Tag Archives: New York Times Bestseller

Full of Grace

 

pictures of youPictures of You: A Novel by Caroline Leavitt (Algonquin Books, $13.95, 336 pages)

There was no cause and effect. There was no karma. The truth was that he wasn’t so sure he understood how the world worked anymore.

At the opening of Pictures of You, two women — April and Isabelle — are literally driving away from their marriages when they collide into each other on a foggy highway. Only Isabelle survives. This leaves three survivors, including Isabelle’s husband Charlie, April’s husband Sam and his needy 9-year-old son, Sam. In his neediness, Sam comes to view Isabelle as an angel placed on earth to save him.

It’s quite an innovative set-up for an extremely well written novel by Caroline Leavitt. Leavitt writes in a calm, methodical, factual style that brings to mind both Michelle Richmond and Diane Hammond; and like those authors (and Elizabeth Berg) she intends to impart a few of life’s lessons in the process of telling a story. One lesson has to do with powerlessness: “You could think you understood things, but the truth was that you could never see the full picture of someone else’s life.”

Than there’s the fact that we look for something more than human in times of grief and trouble: “Maybe tomorrow, the angel might be the one to come for him.” “People believed in angels when they were most in trouble.”

…he had somehow photographed her so that her shoulders were dark and burly, as if she had wings under her dress… (as if) she might spread them to lift off the ground and fly away.

Sam’s desire to make something sacred out of the very human Isabelle is a representation of the fact that everyone seeks comfort and safety in life. When Sam’s father reads the obituaries in the newspaper, “He (doesn’t) bother to brush away his tears… each one said the same thing: Come home. Come home.”

It wasn’t a pill or a car that made her feel safe.

Isabelle, however, is the one who has the clear chance to re-start her life, and the reader will be intrigued to see what choices she makes. The beauty of Leavitt’s telling is that what the reader thinks is going to happen does not. And this, in itself, makes it a very special book.

Pictures of You concludes with a perfect ending in which everything is fully and satisfactorily resolved. There’s also a Hollywood-style postscript, a look back from 21 years later, that adds a nice cinematic touch to the account. All in all, this is an amazing novel.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. 

The reader who enjoys this book may want to read American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn, which also wrestles with the notion of angels on this earth.

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Baby Driver

the-art-of-racing-in-the-rain

The Art of Racing in the Rain: A Novel by Garth Stein (Harper Perennial, $14.99, 321 pages)

There are certain books you look back on, years later, and think, "That was some story!" This is one of those books. It is a touching, emotional story made all the more so because its narrator is a dog facing his approaching death. As the story begins, Enzo the dog is ready to accept his fate; in fact, in a way he welcomes it because he believes – based on what he observed on a public television documentary, that his soul will then be freed to return to life as a human being. Enzo's lifelong study of these creatures with opposable thumbs and the ability to speak clearly has convinced him that he'll do quite well in his next life.

While this story will leave you with a warm and fuzzy heart (and moist eyes) at the conclusion, it is filled with a lot of the negative things that can happen to people in this life… Which is why the tale includes stops at a jail, a criminal courtroom, a hospital, and a cemetery. Even two-thirds or three-fourths of the way through you'll begin to doubt that there can be such a thing as a happy conclusion to this dog-gone tale. But hang in there, reader, because author Garth Stein begins pulling the rabbits out of his writing hat in the very last pages; with this, his writing takes on a certain special quality. Let's call it the ability to fashion a sparkling magical mystery trip.

As with Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr., you won’t see the ending coming until it’s upon you. And as with Everything…, there’s a fake ending followed by a reprise (or slight return as per Jimi Hendrix) that ties everything together. Maybe. Or maybe the final ending isn’t what it seems to be. This is something that will keep you thinking for a few days after finishing this novel.

I hope and pray that if this fictional tale is made into a movie they don’t change a thing – The Time Traveler’s Wife, anyone? – including maintaining Enzo as the story’s narrator. Now, let’s see, who would be the ideal voice of Enzo? Me, I hear Nicolas Cage when I think of Enzo, but that’s just me. As Enzo would say (or bark out), “I know a lot about a lot of things, but I don’t know everything about everything.”

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

If you read and enjoy The Art of Racing in the Rain, you will likely also enjoy reading the fun and marvelous Walking in Circles Before Lying Down: A Novel by Merrill Markoe. It’s another fine feast for dog lovers, available as a trade paperback book (Villard, $13.95, 288 pages).

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Twist and Shout

The Expats

The Expats: A Novel by Chris Pavone (Broadway, $15.00, 352 pages)

The Expats by editor-turned-novelist Chris Pavone has all the twists and turns of a Robert Ludlum or Clive Cussler action-thriller, plus a domestic element that sets it apart from the pack: it plays the layers of duplicity in Kate and Dexter Moore’s professional lives against the secrets they guard from each other in their marriage.

Kate is a spy and a young mom – a smart, self-consciously attractive, nominally maternal, thirty-something who leaves a CIA career to stay home with the kids when Dexter lands a lucrative banking security job in Luxembourg. But nothing and no one in The Expats is as advertised. Kate’s nagging questions about her husband’s fundamental character spur her to investigate when she senses threatening intentions in a friendly American couple they meet in the ex-pat community in Luxembourg.

Don’t read it for shimmering imagery or deeply conflicted characters. It isn’t that kind of book. Kate is Jason Bourne in a skirt. She can remove herself from the Company, but she can’t squash the instincts that made her a hired gun. The Expats is a set of spiraling secrets, the exposition of which is played out in lushly detailed European cities.

In a Publishers Weekly interview in 2012, Chris Pavone said, “A detailed map of the story line was what made it possible to write such a labyrinthe book…” – in addition to a numbered list of twists and turns. Action thriller fans will love this one. Well recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell

A review copy was provided by the publisher. The Expats was released in a trade paper version on January 22, 2013. “Brilliant, insanely clever, and delectably readable.” Library Journal

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Coming Up Next…

A review of 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars by Kurt Eichenwald.500 Days (nook book)

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Born to Run

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall (Vintage, $15.95, 304 pages)

This book is guaranteed to appeal to certain subgroups of readers who are absolutely going to love it: old, new and former runners, middle-distance runners, marathoners, long-distance and ultra-marathon runners, and those who gravitate to stories about indigenous tribes like the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico and the American Southwest.   If you’re not a member of one of these groups, the subject matter is unlikely to hold your interest, unless from time to time you pick up a copy of Runner’s World or Marathon and Beyond magazine and find such to be fascinating.

Of course, there have been books – not intended for the general public – that have been huge and surprising successes, such as Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer and The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger.   Yet, I suspect that this tale of world-class ultra-marathoners will remain a specialized taste for most.

This true story is about a magazine editor who gets to observe an almost-secret race between some of this country’s best ultra-marathon runners and a group of “fleet-footed Tarahumara Indians.”   The race itself comes at the book’s conclusion and is not as interesting as the build-up to it.   Instead, the book is at its best when explaining the science of long-distance running, and how and why the skill of running long distances has been essential to human survival and evolution.  

The author explains why there may be an almost instinctual need for some humans to run the 26.2 miles of a marathon, or further.   He is, however, mystified as to why some persons today avoid running altogether.   The section that active runners may enjoy the best is one in which Christopher McDougall fully details the reasons expensive and highly cushioned running shoes – and those sold in the U. S. continue to be more expensive and more cushioned with each quarter of a year that goes by – lead to inevitable injuries.   After finishing this section, many runners (not including this reviewer) will certainly think about hitting the roads in their running flats or rubber sandals or even barefoot.   Fascinating stuff!

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   This bestselling book is now available in a trade paper release.   “Inspiring… destined to become a classic.”   Sir Ranulph Fiennes

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Only A Pawn In Their Game

Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall by Frank Brady (Broadway Books, $16.00, 432 pages)

“(Bobby Fischer was) the greatest genius to have descended from the chess heavens.”   Mikhail Tal

“(He was) perhaps the most mythologically shrouded figure in chess.”   Garry Kasparov

“I am the best player in the world.”   Bobby Fischer

Bobby Fischer’s life was proof positive that genius often lies close to madness.   The boy who once went to high school in Brooklyn with Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond made chess a household game in the U.S., and at one time he was one of the two best known people in the world – along with Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali.   Fischer was a child prodigy at chess and he became a grandmaster (at 15) and World Champion who, notably, would win every chess match or tournament he completeted from the age of 23 onward.

Rumors began to spread that Bobby and his mother were estranged…  (However,) he did remain close to his mother…  they could agree to disagree.

Frank Brady decades ago wrote the then-seminal biography of Fischer, Bobby Fischer: Profile of a Prodigy, and he uses this opportunity to both update and correct so-called facts about the life of the chess legend.   He also tells us much about the relationship between Fischer and his mother Regina.   Most of the bios of Fischer have claimed that he and his mother were estranged, which is simply incorrect.   As Brady notes, Fischer was actually close to – and a lot like – Regina:  “As Regina had proselytized all her life for various causes – always liberal and humanistic ones – so, too, Bobby (became) a proselytizer.   The pawn did not stray too far from the queen.”

The misunderstandings about Bobby and Regina appear to stem from the fact that they had very different positions on political issues.   However, they were able to set these aside in order to maintain a respectful personal relationship.

This is, to be certain, an account of Fischer’s late-in-life madness – his “state of increasingly frequent paranoia” – which destroyed his reputation as a gaming genius.   Although Fischer was half-Jewish, he became a raving anti-Semite and a foe of the United States government.   To his credit, Brady places all of this in perspective, noting that Fischer was battling a form of mental illness that he could not accept or control.   Fischer, for example, was living virtually penniless on the streets of skid row in Los Angeles in 1975 when he rejected a $5 million dollar purse to defend his World Championship title against Anatoly Karpov.   It still seems shocking:  “…five million dollars!  It was the largest refusal of a prize fund in sports history.”   (Emphasis in the original.)

It is hard for Brady to recreate the context of a time when chess was a spectator sport; a time when 10,000 fans and spectators would show up to watch Bobby Fischer play Tigran Petrosian or Miguel Quinteros.   What Brady does extremely well – a major failing with most bios of talented figures – is to detail for the reader exactly how smart, how intelligent Fischer was in his prime.   So how smart was Fischer?   Well, before playing Boris Spassky for the World Championship, he demonstrated that he had memorized every move made by Spassky and his opponents in 355 games of chess – over 14,000 individual moves!   Fischer could recite every move of every one of these matches the way another person might recite a poem or the lyrics to a song…  But, for him, it was not a way of showing off – it was simply a tool of his intellectual trade.   Fischer was nothing in his life if not the most prepared individual who ever sat down before a chessboard.

Absent the behaviors created or caused by his mental illness, Fischer would likely have died as the  most beloved chess player of all time.   He was certainly loved by his great rival Spassky, who said at Fischer’s death, “My brother is dead.”

This is a beautifully-detailed and well-rounded biography of “America’s greatest prodigy,” a man who died near “the edge of madness.”   Endgame checkmates any all of the other bios of the brilliant but troubled man who may well have been the greatest chess player of all time.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Bobby Fischer’s IQ was 181.

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(A) Kiss from a Rose

The Weird Sisters: A Novel by Eleanor Brown (Berkley Trade, $15.00, 368 pages)

“See, we love each other.   We just don’t happen to like each other very much.”

This is the story of three sisters, and of their retired Shakespeare-spouting professor father and a mother stricken with cancer.   They are three very different sisters, which is what creates the tension in this family novel.

Firstly, there is Rose (Rosalind), the oldest and smartest one, born six years before the second child and twelve years before the youngest.   She has found a perfect man to marry but with one small problem:  He’s teaching at Oxford and wants to stay there, thank you very much.   Secondly, there’s Bean (Bianca), the glamorous middle daughter fired from her job in New York City due to a crazy little thing called embezzlement.   She’s a beauty but not quite perfect.   And, thirdly, there’s Cordy (Cordelia), the baby, the wild one pregnant with the baby of an unknown father.   Cordy’s always been a wanderer.   Is she finally ready to settle down?

It’s their mother’s cancer that brings them back together under the same roof in a small town in Ohio.   There’s not much oxygen to spare…  You are likely thinking that this is going to be one very predictable read; if so, you would be wrong.   This is a novel that surprises and delights.   Author Eleanor Brown seems to tell the story in flawless fashion – I kept looking in vain for the seams in the tale.   They’re there somewhere, but they seem to be woven with invisible thread.

Brown’s journalistic voice contains a beautiful tone which is never too strong nor too weak.   It simply feels like one is listening to someone accurately describing and detailing the events of three sisters’ lives.   And there’s likely more than a trace of real life in The Weird Sisters, as the author just happens to be the youngest of three sisters.

“There’s no problem a library card cannot solve.”

Anyone who loves literature and the greatest writer in the English language will treasure Brown’s educated and clever references to the writings of William Shakespeare.   Each of the daughters is, naturally, named after a character in one of the Bard’s plays, and their lives sometimes feel as if they’re characters in a play.

As the story unfolds, the three sisters must deal with their mother’s mortality and with their own coming to grips with what it is they actually want out of life.   In one sense, each of them must decide between an external (public) or internal (private) version of achievement.

Boomers and those of a younger generation will identify with the struggles of these late-maturing sisters:  “When had our mother gotten so old?   Was it just because she was sick?   Or was this happening to us all without our noticing?…  There was no one wondering about it – we were all getting old.”

“We were all failures,” thinks Bean at one point about herself and her siblings.   But they all wind up successes in a story that is wrapped up so beautifully well.   Contentment is the reward for the reading.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Weird Sisters was released in trade paperback form on February 7, 2012.   “Hilarious, thought-provoking and poignant.”   J. Courtney Sullivan, author of the novels Maine and Commencement.

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Nowhere Man

Clapton: The Autobiography by Eric Clapton (Three Rivers Press, $15.99, 352 pages)

Ethically, it was never a problem for me…

The noted writer-reviewer John Updike once said, “Review the book, not the reputation.”   If this memoir had been written by an average Joe, it would likely draw comparisons to James Frey’s fake memoir (now labeled fiction), A Million Little Pieces.   Like that work, this account is filled with descriptions of inhaling massive quantities of illegal substances, of dangerous behavior and of hurting oneself and others no matter the consequences.   But this memoir is written by a multi-millionaire musician, one who treats near-priceless Ferrari automobiles like disposable coffee cups, one who walks on 30-story hotel ledges, and one who repeatedly and tragically hurt others:  “I suddenly told Pattie I was leaving…  I was like a flame in the wind, being blown all over the place, with no concern for other people’s feelings or for the consequences of my actions…”

Suffice it to say that the Eric Clapton found here is not a very nice or likeable person.   He’s a person, who until the end of this account in near present times, sees the world as existing to serve only his own pleasures; so this is at times both an immoral and an amoral telling of the events in his life.   If this sounds too harsh, here are Clapton’s own words:  “I was off having one-night stands and behaving outrageously with any woman who happened to come my way, so my moral health was in appaling condition and only likely to get worse…  I was already trying to sabotage my relationship with Pattie, as if now that I had her, I didn’t want her anymore.”   (emphasis added)

The person who knows little about Clapton prior to picking up this book – something that is not recommended – likely is aware that Clapton took Pattie Boyd Harrison away from George, one of Clapton’s very best friends.   That says volumes about his behavior, behavior which is only ampiflied in the 328 pages of this autobiography.   One might hope that this version of events, written by a spirited musician, would contain some life in it, but it’s flat and omits many of the details that were provided in Pattie Boyd’s earlier-penned memoir, Wonderful Tonight.

We must presume that Clapton wrote this memoir on his own as there’s no attribution to another writer (“Eric Clapton with…”) nor an “as told to” credit.   Frankly it reads as if it were dictated to a stenographer or into a recording device.

There’s little for the rock music lover to discover here, as Clapton’s accounts of playing with certain bands/musicians are sparse, and he never does describe how he came to learn his own brand of playing.   A lot of time – too much, it seems – is devoted to explaining his love of the blues, even though (despite his insistence here) most of his career has centered on playing rock rather than traditional blues music.   And there are many odd and questionable statements throughout the book…  For example, when Cream plays one of its first dates opening for The Who.   Clapton wonders then whether Cream could possibly succeed with just three musicians in the band, even though they saw that The Who (a musical trio – Roger Daltrey generally being just a vocalist) had already proven the success of this musical business model.   Odd.

Bad choices were my specialty, and if something honest and decent came along, I would shun it or run the other way.

Ah, yes, Clapton (in a style reminiscent of John Lennon) blames his bad choices in life on the fact that a parent abandoned him “all those years ago.”   This seems like an excuse that was used for far too many decades.   In his mind, because his mother abandoned him, he was free to seek revenge by abandoning everyone who came into his life; except, of course, that he’s now happy with a third wife and four daughters.   Good for him.

I remember when I was considering reading Boyd’s memoir Wonderful Tonight, and I came across an online comment to the effect that if one read her book one might well cease to be a fan of the musician Eric Clapton.   I feel the same way here – it will be much harder to listen to Disraeli Gears or 24 Nights or Derek and the Dominoes or Journeyman after this.   At one point, Eric Clapton seemed like Forever Man.   In this autobiography, he comes across more like Nowhere Man.

Joseph Arellano

The reviewer was lent a copy of this book.

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I Feel the Earth Move

Fault Lines: A Novel by Anne Rivers Siddons (William Morrow, $12.99, 352 pages)

In all the world I had never seen anything so strangely inhumanly beautiful.   In this place, man would soon seem simply extraneous.   I shivered.   I did not think I would feel welcome for long in this world where the very earth spasmed and the great trees would not acknowledge my presence.

Between finishing college and starting graduate school, I was lucky enough to have a summer job that involved taking young people camping in the Santa Cruz Mountains in northern California.   This is a unique area – a special place – filled with ancient redwoods and wild animals, including bears, and being there is an other-worldly experience.   If you can’t take a trip there, you may wish to read Fault Lines, which permits the reader to experience the place via the eyes of a Southerner making her first trip to California; and, for good measure, Siddons throws in visits to Los Angeles and San Francisco in this novel about a woman whose life is shaken up – a woman who experiences “an earthquake in the soul.”

Merritt Fowler is a proper Atlanta housewife, married to a succesful physician named Pom, and mother to Glynn, her sensitive sixteen-year-old daughter.   For years she also served as a pseudo-mother to her younger sister Laura, an actress who fled to southern California after finding it impossible to live in the household of the stern doctor Fowler.   Pom turns out to be one of those good men (he provides free health care to the poor of Atlanta) who practices good deeds everywhere except in his own home.   He’s also unable to face reality when his mother – whom he insists be referred to as Mommee – is afflicted by Alzheimer’s and her actions become literally life-threatening.   When Glynn insists that Mommee be placed in a residential care facility, Pom becomes so hostile toward his daughter that Glynn runs away to join her aunt Laura in Palm Springs.

Merritt has been the responsible and forgiving one her entire life, but this single incident permits her to see that her husband has become (in the words of Jackson Browne) a “perfect fool”   She stands up to Pom for the first time, and elects to go and find her daughter and bring her back home.   Once she gets to California, she sees that both Glynn and Laura are different people there than they were in Georgia…  and the environment begins to also take hold of her actions, and of her very being.

In California, Merritt – who is said to resemble the late actress Kay Kendall – realizes that she and her sister and daughter are all viewed as great beauties, even in a city (Los Angeles) filled with actresses.   And she begins to become fascinated with the notion of earthquakes, especially after experiencing her first one.   She’s unaware that the big earthquake, in her personal life, is soon to hit.

Oh, it was such a day, it really was.   A pinnacle day, a ball bearing on which a life turns.

While this novel starts slowly, filled with dialogue that initially seems to be both clumsy and awkward (I had an image of actors practicing their lines off-screen – never able to get them right), the reader’s patience is rewarded with an engaging story that warms up to the point where you don’t want to put the book down.   If Merritt begins as a cardboard figure, she soon turns into a person alive as you or me…  Merritt’s a person – a mature person – who is still trying to find her place in the world.   She’s lost herself in the air somewhere between Atlanta and LAX, and now she has to decide if she’s the Merritt of Old Atlanta or the Merritt of the New West.   The way in which she finds herself will surprise you.

Highly recommended.   Siddons is a writer who wisely pulls her punches before delivering a knockout blow.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “A literary meteor shower…  One great read.”   Detroit News/Free Press

Note: There is one glaring error in the novel.   The college in Santa Cruz is called USC Santa Cruz on page 274, when it is actually the University of California, Santa Cruz (UC, Santa Cruz or UCSC).

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Fault Lines: A Novel by Anne Rivers Siddons.

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