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  • House & Home by Kathleen McCleary
  • Publisher: Voice (July 1, 2008 )
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-1401340735
  • In creating Ellen Flanagan, the protagonist in House & Home, author Kathleen McCleary introduces readers to a woman that you’ll want to sit down and read more about.  Ellen is a creative hard-working woman who puts a bit (sometimes more than a bit!) of herself into everything she does – she loves her children fiercely, is a loyal friend, adorns her successful coffee-shop-turned-home-accessories-shop, Coffee@home, with personal touches, shows her sense of style in the casual yet chic clothes she wears, and until their mounting financial problems came to a head, loved her fun-loving happy-go-lucky husband, Sam, with all her heart.  Above all else, Ellen immerses her personality, and her very soul, into her house.

    The first paragraph of this gripping emotional novel sets the scene:

    The house was yellow, a clapboard Cape Cod with a white picket fence and a big bay window on one side, and Ellen loved it with all her heart.  She loved the way the wind from the Gorge stirred the trees to constant motion outside the windows, the cozy arc of the dormers in the girls’ bedrooms, the cherry mantel with the cleanly carved dentil molding over the fireplace in the living room.  She had conceived children in that house, suffered a miscarriage in that house, brought her babies home there, argued with her husband there, made love, rejoiced, despaired, sipped tea, and gossiped and sobbed and counseled and blessed her friends there, walked the halls with sick children there, and scrubbed the worn brick of the kitchen floor there at least a thousand times on her hands and knees.  And it was because of all this history with the house, all the parts of her life unfolding there day after day for so many years, that Ellen decided to burn it down.

    Having reached the end of her patience with her husband Sam and his hare-brained unsuccessful inventions, and their subsequent spiral into financial straits, Ellen decides that she and Sam would be better off living separately.  Unable to afford the mortgage on their home of ten years, Ellen and Sam put the house on the market and it soon sold to a young couple who have big plans for renovating and updating the little yellow Cape.

    What follows is an emotional journey for Ellen as she sorts out what is really important to her.  She learns the importance of friends, the strength of family, and the important distinction between “house” and “home.”

    McCleary’s writing style is inviting – she draws the reader in with details that give authenticity to the characters and settings.  Describing Ellen’s days at the coffee shop, McCleary notes “the grateful way peopled cradled their cups against their palms.”  The Flanagan’s basement is decorated with drawings of turtles created by daughters Sara and a friend for their “turtle club.”  Mentions of the local stores, parks and sports teams will connect with those familiar with Portland and its suburbs; she talks of the home buyers’ desire to “trade up” from Beaverton to Portland.  The characters are three-dimensional; although Ellen is the one we know the deepest, we also learn what motivates her husband Sam, the buyers Jordan and Jeffrey, and more peripheral characters such as neighbor Joanna and co-worker Cloud.

    I enjoyed House & Home, and felt the depth and breadth of Ellen’s emotions as she struggled to let go of her connection to the physical house while sorting out the personal history attached to it.  I highly recommend this engaging and well-executed debut novel.

    Kathleen McCleary is a reporter and writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping and Health.  Visit her official website for more information about the author and her writing.  The site has a spot where readers are invited to submit their story about a home they’ve loved (I think this is a great exercise; I’m still recovering from an out-of-state move over a year ago!) This video features the opening paragraph (above), as well as a short conversation with Kathleen, in which she says “… it is the emotional truth in the book that people respond to … the sense of wanting to make a home that feels like home … a universal feeling.”  I agree; that is what makes House & Home universally appealing, as well.

    Many thanks to TLC Book Tours for asking my to review this book, and to Voice publishers for providing the review copy.

    In conjunction with this review and Book Blogger Appreciation Week, I’m offering a House & Home prize package to one lucky reader.  The gift pack includes:

    • A hardcover of House & Home
    • Yankee Candle “Home Sweet Home” votive candle
    • Lead crystal candle holder
    • “What makes a house a home” gift plaque
    • Magnetic memo pad to list your “things to do around the house”
    • “Home Sweet Home” embellishment set for scrapbookers and card-makers
    • Home card (includes envelope for mailing, or suitable for framing)

    To enter, simply leave a comment below, completing this sentence:

    Home is …

    Entries will be accepted through midnight on September 19, the last day of BBAW.  Winning name (random drawing) will be announced on Saturday.

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  • The Kite Runner: A Portrait of the Marc Forster Film by David Benioff, Marc Forster and Khalid Hosseini
  • Publisher: Newmarket (January 30, 2008 )
  • Hardcover: 144 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-1557048042
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    The Kite Runner: A Portrait of the Marc Forster Film is a movie book, based on the film of the same name, which is based on the novel by Khaled Hosseini.  Confusing?  Not really.  The best-selling novel came first, followed by an amazing film of the same name.  The movie book, reviewed here, goes hand-in-hand with the film.

    The film and movie book follow closely the story told in Hosseini’s novel, that of Amir, the privileged son of his well-off “Baba”, a Kabuli businessman, and his relationship with Hassan, the son of Baba’s servant.  Amir and Hassan spend their childhood together in Kabul in the mid-1970s; their days are spent flying kites, visiting the market, and reading under the shade of a pomegranate tree in the cemetery.  Hassan, of course, also spends his time helping own father to cook, clean, and otherwise care for Baba’s household.  Amir sometimes takes advantage of the friendship of Hassan, and in one pivotal scene we see the cost to Hassan, Amir, and both their fathers.

     

    The book takes us through the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1978.  We follow Amir and Baba as they grapple with the new ruling-class in their country, but we are left to wonder the outcome of life for Hassan and his father.  Fast-forward to the present day when Amir valiantly attempts to overcome his past shortcomings and to make amends to his friend.  The adult Amir knows “there is a way to be good again.”

     

    The Kite Runner movie book is an accurate re-telling of the film version of the novel.  The foreword by author Khaled Hosseini details the emotional journey he took watching his novel come to life on the big screen.  For the filming, Hosseini returned to Kabul, having left Afghanistan himself at age eleven.

     

    The section titled “The Making of The Kite Runner” discusses the processes of creating a script, scouting locations, the intricacies of casting children and adults, and overcoming language issues.  Also included are several set drawings and costume sketches.

     

    The bulk of the book is a complete working screenplay; including production notes such as OS (off-stage) and CONTINUOUS.  This would be of interest to anyone who would like to learn more about the behind-the-scenes happenings of a movie shoot.  The powerful dialogue makes for a gripping and fast-paced read.  When I read The Kite Runner: A Portrait of the Marc Forster Film I felt like I was viewing the movie for a second time, with the opportunity to slow down or “replay” favorite scenes; one needn’t have seen the movie, however, to enjoy this book.  Over 100 full-color photographs and movie stills capture the beauty of the scenery, the authenticity of the costuming, the emotions expressed on the faces of the actors. 

     

    Newmarket Press offers a series of pictorial movie books based on classic films such as Dances with Wolves, ET and Schindler’s List, as well as more recent films including The Namesake and Summer 2008’s The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.  The Kite Runner movie book was issued in paperback in 2007; the hardcover edition, with its breath-taking stills from filming in China (standing in for Afghanistan) and San Francisco, would make a great coffee-table book.

    (This review originally appeared on Curled up with a Good Book)

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  • Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg
  • Publisher: Other Press (September 9, 2008 )
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590511916
  • Hurry Down Sunshine is Michael Greenberg’s candid memoir of the summer of 1996, the summer his 15-year-old daughter, Sally, suffered a manic breakdown that left her hospitalized for several weeks, and medicated for years.  It is a vivid portrayal of a father watching his child struggle against the inner turmoil that has a hold on her.  As a parent, I found it difficult to read – we all want to protect our children from any kind of “monster”;  yet it was also compelling –  I felt Greenberg’s compassion for Sally, and pieces of her brilliance shone through. 

    As Greenberg describes it, Sally is his bright beautiful daughter one day, and a complete stranger the next.  Convinced that she has uncharacteristically experimented with drugs, he tries to wait out the madness; soon, with the encouragement of his wife, Pat, Greenberg accepts that they need professional help to deal with Sally’s crisis.  The reader follows their heart-wrenching journey through the next few months, guided by the author’s honest and descriptive prose.

    Throughout most of the book, Greenberg uses long narrative passages which flow smoothly in the present tense, as the hot sticky Manhattan summer trudges along outside the doors of the psychiatric hospital.  His experience as a freelance writer and widely-published essayist are reflected in this polished style.  A few passages reflect a more urgent telling – at one point the family becomes “initiates to [the psych ward’s] tacit code of behavior and arcane ways”; Greenberg lists them in a quick staccato burst:

    Keep your empathies to yourself.  Avoid eye contact with patients.  Never argue.  Resist overidentifying with others, and maintain the illusion of privacy with fellow visitors as you would with picnickers on separate blankets in a crowded park.  Make friends with members of the staff, if possible, and expect nothing in the way of reassurance from them in return.

    The author writes of his marriage to Sally’s step-mother, “we have been married for two years and our life together is still emerging from under the weight of the separate worlds each of us brought along.”  That weight, in his case, includes not only Sally and her illness, but also Greenberg’s older brother for whom he acts as guardian and caretaker, awkward interactions between Pat and Robin (Greenberg’s former wife), financial strain, and an uncertain living arrangement.

    Greenberg is distressed, yet as supportive as he knows how to be, and surprisingly doesn’t show anger.  He remembers to bring special treats to Sally, artichokes and chocolates, although he is almost paralyzed at the newsstand, overwhelmed by the magazine choices and wondering if any of the cover articles would spark a reaction from her.  Greenberg keeps up a steady stream of positive hope, despite the weight of the situation; day after day he waits with family in the visitors’ lounge, hoping that Sally will emerge from the ward and sit with them, “when I question why we’re sitting here without her, I tell myself: If we weren’t waiting for her to come back to us, she would lose the sense that there was a point of return.”

    The memoir is divided into three parts, breaking at each major turning point over the summer.  The tone stays the same throughout – bewildered and cautiously optimistic.  The author does an excellent job telling his experience; he makes no attempt to get inside Sally’s head and make her story his own.  It is a tale that leaves you rooting for the best for each member of the family, yet knowing that there are rarely fairy-tale endings in real life.

    Click here to read the first ten pages of Hurry Down Sunshine.  This linkwill take you to a short and haunting video presentation in which Greenberg describes the genesis of Sally’s breakdown and his compulsion to write about it (scroll down, the video box is on the left, just under the product listing).  Click here to order the book from amazon.com, or click here to order from your local IndieBound independent bookseller.

    I received my review copy of Hurry Down Sunshine courtesy of Other Press LLC and LibraryThing.

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  • The Necklace: Thirteen Women and the Experiment that Transformed Their Lives by Cheryl Jarvis
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books (September 9, 2008 )
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • ISBN-10: 0345500717
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345500717
  • I had high hopes for The Necklace by Cheryl Jarvis; the subtitle, “thirteen women and the experiment that transformed their lives,” intrigued me; I expected a tale of sharing, altruism, philanthropy and friendship.  Instead, I felt overwhelmed by portraits of entitled women who felt good about themselves because they let someone else wear (whether for ten minutes or a day) the necklace.

    The book is divided into fourteen chapters, the first thirteen each focus on one of the “Women of Jewelia” (Jewelia, pronounced “Julia”, is the name they’ve bestowed on this 15.24-carat $37,000 necklace).  Jarvis assigns each woman a personality trait: the visionary, the shopper, the loner, the adventurer, etc., then proceeds to expound on that trait and explain how the woman works herself and her personality into the group.  The fourteenth chapter, The Experiment, summarizes the time the women have spent with the necklace (so far; it’s expected to be passed down through generations), and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

    Priscilla Van Gundy, the wife of the jewelry store owner, has been labeled the loner.  Tom Van Gundy saw the energy and positive spirits of the women when they were in his shop negotiating for Jewelia; he agreed to sell it for a low-margin price on the condition that his wife be one of the group.  A few months after joining, Priscilla has already been transformed by her relationship with the women, she says:

    I am so grateful to be part of your group.  I feel so happy when I’m with you.  You have inspired me with your warmth, your acceptance, your joy, the camaraderie you have with one another, the way you embrace life, the way you listen to one another without criticism, the way you have welcomed me into your lives.  I now know the meaning of the word inspire.  It means ‘to breathe.’  You have breathed life into me.  Thank you.

    Within a year of forming, the group thought to use Jewelia to benefit the community, holding fundraisers for several causes, including The Coalition to End Family Violence.  Jarvis points out that in less than 18 months after buying Jewelia, they had raised more money than it cost to purchase the necklace, and:

    Astonished by the ease with which thirteen women working together could make an impact, the group found a direction:  grassroots philanthropy in the community, where the women knew the needs and could see the results.

    What distracts from the goodness of the philanthropy is the author’s insistence on describing the women as privileged, and focusing on their looks and their surroundings.  Phrases like “with her blond hair, deep tan, flat sandals and short, floral skirt, she epitomized the ‘California casual’ look”, “Maggie … displayed the hard body of a thirty-year-old … had opted for eyelid surgery and a face-lift”, and “… her clothes hang loosely, the result of a recent holistic diet.  From her highlighted hair to her pedicured feet, her look is polished and put together …” make the “Women of Jewelia” seem more like quasi-celebrities than a cohesive unit that has found a way to rise above their differences to work together for a common good.

    In my rating system on LibraryThing, loosely-based on Netflix rating verbiage, I give this book 2.5 stars, that’s mid-way between “just OK” (2 stars) and “liked it” (3 stars).  To complete the picture, 1 star is “didn’t like it”, 4 star represents “really liked it” and a 5-star rating indicates “loved it!”  I definitely like the idea of this experiment; had the focus been more on the fund-raising inspired by Jewelia and the friendships that developed (instead of descriptions of the women’s physical appearance and their homes!), it would have been a better book.

    Kath at Books Books and Reviews had a more positive take on the book, read her review here.  You might want to also read LisaLynne’s review at Minds Alive on the Shelves.

    The Necklace:  Thirteen Women and the Experiment that Transformed Their Lives will be published by Ballantine Books on September 9.  Click here to order from amazon.com; click here to order from your local IndieBound retailer.

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  • The Smart One by Ellen Meister
  • Publisher: Avon A (August 5, 2008 )
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • ISBN-10: 0061129623
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061129629
  • Have you ever read a contemporary novel and so connected with one of the characters that you could imagine him/her as a friend?  That’s the way I feel about Bev, the main character in Ellen Meister’s The Smart One.  Bev is the middle of three sisters – the Smart One, eldest is Clare – the Pretty One, youngest is Joey – the Wild One.

    Meister writes in Bev’s voice; we read all the self-deprecating and self-doubting asides that are in Bev’s head, as well as share her outward joys and struggles.  She is smart, cynical and ironic – just the kind of girlfriend I’d like to have over for a cup of coffee, to wit:

    I never really understood the whole sitting-on-the-lap thing.  To me, it was about as sexy as getting weighed, and made me nearly as self-conscious … the more I tried to get comfortable perched on [his] thighs, the more I realized how undignified I felt.  It made me wonder if other women felt as I did.  Would Clare and Joey feel infantilized on a man’s lap?  Or would they throw their arms around his shoulders and snuggle into his neck?  I cursed the roll of the DNA dice that bestowed my sisters the flirting gene and not me.  Granted, I had gifts they lacked.  But what good was a talent for getting the fifty-point bonus in Scrabble when you were trying to score in a different way entirely?

    The novel opens as Bev returns to her parents’ Long Island home at a pivotal point in her life – she has divorced her cheating husband, decided to change careers to elementary eduction (after spending more than a decade in a series of entry-level jobs related vaguely to her graphic arts eduction), and is interested in relocating to Las Vegas in order to put as much distance as possible between herself and the shambles her life has become.  Clearly, her self-esteem is low.

    Bev’s parents have been visiting their next-door-neighbors, the Waxmans, at the Waxman’s “snowbird” residence, and have extended their trip to Florida due to her father’s broken ankle.  Bev is asked to assist with some maintenance issues at the Waxman’s home, as their son Kenny is unavailable, busy with his job as a comedy writer in Los Angeles.  In Kenny, Ellen Meister has created a character who is the perfect vehicle for the delivery of her best puns and wordplay.

    The novel centers around Bev and her sisters, but the extended cast of characters interact with the three women in a way that adds compassion, excitement and romance to the mix.  The discovery of a body stuffed inside an old industrial barrel is the proverbial “tip of the iceberg” in the long list of mysteries and conflicts to be sorted out.

    I have to confess that when I saw the bright “girly” cover and read the synopsis I thought, “oh, good, this will be a quick light read … I’ll dash off the review in no time!”.  Well, The Smart One turns out to be a deeper read with real/true personalities dealing with real/true situations.  Yes, there are light moments of over-the-top humor and some situations that seem less than realistic, but these lighter moments temper the tough decisions that Bev has to make as she finds her path to the next steps in her life – career, romance and family relationships.  Despite the cupcakes on the cover, this novel packs more “meat” than “sweet”, confronting such issues as infidelity, love versus lust, aging/ailing parents, the power of addiction, and the strength of the stereotypical roles we play in our own families.

    I was pleased to be invited to review this novel as part of the author tour on Blog Stop Book Tours; many thanks to Mary Lewis for introducing me to the work of Ellen Meister, a talented and clever writer!  I’m going to add her debut novel, Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA, to my wish list.  If you’d like to learn more, visit the author’s website or check out other stops on the blog tour:   Mom Is Just A NicknameVirtual Wordsmith, Musings From The MittenThe Book Faery ReviewsMaw BooksFighting With WritingBook Room ReviewsPresenting Lenore and Anything That Pays… A Freelance Writer’s Blog.

    I promised a small surprise for one lucky reader – here it is!  I think that we have a bit of the pretty one, the smart one and the wild one in each of us.  I have a little gift package with a cosmetic bag (with mirror, perfect for corralling lipstick, a comb and hair ties in your handbag), a brain-teaser puzzle (should be a cinch for the smart one in you!), and some rub-on tattoos (that rebel phase isn’t permanent, is it?).  Just leave a comment about The Smart One (your take on sibling “labelling”, perhaps?); enter by midnight on Thursday September 4, I’ll announce the winner next Friday!

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  • Months and Seasons by Christopher Meeks
  • Publisher: White Whisker Books (April 7, 2008 )
  • Paperback: 172 pages
  • ISBN-10: 0615188702
  • ISBN-13: 978-0615188706
  • I connected with Christopher Meeks when he responded to a post I wrote about the difficulty my book group has had discussing short stories; he wrote an excellent guest post which offered several suggestions on how to approach a short fiction collection, including the proposal that there might be a theme of sorts running through the stories.  He says that “short story collections as a whole should be thought of as concept rock albums … some stories are lighter than others, and, as in a good album or concert, the reader’s emotions should be like [a] roller coaster … ups and downs, and the loop is a surprise.” 

    Christopher offered me a review copy of his latest collection, Months and Seasons.  I gladly accepted, eager to approach short stories with an enlightened eye!  This is a group of eleven short fiction pieces “about time – narratives of different people at different ages.” 

    His simile to a roller coaster is apt here; some of the stories gently unfold, others surprise with their twists and turns.  The work is quite varied in style, but consistent in its high quality.  I was reminded of Roald Dahl’s short pieces when I read “The Farms at 93rd and Broadway”, about an older couple who unexpectedly attend a hypnosis demonstration instead of the Broadway show they had set out to see; by the end of the piece I was wondering which character was showing signs of senility and which was bluffing.

    Some pieces are heavy on dialogue, others rely more on detailed narration.  “The Holes in My Door” begins as a piece about a man suffering from depression more than a year after his wife has left him.  Meeks deftly tells the tale in the first person, as the unnamed narrator slips deeper and deeper into paranoia:  “I heard noises outside each night, things I had never noticed from my room before – an odd, loud cawing for instance.  Couldn’t be a bird – few birds are active at night.  Must be a robber calling to his cohort …” 

    At the young end of the age spectrum is a 7-year-old girl at camp, afraid of getting in the lake for swim lessons.  At the opposite end is a 78-year old man and his experience of “The Old Topanga Incident.”  This story is based on a ravaging fire that consumed over 16,000 acres in November 1993; it is gripping not only because of the way Meeks tells of the force of nature that is the Santa Ana winds fueling the fire, but also because of the urgency expressed by the point of view Meeks chooses.  “The Old Topanga Incident” is told as if the narrator is telling it to you, not you-the-reader, but you-the-protagonist, as you watch all your worldly, and highly-prized, possessions, burn to ash:

    You open the door and you see a number of things simultaneously:  two firemen in bright yellow rubberized coats stand before you, shouting, “You’ve got to get out now!”  Two hundred yards up the hill is a wall of flame, and the house of the svelte woman with the dog burns brightly as if it were made of gasoline.  Flames shoot high.  Embers the size of your fist land in the juniper and cypress trees in your yard, on your car, in the driveway.

    The end of Months and Seasons offers a “bonus track”, a story from his upcoming collection The Brightest Moon of the Century.  Each of the stories in the book center around the character Edward, parceling out bits and pieces of his life over a thirty-year period.  “The Hand” is the first story in this upcoming group, which will culminate as a “novel-in-stories” a la Melissa Bank’s The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing.

    For a sneak peek at the “ups and downs,” written about in Months and Seasons, watch this YouTube video of an actor-read excerpt from the story “Whiskers”, introduced by Meeks.  His work has appeared in Rosebud and Clackamas Literary Review as well as other literary journals.  A previous collection, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea was published in 2005.  Learn more by visiting the author’s website or subscribing to his blog.  Climb aboard the roller coaster that is Months and Seasons; the ride will stay with you for a while!

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  • The Berenstain Bears and the Bully by Stan and Jan Berenstain
  • Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers (October 19, 1993)
  • Reading level: Ages 4-8
  • Paperback: 32 pages
  • ISBN-10: 0679848053
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679848059
  • I never thought it would happen … I feel like I’ve been let down by a life-long friend … this book has some serious flaws!

    It started off fine:

     

    • cute summary poem on the first page
    • bright pictures throughout
    • Mama Bear dispensing level-headed advice

    Things went downhill fast when I read that little poem – If a cub gets beat up, that’s usually when he/she vows to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  I had assumed the “bully” was teasing Sister Bear, not physically hurting her.

    Then we started to read the text, Brother Bear threatens a “knuckle sandwich”, the bully returns that “she got fresh, so I cleaned her clock.”  This book series is written for ages 4-7, but these are not phrases I need introduced to my kids!  Brother Bear teaches Sister how to fight, using a Costco-sized bag of beans and boxing gloves; when she meets up with the bully at school, “Sister was ready … she had her left out and her right up, protecting her jaw.  When Tuffy threw a hard right, Sister ducked, then hit her square on the nose with a right cross.”

    The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was Sister’s realization that “here’s a cub who maybe gets hit a lot at home.  Maybe that’s why she likes to hit other kids at school.”  Huh?  how about plain old attention-getting?  anger management issues?  pent-up energy that could be diverted into something else, jump-roping maybe?  I didn’t like the assumption that Tuffy was hurt at home; imagine the connection young kids could make with children in their own lives (“Susie-Q pushed Tommy when he stepped in front of her in line, she must get beat up at home!”)

    And then there was “she had to visit the school psychologist twice a week for quite a while.”

    Lessons learned?

    • train yourself to physically fight back if provoked
    • kids who fight must be abused at home
    • anyone who visits the school psychologist must be “bad”

    We have dozens of Berenstain Bears books on our bookshelves and are quite fond of them (I love Mama Bear’s cool, calm and collected example!).  The Bully  is so unlike any other Berenstain Bears book we’ve read, almost like a crazy parody.  It’s already off the bookshelf, I’m trying to decide what to do with it now … I’m tempted to simply put it in the recycle bin, rather than donate it to the library books sale or Goodwill! 

    Am I over-reacting?  What would you do with the book?  Would you let the author/publisher know your concerns?

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  • Matrimony by Joshua Henkin
  • Publisher: Vintage (August 26, 2008 )
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • ISBN-10: 030727716X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307277169
  • Matrimony is the second novel by author Joshua Henkin, who has also published Swimming Across the Hudson (1997) and several short stories.  I found Matrimony such a pleasant and “cozy” read that I’m planning to look up his other work.

    Let’s start with the synopsis from inside the dust jacket, which I find to be an accurate picture of the novel, without any spoilers:

    From the moment he was born, Julian Wainwright has lived a life of Waspy privilege. The son of a Yale-educated investment banker, he grew up in a huge apartment on Sutton Place, high above the East River, and attended a tony Manhattan private school. Yet, more than anything, he wants to get out-out from under his parents’ influence, off to Graymont College, in western Massachusetts, where he hopes to become a writer.

    When he arrives, in the fall of 1986, Julian meets Carter Heinz, a scholarship student from California with whom he develops a strong but ambivalent friendship. Carter’s mother, desperate to save money for his college education, used to buy him reversible clothing, figuring she was getting two items for the price of one. Now, spending time with Julian, Carter seethes with resentment. He swears he will grow up to be wealthy-wealthier, even, than Julian himself.

    Then, one day, flipping through the college facebook, Julian and Carter see a photo of Mia Mendelsohn. Mia from Montreal, they call her. Beautiful, Jewish, the daughter of a physics professor at McGill, Mia is-Julian and Carter agree-dreamy, urbane, stylish, refined.

    But Julian gets to Mia first, meeting her by chance in the college laundry room. Soon they begin a love affair that-spurred on by family tragedy-will carry them to graduation and beyond, taking them through several college towns, over the next ten years. Then Carter reappears, working for an Internet company in California, and he throws everyone’s life into turmoil: Julian’s, Mia’s, his own.

    Starting at the height of the Reagan era and ending in the new millennium, Matrimony is about love and friendship, about money and ambition, desire and tensions of faith. It asks what happens to a marriage when it is confronted by betrayal and the specter of mortality. What happens when people marry younger than they’d expected? Can love endure the passing of time?

    In its emotional honesty, its luminous prose, its generosity and wry wit, Matrimony is a beautifully detailed portrait of what it means to share a life with someone-to do it when you’re young, and to try to do it afresh on the brink of middle age.

    I found Matrimony to be a true “slice of life” with so many of the issues being near-universal experiences:  emergence of ourselves in adulthood and the subsequent changes in our relationships, illness/death of parent, decisions and conflicts around career/education path of significant other, infidelity of friend or colleague, religious differences and how they affect our responses to others, friendships based on mutual convenience versus those that are deep-seated, and finally, the maturity of long-term love.

    We meet Julian on the cusp of adulthood as he enters college at an alternative liberal arts school.  Henkin is very effective in the way he spools out his novel, easing us forward through the next twenty years as he also dips into the past to fill in details using narrative flashback scenes.  Details such as the Peer Contraceptive Counseling squad during freshman orientation and the “well-intentioned gesture [of securing] for him for his sixteenth birthday an inscribed copy of Atlas Shrugged” are believable aspects of Julian’s experience which lend additional authenticity to the writing.

    Consider this look into Mia’s mind, as she and her sister, Olivia, contemplate their mother’s illness; it certainly resonated with me:

    She just wanted them to admit how frightened they were, but it seemed they weren’t able to.  And maybe she wasn’t, either.  Last night, she’d stood silently with Olivia in the kitchen, and then she blurted out, “I love you,” and Olivia blurted it back. A discomfort settled between them, a shame almost.  What freighted words those were, reserved for so few people sometimes it seemed they were never to be used at all.  She recalled being a child, four, five, six when she said those words to her teachers and classmates, when it seemed there wasn’t anybody she didn’t love.  Then a hardening set in, a calcifying of the heart, and you didn’t love anyone any longer, or at least you didn’t say you did, that now she couldn’t remember the last time she’d said those words to anyone besides Julian, when there were other people she loved, her family certainly.

    Henkin is so focused on Julian as the central character that in the three pages of narrative and dialogue dedicated to their first day as Freshman roommates, the roommate remains nameless.  Henkin uses this technique again in the epilogue; a new character is introduced, but several paragraphs pass before the character is named.  This is an extremely effective way of drawing the reader in towards Julian and Mia, and serves as neat “bookends” to the novel.

    I am so pleased by the number of authors who have “official” websites.  Yes, they’re part of the marketing machine, but they really do offer resources that are welcomed by an interested reader.  At Henkin’s website you can read more about the author and his work, and check listings for his author events.  Henkin loves book groups!  In addition to offering a downloadable reading group guide, he is willing to meet with book groups via speaker-phone (perhaps in person, if in the tri-state area), and is running a contest featuring copies of Matrimony and a Junior’s Cheesecake from Brooklyn!  Because of the universality of so many of the themes in this novel, it is a good choice for book discussion groups; the lack of any major controversy/politics might make it especially appealing to book group “virgins”.

    The book cover at the top of this review is from the hardcover edition, published in October 2007.  Here is the paperback cover, being released by Vintage Books on August 26, 2008.

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    • Miss Alcott’s E-mail: Yours for Reforms of All Kinds by Kit Bakke
    • Publisher: David R. Godine; 2 edition (August 1, 2007)
    • Paperback: 272 pages
    • ISBN-10: 1567923453
    • ISBN-13:  978-1567923452

    Author Kit Bakke has written an excellent biography of Louisa May Alcott, couched in a rather unusual format.  The premise of Miss Alcott’s E-mail: Yours for Reforms of All Kinds is that Bakke, in 2006, sends an e-mail to Alcott in 1887, toward the end of her life.  Alcott receives the letter as regular hand-written postal mail, and responds in the same manner, arriving as e-mail in Bakke’s inbox.  Thus begins their 3-month correspondence, with Bakke proposing that she submit short biographical essays to Alcott, and Alcott comment and correct them if necessary.

     

    It is very easy to invoke suspension of disbelief and enjoy and learn from this biography.  Each chapter opens with a quote from Alcott or one of her contemporaries, such as her father, Bronson Alcott, and their neighbor, the Transcendental philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson.  This is followed by a letter from Bakke to Alcott, in which she responds to issues raised in the previous chapter and outlines her objectives of the enclosed essay.  Each chapter ends with a rebuttal, presumably penned by Alcott.

     

    Not strictly limited to a pure biography of Alcott, Miss Alcott’s E-mail also includes the circle of Concordians she and her family associated with, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Bakke and Alcott “discuss” many subjects that were of interest to Alcott, such as the abolition of slavery, the women’s suffrage movement, coeducation and “the same pay [as men] for the same good work.”

     

    Bakke cleverly draws some parallels between her life and Alcott’s.  Bakke spent several tumultuous years in the Weather Underground, rebelling and protesting the war in Vietnam.  She compares this to the protests of Alcott’s peers against the slave trade: “this sense of larger purpose, shared by the abolitionists and by the 1960s anti-war and civil rights activists, fuels the revolutionary fires and turns setbacks into rallying points on which to build the next effort.”  She further points out the similarities between the commune-like nature of the Weather’s living arrangements, such as they were, and the experimental utopian society at Fruitlands in Harvard, Massachusetts where the Alcotts lived for a short time.  Both women also worked in nursing; Bakke skillfully uses these connections to strengthen the bond between herself and Alcott, as their relationship becomes closer and their letters more intimate.

     

    Overall, this is enjoyable book that flows smoothly.  The reader will learn a lot about the life of Louisa May Alcott and the issues of her day; she is so much more than that which she is perhaps best known for, the author of Little Women.  The concept of letters traveling through time is subtle and not at all a distraction; it is simply the framework around which the biography is built. 

     

    There are several black-and-white illustrations and photos of Alcott, her family and friends, and Orchard House, the home in which they lived in Concord.  Similar photos highlight Bakke and her areas of interest.  At the conclusion of the biography, Bakke offers a selected bibliography, discussion guide, chronology of Alcott’s life, and suggestions for reading Alcott’s works.  Additional information and links are available at the author’s website, www.kitbakke.com.

     

    (originally published on curledup.com)

     

    Have you read any interesting biographies lately?

     

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  • What We All Long For by Dionne Brand
  • Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin; 1st St. Martin’s Griffin Ed edition (November 25, 2008 )
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • ISBN-10: 0312377711
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312377717
  •  

    They all … felt as if they inhabited two countries – their parents’ and their own – when they sat dutifully at their kitchen tables being regaled with how life used to be “back home,” … They thought that thought that their parents had scales on their eyes.  Sometimes they wanted to shout at them, “Well, you’re not there!” … Each left home in the morning as if making a long journey, untangling themselves from the seaweed of other shores wrapped around their parents.  Breaking their doorways, they left the sleepwalk of their mothers and fathers and ran across the unobserved borders of the city … to arrive at their own birthplace … They were born in the city from people born elsewhere.

    Dionne Brand’s What We All Long Foris described as “a raw novel of bittersweet youthfulness.”  Set in the spring of 2002, this is an amazing story of four second-generation Torontonians in their mid-twenties.  They share the strong desire to break free from the past – from their parents’ view of the past which anchors them, and from their personal family stories which shape them.

    The four main characters are:

    • – Tuyen – an installation artist who lives in a walk-up apartment she has converted to a work studio, returning to her parents’ home only when she is in desperate need of cash. Tuyen was born in Toronto after her family escaped Vietnam in 1980. In the chaos of the evacuation, Tuyen’s brother Quy (a young boy about 4 years old) went missing. Her life has been shaped by her parents’ fruitless long-distance search for him.
    • – Carla – lives across the hall from Tuyen, and is the subject of her unrequited love. For reasons that are revealed as the story progresses, Carla feels responsible for her younger brother, who is often in trouble with the law. She has a strained relationship with her father, and an ambivalent attitude toward her step-mother.
    • – Oku – a would-be poet and musician. At age 25, Oku mimes attending college, although he has recently dropped out of a Master’s program for English Literature. He is in love with Jackie, who teases him and flaunts her relationship with another man.
    • – Jackie – she is probably the least-developed of the main characters, perhaps more of a place-holder for Oku’s love interest. Fifteen years earlier she took a train from Halifax to Toronto, where her parents promptly found low-income housing and started a routine of leaving her with neighbors to hit the clubs and dance and party the night away.

    Brand doesn’t visit the Toronto of white-collar business and tourism; she explores the daily grind and the dark alleys of the city.  These four and their companions spend nights drinking, smoking and hooking up.  Slowly and carefully she reveals more and more of their personal histories as she follows them making their way in the present day.  As the novel progresses, the four do indeed discover and confront what they each long for; we are left not with a neat and tidy ending, but with a faint hope for better times.

    Interestingly, although the majority of the novel is told in third-person narration, there are several chapters narrated in the first-person by Quy, Tuyen’s missing brother.  These chapters are left-justified only, leaving raw ragged edges on the right-hand side, which mirror the turbulent tale he tells.

    Author Dionne Brand was born and raised in Trinidad, moving to Canada at age 18 to attend Toronto University.  She has won several awards for her poetry collection, Land to Light On; her novel In Another Place, Not Here was on the short-list for two awards.  She has published one other novel, At the Full and Change of the Moon, and two works of non-fiction.  What We All Long For was originally published in hardcover in 2005 and will be released in paperback by St. Martin’s Griffin imprint on November 25, 2008.

    The copy I read was an advance uncorrected proof provided to me as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program.  Often these advance copies are not identical to the published versions; there may be slight editing or copy changes.  I do hope that the blurb on the back of the book is modified for the final copy as it focuses too much on the variety of race and sexual preference of the main characters, distracting from the main issues of the novel.  Because there are so many threads of the plot, and intricate character development, a discussion group guide might make it more attractive to book groups.  I found it to be an engaging and unique work of fiction.

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