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.

Blue Truck Recommends: Books About Love

10 Feb

Valentine’s Day: at its core, it’s not about roses or candy hearts, grand gestures, pina coladas, or getting caught in the rain. Out somewhere beyond all that commercialism and making people feel bad, it’s about love.

(I think once upon someone even said, love is all you need, but I can’t be sure.)

Kicking off the first in a series, Blue Truck Recommends, here are my by-no-means-exhaustive suggestions for a few love-ly reads:

If you’ve lost some love…
Love is a Mixtape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield

If you want to lose some love…
Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross (reviewed here)

If love has been under your nose this whole time…
One Day by David Nicholls (sort-of reviewed here)

If you’ve got mad mama love…
Room by Emma Donoghue

If you’re having a rough time with this thing called love…
Say When by Elizabeth Berg

If you’re unsure whether marriage is compatible with love…
Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert

If you want a little magic with your true love…
Petty Magic by Camille DeAngelis (read my interview with the author)

If you know that friendship is its own awesome love…
Sideways by Rex Pickett

If love is different than you remembered it…
You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin (read my review)

If you want love that inspires you to make tremendous discoveries…
Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss (review forthcoming, hopefully)

If you believe love can be both huge and tender…
The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken

If you really love your coworkers…
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

If you really love your grandmother…
The Night Journal by Elizabeth Crook

If you’re full of complicated familial love…
This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper (or anything by Jonathan Tropper, really)

If you believe in bravery and self-love…
Pretty is What Changes: Impossible Choices, the Breast Cancer Gene, and How I Defied My Destiny by Jessica Queller
The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank

If you know that “it’s complicated” is sometimes the only reasonable facebook relationships status answer to love…
Come Together by Josie Lloyd & Emlyn Rees

Happy Valentine’s Day, readers. But way more importantly: happy reading!

(photo credit to Keturah Weathers)

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.

There is No Such Thing as a “Guilty” Read

2 Feb

The other day a friend started talking to me about “guilty” reads. We were emailing back and forth about what we’ve currently buried our noses in, what we’ve dropped halfway through, and what we have waiting on our figurative nightstands. At one point, she admitted she was reading a book that wasn’t particularly well-written but whose story so moved her, she couldn’t put it down. She said this wasn’t the first book she felt guilty “indulging in” like this.

I went silent for awhile, which probably should have tipped her off that I was carefully containing a rant – I didn’t want her to misconstrue its direction, which was not at her, but at the injustice of this mentality. I didn’t even know how to begin to address it, I only knew it was something I wanted to poke at with a stick until my little scene turned into a reenactment of Lord of the Flies.

Uncharacteristically, I withheld the crazier parts of my rant, merely calmly telling my friend that I don’t believe in “guilty” pleasures (which is why I always include it in quotes). And to prove it to her, I promised I would publish a list of every book and/or magazine I’ve read or purchased in the past month, with the exception of online content, and she could decide for herself which ones I should consider “guilty” and which ones I could cop to with no shame. (Also, I’ve labeled each book so there is no question what genre each belongs to, and because I can’t help myself.)

Books I’ve read:

  • Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff (fiction; reviewed here)
  • The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich (fiction)
  • Good Eggs: A Memoir by Phoebe Potts (memoir; nonfiction; reviewed here)
  • A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick (fiction; reviewed here)
  • The Very Best Recipes for Healthy by Martha Rose Shulman (cookbook; nonfiction)
  • The Radleys by Matt Haig (fiction; reviewed here)
  • Sunset Park by Paul Auster (fiction; reviewed here)
  • The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (fiction; review forthcoming)
  • Women Food and God by Geneen Roth (self-help; nonfiction)

Books I’ve bought and haven’t read yet:

  • Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Pattern of Intimate Relationships by Harriet Lerner (self-help; nonfiction; e-book)
  • Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal by Patty Loew (history; nonfiction)
  • You Know When the Men are Gone by Siobhan O’Fallen (fiction; short stories)
  • Rain When You Want Rain by Betsy Johnson-Miller (poetry)
  • Reality Check: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging, and Outmarketing Your Competition by Guy Kawasaki (business; nonfiction)
  • The Lover’s Dictionary by David Leviathan (fiction)
  • The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown (self-help; nonfiction)
  • Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney (classic; poetry)
  • No Planets Strike by Josh Bell (poetry)

Magazine I’ve read at least half of:

  • Harper’s
  • Esquire
  • Inc.
  • Poets & Writers
  • National Geographic
  • Edible Madison
  • Edible Iowa River Valley
  • Playboy
  • Psychology Today
  • Wisconsin Trails
  • Wisconsin Natural Resources Magazine
  • Cook’s Illustrated

So, you tell me: anything up there you think I should be ashamed of?

I’ll tell you right now, guilt is waste of life, and “guilty” reads is a preposterous idea. There is no such thing.

Read what you love and only what you love. Leave the rest, and enjoy yourself.

Book review: Sunset Park by Paul Auster

28 Jan

I read Sunset Park by Paul Auster in a day, but maybe I should have taken longer to appreciate it – because I don’t.

Miles Heller finds himself in a tough spot with an underage girl in Florida, and though it’s not quite the tough spot one immediately thinks of, it’s tough enough for him to flee home to New York, to live as a squatter in a repossessed house in Brooklyn with an old friend and two women.

This set-up might have been enough for an interesting story. Miles, suffering from the trauma of accidentally killing his step-brother nearly a decade earlier, has willfully estranged himself from both his parents and step-parents for seven years. His emotional disconnection is abundantly apparent, but rather than caring about Miles, I sort of loathed him.

His roommates – among them the boisterous Bing, who runs a “Hospital for Broken Things” where people can bring items to be fixed that technology has outdated; Alice, who is finishing her dissertation on the classic film, The Best Years of Our Lives (and whose thoughts on this movie turn out to be the most interesting five pages of the book); and Ellen, a meek, confused artist whose major breakthrough comes by filling sketchbooks with sexually explicit images – lend landscape to this story, but not depth.

To be fair, I’m not familiar with much of Auster’s work, though I did enjoy The Brooklyn Follies a few years ago, but when I finished this book, I didn’t feel anything, and that disappointed me. The most compelling aspect of the plot was the circumstances of four people living in a rent-free house in New York City, but the characters that could have held up that storyline simply never came through for me.

Auster is a talented writer, but I would recommend Sunset Park only to his fans.

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This book was published by Henry Holt and Company in November 2010. If you’d like to read a good review that disagrees with mine (and includes an excerpt from the book), do so here. For more information about the author and his other work, visit this unofficial website. To purchase this book from an independent bookstore and support me as an IndieBound affiliate, click here. 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 Radleys by Matt Haig

25 Jan

Rowan and Clara Radley don’t know they’re vampires. Their parents, Helen and Peter, have kept the family secret for seventeen years, abstaining from their old, instinctual practices and raising their children as if human blood is not a part of their natural diet.

And everything is fine, until Clara decides to become a vegetarian, forsaking the meat that keeps her base desires at bay, until one moment, at a high school party, when she commits a devastating and life-changing act.

As funny as it is clever, The Radleys is fast-paced, heartfelt, and unique.  The darkness here is lighter than in Haig’s fantastic previous novel, The Dead Father’s Club, but his talent for rummaging around in the shade shines through nevertheless.

A quick read, but a worthwhile one, The Radleys shows just how intimate and complex – how bloody – the hidden corridors of the human heart can be.

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This book was published by Free Press in December in 2010. For more information, visit the author’s hilarious website. If your natural instinct is to purchase this book from an independent bookstore, as an affiliate of IndieBound who makes no money whatsoever from this gig but continues nonetheless, I encourage you fulfill that urge here. As always, happy reading.

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

An Ode to Seth Godin: Or, What Do You Want From Me?

20 Jan

If you talk to me for ten minutes any time between the hours of 7: 30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, I guarantee I will bring up Seth Godin at least once. I can’t help it.

I’ve bought and read his books. I cling to each blog post. I covet his action figure. I even walked my own talk and emailed him last month. (He wrote back, utterly generous in the face of me telling him he has changed my life.)

He’s my guru. So I consider his philosophies. I think about what he would do in x, y, z situation. I’m all, What Would Seth Godin Do? And I mean it.

When I read the following list in Brainwashed: 7 Ways to Reinvent Yourself (one of many of his amazing, free e-books), I was immediately inspired to think differently about this blog.

According to Godin, there are seven levers available for anyone in search of reinvention:

  1. Connect
  2. Be generous
  3. Make art
  4. Acknowledge the lizard
  5. Ship
  6. Fail
  7. Learn

If this list means nothing, that’s OK. If you want to understand, read the 14-page e-book I’m referencing, or Linchpin. Or don’t, it doesn’t matter. Here is the most important part:

I want to be candid with you, I want to connect and be generous and make my art, however profanity-laden and blunt that may be sometimes. Once upon a time, in another reincarnation online, I did that. For four years, I felt safe enough, and then I spent one year feeling unsafe and so I quit.

But that doesn’t mean I ever stopped wanting to connect with you, and it doesn’t mean I don’t miss it sometimes. I didn’t lose my voice — not exactly — but I lost the outlet, the channel I used to reach you and to hear you reaching back. I cut the phone lines, and we stopped talking, and I stopped shipping, and failing, and learning, and now that I’m here again it just feels stilted, stunted by all I’m not saying and not doing and holding back.

That’s not art. That’s not anyone’s art, and it’s certainly not mine. I feel it. And I know you can feel it, too.

So, listen. I want to give more than I take. I know that’s surprising to some people. I don’t care.

So level with me, truly: what do you want from me? If you could come to Blue Truck Book Reviews and see exactly what you wanted, what would that be?

I’m not asking what you look for in a book blog – I’m asking what you look for in my book blog.

Be honest with me. I’m acknowledging the lizard. I really want to know.

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