Longing for Home by Sarah M. Eden (August 2013)

longingThis book is labeled “A Proper Romance” on the cover.  I think that’s because there is no sex, and only one exceptionally chaste kissing scene.  The “Proper” bit almost made me put the book down.  I’m glad I didn’t.  I read this book quickly and enjoyed it, in spite of the treacly  and repetitious spots, and moments when the main character doth protest too much.  This is a sweet romance that takes place in a small Wyoming frontier town.  But it illuminates an historical reality that was anything but sweet:  the intense, sometimes fatal discrimination faced by Irish immigrants.  I knew the Irish were treated poorly.  But I did not realize the extent of the discrimination, the blatant, in-your-face unfairness of it.  And I knew something about the famine from which they escaped.  But I did not have a feel for the impossible choices families faced.  So I recommend this novel for it’s enjoyable, chaste romance; and for the history that will grab your attention and keep it, giving you that emotional connection to an aspect of the country’s expansion that fiction often does best.  Advance Reader’s Copy supplied by BEA.

Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman (Oct. 2013)

hoffmanThis is a tiny book.  Like, you will finish it in a little over an hour.  At first I thought, no one who isn’t already terribly famous would be able to get away with this at a publishing house.  All the rest of us have to shoot for the 40,000 word minimum.  But after reading the book, I was no longer miffed.   There is purpose and effectiveness that would be impossible without brevity.  Hoffman — one of my favorite fiction writers — survived breast cancer 15 years ago.  This isn’t a breast cancer memoir, but rather a compilation of things Hoffman learned — about what is important in life, and how best to live it — through surviving cancer.  With its small size and few pages, this book might on first glance seem to fit into the market for aphorisms and devotionals, those little gift books on the sale tables at Barnes and Noble, the books that end up on our mother’s and grandmother’s night stands.  The ones filled with gag-worthy cliches that make you want to rip out the pages and shred them into itty bitty bits for presuming to reduce our pain into measurable portions that can be handily contained with truths too clever to be true.  But no.  No.  Hoffman’s book is NOT one of these.  You will read it and be surprised by the relief you feel.  You will give it as gifts.  These gifts will end up on night stands.  And there will be many people who sleep just a little bit better because a writer of beautiful words has understood their suffering: that pain, to be reduced, cannot be dismissed.  There are many self-help books out there that take hours and days to plod through for the small morsels we can take away and use. But in just an hour, you can read Survival Lessons and absorb every word, with no need to discard the tedious and superfluous.  Advance Reader’s Copy provided by BEA (and signed by Hoffman herself, who indeed was, upon meeting, the lovely person I had believed her to be from her writing).

Morning Glory by Sarah Jio (Nov. 2013)

morningHaving grown up near Seattle, I knew the setting of this novel — the house boats on Lake Union.  It was a pleasure to read Morning Glory, by the native Seattlite, Jio, and to recognize many of the places mentioned.  I learned things I was less acquainted with, too, like the cultural strictures that even egalitarian Seattle women lived with in the late 50s, and the art scene.  The grief that the main character lives with is something I hope to never be more acquainted with.  Mostly, this was a pleasant, enjoyable, easy romantic suspense (but the mystery does not entail anything gory) that switches back and forth between the late 50s and the present, in the exact same location — the houseboats.  I pretty much gobbled up this book.  But I have to warn you:  one needs a tolerance for puzzle pieces fitting neatly together.  If you like your rough edges, you won’t like this book.  It’s not that everything ends up hunky dory.  There is real tragedy and unfairness, and real effort to survive and move on.  But the lives lived among the houseboats in this novel do end up intimately intertwined through the decades, in ways surprising and too perfect to be truly realistic.  It’s part of the fun of the story, how everything fits together.  But you have to be the “half-full” sort of reader to appreciate it; if you’re the “half-empty” sort, you might think “oh, pulease”, in spite of enjoying other aspects of the story and the writing.  Advance Reader’s Copy provided by BEA.

Covet by Tracey Garvis Graves (Sept., 2013)

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At first, I was taken aback by Graves’ lack of verbal artifice, her plain narration of the alternating points of view of Claire, her husband Chris, and Claire’s friend and possible lover, Daniel. But it did not prevent me from getting propelled into their lives. I finished the novel in two days, and can feel the characters still lingering in my head, as though their lives continue outside the encapsulating book covers. I believe now the plain narration is fitting for a story that seeks to lay bare the progression a budding affair can take. How the innocent and friendly and more-or-less proper can slip past boundaries and become complicated. How we avoid looking, and talking, clearly about friendships with the opposite sex, so we can postpone admitting that they are rarely the uncomplicated things we want them to be. How we struggle to remain constant when we don’t get what we need. And how dependent we are on each other’s understanding of that struggle, taking responsibility for it, and forgiving. Graves’ story is ultimately an optimistic one. It’s refreshing, in the age of Fifty Shades Madness, to be reminded of our honorable potential (Is that too harsh? Do I sound like a prude? I don’t mean to – I only mean to say that I enjoyed reading about an average married couple who endured difficult but average hardship, and behaved with above-average integrity). The ending is not pat. There is no sticky sweetness or cliché to the honorableness. It is hard and painful. Complicated. And yet, in the final analysis . . . it’s pretty simple. You love, and you remain loving: sometimes up, sometimes down, constantly evolving. But you love. The naked simplicity of that vision is what propels us into honorable living when our lives are not as we hoped they would be. It’s what brings that disappointing present into the future we do, indeed, want.

Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum (Sept., 2008)

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Each of the eight chapters is a story unto itself, but they are all interconnected in telling the life of a middle-school English teacher. Bynum was a National Book Award finalist in 2004, and this book really showcases her talent. I found myself getting teary in places, but mostly laughing out loud unexpectedly, with a simple, acute description or turn of phrase. I found myself suddenly surprised, when Beatrice (Ms. Hempel) talked honestly about her idealism (or lack thereof) with regard to teaching, or divulged her sexual inclinations. As a former middle-school teacher myself, I was completely engrossed in Ms. Hempel’s experiences (and I suspect anyone in education would likewise be drawn in by this novel), and I originally thought to pass the book on to my middle-school daughter’s English teacher. That would, I realize now, be awkward – God knows if her English teacher would think I’m a freak for giving her a book whose main character is sometimes embarrassingly forthright. After all, we have stereotypes in our heads about the private lives our teachers lead. Many of us would like to maintain those illusions. So I won’t be giving this novel as a gift to any of my daughter’s teachers, for the sake of propriety. But I will hope that they discover this book somewhere along their journeys.  Bynum really gets the world of middle-school teaching.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough (Sept., 2012)

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I listened to this audio book a month ago, so I’m less able now to recount accurately all of Tough’s arguments or his evidence. But I don’t feel so bad about that lapse of memory after seeing on Amazon a “cheat sheet” book you can buy that condenses his arguments and most important case studies into a 30-minute summary. Obviously, a) there is enough evidence presented in Tough’s book to warrant a summary; and b) the evidence he presents is compelling enough, and enough people want to know what he has to say, to justify the publication of a summary. Which is all to say: read this book. It’s important. It’s extremely interesting. And it will likely propel you to change not just your assumptions, but your actions, if you are in any way associated with the lives of children. I began treating my teenage daughter a bit differently after listening to this book. She is a smart, witty, compassionate girl with a whopping dollop of ADD thrown into her glorious mix of character traits. So being a parent who gracefully lets go of the supports I have provided since birth, now that she is growing up . . . that’s not really me. But after listening to Tough’s book, I’ve had to at least try to get a little “tough” on myself, and on my child, by allowing for more possibility of failure. Or, at least, natural consequences. It’s one of the most powerful ways we learn, if we have nurturing people around us who help us learn how to manage our failures. That’s the key: we don’t just fall on our faces, but we learn, in relative safety, how to cope with it all. It’s a cliché to say it builds character. But it’s true. And the evidence in favor of character being more important that IQ in determining life “success”, is the stuff of this book. The seven traits Tough zeroes in on are: Grit, Curiosity, Self-control, Social intelligence, Zest, Optimism, and Gratitude. To build these traits, Tough advocates warm, calm, nurturing parenting early on, especially where there is poverty or other trauma. And parenting that allows some risk taking and challenge as children grow (this all may sound obvious, but Tough makes us see that we quite often do just the opposite). And he gives many examples of school and social programs that are working to tease out character building in a real, not just rhetorical way, in young people. My only two criticisms are that the examples he gives from the world of chess clubs dragged on a bit long – at least to my non-chess-playing self. And the reader for the audio version, while easy on the ears and entertaining in general, has the annoying habit of using the same odd voice when reading dialog attributed to a wide variety of people, both male and female. They were all soft spoken with a slightly southern drawl. Weird. But don’t let this deter you. I consider Tough’s book one of the most important I’ve read (listened to) in a long time.

Language of the Sea by James MacManus (2011)

 

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As a young adult who woke to years of dark, quiet mornings for training as a competitive swimmer, I often felt more comfortable in water than on land.  So when my cousin Lynette introduced me to selkies – the half-human half-seal beings of Scottish mythology – by giving me her VHS tape of the film “The Secret of Roan Inish”, I absorbed the waking fantasy of silently and without remorse abandoning land to slip beneath the waves and join my seal kin.  And now, decades later as an adult who occasionally uses said fantasy to escape the demands of daily life, I have read a novel that brings that very escape to life.  Language of the Sea by James MacManus is the stuff of Celtic lore and fantasy – and yet it reads like realistic fiction.  What happens in the novel is not far from the plausible.  At core, it is a novel about science – specifically the marine sciences – and not fantasy at all.  The main character is a marine biologist on Cape Cod, working as an academic at a research center, focusing on seal communication.  The book is one whose images are now a part of me; I suspect further decades (if I’m lucky) of living on land will not erode them.  But I have (or rather, had) one criticism.  I thought at several junctures in my reading that the science parts of the novel, where what is known about the oceans and sea mammals was explicated, were not strong enough.  Not detailed enough.  I kept thinking, there is lot being left out here, and the author is just scratching the surface.  But alas, by the end of the novel, the reader sees the point in that withholding.  What is most important is not what we know, but what we do not know, and our degree of humility in admitting that.  Our current scientific knowledge base is large, and we can explain a lot, especially in comparison to what we knew just 30 years ago, when I was still that young adult diving into pools while half asleep.  But we have only just scratched the surface, especially when it comes to our oceans, which cover 70% of our planet, but of which we’ve explored only five percent. And so my one criticism of this novel is washed away.  I will be reading MacManus’ new release, Black Venus, in the near future.  Next Spring, we may visit a remote research outpost in Baja California – one of several vacation spots I had looked into before reading Language of the Sea – where sea lions frolic.  If one dark morning I am said to have walked straight into the sea, slipped beneath a wave, and never returned, you will know with whom I am keeping company.

Arranged by Catherine McKenzie (2012), And Laughter Fell From the Sky by Jyotsna Sreenivasan (2012)

arranged laughterAfter taking a months-long hiatus to read mass market romances, none of which sufficiently compelled me to write reviews, I’m back —  and able to publicly admit what I’ve been reading.  I’m not sure why I dove head first into arranged marriage as a topic.  But two books from 2012 that I had put on my mental “to read” list, while I debauched my brain with other fare, just happened to be on that subject.  And they are very different from each other.  McKenzie, a Canadian, wrote a novel about two Anglos, frustrated after years of unhappy alliances, choosing on a whim to contact a marriage service.  The writing is quite good, and for those of us who have ever encountered a therapist, the therapy sessions are LOL, and insightful.  A surprise partway through the book piques additional interest.  I now want to read McKenzie’s earlier novel, Spin.    I am just now finishing Sreenivasan’s novel, and I can’t claim to have gobbled it up so thoroughly as Arranged.  Well, I am reading it quickly, it has drawn me in and kept me going, but it’s kind of in spite its problems rather than because of its virtues.  First the virtues:  the story of two Indian Americans from different caste backgrounds living in Ohio, is fascinating.  Whereas Arranged described an ultramodern twist on an ancient tradition, so twisted from the original that it has little in common with any tradition; And Laughter Fell From the Sky illucidates that ancient tradition, albeit with some changes in favor of greater rights for women than existed even just several decades ago.  Equally interesting are the differences among the Indian immigrant characters, whether because of caste, gender, generation, or personality.  It’s probably human nature to think of cultures different from our own as monolithic.  This novel is a good antidote to that sort of thinking.  Now the problems:  Things happen that make you say, OK, that never would have happened in real life.  For realistic fiction, it’s not very realistic — the dialog is off, and often stilted, and coincidences abound.  And I just don’t like the main female character.  With 45 pages to go, maybe she’ll redeem herself.  But I think it’s too late for me and my affections, who find the character so shallow a guppy would suffocate in her personality.  I love the guy.  But why said guy would love the girl is beyond me.  Nonetheless, I have enjoyed the foray into arranged marriage.  Especially since I am safely ensconced in a love marriage of my own.

2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,300 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

The Care and Feeding of an Alpha Male by Jessica Clare (Oct 2012)

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I was pleased for the first half of the book that this “romantica” (read: romance of the hot variety) title had a decent plot leading up to the activities that need no real plot to be enjoyable.  The characters were likable enough.  But then, when the aforementioned enjoyable activities commenced, they didn’t seem to stop.  It was so exhausting, I found myself actually skipping over two sex scenes so I could get back to half-way normal conversation.  I guess there are people for whom the timing of said activities might be realistic.  It just made me tired.  And I’m afraid the main female character got on my nerves after a while.  She just seemed too clueless and passive about the turn her business took, in spite of all her “Miss Independence” talk.  Ah well.  I finished the book.  That’s better than what happens to most romance novels I pick up.

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