On my bucket list is doing every bus tour offered Esotouric. My wife and I are both obsessed with Los Angeles and its sordid history, and when I saw t...moreOn my bucket list is doing every bus tour offered Esotouric. My wife and I are both obsessed with Los Angeles and its sordid history, and when I saw that the Esotouric's creator had just written a novel about Raymond Chandler, I went it into a swooning fit. Then I read the book, and swooned again.
Set in 1929, the story is told by Raymond Chandler, then an oil company executive, who is tasked with ascertaining how his boss's son lost thousands of dollars, including oil leases, over the years. This is historical Chandler -- an English ex-pat living in LA, melancholic, pipe-smoking, an older wife -- not Chandler by way of his fictional creation, Philip Marlowe. As such, he needs help with his investigation, and calls on his spunky secretary-slash-girlfriend Muriel and a beat cop whose moral compass cost him his promotion, Tom James. But what seems to be a simple case of a couple taken in by hucksters turns out to be more complicated, dangerous, and messier than Chandler and company expected.
By far, Muriel made the story for me, and I wouldn't mind a whole series about her. (In a blog post about the novel's origins, Cooper says that once she had the idea for Muriel, 'everything came alive', and I couldn't agree more!)
Cooper's writing style is wonderful, warm and inviting, and rich with ambiance. I don't think those unfamiliar with the era will be lost, as Cooper includes tidbits that evoke a strong sense of time and place without overwhelming the action. Her articulation of Raymond Chandler is so good -- pathetic and intriguing in equal part, clever and cowardly -- and those who are new to Chandler will enjoy this seedy sort of introduction.
My only critique of this book is that there's a shift in narrative POV early on that I found jarring: the novel starts off with first person POV in Chandler's view point, but quickly drops that to third person POV between Chadler, Muriel, and Tom James. I actually didn't notice it while reading, and it wasn't until I entered in the novel's first sentence did I realize at some point there was a POV shift. I'm glad for it, as I enjoyed being with Muriel as much as I did Chandler!
According to this Kirkus Reviews feature, Cooper is considering a sequel, and like the author of the piece, I too am hoping she'll write one.
In the end, a deeply delicious read. Those who like ripped-from-the-headlines type crime stories will want this one, as well as anyone who enjoys the atmosphere of 1920s LA. Until February 27th, you can enter to win a copy of the book via the author's website!(less)
I'd long been interested in Nancy Horan having heard nothing but raves for her first novel, Loving Frank, and I'd been long eying this book.
Opening in...moreI'd long been interested in Nancy Horan having heard nothing but raves for her first novel, Loving Frank, and I'd been long eying this book.
Opening in 1875, the novel follows American Fanny van de Grift Osbourne, who has left California with her three children after realizing her husband wasn't going to give up his mistresses. A beloved nanny, heartbroken at their departure, paid her own passage to join them, and Fanny and company move first to Belgium, then France, so Fanny and her daughter Belle can pursue an art education.
After devastating tragedy, Fanny meets a Scottish writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, ten years who junior, who is immediately smitten with her. Their love affair turns into marriage, a life of Bohemian artists and authors, exotic travel, petty squabbles and great passion. I'm being vague because there's no point in recounting the details; clocking in at 496 pages, this beefy chunkser does the heavy lifting.
Horan's novel represents what I most love about biographical historical fiction: fascinating people made real, their decisions and choices explored and imagined, given emotion. I was immediately charmed by the ambitious Louis, as Stevenson preferred to be called, but felt most for Fanny. Being a woman with ambition in the 19th century was no easy thing, and though she found a kind of freedom in Europe after leaving her philandering husband, once she became Louis' wife she had other obligations that squelched her dreams.
Horan articulates both Fanny and Louis with tender warmth, so even when they behaved badly, I still cared for them. While the pacing of the book occasionally felt slow to me, I was gripped by their story. Horan's use of historical details was effortless, and her narrative had hints of the philosophical to it, which I adored. I've read nothing set in 19th century South Pacific, so the sections in Samoa were fascinating -- those who enjoy armchair travel will want this book!
Rich, dense, emotional, and stirring, Horan's novel is a meaty exploration of marriage, creative endeavors, and the price of partnership. Those who love novels about the unknown women behind great men will want this one, as well as anyone who's suffered through (or enjoyed!) studying Stevenson in school. Strongly recommended.(less)
The jacket blurb sums this novel up perfectly: It’s as if Tarantino had remade Vertigo after bingeing on Nero Wolfe novels.
Our hero, Sam Kornberg, lo...moreThe jacket blurb sums this novel up perfectly: It’s as if Tarantino had remade Vertigo after bingeing on Nero Wolfe novels.
Our hero, Sam Kornberg, loves modern, experimental fiction; his best friend works in a video store and trade in the obscure and hard-to-find, the cultish and beloved. His foxy wife surprises him by walking out and that propels him into job hunting.
The only job he gets is with the agoraphobic, morbidly obese Solar Lonsky, a detective-slash-armchair-psychologist who hires Sam to do the running around he can't do. The assignment is to keep tabs on a 'mysterious girl', a young woman named Mona, who is wild and pretty. Following her, literally, takes him through Los Angeles and along the coast, until something happens (sorry! don't want to give it away!) Sam realizes his seemingly simple case is far more complicated.
Gordon's writing style is the star, although the characters are a very close second. The novel is primary narrated by Sam, but now and then another character pops in to fill out the story. And Sam's voice hooked me from the first line. He's wry, dry, self-deprecating and very smart, and while he might border on maddening at times, he also completely charmed me.
What job did I (or she, really) think I could get? By training and nature, I was equipped to do nothing but lie thusly and think deep thoughts. I blamed my hardworking parents for encouraging me to obtain a useless, outrageously expensive, and still unpaid-for education best suited to a minor nineteenth-century aristocrat. I could read philosophy and discuss paintings. Not that I ever did, but I could, if I had to, in an emergency. (p11)
While funny, this is hardly a fluffy or silly mystery. Real crime, real (awkward) sex, real blood, real anguish. It's about Los Angeles, and the film industry, and small businesses, vocations and passion. It's a story of the geeks, the outsiders who find love in the obscure, who find each other; and it's about loss, letting go, moving on.
Perfect for the summer, I picked it up Sunday morning and didn't stop until it ended, which meant I skipped swimming, strawberries, and a hike, but it was absolutely worth it. I'm having a hard time shaking the bittersweet humor and surprising tenderness.(less)
In 2011, Van Booy took my heart, crushed it, reassembled it, and gifted it to me in a wrapping of gorgeous prose in the form of Everything Beautiful...moreIn 2011, Van Booy took my heart, crushed it, reassembled it, and gifted it to me in a wrapping of gorgeous prose in the form of Everything Beautiful Began After. Unsurprisingly, Van Booy has done it again with this book.
Van Booy is a short story writer (Everything Beautiful Began After was his first novel), and this book straddles both forms. In a series of breathtaking vignettes, Van Booy fills out a larger story arc that comes clear as we read on. Opening in 2010, the vignettes flash between then and 1939, following six people or so from the battlefields of World War II through to a convalescent home in California, New York and Manchester.
Despite the brief sketches, the characters feel real, from the first page. There's Mr. Hugo, a German soldier who was shot in the face, living now with the horror of who he was and what he'd done. Martin, adopted at a young age, learns later the tragic partial history of his childhood. John, an American soldier, thought to be dead by his wife and family back in the States, scrabbles to survive after being shot down in his plane. Amelia, his blind granddaughter, is a museum curator who pieces together a story of the war and era in such an inventive, imaginative way I wished it was a real exhibit.
The pacing of the story is gentle, easy, inviting one to linger; but there's tension, too, in understanding how everyone is connected and when -- or if -- the characters will learn the truth of their 'illusion of separateness'.
I just adore Van Booy's use of language, his turn of phrase, which is simply and poetic. Andre Dubus III blurbed his style as 'F. Scott Fitzgerald and Marguerite Duras' which is spot on -- punchy, sharp, achingly gorgeous. (Apparently Van Booy writes fully dressed, right down to sock garters, and I swear, you can feel it in the language.) This is the kind of book that makes me joyful as a reader; I want to dive into the sentences and just swim.
I think this would make a great book club novel for those who might want to dip their toes into more 'literary' fiction; there's some deep emotional choices that would provoke great conversation; and the familiar WWII theme is made fresh with the imaginative narrative style. Lovers of a stunning good sentence will want this book for sure.(less)
Written by an 18-year old girl who started at Barnard College at 16, Chocolates for Breakfast is a sad, frenetic, pensive, self-indulgent, and delicio...moreWritten by an 18-year old girl who started at Barnard College at 16, Chocolates for Breakfast is a sad, frenetic, pensive, self-indulgent, and deliciously dramatic novel of the late 1950s, Hollywood, and that horrible transition from child to adult.
Set in 1956, the novel follows Courtney Farrell, who at 15 is pulled out of her posh Connecticut boarding school when the school notifies her parents of Courtney's depression. Courtney is nursing a sapphic crush on a school teacher (which may or may not be reciprocal) and struggles with bouts of mania and depression.
Her divorced parents are self-absorbed and unwilling to take her on (over the holiday, both parent thought the other parent had taken Courtney, which meant she had been abandoned at the school for a few days until things were worked out). Courtney is moved out the Hollywood, living with her fading actress mother Sondra, at the idyllic apartment complex where F. Scott Fitzgerald once lived. It's there, left to herself, that Courtney teaches herself to drink, smoke, and eventually, make love.
The narrative style is quick, despite the fact we're in the mind of a dreamy teenager girl. This does like a first novel, both ambitious and a bit rough, but there's lovely sentences and creative twists of language along with a scandalous story. It's worth picking up for more than just the teenaged escapades.
Although only 18 when Moore wrote this book, there is some real maturity in her reflections and meditations on growing up, responsibility, desire, the search for happiness.
As with The Bell Jar, it's hard for me to read this book without projecting what I know about the author into the story and onto the characters. Like Plath, Moore killed herself with an infant in the house and had a history with depression and suicidal behavior.
Moore was often compared to Salinger, and in some ways, I can see this being the 'female' answer to Catcher in the Rye. (Certainly, more resonated with me in this book than in Salinger's.) While 'shocking' in the day, I'm not sure this book is any more graphic or dramatic than today's YA or New Adult, although those who are uncomfortable with teenagers drinking, smoking, and 'seducing' might want to pass on this one.
While the novel was entertaining, I will say the extras captured my attention more. Novelist Emma Straub is the reason for this book's reissue: she was gifted a copy by her 7th grade French and Latin teacher, who happened to be the author's son. Straub gave her novel to her agent, which resulted it its reissue. There's also an essay by Moore's son, Kevin Kanarek, about his mother, her diaries, and her 'missing years' after the publication of this book; an article by Robert Nedelkoff on Moore and the path of this novel's publication; and a piece comparing this edition to the French edition as well as the original manuscript (which, to my delight, has more lesbian-ish-ness to it!).
For those who like vintage fiction from the '50s, get this one. Fans of Plath's The Bell Jar or other coming-of-age novels by girls worldly beyond their years will find another kindred soul here. YA and New Adult addicts might consider picking this one up, as well: Moore is an unlikely great-aunt of the genre, I think! This is debauched beachy fun with an undercurrent of melancholy -- so good for those moody, sunny weekends. (less)
Alternating between the past and the present, this novel tells the story of a tapestry, and the individuals affected by it. In 1520, Belgian Beatrice...moreAlternating between the past and the present, this novel tells the story of a tapestry, and the individuals affected by it. In 1520, Belgian Beatrice tells the story of the making of the tapestry in her father's shop. She and her sister Marie care for her father after their mother's unexpected death, and the arrival of the slimy Father Bernardo from the Vatican changes everything.
In contemporary Newport Beach, California, Detective Claire DeMaer investigates art theft. When her flashy interior decorate friend Nora begs her to attend a party of Nora's newest client, and lover, Claire agrees -- and to her surprise, spots a tapestry identified by Interpol as stolen from the Vatican. She confronts the owner, who confesses to stealing it, but alleges the Vatican stole it from his family first. That claim sends Claire chasing the truth.
This is the first in a series following Claire and it's a good start. I enjoyed the historical sections of the story, reminiscent of Tracy Chevalier's The Lady and the Unicorn, and young Beatrice's search for justice and vengeance in a time when priests were untouchable, their crimes accepted. In revenge, she decides to alter the cartoons -- or patterns -- to the tapestry to include, via symbols, the story of her sister's tragedy.
The contemporary sections felt a little uneven to me, and I didn't quite enjoy Claire's story as much as Beatrice's. A good deal of Claire's story -- her motivation as well as her back story -- is tied up with her best friend Nora, who frankly seemed awful. Claire's investigation of the tapestry's provenance is dependent on at least two professionals bending the rules or turning a blind eye to her technically illegal behavior, which might be true in these circles, but also felt a little coincidental.
The novel moves pretty briskly, which is good given that it's 237 pages. Staes conveys the background need to understand the story -- the making of tapestries, how an art theft investigation unfolds -- without any awkward infodumps, and there were two twists to the story I hadn't anticipated but enjoyed greatly. With a throwaway shout out to one of my favorite musical groups -- The Mediæval Bæbes -- and the inclusion of a new-to-me medieval poet, Vittoria Colonna, I ended the book satisfied. Staes includes a cast of characters, terminology guide, and resources at the end of the book.(less)
This was a fascinating, unexpected memoir. From the subtitle -- A Healer's Journey From Surgeon to Shaman -- I anticipated a kind of anthropological...moreThis was a fascinating, unexpected memoir. From the subtitle -- A Healer's Journey From Surgeon to Shaman -- I anticipated a kind of anthropological study of Haitian spirituality including Voodoo, and Dr. Jean-Murat's decision to embrace her family's faith practices. This memoir has all that, and more: it is a look at a woman and a country in turmoil and transition.
Born in Haiti in the 1950s, Jean-Murat lived through some of her country's most violent times: the dictator "Papa Doc" Duvalier, followed by his son "Baby Doc". Jean-Murat's family was divided between the educated elite of Haiti -- her father's side of the family -- and the practitioners of the then-illegal Voodoo tradition -- her mother's side of the family. Growing up, Jean-Murat was embarrassed by her maternal relatives, as much as she loved them, and she gave up numerous opportunities out of fear of having to reveal her Voodoo connections. However, repeated experiences with Voodoo ceremonies resonated with her and always called to her, and as she trained to be a doctor, she found herself turning more and more to her family's faith to help her in her work and personal life.
In her Foreword, Jena-Murat makes it clear that Voodoo is not some kind of black magic, and her book explains the rituals, beliefs, and spiritual grounding of the Voodoo tradition in Haiti. (In 2003, Voodoo was recognized as an official religion in Haiti, and her family's Voodoo temple became a national heritage site.) I so enjoyed this glimpse into a faith tradition that I know little about, and I loved reading Jean-Murat's journey to incorporate her faith into her medical practice (especially as her spiritual beliefs don't limit a woman's reproductive choices!).
At about 345ish pages, Jean-Murat covers a great deal skillfully, and while at times I thought the narrative could have used a leeeetle tightening, I was always engrossed and interested in what she had to say. Her writing is straight-forward and clear, a mix of her own emotional introspection and constructed dialogue that made the book read quickly. It's obvious Jean-Murat loves Haiti and her family, and she invites the reader to find love in this place and her people as well -- as maddening as her family may be at times! -- and I enjoyed this look at a world unfamiliar to me.
Jean-Murat's medical focus -- and vocation -- is healing those who've experienced sexual assault, and a great deal of this book discusses openly that trauma. Those who are easily triggered should be warned, but as with everything in her story, Jean-Murat handles those moments carefully and honestly. It was painful to read, but I appreciated their inclusion, and her honest discussion of this epidemic.
My only wish was for a glossary, as Jean-Murat peppers her narrative with Haitian Kreyòl phrases; while she defined them at the time, I often forgot later what they meant and had to guess from context. Otherwise, I have no gripes: this was an engrossing and fascinating read, an armchair escape and a spiritual education.(less)
This is one of those books I fell in love with at the first line, and my breathless passion for it lasted through to the very final line. Ours is a ti...moreThis is one of those books I fell in love with at the first line, and my breathless passion for it lasted through to the very final line. Ours is a timeless affair.
Seriously, though, this book is hilarious. A little rude, wicked funny, and surprisingly meaty.
Nick Monday is a private investigator in San Francisco, but not all of his business comes from investigating. He's one of a rare handful of people who can feel, and steal, another person's luck. Someone survive a horrifying accident? They're lucky. Politician have a life ruining scandal? Someone stole their luck. Luck poachers, like Nick, make money trading in various grades of luck (and the way they distill luck gleaned from others is horrifying!).
But things get a bit skunky for Nick when he's tapped by the government to deliver bad luck to a local gangster. That same day, said gangster hires him to steal luck, and worse, the foxy daughter of a politician he poached from hires him to find out who poached her father's luck. If it sounds confusing, it's only because I'm explaining it wrong -- Browne makes this crazy plot work.
There's a bouncy, banter-y sense to the novel which made effortless to read -- I raced through it -- and I loved Nick. He's got a line for everything.
"But I don't poach bad luck," I whisper. "At least, not anymore. And I only did it once."
She shrugs and takes another bite of her tortellini. "It's like herpes. Once is all it takes."
It's bad enough to get turned down for sex by a cute little luck poacher who screwed you over once already. But when you've been compared to herpes, that's when you know you should have stayed in bed. (p142)
This book had me snickering and snortling on my commute to work -- hilarious to read, and I'm sure laugh-out-loud funny as an audiobook. This is the kind of book I think might lure a non-reader who likes comedic action flicks -- my brother and brother-in-law are both getting a copy -- and I would describe it as a kind of fluff beach read for guys. In the best way. Seriously fun.(less)
So, this was a DNF for me. It's been a few weeks since I gave up on this book, and sadly, my memory of it is already a bit fuzzy. I blogged my respons...moreSo, this was a DNF for me. It's been a few weeks since I gave up on this book, and sadly, my memory of it is already a bit fuzzy. I blogged my response to the first two parts for the readalong and my thoughts haven't shifted much from those initial musings.
In short: Chabon's a very lyrical writer. As the story focuses on the indie record store versus the big box entertainment retailer, a musicality to the narrative fits and in that regard, Chabon brought it. (To the point, I'll admit, that it got tiresome. But that's because I wasn't loving the book; perhaps if I had been digging it, I would have kept on loving the writing.)
I think my problem with this book is that it felt too aware, too smug, too hip... It was a cooler book than me. I was reminded of Tarantino film: there's passionate geekery here, and slavish devotion to a particular era, and while it's very evocative, since it's not a passion of mine, I grew bored when it started to feel like a schtick. The characters were hard to discern, at first -- who was who, who was white, who was black (rather significant since Chabon has said in interviews he wanted to take a look at race in this book), who was married/sleeping with/father to whom. Eventually, they started to separate, but by then I could tell this was just not my kind of novel. (I like music and all, but I don't love it, not like Chabon's heroes do.)
I'm sure I'm in the minority here and this probably wasn't a good first foray into Chabon's oeuvre. I suspect Chabon fans will be happy; Oakland-ers and other Bay Area aficionados will surely love this affectionate portrait of a city in transition.(less)
This quick read is a quiet coming-of-age story with an unusual setting. Sometime now, or vaguely in the future, the Earth has started slowing. Eleven-...moreThis quick read is a quiet coming-of-age story with an unusual setting. Sometime now, or vaguely in the future, the Earth has started slowing. Eleven-year old Julia -- in rather mature prose, but I didn't mind -- reflects on the impacts of the slow-growing disaster on a planetary and personal level.
Living in sunny California, the slight increase in the day's lengths aren't immediately noticed, but as the days stretch from 27 hours to 40 hours, her family -- and society at large -- struggle to maintain some semblance of normalcy. The government declares life will operate in 'clock time', maintaining a rigid adherence to the 24 hour clock (school starts at 7am, even if it is a solar midnight, etc.). Radicals operate on 'real time', following the day's rhythms, even if it means staying awake for twenty hours or more.
There's a sweetly myopic focus on Julia's social life that resonated even if I, at times, wanted more ecological disaster than emotional minefield. Julia's chronicle of this time is mixed with national news and scientific discovery as well as the tumultuous unraveling of her own life -- the disintegrating school days, her confusing friendships, her first crush.
The characters aren't totally vibrant, but I don't know if that comes from the author's skill -- Julia is only a pre-teen, how nuanced of an understanding can she have of her parent's marriage and emotional landscape? -- or the need for more page space for Walker to flesh everyone out.
A brief read -- just 220ish pages -- I was mostly charmed although I found the ending a bit abrupt. There's a jump when storyteller Julia reveals her current age, the status of the world, and it felt sudden after the sort of slow, lingering storytelling before it. Still, I read this in two hours, racing to see just what the end result of this fascinating catastrophe would be, and while there wasn't the raining doom I thought I was getting, I enjoyed the novel take on a young girl's uncomfortable journey toward adulthood.(less)
Sadly, this was a DNF for me. I tried about three times to get in to the story, employing my usual tactic of reading 100 pages in before giving up. In...moreSadly, this was a DNF for me. I tried about three times to get in to the story, employing my usual tactic of reading 100 pages in before giving up. In this case, I just didn't resonate with the characters or writing style, despite the book's interesting setting and potentially fun premise.
The book doesn't open with a date, so I had to guess when this is set -- through Rosa's discovery of a tommy gun and liquor casks it's clear the setting is sometime during the Prohibition -- but whether that's 1919 or 1930, I don't know. The heroine, Rosa, has had eight children, four of whom have died of a mysterious illness. Of her four remaining children, two are stricken with the same illness, while two -- born of another father -- are healthy and fine. (I learned this tidbit about the different fathers from the book blurb; it wasn't made very clear to me in the 100 pages I did read.) Rosa is in an abusive marriage to a man who, from what I read, picked on her since she was a child. Despite being in love with another much kinder man, Rosa marries this jerk, and the book opens with him slapping her around.
I don't want to victim blame as the cycle of domestic violence is complex, complicated, and difficult to break out of, but from the first page, I just couldn't stand Rosa. I'm not sure if she was featured in previous Elm Creek Quilts novels and thus the reader already cared for her, but when the story opens with her four dead children, two more dying, and a guy who beats her, I just wanted to toss the book to the wall. What motivates her to leave this time seems flimsy -- certainly no more shocking than the previous times her husband has attacked her -- and so I couldn't become invested in her flight or her fear.
The writing is fine and the setting very unique. From other reviews I've seen, I understand the book goes a bit in to the plight of the California wineries during Prohibition, and explores the way the Catholic Church perpetuated and excused domestic violence. The feel of this novel is cozy drama, if such a thing is possible.
Other reviewers on the tour enjoyed this book, so do check out other opinions to see if this is a book for you.
*** *** ***
3/14/12: Alas, a DNF despite my best, multiple, efforts. Full review, or, non-review of the first 100 pages to come soon.(less)
While I don't traditionally get my history lessons from celebrities, I was incredibly moved by actor George Takei's comments about living in an intern...moreWhile I don't traditionally get my history lessons from celebrities, I was incredibly moved by actor George Takei's comments about living in an internment camp for three years as a child.
I'd had Kristina McMorris' novel in my review queue and was excited to start. I love historical fiction for making real events in the past, and this book doesn't disappoint. Maddie Kern, an Anglo American, and Lane Morimoto, a Japanese American, fall in love and decide to elope, much to the displeasure of their families. They wake the next day to find Pearl Harbor bombed by the Japanese. Overnight, their already misunderstood marriage became something that provoked criticism, critique, hatred, fear, and horror. The events that followed were worse than they could imagine.
McMorris humanizes this incredibly fraught era, making very real a story that seems too horrifying to be true. It's a part of American history that is uncomfortable, easily ignored, but crucial to remember, and McMorris's novel is an excellent introduction. Her cast isn't enormous, but even the secondary characters get full stories and personalities, and there was much to hook me.
In fact, I cared about the characters to the point that I actually was quite angry with one of the plot twists -- there was a very tragic event that I could have lived without. I suppose the story needed that gut punch but I felt almost betrayed -- I wanted so badly for something else to happen.
In her author's note, McMorris writes about some of the themes and images she wanted to explore in her book -- brother pitted against brother, families forced to chose country or spouse -- and for the most part, she manages to convey that epic scope while keeping the story manageable and human. My only frustration with this novel, if anything, was that I wanted more.While a chunky 430 pages, McMorris doesn't focus on every life event, and as a result, some momentous moments are skipped, referred to by other characters in flashback or thought. I wanted to be with the characters during all their victories and tragedies. But that's my only quibble, and a small one at that.
Fans of WWII fiction will love this -- it's a lovely contribution to the historical fiction genre and I'm eager to see what McMorris does next! (less)
Although I'm not always a memoir person, I'm a sucker for stories involving food. Bijan's memoir about her mother, her own culinary memories, growing...more Although I'm not always a memoir person, I'm a sucker for stories involving food. Bijan's memoir about her mother, her own culinary memories, growing up Iranian, and setting out to be a chef against her father's wishes charmed me from the first page. When she closed the prologue with recipes for cardamom tea and orange cardamom cookies, I knew I was in love.
Bijan's book is a memoir and homage to her family; as she writes in her Author's Note, it is "an attempt to find answers to the questions I never asked my parents, such as How did it feel to start your life from nothing?". Working from her mother's untimely death, she moves mostly chronologically from her childhood in idyllic, pre-Islamic Revolution Iran through her family's forced migration to California where she and her family struggled to find their place in the U.S. (Anyone who's read Persepolis will appreciate the situation the Bijans faced if they returned to Iran, but even those unfamiliar with Iranian history won't be confused as Bijan writes briefly but clearly about it.)
Bijan's writing is straight-forward but possesses lovely sensory details that I so enjoy, especially when reading about food. Anyone who's read about Julia Child will enjoy the cameo by Madame Brassart at Le Cordon Bleu as well as the other tidbits about the famed institution.
And even though I'm not captivated by the culinary world, I found Bijan's sections about her education at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris to be fascinating, and I found myself hoping she'd write a more detailed memoir about that. Bijan writes passionately and honestly about becoming a chef in the '80s, both in Paris and in the US, and the trials and joys she faced as often the only female chef in a kitchen. (There's a shocking story about a broken hollandaise sauce and her chef instructor's response that left my jaw on the ground; I would not have had Bijan's fortitude and it was one of many stories that made me admire her!)
I closed the book feeling like I knew Bijan's family and I miss spending time with her (and her food!). This is a fast, sweet, enjoyable read that will make your mouth water. (My wife and I plan to make her Saffron Yogurt Rice with Chicken and Eggplant this weekend and one of the sumptuous desserts -- if we can pick one!).(less)
In a high school journalism class, I read some excerpts from Jessica Mitford's amazing book The American Way of Death, an expose and exploration of th...moreIn a high school journalism class, I read some excerpts from Jessica Mitford's amazing book The American Way of Death, an expose and exploration of the American funeral business (her book was said to have influenced Robert F. Kennedy's coffin choice for his brother). It was much later that I learned this Mitford was related to that other Mitford I knew, Nancy.
Born in 1917, Jessica was the sixth of seven children born to an English baron and his wife. Jessica's childhood was influenced by the privilege of her family's wealth, status, and name as well as the wildly diverging personalities of her sisters. All were passionate and brilliant, determined to mark their place in society; Jessica's early liberal political leanings were in stark contrast to her sisters Unity and Diana, who were dedicated Fascists and supporters of Hitler. An impetuous elopement with her second cousin lead to Jessica being cut out of the family. After her first marriage ended, she married an American and became a Communist. She actively worked in the Civil Rights movement and wrote sharp, invective examinations of American society.
At less than 350 pages, this biography reads quickly albeit a tad dry. I tend to favor more 'relational' biographies, the ones where the biographer openly acknowledges her place in the story, but this is one of those more formal types where the biographer is invisible. As a result, the writing style is very precise, very sharp, almost journalistic in style. Many sentences are shaped by a direct quote of some sort (i.e., Decca reveled in being "busy, busy, busy.", page 135) but that isn't to say that Brody doesn't write well or without passion (Suddenly, they were in a psychosexual crucible, with all the vino and cheap gin they could drink. He had a bitter edge. She had a wicked mouth. Finally, they were just kids., page 19). Mitford's life -- already fascinating -- snaps along in Brody's hands, one fascinating episode after another, and so this felt like a considerably shorter book.
Even if you're unfamiliar with Jessica Mitford, give this book a try: she's a fascinating women whose life reads like an over-the-top historical novel. I think anyone interested in post-WWII Britain and America will enjoy following this radical and brilliant writer through some of the most influential events in 20th century history.(less)
I was very dubious about this collection, which was released as part of a tie-in to a video game. I'm not a gamer but I do love noir, so I sprung for...moreI was very dubious about this collection, which was released as part of a tie-in to a video game. I'm not a gamer but I do love noir, so I sprung for the e-book when I saw the authors featured (Megan Abbott, Lawrence Block, Joe R. Lansdale, Joyce Carol Oates, Francine Prose, Jonathan Santlofer, Duane Swierczynski and Andrew Vachss). At worst, I figured it would be a gathering of previous published work, some of which might be new to me. Thankfully, happily, entertained-for-three-nights-ly, I was wrong!
The stories are originals, contributed specifically to this collection, which is exciting. Two or three feature characters from the video game, but I didn't find that a hindrance in the slightest (in fact, I didn't notice save for the Introduction telling me which had 'em). I enjoyed most of the stories, but the standout winners for me were Lawrence Block's "See the Woman" and Duane Swierczynski's "Hell of an Affair". "Black Dahlia & White Rose" by Joyce Carol Oates felt done as did Francine Prose's "School for Murder", but I'm also not a huge fan of either writer, so that could be why I wasn't impressed. The rest of the stories were good -- high on ambiance, a hint of violence and sex, enough punch to stick with you for the day.
I don't think hardcore noir fans will love this collection, but there are one or two stories that I think stand out. Certainly, as an introduction to many of today's top crime and mystery writers, this is a good start. From what I understand, playing the video game doesn't spoil any of these stories (nor do they spoil the game's storyline) but it might enhance the gameplay for those who really enjoy the feel of the setting. For everyone else, if you want a little gritty 1940s L.A. in your day (and who doesn't?!), consider this as a quick pick-me-up on a grey evening or smoky morning.(less)
Confession: I was a bit resistant to this book when I started it. I have little patience for damaged men and I wasn't sure I'd be interested in or car...moreConfession: I was a bit resistant to this book when I started it. I have little patience for damaged men and I wasn't sure I'd be interested in or care about Henry's emotional wounds. An orphan baby lent out to a college's home economics program, Henry was raised by a series of practice mothers before being adopted by the head of the program, but as a result, he's irrevocably scarred. As he grows up, he struggles to form and understand healthy relationships, opting instead for the pleasure of quick flings -- and succumbing to lure of the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll '60s.
Once I started this book, though, I couldn't stop. Even though Henry was damaged goods, and I found him and his behavior so maddening, the story wasn't really about his behaving badly. It was about his searching for and fleeing from unconditional love, an exploration of the real world impact of a child denied emotional attachment as an infant.
As a historical novel, this book was engrossing, especially the juxtaposition of the squeaky clean world of late '50s Disney with the gritty, grimy, hazy landscape of London in the '60s. There were a few Forrest Gump-ish moments I could have lived without, but they were rare and I could speed past them easily. Grunwald's writing is effortless and I adored her secondary and tertiary characters. I found them as vibrant and real as Henry; in particular, his best friend Mary Jane might be one of my favorite of this year. (I'd love a book all about her!)
The last chapter of this book changed my review from 'okay' to 'like' -- it's bittersweet and hopeful and moving, and I raced to the end, satisfied with the conclusion. I think this would be another great book club read, or an unusual historical novel for anyone wanting a change of pace, or fans of Mary Poppins or Yellow Submarine (two projects Henry works on, and Grunwald's obvious research is fascinating).(less)
This unique novel mixes surreal lit fic and dreamy historical fiction to make a (mostly) compelling story about love, loss, responsibility, and moving...moreThis unique novel mixes surreal lit fic and dreamy historical fiction to make a (mostly) compelling story about love, loss, responsibility, and moving on. The reader and the unnamed narrator are plunged immediately -- from the first paragraph -- into the same confusing mystery: what happened to him and who are all these people in his bathroom?
Strangely I feel ambivalent toward this novel even though it hits so many elements I like in a book: fascinating heroines, literary references, story-within-a-story, and interesting locales (including Pittsburgh!). My coolness toward this book is due to the narrator and his guide-to-the-afterlife. Both felt very artificial and joke-y to me; and while the guide can be excused, I suppose, since he's mythic and otherworldly, the narrator was very much real and yet, he felt flat, hollow, and boring.
Visited by seven women, all unlucky in love and life, the narrator is regaled with their stories, which includes a Native American who fell in love with a shapeshifting bear; a victim of the Salem witch trials; a slave saving for her freedom; a gold prospector in the mid 1800s; and a 1950s housewife eager to rid of her husband. The women and their stories were the best part of the novel, and I just loved their interludes. I had less patience for the sexualized treatment of the seven women: it felt a bit unnecessary especially since the women themselves rarely were the sexual instigators. They were the recipients of male attention -- some passive, some active -- that had an edge of violence that made me frustrated. The women were confronting the narrator but in the end, I didn't feel like they got the justice they wanted.
There's a cinematic quality to the writing which is also lovely when it works and grating when it doesn't, but I will say this novel occupied my thoughts constantly, and I rushed to finish it. This is another summer read that has some oomph for those who want more than fluff but not something too heavy; I suspect this would also make a great book club or group read.(less)
This quick, fun read combines angels and a girl who can see the dead in an inventive and enjoyable supernatural thriller/romance. I was a little hesit...moreThis quick, fun read combines angels and a girl who can see the dead in an inventive and enjoyable supernatural thriller/romance. I was a little hesitant about how both twists would be handled but Drummond manages it beautifully, creating a cute romance and a nice mystery and some fantastic characters. The lore about angels that I'm familiar with is twisted and turned edgier and a lot more interesting (I don't want to give anything away but I'll admit her version of guardian angels has me a bit shivery!).
I'm super fussy about how my heroines handle drama and romance and tension and too often I find authors turning their strong heroines into passive victims. Zoe, however, felt very real to me and very authentic; her development through the story showed me someone who felt fear, vulnerability, desire, passion, happiness, and courage in appropriate and expected ways. She got upset at reasonable moments; she kicked butt at others. It was easy to relate to her and cheer her on and it was a relief when she stayed consistent and true to the character Drummond had started with.
The romance is straight-forward and very sexy (some fun rated R bits to keep things exciting!), and the plot had enough mystery and danger to keep me interested but not so convoluted as to lose my interest. Near the end, there's some very world-building that hints Drummond isn't done with her angels; as I found out in my Q and A with her (live on Wednesday), there is in fact a sequel in the works. I am very excited for it -- it's always fun getting hooked on a new series and I can say India Drummond is an author I'll now be eagerly anticipating! (less)
It feels a bit unfair that I'm reviewing this book: were I not on this tour I never would have read it, given my dislike of the first book. But I was...moreIt feels a bit unfair that I'm reviewing this book: were I not on this tour I never would have read it, given my dislike of the first book. But I was committed to the tour so I tried hard to give this book a fair reading.
Many of the problems I had with the first novel I had with this one: very thin characterization, an abundance of plot, and not enough pages to thoroughly explore the myriad events the characters experience. The novel spans 1942 through 1963, mostly through the viewpoint of Maddy Hoffman, the daughter of the previous book's protaganist, Leo Hoffman.
As with Heart of Lies, there was way too much telling (rather than showing), and novel moved along at a rather dizzying clip. Much of the novel felt like an outline -- I kept waiting for Malcolm to flesh out the responses to all the events and ludicrous plot twists. Surely all the bizarre and over-the-top scenes would lead to some character development and introspection, but Leo and Maddy just plodded along, unchanged, unmoved by their lives. The secondary characters circled only to be foils and adoring fans. (And unfortunately, unlike them, I greatly disliked Leo and Maddy.)
One of the unfortunate effects of the brisk pace and superficial narrative was that the portion of the novel set during the Holocaust came off remarkably light, especially since readers were repeatedly reminded of Leo Hoffman's Jewish heritage -- and Malcolm pointedly gave him a stint at a German work camp. I don't think writers are obligated to make stories about the Holocaust traumatic, but it felt a bit cheap to incorporate that into the story without any introspection, reflection, analysis, critique, or even narrative about the experience. It was just one of a dozen credulity-straining events that felt thrown in only because the author was reluctant to ignore any historical event in this time range.
Of the two Leo Hoffman novels, however, I marginally prefer this one. When I was struggling with Heart of Lies, I went back and forth about whether I should finish it or just skip to this one -- and I wish I had done the latter. The arc of this book doesn't hinge on the first and in some ways, reading this without the first would be like going through life with Maddy, confused and uncertain about her father.(less)
A passionate, endearing, and engrossing autobiography. Who doesn't recall food from their childhood with pain and affection? Stories are interspersed...moreA passionate, endearing, and engrossing autobiography. Who doesn't recall food from their childhood with pain and affection? Stories are interspersed with recipes (delicious ones, too, having made a few myself!) and it feels like you're sitting down with Ms Abu-Jaber at her dining table, listening to her chat as she cooks.(less)
I didn't realise this was a prequel or I might not have picked it up; perhaps had I read the first novel I would have cared more. However, all three m...moreI didn't realise this was a prequel or I might not have picked it up; perhaps had I read the first novel I would have cared more. However, all three main characters were unappealing and unlikeable. The sapphic relationship between the two women was trite and unnecessary.(less)
This absorbing novel is fascinating, sweet, and sensuously detailed! I developed such a crush on the main character -- between her and her cooking, I...moreThis absorbing novel is fascinating, sweet, and sensuously detailed! I developed such a crush on the main character -- between her and her cooking, I was in love! (less)