Friday, February 12, 2016

IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT






In the Unlikely Event, Judy Blume, Alfred A Knopf, 2015, 397 pp
 
 
 
In honor of Judy Blume's birthday today, I am posting the review for her last novel. I reviewed it for the now discontinued literary site, Three Guys One Book, but didn't post it here on the blog. So here it is:
 
All my life, I’ve had all kinds of friends, many of whom would never get along with each other. One of the best things about being a voracious reader is being able to hang out while reading with so many different kinds of writers: highly literary writers, mystery, thriller, science fiction, and fantasy writers. Those who write lovely sentences, those who help me understand life, those who keep me up all night by the power of their stories, those who make me laugh out loud, and so many more. Every one of them brings me something I need, just like my different friends.

Then there is Judy Blume, who possibly could be friends with anyone. I came to her late because while she was publishing her novels for young readers and teens, I was already an adult reader. My first Judy Blume book was Summer Sisters in which I learned that I was not alone as far as what goes on between girlfriends in their teens and how we drift apart.  Then one day I got completely blocked as a writer when it came to writing about sex in the early days of puberty. I read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Deenie. I was saved.

In this latest and sadly last novel, she brings it all together. Miri Ammerman is a 15-year-old fatherless girl. Of course she has a father somewhere but she has never met him and her mother Rusty keeps it all a mystery from her. It is December, 1951 and the first of three planes to crash over Elizabeth, NJ, comes down in a ball of fire landing upside down in the Elizabeth River and killing all passengers and crew. Miri is traumatized but not as badly as her best friend Natalie who comes to believe that a young dancer named Ruby, killed in the crash, now inhabits her mind and body.

By the time the third plane in less than five months crashes over Elizabeth, Miri has met her father, has fallen in love with an orphan teen, and Natalie has landed in a home for girls with eating disorders.  Even then, secrets are still being revealed about her father, her mother, Natalie and her family, as well as her boyfriend. One might think this story contains an overabundance of incident for one year in the life of a teenage girl, but these plane crashes actually happened that year in Elizabeth, NJ, where Judy Blume grew up. And though a year sometimes seemed boring beyond belief for me as a teen, when I look back it is astounding how many changes I went through per year of high school.

I also grew up in New Jersey in what was then a relatively small town, so I am sure Judy Blume got it right as she traced the numerous and varied connections between the people in this story. It made me think about how rich life is; how family issues and events in the work life of adults and the twelve years of school between first grade and high school graduation contain so much love, heartbreak, and growth for all concerned.

The novel begins with Miri taking a flight back to New Jersey 35 years after the crashes and ends with her making the journey back to her adult life in Las Vegas. Between those bookends is the story of Miri and her teen years. She became a journalist just like her beloved Uncle. She has the complex problems of any middle-aged married woman with kids. Her first love lives in her memory as the best love ever and her life as a teen, despite all the emotional upheaval, carries the wonder and the weight that made her who she is.

If this is really Ms Blume’s last hurrah as a novelist she is leaving us with a story, told without fuss or trickery as though she were sitting right there with you. It is the story of an American woman. I think it is worthy of a Pulitzer.

(The paperback edition of this book will be released May, 2016. If you missed it before, now you have another chance!)

(In the Unlikely Event is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)
 
 
 

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

THE PAYING GUESTS






The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters, Riverhead Books, 2014, 564 pp
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned; the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa — a large, silent house now bereft of brothers, husband, and even servants — life is about to be transformed as impoverished widow Mrs. Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.

With the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the “clerk class,” the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. Little do the Wrays know just how profoundly their new tenants will alter the course of Frances’s life — or, as passions mount and frustration gathers, how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be.
 
 
My Review:
I like British authors. I am reading many of them in my Big Fat Reading Project. Often their novels have a certain extra something for me, possibly the literary quality, an awareness of the influence of history, as well as a uniquely British way of looking at the world. I read Sarah Water's The Little Stranger, beguiled by reviews and a possible Booker Prize nomination, but I didn't like it much. I had decided not to read The Paying Guests and then one of my reading groups picked it.
 
Reading this novel was a night and day difference from reading the other one. The 564 pages mostly flew by and I became completely engaged with all the characters. The love story between Frances Wray and her lodger Lilian Barber was everything a love story should be.
 
As in The Little Stranger, there is a decaying mansion and its resident family struggling to maintain it. Though no actual ghost inhabits the place, lost family members and past transgressions haunt the remaining mother and daughter to the point of freezing them in time and denying Frances any life of her own. Waters portrays the class differences between the Wrays and the Barbers with a good deal of hilarity.
 
The second half, involving a criminal investigation and court case did drag on too long for me. I think she was trying to build suspense and add some mystery, but waiting to see what would become of the relationship between Frances and Lilian, while it still kept me reading as fast as I could, was more agonizing than suspenseful.
 
Other than that, it is a great read.  
 
  
(The Paying Guests is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Sunday, February 07, 2016

HOUSE OF DAY, HOUSE OF NIGHT






House of Day, House of Night, Olga Tokarczuk, Granta Publications, 2002, 293 pp (translated from the Polish by Antomia Lloyd-Jones, originally published in Poland, 1998.)
 
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: Nowa Ruda is a small town in Silesia, an area that has been a part of Poland, Germany, and the former Czechoslovakia in the past. When the narrator moves into the area, she discovers everyone-and everything-has its own story. With the help of Marta, her enigmatic neighbor, the narrator accumulates these stories, tracing the history of Nowa Ruda from the founding of the town to the lives of its saints, from the caller who wins the radio quiz every day to the tale of the man who causes international tension when he dies on the border, one leg on the Polish side, the other on the Czech side. Each of the stories represents a brick and they interlock to reveal the immense monument that is the town. What emerges is the message that the history of any place--no matter how humble--is limitless, that by describing or digging at the roots of a life, a house, or a neighborhood, one can see all the connections, not only with one's self and one's dreams but also with all of the universe.
 
 
My Review:
The Tiny Book Club chose this. We are three women of a certain age. Two were raised Jewish, one of whom is a descendant of Polish Holocaust survivors, gay, well-read, and spends every summer returning to Poland to further the reconciliation of Jewish and non-Jewish Poles. The other is also well-read and has a deep understanding of literature. She is an intellectual. The third was raised Christian in America, the daughter of third generation German Lutheran immigrants. We decided to read some Polish literature and this is our first pick.
 
We have not met yet to discuss, due to winter colds, travels, and other things which could not be helped. I am bursting with discussion questions and topics, so hopefully soon!
  
Olga Tokarczuk, born in Poland in 1962, is both critically acclaimed and commercially successful in her native country. In this novel, her style is one of crystalline fragments and deep human insight steeped in mythical structures and dotted with recipes for cooking wild mushrooms.
 
She creates a mosaic of a town, Nowa Ruda. It is one of those little Eastern European towns kicked unmercifully from one nation to another due to wars and the redefined borders made by peace negotiations. In fact, it lies close to the current Polish/former Czechoslovakian border. When a man dies with the halves of his body splayed across that border, tension ensues.
 
The narrator and her husband moved to Nowa Ruda because relocation policies had made land and houses cheap there. You don't learn much about them but the sense of dislocation and upheaval hangs around like a murky fog. Besides housekeeping, the woman writes so she sets about collecting stories about the town, its inhabitants, history and inevitably its myths. Some of these people are like those found in fairy tales.
 
Dreams, so many dreams, pepper the narrative. Weather is a huge influence. Marta, the woman's neighbor, is a repository of the town's history. She is an archetypal ghostlike female whose rare utterances are usually non-sequitur. She is also the narrator's only close friend.
 
I admit that reading American, Canadian, and British contemporary fiction is fairly effortless compared to such a book as this. Of course, each country has its depths of history, oddities, and other pathos, but it is not written about much or it comes in more familiar packages. That probably has to do with our relatively longer history of stability as well as the expectations of the book market.
 
Reading a book like House of Day, House of Night, was not only enlightening as to how other peoples live. It had the effect on me of causing an increased observation of people in my own life, an awareness of things we just don't usually talk about. In a spirit of tolerance and compassion, Olga Tokarczuk wrote a very human book that reveals the underlying dreams and spirits dwelling in human hearts.
 
 
(House of Day, House of Night is available through independent bookstores at a rather high price. It is not easy to find in libraries. I found my copy through a used bookseller on-line in paperback for a reasonable price.)

Friday, February 05, 2016

FEBRUARY READING GROUP UPDATE









Since my cataract surgery last year, I have to use reading glasses when I read. I keep leaving them in odd places and then sitting or stepping on them and breaking them. Just a little sharing as to why I picked this image today!

February is short and my reading group line up is light. But here it is:


Laura's Group:
 
 
One Book at a Time:


Bookie Babes:


Have you read any of these? What are your reading groups reading this month?
 
 
 

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

THE STORIED LIFE OF A J FIKRY






The Storied Life of A J Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin, Algonquin Books, 2014, 243 pp
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: A. J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Slowly but surely, he is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island--from Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who’s always felt kindly toward Fikry; from Ismay, his sister-in-law who is hell-bent on saving him from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who keeps on taking the ferry over to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.’s bad attitude. Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him. These days, A.J. can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.
 
My Review:
I read this for one of my reading groups. It is one of those novels destined to be read by reading groups composed of women. Charming, heartwarming, set in a tiny bookstore on an island in New England with quirky characters, an unusual romance, and a bit of mystery. Oh, and an abandoned child. I read it in one day.
 
The author has written several novels for both adults and young adults as well as a screenplay. She can write, she can plot. It is just that for me, while I was entertained well enough, I was constantly aware of her recycling of familiar tropes, incidents, and social issues.
  
I don't begrudge women who like to read comforting stories of how the romantic human heart can be transformed after personal tragedy. We all have tragedies and we all wish to overcome the damage. We certainly all need comforting and most of us could use more romance. 
 
So I appreciate what the author did. I am happy if her bestseller brought her some undoubtedly much needed income. But I need more depth, more grit, and more artistry in the novels I read.  

Monday, February 01, 2016

BOOKS READ IN JANUARY









Since we don't have snow in Los Angeles, we don't get to have snowdrops. I always loved them as a harbinger of spring when I was growing up in New Jersey. Of course, this morning, after a lovely warm and sunny week and a big rain storm yesterday, it is only 53 degrees here today with wind. It is still winter and tomorrow is Ground Hog Day!

I read 11 books in January. Not bad seeing as how I took a week off to visit my grandkids. Somehow I hardly read at all when I am with them.

Stats: 11 books read. 10 fiction; 1 non-fiction. 7 by women. 2 translated. 1 reread. 1 children's book, which was also fantasy. 4 from my 1962 Big Fat Reading Project list. 1 speculative.
Favorites: The Paying Guests, Beside Myself, Purity. 
Least favorite: The Storied Life of A J Fikry


















Not at Indiebound, Open Road has an eBook










How was your reading in January? Any books I should be sure not to miss?




Saturday, January 30, 2016

WEST OF SUNSET






West of Sunset, Stewart O'Nan, Viking, 2015, 289 pp
 
 
 
Summary from Indiebound: In 1937, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a troubled, uncertain man whose literary success was long over. In poor health, with his wife consigned to an asylum and his finances in ruin, he struggled to make a new start as a screenwriter in Hollywood.
Those last three years of Fitzgerald's life are the focus of Stewart O Nan's graceful and elegiac novel "West of Sunset." With flashbacks to Fitzgerald's glamorous Jazz Age past, the story follows him as he arrives on the MGM lot, falls in love with brassy gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, begins work on"The Last Tycoon," and tries to maintain a semblance of family life with the absent Zelda and their daughter, Scottie. The Golden Age of Hollywood is brought vividly to life through the novel's romantic cast of characters, from Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway to Humphrey Bogart. Written with striking grace and subtlety, this is a wise and intimate portrait of a man trying his best to hold together a world that's flying apart.
 
My Review: I reviewed this book for an on-line publication last March. I was taking a break from blogging at that time, but it came out in paperback in December, 2015 and was on my list of favorite reads for last year. I am posting the review here now.
 
What a sad story. A fictionalized tale of F Scott Fitzgerald's last years, it is even sadder than that author's fiction. Stewart O'Nan is masterful at writing about sad, tortured, sometimes broken people. In an interview on Other People, he says he wanted to get inside the facts presented in Fitzgerald biographies and create the actual incidents the man lived through in those last years of his life, so of course it had to be a novel.
 
We read about the writer's visits with his wife Zelda, who by then is institutionalized and undergoing the barbaric treatments used in the 1930s: electric shock, insulin shock, etc. Sometimes he takes Zelda and their daughter Scottie, by then in boarding school, on week long vacations. Though their love and marriage and family are basically a shambles, they all try desperately and awkwardly but unsuccessfully to be there for each other. Heartbreaking.
 
But Scott, as he is called in the novel, is the one who must pay for it all. His career as a novelist is also over, his royalties a mere pittance, so he takes a job in Hollywood as a screenwriter in the studio system. The indignities match the pay in their enormity. Scott is an alcoholic though he manages to stay off the booze long enough to write in a tiny office five days a week from nine to six. But there are binges.
 
Still longing for romance, he falls in love with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. Still hoping for another bestseller, he begins a novel, The Last Tycoon. It is all a race against disaster and annihilation; a race he loses at the age of 46.
 
Though O'Nan has never lived in Los Angeles, he captures the city and Hollywood at the end of the 1930s. He includes several celebrities in the story: Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Humphrey Bogart, and more, in their interactions with Fitzgerald. This novel has the zing of a Fitzgerald creation layered over the crushing despair of a man who was once the highest paid and most famous writer in America.
 
From the little I have read about Scott and Zelda, I had formed the opinion that Fitzgerald was a despicable husband who crushed Zelda's creativity and free spirit. In West of Sunset, he comes across as a man burdened with a mentally ill wife. He loved her once, the magic is so over, but he tries to do right by her and Scottie. The truth? Who knows for sure? The novel is possibly as close to Fitzgerald's truth as we will get.
 
 
(West of Sunset is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)