryan, at one of Seattle's chicest restaurants, Kailey Crane can't believe her good fortune: She has a great job as a writer for the Herald and is now engaged to a guy who is perfect in nearly every way. As they leave the restaurant, Kailey spies a thin, bearded homeless man on the sidewalk. She approaches him to offer up her bag of leftovers, and is stunned when their eyes meet, then stricken to her very core: The man is the love of her life, Cade McAllister.

When Kailey met Cade ten years ago, their attraction was immediate and intense everything connected and felt 'right.' But it all ended suddenly, leaving Kailey devastated. Now the poor soul on the street is a faded version of her former beloved: His weathered and weary face is as handsome as Kailey remembers, but his mind has suffered in the intervening years. Over the next few weeks, Kailey helps Cade begin to piece his life together, something she initially keeps from Ryan. As she revisits her long-ago relationship, Kailey realizes that she must decide exactly what and whom she wants.

Alternating between the past and the present, Always is a beautifully unfolding exploration of a woman faced with an impossible choice, a woman who discovers what she's willing to save and what she will sacrifice for true love."


Excerpt:

"Ryan rolls down his window. 'Kailey, is everything okay?'

I nod and take a step back, then numbly walk to the car, get in.

I don't tell Ryan that I am not okay.

I don't tell Ryan that I know this man.

I don't tell him that his name is Cade and he used to be the love of my life." 

My Review:

I did not finish reading this book.

The first chapter is only a handful of pages long and by the time I finished its last few lines (see the excerpt above) it was clear how the novel would end, so I figured there was no point to reading it.

Clearly, it's a story of second-chance romance. Perhaps this would interest other readers, but contemporary romance novels are not my jam. Yes, I should have known this before starting the book--my bad.

Book received from the publisher.

UP