Angle of Repose - Review by Carole

How wonderful to discover an author that you lovelovelove! This is the chief reason I belong to a couple of book clubs and swap books with Chris. These activities take me out of my normal, chosen reading habits and introduce me to new authors and books.

Through one of my book clubs I discovered Wallace Stegner, and it's been a love affair ever since. How had I gone all of these years and never been introduced? The beauty of his writing in Crossing to Safety was so exquisite that I was almost afraid to read Angle of Repose. Author Repeatitis is a disease I have succumbed to on more than one occasion, and I didn't want to catch it again. But the title was enough to reassure me that I was safe in Stegner's hands. And he didn't disappoint me.

Now, I intend to make up for lost time; I've acquired several more of his books, and I intend to dole them out as treats for myself throughout 2009. Next up is The Big Rock Candy Mountain to be followed by A Shooting Star and All the Little Live Things.

In Angle of Repose, we meet a lovely young woman who has had a refined upbringing, been educated in the arts, and is ready to begin her adult life. She accepts a marriage proposal from a young man who is an engineer for a mining company. His livelihood takes them to the outreaches of American civilization. Her upbringing hasn't prepared her for the comparatively spartan, and at times primitive, existence they share.

Yet, she thrives in drawing the lives around her. Her publishing friends back East buy her work, and she affords readers an eye to a life they would not glimpse otherwise.

The story is told to us by the grandson, who is writing his grandparents' story as a way to escape the realities of his own life as an invalid with a progressively debilitating disease. Stegner's characters compel us as we weave back and forth between the current day and the days gone by.

A fascinating story with heartbreaking relationships--I couldn't put it down.


Angels of Destruction — Review by Chris

Do you believe in angels?

More importantly, do you want to believe in angels?

I think that is the real question Kevin Donohue poses with his latest novel, Angels of Destruction.

Margaret Quinn really needs to believe in something. She's alone and so very sad. Her daughter Erica is missing and her husband is dead. She feels alone in the world — until she receives an unexpected visitor one winter night: a child, around age nine, wearing clothes that were not meant for a frigid night like that. Margaret takes her in, warms her, then questions her: who are you? Who are your people? Where did you come from?

Rarely are people truly alone in the world. Margaret has people around her who keep an eye on her, like her neighboring family who don't say too much but know a lot. She has a sister who lives a long, long drive away, but with whom she is close. Margaret is surrounded but simply has not permitted anyone to get close to her for a long time. Loss of a child can do that to a person.

Then Norah shows up on her doorstep. This girl is an answer to her prayers. This girl also, conveniently, is the age of a grandchild she could have.

So she keeps her.

That is one of the only issues I had with this book: bureaucracy, or lack thereof. I'm sure there are mystical powers going on here, but even in a small town along the Monongahela River in 1985, children didn't just show up at school with nary a question. Granted, the principal makes a note to follow up on this surprising student, but the bureaucracy stops there — proof alone that magic is afoot.

I liked the four-part structure of the book: the present of the story, a flashback, the present again and, finally, an epilogue. Frankly, I am thrilled with this non-linear structure. The danger of this approach is that the gaping holes the flashback is supposed to fill can be too massive and it turns into an ungainly trick. With Donohue, the flashback was more like another layer adding depth to an already rich story. The moments of "Oh, I get it," "Haaay!" and "Wait, haven't I met her?" were like small gifts to the reader, a lovely nougat center that could have been awful coconut creme.

The characters were lovely. Sean was on the cusp of so much and needed someone to see him before he disappeared. So was Margaret, come to think of it. Diane was a mix of no-nonsense and love that only a sister can be — and had Margaret reached out to her, she would have been closer.

Norah was a wonderful mix of magic and child. She had abilities and insights, ideas and experiences beyond her years. However, she remained impetuous and willful, moving in directions only the desperate would think wise. Was she an angel? She said she was, and yet... Are angels of destruction messy and dirty, imperfect — or maybe, like John Travolta's angel in "Michael," Norah simply wasn't "that kind" of angel?

Paul, Margaret's late husband, remained a shadowy figure whose story was told only from the memories of the women in his life. While he received fair enough representation for his part in the story, I would have liked to have known more about the man who helped spur action that ultimately brought a nine-year-old waif to his late wife's door. The glimmer we received was fascinating and made me hunger for more. I found it intriguing that a man who was revered, feared, treasured, protected and yet misunderstood had more power than his characters would ever have understood. I suppose we all have a Paul in our lives.

I puzzled a little bit over the man in the fedora. He seemed like a watcher, someone who was supposed to keep order, and yet he stood back — or so it appeared. Other men were in the periphery of Margaret's life, and each of them tried to protect her in their own way, at times with lovely gestures Margaret either didn't see or didn't know.

In the end, the story was about magic, love, getting what you need when you need it, having faith in something, living with loss but not letting go, moving on but not moving away — and seeing the hands that are reaching out to you even when you aren't reaching back.

I really enjoyed this book, and plan to re-read it again later — I read it too fast this time (so I could attend a reading and not have the ending spoiled). Next time, I plan to savor the story. This book deserves that kind of time and attention.


Community Reads: A Response by Chris

It's no mean fete to get a community reading. It's even tougher to get everyone to read the same thing. Or is it? A recent New York Times article about the launch of area book clubs ("Launched for the Next Round of Read-Ins," March 4, 2009) struck a chord.

Maybe it was the Web title that belittled the practice: "Like Book Clubs on Steroids, Communities are Set to Read a Single Title and Discuss."

Maybe it was the lead that presented the image of a group of women (and a few men) reading together, quietly, in the same room, the book The Shawl (which seems more sterile than communal).

Maybe it was just me having a bad day. But all I could think of is, Please, not in my community.

It's not that I don't like "sensitive" topics, or ones that are moving or emotional or historic by nature. I know it's a challenge to get any community to read a single book — unless you're Oprah or Richard and Judy. And that's what I realized stuck in my craw: with the wrong book, a community read feels cheap.

A celebrity or Hollywood has a hankering for a title and everyone reads it. It's the first thing propped up in the Borders promenade, it's at the top of the bestseller list. Everyone has seen the movie, so the book is consumed like cheap sweets because if [fill in the blank] liked it, it must be good. These pop book-choosing entities select titles that fit a Topic. Lately, it's been the Holocaust — because, really, that is the only reason a book like The Reader could possibly be a bestseller and an award-winning movie.

To be fair, attention to such a tough topic have brought to light some terrific stories, such as the Bielski brothers who created a safe haven in the Bellarussian forests, and Oskar Schindler. I hope these kinds of stories continue to be shared because they are important and, let's be honest, entertaining. I'm sure The Shawl has that potential. And in this world, remembering the atrocities of the past are important to the success of preventing them in the future. And the modest volume Night seemed to survive Oprah's onslaught.

But other Oprah books on the Holocaust and Other Important Topics haven't been able to survive the glare of the spotlight, and have brought as much embarrassment as they did success to their authors. (Gawker's article has a little salty language, but is an excellent list of pop failures.)

Don't get me wrong: I am a communal reader. I love suggestions from my local libraries, colleges and other trusted sources and, so far, these books have been winners in my book.

I know I fret about books, worrying that people will dis my favorite pastime if the bestsellers are more like The Reader than Water for Elephants. Maybe I'm a little bit of a snob, too, which has made me skeptical of popular books that really are that wonderful, like the Harry Potter series.

At any rate, I will continue to read with my community, as long as it's not a mawkish book that doesn't deserve our time. However, my local librarians haven't disappointed me yet. They know their community, which I suppose is the key to success.

Maybe Oprah's selection of A New Earth was the best choice for her community at that time; she did choose The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which has reviewers raving (and, yes, I will read to see if it's all that and a hedgehog bookmark).

Maybe it doesn't matter who chooses what — librarians have long advocated any kind of book to keep people reading.

Maybe the magic of communal reading is that it creates discussion and encourages reading. And that is a good thing.


Dinner Companions: A Response

A recent New York Times article asked authors what books they consider their best dining companions, so we asked ourselves the same question.

I vividly remember, at age 17, brunching at the neighborhood Denny's with Kramer vs. Kramer. The food wasn't stellar, and I can't remember what was on the plate, but I do remember experiencing the intimacy of the couple's anguish in the glossy movie tie-in paperback.

I rarely dine alone at restaurants because, for me, the joy of restaurant dining is in the company I keep; otherwise, it's just food. I have been known, however, to occupy a table at my old bagel shop for hours with Spanish homework (because I could get help from the women who worked there), a cup of coffee slowly making me jittery. Most of the time, though, a bagel and coffee were merely sustenance during a long afternoon of studying.

Now, when I do eat and read, I do not sit down to a meal; instead, I'll stand at the kitchen counter. Usually, if the book is that good, eating becomes the path of least resistance. (See "food equals sustenance" reference above.) The menu depends on how long I feel like can I leave the book on the kitchen counter — which translates to how long I can keep the book out of my hands. Is it quicker to pour cereal versus make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Which is easier to eat while holding the book, and should I choose something that doesn't require both hands or an instrument?

Some books are good enough to skip a meal if necessary. Had David not fed me, I would not have eaten during the summer of 2007 when I read the last Harry Potter novel.

Then there are the books Carole and I read together. Those I find impossible to put down during dinner not only because they're good but because I want to catch up with Carole, who always seems to get ahead of me, especially at the beginning of a book.

Lunch is an easy meal to read through, if only because most lunch food I carry for solo dining is finger food. I always carry a napkin — I don't need Cheetos prints on the pages to remind me what I was eating during the good part. I will remember, even if I don't mean to. Odd how that happens with Cheetos.

I guess I'm more excited about books than I am about any food. Except for the cooking of a few people (Carole and David are in that select group), food is just the fuel that allows me to read.

Now, food while talking about books — that's a different blog altogether....!

Wow! Some of these authors read some heavy stuff while eating. I find that if I'm reading something really intense, I'll forget to eat. Which, for those who know me, is saying something. I'm ALL about food! Which makes me wonder if these authors really read these books while dining alone or they just like the way it makes them sounds to SAY that's what they read while dining alone.

The only time I generally eat alone at a restaurant is when I travel for business and cannot talk family or friends into going with me. I don't generally mind being a party of one, particularly if I have a book. I do find, however, that servers tend to be especially attentive when you dine alone, which can make you re-read the same paragraph over and over. Coincidentally, I'm attending my conference this week, so I've actually given this some thought.

Because I like to people watch myself, I wonder what my table for one, propped-open book, and glass of wine says about me. "Isn't that sad? She's obviously lonely--reading a trashy romance all alone, drowning her sorrows in vino." Or "I bet this is the first time in years that she's had an entire meal without having to mop up spilled milk! She should be reading something better than that!" Or "She probably just worked herself half to death at the conference across the street--good for her not caring if people judge her for reading bodice rippers in public!"

Actually, I generally reserve bodice rippers for the beach, but you get the idea. I'll probably take Drood with me this week. I'm exciting to read it--it should cover me for plane and restaurant meeting. The trouble with dining with thick, hardback books, though, is keeping the book open while manipulating silverware. Something to keep in mind when ordering.

If the book is REALLY engrossing, though, that's what room service is all about. Then you can have food, book, and slippers! Heaven!


The Geography of Bliss — Review by Chris

Subtitled One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World, Eric Weiner's delightful and insightful book offered observations, quite a bit of information, a few surprises and a dose of wry wit.

Weiner (whose name, ironically, is pronounced "whiner"), traveled to a number of countries to determine what makes people happy. He was armed with a database from the Netherlands that calculated what countries had the highest happiness index — and the lowest. Weiner takes us to both by traveling to Iceland, Thailand, Movdova, India, Bhutan, Quatar, England and a few other places suggested by their placement in the aforementioned database.

I started tabbing the book mercilessly right around Bhutan, and rightfully so. It's not like Weiner is a guru (after you read the book you'll laugh at that), but he is insightful. He asks the right questions, and he receives some of the most interesting answers. He stands as an outsider on every culture, including his own. (Strange, and oddly enviable, how foreign correspondents seem to be able to do that.)

I enjoyed every trip he took and I was thrilled to meet the people to whom he introduced us. I wanted to live in Iceland and Bhutan, maybe even Thailand — and Moldova had a strange draw for me (which should concern me, the more I think about it). Weiner's observations in this book helped me in many ways with a number of people I already know; learning about the Indian or Thai mindset assisted me in understanding others and made a difference in my day-to-day encounters.

In the end, it was a very enlightening book. As the reader continues to discover what makes other people happy, it makes that reader ask herself or himself the same question. "Handbags" is a valid answer, as is "connectedness," "muddle of thought" and "money." (The last one — well, read the book. You'd be surprised. No, really — Weiner doesn't give us pat answers on anything, especially not that dynamite keg.)

Weiner isn't neither pat nor glib. He is, however, concise, and he offers his explanations with a warmth for his readers. He writes with authority, and he blends in the voices of experts with those of the ordinary folk with whom he speaks.

If I could summarize my understanding of happiness in a fortune cookie — or, in modern times, a tweet — it would be this: Happiness is found in the people around us. Lose that connection and you lose much more than just touch. You lose a chance at happiness.

But I'll let you read Weiner's book yourself and you can tell me what you think it all means.


Books Coming Out in March — Great Expectations!

I have such a towering stack of books I am not sure where there's room for new material — yet I must make room because there's some great-sounding stuff coming out this month.

First of all, I can't wait for Ariana Franklin's newest novel, Grave Goods. I have enjoyed both Mistress of the Art of Death and The Serpent's Tale, and I doubt that I will be disappointed with this new book.

Then there's the new book by the gifted novelist Keith Donohue. I read The Stolen Child when it first came out and even now, when I think about it years later, I still find it unsettling, imaginative and very satisfactory. His latest novel, Angels of Destruction, hearkens the same great potential, and I must pick it up soon. (Definitely before his local reading.)

I'm frightfully behind on my February novels, with Drood sitting heavily in the wings — but Carole is a few pages in front of me, and I have to catch up so we can discuss it. I know Carole is eyeing Fool with great interest, and I can't wait for her to read it so she can tell me how much she enjoyed it. (I have a non-fiction book in the wings titled Traffic; maybe as the month progresses, we can graduate to titles with more than one word....)

What do you have on your nightstand?