Currently Reading

Reading: My Two Polish Grandfathers, by Witold Rybczynski.
Listening to: Blasphemy, by Douglas Preston.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Mary Reviews: Delirium

Delirium, by Lauren Oliver. (Harper Collins e-books, c2011)

The United States government has found the cure for Amor Deliria Nervosa, a highly contagious disease that endangers personal and political peace. At the age of 18, all citizens are cured of this illness, better known as Love. Lena is counting down the days until her procedure, knowing that it will provide her with a happy, predictable, pain-free life. Then she meets Alex, a young man who introduces her to the highs and lows, the joy and despair of love.

Author Lauren Oliver creates an America of walled cities and total government control. Lena's newfound passion grants her a clear vision of what her elders have given up for their happy, uneventful lives. Her world is thrown into chaos, as she learns to value that passion, rather than the orderly, sedate existence she has been trained to expect.

This novel hits on themes of love, resistance to authority, and dystopian society. It ends with many unanswered questions that will inspire readers to anxiously await the next book in the series.

For young adults, but will be of interest to book discussion groups.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Mary Reviews: Tinkers

Tinkers, by Paul Harding. (New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2009)

Paul Harding is an extraordinary stylist. His prose reads like poetry, bringing sensitive and illuminating description to both natural and supernatural settings. The reader savors the words and then longs to read them aloud, just to hear how perfectly they fit together.

This is a tiny book, just under 200 pages. In it, the author tells two stories, of a father and a son, Howard and George, focusing on their early lives, before Howard leaves his family behind to begin a new life.

George, the younger of the two characters, is on his deathbed and surrounded by his extended, attentive family, experiencing fantastic hallucinations. We learn of the early life of his father, Howard, reading how, as a young man, he traveled with mule and cart, suffered epileptic seizures, and ultimately, left his family out of fear of being committed to a mental institution.

Both men are tinkers. Howard is the kind of tinker who sells and repairs household goods from his cart, while George tinkers with fixing his house and repairing clocks. Their relationships with their families couldn't be more different, though. George keeps his family close, as we can see by the number of people keeping vigil as his life comes to an end, while Howard abandons his wife and children, even his name, to begin a new life in a new city.

I loved reading this book for the beauty of the prose. I was less enchanted by the story. What do I know? It received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Mary Reviews: The Book of Night Women

James, Marlon. The Book of Night Women. (New York: Riverhead, 2009)

Lilith is born on a sugar plantation in the West Indies just before the turn of the 19th century. She believes that her green eyes, the legacy of a white father, prove that she is better than the other slaves, destined for a different life. She spends her youth and young adulthood pushing against a world that refuses to allow her to realize her limited dreams. Barred from the world of the white masters and mistrusted by slave society, she alternately suppresses and unleashes the anger, violence, and darkness within her.

A summary of this novel can sound trite and timeworn: The unspeakable treatment of slaves is set against the luxurious lifestyle of the masters. A forbidden love affair grows between Lilith and a white overseer. Rebellion is fomented by the Night Women, a group of female slaves.

However, nothing about this novel is what you might expect. The daily life of slaves -- hard work, tedium, horrific and random punishment -- is depicted in a way rarely seen in fiction. The thoughtless cruelty of the white ruling class stuns the reader at every turn. The captivating use of patois creates a strong and rhythmic narrative that holds up from the first page to the last.

The characters in this novel, whether white masters or kitchen slaves, are all too human. None is perfect, and it is difficult to root even for the protagonist, as the author follows her mental and emotional shifts from loyalty to cruelty, from obedience to treachery.

Moving swiftly, pulling the reader into a world of heat, hatred, and dreams of freedom, the novel can, at times, be hard to read, because of its relentless focus on the terror of slavery. It is well worth the effort, though, because this remarkable and disturbing book will change the way you look at the history of slavery in the Americas.

Nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Highly recommended.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Review: Noah's Compass

Noah's Compass, by Anne Tyler. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009)

Noah didn't need a compass, Anne Tyler tells us, or sails or other navigational tools, because he wasn't going anywhere. In fact, there was nowhere to go.

Liam Pennywell has been drifting throughout most of his adult life, marrying, having children, taking jobs, but not holding on to anything very well. He has a philosophical attitude about life events, like divorce and job loss, that would be upsetting to others.

When he loses his most recent job, as a fifth grade teacher in a second-rate private school in Baltimore, he thinks about retiring. He's 60 years old, and he believes he can get by if he moves to a smaller apartment and economizes. He pictures spending the last part of his life reading all day in a comfortable chair.

On his first day in his new apartment, he is assaulted by a would-be burglar. He wakes up the next morning in the hospital with a head injury and no memory of the incident. His ex-wife and somewhat distant daughters move back into his life as he begins his recovery, and he comes to realize that he has casually lost hold of memories all his life -- memories of his marriages, of his children, of his ambition.

Liam, like so many of Anne Tyler's characters, tries to maintain his sense of self, even as incidents and individuals outside his control push him to react in uncharacteristic or uncomfortable ways. As she opens up Liam's life to the reader, Tyler shows how we can learn about hope, relationships, and happiness, even from someone like her seemingly rudderless protagonist who is trying only to stay afloat, like Noah.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

Review: The Wife's Tale

The Wife's Tale, by Lori Lansens. (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009)


At the age of nine, Mary Brody overhears the doctor telling her mother that the child is seriously overweight. As she hears it, it is the "obeast" living inside her that causes her to eat and eat and eat. In her new novel, author Lori Lansens again examines the life of someone whose physical self makes her different, outside the norm.

Mary loses weight in high school and attracts tall, smart, hunky basketball player Gooch. When a pregnancy scare drives them to marry right out of high school, Mary begins to build a wall of food and fat around her insecurities. Gooch, who gave up his college scholarship when Mary became pregnant, is devoted to his ever-growing wife, urging her to explore the world outside their small Canadian town with him. Mary's clandestine eating binges and lack of "clothes that fit" lead to her increasing isolation. Finally, on the day of their 25th anniversary, Gooch disappears.

This event proves to be cataclysmic for Mary, who sets out on a journey to find her missing husband and to make up for her unwillingness to participate in the life he dreamed of. An innocent of sorts, she sets out for California and meets agents of help and change everywhere she looks. As she searches for Gooch, she also learns to live in the world without him. She begins to lose weight, along with a lot of other emotional baggage.

In some ways, this novel is a "makeover." The reader almost hopes that Mary will find happiness and accept herself without having to lose her weight, but the author handles the transformation gracefully, without applying overly positive or negative labels to Mary's varying body sizes.

The author is an appealing storyteller. While her storyline sometimes seems a little too pat, she nonetheless brings Mary to life and creates a compelling narrative.

This book is a natural for book clubs. Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Review: Last Night in Twisted River

Irving, John. Last Night in Twisted River. (New York: Random House, 2009)

If you already love John Irving, and I do, you will enjoy this novel. If you're not a fan, this is not the book to change your mind.

Dominic Baciagalupo flees the New Hampshire logging camp where he is employed as cook, following an accidental fatal shooting. Dominic and and his son Daniel begin a life on the run, changing names and jobs each time their pursuer draws close.

As an adult, Daniel becomes a famous author, and Irving uses his character to deliver commentary and instruction on writing and publishing. At times, these sections of the book feel more like a writing seminar than a novel.

You can expect beautiful prose, over-the-top characters, and bizarre coincidences, all features that Irving fans enjoy. Unfortunately, the narrative moves forward in fits and starts, and it takes some stamina to stay with it.

Recommended for readers who enjoy other novels by John Irving.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Best Books of 2009

The year is drawing to a close, and that means that the "Best Books" lists for 2009 are beginning to appear. The first one I've seen is from Publishers Weekly. Here's the link: