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review 2018-04-04 05:49
Anatomy of A Scandal -- NOT a detection club book
Anatomy of a Scandal: A Novel - Sarah Vaughan

So, I thought I was reading this for the Detection Club, because I'd shelved it that way, but I now have the book, and it's very clearly not included. I dunno why I labeled it that way, but I'm still glad I read it. (I think it could actually fit chapter 11, since the place they all met and most of the crimes take place at Oxford, albeit fake colleges at Oxford.)

 

I've heard only how awesome this book is. While it's not bad at all, perhaps because I've spent a large portion of my life sitting with men and women who are victims of interpersonal violence, I don't see these things as "current" or "of the moment" - I think they've been around since human beings have been around. Nonetheless, it's nice to read a book involving a rape that doesn't fall into the poor me montage or political diatribe schtick.

 

While not the best book I've read this year, it was excellent at keeping me involved because Sarah Vaughan knows how to build suspense. I started it last night before I went to bed, and it took a very firm talking to myself to get me to close it and go to sleep, then I greedily finished it today while ignoring phone calls and even sat it beside the sink while I brushed my teeth after dinner. (Sometimes the beauty of living alone is nobody to be upset when I read at the dinner table.)

 

I was able to divine early who had done what - the author makes it fairly clear, but that didn't stop the suspense, because I cared that the person get punished, and I wasn't sure that would happen. Even after I knew how the court case would turn out, I wanted to know what would happen to all of these (mostly unlikable) people. This is a perfect example of liking a book where the characters are less than sympathetic to me. I didn't like them, but I sure was interested in what happened to them and around them. It really is a book that kept me turning pages like a maniac.

 

It is an excellent example of privileged men. Toxically privileged. Not only are they male. They are upper class in the way that only Brits can be, or would notice. This gives them an air of "I can do whatever I please, so long as nobody sees me." While many might think that way, there is a degree of this that seems to be bred into the Oxbridge/public school tie set. An English friend once asked me why America has such racial divides, and I told him it was because we don't have their kind of class divide. (Then I offered to introduce him to some black Brits, because they think there's a racial divide there, but I'm off topic...)

 

Very sharp courtroom writing. It's amazing how vibrant straight-up court scenes were in this book, and though we got some information on the thoughts or feelings of the characters while in court, much of it was basically a trial transcript. That's compelling dialogue.

 

Sarah Vaughan managed to tell many people's stories through one court case (which is the reality, isn't it -- most court cases will involve or affect many people, though we only see a few of them in court.) All in all a perfectly good book, if not a great one, with excellent timing and also a great promo department (they have films about it and trailers and SO many blurb pictures, I gave up on picking one.) I'll look forward to more suspense from Ms. Vaughan.

 

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review 2018-04-02 22:16
Asymmetry - this book, the NYTimes & Philip Roth say I'm stupid
Asymmetry - Lisa Halliday

I am not clever, and this book is. I am not a writer, and apparently this book is literary criticism. In two main parts with a coda that wraps it all up, it was very clear that I was supposed to be making connections and seeing broad themes while reading Asymmetry (which I did, but I didn't particularly enjoy it, and I’m not sure I saw the “correct” themes.)

It feels like a book that falls over itself to show its importance. If a book can be haughty, this one is. And these big important themes are important, but when I think about them: reality v fiction, autobiography in fiction, power differentials made up by the accident of birth, luck, nationality, location, etc - none are new. They are all things that have been explored for ages. I got concerned that I am not smart enough to figure out books like this, then I got a bit irritated at the book for looking down its nose at me. Or maybe I can figure it out but I'm not smart enough to be bowled over flat. In regard to power, didn’t David Mitchell cover that beautifully in Cloud Atlas? Surely more than one book can and should be written about these themes, but there also needs to be something more, or I may as well read solely nonfiction, or just read the reviews and forget all about the actual book?

 

The format isn't so new or different. I just read another book similarly structured this very week. So I'm not grasping what the awesome is.

 

Asymmetry is divided evenly(!) into two sections with a coda. Part one entitled “Folly,” involves a young woman (who acts like a girl) named Alice (this is the second book I've read this year with a fictional Alice recalling Lewis Carroll's - and I enjoyed SYMPATHY a little more than this one.) Anyway, this Alice works at a literary house, yet somehow doesn't know how to pronounce Camus and hasn't read most of the books one would think might get you a job like that. Never mind, she's got the job and falls in lust with a much older and very famous man called Ezra, who may or may not be Philip Roth (well, he IS Philip Roth, this much is clear, though I sort of imagined him sounding like Alan Alda, apropos of nothing.)

 

Ezra/Roth/Alda plays Pygmalion with Alice, and she plays along enough to get her student loans paid, a good winter coat and various other things along with her newfound knowledge of all things chic and New York, then they sort of fizzle out. Throughout this section they quote loads of passages from other important books by Twain, Joyce, Camus, Henry Miller to musical lyrics and health pamphlets. They quote, read and have sex a lot, until they don't. By now Alice knows how to pronounce some words, has read some books, has gotten critical of Ezra’s writing and mostly she wants to make ART not be stuck with an aging man with health problems.

 

Part two called “Madness” finds us experiencing exactly that at Heathrow Airport's immigration holding pen where a young man is being racially profiled while they “just check some things.” Amar Ala Jaafari has “two passports, two nationalities, no native soil.” He was born in flight over Cape Cod as his family immigrated from Baghdad to New York. He is very American, but his name seems to be a problem, and his honesty about those two passports seems to find him even more. So Amar Jaafari sits in small rooms at Heathrow and thinks. His thoughts are a meditation on a variety of subjects from love to his profession to his family and lurking under it all is the state of Iraq and the war. In this section the writing conveys big thoughts, and there is very little work to be done, since Amar, his friends/acquaintances and family only say meaningful things and quote meaningful quotes. Plus Amar may be the most exacting and insightful person ever to enter an airport. Still, I liked him, and he is the only character about whom I can say that.

 

While Amar sits there, he thinks about things like his old girlfriend and their divergent religious views and says, “But never mind. We all disappear down the rabbit hole now and again. Sometimes it can seem the only way to escape the boredom or exigencies of your prior existence -- the only way to press reset on the mess you’ve made of all that free will. Sometimes you just want someone else to take over for a while, to rein in freedom that has become a little too free. Too lonely, too lacking in structure, too exhaustingly autonomous. Sometimes we jump into the hold, sometimes we allow ourselves to be pulled in, and sometimes, not entirely inadvertently, we trip.” (Get it, Alice?)

 

There are a lot of these big thought meditations, at a time when most people’s thoughts would include at least a few mildly pissed off diatribes, especially given the circumstance we eventually find out he’s dealing with. But instead he thinks about the self, the way we look at the world, never being able to subtract ourselves from it, “the incessant kaleidoscope within.” Mostly he thinks about the mess that is Iraq as he waits. But large and small keys to the earlier story are dropped throughout. Finally there’s another girlfriend memory: he wanted to call her because Sue Lawley’s Desert Island Discs reminded him of her.

 

So it’s not entirely shocking when the little coda comes and it’s in the format of a Desert Island Discs. The person they’re interviewing this time is Ezra Blaze himself. He’s just won the Nobel Prize - unlike Philip Roth -- after being snubbed by them for decades, just like Philip Roth. He shows himself to be the lecherous jerk I already realized he was, and he pulls the bits together a little more.

 

Again, maybe I’m really stupid. I am not a writer and I am certainly no literary critic. I am a voracious reader and a passionate advocate for good books and reading in general. So as a person who purchased a copy of this on the constant high praise and buzz, I’m just not impressed. But I’m sure everyone at the Times and Philip Roth’s circle would just say I’m pretty lowbrow.

 

 

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review 2018-03-30 19:27
A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo - lovely children's book for charity
A Day In The Life Of Marlon Bundo - Marlon Bundo,Jill Twiss,Richard Parsons

I now own three copies: one hardcover, one kindle and one audio - which is completely lovely and well worth the donation (ALL PROCEEDS GO TO CHARITY!) After reading and listening to the audio, I've ordered 5 more copies for children I know. It's a very appropriate children's book. 

 

Common Sense Media, an independent non-profit organization helping parents make media choices for their children, gave the book a four star rating and considers it appropriate for children of four years and older, giving it its highest marks for "positive messages" and "positive role models and representations."

 

Written by Jill Twiss (with an assist from Marlon Bundo) and illustrated by EG Keller (aka Gerald Kelley) about, well... a in the life of Marlon Bundo, the real-life rabbit of the Pence family. You might know the Pence family because their dad is Mike: Vice President of the United States.

 

The pictures are really adorable and it's actually just a very lovely story about everyone being different and that's awesome. Also, it's nice to hop together rather than alone. And animals make a perfect bridal party -- I learned a lot!

 

In the audio version Jim Parsons plays Marlon Bundo, John Lithgow plays the evil stinkbug (not too scary for kids, but scary enough) and tons of other lovely voice acting in this short children's book from the likes of Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Jeff Garlin, Ellie Kemper, Jack McBrayer, and RuPaul!

 

More info on just the book, if you want it: https://youtu.be/rs2RlZQVXBU?t=14m7s

 

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review 2018-03-30 17:47
SPEAK NO EVIL -- acceptance, tragedy and love
Speak No Evil : A Novel - Uzodinma Iweala

There is so much emotion and so many important themes packed into SPEAK NO EVIL, it's impossible to properly cover everything Uzodinma Iweala touches upon. Any one of the themes could be a full novel, so when we leap into this book, it's a bit like leaping into a boiling pot of water. That felt uncomfortable and even false at the beginning. By the end it all fit into place.

 

First and foremost, it's a book about a young gay black man. Niru is the privileged son of Nigerian immigrants living in Washington DC. He is as American as apple pie, but his father still calls Nigeria "home" and like many immigrant parents, he worries that his son is becoming too American. This American influence is a conflict that runs through most immigrant families and yet it's always individual. It's treated both seriously and with humor. It's easy to imagine any of the words coming from many people living in similar situations.

 

Then there is the story of a young black man who lives in Washington, drives a nice car, attends a private school. His best friend Meredith is white, and it is within the context of a teenaged sexual encounter that he reveals he is gay. Meredith does what any young liberal BFF would do and signs him up for all the gay dating apps. She's preternaturally optimistic and blind to the conflict that might come from jumping with two feet and no thought.

 

Niru wants to stay rooted in his family and community, but he is who he is. Steeped in Christianity, headed to Harvard, Niru is torn between love for his family, long-held beliefs, comfort with the way things are and his sexuality. They don't seem to be allowed to fit together. This is made clear when his father drags him to Nigeria where Reverend Olumide has found people who can "deliver" him and "clear this abomination" from Niru.

 

He is angry with Meredith, blames her meddling, rails against his parents, then wonders if spiritual counseling might not be helpful? He wants to meet men, fantasizes about being away at school where he can meet them, then wonders if he is truly abominable. Maybe he has spent too much time in the US soaking up awful things. Maybe a week with Nigerian prayer warriors will cure him? Or not. Niru is clearly torn and conflicted. His friendship with Meredith is strained to the point of breaking.

 

Then something happens and the tone of the book changes in every way. The story of a young gay man's struggle for individuality and belonging morphs into something else entirely. The narrator changes and everything is thrown into a different light. The issues remain but are now on a back burner. The angles have all changed. It is abrupt but didn't knock me away from the book. Instead it drew me in.

 

In many ways this is an extraordinary book. Every character is in serious conflict. There are no easy answers ripped from slogans here. No fake happy endings or flat personas. Both Meredith and especially his parents, who could have become caricatures in less deft hands, are fully-formed. The change of narrator and of plot to a large extent could have been a train wreck, but it worked for me. I cared about the characters, and if I didn't like them at first, I felt empathy for all by the end. It is a weighty book, with loads of heavy issues, treated with varying heft at various times. Nothing is solved, but it's all laid bare, asking the reader to understand.

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review 2018-03-30 04:20
Tangerine by Christine Mangan - shades of so many great movies
Tangerine - Christine Mangan

Ingredients:

 

3 heaping tablespoons of Gaslight (1944)

1 healthy teaspoon of Stolen Identity (1953)

dash of Single White Female (1992)

sprinkle liberally with Casablanca (1942)

 

Mix well and you get Tangerine.

 

Seriously, I couldn't get Ingrid Bergman and Lauren Bacall out of my head while reading this brand new novel. This was interesting given I've recently been rereading Chandler's Philip Marlowe novels (with plans to read the ones I missed earlier) and I was quickly able to rid my head of Humphrey Bogart even though I've seen those films many times. Why, then, does a book that hasn't been made into a movie force me to imagine films that are supposedly unrelated? I'm going to try to figure that out:

 

Set in 1956 Tangier, on the precipice of freedom and reunification with the rest of the country, we meet two young women who were fast friends in college a year before. They've not seen each other since a mysterious unexplained incident at Bennington college that both hint at, but neither discusses with readers or each other. Now the American, Lucy, has decided to remedy that by surprising her friend Alice - a newlywed Brit - showing up completely unannounced and unexpectedly on her doorstep in Tangier! 

 

We only know that Alice and her husband are experiencing some marital tension. She's afraid to leave the house, and to be honest, Alice doesn't seem like the most reliable narrator. The chapters skip between the two women, and Lucy seems much more "normal" though she does seem completely oblivious to the most basic of manners.

 

Lucy doesn't trust Alice's new husband. Alice herself admits to us that her husband is spending her trust fund, though she doesn't really care. She bucks up and plays hostess when Lucy appears. Alice seems hesitant with Lucy, but that may simply be her discomfort with displaying her marital discomfort and her own distress. Alice may be mentally ill, I thought.

 

Lucy is a modern woman for 1956, even wearing capris in public. They smoke, drink and Alice gets herself together enough to leave the apartment. Maybe Lucy is all Alice needed, despite her despicable manners?

 

And so it goes. The two women tell us the story of Lucy's visit in Tangier. But things get twisted. Lucy meets a man but is terrifically jealous of Alice's husband. We learn through flashbacks of Lucy stealing Alice's clothes and jewelry in college. We slowly learn that Alice doesn't trust Lucy, she feels unmoored when Alice is around. She's not sure what is real and what isn't, and I had no idea, until suddenly the proverbial sh*t hit the fan.

 

Alice's husband goes missing right after Alice demands Lucy leave her home. When Alice wakes up after a troubling night of worrying about her husband, there's Lucy -- still there! Alice is terrified, rightfully so!

 

We know what happened. We slowly realize that perhaps our narrators are each unreliable in her own way, but poor Alice is not as mixed up as she first seemed. Sadly, our reading of Alice's fragility, lack of confidence and possible mental stability are shared by all the other characters too.

 

Tangerine is based on some excellent, if overused, psychological tactics and themes. We've read them and they've been portrayed in timeless classics. Mangan sets herself up to be compared to these classics, though, and her book falls short.

 

Once the action starts moving, there are things that simply don't fit. I was willing to believe that Lucy had duped me, but each piece of action added up to more unrealistic plot I needed to swallow. Once I'd caught up on Lucy's shenanigans, I still couldn't find a way for all of these brilliant plot twists to have actually occurred. When I finished it, I was frustrated for poor Alice, but in the days since, I've been more frustrated by my own experience. In order for it all to happen, I somehow have to believe that Lucy is the most amazing criminal mind ever, as well as a mind-reader and bender of time.

 

Um, I don't.

 

So while it's a fun read and a great example of building psychological suspense, it doesn't really hang together once the whole picture is painted.

 

Though the cover is great.

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