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Monday, December 26, 2016

My Year in Books

 Dear Readers, It's been a stellar year in books for me.  According to my Goodreads site,  I should hit the 50 mark by the end of the week. We are going on a family trip tomorrow and I hope to read two more books by the end of the week. I'm currently reading S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders for the first time ever. My dear friend Evelyn gave me a 50th Anniversary signed copy for Christmas and I'm ashamed I've never read it. My older daughter adores that book and taught it to her eighth graders last year. So I will finish it before 2016 ends. I'm concurrently reading the sixth of the Canadian author Louise Penny's mystery novels featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. These books have been a real delight to me and I have at least six more in the series! They are my late-night-don't-turn-on-the-light reads on my Kindle Paperwhite.

But today I want to share my highest rated books of the year. My five star books this year were: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (my reviewThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (my review), When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr.  


My four star books included all The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante (my review), A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, Miss Jane by Brad Watson, Arcadia by Lauren Groff, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, Dispatches from Pluto by Richard Grant, Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton, and a few more. 

The longest book I read was A Little Life and the shortest book was Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Both were equally rewarding.  Jon Michaud, reviewing A Little Life in the New Yorker, said: "Yanagihara’s novel can also drive you mad, consume you, and take over your life. Like the axiom of equality, 'A Little Life' feels elemental, irreducible—and, dark and disturbing though it is, there is beauty in it." This book draws you into the story of a post graduate friendship between four men in New York City. The story travels forward as the men grow older and one character's past becomes to reveal itself and you are already hooked on the book and can't stop reading even as the story grows dark. Now that I think about this book, I'm not sure why I didn't give it five stars.

A Little Life is an amazing work of fiction. So add that to my five star list! Who knows, I might even have one more before this year ends. 

















Monday, October 24, 2016

Books and More Books

I have a stack of books in my office to share with you, my dear readers, on this blog. It's gotten kind of overwhelming because I haven't been able to write for so long and the books keep coming. Goodreads tells me that I've read 39 books so far this year - actually 13,410 pages in 2016! 
And the last one I read is the best. I finally read Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Wow! I loved this book so much that I wanted to start it over again when I finished. I've long admired Neil Gaiman, but never read a single one of his novels. A story here and there, an essay, but none of his novels. The book about memory and dreams and fantasy was so lovely. A grown man is looking back at his childhood through his seven-year-old eyes. I found fantasy tinged with reality in this glorious tale that resonates with truth. Gaiman says, "Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good." This tale is a memory that is fantastical yet realistic in so many ways. The story moves quickly as the reader is drawn into another world. But you'll just have to read it to find out more. 

I also must tell you about Commonwealth, Ann Patchett's new book, which I read as soon as it was released earlier this month. I'm a huge fan of Patchett and her books about everyday people thrown together in unusual circumstances, and I'd heard this one was a bit autobiographical. So I was eager to read this book and I was not disappointed. Just after finishing the book, I heard her read a long passage and be interviewed here in Houston along side Lauren Groff (Fates and Furies). Patchett explained that the book starts with a random drunk kiss at a party and covers the impact of that kiss over the next fifty years. The book starts almost at one character's birth and goes almost to another character's death. Patchett said, "When I think about marriage, I think about divorce." The book is about a blended family and the consequences of the parent's actions on the step siblings. Sometimes it is hard to keep up with the children and who is who as the narrators switch. But the reward is in the story. Each chapter almost stands on its own, but the larger story connects the smaller ones. Yes, Ann's father was a policeman in LA and she grew up with her mother in a southern state.  There's a lot of memoir but a lot of fiction too in this wonderful novel. 

Stay tuned and I'll be back soon with more books for you!

Friday, July 8, 2016

Hello Old Friend!

Even though it may not have been one of her best books, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Anne Tyler's Vinegar Girl.  The Baltimore setting, the quirky characters all evoked Tyler's fictional world revealed in her previous 20 novels.  I have always enjoyed Tyler's books and it felt like greeting an old friend to settle in with this one. Maybe the book wasn't up to the standards of her 1988 Pulitzer Prize winning Breathing Lessons or my personal favorite, The Accidental Tourist, but it was still clever and entertaining.

A quick read, great for summer relaxation, Tyler subtitles The Vinegar Girl - The Taming of the Shrew retold.  In Tyler's story, Kate Battista is the shrew, a 28-year-old nursery school assistant still living with her father and younger sister. Kate resists the overtures of his father's Russian lab assistant,  Pyotr, who needs to find a wife to prevent deportation.  Just like Shakespeare's comedy, Kate is eventually "tamed" and marries Pyotr. Whether it is a happy union or not will be yours to discover when you read this short novel. Though predictable at times,The Vinegar Girl lots of fun for a summer day. I received this book from Blogging for Books.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Delving into the Past with the Present in Mind

The Mapmaker's Children by Sarah McCoy appealed to my love of historical fiction.  I was intrigued to read about the family of abolitionist John Brown and what happened them after he was hanged in the mid-1800s. McCoy created a compelling portrait of his Sarah Brown and I felt great sympathy for her as she navigated life as a feminist and an abolitionist on her own right. There were some great lines especially this one just after Sarah's father had been executed for helping slaves be free. It sounds like it could have applied to current issues: " People are more capable of love and benevolence than they realized. The collective public voice did not always represent the individual heart. Yes, there are terrible men doing terrible deeds to other men. Men in this very town who abused others based on the color of their skin..."

But McCoy decided to create a dual story with a modern day woman living near Harper's Ferry, West Virginia and that was irritating. The switching back and forth between the historical drama of Sarah Brown and the story of Eden Anderson and her family travails just didn't work for me. Yes, there were many connections between the two plot lines but they still seemed inadequate and contrived. I enjoyed each story separately for different reasons, but I didn't like them side by side.


This book was similar in many ways to The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Klein, which I read for my book club earlier this year. In The Orphan Train, the plot lines switched back and forth and the book felt like a middle school audience novel. At least in that book the different stories come together (albeit predictably) in the end. But I didn't like that book either. Switching between historical fiction and modern stories has been overdone and The Mapmaker's Children felt amateurish. I feel guilty giving a book a negative review, because I appreciate the effort and know I couldn't do any better. But I feel readers need to know. I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Neapolitan Delight

Dear Readers,  
Since you've heard from me last, I've been immersed in the amazing four book series by pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante, beginning with My Brilliant Friend. I took breaks to read The Golem and the Jinni for my book club (more on this gem to come) and to watch Season 4 of "House of Cards" on Netflix and go to Australia for two weeks and type and format five anthologies of student poetry for my job. But through it all, I binge read these beautiful Neapolitan Novels. 

The series is called the Neapolitan Novels because the books are about Naples, Italy as much as they are about the friendship between two women, Lila and Lenu. Lila and Lenu meet as children and grow up together in a tight knit, impoverished neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Lenu narrates the books and honestly evaluates their friendship over the years. The people of the neighborhood play an important supporting role as does the backdrop of the politics of Italy during the years beginning with the 1960s.  These two intelligent girls have a rough upbringing with violence and restrictions at every turn. The girls take different paths, but their journeys continue to converge with intensity and heartbreak. 


These books just blew me away. The novels were written in Italian and translated by the talented Ann Goldstein, a New Yorker editor and celebrity translator, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.  The phrasing and descriptions and intensity of the novels are all engrossing. 


What makes these books even more interesting is the mystery of the identity of Elena Ferrante. The last of the four books, The Story of the Lost Child, has reached the shortlist for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. This is the first time a Booker prize winner might be anonymous.  All that is known about the writer is that she was born in Naples. She has been quoted from a letter to her editors as saying, "Books, once they are written, have no need of their authors." James Wood in a New Yorker article in 2013 said that not only did the author grow up in Naples, but she is a mother, has a classics degree, and is now unmarried. So as I read the intensely personal novels, I couldn't help but think that the main character Lenu, short for Elena, who is a writer and narrates the novels, is the author and that these fictional books are actually partially autobiographical.  I love that Elena Ferrante has no need for the limelight and I respect her privacy, but I hope that the mystery of the author will be solved one day. But for now, read this series as soon as you can!



Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Jazz Delights in Philly

2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas was an unexpected delight. I knew nothing about the book before I read this first novel by Marie-Helene Bertino. The story of the motherless Madeleine, the lovesick teacher Sarina who saw her potential and Lorca, the owner of the failing jazz club, The Cat's Pajamas. These three characters stories weave in and out of a single 24 hour day in Philadelphia. Strangers and bystanders also jump in and out of the story as we get a real idea of the world in which the novel's characters live. I think Philadelphia could also be called another main character in the book. 

Madeleine is a spunky, cussing, cigarette smoking, jazz singing fifth grader who is having a bad day. It's Christmas Eve Eve and Madeleine is about to experience her first Christmas without her beloved mother. But that's not all. In a day that starts with promise, she is expelled from school after an alteration with a classmate. Her teacher Sarina has just moved back to Philadelphia after a divorce and is anticipating seeing her high school crush at a dinner party that evening. Meanwhile, we also follow the story of the big-hearted Lorca, who inherited The Cat's Pajamas from his father and has struggled to bring the club back to the days of its jazz greatness.  All these stories connect and disconnect to create one wonderful narrative. Take a chance on this debut novel that I was lucky enough to receive from Blogging for Books

Friday, January 29, 2016

Saving the World, One Book at a Time


 My love for books has spilled out of the house and onto our front yard. Yes, my husband and I are now proud stewards for Little Free Library charter #26074 at our home here in Houston. This wonderful little library was our Christmas gift to each other from www.littlefreelibrary.org.  

We purchased our library already assembled, but many people build their own. My wonderful husband and stepson got it all set up and now we are promoting literacy from our front lawn. We initially stocked our LFL with books for all ages and we hope neighbors will stop by and take whatever appeals to them. Visitors can return the books that they take, or not. They can also bring their own books to share with others. LFL books are always a gift – never for sale!

If you didn't already know, the Little Free Library movement is rapidly growing. Many libraries have been installed and thousands of books shared around the country as well as around the world.  Little Free Library’s mission is to:
·      Promote literacy and the love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide.
·      To build a sense of community as we share skills, creativity and wisdom across generations.  Check out the LFL story at www.littlefreelibrary.org.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Fight the Stupids: Support All Your Local Book Shops

I am happy to report here that Maple Street Book Shop in New Orleans is alive and well. The reports of her death are greatly exaggerated. The venerated 50 year old shop is showing her age, but still ticking. My brother and I visited Maple Street last Friday as part of our quest to visit all the independent bookshops in New Orleans in one day. Luckily for us, but unfortunately for the city, there are only three. But three independent bookstores (all in roughly the same area of the city) are not bad, considering that the much, much larger city where I currently reside has only two. But I digress. Maple Street owners have decided to stay open based on customer response. Lately all the old faithfuls and some new converts have been flocking to the literary institution, which first opened its doors in 1964, to buy books. According to manager/owner Gladin Scott, Christmas sales exceeded expectations and they will stay open at least another year. So, dear readers, don't stop to read the rest of this post, get yourself to Maple Street Bookstore in New Orleans and buy some books. They take book exchanges and have a great selection of used books as well as a fairly extensive inventory (for a bookstore that almost closed) of new books of all types. On the down side, I am thinking they are still having trouble paying their electric bill because it was COLD in there. It was a chilly day in New Orleans and even colder in the bookstore. Thankfully, there were space heaters which helped a lot. So if you buy all your books from Maple Street, they might be able to turn up the heat.

To backtrack, my brother was visiting New Orleans from the Bay Area and we decided to visit all the independent bookstores in the city on our day together. He has fond memories of driving three hours from our hometown in our mother's station wagon during the late sixties and early seventies to visit Maple Street. Once there, he spent many solitary hours exploring the inventory and discovering such treasures as the poetry of Gary Synder before driving home later the same day with a car filled with books. Every time he returns to New Orleans, he re-visits his "first" bookstore, Maple Street. He was alarmed to hear they were closing earlier this year, so we decided to check the pulse of the city by stopping in Maple Street and the two other bookstores.  
We started at Octavia Books, the newest kid on the block in terms of New Orleans book shops. Located uptown near Whole Foods and a bustling section of Magazine Street, the bookstore opened in 2000 and was the first to re-open after Katrina in 2005. Octavia has become a favorite of mine as I mentioned in that earlier blog post. But on this visit with my brother, we found the recommendations a bit hollow. The employee who helped us based his suggestions on what was selling well, which was helpful, but not as rich as if he had read the books himself. At each store my brother asked for a literary page turner, in the vein of The Buried Giant. A tricky question if you haven't read that wonderful book by Kazuo Ishiguro. At Octavia, the book recommendations were weak. But it was a still a pleasant visit. I came away with Celeste Ny's Everything I Never Told You. The store has a relaxed, literary vibe and is around the corner from my current favorite breakfast spot, Toast. So you can't bet that! 
Next we drove over to the nearby Tulane University area and visited Maple Street as previously described. We didn't linger because of the cold, but the recommendations were sound and I bought two books there (because... SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE!). I had to buy Elaine Ferrante's first book in her series because it is apparently flying off the shelves in all three stores we visited. This is a literary novel, not on the bestseller list, that is doing quite well in New Orleans.  I also bought the only Ellen Gilchrist book that I don't already own (because...Ellen Gilchrist).
Last, we went up St. Charles to the Garden District Book Shop on Washington. This little gem has been around for 38 years and was the busiest of the three bookstores we visited. Customers were in and out. Books were being sold and discussed. The bookseller that helped us had read the books she recommended and very enthusiastic.  We lingered awhile and my brother purchased Station Eleven (which I enjoyed last summer). He almost bought the Salman Rushdie but decided to wait until it was in paperback (I don't now if I can wait that long). Garden District Book Shop has survived the opening and later closing of the big box bookstore Borders a few blocks down on St. Charles Street. The vitality of this shop is probably due partly to its location in The Rink and because New Orleanians tend to support local retailers, especially beloved book shops. Visiting all the bookstores in New Orleans was a perfect way to spend a chilly day in the city.  After that, we drove by all three of the Confederate monuments that the city is removing, but that is another story for another day.


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

College Murder Story Redux

In Bradstreet Gate, a first novel by Robin Kirman, college friendships are tested after an enigmatic young professor is accused of murdering one of his students. The ivy covered walls of Harvard are the setting for the convergence of the three college friends and the strange professor who is never convicted for the murder of a student who is not one of the central characters. The victim is a peripheral part of the story. The novel starts at the time of the college murder and covers the next ten years for the three friends and their odd connection with the accused professor.


I devoured the book, which could be called a psychological thriller, pretty quickly because I wanted to see what happened. But I was sorely disappointed by the ending. The writer introduced a couple of new characters in the very last bit of the book and it felt disjointed. Many plot threads are never really explained. The writer goes into a lot of depth with the three main characters and the professor, but some of the plot gets lost. The pacing of the book is not what you'd expect from a thriller.  Some reviewers are comparing the novel to The Secret History by Donna Tartt . There is no comparison. Overall, this book was a disappointment. I received the novel from Blogging for Books for this review.