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.

Posted by: Jeanie F | July 31, 2017

The Late Show by Michael Connelly

Still enjoying my “summer lite” reading kick, I was excited to see that Michael Connelly has published a new thriller. I’m a huge Harry Bosch fan, and have also enjoyed the appearances of Bosch’s half-brother, the Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller. I was ready to see what Connelly could do with a new protagonist – especially when I read that the new star in his stable was a woman.

And my girl, Janet Maslin of The New York Times, sang high praise:

“The Late Show” introduces a terrific female character: Detective Renée Ballard. Connelly has never had much success writing memorable women in supporting roles, but this new star is a beauty.

Maslin’s not the only one. The LA TimesUSA Today, and Kirkus Reviews to name just a few, have sung the book’s praises, and I’m not usually one to argue with them . . . BUT –

While I agree that there is real potential in this spunky heroine, there are problems with the story – not the plot, but the presentation. As Paula A. Woods aptly notes in her review for the LA Times,

Launching a new series and protagonist is hard work, and with so many characters, settings and departmental undercurrents to navigate, “The Late Show’s” seams show at times. The resolution of the Ramona Ramone case [one of several plot lines] leaves lingering questions some readers may not be accustomed to experiencing. More significantly, the denouement of the Dancers murders, while cleverly executed, opens some huge gaps in understanding the shooter’s motives that one hopes get resolved in future novels.

And this seems to be the problem. This is an ambitious novel – perhaps too ambitious a plot (or, more correctly, plots) to introduce a brand new character. While Connelly can be counted on to write a great detective story, he seems to labor over getting the true dimensions of  Ballard established early on. Moments of action are dragged down by the need to fill-in previously undisclosed aspects of her character, past history, or other personal information. There are times when it feels like Connelly is free-writing filler until he hits on something to move the story along. Definitely not what I expect from his usual tight action scenes. I found myself skimming long expository passages in order to get back to the plot.

Having said all this, I expect that the next time we see Ballard – and I do hope we will – most of this back story can be left behind, allowing Connelly to entertain in the way that he does so masterfully.

Grade: B



Posted by: Jeanie F | July 14, 2017

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley


As summer gets into full swing, books that focus on plot begin to look more attractive than books that make me think too hard. Nearing the end of  The Nix, I found myself in the Portland Airport looking for something to read on the plane. I knew I had a couple of hours in flight, and I also knew I wasn’t going to want to concentrate too much. It was Janet Maslin’s blurb on the cover – “Mesmerizing . . . one of the year’s best suspense novels” – that got me. I generally trust Maslin, and “mesmerizing” was just what I needed to pass the time in a middle seat of Alaska Air’s coach section.

The story begins with a small group of people boarding a private plane to travel from Martha’s Vineyard back to New York City after a summer vacation. There’s a Wall Street executive and his family – David (Dad), Maggie (Mom), Rachel (daughter), and J.J. (four-year old son) – the Batemans, a couple that has asked to join them, and Scott Burroughs, an artist that Maggie has invited along. There are tensions in these relationships that we discover as they board the plane. There is also a small flight crew.

This isn’t exactly a spoiler, since we know about this event very early on, but if you want to know NOTHING about the plot, skip this paragraph. Mid-flight something happens – and it isn’t until we reach the end that we know exactly what that was – and the plane crashes. The only survivors are J.J. Bateman and Scott Burroughs.

The suspense that keeps this light, but entertaining, novel moving is (1) the fate of the survivors, and (2) the skillful way that Hawley parcels out details – past and present – to keep us wondering what really happened on board that plane. Elements of the lives of the main players (hence the title, Before the Fall) are given to us bit by bit and expose a variety of situations that makes more than one character a likely cause of the accident.

While Maslin may have laid it on a little thick in calling the book mesmerizing, it had enough human-interest mixed with tension and suspense to make it a great summer read. It is an excellent beach – or airplane – book for anyone looking for good escapist entertainment (or squeezed into a middle seat).

Grade: B

Posted by: Jeanie F | June 28, 2017

The Nix by Nathan Hill

One of the greatest joys of being a reader is finding a BIG book and knowing, by the time you’ve finished the first chapter, that you’re going to love this book. That is exactly what The Nix, Nathan Hill’s first novel, was for me and, honestly, 620 pages flew by. This was one of those books that I couldn’t wait to return to every time I was forced, by life’s circumstances, to put it down.

The Nix is the story of Samuel Andresen-Anderson, a English professor and would-be author, who we follow from his early, unhappy childhood to his later, unhappy adulthood. His mother left Samuel and his father when Samuel was six years old. And this wasn’t the “I’ll see you every other weekend” kind of desertion. She told him goodbye and vanished, leaving no forwarding address. Samuel gets on with his life as best he can, but the specter of her abandonment never leaves him. This event is “The Nix” – a Norwegian house spirit who finds a person and inhabits them for life – the instant when life slips out of your control and never recovers.

We follow Samuel through his childhood, through important friendships he makes with a pair of siblings, his coming of age, and up to his eventual opportunity to find some kind of reconciliation with his mother. But there is so much encompassed in this seemingly simple story, that these bare bones are no more than the scaffolding of events that encompasse decades of not only Samuel’s life but our national history. In his review of The Nix, Jason Sheehan, writing for NPR Books, says this:

… The Nix is about a lot of things – about politics and online gaming, about the tenuous friendships of adult men and the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It is a vicious, black-hearted and beautiful satire of youth and middle-age, feminine hygiene products, frozen foods and social media. But more than anything, it is a treatise on the ways that the past molds us and breaks us and never lets us go. How it haunts us all.

For me, one of this most striking aspects of this book was how real everything feels – as if it was possible for Nathan Hill to personally experience the events, the emotions, the essence of everything he wrote.  One example is a section in which Bishop, Samuel’s childhood friend, has grown up and joined the army. He is in Iraq, in an armored tank with the other men in his unit, including one named “Chucky”. Chucky is a bit of a nerd, but he becomes a favorite among the men when he tells the story of getting up the nerve, on his first leave home, to ask the most beautiful girl in his school for a date. He tells them she said yes, and now they’re in love. And then, here’s how Nathan Hill follows up:

What everyone likes about the story is the part where he finally asks out the girl. Because the way Chucky tells it, it’s not like he had to work up the courage to do it. It’s more like it no longer required courage to do. Or maybe he discovered that he had plenty of courage all along, inside him, ready to be used, and everyone likes imagining that. They hope the same thing has happened to them, too, because they are occasionally terrified out of their minds over here, and they hope when the time comes for them to be brave, they will be brave . . . If a kid like Chucky could land a girl like Julie Winterberry, surely they can make it through one lousy war.

And this is the strength and the beauty of this book. We don’t just get the action, we don’t just get the emotion, but we crawl inside the skin, the hearts, the minds of the characters in ways you rarely encounter in a novel. I’ve never been in the military (thank God), or ridden in a tank down a road that could be littered with IEDs, but reading Hill’s description of it, seen through the eyes of a few men in a tank, made it as real as only the best literature can do.

I could give you many, many more examples of the ways that this book knocked me out, made me laugh, made me cry, and made me really sorry that Nathan Hill limited himself to 620 pages. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Grade: A+



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