Post-Move Catch Up

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I’ve had a hectic couple of weeks. I moved out of my college apartment and somehow got all my junk back into my parents’ house, where I’m living during my job search. I still made time for reading (of course) but I didn’t have much time for blogging. I have three books to catch you guys up on, so without further ado:

anansi_boys_bookAnansi Boys is the first book by Neil Gaiman that I’ve ever read. I had high expectations, since several people have told me that they think I’d enjoy his books. My sister and I read this for Book Club: Party of Two and we shared a lot of the same reactions to it. Premise first, though.

The plot centers around a character that is dead for almost the entire novel: Anansi, or Mr. Nancy, is a charismatic, elderly gentleman that dies of a heart attack while singing karaoke. His son, Fat Charlie (who isn’t overweight but nevertheless carries that nickname around with him) travels to Florida for the funeral and makes quite a few startling discoveries about his family and his own past. First, it is revealed that his father was an incarnation of an African spider god. The reader is expected to just take that in stride, because soon after Mr. Nancy’s identity is revealed Fat Charlie finds out that he also has a twin brother, a man named Spider. Fat Charlie himself has none of his father’s powers because they were all passed down to this previously-unknown sibling. Spider is cool, handsome, and confident— everything that the shy and unassuming Fat Charlie isn’t. What Fat Charlie is, however, is seriously annoyed when Spider moves into his house and refuses to leave. He is even angrier when Spider begins impersonating him and steals his fiance. What ensues is a whirlwind of ancient curses, travels to new worlds, and near-fatal skirmishes as Fat Charlie and Spider try to figure out the nature of their relationship and stay alive.

Neither my sister nor I knew that Anansi Boys was a spinoff from a book Gaiman wrote previously called American Gods until after we’d finished it. That fact explains why both of us were confused at the beginning of the book: it just sort of charges right in with little explanation or background. I guess the reader is already supposed to be somewhat invested in the characters because of the other novel, but I wasn’t all that interested in the plot until about halfway through. Once the action of the story really got going I finished the book in a couple of hours, but it was slow going before that. I’ll read more of Gaiman’s books because I think they’re really special in terms of ideas and their concern with the idea of storytelling, but I was only lukewarm about this one. My sister felt the same.

houseatrivertonI reviewed a book by Kate Morton previously on Well Read, and was annoyed by how much Morton likes to borrow from her source material in terms of plot. That feeling carried over to The House at Riverton, but less so. The main character of this book is an elderly woman (she’s 98) named Grace who lives in a retirement home in England. In her youth, Grace worked as a housemaid at an estate called Riverton. A terrible accident took place while Grace was working there (a young poet shot himself), and a movie about the event is in the process being made. The director asks Grace to help with the authenticity of the project, and as a result Grace begins to reminisce and rehash the dark secret of what really happened at Riverton.

Though the frame story takes place in the present day, most of the novel’s actual plot takes place in the years after World War I. The daughters of the Riverton family, Emmeline and Hannah, are the main characters as well as the main players in the plot. A lot of what I’ve come to expect from Morton is present in this book: a love triangle, sordid secrets, and an opulent setting. What results is a sort of cross between The Great Gatsby and Downton Abbey. That’s what I mean about Morton borrowing a lot from her source material: many of the plot elements have definitely been done before. That doesn’t stop The House at Riverton from being an exciting read, but it does make the twists a little less surprising than they should be.

aea06db00cc2592cf6af0d9130d38cb1Last but not least, we have Interred with their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell. This novel is like a Da Vinci Code for book nerds: it deals with the potential discovery of a lost Shakespeare play. The main character is a young theater director and Shakespeare scholar named Kate Stanley. Stanley is in the middle of a production of Hamlet at the Globe Theater in London when her estranged mentor, Professor Roz Howard, shows up and insists on meeting. She claims to have made a huge discovery. However, before they can discuss it, Roz is killed in the Globe offices. The Globe is set on fire, and Stanley realizes that she has no choice but to get involved and uncover Roz’s secret. What happens next is essentially a treasure hunt: Stanley travels around the world in a race against Roz’s killer, trying to figure out exactly what her mentor wanted her to know.

A lot of the plot of this book deals with the various theories about who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. It also taught me something I didn’t know about the popularity of Shakespeare’s works: they have a strong tie to the American West. As Carrell explains, during the Gold Rush and the time of the old west Shakespeare plays were as widely read and known as our popular culture is today. While I don’t necessarily buy that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays and sonnets, I was surprised that a lot of cowboys and gold diggers could quote him from memory. Aside from a couple of slow sections and a lot of historical name-dropping that confused me from time to time, this one was a winner. Apparently there’s a sequel too, so I’ll have to look into that soon.

That’s me all caught up for now! I’m about halfway through my next book already, so I won’t be gone for long this time. Since I’m unemployed right now, I have a lot of time for reading (one thing about my epic, post-grad job search I don’t mind at all).

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Great House

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This might be the first post on Well Read that features a book that I really, really didn’t like. I can usually find enough positives so that the review is more, “this book was okay” than “this book was terrible.” Great House by Nicole Krauss, however, wasn’t okay. It was terrible. I really didn’t want to finish it, but I have a no-quit policy when it comes to books.

The thing is, the idea behind Great House is a good one. The plot’s premise is that a piece of furniture— a writing desk— links the lives of all the characters. There are four separate storylines and each is linked to the desk in some way. Good, right? That’s why I bought the book in the first place. Krauss’s execution of the idea is the problem.

great-house-by-nicole-kraussWhen I researched the critical response to Great House I ran into the same words over and over: elegiac, subtle, mysterious. And it’s true, I suppose, that those terms could be applied to Krauss’s novel if it’s viewed in the right light. However my own, somewhat similar descriptive words fit it better I think. For “elegiac,” I’d substitute “complaining,” I’d counter “subtle” with “boring,” and I’d say it was dense rather than mysterious. Like I said, I’m not usually so hard on books, but this one just didn’t have many saving graces.

It was clever in some ways, however. Krauss managed to provide a few plot twists in terms of how the characters related to each other. Her writing style is so purposefully obfuscated, though, that sometimes I didn’t realize at first that she was trying to reveal a major plot point. The story meanders along at a plodding pace, going off on tangents that are mostly tedious and interminable. Almost none of the characters are the least bit likeable, and few are interesting at all.

I’ve heard good things about another of Krauss’s novels, The History of Love. It can’t very well be worse than Great House was, so I still want to read it. Krauss just tried too hard to be literary with this one, I think, and the result is depressing, long-winded, and vague. Don’t worry, I like the book I’m reading now much more, so the next post won’t be nearly so scathing.

The Night Circus

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The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern can comfortably fit into several categories: fantasy, romance, mystery, historical fiction. The novel takes place for the most part in Victorian England, and I would describe the mood of it as dark and surreal.

the+night+circus+paperback+coverIts plot is centered around Le Cirque des Reves, or the Circus of Dreams, which is a traveling spectacle that is only open at night and that features illusions, fortune telling, and spectacles of all kinds. It appears and moves on without warning, so visitors can never be sure of when they will be able to experience it again. However, there is more mystery surrounding the circus than just its schedule: it is also the battleground for a magicians’ competition. Celia and Marco, the two main characters of the novel, are set against each other in a battle of skills created by their teachers, Prospero and Mr. A. H. They do not specialize in illusions or tricks, but rather in true magic. The circus is their arena and their security: as long as visitors think everything they are seeing is an act, the magical secrets at work can’t be discovered.

I liked this book, but it did have some weaknesses. Morgenstern’s writing style is beautiful and rich, but her descriptions and characterizations are often incomplete. The point of view shifts often and I found myself confused at times about who was speaking and what role they played in the overall plot. There is a character, one that plays quite a central role in the novel, that I always forgot the name of and can’t remember even now. Even though the style is meticulous, the descriptions are often vague so that the reader doesn’t get a complete picture. And since the novel relies so much on the sights and experiences of the circus, this is a real shortcoming.

Some of the reviews I read before starting The Night Circus said that the plot was slow— I disagree. I found the pacing to be nearly perfect, with only a few lulls. There were several twists that I didn’t see coming as well. And as I mentioned earlier, the writing is almost poetic and I loved reading it.

I guess if I were grading this one, it would get a solid B. Despite confusing moments, it made for very enjoyable reading. I loved how meta it was and how it called into question how much of entertainment is illusion and how much of it is realer than the viewer might like. It reminds me of The Prestige and Gothic novels, and that’s definitely a good thing for me.

Brideshead Revisited

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This is a book that I picked for the book club my sister and I are in together. (I’ve explained this before— it involves Skype, drinking wine, and long periods of off-topic rambling.) The edition I have of it is one of the main reasons why I chose it. I inherited my copy from my grandmother and it was printed in 1945. It’s a gorgeous old book, which is why I’m mad at myself for leaving it at home and having to post a stock picture of it instead of my actual copy. Regardless, this is exactly what my title page looks like, only it’s much yellower.

imagesI liked this book, but didn’t love it. At first my sister and I thought that it was working to critique the Catholic church (which we both kind of appreciated), but after reading up on Evelyn Waugh a little bit it turns out that he was actually a staunch supporter of Catholicism and wrote this book to explore the grace of God. It’s interesting because that’s not really how either of us read it, but I’ll get more into that later.

The plot is pretty basic: it features the relationship between Charles Ryder, an agnostic student at Oxford, with the aristocratic Marchmain family. It takes place mostly in England, with some trips to Italy and Morocco thrown in. Its themes include the draw of Catholicism, a nostalgic view of English aristocracy, and homosexuality among aristocratic male students. If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. This is a complicated little book. The first hundred or so pages are also extremely slow. It took me almost to halfway through the book to really get into it, but after that I flew through till the end. It actually puts me in mind of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. This is probably due to the nostalgia for a past age (one that isn’t quite over in either case) that runs throughout both texts.

What stands out even more than the various themes in this novel, however, is the characterizations. Sebastian Flyte is one of the most singular characters I’ve ever encountered while reading. Its not as though the reader figures him out by the end of the novel, either. It’s pure confusion and intrigue the whole time, or at least it was for me. Sebastian is the second son of the Marchmains and is therefore a young Lord. Just to provide some sort of description: Sebastian is an alcoholic, homosexual youth who carries around a teddy bear named Aloysius for much of the novel. He is hilarious and deeply disturbed at the same time.

Sebastian is set up as somewhat of a foil to the narrator, Charles. Charles fits into the novel as somewhat of a Nick Carraway figure: he’s more of a witness to the action than directly involved in it (maybe an innocent bystander?). For some context, neither Amber nor I couldn’t remember his name when we were talking about the book. It’s not that he’s undeveloped as a character or anything. He’s actually a very important figure to the entire Marchmain family. He’s just put more in the role of a pure narrator.

All of this is to say that Brideshead Revisited is a book I would put in the category of Real Literature. It was put on a list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century, after all. It’s a book I could see reading for a class and discussing for multiple days. I’m sure I didn’t get everything out of it that Waugh intended, but Amber and I (two sisters with English degrees) did our best. If I read it again I’ll likely figure out even more layers, but for now I’m satisfied.

Quickies

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I grouped these two books together not only because I read them back to back, but also because I read them both in about two or three days. Inferno by Dan Brown and Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger are both really quick reads— for different reasonsInferno is about 500 pages but is fast-paced and suspenseful, while Salinger’s novel is barely 200 pages and consists of only three conversations. Let’s tackle Brown first.

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Inferno is the fourth book Brown has written about Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor of symbology that always seems to find himself in the middle of huge crises that threaten to change the world. The premise of Inferno is that Langdon finds himself in a Florence hospital, having been shot in the head and with no memory of how he got there. Within minutes of waking up, he is almost killed by a mysterious assassin and must escape the hospital with the help of one of his doctors, Sienna Brooks.

What ensues is classic Brown; you’ll recognize the structure if you’ve read Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code, or The Lost Symbol. Somehow, Langdon’s unique knowledge of symbols and history give him vital knowledge that can help stop a bioterrorist. If this seems a little implausible, that’s because it is. As someone with a degree in English literature and minors in history and medieval studies, I can pretty much guarantee that I won’t ever save the world. But in the world of Brown, everyone relies on Langdon’s expertise.

The subject matter of this book relies heavily on Dante’s Inferno, hence the title. It also references the Black Death and the more modern issue of overpopulation. I found the focus on overpopulation to be the most interesting aspect of the book. Brown raises the question of whether or not humanity will be able to support our exponentially growing population much longer, and what can be done about it if we can’t. I will say that this is probably my least favorite of the Robert Langdon books, possibly because I’m not very interested in Dante. One more nitpick: I never noticed it when I’ve read his books previously, but Brown makes extensive use of “?!” punctuation. It really is a distracting and annoying style idiosyncrasy. Overall though, suspense drives the plot of the book along quickly, which also typical of Brown. Expect one or two major twists and plenty of detailed descriptions of Langdon’s “thick, dark hair,” “deep voice,” and “surprisingly strong build.” On to Franny and Zooey.

200px-FrannyzoeyI’ve never read a book quite like this one. It’s written in town sections; “Franny” is short-story length while “Zooey” is closer to a novella. Both title characters are part of the same family, with Zooey being the elder brother of Franny. They’re in their twenties and are the two youngest members of the Glass family. In the first part of the book, Franny visits her boyfriend at Yale for a football game but finds herself feeling like an outsider, tired of the falseness she perceives in academia. This plot point is carried through to “Zooey,” when Franny has a breakdown at the Glass family home and Zooey attemps to offer her advice. Zooey himself is a “genius” and an actor, which I thought was an interesting combination.

I mentioned earlier in this post that this book consists mostly of three conversations. One is between Franny and her boyfriend, the second is between Zooey and Mrs. Glass, and the third is between Zooey and Franny themselves. It is narrated by Buddy Glass, another Glass sibling that is never actually present in the book. Interestingly, a major theme of the book is religious enlightenment. Franny’s breakdown comes from reading a spiritualist book while she is at college. If you’ve read The Catcher in the Rye, you’ll remember Holden Caulfield’s concern with the “phoney”— this element is present in this book as well.

I liked Franny and Zooey. It is definitely a book that makes you think about social norms and the ways people behave and relate to each other. I tend to like books about families a lot, so this was a good one for me. Overall I’d say that it was interesting, which is typically how I react to Salinger. It’s a story about a spiritual and emotional journey and the realization that you don’t fit in (and that maybe it’s not a bad thing). And even though it was 300 pages shorter than Inferno, it took me a day longer to read.I find it interesting that, no matter how quickly or slowly I read a book, it always has the same kind of effect on me. I form the same level of impressions about it, and still spend the same amount of time thinking about it after I’m finished. So even though I read both of these books in less than a week, I still feel like I spent quality time with them. The fast pacing didn’t detract from the stories in either case, which goes to show that a book can be simple and “easy” to read while still having complex themes and containing real-world questions that make you wonder.

A Dance With Dragons

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I’ve had this book on my shelf for ages, but I waited awhile to read it. This happens a lot for me, but with this one I was putting it off for a very specific reason. Each installment of A Song of Ice and Fire is a monster, long and complicated. This means that the author, George R. R. Martin, takes awhile to write them. The next book after this one is slated to be released in 2015. That’s a while to wait, so I tried to take a break between A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons so that I wouldn’t be kept in suspense for as long. However, as a 23rd birthday present to myself a couple of weeks ago, I decided to go ahead and read it.

A_Dance_With_Dragons_USIt’s over 900 pages of complicated names and family trees, but I knew that going in. As the series progresses and more and more characters get introduced though, it gets confusing at times. For that reason, a lengthy appendix can be found at the back of each volume. I found myself consulting it several times, even though I’ve read all the books (relatively) recently and also watch the HBO series.

In terms of plot, it’s kind of hard to explain without recapping all the other books, but I’ll try. Basically, Westeros is still dealing with various plots to overthrow the Iron Throne and supplant King Tommen. Stannis Baratheon is trudging along with his Red Queen, Jon Snow is struggling with Wildlings on the Wall, Tyrion Lannister is in hiding after killing his father, Cersei Lannister is in big trouble with the head priest in King’s Landing, and Daenaerys is off across the Narrow Sea with her dragons. However, some new players have come to the party as well. A Targaryen relative of Daenaerys’s is trying to get an army together to take Westeros as well, for example. This, in extremely broad strokes, is the jist of what’s going on. Winter is definitely coming by this point, and no one knows who to trust. The dragons are getting bigger and the Others are growing in number with the dropping temperatures. Things are getting more serious, in other words.

I’m honestly not sure how Martin is going to wrap up all of these loose ends in two more novels, even if each one is 1,000 pages. The sheer complexity of what he has created is astonishing. If you remember, Martin covers roughly half of the main characters in A Feast For Crows and leaves the other half for A Dance With Dragons. I was glad to find out what was going on with the rest of the crew, but if I have one criticism of this book and the last one it’s that too many characters are given narrative space. It’s interesting to get such a wide variety of perspectives, but there comes a point when certain storylines get stagnant and are markedly less fun to read than others. For me, that was Ser Barristan and Jon Snow. Other than that one weak point, I was as pleased with this installment of A Song of Ice and Fire as I have been with the rest of the books in this epic fantasy series.

This book ends with a few great cliffhangers, one in particular that is going to mean huge changes for the next two. I guess all I can do now is wait until 2015 and watch the HBO series to deal with the wait. And Mr. Martin, on the off-off-off-off-off-chance that you’re reading this, it’d be great if you could write a little faster. I know words are wind, but I happen to really want to read more of yours.

The Odd Couple: Bossypants and The Hound of the Baskervilles

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The two books I read this week during finals (I have a very easy test schedule this semester, and I actually just finished my last one. Ever!) have absolutely nothing in common. There’s no way to tie them together thematically or anything like that, so I’ve dubbed this post “The Odd Couple.” It doesn’t get much more odd than reading The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Bossypants by Tina Fey back to back. One is classic, the other is contemporary; one is mystery, the other is a humorous memoir. Here they are, posing together (I read Hound on my kindle).

image-2Let’s go in chronological order. The Hound of the Baskervilles came first. It’s a short book or novella, unlike most of the Sherlock Holmes short stories. It’s also one of the most supernaturally influenced of the tales even though it all ends up being based in logic, as most Sherlock Holmes plots are. The basis of the mystery is that an old, aristocratic family (the Baskervilles) in England has been plagued for generations by a “hell hound” that is the result of a curse from centuries back. The new heir wants Holmes and Watson to investigate the paranormal creature, as it was responsible for the death of his predecessor. What ensues is a typical Doyle plot: a seemingly unexplainable circumstance is systematically investigated and debunked.

However, this book veers farther into the realm of fantasy than most Holmes cases do. The enormous hound that has flames coming from its mouth and nose certainly seems to be the work of the devil, which is what the Baskerville family has always maintained. Holmes and Watson are typically skeptical, but even they begin to doubt their instincts as the situation on the moor becomes progressively more mysterious and dangerous. I was quite unnerved at moments in the plot, but I was always impressed at the skills of Holmes and Watson. In this aspect, Doyle delivers what I’ve come to expect from his stories. The twists, red herrings, and surprises are well-done and I was repeatedly caught off guard or wrongly convinced. Because it’s longer and has more time for plot and character development, this is probably the best Sherlock Holmes story I’ve read.

200px-Cover_(Hound_of_Baskervilles,_1902)And now for something completely different. I’ve been a big Tina Fey fan since she wrote Mean Girls and was on SNL. Because of the long history I have of laughing at her jokes, I knew I’d like Bossypants. And I did. Fey’s anecdotes made her even more relatable to me than she was already. I also respect her more after reading about her personal experiences and beliefs. I will say one thing, though: it wasn’t quite as funny as I thought it was going to be. I get that it was a memoir, but it was also in the humor genre. You may remember that I recently read Mindy Kaling’s book. I don’t know if it’s just my particular taste, but I laughed at lot more at it than at Bossypants. That’s not to say that it wasn’t a great read. I read it at warp speed and loved Fey’s writing style. I guess it just wasn’t exactly what I expected. I liked it a lot, but it didn’t have me in stitches or anything.

Even though these two books are really different from one another, I really enjoyed them both. What’s more, they both had me on the edge of my seat, only for different reasons. Hound was suspenseful and kind of scary, while Bossypants was funny and fast-paced. They were perfect for de-stressing during what was an admittedly light finals week. This odd couple is going to be hanging out together on my bookshelf for a long time.

The Silver Linings Playbook

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Photo on 4-28-13 at 10.29 PM #2You’ve probably heard of this one. Apart from being Matthew Quick’s debut novel in 2008, The Silver Linings Playbook was also made into a wildly successful movie last year starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. I read it on my kindle and the “cover” of my ebook edition looked like what you see above, rather than what might be more familiar to you:

MV5BMTM2MTI5NzA3MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODExNTc0OA@@._V1_SX214_I hadn’t yet heard that it was based off of a book, and so I committed one of the cardinal sins of reading: I saw the movie first. I know. I was so disappointed when I realized. But doing so didn’t stop me from reading (and loving) the book as well. It’s actually the second book my sister and have I read for our two-person book club. We both liked it a lot; it was a quick read and had a lot of great things going on.

The book is narrated by Pat Peoples, who is also the main character. The plot opens with his move back to his hometown in New Jersey after leaving a mental hospital. Pat thinks he has only been admitted for a few months, but in reality he has been away for years. He has trouble remembering how much time has passed and indeed doesn’t remember a lot about why he was admitted. His main goal is to reconcile with his estranged wife, Nikki, and he believes that doing so will be the “silver lining” of his life.

Pat’s plan to win Nikki back involves a lot of self-improvement, the two main components of which are an extreme exercise routine and reading several classic novels (Nikki is an English teacher). He goes to therapy and cheers on the Philadelphia Eagles, his family’s favorite team, as well.

This routine is shaken up by the arrival of Tiffany (played by Jennifer Lawrence in the movie) into Pat’s life. She has a lot in common with him, and suffers from some mental problems resulting from the death of her husband. The two run together every morning and, eventually, Tiffany invites Pat to participate in a dance competition with her. In return for Pat’s help, Tiffany promises to be a go-between for Pat and Nikki. In his desperation to get into contact with his wife, Pat agrees.

Those are the plot basics, but the best things about this book are more about the characters and narration. Pat is fantastic. He’s a charming main character and narrator, and the main reason for this is his straightforward, earnest voice. He’s funny without realizing it and is so determined in the pursuit of his goals that I was rooting for him from about the second chapter. Though he undoubtedly has some mental issues, he explains everything in such a convincing way that his, albeit flawed, logic starts to make sense to the reader as the plot develops. There are several great characters in this book besides Pat: the dynamic Tiffany is one and Dr. Patel, Pat’s therapist, is another. More than any other aspect, Quick’s characterizations drive this novel and make it successful.

Another thing that Quick does extremely well is holding the plot together through motifs. I don’t usually drag literary elements into my reviews for this blog, but Quick makes masterful use of this one. There are many that keep cropping up, but Pat’s Hank Baskett jersey, the idea of Pat’s “silver lining,” Kenny G. music (intriguing, huh?), and Eagles games are just a few. In a novel that has a variety of plot threads and conflicts, the use of repetition even in such small ways works to unify and pace out the book.

Mental illness is a topic that is close to my heart for a few reasons, and I was leery going into this novel because I’m so picky about how it is portrayed. However, Quick does a great job in writing about the contradictions, struggles, and subtlety of mental illness in a way that shows a respect and understanding that I appreciate. He does so many things right in this book. And even though I accidentally saw the movie first, The Silver Linings Playbook can absolutely stand on its own as a novel and is intelligent, funny, and meaningful in its own right.

The Summer Kitchen

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I recently took a brief detour into Chick Lit Land. This is not a place I usually hang out, so allow me to explain how I found myself there.

If you can remember back to this past summer, I read and reviewed a book by Allegra Goodman called The Cookbook Collector for one of my lit classes. It was part of the massive catch-up session I did in September once we finally, finally got internet in my apartment at school. Anyway, I absolutely loved the book. It included several of my favorite things: literature, book stores, food, and cooking. After I finished it, I spent some time on Amazon looking up books that might be similar, and Karen Weinreb’s The Summer Kitchen was one of the suggestions. It’s interesting that I loved The Cookbook Collector so much and I’m only lukewarm about this novel.

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The premise of the book is that Nora Banks, who lives in the elite New York suburb of Bedford and is married to a Wall Street millionaire, suddenly finds herself an outsider. Her husband is convicted of a white-collar crime and is put in jail, and the families of Bedford completely ostracize Nora and her children. The family’s assets are seized by the government and Nora must find a way to support herself and her children on her own for the first time. After a series of struggles and disappointments, she decides to open a dessert business out of her home.

You may be able to tell by my lackluster description that I wasn’t enthralled by the plot. It was pretty basic and therefore pretty predictable. What’s more, Weinreb’s writing style was awkward, sometimes almost unreadably so. I think she needed a better editor, and not just because I’d love to get hired as one. Even though she sets up Nora as being supposedly different (and better) than the other Bedford wives, Nora comes off as entitled and whiny for a good portion of the book.

Why did I finish it, then? I could have stopped reading somewhere in the middle, but this book did have a few saving graces. The other characters in the novel helped to temper Nora’s complaining. Specifically Beatriz, the Banks’s nanny, as well as Reuben and Phillip, two family friends, were very well done. The personal changes that Nora goes through as she relearns the value of self-reliance is interesting as well, even if it is rather obvious and overdone at some points. There are enough small surprises to keep the plot moving and I like that the ending doesn’t necessarily answer all of the questions asked by the novel. I guess if I was giving this one a grade, it would receive a C.

It was pleasant reading and a good way to relax this week after taking the GRE last weekend. The complexity of Weinreb’s writing style (that’s not necessarily a compliment) does cause the novel, which is just over 300 pages, to take longer to read than you’d expect, though. Again, my judgment on this one should be taken with a grain of salt because chick lit isn’t my favorite.

In terms of plot and characterization this novel was pretty good, but the problems with mechanics got to me after awhile. There were some places where I’d reread a sentence over and over and still not totally get what Weinreb was trying to say. This one is a good beach book or vacation novel. No gold stars and it didn’t change my mind about chick lit or anything drastic like that, but it’s alright. Definitely no Cookbook Collector, but not many books are.

The Casual Vacancy

I actually finished J.K. Rowling’s first post-Potter work, The Casual Vacancy, in mid-February, which was quite awhile ago. The reason I haven’t wrote a post about it until now is that my sister and I decided over Christmas that we wanted to start a long-distance book club. We always recommend books to each other and are constantly updating each other about what we’re reading, so turning it into a more official thing was a no-brainer and has been really fun so far. The plan for “book club: party of two” as I call it (we’re the only members) is that we pick a book to read every two months and then get on Skype and talk about it (drinking wine is also mandatory).

All that being said, the book for January and February was The Casual Vacancy. The reason for the delay is that we didn’t do such a great job of meeting up via Skype to talk about it: we actually didn’t discuss the book until mid-March. I didn’t want to post about it before my sister and I discussed it because that’s kind of the whole point of a book club, right? So there’s a little update on why I’ve been MIA, but the point is that we finally talked about it and (just as I suspected) Amber had some great insight to give about what is undeniably a complicated book.

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The Casual Vacancy takes place in a small town in England called Pagford. The plot starts out with the unexpected death of Barry Fairbrother, a member of the Parish Council. Fairbrother’s seat on the Council is obviously open after his death (it’s the “casual vacancy”), and several citizens of Pagford immediately begin scheming to take his place. The reason for so much interest in the position is that a contentious issue is coming up for a vote on the council. In the coming weeks, whether or not “the Fields,” a public housing project just outside of Pagford proper, will be dissociated from the town and placed under the jurisdiction of the next city over is to be decided. There is a long history of bitterness and division between the Fields and Pagford, so many local people have a stake in the outcome of the vote.

All of that town history and bureaucracy is one thing (and it doesn’t make for very exciting reading), but the story begins to gain some momentum when mysterious posts begin to appear on the Parish Council website. The posts contain scandalous information about the candidates running for the vacant seat, and all have been posted by “the ghost of Barry Fairbrother.” The posts lead to a maze of distrust and alliances between various townspeople.

This is an ambitious book, and not just because Rowling took a risk by writing a novel for adults. A wide range of divisive social issues arise in the course of the plot, from class to race to drugs to prostitution to government aid programs. Parents are pitted against children and teenagers against adults. The narration is told through the perspective of several different people that cover a wide range of ages. The sheer number of characters can create confusion, but by the middle of the book I pretty much had it all down.

Because so much is going on for the entirety of the book, it’s easy to get bogged down in the proceedings of the Parish Council and all of the bureaucracy associated with it. However, things really pick up by the last third of the book. I think I read the last 120 pages all in one sitting because of the fast-paced ending that suddenly emerges.

This novel is a hard one to get into but I’m glad I stuck with it, because if I learned anything about Rowling’s writing style from the Harry Potter books it’s that the details always matter in the end. Even more so in The Casual Vacancy than in her other works, Rowling builds a staggeringly complex web of characters, events, grudges, relationships, and longings that suddenly takes on a life of its own and sort of drives the plot to its end. The amount of detail and backstory that Rowling provides make the implications of the ending even more powerful than it would have been otherwise, and for the payoff I’d definitely say the complexity was well worth it.