27 September 2009

Home; Marilynne Robinson

Home: A Novel Home: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another book that was just so apt for the day in which I read it! While not about Jewish themes, the overall message of forgiving and making peace with each other and the past resonated.

Robinson's return to the Iowa town of Gilead is just as quiet, just as infused with Presbyterianism and morality as Gilead was. This time, we're with the Boughton's, Rev. Ames' neighbors. Jack, the troubled namesake that has worried Ames so much comes home after twenty years away. Glory (or Pigtails), the youngest daughter, has moved back to live with and take care of their failing father. The interactions between the four never reach the realm of real drama, it's all about the interior life.

Glory's return seems to be predicated on her losing her teaching job after marrying her longtime fiance - only there's no sign of a husband, ex or otherwise. She's settled in "temporarily", taking care of her father and the house (which she hates, feeling it's too old, too large, too something for the town). Her older siblings seem content to let her take on this burden, although there are plenty of letters and a few phone calls from them to ease her way. Of course, she has a secret that she shares, after a time, with Jack.

Jack, on the other hand, is clearly broken and just as clearly suffering from alcohol withdrawal. The shaky hands made me wonder how bad his condition was, although he swears he was sober for the past 7 1/2 years. Turns out he met a woman, fell in love and tried to turn his life around... except her father decided that he was nothing but trouble (having heard about Jack's past) and kicked him out. How much of that is true is open for debate, but clearly Jack has come home not to reconcile with his father but to reconcile with Ames (who's having none of it).

In the end, Glory is trapped in the house that her father has left her, Rev. Boughton's dying, and Jack has once again left, not appreciably more at peace than when he arrived. Della, his wife, comes by shortly after, bringing with her their son (unmentioned by Jack in any of his conversations). There's a slight twist here, one that should be obvious to the reader, but I won't give it away.

As I said, the themes of forgiveness, forgetting, redemption and morality are so well drawn here that the book is not an easy read: you will think about this long after you're done. Two friends/readers that read Gilead didn't like it, and I suspect it's because they're Jews and the Christianity made them uncomfortable. Here, that part is less front and center; I hope they give it a chance.

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Songs for the Butcher's Daughter; Peter Manseau

Songs for the Butcher's Daughter Songs for the Butcher's Daughter by Peter Manseau

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I hadn't intended to start this book (or finish it) during the High Holy Days, but much of this book is about bashert (fate) so let's just chalk it up to that, shall we?

Manseau's book Vows caught my attention at ALA years ago, and when I heard him at RUSA's Notable Tastes Breakfast this year I knew I needed to read it. The experience of Itsik/Isaac may very well have been the experience of my family: the escape from the tsar's army, the coming to America and living in an American shtetl, the changing from Jewish to American to who knows what.

To my knowledge, however, none of my family are the poet, failed or otherwise, that Itsik was. It is his journey, his willful choices to do/not do, see/not see that make this such an incredible read. At times I felt that he needed a Simon Cowell to say 'look, you'll never be a real poet', because clearly no one had ever said that. The lives he casually ruins and the obliviousness he has to those results is stunning and yet very familiar.

For those that are not Jewish, this is a great way to experience what it was like (albeit with a little fantasy - the self-delusional kind, not the dragons/castles kind - thrown in).

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25 September 2009

Elf Realm: The High Road; Daniel Kirk

Elf Realm: The High Road Elf Realm: The High Road by Daniel Kirk
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This took longer to read than it should have - I let life distract me. Overall, this is a good Quest story. In part one (which I didn't read), the Humans have managed to destroy part of the Elves home. In part two, there are two Quests undertaken: a Human (Matt), an Elf (Tuava-Li) and a Troll (Tomtar) head first to Argant (that's Pittsburgh, to us humans) and then to the North Pole to relive an ancient Epic; there's also a Human (Becky, Matt's sister), an Elf Princess (Asra) and her mad former fiance (Macta) heading to where Becky's parents are being held and where 1,000 human children will be sacrificed to either a demon or the Goddess (it's not quite clear who wins when this happens).

Of course, nothing goes smoothly or as planned. The first trio get sidetracked into finding shelter and then rescuing Tomtar's uncle while the second have this pesky demon (and two horrible Elf Mages) to deal with. There are Green Men, humans that can see the faery world (including Pixies), discussions about gambling, the promise of body parts in return for favors (like assuming the shape of an Elf Prince) and other flights of fancy. I'm not trying to sound flip - this really was a good story in this genre. Younger readers will enjoy it, but there is a menace to the story that might not make this a good read for anyone under, say, sixth grade.

I liked the book enough to keep my eyes open for the first, and the upcoming third.

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13 September 2009

Secret Society; Tom Dolby

Secret Society Secret Society by Tom Dolby

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If it's not the Masons, it must be the Catholic Church... or perhaps it's ZOG... or, well, there has to be some secret society running things, right? Making lives smoother for members, amassing incredible wealth, etc.. Unfortunately, this book reads like Gossip Girl meets Skull and Bones, with maybe a little Frankie Landau-Banks thrown in. The references are a little too hip (by which I mean already almost out-of-date) and one character has a "headband screwed on a little too tight" (Blair, anyone?).

Still, it's good trash for YA readers.

(Free ARC provided by publisher)

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Pictures at a Revolution; Mark Harris

Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The only one of the 1968 Oscar nominees for Best Picture that I saw during it's original theatrical release was Dr. Doolittle, so the impact of the other four (The Graduate, Guess Who's Coming for Dinner, In the Heat of the Night and Bonnie and Clyde) was completely missed. For those older and more aware at that time, I can only imagine what it was like to see such a change in the American movie scene.

The struggle that all five films encountered - finding stars and directors, studio funding (or lack thereof), public opinion and public taste, not to mention the final year of the old Production Code - is part of what makes this book enjoyable. Getting the behind-the-scenes scoop on how Beatty threatened a studio, or how Truffaut and Goddard might have directed Bonnie and Clyde, or the search for both Hoffman's Graduate and the Doctor's love interest was as much fun to read as was the political commentary about how the times were a-changing.

Harris' research was, of course, made easier by the memories and the bits of paper left behind - as he remarked at RUSA's Notable Tastes breakfast, how will future researchers be able to find the same depth of detail among the discarded bytes of this electronic era?

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06 September 2009

A Duty to the Dead; Charles Todd

A Duty to the Dead A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very atmospheric mystery set in WWI England - Elizabeth Crawford is a nurse serving on the Britannic when it is hit by a mine and sinks. She survives with a broken arm and is sent home to recuperate. There, she decides to finally fulfill her deathbed promise to Arthur Graham, a lieutenant she nursed. While at the Graham house, she starts to become involved with the family and realizes that their Deep, Dark Secret (that the oldest, Peregrine, murdered woman when he was 14 and is now in an asylum) might be just that little bit more.

When she returns to London, it appears that Peregrine has escaped and followed her. Together, they set out learn the truth behind the murder and his nightmares (ok, at first she's not all that eager to help but a pistol does go a long way to persuade someone!). What's interesting is not the actual sleuthing but the evocation of that era and of what "shell shock" is (and how it can be manufactured in innocent people).

I particularly liked how Bess' feelings for Arthur change over the course of the book, and yet the expected ending doesn't occur. That little twist lifted the book for me from a 3 to a 4.

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05 September 2009

The 19th Wife; David Ebershoff

The 19th Wife: A Novel The 19th Wife: A Novel by David Ebershoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While reading Latter-Day Cipher I kept wondering about the Mysteries that the murderer was exposing - how accurate was the description? did they mean what the author said they did? what do Mormons really believe about this stuff (like the garments and celestial marriage)?

This book isn't going to answer those questions completely. Part historical fiction, and part modern mystery, the Endowments and garments and marriage are discussed, but not in as much detail as I would have liked. For example, the garments are described as a one-piece thing, so the instruction to "keep half on while putting on the other half" just doesn't make any sense. Still, it's a good glimpse into an emerging Church and its doctrines. Well, ok, only one doctrine, that of polygamy.

The juxtaposition of the life of the Firsts with how the doctrine came into being and was lived by the early Mormons was interesting. Having the "lead investigator" be a gay man seemed gratuitous, though. The Danites were never fully explained, and the Meadow Mountain Massacre was a passing mention. Those, and a few other "wait - I want more" pieces made this a 4, not a 5, for me.

Now I guess I have to read Under the Banner of Heaven!

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