Monday, December 6, 2010

The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

This one has been on my list for years simply because Joan Didion is so celebrated and this is her most personal collection of essays. Focused on the year after her husband dies and in which her only daughter fights death in hospital beds, Didion not only shares her own experience with grief but she shares psychological research on grief. It's clear that Didion shared a great love with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and this memoir was probably written as therapy--they had been married for 40 years. This book is best suited to those who have experienced such grief and trauma, but will most likely prove powerful to other readers, too.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Husbands and Wives Club

The Husbands and Wives Club: A Year in the Life of a Couples Therapy Group by Laurie Abraham

This book is as engrossing as non-fiction comes. A blurb on the cover from Tom Perrotta likens it to a novel because of the strong characters and suspense and he is so right. Abraham, a journalist, chronicles a year of a couples therapy group (six couples) while interspersing her observations with research from top marriage and couples counseling pyschologists. From the beginning, you know there are bigger reasons for why each couple is there--they aren't all just having communication problems, but we don't find out until the story builds and I was engrossed to the last page. 100% recommended.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Book of Kehls

The Book of Kehls by Christine Kehl O'Hagan

O'Hagan's family has a long history of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a fatal form of the genetic disease that affects young males and this memoir is as much a portrait of a disease that devastates families as well as a tribute to O'Hagan's youngest son, Jamie and the short life he led. It was a hard book to read--nearly every male in O'Hagan's life was affected by the disease from her great uncles to her brother to her own son. But it was also inspiring, seeing this family persevere through so much tragedy.

Monday, November 8, 2010

One Day

One Day by David Nicholls

This is the best book I've read in a very long time. A non-typical, realistic love story between two Brits, that follows them from the ages of 22-38. We check in on where they are in different years, always on the same day (July 15) and we fast-forward and rewind in time throughout the book. Yes, it's gimmicky--the guy and girl best friend that should definitely be together, but somehow never get it together--but it's told in a new way. Loved it, loved it, loved it.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Little Bee

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Little Bee is heavy, but enjoyable. Little Bee is the 16-year-old Nigerian refugee who flees her country and seeks out Andrew and Sarah--a young, well-educated couple in suburban London. Ultimately a friendship blooms between Little Bee and Sarah--two disparate characters joined together by one tragic and haunting experience on a Nigerian beach.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris

If anyone could write a book for adults about animals from the points-of-view of animals, it's David Sedaris. A squirrel and a chipmunk on a date, a stork explaining sex to her son, an owl seeking wisdom from other animals--genius! I'd expect no less from Sedaris.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

After more press, more anticipation, more build-up than any novel I can recall, Freedom was a real let-down. How do people use their freedom? How can freedom some time lead people astray? Why are so many middle-class Americans depressed and unhappy with their lives? Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Luckily, David Sedaris has a new book...

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison by Piper Kerman

Thirty-something Piper Kerman spent nearly 15 months in a minimum security prison for her involvement in a drug ring shortly after college. Orange is the New Black" is a detailed reflection on her time behind bars in Danbury, CT. I was prepared for stories of sad lives and mentally ill prisoners, but I wasn't prepared for all the privileges Kerman enjoyed behind bars--reading books for hours, taking yoga classes, and watching television with her prisonmates. At times it sounded like a college freshman dorm. If anything, this is a book with a strong voice against the absurdness of the justice system. Most of the women behind bars were in for minor drug offenses. The charge per prisoner per year? Over $30,000.

It was interesting for 200 pages and then it takes a boring drop. I wanted to hear what life was like after prison, but she stops before we can get to that part of the story.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Reference Librarianship: Notes from the Trenches

Reference Librarianship: Notes from the Trenches by Charles R. Anderson and Peter Sprenkle.

I can't count the number of times I've talked with two of my library friends about writing books about life on the reference desk. My friends who don't work in libraries are shocked by what actually goes on at a reference desk. This book proves how strange and interesting reference desk interactions can be, but truth be told, it didn't make for the best reading. The backstory to the book is that "a young reference librarian in a Midwest library, using the pseudonym 'Ref Grunt,' posted these transactions daily to an online blog. These blogs are published here in unexpurgated form..." Indeed, we get text message size nuggets such as "An Internet terminal crashes. 'Grant books are over here, right?' Consumer Reports for lawn mowers. Train schedules. Books on leadership. You need to type @ after your username, sir. Asbestos information, but she wants the other side of the argument. The third request for divorce forms today. He did not read asign, the copier took his money, and he's mad at me." Funny. But to anyone who doesn't work at a reference desk? Maybe not. You just gotta experience it yourself for the full effect.

Fly Away Home (audiobook)

Fly Away Home by Jennifer Weiner

I can't say enough how plesantly surprised I was by this book. I'd not read any of Weiner's previous novels so I decided to try the latest in audiobook. Sylvie Woodruff, a 60ish Senator's wife from New York City, finds her life torn apart when she learns (via the television news) that her husband had an affair with a much younger legislative aide. While the mother deals with that crisis, her twenty-something daughters deal with crises of their own. None of the storylines are trite, and none are easily wrapped up. I'm ready to read her backlist!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Elegies for the Brokenhearted

Elegies for the Brokenhearted by Christie Hodgen

Elegies for the Brokenhearted is an original book about some common topics--love, family, and loss. Hodgens spins five little stories together about different people in Mary Murphy's life, and through the stories of these people, we follow Mary as she grows up a quiet, but insightful girl. The writing is beautiful, the stories are sad and shocking and true.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (audiobook)

In this novel by French author Muriel Barbery, the two main characters become unlikely friends--Rene Michel, the 54-year-old concierge of an elite apartment building in Paris, and Paloma, the 12-year-old daughter of one of the building's rich tenants. This was basically one long diatribe against society's class system. Rene Michel is interesting, but Paloma and her melodramatic suicidal declarations are annoying. I expected more from this book after all the buzz it got at pub, but I was left disappointed.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

And the Heart Says Whatever

And the Heart Says Whatever by Emily Gould

Next, please. I was so excited for this book because Emily Gould is a former editor of Gawker (my favorite website back when it was new and I was a member of the NYC media scene myself) and I expected the same snarkiness about New York City's celebrities and media companies that I get from Gawker. Wrong. The writing was bland, the editing was atrocious (Stephen King's name as actually spelled wrong), and Gould does not paint a pretty picture of herself. She comes off as arrogant and lazy.

As an aside, turns out she worked for an affiliated publishing company of one I worked for at the same time. I wonder what her former co-workers at Hyperion think about the essay on her three years there. At least she makes it clear she stopped working in publishing because she was too lazy to hack it.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Man of My Dreams

The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld

I love Curtis Sittenfeld! She has created a truly believable and likeable character in Hannah, and she uncovers many truths about love, relationships, sexuality, and growing up. Hannah observes all the relationships around her and wonders if she can ever have a functional relationship after growing up with a poor relationship with her father. We follow Hanna from the age of 14 through the early stages of her adult life and it's a truly heart-warming journey.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (audiobook)

**I've recently started listening to audiobooks because of a new semi-long work commute; therefore, I'll be reviewing those in addition to the print versions.**

I've been told The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao is a must-read for the past two years, but have only just now gotten around to reading it... well, actually listening to it. I'm a big word person and I'm quite visual so audiobooks aren't as exciting for me and what struck me most was the talent of the reader, Jonathan Davis. The story was indeed tremendous with young, nerdy Oscar and his somewhat sad search for love and his dream of being the next J.R.R. Tolien. His sister, Lola, Lola's sometimes boyfriend and Oscar's best friend, Junior (also the very likable narrator), their mother and many other members of their Dominican family have interesting stories. The language, written in the vernacular is vulgar and offensive at times, but it may have been more pronounced in the audiobook. Ultimately I enjoyed the story--as tragic as it was.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Duchess of Death: The Unauthorized Biography of Agatha Christie

Duchess of Death: The Unauthorized Biography of Agatha Christie by Richard Hack

Hack claims to have studied "over 5,000 previously unpublished letters, notes, and documents" to tell the somewhat mysterious life of Agatha Christie. That is, the singular incident in her life that was cloaked in mystery--the car accident she faked and her ensuing 11 day disappearance. This part of her life, and the drama that went on with her first husband was pretty fascinating. However, the rest of the biography reads like a dry chronology of publication dates. Perhaps for true Christie fanatics, it's a must read, but I could've done without everything but the 25 or so pages about the period of her life that played out like one of her own novels!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Drunk, Divorced and Covered in Cat Hair

Drunk, Divorced and Covered in Cat Hair: The True-life Misadventures of a 30-something Who Learned to Knit After He Split by Laurie Perry

This one was recommended as a successful blog-turned-book and the title drew me in. Laurie Perry was semi-happy 33-year-old graphic designer living with her husband in Los Angeles. And then her husband left her and, well, that's where this memoir takes off. We get the requisite depressing chapters and the dating-after-divorce stories (especially interesting is the commentary Perry gives on dating in a tech world when she was married before email became a primary form of communication), but we also get funny insight into the life of a thirty-something woman looking for happiness. It was a quick read and there was enough humor to keep me interested.

The Secrets to Happiness

The Secrets to Happiness by Sarah Dunn

I had high expectations based on the reviews and description of this novel set among the New York thirty-something dating scene, but The Secrets to Happiness fell very, very short of those expectations. The book revolves around Holly Frick, a 35-year-old recently divorced writer, and her circle of friends. The problem for me actually lied with the characters. Holly was perfectly likeable, but her friends were all flat and boring. And I didn't really see any change in Holly's character... there was a climax, but it wasn't all too exciting. With all the similar novels out there, I'd skip this one.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Talking to Girls About Duran Duran

Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Man's Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut by Rob Sheffield

Those who love music will likely recognize Sheffield's name from Rolling Stone. He's interviewed some of the most popular and acclaimed musicians and also had a hand in deciding which bands were given the (at least at one time important) RS stamp of approval with reviews. This memoir about the 80s (and 90s) is written in true magazine journalism style and is really more like 25 short stories that flow together. Anyone who grew up in the 80s or enjoyed that fascinating decade will laugh out loud throughout every story. Sheffield's humor and sharp eye for what made that decade so humorous are outstanding. I was just a small child in the 80s, but I still found myself relating to so many of the references. I enjoyed the book so much, I immediately ordered his first book Love is a Mix Tape.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Slow Love by Dominique Browning

It must be nice to be laid off and enjoy a year of self reflection with little worry about finding a new job. Of course, Browning does panic (a little) about finding a new job at the beginning of this memoir of the year after House & Garden magazine folds (she was Editor-in-Chief), but after one chapter the worry seems to leave as she enjoys her little seaside home in Rhode Island. Of course, Browning is not 25, she's a seasoned write and editor with many years in the workforce under her belt--and that's precisely why this book had promise (the overworked NYC editor finds that the slow life is better). Unfortunately, I feel Browning fell flat of sharing anything interesting about that year of her life. I guess she's happy at the end? All I know for sure is she claims to finally be over an unhealthy relationship--the man making appearances in nearly every chapter and not really being too intersting. "Slow" describes this book, but it never really picked up.

Monday, July 19, 2010


Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan

Commencement follows four young women through their lives in that exciting 10 year span from freshman year of college through the 20s. Celia (the NYC publishing assistant with the fast single life), Bree (the Southern Belle turned lesbian), Sally (the affluent wife), and April (the uber feminist activist) are an unlikely group of best friends, and their stories are vastly different. Sullivan is gifted at creating these realistic characters and showing how the friendship evolves through the years while the novel shifts between the perspectives of all four girls. It's like Sex & the City meets Smith College... I'd probably have enjoyed it more had I gone to Smith (the author did and there are jokes about the school peppered throughout that were lost on me), but the characters were so likeable that I was hooked until the last page--wanting to see how their lives all ended (at least, where they stood at 27).

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Promises to Keep

Promises to Keep by Jane Green

Jane Green is still reigning as a princess of chicklit, and after years of churning out popular novels for women, she remains as such. Why? Through every chapter of this predictable, but sweet book, I found myself asking why the author committed cardinal sin #1 of creative writing: Show, don't tell. She did a great job of telling an interesting and very real and moving story. However, she kept telling me tha things were as they were. "Callie and Reece had the greatest love ever." Really? I didn't really see it, but I was told.

It was a quick, enjoyable read once all the characters were introduced. As long as you're not a writing critic, I'd recommend it.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree

Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis

Emma-Jean Lazarus is somewhat of an outcast at William Gladstone Middle School. She eats lunch alone and usually only talks to the janitor. Emma-Jean is smart--smarter than any other 7th grader for sure--and the other kids don't understand her. And it's with those smarts and her powers of logic that she ultimately is able to befriend others as she helps her fellow students solve their own problems. Of course, solving others' problems sometimes creates more problems and gets her and others into sticky situations. This was a cute book with a lot of heart. I'd recommend it to readers in 4th-6th grades.

Let the Great World Spin

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

I could not put this book down. It's one of few books I've finished that scream "masterpiece." McCann is a master of language, but beyond the phrases and descriptions that had me stopping every few pages to marvel at how he created such visions and feelings with words, he has created incredibly real characters in his latest novel, Let the Great World Spin. It's New York City in 1974 and the World Trade Center tightrope walker is amazing people from every part of the city. And all the characters that McCann includes are brought together by this one event on this singular day. We get some flashbacks to the Irish background of the central character Corrigan, the multi-faceted immigrant and radical monk who spends his life helping the down-trodden in The Bronx projects and we get some glimpses into the future (the last "Book" which takes place in 2006), but the core of this book is how "the great world spins" on this one day. And it is beautiful, amazing, sad, and true.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

How Did You Get This Number

How Did You Get This Number by Sloane Crosley

Sloane Crosley is hilarious. If I had a great sense of humor, I would hope to write essays just like hers. With that being said, her writing is probably only funny to a niche audience and I happen to fall into that niche--children of the 70s/80s who have lived in New York or a city like it (yeah, I know there's no city "like" NYC, but bear with me). Her latest collection isn't as good as I Was Told There'd Be Cake, but in How Did You Get This Number, the stories are less about the city and more about her childhood (8os!) and her experiences outside of New York (and therefore, perhaps more palatable for non-New Yorkers). I literally laughed out loud at certain lines and especially dug into her last and best essay, "Off the Back of a Truck", when she lets down her guard a bit and lets us into a serious heartbreak (though somehow she makes even that seem hilarious).

Friday, June 18, 2010

Heart of the Matter

Heart of the Matter by Emily Giffin

Halfway through Emily Giffin's latest bestselling chicklit title, I realized most of her books center on the question of love--do we ever get over those we've loved before and can we ever be sure we won't love someone greater than the one we love now? I was prepared to hate the book because I figured the theme was overtold; however, I LOVED this book. It's not as good as Something Borrowed, but it's still a great story. She could have shaved off 50-100 pages in the middle because the characters were developed well early on, but once I got to the climax, I plowed through to see how it would end. I really wasn't sure. And so, by the end, I felt that 50-100 snoozers in the middle were worth it--Giffin really nails the heart of the matter with this one.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Imperfect Birds

Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott

Lamott is a good writer and the characters were well developed in Imperfect Birds, but the story wasn't too exciting. Two middle-aged hippies worry about their 17-year-old daughter's drug addiction. 17-year-old girl continues to rebel and mother gets more and more distraught. I was disappointed.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

When Will There Be Good News?

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

I knew this book would have some suspense, but since it was categorized as simply "Fiction" and not more specifically as "Mystery" at my library, I was not prepared for just how suspenseful it would be! Or for just how much bad news could be told in one novel. Atkinson has a talent, though, for somehow interweaving dark and realistic storylines and providing the right human touches through different narrative voices to keep the reader hanging on. I was hooked from the beginning and, even though much was gruesome and I did find myself asking "When will there be good news," it was worth the ride.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Spoken from the Heart

Spoken from the Heart by Laura Bush

One-hundred pages in and I was completely invested in Laura Bush's autobiography. The writing was touching and I kept wondering how much of it was actually written by her because it was so impressive. The way she described her mother's miscarriages and her own infertility as well as the joy she reaped from working in libraries and with children was beautiful. These lines are examples of what was really touching: "For an absence, for someone who was never there at all, we are wordless to capture that particular emptiness. For those who deeply want children and are denied them, those missing babies hover like silent, ephemeral shadows over their lives. Who can describe the feel of a tiny hand that is never held?"

And then, she met George again at age 30, got married in four months, and the book became really boring. She mentions that her family were long-time democrats, but somehow she never mentions that intriguing piece of her life again. She tells George she is not interested in politics, and they begin their married life by campaigning for a spot for him in Congress. And she really never speaks anymore about that. Does she suddenly become interested in politics? I'm not really sure. The last 3/4 of the book did not feel like it was "spoken from the heart," but instead from a scheduler's book with two lines about each event. It felt tedious and it felt boring. How could the life of a First Lady be boring? Somehow Laura manages to make it sound boring. And I still never really saw the bond she has with her husband. I'm sure it's there, but I wanted to see it. She's got it with her daughters and that was clear, but there weren't enough touching moments about her husband. Perhaps I was looking for too much--wanting to know what would make a liberal librarian without an interest in politics fall for George Bush. I still don't know, but perhaps that's a secret to be kept between them.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Gimmeacall by Sarah Mlynowski

Has anyone not had the thought "If only I'd known then what I know now" at some point? I doubt it and Sarah Mylnowski has created a winning young adult book based on this concept. 18-year-old Devi begins talking to her 14-year-old self after dropping her cell phone in a water fountain. Yeah, the premise sounds hokey and I'll admit it took me a while to get used to the back and forth (Devi, freshman year/Devi, senior year), but as the book progresses Mylnowski does an excellent job of showing all the different ways Devi's life could play out based on the choices of her younger self. Seriously, if given the opportunity, wouldn't you call your 14-year-old self and offer advice? Recommended for teens and all who enjoy fun, girly young adult lit.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Happy Now?

Happy Now? by Katherine Shonk

What an amazing, tough story. Claire's husband of less than two years, Jay, has committed suicide on Valentine's Day and Happy Now? explores the terrible grief and mixed emotions Claire experiences in the aftermath. When the book opens, the tragedy has already occurred so we get to know about Jay's depression and their relationship through flashbacks as Claire struggles to understand the how and why of the situation. If it sounds depressing, it is. But in a sense, it's uplifting. It's one woman's fight to survive what some might think is insurmountable.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Last Time I Saw You

The Last Time I Saw You by Elizabeth Berg

Elizabeth Berg is very good at what she does and what she does is write fiction for middle-aged women about issues close to the hearts of her audience. Her latest, The Last Time I Saw You, follows several men and women in the days leading up to and after their 40th high school reunion. I didn't think this was one of Berg's finer works. Perhaps I was waiting for a bigger ending, for something huge to happen at the reunion, but it was a slower, gradual climax that left me disappointed. I also found it a bit hard to keep up with all the characters she introduced so quickly. If she'd focused on a smaller number, perhaps I would have been more invested in what happened to them.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


Tinkers by Paul Harding

The 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner Tinkers taught me that the following LC subject headings exist: Reminiscing in old age -- Fiction and Identity (Psychology) in old age -- Fiction. Perhaps that's not interesting to anyone else, but I found it to be interesting. The short novel is also is a fine example of descriptive writing; Harding has an exceptional talent for description of place and I found myself re-reading several lines to ponder how he was able to put such perfect words together. The subject matter, on the other hand, left me unsatisfied. Yes, it wasn't going to be a happy story--the reader is essentially told that the main character, George Washington Crosby will die in eight days. And Harding then takes the reader back in time to meet George's father, Howard, and Howard in turn reminisces about his own father. It was sad and heartbreaking, but also a reminder of the power and continuity of familial bonds and love. Worth a read, if only for the exemplary writing craftsmanship.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Getting the Pretty Back

Getting the Pretty Back: Friendship, Family, and Finding the Perfect Lipstick by Molly Ringwald

This is what I would call a froufrou book and not intended for anyone but the biggest of Molly Ringwald fans. It's written as a sort of "girl to girl" advice book on everything from dating to cooking to fashion to raising children. Ringwald includes interesting tidbits about her past and her current life and is at her best when talking about her husband whom she clearly adores. It seems most of the stories revolve around him, but that's ok. I love Molly Ringwald, as a good number of women in their 30s likely do (who could not love her in "Sixteen Candles?") so it was worth the short time it took to flip through.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Will Power!

Will Power! Using Shakespeare's Insights to Transform Your Life by George Weinberg

Weinberg is an esteemed psychotherapist and Shakespeare enthusiast and he brings the two together for an interesting take on human behavior. Each section begins with a passage from a Shakespeare play and then continues with a character study that translates to modern day people. I found his examples incredibly true to life and surprisingly spot on. Most people who read literature are looking to relate to other humans, but Weinberg takes this a step further by showing us how to learn from the behavior of Shakespeare's most famous characters. If you enjoy pop psychology and are done with self-help books that are no help, give this one a try.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Marry Him

Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough by Lori Gottlieb

If you're not an unmarried woman between the ages of 25 and 35, you are probably unfamiliar with Gottlieb's controversial article from The Atlantic in which she accuses single women of being too picky in the dating scene. (And if you ARE unmarried and 30ish, you likely received a copy of the article in your inbox from number friends and family members.) It was a good, eye-opening article. Prince Charming is a myth, right? Through interviews with matchmakers, psychologists, scientists, and everyday people who have been both lucky and unlucky in love, Gottlieb has writen an entire book on the subject.

Although the book could easily have ended at 100 pages, it was still an interesting read. Gottlieb's own vested interest in the subject (she's 41 and single) adds to the content as do the personal stories of her friends' love lives.

This is obviously made for a small audience, but somehow it's still on the Bestsellers List. Single women rule the world, apparently. Or at least read a lot.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Wife's Tale

The Wife's Tale by Lori Lansens

Lansens has delivered a solid second novel with The Wife's Tale. Mary Gooch is a trapped middle-aged woman but she's not trapped in the typical fashion of cliche stories. This is the story of how she realizes her potential and steps out of that trap and the journey is heartfelt and entertaining.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Where the God of Love Hangs Out

Where the God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom

Bloom teaches creative writing at Yale so one would think she knows how to write a short story and this somber, yet realistic collection showcases her talent. The stories all take on the theme of love and many are inter-related. Perhaps the finest linked stories are those about a family that loses the father, and the relationships that grow between the stepsons, stepmother, and grandchildren through a period of 30 years. The stories may not be flowery and fun, but they are real and will certainly strike a nerve with everyone, for everyone is involved in a love story of some sort.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Sizzle by Julie Garwood

Predictability? Check. Cheesiness? Check. Far-fetched fairytale plot? Check. The only good part of this novel by best-selling novelist Julie Garwood was the very brief passage in which one of the villains tries to steal books from a library and comments on how "hot" and tough the librarians are. Otherwise, it was fluff and the fluff wasn't even as good as what I've read of Nora Roberts. Obviously she's got a magic formula that works for some readers--I'm just not one of them.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn

Charyn is a Emily Dickinson scholar and has created a novel based on her life and many of the characters in it, with a few added story lines to make it, well, fiction. Dickinson is still an old maid, but we see many of the men who excite her and woo her, as well as the women who create drama around her. What we don't see is her brilliant poetry and she's rarely writing it. Perhaps Charyn felt that wasn't interesting, but that's what I was looking for.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Gracefully Insane

Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America's Premier Mental Hospital by Alex Beam

McLean Hospital was once the premier mental institution in America. And by premier, I don't just mean it had the best doctors and best treatments. I mean it was (and still is, though not to the same degree) the country club of mental institutions--where $1,000/day stays were "enjoyed" by the richest and most powerful Americans with mental illness. It was the hospital about which Girl, Interrupted and The Bell Jar were written, and Dennis Lehane loosely based the hospital in Shutter Island on McLean. For some of the elite patients, like James Taylor and Ray Charles, stays at McLean were simply short respites--a retreat away from the stressful world. For others, like a 79-year-old patient Beam interviews who has been at McClean for over 50 years, it's a necessary home. Beam, a journalist for the Boston Globe, captures the human interest elements of the hospital's history--the fascinating patients and their doctors, the cutting edge treatments, and, finally, the current state of mental health care in the United States and the economic problems that have affected McLean as they have other treatment facilities. I found it fascinating, but it may only be fascinating to others interested in mental health care.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Brightest Star in the Sky

The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes

Marian Keyes is the queen of Irish chicklit and she has earned her throne. Her bio claims she's written 10 novels, and Brightest is her latest. The plot sounds hokey--the narrator is a spirit that floats between flats in a four-floor Dublin townhouse and observes the secrets and relationships brewing in each home--but Keyes sells it well. The characters are all very different, yet it's believable how their lives overlap. Each chapter is divided into "days" and we see that the spirit has a countdown going on, starting from 66. As we get closer to 0, it's obvious that something big is going to happen, and the countdown really intensifies the build-up. The ending isn't at all predictable, and I was quite pleased, which is saying a lot. I'm usually disappointed in clean endings, but this one is worth the ride.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

This Book is Overdue!

This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us by Marilyn Johnson

Well, this book was a surprise considering Johnson is not a librarian and the publisher isn't Libraries Unlimited. Johnson chronicles the work of public librarians and academic librarians and Library 2.o champtions. She pins the profession right when she describes librarians as: "Civil servants and servants of civility...they would be whatever they needed to be that day: information professionals, teachers, police, community organizers, computer technicians, historians, confidantes, clerks, social workers, storytellers..." There's not much else for me to say about this. My main problem with this book is that Johnson didn't present any solutions to the mass problem of disappearing libraries and librarians. It's a wonder she even found people with the "librarian" label to interview.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Five Men Who Broke My Heart

Five Men Who Broke My Heart by Susan Shapiro

Shapiro's memoir offers a glimpse into the six most important romantic relationships in her life--five men who broke her heart and the one she is currently married to at 40. Not only does she offer humorous recollections of these failed relationships, she also sets out to meet up with all of them to talk about what went wrong in the past and how things are going now. Her path crosses with four of them within months--a couple she has to force but the men are very willing to meet--and another refuses to meet but rather answers questions via email. The memoir is at its best when Shapiro talks about the past five relationships, but it becomes very slow when she jumps into the last few chapters about her husband. Still, any woman who has had her heart broken and still thinks of the heartbreaker 20 years later would likely laugh and cry along with Shapiro's stories.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

When Ghosts Speak: Understanding the World of Earthbound Spirits by Mary Ann Winkowski

Ok, so not everyone believes in ghosts and some might say that a woman who speaks to ghosts for a living is not only loony, she's a scam artist. If you're one of those non-believers, this book might change your mind. Winkowski was the inspiration for the TV show "The Ghost Whisperer" and she has successfully helped detectives solve murder cases and ordinary people rid their houses of "earthbound spirits." In this book, she tells stories of various encounters with spirits and gives readers insight as to what to do when it's suspected that a ghost is present. She also touches on why some people choose to stay on earth as ghosts instead of "crossing over" into the "white light." I found this to be a fascinating read and recommend it to anyone who's ever pondered the idea of ghosts.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Year of Living Biblically

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A.J. Jacobs

Jacobs is agnostic, but he decides to spend a year living his life as the Bible dictates which includes the obvious--following the Ten Commandments--and the less obvious, growing a beard and not shaking hands. The book is most interesting when Jacobs takes the reader inside uber religious communities and shares objective and open-minded insight on believers from Hasidic Jews to Amish to creationism enthusiasts. He points out some pretty strange lines from the Bible that leave much to be interpreted. For example, Mark 16:18 states, "They will pick up Serpents..." and many Christians take "serpents" to be a metaphor for challenges. For literalists like the Tennessee man who attends the Church of God, devotion to Jesus is shown by picking up venomous snakes during church services. I probably would have enjoyed the book more had it only covered six months. It started dragging a bit and I found myself getting annoyed at his continued project and couldn't help but feel sympathy for his family and friends. In the end, it's a new twist on religious tolerance.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Last Single Woman in America

The Last Single Woman in America by Cindy Guidry

I thought this memoir would be more about dating and marriage and being single at 40 (because that’s what Guidry is and that’s her shtick—she’s single at 40), but unfortunately it’s a big mish mash of stories that sometimes fit together and sometimes don’t. Guidry is funny and has an interesting view on life in Los Angeles (why is everyone so wealthy but never working?), but David Sedaris she is not. The publisher advertises the book as “The funniest, freshest essayist since David Sedaris, Cindy Guidry examines American culture and present-day gender relations in all their confusing, heartbreaking, and hilarious glory.” I’ve read funnier and fresher. When she sticks to the hilarious dating stories, she’s good. When she talks vaguely about working in film, she’s boring.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Too Much Happiness

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

I have taken two classes on writing short stories and in both classes I was told to study Munro as she is one of the modern masters. Indeed, her latest collection won the Booker Prize and from the very beginning I found myself stopping to think about how she was able to convey so perfectly what I'd just read. Most of the stories focus on mid-life Canadian women and the different types of sadness they face. None of the stories could really be described as "uplifting," but as is Munro's style, they are all especially true. That is, she has conveyed real life and the struggles within it with a grace that really does make me pause and contemplate how she has made the ordinary sound so extraordinary.

The Weight of Silence

The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf

This novel kept my attention despite the plot holes and unsurprising "plot twists." We follow the disappearance of two 7-year-old girls through the viewpoint of several different narrators related to the tragedy. Calli, one of the young girls, is a selective mute and much of the drama arises from her inability to speak and the quest for her to again find her voice. Gudenkauf created strong characters and an engaging story that moves quickly through the tension that builds between each narrator's voice. A pretty good novel, but not fantastic.

Monday, February 1, 2010

An Affair to Remember

An Affair to Remember: The Greatest Love Stories of All Time by Megan Gressor and Kerry Cook

Another book with true love stories--this one covering those that are well-known. Everyone from Lordy Bryon to Elizabeth Taylor to Napoleon to Mary Queen of Scots to Charlie Chaplin to Marie Antoinette and the loves of their lives are covered. Each story is very short, no more than 5 pages, but the authors manage to start each one with an interesting event in the couple's lives and then concisely cover more of the ups and downs of the love affairs. What was most interesting to me in reading this was to see how similar love affairs from the 1700 and 1800s were to those today. Jealousy, affairs, long-distance relationships, multiple divorces...all are covered in this interesting compilation of some of history's most famous couples.