Category: Book Reviews

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

mr. penumbra

Sloan, Robin. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.

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(I’m annoyed that Word Press no longer automatically converts my smiley faces, so I’m moving to asterisks to rate books, which are close enough substitutes for stars.) <fixed>

This one has been making the rounds via word-of-mouth more than anything. Because I’m often contrary about such things, I put off reading it. Then my sister suggested it to me, and well, she’s never led me astray, so I decided, finally, to read it.

I loved it! It’s a great read for us geeky, bookish types who are always bemoaning the digital age while also lapping up those things about it that we like: “The digital age is killing the book… Oh, wait a minute, I can renew my library books without setting foot outside my house? Sweet! Online renewal, here I come!” Sloan strikes a very nice balance here between digital geeks and print geeks, poking fun at both of us. A great example of his teasing the latter is his description of why books will never die, which is because readers love the way they smell. Meanwhile, his sendup of the Google campus and its cafeteria is a riot.

Clay Jannon, our erstwhile 20-something, caught between the print and digital ages is a well-drawn, endearing character. He’s a dude whose curiosity (well, and also the fact he’s been laid off from his tech job and needs to earn money) leads him to work in a very odd (but delicious-sounding) bookstore. That curiosity and his attachment to the people he meets on the job eventually lead him on a quest, an ancient and familiar one: the quest for immortality. He doesn’t quite believe in this quest, but by the time he realizes what it is, he’s in too deep to turn back.

“Light”, “fun”, “funny” are all words that can be used to describe the book. What I like about it, though, is that there’s depth to it, too. The reader finds herself asking questions like, “Are we going too far and too fast with our digital knowledge, and if so, what will the consequences be?” and “Is there merit to preserving old ways and techniques that reaches beyond appreciation for the historic?” and “Will bookstores really die?” (I always maintain that the answer to that last question is “no”. Print books and digital books will just happily live alongside each other, the same way television and radio do). I enjoyed pondering such questions — briefly. I didn’t have too much time to spend on them as I quickly turned pages to find out what happened next.

Oh, and while we’re discussing how this book has everything, there’s also romance. Sloan gives us the romance of love, the romance of friendship, the romance of a city, the romance of a good book or story, no matter its format. It’s all here. If you love romance and fantasy with a little cynical urban humor, this book is sure to please.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

beside ourselvesFowler, Karen Joy. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013.

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I went into this book skeptically, because a couple of people I know had read it and hadn’t liked it. Maybe I wouldn’t have liked it as much as I did if I’d picked it up thinking it was going to be great, but it’s a fascinating read (at least for someone like me who was raised in an academic family and was surrounded by academics during her formative years, studied psychology, and likes surprises), so I’m pretty sure I would have wound up liking it as much as I did no matter what. I speak of surprises because there’s a plot twist that was discussed in early reviews and ad copy. Luckily, I didn’t read those reviews until I’d finished the book, and the publisher wised up when they came out with the edition I read, taking that spoiler out of the cover copy, so it wasn’t given away before I even opened the book. Even though I knew from having listened to others who’d read it (they’d basically said, “I can’t talk about this book with you until you’ve read it, because I’d have to give something away”) to keep an eye out for something I wasn’t expecting, I was still completely surprised when I found out what it was. I’m sure there were hints, but I didn’t pick up on them. It’s probably best if you don’t know what that twist is from the get-go, but it might be interesting to read it knowing it as well (kind of like knowing what’s going to happen at the end of Sixth Sense and searching for the clues).

Psychology is a field well-known for conducting some historic experiments that would be considered unethical today. Imagine, for instance, being a subject (or is “victim” a better word?) who is asked to send someone an increasingly more powerful electric shock every time he or she answers a question wrong. Or conditioning a baby to be afraid of anything white and fluffy. This story of an academic family examines what happens when experiments are conducted without considering what the future consequences might be — on all those involved in the experiment. The story is told through the eyes of Rosemary, the youngest child in the family, and the only child communicating with her parents when the book opens. She’s in college and is struggling, trying to piece together all her family’s secrets.

At first, I thought Rosemary was going to be an unsympathetic character, because she seems to be no more than an attention-seeking weirdo who wants the reader to know she’s different from everyone else. Soon enough, though, as the reader tries to help her piece together her story, she becomes very sympathetic, even more so once her story is revealed. In fact, this book isn’t always an easy read, so much is the reader encouraged to sympathize with Rosemary and her brother Lowell (who’s still in Rosemary’s life, a bit), as well as her sister Fern (who isn’t). Another surprise is how much, ultimately, the reader is encouraged to sympathize with Fern.

On the surface, the book is about one thing, but dig a little deeper, and it’s really yet another novel about family and love — what it means to be part of a family, how family members misunderstand and hurt each other, how they long for each other, and how they often do more damage than good through the best of intentions, thinking they’re protecting each other when they’re not. Rosemary is kept in the dark by her parents for two reasons: a. they don’t think she can handle what happened to Fern and b. they can’t handle it and want to convince themselves that everything is fine. Their guilt and deception does more harm, both to themselves (Rosemary’s mother suffers from clinical depression) and to Rosemary, than one imagines honesty would have.

Ultimately, despite its rather odd definition of “family” (for lack of a better term), this book is a spot-on account of human frailty and our own changing definitions of what, exactly, makes us human. For that, I loved it, and I hope, despite being so elusive (or maybe because of that), I’ve managed to encourage you to pick it up and see what you think.

 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman, Neil. The Ocean at the End of the World. New York: William Morrow, 2013

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Before you read this, you have to understand that if I were fifteen years old, and some company were in the business of manufacturing posters of authors, I’d have a poster of Neil Gaiman on my wall among all the rock stars. He kind of looks like a rock star, so even if author posters were considered uncool by my friends, I might be able to get away with it without having to worry that my coolness factor would suffer. Maybe I’d even convince some other fifteen-year-olds how cool he is.

Having said that, I now have to say that I approached his latest work for adults a little warily. I’ve got him on a pedestal, and he’s bound to fall off it at some point. I needn’t have worried, though. Gaiman has a way of lulling me into a dreamlike state, and I’d entered it by the time I got to the third page of this short work.

Descriptions of the book I’ve read in reviews and endorsements call it a “fable”, and I suppose it is, but I prefer to stick with the label I’ve come to associate with Gaiman, which is “dark fantasy”. Our narrator here is a man in his forties who’s (appropriately) come home to attend a funeral and winds up on the lane where he lived as a boy. Here, he reminisces about some extraordinary events that occurred the year he turned seven.

Because the story focuses on a child, it can easily be read one of two ways. Maybe there really was an eleven-year-old girl with magical powers who lived at the end of the lane with her mother and grandmother and who took young George to another land where an evil force latched onto him. On the other hand, maybe he made it all up to deal with the fact that when his mother had to get a job, and the family had to hire a babysitter for his sister and him, something bad happened. A psychologist might say that reality and fantasy got confused in the boy’s mind, probably because he partly blamed himself for the fact that this woman came into their lives.

Being the person that I am, I prefer the former explanation. I want worlds within worlds that make up universes, where forces of good and evil confront each other, and I want some of us to be lucky enough to travel back and forth between worlds and to encounter those from other worlds living in ours. Isn’t that so much more fun and exciting than, “Well, something traumatic happened, and, in order to deal with it, your mind made up all this stuff”? Okay, I have to admit that the psychologist in me finds that fascinating, too, but it’s not nearly as much fun, is it?

One of the themes Gaiman explores in this work is the adult world seen through a child’s eyes. Adults are scary “know-it-alls”. In any good fantasy, dark or otherwise, our hero or heroine learns things, and one thing George learns here is that grownups are not all that different from children. One of my favorite quotes from the book is when George’s new friend tells him,

“‘Grownups don’t look like grownups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is there aren’t any grownups. Not one, in the whole wide world.'”

It’s a truth I already knew (although, if you put a gun to my head, I might argue that I’ve met a handful of “grown-ups” in child-sized packages in my life). Still, it was fun to spend some time in Neil Gaiman’s world, a world that can be frightening but also oh-so-beautiful, to be reminded that there aren’t really any grownups. Not one.

If you like fantasy, and you’ve never read Gaiman, this is a good place to start. Spend an afternoon with this one, and when you wake up, tell me how you interpret the dream.

An Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor

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Taylor, Patrick. An Irish Country Doctor. New York: Forge, 2008.

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I discovered Patrick Taylor from returns and requests here at the library, and I’d been meaning to read him for some time. I enjoy Miss Read, and I thought his books might be similar to her books set in small English villages. I was spot-on with my assumption that this would be a cozy one, very similar to Miss Read. It’s perfect for curling up in a big chair, a dog at your feet, and a mug of something hot to drink while waiting for spring to arrive.

Taylor’s a little rougher around the edges than Miss Read but in a good way (just what one might expect from an Irish gentleman as opposed to an English gentlewoman), and he’s hilarious. Some of his scenes might be a bit hard for those who are medically squeamish, but they’re well worth the squeam or two it might take to get to the rewards they provide when it comes to seeing how a doctor can get the best of his patients.

Our main character here, or so it seems, is Barry Laverty. It’s 1964, and he’s fresh out of medical school with no clear plans for his future, so he decides to take an apprenticeship in the Northern Irish village of Ballybucklebo. It’s a country village, full of country characters, the biggest of whom is Dr. Fingal Flaherty O’Reilly. So big is O’Reilly that he pretty much takes over the whole book, which was fine with me because a more entertaining doctor would be hard to find.

The life of a country doctor is tough. You work very long, hard hours, and people are always happy to tell you how to do your job and how you fall short. The rewards when they come, though, more than make up for the trouble. That’s what Barry, with a whole lot of help from Fingal, learns by the end. He also falls in love with the village practice, the countryside, and, yes, with a woman. Along the way, he finds himself caught up in many laugh-out-loud misadventures. A few touching, but not treacly, moments round out this charming tale.

It’s a happy-ending sort of book, so even though at one point, it seems like all kinds of bad things are going down, I didn’t worry too much. I had a feeling things would all work out just fine. I just didn’t know that the way they’d work out would be so much fun.

Pour me another cup of tea (or perhaps a shot of Irish whisky) and pass me the next volume in the series.

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

doctor sleep 

King, Stephen. Dr. Sleep. New York: Scribner, 2013.

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It’s October, time to read something that might make you think twice about stepping outside your door alone at night. I have to admit that I wasn’t planning on making this that book. I was going to read World War Z, which has been on my list forever and was recently moved to the top of it because my husband read it and assured me I’d love it. Besides, I wanted to reread Stephen King’s The Shining, one of my favorites of his novels and one I last read when I was a teenager, before reading its sequel. But, well, I work at the library. And I happened to be working the day this one came in looking all shiny and new and interesting, and I just couldn’t resist it. I’m glad I couldn’t! Otherwise, it might have been years and years before I got around to reading it, which would’ve been a shame.

King has outshined himself (pun intended). Sequels can sometimes be disappointing, but this one, with little Danny Torrance all grown up, isn’t.  One thing I love about King is his ability to take old themes (including his own) and twist them just enough to keep them recognizable while turning them into something new that isn’t too far-fetched or lame. He’s not always the world’s best writer — although much, much better than so many contemporary writers, and when he’s got his game on, he writes seamlessly and sublimely — but I love to observe his imagination at work. Here, we have updated vampires. Happily, they’re not those namby-pamby, dancing around in slippers (or whatever they do. I haven’t paid much attention to them), trying to avoid sucking the blood of those they love vampires (you know, the ones who come out at twilight instead of during the darkest hours), the sorts who’ve become all the rage in 21st-century America. No, King’s new era vampires are evil and scary, the way vampires should be, so evil that they prey only on children. I’m quite sure Bram Stoker would approve.

Danny Torrance may be all grown up (and all AA-inculcated), but we have a new child to take his place, Abra Stone. Abra is a force to reckon with when it comes to vampires, especially vampires who are sure they’re far more clever than any “rube” (as they refer to humans). Those who’ve known Stephen King as long as I have might experience a few Carrie and Firestarter flashbacks, but Abra is no Carrie or Charlie. She’s grown up in an era in which adults pay a bit more attention to their children, and that’s given her the will to use both supernatural and natural powers to fight. Pair her with Danny, and, well, you just have to read it to believe it. I read the book in record time, ignoring hungry cats, dirty dishes, and ringing phones in order to get to the end to find out what happened. One nice thing about Stephen King is you can almost always rest assured that the good guys are going to win in the end. You don’t have to worry that, say, the vampires are going to kill all your favorite characters in the book and take over the world. It’s like knowing you’ll be perfectly fine when the train comes to a halt back at the roller coaster station, no matter how much you might be screaming right now. So, climb aboard the Doctor Sleep train, and enjoy it to the bitter(sweet) end.

I can’t wait for the movie version. I hope someone as talented as the late Stanley Kubrick (who scared me to death with his version of The Shining) decides to take on the challenge. Then again, I know King wasn’t real thrilled with Kubrick’s version of his book (and for some good reasons). Since King has a bit more influence over movies these days, perhaps he’ll make sure the movie version lives up to the book even better than The Shining did.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

me before you    Moyes, Jojo. Me Before You. New York: Viking, 2012.

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Wow! My colleague Lisa recommended this one to me, which I have to admit I’d been avoiding because, honestly, it sounded a bit odd, like a typical 21st-century “let’s-shock-and-be-clever” novel. I mean, a love story between a woman and her quadriplegic charge? I didn’t think I wanted to go there.

But I’m glad I did because it was so much more than that. Yes, it was a classic love story, one in which two people change each others’ lives and have no regrets, but one that’s doomed in so many ways. It’s interesting to see how Moyes breaks down the class barriers here, using something much more powerful than class differences (a traditional feature of doomed romances) to help the characters get past (or not) their own biases and prejudices. And, yes, as Louisa (our “heroine”) reminds us, she is Eliza Doolittle to Will’s (our “hero”) Professor Higgins, or, as he corrects her (being wont to do so often), Pygmalion. These two are on much more equal footing, though, than the characters from that play. Unlike Eliza Doolittle, Louisa has her own prejudices and biases to overcome, ones that could make her feel she is in a superior position to Will, although she manages to overcome them quite quickly.

When we first meet them, Louisa and Will are both broken people, struggling with their demons. Will’s are more obvious, Louisa’s a bit more subtle until we get to know more about her. Before his accident, Will was a successful businessman, enjoying an “upper crust” lifestyle that allowed him to pursue risk-taking adventures like skiing and scuba diving, and he was very physical in every way. Now, he only has limited movement in one hand. Louisa has lost her job at a local bakery that’s closed down and has become fearful of life, never venturing outside the town where she was raised because of something that happened to her, six years ago, when she was twenty. She accepts the job caring for Will, which she really doesn’t want, because her father is about to lose his job, and their family needs the money. Will is angry beyond measure, refusing to accept his fate, and Louisa is fearful in the same way, clinging to her comfort zone. Together, against all odds, they both heal.

The love story is a painful one; the book isn’t always easy to read; and it tackles the very controversial topic of a person’s right to die, providing no easy answers to the question, “Does anyone ever have the right to take his or her own life?” I’ve thought about that question in very abstract ways, but Moyes makes it personal by creating characters who work their way into the reader’s heart, ironically springing to life from the same pages that focus a good deal on death and dying. I found only one fault in Moyes’s superb characterization and that was a rather uneven relationship between Louisa and her sister Katrina. I know relationships between sisters can be inconsistent, emotional, and difficult to understand, but some of the things these two did seemed overly inconsistent for the relationship Louisa painted. Other than that, though, the writing was flawless, seamless, and I liked the way Moyes told most of the story from Louisa’s first-person point of view but gave us three brief chapters told, respectively, from the points of view of Will’s mother, Will’s father, and Katrina (that’s a writing gimmick I don’t usually like, but it worked here). Moyes also managed to slip in some very funny scenes to provide a little relief for the poor reader (mind you, she’s just punched the reader in the gut, but at least she feels a bit bad about doing so). In fact, the book starts off on a light note, easing the reader into its darkness.

Me Before You isn’t for everyone. Some might be very upset with the way it ends. Others may find the whole topic too odd. But me? I loved it for being a classic, tragic but very moving, love story, one that ended hopefully and poignantly (the way many a good tragedy often does), and I liked the fact that it made me think and wonder. Not something I’d grab for a day at the beach (and I think I need a little Marian Keyes or something for dessert now) but definitely a book I loved reading from beginning to end, despite a few episodes of watery eyes (if not actual tears) along the way.

 

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

girl who circumnavigated Valente, Catherynne M. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2011.

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I’m always in search of the kind of fun books I read as a kid, so I keep my eyes open (good thing) when I’m re-shelving books in the children’s area, which is how I came across this one. I also like to read fantasy in the springtime, and this seemed like a perfect springtime fantasy read. I guessed correctly. The book fit both bills well, and it’s just clever enough to be unique without trying to be oh-so-clever that it’s over the top and annoying.

I loved it from beginning to end. First of all, we have a heroine rather than a hero here. She isn’t exactly a “fearless” heroine, but I prefer heroines (and heroes) who aren’t. September  has her moments of fear, but she is still an incredibly brave, curious character who stands up to villains in a way children’s book characters often don’t. When I was a kid, I was always frustrated by characters who didn’t think very logically and were too easily cowed. Neither criticism can be thrown at September.

I love Valente’s version of Fairyland. She hangs on to key elements of folklore while updating for 21st-century sensibilities. It works, and I’m not quite sure why, because I so often hate it when writers explain away folklore (which they love to do with vampires) by saying things like, “You shouldn’t believe everything you’ve read about us” or “Oh, well, it used to be that way, but 100 years ago, so-and-so invented special glasses (say), and now we can walk around during daylight hours (say).” I laughed, though, when Valente mentioned different cultural interpretations of folklore. Our narrator also inserts herself into the book, in asides to the reader, which is an old-fashioned technique I’ve always appreciated, reminiscent of E. Nesbit (although, if you’re not a fan of those kinds of asides, I can tell you that you probably won’t like this book). Again, she doesn’t do it to the point that it’s annoying, but rather in a “we’re comrades in all this and understand each other” way.

You know me, however, the sucker for good characterization. None of this would matter if September weren’t an intrepid adventurer who asks the right questions, knows when to cry at the right time, and who has a heart. A through L (yes, that’s his name), our Wyvern, is as endearing a traveling companion as you’re likely to meet, without being stupid or treacly. The Marquess is a wonderful Bad Guy, taking on many of the characteristics of today’s so-called “mean girls”. Someone who wasn’t as savvy as September might be fooled into believing the Marquess wanted to be best friends, but September knows she should be weary, sure that behind her back, the Marquess is plotting to have her killed. The Green Wind is a superb character, too, carrying September away to Fairyland. And who could not like Capurna, the fairy who is “accustomed” to carrying on conversations while racing along on a velocipede? Many more lovable characters abound.

One other aspect of the book that charmed me is that Valente, like authors of yore, doesn’t talk down to her readers. She expects us either to know (or to be able to define via context) the “big words” children’s writers tend to shy away from these days. She assumes her readers are familiar with folklore, and, if not, that they just might learn enough from her to pique their interests, encouraging them to read more. Hooray for a 21st-century author who assumes that a child reading her book is smart — because, really, most children are smarter (and wiser) than we give them credit for being.

My only complaint? Why, since there are so many illustrations of so many other things (including the giveaway cover illustration of September holding a key behind her back and looking at the Wyvern and his chained wings), isn’t there an illustration of September’s ship? It  should have  been on the cover. But that’s a minor (some might even say “childish”) complaint. If you like children’s fantasy, this is a good one.

This is Not Chick Lit edited by Elizabeth Merrick

not chick lit Merrick, Elizabeth, ed. This is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America’s Best Women Writers. New York: Random House, 2006.

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Don’t get me wrong. Readers of this blog happen to know that I love a good chick lit book every now and again, especially those written by women who know how to write (Marian Keyes and Sophie Kinsella spring to mind). Contrary to popular belief, many such authors do write well (although I’d recommend skipping Celia Ahern. Poor thing. Maybe she’ll mature into her writing one day). I’ve also probably said more than a time or two that chick lit books are the Swedish Fish of reading. They won’t fill you up, and if you eat too many, you’ll probably feel sick. Still. I just have to have them sometimes.

It’s not surprising, then, that this title caught my eye when I was browsing the shelves one day (oh, okay, if we’re going to get picky here, I’ll admit that I wasn’t browsing. I was re-shelving books, an activity that usually involves finding one book I’d like to read for each book I put away). The cover is black, not the typical breezy pastel that wraps so much chick lit. The lettering is a shocking pink. It’s a title that’s pretty hard to miss. What is surprising is that once in my hands, I discovered it was a collection of short stories, and yet I didn’t put it back.

I’m not a huge fan of short stories. They always seem to end just as they’re getting started. I’ve finished many a short story and found myself thinking, “Yes, and then?” Contemporary short story writers often seem lazy, finishing smack in the middle of all the action with some dramatic sentence that sums nothing up at all. I wind up wondering if these authors just can’t be bothered to pull anything together (or maybe the younger ones don’t even know how, having been brought up on nothing but TV, movie, and book series that go on forever, constantly leaving audiences hanging), and want you to do all the work yourself.

This collection, however, had some authors in it whose novels I’ve wanted to read. Beginning with short stories seemed like a good way to introduce myself to their writing styles. I could explore them without making too much of a commitment. It was, in fact, an excellent introduction to these authors.

Yes, some of these stories were fine examples of all that I don’t like about so much contemporary fiction: “let’s write in some sort of odd, disquieting manner that makes the reader really have to work to turn it into a story” or “let’s write about despicable people and see how sympathetic we can make them” or “let’s hit the reader over the head with ‘the issue of the moment.'” (I have to add here that any one of these “let’s” is not necessarily bad in the hands of a brilliant writer. The problem is when those who are not brilliant writers think they are and choose to embrace them.) But let’s forget about those few-and-far-between stories in this collection, some of which had me wondering “She’s one of America’s best?”

I found many authors here who definitely had me sitting up and taking notice (if not actual notes). I’ve never read any of Francine Prose’s fiction, but now I must. She wrote the “cell phone eavesdropper” story I’ve always wanted someone to write. No one had ever told me how funny Jennifer Egan could be (I didn’t find her The Visit from the Goon Squad funny at all, nor did I like it much). She is (or at least, apparently can be), and I will have to check out some of her other works; likewise Binnie Kirshenbaum. She’s absolutely hilarious if her story in this collection is any indication. Christina Henriquez’s prose is as seamless as prose can get. Oh, and for some reason (based on reading something of hers years ago, I guess), I thought I didn’t like Mary Gordon. I guess I thought wrong (of course, how could I not like a story about a woman and the library branch in Manhattan that she frequents?). Putting up with an occasional dud in this collection in order to get to all these authors and their stories was well worth the effort. I’d highly recommend your doing so, if you haven’t already.

Consuming Passions by Michael Lee West

consuming passion   West, Michael Lee. Consuming Passions. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.

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A Southerner — did I ever mention I was born and raised in North Carolina? — writes about food and includes recipes. What’s not to like? Add the fact that Michael Lee West is often laugh-out-loud funny, and well, you have a little gem of a book. Yet again, I have my colleague Ruth Ann to thank for pointing me in its direction. She told me about the cabbage-eating ghost who appears in one of the chapters. The ghost was brought into West’s Aunt Lilly’s house when she came home from a dusty antique store with a Flow Blue (whatever that is. Despite having grown up surrounded by them and having a mother in the museum field, I know nothing about antiques) chamber pot and a ruffled apricot umbrella. It’s a great, convincing little ghost story.

West’s other stories are great, too: Sunday dinner gatherings at her grandparents house when she was a young girl will make you laugh and your stomach growl. West’s early culinary attempts are comfortably familiar to those of us who are self-taught chefs, well remembering days when rice didn’t cook; chickens that, after spending plenty of time in the oven, didn’t roast; and pea soups that insisted on being as easy to chew and swallow as dental floss (yes, I made just such a soup way back when Bob and I were first married). Her Aunt Dell is the member of the family every Southerner knows well. We all have at least one — if not more — eccentric aunts and cousins (and it’s fitting here that Dell is really a cousin and not an aunt. Southerners aren’t always pickily exact when it comes to identifying relations. Well, except my father, who can tell you exactly who your first cousin twice removed on your great granddaddy’s side was — but he’s a Virginian and a historian, a breed unto themselves). Finally, she makes you long to get into a car with her to take a leisurely road trip through all the Southern states, in search of sublime versions of barbecue, fried chicken, shrimp, and key lime pie. Or, you could just stay home with her and let her cook all these things for you — just don’t distract her so much that she forgets she’s cooking and catches something on fire.

The book made me wish I put more time into cooking and less time into thankless tasks (cleaning toilets and dusting spring to mind). Such tasks aren’t nearly as much fun and don’t provide such wonderful results. It also made me realize that if one has made New Year’s resolutions having anything to do with weight loss and diet, this is not a book you want to pick up and read before the new year is even two months old. Now that we’re about to enter the third month, though (New Year’s resolutions becoming ancient history), one can safely check it out and read it. I’ve already made her roast pork recipe, which was delicious. I think I’ll try her macaroni and cheese  next. Interestingly, it doesn’t start with a white sauce. This version is all cheese, milk, and eggs. If I can get it to work, I’ll let you know how it is.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone girlFlynn, Gillian. Gone Girl. New York: Crown Publishers, 2012.

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I rarely ever read “It” books, because I generally find that they disappoint me. So many people had mentioned this one to me, though, and it sounded like such an interesting premise, I decided to give it a go. Boy, do I now want everyone to read it, so I can discuss it with him or her, but I really hate to recommend it to those who haven’t. Is it a page-turner? Yes. Does it live up to its reputation for giving us no “good” characters? Absolutely. Is it a fascinating study in  sociopathy? Unbelievably so – and yet I believed.

Flynn is a very good writer, which impressed me and is one of the reasons I was easily dragged into the book. So many “It” books these days are written at a third-grade reading level and feature an average one typo per page. They’re so poorly edited I often have to abandon them. Not only is Flynn a good writer, but she manipulates the reader in such a way that instead of being put off by it, a reader like me finds herself thinking, “Oh, keep manipulating me, please. I can’t believe how well you do that.”

The whole book is sort of a masochistic experience like that. Instead of thinking, “Oh, come on. Please give me at least one decent character,” I found myself thinking, “Wow, tell me more about all these horrible people. Are there any evil depths to which they can’t sink?” These are not your run-of-the-mill liars, cheaters, and murderers. They are insane connivers and contrivers, self-absorbed misanthropes to the nth degree. By the end of the book, I did find myself rooting for one of the characters, but barely.

The book was well written, detailed, and clever. It was also “un-put-down-able.” I read it in record time. So, why didn’t I like it? (Warning: the answer to this question includes spoilers.)

I didn’t like it because it was an extremely sexist book. I don’t think Flynn intended it to be. She might have been striving for what I once read Margaret Atwood say when her book The Robber Bride was published. Atwood said that women will never be equal to men in our society until women writers write truly evil female characters the way male writers write truly evil male characters (or something to that effect. I read that quote about 20 or so years ago). Maybe that’s what Flynn was trying to do, but I’m not convinced. To me, this book just evolved into the classic tale of a “psychobitch” (funny that term is bandied about so much in the book. It’s a term I hate), a selfish, self-absorbed, manipulative woman who eventually traps a man by getting pregnant. It’s a story men have been telling for years, and it reinforces the fear that all women have the potential of becoming like this, that men need to stay on their toes.

After keeping me mesmerized, the book just fell apart at the end. Flynn could have done so much more with these brilliant, unlikable characters. She’d set us up to have no clue who was and who wasn’t telling the truth. She could have given us a truth that was so much more dynamic and interesting. A book that, at first, had seemed so original just dissolved into a tired old story with a new hook and a couple of deceptive twists.

Bottom line? It’s too contrived and was such a letdown, despite the fact it got all those rave reviews from critics. If you read it and loved it, please let me  know what I’m missing.