Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Lessons in Grieving

The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler

You'd think the quiet lives that Dorothy and Aaron led would end uneventfully. Then the storm came, which caused a tree to fall through their house, killing Dorothy. After Aaron moved in with his sister, Dorothy started coming back from the dead. As she shows up more and more, Aaron finds he's looking not only at their relationship, but his whole life. That includes the destroyed house, his disabled body, his bossy sister and a job in the family publishing business.

Anne Tyler is famous for taking the most ordinary and forgettable people and turning them into to extraordinary and unforgettable characters. She does this by shaking up their run-of-the-mill lives with some kind of a twist. One can almost imagine her handing these situations to her characters and then sitting back to watch how they cope. The only thing left is for Tyler to write it all down. This is probably why I enjoy her books so much. Her characters come off feeling so natural and real, especially because they're all flawed - sometimes physically, sometimes psychologically, and sometimes a bit of both.

In this novel, the twist is the 'ghost' of Dorothy. What is interesting is that she shows up seemingly as solid as any living person, which bewilders Aaron. Not because she's appearing at random times, but because no one else seems to be noticing that Dorothy is there. Taking into account that we all know that there is no such thing as ghosts; one would think that this is a step in a different direction for Tyler. However, all this is done without even the smallest indication that anything magical or supernatural is going on. Instead, we accept this apparition because we feel for Aaron, and we know that grief and mourning can sometimes have strange effects on us. What's more, just because someone talks to, or even sees a dead loved one, that doesn't mean that they're crazy; it just means that they miss them terribly. Tyler describes this beautifully when Aaron tells the reader about seeing Dorothy, saying
But put yourself in my place. Call to mind a person you've lost that you will miss to the end of your days, and then imagine happening upon that person out in public. … You wouldn't question your sanity, because you couldn't bear to think it wasn't real. And you certainly wouldn't demand explanations, or alert anybody nearby, or reach out to touch this person, not even if you'd been feeling that one touch was worth giving up everything for. You would hold your breath. You would keep as still as possible. You would will your loved one not to go away ever again.

As Aaron works through his grief, these visitations actually help him look at his world differently. He just has to figure out where to start. Tyler is also a master of troubled relationships. Not that all the relationships are problematic, but that there is always something in them that is off-key. Readers will see these difficulties as trivial and easy to overcome, but the characters themselves - like real people - seem to find them insurmountable. This makes her characters all the more believable, and while we might get frustrated about some of the ways they act, we realize that had we been in the same situation, we might not have been any more sensible.

It is this naked, yet loving portrait of everyday people and life that really shines through in Tyler's novels and "The Beginner's Goodbye" is no exception. What's more, she does it in such a straight-forward, simple style that the prose just envelopes you and seeps into your very pores. Furthermore, at fewer than 200 pages, the book just flies by. This bittersweet novel will tug at your heartstrings and make you feel both happy and sad, without anything maudlin or sappy. There's little more to add than this book deserves a full five stars out of five and is highly recommended. 

"The Beginner's Goodbye" by Anne Tyler is available from, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook or audiobook from iTunes, in paperback from The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, or from an IndieBound store near you.

This is a revised version of my review on Curious Book Fans that also appears on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady, and previously published on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

More on the Print vs eBook Debate

While wandering around Pinterest, I came upon this graphic, which accompanied the article Libraries are Forever: E-books and Print Books Can Coexist, on the blog. I highly recommend you read it!

Please include attribution to with this graphic.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Is Chick-Lit getting a Bum Rap?

First Impressions


Let's face it, the moment we hear the term "chick-lit" our minds immediately go directly to those cheap books our mothers (or at least my mother) used to buy from the supermarket. You know the ones; they have very distinctive covers. Mostly you'll see a man's bare, upper body, rippled with muscles, in extremely close proximity to a woman who seems about to faint. Sometimes she'll be wearing one of those dresses that have tight corsets and push her boobs up to enhance an overflowing d├ęcolletage, which is only partially hidden beneath delicately gathered paper-thin muslin. (I've always thought that the tightness of their outfits were to blame for these women looking semi-conscious.) Those are the so-called "bodice-rippers" that Harlequin is still churning out to this day.

The newer version of this genre has been delicately renamed as romance fiction. However, you'll still be able to spot these a mile away - once again, because of their covers. Now the women are in haute couture satin dresses, silky lingerie or lacy wedding gowns. If there's a man in the picture, even if his upper torso is hidden, the guy's six-pack will be straining underneath its rice paper thin cotton covering. (Yes, yes - book; cover; don't judge - but how can you not?) Both of these are basically damsel in distress books, where the woman is only waiting for her white knight to gallop up on his trusty steed and sweep her away to safety and a happily ever after life of lust and luxury. But these are just sensationalist pulp fiction novels, and they shouldn't really be lumped together with the chick-lit books.

Chick-Lit and Women's Fiction

For quite some time now, publishers have been putting out books in the genre of women's fiction. This clever use of semantics immediately brings to mind a book that is more sophisticated than what you'd get in a romance novel. Where the former piles on steamy love affairs and sexual innuendo, the latter has real relationships. Not that all of these books are devoid of sex; but here muscles alone do not make the man.

Admittedly, many books in this genre get the chick-lit label because they are mostly fluff. Those are the ones that can be summed up with either the protagonist having or lacking everything a woman could want (man, job, home, money and looks). We know from the onset that she's either going to lose one, some or all of these, and have to rebuild her life, or she'll be going after (or accidentally obtaining) one, some or all of the missing pieces to this fictional puzzle of a perfect life. The fluffier of these stories center on the man in these women's lives, and the finding, getting, keeping or regaining of him.

The books that move beyond this fluff are those that seem to hold onto the women's fiction label. They take into account that not every woman's existence is defined by her romantic relationship status. She is a far more complex woman who can't be bothered to sit around wallowing in self-pity until some guy comes to rescue her. She's going to depend on her own intelligence and wits to get her through.

But even with this distinction, most of these books are still being called chick-lit - probably because the protagonist is female, which might be less appealing to male readers. One could easily put Jane Austin's novels into this category, and rightly so, since all of her stories are female centric, despite Austin's penchant for her protagonists pursuit of husbands. And yet, no one would dare use that derogatory term on the works of such a classic writer.

Personally, I think that there's a whole level of excellent women's fiction out there that's being snubbed as chick-lit. These are the books that even male readers might enjoy - especially those who lean towards literary fiction rather than typical macho genres. Take for instance, the Irish writer Maggie O'Farrell. Although her earlier novels were probably marketed as chick-lit, for the most part, her books can't be called "fluffy" in my opinion. This is because almost all of her female characters have far more important things to worry about than whether some guy likes them.

Where the Bum Rap Starts

As with Jane Austin's works, there are many books that are heavily relationship centric that shouldn't be ignored by being tossed into the chick-lit pile. One perfect example of this is Jessica Brockmole's debut novel Letters from Skye. Yes, it's all about finding, losing and regaining love, but it is so well written that it rises above simple romance and becomes a beautifully crafted character driven story. But some people may still call it chick-lit. Looking over just the books I've reviewed so far this year, I can pick out three that might be considered to be chick-lit. These are Lessons in French by Hilary Reyl, Melting the Snow on Hester Street by Daisy Waugh and The Wednesday Daughters by Meg Waite Clayton. But if you look at my reviews, you'll see that all of these have far more to them than just man chasing.

This is why I think the genre called chick-lit is getting a bum rap. From my experience, far too many books that are either written by women or have female protagonists get automatically lumped into this less than flatteringly named genre. Yes, some of the books that get this label are just fun romps in search of hearts and flowers. But there are just as many, if not more that go far beyond being superficial. So, the next time someone suggests a women's fiction book to you, I'd strongly recommend you not dismiss it offhand as chick-lit. If you do, you might just be missing out reading something really special. 

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Friday, September 6, 2013

A Life in the Day...

Ostrich by Matt Greene

Alex is the only one in his primary school allowed to wear non-religious headgear. That's because he's been bald since he had his brain surgery. But that doesn't matter much to Alex, even though it could make him feel - as he calls it - "ostrichsized (which is a better word for excluded (because ostriches can't fly so they often feel left out.))" No, Alex is concentrating on getting a scholarship to a good middle school. He's also trying to figure out what's behind all the strange things that have been happening since he had his tumor removed.

This is a story that slides. What I mean by this is that what it seems to be at the beginning, turns into something else at the end. Where we think Alex's journey is taking him turns out to be towards somewhere else. And, apparently, even Alex doesn't know exactly what his story is about, until it unfolds. Some have compared this book to Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time." What these two books have in common are the mysteries that need to be solved, and the fact that they are told in first person from the perspective of a young boy, both of whom feel like they are outsiders in their own ways. They're also both very intelligent with complex thought processes, and are each studying for an important exam. Furthermore, neither of these two boys can escape their conditions nor the impact that those conditions have on their lives.

However, the huge difference here is in the conclusion of these two books (which I refuse to reveal), and why they end so differently, which makes me think that these two books could also be considered exact opposites of each other. (And Alex would be the first one to tell you that for two things to be opposites they have to have quite a few things in common.)

Despite it having a young protagonist as its narrator, this doesn't completely belong in the category of a young adult book. There are far too many things younger readers - even those as precocious as Alex - might not understand. However, I can easily see this being read and thoroughly enjoyed by this age group - and that's an anomaly. One reason for this is because Alex is such a wonderfully built character, who practically jumps off the page and into the reader's warm embrace. Yet he has enough of those disturbing age-related qualities that you'll want to slap him almost as often as you'll want to smother him. Younger readers will identify with many of the situations that Alex finds himself in, while older readers will embrace him, as if he was their own child.

Some have called this a coming-of-age novel, but I'm not sure if that is accurate, either. While Alex does come to an ultimate realization regarding himself and his life, he doesn't really change because of it. Rather, those around him - his parents and his friends - are the ones who change. And this is what piques Alex's curiosity and make him go on this intellectual journey. What keeps this from being overly sentimental is Greene's astute use of humor, which in many cases will make the reader laugh out loud. This humor infects the whole story, and gives it a very honest and open tone that is chock full of energy, if slightly hyperactive. Unfortunately, when you start telling a story so dynamically, it isn't easy to sustain. Because of this I felt the book dragged in the middle for a while before it regained vitality. This is my only criticism of this book.

I have to admit finding it difficult to review this book. On the one hand, I want to make sure that I can get across just how special I found this novel. On the other hand, if I say too much, it might be considered a spoiler. Let's just say that Matt Greene has given us a very unique story with a loveable protagonist who will take you on a weird and wonderful ride with his life and medical condition. I sincerely recommend this book and give it a solid four out of five stars.

"Ostrich" by Matt Greene, published on August 27, 2013 (September 24, 2013) by Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine is available from, Amazon UK, Amazon CA, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada and Australia), from iTunes (iBook and Audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Better World Books and Alibris, or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a review copy of this book via NetGalley. My thanks to the publishers for sending me a review copy via NetGalley. 

This is a slightly revised version of my review on Curious Book Fans and Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady), which also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network. 


Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Poetic Memoir of Ondaatje's visits to Sri Lanka

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje, author of "The English Patient," was born in Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon). In 1954, at the age of 11, he left for England and in 1962 he moved to Canada. Only as an adult did Ondaatje go back to visit the island of his birth, which he called the "pendant off the ear of India." While there, he investigated his family history through the places and people still there. This is his account of these visits.

Sounds boring, doesn't it? However, that couldn't be farther from the truth. In fact, if the stories that Michael Ondaatje tells in "Running in the Family" weren't true, this would have been an amazingly beautiful book of fiction. As it is, what Ondaatje gives us here is an incredibly evocative and poetic memoir that stirs the soul and enwraps its readers at every turn.

Do we learn about his family? Yes, but with wit and humor and the idiosyncrasies behind the people that make them so uniquely loveable (and sometimes despicable). Do we hear about the places where his people lived and worked? Yes, but with the strange and amazing ghosts and mysteries together with the tropical flora and fauna that makes them come alive in all their exotic ecstasy and danger. Is there history of the island included? Yes, but only where events either are vital to or can enhance the stories about all these fascinating people and places.

More than anything, the writing here is exquisite. Every page is as rich and as smooth as silky cream. Every scene is a vibrant painting evoking pictures that come alive from the words. Every story is told with both the wisdom of hindsight and the twinkle of a memory that might just be ever so slightly exaggerated to make the listener react with anything from a small giggle to a huge guffaw. And while all this might sound like sensory overload, I can once again assure you that Ondaatje has paced this to absolute perfection so that we feel he is taking us on a trip that winds around from the shore through the plains to the mountains and back again - with ample time for both the journey and to reflect on all that we've seen.

There's no getting around it, I'm totally and hopelessly in love with this book. Every aspect of it is pure perfection and I cannot recommend it more. I'd give it six stars out of five if I could (and will be eternally grateful to my darling husband for digging around in my wish list and buying it for me as a birthday present)!

"Running in the Family" by Michael Ondaatje is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA, Barnes & Noble, Kobo eBooks (USA, Canada and Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Better World Books or Alibris, as well as from an IndieBound store near you. This is a slightly revised version of my review that appears on Curious Book Fans, Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady) and previously appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

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