Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Review: "The Color of Light" by Helen Maryles Shankman

Title: The Color of Light
AuthorHelen Maryles Shankman
Publisher: Stony Creek Press
Date of Publication: October 31, 2013
Pages: 575

How I Heard About It:I'm reviewing "The Color of Light" as part of the book's extended tour, hosted by TLC Book Tours. Thank you to the publisher for the review copy!

Two Sentence Summary: It's the early nineties at the American Academy of Art, a school known for its unique adherence and reverence towards all things classical. When a simple sketch by art student Tessa piques the interest of Rafe (the handsome, Byronic head of the school) for reasons rooted in his past, the book takes a exciting turns for both the historical and the fantastic in equal measure.

"When I'm asleep, dreaming drowsed and warm,
They come, the homeless ones, the noiseless dead.
While the dim and charging breakers of the storm
Rumble and drone and bellow overhead,
Out of the gloom they gather about my bed.
They whisper to my heart; their thoughts are mine.
-Siegfried Sassoon"

Things I Think: "Atmospheric" is the word dying to come out of my mouth every time I think or talk about this book. Shankman has placed "The Color of Light" in the familiar cross-section of an elite art scene and a community's menacing underbelly, but the stunning creativity with which she's infused the plot make neither of these things feel rote. 

From the gorgeous descriptions of the school ("white-washed walls thirty feet soar[ing] from ceiling to floor...moveable white walls and white drapes... dozens of fluorescent lamps tricked out with reflectors..." to the invocation of two distinct eras (the early 90s in New York City, as well as the Holocaust, the book carries a tangible feeling of suspense (one my mind associates with both the isolation and yearning of autumn). 

I'm usually a "characters" girl, so it feels strange/new to be this obsessively impressed by a general ambiance. That's not to say that the characters aren't riveting as well. Again, Shankman pushes against a potentially rusty trope of current fiction (vampires) and infuses it with an element of legitimate historicism that makes the topic compelling (HA!).

This would be a fun read for the holidays. Despite the epic page count, it's easy to fly through and definitely entertaining.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Review: "The Explanation for Everything" by Lauren Grodstein

Title: The Explanation for Everything
Author: Lauren Grodstein
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Date of Publication: September 3, 2013
Pages: 352

How I Heard About It: I found this book through Netgalley, and publisher Algonquin Books kindly provided a digital copy for review. 

Two Sentence Summary: College professor Andy Waite has built his life, his research, and his academic syllabus around a fixation on his wife's murder by a young drunk driver named Oliver. When student Melissa recruits him to advise her independent study on intelligent design (an "anti-evolutionary creationism"), Andy finds that his spirituality and attempts at recovery are called into question and, for the first time, fall under a different type of microscope.

Author Lauren Grodstein

"He had never grown used to her absence, but he had learned to endure it, and to ignore her ghost, who was often waiting for him around the corner, or behind him in the office when he thought he was alone. He used to talk to her; during his first several years in New Jersey he talked to her several times a day. She would smirk or nod or roll her eyes, as expressive in death as she had been in life."

Things I Think: Very rarely do I dive into a new read without any background info. It's a strange delight, but one I don't often feel inclined to experience. (When you have a "TBR" pile as big as I do, taking a risk on the unknown can sometimes be a saddening loss of time.) I also typically avoid books with religious tones (over- or under-), so prior knowledge of the plot would have perhaps caused me to stay away. In the case of "The Explanation for Everything," the risk was well worth it.

Making morality a key character in a novel is a dangerous choice, but also brave: one false move can drive away 50% of a writer's audience in a heartbeat. So how to straddle, delicately, the infamous fence between creationism and evolution? Grodstein's tactic is to represent both sides equally. Characters in each camp are equally redemptive, equally flawed, perfectly balanced in terms of basic, believable, humanity.  Further, characters like Sheila (Andy's friend and neighbor) are realistically indifferent, do not seem affected by or interested in the debate. As a result, there is no silent champion. The space Grodstein creates is safe for a spectator, free from proselytizing or judgment.

The individuals, unique in their circumstances, come into focus because of the great debate, instead of the other way around, and this is what makes "The Explanation..." riveting. 

For everyone in my neck of the woods, Lauren will be making a few stops in San Francisco on her nation-wide book tour:

October 16
Google event with Adam Mansbach
345 Spear Street, San Francisco CA
Time TBD
October 18
Book Passage
51 Tamal Vista Boulevard, Corte Madera CA
7 pm
October 19
Women’s National Book Association Panel
Books Inc. Opera Plaza, 601 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco CA
1 pm
October 21
The Booksmith: In-conversation event with Adam Mansbach
1644 Haight Street, San Francisco CA
7:30 pm

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Review: "The Fountain of St. James Court..." by Sena Jeter Naslund

TitleThe Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman
Author: Sena Jeter Nasland
Publisher: William Morrow
Date of Publication: September 17, 2013
Pages: 448

How I Heard About It: My interest was greatly piqued when TLC Book Tours asked me if I would review this hot-off-the-presses novel by best-selling author Sena Jeter Naslund. Sena taught a creative writing workshop while I was an undergraduate, the first of many roundtable workshop classes I would go on to join. 

Two Sentence Summary: The novel weaves together the lives of two female artists in different time periods. Kathryn is a novelist of today in her sixties, living in Louisville, KY and wrapping up the first draft of her most recent creation; Elisabeth is a post French Revolution portrait painter known for her humanizing portrayals of key historical figures from her era. 

Sena Jeter Naslund
Things I Think: This is a very different type of review for me, as "The Fountain..." is the first book in a while I can chalk up as a DNF (Did Not Finish)*. There are a few reasons for this. 

Naslund's prose is uniquely hers: a lyrical, lengthy treatment of sentences; a quietness of plot and pace; intense dedication to three-dimensional description. These stylistic pieces feel consistent with other work of hers that I've read (primarily "Ahab's Wife", which garnered her first big bout of attention and, reputedly, no small amount of money.) 

In the case of "The Fountain..." these elements felt ramped up to a degree that was distracting. The lyricism of the sentences and descriptive pieces, for example, felt almost florid to excess. 

The plot, on the other hand, had little meat on its bones. Kathryn's storyline in particular experienced this lack of momentum, a single action or thought often meriting an entire chapter of its own. Coupled with the intricacy of the sentence structures themselves, the story lost its breath and lost its connection with me.

I hate abandoning books, but the length of this novel plus my difficulty finding purchase in its pages made me move on despite reservations. 

On to the next! 

*I've decided not to post a rating, since I didn't make it to the end of this one.*

Monday, August 26, 2013

Review & Giveaway: "Mystery Girl" by David Gordon

TitleMystery Girl
AuthorDavid Gordon
PublisherNew Harvest
Date of Publication: July 16, 2013
Pages: 304

How I Heard About It: I'm reviewing "Mystery Girl" as part of the book's extended tour, hosted by TLC Book Tours. Thank you to the publisher for the review copy! They have also generously provided one giveaway copy for one of my readers. Leave a comment on this post and I'll enter you into a my super official drawing in which I write your names on post-it notes.

Two Sentence Summary: Sam is a failing novelist, a connoisseur of film and literature, whose life begins to unravel when wife Lala announces that she wants to leave him. In an attempt to land a stable job, he finds himself the (un)-official assistant to genius and madman Solar Lonsky, who sends Sam deep into a case involving a mysterious woman, whose punk rock life and famed underground-artistic-collaborations Sam must retroactively track to untangle Lonsky's mystery.

"That's why almost all books about obsession are to some degree artful lies: real obsession, thinking that one thought over and over forever, is so boring it would be unreadable. In this regard, all of literature's great maniacas of love, Stendhal, Miller, Hamsun, Nabokov, even Proust (although he pushes it farthest for sure), distort the endlessness of true fixation, the monotony of pain and desire, as they transform it into pleasure, into art."

Things I Think: This book is a treasure trove for the literary nerd. Protagonist Sam is insanely well read, and while his ability to draw Proust parallels has failed to serve him well in life, the referential constellations he creates make this a geekily enjoyable read. I found myself flagging many of the film and book references to follow up with later; they all play a crucial role in the plot, and heavily inform Gordon's stylistic choices.  (In press releases, the author calls out Hitchcock's "Vertigo" as particularly influential.)

Gordon's characters are fascinating in their wackiness, and he has successfully fleshed out their back stories with enough intricacy to make their oddities fully believable. Self-appointed detective Solar Lonsky is the finest example of this impressive character work.  Morbidly obese and agoraphobic, his choice to hire Sam as his eyes, ears and legs in the outer world makes perfect sense. Lonsky veers in and out of manic episodes (which inevitably land him in psychiatric lockdown) but maintains a firm grasp of the "mystery girl's" case he is so desperate to solve. 

For a mystery novel to be written with such literary diction and affection for the academic was a definite surprise for me, and it was certainly welcome. I plan to immediately follow up this read with Gordon's award-winning debut novel, "The Serialist."

Monday, August 19, 2013

Review: "Zinksy the Obscure" by Ilan Mochari

Title: Zinsky the Obscure
Author: Ilan Mochari
Publisher: Fomite
Date of Publication: April 15, 2013
Pages: 342

How I Heard About It: I'm reviewing "Zinsky" as part of the book's extended tour, hosted by TLC Book Tours. Thank you to the author for the review copy!

Two Sentence Summary: Narrated by a brilliantly neurotic young man (Ariel Zinsky) with an entrepreneurial spirit (though misguided and dangerous at times), "Zinsky" is a record of massive failure, flux, and fiscal triumphs. The (im-) balance between deep interpersonal baggage with an obsessive desire to create a (football expert's) legacy creates an addictive tension; coupled with Mochari's consistent stylistic choices, it's an impressive read. 

"Oh readers, I must confess - the naive 22-year-old Zinsky still believed the pendulum of romantic karma would swing in his favor! He had a divination of deserving idyllic coupling because of all he'd suffered. Does it sound corny? Naive? Or worse - typical? Perhaps I should have known better."

"A successful Guide could make me the Dickensian hero of my own life - could provide indisputable evidence that all my beatings and sufferings and subsequent musings had amounted to something: I'd have risen from my circumstances and triumphed. I'd have earned the right to guiltlessly share my story as a tale of valor."

Things I Think: The comparisons other reviewers have made to Dickens, or to "A Confederacy of Dunces," are entirely accurate, both stylistically and thematically. Mochari's diction and lexicon in "Zinsky" hearken back to more classic literature, and the bursts of dark humor and self-deprecation continually made me think of similar loops in "Tristram Shandy." To have found a voice like this still exists, in our generation, is as much a relief as it is enjoyable.

The narrator is compelling in his realism - nothing is sugar-coated here, readers! Paternal abuse suffered by the narrator, mishaps of puberty and sexual encounters, ultimately selfish decisions that will become closeted skeletons ... We are spared nothing when it comes to gory detail, and though Zinsky sports no shortage of flaws, his willingness to "own up" in his account allows us trust his tales. 

I am absolutely looking forward to more work from this first-time novelist.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Review: "Something Pretty, Something Beautiful" by Eric Barnes

Title: Something Pretty, Something Beautiful
AuthorEric Barnes
PublisherOutpost 19
Date of Publication: June 1, 2013
Pages: 262

How I Heard About It:I'm reviewing this as part of the book's extended tour over at TLC Book Tours.  Also, Eric's going to be in San Francisco this Tuesday at Green Apple Books doing a reading and signing, so if you're in the area.... swing by!

Two Sentence Summary: Brian Porter narrates the intensely dark saga of his high school years, a four year period that wreaks of violence and destruction as his group of friends becomes tangled up with the seemingly sociopathic enigma Will Wilson. The plot weaves between present and past, toying with ideas of memory and perception and landing heavily on the fallout created from years of driving, at hundreds of miles per hour, headfirst into mayhem.

Things I Think: This is the kind of book you read with a constant grimace on your face, gritting your teeth so hard your jaw feels like it might explode by the time you get to the last page. Watching a group of teenage boys self-destruct under the tutelage of a peer pressure master isn't a new topic (think "Clockwork Orange" set in modern day Tacoma) but the eerie quietude, the smiling-ness with which the characters execute atrocity, makes "Something Pretty..." a disaster tale all its own. 

What's more, Barnes plays with time in a way that makes us uncertain what we know, down to whether or not the characters themselves have been fabricated, drug-induced hallucinations, or if Brian Porter's memories are concrete and reliable. 

Read this and feel better about the bullshit you pulled in high school. Read this and look around you and be glad you're not dead at the bottom of a gulch because of a dare, a prank, you couldn't refuse. I lost a night of sleep after I finished this, mostly feeling electric with relief to not be any of the people in this book.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Review: "Indiscretion" by Charles Dubow

Title: Indiscretion
AuthorCharles Dubow
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Date of Publication: July 9, 2013
Pages: 400

How I Heard About It: Thanks so much to the publisher and TLC Book Tours for providing a free review copy. More info about the rest of the book blog tour can be found here.

Two Sentence Summary: A group of wealthy friends vacation in the Hamptons for the summer.  The dynamic of their social sphere begins a downward spiral when young, gorgeous Claire becomes a part of the infrastructure and sets her sights on (married) author Harry Winslow.

"He was not hard to love. And she, like so many of the young, was looking for a shortcut, an edge over the competition, always in a hurry, not yet realizing there is no benefit in speeding up the journey, that the destination is not the point but merely part of the process."


Things I Think: This is not an unfamiliar story: a perfect couple (Maddy and Harry Winslow), completely content in their marriage and revered by their peers; the unexpected entrance of a sweet young thing, who at first worships the pair as mentors but falls decidedly in love with the husband; the husband's seemingly epic struggle to resist, his ultimate failure, and the resultant fireworks of disaster when everything inevitably comes to light.

For this reason alone, I nearly failed to complete "Indiscretion." I feel like I've read this story, or seen it performed, dozens upon dozens of times. Little about Dubow's use of this classic formula made it unique from any other rendition of the age-old midlife crisis affair saga, and the unfolding of anticipated event after anticipated event occurred so slowly that sticking with this book was a struggle. 

In the last fifty pages or so, we are finally granted a left-turn from the plodding plot. But it takes so long to get to this meaty plot point, I almost didn't make it. 

The reason I hung on was Dubow's beautiful prose. His sentences are perfectly crafted, his vocabulary impeccable. Additionally, his narration choices (which continue to be compared to those of "The Great Gatsby") are a point of interest. Dubow clearly has an immense amount of technical skill, but in this case, it over-shone the novel's attempts at creativity. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Pulitzer Winner's Newest Novella: Enon

Title: Enon
Author: Paul Harding
Publisher: Random House
Date of Publication: September 10, 2013 
Pages: 256

How I Heard About It: When my mom sent me a copy of Tinkers (which went on to win the 2010 Pulitzer Prize) in the mail one day, I had no idea how hard I was about to fall for Paul Harding. Recently Enon, to be released in September, became available for advanced review on Netgalley and I pounced. 

I inserted the key into the keyhole and opened the door. The old air fell out of the clock, dry, held in the cubic shape of the case for who knows how many years until I opened the door and it collapsed out into the contemporary atmosphere, distinct and nearly colonial for a moment and then subsumed, and I wondered how old it was, if it contained any of Simon Willard's breath.

Two Sentence Summary: Continuing the exquisite family narrative begun in Tinkers, Enon is a poetic meditation on a year of Charlie Crosby's life as he struggles through a grief that seems endless, cyclical. A violent, life-altering incident instantly destroys Charlie's family, and, left alone to make meaning of the horrific event, the protagonist's pain leads him through a surreal landscape of isolation, addiction, and hallucinatory attempts towards reconciliation.

Things I Think: The master of quietude, "indie darling" Paul Harding has written another book in which atmosphere is king. Beyond the charming but eerie setting that completely invaded my imagination and dreams for days, the mood (equal parts somber and surreal) becomes as crucial to the reading of Enon as any plot point. In essence, this meditation on grief is a one-man ballet of self-destruction. Charlie pushes on the invisible boundary between living and dead, uncertain as to which side he should inhabit.  But for a narrative that is so completely devastating, it is wrought with such beautiful prose that the overall effect renders awe in the reader. 

A poet's prose-writer, Harding's extended metaphors basically (no hyperbole) slay me.

The obsidian girl moves through the trees at night. She moves across the fairway of the golf course, near the road, by the stone wall that acts as the hood for the footlights to the stage. She is all but invisible, the girl of black glass, appearing only as a wobbly blur. She is a dark lens. Through her, the dark underpinnings of the world are visible, but they turn whoever might see them to stone, or to ice, or to salt, or to marsh grass. 

This is literary fiction at its finest. Paul Harding, I will forever read anything you ever write. 

And I'm just now realizing the last 3 books I've reviewed have been 5's, which is strange for me but also makes me aware of the fact that I'm getting better at "choosing wisely." 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Review: "Flight Behavior" by Barbara Kingsolver

Title: Flight Behavior
AuthorBarbara Kingsolver
Date Published: June 4, 2013
Pages: 464 Pages

How I Heard About It: TLC Book Tours and the publisher kindly provided an advance reader's copy for review in hardback.

Two Sentence Summary: Dellarobia Turnbow, a 28 year old mother of two and farmer's wife, has begun to feel an overwhelming urge to escape her increasingly narrow Appalachian life. Just as she is about to throw in the towel, to seek out upheaval for the sake of mere change, she discovers an environmental anomaly (part miracle, part bleak omen of a failing planet) that unleashes a flurry of media attention, scientific investigations, and unavoidable insight into her community and herself.

"She was embarrassed to invite these people into her house, that was the long and short of it.  A man living in a motor vehicle, the others maybe rooming next to a meth lab, but still Dellarobia couldn't bear how they would see her life. Like the country-music diner they called "vile." If these kids didn't know a zipper could be replaced, they surely had not seen the likes of her Corelle plates and stained carpet and pillow strewn rooms.  

Her every possession was either unbreakable, or broken."

Things I Think: For innumerable reasons, this novel is going to be one of the best books of 2013.  Prolific writer Barbara Kingsolver (author of 7 other novels, 3 nonfiction books, and even a collection of poetry) has certainly lived up to her reputation as an iconic literary figure of our era. 

From a personal perspective, I was immediately attached to the story because it is one to which I can relate. Dellarobia and I are the same age, and I have spent a great deal of time in the environment in which she exists. The beauty of rural, Appalachian foothill communities, coupled with the stifling lack of diversity and opportunity, is a juxtaposition with which I am both familiar and have occasionally struggled. Kingsolver's capability to illuminate the geographic location is no surprise, as she herself was raised in rural Kentucky. Her ability to write with the voice of a 28 year old "woman of today" was absolutely impressive to me; the author has proven, both within this one book and over the arc of her writing career, that she can convincingly adopt specific lexicons to create realism in her characters. 

There is a beautiful undercurrent of spirituality that runs throughout the novel.  Admittedly, I often shy away from "spiritual quest" narratives, but in this case, it evolves with masterful delicacy.  Dellarobia's increasing involvement in a natural phenomenon on her family's property is a gateway into a much larger consciousness, both ecological and humanitarian.  The escape she needed from her established path arrives, though in a form she would have never anticipated: millions of monarch butterflies, heralding the undeniable arrival of climate change on our planet.  

This is a book I was sad to finish. Thank goodness there is such a vast Kingsolver catalogue which I can continue to explore. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Review & Giveaway: "Our Love Could Light the World" by Anne Leigh Parrish

Title: Our Love Could Light the World
Author: Anne Leigh Parrish 
Publisher: She Writes Press
Date Published: June 3, 2013
Pages: 202 pages

How I Heard About It: TLC Book Tours and the publisher kindly provided an advance reader's copy for review and a giveaway copy, in ebook format! 

Two Sentence Summary: In 12 interlocking short stories, Parrish introduces us to the Dugans, an incredibly dysfunctional family that goes off the skids when matriarch Lavinia leaves to marry a rich local (also her former boss).  Each piece turns the lens on a different character in this complicated passel, granting an intimate perspective on the machinery of one struggling family.

Things I Think: Holy wow. Anne Leigh Parrish is an incredibly talented storyteller and this collection is no exception. I know I've been talking a lot about character development in my last few posts, and "Our Love Could Light the World" is an epic example of three-dimensional, believable humans whose motivations and choices are consistently linked.

One of my favorite characters is the Dugan's oldest daughter, Angie. We see her growth from a disillusioned, gothy teenager to a caring, independent woman whose job as a social worker suits her sensitivities and intuitions perfectly.  Perhaps because she is the oldest, her relationships with parents Potter and Lavinia come to the forefront several times, and we see her become a source of comfort and even protection for her father (who struggles with alcoholism, depression, loneliness, and an undying love for Lavinia even after she has left him for her rich boss).  

The family undergoes one ordeal after another, from unexpected pregnancies to torched homes; broken relationships and surprisingly forged internal bonds that come in their wake. The collection twists and turns like a Rubik's Cube, constantly breaking previously established patterns and simultaneously building new alignments. As the stories of Parrish's characters tumble around one another and interlock, the reader is quietly and charismatically delivered insights into loyalty, love, survival.  The fact that the author is not heavy-handed with any type of moral makes the message she delivers all the more impactful: You may not have chosen your family, but they're the only one you've got. 

I have one copy of this book to give to a reader. Comment on the post to let me know you'd like to enter, and I will randomly select a winner one week from today. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Review: "The Wonder Bread Summer" by Jessica Anya Blau

Title: The Wonder Bread Summer
Author: Jessica Anya Blau
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Date Published: May 28, 2013
Pages: 288 pages

How I Heard About It: TLC Book Tours and the publisher kindly provided an advance reader's copy for review, in conjunction with Jessica Anya Blau's online tour. 

Two Sentence Summary: Berkeley college student Allie finds herself in a bind when she steals a Wonder Bread bag full of uncut cocaine from her skeezy boss Jonah, who owes her a great deal of money, so that she can pay her tuition.  When Jonah sicks his thug crew on Allie, she flees to Los Angeles to track down her absentee parents and finds herself in a series of increasingly unfortunate events.

You can find more info here, here and here.

Jessica Anya Blau
Things I Think: There is a whole lot going on here in terms of plot. Stolen drugs, Billy Idol backstage hook-ups, giant birds falling out of the sky, lousy friends and lousier parents, a coke-addicted paraplegic porn mogul overdosing in the back of a van... There is certainly an entertainment quality in the rapid turnover of (literally) unbelievable events that transpire. 

This unbelievability, however, is what lessened the impact of "The Wonder Bread Summer." I don't mean unbelievable in the Coleridge-ian sense, in that I was "unable to suspend my disbelief." I "suspended" all through the first few chapters, let myself ride the chaotic waves the author set in motion. But the wildness of the plot, the sheer randomness of the characters' behavior, so drives the book that it overwhelmed any opportunity for me to connect to the characters. 

I think I would have enjoyed this more had there been more three dimensionality to the humans about which Blau writes. Allie could be a fascinating protagonist, were we granted a bit more insight into her choices, her interior monologue. As it is, I have trouble understanding how a girl that is solidly characterized as rather tame and pretty responsible so rapidly veers into a drug-snatching hot mess that has sex with Billy Idol backstage on a whim. Again, not totally out of the realm of possibilities, but as a reader I need to see how and why a huge transition like this occurs. 

I'm sure this book will find an accepting audience; after all, it is chaotic with the potential to be shocking. I went into this with high (pun intended) hopes for a unique view of 1970s California and some substance to go with the flash, and sadly did not find it.