Friday, April 1, 2016

Book Reviews March 2016

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton.  This is the fourth Kate Morton novel I’ve read, and there definitely is a pattern to her books, but hey, I guess it’s an if it’s not broke, don’t fix it kind of thing.  Her books always switch around in time and there are generally three intersecting story lines progressing at each date.  I’ve also noticed that there are often grandparent/grandchild relationships with the mother in between a deadbeat or missing link or otherwise out of the picture.  Anyway, the main story in this one is of a four year old child who, in 1911, is discovered having arrived in Australia on a boat by herself from England.  A dock worker adopts her into his family, and all is well until she turns 21 and he tells her the truth about her origins.  This woman, Nell, then is changed by this information, and at one point in the 1970’s goes to England to try to discover who she is.  The main storyline, however, concerns Nell’s granddaughter, Cassandra, who when Nell dies discovers that Nell has left her a ramshackle cottage on the coast of Cornwall, England.  Cassandra travels to England and begins to put all the pieces together.  It’s a really fun read and interesting, and as in all her novels, everything fits. 

Pyongyang: A Journey In North Korea by Guy Delisle.  This is a graphics travel memoir written by Guy Delisle, a cartoonist.  I read his Burma book and really enjoyed it, and then my friend, Elisabeth, recommended this one to me when I was excited by Barbara Demick’s Nothing To Envy.  And this is a delightful book – if you like reading graphics memoirs, then you will love Guy Delisle.  It’s an interesting way of learning about a place, and his commentary is amusing.  I also really like his drawing style and the way he draws himself in particular.  In this book he is in Pyongyang for a couple of months for a cartoon job – apparently cartoon companies often hire North Koreans to work on their films because, of course, it’s cheap labor.  As a foreigner, Delisle, who is  French Canadian (the book is translated into English), has a guide/interpreter with him at all times.  There are certain places the guide has to take him to see, and of course many others he has to prevent him from seeing.  The majority of the time he is either in his hotel or in the building where the work is taking place.  He insists on walking between the two, much to the dismay of his guide, who doesn’t understand why you’d walk if you can drive.  There are no lights on at night, because the electricity grid is so bad, and the food increases in variety only when there are more tour groups at the hotel.  And all of this is much better than I’m conveying because the drawings are so spot-on and entertaining.  Try Delisle – you will enjoy him.

The Spoilt City by Olivia Manning.  This is the second book in Manning’s Balkan Trilogy and it was just as good as the first.  Her technique is really interesting in that she tells the story – including the whole lead up to German occupation in Romania – through her characters.  And her characters are such a fascinating, motley crew!  It’s definitely comedic –her characters are funny, yet very nuanced and believable:  we all know people like Manning’s creations, much though we might prefer not to.  Once again her focus is on Guy and Harriet Pringle.  As the situation in Bucharest gets worse and worse for the English, Guy keeps trying to help his students and do the right thing, while Harriet, the more practical of the two, sees that soon they will have to leave.  Through the Pringles we see Inchcape refusing to cede British defeat, Professor Pinkrose who arrives in the midst of war to give a lecture on Chaucer, various British legation workers, Prince Yakimov, as usual waiting for “m’remittance”, etc.  It’s an excellent book and I see that the quiet fuss over Manning is well deserved. 

Wonder by R. J. Palacio.  A colleague of mine recommended this to me after her 11 year-old son had to read it for school (and all the 5th grade parents had to read it as well).  I’m not up on my children’s lit, so hadn’t heard of it, although I’ve since found out that two of my nieces read and loved it.  It’s very good!  It is about a 5th grade boy, Auggie Pullman, who has major facial deformities and has been homeschooled until now.  His parents decide that it is time for him to attend school, and the book documents his first year at a private school in NYC.  Each chapter is in the voice of a different character, so we get not only Auggie’s point of view (he has the most chapters), but his friends and sister’s.  It’s a really well-done look at bullying, but also what happens if you stand up to it right from the get-go.  Auggie has his tormenters, but he also has new friends like Summer and Jack, who are mostly on his side from day one.  It seemed realistic to me, not clichéd, and was very well written.

The 6:41 To Paris by Jean-Philippe Blondel.  This is an interesting book that is more a novella or a long short story than novel.  Cecile and Philippe are two 47 year-olds who had a fling that ended badly when they were 20.  Life has continued, as life does, and Cecile, who was unceremoniously dumped by Philippe, has gone on to find success with her own business.  She looks better than she did at 20, has a husband and a grown daughter, and has just visited her parents in a suburb outside of Paris.  She is on the 6:41 a.m. train back to Paris, when she realizes that the man who is sitting next to her is Philippe.  Philippe has not had as good a past 27 years as Cecile.  His looks have faded, he is divorced, and he ended up working his entire career as a TV salesman.  The book is structured so that the chapters alternate between Cecile’s and Philippe’s thoughts.  We hear about the incident that occurred when they were twenty, the effect (if any) it had on them, as well as their current statuses and positives and negatives.  They each recognize one another immediately, but it takes almost the whole trip before they begin to interact.  It remained a small moment in actuality, although perhaps one with greater repercussions psychologically, but I do admit to hoping for a bit more of a confrontation and splash.

Friends and Heroes by Olivia Manning.  What I liked at first about this third book is that the focus was on what Harriet is figuring out about her husband’s character and drive.  However, halfway through the book, this also became what I didn’t like about it so much, for as Harriet realizes that her husband, although a good man, might not be good for her, the reader starts to feel as trapped in the marriage as does Harriet.  It becomes clear that although Guy is admirable in many ways, he is also limited in how he can feel what he feels for her.  And then to make matters worse, Athens, where Harriet and Guy are living after having escaped from Bucharest as the Nazis marched in, is about to be over-run itself.  Even more than the first two books then, this one is about a city on the brink of occupation and desolation.  There isn’t much work to be had, and certainly no food.  The characters – many the same from the first two books – tend to wander around and worry.  We meet a great new character, Allan Frewen with his dog, Diocletian, and there’s also a hilarious sequence regarding two teachers who worked for Guy in Romania, Toby Lush and Dubedat.  I was just beginning to formulate how they reminded me of Rosencranz and Guildenstern, when another character in the book started calling them that.  On the whole, I did really enjoy Manning’s trilogy, and do plan to go on and read the second trilogy, known as the Levant.  She’s a really good writer – she reminds me of how Virginia Woolf might have written had she lived abroad.

Tiny Beautiful Things:  Advice on Love and Life by Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed.  The author of Torch and Wild, Cheryl Strayed is a woman brimming with wisdom and a gift for phrasing.  She has lived a lot of life in forty-five years, and is adept at sharing her lessons.  She wrote an advice column for many years on a website, and this book is a collection of these advice columns.  People would write to her as “Dear Sugar” about relationships and life and jobs and trials, and Sugar would respond with wit and accuracy.  Reading the book, I don’t think there was even one response she got wrong, and her writing is superb.  It’s not complicated stuff – it’s along the lines of “Real change happens on the level of the gesture.  It’s one person doing one thing differently than he or she did before.” – but it is smart and compassionate and helpful.  I enjoyed the book.

Missoula:  Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer.  I will read anything Jon Krakauer writes, even a book on the preponderance of rape in a Montana university town.  It’s not a topic I would normally gravitate towards, but he makes everything interesting, even if it is hard to read.  Basically, Missoula, Montana, home of the Griz football team, was in the news for the number of rapes and physical assaults reported by women and involving the football team.  Soon, the Department of Justice got involved, because upon investigation, they were disturbed by the amount of rapes reported which were not prosecuted.  Surprisingly, this ended up being an interesting topic and a good read.  The rapes were hard to read about, but Krakauer writes a lot of how the majority of rapes are not done by a stranger hopping out of a bush at night with a knife, but instead are committed by men the victim knows and were with by consent.  He also explored why a rape victim will also behave the exact opposite from how one would expect her to behave – that is, not screaming, not fighting, not running.  Of course, this inaction –although perfectly explainable – is then used against her when she tries to prosecute.  Krakauer also went into detail about a university’s responsibility when a rape is reported, versus the police’s responsibility.  He believes that both courses of retribution should be followed simultaneously.  He follows a few cases in particular, one which ends in a conviction and one which does not.

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