Monthly Archives: August 2013

** The Why of Things by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop

In The Why of Things, a family arrives at their summer home in a New England seaside resort to find that a man has apparently dived to his death in their backyard. Since the family is mourning the death of its oldest daughter, also to suicide, all kinds of emotions bubble up from the parents and both remaining daughters. The story is told from the points of views of the family members, who seem to be spending their time leading mostly parallel lives (and doing a great job of never talking about their feelings!), and told with exquisite details and with great care. But there are some unexplained circumstances, chief of which is how a middle-class family can spend weeks on vacation without any job pressures of any kind (maybe if one has to ask, one does not understand how the rich live, but they don’t seem that rich…)  And how could the oldest daughter have kept a boyfriend at the summer house?

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The Wonder Bread Summer by Jessica Anya Blau

The Wonder Bread Summer never reaches the lows of the worst book I ever reviewed on this blog, Twilight, and in particular it’s competently written — but the story simply does not make sense, nor does it achieve the levity that one would expect from a madcap comedy, which could be enjoyed without making perfect sense. So our college student heroine travels from Berkeley, CA, to Southern California and back with a large bag of cocaine, unscathed (problem #1), returning with her avenger father in tow when he previously would not even bother to keep her updated on his address (problem #2) to find her best friend having bonded with the cocaine kingpin’s enforcer (problem #3) and her father talking down said kingpin (problem #4). If you enjoy improbably stories with so-so period details (early 1980’s in Berkeley, California, to be contrasted with the perfect taste and feel in Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue), this might be the book for you…

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** The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain

Want a good dose of depression to start your week? Pick up The Postman Always Rings Twice, a noir novel that claims to have started the genre. It’s a no-hope-whatsoever story with a crude premise (bump the husband so the wife and the lover can get together), a despicable “hero” (the lover), and a tragic ending (death all around). The story pulled me in but I could never get over the weak woman character, who is inexplicably attracted to her loser lover and seemingly unable to make her own way in life. (Perhaps I should keep in mind that the book dates back to 1934!)

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** Library by Matthew Battles

Library: An Unquiet History is organized in a series of chapters focused on various famous libraries, from Alexandria’s onward. It seems that most chapters end in destruction, which is just a tad depressing,  But the most interesting part of the book for me was the changing vision and role for libraries over time, from a place where a few educated readers came to consult books that they already knew, or at least knew about, to a much more open place where readers come to explore. With that, the librarian’s role evolves from a custodian of books to a facilitator for the patrons. As information becomes available more and more cheaply, what will the role of the librarian become?

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*** The Drop by Michael Connelly

The Drop (A Harry Bosch Novel) starts as a run-of-the-mill mystery about a detective who takes on an old rape case and a new suicide case with strong political tones, but the story soon turns into a much more interesting tale of the detective himself, a single dad who knows how to work the system. The political case is thrillingly complicated. The rape case horrific details could have been summarized a bit to spare the reader, but still, it’s a solid story with plenty of depth.

 

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** On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman

On Sal Mal Lane tells the story of the children (and adults, but in the background) of a small street in Columbo, the capital of Sri Lanka, in the years before the Sri Lankan civil war. The families are carefully staged to represent the various ethnicities of Sri Lanka, and all the other details carefully arranged for maximum exposure to the riots to come. The children’s dialogs, feelings, and interactions are artfully captured and feel fresh and realistic. Alas, the political complications are told in a plodding and heavily didactic manner that clash with the personal stories. A waste of a tender story.

 

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* Shocked by Patricia Volk


Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me is a rather crooked weaving of a memoir of the author’s childhood and, without much rhyme or reason, the life of the designer Schiaparelli. The personal memoir is rather flat. The author’s mother was beautiful, quite self-absorbed hence not the best mother in the world, but nothing very unique or untoward happened, even though it must be hard to recover from a mother’s clearly unenthusiastic assessment of one’s appearance… And Schiaparelli, well, who cares?

 

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