Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Replacement Life: a Novel / Boris Fishman 321 p.

Yevgeny (Slava) Gelman is an aspiring young writer with a grunt job at a prestigious New York magazine.  He and his extended family emigrated from Belarus when he was 9, and he has spent his adolescence the way many immigrant children do: translating for his elders, shifting between two worlds, explaining why he doesn't want to become a doctor or a successful businessman.  When the German government begins accepting applications for restitution from Holocaust survivors, Slava becomes involved in his grandfather's scheme to craft false narratives for those Jewish families who survived Soviet rather than Nazi repression.

At last Slava comes into his own as a writer, but here is where his troubles begin. Emotionally Replacement Life feels like a pretty standard coming-of-age story.  Yet Fishman has given Slava a sweet, charming voice, and he cleverly raises questions about the truth and who owns it, and, fundamentally, the power of story.  Worth reading for the hilarious and poignant conversations between Slava and his grandfather alone, I recommend this one.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Anatomy of a misfit

Anatomy of a misfit / Andrea Portes 328 pgs.

This book was available through Overdrive's read program so I thought I would give it a try.  I don't read a lot of young adult stuff and this reminds me of why. Anika is a teen who is going through all the things most teens do, doubting herself, mean girls, bad boys, crappy job, school stress, etc. etc.  She hooks up with a loner guy who has matured a bit, but is not willing to go public with their relationship.  Her best friend/enemy is Becky, a controlling conniver who has fun by humiliating her peers.  But then the hot guy Jared seems to be falling for Anika.  Becky has her sights on him and so there is some explaining to do.  Also included are parent and sibling conflict, a new friend in trouble and a breakout moment that will define Anika in the future.  All predictable teen stuff that doesn't really ring true in the telling.

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Not that kind of girl

Not that kind of girl: a young woman tells you what she's "learned" / Lena Dunham  265 pgs.

I don't watch Lena Dunham's television show "Girls" mostly because I don't get HBO and I'm so far out of my twenty's I figure there isn't a whole lot for ME in the show. But I admire Lena for HAVING a show. I love what she wears on the red carpet and she sees so normal compared to the Hollywood crowd I thought I would give her book a whirl.  And, I'm so glad that I did.  Sure, it is filled with tons of over sharing and sex stories that might make you blush a bit. But it is interesting to read the stories about her college days and realize that was a mere 5 years ago!  I can't name another 28 year old with as much under their belt.  My opinion of Lena and her impressive accomplishments has only grown.  She has an admirable sense of humor and is clearly a genius.

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The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing

The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing: A Novel by Mira Jacob  502 pp.

This story of an Indian-American family has deservedly landed on many "Best of the Year" lists. It is the story of the Eapen family told in chapters that jump from the 70s to the 90s. The story revolves around Thomas, a brain surgeon who has begun acting strangely; his wife Kamala who copes with everything by cooking; Akhil, the gifted son; and Amina, the daughter who is the only American born member of the family. The story is narrated by a thirty year old Amina who comes back to Albuquerque when her forceful mother insists something is wrong with Thomas. As the story evolves multiple family tragedies are revealed including Thomas' possibly terminal illness, a suicide that caused Amina to give up a promising career as a photojournalist, and a deadly fire. While all this death, destruction, and illness sounds like a fodder for a morbidly depressing book, there is much humor, usually provided by Kamala and her malapropisms and futile attempts at being in control. In the end it is a book about the importance of family, even when they get on your last nerve. And you can't help but come away from this book craving Indian food. I listened to the audiobook version and the reader captures the characters perfectly.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling

Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling by Lucy Frank  259 pp.

This novel in verse is told from the point of view of two teen girls in their hospital room. Both are suffering from Crohn's disease, one newly diagnosed, the other a veteran of many years of illness. Francesca (Chess) is the newby, she is scared, confused, embarrassed, and suffering through the torture of tests and a nasogastric tube. (I can vouch for how icky that is.) Shannon is the one with many years of experience of the discomfort, pain, and surgeries that go along with the disease. She displays anger at her situation, the doctors and nurses, and her family. The girls' separate voices are displayed with Chess on the left and Shannon on the right. A line down the middle of the page designates when the curtain between their beds is closed. Their back stories eventually come out through their conversations and Chess's private thoughts. In the end Chess learns she is stronger than even she thought and Shannon reveals she is not as tough as she puts on.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Yes Please

Yes Please / Amy Poehler 329 pgs.

Amy Poehler is one of my favorites and moves up the list with the story in her book about chasing a guy off an airplane and telling him off.  The rest of the book is pretty good too.  I have to assume that being a big star, hilariously funny, and basically in charge of it all is satisfying and great.  Amy assures us that it is.  She also has things going on just like every other person on earth.  She is a mother to two young sons, she has sleep deprivation, and she sometimes doubts herself.  But still, read for the funny parts which is about 98% of the book.  It will be a pleasure to see where Leslie Knope will go next.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Book of ages

Book of ages: the life and opinions of Jane Franklin / Jill Lepore 442 pgs.

Ben Franklin had a younger sister Jane.  He and Jane adored each other and had a lot in common.  Everyone knows how things turned out for Ben, now we know how things turned out for Jane.  First, you have to understand the time.  Jane was born into a world where girls didn't get educated.  Their one lot in life was to get married and reproduce.  Jane did and had a horribly tough time of it.  By all accounts, her husband was a bit of a loser.  He couldn't make money, had a gambling problem and owed everyone.  Jane survived by taking in boarders.  She did all the work.  She had several children, many of whom died young and a couple of whom went a bit mad.  Through out all, she corresponded with her brother.  She read everything he wrote and any other books she could get her hands on, including things he printed.  She wrote with poor writing and even worse spelling but she had strong opinions (esp. as she aged) and looked forward to visits from Ben.  They actually lived together for awhile as adults after his wife died.  They seemed to have a great time.  We would know more details but most of her letters were destroyed...why keep the writings of some unknown woman?  History and historians have not been kind to the likes of Jan Franklin Mecom which is why this book is so amazing.  Jane gets her due and you will learn something.  In a world where girls are still being denied educational opportunities it is interesting to speculate what Jane would have done with her life had she had some backing and training.  I couldn't put this down after I started it and am sure it one of my favorites of the year.

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Monday, December 8, 2014

Prince Lestat

Prince Lestat by Anne Rice, 458 pages

Almost thirty years after Akasha, the Queen of the Damned, awoke, and after Mekare enacted her revenge and took on the Sacred Core to become the new Queen of the Damned, the vampire world finds itself in turmoil again. A mysterious Voice has been rousing old vampires from their sleep to burn the dens of young ones, leaving the vampire community scared. Benji Mahmoud broadcasts every night, calling for the old ones to come together - including Lestat, especially Lestat - and come up with a solution and save them all. Of course Lestat, vainglorious, ostentatious Lestat, is fully aware of what's going on (the Voice has been speaking to him off and on for years, naturally), but it's not until things get really bad that he finally gets involved.

I'll admit that I was hesitant to read this one. The Vampire Chronicles were a big part of my middle school years (if I could've gone full goth at that time in my life, I would've definitely given it a shot) so when Anne announced several years ago that she was returning to the Catholic church and was planning to write about Jesus, I was a bit turned off (nothing wrong with Jesus, just not my choice of literature). I was interested when she returned to the supernatural with The Wolf Gift but I found the story just okay, and began to wonder if I had grown out of her world. But cracking open Prince Lestat was like hanging out with old friends you haven't seen in awhile. It was great to be back among these characters, and meet some new ones, even if I had forgotten how much effort it can take to get through one of these novels (so much talking, you guys). This is also the first chronicle where it felt like Anne really committed to the world, including a specific vocabulary and making her characters stick to using it. The self-aware bits where the characters go on about how the Vampire Chronicles and Lestat's short-lived music career were so popular and influential made me chuckle a bit, because it almost comes off as really professional fanfiction. If you're familiar at all with these characters, then the ending should not come as a surprise (in fact, you should be able to see it coming at least a hundred pages out), but it works so well in broadening the world of the books that it doesn't feel like a letdown. If you were like me and concerned that a return to Lestat would be a disappointment, I assure you that it's not. Hopefully you'll find your return to the Vampire Chronicles as pleasant as I did.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Black Swan Green

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell  304 pp.

Thirteen year old Jason Taylor recounts one year of his life in the tiny English town of Black Swan Green, where the town joke is there are no black swans. Jason's life is a misery. He has a stutter that speech therapy doesn't seem to be helping. He is bullied by a number of his classmates for his stutter and not being one of the tough, cool kids. He doesn't get along with his older sister who is heading off to university and his parents serious issues of their own. Girls don't seem to like him. Things just aren't going his way. It is 1982 and England is in the midst of the Falklands War and the Thatcher recession. Jason copes with things by writing poetry and giving nicknames to the parts of his personality that deal with the difficult parts of his life. Gradually things start to change for Jason and all the kids in his grade at school. For some, it is for the better; for others, it is much worse. Is the shift just because Jason has matured in that year or something more? This book is sad, funny, intriguing, shocking, unpredictable, and full of music from the period. It's very well written and worth reading.

Some luck, by Jane Smiley

The first book of an anticipated trilogy, this novel gets off to a very slow start.  Each chapter covers a year, beginning with 1920 and plodding through three decades to 1953.  A generational saga, it chronicles the fortunes of a family farming land near Ames, Iowa.  When Frank, the first of the family to attend college, goes to nearby Iowa State in 1937, he finds “everyone in Ames was just like the landscape – open, bright, friendly, dull.”  And at this point, so was the book and most of the characters.  Perhaps the pedestrian writing is meant to mirror this. [Full disclosure:  my father would have been his classmate and my grandfather possibly one of his professors – maybe I’m too sensitive!]  The action picks up (helped along by a world war and a cold war) in the last third of the book and so does the writing.  By the end of the book, I felt more interested in the characters, the writing became more lyrical, and something resembling a plot had formed.  It is perhaps not enough to make me want to follow the Langdons and their kin, year by year, into the 21st century.  Disappointing.  395 pp.