Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Book Review: Humans of New York Stories by Brandon Stanton

Title: Humans of New York: Stories
Author: Brandon Stanton
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Hard Copy
Content Alert: a pretty clean read, but the stories really run the spectrum

Remember back in the day before smartphones when people used to keep a stack of magazines in the bathroom for a little toilet reading? In my house we even had a book called The Bathroom Book, with bite-sized little tidbits, short enough for a potty break. It's kind of ironic that Brandon Stanton's The Humans of New York phenomenon started on Instagram (which has definitively won the bathroom reading battle, if there was one), because Humans of New York: Stories, would be the best back of the toilet book ever.

Stanton's book is his Instagram account in published form. My sense is that Stanton walks around New York and asks people if he can take their picture, then asks them a few questions, and picks a snippet from that short interview to post along with the picture. With 4.7 million followers, the account is insanely popular (and whoa, all the judgy jerks on the internet who used to hang out on message boards now comment on HONY), and I'm always impressed with the way Stanton manages to get something interesting and profound of the people he talks with. There seems to be a light attempt at some thematic arrangements in the book, but mostly, the pictures and stories speak for themselves. Even though I'd read most of the stories individually when they came out on Instagram, there was a power to reading them together in the book.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Book Review: Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Title: Circling the Sun
Author: Paula McLain
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: sex

Based on the life of real-life aviatrix Beryl Markham, Circling the Sun opens with her pioneering trip across the Atlantic from Europe to North America (the hard way, where the winds weren't favorable), yet the book isn't about her career in aviation at all. Rather, the book focuses on the early years of her life, growing up in Kenya with her father (after her mother returned to England with her brother), carving out a career as a successful jockey, and negotiating romantic and business relationships with men.

McLain has a lovely command of the English language (she has an MFA in poetry, and it shows), and uses it to show the conflicts within Beryl-- her restlessness, her desire to be free like the Kipsigis boy she grew up with, and wild like the horses she struggles to tame. The story also makes Kenya come alive and thrum with romance (Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa, appears in Circling the Sun as the third point in a love triangle with Beryl and Denys Finch-Hatton). I wonder if McLain romanticizes Markham at all-- she seems entirely sympathetic to some difficult choices she makes (particularly leaving her only child with his grandparents) and seems to gloss over an affair she had with Prince Henry during the period. All in all, an interesting, if somewhat simplified portrayal of someone who appears to have been an even more interesting and complex person in real life.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Book Review: Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter

Title: Pretty Girls
Author: Karin Slaughter
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: sex, language, violence-- this is a book for grown-ups

It's been twenty years since Claire and Julia's sister Lydia vanished without a trace after leaving a bar near the University of Georgia, where she was a student. In that time, Claire has gone on to marry a man who became a tech millionaire, and Lydia spent time in and out of rehab, on welfare, and raising her daughter as a single mom. The sisters don't talk at all, until Claire's husband, Paul, is murdered before her eyes in an Atlanta alleyway. After the funeral (wake cut short by a break-in), Claire reaches out to Lydia to help her get a sense of her situation, and soon they're back on the trail of finding Julia. The book is incredibly dark, with lots of scary scenes (Paul may have been involved in making rape and torture videos marketed on the dark internet), and some truly evil characters.

It's been a few weeks since I finished reading Pretty Girls. Sometimes I think it's lazy of me to let some time elapse after finishing a book before reviewing it, but often that time helps me see how much I remember a book. I figure that if I can't remember a book after only three weeks have passed, it probably wasn't all that good, even if I found it engrossing in the moment, and that's the case with Pretty Girls. At the time, I couldn't wait to see what really happened to Paul, and if Claire and Lydia could escape with their lives, but weeks later, all I remember is the discomfort I felt when I Slaughter described the places where the torture of women took place.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Book Review: The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati

Title: The Gilded Hour
Author: Sara Donati
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: violence, sexual violence, lots of talking about sex (but not a lot of sex itself)

When Dr. Anna Savard gets called from her New York home to vaccinate Italian orphans one morning in 1883, she can't foresee the many ways her life will change as a result of that day. First, she meets Rosa and her brothers and sisters, and Anna promises them that she will try to make sure they aren't separated. Then she meets Jack, a detective with the New York Police Department. While the young family and Jack enrich Anna's personal life, her professional life, along with that of her cousin, Dr. Sophie Savard, is under attack due to their involvement with a young mother who had been under their care and died after receiving an abortion. Donati uses this story to highlight the lack of family planning options available to women at this time, and to the evils of the Comstock laws, a series of anti-vice laws. Sophie, who is of mixed-race, also figures prominently in the book, especially as she prepares to marry her childhood love, the scion of a wealthy New York family, and travel to Switzerland with him so he can receive treatment for tuberculosis.

Some of my very favorite books ever (Caleb Carr's The Alienist, Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni) have taken place in the same NYC Donati uses as her setting. It's a place of swishing skirts, menacing shadows, wealth, poverty, and danger. Typically, I am also a huge fan of books with medical subjects, and of books that really get into a world I'm interested in. Readers of The Gilded Hour know about everything from the style of dress that was popular at the time, to home decorating trends, to what foods were popular in Italian immigrant families, to birth control methods. I loved that aspect of the book, as well as the character development-- Jack and Anna's relationship was so smart and measured and romantic, I wanted to live in it. In the second half of the book, Donati introduces the idea of a serial murderer performing abortions in a way that will kill the women who seek them, and while this story was engrossing, the fact that this part of the narrative (along with several others) doesn't have a clear resolution, weakens the reading experience for me, even though I knew from the outset that this was going to be the first book of a series. At 700+ pages, at least tie up the murder mystery, please.

I'm now interested in Donati's Wilderness books. The covers looks SO much like historical romance novels, which makes me a little less interested in reading them than if they were historical novels with romantic subplots, which is how I would characterize The Gilded Hour.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Book Review: Hold Me Closer by David Levithan

Title: Hold Me Closer: The Tiny Cooper Story
Author: David Levithan
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: language, conversations about sex

If you read David Levithan and John Green's novel Will Grayson, Will Grayson, you probably remember Tiny Cooper, the enormous gay football player who loves musical theater almost as much as he loves both Will Graysons (one platonically, the other romantically). The most heartfelt parts of WG, WG come during the production of Hold Me Closer, Tiny Cooper's life in musical theater format. If you ever wanted the script for the entire play, Levithan has now provided that for your reading pleasure.

Okay, so I know a forty-year-old woman is not David Levithan's target audience. I get that. I also get that when kids become caught up in the world of a story, they want as much of that story as possible. That's why my kids will spend their hard-earned allowance on the Gods and Monsters supplement to the Rick Riordan books. But this is the second Levithan book in a row I've read that I expected to advance a story I really enjoyed (the other being Another Day) that basically just recapped the story from another perspective. This might work for a fifteen-year-old fanboy, but it doesn't work for his mother. In fact, it just feels lazy.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Book Review: The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty

Title: The Last Anniversary
Author: Liane Moriarty
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: swearing (a pretty clean read)

Three years after Sophie Honeywell broke Thomas Gordon's heart, he calls her out of the blue and wants to meet. She knows he isn't eager to get back together, since he and his wife recently had a baby, but the truth is even more shocking than that situation would be-- Thomas's elderly aunt Connie died, and left her her home on Scribbly Gum Island (on the Hawkesbury River near Sydney, Australia). Aunt Connie and her sister Rose became famous in the 1930s, when they reported making a visit to their only neighbor on the island, to discover that the couple had disappeared without a trace, leaving their infant daughter behind. Connie and Rose named the baby Enigma and raised her as their own. Moving to the home of the Munro Baby Mystery complicates Sophie's boring, ordered life, and brings her right into the hearts of Connie's family.

Like many of Moriarty's books, The Last Anniversary centers on domestic dramas. Sophie worries that she should have settled for Thomas, because she's 39 and her biological clock is ticking. Thomas's sister Grace seems to have it all, including a crippling case of postpartum depression. Parents squabble with their children, and secrets come out. And, eventually, the Munro Baby Mystery is solved. I figured out the mystery about halfway through and enjoyed watching it tumble out. Moriarty does a lovely job managing many characters and serious themes with a lightness that works, but in this case, some of the near misses of the story (particularly Grace's story) made me squirm as a reader, and I'm not sure how Moriarty's resolution to Sophie's childlessness plays to today's audience, since the book was published ten years ago. A picky aside-- the chronology of the story doesn't seem to work here. If Enigma is 74, it seems unlikely that her grandchildren would be nearly 40.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Book Review: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Title: Between the World and Me
Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: swearing

I pay for an Audible account that gives me two book credits per month. In that month, I'll probably run about 250 miles, much of it by myself, and I use the books to keep myself entertained. So I tend to shop for long books. Alexander Hamilton, at more than thirty hours, was a good buy. I was loath to spend the money on Ta-Nehisi Coatses's book, Between the World and Me, since it's only 3 1/2 hours long. But within a couple of days of each other, I heard that the book won a National Book Award, and I heard an extended interview with Coates about his newfound success on This American Life, and I knew I had to part with the credit and listen to the book.

Between the World and Me, which is written as a letter from the author to his (then) fourteen-year-old son, Samori, was eye-opening. It's a book written by a black man about my own age, to his son, who is the same age as my oldest son, and while we grew up within a few hundred miles of each other, studied the same things in college and have worked at writing as a career, our worldviews could not be more different. And Coates would say that this is because he's a black man and I am a white woman. He writes poetically, emotionally, sparely about the experiences of his life. Of his loving father hitting him with a belt. Of being a teenager in Baltimore. Of having college friends shot and killed by the police for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He writes of fear and hatred. And the book left me feeling unsettled and fearful myself, finding my privilege uncomfortable and conspicuous. It's a book I'm glad I read and perspective I'm glad I understand a bit more, but not an easy read. If you read it, don't forget to listen to the This American Life piece. They stand as interesting counterpoints to each other-- showing the complexity that lies within each of us.

Book Review: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Book Review: My Name is Lucy Barton
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: a pretty clean read with some oblique references to violence

When Lucy Barton was a young mother living in New York in the 1980s, she developed a mysterious infection after an appendectomy, requiring a long hospital stay. Barton's mother, from whom she had been estranged, came to stay at the hospital with her daughter. That visit provides the central action for this spare book, in which the narrator looks back from the present to that moment and to the more distant past in order to help make sense of their relationship.

Of all the relationships I've known, the mother-daughter relationships in my life have been the most complicated. Now that I'm in my forties and have gone through the transitions from adulation to indignation to separation to judgment and finally, I hope to some grace in how I see my own mother, I'm starting to see the patterns repeat with my daughters. In this week that they spend together, Lucy seems to try to work on that reconciliation to peace with a mother whose way of life she escaped without ever wanting to look back.

My Name is Lucy Barton is a strange little book, without a lot of plot-driven action. It's the kind of book to read slowly, and I would say it's also the kind of book an author can only write when she has made it. The writing is spare, and often feels a little disjointed unless you do the work of making the connections with the narrator. I loved that Barton was an author herself, and her interactions with another established author provided some interesting conversations about creating character and narrative voice. But ultimately, this is a book about mothers and daughters, and learning to make peace with the place we come from, even if it's not a place we would have chosen on our own.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Book Review: The Short Drop by Matthew Fitzsimmons

Title: The Short Drop
Author: Matthew Fitzsimmons
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: violence, incest, sexual abuse, swearing

Gibson Vaughn, ex-con, ex-Marine, and hacker extraordinaire is experiencing life on the skids. He's lost his job and his family when a powerful man from his distant past hires him to look into the decade-old disappearance of Suzanne Lombard, the girl who was like a sister to him growing up and whose father is the current vice-president.

When Vaughn accepts the job, the body count commences. If you're looking for an adrenaline rush, The Short Drop is a book with lots of plot twists, an enemy who is always ten steps ahead of the game, and violence that seems senseless at times. It's the kind of book that I read quickly and enjoyed at the time, but that I hardly remember a month later. I wish that Vaughn's character had been developed more. Most of the story hearkens back to the time when Suzanne disappeared (which happened shortly before Vaughn's father's apparent suicide) and Fitzsimmons does a nice job delving into the questions of the past, but I was curious about what motivated Vaughn in the present. I read that The Short Drop is to be the first book in a series. I hope that readers will continue to see Vaughn grow, and I know that Fitzsimmons has lots of adventures planned for the future.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Book Review: Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker

Title: Dear Mr. You
Author: Mary-Louise Parker
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: mild language, abuse, sex

In Dear Mr. You, actress and writer Mary-Louise Parker writes letters to the men in her life, from her grandfather to her ex-fiance to her son (and many fellows in between). In this memoir, we see Parker obliquely, not as part of a narrative but as a narrator, filtering her one-sided vision of interactions with these men. The idea for the book is ambitious, and the execution is pretty genius. There were times when the lack of a clear narrative made this book easy to set aside for a while, but I was always happy when I picked it up again. I feel that eventually, a picture of the author emerges that might have been more obscured through a more conventional format.