Thursday, May 29, 2008

a good prequel

Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fantasy, YA
Review: Not much substance here, but a satisfying read for those who liked His Dark Materials.

feminism and choices

The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: Chapters in this novel alternate between the modern-day lives of a group of women in New York City, all of whom have left careers behind to raise their children, and stories of their mothers or other women from an earlier generation, all of whom are feminists in their own way.

Wolitzer is telling us two things, I think. First, by contrasting the lives of mothers in the 1960s and '70s with those of their daughters in the late '90s and early 21st century, Wolitzer asks questions about what happened to the feminism that the earlier generation fought for. Is it lost because the next generation chose not to take advantage of it, or is it preserved because each woman has the choice, within her own family circumstances, of whether to work or not, and is not pushed into the role of stay-at-home-mom, merely because that's what is "done"?

And by looking at the lives of women who have been out of the workforce for about 10 years, she is able to describe the rewards as well as the drawbacks to that choice for different women. Wolitzer is not shy about describing either. Some of her characters feel incredibly rewarded by being able to stay home with their children, others are more ambivalent. Some continually toy with the idea of going back to work, while one is eventually forced to go back to work because of financial issues.

Although this novel sometimes reads as a series of vignettes or even interviews, Wolitzer brings it all together for a satisfying conclusion. Wolitzer looks at each character and each situation in a thoughtful way. This book is never preachy or judgmental, but is a gently told story about characters who are each sympathetic in their own way.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

the long walk west

Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Review: This book is something of a departure for Bohjalian, since it doesn't take place in the northeast United States of today. Instead, it takes place during the end of WWII in Europe. As in his other books, though, Bohjalian is not afraid to ask difficult questions in subtle but inescapable manner.

Through the eyes of the daughter of a Prussian aristocratic family fleeing the Russian advance, a Scottish POW, and a German Jew who is masquerading as a German soldier, Bohjalian explores the nature of revenge and collective guilt. Interspersed with the story of their trek west through Germany, is the story of a group of women being marched in the same direction from a Nazi labor camp, through which Bohjalian explores hope and survival.

This book is not a romance, no matter what the publisher may claim. But it is a compelling and well-told story about the relationships that can develop between people who initially think they're on opposite sides of a war.

Monday, May 19, 2008

intentionally left vague?

America America by Ethan Canin
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: Perhaps the whole point of this book is that no-one can know the truth at the bottom of a scandal except the people involved, but I think that Canin makes this point in an unnecessarily confusing way. The time frame shifts from the present (more or less) to various points in Corey Sifter's association with the Metarey's, the wealthy family in town, who become his patron, sending him to private school and then helping to pay his college tuition. He is telling the story to his would-be protegee, an intern at his newspaper who reminds him in many ways of himself at that age.

The story revolves around the presidential campaign of the local liberal senator, Henry Bonwiller. Although the story is set in the 1972 election and in upstate New York rather than Massachusetts, the story is superficially that of Edward Kennedy. There is an affair, a car accident, a dead mistress. Then there is a cover-up, or a misdirection of some kind. But the truth of what actually happened is shrouded from the reader.

This story is told mainly by Sifter, who, although an insider in both the Metarey family and the Bonwiller campaign, is largely kept ignorant of the backroom politicking. The bulk of the story is told in his first-person narrative, and we know only what he knows. Occasionally the narrative shifts to the perspective of the dead mistress, but she is equally ignorant, and what actually happens doesn't become any clearer when told from her point of view. This is an effective, but frustrating technique. I wanted to know what happened!

For all that, though, this is a good book. It's well-written, and the story itself is compelling. It tells of a way of life that changes from one generation to the next and of the influence that one family can have on a whole town.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

very funny

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: non-fiction
Review: Don't read this book while you're trying to eat. Or where people might look at you funny if you start to laugh out loud. Because this is a very funny book. Bryson has an understated humor that will only make you chuckle at first, and just when you think it's safe to take another bite, you'll read a bit more, and start laughing out loud! He has a keen eye for description of both his surroundings and his company and conveys both wonderfully well.

This book hits a bit of a sour note, though, the numerous times that Bryson castigates the National Park Service for general incompetence. I won't presume to say that he's entirely wrong in his criticisms, but I do think that he takes it a bit too far, and that an organization with tries to do so much good with so few resources deserves a bit more respect.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

just a vehicle

The Eugenics Wars, Vol. I: The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh
Rating: 1.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: science fiction
Challenge: A-Z (author)
Review: This book is little more than a vehicle for Greg Cox to demonstrate his knowledge of political and cultural history of the late 20th century, as well as his knowledge of the Star Trek universe. Khan and Gary Seven (with faithful sidekicks Roberta and Isis) tromp through world history a la Forrest Gump except with an agenda. Allegedly, their agenda is the same, to help humanity survive into the 21st century, although Khan already shows signs of being the anti-hero we know from episode and movie. How he goes from being so idealistic, if ruthless, to being exiled on the Botany Bay is a question left to Volume II, which I may find the patience to read one day.

1% challenge

Of course, we start off with the relevant disclaimers about how this list is entirely arbitrary, etc. etc. (I'm actually quite peeved that science fiction is almost entirely left off the list.) And I have no intention of reading everything on the list before I die! But surely I can read a few more...

Be all that as it may, I'm pleased to say that I've already read just over 10% of the list, and, having learned of the 1% Challenge, will, of course, be undertaking it! Taking my cue from C.B. James, I'm going to connect what some of what I choose for this challenge with the letters I have yet to fill in my A-Z Challenge. Some others will just be books I've been meaning to read. As I read the books, I'll like them here to my post. So, here are my picks:

1) one of the 10 books on the list by J.M. Coetzee
2) Out of Africa by Isak Dineson
3) one of the 7 books on the list by D.H. Lawrence (probably Lady Chatterly's Lover)
4) one of the 3 books on the list by John Le Carre
5) Love in a Cold Climate and/or The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
6) Zeno's Conscience by Italo Svevo
7) The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor
8) Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
9) Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
10) Nana by Emile Zola

Saturday, May 3, 2008

too much other stuff

The Worst Thing I've Done by Ursula Hegi
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: I found parts of this book to be a bit vague and confusing. What exactly was the worst thing? And who is the I? Perhaps both of those questions are meant to be left unanswered, which is fine.

But there's a lot of other distracting stuff in this book, including the commentary of radio psychologists and the fact that the confession (for lack of a better word) of one of the characters is cut off in the middle of a sentence every time. Some of these narrative devices take away from the story, which is, overall, a good one. I definitely wanted more of the story, and less of the fancy writing.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

vote no on judicial elections

The Appeal by John Grisham
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: This is a book with an agenda, one Grisham doesn't try to hide, to his credit. In his afterword, while assuring us that all the people are completely made up, Grisham also assures us that the problem he depicts is all too real. The issue is an elected judiciary and the effect that special interests can have on a judicial election.

Grisham seems to have recovered his ability to write with this book, and although none of the character are particularly well fleshed-out, this is a plot-driven book, and the plot moves along nicely.

I have to say that I wasn't altogether enamored with the ending. As things look worse and worse for the good guys, the plot takes a sharp turn, but not necessarily for the better. The turn itself is unpredictable, and makes the ending even more unpredictable, but I felt that the turn itself came from so far out in left field that it took away from the plot, which, until that point, had been running very smoothly, if somewhat depressingly.

Despite that, this is a good effort by Grisham, and one worth reading if for no other reason that than to read about a fictional, but all too possible and pernicious threat to justice and democracy that is seldom discussed.