Tag Archives: best books

The Book Of My Life

our-short-history

Our Short History: A Novel by Lauren Grodstein (Algonquin, $26.95, 352 pages)

It’s admittedly early in 2017, but I suspect that this may well wind up as one of the best novels of the year.

Grodstein’s novel is about Karen Neulander, a powerful and successful political consultant in New York City.  Karen has fought a tough battle with ovarian cancer.  As we meet her, her cancer is in remission but is likely to return.  Karen’s doctors have been doing all they can to extend her life but can offer her, at best, no more than an additional 48 to 60 months.  (They cannot promise her that she will have the best quality of life in the time that remains.)

Karen relies on her younger sister Allie – a wife and mother and Seattle resident, to take care of both her and her six-year-old son Jake.  Jake represents absolutely everything that matters to Karen.  She will willingly surrender her career, her health, her life if it means that Jake will be alright.

“The truth is that even more than I want to be healthy, I want you to be okay.  Even more than I want to live forever, I want you to live forever…  Thank you, baby boy.  For as long as I’ve known you, you have given me the strength I need to keep on living.  I look at you and I feel strong.  Every day you help me feel strong.”  

Karen comes to realize that Allie can take her place and serve as a replacement mother to Jake once she dies.  But then the best laid plans evaporate as Jake decides that he wants to meet his father, Dave.  Dave never wanted children.  When he and Karen were together, Dave pressured her to abort the child she was carrying.  This led Karen to walk out on the relationship and to sever all contact with Dave.

Karen must now decide whether to connect Jake with the man who literally wished his son had never been born – a man she still loves but detests, or to refuse Jake’s request in order to protect herself.  Either way the outcome is likely to be unpleasant.  As part of her personal care, Karen decides to write a history of her life with Jake; that personal journal – full of good times, but also hard truths, blemishes and defeats, is this novel.  (It’s meant to be read by Jake decades after Karen’s passing.)

This is Grodstein’s sixth novel but it reads like a debut work.  It has the voice of a writer attacking a story while narrating it with a quiet confidence.  In that, it calls to mind Audrey Niffenegger’s brilliant Her Fearful Symmetry.    

Grodstein permits the reader to live, for a period, the life of a terminal cancer patient.  It is hardly a pleasant experience, nor is it meant to be.  She allows us to see that even in human pain and suffering, existence has a purpose.  Karen has found her purpose; in this, she is a lucky person.

In the words of author Celeste Ng, “This novel will leave you appreciating both the messiness of life and the immense depths of love.”  Well said.

The reader who makes it to the final pages of Our Short History will have paid a price – in smiles, laughter, heartbreak, fear and tears.  It’s a price well worth paying as Grodstein’s story is a nearly perfect representation of the notion that everything in life – painful and pleasing, has relevance.  One’s life is lived not in days or weeks, but over years and decades.

This is a literally breathtaking, life affirming work.  It’s not a ghost story like Her Fearful Symmetry, but it’s written from the perspective of a woman who knows that her time on earth is limited.  (After she’s gone, the “short history” – the personal story she’s recorded – will communicate with her son in a ghostly fashion.)  Our Short History is beautifully, finely written and haunting in its own way.  Look for it in March.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

 

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If you loved this book…

Sometimes you read a book and then think, “I wish I could find another book like that!” Well, here’s a visual representation of recommended books for your consideration. Joseph Arellano

If you loved this book…

The Other Wes Moore (nook book)

Read this one…

The Short and Tragic Life (nook book)

If you loved this book…

The Devil in the White City (nook book)

Read this one…

Dead Wake (nook book)

If you loved this book…

steve-jobs-nook-book

Read this one…

Becoming Steve Jobs

If you loved this book…

The Immortal Life

Read these…

The Cancer Chronicles

emperor-of-all

If you loved this book…

one day (nook book)

Read these…

US (nook book)

The Fault in Our Stars (nook book)

If you loved this book…

Hotel on the Corner of (nook book)

Read these…

Blackberry Winter (nook book)

How to Be An American Housewife

If you loved this book…

Everything I Never Told You (trade paper)

Read this one…

The Year She Left Us

If you liked this book…

Into Thin Air

Read these…

Buried in the Sky (nook book)

The Climb (nook book)

If you liked this book…

Born to Run (nook book)

Read these…

What I Talk About (nook book)

Running and Being (nook book)

PRE book

If you loved this book…

Hounded

Read this one…

David Rosenfelt dog

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Coming Up Next…

We release Santa’s list of books that are perfect for gift giving!Santa's reindeer

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The Best Book of 2010-2011

In 2009, this site selected Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel by Audrey Niffenegger as the book of the year.   Last year, my selection for book of the year was American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn.   This time I decided to do something different, which is to select the best book I read between January of 2010 and the end of December 2011.   It happens to be a book that I read prior to its release, and it was first published in hardbound form on April 6, 2010; re-released as a trade paper book on April 5, 2011.

My personal and subjective choice as the best book of 2010-2011 is Imperfect Birds: A Novel by Anne Lamott.   Here is my review.

Imperfect Birds: A Novel by Anne Lamott (Riverhead Press, $15.00, 336 pages)

“I try to write the books I would love to come upon…”   Anne Lamott

I love the way Anne Lamott writes.   She writes like Anne Tyler (Noah’s Compass, Breathing Lessons, The Accidental Tourist, Digging to America) with a professor’s seriousness about life, but a child’s smile.   Life scares Lamott but she keeps the bogeyman away by writing about people who are like her, except that  maybe they have just a bit more courage.   Or maybe they don’t.

Imperfect Birds is a novel about a family, about mother Elizabeth Ferguson, her second husband James and her daughter Rosie, a senior in high school in Marin County.   Elizabeth and James worship Rosie as they simultaneously count the days until she’ll leave for college so that they can stop worrying about her.   “…life with most teenagers was like having a low-grade bladder infection.   It hurt but you had to tough it out.”

Rosie’s been a straight-A student until, as a 17-year-old senior, she begins getting Bs in even her best subjects.   That would not be much of a disappointment for other students, but there’s a reason she’s coming undone.   She’s using drugs, of almost every variety, to the point where even her extremely forgiving mother can no longer ignore what’s happening.   “…(Elizabeth) had a conviction now that when she thought something was going on, it was.”   This also means that a mother’s worst fears are coming true:  “I was afraid of how doomed you would be as a parent.”

“Each has to enter the nest made by the other imperfect bird.”   Rumi

The title, of course, refers to imperfect people – people who have lost the ability to fly straight.   Elizabeth is too forgiving of  her daughter’s faults for too long.   James is too judgmental and too quick to prescribe a harsh remedy for his stepdaughter’s problems.   Rosie, who lost her father to cancer years before, is young and wants to enjoy life until…  Until she finds that her drug abuse has left her dreamless and with a heart “like a dead little animal.”

Rosie also wants to be loved by someone other than her mother and step-father, which is why she creates fantasies about one of her male instructors and later becomes involved with someone older.   Eventually a decision has to be made…  Will Rosie’s parents save Rosie from herself or will they step aside and let her self-destruct before her life even really begins?

If this was the work of a less-talented writer, the reader might be tempted to take a guess at the ending and put the book down prematurely.   But Lamott is one of the best writers we have – about this there can be little doubt.   So this story feels like a gift – one to be savored and treasured – and will be appreciated by any reader who does not make a claim to perfection in his or her own life.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A pre-publication review copy was received from the publisher.   “Powerful and painfully honest…  Lamott’s observations are pitch-perfect.”   The New York Times  

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.   I’ll meet you there.”   Rumi

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Late for the Sky

american music

American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn (Vintage, $15.00, 256 pages)

“When you’re lost in Juarez/ And it’s Easter time, too/ And your gravity fails/ And negativity don’t pull you through…”   Bob Dylan (“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”)

“The memory was like an explosion and he was inside it, living through it and it surrounded him and slowly he breathed into it…  This was where he was headed.   He was entering someplace.   It seemed to be his life.”   Jane Mendelsohn

This one  is a brilliant and one-of-a-kind experience.   Author Jane Mendelsohn has written a novel about disorientation and jumbled lives, where people are not sure whether they are living now or in the past.   Or in the future.

“…she seemed to enter that new future and for an instant the past disappeared.”

The novel starts out with an Iraq war veteran – circa current times – being treated for his injuries by a 21-year-old physical therapist whose name is Honor.   As Honor works on the wounded soldier, whose name is Milo, she begins to feel and hear stories…  His body “is like a haunted house.”   She feels the stories in his limbs and in his bones, but bit by bit he also begins to tell her the stories that he sees.   He tells the stories and they both listen thinking that somehow these stories may involve people from the past.   Yet, the stories are disjointed and cover very different periods of time:  17th century Turkey (1623 to be exact), 1936 and 1969.   These life stories of five separate individuals are seen in visions and/or heard by our two protagonists.

Music and its simple joys is  one of the themes that unite the distinct stories.   A dancer in Budapest in 1623 inspires a man of chemistry to invent a cymbal, the prototype of today’s premium brand found on many drum kits.   Count Basie’s inaugural performance at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City on Christmas Eve brings lovers together:  “The music had swung them here…  this happy romantic rhythm would kill them both.”

Another theme is the past as prelude.   We cannot fully understand who we are and what we are now without understanding our ancestors and how their choices  during their lives led us to the current moments in our lives.

“Do you ever regret coming east and leaving the theater?”  Anna asked.

“No, I don’t,” Pearl said.   She was looking straight up with  her eyes open.   Anna, already falling asleep, couldn’t see the tears.   “If things hadn’t happened exactly the way they did,” she said, “I wouldn’t have been here with you.”

At the conclusion of American Music we see how the past and present stories are related.   But this is not the key point.   Once the past is fully encountered and understood, Mendelsohn tells us, we can’t hold on to it.   Once it has served its purpose (once our relatives have lived and died for us) it is time to let the past (and them) go.

“She saw the…  figures walk into the desert and she watched them…  and she knew for the first time that she had not been letting them go and then the car drove on and she let them go.”

There’s an angel, a guardian angel of sorts that appears to a character in this book.   He delivers a message and then disappears after doing his work.   Jane Mendelsohn has done her job here so very, very well that it’s remarkable and more.   I can almost see where the wings attach to her shoulders.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   

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Mother and Child Reunion

LEFT neglected: A Novel by Lisa Genova (Gallery Books, a division of Simon and Schuster)

In an interview with Jennifer Northcutt, a buyer for Borders bookstores, neurologist Lisa Genova says an anecdote about left-side neglect in a book she read years ago by neurology and psychiatry professor Oliver Sacks piqued her curiosity.   She knew the clinical manifestations of a right-hemisphere brain injury, but wondered how one could possibly cope with such a condition.

The result of that curiosity is Sarah Nickerson, 37, protagonist of LEFT neglected.   Sarah is the hard-charging, Harvard MBA-toting vice president of a Boston consulting firm who can’t recall the last time she had sex with her husband, Bob, but does keep track of her wins when they play Rocks, Paper, Scissors to see who gets stuck taking their three kids to school/daycare before work on Fridays.   Sarah’s hyper-drive lifestyle downshifts abruptly when an auto accident (she’s looking for a number on her cell phone) leaves her with a traumatic brain injury.

Left-side neglect is an intriguing condition.   Asked to draw a clock, a patient will only draw the noon-through-six side.   Food on the left side of her plate will go unseen.   She knows that she has a left leg, but her brain is unable to find it or control it, making walking impossible.

Genova tells Sarah’s story in the first person, which lets the reader in on her unvarnished thought process as she comes to grip with maddening limitations.   Sarah retains her intellect and her competitiveness, which she and Bob assume will drive her to regain everything she’s lost.   She is blunt and funny, and her pity parties are few and brief.   Oddly enough, however, it is Sarah’s relationship with her long-absent mother that truly humanizes her.   When mother shows up at Sarah’s hospital bedside, Sarah openly hates her.   The reason, which resurfaces slowly, rescues Sarah from superwoman flatness and makes her a compelling and sympathetic character.   The evolution of the mother-daughter relationship colors the novel with poignancy and grace.

Genova’s writing is inventive.   She shows the stress of Sarah’s pre-accident life in the clack-clack-clack cadence of Sarah’s four-inch, Christian Louboutin heels and deftly contrasts it post-accident in Sarah’s cane-step-drag-breathe pattern of learning to walk again.

As a neurologist, Genova is well acquainted with the pathology of brain afflictions.   Her first novel, Still Alice, is about Alzheimer’s.   It was a New York Times bestseller, and odds are good that LEFT neglected will be, too.   Highly recommended.

By Kimberly Caldwell Steffen.   This is a “second look” review.   LEFT neglected was released on January 4, 2011.

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The Book of the Year

Last year, I selected Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel by Audrey Niffenegger as the book of the year.   This year, I’m selecting a novel that is just as daring, powerful and unique – American Music by Jane Mendelsohn.   A long review of American Music was posted on this site on August 22, 2010.   To find that initial review, enter the terms Other Voices, Other Rooms (a tip of the hat to Truman Capote) in the Search It! box on the right and hit enter.

Here is a shorter review that I wrote for Sacramento Book Review:

“He was entering someplace.   It seemed to be his life.”

Author Jane Mendelsohn has produced a taut, sui generis story that should be a major contender for novel of the year.   The storyline is truly unique:  A severely injured Iraq war veteran is treated by a female physical therapist at a U.S. army hospital.   As she works on him, she sees and hears stories that radiate from his body – these stories involve events in 1623, 1936 and 1969.   What’s the meaning of these past lives, and what is their relationship to each other and to the wounded soldier?   The typical reader will want to race through the pages to find the answers.

A love of music is one common factor, from the creation of the modern drum cymbal to one of jazz’s greatest concerts.   But this is a story that involves more than just mortal humans and their musical creations, there are ghosts and guardian angels in the mix.   Suffice it to say that Mendelsohn brings to life the words of Jackson Browne, “Tracing our steps from the beginning…  Trying to understand how our lives had led us there.”   There are few writers other than Jane Mendelsohn who would tackle something this brilliant, stunning and divinely thought-provoking.

Joseph Arellano

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Win The Good Daughters

If you loved reading Labor Day by Joyce Maynard, you may want to try to win yourself a copy of her new novel The Good Daughters.   Thanks to Harper Collins, we’re giving away a copy to a lucky reader!   Here’s the official synopsis of the story:

They were born on the same day, in the same small New Hampshire hospital, into families that could hardly have been less alike.   Ruth Plank is an artist and a romantic with a rich, passionate, imaginative life.   The last of five girls born to a gentle, caring farmer and his stolid wife, she yearns to soar beyond the confines of the land that has been her family’s birthright for generations.

Dana Dickerson is a scientist and realist whose faith is firmly planted in the natural world.   Raised by a pair of capricious drifters who wasted their lives on failed dreams, she longs for stability and rootedness.

Different in nearly every way, Ruth and Dana share a need to make sense of who they are and to find their places in a world in which neither has truly felt she belonged.   They also share a love for Dana’s wild and beautiful older brother, Ray, who will leave an indelible mark on both their hearts.

Told in the alternating voices of Ruth and Dana, The Good Daughters follows these “birthday sisters” as they make their way from the 1950s to the present.   Master storyteller Joyce Maynard chronicles the unlikely ways the two women’s lives parallel and intersect – from childhood and adolescence to first loves, first sex, marriage, and parenthood; from the deaths of parents to divorce, the loss of home, and the loss of a beloved partner – until past secrets and forgotten memories unexpectedly come to light, forcing them to reevaluate themselves and each other.

Joy Topping of The Dallas Morning News wrote a review of The Good Daughters in which she stated the following:

“The author’s deft and delicate touch as she plumbs the depths of her characters’ psyches is what will keep readers pinned to the page.   It’s like a conversation with  friends about whose lives you crave every detail, simply because they are so dear to you…  Maynard’s simple language gorgeously interprets the book’s themes…  In Maynard’s gifted hands, every sentence and step seems organic, as if she were just keenly observing these (two) women and taking richly detailed notes on their lives.”

Interested?   The Good Daughters is published by William Morrow, runs 288 pages and has a value of $24.99.   In order to enter this contest, you simply need to post a message below with your name and e-mail address included or send an e-mail with this information to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as your first entry.   In order to enter a second time, tell us what the best or worst book is that you’ve read during 2010.   (Munchy will be as curious as a cat to read your answers!)

You have until midnight PST on Wednesday, November 10, 2010 to submit your entry or entries.   In order to be eligible to enter this contest, you must live in the continental United States and have a residential mailing address.   Books will not be shipped to a P.O. box or a business-related address.  As always, the winner’s name will be randomly drawn by Munchy.

This is it for the rules.   Good luck and good reading!

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Our Book Ratings System

As you may notice in visiting this site, we do not rank or score books with letter grades or numbers or stars – either white or gold ones.   We simply recommend books, of whatever genre, or do not recommend them.   The most precious resource we have in life is time, and so we attempt to make a determination here as to whether a particular book is worth your time.

If you don’t see a recommendation at the end of the review, the book in question is not recommended.   When we do recommend a book it will fall into one of three categories, as follows.

Recommended – This is a book, fiction or non-fiction, which may contain up to four or five writing flaws which were not corrected in the editing process.   However, it is clear on the whole (and by a margin that clearly exceeds 51%) that this is a book that will justify the time you devote to it.

Well Recommended – A book in this category may contain two or three flaws or editing omissions, but it’s exemplary and likely to rank in the top quartile (top 25%) of books on the market.

Highly Recommended – Books like these are likely in the top 10% of those released in the current and prior calendar year.   They may contain one or two errors but are nevertheless close to perfection in both content and presentation.

Some books will fall into the Recommended or Well Recommended category because they are well written, but Highly Recommended books tend to require a junction of great writing with a great theme and near-flawless execution.   Finally, we are considering adding a new category, Essential.   Essential books are novels or non-fiction books released in prior years that should be a part of any well-rounded reader’s experience.   Two examples that immediately come to mind are In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and Independence Day by Richard Ford.   The latter was the winner of both The Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award.   (“It is difficult to imagine a better American novel appearing this year.”   Publishers Weekly, 1995)

Independence Day was reviewed on this site on October 30, 2009 (“American Tune”).

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Farther On

“Now the distance leads me farther on/ Though the reasons I once had are gone/ With my maps and my faith in the distance/ Moving farther on…”   Jackson Browne

Perfect Reader by Maggie Pouncey (Pantheon; 268 pages; $24.95)

Maggie Pouncey is bringing back language, slow and careful language.   It’s the type of language that began to disappear in the 1960’s.   The language that the daughter of a college president might have grown up hearing…

One gave the dog a sop, not a treat or bite; one woke not at dawn but at sparrow fart, and wore not party clothes but finery.   Now it was like speaking Yiddish, or some other dying language; soon there would be nobody around to talk to.

Perfect Reader is a story of a not-so-young 28-year-old woman who returns to her home town after her father’s death.   The town is Darwin, Massachusetts which daughter Flora Dempsey has returned to from, presumably, Boston.   Flora’s father was the president of Darwin College (as the author’s father was the president of Amherst College), and also a noted literary critic, professor and sometime poet.

Flora is a rootless person who has not yet decided what to do with her self, her life.   She’s disoriented coming back to the small college town built on “liberal well-meaningness”; it’s a town more than a bit reminiscent of Davis, California.   But then she felt no more at home working in the city.

Flora’s parents had been divorced many years before and she had made her best career out of avoiding her father.   Now the time for avoidance is gone.   She must handle his funeral arrangements, and everything her father owned – his home, his writings, and his books – has been left to her.   This is not the least of things, as Flora learns that her dad had a lover, a female instructor from the college.   The woman wants to be close to Flora, but Flora just wants to isolate, to have people leave her alone while she ponders her next steps.   In a strange way she envies her father’s escape from the people who trouble you:  “The dead left you alone, but it was the living who filled you up with loneliness.”

“Flora felt her life shrinking.   The smallness of the table provided a good metaphor.   No room for other people.   Soon her life would cease to be a table; it wouldn’t even be a cocktail table.   It would be a solitary chair, hard-backed and wooden…”

This likely sounds depressing but in the telling – a careful and precise telling – it is not.   The Boston Globe called it, “(An) exquisitely observed drama.”   This is because it comes down to the words, the language, which makes the reader feel like he or she has picked up a novel from the wrong decade, if not century.

It is, however, slow.   This is something that some readers will have a problem with but it is deliberately slow.   The author has said that, “so many of the books I love are slow.”   If and when this novel is made into a film, there will be no car chases, no gun battles, no slaps or loud confrontations.   It will be a moody movie that will be loved or hated.

I loved this very contemplative story set around a basic theme.   Does a child, even an adult child, grow up by escaping her past or embracing it?   Whose life is it and, presuming it’s your own, why do we pay such a high price for not fulfilling the expectations of others?

Although Flora’s father has passed (and Flora so hates that people will use any word in the English language but dead) she must nonetheless battle her mother’s expectations, and the fact that she fails to heed her mom’s advice.   In one prime scene, Flora’s mother suggests that she volunteer somewhere in order to provide “some structure” to her life.   “How wonderfully helpful, Mom.   How sage…” responds Flora who is tired and “regressing, moving backward, growing down.”

Yes, our protagonist Flora is not someone who everyone will like or relate to.   She’s brittle and angry and exhausted but, two years short of her third decade on this world, she’s reached the point of decision-making.   Who and what is she going to be in her life?

Perfect Reader is not for everyone.   For me, it was close to a perfect read.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   The book was purchased by the reviewer.

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