Kimberly K. Robeson
 

Book Reviews

Short and Longer Book Reviews
Alphabetical by title.
(Fiction unless otherwise stated)

BEAUTIFUL RUINS by Jess Walter

Set mostly in Porto Vergogna, Italy, and Hollywood, California, this novel goes back and forth in time from the 1960s to present day. Some reviews criticized its structure saying that when one is hooked on a character and his/her story, then that chapter ends, and a new character from a different decade is introduced. Since I wrote some of my novel this way, obviously this structure is fine with me (and I even like it), but I can empathize with the critique. You are getting to know Pasquale, the Italian young man who has recently returned from Florence to run his family’s inn: Hotel Adequate View (what a great name!), and suddenly a new chapter begins. The reader is then introduced to Shane, a (somewhat one-dimensional) writer who is pitching a movie to Claire, the assistant of the well-known and slimy agent Michael Deane. When I was reading about present day Claire, a disillusioned young woman, I really wanted to know more about what happened to Dee Moray, the 1960s dying movie star who came in a boat to Pasquale’s inn. Then there’s a chapter of a book by Alvis Bender about World War II that Dee Moray finds in her room at Hotel Adequate View that we, too, get to read. But it’s just one chapter. And we never read more of Bender’s book. So does this structural hop-scotch mean that I didn’t like the book? Au contraire! I really enjoyed this book! I didn’t have to invest time and energy to get hooked: this book got me by page two. Yes, there were times when I wish one chapter hadn’t ended, and I could learn more about Dee Moray or Pasquale, but I knew if I was patient, all the stories would be woven together. By the end, Walters does stitch all the parts together seamlessly. There is mostly a balance with the characters: I found Michael with his stretched-plastic-surgery face equally fun to get to know as Pasquale the starstruck, sensitive Italian (okay, he probably was my favorite). It’s a book that takes you to Italy and back, and shows how destinies are often defined by short meetings that we have at one point in our lives. It’s a super easy read, and if you are patient with the time and character shifts, this is simply a delightful book.

EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE by Jonathan Safron Foer

I LOVE this book. JSF is, for me, undoubtedly one of the U.S. best contemporary writers. He’s just so damn smart in his writing and his characters are quirky, intelligent, unique and complicated. ELaIC is so well written with so many layers that I chose to teach it several semesters in a row in my college composition class. At the end of the semester about 85% of my students say they really liked it. For a college text those numbers are impressive. Oskar is a boy who loses his father after 9/11 and interwoven with his story is his grandparents’ past. It’s a bit tough for a new reader and an experienced one just needs to read and go with it and it will all make sense. It’s a labyrinth of stories and characters and I will just say, read it!

THE HAPPINESS PROJECT by Gretchen Rubin (Non-Fiction)

Though I enjoyed this practical book on how to make one’s life more interesting, I don’t know if I would recommend it. I would check out Rubin’s blog before buying the book to see if you like her “voice” and ideas. A student, in her early twenties, told me that it just didn’t seem to pertain to her generation. I agree. It’s a book I think more for mothers, wives, and people who want to revamp their partnership and life in general; people who are finding themselves in a rut, and need some tips how to reinvent their life. She walks the reader chapter by chapter though her own life and how she made certain changes or adopted hobbies or projects to make her life more interesting. There was some harsh critique on Amazon about how this woman who seemingly “has it all” should find out what a real problem is. She does seem to have an affluent lifestyle with a nanny and married to a senator’s son, but her search to make her life and marriage even better than it already is, I guess is a noble project. Though millions of readers around the world loved Eat, Pray, Love, I also remember reading the same negative reviews when it came out. Elizabeth Gilbert’s search for ‘happiness” came across, for some, as selfish and ungrateful. I struggled with similar issues when writing my own novel—how to create a character who readers can empathize with when, from the outside, it looks like she has it all? I think different people have different issues, and one’s internal struggles, despite appearances, can be real and painful. We must certainly be grateful every day; I think giving time, not just money, is essential if you have been blessed with health and rights, but if your life is already good, why not try and make it better? I think that’s the root of Rubin’s book.

Some fun facts from the book (no specific sources listed though her bibliography was extensive).

  • Need to hug partner for at least 6 seconds; “the minimum time necessary to promote the flow of oxygen and serotonin, [the] mood-boosting chemicals that promote bonding” (45).
  • “Happy wife, happy life” or “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” (54).
  • Laughing more makes people happy. “A small child typically laughs more than four hundred times each day, and an adult—seventeen times” (259).

IN ONE PERSON by John Irving

After I finished reading this novel, I perused the reviews, and as always some were positive, some were not. One gay man wrote: “Irving should leave the topic of bisexuality for ‘real’ bisexuals.” I don’t know if Irving is bisexual (his biography says he’s married with kids), but who really cares as long as the character’s voice is authentic? His works often deal with marginalized people and taboo sexual topics (incest, bestiality), but disregarding all other context, Irving, for me, in his novel IN ONE PERSON has created a character that is quirky and insightful. I have to admit, I also learned a lot of “interesting” things (I’m forty-three-years old and I’ve never heard about “tops” and “bottoms”!) But the novel was more that a voyeuristic peek into a bisexual man’s life, it’s a novel filled with beautiful passages and, simply put, Irving is an excellent writer. I just finished BEAUTIFUL RUINS a few days ago (review above) and though I thoroughly enjoyed it, it’s over. Finished. And I haven’t thought about it again. On the other hand, Irving’s book is like a shadow. When I least expect it, it lingers beside me. I love that quality about a good book or play. It sits with you and makes itself apparent when you least expect it: it makes you wonder, contemplate, and reflect. I will also admit, IN ONE PERSON was not a page-turner for me (I wasn’t hooked till about page seventy), but it has that almost unexplainable quality that just makes it special. Here’s a quote from the book that sums up some of the themes (though by no means can touch on the novel’s layers) “On this bitter-cold night in New York, in February of 1978, when I was almost thirty-six, I had already decided that my bisexuality meant I would be categorized as more unreliable than usual by straight women, while at the same time (and for the same reasons) I would never be entirely trusted by gay men” (291). Overall, a thought-provoking novel with an enchanting protagonist who I grew to adore.

MANIFESTA by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards (Non-Fiction)

Did you know that Columbia University did not admit women until 1983? I didn’t. At least I had forgotten. I am rereading Richards and Baumgardner’s book called MANIFESTA. I liked it when I was 30 (and it woke me up to a lot of feminist issues), and now at 42, I love it. I don’t say this lightly—it is one of the most important books I have ever read. I think all women—and men—should read it. Full of facts and history, written objectively with a thorough bibliography.   

THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain

When you hear the name “Hemingway” what comes to mind? Brilliant writer? Misogynist? Bullfights? Alcohol? Suicide? Maybe you think about THE SUN ALSO RISES or, arguably, his most famous book: FOR WHOM THE BELLS TOLLS. Much of what I know about Hemingway comes from an undergraduate course I took more than twenty years ago. The professor was boring, half the class slept, and I was more interested in the dark-haired young man who sat next to me who had gorgeous turquoise eyes and wind-swept hair (no The Beibs did not invent this look) than the lectures about this “great man.” I remember not liking this author who was described as a womanizing hothead who thought himself a genius. Furthermore, I could never get “into” any of Hemingway’s books (what twenty-one-year-old girl really likes reading about fishing and war?) so I relied on Cliffs Notes and ended up with an A- in the course (my comments about our faulty education system will be withheld for this review). So when I came across THE PARIS WIFE—Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson—I am not sure what prompted me to spend the $20 or so dollars to buy it in hardback. Maybe because it said it was a New York Times Bestseller and it was about a woman. From the brief book jacket description, she sounded interesting. Twenty-eight, a woman deeply in love, a woman who “strives to hold on to her sense of self as the demands of life with Ernest grow costly.” Though the book received a lot of praise, some reviewers found Hadley “boring.” I didn’t. As a young woman I was bored in my Hemingway seminar, but now, forty-three-years young, I sucked up the historical fiction about a man whose life is examined through the eyes of his first—and, seemingly, most important—wife. Although their marriage only lasted six years, it was she who Hemingway reached out to before he committed suicide.

The author, Paula McLain, obviously did an enormous amount of research for this novel. She says that “actual people who lived appear in this book as fictional characters, [so] it was important for me to render the particulars of their lives as accurately as possible.” She lists over fifteen books as well as correspondence between Richardson and Hemingway that helped her in depicting people and events as accurately as possible, and for this alone, I was interested. I like reading about real people. I like learning something when I read, so even if Hemingway was not my favorite character, I did see a side of him that was sweet and human. It also gave me a glimpse of 1920s Paris as well as descriptions of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald—the Rock Stars of 20th century literature. It was not a page-turner, and half way through my rating was a fixed 3+ (above average, interesting, but I had yet to get completely involved). And then, two-thirds the way through, the Hemingway that I had heard about started to emerge. If it were a purely fictional tale, I don’t know if I would have got so affected, but I did. Since Hadley was his first wife, the reader knows they end up divorcing, so you can rest assured that this is not a spoiler. But when the end comes for this couple, I felt such a deep sense of sadness that I literally had to stop reading. I am a total romantic at heart, so to see someone’s marriage torn apart, especially two people who loved each other (one not enough, obviously) made me—literally—nauseous. When I picked up the book a day later, I was able to finish it as tears once again welled up in my eyes. I now have the desire, interestingly enough, to read THE SUN ALSO RISES, the book that Hemingway was working on when he was married to Richardson. I do recommend it; McLain is a good writer, and it’s an interesting peek into the life of a man who was, ultimately, so troubled. We get to see Hadley as an old woman at the end, and for this I am grateful. But I won’t tell you why . . . do read it, and let me know what you think.

POBBY AND DINGAN by Ben Rice (Young Adult)

A girl loses imaginary friends, and the entire town helps look for them. One of my favorite all-time books! I recommend this book to everyone—from PhD friends to young kids to teenage boys to mature women, whoever I recommended this book to loved it. It’s a quick read and a page-turner. The characters are entirely loveable and Rice writes clearly and it doesn’t feel like you are reading a children’s book. Simply put, I love love love this book.

RULES OF CIVILITY by Amore Towles

Set in Manhattan in 1938, Katey Kontent (that’s “Kon-TENT . . . like the state of being” not “KON-tent as in the content of a book” pg. 123) is a sassy, classy twenty-something woman who captured my attention by page twenty. In RULES of CIVILITY, Amor Towles creates a character who is noble, interesting, a true friend, and a woman to be admired. My friend stated, “I didn’t really care what happened. I just loved the writing and Katey so much; there didn’t need to be a plot. I could have read on forever.” I agree to a point. At times, I did want more of a plot, but I do agree that Katey and the writing are superb. If you want a glimpse of Manhattan in the late 1930s, enjoy excellent writing, and like unique female characters, this book has all the aforementioned.

WEIRD SISTERS by Eleanor Brown

The blurb on the back of the book states: “Three sisters have returned to their childhood home, reuniting the eccentric Andreas family. Here books are the passion . . . and TV is something others watch. . . . The sisters each have a hard time communicating with their parents and their lovers, but especially with one another. What can the shy homebody eldest sister, the fast-living middle child, and the bohemian youngest sibling have in common? Only that none has found life to be what expected; and now, faced with their parents’ frailty and their own personal disappointments, not even a book ca solve what ails them.” Women, struggles, and books. The description immediately caught my attention, that and a NY literary agent told me that I would love it. I didn’t. I liked it, but I wish the sisters were a little stranger, the story a little less typical. I did enjoy the point of view, omniscient first person plural (told through “we”—as if there is a fourth dead sister telling you the story over your shoulder—there isn’t). I also liked the way Brown intertwines the Bard’s quotes throughout (the father is a Shakespearean scholar). It could have come across and “devicey,” but for some reason, it doesn’t. Mellifluous prose with fresh metaphors and analogies, there were certain passages that I found captivating. Brown is certainly an astute writer, but the story did not make me want to curl up in bed every night to read it. I did not connect with any of the sisters or the plot line in general, but it is a good book nonetheless. It did very well on the NY Bestseller list and I do recommend it, but I just didn’t love it.

 


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