Sunday, January 30, 2011

Don't Miss This One

Our book group read "Tinkers" by Paul Harding this month. I had blogged "Tinkers" almost two years ago and really enjoyed the book. Since that time Paul Harding has won the Pulitzer Prize for this, his first novel. It is a beautifully written story that is told by an old man as he lay dying.

For those of you who read our blog but haven't read "Tinkers" I highly recommend it.
If you want to know more about the book you can locate my original blog. In the top right hand corner of our blog there is a box with the word "Search" next to it. If you type in "Tinkers" it will bring up a box where you can access the blog I wrote. Enjoy!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Radical Chic

If you're of a certain age you may remember the Weather Underground, a radical group founded in the late Sixties which used bombings to protest the war in Viet Nam and to disrupt government operations. You may even remember when a Greenwich Village townhouse the group was using as a safe house exploded when a nail bomb they were making detonated prematurely.

What if a group like this still existed, intent on protesting the increasing power of multinational corporations by non-lethal bombings? That's the premise of David Goodwillie's American Subversive. The story is told in chapters with the alternating points of view of the two main characters. And they are an unlikely pair. Aidan Cole is a thirty-something journalism school dropout who makes a meager living by snarkily blogging about the media and living the hipster life in the West Village. He goes to all the right parties and bars, has a sometimes girlfriend who writes a column about relationships for the New York Times, but he seems to be tiring of his own cynicism.

Paige Roderick, despite her preppy-sounding name, grew up in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, but was radicalized by the death of her brother in Iraq. Her fearlessness and commitment bring her to the attention of the charismatic leader of an underground group attempting to draw America's attention by the use of strategically placed bombs.

Their lives intersect when Aidan receives an anonymous e-mail which contains a photo of the beautiful Paige and identifies her as the perpetrator of the latest bombing, at the Barney's building in Manhattan. The first chapter of the book has revealed that Aidan is in hiding in a safe house, so the bulk of the story is told in flashback as the two characters alternately describe the events that led them to each other and their fates.

This book is a sort of strange mix of literary thriller, with hints of Bret Easton Ellis, and a slightly sappy tale of a couple that 'meets cute'. Maybe it was because I was always fascinated by Sixties radicals, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
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Friday, January 21, 2011

A Thriller in Paris

A thriller set in Paris involving a clothing designer, an art dealer and an independent filmmaker – sounds like an entertaining read, doesn't it? And it was. Ted Mooney's The Same River Twice sets the plot in motion on page one as Odile, a French fashion designer looking for extra cash and perhaps a little excitement, smuggles Soviet era May Day flags out of Moscow for an enterprising art dealer. She neglects to tell her her husband Max about the caper, but after all he's busy with his mid-life crisis and his cinéma vérité about a young couple restoring a houseboat on the Seine. What's the harm?

As you can probably guess, complications ensue. The story has classic thriller elements – an enigmatic Russian businessman, a couple of truly malevolent thugs, a mysterious firebombing, not one but two beautiful, calculating young women, even an ecstasy party in the sewers of Paris.

But unlike in most thrillers, there's more going on than just a fast-moving plot. Mooney creates some three-dimensional characters who do not fall easily into 'good guy/bad guy' categories. They are far more cerebral and self-reflective than standard thriller types, and they examine such weighty questions as the meaning of love and the importance of art, even as they dodge thugs and plot escapes through the streets of Paris.

There are plenty of plot twists, and on reflection some of them may have been a little forced, but I enjoyed the ride.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Our Island Neighbor

When my friend Ellen, an intrepid traveler and fearless adventurer, announced that her next trip this Spring would be to Cuba, I had to admit, if only to myself, that I knew very little about this island neighbor, its culture or its history. There were a few names: Fidel Castro, Bay of Pigs, Cuban missile crisis, but nothing really substantive. As travel restrictions from the US are easing, one can envision the day when Cuba, whether or not it remains nominally communist, will be quite different from what it is today or has been.

At this point in my life I prefer to learn my history the easy way- through fiction. From Charlotte's blog, I knew that Beautiful Maria of My Soul by Oscar Hijuelos has some history of pre-Castro Havana. After some searching I decided on Telex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner. It helped in my selection that this book was a National Book Award Finalist in 2008.

The story takes place in Cuba in the late 1950's (Castro's overthrow of Batista was successful in 1959) for the most part in the insular America colony of the sugar and nickel companies' employees. It turns out that this is also personal history for Kushner as her grandparents and mother lived in Cuba during that time. Through the use of multiple narrators Kushner is able to elicit the reader's sympathies for opposing parties to the developing conflict although I personally was often confused at first as to which narrator was speaking. These several narrators also describe the same event but from his or her own perspective. For example, when one of the company executives is kidnapped by the rebels, we are given several tellings: from the other expats, from one of the rebels and from the kidnapped victim himself - all very different as you can imagine. I really liked this technique. It is a good reminder that with respect to historical events or even events in our own lives we may wish to suspend our initial judgment. (I suspect that there are other novels out there that also tell the same story by different participants. If you know of one, please leave the title/author in a Comment.)

I almost missed the very creative website that complements this book with period photographs to illustrate certain lines of text. If you do nothing else, click on the link to check out the photograph on the website portal!

Now that I have some context I can move on to Enduring Cuba by Zoe Bran, a non-fiction account of her travels in Cuba today.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

2010 Favorites

As we conclude three years of blogging I look at the books I have blogged for 2010 and I realize that some of my favorites are the books that have been chosen by our amazing book group of eleven like minded but diverse readers.

I really enjoyed “Let The Great World Spin”, by Colum McCann. It is a story that revolves around the real life feat, performed by Philippe Petit, of walking a tightrope between the World Trade Center buildings. Colum McCann uses this event to pivot an incredible story about twelve characters who lived in New York on that day.

“Cutting For Stone” by Abraham Verghese, is an ambitious, family epic that spans over forty years and two continents with characters that are difficult to forget.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has written a novel about the Nigeria-Biafran War, “Half of a Yellow Sun”, that is mesmerizing. Her research into this forgotten war is enlightning and her characters are so strong and memorable.

On my own I have attempted to read some non fiction. One of my favorites, although a difficult book to read, was “Lucky” by Alice Sebold. This incredible story is a memoir of the author’s rape at the age of eighteen on the last day of her freshman year, in a park tunnel, at Syracuse University in New York. How this courageous girl deals with this life altering ordeal is inspiring.

To balance out my list I want to include a book that made me laugh out loud, “This Is Where I Leave You” by Jonathan Tropper. It is the very amusing story of a complicated Jewish family gathering together, after being apart for sometime, to sit Shiva for their father.

It is great to move from very serious and/or enlightening books to ones that are just plain fun. That is the joy of reading and I happily look forward to a year of more inspiring and wonderful reads!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

An Interesting Recipe

The Cookbook Collector is the story of two sisters – one brainy and analytical, one free-spirited and passionate – and the choices they make in men and in life. Does that sound like something Jane Austen might have written? Actually I think she did. 

But Allegra Goodman isn't just copying an old formula. Her two sisters are very much grounded in the recent past – specifically, between 1999 and 2002, a time of several historic events which are smoothly woven into the story. Older sister Emily, an MIT grad, is an executive at a Silicon Valley start-up in the time of NASDAQ euphoria. Younger sister Jessamyn is a grad student in philosophy at Cal, works at a sort of vanity rare book store in Berkeley run by a Microsoft millionaire, and devotes her passions to a Save The Redwoods group and its charismatic leader. There are lots of ways to get trite and predictable with material like this, and Goodman avoids them all.

Just as she did in her previous book “Intuition” (see my blog), Goodman takes us inside disparate worlds. The constant scrambling in tech companies to attract funding for their latest ideas felt authentic, and as someone who has spent hours debugging code, I can attest that her description of an all-night code-crunching session rang true. She makes the esoteric world of antique book restoration and collecting seem fascinating, especially the amusing sub-plot about an unusual collection of cookbooks.

But the book is essentially about relationships, between friends, lovers, parents, children, and siblings. Goodman juggles a lot of plot lines, and some are better fleshed out than others, but once again I admired her ability to amuse and entertain me with a page-turning story.

PS Goodman should have done a little more research on Bay Area geography.  Heading north to Arcata from Berkeley does not involve crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, but one of her characters does just that.