Thursday, May 31, 2012

Review: Gossip by Beth Gutcheon

Sometimes a title and a cover don't do a book justice. In the case of Beth Gutcheon's novel, Gossip, this is especially true. The cover treatment and title suggest a lighter, frothier tale than the one told here. This stunningly, meticulously constructed novel is actually shot through with a dark and troubling undercurrent.

Lovie French owns an exclusive dress shop in New York. Her clientele is wealthy and discriminating and they rely on Lovie as much for her discretion as for her fashion sense. And she is nominally of the world of the women she dresses, having attended the same tony boarding school they all did, albeit as a scholarship student, and maintaining her closest friendships from that time in her life as well. Lovie is, in fact, the original thread that connects outrageous gossip columnist Dinah and old family respectable Avis, two polar opposites who accept each other on sufferance only because of their similar relationships with Lovie.

Spanning several decades in New York City, from the bohemian sixties to our post 9/11 world, Lovie's tale weaves backward and forward through time offering glimpses into the privileged life, ever evolving friendships, and the changes in the world over that sixty year span. From the roots of the animosity between Dinah and Avis to the riveting climax, we follow these three women through the relationships of their lives: marriage, divorce, parenthood, work, and enduring friendship. Their closeness waxes and wanes through the years as they withhold and keep secrets from each other but they never lose their connection, no matter how stretched or frayed it might be at times. And when Dinah's beloved son Nicky, Lovie's cherished godson, and Avis' daughter Grace fall in love and marry, the connection between these three women is cemented even further.

Told mainly from Lovie's perspective, the reader has to question her reliability as a narrator. While relating some pieces of her own life, she is certainly more focused on the lives of her friends, the domestic dramas and disappointments of their worlds. Her circumspection about her own long-standing affair with a married man and her rise in the fashion world are seemingly less interesting for her recounting purposes than the public dramas of her friends and they allow Lovie to highlight and reinforce her decades old second-class citizen who doesn't fit in feelings. There's just a dash of schadenfreude in her telling. As she unfolds the story, explaining why the novel opens with Dinah in the back room of her shop for privacy, she drops delicate hints about where the story must ultimately lead. There is a barely there ominous undertone throughout the novel and the reader's sense of foreboding increases as the story progresses.

This is a book of the small and everyday and the ways in which these tiny moments can come together to create a shocking whole. Gutcheon has captured this segment of New York society, the wealthy, the privileged, the glitterati so well, showing the undercurrents, the banality, and the trials of the lives of its members. She has created very different and yet equally interesting characters in all of the women. Each of them is fully fleshed out and real feeling. The writing throughout is precise and every word is freighted with deliberate intention which helps to slowly, almost imperceptibly, ratchet up the narrative tension. Readers may be lulled by a sense of not much happening but in fact this is not the case. There is an inexorable march to the stunning conclusion. Well worth the time spent between its covers, this book will get under your skin and into your head until you have finally turned that last page.

Thanks to Leyane at William Morrow for sending me a copy of the book to review.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme is hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on.

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead. The book is being released by Knopf on June 12, 2012.

Amazon says this about the book: Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements is a stunning debut, an irresistible social satire that is also an unforgettable meditation on the persistence of hope, the yearning for connection, and the promise of enduring love.

Winn Van Meter is heading for his family’s retreat on the pristine New England island of Waskeke. Normally a haven of calm, for the next three days this sanctuary will be overrun by tipsy revelers as Winn prepares for the marriage of his daughter Daphne to the affable young scion Greyson Duff. Winn’s wife, Biddy, has planned the wedding with military precision, but arrangements are sideswept by a storm of salacious misbehavior and intractable lust: Daphne’s sister, Livia, who has recently had her heart broken by Teddy Fenn, the son of her father’s oldest rival, is an eager target for the seductive wiles of Greyson’s best man; Winn, instead of reveling in his patriarchal duties, is tormented by his long-standing crush on Daphne’s beguiling bridesmaid Agatha; and the bride and groom find themselves presiding over a spectacle of misplaced desire, marital infidelity, and monumental loss of faith in the rituals of American life.

Hilarious, keenly intelligent, and commandingly well written, Shipstead’s deceptively frothy first novel is a piercing rumination on desire, on love and its obligations, and on the dangers of leading an inauthentic life, heralding the debut of an exciting new literary voice.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Why I hate children's sports

My kids have all reached the age where any sports they choose to participate in require try-outs. I myself lived through try-outs as a child (although I think our time trials were more of a placement tool than anything since to my knowledge no one was cut). Try-outs stink. And managing your child's disappointment with the results is even worse. I prepared W. for potentially crushing disappointment over high school tennis because he's a decent player but not great before finding out that the coach wasn't going to cut anyone (bless her!). Telling R. that she didn't get chosen for a solo or small group dance was hard and telling her that she wasn't placed in the more advanced classes with her friends was even harder. But we worked through it. Neither of us may have been happy about it but I didn't have any reason to climb up in arms over the results. Not like the soccer debacle for T. this week. I've written a letter to the coach and I know I can't send it as it stands. But I really want to. Really, really want to. And since I'm sure you want to read it as it is, unedited and before I reduce it to milqetoast and pablum so I don't offend anyone, here it is mainly for your reading pleasure but also so I can rage away in full without offending people who could blackball the kid from the sport in future around here.

Dear Coach,

I am writing because the more I reflect on our conversation last night, the more I am bothered by it. Certainly there was disappointment here over T. being only one of two boys who tried out Tuesday and yesterday to be placed on the B team but if that’s where he belongs, that’s where he belongs. I do, however, feel like I need to address several things.

First of all, you’ve completely misread my child if, as you suggested, you think pushing him hard would cause him to lose his love for the game. I’ve known him for 10+ years now compared to your fewer than 3 hours (and I’m giving you the benefit of a doubt on that 3 hour window given that you spent all of Tuesday mixing my child up with another child) and can tell you unequivocally that he does in fact need to be pushed or he will goof off. This “concern,” if you will, knowing it to be based in anything but fact as I do, is simply a ridiculous and transparent excuse. T. and I would both have preferred to hear the truth, painful as it may have been. I appreciate that you were trying to soften the blow but there are more honest ways of doing so. Telling us that he has potential but his ball handling skills are not quite there yet would have been far more palatable to hear than an uninformed let-him-down-easy lie. And yes, I repeated your “concern” to him this morning when I relayed your decision to him. Even he, at 10 years old, took umbrage at your assumption and dismissed it as incorrect, reminding me that Coach A. pushed him hard last year and he improved as a result even as he acknowledged that many of the kids out there this week were head and shoulders better than he was.

Assuming that you truly believe this “concern” (and for the record, I don’t believe you do), there’s more wrong with it than me simply disagreeing with you about my child’s innate personality. Making a comment like this implies that whoever the coach is for the B team will not be pushing my child to play well. If we wanted a program that did not have high expectations for its players or did not want to make their players the best soccer players they are capable of being, we could have chosen to play on a much more low key level elsewhere. But T. wanted to learn to be a better soccer player and to rise to a higher level. Please note that this is his desire. You also told me, almost in the same breath, that the two teams, A and B, would be practicing together frequently. If this is the case, will you only be pushing half of the boys on the pitch during those practices? Because based on your comment to me, the B team coach certainly won’t be pushing the boys or my child shouldn’t be on any team per your “concern” lest it burn him out on the game. Makes your “concern” sound pretty ludicrous now, doesn’t it?

In your comments to the parents on the sidelines yesterday and to the boys on the pitch, you were also less than honest and that bothers me a lot. You told the boys that no one had been called and you told the parents that calls would be going out last night. Now, in talking to another parent before you came over to us, she mentioned having received a call on Tuesday night telling her that her son was on the team. If I, on the sideline, found this out completely unsolicited, don’t you think that the boys also knew that calls had gone out to some and not others? What purpose was served by telling them no one had been called? All you’ve managed to do is cause me to have to have a discussion with T. about honesty and why lying is never the correct option. Based on my knowledge of some calls already having been made, I had started preparing T. for the probability of being on the B team before we even left the parking lot Thursday evening. Parents and children are not stupid so please don’t lie to us.

You also said that at this age it was as important to you to see how the boys worked together as it was to see what ball skills they had. So I am pleased to note that, without knowing which other boy at the tryout was also placed on the B team, you most likely chose to keep a child who didn’t pass to another player even once during your practice game despite his teammates being open, children who only came to one of the two required try-outs, and a child who spent a lot of time in the back field yelling at his teammates about what they were doing incorrectly over my child. I shudder to think what unsportsmanlike conduct I missed about his playing that made him less appealing as part of your team than these children. If you sense a little sarcasm in that statement, I am sorry. You should sense a lot. Again, if your criterion for selection to the A team is going to be solely skills based, then be honest about it rather than mouthing platitudes that you don’t intend to honor.

And finally, while this last might seem small and insignificant, it is what set us off on the wrong foot on the call last night right from the get-go. You did apologize for the lateness of the hour (and yes, it was quite late to be receiving a phone call) but you ruined your apology by mentioning that you had had a lot of calls to make and that you were also having to help out and call another team. So, not only was my child last on the list to call for his age-group but he fell behind an age-group that is not even your responsibility. That was simply charming to hear. In short, you may have been concerned about T.’s continued love for the game but after last night this mother is completely disillusioned with the process, the organization, the integrity of the coaches, and frankly the game as a whole. Disappointment is a part of life but insincerity and lying should not be.

Love and Kisses,

One seriously peeved tiger mama

Am I being too sensitive? I know stuff like this will only get worse as he gets older but I feel like no one ever calls the coaches on it and I think someone should. I guess that means that someone should be me. If you disagree with me, I'm curious to hear your reasoning. I will add that I left out the fact that T. is wildly disappointed not to be on the same team as his buddies because I don't think that's a valid complaint. It's a feeling we'll have to help him with but not anything that should impact the selection process. So I'm not totally unreasonanble, ne? ;-)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Summer Reading

It's that time of year again. The time when I impose my will thoughtfully make the selections for my up north summer book club. We read together in June, July, and August and my big criteria (not that I always follow my own rules, mind) are that books not be too well known, be eminently discussable, and be available in paperback. Sometimes I solicit advice and other times, like this year, when I have been ghastly slow choosing the books, I just punt all on my own. Sometimes the books are new and other times they are several years old. You just can never predict with me. And perhaps that's why this lovely group of women continue to allow me to dictate make their summer reading list year after year. Take a look below and then let me know what you might have chosen if you were in charge.

Here's what I chose for this year:

June: In Hovering Flight by Joyce Hinnefeld

At 34 years of age, Scarlet has come home for the passing of her famous mother, the bird artist Addie Kavanaugh. The year is 2002. Though Addie and her husband, the world-renowned ornithologist Tom Kavanaugh, have made their life in southeastern Pennsylvania, Addie has chosen to die at the home of her dearest friend, Cora. This is because their ramshackle cottage in Burnham, Pennsylvania, is filled with so much history and because, in the last ten years or so, even birdsong has seemed to make Addie angry, or sad, or both. These are the things that Scarlet needs to understand. Cora and Lou (the third woman in Addie's circle) will help Scarlet to see her mother in full. In addition, Scarlet carries her own secret into these foggy days-a secret for Addie, one that involves Cora, too. Joyce Hinnefeld's debut novel is rich in so many ways beyond the taut mother-daughter dynamic and the competition among even the closest of women. The natural world, an artist's vision, the intensity of long-lasting love, the flight of a bird's song and the sighting of an extinct-or perhaps illusory-samll creature all work to shape the plot of the novel. Even the prose seems filled with birdsong-at once raucous and transporting. In its structure and style, In Hovering Flight follows in the tradition of writers like Virginia Woolf, Harriet Doerr and Carol Shields: musical and dramatic, with myriad stories and voices. But the evocative language of this soaring novel is Hinnefeld's own.

July: The Girl in the Garden by Kamala Nair

The redemptive journey of a young woman unsure of her engagement, who revisits in memory the events of one scorching childhood summer when her beautiful yet troubled mother spirits her away from her home to an Indian village untouched by time, where she discovers in the jungle behind her ancestral house a spellbinding garden that harbors a terrifying secret.

August: Inukshuk by Gregory Spatz

John Franklin has moved his fifteen-year-old son to the remote northern Canadian town of Houndstitch to make a new life together after his wife, Thomas’ mother, left them. Mourning her disappearance, John, a high school English teacher, writes poetry and escapes into an affair, while Thomas withdraws into a fantasy recreation of the infamous Victorian-era arctic expedition led by British explorer Sir John Franklin. With teenage bravado, Thomas gives himself scurvy so that he can sympathize with the characters in the film of his mind—and is almost lost himself.

While told over the course of only a few days, this gripping tale slips through time, powerfully evoking a modern family in distress and the legendary Franklin crew’s descent into despair, madness, and cannibalism on the Arctic tundra.

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme is hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on.

A Small Fortune by Rosie Dastgir. The book is being released by Riverhead Hardcover on May 24, 2012.

Amazon says this about the book: An entertaining debut novel that explores the lives of an extended Pakistani family—all with a gently humorous touch and fond but wry eye.

Harris, the presumed patriarch of his large extended family in both England and Pakistan, has unexpectedly received a “small fortune” from his divorce settlement with an English woman: £53,000. As a devout Muslim, Harris views this sum as a “burden of riches” that he must unload on someone else as quickly as possible. But deciding which relative to give it to proves to be a burden of its own, and soon he has promised it both to his extremely poor cousins in Pakistan and to his Westernized, college-student daughter. Then, in a rash bout of guilt and misunderstanding, Harris signs the entire sum away to the least deserving, most prosperous cousin of all. This solves none of his problems and creates many more, exacerbating a tricky web of familial debt and obligation on two sides of the world, until the younger generation steps in to help.

With insight, affection, and a great gift for character and story, Dastgir immerses us in a rich, beautifully drawn immigrant community and complex extended family. She considers the challenges between relatives of different cultural backgrounds, generations, and experiences—and the things they have to teach one another. A Small Fortune offers an affectionate and affecting look at class, culture, and the heartbreak of misinterpretation.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Review: The Anti-Romantic Child by Priscilla Gilman

When I was in graduate school, there was a couple in the department who had just had their first child. I was impressed that they were able to juggle dissertations and a baby. Once I left school and started my own family, I am even more impressed with the decision they made. It can't possibly be an easy one and I have no idea how they've ended up, in academia or leaving it for other fields. But if their little boy (he was an infant the last time I saw him) ultimately was diagnosed with developmental disorders, how much more difficult exponentially would their lives have become? This is precisely the situation that Priscilla Gilman finds herself in. Not only is she consumed with getting her degree, teaching English literature and poetry to undergraduates, searching for a tenure track job, supporting his husband in the same quest, but suddenly she is also faced with the knowledge that their beloved toddler Benj is not "normal;" he is in fact developmentally delayed and hyperlexic, a condition in which a child is a precocious reader but has difficulty acquiring social skills and regular language, using echolalia instead.

Gilman grew up in a literary family and married a fellow English graduate student so when her small son shows an amazing capacity to repeat verbatim poetry read to him and learns to read himself at the young age of two, she is pleased and proud to see that he has inherited the family facility with language. While she has some concerns with Benj's development, family and her pediatrician allay her concerns equating Benj's actions (or non-actions) to one or another relative's preferences as a child. But after an admissions visit to a preschool, the differences between Benj and other children his age are no longer dismissable. In fact, the preschool's serious concerns about Benj's visit will start Gilman on the path to discovering the developmental delays and the challenges that Benj will have to face and overcome all of his life.

As Gilman and her husband discover the extent of Benj's challenges, they are also facing change in their jobs, awaiting the birth of their second son, looking to move homes, and starting to develop cracks in their own marital relationship. So many changes looming all at once. Gilman details her own heartbreak at the realization of the extent of Benj's delays and the fact that there is no good way to ease his path in life. A professor whose area of focus is the Romantic poets, she uses excerpts from Wordsworth's poetry to mourn the loss of the romantic child she expected to have. Benj will always have to work harder than a typical child or adult to make sense of certain things socially or emotionally and there is a gut-wrenching acceptance in Gilman's narrative here. At the same time, she learns a lot from Benj as she comes to accept and celebrate all those wonderful, quirky things that make him the unique and lovable child he is.

This story brims with deep feeling. Gilman's strong and unshakable love for Benj shines through even as she is rawly honest in exposing her fears and her disappointments in facing parenting a child who, in many ways, is the antithesis of the idealized child in Wordsworth's poetry, the child she thought she would have. The pain of changing expectations is clear but so is the joy of finding the wonder in Benj just as he is. The integration of the snatches poetry as exposition definitely had an academic feel as if these passages were inserted to restate her previous point. Sometimes this strengthens the narrative but oftentimes comes off as repetitive. And it is definitely a hallmark of the sort of writing that pervades academia but it risks losing the casual reader. The personal tale of Gilman's and Benj's growth helps to balance this more abstract academic feel though. And her determination and advocacy in order to find Benj the best possible doctors, schools, and teachers is inspiring and instructive. I felt a kinship both with Gilman as a parent but also with Benj. And as I read some of his challenges, I easily recognized them in myself: precocious reading, social anxiety, sensory issues, and more. Perhaps we all have something of the "special" child in us. With the love and understanding of a parent like Gilman, who has shared this very personal journey, I have no doubt that Benj will continue to grow and face his challenges with courage and to bring unexpected joy to those in his life.

For more information about Priscilla Gilman and the book visit her website, her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Monday Mailbox

Goodies galore again. :-) This past week's mailbox arrivals:

Safe Within by Jean Reynolds Page came from TLC Book Tours and William Morrow for a blog tour.
A novel of family and imminent grief and the loyalty we owe each other, this one sounds very, very good.

We Only Know So Much by Elizabeth Crane came from TLC Book Tours and Harper Perennial for a blog tour.
A kooky sounding family where everyone seems too self-involved to notice they are a family in crisis, I can't wait to make the acquaintance of each of these characters.

The Investigation of Ariel Warning by Robert Kalich came from MacAdam Cage and Meryl and Rachel from Meryl Zegarek Public Relations.
Identical twin brothers are interested in the same enigmatic woman so one of the brothers starts to investigate her and in the process ends up on a voyage of self discovery. Totally enticing, no?!

Little Century by Anna Keesey came from FSG.
A young woman who heads West to become a homesteader gets caught in the war between cattle ranchers and sheepherders with her only family tie pulling her one way and her growing interest in a man the other. Sounds like a whole different and wildly interesting slant on westerns.

As always, if you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Reviews by Martha's Bookshelf as she is hosting this month's Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Review: Make It Stay by Joan Frank

Sometimes I think that having or making "couple" friends is one of the hardest things about marriage. Usually one person doesn't like one of the other pair for whatever reason. And when spouses are very different as in the old adage "opposites attract," they can have an even harder go at appreciating each others' friends. Friendship is one of those unexplainable, alchemical bits of magic and four people makes the balance tricky.

Although Neil and Rae have been married for years when Joan Frank's novel Make It Stay opens, they married late and Neil already had a long-standing, tightly woven friendship with Mike and a rather easy cameraderie with Mike's wife Tilda despite her apparent darkness and unlikability when he and Rae married. As they prepare for a dinner party, Rae cautiously teases the complicated back-story of Mike and Tilda out of Neil. And so the reader is given both a view of the past Mike as he was when Neil met him, boisterous and effusive, ebullent and outgoing, and of the present day Mike who has been felled by a stroke, retaining only his booming laugh and his pleasure in his dearest friendships.

Neil's story tells of the seemingly mismatched Mike and Tilda's relationship and long marriage and it is merged seamlessly with the small judgments that Rae makes on these two oldest of Neil's friends. As Neil muses on the past and Rae delicately manipulates the present, more is revealed of these two characters in their reactions to Mike and Tilda than might initially be thought. Rae is an introvert, a writer, and slow to warm up to others. Neil is a fiercely loyal friend happiest when he is surrounded by those he loves, quietly similar to Mike in that way. The tale of Mike and Tilda brings to light cracks in Neil and Rae's marriage, highlighting the ways in which their differences have sent them down parallel but diverging paths. As they examine the meanings and perspective of love, friendship and loss, their own relationship is very much in jeopardy.

This is a very slight book but it packs quite a wallop. Frank's writing is to be savoured, each word carefully chosen and considered. Her descriptions are not overdone but are incredibly vivid and alive. The novel is definitely character driven rather than plot-heavy, musing on the ephemerality of life, the strength of connection we feel to others, the power of the bonds of deep and true friendship, and the inexactitude of judgment. Neil, Rae, and Mike are all complex and fleshed out characters. Tilda is less so but one of her chief traits is her sullen unknowability, making this omission understandable even if it consigns her to being disliked by Rae and having that dislike be telegraphed to and shared by the reader. The sense of life being so fleeting and in so many ways futile pervades the story with a melancholy air. No one, no matter how much they might desire it, can ultimately "make it stay."

For more information about Joan Frank and the book visit her website. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme is hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on.

Abdication by Juliet Nicolson. The book is being released by Atria on May 22, 2012.

Amazon says this about the book: England, 1936.
The year began with the death of a beloved king and the ascension of a charismatic young monarch, sympathetic to the needs of the working class, glamorous and single. By year’s end, the world would be stunned as it witnessed that new leader give up his throne in the name of love, just as the unrest and violence that would result in a Second World War were becoming impossible to ignore.

During the tumultuous intervening months, amidst the whirl of social and political upheaval, wise-beyond-her-nineteen-years May Thomas will take the first, faltering steps toward creating a new life for herself. Just disembarked at Liverpool after a long journey from her home on a struggling sugar plantation in Barbados, she secures a position as secretary and driver to Sir Philip Blunt, a job that will open her eyes to the activities of the uppermost echelons of British society, and her heart to a man seemingly beyond her reach.

Outwardly affable spinster Evangeline Nettlefold is a girlhood friend to the American socialite Wallis Simpson, a goddaughter to Lady Joan Blunt and a new arrival to London from Baltimore. She will be generously welcomed into society’s most glittering circles, where one’s daily worth is determined by one’s proximity to a certain H.R.H. and his married mistress. But as the resentment she feels toward Wallis grows in magnitude, so too does the likelihood of disastrous consequences.

Young, idealistic Julian Richardson’s Oxford degree and his close friendship with Rupert Blunt have catapulted him from excruciating hours in his mother’s middle-class parlor to long holidays spent at stately homes and luxurious dinners in the company of a king. But even as he enjoys his time in this privileged world, his head cannot forget the struggles of those who live outside its gilded gates, and his uneasy heart cannot put aside his undeclared affection for May.

May, Evangeline and Julian will all become embroiled in the hidden truths, undeclared loves, unspoken sympathies and covert complicities that define the year chronicled in Abdication. In pitch-perfect prose, Juliet Nicolson has captured an era in which duty and pleasure, tradition and novelty, and order and chaos all battled for supremacy in the hearts and minds of king and commoner alike. As addictive as Downton Abbey, as poignant as The Remains of the Day, Abdication is a breathtaking story inspired by a love affair that shook the world at a time when the world was on the brink of war.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Review: Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff

In this day and age, we tend to think of the majority of the planet as explored and accessible. We can't fathom societies which have not had any kind of interaction with outsiders. And we may be correct in thinking that these places and these peoples are a thing of the past. But perhaps not in such a distant past as we might imagine. In the waning days of World War II, one such place and the native inhabitants there captivated the United States. A military C-47 carrying 24 servicemen and women flying a sightseeing mission over the newly discovered valley nicknamed Shangri-La in Dutch New Guinea crashed into the impenetrable jungle killing 21 of those on board. The three survivors, two of whom were desperately injured, were suddenly plunged into the unknown world of the Dani tribe as they waited for the US military to try and concoct a plant to get them out of the seemingly inaccessible valley 150 miles from Hollandia, their military outpost on the coast.

John McCollum, Ken Decker, and Margaret Hastings survived the terrible crash, the fiery deaths of their friends and colleagues (and in McCollum's case of his identical twin brother), and a desperate scramble down the mountainside to find a clearing in which to signal search planes. As they awaited rescue and the medical attention Decker and Margaret so direly needed to treat their gangrenous wounds, the three survivors are surrounded by the native Dani people, who are believed by the army to be warlike cannibals. Zuckoff details both the three survivors' assumptions about the primitive society into whose midst they have landed and the natives' beliefs which dictated how they treated the survivors.

In their quest to get McCollum, Decker, and Hastings the treatment they need and then out of Shangri-La, the army first sends in a full complement of Filipino paratroopers, including two medics, led by Earl Walter and then comes up with a plan almost too far-fetched to be realistic, full of danger, and rife with the potential for failure to snatch all fourteen army personnel plus, improbably enough, one Hollywood filmaker, from the remote valley floor.

The three crash survivors, a couple of the Dani tribesmen, and several of those who risked their lives to rescue McCollum, Decker, and Hastings are all carefully described and fleshed out both through their own accounts and the accounts of those who knew them. Their personalities and the personal histories that drove their actions are all carefully detailed. Although almost everyone involved in this story is now gone, their bravery and chutzpah shine again on these pages and their tale has been saved from obscurity. Woven in with the immediate story of the crash is the timeline of the war in the Pacific and the effect it had on a military outpost like Hollandia, Dutch New Guinea. Also included is a bit of an epilogue about the way that the people falling from the sky forever transformed the remote and previously untouched society of the Shangri-La Valley (properly called Baliem Valley).

Zuckoff has written a gripping adventure story mixed with anthropology, a true survival tale that captures the readers' imagination just as completely as the situation did with contemporary audiences reading along in the papers as the incredible tale unfolded. Loaded with first-hand accounts and thoroughly researched information, this non-fiction narrative unfolds with pitch perfect pacing and tension. The ending is never in doubt and while this is not a WWII story in the traditional sense (the action is far from the war and fighting itself), it is still a fascinating story, one soon eclipsed by the horror and drama of the atomic bomb. Occasionally some of the bacground information threatens to overwhelm the immediate story but overall, this is a well-done and engrossing tale. I plan to pass it to both my husband and my teenaged son to read in turn as I'm quite sure that both of them will thoroughly enjoy it as well.

For more information about Mitchell Zuckoff and the book visit his website or his Facebook page. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland
Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff
Make It Stay by Joan Frank

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Let the Great World Spin by Colm McCann
Triangles by Ellen Hopkins
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker

Reviews posted this week:

The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock
I, Iago by Nicole Galland
Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

Gossip by Beth Gutcheon
A Wedding in Haiti by Julia Alvarez
When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man by Nick Dybek
The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht
Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington
Make It Stay by Joan Frank

Monday Mailbox

And yet another week of being incredibly spoiled by wonderful bounty. This past week's mailbox arrivals:

An Age of Madness by David Maine came from Red Hen Press.
A well-respected psychiatrist whose own life and psyche are not in good repair, getting a glimpse into this contradictory character sounds completely fascinating.

Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick came from Algonquin Books.
A man wanders into a small village, finds work in the local butcher shop, and meets the townsfolk. There's something slightly sinister in the description of this tale of love gone wrong. Intriguing.

The Unlikely Pigrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce came from TLC Book Tours and Random House for a blog tour.
A recent retiree in a mundane marriage receives a letter from a woman he's not heard from in twenty years telling him she's now in hospice. Harold walks out of his house towards this long lost woman believing that as long as he walks towards her, she will stay alive. A very different sounding take on love and relationship, I am really looking forward to this one.

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty came from Penguin UK.
The 1920's in New York City, a young girl yearning to be a star, and her chaperone, could this sound any more appealing?!

Picture This by Jacqueline Sheehan came from TLC Book Tours and William Morrow for a blog tour.
Dog books charm me and this one about a widow who opens herself to love again thanks to a loyal black lab makes me feel warm fuzzies just thinking about it.

Ocean Beach by Wendy Wax came from Berkley and Joan from Joan Schulhafer Publishing and Media Consulting.
Three women in need of a do-over turn to remodeling a grand old house on a reality tv show but they find that perhaps airing their private lives on television is far different than airing their work. A slice of modern American life, I'm more curious about this than about any actual reality tv show.

As always, if you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Reviews by Martha's Bookshelf as she is hosting this month's Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Review: Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

History is written by the victors, those with money, and for a long time, exclusively by men. Women's contributions to arts and sciences remained all but unacknowledged with others being given credit for their innovations. Susan Vreeland's novel Clara and Mr. Tiffany probes one such omission and creates a fantastic story out of the tale. Based on real people and what is actually known about them and their artistic endeavors, this novel suggests, with good historical probability, that Clara Driscoll, the head designer in Tiffany's Women's Department was in fact the genesis, creator, and designer of the gorgeous iconic leaded glass Tiffany lamps rather than Louis Comfort Tiffany himself.

Opening with the recently widowed Clara returning to Tiffany studios to ask for her job back, the novel tracks her life, her rise as an artist, her inspiration, and her fight for equality and acknowledgement within her chosen field. Clara is innovative and creative and she suggests to Mr. Tiffany that they consider making leaded glass lampshades so that those unable or unwilling to commission stained glass windows for their homes or churches, will be able to have a smaller jewel of a piece to admire in their own homes. Clara's passion for her lamp idea drives her professionally even as she and the girls (all young, all unmarried) she's hired into the studio continue to work on the commissioned showpiece windows as well. In hiring and teaching other women to select and cut the glass, Clara describes the artistic process by which Tiffany's masterpieces were made allowing the reader insights into this slow and exacting process.

While her work fulfills and consumes her, Clara's personal life is rather bumpier than her professional one. She develops close and dear friendships with many of the boarders in her boarding house, many of whom are artists themselves, and they come to have a personal interest in her successes. She also embarks, tentatively, on a relationship with the brother of one of her dear friends. Her ability to trust after her disastrous first marriage is slow to develop, hampered as well by Tiffany's policy of not employing married women. Any relationship to which she fully commits will deprive her of an outlet for her art and creativity. She is torn by the need to make her art and her desire to be loved. And so her relationships with the opposite sex are considered and deliberate and gradual.

Clara is an interesting character, prickly and yet motherly, timid yet firm. She is caught at the crossroads between Victorian morality and etiquette and the nascent women's movement. She tries to work within the system, swallowing her rage at the precariousness of her second class status until she can no longer do so at the risk of her job. She cares deeply for the women under her in her department, involving herself in their lives outside the workshop and trying to help these mostly immigrant girls and indeed any artistically inclined women to better themselves. Louis Comfort Tiffany is also interestingly drawn here. He is a many faceted character, object of Clara's devotion, artistic, whimsical, autocratic, demanding, and ultimately impotent in the face of almighty commerce. He and Clara maintain a mentor/mentee relationship most of the time although there are moments of true collaboration and certainly mutual respect for each others' artistic talents. Neither Clara nor Mr. Tiffany is presented without flaws, making them human and their interactions more believable. The secondary characters have fascinating back stories themselves although they, by necessity, only touch on and shoot through the main tale, part of the whole but not the major focus of the piece.

The plot line is a little slow and concentrates on the admittedly extraordinary arc of Clara's mostly solo life for 16 years. Historical happenings and attitudes are woven into the narrative beautifully so that the reader can appreciate just how people lived at the time and on the cusp of wonderous huge change. The glimpse into Tiffany's studio and the innovative women's department is instructive and fascinating. Part women's history, part social history, part art history, this is a wonderful read that reminds us all of the necessity for beauty and love and art in everyday life. Tiffany tells his girls that he doesn't believe in limits and that they need to learn to see beauty and this novel helps us as readers to remember both of these important things as well.

For more information about Susan Vreeland and the book visit her website, her Facebook page, or read and excerpt of the book. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme is hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on.

The Undertow by Jo Baker. The book is being released by Knopf on May 15, 2012.

Amazon says this about the book: The American debut of an enthralling new voice: a vivid, indelibly told work of fiction that follows four generations of a family against the backdrop of a tumultuous century—a novel about inheritance, about fate and passion, and about what it means to truly break free of the past.

This is the story of the Hastings family—their secrets, their loves and losses, dreams and heartbreaks—captured in a seamless series of individual moments that span the years between the First World War and the present. The novel opens in 1914 as William, a young factory worker, spends one last evening at home before his departure for the navy . . . His son, Billy, grows into a champion cyclist and will ride into the D-Day landings on a military bicycle . . . His son in turn, Will, struggles with a debilitating handicap to become an Oxford professor in the 1960s . . . And finally, young Billie Hastings makes a life for herself as an artist in contemporary London. Just as the names echo down through the family, so too does the legacy of choices made, chances lost, and truths long buried.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Review: I, Iago by Nicole Galland

Othello and Hamlet seem to be the Shakespeare tragedies most often read by high school and college students, at least in my non-scientific experience. In my case, Hamlet trumps Othello in terms of the number of times I was required to read it in my years of schooling but when it came time to choose a play to teach, I couldn't face Hamlet one more time and instead settled on Othello for its relative accessibility and interesting themes. That it has one of Shakespeare's all time baddies, Iago, in it didn't hurt. He's a fascinating viper of a character, conniving, rude, and racist. And yet he must have some good qualities to have reached the station he has. But what are they? And how did they get so subsumed that he is the reprehensible character he is in Shakespeare's creation? Nicole Galland has taken these questions and created an intriguing tale, one in which Iago's character is explained and understood without being immediately reviled by a reader familiar with Othello.

Iago is the fifth son of a Venetian silk merchant and as such, is more a burden than anything else. He has never earned his father's approval or pride in anything and is simply used as a pawn in order to advance his father's ambitions. Iago's best friend Rodrigo is the son of a poor spice merchant and the two boys get into scrapes as most boys do. Iago uses his forthright blunt honesty to get them out of trouble, learning that although Venetian society was founded and suckled on artifice, his honesty is different, unexpected, and even grudgingly respected (although never emulated by others). Unhappily sent to the army to replace his clumsy older brother who suffered a fatal accident in his own military training, Iago finds that he in fact excels at shooting and swordplay and he enjoys earning things on his own merit rather than being tied to the patronage system governing the rest of society.

Iago pays his dues, serving dull tours of duty with the army and coming back to Venice periodically, finding himself more and more disgusted with the artifice of the city, a native-born outsider more than ever. But on one of his leaves, in the midst of the famous revelries of Carnivale, he catches sight of the beautiful Emilia, a woman no more pleased with the falseness of the forms than he is and Iago falls desperately in love, pursues her with his whole heart, and eventually marries her. Their deep love is only marred by Iago's irrational jealousy when other men pay Emilia the slightest attention. And once he meets and becomes indispensible to Othello, his true and faithful ensign, he has to fight his jealousy often when others think that Emilia is Othello's mistress.

But his jealousy extends to anyone he loves and respects and that certainly encompasses his general, Othello. Iago finds himself jealous of Michele Cassio who becomes necessary to Othello as well and even of the beautiful Desdemona when Othello falls in love with her. When his jealousy gets the better of him, causing him to become secretive, growing in cunning, and to start learning and exceling in the art of deceit, his character moves towards the man Shakespeare created, making him desperate for revenge against the losses of those things, the lieutenancy promotion, Othello's regard and trust, his reflected glory-aided social standing, he considers rightfully his and no others'.

The climax, for those familiar with the play, is no surprise, although Iago's own silent interpretation of events might be. He is both the ambitious, terrible, and conniving villain of Shakesepeare and the pitiable man who could never win his father's approbation or interest, the expendable pawn always striving to be better and to be recognized for his talents. Galland has managed to create a believable, human portrait of an Iago with failings that cause horrific tragedy and his own downfall but whose motivations aren't simply purely evil. I actually set the book down at one point and couldn't remember where I had left it. I was both frantic to find it and keep reading and almost glad I couldn't because at that point I found Iago to be a wholly sympathetic character and I knew what was coming. If I didn't find the book, Iago couldn't possibly go on to wreak inevitable havoc.

Readers of Shakespeare will appreciate the subtlety with which Galland has created her characters. They retain what they must of Shakespeare's creation but they are also presented so as to make Iago's story here less black and white but deeper shades of grey. Readers unfamiliar with Shakespeare will not suffer from their lack of knowledge of the play as the narrative pacing and tension are pulled tautly and steadily toward the end, ratcheting up both the knowing and unknowing reader's unease skillfully. Galland builds her plot and her characters beautifully. Ruinous ambition, unchecked jealousy, all-consuming desire for revenge, all the elements of Shakepeare's original are here, explained and exposed, fascinating and engrossing. A sympathetic Iago? Yes. Still the monster that Shakespeare created? Well, still yes. And he is Galland's greatest accomplishment in this tour de force of a novel.

For more information about Nicole Galland and the book visit her website, her Facebook page, or her blog. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Review: The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock

Looking at the rose on the cover of this book, I knew I had seen it before, reproduced on a variety of items. I might even have written letters on notecards printed with its likeness. What I didn't realize was that this is not a painting, it is in fact a paper collage, intricately scissor-cut and botanically correct. And more even than that, I had zero idea who the artist was and would have been shocked to find out that Mary Granville Pendarves Delany worked her gorgeous craft only starting at the age of 72 so long ago in 1772 had I not been coveting this book for a while now and so learned a bit about it and the artist behind it.

Poet Molly Peacock has written a fascinating part biography of Mary Delany, part personal memoir, part art criticism, and part introduction to her obsession and role model. Delany's life and the fact that she created her seminal work, now housed in the British Museum and called the Flora Delanica, a collection of 985 detailed, painstakingly constructed, accurate, and magnificent flower mosaicks, creating the art of mixed media collage (paper, paint, and sometimes actual plant parts), at such an advanced age and at a time when she was trying to overcome the grief of having lost the two people dearest to her, first her sister Anne and then her second husband Patrick Delany, is impressive and inspiring indeed.

Each chapter is fronted by a color plate of one of the flower mosaicks from the collection. Drawing parallels between the mosaicks themselves and the events of Mary Delany's earlier life, Peacock uses each flower to tell the story of Mary's life and expose the general life of 18th century women of a certain social standing in England. Delany's life is meticulously researched and interpreted, from her unhappy first marriage to a significantly older, personally repulsive husband to whom she was essentially sold by her guardian uncle through her deep and emotionally satisfying relationship with her sister and lifelong friends to the fulfilling and happy union late in life with her second husband. At the end of each chapter, Peacock interweaves her own biographical portions, drawing parallels in her own life to that of Mrs. Delany. In addition to these two very personal stories, there are also fascinating bits of history and botany and the details of the actual physical composition of the mosaicks as well.

Although the flowers were created long past many of the defining events of Delany's long life, Peacock uses them to illustrate each stage, each restriction, each revelled in independence therein. Coming from a very twenty-first century perspective, Peacock describes the flowers in terms of extreme sexualization. Even readers today will be taken aback by some of the language she uses, especially when considering that she is describing the life of an 18th century aristocratic woman, one to whom these blunt comparisons to female body parts would almost certainly never have occurred. And Peacock certainly reads more into the placement of flowers, stems, and other botanical parts than Delany likely ever intended, not that Delany's conscious intentions necessarily define as far as interpretations of her artwork should go.

Her interpretation of the mosaicks is not the only place that Molly Peacock as author intrudes on the text. Unlike in traditional biographies, she does not remain hidden behind her subject. Her own thoughts and pieces of her own life weave into the narrative as well, accompanying clearly stated opinions. Sometimes the weaving is fairly seamless and other times it comes across as a bit forced. There are rather broad strokes of comparison between the long-dead artist and the modern day poet, because closer examination shows their lives to be more dissimilar than not, although the fire of inspiration burns bright in both of them. And Peacock's tale of discovering Delany's works and then years later finding the awe-inspiring importance in them to herself as an artist and creator is interesting. She shares her reading and researching, her construction of Delany's life with the reader, just as careful examination of Delany's mosaicks reveals their delicate and precise construction to the viewer as well.

There is a sometimes complimentary, sometimes discordant marriage of the 18th century with the 21st century within the pages of this book. Unconventionally constructed, the biography/history/botanical tale is completely engrossing, offering insight into not only the life and times but also the creative process of art in a time when women's lives were quite constrained. The layering of Delany's life with an exposition on her art and the slight overlay of Peacock's life and experiences make for a rich and deep read. When the focus is on Delany, her works, her experiences, and the world she lived in, the book is strongest but the other certainly adds a different and unique perspective. Having made the acquaintance of the fascinating Mrs. Delany, I'd love to one day have the opportunity to see her works in person.

For more information about Molly Peacock and the book visit her website, the book's website, or read an excerpt. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock
I, Iago by Nicole Galland

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Let the Great World Spin by Colm McCann
Triangles by Ellen Hopkins

Reviews posted this week:

Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall
The Might-Have-Been by Joseph Schuster
Some Assembly Required by Anne Lamott
Diary of a Mad Fat Girl by Stephanie McAfee

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

Gossip by Beth Gutcheon
A Wedding in Haiti by Julia Alvarez
When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man by Nick Dybek
The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht
Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington
The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock
I, Iago by Nicole Galland

Monday Mailbox

My mailbox just keeps providing and providing. I will be reading great stuff for years at this rate! This past week's mailbox arrivals:

A Rural Affair by Catherine Alliott came from Penguin UK.
I discovered Catherine Alliott many years ago, cheerfully ordering her books from the UK long before she was ever published in the US. So finding a new Alliott book in my mailbox, this one about a widowed woman who is starting to bloom into life again after years in a loveless marriage, is always cause for celebration.

The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen came from Riverhead Books
I've already reviewed this fantastic book here.

Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington came from Penguin.
A timely novel about a young teenaged girl whose beloved father deploys to Iraq and the way that life must march forward in his absence, I've already read this very emotional novel.

Passing Love by Jacqueline Luckett came from TLC Book Tours and Grand Central Publishing for a blog tour.
I do love books set in Paris and ones that have long hidden love stories at their core are even more appealing to me.

The Anti-Romantic Child by Priscilla Gilman came from TLC Book Tours and Harper Perennial for a blog tour.
A memoir about a mother-poet and her first child who is atypical, diagnosed with a developmental disorder, I look forward to reading about this family and the love amongst them.

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison came from Algonquin Books.
A novel about a caregiver who is recovering from his own epic loss and who develops a relationship with the boy slowly succumbing to muscular dystrophy who is his first charge, this will certainly be a deep and touching read.

The Aleppo Codex by Matti Friedman came from Algonquin Books.
A true life detective story about a Bible that disappeared and then reappeared incomplete? Gives you shivers, doesn't it? Well, it does for nerdy, bookish me.

As always, if you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Reviews by Martha's Bookshelf as she is hosting this month's Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

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