Friday, January 1, 2016

Book Reviews: December 2015

Everybody Rise by Stephanie Clifford.  Reading this book was quite a journey:  I was very annoyed at it for the first third, mainly because the main character, a 26 year-old New Yorker named Evelyn Beegan, is putting all her energies into breaking into the upper echelons of New York society.  She can think of no greater thing than being accepted by this crowd, and the way it is written, it’s presented that the author thinks so too.  That is, there is no space between Evelyn’s desires and how they are presented, so it was frustrating to read if you do not share the goals of Evelyn.  However, it very gradually became obvious that Stephanie Clifford was doing this on purpose, in a kind of unreliable narrator technique way, so that we can really get inside Evelyn’s very, very gradual and tough disillusionment with her own values and goals.  The novel got more and more absorbing and well written, and by the end of the second third it really began to seem to me to be a modern day Edith Wharton novel.  And although I still wish there would have been some kind of acknowledgement or separation between Evelyn’s goals and how they are presented, I do think Clifford ended up pulling it off and I could not put the book down.  It’s a really good older coming-of-age story in a way, as Evelyn is gradually forced to confront all her missteps and to try to find a better way to be.  I recommend it.

Getting Things Done by David Allen.  This book has some strong practical advice.  It probably is only necessary to read the introduction and skim the rest of the chapters, however, as they tended to be repetitive.  He claims to have a simple system that if followed can be used to keep track of all aspects of your life, thus freeing up your mind to think and work on important things, rather than trying to remember all that you need to do.  It clearly was written for executives (and I’d say male executives at that), and talks of what you can have your secretary do, etc.  But if you ignore things like that, the actual advice that he gives is pretty good.  In a nutshell, he suggests that you write down everything you have to do (or use a computer or your phone, he doesn’t care how low or high tech your system).  Then once you have everything written down and placed in an “inbox,” you go through and turn it all into next action steps.  So you end up with lists that do not have things like “get the car fixed” on them, but instead, “call the mechanic to make an appointment,” etc.  You have lists of next actions, “waiting for” lists – where the next action is dependent on someone else, tickler lists where you don’t have to do anything until a certain day, etc.  Two things he said also really made sense:  the first is that you should never write “to do” items on your calendar, but instead just have things on the calendar that absolutely have to be done that day, like appointments, etc.  Otherwise you end up not doing something on your calendar, and thus begins the shame spiral.  He also points out repeatedly that it doesn’t really matter what kind of system you use, as long as you put everything into it, and then check it daily and review it weekly.  The point is to be disciplined enough in your list-making, so that you never have to worry that any task is unaccounted for.  I have nothing to quibble with there!

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin.  This is a pleasant enough book, which I neither loved nor hated.  It’s at least on the surface literary, with the main character, A.J. Fikry, owning a small bookstore on an island off the east coast.  When the book begins, he is struggling to cope with the sudden death of his wife.  Time passes swiftly in this book, and soon A.J. finds himself friends with the local police officer, becomes the adoptive father of a young toddler, Maya, and then married to Amelia, a publisher’s representative.  It is entertaining, but also a little random, careless, and slightly sloppy.  The point of view in each chapter changes, but haphazardly:  we get a lot of Amelia’s point of view in the beginning – and it’s a good one – but then once they get married we never hear from Amelia again.  Each chapter begins with book synopses that Fikry is writing for those he loves, but these too are a little short and random.  It’s enjoyable enough, but it did not make me want to read her many other novels.

Field of Blood by Denise Mina.  This is the first book in Mina’s “Paddy Meehan” series of novels (I think she wrote three before moving on to another series), and it was a really good read!  So good, in fact, that when I finished it I immediately moved on to the second in the series.  It’s about a young woman in Glasgow in the eighties who has her first job as a “copyboy” at a newspaper.  Paddy is catholic – or her family is; Paddy herself is secretly not religious – and from what I can tell, this sets her apart in Glasgow; her family is part of a minority group that keeps to itself.  Paddy’s a great character:  she’s irreverent, and funny, and smart.  She is desperately trying to create a career for herself.  When the novel begins, she is engaged to Sean, but unbeknownst to him, she really has no plan of becoming a mother and a housewife.  Mina does an excellent job of making Paddy real and charismatic and believable, and very astute in her interactions with other people.  There is a big case in the news involving a missing three year-old boy, and Paddy soon notices that the story the police put forth doesn’t quite add up.  She tries to figure out the truth in the hopes of getting her big break at the paper.  It’s all very well and simply done.  Paddy is a treasure.

Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie.  This is a whirlwind of a book, as Rushdie novels always are these days.  I don’t think he has ever written anything quite as good as his novels Shame and The Satanic Verses, and the reason for that, I think, is that his biggest flaw is also his greatest strength – he puts everything into his novels, and his writing has become a jumble of political, cultural, pop cultural, philosophical references.  It’s all there (and sometimes all there within one sentence), and it is up to the reader to sort everything out.  I do think this keeps his books from being great, but they are still fun to read, and since the last six or so have been this way, I don’t think he is going to change his style anytime soon.  I find his writing to be very funny too, and poignant – it’s just that the reader has to work to sort everything out.  Like a lot of his novels, this one is a mixture of eastern and western references; it takes place mostly in New York, but it is a New  York that has been invaded by jinn (jinni, jinnia?  He uses all versions.  Basically the eastern version of genies.)  The separation between the jinn world and our world has been breached, and it is turning everything in our world amok.  One jinnia, Dunia, who loves humans, decides to fight against the others jinns who are against us, and enlists some of her progeny in the effort.  It also becomes, in a circuitous way I won’t try to explain, a battle between reason and religion, and it’s not hard to guess which side Rushdie himself is rooting for.  It’s a fun book in a unique, Rushdie way – he’s a brilliant observer of the world, and I think his novels are worth the effort it takes to read them.

1 comment:

Elisabeth Ellington said...

I look forward to these review posts every month! I read Storied Life this year as well and found it quite irritating. I think it was the "literary on the surface" as you neatly put it--and the shifting perspectives for no purpose. And do you know, I've never read ANYTHING by Salman Rushdie? Not a single book. Maybe someday! Maybe not! Life is short, books are long. Love the Posy photo. Don't think I commented on your Xmas photos of pets but I have showed that pix of Plum wearing the jester collar to everyone who will look. Hilarious!