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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: 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.

Book review: Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

4 Jan

If one day you told me, “You can be a powerful queen and ruler, you can have riches beyond imagining, you can possess an exceptional brain, a confident manner, a loyal nature, a brave soul, and gifts for both pageantry and persuasion, but…you must also withstand being misunderstood as a seductress, a succubus, and a whore for 2,000 years and counting,” I might have some inkling of what is was like to be Cleopatra. (I might still also agree to the bargain.)

In her 2010 biography, Cleopatra: A Life, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff peels away the dual layers of time and history to reveal the multi-faceted woman behind the myth, and in doing so, she has written an excellent book.

For any lover of non-fiction, this is a rich and engaging read, but Schiff’s real talent is making Cleopatra’s story as accessible as fiction. Accompanying Cleopatra from the time she ascends her throne at age 18, through years of uncertainty and triumph, through both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, until her suicide (which did not happen the way you think it did) at 39, Schiff offers a portrait of a real woman. An accomplished writer, with a clear sense of pitch and timing, Schiff renders her subject matter not merely interesting, but downright fascinating.

That Cleopatra was a complicated and compelling woman is undeniable. That her true story – rather than the one that has endured – is just as complex is a riveting and welcome surprise.

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This book was published by Little, Brown, and Company in 2010. For more information, visit the author’s website. To purchase this book from an independent bookseller and to marginally support me as an affiliate of IndieBound, please follow this link and pat yourself on the back. As always, happy reading.

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

Best Books of 2010

23 Dec

I read 83 books in 2010, less than usual, but that happens sometimes.

In honor of my spare year, I’m doing likewise with my round-up, because the cream really rose to the top.

Here are the highlights. Happy reading, and Happy New Year!

My favorite book of 2010:

The Boys of My Youth by Joann Beard

Honorable mentions for 2010, in no particular order:

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Petty Magic by Camille DeAngelis

Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Captain America, and the New Face of American War by Evan Wright

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Favorite character of the year?

Miranda from When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

(Links from book titles will bring you to purchase details through IndieBound.org, which supports independent bookstores. I’m an IndieBound affiliate and could potentially receive a  small kickback from your purchase, but trust me, that never happens. You should support your community anyway. Links from author’s name will bring you to author’s websites, or the next best thing.)

Book review: You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin

6 Nov

No one ever tells you what a bloodbath marriage can be. Of course everyone says it’s hard, and you hear all these comments about how it’s a slog, how it’s unimaginably difficult, how crazy it can make even the most sane. But you never really believe all of that, because it’s hard to grasp when you’re on the outside, and it’s hard to imagine when you don’t really want to. You’re too busy being sure nothing will change after it happens. You’re too confident you’ll be the couple that rises above.

But it’s true. All of it. Some days it’s all you can do to wake up next to your spouse and resist the urge to hold a pillow over their face, or yours. Sometimes, even though you’d never admit this to anyone, you consider simply not showing up and doing all you can every day. There are fantasies of what it used to be like when you were Independent George, or what it could be, daydreams about freedom from everything heavy or unmanageable, thoughts that stay a little too long and detail a little too carefully the loopholes in the sheer hard labor that marriage requires.

Victor Aaron, the main character in You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin, is a man who has forgotten completely these truths. He sees the marriage he shared with his dead wife, Sara, as “a perfect, if tumultuous, duet between two opposite but precisely matched souls.” Until one day, he discovers a series of notecards Sara wrote as part of a couples therapy session, detailing the major shifts in their 30-year relationship, and the tectonic plates of Victor’s beliefs start to slip apart.

Peppered with a cast of characters who possess real depth and variety, You Lost Me There is a cornucopia of the complexities of what it means to be human – how our memories can betray us, how our bad habits can bog us down and hold us back, how our connections to other humans can break us utterly and yet still set us free.

Baldwin knows marriage, and it’s a little heartbreaking to read, if you know it, too. But his terrific writing, coupled with his amazing ability to splice scenes so that we are watching two characters in a conversation while one is experiencing something different in his head, save this novel from being overly sentimental, or even too bittersweet. 

For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, this is a nuanced portrait of one man’s grief and of his journey towards, through, and out into the other side of change.

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This book was published by Riverhead Books in August 2010. For more information, visit the author’s website. You can also listen to the prologue by watching the book trailer. If you’d like to purchase this book and support independent booksellers at same time, click the IndieBound link that follows, and as always, happy reading. 

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

Inside Petty Magic (plus book recommendations!): An Interview with author Camille DeAngelis

5 Oct

I could not be more pleased to tell you my dear friend has a book coming out today. Petty Magic by Camille DeAngelis is easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and I’m not just saying that because I like her and because she sends me cookies, t-shirts, absinthe lollipops, and all other manner of cool things you will never enjoy.

But obviously, our friendship creates a conflict of interest for me in reviewing her book. Shockingly, as I get older and — I don’t know how this happened — more professional, I care about things like conflicts of interest. So I won’t be getting into the hows and whys and the omg run out and buy this book right nows of a review, but I will be getting into a slew of questions, because this girl can still hook you up:

Your previous novel, Mary Modern, was inspired by a photograph of your great-grandmother, and what it would be like if you could communicate with her. Petty Magic also has a fantastical storyline, yet it’s also grounded in a very real way. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

In 2007 all I had was Fawkes & Ibis (the curiosity shop where Eve’s love interest works; I had cannibalized an earlier manuscript) and the bare-bones premise: old witch makes herself young again so she can go out to bars and seduce men. I knew it would be loads of fun to write, but initially I thought it was only meant to be a short story, and (for now anyway) I write short stories only for my own amusement.

Meanwhile, I’d been working on another novel idea—written thirty or forty pages and had done quite a bit of  research—and I’d shown the first chapter to my best writer friend. We were on a walk in the Silvermines, a rather spooky set of mountains in County Tipperary in Ireland, and he was saying that he liked the chapter and that it felt very fast-paced, like a novella—and I groaned because I knew then that the thing I was working on wasn’t going to pan out. [Editor’s note: read Camille’s blog post about that weekend here]

Then I told him my little idea about a randy old witch, and he said there was a novel in that for sure. I’m telling you where I was when I committed to the idea because I think it actually flavored the story—the following year I did a bit of traveling in the Harz Mountains, where the Grimm brothers collected their fairy tales, and had that same eerie feeling as we walked through the evergreen forest in the rain and fog.

I love your main character, Eve. She’s so feisty! Is there any Camille in Eve?

For me, the fun in making people up is giving them attributes you only wish you could have yourself—Eve is adventurous and supremely confident (to the point of arrogance; of course that’s not a trait I want for myself, but in fiction as in real life, ain’t nobody perfect). I do like to think I’ve grown more sure of myself in the three years since I began writing Petty Magic, though, so maybe I’m becoming a little more like Eve as I go along.

You’ve told me that you read several really interesting books as research for this novel. How does one even go about researching such wide topics as beldames, and World War II? Here’s your chance to geek out – any favorites or recommendations?

For a good overview of the female spies of World War II, I recommend Marcus Binney’s The Women Who Lived for Danger: The Agents of the Special Operations Executive and Sarah Helm’s A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII. I found Violet Szabo’s and Virginia Hall’s stories particularly inspiring; and of course I have to mention the love affair between courier Odette Sansom and her circuit leader Peter Churchill in occupied Paris. (They wound up getting marriedafter the war, although the marriage didn’t last.)

But if I had to pick the one most useful book, it would be Joseph Persico’s Piercing the Reich: The Penetration of Nazi Germany by American Secret Agents During World War II. I’d had no idea American spies had been so active inside Germany! The Office of Strategic Services was willing to send in their agents, while the Special Operations Executive (in Britain) was reluctant because they figured they’d be sending their men into certain death. And yet many of the American spies who had begun setting up networks within Germany survived the experience. Persico’s book is completely riveting.

What I read for Petty Magic has led to an even longer list of books I still want to read—like Mark Seaman’s Bravest of the Brave, a biography of F.F.E. Yeo-Thomas, the English spy code-named ‘the White Rabbit.’ His wartime activity includes more than one highly improbable escape (though he was usually recaptured, and the Nazis tortured him horribly every time he was brought back in). So needless to say Jonah’s inspired by Yeo-Thomas.

There are several other books on espionage and World War II I enjoyed and learned a lot from, and you’ll find the full list in the acknowledgments. I also read a bit about witchcraft and folklore— scholarly works, mostly—and those were indirectly useful because I wanted to subvert and reinforce those classic tropes at the same time.

On a different note, because this is a book blog and also because this is my blog: I know you’re a great reader and lover of books. Are there any books you’re an evangelist for?

I adore Angela Carter, and I really wish she were more widely read and appreciated in the U.S. I love The Bloody Chamber and Nights at the Circus, and Wise Children, her last novel, is probably her best—(how often can you say that of a dearly departed novelist? although she was at her creative peak, dying of cancer in her early fifties)—and if you read it you will see just how much she has inspired me. ‘It doesn’t matter if what happens next spoils everything; the anticipation itself is always pure.’ Brilliant.

The other underappreciated writer I always gush about is Sheridan Le Fanu, the Anglo-Irish novelist and short story writer whose vampire novella, Carmilla (in the story collection In a Glass Darkly), predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula by a good twenty-five years. I’ve been reading Le Fanu’s biography, and a real-life ghost story involving his wife is particularly compelling—there’s a definite theme, in his fiction and in his life, of the dead coming back to claim the living. So you see, he was a gothic character in his own right; after his wife died he became a recluse, and his neighbors called him ‘the Invisible Prince.’ I’ve all but put him in my new novel. Which leads me to your next question…

What are your plans for the future? Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on now?

I’m working on a young adult novel, a ghost story set in Dublin in the 1860s, which may or may not turn into a trilogy. My immediate plan—once the Petty Magic publicity stuff has eased up—is to spend a few weeks in London and Edinburgh in November, wandering through graveyards and writing in pubs. I’m also taking a lot of notes for my next adult novel, which is probably going to be the most gothic thing yet.

Thanks, Camille! Not just for the interview, either.

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Petty Magic, which you can and should purchase for yourself and all your loved ones by clicking on the giant red IndieBound link below, was publishd by Crown today, October 5, 2010. For more information about Camille and her other books, visit her website. While you’re over there, check out her blog, which is not at all one of those author-blogs that only talks about the book that was just published. And to show your love for Petty Magic (and also to rock a very funny t-shirt or two), pop over to Camille’s cafepress store.

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