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Bite-sized book review: A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano

20 Sep

A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano is the exquisitely written, emotionally taut, and compelling story of four people doing their best to navigate their lives in a small Southern town. That one of these people is a fascinating and fictionalized version of Flannery O’Connor only adds to the complicated tapestry Napolitano weaves here, braiding the sins humans can commit out of boredom with the pain of a physical disease and the events of a tragic afternoon.

Napolitano’s gift is getting inside the heart of her characters, so that readers are rooting for every one of them, so that it’s possible – even when they have done terrible, selfish things – to forgive them their frailty. Her believable, research-based portrait of Flannery, channeled through the menagerie of peacocks that roam the O’Connor estate, screaming in the night and eating each flower as it blooms, heightens the sense that there is redemption to be found, to be sure, but only after we realize we all a little flawed, and a little doomed.

(If, like me, this book sends you on a mad quest for nonfiction about FC, I urge you to consider Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch.)

Bite-sized book reviews: The Help, What Alice Forgot, Russian Winter, and Swamplandia!

2 Aug

Okay, so:

The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Go read it. It’s as good as everyone you know has said (wailed, screamed) it is. As if it wasn’t enough to write a compelling novel about a very real time in American history, Stockett has the nerve to be an excellent writer who created vivid, interesting characters and a delicately suspenseful plot. Skip whatever else you’ve got on the TBR pile. Go read this now.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty is the kind of book I dream about finding on the shelves. (You know the ones. They suck you in and keep you there, blissfully, for days.) I don’t know why I bother mentioning that Moriarty is a good writer, given that I don’t bother reading anything by anyone if it’s not well-written, but she is a good writer. This novel’s creative plot, coupled with realistic and complicated family dynamics probably anyone can relate to, makes this story about one woman’s unexpected and accidental amnesia a perfect one to disappear inside.

Russian Winter by Daphne Kolatay. My grandmother told me to read it, and really, she’s never wrong. Kolatay has crafted a fascinating and atmospheric historical novel, and I’m not even into ballerinas. That she manages to jump through both time and perspectives with no loss of momentum or character development is a testament not only to her writing ability but to the pull of a great story. I’m also pretty sure that right about now you’re willing to read anything that involves winter.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell is the best book I’ve read so far this year, and it will take a lot to change that opinion by December 31. The only thing more breathtaking than the haunting, imaginative, and sad tale of the Bigtree siblings is Russell’s tremendous talent. This was some of the most incredibly creative writing I’ve read in years, with line-by-line inventiveness that positively ripped my head off (read the first few pages to see exactly what I mean). My grief at the end of this expertly woven, heartbreaking novel was palpable.

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So hey, you may have noticed this post is different from the ones that came before. Congratulations. You’ve figured out that things around here are going to change. Turns out I am better with short and sweet, especially if you’re into short more than sweet. (This surprises no one, I’m sure.) Anyway, thanks for your patience.

Book review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

14 Mar

In Audrey Niffenegger’s novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, Julia and Valentina Poole, two strange and precocious twenty-year old twins, find their world tipped sideways on the morning they receive a thick envelope from London: their aunt Elspeth, their mother’s own twin sister, has passed away and left them a flat. The conditions of the inheritance? They must both live there for one year before selling, and their parents are not allowed across the threshold.

Bordering the real-life Highgate Cemetary – home to the earthly remains of Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, and Karl Marx, to name a few – the flat is the perfect would-be launching pad for the twins, if either were inclined to launch. Instead, Julia and Valentina become increasingly involved with the lives of the people around them, including Robert, Elspeth’s grief-stricken, long-time love and Martin, an obsessive-compulsive crossword setter who lives upstairs. The twins also discover that the most elusive and devastating person in London may very well live, in a manner of speaking, in their own flat.

Where Niffenegger previously bent time in her best-selling novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, here she bends space to the same great success. Her writing is as skilled as ever, but it’s her ability to weave an inventive and intriguing  plot with compelling characters, flawless atmosphere and perfect tone that makes her such an amazing talent, and this such an excellent book.

Her Fearful Symmetry is a gripping – one might even say haunting – read.

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This book was published by Scribner in September 2009. For more information, visit the author’s websiteThink about buying this book from an independent bookstore, otherwise maybe I will haunt you, because I’m an IndieBound affiliate. As always, happy reading.

FTC Disclosure: This review was based on my own copy of this book.

 

Book review: French Leave by Anna Gavalda

6 Mar

When Garance and her siblings, Simon and Lola, find themselves trapped in the French countryside at a family wedding with their uppity, joy-killing sister-in-law, they quickly decide to make a stealthy escape and flee to visit their youngest brother, Vincent, who is working as a guide at a rural château. The four spend the afternoon together, rediscovering in their reunion the comfort and magic to be found inside their familial bonds.

Spanning one lovely, sleepy summer day, Anna Gavalda’s novel French Leave is a tender, bittersweet dreamscape of childhood memories, laughter, and the intimacy that only siblings can know. At 144 pages, this is a quick, spare novel, as full of terroir as any French wine. As poignant as it is melancholy, Gavalda’s gentle writing is spot-on in tone and pace, the just-right complement to its characters and subject matter.

Perfect for a warm, sunny Sunday morning – preferably in the heart of the French countryside, if you can swing it – French Leave is a small, charming getaway from the hectic everyday, a reminder that every once in a while, we must escape back into the arms of the past, and into the hearts of those who knew us when finding happiness was as simple as being together.

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This book will be published by Europa Editions in May 2011. For more information about the author or this novel, visit the publisher’s website. Purchasing this book from an independent bookseller will make you look more cultured and keep me in bottles of Sav  Blanc as an IndieBound affiliate (I wish). As always, happy reading.

FTC Disclosure: This review was based on a copy of the book that I received from the publisher.

Book review: The Lover’s Dictionary: A Novel by David Levithan

23 Feb

Every relationship has three distinct parts: the beginning, the middle, and the end. Whether the whole exists for mere days or goes on for decades doesn’t detract from this simple dissection: beginning, middle, end.

The Lover’s Dictionary: A Novel by David Levithan is the story of one such relationship, told in the form of dictionary entries:

imperceptible, adj.

We stopped counting our relationship in dates (first date, second date, fifth date, seventh) and started counting it in months. That might have been the first true commitment, this shift in terminology. We never talked about it, but we were at a party and someone asked how long we’d been together, and when you said, “A month and a half,” I knew we had gotten there.”

It’s the choice of this form where Levithan’s talent shines through, the structured lack of structure that gives the reader a guided tour through the cycle of one relationship. Its well-crafted roller coaster of a ride matches its subject matter perfectly. What better way to chronicle the ups and downs? What better way to make sense of the senseless?

It’s just a perk that Levithan’s prose is spare and poignant, that his writing is just as excellent as the idea of the book. In a small space, he manages to capture the enormity of this specific love.

Yet it’s the tenderness and the doubt, the rage and the joy this book contains that makes it a book about every love.

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This book was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in January 2011. For more information, visit the author’s website. You can also follow The Lover’s Dictionary on twitter. Please consider purchasing this book from an independent bookstore, and showing me some love as an IndieBound affiliate. As always, happy reading.

FTC Disclosure: This review was based on my own copy of this book.

Book review: Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss

15 Feb

When Dwight Garner of The New York Times described Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss as “a deeply unusual and forceful thing to have in your hands,” he wrote the truth.

Redniss’ graphic book, an illustrated biography of Marie and Pierre Curie, is a fascinating, almost preternaturally delicate and beautiful creation. Her use of cyanotype printing – ethereal and spooky photographic images created in white on bright blue backgrounds – balances so perfectly with her writing that it’s difficult to choose which better mirrors and influences which: the art would be less without the writing, and the writing would be less without the art.

Whether you know anything about the Curies or not, whether you even care is irrelevant: Redniss weaves a captivating narrative, equal parts science, love story, and passion for life. Her great skill here is not only in her ability to tell an interesting tale, but luring us into truly understanding, perhaps for the first time for many of us, the unequivocally tremendous contribution the Curies made to science. She shows us, in a fresh and poignant way, how they changed the future.

It’s not often that a book is as visually bewitching as the words on its pages, but Redniss has somehow achieved this. Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout is its own miraculous discovery.

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This book was published by It Books in December 2010. For more information, including the author’s explanation of why she was interested in the Curies, visit the author’s website. I’m an Indie Bound affiliate, so if you’d like to purchase this book, please consider doing so from an independent bookstore. As always, happy reading.

FTC Disclosure: This review was based on my own copy of this book.

Book review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

6 Feb

Sometimes, the right book comes exactly when you need it. About halfway through January, I really needed The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender.

Bender is one of my favorite authors. Her prose is tight, her voice is pitch-perfect, her style is equal parts melancholy and humor, and yet, she lets none of this confine her or box her in. Each book is fresh and inventive and uniquely hers, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is no exception. (Indeed, Bender has somehow become more Bender here. There is a depth, a maturity of craft to this novel that her previous work has lacked.)

Which is not to say that this novel is for everyone, because it’s probably not. But the story of Rose Edelstein, a girl and then a woman who can taste the feelings of others in the food they make, is one of the most beautiful, sad, and achingly tender tales I’ve read in a long time – a story of people too afraid to take steps towards their own happiness, and of all the ways they learn, slowly, to set themselves free.

Though we come to know Rose’s desperately lonely mother, her distant father, and her strange brother in and of themselves, it’s Rose who resonates. I understood her and saw myself in her, as I often understand and see myself in Bender’s characters, but there was never a moment I loved her more than when she creates a small, safe space for herself in a closet her employers set aside for her. (If you know me, this moment will make sense. That was the moment, mid-January, that I needed.)

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake might not hit everyone so hard, and it might not be the right fit for most readers. But this story about people finding something fulfilling, something that heals the wounds slowly and purely, because they finally let themselves see, was nothing short of a blessing to me.

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This book was published by Doubleday in June 2010. For more information, visit the author’s website, which includes monthly writing prompts, because didn’t I tell you Aimee Bender is awesome? If you’d like to purchase this book from an independent bookstore as well as keep me in cake (not really) as an IndieBound affiliate, click here. As always, happy reading.

FTC Disclosure: This review was based on a copy of the book that I borrowed from the public library.

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