I made it about 80 pages into The Infinite Tides before I had to give it up. The novel centers on an astronaut whose daughter dies while he is on a mi...moreI made it about 80 pages into The Infinite Tides before I had to give it up. The novel centers on an astronaut whose daughter dies while he is on a mission in the International Space Station. He returns to earth, his daughter gone and his wife moved out and in the process divorcing him. As a mathematical genius, he struggles to understand and calculate the equation his life has become. He is, understandably, unable to process the events and uncertain how to proceed.
The first part of the book paints a sharp image of a man confused by and stuck in his life. I am sure that something happens to him as the book continues--I mean something has to, right? But as clear and defined as part one is, 80 pages is a long time for only back story and little forward progress, and I didn't have the patience to wait longer for something to occur. (less)
The Might Have Been follows the lackluster baseball career of Edward Everett Yates, beginning in 1976, when, afte...moreI'd say this was really a 1.5 for me.
The Might Have Been follows the lackluster baseball career of Edward Everett Yates, beginning in 1976, when, after knocking around in the minor leagues for a few years, Edward Everett's stars align, and he begins playing far beyond his past performance until, finally in 1977, he receives the call to the Major Leagues.
In the latter 2/3 of the book, Schuster turns to Edward Everett's later life, set in 2009, as the protagonist nears his 60th birthday and 20th year of managing in the minor leagues. Edward Everett reflects on his life, a criss-cross of hopeful aspirations and misguided mistakes, even as he attempts to manage a team of young men who share the same goals he once had.
I have to say that I did not enjoy The Might Have Been very much. I never felt particularly engaged with or sympathetic to the protagonist, a man who continues to repeat misjudgments, even though he acknowledges his mistakes as he makes them. Further, for me, the gap between Parts 1 and 2 (1976-77) and Part 3 (2009) was too far to bridge (though Schuster does, of course, fill in some of this time through flashback in Part 3). I was counting how many pages were left less than halfway through, and I thought about giving up on the story entirely. I was interested enough that I stuck through to the end, but I'd only recommend this book to folks who really like fiction about baseball. (less)
Mrs. Queen Takes the Train is a fun book that any Anglophile will enjoy. The basic plot line of the story is that one day, the Queen, feeling at bit d...moreMrs. Queen Takes the Train is a fun book that any Anglophile will enjoy. The basic plot line of the story is that one day, the Queen, feeling at bit down and adrift, decides to take a train ride to visit the Brittania, the decommissioned royal ship. So she slips out of Buckingham Palace without warning, thus initiating a mad search for her.
A wide array of secondary characters try to find the Queen. First to notice she is missing, Luke, her inexperienced equerry is uncertain of what to do until the more experienced butler, William, is able to assist. Anne, the Queen's lady in waiting finds an unlikely ally in the Queen's maid Shirley, and Rajiv, a clerk at the Queen's cheese shop and sometime paparazzo, encounters an unwilling partner in Rebecca, who cares for the royal horses.
Through the novel, these three pairs try to find the queen while each individual faces his or her own challenges. Luke struggles to fit in at the royal household while he fights lingering demons from his time spent in Iraq; William considers a life spent in service of the Queen against a life spent alone. Lady Anne worries about income as she continues to age, and Shirley ponders what she will do and where still live in retirement. Rajiv, the friendliest character in the book, finds himself always an outcast--people assume he is from India, although he was born in England--, and Rebecca struggles in personal interactions, preferring instead to spend time with her horses.
Kuhn manages the multiple story lines--which also move between contemporary time and flashbacks--well, though it did take me a little while to find the rhythm of the book. I think, too, that Kuhn attempts to accomplish a bit too much with the denouement, as an added event extends the story, for me anyway, beyond its scope. But that certainly did not ruin the book for me--it is still a good story.
The tone of the book is light, and there is much humor throughout. Kuhn organizes the book around yoga terms--which, in the fiction of the novel, the Queen practices, having taken it up at Prince William's suggestion--and Kuhn weaves together each character's past with present events. The humor or the novel--especially the Queen's own thoughts and perspectives--are balanced by a keen awareness and insight into the frailties of human nature and how everyone, no matter how strong, is ultimately vulnerable in the presence of another person.
Best Quotation: "No one had warned her that she might lose confidence as she grew older." (less)
In The Lost Art of Mixing, Erica Bauermeister picks up a few months after her previous novel The School of Essential Ingredients ended. As did the fir...moreIn The Lost Art of Mixing, Erica Bauermeister picks up a few months after her previous novel The School of Essential Ingredients ended. As did the first novel, this one centers on Lillian, the chef whose cooking and food bring people together and act as a mirror to life itself.
Several characters from The School of Essential Ingredients return, including Chloe, a one-time student who has now become a sous-chef in the restaurant; Isabelle, whose memories are slowly slipping away from her, and Tom, a widower trying to move forward in his life.
New characters are introduced as well, most significantly Al, Lillian's unhappily married accountant and his prickly wife, Louise. Isabelle's children also play a role in the book, as does Finnegan, a tall, recently hired dishwasher who seems to have an eye for Chloe.
As in the earlier book, Bauermeister focuses on a character or two at a time, each chapter filling in the back story of the character's life, often changing and complicating our initial views. Where The School of Essential Ingredients was very much a set of linked short stories, The Lost Art of Mixing is more novelistic. In other words, this novel features a stronger overarching narrative that connects the characters.
I enjoyed the novel very much; like its predecessor, it is a warm book, full of life and reflective moments. I have to say, though, that some characters, Louise in particular, never garnered my sympathy, and so some parts were less engaging. Still, I would recommend it.
One of the characters, Al, becomes fascinated with a particular text titled The Book of Rituals, and in some ways, this is an apt metaphor for the novel. In studying these characters' lives, Bauermeister traces the ways in which rituals and remembrances--especially those that center on food--influence human life by shaping, sometimes trapping, and often liberating us.
Favorite quotation: "Each year the rafters of the barn seemed to be swooning a bit deeper, as of bowing toward a gentler time. But Abby's siblings never seemed to see the inexorability of it all, the reality of boards finally splayed on the ground; they focused on the barn, when the real power lay in gravity." (less)
Michael Wood's Searching for Shakespeare is a curious biography of William Shakespeare. I read this biography immediately after Stephen Greenblatt's W...moreMichael Wood's Searching for Shakespeare is a curious biography of William Shakespeare. I read this biography immediately after Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World, and so comparisons were running through my head for most of the time I was reading.
One of the biggest differences in the two books is the audience to which each is directed. Wood's book, though certainly backed up by research and outside sources, is aimed at a more general audience. Depending on what you're looking for, this may be more desirable than Greenblatt's more academic delivery. For me, Wood's book sometimes glossed over significant details or drew more sweeping conclusions than evidence warranted.
Wood's book also tends, sometimes, to feature curious moments of fixation. For example, Shakespeare's Sonnets, which for Wood emerge as the key to understanding both the subtleties of Shakespeare's biography as well as the larger currents of Elizabethan culture, receive nearly 2 chapters of explication and interpretation, while Hamlet is covered in a tidy 4 pages.
Searching for Shakespeare is an interesting if eccentric biography of Shakespeare, and I am glad that I read it. I don't think I could recommend it over Greenblatt's book. There is, however, a 4-hour BBC/PBS series hosted by Wood under the same title as his book. I found this series much more engaging than the text and would suggest it to anyone.
Favorite line: "Old worlds are destroyed, new ones come into being; our dearest things are lost, but the wounds heal in time. Some of them." (less)
John Green's The Fault in Our Stars concerns Hazel Grace, a teenager with terminal cancer, and a boy she meets in her cancer support group, Augustus W...moreJohn Green's The Fault in Our Stars concerns Hazel Grace, a teenager with terminal cancer, and a boy she meets in her cancer support group, Augustus Waters. The two become fast friends, and the novel details their meeting, the development of their relationship, and a climactic trip to the Netherlands.
Of course, it is more than that. Through these characters, Green considers what it means to have a terminal disease, how having a terminal disease influences relationships, the joy of life, the desperation of loss, and even the genre of cancer novels.
The Fault in Our Stars has won numerous awards, and so you don't need me to say it is a good book. But it is. Hazel's first-person narration, filled with realism, fresh and direct honesty, and good humor, will quickly win you over, and the mysterious Augustus provides a perfect foil for her. Their quick-witted conversations, in particular, are full sparkle, both innocent and knowing.
Simply put, The Fault in Our Stars will stick with you after you have read it.
Best quotation: "The weird thing about houses is that they almost always look like nothing is happening inside of them, even though they contain most of our lives."
Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World, which was a National Book Awards finalist in 2006, is an excellent literary biography of William Shakespeare....moreStephen Greenblatt's Will in the World, which was a National Book Awards finalist in 2006, is an excellent literary biography of William Shakespeare.
In each chapter of the book, Greenblatt fixes on both a particular space of time and a specific cultural issue as a lens through which to examine Shakespeare's work. For example, an early chapter discusses the serious and often dangerous religious differences between Protestants and Catholics in the 1580s and then, drawing from biographical evidence and Shakespeare's plays, Greenblatt posits the influence of these events and beliefs on Shakespeare, theorizes his likely reaction to them, and examines how his reactions surface in his drama. Other standout chapters discuss the death of Shakespeare's son and father in the late 1590s and the creation of Hamlet; attitudes toward witchcraft in the early 1600s, King James I's fascination with witches, and Shakespeare's decision to write Macbeth; and Renaissance attitudes toward retirement and how those issues play out in King Lear and The Tempest.
The most amazing aspect of the book is Greenblatt's comprehensive knowledge, not just of Shakespeare's life, but also of Renaissance London, other dramatists and actors, religious attitudes, and politics. The foundation of research that underlies this book is incredible to imagine.
If you are not a Shakespeare scholar or enthusiast, you may enjoy this book less than I did. I can imagine that Greenblatt's level of detail and analysis of Shakespeare's plays could become tedious. For a person like me, though--and even for someone who has read Shakespeare's most famous plays--such connections are the strength and heart of the book.
In the end, Greenblatt tells a compelling story of an individual and the culture in which he lived. So, if you like good stories, and you like Shakespeare, you should add this one to your to-read list.(less)
Joe Meno's Office Girl traces the relationship between two would-be hipsters, Odile and Jack. Set in Chicago during the winter of 1999, the novel expl...moreJoe Meno's Office Girl traces the relationship between two would-be hipsters, Odile and Jack. Set in Chicago during the winter of 1999, the novel explores the minor everyday events, epiphanies, and disappointments of these two directionless twenty-somethings.
The first part of the book follows Odile as she grows dissatisfied with the affair she is having with a married man, the menial jobs she drifts to and from, and her own sense of self. Part two shifts to Jack's story--his dissolving marriage, his search for a menial job, and his nearly pointless long-term art project of recording sounds of the city. Part 3 finds both working at the same Muzak sales phone center, and thus begins their whirlwind relationship.
At Odile's suggestion, the two start their own personal art movement, staging small events--performance pieces, one might say--at random times. Their art movement is dedicated to the temporary--their manifesto claims that anything longer than 10 seconds is bogus--and in that, the novel--which tracks just 3 weeks of otherwise unremarkable time--parallels the beliefs of its protagonists.
In between art events, Odile and Jack have a lot of sex and a lot of conversations. Few of the latter go by without one or both of the characters saying, "I dunno" or "It's weird," though every now and then, Jack or Odile hits on something a bit more substantive.
Office Girl was, in the end, all right. The novel is essentially a character and relationship study, but the characters are fairly static throughout the book (though there are hints of development near the end. If I had read this book when I was the age of the main characters, I think I would have loved this novel. As it is, though, I am older and unsatisfied with the lack of substance in both the characters and the story. (less)
C. Tyler's You'll Never Know: Soldier's Heart is the final volume in the author's graphic memoir trilogy, in which she chronicles her father's experie...moreC. Tyler's You'll Never Know: Soldier's Heart is the final volume in the author's graphic memoir trilogy, in which she chronicles her father's experiences in World War II, her past and present relationship with her parents, and the author's own marriage and daughter.
The second volume ended with the story of the great tragedy in the life of Tyler's mother and with Tyler's own daughter hospitalized after an attempted suicide, and it is to these stories she most immediately returns at the start of volume 3. Tyler brings closure to both her mother's and her daughter's stories—I'm being intentionally vague to avoid giving the story away—within the first third of the book.
Having brought these two story lines to resolution, Tyler turns her attention to her father and her continued efforts to learn of his wartime experiences, particularly what happened in his last months of service. Research and various excursions to military archives turn up little in the way of details, but a climactic visit to the World War II Veteran's Memorial in Washington, D. C. . . . well, to provide detail about that visit would be a disservice to you, but I will say that the statement Tyler made in Volume 1—"Not all scars are visible"—proves true.
Tyler maintains her familiar style of artwork through much of the text, though there are some notable departures, particularly in some dark and stunning depictions of night scenes. This final volume favors a more linear narrative, though hints of the recursive storytelling of volumes 1 and 2 appear from time to time.
Finishing out a series is always a tricky business, because an author has to contend not only with writing a good story but also with the expectations raised by previous volumes. Soldier's Heart did not end in the way I expected, but the revelatory conclusion was satisfying, devastating, and perhaps even optimistic. (less)
Beautiful Ruins is the best novel I read in 2012. It follows the lives of a cast of main characters, spanning 50 years and 2 continents. The novel alt...moreBeautiful Ruins is the best novel I read in 2012. It follows the lives of a cast of main characters, spanning 50 years and 2 continents. The novel alternates between Italy in 1962 and (for the most part) America in the present day.
In 1962, Pasquale Tursi runs a small hotel on a small Italian island that tourists have forgotten, except for failed novelist and alcoholic, Alvis Bender. To bring more business, Pasquale dreams of carving a space for a tennis court out of the cliff his hotel sits on, until a young American actress unexpectedly arrives looking for a place to stay.
Dee Moray arrives on the island, having recently been told she has stomach cancer, which forced her to stop work on the epic version of Antony and Cleopatra starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Though she feels ill, she is fond of Pasquale and is grateful for his company.
Michael Deane, a production assistant on the film, brings Dee Moray to the island and, as quickly as he can, returns to Rome and the film.
In the present day, Shane Wheeler struggles to live up to his expectations of his own life and to become a successful writer. He finally gets the chance to pitch a movie, and he feels it may be his final chance for success.
Claire Silver, assistant to the powerful Hollywood producer Michael Deane, arranges the meeting with Shane. She, too, struggles with her own expectations, hoping to make a mark in Hollywood but wondering if she should instead return to academia and her art history background.
Pat Bender, one-time member of a one-hit wonder musical group, tries to eke out a career as a musician and tries to overcome the mistakes he has made in his personal life, especially those with his wife and his mother, who is dying of cancer.
Then one day, an old Italian man named Pasquale appears on the studio lot, hoping to find Michael Deane and to ask him a favor.
Jess Walter weaves these characters together in interesting ways, alternating between past and present, focusing on different characters in different chapters. In doing so, he considers topics as diverse as loyalty, lust, authenticity (and a lack of it), consumerism, failure, self-doubt, war, romance, redemption, and love. Beautiful Ruins is a longer novel, but one I felt was well worth the time.
Favorite quotation: "Because he lacked the dexterity in English to say all that he was thinking--how in his estimation, the more you lived the more regret and longing you suffered, that life was a glorious catastrophe--Pasquale Tursi said, only, 'Yes.'" (less)
Tim Farrington’s novel, Lizzie’s War, focuses on married couple Lizzie and Mike O'Reilly and the wars that each are fighting. Set in 1967-68, the narr...moreTim Farrington’s novel, Lizzie’s War, focuses on married couple Lizzie and Mike O'Reilly and the wars that each are fighting. Set in 1967-68, the narrative centers on the title character, who raises her 4 kids while her husband is in Viet Nam, struggles with an unplanned pregnancy, and thinks about what it means to be married to someone so far away and the person she was before marriage and kids. Mike, her husband, fights in Viet Nam, while leading and trying to protect his men in a chaotic environment. A third character, the associate pastor at Lizzie’s church, Father Germaine, himself a war veteran, fights his own demons—a crisis of faith and a battle with alcoholism.
The story is well told, providing alternating perspectives, as sections of each chapter narrate episodes from either Lizzie’s or Mike’s life (occasionally, the narrative takes the form of letters Mike writes to Lizzie). Mike’s war is straightforward: he is fighting in Viet Nam—primarily at Khe Shan—trying to keep both himself and his men alive. But as the title suggests, Lizzie’s war takes center stage: she strives to be the ideal 1960s mother but perpetually feels she falls short; she alternates between absolute anxiety over Mike’s safety and fierce anger that he volunteered to go to Viet Nam; and she grapples with issues of identity as she considers both who she is as a wife and mother as well as who she might be outside of those roles. Father Germaine plays a secondary role to Mike and Lizzie (and I have to say—I do wish he were in the story a bit more), but he becomes important to Lizzie and her oldest son. Germaine’s struggles complement and sometimes mirror those of the central couple.
This aspect of Lizzie’s War, where the narrative of a character complements that of another is one that I found quite effective. Farrington connects the characters together through parallel events, and this is especially so in the case of Lizzie and Mike. I like the idea that even though this married couple is separated by so much physical and mental space, their lives are still linked together.
What I liked most about Lizzie’s War, though, is its engagement with issues of faith. When I first started reading, I was worried that the novel would present religious ideas and faith in a Polyanna-ish manner, but that is the opposite of Farrington’s novel. What has always appealed to me about Catholicism (at least since I’ve been old enough to think about such things) is its ability to provide—not a set of dos and don’ts upon which to judge oneself—but solace and comfort. The characters—especially Lizzie and Germaine—show the value of faith for flawed, imperfect people in a fallen, messy world.(less)
Connie Goodwin, the character at the center of Katherine Howe's The Physick Book of Devliverance Dane is under a lot of pressure. Like all graduate st...moreConnie Goodwin, the character at the center of Katherine Howe's The Physick Book of Devliverance Dane is under a lot of pressure. Like all graduate students, she has the demands of her academic program--in Harvard's history program, no less. Having passed her qualifying exams, she is under pressure from her advisor, the formidable Manning Chiltern, to develop her dissertation topic. Connie must also manage a long-distance relationship with her mother, Grace, new age healer who performs aura cleansings. There is also the matter of Granna's house, abandoned since her death and which Grace asks Connie to clean out so that it can be sold. And then there is, of course, the boy: Sam, a restoration expert Connie meets while doing research in a Salem church.
But who is Deliverance Dane? That is the central question of the novel, which Connie investigates after discovering the name hidden in a family Bible in her Granna's house. That research and the answers it provides propel the narrative and eventually draw together the different characters in and aspects of Connie's life.
I enjoyed this book very much; it certainly qualifies as a page-turner. Howe--herself a graduate student at the time of the novel's publication--well represents the pressures and anxieties of graduate school, even if they are, perhaps, a bit exaggerated. I particularly liked Howe's descriptions of Connie's memory and thought processes as she works through the information she gathers.
One final positive is the mystery. Howe structures her novel such that the reader can piece together parts of the mystery before Connie herself does, which leads to a sense of satisfaction. At the same time, though, there are a couple of swerves that I did not see coming, and these bring satisfactions of their own.(less)