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Coming Attractions (2012)

Here’s a sampling of new and upcoming books that might well wind up on the to-be-read stack.

The Bungalow: A Novel by Sarah Jio (Plume; December 27, 2011)

We loved The Violets of March by Sarah Jio and thought it was one of the best debut novels of 2011.   Now Jio returns with a quite different type of story set in Bora Bora during World War II.   Wrote reader Laura Bolin on Amazon: “The Bungalow was an old black and white movie straight out of my grandparent’s generation.   I was swept away by Jio’s vivid descriptions and I loved every minute of it.”

Tuesday Night Miracles: A Novel by Kris Radish (Bantam Dell; January 3, 2012)

An entertaining story about an almost-retired counselor who tries to help a group of four women – all of whom have serious pending matters with the legal system – manage their anger issues in court-ordered group counseling sessions.   The women will have to graduate from the group in order to return  to their normal lives.   Oh, and they don’t like each other at all – which means that the counselor is going to have to take some drastic (and perhaps even professionally unethical) actions in order to get them to a kinder and gentler place.

Gun Games: A Novel by Faye Kellerman (William Morrow; January 3, 2012)

Faye Kellerman once again showcases Peter Decker of the Los Angeles Police Department and Rina Lazarus, likely the most popular husband and wife team in modern crime fiction.   A series of shocking adolescent suicides at an elite L. A. private school is at the heart of this thriller.   As if this isn’t enough, there’s  also the fact that Decker and Lazarus have brought a very troubled teenager into their home: Gabriel Whitman, the son of a psychopath.

The Confession: A Novel by Charles Todd (Wm. Morrow; January 12, 2012)

An historical crime novel, continuing Charles Todd’s World War I veteran, and yet still highly effective Scotland Yard Inspector, Ian Rutledge.   Rutledge struggles with a startling and dangerous case that reaches far back into the past when a false confession by a man who was not who he claimed to be resulted in a brutal murder.

Immortal Bird: A Family Memoir by Doron Weber (Simon & Schuster; February 7, 2012)

Not to be confused with Anne Lamott’s novel Imperfect Birds, this is a moving memoir about a boy born with a defective heart – located on the right side of his chest – who weathers major heart surgeries before being hit with a highly unique, perhaps untreatable disease.   Those who years ago read Death Be Not Proud may be drawn to this account.

Spin: A Novel by Catherine McKenzie (Wm. Morrow; February 7, 2012)

Kate’s an ambitious – if self-damaging – reporter who goes undercover.   She enters a drug and alcohol rehab clinic to find out what’s happening with the popular and troubled young actress Amber Shepard.   “Imagine if Bridget Jones fell into a million little pieces, flew over the cuckoo’s nest, and befriended Lindsay Lohan along the way…”

The Lola Quartet: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel (Unbridled Books; May 15, 2012)

We gave a highly recommended rating to Mandel’s 2010 novel The Singer’s Gun, which was as gutsy as it was unique and engaging.   Her third novel examines “questions of identity, the deep pull of family, the difficulties of being the person one wants to be, the un-reliability of memory, and the unforeseen ways a small and innocent action can have disastrous consequences.”   It’s bound to be worth the price of admission.

Joseph Arellano

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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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It Was A (Very) Good Year

The Year-End Literary Review

In my opinion, this was a good to very good year to be a reader; not as good as 2010 in terms of its offerings, and hopefully not as good as what’s to come in 2012.   Let’s look at some of the highlights and lowlights of 2011.

The rise (and fall?) of the e-reader

The e-book readers offered by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony began to finally take off in terms of general acceptance.   Even a Luddite such as I am picked up a Nook Color tablet, as the issue of glare seemed to have been resolved with the fine screen manufactured by LG.   But just as e-readers were taking flight, the reading public received some very disturbing year-end news (“…rising e-book prices causing sticker shock.”).

It seems that publishers are about to kill their golden goose by raising the prices on e-books to levels that will match or exceed the print versions.   Yes, it appears to be a replay of what happened with the recording industry…  Music CDs first appeared with reasonable prices of $9.99 and then shot up to double that and more; and the industry then wondered what happened to their sales figures.   Duh.

Fine biographies

It was a good time for biographies, the two most notable being Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and Robert Redford by Michael Feeney Callan.   Both were examples of treating famous people as more than living legends – turning them into three-dimensional figures with true strengths and weaknesses.   Callan’s book is such a fascinating portrait of the actor that you’ll want to see every film mentioned in it.

Intriguing debuts

It’s always fun to discover new writers at the start of their career, and both Proof of Heaven by Mary Curran Hackett and The Violets of March by Sarah Jio were engaging life and love-affirming debut novels.   Kudos!

Mixed memories

It was a mixed front when it came to personal memoirs.   Christina Haag produced a singular New York Times Bestseller with Come to the Edge: A Love Story, her entertainingly nostalgic account of the five years she spent as the girlfriend of John F. Kennedy, Jr.   If you’ve missed this one, it will be released in trade paper form in January – with a cover that’s sure to capture the female reader’s eye!   (Some will remember that JFK, Jr. was once named “The Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine.)

A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates might have been a groundbreaking account of what happens to a wife after her husband dies suddenly.   But it was preceded four years earlier by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.   Oates’s account unfortunately read like a note-for-note  cover of Didion’s earlier account.   Oates and Didion are, no doubt, two of our best writers but only one of them could assemble a uniquely first tragic memoir.

A troubling trend

2011 was the year in which a few fictional works were introduced that I wound up calling “plotless novels.”   These were books whose plots generally centered around an ensemble cast of characters, occupying only a few days in time; time in which nothing noteworthy seemed to occur.   Reading one of these novels is like, paraphrasing Jerry Seinfeld, perusing “a story about nothing.”   A few misguided or mischievous critics made them popular by praising them as being clever.   Well, they were clever in getting a few unfortunate readers to pay money for a book without a beginning, middle or ending.

Hurry up, already

Another parallel troubling trend had to do with novels that took 90 or 100 pages to get to the beginning of the story.   Any story that takes that long to get started is, trust me, not going to end well.

Good and very good, but not necessarily great

While there were some good and very good works to read this year, it’s hard to think of standouts like we had in 2009 (Her Fearful Symmetry by Anne Niffenegger) or 2010 (American Music by Jane Mendelsohn, Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott, The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris).   One novel that did receive plenty of attention was The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, which the average reader seemed to find either brilliant or meandering and tedious.   One hundred and sixty-eight readers posted their reviews on Amazon and these love it or hate it views balanced out to an average 3-star (of 5) rating.

Give me someone to love

Some were troubled by Eugenides’ novel because of the lack of likeable characters, a critique to which I can relate.   If an author does not give me a single character that I can identify with, trying to finish a novel seems pointless.   Why invest the time reading a story if you simply don’t care what happens to the characters the writer’s created?

In summary

This year was filled with unrealized potential.   Let’s hope for a bit more excitement in the publishing world in 2012!

Joseph Arellano

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Suburban Dreams

Commuters by Emily Gray Tedrowe (Harper Perennial; June 29, 2010)

This is the first novel by Emily Gray Tedrowe and it may gain her admission into the club of today’s best women writers.   At one point in Commuters, a character goes on vacation and takes with her “a satisfyingly quiet Anne Tyler novel.”   Anne Tyler, Anna Quindlen, and Jennifer Weiner are just three of the popular authors whose influence can be observed in Commuters.

Commuters deals with the lives of individuals who, while they live in a quiet one-square-mile suburb, are only a train ride away from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan.   It is also about the way people’s lives change – sometimes instantly – when their partners and family members experience tragedy or opportunity.

The story begins with the marriage of seventy-eight-year-old Winnie Easton to Jerry Travis, a wealthy businessman from Chicago.   Winnie and Jerry (a widow and widower) had met once while both were in their twenties attending a wedding, and now each is taking a chance on this late in life pairing.   For Winnie, the act of getting married to Jerry may be her first taste of true freedom:  “She had married once because it was a good match, mostly for her parents and his…  But now she found herself about to do something that felt like the first thing she’d ever done on her own…  She was marrying a man for the delicious and wicked and simple reason that she wanted to.”

Winnie and Jerry’s children, grandchildren, and in-laws all, of course, have their own strong opinions about the wisdom of their joining together for better or worse.   In Commuters, the story is told from Winnie’s viewpoint; from that of her distracted and tired daughter Rachel (whose one-time lawyer husband has recovered from a serious accident); from the perspective of her angry daughter-in-law Annette, who views Winnie as an opportunistic gold-digger; and from the perspective of Avery, Jerry’s troubled grandson.

Each of these individuals has hopes and dreams – Avery for example wants to be the owner-chef of his own restaurant in Brooklyn – which may rely, in part, on securing some of Jerry’s fortune via inheritance.   Winnie becomes a wild card thrown into the game that forces everyone to scramble and re-evaluate their positions vis-a-vis Jerry.   The well-planned timetables for getting on Jerry’s good side are now thrown out of whack; even more so when Annette elects to sue her father for the control of his business and Jerry’s mental and physical health begins to fade.

Tedrowe does a remarkable job of telling this story from four different perspectives.   All sound like true voices and a wrong note is never heard.   The author incorporates a couple of sex scenes in a way that is subtle, unlike so many of today’s popular fiction writers who drop in such scenes in an attempt to enliven boring narratives.

Each of the narrators in Commuters encounters either unexpected opportunity or tragedy, regardless of their age, maturity or economic standing in life.   This novel informs us that dealing with family and dealing with money are two equal challenges.   And then there’s the matter of love, which does always win in the end.

Commuters also tells us that we’re seeing the emergence of a great new talent in Tedrowe.   Let us hope that she keeps up her craft.   If so, her name may one day be mentioned alongside that of another highly gifted writer, Anne Lamott.

Highly recommended.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is one of our favorite authors and so we’re putting up this very nice photograph from the San Francisco Chronicle.   Note that we have posted two reviews on this site of her latest novel Imperfect Birds.   In order to find these reviews, just enter the terms Anne Lamott in the Search It! box (on the right) and hit enter.   The first review, Birds, was posted on February 14, 2010; the second, Imperfect Birds, on April 12, 2010.

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Everybody Is A Star

Seeing Stars by Diane Hammond

“The thing about Hollywood is, it’s no different from heroin or gambling or crack cocaine, except in Hollywood the high is adrenaline.   …And, at any given moment there are ten thousand stunned and hopeful actors driving around the LA freeways, and every one of them is believing that the big break is coming just as surely as sunrise.”

Anne Lamott’s recently released novel Imperfect Birds is a nearly perfectly written story of a loving family in crisis.   In Birds, the love emotes with tension as three family members try to minimize the mistakes they inevitably make in their relationship.   Birds is both tiring – in the sense that it requires the reader’s full attention – and uplifting.

Now Diane Hammond arrives with another lovingly told family novel, Seeing Stars.   Stars is the tale of several families of acting children and their stage mothers who are seeking the fame and fortune that only Hollywood can provide.   Is the pot of gold they’re seeking real or just an illusion?   In part, it’s both.

This is primarily the story of one Ruth Rabinowitz who is almost completely sure that her daughter Bethany is destined to be one of the stars in the Hollywood night.   But Hollywood pushes back by telling Ruth that her daughter is, at best, a character actor.   Then there’s Ruth’s husband, Hugh, left behind in Seattle with his 20-year-old dental practice.  

Hugh supports his wife and daughter but honestly feels they are chasing a dream that will never come true – and the cost of maintaining an extra household in L.A. (not to mention the cost of acting lessons) is eating up all of his earnings.   Does Hugh make Ruth and Bethany return home or let them experience failure?   Will his wife and daughter prove him to be wrong?

The Rabinowitz’s story is the main one but there are several associated ones in Stars.   There’s Bethany’s sometime friend Allison Addison.   Allison is beautiful and knows it.   She also knows that her time to secure a big-time leading role is quickly running out.   Her aggressiveness hides her loneliness.

Allison is quasi-adopted by the shrewd and tough talent agent Mimi Rogers.   Mimi is tougher (“…like an old cat in the night”) than 90% of those in the business but even she must eventually meet her match.

There’s Quinn Reilly, another find of Mimi’s, who is a young James Dean.   Like Dean, he simmers with obvious talent but isn’t much with the social skills.   Will directors use him or figure it’s not worth the cost and aggravation?

Finally there’s Laurel Buehl who is talented enough to make commercials but may be lacking the personality to take the next step.   Her mother Angie has had to battle and survive cancer to be at her side.

Hammond puts all this together with charm and style.   This is an easy – and thus surprisingly fast – read because she so well cushions tension with humor.   In a sense, Hammond’s writing is like Anne Lamott or Anna Quindlen with blinders on.   That’s OK, sometimes we need a bit of a break from the harsh light of reality.

It all ends stunningly and smoothly – and must be experienced by the reader rather than explained here or elsewhere.   At the end of Seeing Stars, all of our protagonists both win and lose.   They all – each and every one of them – learn to take what they need out of life and to leave the rest.

Highly recommended.

A review copy was provided by Harper Paperbacks.

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Imperfect Birds

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

Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott is a fabulous book, one of those rare books that has you muttering “wow” to yourself once you finish it.   As soon as I read the novel’s first line, “There are so many evils that pull on our children,” I knew that I was in for a good read.   In Imperfect Birds, Lamott is telling the story of what can happen to a teenage daughter.   Having my own teenage (step) daughter, I’m constantly worried about her well-being, wondering what out there in her world is tempting her, despite the fact that she’s a good normal girl, and a scholar-athlete with a fantastic GPA.

Elizabeth Ferguson is raising her seventeen-year-old daughter Rose in a supposedly safe community in northern California, along with her second husband James.   Elizabeth is a worrier, and not without reason.   Kids die in her town from drinking and using drugs.   Her daughter has admitted to having sex, and to smoking pot, trying cocaine and drinking.   Most of this Elizabeth secretly reads in Rosie’s journals.   Elizabeth is a recovering alcoholic, suffers from mental illness, and lost her first husband many years before.

Elizabeth works and her husband James writes at home, and they’re loving parents who have very frank and honest conversations with Rosie.   Despite this, Rosie is hiding a secret.   During Rosie’s senior year she goes into a gradual slide – lying, having unprotected sex, and abusing drugs.   Yet she doesn’t think she has a problem.

Elizabeth and James struggle with Rosie as she becomes less trust-worthy and open.   Rosie is every typical teenager; she doesn’t want to hear her parents’ warnings.   She is in fact a wonderful girl – funny, bright and loving.   Yet Rosie has become a master manipulator.   While reading this novel you can actually feel the tension between Rosie and her parents.   Ms. Lamott does an excellent job reminding the reader of how hard the process of raising a daughter can be.

Imperfect Birds is a sequel to two of Anne Lamott’s prior novels, Rosie (1997) and Crooked Little Heart (1998).   Lamott does an excellent job of tapping into the teen drug culture that scares parents.   Rosie, Elizabeth and James are a family in crisis, like many other American families today.

You don’t need to be a parent or step-parent to read this book, because it appeals on so many levels.   It is a wonderful, wonderful book…   Read it, if only to feel that “ah, you too” moment.

This review was written by Ghetto Girl and used with her kind permission.   You can read more of her reviews at: http://thegirlfromtheghetto.wordpress.com/ .

 

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