Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham-New York Times Review

I am posting the link to this review of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham not because of any particular interest in the biography itself but because of a comment made by the reviewer.  David Leavitt notes of Maugham's medical training that, "It was here that he learned the physician’s art of observing the suffering of others, if not with dispassion, then at least with sang-froid; an art he would exploit in his fiction."  This, in addition with the quote from the biography he utilizes of Maugham's that invention "wasn't his strong suit", reminded me very strongly of the novel I recently reviewed on this site Vexation by Elicia Clegg.  Maugham would visit places of suffering to gain material for his stories.   This is similar to the role played by the Grandfather in Vexation.  While Grandfather's act of utilizing people's suffering is more extreme because he actually forces people to act out the suffering he wants to depict, it is in the end a similar idea.  Both sought out the suffering of others to make up for a lack of ability to imagine such pain themselves and use it for profit.  I found it surprising to see so soon after I had finished Vexation to find another book identifying this same moral problem in the role of the writer when it is not one that I have previously encountered before.  This possible connection alone makes me more interested in what would have before been just simply another biography of an old writer I had never heard of.

Los Angeles Times Bestseller List

Hardcover Fiction

BookWeeks on list
1The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson (Knopf: $27.95) The highly anticipated final book of the "Millennium Trilogy."8

2The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner by Stephenie Meyer (Little, Brown: $13.99) The newborn vampire army closes in on Bella Swan and the Cullens.5

3The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (Random House: $26.00) A pious Dutch official finds love in turn-of-the-19th-century Japan.2

4The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Putnam: $24.95) The Southern lives of a maid, cook and college graduate intertwine.59

5Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic: $17.99) In a post-apocalyptic future, kids are forced to fight in gladiator-like matches to the death

6The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (Doubleday: $25.95) Rose Edelstein's gift of taste is bittersweet.5

7The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan (Disney Hyperion: $17.99) Siblings battle Egyptian gods to find their Egyptologist father.10

8The Passage by Justin Cronin (Ballantine: $27) An apocalypse with fangs: a military experiment with vampires goes wrong and imperils humanity.5

9Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst (Random House: $26) A Greek official becomes immersed with European spies in the early days of World War II.4

10The Lion by Nelson DeMille (Grand Central: $27.99) A legendary terrorist returns to the U.S.

The Charlemagne Pursuit by Steve Berry

Secret missions. Espionage. Murder. All these and much, much more are packed into the the opening scenes of Steve Berry's thriller novel, The Charlemagne Pursuit. With dizzying detail, Berry leads his reader along the the journey of the main character, Cotton Malone, as he seeks to find out what really happened to his father almost 40 years prior, when his father left on a mission for the navy and he and the rest of the crew was never heard from again. When Cotton has just obtained the classified file on the findings about the mission that his father died on, some mysterious people appear and attempt to steal it away. Clearly, he unearthed something that others do not want brought to light. Especially, as he later learns, the Navy. Soon after he has obtained the file, two twin women separately approach him about the information he possesses. These women's, Christal and Dorthea, father was also aboard the same final submarine mission as Cotton's father. They convince him that this was no ordinary mission but a secret joint project to find the original advanced civilization their grandfather was on the trail of before his death, a people referred to throughout history as the “Holy Ones”. Cotton remains skeptical of the whole matter but plays along because these women and their mother clearly possess information that he does not. While Cotton pursues the mystery of his father's death in Germany, his associate Stephanie, the head of the intelligence agency that he used to work for and a white house aide are trying to keep up with the destruction being wrought by the head of Naval Intelligence, a powerful man by the name of Langford Ramsey. Ramsey is a man who will do (and is doing) anything to keep his involvement in Cotton's father's death secret and keep his political reputation in tact.

Berry does a magnificent job of keeping control of a complicated plot, though at times it is a little too complicated for the average reader to follow. Where the DaVinci Code remained for the most part in a more simple alternative storyline in the more familiar religious history, Berry jumps right into the obscure (to the typical American) world of European history and Charlemagne. Because so many elements of that mystery are unfamiliar its easy to mix up similarly spelt names in German and or Latin which frequently appears throughout the text. But the depth of the detail also gives the story an interesting complexity which, thankfully, allows for each plot development to be surprising. Each character's role in the mystery is extremely complex and everyone is hiding something so you are constantly doubting who are the good guys and who are the bad. It is highly unlikely to be able to guess what is going to happen next. Overall, it is entertaining, exciting, and definitely worth a re-read to see all that you missed the first time around.   

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Vexation by Elicia Clegg

“Why then did she feel so old, aged beyond her tender years; and just what did innocent and tender years constitute? Devin's fingers came up, touching her parted lips. Her mouth breathed as she whispered into the cold, empty air. 'The hunt..'” This is the reflection of Devin, the main character of Elicia Clegg's novel Vexation. The story delivers all that this ominous statement promises. Devin, months earlier, was kidnapped in front of her high school at the tender age of fifteen and forced to commit heinous crime in games created by her captor, referred to as Grandfather, to write his books. Eventually Devin escapes, but with only a limited grasp on reality, unable to mentally escape Grandfather's mental control. It is exactly this mental instability which Clegg uses to effectively disorientate her readers, causing them to constantly question whether these flashbacks are real memories or simply the sick imaginings of a disturbed young girl. It doesn't help Devin's mental state that those at home are hiding much as well. Her best friends (Melissa, Jen, Rachel, and Stephanie) turn on her for the sake of popularity in a way that sets off a mental breakdown in Devin. Devin's relationship with her parents is not much better. She constantly questions their love for her after she returns. After a while Devin's continued fear of Grandfather's ability to hurt her family causes her to run away to Utah where she moves in with an old friend she runs into. For a while life in Utah, seems simple and safe. However, eventually even her simple life in a small town turns out to have more beneath the surface than it seems. The close friends she has joined all have secrets they are each harboring from the others. And soon it becomes apparent that her past imprisonment may be coming back to haunt her in an unexpected manner.

Though much of the subject matter is dark and depicted in raw, blunt language, there is a vein of hope which winds its way through the novel, making the reader feel compelled to keep turning the for the hope of a turn of events. This is well- counter balanced with chapters sporadically flashing back to either Devin's memories of her captivity or scene of the boy she was trapped with Cole and his struggle to keep Devin safely away from Grandfather. The uncertainty of it all is reinforced by the piecemeal way in which the reader receives information about Devin's captivity with at first only vague references and memories from Devin and short scenes with Cole. By the end, everything is questionable from what is real love to the morality role of writing a novel. Grandfather plays god with real people in order to write his stories. This experience deeply affects the way Devin views her own writing and writing in general. When asked one day why she stopped writing she thinks, “Writing is dangerous; it gets inside of you. You first write someone up; then you give then feelings. Suddenly, they become alive. Real as you and me. You are controlling them, their destiny. Playing God. What happens when you lose sight of if you are real or the character is real? What happens when you forget that you are sitting at a typewriter and not inside a book?” This question is left unanswered by Devin and one the reader is forced to confront by the unescapable fact that the worlds of fiction and reality have been merged.   

Vexation by Elicia Clegg
ISBN: 9781935605218
312 Pages

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Black. White. It's an issue that has plagued this country since its inception and an issue Stockett dives head into in her novel, The Help. Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960's, the first character the reader encounters is Aibileen, a middle-age woman who specializes in child care, as Aibileen herself tells the reader, “Taking care a white babies, that's what I do”. Currently Aibileen is working for Miss Leefolt, who happens to be best friends with Skeeter. Skeeter left college two years prior with the one thing she didn't need (a double degree in English and Journalism) and without the one thing she was expected to get (a husband) much to her mother's dismay. Right before graduating from college, Skeeter sent a resume to publishing house in New York to apply for an editor's position. Eventually a female senior editor replies, advising Skeeter to go out and get whatever job a newspaper will offer her. Unfortunately, the one job the local Jackson newspaper would give a woman was writing the housecleaning column. The problem is, like all proper Southern ladies wealthy enough to afford help, she has no idea how to clean anything. To fix this little issue, Skeeter asks Aibileen to help give cleaning answers she can turn into articles. At first Aibileen is uncomfortable speaking so frequently with her employer's friend. But as the interviews go on, she begins to speak more freely.

One day, while speaking proudly of her late son, Aibileen accidentally mentions that he had been starting to write a book to Miss Stein, the editor from New York, who tells her to go for it. Skeeter shyly tries to ask Aibileen for her help, who eventually agrees after much deliberation. Skeeter also enlists Aibileen's help to try and find other maids to tell their stories. Minny, Aibileen's younger best friend and another main character the novel follows, is the second maid to agree to help. The book against all odds gets accepted by Miss Stein to be published and when they should be celebrating their success, Aibileen, Skeeter and Minny really start to worry. Though they changed the names of everyone involved and the location, they are still frightened to death (because that may be their punishment if they are discovered) that people will be able to read between the lines and guess who wrote it and which maids told their stories.

The novel switches every few chapters to alternate between the perspectives of these three unique women as they work their way through this dangerous joint project. It is this intense focus on them as individuals that really makes the novel stand out. Stockett tells each part of the story through the mind of one of the three women living it. This lends raw honesty to the story as the reader experiences their daily struggles, opinions, laughs and tears. From Skeeter, the reader gets self-awareness and a growing confidence herself and her own opinions. Skeeter is the tall-awkward girl who has never had a boyfriend before. She thinks differently than those in her world and doesn't see the color as definitely as they do. But Skeeter gains more awareness of her own color and how it has separated her from the maids she is interviewing stating at one point, “But the dichotomy of love and disdain living side by side is what surprises me. Most are invited to attend the white children's weddings, but only if they're in their uniforms. These things I know already, yet hearing them from colored mouths, it is as if I am hearing them for the first time.” (258) She, for the first time, is able to hear the perspective of those who have been silenced for so many years.

One of these voice is quiet loud and it is that of Minny. Minny joins the project begrudgingly at the request of Aibileen. Even though Minny eventually agrees, she has reservations about telling the truth to a white woman as she has been fired many times for doing just that. She tells Aibileen, “What am I doing? I must be crazy giving the sworn secrets a the colored race to a white lady...Feel like I'm talking behind my own back”. Throughout the novel, Minny's more skeptical attitude towards white women is challenged by Miss Celia, the woman who hires her after she is fired and blackballed from maid service by her previous employer (Miss Hilly). Miss Celia was white-trash until she met her husband and her brought her to live in his upper class world and has no idea how to boss around a maid the way Minny's prior employers did. She does everything differently including wanting to be friends with Minny, which makes Minny highly uncomfortable. Though Minny seems tough, underneath the gruff behavior is fear for herself and her family if anyone is to find out about her role in the project.

Aibileen shares Minny's fears but has a little less to lose, as she has already lost her son. Treelore was a bright boy whose intelligence was waste on the manual labor job he was limited to by his race and which eventually killed him. Aibileen is also frightened of what could happen if anyone finds out who wrote the book, but she is more trusting in Skeeter and quickly realizes Skeeter is different from all the other white women that she has known. Though Skeeter is technically the writer of the book, it is Aibileen that at the center of it all. The novel opens and closes with chapters of Aibileen and she embodies elements of both Minny and Skeeter as both a maid and as the reader later learns a writer as well. She also serves the role of the caretaker, as she self-proclaims, and at times mothers both of her younger friends. In this role she even seems a hopeful glimmer of connection with Miss Leefolt, “I spec we bout shared us a moment, me and Miss Leefolt, looking out the window at the kids we both love. It makes me wonder if things done changed just a little”. This moment is quickly shattered but still shows the hope Aibileen possesses to not only gain equality but a basic human connection with those she has been divided from. Afterall, Aibileen loves all the white children she has cared for as her own.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Diary of a Very Bad Year reviewed by Dwight Garner

Now I am not just putting the link to this review up because it has a magnificent title reminiscent of the title of this blog.  Dwight Garner writing for the New York Times is hailing this book as one of the special treats to come out of this dreary economic crisis, a stand out work.  Now I don't know about you but I would be pretty interested to hear the opinions of the greedy men who should have warned the rest of us financially unenlightened people what was going to happen.  I find it useful it is based on the interviews with a real hedge fund manager involved in it all and a writer who according the New York Times knows nothing about economics.  Let us read and be the judges for ourselves.

Diary of a Very Bad Year

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

IndieBound's July Recommendation List



IndieBound's Most Wished for Book List

For those always on the hunt for new books, this is the top books from all the book wishlists at Indie Bound.  If you've read them, share what you think.  If you haven't, go check them out.  I'll be on the look out for reviews to share!  Enjoy!

The Lonely Polygamist
Brady Udall
W. W. Norton & Company
Girl in Translation
Jean Kwok
Riverhead Hardcover
Beatrice and Virgil
Yann Martel
Spiegel & Grau
The Singer's Gun
Emily St John Mandel
Unbridled Books

Monday, July 12, 2010

Indie Bound-Bestseller List

This is the list of bestsellers as reported by independent bookstores across the country.  I thought it might give another interesting perspective and round of books.  For more information check out IndieBound

Hardcover Fiction

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets Nest by Stieg Larsson
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
The Passage by Justin Cronin
Sizzling Sixteen by Janet Evanovich
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Hardcover Non-Fiction

Medium Raw by Anothony Bourdain
Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern
The Big Short by Michael Lewis
War by Sebastian Junger
The Last Stand by Nathaniel Philbrick


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Young Romantics by Daisy Hay Reviewed by Ben Downing

Here is another book which might provide some with a new and different perspective on a time period in literature which many of us-myself very much included- find ridiculously dull.  Apparently there is more to the story than we were lead to believe in our tight-laced literature classes of high school.  The scholars of the romantics are now letting everybody in on the secret of why they spend years studying these poets.

Young Romantics by Daisy Hays-New York Times Review

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan Reviewed by WILL BLYTHE

Sunday is the best day of the week.  Newspapers which are ordinarily filled with the humdrum to depressing business of the world suddenly explode with articles about the best and latest in the much cheerier (sometimes) literary world.  First article of the day and I have already found something that sounds like a treasure.  Finding out about new and different books that can entertain is one the small pleasures in life. Enjoy and happy Sunday!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Intelligence by Susan Hasler

Found this review online today and thought this novel sounded different.  The review makes it sound a little on the dry side in the humor department but you can read it yourself and decide as the reviewer, Patrick Anderson still seems to recommend giving it a try.  How often do you get an insider look at the CIA, even a skewed one?

The Shack by William Paul Young reviewed by Jessica DeSalva

After spending 39 weeks on the New York Times best seller list, one would have to admit that The Shack by William Paul Young has swept the nation. What was written as a story for his children, with no intention of being published, has soared into selling over 5.5million copies and will soon be appearing in over 30 languages around the world. Not bad for a guy living a simple life in Gresham, Oregon, working three jobs (janitor, general manager, and sales representative), raising 6 children, expecting two grandkids and maintaining a marriage.
One must first recognize that the novel was written as theological fiction. This makes it difficult for the reader to discern what the author is saying and decipher whether it is holds evident with Holy Scripture. Keep in mind that the novel isn’t meant to be a Bible lesson. With that being said, The Shack is written as a personal testimony of the protagonist, Mackenzie (Mack) Philips, coming to terms with God. His youngest daughter, Missy, was abducted three years earlier during a family camping trip. Although her body is never found, police find evidence in a shack hidden deep within the forest that reveals she has been viciously murdered by a notorious children’s serial killer. Mack immediately dispatches into “The Great Sadness”, the constant guilt he holds for not saving his beloved daughter. At the height of Mack’s “Great Sadness” he receives a letter from God, inviting him back to scene of the crime or the shack. Although skeptical, Mack goes and experiences the unbelievable: a weekend-long encounter with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. From this point on, the dialogue focuses around topics that theologians have debated for centuries. Young provides anthropomorphism of the Trinity. God is a vivacious African American woman whom goes by the name “papa”, Jesus is a middle-aged man of Jewish descent, and the Holy Spirit is a sylph like Asian women by the name of Sarayu. At this point, the reader feels the urge to close the book and be done with it for some might find Young’s characterizations offensive. Although some of the characterizations are a stretch, I believe Young did this in order to break down stereotypes. The Trinity may appear in numerous tangible or intangible forms. It shouldn’t be about what form but rather the emotional sensation one gathers. Young is asking his readers to take off the blinding blinders and experience God in a new way. Granted it may not be your particular cup of tea, but you never know whether you will like something without trying it first. Once you get past the personifications, the reader dives into deep stimulating ideals that surround the Trinity, submission, free will, forgiveness, redemption, love, salvation, and judgment. Most of the communication between Mack and the Trinity focuses around his inability to trust God.
Even for non-religious readers, The Shack is a great read because it opens you up to topics you may not usually contemplate. The author provides answers without forcing his opinions upon the reader and stimulates one’s own morals and beliefs. At times I found myself setting the book down and pondering what I just read, internalizing it, thus re-discovering myself. When reading this book it’s all about openness. It’s not about whether you believe in God or not. Allow Young’s creativity and imagination to take you on a journey into self discovery and dap into the divine.
The story line isn’t truly original, yet again this novel wasn’t written for the purpose of simply telling a story. Rather the content and teaching it contains sparks a deep, spiritual and emotional impact upon the reader.