Here is a cute kids' book: 17 Things I'm Not Allowed To Do Anymore by Jenny Offill. I found this entertaining book at the library last weekend, and my 5 year-old daughters and I have read it twice since then. It's narrated by a girl who has done a number of pretty bad things - stapling her brother's hair to his pillow, pretending she is deaf when her mother sends her to her room, washing her hands in the dog's water bowl - and is now not allowed to do a whole list of things. It's a cute story, and one that kids will enjoy because the girl is so naughty. But the illustrations make the book noteworthy. They are so creative - each page is a collage of drawings and photos, and they are very clever. I enjoyed turning each page, just so that I could see what was coming next. Illustrator Nancy Carpenter is very talented - I'd love to see other books she has illustrated. Definitely worth a look the next time you're at the library or bookstore.
Today I finished my second book by Valerie Martin - Property. The first one I read was Trespass (reviewed here) - a powerful and disturbing book about war, violence and trespasses into others' lives, lands and children. It was one of my most memorable reads of 2008.
Propertyis no less disturbing. It's the story of Manon, a white woman in the 1820s living on a plantation in Louisiana. She is married to a plantation owner whom she despises, in part because of his relationship with her slave, Sarah. Like Trespass, the title of the book - Property - is a versatile one. It ultimately refers to the various ways in which people can become property to others, through slavery, through marriage, through legal arrangement, through birth.
Manon is desperately unhappy about her situation, but the unfeeling and inhumane way she treats the slaves on her husband's property is a powerful reminder of this country's most shameful period. Manon is innately hypocritical; just as she deeply resents her husband's power to circumscribe her life and squander her money, she keeps a tight hold on Sarah and is incapable of recognizing the parallels between their two lives. She resents Sarah to such a degree that she simply cannot ascribe to her any real emotion. I suppose that is part of Martin's message, that slavery was capable of existing because white people saw their slaves as nothing more than property, and therefore enjoyed an unburdened conscience about how they lived. Such a mindset seems so abhorrent today that it is hard to believe that less than 200 years ago, it was so pervasive.
Martin is a spare, clean writer, capable of delivering devastating lines of dialogue or description with barely a flourish. As with Trespass, I found myself reading Property carefully, so as not to miss a single understated word. Martin does not shy away from disturbing plot developments - instead, she seems to relish them. Yet nothing in her books is extraneous or overdone.
Property wasn't exactly what I expected. I thought it would be more universal and less character-driven. Instead, it's a story of about deeply flawed and ultimately unhappy people told against the backdrop of an institution that seems almost unthinkable today. Regardless, I strongly recommend it, and Valerie Martin in general.
Here is another book I found on the shelves at Island Bookstore: Sitting Practice, by Caroline Adderson. From Amazon:
It only takes a moment for your life to be changed forever—as the characters of this darkly comic novel discover early on. The fateful moment for the newlyweds Ross and Iliana comes with the freak automobile accident that leaves Iliana paralyzed, Ross grief-stricken, and both of them struggling to come to terms with a married life nothing like they originally had in mind. As the usually affable Ross struggles with guilt and with finding ways to cope with his newly fractured life, Iliana gets used to her unwelcome existence as a wheelchair-bound wife, to her husband’s growing sense of alienation, and to their awkward new lack of intimacy.
What ultimately happens with Ross and Iliana is as unexpected and surprising as the fateful mishap that sets the events in motion in the first place. Sitting Practice is a clever and insightful study of love’s collision with harsh reality, told by an author with a remarkable instinct for the workings of human nature, a nimble gift for language, and the ability to find humor in the oddest places.
Reviews of Sitting Practice seem to be pretty mixed. She Reads and Reads said: "I got stuck in the first third of the book (the setup before and immediately after the accident)—I found the characters stilted and almost caricatured. The middle of the book (which is actually the section called “End”) is more engaging; the characters are fuller and I was intrigued with the story of Iliana’s emerging sexuality post accident, which I felt the author dealt with very compassionately. Unfortunately, the momentum of that section didn’t carry through to the end, which fell flat, in my opinion."
Mermaids liked the character development in Sitting Practice and appreciated that the book tied up at the end but left her wanting more.
Carp(e) Libris Reviews liked the book a lot: "Sitting Practice is filled to overflowing with likable, realistically flawed and spiritual characters, with a story line that keeps your head in the book even when it’s regretfully closed. Adderson has a knack for conveying life-giving detail in her writings, making the reader wonder just how many shoes she’s walked in to offer such realistic points of view. From Iliana’s day-to-day experiences in a wheelchair to the simple toddler behavior of Ross’ nephew, each part is played out in vivid 3-D. Sitting Practice is certainly a touching and entrancing look into some of life’s more painful lessons.
I'm intrigued. Anyone in EDIWTBland read this yet?
Before I get to the review, I must thank EDIWTB readers for nominating this blog for Book Blogger Appreciation Week. I am thrilled and flattered to say that I got six nominations: Best Literary Fiction Blog, Best General Review Blog, Best Reviews, Best Writing, Best Book Club Blog, and Best Publishing/Industry Blog. I can't thank you enough for taking the time to go to the BBAW site and vote for me, and for including me in so many categories! I actually withdrew my nomination from the Publishing/Industry category, because I really don't write about the industry that often. I am focusing instead on the other five. I have to send in five blog posts for each category, which will be judged and scored. The blogs with the top five scores in each category will be on the shortlist for voting, which happens in September. So I am in the process of choosing posts and will send in my five lists of posts by midnight tomorrow to be considered. Thank you again for your support!
And now, to the review.
Vacation read #4 was The Senator's Wife, by Sue Miller. This is maybe the fifth Sue Miller novel I have read, the others being For Love, Family Pictures, The Good Mother, and Lost in the Forest (reviewed here). The Senator's Wife is about two women who live next door to each other in a Boston suburb - Delia, the wife of a former U.S. senator named Tom, and Meri, a newly married, newly pregnant woman in her late thirties who has recently moved to the town. Neither woman is in an ideal situation - Delia, who is in her 70s, is married to Tom in name only. After a series of affairs early in their marriage, Delia refused to live with him, but she also refused to leave him. Despite all of his faults - faithlessness, self-centeredness, addiction to attention - Delia loves him, and can't cut her ties to him. So she resorts to seeing him a few times a year, and splitting time alone between Massachusetts and an apartment in Paris.
Meri loves her husband Nathan, a college professor, but she has deep ambivalence toward the trappings of marriage and commitment. She is relatively detached from the new house she and Nathan move in to at the beginning of the book, and when she gets pregnant, she is similarly emotionally distant from the pregnancy and, ultimately, the baby, at least initially. The Senator's Wife is ultimately about the relationship that develops between Meri and Delia, and how these two women in different stages of life both depend on and alienate each other.
I must confess - this is my least favorite Sue Miller novel. First, I found it a bit boring. She includes so much description in each scene that I kept thinking Something Dramatic Was Going To Happen, only to learn that all that was happening was a lot of description. Second, I found some of Meri's actions to be unrealistically childish and selfish. I understand that Miller needed to introduce some tension to move the plot forward, but I think she could have accomplished that without making Meri so unlikable. Delia was frustrating for her own reasons, but Miller did a better job of justifying, or at least explaining, her motivations. Finally, the ending is surprising. I won't spoil the book by revealing what happens, but I didn't see it coming. And while it did force the book into a tidy closure, it wasn't particularly satisfying.
I am usually a big fan of Sue MIller. I think she is a master of domestic fiction, and I have always liked her work. This book was just not my favorite. I may be in the minority on this one - there are plenty of people who enjoyed this book. Here are some links:
There's No Such Thing As A God-Forsaken Town: "This author is great at writing about situations that are full of ambiguity, situations that make the reader feel uncomfortable. I guess her books are the opposite of escapist fiction.... All the characters are vividly drawn, and all are deeply flawed. Even though I knew something dreadful was ahead, I couldn't stop reading."
Blogcritics: "Beautifully written and expertly plotted as all Miller’s novels are, the book is an engaging and even enthralling read, as the author takes us deep into the lives of two very different women who become friends by chance."
The Book Lady's Blog: "Women young and old, married and single, and of all walks of life will relate to and be drawn into this phenomenal novel. The Senator’s Wifeis a discussion starter, a call to dialogue between women, and proof of just what can happen when we are willing to explore the truth about our emotions and our experiences in all of their messiness and complexity. Miller knows that relationships are not clean and simple, and in allowing her characters the freedom to grapple with important and difficult questions about their lives, she encourages us to do the same."
Vacation read #3 was I'm So Happy For You, by Lucinda Rosenfeld (previously discussed on the blog here). It's about Wendy Murman, a mildly discontent Brooklynite magazine editor who is married and trying to get pregnant. Her best friend from college, Daphne, while beautiful and well-liked, has always been a bit of a mess - involved with inappropriate men, lacking a career, and highly dependent on her friends to get her through her dramatic episodes. Whatever was lacking in Wendy's own life, she was at least always able to feel superior to Daphne, because her life was stable and, at least from the outside, had the benchmarks of thirtysomething success.
At the beginning of I'm So Happy For You, though, this delicate balance is upset. Daphne meets a new, attractive man who falls in love with her and proposes within a few short months. Even though the man is a boor, Wendy cannot help the feelings of resentment and jealousy that arise in her as Daphne instantly and effortlessly achieves what Wendy has painstakingly built up over many years. And when Daphne announces her pregnancy shortly after her wedding, Wendy simply cannot take it anymore. Her bitterness and jealousy completely override her ability to appear happy for her friend, and the relationship between the women completely collapses.
I'm So Happy For You was entertaining and fun to read. There are a lot of New York cliches peppered throughout its pages, and while it's hard to find a decent woman in the whole book, there are a lot of passages about friendship that ring true. Here is one that I liked:
How odd it was that friends could be the source of so much pleasure and solace, Wendy thought, with their constant assurances that you were all in it together, lamenting lost opportunities, laughing at inside jokes. At the same time, they could devastate you doing nothing more than going about the business of their lives, lives that had no direct bearing on yours. They weren't family members. You didn't generally have sex with them. You didn't generally work in the same office with them, either. Yet it was impossible not to see your lot in direct relation to theirs - impossible, therefore, not to feel defensive and even devastated when they did things you hadn't done, or simply did them differently (and now it was too late for you to go back and do them again).
This book took me back to the years - and there were many of them - when I felt like my friends were all "ahead" of me and having the life that I thought I should be having. "It's not a race," my best friend and I used to say to each other, but deep down, it sure felt like a race. It's easy now to dismiss those feelings of jealousy and insecurity as immature, but at the time, that "devastation" described in the passage above was palpable and real.
And of course that insecurity is intensified in New York City. Here's another passage I liked:
Wherever you were on the socioeconomic spectrum, it never felt like you had enough. You still needed an extra million (or two or three) to become the person you were supposed to be, the person you saw others becoming. Just as those people who were ahead of you were clearly cheating you out of your rightful due in a ruthless zero-sum game. That was how the city increasingly made Wendy feel. She felt an unbridgeable chasm opening up between herself and Daphne.
So that's the good. What I didn't like: Wendy. She was just SO insecure and self-absorbed that I found her unrelatable. I think Rosenfeld could have made Wendy less two-dimensional and not have lost any of the power of the book. By creating such an unlikeable character, Rosenfeld lessened the universal impact of the book for me. I kept thinking as I read it, "Thank god my best friend and I aren't like this." And some of the other women, while entertaining, were too exaggerated to be real. I'd rather read an analysis of more complicated, textured women friendships than about the women in this book, some of whom approached caricature status.
Overall, though, I did really enjoy I'm So Happy For You, and I recommend it to anyone who lived through (or is living through) those unsettling years when you are trying to get a life and not hate the people around you who have one.
Last night, I saw the movie version of The Time Traveler's Wife (reviewed on this blog here). I was a bit apprehensive about the movie, both because I feared that the movie wouldn't do the book justice, and because I was dreading watching some of the more difficult scenes from the book. But I knew I had to steel myself and see it. Here is my take on book vs. movie, Time Traveler-style.
Warning: there are spoilers ahead, both of the book and the movie. If you haven't read the book or seen the movie yet, proceed with caution!
The movie The Time Traveler's Wife has gotten mixed to negative reviews, but I have to say that I enjoyed it. I wonder what I would have thought had I not read the book (and would love to hear from anyone who has seen it but not read it), but I thought the movie was as faithful to the book as it could have been in two hours. There is alot that the movie left out, but it covered the main plot points of the book - Henry's mother's death, his relationship with Clare, their friendship with Gomez, and the birth of their daughter.
The first part of the movie felt a little rushed - the early days when Clare is young and Henry is older, and their "courtship" during her teen years, are treated very quickly - and I felt that it left out some of the interesting elements of their early relationship, such as when they sleep together for the first time when she's 18, and some of the getting-to-know-each-other scenes in Clare's early 20s.
But the movie does a nice job of demonstrating the inevitability of their relationship, Clare's frustration about not having been able to choose the direction of her life, and the depth of their love. I also liked that the movie was sort of dark and shadow-y in the way that the book was. Clare and Henry don't live in bright, whitewashed settings in a sun-kissed golden Hollywood world - their lives were at times gritty and cold and sad and sort of messy. And the movie captured that well.
Casting-wise, Rachel McAdams was perfect. Just perfect. (How can she look so beautiful no matter what she is doing or wearing?). I didn't love Eric Bana. I imagined Henry as a little more slight - Bana is tall and toned. He also seemed kind of mechanical. I know that Henry was a closed-off, walled person when Clare met him, but Bana's portrayal of him never really let those walls come down (except when Alba was around, when he adopted that classic beatific parental gaze that Hollywood likes to use to convey that a character really, really loves his or her child).
Some things that the movie left out: Henry's troubles at work due to his disappearing, the Ingrid storyline, the sexual episodes with Gomez and Clare, most of Clare's relationship with her family, and Henry's losing his feet (he does end up in a wheelchair but it's not as bad as in the book). Henry's impregnating Clare takes place in a car, instead of in bed with an older Henry sleeping next to them (which I found disappointing, because that was a memorable part of the book), and the final scene, when Clare is 80. My friend with whom I saw the movie thought that the movie ended on a more ambiguous, hopeful note, perhaps to satisfy a mass audience.
A few other quibbles... Bana doesn't look different enough from scene to scene to cue the viewer about how old he is. Other than some grey hair at his wedding, he doesn't really look that much older as the ceremony groom than he does as the first dance groom. And at the end of the movie, we're supposed to think that he is wasting away, getting sicker and thinner, but he really doesn't. The movie doesn't convey the inevitability of Henry's decline the way the book did.
Ok, so what did I like? For me, I just loved seeing this book play out on screen. Going through the same calculations and mystery-solving in the theater as I did while reading the book. And most of all, just giving in to the (admittedly sappy at times) love story between these two people who were bound to each other at the most basic and fundamental level.
I recommend seeing the movie, especially if you have read the book. I view it as sort of a companion piece for the book - it certainly doesn't come close to replicating the experience of reading it, and the alternating first person narration, which was so effective in the book, is lost on the screen. But the movie doesn't offend the book in any way, and I am very glad that I saw it.
First, congratulations to the winner of the giveaway for This One Is Mine, by Maria Semple- StephanieC.! I will email you for your address.
Second, I am very excited to announce the next EDIWTB book club. In September, we will discuss Cost, by Roxana Robinson. This book has been on my radar since July of last year (see my post), and I am very excited to read it. From The Chicago Tribune:
Loss, grief and regret are the central subjects of Roxana Robinson's harrowing new novel, which applies the writer's trademark gifts as an intelligent, sensitive analyst of family life to the darkest subject matter she has tackled to date. The book's opening words announce the high stakes involved. 'Her memory was gone,' Katharine thinks as she gets ready for lunch at her daughter Julia's summer house in Maine. Admitting to herself for the first time that it's more than the usual forgetfulness of the elderly, Katharine wonders:
'Who were you if you had no past? If you existed nowhere but in this room, right now? If your life were being swept away from you?'
The horrible irony is that Katharine's grandson, Julia's younger son, Jack, voluntarily exists in that state. He's a heroin addict, happy to lose the past and the memories his grandmother struggles to retain. The author employs her formidable skill with nuance and characterization to show Jack's addiction devastating his family like a murderous virus, attacking the cells that are already damaged... Bleak though it undeniably is, "Cost" is also a warmly human and deeply satisfying book, marking a new level of ambition and achievement for this talented author.
Many thanks to Picador USA for facilitating this book club.
If you are interested in reading Cost and participating in the online book club, please send an email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org by next Friday, August 21 with the following information (typed exactly like this, without the numbers):
Picador will mail out copies of the book, and once I know that the books have gone out, I'll set a date for the discussion and email everyone who signed up. On the day of the book club, I will post a review and the discussion will follow in the comments.
Before I get to today's review, I wanted to share a few links. The first is for you Time Traveler's Wife fans out there. The movie opens today, and I cannot wait to see it. ONLY if you've read the book: check out these three timelines of what happens in the book. One is from Clare's perspective, one is from Henry's, and one is a combined chronological timeline. Thank you to You Know Jack for pulling these together - I am sure it was a lot of work. Really makes you appreciate the detail and planning that went into this novel.
The second link is to an article in Tuesday's Washington Post about BookCrossing. Fun to read about the people who keep this site alive by leaving books in public spaces and tracking where they end up. I got my first BookCrossing book from a generous reader who sent it to me after seenig my post about College Girl, by Patricia Weitz. I guess it wasn't technically a BookCrossing because she mailed it to me, but I have registered it on the site and will review it once I've read it and, if I won't miss it too much, will re-release it into the wild.
Now on to my review of Vacation Book #2: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Anne Shaffer. I must confess that it took me a while to want to read this book. First, I was put off by the cutesy title, worrying that it was going to be chick lit about a group of quirky friends in the South in the 50s or something like that. (This book comes to mind - apologies to its fans). Plus, Guernsey was so freakin' popular - it seemed like almost every book blogger I follow had read it, and I tend to shy away from the really frequently reviewed books. But then my friend Sarah read it and lent it to me, and I am so glad that I saw past my silly prejudices and gave it a read.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is an epistolary novel about the relationship that develops between Juliet, a writer/columnist in London just after World War II, and a group of people living on the British island of Guernsey (a Channel Island that is much closer to France than to England). During the war, Guernsey was occupied by the Germans and shut off from contact from the rest of the world, including England. Guernsey's inhabitants, who suffered incrementally more crippling deprivations, devised coping strategies to make it through the war. One group decided to form a social club (the society mentioned in the book's title) in which they shared their thoughts about the books they were reading.
The book is told through letters, as Juliet is first contacted by one member of the group about a book in his possession that once belonged to her. She starts corresponding with him, then with other members of the group, and eventually gets so drawn into their lives that she goes to visit them on the Island. I enjoyed the epistolary style, as it allowed the story to unfold in a natural pace that was also suspenseful and intriguing. I also enjoyed learning about the occupation of Guernsey during the war, something I had not been aware of before I read the book. I have read reviews that call this book "charming" and "romantic", and while those may be true, the book is also quite sad. The atrocities committed by the Germans are on full display here, and while Guernsey may be only a small chapter in the story of World War II, it is as sad and unforgettable as the rest.
In the end, the story is a bit contrived, but I didn't mind. It was a satisfying book, and one that took me out of my 2000s domestic drama comfort zone. It's also a book about reading, and readers, and the bonds that form between people who share love for the same books. I don't begrudge The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society its remarkable success, and I definitely recommend it.
This Is Where I Leave Youis about Judd Foxman, a man living in the New York suburbs whose wife has just left him for his boss, and whose father has just died of stomach cancer. Judd ends up sitting shiva for a week at his childhood home, with his mother, two brothers and a sister - his father's dying request. (Or so says his mom). The book is about that week, and Judd's interactions with his family and his wife, with whom he is still in love.
This book is firmly in Tropper territory: a thirty-something man who has trouble expressing his emotions except through sarcasm; a dysfunctional family helmed by a gruff, uncommunicative father and a flagrantly inappropriate mother; a flawed romantic relationship; unresolved tensions and issues from high school; a couple of fistfights; and a somewhat plausible resolution at the end. But, like Tropper's earlier works, This Is Where I Leave You is laugh-out-loud funny, snarky and well-written. The plot flows at a perfect pace. And Tropper skewers everything in his path: infertility treatments, reform Judaism, children's psychology, and so much more.
I found the passages about Judd's father's death to be a little bit trite, though the depiction of the funeral was particularly well-done.
This Is Where I Leave You may be a bit predictable, but it's a very entertaining read. Highly recommended.