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review 2018-04-21 18:31
Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore - average
Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore: A Novel - Matthew J. Sullivan

An intricate story of many people all connected through a bookstore and/or their pasts. Lydia has changed her last name and moved back to the city of her childhood, deciding to start over and having somewhat unrealistic ideas that nobody will uncover her secret (including the man she lives with.) That all starts to unravel when Joey, a patron of the Bright Ideas Bookstore, kills himself among the books. Lydia finds him and subsequently inherits all of his earthly possessions - most of which are books.

 

Through these books Joey enlists Lydia in unraveling the mysteries of his death and life. Meanwhile news from the suicide in the store pulls Lydia's past into her present. Through flashbacks and a lot of foreshadowing we learn along with Lydia about surprising and extremely coincidental connections among a cast of characters that previously seemed unconnected. Meanwhile there's this suicide and a baroque bunch of messages from beyond  the grave to unravel. While figuring out Joey's actions, Lydia is forced to face her own past whether she wants to or not. (She doesn't.)

 

There are some real coincidences in this book, but they didn't bother me enough to make me put it down. It becomes pretty clear early on who the villain is, even if his motives remain unclear. Lydia, the main character, can be quite frustrating but I accepted everyone on their own terms and read on. It's a quick read and the mystery changes through the book. Some of the characters are lovely, sadly these aren't the main characters. It is a decent read with a great title. However, I don't know who I might recommend this to, and in the final examination, I just didn't care enough about any of the characters or find their story very compelling.

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review 2018-04-18 18:23
What Happened -- too many facts, not enough Hillary
What Happened - Hillary Rodham Clinton

I bought this a while ago. I was a Clinton supporter. (I have always loved Bernie Sanders and voted for him in the primary, but by the time it got to my state, it didn't matter, and I happily took time off to campaign for Hillary once that was settled.) I strongly believe she got short shrift in the election coverage, and I was too upset until recently to be able to read this. (I actually think my diving into fiction may be a direct result of the 2016 election. I find I am too angry to be functional if I read too much news or even too much political fiction/nonfiction.)

 

While I agree in large part with most of her points about "what happened," I didn't learn much new from this book. I was very touched by her clear adoration for her daughter and her grandchildren, and it is clear that the loss of her mother is still very painful. Some of those chapters are wonderful. I could have lived without an exact play-by-play explainer on every issue on the election. I lived through it and experienced it once. I wanted to know how she felt about these things. The cover promises she's going to tell us, but I didn't get any real insight to Hillary Clinton. Thought she didn't say it this way, I also enjoyed how clearly pissed off she is at Comey - still. Also that she was confused by his actions like the rest of us were. I would say 70% of the book is defensive crouch. I get it, but it may just have been too soon for me even now. I never will need to read an in depth explainer on the emails though -- I doubt anyone reading this book will. Those who read Hillary's book are likely to have understood the email situation LONG before the election and frankly, long before the NYTimes stopped harping about them. (Guess what - reading the apologies and "we'll do better" from the Times didn't make me feel better either - particularly since they've now done away with the Public Editor who was the one clear-headed person at the paper...)

 

I moved to this book because I found my blood boiling at Susan Bordo's feminist coverage in The Destruction of Hillary Clinton (though I will make myself read that because I really want to) and decided to put that one down in favor of reading the candidate's take. I've liked Clinton's earlier books, and like many women I've admired liked Hillary Clinton for years. I respect her, but this book was uneven. Clearly she was very hurt and angry, like the rest of us. When she's down, Hillary argues her case. It's just that I've heard that case before, and I hoped for a more personal look in this book, like promised. I wonder if anyone could write a clear-eyed book about this election, but Hillary and I can't.

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review 2018-04-06 04:14
Red Sparrow - Hopeful beginning to a trilogy
Red Sparrow - Jason Matthews

I'm not sure if it's because I've read so many bad espionage stories recently, but I am consciously aware that I liked this more than it deserved to be liked. I kept wishing there was a way the story could be written without a huge part of the plot (the ridiculous romance between two spies who really should know better than to fall in love instantly.) I get worried for national security every time I read one of these stories.

 

Beyond that huge plot hole, it is excellently-researched and intricate enough to make me feel more comfortable immersed in it than the paint-by-numbers espionage books I've read recently. Nonetheless, there is a huge tendency in this book to view Americans as overly wonderful and super "nice," while Russians are more complicated and far more evil. The lack of nuance is mitigated by the love affair, but love can't cover everything.

 

I shall be reading the next book, because this one left me with a hook dangling from my mouth, and I need to see how the details are going to work out (it feels pretty clear how it will go in the broad strokes.) I probably could have gotten just as much from the upcoming film(s?) (excepting the recipes, but I don't cook.) My hope is that he "sparrow" will stay well-placed and grow into the strong woman she already is, full of power and a great spy, and that her boy toy, who has the temperament of a small child at times, gets transferred or just grows up and becomes her handler only.

 

A minor quibble. I am a synesthete as well as a neuroscientist. The book didn't do a good job of making clear that the aura-ish things she sees have nothing to do with synesthesia. In fact, they made it seem like her synaesthesia was the reason she could read people this way. Synaesthesia can be a great help in many things, but those things don't include seeing purity bubbles around people's heads. It's a mild quibble. There is mass misunderstanding about synesthetes but not much in terms of persecution, so I can let that go, silly and incorrect as it is. I can let it go because there were more absurd things than thought bubbles around people's heads.

 

All of this leaves me yearning for Len Deighton and other cold war writers' supreme nuance and intricate weaving plots that had people leaving their national comfort zones because people are more complicated than country - and all of that nuance cannot be conveyed with a few sexy scenes and two youngsters in lust. 

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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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