Thursday, March 31, 2011

# 16 The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O' Farrell

Iris Lockheart is surprised to receive a letter and phone call from a mental asylum, informing her that she has an aunt who was committed and that budget cuts have her with no place to go. Iris is a modern gal. Owner of a vintage clothing shop, has an affair with a married man and a very close relationship with her stepbrother. Her mother has Alzheimer's and is in a nursing home. Life is pretty full for Iris, but she goes to the mental institution to see her unknown aunt and in a fit of sympathy, decides to take her home with her. That aunt is the titular Esme Lennox.

As in most cases of family members being in an asylum, there are secrets. Deep dark ones that affect Iris and can explain her lack of knowledge of Esme.

The book is told in 3 voices. One is in the present time telling of Iris' story. The other is a narrator telling of episodes from the young life of Esme Lennox. The last is the inner monologue of Iris' mad mother, Esme's sister. The voices are confusing at first but one is finally able to make out some sense and piece together the horrific story of Esme Lennox. Throughout the book, there is a certain amount of uncertainty and suspense, actually. Was Esme a crazy ass old lady who was going to stab Iris to death? Or was she a victim. The reader soon knows, and it is a haunting and sad answer.

Monday, March 28, 2011

# 15 Notes on A Scandal by Zoe Heller

Barbara Covett is one weird duck. She is writing an account after the fact of a scandal, one she is closely associated with. But in writing about the incident, she is clearly writing more and more about herself. Barbara Covett is a lonely spinster teacher. No close friends or love interest or family in sight. She develops an unlikely friendship with the new pottery teacher, Sheba Hart, a well-off, kind of ditzy, and glamorous (for Barbara anyway) woman. Sheba is ill equipped for the rough and tumble school she is teaching in and falls into an affair with her 17 year old student. Barbara, though she initially did not know about the affair, soon does and therein lies the story.

But the story is not really about the affair or Shebe. It is all about Barbara and her need for closeness which unfortunately manifests in a creepy and stalkery manner. It wasn't like she was evil mastermind plotting Sheba's downfall, but it was much more subtle than that, and you don't really know if she meant to do the things she did out of malice or was just carried away... Anyway, although it is undeniable that she was creepy, I felt so sad for her and the long stretch of nothingness which was her life. The scandal gave her something she had been looking for, someone who needs her and who will stay with her. Forever. So yeah, she's pretty creepy.

# 14 Bonk by Mary Roach

actual review date - 12/22/11

I read this book so long ago, I must admit, the facts that I've read about here have mostly flown out of my head. I have horrible retention when it comes to non-fiction. But what does stick with me is that it was fun, funny and flippant. Mary Roach has a way of making any subject matter (whether it be the dead as in Stiff, or sex as in this case) fun to read about.

I have this friend who tells the most awesome and strange stories about her experiences. It is sometimes so absurd that you have to wonder if she is not stretching the truth a bit to make it more interesting. But no, it's just the way she l0oks at the world. She thinks everything is amusing and interesting and it translated to how she talks about her experiences. Reading this book gave me that sort of feeling. It felt like Roach delving into the world of sex research was a big adventure. I mean, sex research in itself would seem to be pretty interesting but the author makes it even more so.

Basically, though I may have forgotten most of the fact that I learned, I do vividly remember that it was a really funny and quirky book which kept me interested throughout.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

# 13 - Savage Grace by Natalie Robins and Steven M. L. Aronson

Family biography, true crime, horror story. This is the story of the Baeklands, a rich and prominent American family. The elder Baekland made his fortune by inventing Bakelite, a popular plastic.

Leo Baekland was a grandson of the original Baekland. He was, like his father, a bit eccentric and got into all sorts of hobbies, instead, of just, you know, working. He got married to a beautiful "actress" Barbara Daly, and from there flows their tragic tale.

They were living the life of social butterflies, flitting around Europe, hosting parties, and hanging out with famous people. They also son, Anthony, who they took around with them in their travels.

The family relationship was tumultuous to say the least. There were loud fights, adulterous relations, and possible incest. Finally, Leo Baekland left his family for his mistress, who was supposedly Anthony's ex girlfriend. Naturally, the story ends in tragedy for all involved.

The story us told through the statements of friends and relatives of the family, and even Leo Baekland himself. While reading, I kept asking myself, wow, are they really that articulate, even poetic at times? I guess it's possible, the circle being mostly rich socialites and artists. But I didn't really find that way of telling the story successful. It was a bit repetitive with different people saying the same thing over and over again. I mean, a story that juicy (murder, incest, adultery, homosexuality, CRAY-CRAY), should be anything but boring, but it really was, in some parts.

Plus, maybe I'm dense or whatever, but I really didn't really feel that I had an understanding or insight into the psyche of the subjects. I don't know. But what I do know is that they were supremely fucked up. It was a bit scary in a way, because when one has children, as I do, we always imagine what would happen if our kids end up as fucked up as the kids in the news. It was extra scary for me because I do see a little of myself in Barbara. Not the incest, obvs, but just that I am slightly (ok more) domineering and very intense at times, and a bit cold at times. I am trying really hard not to bring that kind of stuff to my kids, but its scary, just the same.

Do I guess the book succeeds in the sense that it is a cautionary tale (not to go cavorting in Europe and living the rich life. haha), but it didn't succeed in engaging me and making me understand what's behind these mad acts.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

# 12 - The Dead of Summer by Camilla Way

Anita Naidu is half British, half Pakistani, and one whole outcast. She is a lonely lonely child, with her mother just recently dead, and living with a depressed father self-absorbed siblings. She did not fit in anywhere or with anyone. She is an outcast because she is a little bit weird and doesn't really make an effort to be "normal". She finds a ragtag group of friends one hot summer, when she befriends (by default) Denis and his friend, Kyle. These kids are even weirder than her, Denis being a bit slow and Kyle being just plain weird and more than a little creepy.

The book is narrated by Anita to her psychologist seven years after that fateful summer. It was not a coming of age tale. By the end of that summer, three kids had died with Anita as the only survivor and witness to the events.

Anita is quiet and weird and so clearly lonely, unable to make connections easily. The book is very eerie and hypnotic and quick to read. Suffice to say, it has a few twists and turns, although, it was a bit obvious to be honest. But that didn't detract from the creepy beauty of this teenager's narration of a brutal summer.

# 11 American Pastoral by Philip Roth

This is my first Roth book, so I don't really know Nathan Zuckerman. Apparently, he's a recurring character in his books and is considered a stand in for the author in his books. In this book, the story starts with Zuckerman and his hero worship of All American Golden Boy Swede Levov. Zuckerman was friends with the Swede's younger brother when they were kids and the Swede was the guy everyone looked up to, because of his athletic prowess and his all around nice guy-ness.

Zuckerman meets Jerry (the younger brother) at their high school reunion and learns that beneath the seemingly perfect and ordinary life that the Swede led, was an event that destroyed his "perfectness". His daughter, after a pampered childhood, grew up to become a home-grown terrorist, planting a bomb that killed the local doctor. Zuckerman then creates, based on these very basic facts that he knows, the story of Swede Levov, of his perfect normalcy and his eventual downfall.

It is not so much about the crazy-ass daughter and her actions. It's more of how such action affected her parents, their lives. And the hanging question of how the fuck could such a thing happen to such ordinary, upstanding people? How could Jewish businessman and athlete and former Miss New Jersey have given birth and raised such a weird, stuttering, violent and unthinking girl?

I don't know, the book was very American. American dream, American hang-ups. While the prose was engaging and and thought provoking to read, I just thought is was so ragey! And it was so repetitive with the descriptions and exaltations of how awesome the Swede was.

I think that like the Corrections, I was able to enjoy reading the book and think I got it. I just didn't GET it. It didn't resonate with me. I was let a bit let down considering this book is so often called one of the best American books ever.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

# 10 River Rats by Caroline Stevermer

I like YA fiction. I also really like post-apocalyptic fiction. I also really, really like rock n roll. But somehow, this book which combines the three is not really doing it for me.

It's post-apocalyptic America,where the population has been drastically reduced by an event the characters call the Flash, and further so by the pestilence, which kills quickly and terribly. Some cities survive, as well as small pockets of civilization, as do the Wild Boys, a band of kids who live in the infected wastelands, immune to the pestilence.

The River Rats are a group of kids living in a paddle wheel steamboat. Too rebellious to live in cities which must necessarily have a lot of rules in order to survive, but too level headed and organized to be wild boys. They go up and down the Mississippi, delivering mail, providing news and staging rock concerts in exchange for clean food and water. Life is almost routine for these kids (as routine as post-apocalyptic America can be), and they are surviving pretty well as a family. However, they encounter some excitement when they rescue King, an adult being chased by scary big guys,the Lesters, an unsavory family controlling a village. And so starts their adventure. Being chased, held captive and so on...

The story is told from the viewpoint of one of the rats, Tomcat. He is perhaps, the most irresponsible and "wild" of all the rats, but he's a good kid. They all are, actually, acting as family for one another in a world where family is scarce.

It is an exciting adventure story with interesting backdrop. The author's imagination of society after the apocalypse is pretty good with the aforementioned enclaves or good places, as the rats call it, amidst the destruction.

Why didn't I like it? I don't know, it just didn't speak to me. I mean, I don't hate it, I'm just meh about it. I guess it is a pretty good YA adventure, just not for me.