Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Veil of Roses by Laura Fitzgerald

Do not pick up this book if you have other things you need to be doing! It is hard to put down. My kids got to spend 3 1/2 hours playing at the park today so that I could sit with my nose in this book to finish it. The poor boys ate their whole lunch with me reading rather than paying attention to them. It is a relatively light and enjoyable romance. It is predictable with a Hollywood ending, but there are days when that is what is needed.

However, after a bit more research, I had my fears confirmed. Fitzgerald's book is based on a very overly-simplified stereotype that is largely inaccurate. Like other books of the genre, Fitzgerald plays on the sympathies of the American public and perpetuates stereotypes about the sheltered lives of Middle Eastern women. In this case, her story revolves around a 27-year old Iranian women who is sent to the United States for three months to find a mate, get married, and get a coveted visa so she can stay in the United States.

I'm conflicted about how I feel about the book knowing that it is an inaccurate portrayal. On the one hand, Fitzgerald builds an emotional connection to Tami, the Perisan woman, who is experiencing her first real taste of freedom. She is in awe at the little things that Americans take for granted like the ability to sit and laugh openly in public. I really enjoyed that aspect of the story.

Nonetheless, to suggest that a woman born in the United States to foreign parents has to get a visa to stay is not entirely accurate. Her description of the students in the English as a Second Language class suggests that everyone can speak in well-defined, slangy English in a remarkably short time. Her descriptions of Iran read accurate for someone who only watches mainstream American news. But, as an Amazon book reviewer explained, "This book may be an interesting read if you have little or no knowledge about iranian culture, but if you know the culture well you can easily see that the author has no understanding of the culture and it's people."

I think that Fitzgerald's style lends itself to a casual reader who is curious about the Middle East. While what she says is exaggerated and not entirely accurate, I don't think she meant any harm. In fact, I would guess that many people would be curious to know more about the treatment of woman in Iran after reading her book. They might discover on further research that she over simplified the situation and painted a more negative portrayal than is accurate. But, at the very least it might allow readers to grasp a better understanding of what it would be like for a foreigner - especially from a non-Western culture - to immigrate to the United States and attempt to acclimate themselves in the midst of our very laid-back dating culture.

I would recommend this book as a good work of fiction. But, don't read it expecting a biographical realistic account of modern day women in Iran.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Lucia Lucia by Adriana Trigiani

Having read Trigiani's Big Stone Gap trilogy (quartet, so I discovered), I picked up Lucia Lucia without any particular expectations except a fun light read. I was pleasantly surprised then to discover this really engaging story. It tells a story that is not uncommon but I think little told. All in all, I would definitely say this is my favorite book by Trigiani to date.

Lucia Lucia starts out in the modern day following a playwright who lives in a small apartment in Greenwich Village. She has tea with her eccentric older upstairs neighbor Lucia who always wears a mink coat. You know quickly that Lucia has never married and lives in this building because her nephew is the landlord. The playwright walks into the apartment she discovers an eclectic mix of items including boxes from B. Altman department store and a photograph of Lucia as a stunning younger woman. Asking about the photograph leads into the real story of the book - Lucia's life.

It is the 1950s and Lucia is the daughter of an Italian immigrant. She works as a seamstress for the now defunct New York City department store B. Altman. And she loves her job. She cannot understand the desire among most woman her age to quit working, get married, and have children. A generation too early, Lucia doesn't understand why she can't continue to work once she gets married. Trigiani does a stunning job describing the importance of work for Lucia. She shows how it gives the protagonist a very important sense of self-identity, purpose, and pride. Lucia is not a feminist, but she is confused by the social stereotypes of her world. I liked the placement of the character in her time.

The only thing that frustrated me vaguely was the overarching sense of foreboding. From the introductory chapter you know that Lucia never married. Yet, much of the book is a romance. So from page to page you're just waiting for the bomb to drop. What exactly is going to happen to ruin this young woman's happiness. I wouldn't want the first chapter to have been erased because the end of the story returns to the present and Lucia's resolution to her personal life. So it was necessary to set up the downfall. But, I never like reading a book and just waiting for something to go wrong.

I was very pleasantly surprised by this book. And every page reminded me of a friend, born in Italy who also never married and who lived through the male-dominated world of post-World War II America. A good find and a fun read.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Latte Trouble by Cleo Coyle

I think I should take a break from the mindless mystery genre for awhile. I met a character, I knew she was guilty. I guessed at some level why she was guilty. Then I read 230 pages to see if I was write. Yep, I was. I'm not suggesting I have some amazing talent for reading into a book, but there is a pattern that many modern cozy mysteries take - especially ones that are part of a series. There are certain key elements to look for to discover whodunit. At the very least, you can discount the handful of regular characters who spice up the books. Rarely will an author turn a beloved character into a murderer. So, right off the bat you can remove close to half the characters from the suspect list. There was one plot twist that took me by surprise. And I thought it was well done. It played into the capture of the murderer and made the book more interesting than it might have been.

Latte Trouble is the third coffeehouse mystery book by husband and writing team pseudonymed Cleo Coyle. The continued love affair with coffee makes these books a fun read that I will keep reading. Although I would definitely categorize this series as one of the mindless, taking a break from reality series, I do still learn something. I know more about coffee than I ever needed to know. How it is brewed, where it comes from, how it is grown. The authors have done a nice job with their research into the world of coffee. And, in this book, they have added to it by exploring the world of High Fashion in New York City. That aspect of the book reminded me of watching Sex and the City.

There's really not too much else to say. Fun, light, humorous, engaging. A good summer read.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Pilot's Wife by Anita Shreve

I picked up The Pilot's Wife as part of a "stuff a bag with books for $2" at our local library's semi-annual book sale. It was one of a number of once bestselling titles; it has been reviewed on Amazon 999 times! I never seem to read books when they're popular. But five or ten years down the road I might get to them. And when a book says, "Oprah's Book Club" on the front I'm never sure it that's a good thing or not. I feel like too often the books are heavy on plot weightiness (you must be emotionally shocked) and light on depth of reading (any 8th grader could figure out all the words). So, I'm writing a review of a book that got a ton of attention ten years ago.

The Pilot's Wife is a quick read. I don't think an eighth grader would have trouble understanding this book. I started and finished it the same day. Admittedly, it was my last day of child-free vacation so I had almost no interruptions. But nonetheless it is not hard to read. And the story is engaging enough that once picked up, it is hard to put down. At just under 300 pages the book is average length for a novel today.

The plot is not that surprising. A pilot dies when the plane he's flying explodes killing all 104 passengers. There is a mystery surrounding the crash which turns into a mystery surrounding the pilot himself. I don't think anyone will be absolutely shocked to discover what the mystery is. After all, it is a common theme/joke about pilots. And in fact I had a friend whose father-pilot fell into this exact category. That's not what makes Shreve's book good. Instead it is her ability to get inside the mind of the widow as the plot unfolds.

The story alternates the present, beginning with a knock on the door when Kathryn discovers her husband is dead, and the past as Kathryn reflects back on her marriage trying to discover who her husband really is, or was. Shreve's strength is her ability to accurately portray the emotional and internal moments that Kathryn experiences as she begins to understand who her husband was. As a reader I did feel drawn into Kathryn's world and could imagine as a wife and a mother how I would respond if I learned that much of my husband's life was a lie. In that regard, I may have understood the words in the book when I was in eighth grade, but I most assuredly would not have understood the emotional baggage of loss not only of her husband, but as the character explains, a loss of the memories that she had as she discovers that they are not true.
A worthy book to pick up at the library if you haven't read it already.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Floating Girl by Sujata Massey

This is another book in the Rei Shimura Japan mystery series. In this book she focuses on the very popular world of manga. During the story Rei visits an anime shop, reads a wide variety of manga, and even dresses up like a comic book character and goes to a Comic Convention.

I found Massey's explanation of the world of manga interesting. I know a little bit about the genre from my husband so I was intrigued to learn more. To see how it is read and what is available in Japan was interesting. I did learn more about the field and the purpose of manga literature. The descriptions of individuals who go to great lenghts to cosplay made me laugh knowing the number of people in the United States who do the same thing. Because managa is a growing genre in the United States I felt the theme of the novel was timely.

In addition, Massey once again explores the experiences of foreigners living in Japan. In this case, she introduces foreign men who dance in an exotic club exclusively for Japanese women. The perceptions and treatments of foreigners is probably what brings me back again and again to Massey's book. This is a theme that I have explored on a different continent as an academic and one which continues to fascinate me.

However (and there always seems to be a however with her books), the foundation of the book is slipshod. The mystery is solved, bam, with little nuance. The explanations for what happend are plausible, I suppose, but they just don't ring true. In addition, there is a moment in the book when the main character runs downstairs from her apartment to a local market to make photocopies. The only problem is that it is the same market and character from her first novel, but Rei no longer lives in the same apartment or even the same neighborhood. And character interactions seem to resolve themselves too easily. Problematic moments in the book suddenly disappear in order to wrap up the story in a neat little bow.

I like the information I get from Massey as I am reading. But I always finish her books wanting more. I just think she could improve some of the problematic points that inevitably seem to find their way into her finished work.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

I finally finished this book! I read the first half very gung-ho for Kingsolver and her ideas. But I think what she is suggesting can get overwhelming. So, I put down Animal, Vegetable, Miracle for the summer. But, with a few spare days I picked it back up and plowed through to the end.

I think that Kingsolver's book, which is her family's diary of a year eating only locally produced food - much of it by the immediate family, is funny and really interesting. I learned a lot about what grows where and when. I learned way more than I needed to know about turkey reproduction. And I have a much better sense of the slow food and locavore movements. If nothing else, I'm heartened by the fact that so many people are trying to improve the health of our world. And, with a well-known author like Kingsolver writing about how to actually make positive changes I have faith that more and more people will start to adjust their own lifestyles.

On the other hand, Kingsolver and her husband can get a bit preachy. Having a farm in Virginia, working as a writer has given them the possibility of truly living off the land. Most Americans cannot realistically do that. Steven Hopp, Kingsolver's husband, in his short monologues which are interspersed through the book, does address how the average citizen can move in the direction of more locally produced food without actually giving up everything in a grocery store nor spending hours all summer weeding and gardening. But, I still felt overwhelmed while reading.

This book would make a great "weekly devotional" type reading. I find myself getting enthusiastic to go to the Farmer's market, buy a bushel of tomatoes and can all my own sauce. That enthusiasm lasts for a week or two and then it's just too easy to fall back into routine and habit. After all, the $3 jar of store bought sauce is tasty. I wonder if I could maintain my enthusiasm if I read bits and pieces of the book regularly rather than reading it all at once.

I would like to think I will use Animal, Vegetable, Miracle as a baseline to start to eat healthier and pay more attention to what I eat. I have gone to the farmer's market much more regularly this summer than in the past. I have paid more attention to what produce at the grocery store is local. But, I'm not ready to till up my back yard and plan rows of zucchini and winter squash. Maybe one day, but for now I'll just leave Kingsolver on my shelf as a reminder.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen

My first exposure to Anna Quindlen was the year that I lived in Paris. My parents had sent me a care package that included Jane Eyre from my mom and Object Lessons from my dad. Object Lessons was Quindlen's first novel. Dad picked it out because he believes she is one of the best writers (and in my dad's eyes that means technical composition skill - putting together a noun and a verb) today. He has always enjoyed her columns.

I found my parents pairing of books amusing since the girl in Object Lessons is reading Jane Eyre. The odd thing is, my parents did not know that. Neither of them had yet read Object Lessons. I still remember having one of those chilling moments when we realized the odd coincidence of the book choice. At the time I appreciated Quindlen's novel because it resonated with me. I felt Quindlen did an excellent job of portraying characters at such different stages in their lives and demonstrating how they interacted. But, more importantly at the time, was the pleasure I derived from my parents sending me books. Getting a touch of American culture (okay, and British) at a time when I was far away from home and immersing myself in books when I suffered from homesickness and culture shock was the best thing my parents could have given me.

And it's that love of books that made me appreciate so deeply what Quindlen wrote in How Reading Changed my Life. Quindlen's extended essay describes the desire and need to travel through literature. She recounts moments in her lives when books played an integral role. She examines the increasing importance of book groups - the connection people find through shared memories of the written word. Quindlen finishes by discussing why computers will never truly replace books. It is the act of holding a book and turning its pages that make reading reading. On every page I found lines that I wanted to write down and keep. Great quotes about the importance of books.

I aspire to be Anna Quindlen. I have read all of her novels. (I can't claim to have read all of her columns. I'm just not a newspaper reader). I marvel at her ability to turn her family into her means of expression. She has always used her role as a mother and a wife to write both her columns and her novels. One is not more important than the other. When I grow up, I want to be her. I will forever keep How Reading Changed My Life on my bookshelf. It is more indicative of who I am than probably any book I've ever read.

(And so goes my hommage to Anna Quindlen.)

Always Dakota by Debbie Macomber

As you can surmise from my copious posts, I LOVE to read. But as a reader I feel as though I am supposed to poo-poo light, fluffy books for real *literature*. After all, if its beach reading, what are you really getting out of the book? So, I keep thinking I should not like Debbie Macomber's books. But, ya know what? I do. They are light. They are definitely feel good. You don't have to worry that a character is suddenly going to go wrong. In the end everything works out, everyone is happy - even if they have gone through some difficult struggles in the course of the book. There is no overwhelming moral to the books. There is no "Hmmm..." moment when reading The Dakota Trilogy. But, I stayed up until 1:45 am last night to finish the book. If nothing else, that should signal a good story.
I do have to wonder, nonetheless, exactly how Debbie Macomber does what she does. She must release two or three books (at an absolute minimum) every year. How does one feasibly write that much? Even were she to write every day she must edit her work at some point. I wonder at times if there is some secret computer program where an author can plug in characters and plot points and then let the computer fill in the blanks. How else could she have written 150!! books since 1983. The three Dakota Trilogy books were all published within one year. And there were a handful of other books published in that same two year time-frame. Or maybe she has a fleet or writers who do much of the work for her. Somewhat like the Carolyn Keene/Nancy Drew phenomenon . There never was a Carolyn Keene; it was merely a pseudonym for various authors who created the Nancy Drew series over a long-span of years. At the very least, it is clear that Macomber's books follow a very pat formula. Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, trouble ensues, all he** breaks loose, boy and girl realize they love each other despite everything. Everyone lives happily ever after.
The story in Always Dakota very clearly follow that formula. It continues where the previous two novels left off. In this book the main characters are Matt and Margaret, minor characters from Dakota Home, the second book in the series . But, it also continues the story of the characters from the other two books and resolves some open-ended questions that Macomber had left hanging in the second book. There were moments that brought a tear to my eye as families negotiated family dynamics.
All in all: Light, fluffy, entertaining? Without a doubt. A great read if you want something truly mindless and feel good. Literature, no. Deep and thoughtful, no. A good summer read.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Zen Attitude by Sujata Massey

I just finished the second Rei Shimira mystery. It was a quick read - much more so than the first book. I'm still unsure about this series. It's better than some. I enjoy learning about Japanese culture. It's not a completely fluffy cozy mystery. Nonetheless, I can't say that I completely enjoy the books either.
I think my frustration has to do with the main character Rei. She's prickly. Her interactions with characters don't seem rational at times. Sometimes she's submissive to the point of annoying. And at other times she gets extremely angry and flies off the handle for less than rational reasons. Maybe this makes her more human... but I find it just makes her actions difficult to gauge.
In addition, much of the story revolves around her continuing relationship with Hugh Glendinning, the Scottish beau from the first novel, a character whom I really like. The two charcters' relationship is volatile. In the course of one book they are ridiculously happy, they break up, she moves out, he proposes, she considers saying yes. Realistically, most relationships don't function in that kind of order. In addition there is another character in the book - Angus, Hugh's brother - with whom Rei has an unstable relationship. Throughout the entire book she and he share a hate/hate relationship. Yet suddenly at the end she is laughing hysterically with him as though there was no tension all along.
So why do I keep reading? I'm pondering that myself. I will read the other Sujata Massey books sitting on my shelf. Even though I have other series that I have said I like better. I think it really revolves around the setting of the stories. I know very little about modern-day Japanese culture. Sujata Massey has a good way of describing a culture that I know little about. I would not sit down and read a non-fiction book about Japan, but I am curious to know more. In this story I did find out more about aspects of Japanese culture - in particular Zen temples.
What can I say. I don't have a good answer. I don't particularly like parts of these books. Maybe I just keep hoping they'll improve substantially over time.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

I am Legend by Richard Matheson

My husband and I picked up I am Legend after seeing the movie of the same name. The movie was SCARY!! I like sci fi but I'm not a big horror fan. Writing in the 1950s, Matheson's book is suspenseful, but not gory like more modern horror has become. Part of what interested my husband and I in picking up the book was the quote on the back, "Books like I am Legend were an inspiration to me." - Stephen King.
My husband loves classic science fiction and is always curious to see how it holds up over time. He has become quite knowledgeable about post-World War II era books. I am Legend clearly fell into that category. He read the whole book - which includes the I am Legend novella as well as a handful of Matheson's other short stories. He guesses that some of the other stories have been adapted over time to be storylines in X-Files or various other sci fi shows. Personally, having read one or two of the short stories they really didn't hold my attention. But I digress...
I read I am Legend curious to see how much had been changed and adapted to turn it into a 21st century film starring Will Smith. Like many adaptations recently, there were scenes that were word for word identical to the book. Then there were entire plot arcs that had absolutely nothing to do with the original story. The long-term outcome of the movie and the novella were completely different. So much so that the purpose of the title had to change between the two formats.
Matheson's decision to write about vampires in the 1950s - much before our current Anne Rice/Buffy obsession with the creatures - made for an engaging story. In good science fiction style he relies heavily on a biological, scientific explanation for his plot - at times going into too great a detail. But, at the final moment, I would have to say, I liked Matheson's finale better than the Hollywood version. It led to a much more introspective ending. I put the book down with a "Hmm." I always like a book that makes me think.

The Salaryman's Wife by Sujata Massey

Generally when I read a book I find myself curious about the location in which the book takes places. Interestingly, after finishing Massey's first Rei Shimura novel I had the exact opposite response. I have little to no interest in visiting Japan based on Massey's description of the people and the culture. That's not entirely fair; I suppose it would be like viewing all Americans based on a book that I read about New York City. Nonetheless, Tokyo holds no appeal for me. And, Massey's description of the staid, paternalistic society did little to win me over to Japanese culture.
The story revolves around Rei Shimura a half-Japanese, half-American 20-something who lives in a small apartment in Tokyo and teaches English to Japanese businessmen. During a New Year's Eve vacation she becomes involved in a murder scandal. She finds herself intertwined with Hugh Glendinning, a Scotsman who is accused of the murder.
I read another of Massey's books - much later in the series - and liked it well enough to have gone back and gotten more in the series. But, at this point, the character is not overly likable. She is quick to be offended. She tends to be prickly to the point of offensive. And Massey creates a weird friendship triangle between three of the characters that seems awkward.
When I finished the long, vaguely convoluted plot my immediate response was, (in high academic terminology) No duh! Massey threw out innumerable red herrings but, to me, they were all quite obviously not part of the overriding plot.
Massey did win an Agatha Award for Best First Novel. She has continued to expand the series having written at least nine further books. And, despite everything negative I've said in this review, I'm currently reading the second book in the series. So, what is it that has kept me reading? I think it's Massey's incredible description of a people and a society. I might not want to visit it, but I am intrigued by it and I feel like Massey has described this world more honestly and aptly than some authors might. Plus, while I find Rei immature, I know that she matures as I read in the later book. I appreciate the fact that Massey has written a character that is not stagnant.
Convoluted review? Yeah, that's sort of how I felt about the book.