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American Pastoral (Nathan Zuckerman Book 1)
American Pastoral (Nathan Zuckerman Book 1)
Offered by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Price: $9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Anything but pastoral, July 20, 2015
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Okay, let me just say I was dumfounded. An acquaintance, a lit professor (contemporary Jewish fiction: Roth, Bellow, Singer, etc.), says “American Pastoral” is arguably Roth’s best novel.

In my first read, the book seemed static; abrupt in changing its point of view. As opera, it would have plenty of passion but remain earthbound nevertheless. Its narrative is flimsy, doing little more than connecting the dots that map out the story.

The nut of this story is a single horrible act of 1960s domestic terrorism and its aftermath that becomes the fulcrum around which everything spins. The narrative, circles but ends up going nowhere. The “Swede,” who is the main voice, keeps churning the story by referring again and again to the horrible event and the consequences. The story is recounted, told and retold.

To me the book becomes the Swede’s internal, desperate rant, a “cri de Coeur,” of a man of privilege, a Jew, a blond golden boy, ultimately brought to ground by the turbulent, explosive 1960s and the events that swept society and the Swede along with it – into the “fury, violence and desperation of the counterpastoral, into the indigenous American berserk.”

When I finished the book, I brooded and then moved on. Then in an act of compulsion, I re-read it. My read-through this time was an attempt to channel the Swede, to burrow into his head and feel what he’s feeling. And the thing of it is, when I did that, the book became disquieting, disturbing – almost haunting – in the fierceness and anguish of its emotion. It’s simply incredible how Roth manages to get your brain roiling with empathy. The novel is burdened with the Swede’s unbridled internal feeling of rage, which is portrayed in a way and to an extent that my reassessment makes “American Pastoral” among the most wrenching books I’ve read.

Roth calls upon Nathan Zuckerman to narrate the first third of the book. It’s in this section we learn most about Seymour Levov’s – The Swede’s – history. Then poof, Zuckerman disappears, inexplicably and the world in the 1960s is portrayed through the lens of the Swede’s unhinged sensibilities.

Roth gives us a character study of a decent man who comes of age in postwar America and falls to the grip of his times. This is foremost a story of America –its immigrants, its industry and its promise of a good, orderly life. Isn’t it ironic that the Swede’s wife was a runner-up for the Miss America crown.

The Swede’s prosperity derives from a successful glove business started by his father. The business of making and marketing fashion gloves becomes a fascinating case study of what it takes to succeed, what it’s like to be stalked by the threat of failure, what it’s like to feel powerless to stem defeat.

Ultimately “American Pastoral” earns lasting distinction because it transcends. More than the story of an individual crushed by the forces of history, the novel rises to become a sweeping portrait of America at its most fractious. If Roth is ever presented with the Nobel Prize he deserves, he will have entered the pantheon because of writing this compelling.

In a word: Transcendent

The Paying Guests
The Paying Guests
Offered by Penguin Group (USA) LLC
Price: $12.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Dark side of desire, July 17, 2015
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This review is from: The Paying Guests (Kindle Edition)
“The Paying Guests” is as much about havoc on the battlefield as “All Quiet on the Western Front.” In this book, the trenches are the streets of London after WWI, where “nothing remains the same, where civilized behavior had gone out the window.”

It’s 1922 and war had been fought in which men of the “clerk class” had been conscripted into defending their country and the “sons of the gentry” had willingly laid down their lives. The women who remained behind had learned to cope and carry on, and now that the war has ended the survivors have been thrown headlong into a different world, to learn all over again how to adjust and live together and to gain equilibrium when everything seems off kilter. Walters tells us about the loves and clashes, the sometimes-tragic collisions that follow.

The story engages you emotionally. It also asks you to think about and consider, for good or ill, the clamps culture places on free will. It’s a book that will leave you – at least it did me – pondering. The moral dilemma Waters throws at her two main characters was provocative enough that I’m still hashing out the outcome. Walters keeps me thinking, and to me that’s good literature.

Frances, 26, lives with her mother in what was before the war a grand house in a posh neighborhood. The home isn’t wearing its history well and once well healed, the mother and daughter are struggling to keep up things, including appearances. They take in “paying guests” to help with the bills. And as soon as the Wrays move in it’s time to take a breath and prepare for the unexpected; not much of which enriches any of their lives.

This novel is so good because Waters tells such a good story. But her style, her keen etching of a post WWI London, its characters that are alive with sensation and ideas; its dialogue that speaks to you with the distinct voice of each of the characters; all this is what raises “The Paying Guests,” above the usual. I ask you to be prepared to be engaged and entertained, but moreover to be challenged to think—and to – rethink the moral choices made and their consequences.

In a word of two: Think “Rebecca,” think “Streetcar”

Hurst (Kindle Single)
Hurst (Kindle Single)
Price: $0.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Better than some other things you might be doing, July 16, 2015
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If you have an itch to download “Hurst,” do so; you’ll be entertained and just perhaps a little engaged by the story, a genre-mashing mystery set in 2075 that feels part Medieval morality play / western show-down / futuristic attack of the cyborgs.

But if you have not yet read anything by Percy, my advice is you’d be better off downloading his first book, the short-story collection “Refresh, Refresh.” Percy’s first published work, especially the title story is an immensely accomplished tale of the bravado of a teenager in rural Oregon emailing as a way of coping with the absence of his father, who is fighting in Iraq.

Percy followed with the “Wilding,” another story set in the Pacific Northwest. This time, dealing with a backcountry camping trip involving father, son and grandfather and one supremely menacing brown bear.

After that Percy veered toward more dystopian themes and jumped on the wagon heaping full of vampires thirsting for blood. And depending on your preference, Percy’s style may be evolving in your direction more than mine.

I picked up “Hurst” because I wanted to check in on Percy and see where his literary bent is at present. The 48-page story moves forward step by step and hour by hour. There’s little time or effort put into character development; you’ll come across a surprise here and there and a denouement that you will have figured out a third of the way through. But it’s an easy read.

Hurst is a walled sanctuary, a commune-like colony isolated from a futuristic society. One of the outsiders -- he’s representing The Bureau – enters the gate to investigate a mysterious death. Stephen is his name; he’s helped by the enclave’s “deputy” in the search for reasons and answers hidden inside the closed society.

You'll probably be entertained but reading the story is like picking up an issue of “People.” It doesn’t leave you with much residual value when you’re done and there is not much left to stick in your memory. If you’ve got an hour to wind down, do so. “Hurst” is relaxation. And there is definitely something to say for relaxing once in awhile.

In a word or two: Rainy day read

The New Neighbor: A Novel
The New Neighbor: A Novel
Offered by Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc
Price: $12.99

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The reasons we find not to forgive ourselves, July 15, 2015
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The small, simple house within waving distance across the pond in the wilds of rural Tennessee where Margaret Riley lives is unoccupied when the “The New Neighbor” begins. It’s vacant again when the book closes. Emptiness is what infuses this tidy, unadorned story of three women, each of whom is alone and guarding secrets that have resulted in their isolation and solitude.

Ninety-year-old Margaret could teach Olive Kitteridge a thing or two about being abrasive. She is cantankerous to the point she wonders why people in her rural town allow her to speak to them “so rudely.” A battlefield nurse during World War II, Margaret has been scarred by the trauma and suffering she’s seen. She is a fan of mystery books. She has also read and “tried to understand” the books of Virginia Woolf; and thinks time and again of loading her pockets with stones the way Woolf did and walking into the pond to sink, ending her lonely life.

Margaret is surprised when she sees a new neighbor has moved into the house and gives the woman across the pond a tentative wave. Jennifer Young (a name she has given herself), who is half Margaret’s age and has moved into the rental with her four-year-old son Milo, seeks seclusion. She hesitates a beat but then waves back. The third major character is Zoe, Jennifer’s grown daughter who lives in Michigan and is estranged from her mother for traumatic reasons murky at first that are revealed over time.

As if taking a page from one of her mysteries, Margaret schemes and meddles. As she seeks trust and begins to uncover long-hidden secrets, each of the three women discovers truths about the other two and themselves; all three move closer to a state of grace and solace they had long been seeking.

Stewart has earned a reputation as a writer with focus whose prose is insightful more than showy. In “The New Neighbor,” the point of view slides and occasionally slips from present to past and from one character to the next. The effect occasionally is jarring but works better than if she had written a linear story from one person’s point of view.

You may not always trust the truth of what any one of the characters is saying to the other but there’s never any doubt that Stewart has tight control over her story and created characters who are complex but utterly believable and ultimately sympathetic in their motivations and humanity. This is a book to read leisurely and to savor in its nuance.

In a word or two: Reasons we refuse to forgive ourselves

City on Fire: A novel
City on Fire: A novel
by Garth Risk Hallberg
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.26
184 used & new from $4.97

40 of 54 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A rich, densely woven tapestry, July 13, 2015
This review is from: City on Fire: A novel (Hardcover)
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Sure, “City on Fire, ” at just under 1,000 pages, is crammed with detail and dialogue; some of which could have been cut. And likewise, Melville could have eased up on some of the discourse on whaling.

But for me, the content and play of this novel warrant the length; his words helps propel the story forward, convey an aspect of character or provide we with nuance. It all adds to the story’s irony, which I found exhilarating.

And for me it was an easy, fast read – frothy, even – completed just after taking on Hanya Yanagihara’s wrenching “A Little Life.” Both are big summer books but “City” is absolutely buoyant when read in tandem with “Life.”

If you have read any of Hallberg’s essays in The Millions or stories in “Slate” or “Glimmer Train,” you already know he’s an accomplished stylist. From glimpses here and there he also sounds like a very likeable fellow. Now he’s given us evidence that he’s awfully adept at churning out a good yarn. And that’s what I think the author was setting out to do, tell a compelling, ripping story that captures the culture of a polyglot metropolis during the funky American 70s.

Sam and Charlie, girl and boy, two Long Island teenagers in town to take in some punk; Regan and William Hamilton-Sweeney, siblings who are immensely rich and seriously estranged; Mercer and Keith make up a cadre connected without knowing it. Their lives collide and will be remarkably upended July 13 1977 by the freakish New York Blackout. The threads of their stories and the fabric of their lives are intricately woven together, and it takes all 900-plus pages of the book to produce the rich and entertaining tapestry.

Hallberg tells us early on that, when talking about New York City, “If the evidence points to anything, it’s that there is no one, unitary City. Or if there is, it’s the sum of thousands of variations, all jockeying for the same spot.” “City on Fire” is that story, keenly observed, of those thousands of variations.

In a word or two: Darn close to mesmerizing
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 7, 2015 11:01 AM PDT

We Are Not Ourselves: A Novel
We Are Not Ourselves: A Novel
by Matthew Thomas
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.58
242 used & new from $0.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Want a little gloom in your day?, December 30, 2014
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A friend, a woman, deleted “We Are Not Ourselves” halfway through. She dumped the novel after investing a good measure of time in Eileen Tumulty’s pursuit of the American dream.

“I just got tired of being around these people,” she said. And that to me, is what lingers about the book, the characters just aren’t engaging enough to carry the weight of the narrative. Written with considerable style and a good sense of the march of time across much of the twentieth century, the writing unfortunately doesn’t overcome the dreariness of the story.

Born near mid-Century the daughter of Irish immigrants, Eileen Tumulty says while still an impressionable teenager growing up in Queens she hoped for “a man whose trunk was thick but whose bark was thin, who flowered beautifully, even if only for her.”

Ed Leary the scientist she marries was nothing like anyone she had encountered in her Irish-American existence. Their widely varying aspirations, their vastly divergent notions of what constitutes success and achievement all to soon makes their mismatch clearly apparent. When fate intervenes, Eileen soldiers on. Her spirit is indomitable and her will is as fierce as it is misguided. But to what end? Determination gets her where? Their son Connell is portrayed in monochrome, a character badly in need of substance.

Instead of powerfully moving, affirming or redemptive, the book became for me something to plow through straight on to the foregone conclusion. For a near-perfect one-two punch, reread Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage.” Both of the books do a great job of bringing gloom into the brightest of days.

Rebellion: The History of England from James I to the Glorious Revolution
Rebellion: The History of England from James I to the Glorious Revolution
Offered by Macmillan
Price: $9.99

27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars England, wealthy and wanton, October 21, 2014
Atmospherics is what Peter Ackroyd does best. And he does it so well.

In all his histories but especially in “Rebellion,” Ackroyd paints a vivid portrait that manages to come alive with the sights, smells and sounds of the period, in this book Jacobean England.

How's this for verisimilitude: Ackroyd recounts the famous diarist of the period Samuel Pepys sitting down to a dinner of “marrow bones and a leg of mutton, a loin of veal and a dish of fowl together with two dozen larks.” Offered a serving of fish, Ackroyd tells us that Pepys declined and recorded later in his diary that the sturgeon seemed to be “creeping” with “many little worms, which I suppose was through the staleness of the pickle.”

“Rebellion” is the latest installment in the author’s multi-volume chronicle of Great Britain and it’s a big, bouncy slice of British history. He is constantly peppering this part of the massive chronicle with smallish, memorable details such as the description by a member of court of the newly enthroned James I as being someone who was a “robust” and “fluent conversationalist” but also a king who seemed to be “forever fiddling” with his codpiece.

From the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 and ascension of James I to the removal of his grandson James II in 1688 the book gives us the story of the House of Stuart. James I was the son of Mary Queen of Scots and as the monarch to usher Britain into the 17th century, James unified England and Scotland, no small achievement.

The century was in many ways a prosperous one for Britain. It was also fractious and turbulent. The Stuart century saw the execution of a king, Cromwell’s rise and fall and the bloody civil war that became the blot on the dictator’s legacy. Ackroyd closes the book on this chapter in English history with downfall of James II.

History is usually written from the perspective of the royals, the class in power and the elite, those who rule. Ackroyd does something more democratic and inclusive. He depicts the leaders and their influence and foibles. But he also portrays what life was like and gives full representation to the not-so-exalted, the men and women who lived out a way of life mostly imposed upon them. And if for no other reason, Ackroyd’s careful rendering of ordinary life earns “Rebellion” a spot up near the top of your booklist . . . and hungry with anticipation for what life’s promise will be in England in the 18th Century.
In a word: Lively
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 23, 2014 12:38 PM PDT

Natchez Burning (Penn Cage Book 4)
Natchez Burning (Penn Cage Book 4)
Offered by HarperCollins Publishers
Price: $8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Bearing witness with zeal and moral heft, July 1, 2014
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“Natchez Burning” is a big book in size and scope. It commands your attention with the same sweep and many of the themes that have made Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” an American classic. It’s certainly no happenstance, then, that Iles gives his lead character the name Penn.

And although “Natchez Burning” is a novel, the story we’re told is woven from fact. In the afterword, Iles says his fictional account of true early 1960s-era crime in Louisiana’s Concordia Parish and the neighboring corner of Mississippi reflects “emotional realities” that he believes are accurate. The likelihood that the cruelty and suffering depicted actually occurred makes “Natchez Burning” all the more harrowing.

The horrific torture and killing of three black men more than forty years earlier. Over the decades the unsolved murders have continued to cry out for justice as well as closure. Henry Sexton, a small town reporter is joined by former prosecutor and now town mayor Penn Cage. Together, they dog the case and uncover long-hidden secrets that ignite another cycle of hatred and violence. The trail of murder and injustice leads to Penn’s father Tom Cage, the town’s revered family doctor who is defiant in guarding what he knows about the crimes. Relentless and obsessive, the reporter and former prosecutor place themselves and everyone close to them in peril they never imagined.

Like “All the King’s Men,” Iles’ book bears witness to its time and place. But Iles is most concerned – in my reading – in telling a story that gives life and emotional bearing to his characters. At times the storytelling becomes operatic with melodramatic extremes that almost overwhelm the story.

Iles also has the tendency to explicate the writing process by having a character, construct a long logic string that reviews every possible scenario, alternative or solution to an event or unanswered question. He lays bare the creative process in a way that distracts from the storytelling. “My heart clenches as the next question forms in my mind: In what circumstances would my father risk his life to protect Lincoln Turner? Lincoln’s life must be at risk. How could Lincoln’s life be at risk? He’s either been threatened or he’s guilty of a serious crime. Who might have threatened him?” And so the internal dialogue goes on . . .

This is apparently first book in five years for Iles and the first in an intended trilogy. He’s planning a saga of the American South yoked tight by racism, violence and intolerance. He tells a compelling story with enough grab and moral heft to pull in readers for the next two volumes.

In a word or two: a welcome, compelling return for Iles

Those Who Wish Me Dead
Those Who Wish Me Dead
Offered by Hachette Book Group
Price: $9.99

32 of 37 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fast paced but a little too fanciful, June 23, 2014
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I’m tempted to cut author Michael Koryta some slack. “Those Who Wish Me Dead” thrums with enough energy and action that if you’re like me, you’ll almost but not quite overlook all the things implausible he crams into his narrative of grit and survival.

The opening sentence is a zinger, “On the last day of Jace Wilson’s life, the fourteen-year-old stood on a quarry ledge staring at cool, still water and finally understood something his mother had told him years before . . .”

The rock quarry happens to be the wrong place and the kid is there at the wrong time when he witnesses a gruesome murder and is spotted by the killers. He’s quickly slipped into a witness protection program and hidden with a new name and identity in a Montana wilderness survival school developed for teens in trouble.

“You truly will not let the boy be pursued here? You believe you can guarantee that,” asks the survival program’s leader Ethan Serbin. “One hundred percent,” replies Jamie Bennett when proposing to hide the boy in Serbin’s program. You can bet right then that the killers are already in hot pursuit and closing in on their teenage prey.

The killers, two hellishly evil brothers, have already left a trail of slaughter and they’re as determined as a pair of hungry relentless predators running a terrified rabbit to ground. That pursuit is one hell of a thrill ride that includes a rampaging forest fire, a lighting storm so palatable is almost makes you react with a flinch and a desperate getaway on horseback through the burning terrain.

All of it is a great pump of adrenalin – it’s just too bad that Koryta keeps throwing “surprises” and reversals at you that verge on derailing the story and turning a truly gripping read into something that almost feels lifted from the pages last Saturday’s comic book. What might have been riveting gets doused with too much melodrama.
In a word: Almost
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 23, 2015 9:44 AM PDT

The Goldfinch: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)
The Goldfinch: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)
Offered by Hachette Book Group
Price: $12.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Purloined picture, storytelling that’s pitch-perfect, May 12, 2014
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Theo, main character. Boris, sidekick. Goldfinch, maguffin.

Those are the three moving pieces that come together to give shape and form to this amazing story and this pleasingly long novel that is likely to engross you more than any other book you’ve read in I’d say a very long time.

After finishing “The Goldfinch,” It occurred to me that being around Boris – as Theo is for a great part of his life – must be something like tweezing out a splinter, it may not feel that good but it’s satisfying to know that it’s good for you.

Theo is the heart and soul of the novel, but Boris is the more electric of the two. Theo, in Tartt’s capable hands, is as compelling as any character in modern fiction, but suffice it to say that Boris is the character who will make an unforgettable impression on you and will stick in your memory (and I think there’s an important distinction between simply not forgetting and remembering. And Boris will be long-remembered).

It would be a disservice to the “Goldfinch” to mention the tropes, metaphors and other stylistic quirks that (only rarely) I wished had been better. Here, instead are three of the main reasons I enjoyed the book so much:

The Characterizations: You can look forward to meeting and getting to know Theo, Boris, Hobie, Mrs. Barbour and Xandra among many more. All are individuals, who leap off the page, as they say.

The Dialogue: To me authors sometimes have a keen ear for great dialogue but may not always be so good at giving different characters a distinctive voice; by that I mean too often characters speak the way people really talk but they tend to sound one like the other. In the Goldfinch, you always know and can easily identify who’s talking – Theo, Boris, Mrs. Barbour, Pippa, Hobie – without attribution. That makes for some really fun reading.

The Story: “Great Expectations,” “Adventures of Augie March” “Them.” I had been of a mind that as for narrative force, it doesn’t get any better than those three. “Goldfinch” proved me wrong.

So, just go get it and read it so that you can talk about it with family and friends and urge them to do as you did and give yourself over to the world inhabited by Theo and Boris.

In a word: Knowing

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