Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Dose of Random Randomness #4

- I think my department at work may have an advanced degree in Drama Production. And Stupidity. That too.

- I just finished the first whole book of short stories I've read in my entire life. Wait, maybe I'm lying. There might have been one other one. I didn't love them, but I did really like them which is a major step forward in my quest to like short stories.

- You would think that selecting a book of short stories for review would be foolhardy for someone as on the fence as I am about short stories. But why would I let reason and thinking stop me?

- I want to stop acquiring books at such an alarming rate, as in, I actually have an honest desire to stem the tide of incoming books. But then I get so depressed every day when I don't get any in the mail. Maybe I should keep getting books, open them up, keep them for a week, and then mail them back? Would that work, do you think?

- I wish I didn't live with people who love air conditioning as much as I love fresh air.

- I've been watching back episodes of Weeds on DVD. Tell me, please, where do they find this music? I finally got all the "little boxes" out of my head only to be replaced today by the disturbingly quirkly "Satan, Satan lend me a dollar." Now, there's a song I want to get caught singing in public.

- I think I'm ready for a little more randomness in my reading.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Cars From a Marriage by Debra Gallant

"I've always thought of cars as places to die. That's what high school driver's ed did to me."

That's the oh-so-catchy opening of Debra Gallant's tale of marriage as told through cars. We first meet Ivy Honeycutt just as she has transplanted herself from the Virginia of her upbringing to a New York City that's not quite made up of the Hollywood myths she'd imagined. When she attends a supposedly free open mic comedy night that ends with two $4 Diet Cokes she can't afford, she finds herself being rescued from humiliation and total meltdown by Ellis Halpern, a stand-up comedian and a rare New York City car owner.

Told in chapters alternating between Ivy's and Ellis's points of view, Cars From a Marriage follows the couple from their initial trip to meet Ellis's mother to their moving to suburban New Jersey to raise their two daughters, one serious and studious, the other pretty and precocious. The chapters, which move along chronologically but skip several years in between in favor of highlighting the more momentous events of the marriage, each begin with the car the couple happens to be driving during that time period, usually one forced on Ellis by Ivy's well-meaning Buick dealer father. Soon Ellis is in L.A. more and more often grooming new talent for his PR agency and Ivy is returning to writing school, and the couple's marriage is becoming something they'd never dreamed of.

Cars From a Marriage is a deceptively easy read with a serious story to tell. Gallant's writing flows easily from event to event and captures the nuances of a marriage that sows the seeds of its own struggle from its very first stages. The writing is uncomplicated, at times laugh out loud funny, at others terribly sad and ironic. The ease with which Cars From a Marriage reads would almost lead you to believe that it's a fluffy story, but it's certainly not. It's a far more serious story about a woman whose fears and insecurities have kept her from living and a man who loves his wife, but always envisioned a bit more for himself than a needy housewife, two kids, and the controlled chaos of suburbia.

Perhaps it was the easy, uncomplicated writing style that always had me expecting fluff when there was none to be had, that made it possible for the ending to catch me unawares. It was abrupt and not quite what I was expecting. I thought that the end of Ivy's story could have done with a bit more fleshing out, thought I also fear that had it been fleshed out, it might have taken the focus away from the marriage and put it only on her, which I don't think was the intent. Ultimately, though, despite the unexpected end, I enjoyed Cars From a Marriage. It's a compulsively readable and honest exploration of an imperfect marriage that is as smart and perceptive as it is entertaining.

(Thanks to the author for sending me a copy for review.)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Nory Ryan's Song by Patricia Reilly Giff

I have a problem. I keep starting series. I was never much of a series reader, rarely the sort to be on the lookout for that second, third, fourth book. It just seemed a little too much work, not to mention too much of a committment for me! Unfortunately (or is it fortunately?) this year seems to be the year of the series for me. I've read more than a few series starters this summer, mostly unintentionally. It's often not until I finish a book that I realize it's got a sequel and sequel to the sequel and a sequel to the sequel's sequel. It's a frustrating place to be in because I want to know what happens, but I also want to get my book acquiring under control, but what to do in the face of all the series books?? With Nory Ryan's Song, I've managed to do it again!

Nory Ryan's Song is the first in a trilogy about an Irish family leaving Ireland for Brooklyn, New York amid the catastrophe of the potato famine. Nory Ryan and her family live in an Irish glen by the sea. There they are oppressed by an English landlord who is always seaching for the simplest excuse to evict his tenants to make way for grazing sheep, a far more profitable venture than collecting rent from struggling Irish families who are barely scraping by on the income from their potato fields.

When, in 1845, the potato crop succombs to a blight that rots the potatoes before they can be harvested, it doesn't take long for the landlord to come collecting the rent and finding money wanting, to begin evicting families who have nowhere to go. As food becomes scarcer and their neighbors begin to starve, Nory and her friend Sean Red Mallon know that there is one hope for them: to follow their older siblings to Brooklyn in America and a better life.

Nory Ryan's Song is great historical fiction for younger readers that will introduce them to a crushing time in Irish history and opens a window into the Irish immigrant experience. Even as an adult, I really appreciated this tale of strength in suffering at a time when the only way to save yourself was to plunge into the unknown with only hope to sustain you. The quickness with which Nory and her family as well as her neighbors go from ekeing out a living to starving to death was a revelation even to me. The cruelty of English landlords and their reasons for it was unbelievably despicable.

Nory is a great narrator and perfect glimpse into this time when, even as a child, you had to be strong and self-sacrificing to survive. Her love for her home and her neighbors are evident, but so are her hopes and dreams for an almost mythical better future in an America where, people say, the streets are paved with diamonds. Nory's life and the difficult choices she must make are a heartrending and convincing, as well as accurate, picture of the immigrant experience.

Nory Ryan's Song is a sad but also so hopeful story. I'm totally in love with Nory, and I know, despite my determination to stop buying books with such reckless abandon, that its sequel, Maggie's Door, is in my future. I can't wait to see what the journey to America has in store for the captivating Irish characters Giff has created to fill in the gaps in the story of her own family's origins.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Dose of Random Randomness #3

- This is what I do when I should be writing book reviews or at least typing book reviews. You realize that, right?

- Have you guys read David Sedaris's piece in the August 9th issue of the New Yorker? (If you haven't and you're a subscriber you should.) It seems especially timely given the recent incident with the flight attendant who'd had enough. It's hilarious and intelligent and true in a way I would never have thought of myself. I should probably really read this guy's books. Also, if I'm not careful people are going to starting thinking I actually read my New Yorker issues instead of letting them pile up in dusty corners....

- I think last night was the first time in a long time that I stayed up well past midnight to finish a book I couldn't put down. Neal Shusterman's Full Tilt, if you were wondering.

- That last item results in my now being "officially" 2 months ahead of my reading pace from last year. I know that seems really good, but you should probably not congratulate me yet because last year I set the reading quantity bar so low that it's possible I could have morphed into a drooling idiot at the beginning of this year and still surpassed it. Okay, yes, fine, I am sort of proud of myself. Sort of. You can congratulate me if you want to. ;-)

- In in an effort to break out of my book reviewing funk, I tried handwriting them. It worked because I churned out 3 half-decent but in need of polishing reviews in, like, an hour. It didn't work because I've, uh, only managed to type one up and now am behind three reviews again already but actually more than three reviews if you count the ones I haven't typed yet. Heh.

- I need a task master. Self-motivating from home is definitely not my thing. This is why I need a "real" job with a boss that's not myself.

- Am I the only one that often feels like doing things like showering and making the bed are a waste of time? I still do the one, but I totally gave up on the other a long time ago. And no I didn't stop showering. Come on now, don't be ridiculous........

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Vera Wright Trilogy by Elizabeth Jolley

Finally, with the help of a pen and a notebook I found my book reviewing mojo, unfortunately, just before falling into a dreadful life funk that actually rendered me incapable of simply typing up all this delicious blog content that I actually wrote in advance of when I need to post it. I've been reading pretty consistently this week, but only because it provides the sort of escapism I feel like my life is sorely in need of just now.

Now, enough of me and my everpresent #blogfail monologue. We've nearly forgotten the good news. I'm reviewing books starting with this daunting trilogy review. I read The Vera Wright Trilogy quite a while ago. June, maybe. It's been sitting on my desk laughing at my helpless efforts to summarize and review it ever since. It defies my best efforts even now, since I'm concerned that my review makes it sound like I was pretty "meh" about the book, but really I wasn't. I liked it. It was just...long. And defies adequate reviewing.

Originally published individually, The Vera Wright Trilogy is Persea Books' compilation of celebrated Australian author Elizabeth Jolley's three autobiographical novels My Father's Moon, Cabin Fever, and The Georges' Wife. Vera Wright is a complex character. She wants love and to belong somewhere but never seems to find her place. She is easily taken in by captivating people that wander into and out of her life, people who have the passion and charisma that Vera always seems to find lacking in herself. She bounces from friend to friend and one romantic entanglement to another as she tries to define herself and carve out a place to belong.

The trilogy follows Vera as she leaves school to become a nurse during World War II, as she bears a doctor's illegitimate child, as she falls in love with both men and women who are forbidden to her. All three stories are told through a haze of memory as if events and people are being plucked from her subconscious and replayed and reconsidered from a distance. The result is a genuine and compelling, if occasionally circuitous, narrative. The lack of a straightforward chronology and an occasional repetitiveness can be confusing, but ultimately, it all works together to create a tone that encompasses the reflective nature of the book.

We are taken along for the ride as Vera examines herself from beyond the immediacy of her life's mistakes and all those events that she can't quite decide were mistakes at all. Jolley's story told through Vera's eyes is spare, crisp, and wise, and The Vera Wright Chronicles reads like a classic opening a window on the life of a woman trying to find her place in England and in Australia during and after World War II.

At more than 500 pages, The Vera Wright Trilogy is a work that requires some patience and perhaps more attentiveness than I've been accustomed to giving books lately. That said, it's a beautiful character study. The uniting of all three works into one volume does great things for the consistent development of this intriguing character. Vera is a character that despite her many flaws and poor decisions, I could relate to on an almost visceral level, and a character that we come to know deeply by the end of the trilogy. Despite her attention to Vera, Jolley never gives her many supporting characters the short shrift, rather she draws clear and penetrating portraits of each of them and gives us reason to see why, however bad they might be for her, Vera can't help but be attracted to them, and have the course of her life altered by them.

The Vera Wright Trilogy is a rich and layered reading experience. It's a brilliant study of character and memory. It's a book to let yourself get lost in.

(My copy provided by the folks at Meryl Zegarek PR. Thanks!)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

"Waiting On" Wednesday: How To Read the Air

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

How To Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu
Riverhead, October 14


Dinaw Mengestu's first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, earned the young writer comparisons to Bellow, Fitzgerald, and Naipaul, and garnered ecstatic critical praise and awards around the world for its haunting depiction of the immigrant experience. Now Mengestu enriches the themes that defined his debut with a heartbreaking literary masterwork about love, family, and the power of imagination, which confirms his reputation as one of the brightest talents of his generation.

One early September afternoon, Yosef and Mariam, young Ethiopian immigrants who have spent all but their first year of marriage apart, set off on a road trip from their new home in Peoria, Illinois, to Nashville, Tennessee, in search of a new identity as an American couple. Soon, their son, Jonas, will be born in Illinois. Thirty years later, Yosef has died, and Jonas needs to make sense of the volatile generational and cultural ties that have forged him. How can he envision his future without knowing what has come before? Leaving behind his marriage and job in New York, Jonas sets out to retrace his mother and father's trip and weave together a family history that will take him from the war-torn Ethiopia of his parents' youth to his life in the America of today, a story-real or invented- that holds the possibility of reconciliation and redemption.

What are you "waiting on" this Wednesday?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Dose of Random Randomness #2

- I finished two books in the the two first days of August, and on the third day I dropped the ball only finishing a few chapters of a new book. Typical. ;-P

- The disadvantage to reading at such a pace is that I just got halfway caught up on reviews, and now I'm as behind as ever.

- After almost three years of book blogging, I've finally compiled an index of all the books I've reviewed on Leafing Through Life, organized by author. I didn't check the links. They could all not work, and I'd never know. Look for the one organized by title in about three years. In the meantime, if you want some free linkage, check it out and let me know if you've reviewed any of the books I have, and I'll link your review from mine. This, I might also complete within the next three years.

- In the completion of said project I realized A) my inner completist resents that there are letters without reviews beneath them and B) I'm only 5 reviews away from my 100th. It seems like that should be cause for some sort of celebration, but I have no idea of what sort.

- Cannoli from Mike's in Boston's North End are, I'm pretty sure, reason enough to move back there. That and the Goodwill store in Davis Square that has more cheap books than most used book stores. They put our Goodwill store to shame.

- Reading historical fiction about Ireland always makes me wonder when and how and where my Irish ancestors ended up here. Unfortunately, I'm far too lazy and preoccupied with other things to actually go about finding out. Man, I'd never make it here from Ireland.

- Reading historical fiction about the Irish potato famine also reminds me of the statues of starving Irish immigrants near one of the places I used to work. Not only is it it a bit bizarre to have statues of such things, despite the historical significance, it is even more bizarre the amount of smiling tourists posing for pictures with them.

- This is all not nearly random enough, so I feel a crushing need to tell you now that I once bought a plastic tarantula at a toy store in London for the equivalent of 12 dollars just to prank my best friend's boyfriend. It scared the hell out of him. I still have the spider. His name is Herbert. What's scary about that?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Heart of Lies by M.L. Malcolm

Leo Hoffman has a gift for languages, and that's where his problems begin. As Heart of Lies begins, Leo has contented himself with using his talent to coddle the rich guests of the Budapest hotel where he works as a concierge, pleased to have a steady job in the wake of World War I. Little does Leo know, when the father of an old flame approaches him about a meeting with a group of powerful men, that his life is about to be turned totally upside down. Within a few days, Leo has met (at first sight) his one true love, been unintentionally involved in a major crime, and comitted a major crime of his own. With his life and his new love in jeopardy Leo flees to the one place he knows where no one will ask questions about his past, Shanghai. Leo will do anything to make the happily ever after he promised Martha, his young German lover, but when the Chinese civil war rocks the international settlements of Shanghai, Leo's carefully constructed life begins to crumble.

There are two halves to the whole of Heart of Lies, the love story half and the international intrigue half, and one is vastly more compelling than the other. Leo getting caught in the treacherous web of Hungarian fascists, making his way to Shanghai and building his fortune through precarious business dealings with the most dangerous of men, and his ascent to social prominence among the elite of Shanghai are the stuff of great storytelling. The characters Leo is up against are deliciously evil, and Leo is a sympathetic, if conflicted and not altogether righteous, hero as he navigates a new world that never seems quite far enough from his former one. Malcolm brings many locales to glittering life from Paris at Christmas to the wild contradictions that made up early 20th century Shanghai.

He took Martha's hand in his and led her back to the all but empty dance floor. They paused for an instant to catch the rhythm of the music. Then with one quick step backward, Leo and Martha floated into the dance. They moved in effortless unison, gliding in swift circles around the room, stepping and turning as though the music emanated from them, as if their dance granted the spectators permisson to share, for a moment, the magic of their special union.

Unfortunately, the love story didn't live up to the standard set by the rest of the book. Leo spends only a day or two with Martha, but it only takes hours for him to decide that she is the only one for him. While the idea of a love at first sight tale beginning in Paris at Christmastime is terribly romantic, Leo and Martha's love story comes off as shallow at times and as overdramatically unrealistic at others. It is not until the two reunite in Shanghai and the occasional reality begins to set in amid their wedded bliss that the couple begins to seem genuine. For the first portion of the book, the two main characters are much more compelling and realistic apart than they are together. When they come together, all rationality falls away and the loving platitudes and sweet nothings they level at each other border on the cringeworthy.

Fortunately, however, the history and the intrigue come out on top and render Heart of Lies an overall good read that I found difficult to put down until I'd turned the last page.

(Thanks to Nicole at The Book Report Network for providing a copy for review.)