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Intrigued by the opening credits to the new HBO series Big Little Lies that I saw while waiting to watch another HBO show, I decided to look into Liane Moriarty’s novel which is the basis for the show.  Starring Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern, how can this show not be amazing?  So I set out to read the book first.  It is a page turner with short chapters, many of which begin or end the police interrogation dialogue, as it is established a murder has occurred in Chapter One.  The female characters played by Hollywood’s finest all are mothers of kindergartners at Pirriwee Peninsula Public School, although HBO has moved the location from Sydney, Australia to LA.  The mothers are all “pretty people” and the competition among them is pretty fierce at times.  Woodley’s character, Jane, is a single mom who has moved to town with her son, Ziggy.  Their arrival and assimilation into the mother-crowd throws off the group dynamics.

I thought this would be fluff-chick, Stepford Wives type reading, but there are larger issues surrounding the “big, little lies” moneyed mothers tell to keep up the facade of perfection.  Past and present relationships are far from perfect, and Moriarty makes some pretty strong social statements throughout.

I can’t wait to watch the series.  I had Amazon send copies of the paperback to my daughter and daughter-in-law and I am hoping for some discussion to come from our little mother/daughter book club.  By the last quarter of the book, I was entirely sucked in and could not put it down.

I am a huge Olive Kitteridge fan, so I assumed I must be a huge Elizabeth Strout fan.  Unfortunately, My Name is Lucy Barton was a disappointment, mostly because of the fundamental questions it did not answer for me.  Lucy spends the whole first half of the novel in the hospital – but there is never the slightest hint what is wrong with her.  That bothered me enough to over shadow the charming parts of the book.  While she is in the hospital, her mother, from whom Lucy as been estranged for a long time, comes to visit.  She sits at the foot of her daughter’s bed, calls her by her childhood nickname, Wizzle, and the two recount old stories and reminisce about forgotten personalities from the old neighborhood.  Occasionally a doctor or nurse comes in to check on something ? ? and abruptly her mother announces she must leave.

Lucy has a husband and daughters, who play very minimal roles in the story.  And even Lucy herself never rises to the role of a fully fleshed character in my mind.  She goes to classes to learn to write from a legendary teacher, Sarah Payne, who teaches her that we each have one single story to tell.  But Lucy Barton’s story is told in fragments, always with some necessary portion hidden behind the mysterious hospital curtain.

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I was gifted this book for Christmas, but it was the paperback Target Club Pick edition with a cool looking trailer on the cover.  The best sentence in the whole book is the first one – “Every night, Frank played harmonica for the cats”.  Except Frank doesn’t make it past the first chapter!  The trailer park neighbor kid, Jake, is told he shouldn’t be seeing this, as they haul Frank’s body out, but Jake takes the harmonicas and keeps them under his bed.

What happens in the rest of the novel which is set in Quinn, Montana – population 956?    Rachel Flood,  the town home wrecker returns after a self-imposed leave to sober up.  She tries to make amends with her mother who runs the local bar, The Dirty Shame.  Rachel ends up paying her dues by being forced to tend bar AND play on her mother’s soft ball league.

Unfortunately, I found the book to be flat.  I kept waiting for a big thing to happen that would propel me through the rest of the book.  Bar night, followed by bar brawl, followed by too much drinking, followed by hungover softball game – repeat.

My favorite character was misunderstood and neglected Jake, who drew his understanding of life from Jackie Collins novels and Rocky Horror Picture Show.  He had a sewing machine that was his source of solace.  What happens with him at the end of the novel made me want the throw the book across the room.  I guess the dilapidated trailer on the cover should have been enough warning.

The Girls by Emma Cline

August 27th, 2016 | Posted by Lackey in My Reading Life - (0 Comments)

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I have been so negligent about writing book reviews lately but this one needs to be done immediately.  I finished reading Emma Cline’s The Girls today after being riveted by the novel for a few days.  I had read a NY Times review of the book earlier this summer, and patiently waited for the ebook to be available from the library.   I am not curiously drawn to anything having to do with cults or Charles Manson, but the early press about the manuscript leading to a bidding war among a dozen publishers and the seven figure, three book deal made me awfully interested.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the story is tightly focused on the girls – of course.  The central character, Evie, is fourteen in the summer of 1969.  Her divorced parents seem preoccupied, her best friend seems distant, her town seems disenchanted – she is ripe for the allure of Suzanne, an older girl she sees one day with a few other girls harvesting food from a dumpster.  When Suzanne eyes Evie with a lingering glance, Evie is struck.  What follows are multiple trips and extended stays at the Mansonesque commune where a haunting musician named Russell commands.  Of course there is plenty of sex and drugs and music, but the focus is on the relationship between Evie and Suzanne.  Of course there is a climactic event of violence and a lifetime of lingering guilt by association for Evie, who is an older adult in the opening chapter and subsequent sections.

Cline knows girls and can expose the fragility of innocence with beautifully crafted prose.  This is a book that people will be talking about and girls will be reading.

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All of my favorite things – smart characters, descriptions of exotic dishes, recipes, menus – come together in Kitchens of the Great Midwest.  Eva, the central character, is born in the first chapter and ages rapidly in subsequent chapters where she sometimes plays only a minor role.  Eva has a talent for food – knowing ingredients, putting together a meal, and even using food as a weapon.  I loved watching her grow into an enigmatic chef so popular people would pay thousands of dollars and endure years on a waiting list just to eat at one of her mysterious pop-up dinners.  The chapter titled “Bars” is all about those delicious 9 x 13 pan-baked creations and was the tastiest of the whole book for me.

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This slim little novel is so fast paced, I almost finished it in a day.  Told entirely in second person, Vida’s narrator has her laptop and identification stolen while checking in to a hotel in Morocco.  After some wrangling with the local police, she accepts another woman’s ID and thus begins a series of events, new names and personalities so entangled it will leave “you” wondering who “you” are.   I listened to an interview with Vendetta Vida, who is Dave Eggers’ wife, and she said the book was prompted by a similar experience that she had with a stolen laptop that contained an unfinished manuscript.  She also said second person narration was the only way she could tell this story.  I was hooked from the opening scene and laughed aloud at the last line.  Highly recommend!

The Little Paris Bookshop

August 28th, 2015 | Posted by Lackey in My Reading Life - (0 Comments)

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What a sweet little story, perfect for any bibliophile with an interest in romance.  Monsieur Perdu calls his floating bookstore barge a literary apothecary, and prides himself on his ability to match a book with a person’s current needs.  But his own soul is empty, and when he decides to leave his mooring and travel in search of some answers to old questions, the book takes off.  It is a charming novel, full of quirky characters and a few good book titles that might help with the longings of your own life.

A Man Called Ove

August 15th, 2015 | Posted by Lackey in My Reading Life - (0 Comments)

ove.aspxHow I loved Ove.  He is as grumpy and grouchy as they come – I pictured Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt.  His wife Sonja, who friends were always grateful married him and made him manageable for some time, has just died.  He sees no reason to go on, and begins to plan a way to end his life.  But nosy, meddling neighbors keep finding ways to divert him from his goal, and through these interactions, the soft side of Ove is revealed.  Swedish author and blogger Frederik Backman has painted  a tender character who will stay with you long after the last episode – which is laugh out loud funny.  I agree with Booklist – “If there was an award for ‘Most Charming Book of the Year,’ this first novel by a Swedish blogger-turned-overnight-sensation would win hands down” (Booklist, starred review).

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When our former student and acclaimed author Salvatore Scibona mails a book to our house with a simple typewritten note enclosed “A book I love for friends I love”,  I set all other reading aside and dive in.  Scibona wrote this blurb for the back of the book –

A big, chewy novel written with comic panache and an infectious tenderness toward the blunders of its heroes. The Unfortunates is both a mirror on the income inequality of the current moment and a social novel in the old, plotty mode: voracious for detail and punctuated by gasp-inducing turns of fate. Its subjects are money and the people unfortunate enough to have it. Who knew the rich deserved so much to be pitied? (Salvatore Scibona, author of The End)

Sophie McManus‘ debut novel lives up to the New York Observer’s pronouncement “This may be the literary beach read of 2015.” At the center of the story is CeCe Somner, an aging matriarch whose excessive wealth cannot save her declining health. Diagnosed with a rare disease, she qualifies for a pharmaceutical trail she can only participate in if she moves from Somner’s Rest into Oak Park, one of those god-forsaken “homes”.   Her delusional son, George, is none too happy to be rid of her since it gives him more freedom to compose an opera that he believes will launch his fame. George neglects his job and his new-moneyed wife, Iris, until everything spins out of control. The potential darkness of the novel is lightened by McManus’ hilarious prose. I laughed out loud! In one passage George puts headphones on his mother so she can listen to his masterpiece for the first time, and when she removes them, she describes what she heard in a splendid Juvenalian tirade that is its own music. McManus is a talented word weaver. I empathized with no character and loved them all.

Perhaps the truest line in the book is buried in a beginning chapter where a minor character says, “We need books  . . . because we are all, in the private kingdoms of our hearts, desperate for the company of a wise, true friend.”  Sophie McManus has capably created such a necessary book.

How does an English teacher avoid a novel titled Language Arts?  I certainly could not, especially since I have been big fan of Stephanie Kallos since reading Broken for You in 2005.  And, of course, this cover with its looping arcs is pretty intriguing – and representative.

Language Arts is an ambitious novel – one I almost felt she was not going to be able to pull off due to all its looping arcs.  The main character is Charles Marlow, a high school English teacher who attempts to show students how language will shape and change their lives.  Charlie is also the father of an autistic son, Cody, who never masters the use of language.  Cody, now 21, must be placed in a new adult residence.  Charlie is divorced from his wife, Allison, with whom he has little success in communicating.  During Art Therapy at the new home, Cody collaborates with Sister Georgia, an aging Italian nun who is losing her language, all of which is photographed by one of Charlie’s students who is working there on her senior Language Arts project.  Sound confusing?  It often is.   To further muddy the waters, the timeline of the novel bounces between the present and Charlie’s elementary school days, when he was placed in an experimental language arts program that resulted in him penning an award winning story that was a loosely veiled expose of his parents’ dysfunctional marriage.  Also, symbolically significant is the elementary school instruction Charlie received in the Palmer Handwriting Method and the ways it knit Charlie’s life together with a mentally challenged classmate of his named Dana.

At times the novel nearly fell apart for me.  But there were passages about language – how is serves and fails us as human beings – that salvaged the book for me.  Perhaps it is because my mother suffered from aphasia during her last years with Alzheimers.  Perhaps because I love language, and teaching literature.  Passages like this one make the book worth recommending:

“Memory—uncorrected, uncorroborated, and (by its very nature) unreliable—is what allows us to retroactively create the blueprints of our lives, because it is often impossible to make sense of our lives when we’re inside them, when the narratives are still unfolding: This can’t be happening. Why is this happening? Why is this happening now? Only by looking backward are we able to answer those questions, only through the assist of memory. And who knows how memory will answer? Who will it blame?”