Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan

Title:  Of Bees and Mist

Author:  Erick Setiawan

Paperback:  405 (Advaced Reader’s Edition)

Published:  August 2009

ISBN:  9781615233502

Acquired:  Received from Barnes & Noble’s First Look online book club

Challenges:  ARC Reading Challenge 2010, New Author Challenge 2010

“If you have something to say, then say it,” said Meridia.  “I know you’ve been talking to Mama behind my back.”

A smile slow and calculating parted the girl’s lips.  The liveliness in her eyes extended to her mouth, which now took on a delight almost to fiendish for her thirteen years.

“You’re wearing… the necklace Mama gave you.  You wear it three, four times a week.”… Malin’s laugh leapt up with contempt.  “You’re just like the rest of them.  So easily fooled.  When I first met you, I thought you had it in you to stick it to her….  Can’t you see how cheap that necklace is?  I wouldn’t be surprised if she fished it out of  a garbage bin.  And yet you wear it like it’s the most precious thing you own.”

“I wear it because I like it.  Mama was generous enough to give it to me.”

“Have you listened to yourself lately?  Every other sentence you say is ‘ Mama this and Mama that.’  It makes me sick to hear you go on!  Well, she’s not your mother and she never will be.  Why do you bend to her every wish?  Why does everyone?  If you only knew the things she says behind your back.”

 -Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan, pages 128-129

Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan is descibed on the back of the book as an adult fable, and I had to Google “fable” to understand how they could call it this, as my previous understanding of the term was “a short story told for the purpose to entertain an audience while teaching them a life lesson.”  You know, “Moral of the story is…”  But Of Bees and Mist is not a short story, and I’m not exactly sure if it’s got a moral. 

According to Google, there are two specific definitions of “fable” that can apply to this book:

A fable is a succinct story, in prose or verse, that features animals, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature which are anthropomorphized.

A story about mythical or supernatural beings or events.

In Of Bees and Mist, Setiawan tells the story of two families of strong matriarchs who are brought together by the marriage of Daniel and Meridia.  Eva, Daniel’s mother, is a larger-than-life personality with poise and charm and sweeps everyone up into the palm of her hand by her charisma.  Once in her grasp, however, she expects them to do her bidding and never argue or suffer the consequences.  She takes particular aim at her own husband, Elias, as well as her youngest daughter, Permony, of whom she has always seen as competition for her husband’s affection.  She continually nags, berates and cajoles them for differing reasons and effects.  With Elias, she peppers him with swarming bees at all hours, particularly at night when he’s trying to rest (she naps during the day so she can keep at him) until he breaks from exhaustion and flies off the handle.  As to Permony, Eva treats her as the whipping girl and gets out her frustration and irritation on the young girl.  When Meridia comes along and takes up Permony’s cause, expresses her own opinion and shows herself to be both beautiful and intelligent, Eva can’t stand it.  She levels her sights to destroy her new daughter-in-law.

The second mother in the equation is Ravenna, who has gained a reputation in their small town as not being quite right in the head.  A great deal of the time, Ravenna lives in her own world, mumbling her own private language to herself while constantly cooking for no one in particular.  She lives her life behind a veil of forgetfulness, hiding from a past no one will talk about.  However, occasionally she finds her way to the surface, and is a force to be reckoned with.  Her essence and spirit has lasting power and Meridia is able to sustain herself in between Ravenna’s moments of sanity.  Whereas Eva has a vile and evil presence that drives people to bitterness and contention, Ravenna has a soothing and calming effect, bringing peace with her and driving out Eva’s bees.  It is between these two women that the battle of Good versus Evil seems to play out.

Along with the bees that pour from Eva’s lips to attack those at whom she directs them, there are other supernatural elements.  There are the three different mists that are characters in their own right in the book.  The white mist that encases the house that Meridia grew up in which keeps it the temperature and hearts within the home cold.  The yellow mist that comes in the evenings to take Gabriel, Meridia’s father, away to his mistress’s house and the blue mist that brings him back in the mornings.  There is a ghost that inhabits the mirrors, as well as fireflies that visit, protect and guide Meridia, and roses and marigolds that seem to war for dominance over Eva’s lawn.  AND, there is Hannah, Meridia’s best friend from childhood, who returns for visits with her as an adult when times are hard for her.  No one ever sees Hannah, but I don’t think she’s Meridia’s imaginary friend.

The worst evil Eva commits is to make a deal with a man whom she knows is wicked to marry her daughter in order to profit monetarily from the match.  Worse yet, when her daughter confesses to discovering the man to be part beast (a pig-man), and to raping young girls in their basement, Eva sends her back to him.  Telling her daughter she doesn’t want a scandal surrounding her name.  For Eva, saving face and her pride are her most precious treasures.

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Honestly, Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan is a complex story with many facets.  One of the things I found most amazing was that Setiawan hung so many guns on every room of a mansion in this book, and fired them all.  There are no strings left untied, everything was used.  Another thing I was impressed by reading Of Bees and Mist is the difference in storytelling between Western and Eastern cultural style.  This book really showed off the Oriental thought process of fluidity, connectivity and moments of experience, whereas in the Occidental custom, storytelling and philosophy is linear and cause-and-effect.  Because of this, Of Bees and Mist doesn’t follow the “this-then that-then that happened” but was more like friezes in the lives of the characters within, with the balance of their lives being weighed out in the end.

I may re-read this book later… I haven’t decided.  There were just so many aspects of the story that I think I’d could still get more out of it.  Overall, Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan is a fantastic story that sweeps the reader along.  I was surprised how much time and pages went by as I read.  Though I’m not exactly sure why I’m not giving this a 5 out of 5, it’s still a great book, and so I’m giving it 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.

An Inconvenient Book by Glenn Beck

Title:  An Inconvenient Book:  Real Solutions to the World’s Biggest Problems

Author:  Glenn Beck

Hardback:  295 pages

Published:  2007

ISBN:  9781416552192

“Although [political correctness] arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudice with new ones.  It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expressions off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits.

“What began as a crusade for civility has sourced into a cause of conflict and even censorship.  Disputants treat sheer force – getting their foes punished or expelled, for instance – as a substitute for the power of ideas.

“Throughout history, attempts to micromanage casual conversation have only incited distrust.  They have invited people to look for an insult in every word, gesture, action.  And, in their own Orwellian way, crusades that demand correct behavior crush diversity in the name of diversity.”

-An Inconvenient Book by Glenn Beck, page 151

The above quote begins chapter 12: “You Can’t Say That!  The Politics of Correctness” in An Inconvenient Book by Glenn Beck.  The shocking thing about this quote is that it was delivered in a 1991 commencement speech given by former President George H. W. Bush.  1991 was just the beginning of the PC movement, and at that time, it felt more like a passing liberal fad than the enslaving censor that it has become.  Bush’s speech now seems oracular.

I found this book to be very intelligently, and often funny, written.  It wasn’t just a bunch of right-wing rhetoric slapped on pages and tossed out to the public.  On occasion, Beck even agrees with the left,  often the right, but mostly he lands somewhere in the middle with his own well-researched thoughts and ideas.  It is set up in textbook style, with inserts and graphs and illustrations to further make his points.  With the chapter on Child Molesters, he makes it a point to say that this is a subject in which all political lines fall and we become just people, fathers and mothers, who desire to protect our children.  With each chapter, Beck offers a solution to the problems he addresses. 

I believe that political correctness is the biggest threat this nation faces today.  Sure, you won’t see newspaper articles about the nuclear program it’s working on, but it’s an enemy nonetheless.

Think of it as a poison that was dumped into our water supply years ago by our enemies.  They knew that it would take time for the entire country to be affected, but they were patient, and now the entire country has been poisoned, and most don’t even know it.

The only antidote for this toxin is for everyone to stop sitting down and taking it like French soldiers at war.  We all have to start being open about the fact that political correctness not only exists but is killing us.  The first small step in doing that is becoming aware and suspicious of the people and groups who are always trying to ban certain words or otherwise restrict your freedom of speech.  Let’s call them the linguistically intolerant or the opposing-viewpoint-averse.

When you see them, stop and ask yourself a simple question:  Why? … It’s time to take back the First Amendment. -page 160

Not only does he say, “Here’s the problem and here’s how we can solve it,” but he also explores the history and thinking behind the problem and how we got here.  His chapter on the UN is particularly acerbic, his solution to the problem a bit shocking.

I read this at the very end of 2009, when I was reading nearly a book a day to make my 75-book goal, and therefore some of what I read went in one eye and out the other.  I do plan to re-read it again, this time with highlighters and flags in hand, and a notepad and pen to my left.  There is just far too much info crammed in the book to just leave it with one read.

I give An Inconvenient Book by Glenn Beck 4 out of 5 stars.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

Title:  The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Author:  John Boyne

Paperback:  215 pages

ISBN:  9780552773805

Book Challenges:  War Through the Generations World War II Reading Challenge

‘I’m Shmuel,’ said the little boy.

Bruno scrunched up his face, not sure that he had heard the little boy right.  ‘What did you say your name was?’ he asked.

‘Shmuel,’ said the little boy as if it was the most natural thing in the world.  ‘What did you say your name was?’

‘Bruno,’ said Bruno.

‘I’ve never heard of that name,’ said Shmuel.

‘And I’ve never heard of your name,’ said Bruno.  ‘Shmuel.’  He thought about it.  ‘Shmuel,’ he repeated.  ‘I like the way it sounds when I say it.  Shmuel.  It sounds like the wind blowing.’

‘Bruno,’ said Shmuel, nodding his head happily.  ‘Yes, I think I like your name too.  It sounds like someone who’s rubbing their arms to keep warm…  I’m nine,’ he said.  ‘My birthday is April the fifteenth nineteen thirty-four.’

Bruno’s eyes opened wide and his mouth made the shape of an O.  ‘I don’t believe it,’ he said… ‘my birthday is april the fifteenth too.  And I was born in nineteen thirty-four.  We were born on the same day… We’re like twins,’ said Bruno.

-The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, pages 109-110

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne is a story of friendship told through the eyes of Bruno, the nine-year-old son of a concentration camp Commandant.  Uprooted from friends and the only home he’s ever known, Bruno hates his new home in “Out-With,” his mispronunciation of Auschwitz, and makes sure everyone knows it.  But one day, when he goes out exploring the area around his house, he meets a boy his own age on the other side of the fence where everyone wears striped pyjamas all day.  The two quickly become friends, and meet as often as possible at the same time and spot everyday from then on.

One of the things I like about this book is Boyne’s layered subtleties.  Bruno, the naive and sheltered innocent, passes along clues of his mother’s infidelity, drinking and depression, as well as the competition that goes on between Gretel, his twelve-turning-thirteen year-old sister, and his mother for the attention of the young Lieutenant Koltor.  Bruno witnesses but can’t quite grasp the difference between him and his family and the people on the other side of the fence, asking different people about it with varying degrees of failure to get a satisfactory answer.  His father tells him the others aren’t people -not really, not in the way we think of.  The Lieutenant calls them a derogatory name that is never passed along in the book.  Gretel comes the closest to answering him, failing only because she herself doesn’t understand it, either, telling him that the people on the other side were Jews and they were The Opposite, and The Opposite hate the Jews.

There are a few things that just got under my skin with this book, however.  For instance, if these people are German, then I assume they speak German in their thoughts as well as conversations with one another.  I found it mildly irritating that Bruno would think “Auschwitz” would sound like “Aus mit” (the direct translation “Out-with”).  Or that he would hear “Der Führer” and think people were calling Hitler “Das Wut”.  Also, there are a lot of repetition in the book.  Okay, I get it… Father’s office is “Out of bounds at all times with no exceptions.”  I got that the first time.  And I caught it on page 1 that Bruno had some stuff that belonged to him and were nobody else’s business.  Another thing I really wish Boyne had added to the book was how Bruno and Shmuel would have spent their birthday.  No doubt Bruno would have had a party with cake and a big dinner, but how would he have shared the special day with his “twin”?

Boyne’s storytelling in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is reminiscent of Scout’s recounting in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, though not as well-done nor is Bruno as developed as a character as Scout was.  In Boyne’s attempt to reach as broad an audience as possible, the story is a bit like thin gruel.  Everyone can digest it, but it hasn’t got very much flavor.  If you are looking for a good book that glimpses the lives of the people during Nazi Germany, I’d recommend The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.  The writing is magical, the storytelling point-of-view is unique, and the depth of even the tertiary characters are better than Bruno’s.

Still, I’m passing this book on to my kids.  I think it’s a good book to introduce young and reluctant readers to the subjects:  The Holocaust, racism, hate, friendship, loyalty, love.  I think 4th and 5th graders, particularly boys of that age, would enjoy this book the most.  For me, a mom with a children the same ages as Bruno and Gretel (not to mention the same relationship as the bickering siblings, as well), I found Bruno to be an exasperatingly annoying little whiner at times. 

I give The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne 3 out of 5 stars.  It’s an acceptable read, but for me, as forgettable as Bruno found his three best friends for life.   In a year, I doubt I’ll even remember their names.

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In 2008, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was made into a movie.  I’ll have to put it on the top of my Netflix Queue, it looks fairly good.  Maybe they’ll address the birthday issue for me in it.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Title:  Water for Elephants

Author:  Sara Gruen

Paperback:  335 pages

ISBN:  9781565125605

…[Camel] comes to a stop in front of a stock car.  “Joe!  Hey, Joe!”

A head appears in the doorway.

“I got a First of May here.  Fresh from the crate.  Think you can use him?”

The figure steps forward onto the ramp.  He pushes up the brim of a battered hat with a hand missing three of its fingers.  He scrutinizes me, shoots an oyster of dark brown tobacco juice out the side of his mouth, and goes back inside.

Camel pats my arm in a congratulatory fashion.  “You’re in, kid.”

“I am?”

“Yep.  Now go shovel some shit.  I’ll catch up with you later.”

-Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, page 33

Jacob Jankowski was one week and his final exams away from being a vet.  Then tragedy hits, claiming the lives of his parents, and revealing that they’d mortgaged everything to keep their only child enrolled in Cornell University.  The weight and guilt of this bears down on young Jacob, and he just walks off from school… and keeps on walking.  When he finally stops for the night, he decides to jump aboard a passing train, only to find he’s just joined the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. 

Vividly imaginitive and well-researched, Water for Elephantsby Sara Gruenis a compelling, character-driven tale with the feel of magic and wonder we feel as children going to the circus for the first time.  It has a gritty realism to it and exposes the behind-the-scenes working and stratification of classes of the travelling circus.  Bosses, freaks, an exotic menagerie, performers, clowns and dwarfs, working men and roustabouts… in that order.  Everyone has a history, and a pervasive loneliness binds them all together.

I was enrapt by both the writing and the story in Water for Elephants.  Gruen, a female writer, captures the male perspective amazingly well.  The story takes place in two timelines:  Young Jacob at 23 and joining the circus, and the elderly Jacob, who is either 91 or 93 (he can’t remember anymore), in an assisted living facility, dealing with the emotions of being left behind -by his kids and his deceased wife- in a place where there’s baby food to eat, your neighbor poops his pants, and your desires and opinions are discounted and ignored.  I was carried along through the story, and it was over before I even knew it.

I loved Water for Elephantsby Sara Gruen and give it 5 out of 5 stars :-)

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Ladies and Gentlemen, children of all ages!  Presenting a video clip of Ringling Brothers Greatest Show on Earth!

:-)

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards

Title:  The Memory Keeper’s Daughter

Author:  Kim Edwards

Paperback:  401 pages

Date Published:  2006

Publisher:  Penguin Books

ISBN:  0143037145

The head crowned.  In three more pushes it emerged, and then the body slid into his waiting hands and the baby cried out, its blue skin pinking up.

It was a boy, red-faced and dark-haired, his eyes alert, suspicious of the lights and the cold bright slap of air.  The doctor tied the umbilical cord and cut it.  My son, he allowed himself to think.  My son.

“Where is the baby?” his wife asked, opening her eyes and pushing hair away from her flushed face.  “Is everything all right?”

“It’s a boy,” the doctor said, smiling down at her.  “We have a son.  You’ll see him as soon as he’s clean.  He’s absolutely perfect.”

His wife’s face, soft with relief and exhaustion, suddenly tightened with another contraction… he understood what was happening… “Nurse?” the doctor said, “I need you here.  Right now.”

…”Twins?” the nurse asked.

…This baby was smaller and came easily… “It’s a girl,” he said, and cradled her like a football… The blue eyes were cloudy, the hair jet black, but he barely noticed all of this.  What he was looking at were the unmistakable features, the eyes turned up as if with laughter, the epcantha fold across the lids, the flattened nose… A mongoloid.

-The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards, pages 15-16

When Norah Henry goes into labor during a blizzard (I know, very Lifetime Movie, right?), Dr. David Henry is forced to deliver their children himself.  There is only one other person present at the delivery, the office nurse, Caroline Gill.  When David realizes that his newborn daughter has Down’s Syndrome, he passes her to Caroline with the directions to a “home for the feeble-minded,” and the name of the person to talk to there.  His intentions are to tell his wife, who is passed out from the anaesthetic gas, about their daughter’s condition when she comes to, however, when the moment arrives, he lies to her and tells her the girl is dead and her body sent to be buried in the family cemetery on his partner’s farm.  In her grief, Norah plans and announces a memorial for the lost child, “Phoebe,” and informs David of all this after it’s been made public, sticking him fast to the story he told her of the baby’s death.

Caroline, after seeing the deplorable conditions of the place David has sent his daughter to be dumped off and after being informed that the person to whom she was to speak no longer works there, decides to keep Phoebe.  Caroline, now in her early 30s, has spent her whole life waiting for her life to begin, waiting to be someone and to make a difference, she takes Phoebe and moves to Pittsburgh to raise her as her own.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards is the unfolding of the outcome of David’s decision.  It shows how this one secret, and really, much more that David has kept all his life, erects a wall between him and his family.  In his attempt to spare his wife and son the pain of having a daughter and sister who’s condition he believes will be a burden on them their entire life, he has only substituted one pain for another.  By the time he realizes his lie has caused more heartache than the truth ever could, his family has become individuals, islands unto themselves, lonely and feeling like they could never be good enough for the rest.

Because this book does a great job at recreating the sentiments of the time period toward special needs children, there are times when what’s being said is offensive.  My two older girls have special needs, and when the nurse in the Pittsburgh hospital asks Caroline if she really wants her to save Phoebe’s life, it rankled me as much as it did Caroline.  The book doesn’t crank out a happily ever after scenario, nor does it become an “Oh my God, yet another tragedy” soap opera, instead it presents a plausible, heart-felt outcome.

Things to keep in mind if you plan to read this book:  It is a real look at what life is like raising a child with special needs, and raising that child into adulthood.  It is a lifetime of events, and therefore can seem long, but it doesn’t drag.  Also, it does have heavy and sad moments, the character’s don’t do “the right thing” and there are no heroes… except maybe Paul and Phoebe, and even then maybe just Phoebe.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards can help the reader have more compassion for caretakers of special needs children, as well as having a moral that the truth is always the better way to go, that the best of intentions is often the surest and straightest path to Hell.  I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

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P.S.  Do NOT watch the Lifetime movie of this.  It is officially the WORST book to movie EVER! EVER EVER EVER EVER EVERI give that POS movie NEGATIVE infinity out of 5 stars.  It made the characters appear flat and shallow, it changed parts of the story that didn’t need changed and it was just plain crap.  Anyone who says they didn’t like the book because the characters were shallow and selfish, I have to wonder if they really read the book or watched the movie.

Derailed by James Siegel

derailedTitle:  Derailed

Author:  James Siegel

Hardback:  339 pages

Publisher:  Warner Books, Inc.

Publish Date:  February 2003

ISBN:  0446531588

Every day Charles Schine rides the 8:43 to do the job he has done for over a decade in a New York advertising agency.  With a wife and an ill child who depend on him, Charles is not a man who likes changes or takes risks… until he is late for his regular train – and sits down across from the woman of his dreams.

Her name is Lucinda.  Like Charles, she is married.  Like Charles, she takes the train every day to work in New York City.  Her train is the 9:05, and tomorrow she will be on it again – and so will Charles.  For there is something about Lucinda, the flash of thigh beneath her short skirt, the way every man on the train is eyeing her, something about this time of the morning that will make Charles take a chance he shouldn’t take, break a vow he shouldn’t break, and enter a room he should never enter…

In a matter of days, a flirtation turns to a passion, and Charles and Lucinda are drawn into the dark side of the American Dream.  In a matter of weeks, Charles’s life is in shambles.  A man is dead.  A small fortune is stolen.  Charles’s home is violated and everything violently spirals out of control.

But Charles is about to discover that once you leave the straight and narrow, getting back on track is the most perilous journey of all.  And for Charles, that journey – of lies, terror, and deception – has just begun…

An extraordinary work of Hitchcockian psychological twists and high-voltage intensity, this novel brilliantly weaves together a man’s past and present into a story of menace – and hurtles us toward an astounding, surprising ending.  Brace yourself for a roller-coaster ride through the frightening darkness that lies waiting around us – and within us – once our lives become DERAILED …

-Derailedby James Siegel,  dust cover blurb

Derailedby James Siegel  is full of twists and turns and punch-in-the-gut dramatic stops that propel the story forward at a terrifying pace.  It’s very easy to have sympathy for Charles, though it was through his own actions that the world is crumbling down around him, and to will him to win out over Vasguez and his accomplices.  Derailed illustrates the “line upon line, precept upon precept” and “slippery slope” concepts as Charles crosses farther and farther into moral ambiguity while trying to hide his adulterous indiscretion, a secret any reader with a brain KNOWS will eventually come out.

All in all, the book is a good book in that it entertains and thrills the reader.  It does experience some slow spots, but those are more for the purpose of lulling the reader in order to amplify the coming shock.  And for the most part, the story is believable and possible, enough is established before the bomb that saves Charles goes off to prevent it from feeling like a deus ex machina.  However, beyond the initial horror of the rape scene and terror of being stalked, the book isn’t memorable.

Derailedby James Siegel is intense, has a lot of violence, language and sex, and not for sensitive readers or anyone under 18.  I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

I have a feeling Derailed is a better movie than book. Here’s the movie’s trailer:

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

Title: Exit Ghost
Author: Philip Roth
Hardcover: 292 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Publish Date:2007
ISBN: 9780618975477

What surprised me most my first few days walking around the city? The most obvious thing – the cell phones. We had no reception as yet up on my mountain, and down in Athena, where they do have it, I’d rarely see people striding the streets talking uninhibitedly into their phones. I remembered a New York when the only people walking up Broadway seemingly talking to themselves were crazy. What had happened in these ten years fo there suddenly to be so much to say – so much so pressing that it couldn’t wait to be said? Everywhere I walked, somebody was approaching me talking on a phone and someone was behind me talking on a phone. Inside the cars, the driver were on the phone. When I took a taxi, the cabbie was on the phone. For one who frequently went without talking to anyone for days at a time, I had to wonder what that had previously held them up had collapsed in people to make incessant talking into a telephone preferable to walking about under no one’s surveillance, momentarily solitary, assimilating the streets through one’s animal senses and thinking the myriad thoughts that the activities of a city inspire. For me it made the streets appear comic and the people ridiculous.

-Exit Ghost by Philip Roth, pages 63-64

Nathan Zuckerman is man in the twilight years of his life. As an author, words and ideas have been his medium to work and creation, yet, now age seventy-one, senility and his growing “word salad” difficulty has begun is slowly robbing him of his ability to write. Once virile and in control of his destiny, a prostectomy has rendered him impotent and incontinent. And, after ten years of New England solitude, the hope of regaining some bladder control from a medical procedure has brought him back to the cosmopolis of his exodus, New York City, where he likens himself to Rip Van Winkle, returning from his twenty-year nap and finding the entire world changed.

In his week-long stay, he makes connections with three people who that threaten to irreversibly alter his chosen isolation and reality. With the first, he makes a rash decision to answer an add to swap homes and meets the young and seductive, Jamie Logan, who inspires a fantasy affair in Zuckerman’s mind and reawakens his all-but-lost desire for female company. His second, the serendipitous running into of Amy Bellette, the mistress of his literary icon, Manny Lonoff, reminds him of both his youthful past and his ever-creeping mortality. The third connection he makes is with Richard Kliman, an abrasive, tenacious wanna-be literateur, who believes he has discovered Lonoff’s “great secret” and wants to write his biography, exposing the author’s shameful “crime” in the titillating tell-all fashion of the modern biography, a genre of current writing that is more Weekly World News than World News.

Meeting these three people force Zuckerman to face and accept the realities that his isolation has allowed him to ignore: He is getting old, each day bringing him closer to his own life’s end, and after his death he will no longer have control of that life he lived, as some young writer wanting to make a name for himself may decide to write the expose of Nathan Zuckerman. In the end, he asks himself this questions: Once I am dead, who can protect the story of my life? How will I have failed to be the model human? What will be my great, unseemly secret?

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Exit Ghost  is my first experience reading Philip Roth, but I don’t plan on making it my last. Slow going at first, I wasn’t sure I would really be able to get into it. How can a mid-thirties, single mom understand and relate to a septuagenarian man? How can I, a moderate to conservative Republican from the mid-west, relate to a liberal Democrat New Englander? I’m a product of the Eighties and Nineties, he is a product of the fifties and sixties. I’m a W.A.S.P. and he a Jew. I am in the Summer of my life when all my body parts are where the good Lord put them, and work within normal parameters. He is entering the Winter of his, incontinent, showing the beginning of dementia, with a mutinous body. I’m aware death will someday happen, though not many I know have experienced it. Zuckerman is facing it’s certainty, many of his friends and contemporaries having already passed through that gate.

However, for all this lack of commonality, Roth manages the miraculous; for a time, a young woman in her prime became an aging man in his decline.

Winner of several prestigious awards, Philip Roth is a skilled, intelligent yet readable, wordsmith. He references Joseph Conrad (an author I have not yet read, but I do have Heart of Darknesson Mt. TBR) often in Exit Ghost, and I found his writing style to be reminiscent of Faulkner (not surprisingly, he has won the PEN/Faulkner Award three times).

For it’s ability to transport the reader to a life completely foreign and unimaginable, as well as for it’s well-written and memorable passages that are sure to be included in quotable literature books, I give Exit Ghost by Philip Roth  five out of five stars.

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Confessions of a Contractor by Richard Murphy

Title: Confessions of a Contractor
Author: Richard Murphy
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Putnam Adult
Publish Date: August 14, 2008
ISBN-13: 9780399155079

The first thing a woman needs to know about renovating a house or apartment is simple: do not, under any circumstance, sleep with your contractor, no matter what your husband or boyfriend is doing to you, or not doing to you. Some people in the building trade will consider this statement a direct violation of the Man Code, and you won’t find additional information on this subject at Home Depot -even though it should be there, in its own department, right between electrical and plumbing, managed by a woman who has made this very mistake.

The first line of this book competes with Tan Lines in shock value, though the use of the word “clitoris” clearly gives Tan Lines the win. However, where Tan Lines was dirty and gritty, totally lacking in emotional value and real character, Confessions of a Contractor is Tan Lines opposite.

To steal borrow from Traci over at Traci’s Book Bag, if I were to give a one word review of Confessions of a Contractor, that one word would be: Pleasure. This book is fun and sexy, but without all the filth found in Tan Lines. Henry is a likable narrator, and Murphy writes him with a self-deprecating humor that most of us can appreciate. Confessions is more than the sexual romp it appears to be in the first few paragraphs (which was all Tan Lines ever was), it is much deeper -but still fun! It’s no Oprah book. It’s a story of a man trying to do right by his standards, bumbling it often, but still getting up and trying again, and it is a story of friendships. It’s about the sometimes misguided things do to help their friends, like threaten your friend’s fiance’ with a salad fork and promise to be his worst nightmare if he hurts your friend, or like taking a cordless drill and saw and going after the self-important ass who causes your friends and their families a great deal of grief and trouble.

As Henry is remodeling the homes of two women who used to be best friends, both withholding why they are no longer friends, he finds himself falling for them both. One of whom, Rebecca, is married to a turd with whom Henry had dealt with years before when he worked on a house owned by the husbands mistress. The second woman is a bit on the wild side, with whom he gets involved after she holds a “dark” dinner where everyone’s blindfolded. At this dinner, he finds himself in a human sandwich with the hostess and an unknown second woman. The search for the identity of the second woman leads him to take jobs for the other women who are at the party… more work he has no time for.

Also plaguing Henry’s life is Gia, his ex-girlfriend who’s engaged to the man she had an affair with and shows up on Henry’s front door step to demand ask him to go to couples therapy, even though they’re not a couple anymore, so that she can move on with her life and marry Mr. Terrific with a capital T.

Throw into the mix Bill, Henry’s friend who goes to dinner parties to eat everything and stuff what he can’t into his pant pockets, including deviled eggs. Bill is the opposite of a germ-a-phobe: he pursues germs in order to build up his immune system for the coming man-made Apocalypse. Bill is the guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who’s the right man for whatever less-than-legal thing you need to have or have done.

My only complaint about this book is that it ends. Thirty pages from the last page, I’m tearing up… not from the story, but from sorrow that my time with Henry and Bill, et al will soon end.

I give Confessions a 5 out of 5 stars, and recommend it to anyone wishing for a fun, breezy book that still has depth without the teary Oprah moments. :-D

The Richest Season by Maryann McFadden

Title: The Richest Season
Author: Maryann McFadden
Hardcover: 326 pages
Publish Date: June 10, 2008
Publisher: Hyperion
ISBN: 9781401322700

Joanna looked down on the smooth, rolling hills of northern New Jersey, lush and green from the midsummer rains. This was where she had worked and shopped and cooked and cleaned, driven the curving roads that wound through those hills like ribbons of blacktop. She’d had a life down there, an existence that now seemed foreign to her from thousands of feet above, looking out the window of the plane. A kind of life, anyway. She’d left all those months ago, after all, because it had been so empty. And it still amazed her that she had done it- just walked away. Now with the clear vision of time and distance, she could see what a different person she’d been then. Fragile and numb. Lonely. Scared most of all because she wasn’t really certain she could survive on her own. But here she was, having crossed the threshold of a new life that made coming back to her old one a little unnerving, despite the fact she couldn’t wait to see her children.

Maryann McFadden’s The Richest Seasonis a story of journeys. First, it’s a telling of the journey of Joanna Harrison, who decides she’s had enough of being a piece of furniture in her corporate-climbing husband’s life. After accompanying him to a company banquet, she is surprised by the announcement of his promotion (and yet another move in her rootless 27 year marriage). The morning after the banquet, as he is flying to California on business, she gathers up a few things and drives off, leaving a message on his voice mail telling him it’s over. Joanna’s journey in the book is one of self-discovery: discovering she has the strength to stand on her own two, that she has hidden talents she’d never realized, and that she can indeed still feel passion, despite the years of being ignored.

The second journey is that of terminally ill Grace, for whom Joanna works as a helper of sorts doing some cooking and cleaning as well as errands and driving her to her doctor’s appointments. Grace’s journey is one of letting go and coming to terms with her life… and death. She also rediscovers a talent that she had laid aside long ago to be wife and mother, now fearing failure if she were to start again.

The third journey of The Richest Season is that of Paul Harrison, Joanna’s husband. With Joanna gone, Paul is forced to step back and take a long look at who he has become and how he has failed as a husband and father. Realizing, too late, that he had taken his wife for granted and had ignored her feelings for a long time, he wants his wife to come home. However, he has to learn that people will do what they want to do and he cannot impose his will on them. Paul comes to understand that a job title doesn’t define you as a person, and he learns that doing what you love can be just as much a “job” as the 9 to 5 grind.

There are several themes in The Richest Season: Friendship, love, conquering fear, acceptance, forgiveness, and wisdom. Through their friendship, Grace is able to give Joanna what her own alcoholic mother never could while Joanna acts as a surrogate daughter, with whom Grace can make peace with herself regarding her own feelings of failures as a mother. They learn that fear itself is worse than whatever you’re afraid of can do to you. They learn to let go of guilt, regret and the past and accept the future is a clean slate on which they can write their own life story.

I enjoyed The Richest Season, it was full of real-life happenings, it wasn’t sweet and wonderful, but contained real emotions that I could relate to. Having been through divorce, having been my mother’s support as my father went through the process of dying daily from cancer, being a mother who knows I haven’t always been the best mom I could be, knowing the longing to fill the empty spaces left by loneliness, all these feelings are incorporated in this book.

Part of me was hoping Joanna would get together with Hank, the shrimp-boat captain and loggerhead turtle savior.  Part of me was pulling for Paul to get his act together and for Joanna to work it out with him.  But part of me also hoped Joanna would realize she could do fine on her own and that she didn’t need a man.  Hey, at least all my bases were covered!  and I was write with one of them ;-)

There was something that annoyed me with the writing style, though. I can’t put my finger on it, but it did hinder me from loving the book. That being said, I would give The Richest Season 4 out of 5 stars. A solid effort for McFadden’s first book. :-D

One More Year by Sana Krasikov

Title:  One More Year
Autor: Sana Krasikov
Pages: 196
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau (a division of Random House, Inc.)
Publish Date: August 2008
ISBN: 9780385524391

She was tired, tired of waiting for some big event to happen in her life, while things only dragged on and on… Everything in her life was about waiting.

-Better Half, p 91

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One More Yearis a collection of eight short stories by Sana Krasikov. It is a lopsided effort. A couple of the stories are brilliant, one is a one of the worst things I’ve read lately, and the rest are, mneh.

Unfortunately, the first story in this book, Companion, is about a Russian divorcee named Ilona. She lives in an apartment with Earl Brauer and their relationship is never clear. Is she the live-in nurse? Is she just a friend and roommate? It is a confusing arrangement, and the only thing I am certain of is that Ilona is a self-centered twit who isn’t worth my time to read about. Earl isn’t much better, but at least I can understand a feel a slight twinge of sympathy. He’s lonely and she’s a user, but where he also loses me is that he’s manipulative. This story was so bad, I would have pitched the book had it not been an ARC to review. 0 stars for this one.

The two stories that I felt were brilliantly written and had great character development were Asal and The Repatriates. Asal is the story of Gulia, the unofficial wife of Rashid, who was previously married to a druggie wife-beater with an overbearing mother. She wants Rashid to divorce his legal wife so they can marry, just like he promised. When he won’t do this, she leaves for America to let him stew in his juices. When the call finally comes that he’s going through with it, Gulia’s joy is short lived. (4 out of 5 stars)

It wasn’t despair that had made Nasrin do it, she thought, it was simple vengeance. How did one compete with insanity, she wondered.

-Asal, page 65

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One thing that I liked about The Repatriates is that it shows the occasional immigrant who, upon coming to the US, believes their homeland is the best in the world. I’ve known several Vietnamese who talk this way, and have a Cuban friend who is always on about the marvelous things communism has done for his country. But they always do this with their feet planted firmly on the green grass of a free country, which always irks me.

The first line of The Repatriates tells it all:

The last days of Grisha and Lera Arsenyev’s marriage might have been a story fashioned out of commonplace warnings.

It’s the story of religious fanaticism, delusions of grandeur and trickery, and what it’s like to wake up and realized you’ve been duped by someone who was supposed to love and honor you. (4 out of five stars)

The rest of the stories are mostly just okay. Some are better than others, but nothing I’d buy a book for.

Maia in Yonkers: Maia came to New York City to work for more money than she could make back in the Ukraine. She flies her teenage son to visit her, and he proves that Americans don’t have the corner market on surly teens. (2.5 stars)
Debt: Seems to be about my relatives… Lev and his wife receive an unexpected visit from his niece and her husband. But, like my relatives, she’s come to ask for money. AND like my relatives, if he tells her no, she’ll write him off as a selfish money-hoarder. (2 stars)
Better Half: After staying in America, Anya marries Ryan who turns out to be a pot-smoking dreamer who’s abusive and paranoid-jealous. He hides her paperwork she needs to get her permanent alien status, among other butthole things, and yet… ugh, I wanted to slap her. (3 stars, maybe 3.5)
The Alternate: A man seizes the opportunity to have dinner with the daughter of his old college sweetheart with the hope of an affair. Mneh… (1 star)
There Will Be No Fourth Rome: Another stupid woman putting her freedom on the line for her boyfriend. DUH! Nona says it best in this story, “Don’t you just wish you could kill people lie that with your thoughts?” You see, that’s why I choose to stay single.(3 stars)

This book could be renamed “Women Waiting Around for Their Boyfriends to Divorce Their Wives”. The title “One More Year” comes from the second story; Maia tells her son she’s staying in America for one more year, to which he reminds her she said that last year.

What this book does well is present a picture of Georgia and Moscow the west has not seen. A world of dower-faced, bitter people who are only after what they can graft and out-right steal from anyone, even their friends and family… especially their friends and family. I suppose, if this is a true portrait, it is a mentality born from so much poverty and oppression. Even after they leave the old country and set up in America, they bring the same mindsets with them. In this, Krasikov’s characters are real and imperfect, even if they are loathsome.

However, I think Krasikov tries to put too many characters in her stories, making it impossible to develop them properly. It’s possible they’d make better novels. Another problem I had with this book is I found several parts confusing; places I wasn’t sure who was saying what or what was even going on. There were several times I came jerking to a stop over punctuation, sometimes too much and others not enough. One of those times was a sentence with a comma that tore up the effectiveness of the thought. I read and reread it, trying to figure out what she had meant to say, finally saying, “I hate that sentence” before moving on. I think the fact that the first story was so bad the rest of the book was tainted by that.

For much of this book, I can’t help but think One More Year is the kind of commercialized book Nam Le wrote about in The Boat‘s first story: Ethnic lit for ethnic sake, not for the quality of the writing. “She’s from the Ukraine! Buy her book!” Oddly enough, like Nam Le, she’s a Iowa Workshop writer. Hmm… maybe the fellow student in “Love and Honor” wasn’t from China after all.

After totalling up all the stars and dividing by 8, One More Yearreceives an overall 2.5 stars. Mneh.

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