Sunday, June 28, 2009

Recent Reading

After reading over 30 books for the under 14 set in the past few weeks, I was ready about 10 days ago to get my reading teeth into some books written for adults. That does not mean that I do not enjoy reading books for kids, but I they can not fill all of my reading cravings.

So here are brief reviews of four adult books plus a couple of juvenile tomes that somehow slipped into the mix.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize this year. While I don't really enjoy the format of intertwining short stories to make a novel, I found much to appreciate in this novel. Olive grows in each story, whether she is the subject of the story or has only a brief cameo role. Much of the book is depressing because Olive is not a happy person nor are most of the characters who people the stories. On the other hand, Olive is a very real person. Reviewers keep asking readers if they "like" Olive. I am not sure that we get enough of Olive's relationships with people outside of her family to give a definitive answer to that question. I know I would not like to be her spouse, her son, or her daughter-in-law. Olive has a very tough shell. What the reader does finally see is Olive's softer core. The writing is Pulitzer worthy, with phrases and descriptions that are absolutely perfect. There is much like to like about this book and much to dislike as well. What is not lacking at all is much to admire, both in the characters and in the writing.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova was somehow not as depressing for me as Olive Kitteridge was though by all rights it should have bothered me much more. Lisa Genova works for the Alzheimer's Association and is trained in neurological disorders so she clearly knows the subject of this novel, early onset Alzheimer's. That knowledge and the sometimes clinical sharing of it interfered with the story for awhile, making it take almost too long to care about the main character, a well-respected Harvard professor who is diagnosed at 50 with this life-shattering disease. What saves the story is the writing from the protagonist's point of view. The reader lives her decline and the fight she puts up against it, losing words and then family recognitions in a very short time. Don't read this if Alzheimer's is too real for you. This will surely stir memories that you would rather forget. On the other hand, it is a moving novel that will get you thinking, remembering, and caring.

Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles could have been a mindless rant but it is far from that. Benny Ford is stuck in Chicago's O'Hare Airport half way between his home in New York and his estranged daughter's wedding in Los Angeles. As a writer, his response is to pull out a notebook and begin a letter of complaint. This letter, however, goes on for 180 pages and recounts the ups and downs of Benny's life as well as snippets of the novel he is translating from Polish. There is humor, pathos, and some pretty good writing in this quick read. I was surprised that I enjoyed this as much as I did.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid is another very short novel told in an unusual way. An American visiting Lahore is confronted in a street cafe by a young Pakistani man who tells his story over the course of the evening. The reader never hears the voice of the American, only the often flippant voice of Changez who tells of his stint as a student at Princeton and the powerful and impressive job he got upon graduation, a job much better than he could have ever imagined. There is also a love story of sorts between Changez and a girl he meets on a post-graduation trip to Greece. The love is troubled. Changez's life if troubled, especially when September 11, 2001, changes the way people on the street treat him and the way he views the world around him. The story is strange in many ways but gives an interesting look at the concerns of an immigrant and the power of events outside of your control to change the way you look at life. Keep reading to the surprising (or maybe not surprising at all) ending.

And now the two books for younger readers:

Goop Tales: A Study of the Behavior of Virtuous Individuals, Each of Which has Some One Human and Redeeming Fault by Gilette Burgess is a book I had not thought about in years. I remember loving Goops and How to Be Them at some point in my youth so I snatched this up when I found it in a collection being sorted in a classroom. Now I wonder what why I liked it so. The stories are preachy, the poems are neither memorable not well written, and the illustrations are odd, yet charming. It certainly seems dated. I don't even know what age would enjoy this book. Nonetheless, if you happen run across a book about Goops, take a look. Maybe you can help me rediscover the reasons why I remember these funny children so fondly.

The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World by E. L. Konigsburg is not one of her best. (My favorites of hers include From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler; A Proud Taste of Scarlet and Miniver; Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth; The View From Saturday; and Silent to the Bone.) This is a novel that grades five and eight will enjoy for many reasons, though. When Amadeo Kaplan and his mother move from New York to Florida, he worries that he will never find a friend. Then he meets William Wilcox who is helping set up an estate sale for Amedeo's eccentric neighbor, Mrs. Zender. Amadeo finds a friend as well as discovering something interesting and noteworthy. The story includes art history, secrets from Nazi Germany, and characters that are likable, intriguing, and, at the same time, humanly complex. The blurb says this is a "tale of art, discovery, friendship, history, and truth." That sums it up very well.

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