Books I’ve Read – September 2012

NP – Banana Yoshimoto

(*** of five)

I really struggled with how many stars to give this. There were points where I thought this was lyrically beautiful with the sort of sweeping passages and insightful truths I love. But there were other parts where the prose was so simple and childlike that I couldn’t help being somewhat annoyed. I wondered, at points, if something was lost in translation. But, overall I did like it.

Japanese writer Sarao Takase commits suicide and leaves behind a collection of stories written in English. Everyone who attempts to translate the ninety-eighth story commits suicide as well. Including Kazami Kano’s boyfriend, Shoji. Four years later a chance encounter with Takase’s children leads to a strange summer that tests what Kazami thought she knew about the past, the power of the written word, and the bonds between human beings.

Now, this story is super weird. I expected a little bit of weirdness with the description on the back of the book. I expected there to be a bit of mysticism surrounding this ninety-eighth story. I didn’t really expect the characters themselves to be quite so strange. Kazami herself is rather flippant in the face of the bizarre. Two of Takase’s are unrepentantly getting it on, and everyone is slightly too comfortable with the idea of suicide. Yet somehow it all… works. The character of Sui is clearly the center of the story with her somewhat questionable existence. She’s somewhat mystic, somewhat insane, and probably only exists to give other people a chance at happiness. It was a little bit beautiful and a little bit painful and I think that was the point.

The Seduction of Water – Carol Goodman

(**** of five) 

The sign of a Carol Goodman is Upstate New York atmosphere, mysteries from the past, and plot twists that could easily be considered trashy in the wrong hands. ‘The Seduction of Water’ doesn’t disappoint on any of these levels. I started reading this book, actually, on a recent vacation when I was in the Hudson Valley. Knowing Carol Goodman it seemed appropriate. This one takes place partially in New York City and partially in a grand old, though past its prime, hotel in the Catskills where the narrator grew up.

Iris Greenfeder, who has all the necessary schooling but hasn’t managed to finish her disertation, is ilking out a living as a writer by teaching English at a school for English as a Second Language and at the Rip Van Winkle Penitentary. She has a boyfriend she has scheduled in twice a week who she’s been seeing for ten years, but who has failed to become anything more than a schedule, and a prospective job as hotel manager of the Hotel Equinox, where her father worked before her and where she grew up, which she does not want. When Iris was ten years old her mother, the writer of an incomplete fantasy trilogy, went to the city a day before a conference she was meant to attend and was killed in a Coney Island hotel fire where she was registered under Mr. and Mrs. McGlynn. When Iris publishes a retelling of her mother’s old selkie tale she achieves an unexpected literary success and decides to write a memoir about the woman who shaped her life, but who she hardly remembers. She travels back to the Equinox to learn the truth behind her mother’s disappearance and perhaps to find the third novel that was never published. But the more she learns the deeper the mysery gets until Iris can’t be sure where her mother’s mystery ends and others begin.

I have read a good few Carol Goodman books before. I really sort of love them. They’re always fast paced and always involve layers of mystery, without the novel being a straight mystery, near Gothic settings, nature in conjunction or juxtaposition to city. You never know quite who to trust, and you can’t help hoping you can trust certain people. All her books have very common themes, but I am completely okay with that because I love them. Also you can’t help realizing that Goodman really knows her stuff. To a high degree. In fact sometimes it comes of as pedantic when she throws trivia into the middle of a sentence, as if she needs to show her audience that her characters are all erudite while keeping us informed at the same time. Oh well, it’s a good thing I’m a little like this too.

But the main thing about all her books is that I can’t stop obsessing over the details that I get the impression she has carefully crafted. And not just of the stories within stories that exist in this novel. For example, I spent far too long trying to figure out the prison where Iris worked. It was called Rip Van Winkle Penitentury, in the book, located in the town of Rip Van Winkle. It made sense to me that a town called Rip Van Winkle would exist in the Catskills, but the more I read and the more clues that were provided it seemed clear that it was closer to in between the city and the Catskill area. I sort of decided, in my little mind, eventually that it was Sing Sing. I don’t know of any other New York prison that’s located on the Hudson and exists in a town on the Metro-North with the same name (yes I know Ossining is not exactly the same but they clearly were at one point). I can’t decide it it’s a testament to the book that I spent so long thinking about this or not, but I’m going to count it on the plus side.

Cracks – Sheila Kohler

(**** of five)

I thought this book was relatively extraordinary. Dealing with issues like youthful infatuation, the mob mentality of a group of teenagers, and the dangers of not recognizing boundaries. It was written in a sort of omniscient first person, as if by the entire group as a singular entity, which worked very well for the story.

In a lot of ways this book reminded me of another book I read recently, ‘Dare Me’ by Meg Abbott. In fact in reading ‘Cracks’ I wondered several times if perhaps it was one of Abbott’s inspirations. While ‘Dare Me’ dealt with cheerleaders and their peerless Coach French, who’s behavior towards the squad was more familiar than it should have been, ‘Cracks’ deals with a swim team at a South African boarding school in the sixties. The entire squad is enamored of their swimming instructor, Miss G. But when aristocratic, Italian, Fiamma Coronna arrives it becomes more and more clear that Miss G only has eyes for the new girl. But when emotions and hormones are high being singled out can be dangerous, especially when affections are not returned.

This book is, above all things, I would say, about a group and their leader. In this particular instance a swimming team and their instructor. Aside from Fiamma and Miss G there really aren’t any other characters that are singled out. They are all just as present as the other. They live together, sleep in the same dorm, swim, shower, play, and learn all together. At times it is easy to forget that they have individual personalities, but, of course, they do, and Kohler doesn’t ignore that. But what, I believe, she is trying to accomplish, create a group of girls rather than a group of individuals, she succeeds in fully.

We learn right off the bat that Fiamma disappears, and that mystery does remain central to the story, but this is not a mystery, it’s something far more ambitious.

NW – Zadie Smith

(*** of five)

I gave this book three stars because I couldn’t stand the idea of giving Zadie Smith less than that, but I did not really enjoy this book. It was admirable, what she was trying to do, and I can see someone gushing over the way she characterizes Northwest London so well. And she does that. This story is essentially about that area of London. NW takes center stage, the characters are not as important. It shows and it was a problem for me. I like characters, rich, completely, and complicated characters. She did them beautifully in both ‘White Teeth’ and ‘On Beauty’, even ‘The Autograph Man’. And it’s not as if characters are absent from ‘NW’, they are most certainly there in all their complexities, but since it’s the city we’re focusing on their motivations are glossed over more often than not and the disjointedness of the story makes it difficult to follow at times.

‘NW’ is broken up into five parts with three stories all about people who grew up on the Caldwell Estate in Northwest London. The first story is that of Leah Hanwell. All grown up, married, and not wanting the baby that’s expected of her, Leah is in a sad state. Early on in the narrative she opens the door to Shar, a woman who claims her mother had a heart attack and she doesn’t have to money to follow her to the hospital. Leah give her thirty pounds and then spends the rest of the hundred pages that belong to her admonishing herself, as others admonish her, for falling for this scam. The second hundred pages are about Felix. We follow him as he leaves the girl he loves in the morning, buys a beat up luxury car in Mayfair, visits his old flame to break it off (and ends up having sex on the roof), then gets into an argument on the Tube with explosive results. The last three sections are all about Natalie Blake. Growing up with her overbearing, religious. mother, and wild child best friend Leah Hanwell, Natalie was known as Keisha. Smart and wanting to change her circumstances Keisha words hard at school, attends university, sheds her nickname, and becomes a successful barrister, married with two kids. But is she entirely satisfied with her new life? And how does she weigh it against her upbringing?

Natalie is the main character in this book, in my opinion. Yet, besides in proximity in the first part, we don’t really meet her until the second half. Which is when it really took off for me. I found Leah to be really irritating. I couldn’t quite get a handle on her. She seemed overly sympathetic at first but then her inability to forget the fact she was duped by Shar made her seem just short of insane. She didn’t want a baby but refused to tell her husband this. She seemed firmly middle class, both she and her husband had jobs and an apartment with a bit of lawn, but her upbringing didn’t seem to reconcile this. Perhaps if we’d really seen into her head during her university days and beyond we would have seen the change, but we didn’t. I truly didn’t understand Leah, and I’m not sure I’ve ever said that about a character before. Felix, I liked. His current relationship was dull so I had a bit of trouble getting into his part of the book, but as soon as he started bargaining for this rusted out jallope of a used luxury car he started showing his sharp intelligence and good sense. I enjoyed his background of a bunch of menial jobs he was likely too smart for but too uneducated for anything bigger. I also enjoyed his bizarre relationship with Annie, a middle aged, agoraphobic, Russian. I was sad when he part ended. Natalie, as I said, was the main character. She dominated the second two hundred pages of the book and her story was the most complete. And at times I found her story compelling, but as it dragged on and nothing really happened it started to wear on me.

The city is the star here, clearly, and Smith covers it fully, traveling all throughout the Northwest section of London, predominately in the last section when Natalie goes on what can only be described as a tour of the area. But throughout NW is the star, with words strung together to describe in in poetry. And it’s effective, I had a very real sense of location. But that’s not enough for me on a personal level. Smith is a good writer, that’s been proven, and what she’s done here is admirable. But it wasn’t for me.

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt – Caroline Preston

(**** of five) 

This was a sincerely enchanting novel. Well, scrapbook novel. Whatever you would like to call it, this book is presented in the way of a scrapbook put together by a one Frankie Pratt and details her life between the years 1920 and 1928 while she graduates high school, falls in with the wrong man, goes to Vassar, moves to New York City, moves to Paris, and then returns home. Each locale is given a different chapter.

It was really impressive that so full a story could be conveyed in this sort of book. There are lots of pictures, beautiful and interesting pictures, sometimes photographs, sometimes advertisements sometimes random memorabilia of a time and place. Frankie really does it all, she has her finger on the pulse of everywhere it was great to be in the twenties. College, New York, and Paris (where she hobnobs with the expatriate elite, lives above Shakespeare & Co., and edits Joyce) all while getting by one a dime and never being pretentious.

This was definitely a quick read, the sort of thing you sit down to and then close after a few hours fully satisfied but wanting to go back and look at all the pretty pictures again and again. This book was enchanting. As soon as I find it for a good price, I’m buying a copy.

Penelope – Rebecca Harrington

(**** of five)

You know when you get a new pop CD and you put it in and it’s fun, it’s catchy, and you can’t seem to stop listening to it over and over again. But then you know you should probably listen to that new indie record that you’ve had your eye on for awhile. You know it will be quality music and mean something more than that pop CD you’ve been listening to on repeat, so you give the indie a listen and really like it, but then the next day you’ve the pop CD back in the player? This book is a little like that. It’s bubblegum sweet and a whole lot of fun to read, but you feel a little bit guilty when you’ve enjoyed it way more than some of the meatier novels you’ve read recently.

Penelope O’Shaunessy is the sort of person who flies under the radar. The sort of agree with everything and try very hard not to rock the boat but then don’t understand why, though they’re universally liked, they aren’t befriended. At the start of her freshman year at Harvard University her mother drops her off with plenty of advice; don’t play Tetris on your phone at social gatherings, join extracurriculars, and don’t tell the story about how she sat in a car seat until forth grade (an old standby party anecdote, it seems). Still, Penelope has a hard time fitting in with the rest of the Freshman. She doesn’t understand why everyone’s studying for placement tests, she doesn’t spend every waking moment with her homework, and she has no desire to ever join finals clubs or societies. As she makes her way through her freshman year she’ll make a lose friends, attempt to befriend her opposite roommates, join the production of an absurdist play she doesn’t understand, and hazard a crush on foreign, playboy, Gustav, all the while never really fitting in.

Penelope, the character, is not without her merits. She’s bitingly witty, sometimes unintentionally, and manages to have a come back far more often than the the rest of us. She is kind and she honors her commitments. But she is the sort who believes she’s often in people’s way and doesn’t want to be under foot. I am like this. Actually, I saw a lot of myself in Penelope (though I’m not sure that’s a good thing). At times she’s frustratingly naive and others shows an astute understanding of her surroundings. In other words she’s as inconsistent as a real human being.

I had a really great time reading this book and often found myself laughing out loud, much to the chagrin of the people sitting in cafes around me. There was nothing groundbreaking about it and I can see someone shutting it at the end and wondering what the point was. But, to me, it wasn’t about making any sort of point, it was about a certain type of person in a certain type of situation and in that it succeeded.

The Privileges – Jonathan Dee

(**** of five)

This was the sort of book that meandered back and forth through many years and many experiences without really being about anything specific.

Cynthia and Adam Morey are made for each other. Which is why it’s not so strange that they married young, right out of college, and moved on with their lives before any of their friends. They have two children before the age of twenty five, April and Jonas, and live well in Manhattan. As they get older their fortunes grow and privileges get taken more for granted. April and Jonas grow up and start their own lives. But money is not easy to run away from, especially when there is seemingly no bottom to the fountain, and finding something genuine isn’t always as easy as they thought it was.

I liked this book a lot. It was broken up into different parts with years gaped between them. The first section deals with Cynthia and Adam’s wedding. Beginning on the morning of the ceremony and ending on the wedding night. April is conceived on the honeymoon, unplanned, and eventually they find themselves the youngest in their position. In a world where people wait until their thirties to have children the Moreys are ten years younger than the other parents at their children’s schools and Adam is the young superstar at work. But as the book moves on times moves on with the characters and we see a full journey throughout their lives. And money is weaved generously into the plot. The having of it, the spending of it, and the responsibility and dangers that comes with having more than enough.

All the characters are fully realized, Adam and Cynthia certainly, and the kids as well. As they get older April turns into a sort of trouble wild child and Jonas tries to forget that he’s as privileged as he is, studying art at UChicago. Adam starts a Hedge Fund that allows them to set up a charitable foundation. But even when wildly rich these characters don’t become caricatures. Adam still has heart to hearts with his daughter and Cynthia’s heart breaks over the active dying of her father, who abandoned her when she was a child. Jonas was of particular interest to me, as he searched the art world for something meaningful beyond money. But, the overlaying theme of this novel was love. Adam and Cynthia are, as much as on page one, crazy about each other. You don’t see this much in novels because you don’t see it much in real life. But it’s interesting to see an example that enduring love does actual exist. If only in fiction.

This was a good book. It was very well done. It might be hard to recommend it because that would inevitably lead to questions about what it was about and that’s not an easy question to answer, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be read.

The Summer We Read Gatsby – Danielle Ganek

(**** of five)

I loved this book. Loved it. I was passing a shelf one day at Half Priced Books and noticed the title. Being a Fitzgerald junkie it caught my eye, but ever since my job moved in just a couple store fronts down from the half price bookshop I try very hard to temper myself. That is, I peruse the dollar shelves, am allowed to buy anything I want, and that is it. I’d end up going broke it I did it any other way. So since this book was priced at eight dollars I decided to give it a miss. There’s always such thing as the library. But then something very funny happened. My very best friend, who does not read, picked this up and recommended it to me. Well, when someone who reads that little makes it through a book and tells me to read it, I do so.

Stella Blue Cassandra Olivia Moriarty (or Cassie as she’s more often know) inherits half of her Aunt Lydia’s Southampton home, Fool’s House, with her half sister, Pecksland. The girls couldn’t be more different, now in their thirties with their shared father long dead, Peck is an over-exuberant failed actress with a wicked sense of style and a big personality, while Cassie’s hippy mother raised her in Europe and she’s turned into a realistic divorcee, and they have never gotten along. But they are given specific instructions; they are two spend the summer there together cleaning out her things, having parties, and getting reacquainted with their pasts and then they are to sell it. And along the way they will find something of the “utmost value”. Through in a couple of romances, some very fabulous Hamptons parties, and the mysteriously missing painting and this is sure to be a summer neither of them will ever forget.

Let’s just said first that, yes, this book was very predictable. Everything that you’re imagining happens from that description probably does happen. At times it’s almost silly because you saw it coming and the author seems to want you to be surprised. But that’s okay. That phrase “getting there is half the fun”? That could be about this book, because even though you know where you’re heading it’s one hell of a fun ride.

The characters are the number one great thing about this book. I was initially nervous to see that it was narrated by the straight-laced sister. I shouldn’t have been. Cassie is more grounded and responsible than Peck, but she’s certainly not uptight. She’s actually rather delightful as she does a bit of growing up after making tepid life choices. Peck is, of course, amazing. She’s a little bit annoying at times but she’s like that outrageous girl you know that you think it too much but you have to agree she has a great sense of style and, even if her stories are far fetched, they’re always entertaining. The ancillary characters are all colorful enough to ice a cake. Hamilton, Aunt Lydia’s gay friend, is hilarious, and Biggsy, the artist they discover living in the room over the garage a year after he was supposed to move out, is wildly absurd. The setting is also lush and makes you yearn for a Hamptons of days past where artists communed and it wasn’t so filled with all the characters from Revenge (though we love them too).

Overall I was so charmed and entranced with this book that I couldn’t put it down. The voyage was exciting and more fun than I would have expected, even if I ended up right where I expected to. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing every so often.

Pretty Little Devils – Nancy Holder

(*** of five) 

Hazel Stone has always wanted to be popular and it looks like it might be her chance. When the Pretty Little Devils, the most popular girls in school (in constant competition with the cheerleaders), suddenly take Hazel under their wing a whole new world is opened up for her. She attracts the attention of super hot new guy in school, Matty Vardeman, she gets invited to all the best parties, and everyone in school wants to be her. But there’s an underside to being a PLD. The group is insanely tight knit, to the point where having their own lives is almost impossible, and group leader Sylvia Orly keeps all the rest of them under her thumb. What they are individually isn’t nearly as strong as what they can be as a group. But when they start getting mysterious and threatening phone calls and texts and violent acts start shaking the school it becomes clear that it’s time Hazel looks around and sees that there is more going on than she realizes.

The characters in this book really aren’t bad. They’re not as cliche as one might imagine. The popular girls have a babysitting ring where they earn their money, the popular cheerleader seems a little mentally imbalanced, and it was hard to tell who was sweet and who was wicked at times. Actually, it read as a sort of mix between ‘Mean Girls’ and ‘Scream’, with a hearty dose of ‘Pretty Little Liars’ thrown in. Actually, it’s plot reads very similarly to ‘PLL’ so I can see fans picking it up for that reason (and it’s very similar name), but ‘Pretty Little Devils’ had its own stuff going for it. There were bodies stacking up by the end, creepy threatening phone calls, and popularity struggles. This would make a really good stylish movie.

Unfortunately, it’s a book. And as such it reads like it was written by a bunch of fifteen year olds who each wrote chapters and threw them together. In reality it was written by Nancy Holder, who I am relatively unfamiliar with expecting that she wrote the Watcher’s Guide for ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’. Which was my favorite show. She falls into the traps that I’ve seen a lot of YA authors do; write for teens in a way that the book could have been written BY them. I think it’s much better when a book is written FOR them. There are plenty of YA books that are written well, and I think that’s the right way. Write as something they could aspire to, not as something they could turn in for a Power of the Pen competition.

It did leave a lot of unanswered questions that bothered me. The motivations behind a lot of the actions weren’t particularly clear and the explanatory part of these sorts of stories is left off. Which is refreshing and necessary for the twist but frustrating all the same. Overall it was a compelling read that didn’t take very long so sure, give it a go. But if you choose not to, you’re not missing much.

This Side of Paradise – F. Scott Fitzgerald

(***** of five)

There are certain books that hardly seem worth reviewing because everyone knows of them. This was the book that launched F. Scott Fitzgerald into popularity, making him and his wife, Zelda, into instant celebrities. I think at some point in high school I had a copy of this book that I started to read but never continued on with. I don’t know why. I suppose I was less patient back then. Now, I found this extraordinary.

‘This Side of Paradise’ chronicles the early life of Amory Blaine as he grows up, an idle mama’s boy, goes to prep school, goes to Princeton, falls in love, falls in love again, goes to war, moves to New York, falls in love again, loses all his money, falls in love again, and then finally finds himself.

A trite summary, yes, but this is one of those books that’s not easy to describe. The sort of book that deals with real life. The comings and goings of family, friends, wealth, and love. It’s exciting in some points, and much less so in others.

Despite all his many faults, I found the character of Amory to be very sympathetic. I would understand if everyone didn’t feel this way, however. He’s often lazy, wanting things to come easy to him, such as good grades and money, without working for them. He can be overly sentimental, falling in and out of love at the drop of a hat. And often acts without thinking of the consequences. But, he is an unfailingly good friend, capable of big thoughts, and a strong sense of what he considers right and wrong.

I can see how this would be the sort of book people could go crazy over. It’s a little bit quiet, certainly quieter than Fitzgerald’s more oft read novel (‘The Great Gatsby’, obviously), but it packs the sort of punch that leaves you thinking. And ultimately wanting more.

The Year of the Gadfly – Jennifer Miller

(**** of five)

I enjoyed this book more than I’ve enjoyed a book in a long time. And that’s not to say I haven’t read some very good books, I certainly have. But this was the sort of book that worked for me on every level. There was a little bit of mystery, there was a little bit of coming of age, there were rich, full characters that were engaging, and there was a past story that was just as engaging as the current story.

After her best friend’s suicide, aspiring journalist Iris Dupont is unceremoniously moved from Boston across Massachusetts to Berkshires area Nye and enrolled in the Mariana Academy. Housed in the ex-headmaster’s vacated home Iris soon finds herself embroiled in a tangle of the past involving her new science teacher, an alumni of Mariana, Jonah Kaplan (with whom Iris feels an affinity), his dead twin Justin, their best friend Hazel, an albino girl named Lily Morgan, and a secret society who’s extreme vigilante justice upsets the halls and leaves students and teachers alike in fear. But as Iris begins to investigate the society, Prisom’s Party, and Mr. Kaplan she soon realizes that the truth might not only be painful, but dangerous as well.

Iris herself is completely engaging. She’s clearly lonely, the fact is stated several times, and she repeatedly conjures up her imaginary friend, the specter of Edward J. Murrow, to off set this. But this is clearly no normal imaginary friend. Iris depends upon the part of herself that asks “what would Murrow do?” and projects it onto an image of the famous journalist. A strange quirk, to be sure, and enough to launch her mother into repeated sessions with a therapist, but it’s such a delightful quirk to any reader that it’s hard to question too thoroughly. Even when Iris, herself, seems to lose control of her imagined confidant.

When I started this book I found myself instantly sucked in, enjoying the voice and pacing of Iris’ tale. So I was a little dismayed when I started the second chapter and found myself reading from Jonah Kaplan’s point of view. It seemed unnecessary. This was Iris’ story. But I soon realized that this was not Iris’ story at all, she was merely the horse that we first rode in on. This story belongs as much to the mysterious past as it does to the present. This is helped by Lily’s narration. Written in third person Lily’s segments take place about eight years before the current events. She’s a figure from the past that found herself in the center of jealousy and young love, culminating in the death of the boy who would be her boyfriend. But since Iris inhabits her old bedroom the two girls are connected as well, not by time, but by possessions, memories of Lily’s high school years scattered around the room she abandoned to boarding school.

As you can probably tell there are a lot of things going on in this novel. There are multiple characters with multiple points of view in multiple times. Yet they all connect so harmoniously that it’s impossible to find this extraneous. Every piece of this book is important and I left this book breathless, in love with this world and it’s inhabitants. It’s a good book, well written and strong, but beyond that it was a joy to read. Those two things do not always come hand in hand so when they do it’s time to sit up and take notice.

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About Lindsay

I have a C'est Moi page, you should probably just read that.
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