Saturday, June 16, 2012

In Love with Paris

With mon amie Martha in the Latin Quarter.
I've been in love with Paris since at least eighth grade. That's when, while wandering around the campus of the college where my parents teach, probably waiting for a ride home, I saw a poster for a summer abroad program at the American University of Paris. I wrote down the web address in my journal, and six years later found myself in Paris, studying in that exact program. I was alone to have adventures in the City of Light, with no expectations, just that I'd read, explore, learn and fall in love with Paris. Which of course, I did. I wandered the city on my own agenda all day long, staring up at architecture and tripping over my own feet more times than I had since I was two, avoiding lecherous French men, sampling delectable pastries, and soaking up the culture of that fabulous city. 

So naturally, I'm a big fan of the Paris memoir. I can vicariously relive my enchanting experience through the words of other travelers. The following are my recommendations and reviews for excellent Parisian memoirs.

1.   I'm just now finishing Paris in Love by Eloisa James. James is a Shakespeare professor at Fordham University by day and a romance author by night. She and her hunky Italian husband, Alessandro, her precocious daughter, Anna, and her reticent teenaged son, Luca, depart for a year of adventure in Paris. This book is essentially a publication of James's Facebook posts from their year abroad. The paragraphs are disjointed and short, each capturing a singular moment or experience. Let me get this right: you can't buy a cell phone anymore without a ridiculous $30 monthly data plan, and a memoir has been reduced to a regurgitation of social-network posts? It's hard to connect with a writer, with her story, when all she shares are three-sentence reports. 

2. You may already be aware that I'm in love with this next book: A Moveable Feast. Now this is what I consider the original memoir of Paris. As usual, Hemingway's spare prose captures his feelings about Paris beautifully, in timeless and classic ways. He spent his days in cafes writing. How's that for a life? Pencil in one hand, cafe au lait in the other. This is what he writes as he looks around a cafe and sees a beautiful girl sitting alone (always that wandering eye, Ernest!):

I've seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never you see again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.

3. Almost French was the first memoir I ever read about France. An Australian journalist goes to Paris on business, meets a Frenchman named Frederic, falls in love, and never goes home. This is kind of what I thought would happen to me in Paris, minus the never-going-home-part... Until I realized that I could never be seriously attracted to a French guy. I like American muscles, American patriotism: good old Ohio country boys. 

4.  You can't write about France without writing about its food. Julia Child's memoir about living in Paris after World War Two, My Life in France, more than does justice to Parisian culinary delights. I love Julia Child's exuberance about cooking: it seems to translate into her exuberance about life. The opening lines of the introduction:

This is a book about some of the things I have loved most in life: my husband, Paul Child; la belle France; and the many pleasures of cooking and eating. 

OK, Julia. You had me at hello.  

5.  I read Paris to the Moon in Paris. One day I was sitting by the Seine, swinging my legs over the water, probably munching a fresh baguette, and reading Gopnik's observations about les Bateaux Mouches, the sightseeing boats that take visitors on river tours of Paris, having just been on one the night before. Nothing is more exciting than this: when real life intersects simultaneously with literary life. 

I've read several more Parisian memoirs, but these last three are the best. For inter-cultural romance, pick up Almost French. For adventures with food, Julia Child's your girl. If you're feeling nostalgic, dig out A Moveable Feast. If scholarly is more your cup of cafe au lait, Paris to the Moon should do the trick, with essays and observations about the practical side of Parisian expatriate life.

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young [wo]man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.  
                              ~Ernest Hemingway

Friday, February 24, 2012

Oh, For the Love of Words! Friday (Annie Dillard)

This awesome button brought to you by The Librarian.

Fridays at my blog are dedicated to logophilia. Logophilia: the love of words. Logophile: a lover of words. I celebrate words on Fridays. That means that I'll either a) share a new vocabulary word that I learned in my reading, or b) share a passage that I've encountered in past or present literary sojourns that struck me as particularly beautiful, awesome, or funny. Are you a logophile?

An American Childhood is one of my favorite memoirs. It's about growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. It was especially delightful to read this while living and working in Pittsburgh, driving daily past locations mentioned in the book. I first discovered Annie Dillard in college and vowed to read more of her once I realized that if I could magically be able to write like any author, it would be Annie Dillard.

Somewhere between one book and another, a child's passive acceptance had slipped away from me also. I could no longer see the world's array as a backdrop to my private play, a dull, neutral backdrop about which I had learned all I needed to know. I had been chipping at the world idly, and had by accident uncovered vast and labyrinthine further worlds within it. I peered in one day, stepped in the next, and soon wandered in deep over my head. Month after month, year after year, the true and brilliant light, and the complex and multifaceted coloration, of this actual, historical, waking world invigorated me. Its vastness extended everywhere I looked... I was not to discover literature and ideas for a few more years. All I had awakened to was the world's wealth of information.

I love this passage because it speaks of a curiosity about the world. I hope that the day I stop learning--and loving to learn--is the day that I die. If all you do is stare bleary-eyed at the TV for hours every night, never reading, never dreaming, never learning, never yearning to travel, then oh, my friend, in the words of the dreamer Anne Shirley: "how much you miss."

Monday, February 20, 2012

I've Got Your Number

Poppy almost has it all: she loves her job, she's about to marry a semi-famous scholar, and she's wearing the family heirloom mega-emerald engagement ring he gave her. In one afternoon, Poppy's life is nearly derailed: at a luncheon at a hotel, she loses the mega ring! The ring is officially missing and Poppy is officially in deep trouble. It only gets worse when she dashes outside to search for cell service (oh sorry, she's a Brit. I mean mobile (moe-bile) service) and she's mugged. Her attacker makes off with her phone, leaving her ring-less and mobile-less and despondent. But her luck quickly shifts when she discovers a high-tech discarded mobile in a wastebasket (British: a bin) in the hotel lobby. She scoops it out and claims it as hers... after all, disposed articles are public property, right? Turns out that the phone she's swiped is the phone of businessman Sam Roxton's former personal assistant. Confronted by the handsome Sam to return the phone, she refuses, instead promising to forward any relevant correspondence on to him, a stranger she's never met, in exchange for keeping the phone for a few more days. After all, she has to find that heirloom ring. And she's given her new number to the hotel staff in case the ring turns up. And she has to get married in ten days. Doesn't she? 

Kinsella writes formulaic chick lit: there is the ubiquitous handsome guy who is mysterious and brusque in a Mr.-Darcy-kind-of-way, the frazzled yet delightful girl who just needs a good man to see past her insecurity/frazzledness to her true beauty, the idiot boyfriend, and the love triangle featuring all three of the previously mentioned tropes. Not that there's anything wrong with that. In this case, I was counting on Kinsella to provide a humorous and fast-paced story. I read this as a antidote to The Fault in Our Stars, which is currently vivisecting my heart so brutally that I needed a break from it. Luckily I've Got Your Number performed the service I had hoped it would. By page 25 I was laughing so hard, I had tears running down my cheeks. The scene involved Poppy stalling a Japanese businessman, at a loss as to how to prevent him from leaving the building. Suddenly she's blurts:  "I am a singing telegram!" in front of the whole contingent of Japanese businessmen, and proceeds to perform an original song/dance number to the tune of Beyonce's "Single Ladies." Every time I think about it, it makes me smirk! The laugh that keeps on giving. 

Rating: 3.5/5 stars. I always want the characters to have a little more love-story development than just getting together in the last couple of pages, but still that laugh made it all worth it. Excuse me while I go roll on the floor and laugh some more.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Oh, For the Love of Words! Friday (The Fault in Our Stars)

On Fridays, I celebrate words. 

The esteemed Book Club of Two is currently reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Right now, I am being utterly ruined by this book. I've had a lump in my throat since the second paragraph on page one. Despite the whole got-my-heart-in-the-wringer element, I have laughed! And I love these characters. The dialogue is kinda Gilmore Girls/Dawson's Creek-esque. And by that I mean that I don't think that anywhere on Earth there are teenagers who talk in the way Augustus and Hazel do (and aren't these highly improbable names for the youth of 2012?). But this is the fun of fiction: the suspension of disbelief.

Also, the author of The Fault in Our Stars is, as you can see, adorably and nerdily hunky. I should add him to my Hunky Authors post.

The prose is beautiful and somehow Green really manages to capture the voice of a teenage girl. I'm not sure how this dude can sound like a 16-year-old girl, but he succeeds. Believe me, I know. I once was a 16-year-old girl. 

The following passage is one of the instances in which I laughed: (I love that Hazel makes any word into an adjective. I do this myself, so maybe that's why I like it. I'm a firm believer in making up words as you go. Also: a double contraction! Rare and intriguing...)
Then I found myself worrying I would have to make out with him to get to Amsterdam, which is not the kind of thing you want to be thinking, because (a) It shouldn't've even been a question whether I wanted to kiss him, and (b) Kissing someone so that you can get a free trip is perilously close to full-on hooking, and I have to confess that while I did not fancy myself a particularly good person, I never thought my first real sexual action would be prostitutional.
 And this beautiful line:

As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once. 

Augustus is an anomaly. He's 17, reportedly gorgeous, and has amazing muscles. Sounds like many 17-year-old boys I stared at when I was the 16-year-old girl that I once was. And yet Augustus is exuberant! And affectionate! And unashamed of emotion! (The exclamation marks are in honor of Gus's exuberance). He's like the anti-teenage-boy. And now I know the inspiration for his personality: This is the author's YouTube channel. Definition of exuberance.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Bond Girl

When tomboy Alex Garrett was little, she realized a few things about her Wall Street banker father’s place of employment:  “inside voices” were not necessary, there was a tantalizingly frenetic urgency, and there were boys everywhere. In short, Alex knew that Wall Street was the place for her. A decade and a half later, in 2006, Alex graduates from college and is hired as a bond trader for the firm Cromwell Pierce. Alex learns the ropes of her stressful job in a volatile economic climate, navigates a complicated office romance, and successfully maneuvers amid the fickle politics of a Wall Street firm. She is referred to only as “Girlie” by the men in her department. Alex has officially become the Bond Girl.

This is a timely read; the echoes of the 2008 Recession continue in 2012. Erin Duffy was a Wall Street “Girlie” herself, and after years in finance, was laid-off by Merrill Lynch in 2008. She uses her insider knowledge to craft a fast-paced, believable, and entirely interesting story about Alex’s life on the Street. Bond Girl does for Finance what I assume The Devil Wears Prada did for Fashion (if I had read it): provide a tiny window for the masses into a mystifying and complicated industry. And while Duffy includes financial lingo, the book isn’t weighed down by it. I couldn't define hedge fund if my life depended on it, but even I felt my heart race at the depiction of the excitement of the trading desk. The Wall Street office in which Alex works is vividly portrayed: phones ringing, lights flashing, a thousand monitors on which to monitor the market, employees eating breakfast sandwiches while swearing into earpieces, traders shouting across desks… no “inside voices” here.

Refreshingly, Duffy didn’t fall into the clich├ęs that I expected her to. Alex was a strong and sassy girl who held her own in the Wall Street World of Men. And while Duffy could have easily portrayed a Devil-Wears-Prada-esque boss, he is actually a sympathetic guy, Alex’s biggest champion in the office. Part of the appeal of Bond Girl is that Alex felt like a real girl. If Alex WERE a real girl, we’d be the exact same age; I graduated from college in 2006, too. The reader feels Alex’s highs (successfully pranking a fellow employee; getting her own desk) and her lows (mishandling a trade to the tune of $93,000; avoiding the sexual advances of nasty Wall Street pervs) along with her; I laughed out loud and cringed in vicarious embarrassment.

And finally, Duffy’s first novel paints the behind-the-scenes people of Wall Street--the people that the public viewed as “criminals”--as REAL people. Yeah, there were some crazy office hijinks that involved a $1,000 wheel of parmesan and a trader who, for an office bet, ate one of every item in the vending machine in eight hours, winning $28,000 for his intestinal fortitude. (He sat in an office and binged. Alex was designated as the “watcher” to be sure he didn’t barf or cheat. All in a day’s work…) Blatantly depicted were office politics, revolting sexism and sexual harassment, huge Ivy League egos, and financial excess that made my stomach churn. But Bond Girl also depicted the humanity of the regular joes at the bond desk: not the greedy executives, but young idealists like Alex. Alex, who dreamed of a job on the Street to be like her dad, to compete with the boys, to challenge her smarts.  

Rating: 4/5 stars. Really engaging and entertaining. Fresh and contemporary. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Top Ten Books That Broke My Heart a Little

 Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature created by The Broke and the Bookish.

For some sick reason, my heart craves tragedy. This is a list of just some of the books that have broken my heart and made me cry:

1. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. An unconventional story of friendship and love, life and death. Will once lived the good life until an accident left him a quadriplegic, planning his own death via assisted suicide. That's when Louisa -- eccentric, vibrant, and lively -- comes into Will's life to try to convince him to choose life. I bawled for the last 50 pages of this book, prompting my husband to look up from his video game and say, "Why do you do this to yourself?

2.  We the Living by Ayn Rand. A girl alone against the world. What could break your heart more than that?

3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. A little girl alone against the world. What can be sadder than that?

4. What is the What by Dave Eggers. The story of one of the "lost boys" of Sudan. He survived warfare and death, crossed the ocean to find a future in America, only to lose the girl he loved: 
If ever I love again, I will not wait to love as best I can. We thought we were young and that there would be time to love well sometime in the future. This is a terrible thing to think. It is no way to live, to wait for love.

5. Ride the Wind by Lucia St. Clair Robson. A woman taken away from her sons and her husband against her will. Could it get more heartbreaking? Oh wait, yes it can, because not only is she crazy in love with her husband, he is a wild and fierce Comanche warrior. Yeah: WILD. FIERCE. COMANCHE. WARRIOR. And it's based on a true-life story. About real wild and fierce Comanche warriors.  

6. Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon. Saying good-bye to a WILD and FIERCE SCOTTISH WARRIOR in a KILT is always sad. When he is your husband and you are saying good-bye to him for the last time before you return to the future from whence you came is HEARTBREAKING. And yes, the key words here are: FIERCE. WARRIOR. (in a) KILT. And no, this one is not based on a true story. 

7. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. Hemingway's first wife loses him to another woman. Heartbreaking. So far,there hasn't been a book written about his second wife losing him to another woman. Or a book about his third wife losing him to another woman. Maybe those are in the works.

8. The Bronze Horseman trilogy by Paullina Simons. Alexander feels sure that he has just said his final good-bye to his wife and is wishing for her a life of safety and happiness. He won't be there beside her, so he prays these things for her instead, using the words of the 91st Psalm. Wow:
She turned to Alexander one last time, and in Tatiana’s eyes he saw her love, and then she was out the door and gone. Alexander whispered after her, ‘Tatiana! Thou shall not be afraid of the terror by night… nor for the arrow that flieth by day… nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor the destruction that wasteth at noon day. A thousand shall fall at your side and ten thousand at your right hand; but it shall not come near thee.’

9. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I can't talk about how much you've pained me, Scarlett, with your prideful ways. You could have been with a strong man who loved you all along.

10. Queen by Alex Haley. Jass, the son of a Alabama plantation owner, falls in love with Easter, a slave, and his childhood friend. That's heartbreak waiting to happen.

Excuse me, while I run from the room and bawl into a pile of Puffs. Happy Valentine's Day, to you, too. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Oh, For the Love of Words Friday! (5) Maggie Stiefvater

On Fridays, I celebrate words. That means that I either share a new vocabulary word that I've recently learned or a passage of particularly beautiful prose that I've encountered in past or present literary sojourns. Did you learn a new SAT word this week? Did you read a passage eight times over and dab tears from your eyes at the beauty of it? Then, please, do share!
In my excitement over Maggie Stiefvater's announcement of her upcoming book, The Raven Boys (start the countdown: it's out September 18!), I've chosen two of my favorite lyrical Maggie passages. These ones are in honor of Valentine's Day.

  There is no better taste than this: someone else's laughter in your mouth.

...he walks over to me, dark and silent. He's looking at me like he looked at me at the festival, and I know I'm looking back. Something wild and old spins inside me, but I don't have any words.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Night Circus

Two magicians in a feud that has lasted for decades each select a pupil to engage in a magical duel. The setting is the night circus, a mysterious circus that opens after sunset and closes just before dawn. The pupils are Celia and Marco and they enchant the circus with their magic. What Celia and Marco don't know: the identity of their competitor and the ultimate cost of this magical contest.

The Night Circus is vividly imagined. This is mainly a novel of atmosphere and mood. Le Cirque des Reves (The Circus of Dreams) -- as it is called -- is described in ways that make the reader feel dreamlike, pleasantly wrapped in a fog of magic and dreams. The prose is carefully worded and sometimes beautiful, but it wasn't smooth. It was as if each word was weighed and carefully selected for proper effect. This, combined with the short sentences, short paragraphs, and short choppy chapters, disrupted the flow.

I am a reader who loves plot development and even more than that, character development. This is not the book for someone who likes DEVELOPMENT. SPOILER: The contest will end with the death of one of the competitors. Normally, this shocker would make me gasp and fret for the characters with whom I had fallen in love. In The Night Circus, I thought, "Meh. I guess someone will croak."

Rating: 2.75/5 stars. I really had a hard time finishing this. The author created an enchanting circus of dreams, but I was not enchanted with the plotless prose.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Oh, For the Love of Words! (4) The Night Circus

On Fridays, I celebrate words. That means that I either share a new vocabulary word that I've recently learned or a passage of particularly beautiful prose that I've encountered in past or present literary sojourns. Did you learn a new SAT word this week? Did you read a passage eight times over and dab tears from your eyes at the beauty of it? Then, please, do share!

This week's excerpt is from The Night Circus and needs no introduction. Anyone with an ounce of romance in her heart will appreciate this moment of flirtation:

   "Do you remember all of your audiences?" Marco asks.
   "Not all of them," Celia says. "But I remember the people who look at me the way you do."
   "What way might that be?"
   "As though they cannot decide if they are afraid of me or they want to kiss me."
   "I am not afraid of you," Marco says. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

11/22/63: Part Two

This is the second post for a readalong of Stephen King's 11/22/63 hosted by Grace. Today we are posting about the last three sections of the book. My previous post on sections 1-3 is here.


King knows how to write some good foreshadowing:
          1. Jake is not a crying man.
          2. Sadie is accident-prone.
       3. As Jake writes his memoir, he has on the loafers Sadie gave him because "some things are meant to keep."

My eyes popped open at 4:00 a.m. one morning when I was half-way through 11/22/63 and it all came together in one lucid moment. I knew Sadie was destined to have an accident and that Jake would become a crying man. He'd be forced to return to the future, leaving behind his One True Love in the smoky Sixties. In 2011, he'd travel to a Texas nursing home or a hospital to visit an elderly--yet still beautiful--woman who he had once loved--still loves--but who won't remember him. And that's exactly what happened, except it wasn't a nursing home. And that kind of disappoints me. Because is that a Hollywood ending, or what? (I cried anyway. I'm a sucker.) I love the foreshadowing, but the predictability? Not so much. Except maybe King had to be predictable... Because what would YOU do if you left the Love of Your Life in the past? You would tab open Google in a heartbeat and try to track down the octogenarian of your dreams. A less predictable, but far more disheartening ending to the Sadie-Jake dance would have been if Jake had discovered that John Clayton had succeeded in killing Sadie without Jake's intervention.

Jake's deceitfulness to Sadie and Deke and Ellie was really grating on me and also getting kind of repetitive. It would have gone a long way for him to have whispered to Sadie some night in bed, "My name is really Jake. Please call me Jake." When he finally admitted to her that his name wasn't George, I felt relief. He's screwing up the world, but at least his relationship is intact. And when he told her the whole truth and nothing but the truth, I was relieved that he could share his burden, but dismayed... because nothing good could come of that. Al told him not to get too close to anyone. So what did he do? He fell in love with an entire Texas community and with the Love of His Life. He took her virginity, saved her from her crazy ex, and told her he came from the futuristic world of integration and non-smoking buses. How's that for not getting close?

From the beginning, I was worried about the "playing God" aspect of Al and Jake's plan. In all their conjecture about the ramifications of JFK's death, they didn't even consider that preventing the assassination would set a chain of events in motion that could be worse. And call me a coward, but I'd prefer the Devil I Know to the Devil I Don't. Jake learns the hard way that playing God is no FUN. And it doesn't WORK. And that rends him forever from Sadie's life. She dies in Round One in saving JFK, but it's OK, he can reset and start again. Until he realizes, with the help of the Green Card Man, that he can't go back to be with Sadie for Round Two and more poundcake. He'd totally whack out the time-space continuum, or some sci-fi malarchy like that. What did I warn you last time, Jake? This isn't a video game! (Why won't characters ever listen me!?)

 Sometimes a cigar is just a smoke and a story's just a story. 

Rating: 4.5/5 stars. Truly an amazing book. Original and lovely and heartbreaking.    

Monday, January 30, 2012

Faithful Place

Twenty-two years ago Detective Frank Mackey's heart was broken on the night that he thought he was going to run off to England with his childhood sweetheart. But Rosie never showed. Instead, she left a 'Dear John' letter for him and disappeared out of his life forever. Frank never went back to his home on Faithful Place, unwilling to face his dysfunctional family without Rosie just a few houses away. Now Rosie's suitcase has been found in a derelict house on Faithful Place and 41-year-old Frank is on the trail to discover what happened, finally, to the love of his youthful life. His trail leads him back to Faithful Place, the street so filled with memories and demons that he hoped he'd never have to return. 

Faithful Place shows Tana French at her best, back in the groove after the somewhat disappointing The Likeness. Frank was introduced in The Likeness as Cassie's boss from Undercover. He is a renegade. His moral code as a cop is pretty skewed; he'd be the kind of cop arrested for police brutality. But as a man and as a devoted father, he tries to do what is right. Solving the mystery of what happened to Rosie gets to Frank's head, in that he has to reassess what he has believed to be true for the last 22 years, even his views toward women, and the reasons his marriage crumbled. But it doesn't shake him fundamentally as a person, because Frank knows himself and what he fundamentally believes. He knows what he stands for and he will not be swayed in his very identity as Rob Ryan was in In the Woods and Cassie was in The Likeness.  Frank's contemporary story is alternated with gentle flashbacks of life with Rosie from his youth. A working-class neighborhood in 1980s Dublin is vividly evoked.

The writing, as expected, is polished and poetic. French displays impeccable mastery of dialogue. I could really hear characters saying what I was reading and the Irish slang is delectable. In a flashback, Rosie tells Frank she's been offered a coveted job at the Guinness factory and Frank replies, "Ah, deadly." Deadly. That's awesome. Could I incorporate this into my own vernacular? And her use of profanity is mildly amazing. I don't swear, myself. I happen to think it's crass and coarse and generally unnecessary. Also, I'm saving up my swearing for when I really need it to count for something. For example: being mugged. Then I hope to unleash a string of well-constructed profanities that would impress a rapper. Until that day, I keep it strictly "oh-gee-whiz"-G-rated. But I can appreciate some fine profanity, when used to proper effect, and French uses it well. A few times, I even re-read a passage with particularly enticing cuss words, just to be awed at her use of language and dialogue, profanity included. 

Sometimes when we are riding in the car, Nathan rolls down the window and spits outside as we are careening down the road at 50 MPH. And invariably, I wait a fraction of a second and then jerk my head to the side away from him and smack my hand against my cheek as if a giant loogie had collided with my face in some unfortunate current of wind. Nathan says this is completely predictable behavior, and it takes a lot of physical effort to restrain from doing this highly comedic bit just to prove myself unpredictable. But here again, I'm predictable. I loved Faithful Place because I have a crush on Frank Mackey: his blue eyes, his loyalty, his capacity to love, and his desire to be a good example to his young daughter.
I said, "What are you on about? I love you."
It stunned me. I had never said it before. I knew that I would never say it again, not really; that you only get one shot at it in a lifetime. I got mine out of nowhere on a misty autumn evening, under a street lamp shining yellow streaks on the wet pavement, with Rosie's strong pliable fingers woven through mine.
Rating: 4.25/5 stars. If you loved In the Woods, skip The Likeness and head straight for this goodie. Tighter writing and a satisfying ending.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Me Before You

A diminutive, eccentric, brunette waitress at a shabby cafe in a tiny English town and a slick business executive who pursues extreme adventure on the arms of statuesque and shallow blondes aren't likely to cross paths. And if they ever did cross paths, they'd quickly un-cross them, because not only do Louisa Clark and Will Traynor have nothing in common, they live life by two totally different scripts. He's cultured and adventurous and snobby; she's flighty and unambitious and timid. And then Will, in the prime of his life, is injured in an accident, leaving him a quadriplegic and plotting the end of his life via assisted suicide. And Louisa loses her job at the cafe and is hired by Will's mom to be his companion, as a last-ditch effort to help her son see that life is indeed worth living. Me Before You is the story of two radically different people who come into each other's lives at just the right moment, to change each other's hearts forever.

Louisa has no experience as a caregiver and initially dislikes Will, who has been confined to his motorized wheelchair for two years and who works valiantly to be sure that everyone despises him. His sarcasm and bitterness repel Louisa, until one day she snaps at him, calls him an "arse" -- she dares to yell at a quadriplegic! -- and a fragile friendship begins between the two. As Louisa attempts to remind Will that life is vibrant and precious, Will has a mission all of his own: to awaken Louisa to the great wide world out there for the exploring, to make her see that she is too special and talented for the tiny life with which she has been content. 

At the beginning, the episodic segments of narration felt jilted; that choppiness faded away somewhere in the middle, though whether that was due to smoother flow or the fact that I had become totally absorbed in the story is hard to tell. Moyes presents what feels like a very realistic portrayal of the life of a quadriplegic. Will is confined to a wheelchair and at the mercy of others to care for his every need, but Moyes also respectfully outlines the fear and the pain that Will lives with, the daily indignities and small humiliations of his life. 

The reader quickly sees Will not as a patient, not as a man in a wheelchair, but as a fiercely funny and intelligent man who is struggling with the fact that his life has veered so far off of any course he had planned for or expected. The moments that Louisa begins to recognize the same thing are the moments that stand out in a 400+ page read. The first time that Louisa shaves Will's face, she realizes that no one has touched him in a non-medical way for years. And so she caresses his face lovingly and shaves him until she is as lost in the intimacy of the moment as he is. And the blush that blooms on Will's neck when Louisa's lips brush against it as she bites the tag of a collar off of the shirt he is wearing. And the moment when Will realizes -- when Louisa faces, sobbing, a demon from her past -- that she needs him just as much as he needs her.

The ending of Me Before You totally gobsmacked me. (Gobsmacked is Irish slang, introduced to my vocabulary by Tana French). Me Before You is a beautiful story that will make you think. I cried intermittently throughout the entire 481 pages (which is quite awkward when you are in a public place). I think that Moyes had to have tears streaming down her cheeks over her keyboard as she typed this story, because this is as raw and heartfelt a story as I've ever read.

Rating: 4/5 stars. This has snagged at my heart like nothing in a long time. The emotion of the writing is raw and beautiful.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Oh, For the Love of Words! Friday (3) Venal v. Venial

On Fridays, I celebrate words. That means that I either share a new vocabulary word that I've recently learned or a passage of particularly beautiful prose that I've encountered in past or present literary sojourns. Did you learn a new SAT word this week? Did you read a passage eight times over and dab tears from your eyes at the beauty of it? Then, please, do share!

 Venal v. Venial

These two similar "v" words popped out at me this week, from the pages of The Likeness by Tana French. I asked Nathan if he knew the definitions, and, without skipping a beat, he said, "Venal is an adjective frequently used to describe hermaphrodites. And venial is the opposite of congenial." Hmmm. Interesting. And incorrect on all counts. But it made me laugh. 

From context clues, I figured out that venial meant trivial. And though I could deduce that venal wasn't a compliment, figuring out the definition involved a few clicks of the mouse and tabbing open Here are the passages from the text:

Getting over-enthusiastic, needing to prove yourself after a bad slipup: those were things Frank could understand, things that happened all the time, and they're venial sins.   
As soon as rulers mean nothing, war means nothing; human life means nothing. We're ruled by venal little usurpers, all of us, and they make meaninglessness everywhere they go.

Venial (adj)
          able to be forgiven or pardoned; excusable; trifling

Venal (adj)
         willing to sell one's influence; open to bribery; corruptible

 Bonus to me if I can actually use one of these words in conversation this week!

(Incidentally, The Likeness is French's weakest book. Skip that one and go right for Faithful Place, which I'm gonna be posting about soon.)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Waiting for a Book... and the Healing Power of Jane Austen

On the way home from work today, my lovely husband said, "I hope you get the book you're waiting for today." This was a very sweet sentiment of him, but most likely he meant so you'll start reading it and give me some peace.

Because right now, I am waiting (and not patiently) for this book:

It's by one of my favorite "discovered" authors in 2011: Jojo Moyes. The Book Club of Two read The Last Letter from Your Lover last summer and I adored it! TLLFYL won the RNA award in the UK last year (Romantic Novel of the Year), but most of her other stuff hasn't really seemed to hop across the pond yet. And books take WAY longer to arrive when they are "dispatched" from the UK. (I love all the language they use on Amazon's UK website!) 

Me Before You is the story of a rich guy who lives a fast life, until he is paralyzed by a motorcycle accident, which leaves him a quadriplegic. He is considering assisted suicide, but his mother begs him to give life another chance... live for six more months. In that time, his mother hires a caregiver and companion for him, but she's not looking for medical experience... she wants to find a vibrant soul who will help her son realize that life is beautiful... and worth living. It's a love story, and I think--hope--that it will be a story that affirms life and love. 

But to hold me over, while I anxiously run to our little mailslot everyday, and stomp away like a disappointed two-year-old, I've been enjoying Jojo's website. I mean, it's not the good stuff: I can't wait for a fix of the real stuff, but it's methadone. It'll take the edge off. 

Here's a fun article Moyes wrote about the healing power of literature, from the Daily Telegraph:

Thank you, Jojo, for so eloquently citing more reasons why reading is important:

"but as anyone who loves books knows, fiction -- and Austen especially -- is a great remedy for the steeper humps of the human condition." 

"Literature holds up a mirror: it may reflect your own life back at you, or it may show you something exaggerated... One favorite book cited to me yesterday by a cancer survivor was the gruelling The Pianist, by Wladyslaw Szpilman 'because,' she said, 'it said I could get through it.' Perhaps this is the clearest message... And it's a message that literature delivers far more effectively than most self-help books, or the velvety tones of Oprah Winfrey: you will endure this, just as other people have endured it. And you can survive."

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Likeness

There's a dead girl in an abandoned cottage in a tiny Irish village. That's certainly run-of-the-mill for the murder detectives on Dublin's Murder Squad. But the catch this time is that the dead girl is a dead-ringer for former Murder Detective Cassie Maddox. And it gets stickier: the victim's name is Lexie Madison, an alias that Cassie herself created, years before, when she served as an Undercover Agent. There are no real suspects, but Cassie has a unique opportunity in this case: pretend that Lexie didn't die and slip on her shoes once more. Donning Lexie's identity, Cassie goes undercover into the Whitethorn House, the home where Lexie lived with four friends--four very unusual friends--in the hopes that she can ferret out the suspect from the inside. 

The Likeness is French's follow-up to In the Woods, which was a darling of critics and readers alike, and highly enjoyed by this reader. Cassie was Rob Ryan's partner on the Murder Squad from ITW, as fans of French will remember, and The Likeness is Cassie's story, told in her first-person voice. I think that French, more than anything, writes psychological thrillers. Sure, it's a murder mystery. Sure, it's a police procedural. But really, she creates a detective, she imagines a case--THE case--that could royally mess with the mind of her detective. We know what happened to Rob's head during Operation Vestal in ITW: it preyed on all his weaknesses and shattered his carefully-constructed world. 

In The Likeness, Cassie is beginning a fledgling relationship with Sam O'Neill, the steady, gentle cop who worked with Rob and Cassie on Operation Vestal, but she has her doubts and she's still reeling from the pain of what happened with Rob. Now, she's presented with an opportunity to live with four other young people, to belong with them, as she has belonged nowhere in her life, except for those brief years with Rob. That's a heady and intoxicating atmosphere for a 30-something woman who's never felt like she's belonged: to be welcomed with open arms into a ready-made family of friends. It doesn't take long before the lines of reality become warped, before her objectivity toward the suspects with whom she lives is challenged.

The premise is highly improbable: to encounter another unrelated person in this world who looks exactly like you, to step into their shoes and pose as them, with no one the wiser. It's almost laughable. But if you read this book as the Gothic Novel that it is: atmospheric and moody and haunting, you could believe supernatural occurrences at Whitethorn House, you could believe the existence of a doppelganger whose existence could shake Cassie to her very core. 

I'm still in love with French, but The Likeness didn't suck-me-in-and-not-let-me-go quite like In the Woods did to me in December. I attribute this mainly to the voice of the main character. Cassie had a compelling voice, but it was French's portrayal of Rob that really appealed to me. I think that writing from the voice of a character of the opposite sex would be incredibly challenging, but French captured Rob and made me believe he was a man. And let's face it, I lost part of my heart to Rob, so The Likeness couldn't compare on that score. Cassie wasn't the only one still reeling from Rob's betrayal at the end of ITW, (If you didn't pick that up: me. I'm still reeling!) and The Likeness reveals a few more details about their troubling relationship, but nothing that helped to heal this reader's broken heart. 

French does amazing things with punctuation. I've never seen dashes and colons and semi-colons used to such tantalizing effect. You could read French just to study and admire those tiny dots and lines and squiggles at the end of phrases that we so often just skim our eyes over, but never really appreciate.

I had been right: freedom smelled like ozone and thunderstorms and gunpowder all at once, like snow and bonfires and cut grass, it tasted like seawater and oranges. 

Rating: 3.5/5 stars. Atmospheric and intriguing. Lovely writing.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Oh, For the Love of Words! Friday (2)

 Sara (aka The Librarian) made me this awesome button! She texted me last night with a surprise and the surprise was this button. And I lovvve it. 

Every Friday I am going to be celebrating words. Whether I share a new vocab word I learned in my reading or a passage that strikes me as particularly beautiful, it's gonna be logophilia central at Oh, For the Love of Words! Friday.

This passage still makes me catch my breath. From We the Living by Ayn Rand:
He took her hand before she could extend it, tore off the black mitten, raised the hand slowly to his lips and kissed her palm. Then he turned quickly and walked away. The snow creaked under his feet. The sound and the figure melted into the darkness, while she was still standing motionless, her hand outstretched, until a little white flake fluttered onto her palm, onto the unseen treasure she was afraid to spill.

Prior to this unexpected and passionate moment, Kira and Leo are strangers. I love that this scene takes place outside, in the snow, in public. It shouldn't be as sensual as it is, but the words that Rand uses makes it almost blush-worthy so. He is disrobing her (well, her hand, anyway) almost violently, and then kisses her naked palm. Which is very different from a top-of-the-hand kiss, I assure you. Read some more historical novels if you are not aware of that. The palm-kiss is a lover's kiss. And I think, even though Leo has just met Kira, he is claiming her as his. 

This is the most tragically beautiful novel I've ever read. I feel about this book about how you feel about your special blankie or dolly that you had when you were little. Every time I pick it up, I just want to clutch it to my chest, smell it, feel it, and remember. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Lock Artist

There are a few authors' blogs that I read regularly... hoping that they will announce Western PA tour dates or post snippets of upcoming titles to hold me over until faraway release dates. This weekend, Maggie Stiefvater, author of The Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy (that Sara exposed me to) and the more recent YA release, The Scorpio Races, posted about a book she enjoyed. So, using the same philosophy that is behind the idea that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," I realized that a favorite author of one of my favorite authors is bound to be a favorite author of mine, too. Or something. 

So that's why I ran out to Barnes and Noble and used my last remaining gift card from Christmas (that is restraint, I tell you. It's the middle of January!) to grab The Lock Artist

It's the story of Mike, "the Miracle Boy" from industrial Michigan, who survives something terrible that happened to him when he was eight-years-old. Something so terrible that his story made big-time news and so terrible that he hasn't spoken a word since. Now, ten years later, he lives with his liquor-store-owning uncle in a depressed part of town and still lives that fateful day from his past over and over again. It turns out that Silent Mike has two talents: one reputable and one disreputable. He's a really good artist... and he can pick any lock and break any combination. One night of drunken teenage stupidity changes Mike's life forever. It's the night that simultaneously leads him to the girl he wants to find his voice for and the man who will take away his freedom and innocence.

This is one of those books that leaves you raw. Mike tells his story himself, from prison, some time in the future. He's brutally honest in his account of his criminal misdeeds, even though he's seen and done some pretty gnarly things. From a first-person POV, he interweaves the two strands of his life: his messed-up life pre- and post- indoctrination into the seedy underworld of criminalia (That should be a word. But the squiggly red line under it in my draft says otherwise). Ultimately, the strands lead to the events that locked him, the lock artist, behind bars--and yes, he eventually shares the terrible event that silenced him when he was eight. I can't totally describe the interwoven time-strands. Because I don't think I've ever read a book that bounced through time in quite the same way, into a seamless ending where the strands line up perfectly. However it happened, it worked. There's a lot of detailed information about picking locks and breaking into safes that somehow never gets repetitive, even though I couldn't understand half of it. Hamilton manages to intrigue with every lock and every safe.

Incidentally, Mike reminds me a lot of the character of Sam from Linger, Shiver, and Forever, by Maggie Stiefvater. They both have had tragic childhoods that cause them to lose their families and neither really fits in until each meets the Girl Who Changes Everything. Sam and Mike both strike me to be similar physically: cute, with shaggy dark hair. Mike is repeatedly called "beautiful" by girls in The Lock Artist. Which is an adjective I wholeheartedly endorse to describe men. Handsome is an emotionless word. Sure, it expresses that a man is well-put-together and aesthetically pleasing in a generally symmetrical manner. But beautiful expresses more than just handsomeness. It's a word that expresses feeling and character. Mike can be beautiful, even with the sadness in his eyes and his broken voice.

Something I've been enjoying lately is the Subtle Love Story. Readers are probably natural voyeurs, but characters in a book deserve a little privacy to carry on their love affairs. I love that, even though we know that Amelia and Mike are in love, we don't see everything of how they got there. We don't have a play-by-play of their shenanigans in the bedroom, even though we know they're in there. But that doesn't make the feelings less strong. It doesn't make the moments they share less beautiful. Sometimes less is more. I'm not just talking about sex here. But sometimes that's what it comes down to. End scene, dim the lights, give the lovers some privacy. And Mike (or Steve Hamilton) gets that. This is where he dims the lights (figuratively and literally, probably):

She took my hand and led me back to her bed.

This beautiful line from Gone with the Wind popped into my head when I read the love scenes from The Lock Artist

She was darkness and he was darkness and there had never been anything before this time, only darkness and his lips upon her.

Rating: 4/5 stars. Original, suspenseful, heart-wrenching. An action read with heart. Now, I'm off to get some bobby pins and safety pins and see what I can do about the locks around here...