Saturday, July 27, 2013

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

When I first learned about this book through my subscription to Random Reads I thought it might be about were wolves; how I got that impression bewilders me.  Published 2013 in paperback, 355 pages with a reading guide for book club discussions, it's a good debut novel and the second book I have read in the past month about adolescent sisters.  I was intrigued by the cover and  drawn into the story as  told in retrospect by June, aka "Crocodile" the 15 year old.  It is set in 1986 in New York City amidst the AIDS crisis.  The very first sentence draws the reader, "My sister, Greta and I were having our portrait painted by our uncle Finn that afternoon because he knew he was dying.  This was after I understood that I wasn't going to grow up and move into his apartment and live there with him for the rest of my life.  After I stopped believing that the AIDS thing was all some kind of big mistake..."   She adores Uncle Finn, her mother's only brother.  But not until his death does she learn so much more about him, his life, his fame and his deep relationship to Toby, his partner.  The cover illustrates the Russian teapot that  Finn wills to June instructing  that she serve  tea from it to only "the best people."  Toby is persona non grata to her family but through Finn's legacy, June develops a secret friendship with him and learns how deeply he and Finn cared for each other, while he too is terminal with AIDs.   

June is an independent but emotional teenager,  solitary through her adolescent angst and retreats into the woods near her school to just be...I enjoyed time alone in the Pennsylvania woods where I grew up so I immediately related to her.  Pg. 11..."Going into the woods by yourself is the best way to pretend  you're in another time.  It's a thing you can only do alone.  If there's somebody else with you, it's too easy to remember where you really are. ... The first thing I do when I go to the woods is hang my backpack on a tree branch.  Then I walk.  To make it work, you have to walk until you can't hear any cars at all, and that's what I do.......In the book "A Wrinkle in Time" it says that time is like a big old rumpled blanket....""

The girl's parents are both successful accountants so that in  tax season they become "tax orphans" as Mom and Dad work long hours and this allows their independence to take over.    June is  more introverted while her sister Greta is the opposite, outgoing, a joiner in all school activities, a participant and into more things than the parents imagine including  alcohol with her partying friends.  June observes and at times saves Greta from herself.  June secretly journeys to the city to spend time with Toby without her parents knowing.  Meantime the portrait  Finn painted of the girls is mentioned in the newspaper as missing and worh  hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Toby plays  the key role at the end rescuing Greta when June is confined to quarters after her desecration of the sister's portrait is discovered. Some sadness and tears close the novel.   

I  will suggest this book to our book club because it has a dearth of emotion and good reading. It is a 4****;  I am glad to have read it but would not have chosen it randomly.    

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

When I saw the first mention of this book in a review last year it sounded like something I wanted to read; although I mentioned it to my local book club twice, they were not interested.  When I saw it newly released June 2013  in the First Vintage Books Edition, paperback,  I scanned it in the store and picked it up immediately.  I adored this book for so many reasons, first very well written by this new author who is no stranger to literature and the publishing world; second the tale is heart touching of an adult son  accompanying his mother who has terminal pancreatic cancer to  her chemo treatments  at Sloan Kettering; third, it is really about books, their lessons and the characters. It is a keeper in my home library as a reference when I want something different or new to me to read.  I was about to make a list of all the books and authors  he and his mother were reading and discussing when I found the author was astute and  made such a reference of each book mentioned in the Appendix.  Their first book, "Crossing to Safety" by Wallace Stegner, is new to me but was first published in 1987 and I related to Will immediately when he wrote on Page 5, after Mom recommends he read it,  "..I have a copy...which was in fact true.  There are certain books that I mean to read and keep stacked by my bedside.  I even take them on trips.  Some of my books should be awarded their own frequent flier miles, they've traveled so much.  I take these volumes on flight after flight with the best of intentions and then wind up reading anything and everything else, SkyMall, ..."  Oh he is clever in describing traits and activities we book or reading addicts all share.  In my career days I always traveled with a book.  Today in our motor coach I always have a book to read but there are a few out there that have traveled the country without my opening them.  

Both Will and his mother are inveterate readers; his career in publishing and as a journalist affords him immediate
access to new books, but their tastes range from old to new, novels, to memoirs. On page 7,  "We all have a lot more to read than we can read and a lot more to do than we can do. Still one of the things I learned from Mom is this: Reading isn't the opposite of doing; it the opposite of dying."  I gained an appreciation of novels and learned that I do not miss out by reading fiction,  that non-fiction is not the only way we can learn.  This book about books and what they teach us ends with  the fact that the characters and people and the connections we can make through books is vital.   


As the book begins, Mary Anne Schwalbe 73 years old has been an active person in her own career and in working with and for refugees through the International Rescue Committee. She is an inspiring lady whose last major achievement was to build a library in Kabul Afghanistan.  She had traveled the world and  was deeply involved and caring keeping in touch with former students, and friends through out her life. This memoir is a  testament to her through the eyes of her son, Will but it also describes his journey with her illness and touches briefly on how the rest of the family copes although in his introduction he claims this is his story and they (his father , brother and sister) have their own stories to tell "if and when they choose."  He does not document the family through his own opinion, but shares a personal view.  I enjoyed that  rather than his opinion extending to others actions, he sticks to himself.  

There is mention about the difference between books Mary Anne says he "must read" compared to those she merely wants him to read. as well as physical books vs. e-books on Pgs 42-43.  Mary Anne is a unique person for always feeling lucky and always seeing the best in every person and situation.  He  is blessed to have been her son.  I share the perspective about gratitude and writing prompt thank you notes on page 211.    

I could go on and on about this book, but really, if you are a reader and enjoy books, this is one you must read.   This is a fast read at only 326 pages.  A 5 ***** and  a keeper for me.   

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Gate House by Nelson DeMille

I read this book  over a month ago but just  catching up on some posting here.  I had not read any of De Mille's  books previously and based on my impression of  The Gate House am unlikely to read others.  A recent American Legion magazine featured him,  so I thought I might enjoy his books so when I  found this first edition, October 2008 at a book sale I picked it up.  It will go back to the book sale donation stack, all 674 pages. He is a prolific author and apparently popular.  The story seemed like it could be interesting fiction, of treachery told by John Sutter, a divorced man who sails off to England after his wife, Susan, has an affair with their mafia Don neighbor a client of John's and kills the Don.  They are both WASPs  and she, Susan is from old money family  which has seen better times. The first sentence on  the flap of the book cover, "DeMille  is as keen a social satirist as Edith Wharton." might have alerted me that I could avoid this book.  I am not fond of Wharton either.   Inside the hard cover, front and back is a nice map of  the "Gold Coast of Long Island, New York" depicting the Atlantic Ocean, neighborhoods on Long Island, etc.  That is interesting and reminiscent of older literature where often the insides of the covers had artwork.  

Initially the writing  enticed me, ..pg 6..."The presence of death in the coffin should compel us
into some profound thoughts about the shortness of life and make us rethink our many disappointments, resentments, and betrayals that we can't seem to let go of.  Unfortunately, however, we usually take these things to the grave with us, or the the grave of the person we couldn't forgive in life."   Pg. 14..."We all have trouble parting with things like this, but I can tell you, as a  lawyer and a man, no good can come of saving anything you wouldn't want your family or your enemies to see"  Pg. 83.."An individual passes through a continuum of time and space, but now and then you enter a warp that sucks you back into the past. You understand what's going on because you've been there before but that's no guarantee that you're going to get it right this time.  In fact, experience is just another word for baggage.  And memory carries the bags."    He is a good writer, descriptive, thoughtful.  

John has returned to  Long Island because he is the estate attorney for a   terminal  elderly client and curious if he can restructure a relationship with his adult children after the tragedy and divorce.  There is intrigue with the Bellarosa, Mafia family as the son, Anthony has a vendetta against Susan, who was acquitted in the murder. While the story was rather interesting and some of John's comments to himself or thoughts are borderline comical and certainly satirical, the book is too long for the story.  The characters are  well described and  life like; his ex-in laws, Susan's parents are timelessly troublesome.  But,  I grew tired of the author's inclusion of sexual activities.  It was as though DeMille needed to achieve massive volume and to do so he had to include the sexual romps and details.  He could eliminate most of that and still have a good story line.  However,  I can find so many more interesting books to read that De Mille is not an author whom I'll repeat reading. 

Despite good writing, characters, and story line, I give this book only 2  at most 3 stars.  *** 

   

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls

A friend bought and lent me this  new novel by Jeannette Walls, author of Half Broke Horses  and her memoir, The Glass Castle and I read it in a few evenings.  I had not yet noticed it on the  best seller's lists but it is guaranteed to be there,  according to the NY Times review,  "  There’s a reason crazy mothers appear in fiction more often than semicolons. Write what you know, as they say.
Jeannette Walls established her bona fides in the unreliable parent department with her memoir, “The Glass Castle,” a case study in how to survive a chaotic childhood and get into Barnard."   http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/30/books/review/the-silver-star-by-jeannette-walls.html
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Jeannette has another hit with this story of young sisters, Bean and Liz being raised by a not all there single mother, Charlotte, who keeps a step ahead or behind, depending on the day, of her demons and dreams  by moving constantly around the country dragging the girls behind her.   Charlotte is an aspiring singer, actress, songwriter so it is not happenstance that they are in California. But Charlotte,  who must have authored her own book on dysfunction,  has a bad habit of leaving the two girls alone to fend for themselves with a refrigerator  freezer stocked with chicken pot pies and  supposedly enough money for them to get by until her return.  This time though, Bean age  12 and Liz  age15  decide they can sit there no longer and wait for their disappearing Mom to return, so they leave a note and board a bus to Byer, Virginia, Mom's hometown.  There they plan to visit unexpectedly and unannounced Mom's widower brother,  their Uncle Tinsley Holladay and wait for word from Mom who is off pursuing a fabricated career. Bean is the narrator of this story although Liz has a way with words and  is fond of reading Edgar Allan Poe. But when school starts Bean adjusts easier than Liz who becomes withdrawn.   As they make their way around the formerly  prosperous but  now  run down mill town they determine they  will have to find work to supplement living with Uncle Tinsley.  Jerry Maddox, the  manager of the mill who ousted Uncle Tinsley when the mill was sold is the only person who hires them, and that provides another twist.  For the first time in her life Bean sees at  photo of her dead  father and learns about Charlie Wyatt through her Aunt Al and uncle Clarence, Charlie's brother and that  provides the title of the book, because Charlie was a war hero who was awarded  a silver star.  The girls have different fathers and Mom never said anything about Charlie.   Mom has contact with them now and then by phone but is now occupied with settling in  New York to make her career on Broadway, sometimes Mom calls sometimes she does not.  Bean also gains friendship of her cousin, Joe, All & Clarence's son despite chasing him from the orchard.    The story also  includes two emus, Eunice and Eugene, whom the girls acquire because their owner  decides he cannot keep them home on the farm.  One very amusing section is  the emu  pasture break out and their subsequent capture by lasso.   The girls are enrolled in school that fall in Byer which is just being fully integrated which provides more challenges.  

T  The descriptive writing and  compelling characters whose experiences relate a gamut of emotions as does the story. including  comical,  pathetic, tragic, heroic, and unfathomable.  The dark side of evil and how it is overcome triumphantly after all sums up the tale.  Wall's writing continues to shine as do her characters and phrases.... She has a website at the publisher with other information and where an excerpt of the  book is available.   http://pages.simonandschuster.com/jeannettewalls

.I laughed on  pg 43 after they are in Byer, "you only wave at people you know,,,,you must be from CA"   that scenario reminded me of Jerry's now dead mother who upon returning here to her hometown in MN when we all moved from CA after our retirement had an adjustment being friendly and was stuck in unfriendliness.  

Here's advice from Cuz Joe,  page 256...."you don't stop fighting just because you start losing "

his novel is 4 **** and one that reads quickly.