Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wild (2012) by Cheryl Strayed

I LOVED this book!  Thanks so much to my dear friend Joy who sent it to me for my birthday! The funny thing was, I had heard of this book and wanted to read it, I had even checked the library to see if they had it - and it was only available in Dutch translation (I generally really hate reading books that were originally in English translated into Dutch).  So I decided to wait.  And lo and behold, Joy sent it to me for my birthday.  We must have some kind of psychic connection going on, right? 

From the moment I started this book, I could not put it down.  This is a memoir of the author's journey to backpack the Pacific Crest Trail at age 26 in 1995, in an attempt to work through some difficult times in her life, including the loss of her mother four years earlier and the breakup of her marriage.  This is not only an incredible journey in and of itself, but Cheryl Strayed writes so honestly and engagingly about all of it, you feel you are right there with her. 

I could relate to the author on many levels, not least of which our similar ages.  At the same age she was tackling the PCT, I was building a new life for myself in a foreign country, and could definitely understand some of the feelings she went through.  And I have incredible admiration for her determination, bravery, and the way she dealt with the challenges that came her way. 

Read this book - it is awesome and will inspire you.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Place Last Seen (2000) by Charlotte McGuinn Freeman

If you enjoy spending time hiking in the great outdoors, the setting of this book will appeal to you.
My blog friend Andrea recommended this book to me and I was lucky to find a copy of it in the library.  I love that it is a first novel - one of my favorite things!  And it was very well written and kept me up half the night last night to find out what happened. was not an easy story to read.

The story begins as Anne, a mother of two, realizes that her 6-year-old daughter with Down's syndrome, Maggie, has gone missing during a family hike in the Sierra Nevadas Desolation Wilderness Area in California.  Maggie was playing hide-and-seek with her ten-year-old brother, Luke, and never returns.  As Anne, her husband and Luke try desperately to find Maggie, they slowly come to the realization that they are going to need to call in professional help to find their daughter, and the novel is the chronicle of the ups and downs of the rescue operation.

I'm not going to say anymore so as not to spoil the ending, but the author takes her time to paint each and every character in this book in beautiful emotional detail.  She also compels the reader to think about loss, responsiblity, and contemplate how we handle the inevitable tragedies in life.  Finally, the contrast between the concern and focus of the search teams and the indifference of nature, and the barren but beautifully unusual setting make it an excellent read.  Thanks for the recommendation, Andrea.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Darkest Child by Delores Phillips (2005)

Yet another painful and gripping story about an abusive mother; this time set in the 1950's in a small town in Georgia.  Rozelle Quinn, a mother of ten children by as many fathers, reminded me in many ways of "Mommie Dearest" with her unbelievable cruelty towards her children and other people in her life.  It was sometimes almost too heart wrenching to continue reading.

The narrator of the story is her daughter, Tangy Mae, the darkest skinned of the family, but at the same time the most intelligent.  Tangy Mae is desperate to finish high school, but has to work around her mother's demands that she help supplement the family's income by cleaning during the day and accompanying her to work as a prostitute by night.  At the same time, Tangy Mae has to take care of and protect her younger siblings, and deal with the rivalries that crop up between her and the older siblings.  No one seems to be safe or cherished in the Quinn household at any time.  Their mother literally gets away with murder, and not just once, but three times in the course of the book!

Unfortunately, the story ends just as Tangy Mae manages to escape.  I would have loved to be able to follow her on her journey out of hell and see how she managed to turn her life around after surviving all she did.  

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Expats by Chris Pavone (2012)

I was lucky enough to win an advance reader's copy of this book earlier this year and due to circumstances, only got hold of it recently.  But it was a really great read - I started it yesterday evening and just couldn't put it down to go to sleep and then luckily I had a pretty quiet day today, because I had to finish it.  Yes, it's that kind of book.

It's a fast paced thriller, but the neat thing about it is that it is set in sleepy little Luxembourg, of all places.  And the characters get to visit Paris, Brussels, the Ardennes, Amsterdam, London, Berlin, Geneva..  All places I have been throughout these years I've lived here and so it feels so familiar.  The author certainly used the year and half he himself spent in Luxembourg as an expat very well - the details and descriptions of the different cities but also everyday life, the food, the way things work, the people you see - they all ring very true.

The other familiar theme in the book is a career woman who gives up her job to follow her husband to another country and become a stay-at-home mother...I could certainly relate to many of the scenes that detail her frustration at the mundane details of domestic life, when you are the sole person in charge of making sure the shopping, cooking, and cleaning all get done while your spouse is off on weekly business trips.   

What was not familiar to me was the fact that this particular stay-at-home mom, Kate, has a huge secret that she's been hiding from her husband for ten years.  Her job was not really what she's told him it was.  But as she soon discovers while navigating her new life in Luxembourg, her husband is also hiding a huge secret about his professional life from her.  And their new best friends, another American couple, aren't exactly who they seem either.  Unable to resign herself to the boredom of expat life, Kate is compelled to find out what is going on.  And that's where things start to get exciting. 

For the attentive reader, there are lots of little clues dropped along the way, but still the ending has some surprising twists and things I hadn't seen coming.  This was an entertaining read, and I could definitely see it being made into a movie - perhaps that would help change Luxembourg's reputation as a boring banking town to a sexy location for intrigue? 

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (2012)

I was at the book store yesterday looking for a book I loved to give to a friend of mine for a gift, when I stumbled across this book, and was intrigued by the premise (and charmed as always by the fact that it was a first novel). 

I came home and immediately started reading it and didn't stop (well, except for family dinner and things like that) until I had found out how it ended. I simply could not put it down.
Narrated by an older Julia about what happened when she was 11 years old, it is the story of how one day the earth starts to rotate slower and slower.  As the days become longer, and gravity is affected, we see through Julia's eyes how this ominous and irreversible change plays out in her own family, her friends and neighbors, and in the world at large.   As the story progresses we are made aware of how everything is interconnected, right down to the smallest detail.  We also see Julia growing up, and her parents growing apart, as well as how it feels to be an outsider. 

The novel also addresses the ability most of us have to adapt and quickly become used to situations that seem unbearably foreign and uncomfortable at the outset.  How quickly some of us get used to things that we could never have imagined before they actually take place.  As Julia says: "With a little persuasion, any familiar thing can turn abnormal in the mind."

This book has the undertone of a thriller, and the feel of science fiction, but the carefully wrought realism of a modern coming-of-age story.  It was excellent and I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich (1985)

I picked this book up when we were at the Grand Teton National Park visitors center in Moose, Wyoming.  The Grand Tetons were absolutely breathtakingly beautiful - what you think of when you think of snow-topped mountains...and the visitors center was gorgeous, too!  Lots of really nice educational displays and the best national park gift shop I'd ever seen, with a huge collection of books.  It was hard to hold myself in on the books!

But I'd made a conscious choice to be very mimimal on what I would purchase on our trip.  So I circled around the book section, deciding I'd choose one, just one.  And this slim volume by Gretel Ehrlich won out.  I recently finished it, and was very glad of my choice.

Gretel Ehrlich is an American essayist, poet and travel writer.  In the late 1970's she went to Wyoming, having suffered a personal tragedy, and began to write.  This book is a collection of short essays and vignettes culled from her "raw journal entries" from that time.  It is also a portrait of Wyoming life that you don't see when you are road-tripping from Devil's Tower to Yellowstone to the Grand Tetons, and I felt privileged to get a little glimpse of it, having just criss-crossed the state a few weeks earlier with my family.  It gave me an idea of what might have been going on under the surface of the small towns and wide open plains we passed through on those long days in the car.  It made me wish we had had more time to stop and look a bit more closely.

Woven through the stories of real ranch life in Wyoming are bits and pieces of Ehrlich's personal journey through grief, finding a spot for herself in the community, friendships, and the self reliance that is such an integral part of the western ethos, and the surprising tenderness underneath the tough veneer:
The toughness I was learning was not a martyred doggedness, a dumb heroism, but the art of accomodation.  I thought: to be tough is to be fragile; to be tender is to be truly fierce.
Love that.  Loved this book.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Nina: Adolescence by Amy Hassinger (2003)

My dear friend Joy, an aspiring writer (and author of an awesome food blog), lent this book to me.  The neat thing about it is that Joy has actually met the author, Amy Hassinger, who lives in the same midwest university town as she does!  And she said Amy's book was excellent. 

One of my favorite things are first novels.  I admire so much the faith it must take to fully commit to a cast of characters, a story line, and the ideas you yearn to express, and find a way to bring it full circle to a manuscript worthy of attention from an agent, an editor, a publishing house - the whole process seems magical and somehow miraculous to me.  And like a firstborn child makes you a mother, your first novel will always be your first novel, the one that made you a novelist.

This book is about motherhood.  It is also about adolescence and being a good daughter, and how that can sometimes destroy you. 

Nina sacrifices herself by posing nude so that her mother can produce a series of portraits for an important come-back show at a gallery.  Nina's hope is that by getting her to paint again, her mother will be able to break free of the depression she has been imprisoned by ever since her son, Nina's little brother, died tragically.  Nina feels responsible for her brother's death and so it seems the posing is a way for her to do penance as well as save her mother.

The paintings and the gallery show take a toll on Nina and both her parents in ways they never could have expected.  My feeling is that none of them were prepared for the ways in which their lives changed, and that partially explains why they fumbled so badly in dealing with things as they unfolded.  Like so many of us, Nina and her parents were just trying to do their best based on what worked in the past, forgetting that things had changed fundamentally forever and their old patterns of reacting were not going to work anymore.

Nina's father continued to defer to his wife out of fear for her fragility and the passivity of his own grief, where he should have much more vehemently defended his daughter and demanded respect for their family life.  Nina's mother selfishly allowed herself to be so consumed by her own grief that she was incapable of seeing what the consequences were for her firstborn; whereas she should have never accepted her daughter to sacrifice so much.  And Nina, in the face of so much indifference from her parents, tried bravely to play a role that was beyond her responsiblity and quite naturally, it all went wrong in the end. 

Nina tries to lose herself in ballet, in anorexia, in her first sexual encounter that sadly takes place in a sick relationship that has more to do with child abuse than mutual you read the book, you begin to fear more and more for her safety and start to believe that things are going to go very wrong for this family.

Amy Hassinger inhabits Nina's skin with grace and allows the reader to feel great empathy for this child who has not been able to count on her parents very much and has tried so hard to sort things out on her own.  She also conveys the grief of Nina's parents without making them tragic cut-out figures...they clearly have their own faults and blind spots and in fact it is very difficult to feel sympathy for the mother.

This is an excellent and very well-written, but not easy or even always pleasant book.  It reminded me what it felt like be an insecure adolescent girl.  It also made me think a lot about the nature of parenthood and the ways in which we as parents have a responsibility to be fair to our children, and not expect things of them that they should not have to sacrifice for us.  Thank you, Joy, for sharing it with me.

NB: Amy Hassinger also has a blog, which I've added to my sidebar...funnily enough I've got the novel she most recently blogged about (The Voyage Out by Virgina Woolf) on my nightstand next in line to be read! 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Ruins by Scott Smith (2006)

Wow.  I just could not put this down until I found out what happened.  If you read this, make sure you have a free afternoon and a long summer evening because you will be completely swallowed up by this story...
Two American couples, Amy and Jeff, Stacy and Eric, have just graduated from college and go to Mexico for a lazy beach vacation.  They meet and quickly start hanging out with Mathias, a German, and three fun Greek guys who they can barely understand.  One day Mathias tells them how he was actually there with his brother but that they got into an argument and his brother stormed off, headed for an archeological site in the jungle where he was to meet a girl.  Mathias asks the others if they will go with him to find his brother, and so the four Americans and one of the Greeks set out with him for this site, following a crude map pencilled in a note the brother left behind.

When they finally discover the ruins, they find themselves in a disturbing and unfathomable trap, faced with an unlikely predator.  I won't say anymore, not to spoil the ending, but if you're up for a quick, chilling read that you just can't put down, this one will do the trick. 

The book was made into a movie in 2008, which is not surprising, since at one point the characters in the book are actually discussing how, when they get out of their predicament, they will sell the film rights, and debating which actors would play them!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami (1985)

My 17-year-old son is a fan of Haruki Murakami and has read several of his novels.  I've read his book about running, which I enjoyed very much.  I also recently read "Norwegian Wood", which I didn't blog about at the time because I wasn't sure what to think of it.  It seemed to be so foreign to me on so many levels: the setting and time were so specific, the main character was so unusual to me, and there was so much quiet sadness permeating the book.  I should see the film, perhaps I would understand more.  But the book certainly does seem to be much more appealing to a young man than a 40-something woman.

In any case, my son had a copy of "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World" here at home and so I decided to read it.  It took me a long time to get into the book, but once I did I could not put it down. The book is actually two novels that alternate chapter by chapter, but the reader quickly realizes that the two seemingly disconnected stories are in fact connected to each other by one and the same narrator.  The first half, "Hard-Boiled Wonderland", is a sort of detective story whereby the main character finds himself unwillingly caught up in a mysterious case of information theft and top secret research on the nature of human consciousness; and frighteningly enough, he discovers he is one of the guinea pigs - in fact, the only one who has survived the experiments that have been done on his mind.

In the second novel, "The End of the World", we slowly discover a mysterious Town surrounded by an impenetrable Wall.  The narrator is newly arrived in the Town and must learn all the strange customs.  His Shadow is cut from him and imprisoned by the Gatekeeper who guards the Town, where no one is allowed to keep their Shadow or their mind.  Our narrator is given the job of "reading dreams" in the Library where he is assisted in this by the young Librarian, whom he becomes attached to.  His Shadow, however, is anxious for him to make a map of the Town so that the two of them can make their escape back to the real world.

I won't reveal just how the two novels are connected, but I found myself impatient to discover how things worked in the Town (in some ways it made me think of the movie "The Village") and whether or not the narrator was going to be able to turn his precarious situation around at the end. 

If you enjoy a kind of dreamy science fiction novel with a touch of action-adventure and lots of references to food (I loved that the narrator made a dressing with umeboshi plums, among many other delicacies), music, movies, literature, whiskey, beer, cars and life in modern Tokyo, then I can recommend this book.