Feb 19, 2015

All Our Worldly Goods, by irene Nemirovsky

Somehow, I never learned the story of Nemirovsky, who died in Auschwitz in 1942. I thought she was a contemporary author, and so the writing of this novel struck me as interestingly old-fashioned. Obviously, it feels old-fashioned because it is, in fact, old. Written so close to the events described therein, "All Our Worldly Goods" holds a quiet power within its pages. The story follows two lovers from their unplanned and accidental engagement just before World War I through to the invasion of France in WWII. I'm not sure why it never struck me until now, but there's one line that references the two wars occurring within the same lifetime, and it's staggering how much emotional devastation that must have caused. Pierre, the "first among equals" of main characters, fights in WWI, then his son fights in WWII. I'll admit I found it a tad dull until the very end, when Nemirovsky describes the destruction of the Hardelots' ancestral village and the terror of those fleeing the Germans. It's a quiet stunner, this short novel, a work that doesn't seem significant until after it is done.

Feb 13, 2015

Our Endless Numbered Days, by Claire Fuller (March 2015)

You know those children that occasionally appear, ragged and emotionally stunted after years of being "missing?" Peggy is one of those children. Her father, obsessed with survivalism and self-sufficiency, steals Peggy away to a cabin in a very remote part of Germany while her mother, pregnant with their second child, is away touring (she is a concert pianist). After a particularly violent storm, Peggy - now called Punzel - is told by her father that the world outside their little slice of forest has completely disappeared. The Great Divide, he calls it, and Peggy is terrified and distraught to lose her mother, her home, and the entire world all at once. After nearly starving their first winter, Peggy and her father survive by themselves for eight years until Peggy discovers there is a third person left: Reuben.

It's a beautifully written book, told from Peggy's perspective both as a child and later when she walks out of the woods and is reunited with her mother and the brother she never met. It's a story that in the hands of someone unskilled would be very slow and plodding, but Fuller's pacing is spectacular, and the book never gets boring. It's emotionally difficult to read, certainly not good for someone looking for a light read or a happy ending. Haunting and lovely, it's an impressive piece of writing, and will stay with me for a while yet.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal (July 2015)

I don't often laugh out loud reading books, but this one got me quite a few times. The first 20 pages or so are filled with hilarious lines that I couldn't help reading out loud to my boss. The rest of the book isn't as funny, but makes up for it in damn good writing. The story centers around Eva Thorvald, who possesses "a once in a lifetime palate." Only one part of the book actually follows Eva; the rest of the chapters are told from the (third person omniscient) perspectives of people whose lives she touched, some only briefly and some for a longer period of time, but all indelibly. It reminds me a bit of "The Bone Clocks" by David Mitchell, another book with a woman protagonist who offers redemption to a number of people, only to have some slap it away in anger. Then again, some of the people we follow simply happen to have her in their lives at a pivotal moment. Through their eyes, we see Eva's maturation and success as a one-of-a-kind celebrity chef, and eventually wind our way back to the mother who abandoned her just months after her birth. It's a fabulous book, all the more impressive for being a debut, and I encourage everyone to pick it up when it is published in late July.

Troika, by Adam Pelzman

The first thirty pages of this novel blew me away, then I had to put it down in order to get work done, but could not stop thinking about it! I finally got to finish "Troika" this past week and am pleased that my first impression stayed true. This is a love story, but of the most unconventional kind. Perla is a Cuban-born stripper in Miami, street-smart and independent; her voice is a bit rambling but fascinating. Julian grew up an orphan in Russia; his family motto: submit to no man. Sophie is Julian's wife, intelligent and stifled, though I won't tell you by what since it's best discovered for yourself. It's a wonderful novel that I loved reading, well worth the hype the publisher was giving it a year ago. Happy endings come in all shapes and sizes, and I was thrilled by "Troika's".

Feb 7, 2015

Fairest: Levana's Story, by Marissa Meyer

The fourth book of the Lunar Chronicles ("Cinder," "Scarlet," and "Cress" are the first three) is a novella origin story of the antagonist, Queen Levana of Luna. Lacking chapters, it's a very quick read, but really quite interesting. Burned horribly as a child by her psychotic and manipulative older sister and desperately searching for genuine connection and love, it's hard not to sympathize with Levana. It's a welcome addition to the series, an added complexity that makes it more adult. Bad guys aren't always all bad; we all have a past, our own origin story, that made us who we are today. Yes, the decisions we make as adults are free-standing and cannot be excused simply because of a rotten childhood, but Meyer illuminates an uncomfortable truth that is relevant to fiction and life in general: we don't know each other's pasts, and any judgment we make about another must be tempered with this grain of salt. I'm interested to see how this story affects the ending of the series, and can't wait until #5 is out.

Jan 31, 2015

Napa, by James Conaway

Published in 1990, this book is still controversial among Napans for its exposure of the very insular world of Napa winemakers. Conaway traces families both famous and little-known, revealing mental illness, suicide, sibling rupture...you name it. He traces the growth of Napa from a rural backwater that happened to grow good grapes into the international financial and cultural powerhouse that it is today (or rather, that it was in 1990 and is even more so today). There is little in the way of commentary, but his writing makes clear that Conaway supported the agricultural preserve and those who fought for stricter land use and finds the corporate vintners snobbish and arrogant, as well as terrifyingly short-sighted environmentally. Having lived in the valley for two years now, and knowing some of the people mentioned in the book, it's a fascinating peek into that world. And Conaway is a skillful writer, descriptive and engaging. I've also met the man, at an event he did for the bookstore, and found him very charming and intelligent. I'm not surprised people opened up to him the way they must have, but even then, the amount of research that went into this book shows great tenacity. I'm curious about his follow-up book, "The Far Side of Eden," written ten years after "Napa," and there are beginning to be rumors that he is starting research on a third...

Jan 11, 2015

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

It would be impossible - or at least make for an excessively long review - to enumerate the ways in which in this book is incredible. This is science fiction at its best while still being very accessible to a non-sci fi reader. It is a tale truly as old as time: alienation and the other slowly dissolving into understanding, kinship, and friendship.

We are cast into an unknown world just as is our protagonist, Genly Ai, an Envoy of the Ekumen sent to the cold planet Winter to pave the way for an alliance with the 80-odd other planets inhabited by humans. Each world has its own particular brand of human: on Gethen, they are a kind of hermaphrodite. Neuter most of the time, Gethenians go into kemmer about once a month (think an animal in heat) and interaction with other people determines which gender the individual becomes for the sake of mating. Thus can each Gethenian both father and mother children. The impact this has on society is immense, and it is a thread that runs through the book as well as being discussed explicitly a number of times.

"The Left Hand of Darkness" is a journey tale, as well, and a politico-philosophical treatise, and a mythology, and many other things. The writing is superb, descriptive enough to paint a vivid picture without being bogged down. Small wonder this gem won both the Hugo and Nebula awards.