Saturday, December 31, 2016

Here, there and maybe nowhere

This must be the Place by Maggie O'Farrell

Daniel Sullivan is a bit of a mess; with more than his fair share of screwed up relationships, when he meets Claudette, it seems like things might take a different turn for once. That isn't to say that Claudette, the woman who ran away from a successful film career, has any better of a track record, but certainly love can overcome any difficulties. However, since some people never seem to learn from their mistakes, when do you know if you should give them a second chance?

I've read all of O'Farrell's novels to date, and so far, I've generally enjoyed her work, and in some cases, even enthralled (and you can read my overview of all her previous novels, here). O'Farrell really knows how to build characters, with interesting back-stories and then find fascinating situations for them. Often these situations surround some kind of relationship or another - be it romantic or familial, and sometimes, both. It is always obvious from her stories that she knows these characters down to their last freckles, and probably better than they know themselves. This also means that when O'Farrell reveals something that seems insignificant about any of them, she not only knows why that detail is important, but how it will play out in the end. O'Farrell's characters in this novel are no less loved and complex than in her previous work, and in fact, I found the two main characters - Claudette and Daniel - to be captivating and among her best.

One of the other things that O'Farrell is a true master of is taking different timelines - usually two - and carefully inching them towards each other. With them in play, she works to meld them together so that at just the right time, the essential connection is made, which segues into a twisting climax that can bring tears to your eyes, if not take your breath away. In her previous novel, "Instructions for a Heat Wave," O'Farrell was more ambitious with using only contemporary, parallel timelines, but with individual characters. While I generally enjoyed that book, I don't think she succeeded in evoking the same emotional heights as she did with her two previous novels.

On the other hand, O'Farrell fills this novel with chapters from the viewpoint of several different characters, dated from 1989 through 2016, and set anywhere between California and France. Thankfully, most of the viewpoints are Daniel's; most of the entries are from around 2010, and; a majority of the chapters takes place in Donegal, Ireland. These constancies make up the core of the action, with the other chapters scattered around them to give background or insights into the main protagonists by providing other viewpoints. The concept here is actually very creative, and in theory, this could have been very effective. Unfortunately, I don't think that O'Farrell fully pulled this off, since instead, we got something that felt somewhat disjointed. I found it hard to pinpoint a real climax here, and with that, I found it difficult to understand the motivations behind some of the actions and several of the reactions of the characters. This made me feel disconnected from the characters, which neutralized the emotional impact of the book overall.

This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy this book entirely. In fact, I found the idea behind story compelling and the characters fascinating (particularly Claudette), and O'Farrell's writing style as vivid as usual. I also particularly enjoyed O'Farrell's descriptions of Donegal and the house where Claudette and Daniel lived, which she succeeded in evoking dramatic pictures in my mind. That said, I think this is actually one of her weaker novels, and although I still recommend it to O'Farrell's fans, I can only give it three and a half stars out of five.

"This Must be the Place" by Maggie O'Farrell, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Scale of a Family

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Readers of Michael Chabon's novels know that he has a wonderful way of mixing reality and fiction, to the extent that the lines can feel very blurred. I noticed this in his "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," which won him the Pulitzer. Although that novel, (which I really should review someday) focuses on the rise of superhero comic books, with an aside into the realm of magical realism, this book takes on a much more personal form. Here, Chabon takes the last 10 days of his grandfather's life (well, step-grandfather, to be precise) and uses the recounting of the events of this man's life in order to create a fictional biography, or memoir. In this way, Chabon not only makes protagonists out of real-life relatives, but he also places himself and other family members into the cast of characters.

Apparently, Chabon's (step) grandfather led a fascinating life. As an engineer, he was fascinated with rocketry, and that led to his fascination with the space program. Before this, during WW2, he was one of the people assigned to hunt down the scientists working for the Nazis to bring them back to the US. His wife, Chabon's (biological) grandmother hid from the Nazis in a convent, where she gave birth to Chabon's mother (out of wedlock). The effect this had on her mental health ended up being both a point of attraction and frustration throughout their lives together. It also seems that without him, Chabon's mother might have had a worse childhood than she had (which was nowhere near ideal, and in some cases, appalling).

Bringing all of this together into something that was this entertaining seems practically impossible. However, Chabon's precision balancing the facts and history with the human elements of the characters kept this from feeling morbid or depressing. At the same time, Chabon carefully injected humor and compassion into the imaginary events and conversations, without ever trivializing anything or anyone involved. In this way, Chabon was able to blur the lines between imagination and reality, thereby bringing the whole story to life. This reminded me of how historical events can feel more real when dramatized, docu-drama style.

That Chabon used his own family members in this fashion also struck me as terribly brave. Not just because of how his family may or may not have reacted to this book, but because sometimes authors can actually get too close to their own characters. If this happens, we easily recognize this by their including too much detail, or finding ways to stick things in which are superfluous or irrelevant. That can often manifest with meandering texts of inexplicable tangents that flow from one off topic subject to another, ad tedium (a la some of John Irving's more recent novels). Chabon comes dangerously close to crossing this line (for example, with the whole bit about trying to hunt down a cat-killing boa constrictor, or all the perfectly scaled models he builds of rockets and spacecrafts), but thankfully succeeds in holding himself back, for the most part. What we have here is a gathering of accounts that feel loving, human and realistic, but somehow still a thing of fiction.

In his introduction, Chabon states that he wrote this novel as a sort of rebellion against the secrets his family kept, and which he felt were detrimental to them all. After his saying this, it was very impressive how Chabon leads us to his climactic twist dealing his family's ultimate secret, and potentially the most damaging one of all. What I loved was that Chabon slips this in with an "ah-ha" moment, instead of beating us on the head with it. That allowed him use this to just color everything he's written before then faintly, leaving you with questions that compel you to read to the close of the book. I would say more about this, but that might lead to spoilers, so just trust me on this - it will raise eyebrows. In short, I found this a praiseworthy novel, that well deserves (at least most of) the accolades it is already getting. I found it worthy of a strong four and a half stars out of five.

"Moonglow" by Michael Chabon published by Harper Collins, released November 22, 2016 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Five (or seven) GOOD things to come out of 2016

Since 2016 has been such a rotten year in general, it is always nice to find something positive to focus on. One bright light I can give you is my "Top 5 Favorite Books of 2016." As in past years, it seems that once again, I need to squeeze in more than just five. This year, I have two books tied for second place, which is a bit of a surprise - but you'll understand that better when you read below. I'm also going to put two books in my fifth place spot, since I cannot decide which of these I liked better, so I can't relegate either one to the honorable mention slot (for which I have nothing this year). That said, this is quite an eclectic collection of books, and I can assure you that the pleasure I got out of each of these books also differed one from the other. Let the countdown begin… (links in the titles are to my full reviews of these books).

#5 - Fall of Poppies by various authors / Little Nothing by Marissa Silver (tie)

Further to what I noted above, I cannot think of two books that differed more than these two. Fall of Poppies is a collection of short stories, each one written by a different author, that center on November 11, 1918 - the end of the First World War. Every one of these stories is an absolute gem, and not only was I able to recall why I love the writing of authors I already knew (such as Heather Webb and Jessica Brockmole), but I also got the opportunity to discover new historical fiction writers to fall in love with. Their various writing styles combined with different approaches to the subject matter was what made me give this collection a full five stars.

Little Nothing by Marissa Silver is one of the more beautifully written books I've ever read. In this book, Silver brings us a story that blends fantasy with reality into a hybrid fable of the weird and the wonderful, of loss and of love and so much more. As someone who generally shies away from the fantasy genre, that Silver succeeded in getting me to put this book on this list is a huge achievement.

#4 - The Whole Town's Talking by Fannie Flagg

It’s a Fannie Flagg book; need I say more? Seriously, this is a real charmer of a novel, which has an interesting twist. On the one hand, we revisit many of Flagg's characters from several of her other novels, and thereby discover the full history of the town of Elmwood Springs from its humble beginnings to present day and beyond. On the other hand, Flagg innovates with this book by adding a touch of unexpected magical realism to the story, with conversations between deceased residents in their town cemetery. This may sound slightly morbid on the surface, but I can assure you that Flagg's naiveté of language combined with dollops of humor and her enchanting characters makes this into something quite magical. There's also a lesson here about the state of rural America today, which I wish more people could listen to (even if it does sound somewhat political). No wonder we've seen this noted on other top lists this year.

#3 - My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

This is another one of those books showing up on best-of 2016 lists, including on the Goodreads shortlist for best book of the year in the fiction category. In this story about relationships and self-understanding, Strout makes us both feel and see her characters. More importantly, after you've finished reading, I believe you'll feel you really know and understand them. However, what really made me love this book is how she did all that with a surface of simplicity that belies the complexity that lies seamlessly underneath.

#2 - Britt-Marie was Here / And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer by Fredrik Backman (tie)

Here's your double-whammy from the amazing Fredrik Backman, who got my #1 spot in 2014 and 2015 (and he came devilishly close to achieving that this year as well). His first publication this year, Britt-Marie was Here, is the story of one character from his novel of last year, My Grandmother Sends her Regrets and Apologises (aka My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry). While the previous book (where Britt-Marie is a minor character), has some elements of fantasy (mostly in the minds of his protagonists, Elsa and her grandmother), this story is solidly set in reality throughout. True to form, you won't find a page where you one kind of emotion bubbles up, making you smile, chuckle, guffaw or try to suppress that lump in your throat.

No, Backman didn't publish two full-length novels this year; this second one is a novella, whose title is almost longer than the book itself. In this story, Backman returns to using those somewhat fantastical/magical elements of connection between his protagonists that he used in My Grandmother. This time, he takes us along a journey between Noah, and his grandfather during his last days before his death. Yes, you had better buy some extra tissues before you read this slim work. (By the way, if you happen to be into betting, you would be wise to put your money on his upcoming novel Beartown getting onto my top five books of 2017 already.)

#1 - Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon

Now you know that any book that kicks Backman off the #1 spot (with two chances to grab it, no less) MUST be amazing, and I promise you, this book is exactly that. The premise here is that the real reason why the Hindenburg burst into flames on May 6, 1937 is still somewhat of a mystery. Ariel Lawhon gives us an amazingly exciting work of historical fiction, employing the flight's actual manifest, to build a cast of fascinating characters and invent a new theory of the accident. Lawhon says in her afterward that she's "desperately proud" of this novel, and I'm utterly confounded that this novel hasn't shown up on any of the best of 2016 book lists I've seen. Personally, I think this is the finest piece of historical fiction writing I've ever read. Therefore, this is my little correction of that mistake. Brava, Ms. Lawhon, and congratulations: you not only gave us a spellbinding novel, but you also gave us my favorite book of the year!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

A Buzzfeed Blunder on Children's Books

Recently a friend of mine posted on Facebook a link to a Buzzfeed article "13 Children’s Books That Encourage Kindness Towards Others." Admittedly, I am familiar with only two of the books on that list. One is the Dr. Seuss book "Horton Hears a Who," which certainly fits the bill. The other, however, is Shel Silverstein's "The Giving Tree," and I must object to their including this book on their list.

My biggest problem with "The Giving Tree" is that for me, the boy does not really love the tree at all. While it seems that way to being with, as he grows older, he becomes more and more selfish, and instead of just enjoying the company of the tree, he starts taking bits of it away, until all that is left is a stump. Then, the biggest insult is that when there's nothing left for the tree to give him, the boy continues to use the tree for his own comfort - as a seat to rest upon. Now, if this had been my book, I would have had the boy plant a sapling every time he took something from the tree. That way, as the years went by, the tree would have younger trees to keep it company. Then, when the boy finally returns as an old man, they can enjoy each other's company once again, while also surrounded by all the new trees that the boy gave back as well. In this way, they would know that eventually, other boys would have the benefits of being friends with the trees and the joys of communing with nature.

Of course, I'm not a writer of children's books, and my readers know that I seldom review them for this blog. Nevertheless, there was a time when I had young children, and I too looked for books to read to them that were not only fun, but also had some kind of positive subliminal message. However, one of the books I chose to read to my kids, "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak, was for fun and not any particular lesson that it might teach my kids. However, come to think of it, perhaps it did teach my kids something. That being, that even if they do something I'm unhappy with or I'm angry with them for some reason, they will always find that I still love them. That's not a bad lesson to learn in any language, if you ask me.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure I can't suggest that particular book to replace "The Giving Tree," because the Buzzfeed article was about books that encourage kids to be kind, and that's not exactly the point of Sendak's story. However, I noticed that one of the books they included was Dr. Seuss' "Horton Hears a Who," which actually is a good choice. Despite this, and as nice as that book is, it wouldn't have been my first Dr. Seuss choice. That would be his "The Sneetches and Other Stories," and here's why.

The book in question has four stories. The copy I bought only had two stories - The titular Sneetches story, and the last story in the collection, "What was I Scared of?" The Sneetches tells the story of two types of Sneetch - ones born with stars on their bellies and ones born without. The ones with stars thought themselves to be superior to those without, until someone comes along with a machine that can put stars on the plain-bellied Sneetches. When this outrages the original star-bellied Sneetches, he produces another machine that will remove the belly stars. With adorable humor and charming rhymes, the creatures keep putting on and taking off their belly stars until they haven't any money left to pay for the transformations. Of course, this is where they learn their lesson. That being, no one should act or feel superior to anyone else because we're all just an accident of DNA and birth, and there is nothing we can do to change that, no matter how hard we try.

The other story, "What was I Scared of" is about a person who keeps coming across a pair of pale green pants with nobody inside them. This freaks him out a little more with each encounter. However, when he finally goes full-scale panic at one meeting, the pants start to cry. It is then that he realizes that the pants were equally as scared of him, and they become friends. The point of this story is that we shouldn't allow ourselves to be afraid of people we're unfamiliar with, just because they're different. We can allay those fears if we just allow ourselves to get to know them. In these days of increased violent incidences of racism and xenophobia that comes directly out of unfounded fears, this little story speaks volumes to fight exactly these things.

To reiterate, if you're looking at Buzzfeed's list for books to buy your kids this holiday season that will help them be kinder to others, more inclusive and less fearful of other people, I cannot recommend "The Giving Tree," to be one of them. Instead, I highly recommend you get them Dr. Seuss' "The Sneetches and Other Stories," and read them both the titular story as well as "What was I Scared of," as often as possible, and thereby teach your children how to be kind and tolerant.

"The Sneetches and Other Stories," by Dr. Seuss is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or read-and-listen book), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Elizabethian Fury in a Modern Female

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

In Anne Tyler's latest book, she takes on the task of modernizing Shakespeare's play "The Taming of the Shrew." To remind you, the original story is a simple one: Baptista has two beautiful daughters, the younger one is the sweet Bianca, and the older one is the hotheaded Katherine. Bianca is in love with Lucentio, but her father will not allow her to marry before her older sister Katherine. The problem is who would want to take on such a difficult woman as Katherine to be their wife? Enter Petruchio, who decides to take on the task of taming and wedding her, and so the comedy begins. (As an aside, I have to admit that the idea that someone would have to tame a woman to make her marriageable is hardly a feminist theme. However, the more you study the ending of his original play, you may find the Bard was actually suggesting that the "taming" wasn't wholly one-sided - but that's for another discussion altogether.)

There have been several attempts to modernize this play, but only two of them got any traction. One was the 1948 Samuel and Bella Spewack Broadway production with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, called "Kiss Me, Kate." This musical used the original play as the background for a play-within-a-play, which has a similar, real-life problematic relationship between the leading actors. This was later adapted for the big screen in 1953 under the same name (with some amazing dance scenes staring the incomparable Bob Fosse). This version also included a sub-plot where Bianca's love interest (both on and off stage) is less than reputable.

The second was the film "10 Things I Hate About You," starring Julia Stiles as Kat (Katherine) and the late, great Heath Ledger in the
Petruchio role, here renamed as Patrick Verona. (The TV series spin-off of this film only aired for one season, making it ultimately forgettable.) In this version, marriage isn't the problem; rather, the sisters' father won't let the younger Bianca date until her older sister Kat is dating first. As absurd as this may seem, it actually works because of the well-written dialogue (in particular, the titular poem that Kat writes), and several excellent acting performances.

Tyler seems to have taken one or two pages from both these, while adding some bits of her own. In Tyler's 21st century version, Kate (again) and Bunny's (Ah!) father is Dr. Battista who is far more involved in his research project to pay much attention to his two girls, let alone be strict with them. While he doesn't want Bunny dating or hanging around with boys unsupervised, that's because she's only 15. That has nothing to do with Kate's social life or lack thereof, and Kate is the primary person enforcing this rule. The problem that needs solving in Tyler's version is Dr. Battista's; his research may finally be getting somewhere, but he desperately needs his foreign-born lab assistant Pyotr to achieve that long-illusive breakthrough. Unfortunately, Pyotr's visa is about to run out. With possible deportation in the offing, the only quick-fix solution Battista can think of is to get Pyotr married to an American citizen, and Kate is his obvious choice.

What Tyler took from the musical was the sub-plot of the love interest for the younger daughter, and his less than honorable character. This worked well when Tyler matched it up with the no-dating rule from "10 Things." Here Bunny's "tutor" seems to be hanging around far more than needs be, but as suspicious as Kate is, she can't fully object unless they meet behind her back. Tyler also successfully employed the contradictory aspects of the fathers from both versions, in that Battista is both strict in his household rules on the one hand, while at the same time, his overt self-absorption means he practically ignores both his daughters most of the time.

That aside, the most important element of any version of Shakespeare's "Shrew" is the bit about taming this woman. For that to work properly, we need a character who is bluntly honest (even to the point of being rude), unapologetic regarding her actions and unmovable regarding what others may say or think about her. She also has to be independent to the point of selfishness, in that she wants nothing from anyone (and men in particular) whatsoever. However, underneath it all, just like every other human being, she has a heart; she simply needs the right someone to come along and unlock it. 

And... here's the rub! While Tyler succeeds with the latter, I'm afraid that she doesn't quite make her Kate shrewish enough for us to believe she needs much in the way of taming. This leads to a bland conclusion to the novel, which I found disappointing and not as funny as I was hoping it would be. Tyler also added some extra, post-taming scenes that I found unnecessary, since I think the point she was trying to make with those parts should have come earlier in her story. Despite this, I still found this a fun read, mostly because I have always admired Tyler's writing style, and I love her eye for finding the humor and absurdities in human nature. Unfortunately, as a re-imagining of this beloved Shakespeare play, for me it fell short, and I can only give it three and a half out of five stars. (Don't worry, Anne - I forgive you, and I still love you!)

"Vinegar Girl" by Anne Tyler is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books (promoting literacy, libraries and recycling) as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

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