Category Archives: Book Reviews

My Take on David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks

Okay, I’ve been putting off writing anything about David Mitchell’s highly anticipated new book The Bone Clocks  and you’ll see why. People have been clamoring for this novel all year, including me. I like to think of myself as an early adopter of Mitchell. I loved Ghostwritten and the slightly but only slightly less good Number9Dream so much when I was buying for Harvard Book Store that our lovely Random House rep gave me an early ARC of Cloud Atlas. After reading it, I begged them to send David Mitchell to Harvard Book Store for an event, which they did. And I spent most of Spring foaming at the mouth, waiting for The Bone Clocks. Yes, I sound like a drug addict, waiting for my book connection to hook me up.

I read The Bone Clocks on the long round trip train ride to New York in July. Engrossing, check. Great and memorable main character, check. gifted writing that makes one jealous, check. Studded with references to prior works, check? Dialogue straight out of an action movie…wait, what the hell is going on here?

The fifth of the six sections really interrupted threw me off with its cheesy action/science fiction. By the time the sixth section came, I had lost the warm fuzzy feelings one gets from diving into a book this long. And while the sixth section returned to better form, it was too late. Ron Charles’s review on Wednesday and Michiko Kakutani’s review from Tuesday. I can’t believe I’m agreeing with Kakutani on this, but I do. I was a bit disappointed. While I wanted to love this book, in the end I just liked it a lot.

The Paris Winter by Imogen Robertson

Imogen Robertson’s previous novels have largely been set in England around 1780, but The Paris Winter, takes us to Paris in 1909. Fortunately, Robertson hasn’t lost anything in the move. If anything, she has refined her usual combination of crime-thriller plotting and thought-provoking social-historical observation to produce what may be her best work yet.

Maude has come to Paris, as so many do, to learn to paint. She’s studying in a proper academy for ladies and paying too much for the privilege. Starving, broke, and on the verge giving up and going back to England, she befriends a well-to-do Russian classmate who seems to be a bit of a dilettante. Her classmate introduces her to a wide cast of society figures and sets her up with a job that gives her a place to live and enough to eat as well as a good stipend. It all seems too good to be true, and it is.

As Maude tries to find a purchase for herself in a society that cares nothing for her, Robertson takes us on a tour of belle-epoque Paris high and low and in-between, illustrating not only the station and constraints of the protagonist but of the wide range of characters she meets.

This is very much a 21st-century novel in that so many of the characters in this novel seem to be searching for self-actualization through professional development — even the rich classmate’s devoted nursemaid wants to open her own restaurant. But it is a sign of Robertson’s talent that this comes across not as an anachronism but as a keen observation of how the early 20th century offered increased opportunities and an ever-so-slight loosening of societal restrictions around class and gender.

Mr. Bookdwarf reviews The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Each Sarah Waters novel seems to bring new ideas and facets of her writing to the fore. In everything I’ve read so far, though, I’ve found historical accuracy, earthy (but not porny) physicality, and a keen eye for social class and societal transformation. The Paying Guests is no exception.
The setting is London between the wars. Her father and brothers dead, Frances Wray and her mother take in Leonard and Lillian Barber as lodgers to make ends meet in their formerly-grand house. These “paying guests” – confessing to being a landlady with tenants seems shameful at first –  are “of the clerk class,” but despite initial reservations Frances strikes up a friendship with Lillian Barber. And then a little more than a friendship. And then a lot more.
Trapped between the residue of the last century’s impossible Victorian morality, struggling to survive in a society shattered by war and upheaval, Frances and Lillian’s love affair seems to them like the only possible joy in the world. Its course drags them across almost every social obstacle in London, banging them against class barriers and social taboos, shady doctors and courtrooms, and chasms of inequality, as well as the common troubles of families throughout.
Some of Waters’ earlier novels have gotten described with words like “rollicking” and “lighthearted romp.” The Paying Guests is fun, but it won’t see that kind of faint praise. This is a truly well-rounded novel, with characters of great emotional depth, thoroughly-researched historical detail, nuanced social critique, and a satisfyingly ambiguous conclusion.

Duplex by Kathryn Davis

Having read DuplexI feel conflicting urges to tell everyone I know to read it, and also to keep it to myself and read it again, because there’s definitely something I’m missing. It’s a feeling I also got reading Haruki Murakami, whose novels seem to have a similar atmosphere of puzzlement.

Slate quotes a character in the book to explain Duplex as “the story of girls everywhere,” and it certainly is the story of girls. Of girls who tell stories, of girls who trade cards, of girls who fall in love with robots and are killed through a combination of ignorance and sexual desire, of girls whose pubertal transitions are as mystifying and earth-shattering to them as they are to everyone else.There are, of course, horses. Some of the girls are actually horses. Also there are boys, and some unfortunate and occasionally fatal sex. But also aquanauts. And robots. And a wizard. 

Lynda Barry’s review in the NYT has an apt comparison to the feeling of reading this book, and not being quite sure what’s going on, but knowing that it’s something. It’s “the way you tried to catch up when you were a kid and Henry, the teenager from next door, told a bunch of you a story about his finger and a girl. Finger? Girl? What? Then a flood of understanding horrified you, shamed and excited you, trailed you back into the house to the kitchen where dinner was ready…”

This is a fantastic book, in every sense of the word. I’m not sure I understand it, but I’ve enjoyed it nonetheless, the feeling of being on the edge of understanding, of glimpsing something that’s part of another world which I’m not quite allowed to understand yet.

Escapist Reading

The books are piling up! I’ve been on an excellent reading streak, finishing many books and liking most of them tremendously. I’ve been in the mood for escapist reading lately and have read some real winners.

If you want some escapist historical fiction, pick up The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. Set in 17th century Amsterdam, where newly married eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman tries to find her path in her new household. When her new husband gives her an exact replica in miniature of their home, she engages a miniaturist to to supply the items for the house. This distracts her from dealing with her brusque sister-in-law Marin, who continues to rule the house even after Nella arrives, and her husband, who continually ignores her. But the objects that begin to arrive appear too close to real life, as if the miniaturist has more knowledge of the family and its secrets. Nella finally begins to find her own voice and tries to save her newfound family. It’s a great book, with wonderful detailed descriptions of Amsterdam, and some standout writing.

You also won’t regret picking up The Quick by Lauren Owen. I was attracted by blurbs from some of my favorite authors, Hilary Mantel and Kate Atkinson, which makes you think it’s going to be one thing, until a vampires appear some way into the novel. It’s a Gothic novel after all and yet the word ‘vampire’ rarely makes an appearance. They don’t refer to themselves as that, apparently, at least the members of the tony Aegeolius Club don’t. The club is composed of members of the upper echelons of Britain and it would be beneath them. You don’t find all this out until later. The first quarter of the book concerns itself with Charlotte and James, who grow up orphaned in a crumbling hall in the English countryside. After finishing school, James leaves for London and finds himself rooming with Christopher Paige, a rich neer-do-well. At least until James thinks that until he discovers that he’s hiding a more delicate sensibility. Flush from being in love, they plan to leave England on an extended trip to the continent. Through a case of mistaken identity, the Aegeolius Club gets ahold of them. The novel quickly shifts to a more straightforward adventure novel. I won’t tell you all of the twists and turns. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot of vampire lore, a few plot twists, and many interesting characters. What makes this novel even more interesting is the change in points of views, which allows you to learn back stories and learn more vampire history. Owen also displays a George R.R. Martinesque love of offing major characters, making this book even more fun to read.

We are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

Perhaps it was the several days shivering in the relentless air conditioning of the Javits Center  that I reacted so strongly reading Matthew Thomas’s debut novel We Are Not Ourselves on the train ride home. At its core, the novel tells the story of one family, with the mother Eileen Tumulty at the center of it all. We read about her childhood, her parents’ alcoholism and her desire to leave behind the family’s old apartment in Irish working class Woodside Heights, Queens. She falls in love and marries neuroscientist Ed Leary, a man so unlike the men she’s known her entire life and who gives her a sense of safety and of promise. Problems arise as she realizes Ed lacks the ambition that will get them out of their working class apartment in Jackson Heights. Even after the birth of their son Connell, Ed remains devoted to teaching, turning down jobs that promise more status and more money. Eileen, who dreams of a living in Westchester County, in an attempt to change their circumstances manages to buy a somewhat dilapidated home in Bronxville on the Southern edge of Westchester.

After Eileen, Ed, and their son Connell move, a change occurs both in the story and in the tone of the novel. Ed for a while has appeared depressed, but it begins to manifest itself with fits and bursts of anger. Eileen meanwhile, seems determined to ignore it and pretend everything is normal. When Ed is finally diagnosed with early onset-Alzheimer’s this story of an unhappy family now becomes the dark and heart wrenching story of Ed’s slow decline. Thomas’s writing shines in this section and you begin to see how he carefully wove together the fabric of the family. Even with Eileen’s unhappiness and resentment of Ed’s lack of ambition, she continues to love him and it feels real. The poignant scenes as Ed’s mind and body broke down brought this reader to tears and yet I was also overwhelmed with the feelings of hope and respect for the family’s resiliency as Eileen and Connell endured it all and moved forward. Thomas has a gift for emotional truthfulness, writing characters with complex personalities and characters, that you can’t help falling a little in love with.

Reviews in Panes

What a delightfully witty collection of reviews! At first glance, the reviews in Kevin Thomas’s Horn! The Collected Reviews appear like merely a condensed synopsis of each book. But after reading more and more, you realize that Thomas has found the most important elements of each book and highlit it in with spare comic hand. An added bonus is that he reviews many titles put out by small publishers.

I found that preferred reading the reviews of books I’ve read over the ones I hadn’t. He distills the essence of each book into 9 tiny  graphic panes. And I loved that the first pane is always a rendition of the cover, but with a little embellishment of his own. This is Thomas’s review of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, “We catch glimpses of Hattie through the lives of her children, their sickness and poverty, addiction and abuse, mental illness and salvation. In painting a picture of one woman, Mathis has given us nothing less than a portrait of the twentieth century.” Other favorites of mine are his reviews of Fobbit by David Abrams, Great Philosophers who Failed at Love by Andrew Shaffer, and Speedboat by Renata Adler. Lucky for us and the book world, he continues reviewing, getting it just right.

Canarino by Katherine Bucknell

I am extremely grateful to my friend and colleague Lauren, who had the wisdom to send me a copy of Canarino by Katherine Bucknell along with the book I originally asked her for. That this fine novel hasn’t been published in the US is a mystery to me. Bucknell writes like a master fencer, tapping your chest  with her foil before you even see her move. The novel is a cool study of the failing marriage of David Judd, a wealthy investment banker living in London, and Elizabeth, his uber-bitch of a wife. Bitch isn’t even the correct term, because a bitch implies feeling hot emotions, and she doesn’t seem to have any of those. Most of her energy seems thrown into feelings of disdain, even towards her own two ornamental children, Gordon and Hope. Elizabeth is pale, blonde, and frozen, and speaks so softly that you can’t hear the dislike she doesn’t even take the effort to mask.

At a restaurant, she orders just a little piece of fish. “She said it in a soft, uncomplaining tone which seemed intended to carry the additional message, Don’t go to any trouble over me. I can make do with whatever nobody else wants.” But of course, fish isn’t on the menu, the waiter has to make two trips to the kitchen to find out what kind of plain white fish they even had that wasn’t already coated with breadcrumbs or flour. When the fish arrives, Elizabeth makes David send it back to remove the potatoes that accompanied the fish. “‘They’re swimming in butter’, she confided to him, as if he too would feel affronted. ‘I just want some plain boiled ones.’” She is to be revered and worshipped, something that David seems no longer capable of doing.

When she discovers his affair with a colleague, David placates her by agreeing to all of her demands. Retire and move back to the United States, she demands. There is much more to the plot and I’ll just say that David finds himself monstrously outmaneuvered toward the end. With a plot that moves brilliantly back and forth through time, what makes this novel sparkle is Bucknell’s examination of the characters. A review I read of Canarino called it Bucknell’s writing ‘forensic,’ which is entirely accurate as you sometimes feel like a medical examiner looking at the bodies, finding tiny bits of evidence as to why they died.

That Bucknell’s debut hasn’t made it over here is tragic. She’s gone on to write several other novels that I hope to read soon. The US is missing out on some extreme talent.

Salvage the Bones, Young God

Over the past few weeks I’ve read two books featuring young women in rough circumstances, and I keep weighing them against each other. It’s probably not fair to either book, but given the themes it’s hard not to compare them.

Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award, and deservedly so. It’s brilliant. It’s a story about a 14-year-old African-American girl in Bois Sauvage, MS, growing up too fast as sexuality, pregnancy, poverty, dog-fighting, her father’s descent into alcoholism, and hurricane Katrina all bear down on her.

Katherine Faw Morris’ Young God is out just this spring. It’s gripping, the tale of a 13-year-old white girl in rural North Carolina, trying to regain some semblance of a normal life in the wake of her mother’s sudden death. Only “normal” means running away from a group home, tracking down her cokehead father, and trying to restart the family business of running a hillbilly drug empire.

Both books are full of people facing down terrible options and choosing one that seems OK at the time. Both books highlight uncomfortable sex and self-destruction and bullshit fights and government agencies that are useless at best.

But Salvage the Bones seems written with genuine affection for the place and the people it contains. By comparison, Young God seems lurid and exploitative.

As I said, it’s not fair to compare them this way. That’s not what they were written for, and Young God is by no means a bad novel. But stacked together on the shelf, I’d recommend Salvage the Bones every time. It’s just a beautiful piece of work and deserves every bit of the praise that it gets.

An Ode to Calvin Trillin

I can go long swaths of time without thinking about Calvin Trillin, which is a shame. His work appears in the New Yorker only occasionally, and I usually finish reading the piece wanting more but am forced to wait. I remember reading About Alice, his ode to his deceased wife and constant character in his work, when it first was published in the magazine. It was a difficult time for me. A beloved coworker of mine was slowly dying of a rare tumor in his brain. I had just gone to visit him and only a week or so later he was gone. At the same time, my aunt, the matriarch that held together my large, boisterous Irish family together, also lingered in the hospital, having developed melanoma that when undetected long enough for it to be too late. Two weeks later, she too would die shortly after I visited her hospital room. In between these deathbed visits, one evening, a friend who was studying to be a massage therapist came over to practice on Aaron and me. While my friend worked on Aaron in the other room, I read the piece on Alice, silently crying, hoping the people in the next room wouldn’t notice, so I wouldn’t have to explain. Much of Trillin’s writing makes me laugh out loud. I don’t mean in the way that book blurbs now say ‘laugh-out-loud funny,’ or god forbid LOL, but real guffaws and snorts. So when About Alice revealed him at his weakest and most vulnerable, just when I was at a weak and vulnerable spot myself, it hit me hard.

I picked up a copy of Trillin’s Third Helpings while in NYC for Book Expo. I had made a pilgrimage to Kitchen Arts & Letters, a mecca for me and many other cookbook enthusiasts, in the Upper East Side. If you don’t know this store and you love cooking and cookbooks, get thee there now. It’s for people serious about cooking. It’s rumored that the city’s and even country’s best chefs go there to merely look at pictures in cookbooks in other languages that they can’t read. As a cookbook junky, you can understand my excitement. Matt, who has worked there for 20 years, recently bought the place from Nach Waxman, who opened the store in 1983. I introduced myself upon entering the store and found him an eager and enthusiastic handseller. Watching his interactions with regulars and new time customers, I could see why this store has thrived.

I spent about an hour there, perusing books, talking myself off that ledge of buying several hundred dollars of cookbooks that I can’t afford nor carry throughout the city. Instead, I limited myself to a copy of issue two of Cherry Bombe, a magazine for women in the culinary world, and an old copy of Third Helpings, by Calvin Trillin, which is now part of a collection called The Tummy Trilogy (the title makes me groan each time I see it—seriously, who made that decision). It’s perfect for train reading, each essay about 8 to 10 pages. He runs the gamut from investigating the history of Buffalo chicken wings to collecting shellfish lore at the Georgetown, DE Volunteer Fire Company’s annual all-male oyster eat and dance (yep, it still exists) to sampling everything he can get his hands on on a trip to Hong Kong.

There are so many great one-liners, I had a hard time choosing an example: “In New York, there are people — some of them members of my own family — who find it odd that someone wants to eat four or five Chinese meals in a row; in China, I often reminded them, there are a billion or so people who find nothing odd about it at all.” The man delights his family, eating, and writing about his family and eating. I read his most recent essay on the Delta Hot Tamale Festival in a January New Yorker with much delight. His enthusiasm for food hasn’t diminished and he still has the ability to find the best in the people he meets in his research. Everyone is quirky without being a caricature, which many writers have a hard time avoiding.

What I so enjoy about Trillin’s writing is his ability to poke fun of both the characters he meets and often the reader, but you never feel like he’s laughing at you. In a great interview with George Plimpton at the Paris Review, Trillin was commenting on the funniest person working at the New Yorker and said, “Johnny never seemed to think it was odd that the funniest person on the magazine was someone who didn’t write anything. He was very Irish, of course, and someone once told me that in Ireland a writer is a failed talker.” Let’s hope that Trillin continues to fail at talking.