Book Event

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Apocalypse later?

On October 14th, millions of people all over the world disappeared. One minute they were there and the next they were gone. If it was "The Rapture," many evangelists were disappointed to learn that they were still alive while agnostics, atheists, and Muslims were among the missing. Children had to cope without parents, friends were separated, and the survivors were left to try and sort out their emotions. Three years after this horrible event, the town of Mapleton held a parade commemorating "The Departed Heroes' Day of Remembrance and Reflection " to aid its residents in their quest to move on. The speeches were disrupted, however, by a demonstration by the Guilty Remnant, a group of white-robed, cigarette smoking devotees whose mission was to make everyone continue to grieve. As the townspeople of Mapleton spin out of control, they experiment with religous cults, and face painful truths as they try to manufacture some semblance of normality.

Tom Perrotta, noted for making suburbia represent the universe, has written the best 9/11 novel yet in The Leftovers, even though it technically does not deal with 9/11. Using "The Rapture" as a metaphor for the randomness of the attack on the World Trade Center, Perrotta makes the reader experience the plight of those who were left behind and are charged with the obligation to keep on living.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

"Good parents give their children Roots and Wings."

Cam Lightsey gave up her hippy chick counter-culture house in Sycamore Heights to raise her daughter in the staid, but educationally superior Parkhaven neighborhood. It was just one of the many sacrifices that she would make for Aubrey, but it was certainly worth it to know that her little girl would finally escape to college in a few days. Cam was all that Aubrey had for parents, as her father left the family to become a "Nextarian" (read Scientologist) when their daughter turned two. Still he managed to finagle a trust fund from the Nextarians that would at least cover her first year at a very good school, if only she would go to the bank with her mother to claim it.

Aubrey, a seventeen year old band geek was a good student, an obedient daughter, and a girl totally sick of her programmed boring life. Forced to march out on the hot field by her band teacher, she first faints then throws up on the school star quarterback. Miraculously they begin a friendly relationship that morphes into something else, radically changing her life and goals, much to her mother's dismay.

The Gap Year, by Sarah Bird, alternates between Cam and Aubrey's voices, each telling the same story with radically different views. Exploring the mother-daughter relationship with skill and compassion, Bird examines the pain of letting go and the struggles to find oneself and begin an independent life.

I must confess that Ms. Bird wrote one of my all-time favorite books, The Mommy Club, in the early nineties. The Gap Year has the same quirky romantic quality to it, combined with the poignancy of growing up, both on the child and the adult levels. This is a very satisfying read.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mr. Tiffany, a Pain in the Glass

Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland is one of those books that took me a little while to get immersed in, but after a few chapters, I was hooked. I became totally absorbed in the world of New York City at the turn of the century. We get a taste of both the poverty the newly arrived immigrants experienced in the Lower East Side, and we also see how the other half lived, the mansions of the monied Fifth Avenue crowd. The author has a knack for making the reader feel as he/she is part of the main character's circle of friends and is experiencing the exciting events of that time period. When Clara and her colleagues are confronted with a picket line, it was both nerve-wracking and thrilling.

Vreeland was inspired to write this historical novel after seeing the exhibit, A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls, at the New York Historical Society. After undertaking meticulous research on Louis Comfort Tiffany, the culture of New York City during the Gilded Age, and immersing herself in Clara Driscoll's letters, Vreeland proceeded to write a story (one that reflects many of the events mentioned in the letters) about the unsung artistic contributions of the Women's Department in Tiffany Studios. It seems that those beautiful, celebrated leaded-glass lampshades were conceived and designed by Clara Driscoll and not Louis Tiffany! Unfortunately, Clara and her industrious team of women were never given any credit for their achievements. Tiffany probably only initially created the Women's Department because he wouldn't have to worry about them going on strike like the unionized male employees were capable of. Another chauvinistic policy of Tiffany's was that he wouldn't allow married women to work for him.

I ended up caring very much for Clara and her friends. I totally empathized with Clara's frustrations with not having her artistic accomplishments recognized as they should have been. Louis Tiffany is portrayed as a man with many faults. At times he appears capable of breaking out of his prejudices and old fashioned ways of thinking, but he never fully does. I guess that is what makes him a fascinating character.

Friday, May 6, 2011

East Meets West

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
by Helen Simonson

It’s been a long time since I’ve read such a delightful book. Helen Simonson certainly tackles many weighty issues such as discrimination, honor, family relationships, and greed but does so within the framework of a story that is whimsical, laugh-out funny and unforgettable.

Major Pettigrew, 68, is a very proper widower with a wonderful English sense of humor who resides in the quaint village of Edgecombe St. Mary in Sussex. As the novel opens he realizes that the local shopkeeper, Jasmina Ali, is someone he has a lot in common with and that he is attracted to her. Of course, a Pakistani woman is not exactly what his son Roger or the other inhabitants of the village envision for the Major. There is also the matter of a family heirloom, matched Churchill hunting rifles, that the Major is fighting to keep his greedy relatives (including his son)from selling because he feels it symbolizes his family’s stature.

There are lovely romantic scenes, ones that are a testament to the human spirit and those that have marvelous understated humor. The book is also a lesson to never give up on life or love. For those who love the charm of the "Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society", you're in for yet another treat.

A Death in Dublin

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
Skippy dies, there is no doubt about this. The title proclaims it and in the first pages of this book Daniel "Skippy" Juster collapses in the local doughnut shop, writing "tell Lori" in the raspberry filling that he manages to squeeze from a jelly doughnut before he expires. The next 600 something pages (it was originally published in three volumes) of this absorbing novel explores what brought Skippy to this end and what happens to those around him after the tragedy.

Set in an all-boy Catholic prep school in contemporary Dublin, the story draws you in to the lives of the teens and teachers who populate the school as they cope with the casual cruelties and deeper tragedies of life. Here you meet Ruprecht, Skippy's roommate, who is "A hamster-cheeked boy with a chronic weight problem.." and is obsessed with string theory. There is Lori the girl Skippy falls for, a beautiful but troubled girl from the neighboring girl's school and her drug dealing, bullying boyfriend Carl. Howard is an alumni of the school who has returned in disgrace from his job in finance to take up a teaching position and must deal with bored students and a stagnant relationship. Most of all there is Skippy, a seemingly unremarkable, sensitive 14 year old boy who is struggling to get by.

In this complex novel told from multiple viewpoints, Murray beautifully writes not only about the growing pains of adolescence, but also the struggles of adulthood. The characters may appear stereotypical at first, but the author fleshes them out and makes them seem like real people. This challenging book is worth the effort.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Red on Red-Dead On

Nick and Esposito are newly partnered detectives for the NYPD. Although completely different from each other, their styles work well; Nick is quiet, introspective, and a master of detail and trivia, while Espo is the quintessential rogue cop, always living both his personal and professional lives on the edge. While Espo prides himself on his cop instincts, what he doesn't know is that Nick became his partner to spy on him for the Bureau of Internal Affairs in exchange for a reassignment out of the hellish Bronx precinct. While they help each other on cases, Nick is lead investigator on an unidentified suicide found hanging from a tree in Inwood, and Espo has cultivated a drug informant who is working to get his prison sentence reduced. As both investigations proceed they begin to bleed into each other, as loyalties shift and secrets are revealed.

Edward Conlon, author of the prizewinning memoir Blue Blood is a detective with the New York City Police Department. His writing reflects his understanding of the way police each other and to the "bad guys" that they must take down. In his debut novel, Red on Red, a phrase describing the situation when team members turn on each other, the reader is given a window into this world of slimy characters and tough situations. Warning! You might need a nice hot shower after reading it.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Life in the "New Normal"

Annie is not terribly happy with her lot, but there are a few advantages to having her husband Tom sleep across the hall in their missing daughter's room. Primarily, her bedroom stays neat, clean, and feminine, as she is the only one residing there. She and Tom have high paying jobs and can afford to decorate their home as they wish, and in fact, Annie just made a down payment on a gourmet-style french stove. Her life isn't too bad.

But this uneasy peace is about to end. Their son Jake's marriage implodes, and his custom furniture business dries up. To save money, he moves back home to his parents' London flat. Tom's job as a BBC news producer is eliminated, and since he funds his mother's residence at an elite nursing home, he must move her to their house as well. Their youngest daughter who still lives at home wants to be a writer, but financial circumstances have changed and she challenges herself to find a salaried position. And there is still the question of Mia who disappeared five years ago after Tom made her choose between her family and her boyfriend.

Separate Beds by Elizabeth Buchan examines the "new normal" of this economy where nothing can be taken for granted. When the traditional support systems are removed, it forces people to seek new creatives ways of problem solving. This just might be the answer that Annie and Tom are searching for.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Room Without a View

by Emma Donoghue

(2011 Alex Award Winner)

Five-year-old Jack was born and has spent his entire short life in a single 11 x11 room. His only companion is his Ma, who was abducted 7 years ago by "Old Nick." Ma has tried to make a life for Jack under these terrible circumstances. She makes up games, teaches Jack how to read and tries to make sure he is safe, healthy and has enough to eat. Not easy tasks since "Old Nick," their only connection to the outside world other than the television, is unreliable and unfortunately getting more unstable. Ma is desperate and makes a plan that will change their lives forever.

Told entirely from the perspective of Jack, this novel is a fascinating look at a mother and child living under extraordinary circumstances. Jack is a bit precocious and it takes a little while to get used to his style of speaking -"I flat the chairs and put them beside Door against Clothes Horse."-but one gets drawn into his little world and the unique relationship between mother and son. I found myself holding my breath to find out what would happen to them. The first part of the book is the most absorbing. Although not much happens, Donoghue carefully crafts the the characters of Jack and Ma and the world in which they live. I can't say much about the second half without giving away too much, but it remains interesting. Overall this was a thought provoking novel that would make for for a good book discussion.

Getting Satisfaction Out of Life

I was a little ambivalent about reading Life by Keith Richards. Whenever I see this chap interviewed on television, he mumbles and is downright unintelligible. With this in mind, I wondered if his writing style would fare any better. After reading the first couple of pages, I breathed a sigh of relief. Mr. Richards' (aka Keef aka The Human Riff) prose was a revelation. He came across as warm, witty, and very personable. It was like spending time with an old friend.

There were actually quite a few revelations in this autobiography. Let's face it, Mr. Richards' singing voice has never been spectacular. So I was quite surprised to learn that he had been in his school choir and was such an exceptional singer that he performed at Westminster Abbey in front of Queen Elizabeth II. Unfortunately, once puberty arrived, his beautiful soprano voice departed.

But of course, my favorite revelation is his confession that he has had a secret desire to become a librarian! Who would have ever believed it? Imagine if he relinquished the crazy, hedonistic life of a rock star to become a quiet, reserved librarian? My mind spins with the possibility.

My favorite parts of the book were the stories about the early days of the Rolling Stones and the hard work and sacrifices that were made to make the group a success. It was no piece of cake as there was little pay for long hours, cold flats, and near starvation. But the Stones were serious about their music and Richards was a vital part of making them one of the greatest rock groups of all time.

The insight into some of the hit songs was illuminating. In fact, I would have liked to have read even more of that. In regards to his love life, he comes across as a gentleman, sort of. Of course, the book wouldn't have been complete if Richards didn't discuss his addiction to drugs. And does he ever, the stories are unbelievable. It is sad that someone who had been so focused on his music became so involved with drugs that the music became secondary. Richards started with the hard drugs around 1969 and didn't look back until around 1978. During that time period, his life became a series of strange episodes revolving around his world of drugs. It's amazing that he is still alive, he is truly the indestructible man.

I really did feel that after reading this book, I had gotten to know Keith Richards a lot better. His true personality, philosophy about life, motives, and values have been exposed to the world. This is truly one of the best memoirs ever written by a rock musician.