Tuesday, January 17, 2017

January 2.0

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
An 84 year old woman steps out of her New York apartment on New Year's Eve 1984 and sets off on the walk of her life...literally.  As Lillian walks, we experience her past through her reminisces, her stories, the familiar places she sees, and the people she meets.  And oh my, the people she meets: the security guard at the docks, the young pregnant woman, the three young muggers.  These conversations are at times hilarious, but also pointed and rich in wisdom.  Yet, this entire book is so much more than just the story of an old woman; it is the story of any feminist who fought for her place at the table with the men, who tried and failed to live without love in her life, who struggled with depression and relationships and parenthood, and who lived her life with wit and her eyes wide open.  A phenom in the ad game, Lillian is reminiscent of a Dorothy Parker, with short sassy poems sprinkled throughout the book, showing her incisive intelligence about life and what people 'need' to have, or not.  Lillian reminds us, "The point of living in the world is just to stay interested." I loved, loved, loved this book - I only hope I can stay as 'interested' in life as our gal Lillian.

White Trash:  The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg
Waste. Rubbish. Clay eaters. Mudsill. Hillbilly. Trailer trash. Redneck.  Throughout the lifetime of America, these are the names given to the lower class white, the working poor, the rural inhabitants.  I confess, I chose to listen to this book in order to gain some understanding of the great shift that occurred in politics this last November. This book absolutely sheds light on that, but more importantly, it highlights the long history in our country of subjugating a class of people, of passing judgment due to income level, and of the struggles and prejudices against poor whites.  While there are some connections made to race, ultimately this is a book about just what the title states...white trash.  It is a dense tome, hundreds of pages long, and a bit dry in spots; I would highly recommend listening to it (great narrator).  Admittedly, I was less interested in the puritan and revolutionary time periods and was much more engrossed from 1850 and onward.  The 20th century was fascinating, with its focus on the eugenics movement, political figures whom we all know, and scandals that had more to do with social class than one would have guessed.  Who knew the movie Deliverance was such an iconic statement that still lives on today? Am I smarter after reading this book?  Absolutely.  Did it give me insight into a world in which I should have more empathy?  For sure.  Is the knowledge of our history necessary for further advancement in civil rights, the rights of the poor, the freedoms we all have been guaranteed in our founding documents?  Undoubtedly.  Therefore, this book is well worth the fifteen hours of listening.

The Girl Before by J.P. Delaney
My one plea to these authors/editors, is to STOP using the word "girl" in every freaking title.  We readers are not machines that are only attracted to a book because of a word in the title; give us good writing, complex characters, and a creative plot line, and we will read it.  Okay, now onto this book. Another thriller that will make us turn pages faster than Gone Girl and Girl on the Train?  Yes, it is good, yes it deserves the buzz surrounding it, and yes, Ron Howard should continue his task to bring it to the big screen, regardless of the fact that the title annoys me.  J.P. Delaney, a 'new' author, is a bit mysterious.  Listed as being a pseudonym for a best-selling fiction writer, it is obvious that he/she knows how to write a solid mystery.  The setting is London, with two parallel story lines driving the story:  Emma, a young woman from 'before' who is looking for a safe flat after being burgled and threatened at knife point in the flat she shares with her boyfriend, Simon; and Jane, the woman from 'now' who needs a sanctuary after having a stillborn child.  Enter the architect and owner of One Folgate Street, a flat offered for let with some invasive rules attached, and the story starts to go off in some creepy, mysterious, all together page-turning directions.  Twists and turns abound, some cynical yet kind police detectives come into play as do neighbors, co-workers, and an empathetic psychiatrist.  If you're looking for a great beach read, or a book to dive into on a cold rainy night, or just your next great thriller, I would highly recommend this one.

The Heavens May Fall by Allen Eskens
I loved Esken's first book , The Life We Bury, a classic mystery with rich characterization and suspenseful plot line.  In his latest book, he brings back some of the same characters and spins a new tale with some surprising twists and turns + it is not necessary whatsoever to read the first.  Still living in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, Detective Max Rupert has a new murder that needs solving - the stabbing of prominent attorney Ben Pruitt's wife.  The detective has a shady past with this attorney and is still suffering from his own wife's sudden death three years ago, which may or may not impair his judgment of this investigation.  His long-time poker buddy, Professor Sanden, decides to come out of retirement and defend an innocent husband being railroaded for his wife's murder.  It sounds like many of the other mysteries out in the market place today, but Eskens is an especially talented writer.  Not by pretty word choice or turn of phrase, but through his ability to get inside a character, to flush out the motivations, the desires both good and bad, and make the reader want to explore each person in more depth.  The plot drives this story, but the detective, the lawyers, even the research assistant makes us care about the direction of the story.  When you find yourself saying to your dog snuggled up next to you as you read, "Wow, didn't see that coming!", it's a good one:)  Highly recommend!

Dracula by Bram Stoker
Looking for a classic for your book club?  This could just be it.  While familiar with the basics of Dracula, having watched the Bela Lugosi classic years ago, as well as Dark Shadows of course,  this novel gives a much greater depth of knowledge into the beginning tale of the vampire and also defines the origins for so many novels of today.  Yes, Twilight rips off a great many of the ideas from Bram Stoker, as does Justin Cronin's Passage trilogy, and even a little Stephen King.  The original characters such as Van Helsing and the Harkers read as a bit stereotypical, yet that was the style back in the 19th century.  It is surprising, therefore, the blood and violence found in this book; it is definitely not for the faint-hearted and made my hair stand on end as I read in the dark of night.  It is long, and a bit more descriptive in the beginning than what I can usually take, but I foresee a spirited and in-depth book club conversation around its many themes and it's diary-oriented plot line.

Two Days Gone by Randall Silvis
Another thriller, this one focuses on a grizzled, life-beaten, middle-aged detective in a small college town on Lake Erie.  A famous best-selling author, who happens to be a writing professor as well, is missing while his wife and three young children are found butchered to death in their home.  Nope, not a book for the faint-hearted.  The story plays out through both men's eyes. Tom Huston, the author, plays 'catch me if you can' in the woods, attempting to get food, shelter, and some assistance as we see his mind devolve.  Detective Ryan, who had a past friendly relationship with Huston, follows every lead, realizing as he pieces the story together, that perhaps the police have the wrong killer.  Ryan's past with his wife, the death of his son, his time on the vice squad all influence his actions.  Author Silvis uses his own prodigious knowledge of writing skill and poetry to imbibe this book with legitimacy as well as beautiful writing.  It is a solid page-turner, with some great twists throughout.  My only complaint is the following:  why, oh why, must we continue to be bombarded with all-male stories, continuing the myth of strong silent males who do all the saving, and weak females who are seen as good only for office assistants, mothers, or sex workers?  Seriously?  It is 2017 - I think we can move beyond the stereotypes.  Just my two cents:)

The Afterlife of Stars by Joseph Kertes
Before even opening this book, I was filled with hope:  creative plot idea (Hungary 1956), themes of freedom and familial bonds, and even a thumbs up from one of my favorite authors, Tim O'Brien (The Things They Carried).  Yet hope was dashed not far into this debut novel, and however more I read (yes, I did finish it), I could not find redeeming qualities.  First, while the idea of setting the story in Hungary during the fight for freedom is unique, it was severely under-developed.  Kertes does far more 'telling' of the story than 'showing,' leaving the reader with a great many questions and confusions.  The plot line reads like a pinball game...shoot the idea out there, have it ping-ping-ping against different historical figures, veering into places we do not care about, and glancing off thematic ideas with no development as it disappears into the hole.  It might have been saved with some rich character development, but alas the family members were two dimensional, flatter than paper dolls.  Even the two brothers who we should have been rooting for started out unlikable and annoying, and never convinced me they were other than shallow, thoughtless beings.  Perhaps if it had been told using two different time periods, before WWII and after, we could have felt, seen, heard, and empathized more with this family. Perhaps if the two boys had been flushed out, to help us understand the quirkiness of the older one, Attila, and the softness of the younger boy, inexplicably named Robert in a Jewish Hungarian family? Perhaps others are not so particular, but this book needed far more to gain my attention, my empathy, and my recommendation.

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