Posted by: Jeanie F | May 7, 2018

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Book Review :: Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green

I have to admit that it took me a little while to really appreciate the beauty of this book. I was initially put off by what seemed like, on one hand, an overly precocious narrator (“I was eating a peanut butter and honey sandwich and drinking a Dr Pepper. To be honest, I find the whole process of masticating plants and animals and then shoving them down my esophagus kind of disgusting…) and, at the same time, an overly adolescent voice and consciousness. I know this sounds contradictory but, the point is, it took me some time to break through the superficial to get to the heart of a touching story. I almost missed it, but a friend assured me it would get better, so I kept going. Glad I did.

The first thing you need to know is that this is not an easy read. It is the story of Aza, a teenage girl, who is trying to manage her life while suffering debilitating Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Her disorder (from which, by the way, the author John Green also suffers) forces her to spend enormous amounts of energy dealing with her fear of contracting “C. diff”, clostridium difficile, a type of bacteria that causes severe colitis. She obsesses over the myriad bacteria that thrive inside of her, the microbes breeding, and the levels of sanitation she can – or can’t – control. At times her concern about the ecosystem thriving within her body is so severe that she resorts to drinking hand sanitizer to try to control it.

Against this background, Aza is trying to live a teenage life. She hangs out with her BFF, Daisy, who shows very un-adolescent tolerance for Aza’s idiosyncrasies. She begins a sweet romance with Davis, a wealthy boy whose father has mysteriously vanished from his life, leaving Davis and his brother to cope alone. Except for the servants. She experiences the usual adolescent traumas (a friend’s perfidy, uncertainty about her growing relationship with Davis, the Internet), but it is all colored and complicated by the OCD, which makes what should be normal adolescent angst far more difficult.

In one of the more poignant moments, Aza finds that she can’t kiss Davis because of her paralyzing fear of what his microbes might do to her when they enter her body. Davis, a sweet and patient young man, is willing to wait, thinking she’ll be ready when she knows him better. But Aza knows time isn’t the issue. “I’m not gonna un-have this,” she tells him and we, the readers, are hit in the face with her future.

I’m not going to spoil the ending for you except to say it’s pretty perfect for the story. Not in an unrealistic happy-ever-after way, also not in a dark and terrible way. In just the right way.

And you’ll have to read the book to figure out what the title means.

Grade: A

 

Posted by: Jeanie F | February 21, 2018

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

Image result for news of the world by paulette jiles

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on this site – but not because I haven’t been reading. I’ve read a few books I’ve liked, a few that were just okay, one or two that were pretty bad. But when I finished reading News of the World, I knew I had to share it with you. It is one of those great surprises that we encounter from time to time – a book that we love from the beginning to the end.

The story takes place in post Civil War Texas (an added bonus for me, as I spent my childhood in Texas and was familiar with many of the locations, as well as a little of the history). Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, an elderly widower, makes a living by travelling to far-flung towns and reading newspaper stories to the residents, who receive little information about the world outside their own town or area.

In his travels, he is asked to take on the responsibility of returning Johanna, a young girl, kidnapped at an early age by a tribe of Kiowa Indians, to her family. From there, the story unfolds: the adventures of traveling in often dangerous territory, the adventure of building a relationship between a 70-year old man and a 10-year old girl who remembers nothing of her pre-abduction life, and the adventure inherent on the vast Texas plain.

The story captured me from the beginning. The author, Paulette Jiles, was a poet before she became a novelist, and her facility with language goes a long way to bringing the Texas plains and the hardship of crossing them to life.

There is also plenty of adventure – raging rivers, bad guys, bad weather – but there is more than an abundance of heart in the lovely tale of old man/young, traumatized girl and the relationship they build. There is also a vast cultural gap that must be overcome, for her rearing by the Kiowa left her unfamiliar with the ways of cities and towns through which they traveled. This leads to some discomfort, but also some gentle humor. For example, at one point the captain must explain to Johanna, who has plans to scalp a white man who menaces them, that this “is considered very impolite” and simply isn’t done.

This book is charming, heart-warming, and still manages to be a page-turning adventure. I encourage you to pick up a copy – I feel certain you’ll be glad you did.

Grade: A

Posted by: Jeanie F | October 10, 2017

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine By Gail Honeyman

I’m writing this post on my iPad while on vacation in Maui, so forgive me if the formatting comes out a little weird and the review short, but I really couldn’t wait to tell you that you should read this book.

First of all, it is a great vacation book in that it is funny and quirky and light. But it is also much, much more than that. It is heartbreaking, human, and transformational.

If this sounds paradoxical, that’s probably because it is.

The heroine, Eleanor, is an oddball. As you first get to know her, you can understand why her office mates make fun of her behind her back.

However, as you learn her story you will understand her background and be in awe of her courage and fortitude.

As you watch her transformation, you will cheer her on and, ultimately, fall in love with her.

From a purely literary point of view, the author, Gail Honeyman, has made some interesting and excellent choices about her portrayal of Eleanor – her language, habits, etc. – as well as how she has rolled out the information that the reader needs. Well done, Ms. Honeyman!

Do yourself a favor and get your hands on a copy of this book. There aren’t many books that would inspire me to write a blogpost while on a Hawaiian vacation, but this is definitely one of them.

Grade: A

 

 

 

Posted by: Jeanie F | September 20, 2017

A Question for Readers

Are you in a book club? I am – a great book club with wonderful people. So . . . if you happen to be one of those people, please know that what I’m about to say doesn’t apply to any of the books that you, personally, have recommended.

But here’s my question, and it applies even if you’re not in a book club:

When do you know it’s time to pull the plug?

For me, there are two separate considerations:

  1. Is it a book club book or, otherwise, a book recommended by someone whose opinion I respect and value, or
  2. Is it just something I picked up somewhere, perhaps seduced by an enticing blurb on the cover and a quick flip through some pages?

Generally speaking, if it’s the second situation, I feel pretty comfortable putting it down, but I know a number of people who feel compelled to finish every book they begin. Are you one of them? If so, what’s your rationale (not that you need an actual rationale – just why do you keep reading?)? Do you have a page limit (“If I don’t like it by page ___ , I’ll quit”) or are you an optimist (“I know this will get better soon”) or are you just NOT A QUITTER (emphasis intended)? Whichever you are, I respect your persistence in the face of hardship!

I am not generally in the above category. As I say in my blog heading, I believe life’s too short to read bad books. BUT – what if it’s a book club book?

I happen to be in “the best darn book club in Southern California,” and that is not hyperbole. We have been reading together since 1995 and have read some truly amazing books! A small sample of our favorites includes:

The Angle of Repose (Wallace Stegner)

The Giant’s House (Elizabeth McCraken – if you’ve never heard of this gem, I recommend you look it up)

Lambs of God (Marele Day – see recommendation above, if you haven’t read this)

The Known World (Edward P. Jones)

Well, I can tell that I can go on indefinitely with this, so instead, if you’re interested in finding out what our favorites have been, go to our website, Literary Lite Book Club.  Look at the titles with stars next to them on the page titled “Our Reading List”.

But now I have to admit – we’ve had a few that haven’t worked out as well as we hoped, which bring me to the question above. Just how much of an obligation do you believe one has when one is a member of a book club?

  • Do you read the whole thing because there is an obligation to the group?
  • Do you skim the entire book, just to have the main ideas?
  • Do you read a certain number of pages or to a certain time limit and then, if it just isn’t working, stop and be prepared to explain your problems with the book? If so, what’s your stopping point?
  • Do you stop and look up reviews so you can fool your group into believing you’ve read it (not that I would ever do that)?
  • Or do you have another, creative, way of handling this thorny situation.

It’s inevitable that, if you belong to a group for a long time (like, say, twenty-two years or so), it’s bound to happen. Here’s your chance to come clean – what do you do when you just can’t make it work for you?*

Posted by: Jeanie F | September 1, 2017

The Locals: A Novel by Jonathan Dee

The Locals

If you’ve ever lived in a small town, or even been part of a tight community through work or social connections, you’ll appreciate the way that this novel is structured – each life intersecting with another as we move from character to character in the small town of Howland, Massachusetts.

If you are adamant about a story told from a single point of view, you may find yourself a bit frustrated with the shifting narrators but, for me, there was nothing about this novel that I didn’t like.

First, there was the solid sense of place: a small town in the Berkshire Mountains. We definitely saw the incestuous intermingling of relationships that, if you’ve ever lived in a small town, you will recognize as inherent to the social strata. The people in Howland are all up in each other’s business much of the time.

And then there’s the hierarchy, which is severely impacted when Philip Hadi, an extremely wealthy New York businessman, moves permanently into what has been his summer home in Howland. We watch as Hadi, and his money, impacts the town and its people.

The timing of this story also matters, as it opens immediately following the attack on the World Trade Center, 9/11. It’s a nervous time for everyone.

Most importantly, there’s the general population of Howland characterized by Mark Firth, a contractor, family man, and recent victim of a financial swindle. Firth lives next door to Hadi and is pulled into Hadi’s orbit when hired to do some construction on Hadi’s house.

Hadi proves to have a significant effect on the town as he amasses power through seemingly charitable contribution to Howland while gradually exerting increasing influence over its events. The contrast between his power and wealth and the struggles of the townspeople forms the tension and drama of the book.

As noted in numerous reviews, this novel has a timely feel to it. Ron Charles, in his Washington Post review, sums it up best: “Amid the heat of today’s vicious political climate, ‘The Locals’ is a smoke alarm. Listen up.”

Grade: A

Posted by: Jeanie F | August 8, 2017

Dorothy Parker: Complete Stories

When we (“we” being my brother, two sisters, and myself) were young, our parents would occasionally tell us stories of their early marriage – presumably when they were in a nostalgic mood, thinking back to a time when they didn’t have four children, a mother-in-law, and an aging collie to look after. Of course they often mentioned the absence of “modern” conveniences, such as television, and told how they entertained themselves by reading to each other. One of the authors that they most loved was Dorothy Parker and, as we grew older our father, a true dramatic reader, sometimes shared her stories with us.

I loved, and still love, this complete collection. Parker knew women, she knew the dark side of the bright smile, and she used her incredible talent to shine a light.

In the Introduction to this collection, feminist Regina Barecca observes:

. . . Parker exploits the apparently trivial – telephone calls, social invitations – in order first to extract, and then to reveal, a theory concerning the larger implications of the difference between the sexes.

A family favorite was “The Waltz,” first published in 1933. This is a dramatic monologue, spoken by a young woman who has the unfortunate experience of agreeing to dance with a man who appears to be one of the world’s worst dancers. The piece is written in a way that we first “hear” her spoken words, which are followed by her internal dialogue.

After sentencing herself to a waltz, her thoughts flow along these lines:

What can you say, when a man asks you to dance with you? I most certainly will not dance with you, I’ll see you in hell first. . . Oh, yes, do let’s dance together – it’s so nice to meet a man who isn’t a scaredy-cat about catching my beri-beri . . .

and continues along these lines until the music stops, but rather than extricating herself from this oaf, she tells her partner, “I’d simply adore to go on waltzing.”

I imagine that Dad figured this was one of Parker’s more benign stories, and so it was to the juvenile ear. The satirical underpinnings were lost on me. However, recently I’ve revisited the complete collection and, from an adult point of view, recognize this as emblematic of all of her stories: insecure young women who depend on the recognition from and approval of men for their own self-respect. She used humor as a weapon in the battle of the sexes, and she used it effectively.

The fact that she is funny doesn’t diminish the fact that she had her finger on the pulse of the times. But in rereading this collection it occurred to me that, in many ways, her point of view can’t be considered antiquated. One has only to read advice columns or watch women on TV (Two Broke Girls, Jersey Shore, The Kardashians to name a few) to recognize that many women haven’t “come a long way, Baby”!

Where is Dorothy Parker when we need her? I suppose the next best thing is to get your hands on a copy of her story collection – I promise you’ll be entertained, as well as touched and, perhaps, a bit outraged.

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