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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Back to the Beginning - January/February 2007

The year started off with a pretty high level of reading activity - taking vacation days for the first week of January gave me the opportunity to get my reading going at quite a pace!

January 2007
Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, Melanie Rehak

From the Amazon.com product page:
From Publishers Weekly The intrepid Nancy Drew has given girls a sense of their own power since she was born, Athena-like, from the mind of Edward Stratemeyer in 1929 and raised after his death in 1930 by his daughter Harriet Stratemeyer Adams and Mildred Wirt Benson, a journalist who was the first to write the novels under the pen name Carolyn Keene. Poet and critic Rehak invigorates all the players in the Drew story, and it's truly fun to see behind the scenes of the girl sleuth's creation, her transformation as different writers took on the
series, and the publishing phenomenon—the highly productive Stratemeyer
Syndicate machine—that made her possible. Rehak's most ambitious choice is to
reflect on how Nancy Drew mirrors girls' lives and the ups and downs of the
women's movement. This approach is compelling, but not particularly well
executed. Rehak's breathless prose doesn't do justice to the complexity of the
large social trends she describes, and tangents into Feminism 101 derail the
story that really works—the life of a publishing juggernaut. All the same,
Stratemeyer himself would undoubtedly say that the story is worth telling. Drew
fans are likely to agree.
I found this interesting not just as a history of the character and the books, but as an examination of women and feminism throughout the 20th century. Fascinating parallels with a lot of issues women currently face, even though these women were working in the 1930’s. I hadn’t realized that the suffragists were actually considered “first-wave feminists” and that the generation just after took their accomplishments for granted. Sounds familiar…

Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld

From Amazon.com
From Publishers Weekly A self-conscious outsider navigates the choppy waters of adolescence and a posh boarding school's social politics in Sittenfeld's A-grade
coming-of-age debut. The strong narrative voice belongs to Lee Fiora, who leaves
South Bend, Ind., for Boston's prestigious Ault School and finds her sense of
identity supremely challenged. Now, at 24, she recounts her years learning
"everything I needed to know about attracting and alienating people." Sittenfeld
neither indulges nor mocks teen angst, but hits it spot on: "I was terrified of
unwittingly leaving behind a piece of scrap paper on which were written all my
private desires and humiliations. The fact that no such scrap of paper
existed... never decreased my fear." Lee sees herself as "one of the mild,
boring, peripheral girls" among her privileged classmates, especially the
über-popular Aspeth Montgomery, "the kind of girl about whom rock songs were
written," and Cross Sugarman, the boy who can devastate with one look ("my life
since then has been spent in pursuit of that look"). Her reminiscences, still
youthful but more wise, allow her to validate her feelings of loneliness and
misery while forgiving herself for her lack of experience and knowledge. The
book meanders on its way, light on plot but saturated with heartbreaking humor
and written in clean prose. Sittenfeld, who won Seventeen's fiction contest at
16, proves herself a natural in this poignant, truthful book.
I couldn’t put this one down - and it wasn't terribly plot-driven, but I just had to see how things went. Well-written, mature, with realistic character development and an honest narrative voice. Curtis Sittenfeld shows a great handle on how adolescence actually feels, which for some readers might not exactly be an asset, but it truly spoke to me even at my advanced age.

Lost in the Forest, Sue Miller
From Amazon.com:
From Publishers Weekly Bestseller Miller (The Good Mother;
While I Was Gone; etc.) examines love and betrayal in idyllic wine country in
another minutely observed, finely paced exploration of domestic relationships.
Idealistic California converts Eva and Mark had a solid marriage until Mark's
affair; "bumps in matrimony" is what one of Eva's friends, Gracie, calls such
difficulties, and as Miller presents them it's not a question of whether they'll
appear but how to deal with them when they do. Some years later, Mark and Eva's
two adolescent daughters, Emily and Daisy, are living with Eva and her second
husband, John, and their young son, Theo. After John's death in a freak
accident, Mark rescues the children from their mother's anguish and, in the
process, realizes he is still in love with her. John's death becomes the locus
of an elegant and careful investigation of loss—loss of love, loss of innocence—and the conflicts between men and women, parents and children, friends and lovers. As Eva grieves and Mark acknowledges his feelings for her, their quiet younger daughter, 15-year-old Daisy (who "had loved [John] the best!"), enters into an affair with an older man. The backdrop of California vineyards is ideal for the growth and life-cycle themes that Miller so carefully cultivates. As Daisy tries her first glass of wine, has her first taste of sex and experiments with her sense of power and voice, she develops into the heroine of the tale—one of the next generation of women learning to navigate the complex familiar waters of love and domesticity.
I read this one pretty quickly, as I have most of Sue Miller's books. The characters were good but it seemed like some aspects could have developed more – it felt too short. I actually was less interested in Daisy's portion of the story, which felt like it didn't have enough substance considering the way it was played up, but perhaps I just expected to a more dramatic or tragic outcome. The adults' stories - divorce, moving on, recovery, stepfamilies - resonated more for me.

Mrs. Kimble, Jennifer Haigh
From Amazon.com:
Amazon.com Sometimes a book can be utterly full of holes and you still can't put
it down. In Mrs. Kimble, first-time novelist Jennifer Haigh follows the marital
career of Ken Kimble, opportunist, serial husband, and all around schmuck. The
first section, set in Virginia in the 1960s, revolves around alcoholic first
wife Birdie. As we enter the story, Kimble has already left her alone with two
small children she is ill equipped to raise on her own. Kimble's absence in this
section sets the tone for the book, which is not so much about Kimble himself as
it is about the women he dupes over the years. Next up is Joan, a Newsweek
reporter recovering from a mastectomy at her late father's home in Florida. A
wealthy, confident woman left unsteady by breast cancer, she falls for Kimble,
who now turns up in a hippie-ish incarnation. In the final section, Kimble weds
Dinah, who had been his children's babysitter back in Virginia. Their marriage
unravels as, at the end of the book, Kimble's secrets are revealed one by one.
Unfortunately, the central secret of the book is never laid bare: how did
the man get to be such a jerk? Other problems are never dealt with, either:
we never believe a whip-smart woman like Joan could be so transparently
snow-jobbed. We never understand why Dinah stays with an aging crook.
Nevertheless, Mrs. Kimble is still engrossing. Haigh is so gifted at
creating vivid scenes and strong characters, we find ourselves surrendering
our disbelief despite our better judgment. This isn't the terrific book it
might have been, but it's still a superior read. --Claire Dederer
This one also read quickly. Jennifer Haigh also wrote Baker Towers, which was a Book Club favorite last year; M. had thought this one might be even better, and I might have to agree. The writing was spare, the characters were distinct, and the plot kept me drawn in. Not all the questions were answered but that actually felt OK; as mentioned in the review, the character of Mr. Kimble never really emerges, but that seems appropriate since we are seeing him through the perceptions of his wives, and eventually his adult son.

The Tenth Circle, Jodi Picoult
From Amazon.com:
From Publishers Weekly Starred Review. Some of Picoult's best storytelling
distinguishes her twisting, metaphor-rich 13th novel (after Vanishing Acts)
about parental vigilance gone haywire, inner demons and the emotional risks of
relationships. Comic book artist Daniel Stone is like the character in his
graphic novel with the same title as this book—once a violent youth and the only
white boy in an Alaskan Inuit village, now a loving, stay-at-home dad in Bethel,
Maine—traveling figuratively through Dante's circles of hell to save his
14-year-old teenage daughter, Trixie. After she accuses her ex-boyfriend of
rape, Trixie—and Daniel, whose fierce father-love morphs to murderous rage
toward her assailant—unravel in the aftermath of the allegation. At the same
time, wife and mother Laura, a Dante scholar, tries to mend her and Daniel's
marriage after ending her affair with one of her students. Picoult has
collaborated with graphic artist Dustin Weaver to illustrate her deft, complex
exploration of Daniel and his beast within, but the drawings, though well-done,
distract from the powerful picture she has drawn with words. Laura and Daniel
follow their runaway daughter to Alaska, at which point Picoult drives the story
with the heavy-handed Dante metaphor—not the characters. Still, this story of a
flawed family on the brink of destruction grips from start to finish.
I was a little disappointed that I figured out the twist well before the end, and the graphic novel incorporated into the book really didn’t do anything for me. Good plot, but didn’t really get hooked on any of the characters, although her teenagers were pretty convincing. I’ll still read pretty much anything of hers, but have felt that her last two - this and Vanishing Acts - weren’t quite up to par. She always does good research, though, and had a good handle on some of the scarier aspects of adolescence today.

The Wife, Meg Wolitzer
From Amazon.com:

From The New Yorker On the way to a big literary-award ceremony, the wife of a famous New York Jewish novelist—sick of his philandering, his self-importance, and his limited talent—decides on divorce. Her stingingly comic story of their marriage
shows why. They met in 1956, when she was his writing student at Smith and he
was the author of one very bad published story. Only after running off with his
talented and self-effacing pupil does he burst into literary stardom. Although
they have three (variously unhappy) children, he has always been the real child
in the family, dragging her along to the fêtes at which he is flattered and
flirted with while she drinks her jealousy away. Wolitzer never really develops
her characters and savvy readers will guess her surprise ending quite early on,
but she has great fun satirizing an all too recognizable stratum of literary
life.

This was another one that I figured out too soon, but getting there was very enjoyable. Wickedly funny, and I could relate to the concept of feeling like an appendage to one’s husband (First Husband, anyway).

February 2007
The Position, Meg Wolitzer
From Amazon.com:

From Publishers Weekly Neurotic siblings and embarrassing parents are familiar (even required) elements of the literature of suburban nostalgia and malaise. Wolitzer (Surrender, Dorothy; The Wife) doesn't tamper with these basic ingredients in her latest novel, but she gives them a titillating twist. Paul and Roz Mellow are enthusiastically in love—so much so that in 1975 they write a how-to sex book, Pleasuring, that features illustrations of them in every imaginable position. The book becomes a runaway bestseller. When the children find the book and read it together, they're forever traumatized, in ways both serious and comedic. Flash forward 30 years: Paul and Roz are long divorced and remarried, and Paul, in particular, remains bitter; the grown children fumble through their lives on the eve of the publisher's reissue of the sex classic. The oldest, Holly, has settled into late motherhood after a lifetime of nomadic drug-taking; uptight Michael suffers from chronic depression; Dashiell, a gay Log Cabin Republican speechwriter, is diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease; and insecure late-bloomer Claudia returns to her Long Island hometown to finally figure out how to be a fully functioning adult. If the characters are rather stock, and the musings on love, sex and family familiar, Wolitzer nevertheless bestows her trademark warmth and light touch on this tale of social and domestic change.

Not as bitterly funny as The Wife, but more accomplished, with multiple narrative voices and perspectives, and more sympathetic characters who actually accomplished some growth over the course of the story.

Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1977-1984, Simon Reynolds
From Amazon.com:

From Publishers Weekly In the reactionary wake of 1970s punk rock came postpunk, a more complex, fragmented brand of music characterized by stark recordings, synthesizers and often cold, affected vocals. Postpunk stands as "a fair match for the Sixties," argues Reynolds, both in terms of the amount of great music created as well as the music's connection to the "social and political turbulence" of its era (the early 1980s). Seeking to address a gap in music and pop culture history, Reynolds (Generation Ecstasy) has penned an ambitious, cerebral effort to establish a high place in rock history for bands such as Joy Division, Devo, Talking Heads, Mission of Burma and, of course, Public Image Limited (PiL), fronted by former Sex Pistols singer John Lydon (Johnny Rotten). Reynolds, an energetic writer, especially captures the postpunk ethic in telling the story of PiL's short journey from record company darlings to utter oblivion. Unfortunately, by the time he gets to bands like Human League and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, his passion is undermined by his subject. Reynolds succeeds in depicting the icons and the richness of an era that clearly manifests itself as a primary influence among a new generation of musicians.

I had a hard time putting down this fascinating and enlightening look at what’s probably my favorite pop music era. It helped me understand why music from my high-school years still feels “new” to me – not just because I was young then, but because it really was new and different. I appreciated the space and acknowledgement given to some of my particular favorites, such as Talking Heads. It started at Bowie and ended up at U2 - not a bad path, although some branches of it interested me more than others.

A Wedding in December, Anita Shreve
From Amazon.com:

From Publishers Weekly A Big Chill–like group reunites for a 40-something wedding in this melancholy story of missed opportunities, lingering regrets and imagined alternatives by Shreve (The Last Time They Met). Bill and Bridget were sweethearts at Maine's Kidd Academy who rediscovered one another at their 25th reunion. Bridget was already divorced; Bill left his family; the two have now gathered their Kidd coterie to witness their hasty wedding—Bridget has breast cancer—at widow Nora's western Massachusetts inn. The death of charismatic schoolmate Stephen at a drunken high school party hovers over the event. Stephen's then-roommate, Harrison, now a married literary publisher, remains particularly tormented by it, especially since he had (and still has) romantic feelings for Nora, who was Stephen's then-girlfriend. Abrasive Wall Street businessman Jerry, now-out-of-the-closet pianist Rob, single Agnes (who teaches at Kidd and has a secret of her own) and various children round things out. Tensions build as the group gets snowed in, and someone gets drunk enough to say what everyone's been thinking. Though Shreve's plot, characters and dialogue are predictable (as are her inevitable 9/11 rehashes), she sure-handedly steers everyone through their inward dramas, and the actions they take (and don't) are Hollywood satisfying.

This was for Book Club – I probably wouldn’t read her otherwise. I did like the use of multiple viewpoints, but didn’t think the “story-within-the-story” bit added much. Also, my personal history predisposes me to be bothered by the number of affairs among/between married characters. The part about Nora’s husband bringing his girlfriend into their home was very unsettling, and the big reveal about their dead friend seemed anti-climactic to me. Maybe that "Hollywood satisfying" quality just doesn't work so well for me, because almost everything I've read by her has irritated me in one way or another. And since I wasn't the only Book Club member who had that reaction, we actually had a pretty good discussion.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The past is fading fast - or, some notes on Fall 2006 reading

I'm not sure how much I remember about some of these now, so the notes may not be too long.

November 2006
To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee (for Book Club)
Summary from the Amazon.com page:
Amazon.com Set in the small Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Depression, To Kill a Mockingbird follows three years in the life of 8-year-old Scout Finch, her brother, Jem, and their father, Atticus--three years punctuated by the arrest and eventual trial of a young black man accused of raping a white woman. Though her story explores big themes, Harper Lee chooses to tell it through the eyes of a child. The result is a tough and tender novel of race, class, justice, and the pain of growing up.
Like the slow-moving occupants of her fictional town, Lee takes her time getting to the heart of her tale; we first meet the Finches the summer before Scout's first year at school. She, her brother, and Dill Harris, a boy who spends the summers with his aunt in Maycomb, while away the hours reenacting scenes from Dracula and plotting ways to get a peek at the town bogeyman, Boo Radley. At first the circumstances surrounding the alleged rape of Mayella Ewell, the daughter of a drunk and violent white farmer, barely penetrate the children's consciousness. Then Atticus is called on to defend the accused, Tom Robinson, and soon Scout and Jem find themselves caught up in events beyond their understanding. During the trial, the town exhibits its ugly side, but Lee offers plenty of counterbalance as well--in the struggle of an elderly woman to overcome her morphine habit before she dies; in the heroism of Atticus Finch, standing up for what he knows is right; and finally in Scout's hard-won understanding that most people are essentially kind "when you really see them." By turns funny, wise, and heartbreaking, To Kill a Mockingbird is one classic that continues to speak to new generations, and deserves to be reread often. --Alix Wilber
I read this post-college, and I don't know if I'd have read it again if Sue hadn't selected it for Book Club - and then that meeting ended up not happening, so we never did have the discussion (or watch the movie). Having said that - I think that no longer living in the South makes me appreciate the Southern literary flavor even more. I don't really buy the enlightened attitudes of the Finch family in that time and place - nor, in that context, can I fathom two mid-century middle-class Southern children addressing their father by this first name. However, the story is still compelling and the characters are classic creations.

Gods in Alabama, Joshilyn Jackson
Plot summary from the Amazon page:
From Publishers Weekly - Arlene Fleet, the refreshingly imperfect heroine of Jackson's appealing debut, launches her story with a list of the title's deities: "high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus." The first god, also a date rapist by the name of Jim Beverly, she left dead in her hometown of Possett, Ala., but the last she embraces wholeheartedly when high
school graduation allows her to flee the South, the murder and her slutty reputation for a new life in Chicago. Upon leaving home, Arlene makes a bargain with God, promising to forgo sex, lies and a return home if he keeps Jim's body hidden. After nine years in Chicago as a truth-telling celibate, an unexpected visitor from home (in search of Jim Beverly) leads her to believe that God is slipping on his end of the deal. As Arlene heads for the Deep South with her African-American boyfriend, Burr, in tow, her secrets unfold in unsurprising but satisfying flashbacks. Jackson brings levity to familiar themes with a spirited take on the clichés of redneck Southern living: the Wal-Mart culture, the subtle and overt racism and the indignant religion. The novel concludes with a final, dramatic disclosure, though the payoff isn't the plot twist but rather Jackson's genuine affection for the people and places of Dixie.
I got a taste of this one through a week's e-mails from Dearreader.com http://www.dearreader.com/ and just had to get hold of the whole book and finish it. I enjoyed it overall, but the "mystery" aspects were a little underdone. The Southern flavor and humor were just right, though.

Good Grief, Lolly Winston
Amazon. com review/synopsis:
Amazon. com Some widows face their loss with denial. Sophie Stanton's reaction is one of pure bafflement. "How can I be a widow?" Sophie asks at the opening of Lolly Winston's sweet debut novel, Good Grief. "I'm only thirty-six. I just got used to the idea of being married." Sophie's
young widowhood forces her to do all kinds of crazy things--drive her car through her garage door, for instance. That's on one of the rare occasions when she bothers to get out of bed. The Christmas season especially terrifies her: "I must write a memo to the Minister of Happier Days requesting that the holidays be cancelled this year." But widowhood also forces her to do something very sane. After the death of her computer programmer husband, she reexamines her life as a public relations agent in money-obsessed Silicon Valley. Sophie decides to ease her grief, or at least her loneliness, by moving in with her best friend Ruth in Ashland, Oregon. But it's her difficult relationship with psycho teen punker Crystal, to whom she becomes a Big Sister, that mysteriously brings her at least a few steps out of her grief. Winston allows Sophie life after widowhood: The novel almost indiscernibly turns into a gentle romantic comedy and a quirky portrait of life in an artsy small town. At all stops on her journey from widow to survivor, Sophie is a lively, crabby, delightfully imperfect character. --Claire Dederer
This one also came my way through Dearreader.com, although indirectly - the actual featured fiction read that week was Lolly Winston's second book, Happiness Sold Separately. Good Grief was one I really never intended to read, but I was glad I did. Even though Sophie was a widow rather than a divorcee, many of her feelings of loss, abandonment, disorientation, and depression felt real and familiar to me, as did her slow struggle to find her way back into life and possible future relationships. It sounds more depressing than it is; I actually enjoyed it a lot, finding it optimistic, humorous, and relatable.

The Opposite of Fate, Amy Tan
Review/synopsis from the Amazon link:
From Publishers Weekly Tan's bestselling works of fiction are, in part, based on her own family history, and this robust book, her first nonfiction effort, explains much about where those stories came from and how they influenced her. The collection of "casual pieces" (previously published in such diverse venues as Harper's Bazaar, Ski Magazine, the New Yorker, Salon.com
and even PW) covers Tan's childhood in California and Switzerland; her writing career; her relationships with her mother and her late editor, Faith Sale; and, most significantly, the role of fate in her life. Raised with "two pillars of beliefs" (Christian faith on her father's side; Chinese fate on her mother's), Tan finds luck - both good and bad - in all corners of her life. Ultimately, however, she knows "a higher power knows the next move and... we are at the mercy of that
force." As she reflects on how things have happened in her 50-odd years, Tan's writing varies from poetic to prosaic. In an excerpt from a journal she kept during a 1990 trip to China, she eloquently describes Shanghai's streets: "Gray pants and white shirts are suspended from long bamboo poles that overhang the street. The laundry flaps in the wind like proletarian banners." But reading about Tan's adventures with her rock band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, feels a
bit like reading someone else's high school yearbook's inside jokes, as she reminisces about truck-stop breakfasts and late-night sing-alongs. Still, this is a powerful collection that should enthrall readers of The Joy Luck Club and Tan's other novels.
I had this one sitting around in progress for months, which is an advantage to a book of essays that doesn't have a strong narrative thread - you can dip in and out of it on a whim, sticking with it when something grabs you and then putting it aside when you come to something else that doesn't strike such a chord. I enjoyed her conversational tone and self-revelations, and was especially interested in her Rock Bottom Remainders anecdotes - I hope we'll see them again at the Festival of Books next month. (Update 4/23/07 - looks like we won't. According to the Festival of Books program online and the Rock Bottom Remainders' own website, they're not making an appearance this year. Bummer.)

December 2006
Any Place I Hang My Hat, Susan Isaacs
From the Amazon.com page:
From Publishers Weekly
A political reporter in her late 20s goes in search of the mother who abandoned her when she was a baby in this jaunty if rather jerky 10th novel by Isaacs (Long Time No See; Red, White, and Blue; etc.). Amy Lincoln was brought up in the projects by her Grandma Lil, a leg waxer and devoted Falcon Crest viewer; her amiable father, Chicky, spent most of Amy's childhood in prison on a series of minor theft raps. A boarding school scholarship rescues Amy from lower-class oblivion; she goes on to Harvard and Columbia, then lands a job at In Depth, a highbrow weekly. Upbeat and self-deprecating, Amy spends little time bemoaning her past, but an encounter with college student Freddy Carrasco, who claims he's the illegitimate son of a Democratic presidential candidate, gets Amy wondering where her own mother might be. While advising Freddy how to approach his father, she uses her reporting skills to track down her elusive mother. The political subplot is anticlimactic—Amy doesn't even get a scoop—and Amy's eventual reunion with her mother, revealed to be a chilly suburban housewife, is credibly if rather disappointingly subdued. The parade of lavishly and loopishly described secondary characters and gossipy New York scene-setting give the novel its zing; Amy's rocky relationship with her documentary filmmaker boyfriend provides a jolt of romantic excitement and a happy ending.
I enjoyed this one quite a bit at the time, but don't remember a lot about it now - it was a quick and diversionary read. Amy was a very human and protagonist that I enjoyed spending time with, funny and easy to relate to despite her youth.

A Changed Man, Francine Prose
From Amazon.com:
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Prose (Blue Angel; The Lives of the Muses) tests assumptions about class, hatred and the possibility of change in her latest novel, a good-natured satire of liberal pieties, the radical right and the fund-raising world. The "changed man" of the title is Vincent Nolan, a 32-year-old tattooed ex-skinhead who appears one morning in the New York offices of World Brotherhood Watch, a foundation headed by Meyer Maslow, a Holocaust survivor. Vincent declares that he has had a personal conversion (never mind that it was triggered by a heavy dose of Ecstasy) and wants to work with the foundation to "save guys like me from becoming guys like me." Meyer takes Vincent on faith—and convinces Bonnie Kalen, the foundation's fund-raiser, to put Vincent up in the suburban home she shares with her two sons, Max, 12, and Danny, 16. Prose tears into this unusual premise with the piercing wit that has become her trademark. Vincent becomes a media darling of sorts, and everyone wants a piece of him: the liberal donors and the television talk shows; Meyer, a figurehead so celebrated that even his close friends kiss up to him; and maybe even divorced Bonnie, who finds herself drawn to Vincent's charms. In more hostile pursuit of Vincent is his cousin Raymond, a member of the Aryan Resistance Movement, from which Vincent stole a truck, drugs and cash. In these circumstances, can a man truly change? And what is change—not only for Vincent but for the other principals as well? Prose doesn't shy away from exposing the vanities and banalities behind the drive to do good. Fortunately, her characters are sturdy enough to bear the weight of the baggage she piles on them. Her lively skewering of a whole cross-section of society ensures that this tale hits comic high notes even as it probes serious issues.
This was definitely satire, but with character depth and a strong - if questionably plausible - plotline. I liked the multiple viewpoints/narrators and retelling of scenes from different characters’ perspectives. It seemed a bit unresolved in the end, which I sometimes find frustrating, although not in this case.

Other bloggers' reviews:
To Kill a Mockingbird - Book-a-rama