The Given World

given world

Simon & Schuster, April 14, 2015

 

When Riley is thirteen her brother Mick is declared missing in Vietnam. This news kills what little desire she has to stay in their small town and by the time she is eighteen she is gone, making her way from Montana to San Francisco to see the ocean and to escape every facet of life that might remind her of her brother. She leaves behind her parents, a boyfriend and her newborn son. Marian Palaia follows Riley’s scattered, fractured path in her powerhouse debut novel The Given World.

Despite discovering that San Francisco is not the sunny beach mecca she thought it would be it becomes home for Riley even if only by the loosest standards. She drifts from living in her car and delivering newspapers to living on a friend’s porch and bartending. Through her aimlessness and inability to sustain a relationship with anything but alcohol and drugs Palaia makes it clear that Mick was the rope that tied Riley to life. Without him she is adrift. When she finally lands in Vietnam in the early 90s it is still under the pretense of looking for him but it is clear that for as much as she believes he can be found she cannot bring herself to take the steps that may prove otherwise.

My brother, if I’m being honest, is only one of the ghosts I have come here to visit. By which I mean the shadows in my head and not necessarily dead people, because I still don’t know. Show me a body; maybe I’ll believe.

The Given World is infused with the sadness of someone choosing to lose themselves to the pursuit of a question that cannot be answered. Riley puts her own life on hold for twenty-five years in a wash of dead-end jobs and substance abuse. It is a testament to Palaia’s prose that she is endearing, with a winsome unknowability and a fierce independence. Her choices may evoke conflicting feelings of sorrow and puzzlement but like so many of the people she encounters in her life we want to help her.

With consummate skill Palaia gathers changing viewpoints, slippery timelines, and multiple narrators into a diorama of the scattershot effect of war on the people left behind. The Given World is about Riley, but in bringing along the incongruous, tender-hearted characters she encounters on her way to find her brother, Palaia exposes us to all the ways people go missing, all the kinds of loss we have to endure, and how, sometimes, we can’t cope and so disappear.

The Jazz Palace

the jazz palace

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, April 7, 2015

 

The Jazz Palace begins with a tragedy, the sinking of the SS Eastland while it was still tied to the dock in the Chicago River. The boat was full of workers for a local company headed out for a day of picnicking when the top heavy ship rolled over on it’s side trapping and killing 844 people. In this way author Mary Morris introduces us to Chicago in the early 1900s and sets the stage for a novel that is a love letter to her hometown. There are two people standing at a nearby bridge watching all the chaos: Benny Lehrman, a 15-year-old running errands, and Pearl Chimbrova, who is celebrating her seventh birthday that day. As the tragedy unfolds before them they have no way of knowing their lives are irretrievably linked.

Pearl and Benny are just two of the characters Morris nurtures in The Jazz Palace. With skill, love and prose that pulsates with the same energy found in the Jazz Age Morris assembles a cast that is the lifeblood of that era. For each, Chicago in the 1920s is not a time of fountain jumping, wealth, wild parties, and flappers. Instead, her characters are the ones who make such madcap gaiety possible. They run the bars and play the music even when Prohibition tries to shut them down and a club system shackles black musicians into contracts-for-life where playing at another club will get you beaten or killed. In the midst of this is Benny who wants only to play the piano with the best-of-the-best black musicians but is turned away by both sides and so lives in fear of losing his gift.

The music had come so easily to him. He feared it would leave in the same way. By stealth. In the night. He’d wake up and find it gone…He couldn’t explain this to anyone. How dead he felt, how ordinary he was when he wasn’t playing or thinking about playing or composing a tune or tapping out what was in his head. 

Pearl and her brothers try and keep their family’s saloon open by hiding it behind their candy store and turning it into a home for the best bands, calling it The Jazz Palace, but she is haunted by the sight of so much death and despair in her family and now their future rests on her young shoulders.

Against the background of the syncopated rhythms of jazz Morris blends her fictional characters with some of Chicago’s notable citizens like Al Capone, Louis Armstrong and Joe “King” Oliver. But for all the exuberance of the music there are the low and slow notes her multi-faceted characters play as life and dreams pass by, mistakes are made, and tragedy strikes. Morris doesn’t shy away from the pain and by presenting both her beloved Chicago and the Jazz Age with a piercing clarity she makes The Jazz Palace a reading experience that is not to be missed.

This book can be purchased online at:

The Jazz Palace
by Mary Morris
Powells.com

The Sympathizer: A Novel

sympathizer

Grove Press, April 7, 2015

 

So it was that we soaped ourselves in sadness and we rinsed ourselves with hope, and for all that we believed almost every rumor we heard, almost all of us refused to believe that our nation was dead.

It is only fitting that the narrator in The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel, is never named. He is a Communist spy, a man who has spent his entire life turned inside out by hiding his beliefs behind the persona of lackey to the enemy. It is 1975 and as the closest aide to a high-ranking South Vietnamese general he is privy to all of the workings of the Vietnamese and American forces. Unfortunately, it is April and in Saigon the Viet Cong have advanced upon the city and the Americans are pulling out. Instead of being able to stay behind as a member of the new Communist regime his time spent in America as a college student means his commander wants him to evacuate with the General and his family to continue tracking any potential military plots. He does and the times that follow test his beliefs and ultimately, his sanity.

With the return to the United States The Sympathizer showcases the tightening of the web around the narrator. As the child of a French priest and a Vietnamese mother his ethnicity is now exotic rather than reviled while his understanding of all things American makes him an ambassador for a version of Vietnamese culture he has helped to overthrow. And even as he is secretly the enemy of the people around him there are those in that same group who are friends and for whom he feels deep emotions, emotions that compromise his position and place ever-greater pressure on his psyche. In this way, the narrator is a character as multi-layered and complex as Vietnam itself; a man who has been wearing masks for so long he no longer knows who he really is.

No surprise, then, that sometimes I dreamed of trying to pull a mask off my face, only to realize that the mask was my face.

Early on it is made clear that the narrator is writing this story as a confession and he does so with a voice that is dispassionate yet poignant and with a wry understanding of his own life. It makes the novel a complex and thought-provoking look at not only the larger themes of espionage, oppression, and war, but also the more intimate themes of loyalty, patriotism, and friendship. The duality of these themes is seen in the narrator’s split persona in that there is a counterpoint to his every thought and feeling. Nguyen so perfectly encapsulates his precarious situation that throughout The Sympathizer there is the feeling of being on the deck of a ship in a storm—there is no way to keep one’s balance. For the narrator resolution comes only as the novel nears its conclusion and he faces either throwing overboard the paradoxes he has built around himself or letting them drown him.

This novel is available for purchase online at:

The Sympathizer
by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Book Company

Euphoria by Lily King

euphoria

Grove Press, pbk April 14, 2015

 

It’s that moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It’s a delusion—you’ve only been there eight weeks—and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest purest euphoria —Nell  

We meet Fen and Nell as they are hauled aboard a boat in New Guinea. They have abandoned the native community known as the Mumbanyo they’ve been living with and studying for five months and are heading back to the governor’s station to plan their next move. While there they reunite with a colleague, Andrew Blankson, another anthropologist and, in an effort to assuage his horrible loneliness, he finds a new tribe along the same river for them to study. Set in the 1930s this is the uncharted world of Euphoria by author Lily King.

Blankson leads them to a tribe completely different from the aggressive Mumbanyons. The Tam live on a large lake and it is the women who hunt and gather and the men who are the artisans. In this female centric society Nell flourishes in her study of their culture while Fen spends his time doing manly tasks such as building canoes and visiting the men’s house, where no women are allowed. Blankson returns to his village but visits the couple many months later and they fall into an easy camaraderie, sharing ideas and even going so far as to create what they call the Grid- an all-encompassing chart of as many cultures as they can quantify, based on temperament. It is only as Fen coerces a member of the Tam tribe to accompany him back to the Mumbanyo to recover a totem he believes will bring him great fame and recognition that events overcome what has been a harmonious time for them all.

King uses the life of Margaret Mead as the basis for this novel but it is her prose, her observations of Nell’s observations that make Euphoria such intense reading.  In the same way an anthropologist will define and categorize what they observe so King clearly delineates her characters. Nell and Blankson assimilate to the Tam but Fen, in his refusal to adapt to any of the rituals beyond drinking and obeying only the most rudimentary manners, tries to force his role as the alpha male—with disastrous consequences.

Fen didn’t want to study the natives; he wanted to be a native. 

Just as the anthropological work that yields the best results is done with as little interference of the culture as possible and over a longer period of time so King assembles Euphoria with an almost scientific care. Evidence on each character appears to alternately contradict and corroborate the readers’ thoughts and feelings as they read. And yet, while King observes, she also quietly moves beyond the professional and social aspects of the trio into their private hearts and minds, in all their darkness and tenderness. As the novel reaches its conclusion, it is this depth, this intimacy far beyond their professional goals that makes Euphoria ultimately heartbreaking.

 

This book can be purchased online at:

Euphoria
by Lily King
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Book Company

Emma: A Modern Retelling

emma

Pantheon Books, April 7, 2015

 

Alexander McCall Smith takes a turn at adapting Jane Austen in his newest novel, Emma: A Modern Retelling. Don’t call for the smelling salts diehard Austen fans, he does not commit the unpardonable sin of veering too far off course from her classic. Emma is still Emma as are all the other characters right down to their names. What have changed are the times. Now the Woodhouse money comes from a patent for a medical device that ensures neither Mr. Woodhouse nor any of his children will ever have to work.

There have been numerous retellings of classics and while it may not seem that difficult it can be because the author has two sets of readers to please—those who read the classic and want to adhere to it and those who did not but may be less forgiving about modern details. McCall Smith handles both with aplomb by giving us the character Emma as we expect but also fleshing out all those who surround her. This is especially true for Emma’s father whose backstory is being born to a nervous woman during the Cuban missile crisis thereby creating a man with an obsessive fear of change.

They would have to talk about something because when people visited you had to say something to them and they had to say something back to you. It was different when they lived with you; then you could either spend time in silence, not having anything fresh to say, or you could say whatever came into your mind, not expecting any response. 

Of Emma herself, the change is largely superficial. Now she goes to university just to go to London and studies interior design. She is a dilettante who loves to shop and is certain she knows best how to make others happy—namely by doing things her way. She is not a mean girl simply one who does not think of others when she speaks and acts.

Emma: A Modern Retelling is as welcome as spring and the warmth and flowers it brings. With a tone that evokes Austen but freshens her up a bit McCall Smith makes this light novel a pleasure to read. And if he changes things up a bit towards the end so much the better. I don’t think Austen would mind.

This book can be purchased online at:

Emma: A Modern Retelling
by Alexander Mccall Smith
Powells.com

The Socratic Salon

Happy Friday, everyone! As you saw from my Wednesday reviews, I’ve been in a reading slump and rather than post more reviews of ‘meh’ books today I wanted to end the week on a positive note. The best way to do that is to talk about a new site I’m involved in, The Socratic Salon.

the socratic salon

 

Earlier this year there was a lot controversy in the book blogging world. Things got very nasty and negative, to the point where even within a like-minded community the drama outweighed the reason why so many of us were blogging—a love of books. It was fortunate then, that through an insane amount of late night messages about everything and nothing, I got to know April (The Steadfast Reader), Shannon (River City Reading), Jennifer (The Relentless Reader) and Monika (Lovely Bookshelf) beyond the scope of their blogs. When we did talk about books we felt that, because of the drama, we were seeing less about books and more about being right and silencing anyone who disagreed, so at some point, one of these brilliant women came up with the concept for The Socratic Salon.

the socratic salon

Books are a subjective experience and the best part of that experience is sharing and learning with and from others and even agreeing to disagree. The Socratic Salon is a kind of online book club and unlike our individual blogs where we’re very careful to stay away from spoilers or plot points that may reveal too much at TSS we discuss it all. We don’t review books; we break them down and then open the floor to comments—lots and lots of comments. And guess what? Comments that disagree with everything we said, comments that provide an alternative viewpoint to a book: Comments that become discussion. We don’t just talk about new books, we go back to older books and look at topics that impact the book world, like apps that remove content that might be offensive or not liking a character in a book.

The Socratic Salon is a place for anyone who loves books and has opinions. Even if you belong to a book club it’s a great place to visit because the conversation never ends and you can participate in your jammies with a glass of wine. Each time you come back the discussion has grown and new voices have chimed in. It’s a labor of love, a collaborative effort, and something we hope all readers will enjoy. Please stop by; we’d love to hear from you!

It’s Not You, It’s Me: Mini-Reviews

INYIM

This month’s It’s Not You, It’s Me is especially true because I am not really liking, much loving, anything I’ve read. In fact I DNFed (did not finish) 3 books in a row, which is a first for me. There are any number of bloggers who have blamed this syndrome on the novel A Little Life, which I did read and which is an incredible piece of writing that still haunts me, but I’m not sure it’s even that. Whatever it is, it left me with three books from March that did not work for me but which probably just need the right reader.

mini-reviewsIf you ‘re a fan of Henry James, Sherlock Holmes and dense meaty historical fiction then Dan Simmons’ The Fifth Heart will ring your bell. James and Holmes come together to solve the murder of one of James’ friends, Clover Adams. Author Dan Simmons has written some gripping tales but this one is so replete with backstory—including Holmes’ realization that he is a fictional character—that I only made it 263 pages through what is a 600 page mystery novel. The mystery pales in significance to the journey of the two men from London to multiple points in America where they encounter such luminaries as Samuel Clemens. What exactly they are trying to solve: a murder, the meaning of existence, or are we real was too much for me. I didn’t have the heart to finish.


mini-reviews

Get in Trouble, the new short story collection from Kelly Fink, is a bit like a funhouse ride in that you never know what is around the bend or what reality it will portray. The only thing identifiable about Link is the fantastical nature of her stories. They are out of this world—literally. Stories populated with a people who create tiny wondrous machines or where the wealthy hire people to live their children’s teenage years in public so they can be scandalous in private without repercussions are a caffeinated blend of magical realism and futurism. At the same time, there is always a thread of basic human emotion pulling each story along.

This is both the strength and the weakness of Get in Trouble because each story requires a certain presence of mind and attention to understand it. Fink is so wildly inventive and out-there that, in the same way I could not master using a stick shift, my brain couldn’t move through the gears of these stories quickly enough and I stalled.


mini-reviews

The Dream Lover is a novel by Elizabeth Berg about the life of Aurore Dupin whose pseudonym was George Sand. Dupin lived in the 1800s in Paris and was a prolific writer whose public persona was as well known as her novels. She indulged a penchant for wearing men’s clothes, smoked cigars and had affairs. The title is apt because the novel is largely about Sand’s search for the perfect love. In this way The Dream Lover either echoes Sand’s real life or is an overwrought piece of fiction because from Berg’s perspective Sand is on an almost hunt for emotional fulfillment. Told from Sand’s point of view it comes across as very old-fashioned and theatrical, which may be the tone Berg wanted. Sand is portrayed as fiercely independent and a highly disciplined writer who flouted the traditional women’s roles of the time, making her constant longing to be consumed by a man’s love difficult to understand. I have never read any of her work so this may be why this novel did not inspire love in me.

Have you read any of these It’s Not You, It’s Me mini-review books? If so, please leave your thoughts!

 

 

The Fifth Heart
by Dan Simmons
Powells.com
The Dream Lover
by Elizabeth Berg
Powells.com

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It will be out in paperback this week so I’m reprising my original review. If you have not read the book yet it is well worth it. If you have, what did you think? Did it deserve the Pulitzer?

 

goldfinch

Back Bay Books, April 7, 2015

 

Donna Tartt’s latest novel is The Goldfinch. Oh My. This is a B.I.G. book, figuratively (Tartt’s first novel in eleven years) and literally (weighing in at a dense 771 pages on paper that is as weighty and glossy as the words printed on it). Theo Decker and his mother live alone in NYC. The story begins with a trip to the Metropolitan Museum before a school appointment for Theo, who has been suspended. The decision to stop at the Met, made by his art loving mother, is one that changes Theo’s life. A terrorist bomb rips through the museum while they are separated and only Theo emerges from the rubble alive. In the hours he is trapped, he comforts an elderly gentleman who drifts in and out of coherence and gives him two items that become a critical part of his future. One is a signet ring which he tells him to take to a specific house and they’ll know what to do and the other is a small painting the man sees in the dust and debris. He implores Theo to take it so it won’t be lost but it isn’t until he does that Theo realizes it is his mother’s favorite work, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. A small piece, oil on wood, he is able to wrap it up and, like a totem, carries it with him into adulthood—despite  knowing it immense value in the art world.

While Theo owns the space of protagonist Tartt surrounds him with characters that shine. My favorite is his friend Boris, an amalgam of Eastern European origins whose claim to fame in the first half of the story seems to be no greater than keeping himself and Theo high or drunk for the majority of their teen years. At the same time he imparts a world-weary but exuberant attitude with a dark humor that makes him endearing. There is a vague feeling of relief when he exits the stage upon Theo’s return to NYC, but it is only a temporary break and despite his multitude of flaws he is a wise and witty person; the perfect counterpoint to Theo and his survivor guilt.

And yet to be with Boris was to know that life was full of great, ridiculous possibilities—far bigger than anything they taught in school. 

There is also the luminous Pippa, a girl he had glimpsed before the explosion, who turns out to be the niece of the elderly gentleman he sat with. The signet ring connects Theo to her and to the man’s business partner, Hobie, who becomes the most steadfast presence in his chaotic life. For her part, the elfish Pippa, recovering from profound injuries in the explosion, fills his dreams  and, much like the painting, becomes a symbol for all that he desires in the world.

She was the golden thread running through everything, a lens that magnified beauty so that the whole world stood transfigured in relation to her, and her alone. 

The Goldfinch is a profound work. It tells a tale with the best of them but also, goes so much further by encompassing all the grand themes—love, the meaning of life, our place in the world. These are not splattered across the novel in a Jackson Pollock frenzy but executed with the same precision and detail one might use to paint something as simple as a small bird tethered to a chain. Within so many pages, stories and themes it is hard to imagine that every noun, verb, and piece of punctuation could have been labored over, chosen and discarded, but with Tartt it seems completely plausible. There is the sense that she is acutely aware of every single choice made in the novel and to such a degree that  the reader can only show their appreciation by  a commitment to reading slowly and thoroughly, absorbing every word. There is nothing left to chance in The Goldfinch. Tartt creates a complete world, down to the sound a revolving door makes or how a European city has “cobblestoned loneliness” Her use of language is so precise that once she has described something it is difficult to imagine it any other way.

Precision can imply coldness or a lack of feeling but there is no such thing in Tartt’s writing. At its core, this is the story of a boy who loves his mother deeply and loses her while he is still a child. The rest of his life is shaped by this longing and sadness, exemplified by a small painting of a captive bird.

The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary. It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that had held the whole cathedral up. And it was awful to learn, by having it so suddenly vanish from under me, that all my adult life I’d been privately sustained by that great, hidden savage joy: the conviction that my whole life was balanced atop a secret that might at any moment blow it apart. 

A Reunion of Ghosts

reunion of ghosts

Harper, March 24, 2015

 

The Alter sisters, Lady, Vee, and Delph, have decided that, given their family history and their current life situations, it’s time to step off the planet. They’ve picked a date six months away (New Year’s Eve 1999) leaving them time to write a memoir detailing their family tree and the accomplishments of their forebearers. The result is A Reunion of Ghosts, a quirky new novel from Judith Claire Mitchell. Suicide is not a laughing matter nor is breast cancer, World War I, mustard gas, or the Holocaust but Mitchell uses each of these terrible subjects as the background to the Alter family’s history and does so in the context of characters so well wrought that even as their actions are sad and misguided their personalities are hilarious.

It is Delph’s Biblical belief, taken from Exodus 20:5 …the sins of the father are visited upon the children to the 3rd and 4th generations, that launches the novel and explains some of their decision to commit suicide because the Alter troubles began with their great-grandfather, Lenz Alter. A hardworking chemist in Germany in the early 1900s, he creates mustard gas—which he has no qualms about using as a chemical weapon, believing that “death was death”. He later creates a pesticide that, after his death in 1934, becomes Zyklon-B, the gas used to exterminate a million Jews in World War II. Thus the groundwork is laid for the suicides of his wife, his son, his granddaughter, and now, possibly his three great-granddaughters.

It’s not the events in A Reunion of Ghosts that provide the laughs because they are a mixed bag of tragedy, mistake, and misfortune. It is Mitchell’s singular voice embodied in the multitude of voices in the book and imbued with her irreverent imagination that makes the novel so entertaining. Where this humor shines is in the interplay between the sisters, who are so close they acknowledge

 And yet this resemblance was also the only reliable and reassuring thing in our lives. There was the sense that we would always have each other. There was, to be honest, a never-articulated belief that we actually were each other, just at different stages of a single life. 

A Reunion of Ghosts works on a number of levels. There is the density of historical trivia about events spanning the 20th century which brings back my own memories. Or the fact that such events are written with members of the Alter family appearing in Forrest Gump-like fashion in the middle of these events. Then there is the self-awareness of these sad-sack sisters who realize that maybe their thinking about this action is a bit off.

 It was fine, we agreed, not to want to grow old. Fine, too, to take steps to ensure we didn’t grow old. But we’d also avoided growing up. We’d lived our lives like perpetual children, hiding in corners, never knowing what to do. If our plan to die was problematic, it was problematic in that eliminated the possibility of our ever becoming serious, capable women. 

It was sad then that a novel that held my interest so thoroughly and provided so much enjoyment (even using such tragic fodder) fell apart at the end. In the Last Words chapter a new narrator closes out A Reunion of Ghosts. This feels almost disrespectful because all along it has been Lady, Vee, and Delph telling their story. And it was  novel enough.

This book can be purchased online at:

A Reunion of Ghosts
by Judith Claire Mitchell
Powells.com

Tim Gunn: The Natty Professor

the natty professor

Gallery Books, March 24, 2015

 

To say that I am a huge fan of Tim Gunn is an understatement. In the same way that a Chanel suit is on my bucket list (as revealed last week when I reviewed Mademoiselle Chanel) so is a week spent in New York City with Gunn reworking my style and taking me shopping for a new wardrobe. If we became great friends so much the better. The good news is that while I’m waiting for this to happen (meaning: never going to) I had a chance to read his new book, Tim Gunn: The Natty Professor, in which he shares lessons he’s learned in his career as an administrator at the Parson School of Design. His previous book, Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible, was a fun and fascinating combination of the history of clothing and what-not-wear but The Natty Professor goes beyond the world of fashion to explore Gunn’s experiences as an educator.

The Natty Professor is divided into parts that correspond with Gunn’s T.E.A.C.H take on mentoring: Truth Telling, Empathy, Asking, Cheerleading, Hoping for the Best. In each he combines lessons from his career at Parson’s with stories from his personal life. In doing so, he gives the book a conversational feel that makes the teaching aspects as enjoyable as the anecdotes. The book reads like a conversation and flows like one as well. There are the teaching moments:

 One can say, “What we wear doesn’t matter.” But I always say, your clothes send a message about you. Without necessarily being conscious of it, you make snap judgments all the time based on appearances—and whether or not you think it’s right, people are judging you, too. 

interspersed with the dishy sorts of things only someone in Gunn’s position could know, but which we all want to hear. As in, Anna Wintour raised the ticket price to attend the Met Gala from $15,000 to $25,000 AND dictated that all men must wear white tie (very old-fashioned and difficult to find or have made). Gasp! No!

Given that Gunn’s teaching and mentoring career spans forty years The Natty Professor could come off as a heavy-handed treatise on the problems of the education sector but that doesn’t happen. Instead for every instance where Gunn puts forth his opinion on the state of education in America there are two where he shares how he has learned from his experiences. This is the crux of his message—in order to teach you have to be willing to learn. This openness extends to the situations in his life that made him the person he is now, including the difficulties he faced while a teenager. Gunn’s candor about both his personal and professional life infuses The Natty Professor with personality, making for reading that is humorous and gratifying for fashionistas and non-fashion lovers alike.

This book is available for purchase online at:

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