Thursday, May 14, 2015

Book Review: The Wife Maker by Karey White

Title: The Wife Maker (The Husband Maker #3)
Author: Karey White
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: A clean read

When we last saw Charlotte and Angus, at the end of The Match Maker (the second book in Karey White's The Husband Maker series), Charlotte has finally realized that she's in love with Angus just in time for him to let her know that it's too late and they will never be a couple. In The Wife Maker, Angus moves from San Francisco to Kansas City for an orthopedic surgery residency/fellowship, and even though Charlotte's dream job, adoring family, and social life are all in the Bay Area, she takes a chance on love and follows him halfway across the country, despite his protestations.

In The Wife Maker, we finally hear Angus in his own voice (Angus and Charlotte take turns as the POV character). The two prior novels have been narrated entirely by Charlotte, and we as an audience could see her blindness to the fact that Angus was in love with her, even when she couldn't. Sometimes Charlotte was annoying in those first two books, and this time Angus has the opportunity to be annoying. If you've been in love with someone for a decade, and you haven't told her about your secret passion until a moment when you're both involved with other people, you can't blame her for taking a few weeks to think it over. And if you don't give her that time, or act like a sniveling baby when she comes back to you to tell you that she loves you too, then you're just being a brat. Angus continues to be a brat for most of The Wife Maker. If I hadn't liked him so much in the other books in the series, I would have been rooting for Charlotte to ditch his sorry self. As for Charlotte, she comes off pretty well in this book, although I really do think that most people would not be as up in arms if their daughter, a successful professional in her late twenties, decided to move out of the nest. Charlotte's mom seems to overreact a bit to the state of her life. (Maybe the fact that I moved to Belgium by myself when I was twenty and my parents didn't bat an eyelash colors my perspective, but thanks Mom and Dad, for knowing when not to hover). All of that said, I was very, very happy to see Angus eventually come to his senses. I would have rather seen a wedding as the way to end the book than the fast-forwarded career move that White gives us in her epilogue, but I would call The Wife Maker a successful, strong conclusion to the series. If there's a fourth book, please resist the urge to call it The Baby Maker, because that would just be gross. :)

Book Review: The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg

Title: The Dream Lover
Author: Elizabeth Berg
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: lots of sex

The Dream Lover opens in 1831, when twenty-eight year-old Aurore Dupin leaves her husband and children behind at her home in Nohant in the French countryside and moves to Paris, where she assumes a male identity and writes her first novel, publishing it under the name George Sand. The book then explores the events in her past that led up to the schism, as well as the experiences she had living as George Sand. Berg's Sand is a woman who both revels in and chafes at domestic life-- she loves her children, but feels that she can't accomplish her artistic goals when she's mothering them.

The conflict between motherhood and freedom has been explored so much these days that it's almost a cliche. It's something I live every time I sit down at my laptop-- if I'm writing or editing, I'm not reading to my kids. If I'm out at night with friends, I'm not kissing them goodnight. But I would imagine that Sand's struggle felt more novel in her day and age, especially as she chose to live separately from her children for at least half of the year. I enjoyed the passages that showed her struggle, as well as those from her childhood (she was the daughter of a courtesan and the grandson of the king of Poland, which provided very fertile ground for cultural conflict), much more than the passages in which she tries to "find herself" (mostly sexually) in her late twenties and thirties. I'm no prude, and I know The Dream Lover aims at verisimilitude, but Berg definitely chose to center her narrative on the bed jumping years rather than the elder statesman years.

Book Review: Home Game by Michael Lewis

Title: Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood
Author: Michael Lewis
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: a few swears

In the introduction to Home Game, Michael Lewis (of Moneyball and The Big Short fame), says that his level of involvement as a father should be viewed on something of a sliding scale-- compared with his own father, he's all hands on deck, compared with other fathers who take a more hands' on approach, he might be seen as distant. The book, drawn from a series of columns Lewis wrote for Slate from approximately 2003-2009, shows him in the trenches of fatherhood with his three kids, juggling writing and parenting and his relationship with his wife (Tabitha Soren, that MTV hottie from my teen years).

If you're not into judging Lewis's involvement (and it seems that most people on Goodreads are) or his upscale lifestyle (ditto), and take the book for what it is-- a collection of humorous stories about parenthood from which Lewis occasionally tries to draw a deeper message, then Home Game is an enjoyable read. If you're trying to do cultural commentary or delve into a deep discussion of gender parity in America, then maybe not so much.

Book Review: Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel

Title: Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic + the Domestic
Author: Esther Perel
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: This is one to read with earphones if you have teenagers who are squeamish about the idea of married people "doing it."

A friend mentioned Mating in Captivity to me one day, and a few days later I heard it referred to as a "seminal work" (get it?) in the genre of erotic intelligence, so I bought it to listen to on my phone. The book talks about all different kinds of sexual incompatibilities, drawing on Perel's several decades as a sex therapist. The main premise is that we want both eroticism and a comforting domestic life, but those two desires are often in conflict and present at different levels in different individuals, and sexual satisfaction comes through working to find a balance between each partner's needs.

The book itself is pretty interesting, and I found the case studies especially illuminating, although she never got to the one about the SAHM of six. Maybe that doesn't exist in Manhattan? Anyway, I would not recommend the audiobook, because Perel narrates herself, and her French accent is quite distracting. Also, it was strictly headphones-only, because my kids got wigged out that one time it came over the bluetooth in the car during carpool.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Book Review: A Fine Romance by Candice Bergen

Title: A Fine Romance
Author: Candice Bergen
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: a little bit of swearing, but a cleaner read than I expected it would be

When I was a teenager, I remember sitting on the couch with my mom on Monday nights to watch Murphy Brown. Murphy was beautiful, smart, and tough, and I admired Candice Bergen, the actress who played her. A Fine Romance is the second of Bergen's memoirs (her first, Knock Wood, was written in the early 80s, when she was launching her career as a writer, photographer, and actress, after growing up the daughter of Hollywood royalty), and takes place where the first left off, when she falls in love with French director Louis Malle. The story spans marriage, motherhood, widowhood, falling in love again, and lots and lots about her career.

Around the same time I was watching Murphy Brown, I had a friend whose dad was a surgeon. I was always a little starstruck around him. I thought he was so different from the other dads I knew, and got tongue tied, like I imagine I might if he had been a famous movie star. Celebrity memoirs show me that actors are, when you strip them of the Armani and the famous friends, just like the rest of us. The book was at its strongest when she wrote about her pregnancy and early mothering years, the time of Malle's illness and subsequent death, and the risks she took when she gave herself over to falling in love again.

While I love the guilty pleasure of a celebrity memoir, this one suffered from some of what you would expect from the genre-- there was too much name dropping when it wasn't relevant, constant claims that she lives an ordinary, frugal life (ordinary and frugal seem to be quite relative here), and a freaking ton of praise for Chloe, her daugher. Reading the memoirs of parents of only children always makes me glad I have a bunch of kids so none of them gets all the praise or has to suffer all my neuroses. I gobbled A Fine Romance in less than two days, and enjoyed nearly every moment of it.

Book Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Title: The Paying Guests
Author: Sarah Waters
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: violence and hot sex

It's 1922 and the Wrays, mother and twentysomething daughter Frances, have finally come to terms with the fact that they can't afford to live in their home, on the outskirts of London, unless someone else helps pay. Enter Leonard and Lilian Barber, the young couple who rent a few rooms on the upper floor. While the Wrays and the Barbers initially seem to have a friendly relationship that goes no further than landlord and lodger, soon the families find themselves almost irrevocably intertwined.

The first third of The Paying Guests reads like a well-written literary/historical novel. Readers come to understand the mores of the Wray's society, and the reasons why they're forced to take in lodgers (basically, all the men in the family died). Waters does a beautiful job recreating London in 1922, complete with the disabled veterans, the men who returned from the war, and the women who had a degree of freedom and have found themselves displaced. The second third of the novel is, in a word, hot. One of the lodgers and one of the landladies (if you've read any of Waters's other novels, you probably can guess which ones) get together, and wow-ee, sparks fly. Then a crime takes place at the cusp of the third third of the novel, and the book becomes something of a police procedural. While I was delighted by the first third, and entertained by the second third, I found the last third totally boring. The Paying Guests lost all its sparkle, and I can't envision a happily ever after for these characters, no matter what Waters's characters pledge in the final pages.

Book Review: Her by Harriet Lane

Title: Her
Author: Harriet Lane
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: I think there was some swearing and maybe some sex, too. And the end is disturbing.

Nina and Emma don't seem to have much in common when they meet on the streets of London. Although they're close to the same age, Nina is almost free from the responsibility of mothering her nearly-grown daughter, and her home and career as a successful painter make her enviable. Emma, on the other hand, is having her second child on the wrong side of forty, and she's still finding her footing in her career and her marriage. You'd be more likely to find some sticky crackers than an original painting in her home. Yet somehow the two women are drawn to each other and develop a friendship.

I found Her on my Kindle just after finishing the Whitney books and threw myself into it in an attempt to read something new and cleanse my palate. Imagine my surprise when after reading a few pages, the story started to sound vaguely familiar. I skipped to the end, and, sure enough, I'd read and finished it a few months earlier. Basically, this book was so forgettable that I couldn't remember I'd read it. The ending was both predictable and almost unimaginably horrible, challenging the reader's conception of Nina all the way through. In fact, the final act of the book makes the rest of the book feel completely unbelievable-- I'm not sure that any seemingly sane woman would exact vengeance in the way Nina does in the final pages of Her, especially after she and Emma have spent the last year building a relationship.

Book Review: Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

Title: Funny Girl
Author: Nick Hornby
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: a little sex, some swearing

It's the 1964 and Barbara has just won a beauty pageant in her small town of Blackpool in the north of England when she has a revelation-- if she takes the crown, she will never escape her hometown. So she hops on a train to London, and within very short order, she snags a role on a BBC sitcom, changes her name to Sophie, and becomes the it-girl of her age. The story takes place mainly on the set and in the writers' room of that sitcom, Barbara and Jim.

Although I've seen High Fidelity and About a Boy, I think that Funny Girl is the first Nick Hornby novel I've ever read. Many fans of Hornby say it's not his finest work, but I thought it was thoroughly enjoyable. Hornby does a lovely job with the dialogue between the characters, and with the two levels of the story (the sitcom itself, which we never actually see, and the conversations surrounding the sitcom). However, the four guys in the book (the producer, the male lead, and the two main writers) are much more interesting as characters than Barbara is. I think even Hornby recognizes this, because he spends a lot more time with them, particularly with the two gay writers, who chose disparate paths and feel compelled to justify them to each other. So the book is definitely mistitled. I originally decided to read the book because my current podcast du jour, Pop Culture Happy Hour, was holding a book club on the book, and their resulting discussion is totally on point. The book is definitely enjoyable and Hornby is a master at his craft, but I couldn't shake the feeling that Funny Girl didn't quite live up to its potential. It's an easy, breezy, fun read, but I wanted more.

Book Review: A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear

Title: A Dangerous Place (Maisie Dobbs #11)
Author: Jacqueline Winspear
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: some violence, incredibly sad, Maisie Dobbs fans the world over will feel betrayed

I think I finished my review of the tenth Maisie Dobbs novel by making the desperate (and untrue) pronouncement that if Maisie and James didn't get together in the eleventh, I would quit reading the books. Winspear knows how to quell an adult temper tantrum-- Maisie and James do, in fact, marry and conceive a child in the first chapter of A Dangerous Place. But I won't spoil more than five pages for you to let you know that Winspear doesn't give them a happy ending raising a baby on a farm in Canada, safely away from the bombs that will drop on London during World War II. No, Winspear's Maisie isn't made out for domesticity, it seems, and her aging uterus isn't destined for motherhood, since Winspear bumps off James (yes!) and the baby (I know!) in one fell swoop. Months later, after recuperating in India (natch), Maisie finds herself mentally unfit to make the final leg of her journey back to England and stops in Gibraltar, a British garrison town on the Southern tip of war-torn Spain, where she works to solve the murder of a Jewish photographer and finds herself drawn into the political intrigue of the place.

As far as Maisie Dobbs mysteries go, this one was fine. Winspear knows how to work a setting, and her description of Gibraltar had me searching plane tickets on Expedia. Winspear does a nice job explaining the situation in Spain without it feeling like a textbook, and she does a similarly nice job with her the Sephardic Jewish characters. But I was reeling after the first chapter and needed time to mourn myself. I feel like Maisie suffers from the Murphy Brown problem-- could Maisie have a baby and still be Maisie? Can she solve crimes if she's pumping breast milk? I can't imagine Winspear wanting Maisie to be the kind of mother who leaves her baby with a nurse or nanny all day, and James was never the kind of man who would have wanted his wife to be in that position. So Winspear dodges that bullet by cutting Maisie off at the knees and taking both husband and baby. Can Maisie ever just be happy? I'm not sure. Winspear has effectively said that she will never be a mother, and based on what's coming up in European history in the coming years of the novel, I would say that peace and happiness aren't on the horizon any time soon.

Has anyone else read A Dangerous Place? I'm dying to talk with someone about it. Not the mystery, so much as the bomb of James's death.

Book Review: A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Title: A Spool of Blue Thread
Author: Anne Tyler
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: pretty clean read

Three generations of Whitshanks have lived in the house with the wide front porch in a gentrified Baltimore neighborhood. Red's father built the house, and then Red and Abby raised their four children there. Now the children are grown, but the home seems as important to the family as Red and Abby themselves. A Spool of Blue Thread hops back and forth between the generations, showing the insights and deficiencies of three generations of Whitshanks, as well as the way a place can wheedle its way into a family's heart.

I listened to Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread right when I was in the middle of reading the finalists for the Whitney Awards. I was struck by the similarities of Tyler's work to so much of the Mormon women's lit I was reading at the same time-- the works are often domestic and detailed (sometimes overly detailed). One of my frequent criticisms of these types of books is that I don't need to know what everyone wore or ate for breakfast, but Tyler does it right. She's a storyteller with a light touch, who takes the time to create a narrative out of mundane events and unremarkable people (I mean that as a good thing). I've read several of Tyler's twenty novels, and each time I'm impressed with the role of Baltimore in her book-- I love that she has created an entire body of work that highlights a place. I know she only shows the side of Baltimore that she knows, but she does it with such skill. Critics might say that A Spool of Blue Thread is a book where not much happens, and we're not even sure if the people change at all, but I enjoyed the way she told the story so much that those other details were irrelevant.