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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Family Ties

Behind Closed Doors
Susan R. Sloan

Warner Books, 2004

Raised in a large, loving Irish Catholic family, Valerie O'Connor is a sheltered and innocent young woman who comes of age in the 1950s. She falls head over heels in love at age 18 with Jack Marsh, a dashing veteran of the Air Force and marries him despite her father’s misgivings. Their marriage is doomed from the start, yet they stay married for more than 30 years.

Valerie learns rather quickly that her husband drinks too much and loses control of his emotions, thereby losing control of his actions. At first she thinks his rages are isolated incidents due to the stress of his job, or their marriage, or then, the babies. Valerie is Roman Catholic and wants as many children as possible. As each baby comes, though, Jack becomes more abusive – first towards her, and then towards the children. Valerie and the children attempt to cope with Jack’s volatile temper over the years until finally all the children grow up and move away, and Valerie and her youngest son are the only ones left to deal with the effects of a solitary and isolated existence.

By now you may be asking yourselves if I am drawn to sad and depressing books. The answer is no. I am drawn to books that have received good reviews from my friends or published sources. I can’t remember where I heard about this book, but it doesn’t matter because it deserves the praise despite the depressing bits. The characters are vivid and realistic; the plot moves at a pretty fast clip; the story is interesting and unpredictable. All in all, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to others who like family dramas with psychological undertones. It’s not suspenseful or spectacular, but it will keep your interest rewarded with a well-deserved twist at the end.


Other books by this author:
Act of God, 2002

Other titles you may enjoy:

Sisters by Prue Leith, 2002
Two sisters share a terrible secret about a horrible accident that could ruin their lives in this novel of sibling rivalry, love, and betrayal.

Hidden by Paul Jaskunas, 2004
Six years after being assaulted, Maggie Wilson, having learned that her abusive ex-husband has been exonerated of the crime, wonders about a born-again convict who claims to be her attacker and struggles to reclaim missing pieces of her memory.

A Taste of Reality by Kimberla Lawson Roby, 2003
As her seemingly perfect life begins to crumble around her, both at home and at work, putting her job and marriage on the line, Anise is forced to muster all of her courage and faith to triumph over adversity and realize her dreams.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Neither Friend Nor Foe

The Quickening
Michelle Hoover

Other Press, 2010

Enidina Current and Mary Morrow live on neighboring farms in the flat, hard country of the upper Midwest during the early 1900s. This isolated, hardscrabble life comes easily to some, like Enidina, or Eddie. She never wanted more than this land and the animals she raises on it with her husband, Frank. But for the deeply religious Mary, farming is a lower class lifestyle and one she is not suited for. Still, Mary creates a clean and orderly home life for her stormy husband, Jack, and her sons, while she adapts to a lonely existence far different than she expected her life to be. Her only friends are the local preacher, who lets her play his piano, and Eddie. She is the first to befriend Eddie in a relationship that will prove as rugged as the ground they walk on. Despite having little in common, Eddie and Mary need one another for survival and companionship. But as the Great Depression threatens, the delicate balance of their reliance on one another goes awry, pitting neighbor against neighbor and exposing the dark secrets they hide from one another.

This quiet novel is a thoughtful examination of two women and their awkward relationship. Their close proximity to each other forces the friendship, but it’s a half-hearted, sometimes bitter, sometimes tolerant situation. Weather conditions, medical emergencies, and social events often necessitate one depending on the other for assistance, but they don’t like that much, either. And yet, as children come and go, economic conditions rise and fall, crops and animals suffer or die, these two women find something in each to cling to when all else disappoints them. As each character narrates her chapter, we see that despite all their differences, they come to depend upon and care for each other, as connected as two family members throughout all these years. This contemplative story will leave the reader thinking of the value of friends and family members who we don’t always appreciate but who stick with us through thick and thin, no matter what happens.

This is the author’s first novel.


Other titles you may enjoy:

What the Thunder Said by Janet Peery, 2007
In the Dust Bowl of 1930s Oklahoma, a family comes apart as sisters Mackie and Etta Spoon keep secrets from their father and from each other. Etta, the dangerously impulsive favorite of her father, longs for adventure someplace far away, and she doesn’t care how she gets there; watchful Mackie keeps house and obeys the letter of her father’s law, while harboring her own dreams. After the massive 1935 Black Sunday dust storm brings ruin to the family, the sisters’ conflict threatens further damage, so the two leave home to forge their own separate paths, each setting off in search of a new life.

Stormy Weather by Paulette Jiles, 2007
Oil is king of East Texas during the darkest years of the Great Depression. The Stoddard family knows no life but an itinerant one, trailing the father from town to town as he searches for work on the pipelines and derricks. But the fall of 1937 ushers in a year of devastating drought and dust storms, and the family's fortunes sink further when a questionable "accident" leaves them alone to confront the cruelest hardships of these hardest of times.

Last of the Husbandmen by Gene Logsdon, 2008
Two friends, one rich by local standards, and the other of more modest means, grow to manhood in a lifelong contest of will and character. In response to many of the same circumstances-war, love, moonshining, the Klan, weather, the economy-their different approaches and solutions to dealing with their situations put them at odds with each other, but we are left with a deeper understanding of the world that they have inherited and have chosen.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Sadness is Key

Sarah’s Key
Tatiana de Rosnay

St. Martin’s Press, 2007

American journalist Julia Jarmond lives in Paris with her charming but unfaithful husband, Bertram, and her lovely daughter Zoe. When she is asked by her editor to write a story about the upcoming anniversary of an event called the Vel D’Hiv Roundup, she gets caught up in a family secret that swirls around this black day in French history, and causes her to reevaluate her own life.

In July, 1942, a young girl named Sarah Starzynski, her family, and many other Jews were rounded up by the French police, seemingly through Nazi orders, and kept in horrendous conditions in a large coliseum. Sarah was 10 years old and didn’t understand what was happening, so she hid her young brother, Michel, in a secret cupboard in their house. Thinking she could go back and release him later, she locked the cupboard and took the key. Unfortunately, she and her parents were sent to a holding camp in France and separated, with her parents going to Auschwitz. Sarah and all the other children were left in the camp, neglected and abandoned for several months. Sarah worried and hoped the whole time that someone found her little brother and let him out of the cupboard.

As Julia delves deeper into the historic documents pertaining to this event, she stumbles upon a picture of Sarah and cannot forget about her. Soon she discovers a link between this girl and her husband’s family that compels her to ask difficult questions and probe into long-hidden family secrets. Alternating chapters between Julia’s and Sarah’s stories build suspense and tension until Julia discovers the terrible secret that Bertram’s father had hidden from his family for 60 years, and which cause her to apply some of the meaning she finds in Sarah’s life to her own.

Incredible coincidence #1: Julia “stumbles” upon the story of Sarah Starzynski when she is researching the Vel D’Hiv Roundup.

Incredible coincidence #2: Bertram’s family owns an apartment that is being renovated for Julia and her husband. This apartment has been in the family since, oh, about 1942.

Incredible coincidence #3: Guess where Sarah was living when her family was rounded up? You got it.

I don’t want to reveal more of the story, which is a good one if the reader can get past the incredible coincidences (see above). Like Leroy Jethro Gibb in "NCIS," I don’t believe in coincidences, especially when used for a plot device. It didn’t have to be Julia’s family who owned the exact same apartment that Sarah lived in, but it sure worked out conveniently for subplots about family secrets and dynamics and marriage problems. It’s a shame that the plot is so contrived and unrealistic, because the story is a good one all by itself. Julia and Sarah are strong, resilient, persistent and caring women. Sarah faced overwhelming situations repeatedly which would have caused other people to give up, but she was insistent that she get back to Paris to save her little brother. Julia may have faced different choices, but she also faced each roadblock with courage and determination to do the right thing.

This is a heartbreaking and depressing story because it’s based on a true event and a dark time in France’s history. Some may say that this book represents the triumphant human spirit. Some may say that this book demonstrates that good overcomes evil. Some may even say that these types of stories can teach a lesson that this type of cruelty, intolerance and prejudice should never happen again. Maybe these things are true, but this story just left me with an overwhelming feeling of despair that our world is a sad place to be sometimes.


Other books by this author:
A Secret Kept, 2010

Other titles you may enjoy:

Remember Me by Trezza Azzopardi, 2004
Determined to be no trouble to anyone, homeless septuagenarian Winnie pursues a young girl who has stolen her suitcase and wig, an endeavor that causes her to evaluate the events that culminated in her current status.

Articles of War by Nick Arvin, 2005
During his exposure to combat, George "Heck" Tilson, an eighteen-year-old Iowa farm boy sent to Normandy just after D-Day, discovers that he is a coward and, tormented by the perils around him, struggles to survive the horrors of war.

Inheritance by Natalie Danford, 2007
One half of the story begins after the death of Luigi Bonocchio, an Italian immigrant whose daughter, Olivia, discovers a mysterious deed to a house in Urbino, Italy, his hometown he never spoke of. Intrigued, Olivia travels there, and is at first charmed by the city, her new relatives and a young lawyer she hired to help her. But when Olivia tries to sort out the deed, she is met with a puzzling silence. Everyone in the town remembers her father, but they are not eager to tell his story. However, Luigi tells his part of the tale directly to the reader as the chapters alternate between Olivia’s search for the truth and Luigi’s account of his history.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Letter Perfect

Famous Writers School
Steven Carter

Counterpoint, 2006

Famous Writers School is composed of the letters and stories of three would-be authors who are taking a correspondence course advertised in the classified pages of a writing magazine. At a cost of only $295, payable by personal check, money order or certified check, students can receive several lessons by mail, plus the comments and advice from a published author, Wendell Newton. Wendell's oddball collection of students includes Rio, an alluring blues singer on whom he quickly develops a crush; Linda Trane, an unhinged housewife who seems to be stalking him; and Dan, a truly talented author of hard-boiled detective fiction. As the novel progresses through the correspondence between each student and Wendell, it becomes apparent that Wendell’s advice is more self-serving than helpful to the students. Not only that, but the students begin to suspect that Wendell Newton has not been completely honest with them regarding his work or his life. Gradually the slender threads of connection between each character become apparent, even as Wendell's imagination careens out of control, causing these stories within the story to come to a screeching halt with very interesting results.

I love the way the author reveals bits of each character’s personality through the stories and letters they submit to Wendell. From Dan’s very publishable detective story to Rio’s airy comments on every little thing that comes into her head, the characters come alive as they respond to Wendell’s criticism and interest in their work. As the letters and stories continue, we start to see that Wendell is far different than he portrayed himself to be. Also, each character comes unraveled a little as the book progresses: Linda becomes kind of scary and crazy, Rio shows she is more than a ditzy stripper, and Dan has some real potential as a writer. In fact, at some point I cared more about the next installment of Dan’s novel in progress than I cared about what was happening with the other characters – until Linda sent in her story about a character that broke into a writer’s house – and suddenly I was caught up in her drama as well.

There are several surprises in this novel, which make it unpredictable and mildly amusing in a wacky sort of way. I very much enjoy epistolary novels like this one, because the reader is not witness to the action but instead must experience it through the characters’ eyes, thereby adding another element to the reading experience: trust. Can we trust all the characters and believe them when they describe their actions? It’s fun to try and figure out what’s true and what’s not, based on the characters’ words themselves. And in this case, the end result is very rewarding indeed.


Other books by this author:
I Was Howard Hughes, 2003

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Writing Circle by Corinne Demas (2010)
In a tale of love, betrayal, and literature, six members of an elite writing circle share much more than their works-in-progress.

Thieves of Manhattan by Adam Langer (2010)
An aspiring writer with a low-paying day job at a coffee shop becomes embroiled in an elaborate scheme to create a fake memoir of his own. Ian quickly realizes that fact and fiction can be dangerously intertwined.

Ibid: a life: a novel in footnotes by Mark Dunn (2004)
After the only copy of his book is destroyed in a warm bath, Mark Dunn is forced to publish only the footnotes to his biography of Jonathan Balshette, a three-legged former carnival star turned deodorant magnate cum philanthropist. Using the digressions, asides, and accoutrements of a life, the footnotes tell the story of a man's journey through the historical milestones and colorful personalities of the twentieth century,

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Wrapped Up Too Neatly

A Vintage Affair
Isabel Wolff

Bantam, 2010

Opening a vintage clothing shop in London where she sells classic clothing, Phoebe Swift works to keep up with her unexpected success while struggling with her best friend's death, a rivalry between two suitors, and her mother's cosmetic surgery fixation.

Every dress has a history, and so does every woman. Her friends are stunned when Phoebe abruptly leaves a plum job at the prestigious Sotheby's auction house to open her own vintage clothing shop in London - but to Phoebe, it's the fulfillment of a dream. In the sunlight-flooded interior of Village Vintage, surrounded by Yves Saint Laurent silk scarves, Vivienne Westwood bustle skirts, cupcake dresses, and satin gowns, Phoebe hopes to make her store the hot new place to shop. For Phoebe, each vintage garment carries its own precious history. Digging for finds in attics and wardrobes, Phoebe is rewarded whenever she finds something truly unique, for she knows that when you buy a piece of vintage clothing, you're not just buying fabric and thread - you're buying a piece of someone's past.

But one particular article of clothing will soon unexpectedly change her life. Thérèse Bell, an elderly Frenchwoman, has an impressive clothing collection. But among the array of smart suits and couture gowns, Phoebe finds a child's sky-blue coat - an item with which Bell is stubbornly reluctant to part. As the two women become friends, Phoebe will learn the tale of that little blue coat and it’s story will help her deal with her own loss and allow her to love again.

This chick lit/romance novel wants desperately to be deeper than it actually is. While it’s very enjoyable to read, it wraps itself up a little too neatly at the end with some major plot devices that masquerade as coincidences that are far too unbelievable to swallow. Also, the narration is unbalanced: we only have Phoebe’s account of her friend’s death which we have no reason to suspect is not true, yet later her ex-fiancé reveals other details about the incident that were conveniently left out earlier in the narration. Were there clues earlier in the story that might indicate Phoebe is not to be trusted? I’d have to read it again to see, but I do wonder if this revelation was inserted in order to finish the book in a convenient “meaningful” way. Up to this point, Phoebe is a very likeable and sympathetic person, yet the ending exposes a mean person who punishes other people unjustly for her own mistakes.

While I enjoyed reading this book, I have to admit the ending left a negative impression of the experience. The setting of a vintage clothing shop is unique, but would this concept be so successful in this economy? Hard to tell. I loved the supporting characters, including Dan, her colorblind love interest and her mum, who continually debates new cosmetic procedures to try. I’m just not that keen on Phoebe. Read it and tell us what you think!


Other books by this author
Rescuing Rose (2002)
Behaving Badly (2003)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Lucia, Lucia by Adriana Trigiani (2003)
The daughter of an Italian immigrant family in 1950 Greenwich Village, Lucia Sartori pursues a career in the fashion industry until she falls in love with a handsome stranger, who must win over her traditional family to marry her.

Home Again by Kristin Hannah (1996)
Struggling with her rebellious daughter and her conflicting feelings for a soul-seeking priest and a cynical man, cardiologist Madelaine learns to overcome past betrayals when a tragedy brings them all together.

Alison’s Automotive Repair Manual by Brad Barkley (2003)
Two years after losing her husband, Alison reluctantly agrees to move out of her sister's West Virginia home as soon as she fixes--and learns how to fix--a 1976 Corvette that has been rusting in the garage.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Mysteriously Fun and Satisfying

The Mysterious Benedict Society
Trent Lee Stewart

Little, Brown, 2007
Juvenile Fiction

"Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?"

When this peculiar ad appears in the newspaper, dozens of children enroll to take a series of mysterious, mind-bending tests. Reynie Muldoon is an orphan, and he is particularly interested in these tests because he is very gifted and looking for something special in his life. Little does he know that he will be selected, along with three other gifted children, to help overcome an evil empire and save the world.

These four children, each of whom is gifted in a different way, are recruited for this mission by Mr. Benedict because he needs them for a dangerous mission. Their challenge is to infiltrate a private school on an isolated island and stop someone from trying to control the minds of the world’s children. To accomplish it they will have to go undercover at the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, where the only rule is that there are no rules. As our four heroes face physical and mental trials beyond their wildest imaginations, they have no choice but to learn to trust each other, despite their differences, in order to save their very lives.

If you read and liked Harry Potter, Charlie Bone and Lemony Snicket, you will also enjoy this series. This first title of the series is deceptively simple – after all, it’s good versus evil. But there are very clever devices at work: mainly that things aren’t always what they seem. The reader may think she knows what’s going to happen, but then this reader is surprised to discover that she isn’t so smart after all. Although the book is intended to appeal to children, it will also appeal to adults that enjoy puzzles, mysteries, and brain teasers, because this story incorporates all three. Add a very earnest and conscientious main character who struggles to do the right thing despite his sometimes overwhelming fear, and you have a delightful, unpredictable and satisfying story to enjoy yourself as well as read to any children in your life.


Other books in this series:
The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey (2008)
The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma (2009)

Other youth titles you may enjoy:

Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller (2006) YA Fiction
Life becomes more interesting for Ananka Fishbein when, at the age of twelve, she discovers an underground room in the park across from her New York City apartment and meets a mysterious girl called Kiki Strike who claims that she, too, wants to explore the subterranean world.

Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson (2007) Juvenile Science Fiction
On his thirteenth birthday, foster child Alcatraz Smedry receives a bag of sand which is immediately stolen by the evil Librarians who are trying to take over the world, and Alcatraz is introduced to his grandfather and his own special talent, and told that he must use it to save civilization.

Among the Hidden by Margaret Haddix (1998) Juvenile Science Fiction
In a future where the Population Police enforce the law limiting a family to only 2 children, Luke has lived all his 12 years in isolation and fear on his family's farm, until another "3rd" convinces him that the government is wrong.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Lost and Found in Space

Americans in Space
Mary E. Mitchell

Thomas Dunne Books, 2009

It’s been two years since high school guidance counselor Kate Cavanaugh lost her young husband, Kyle, and she is still struggling to stop the downward spirals of her two children – and her – into a depression fueled by grief and despair.

Life is a challenge for 36-year-old Kate who counsels a motley group of at-risk students. Two years after finding her young husband dead in bed beside her, Kate’s storybook life has vanished, and she and her two children are still reeling. Her daughter Charlotte, once a sweet girl, has morphed into an angry, tattooed, tongue-studded teen; and Hunter, Kate’s four-year-old, keeps his feelings sealed tight inside an empty ketchup bottle clasped to his heart. Not only does Kate not know where to turn next, a romantic interest causes her guilt and pain and she cannot cope with her conflicting feelings.

Then a tragedy occurs at the high school and directly impacts Kate’s support group of at-risk kids, her daughter, and Kate herself. Suddenly Kate is in dire need of counsel and guidance and she finds she can’t begin to help anyone else until she figures out what to do with her own feelings first. What she does next may be unwise and perhaps dangerous, but at least her impulsive actions jumpstarts her family toward the unfamiliar road to forgiveness, understanding and healing.

Despite the initial premise, this book is not sad nor is it depressing. Yes, there are sad moments as you might expect when dealing with the subject matter, but they are handled with grace and humor. I liked the characters in this book and genuinely wished good things for them – even Charlotte, who is a typical teenage brat but really, who can blame her? Although Kate can be awfully inconsistent with her kids, unsure about her job, and hot and cold with her new beau, she is also caring, self-deprecating, and really doing the best she can. Luckily she has some good friends that give her the kind of advice I would offer to her, if I lived next door. I guess even guidance counselors need therapy sometimes, too. I found this book to be a thoughtful portrayal of a family in crisis with a satisfying and realistic ending.


Also by this author:
Starting Out Sideways (2007)

Other books you may enjoy:

Good Grief by Lolly Winston (2004)
Thirty-six-year-old Sophie Stanton desperately wants to be a good widow-a graceful, composed, Jackie Kennedy kind of widow. Alas, she is more of the Jack Daniels kind. Self-medicating with ice cream for breakfast, breaking down at the supermarket, and showing up to work in her bathrobe and bunny slippers. Soon she's not only lost her husband, but her job, house and waistline. With humor and chutzpah Sophie leaves town, determined to reinvent her life. But starting over has its hurdles; soon she's involved with a thirteen-year-old who has a fascination with fire, and a handsome actor who inspires a range of feelings she can't cope with-yet.

The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay by Beverly Jensen (2010)
An 1916, Idella and Avis Hillock live on the edge of a chilly bluff in New Brunswick--a hardscrabble world of potato farms and lobster traps, rough men, hard work, and baffling beauty. From "Gone," the heartbreaking story of their mother's medical crisis in childbirth, to the darkly comic "Wake," which follows the grown siblings' catastrophic efforts to escort their father, "Wild Bill" Hillock's body to his funeral, the stories of Idella and Avis offer a compelling and wry vision of two remarkable women.

The Year of Pleasures by Elizabeth Berg (2005)
Betta Nolan moves to a small town after the death of her husband to try to begin anew. Pursuing a dream of a different kind of life, she is determined to find pleasure in her simply daily routines. Among those who help her in both expected and unexpected ways are the ten-year-old boy next door, three wild women friends from her college days, a twenty-year-old who is struggling to find his place in the world, and a handsome man who is ready for love.

Monday, August 9, 2010

No Regrets

So Long, See You Tomorrow
William Maxwell

Knopf, 1980

Haunted by a memory of human failure, an aging man recalls his friendship with a neighbor boy whose father killed a close friend. The story takes place in the early part of the 20th century in a small Nebraska town. The narrator does not know what would cause such a tragedy, so he imagines the circumstances surrounding the close friendship between two families and recreates the events that may have led up to the murder. The narrator, who is dealing with the loss of his own mother, has a great deal of guilt and remorse associated with his brief friendship with the boy, and these strong feelings have been present more than fifty years. As he says at the story’s beginning, this murder would not have such a strong impact on him if he had personally known the boy whose father was murdered, and if he had done something later that he was ashamed of.

This is a slender volume packed with power. Two seemingly separate stories about two separate boys somehow merge together to become one. There are common threads between the two boys: both lose a parent, both are powerless to change an outcome, both lives change dramatically because of the actions of adults. But the narrator’s story is a common enough one – no tragedy to mar it, no scandal to be gossiped about, no publicity in the newspaper. Even so, he is so affected by the murder and subsequent events that he is moved to tears years later when recalling them. Guilt and remorse are strong emotions and universal themes that create a heartbreaking story that will be with the reader for quite some time after its end.


Other books by this author:
The Folded Leaf (2006)
Early Novels and Stories (2008)

Other books you may like:

Montana, 1948, by Larry Watson (1994)
The events of that cataclysmic summer permanently alter twelve-year-old David's understanding of his family: his father, a small-town sheriff; his remarkably strong mother; the Hayden's Sioux housekeeper, Marie Little Soldier, whose revelations are at the heart of the story; David's uncle, a war hero and respected doctor. As their story unravels around David, he learns that truth is not what you believe it to be, that power is abused, and that sometimes you have to choose between family loyalty and justice.

Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington (1921)
In the lower-middle-class Adams family, father and son are happy to work in a drugstore, but mother and daughter Alice try every possible means to climb into a higher social class. When Alice finally meets her dream man, the mother persuades Alice’s father to attempt a risky business venture and plans to impress Alice's beau with an "upscale" family dinner.

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger (2001)
Eleven-year-old Reuben shares the story of how his father, trying to raise his sons alone in 1960s Minnesota, takes their family on a quest to find Reuben's older brother, who has been charged with murder.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Hungry for a Snack?

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Dial Press, 2008

It’s January, 1946, and London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War. Writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next nonfiction book topic when a man she’s never met sends her a letter. He found her name inside a book by Charles Lamb and so begins a correspondence between Juliet and the members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island, boasts a charming, and amusing cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists. Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society's members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and so finds a new direction for her life and her work.

This epistolary novel, a story told entirely in letters, is not unique, but it is a fascinating study of character development. Although we quickly discern Juliet’s humor, sensitivity, and caring nature, we only learn about the others from her perspective in the letters, and very briefly, in their letters to her. The plot develops very curiously in this type of structure – we don’t actually witness any action ourselves but only through the letter writer. The authors attempt to build suspense through the letters and telegrams, and they succeed in a way, but not really. This novel’s success comes through the characters, not the story line.

I found this novel enjoyable but not exemplary. Interesting, but not wonderful. Yes, it’s worth reading as a summer read, or a light read, or maybe an “escape your real life” read. It doesn’t have much “sticking power,” though. Sticking power is a term that describes a book that you can’t stop thinking about while reading and you keep thinking about after you finish. This book is missing something meaningful. Maybe this detachment is due to the structure. Even though letters are very personal, they leave an awful lot to the imagination and this can make the whole story rather remote from the reader. In other words – reading this book is a lot like eavesdropping on someone’s conversation: it’s interesting but happening to someone else, so the listener (or reader) doesn’t relate to it on any personal level.

Maybe the book doesn't deserve this type of dissection. It’s a light and charming book that you will forget soon after you read it -- more of a snacky meal instead of a Sunday dinner. Maybe today you are looking for exactly that type of book – if so, you will not be disappointed in this choice. Even if there is no recipe for potato peel pie included.


Other titles you may enjoy:

Famous Writer’s School by Steven Carter (2006)
Famous Writers School is composed of the letters and stories of three authors who are taking a would-be correspondence course, and the self-serving "lessons" that Wendell Newton, their endearingly obtuse instructor, doles out in response. Wendell's oddball collection of students include Rio, an alluring blues singer on whom he quickly develops a crush; Linda Trane, an unhinged housewife who seems to be stalking him; and Dan, a truly talented author of hard-boiled detective fiction. As Dan's gritty mystery arrives piece by piece, Wendell gets hooked on the story--and decides to dress it up in his own style in order to pass it off as his creation.

The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters by Elisabeth Hunt (2004)
Unemployed actress Olivia Hunt leaves Hollywood to return home at the request of her younger sister, Madeleine, and finds herself struggling to help her sister, keep her parents under control, and reconnect with an old boyfriend.

Life on the Refrigerator Door: a Novel in Notes by Alice Kuipers (2007)
Unemployed actress Olivia Hunt leaves Hollywood to return home at the request of her younger sister, Madeleine, and finds herself struggling to help her sister, keep her parents under control, and reconnect with an old boyfriend.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Be Near Me, But Not Too Near

Be Near Me
Andrew O’Hagan

Harcourt, 2006

Father David is English, educated at Oxford, and an outsider in his small parish in Scotland. Maybe he’s an outsider because he enjoys good food and wine, or maybe he’s an outsider because he never really got to know his parishioners the way he should as their spiritual leader. In any event, his only friend is his housekeeper, Mrs. Poole, who enjoys listening to classical music and learning about fine wine from Father David. They also work together in the garden and talk about intellectual matters, and this has always been enough for Father David – until lately. Lately, David has been unsatisfied with his quiet life in this small parish. Or perhaps it’s just loneliness that causes him to befriend Mark and Lisa, rebellious local teenagers who live in a world he barely understands. Their company stirs memories of earlier happiness—his days at a Catholic school in Yorkshire, the student revolt in 1960s Oxford, and a love affair he had once. For some reason, he spends more and more time with Mark and Lisa doing things that are very unwise and self-destructive: drinking alcohol, smoking, taking drugs, visiting bars and taking other excursions. He even gives them money. At first the friendship seems innocent to the townspeople, but then things cross a line and Father David has to deal with the consequences of his foolish behavior.

This is a quiet and contemplative book that focuses on the character of a priest who is unhappy with his life and his vocation. I believe the author intended to portray him as a sympathetic man who makes some bad decisions, but I found him to be quite stupid and self-serving. Surely he knew that he was jeopardizing his career and violating the trust of his parishioners with his actions, so why did he continue to behave inappropriately? The narration is first person, but the main character offers very little insight into his thought processes. In fact, he is very distant and remote and shares little of his emotions. It’s hard to care about him or his story, perhaps becuase he comes across as a first-rate snob. Critics loved this book; they loved the lyrical prose and poetic language the author used to describe a lonely man facing a personal and professional crisis. While I enjoyed these aspects of the novel, I found David’s story to be depressing and frustrating and the pacing too slow, especially the first half, for my reading mood. The ending was rather good, however.


Other titles by this author:
Personality, 2004

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