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Dept. of Speculation
Dept. of Speculation
by Jenny Offill
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.34
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Fragments That Compose A Life, April 14, 2014
This review is from: Dept. of Speculation (Hardcover)
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The Department of Speculation begins with a quote from Socrates: “Speculators on the universe…are no better than madmen.”

This shimmering book – really, the length of a novella – introduces never-named characters who are curious spectators in a curious universe. They are referred to as “the wife” and “the husband”, or by pronouns, but they could just as easily be you and me.

The arc of the story is told in fragments and could be anyone’s arc. A writer in Brooklyn falls n love, married, has a colicky child, combats bedbugs, becomes an outsider in her own marriage, and muddles through the bad times. Her domestic life and her creative life vacillate between being rewarding and demanding. Each fragment exists unto itself but also contributes to a larger whole – not unlike life itself.

There’s a raw energy in these fragments, which invoke sayings from Yeats, Keats, Kafka and Einstein as well as snippets of Russian cosmonauts, Buddhist and Manichean beliefs and more, seamlessly and organically woven in so none of it never seems out of place.

Jenny Offill is a confident writer; many astute readers will note the point of view shifts (from “me and you” to “she and him” to “us.” There are psychological insights and very real observations about the universal pursuit of intimacy, love, knowledge, pain, and the vacillations of life. My hat’s off to Ms. Offill for elegantly and succinctly combining poetry and philosophy into a gorgeously profound book.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 14, 2014 9:32 AM PDT

Coincidence: A Novel (P.S.)
Coincidence: A Novel (P.S.)
by J. W. Ironmonger
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.30
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Free will or predetermination? You decide..., April 13, 2014
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“Coincidences happen. Wishes come true. Or maybe they don’t.”

J.W. Ironmonger creates a real gem of a novel, interweaving an enchanting love story with an intellectually satisfying story of two people trying to make sense of their place in the universe. Is everything in our life controlled by an all-knowing creator who bends the future in any way that he – or she—wishes? or do things happen more or less randomly based on free will?

Azelea Lewis, the key character of this novel, is the Queen of Coincidences. Her life is shaped by a series of uncanny events, starting from the time she was three years old and found wandering a fairground in England on Midsummer’s Day, 1982. Later, on Midsummer’s Day 1992, the couple that adopted Azelea are presumed killed by Uganda’s cult-like Lord’s Resistance Army. And the coincidences just keep piling up from there.

Her lover and nemesis is Thomas Post, a respected academic who uncovers the scientific explanation behind so-called coincidences. In particularly fascinating prose, Thomas debunks some of our most widely-known and oft-repeated historical coincidences in an attempt to show that the universe is, in fact, random.

This book will make you think about the concepts of pre-destination versus free will. Can anyone change the way the universe will unravel? Or have we humans tapped into a clever mechanism that allows us to enter our own will into the equation? And in the end, does it all even matter? It’s a rare book that entices the reader to think and feel at the same time. One thing’s for sure: you will never think of coincidences in precisely the same way again.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 14, 2014 9:41 AM PDT

The Natural Order of Things (Vintage Contemporaries)
The Natural Order of Things (Vintage Contemporaries)
by Kevin P. Keating
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.65
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not really my cuppa, April 6, 2014
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I have a high tolerance for dark stories. For example, I love the stories of Donald Ray Pollack or the novels of David Vann. But (as one friend who also reviewed the book put it), this felt like I was being smothered under a quilt. Overwritten and filled with purple prose, the human condition as portrayed here is dismal -- with cardboard-like students, parents and priests. Here is a sample line: "Last to emerge from the building is a tall figure in the blood-red robes of a grand inquisitor, a sagacious and unreasonably cruel arbiter of God and man. With a subtle flick of his wrist, he silences the discordant howls and jeers of his grotesque entourage."

If prose like this resonates with you, by all means, give it a try. Certainly Mr. Keating knows how to write and this debut book is a Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist. But I found I simply couldn't go on after reading the first couple of interlocking stories. It is rare that I quit reading midstream, but in this case, life's just too short for books that don't absorb me.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 6, 2014 7:01 PM PDT

by Lily King
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.63

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Question of Balance, April 3, 2014
This review is from: Euphoria (Hardcover)
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Lily King has traveled a long way from the emotional territory she journeyed to in Father of the Rain…all the way to Papua New Guinea, circa 1932. Here she sets up her characters – the American anthropologist Nell, inspired by Margaret Mead…her mercurial Aussie husband Fen…and our narrator, Bankson, an emotionally damaged Brit who has been studying a river tribe for many years.

All have arrived at this destination with their emotional baggage. Nell has written a controversial best-seller about Samoan child-raising and is dealing with fertility issues. Fen is suffering professional envy and he doesn’t want to study the natives as well as become one. And Bankson? Haunted by the death of his two older brothers, feeling alone and isolated, he is primed to ignite a firestorm in their lives.

The key is establishing and maintaining a precarious form of balance. As Nell writes in her journal, “…there is something about finding the balance to one’s nature – perhaps a culture that flourishes is a culture that has found a similar balance amongst its people.”

But balances can quickly toppled. A triangle, by its very nature, suggests unbalance and the personalities of Nell and Bankson stand in contrast to the often out-of-control nature of Fen. As they struggle with their own inadequacies (Bankson says: “…I am bad luck in the field, utterly ineffective. I couldn’t even manage to kill myself properly”), they also risk overturning the carefully-honed balances of another culture.

The book has a lot to say about these cultural balances, presenting Ruth Benedict (a real-life anthropologist who wrote Patterns of Culture) as an offstage presence. Every culture has its own unique goals and orients its society in the direction of these goals. What happens when our own egos and greed begin to countermand these goals?

As in many journeys, there are times when the book veers off-course. The tribe that Nell studies, the Tam, is female-dominated and sexually aware, throwing a match on the physical feelings that are smoldering among the three. There are times when it seems that the book becomes a little off balance: is the main focus the passionate love triangle, is it the way that the study of native cultures changes those who study it? Both can be included but it’s hard to have it both ways.

This territory (strangers in a strange land) has been explored in other books: Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible and Mischa Berlinski’s excellent Fieldwork, to name three. Lily King places her own spin on it and, while she doesn’t totally succeed, she brings the readers on a worthy ride.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 3, 2014 2:27 PM PDT

Ten White Geese: A Novel
Ten White Geese: A Novel
by Gerbrand Bakker
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.08
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spare, poignant, and profoundly tender, March 30, 2014
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Every avid reader can attest to this phenomenon: sometimes, when we go through our most challenging times, we serendipitously connect with a book that speaks to us both deeply and profoundly.

So it was with Ten White Geese, a book with an immense contemplative power that brought me to tears without quite knowing why.

Gerbrand Bakker crafts a deceptively simple story: an Emily Dickinson scholar who calls herself Emilie flees her marriage and her life in Amsterdam to rent a farmhouse in the small Welsh village of Caernarfon. The house is rather isolated, except for a seemingly predatory shepherd who tends to his flock, a not-so-friendly badger, and ten white geese who refuse to be corralled to safety even as they slowly disappear. And into this world, a visiting stranger – a young man – shows up.

Gradually, the book reveals its secrets: who is Emilie and what is she fleeing? Why are the geese vanishing? How does the young man fall into the picture? To even hint at the answers would create spoilers.

So I am left with saying this: the themes of the book, the wavering line between isolation and intimacy, the coming to terms with mortality, the connection between nature and humankind, the complexity that is present even in simplicity, are all delivered with a tranquility that belies the dramatic tension.

There is often sheer poetry in the prose, understated revelations, sidelong glimpses into lives that prefer to remain enigmatic. Ten White Geese touched me deeply and has haunted me ever since I reached the end. It’s tender, surprisingly sensuous, and compelling al at once. Kudos to a flawless translation by David Colmer, who translated it from the Dutch.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 12, 2014 10:03 AM PDT

The Blazing World: A Novel
The Blazing World: A Novel
by Siri Hustvedt
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.71
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A novel for the head, not the heart, March 24, 2014
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Just before I was ready to write this review, I happened across an interesting statistic: at this year's Whitney biennial, only 32 percent of the represented artists were women (down from four years ago when for the first time ever, over half of featured artists were women.)

Siri Hustvedt's latest book, The Blazing World, is spot-on when its main character, Harriet Burden, muses, "I suspected that if I had come in another place, my work might have been embraced or, at least approached with greater seriousness."

The concept - an outstanding female artist concealing her gender behind three successive male beards--is solid and Ms. Hustvedt is certainly a very masterful writer. So what went wrong for me?

Just this: my personal bias is that I should not be steeped in knowledge of western philosophy and sometimes obscure contemporary art to be able to immerse myself in a book. When one character says that Harriet has "taken the Kierkegaardian position", I shouldn't need to scratch my head. When philosopher Arthur Danno, Vasari, Diderot, and others are mentioned in one paragraph, I should have at least a simple roadmap about what it all means. And when fictional footnotes are added, I shouldn't believe that it is the author displaying her eruditeness.

I am not unintelligent; I hold a Master's degree from an excellent university. Yet I felt adrift. My belief is that in the very best books, words are precisely used to clarify the human condition and create a connection with the reader rather than distance that reader. From time to time, there was an intellectual connection to this novel, but not a visceral one. Certainly there was little warmth.

The structure - beginning with a preface from the editor of a narrative about Burden and punctuated with various voices and statements - is imaginative yet alienating. The reading pleasures of dialogue and character interaction are withheld.

The Blazing World reminds me of a sometimes lovely but often inaccessible piece of contemporary art: one can admire the work and understand its craftsmanship but without that all-important connection, one doesn't have that compulsion to hang it in one's living room. Readers I respect have already given this book many accolades, and I freely acknowledge that reading is subjective and this may simply not be the right book for me.
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 24, 2014 1:55 PM PDT

The Understory: A Novel
The Understory: A Novel
Price: $9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An absolutely amazing psychological study, March 23, 2014
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The Understory is a slight novel, merely a little over 140 pages. But don't let that deter you; it's also one of the finest novels I've read in a long, long time.

The narrator - Jack Gorse -- is a damaged man, who once had a promising future as the only son of an affluent theater couple and, in his own right, an up-and-coming lawyer. Today he lives alone, illegally, in a soon-to-be-demolished apartment building without heat or creature comforts. The only thing that keeps him going is his structure and routines and his walks through Central Park. Likely an obsessive-compulsive, he becomes nonplussed when anything interrupts his simple life.

And soon, something does, when he meets up with an architect named Patrick, who brings to the surface a lot of confused feelings he is ill-equipped to deal with.

So what is an understory? As Jack reflects on one of his walks: "I like bare as well as lush, probably better. What speaks to me most is close to the ground: the shrubs and vines, rather than the great elms, oaks, and maples. The understory, as botanists call it...It is the shrubs that allow the park to survive."

Jack's story is the understory of New York; he is one of the easily discountable individuals who, with his bare life, is akin to the shrubs and vines that allow the rest of the city to move on. He is overlooked and under-appreciated and is only interested in living, not thriving. In many ways, he is "at one" with nature.

From the start, the reader feels the vibrations of a life that is increasingly becoming destabilized. The plotting is almost inevitable, and flows organically from that premise. The narration is pitch-perfect and Ms. Erens manages to navigate that difficult task of building sympathy and compassion for someone who, through his actions and his confusion, may not be all that likeable. This is a wonderful novel without a word or a scene that's misplaced. Read it!
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 23, 2014 1:12 PM PDT

The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress: A Novel
The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress: A Novel
by Ariel Lawhon
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.68
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Judge, The Women, The Mystery, March 20, 2014
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Based on the real life disappearance of Judge Joseph Force Crater -- not exactly the most warm-and-cuddly individual -- this novel dares to imagine what REALLY happened.

Judge Crater presided as an Associate Justice for the NY Supreme Court during the days of Prohibition. But instead of the typical book about that time period, this one focuses not on the mobsters, runners and whisky-makers but on three unique women.This trio repesent the three layers of 1930's New York society: the upscale and pampered politician's wife, the unprotected and immigrant maid and finally, the flashy showgirl. Each has her own reason for not wishing to divulge the truth.

Although sometimes, the book draws its lines too firmly (could Judge Crater really be that hateful?), it's a good depiction of New York City during an historical period and a fine exploration of what may actually have happened to the man once called "The Missingest Man in New York." It will keep you entertained and from time to time, make you think.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 21, 2014 6:40 AM PDT

Days in the History of Silence
Days in the History of Silence
by Merethe LindstrÝm
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.94
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The sounds of silence, March 18, 2014
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Right from the opening pages, it is evident that this is a riveting novel, one that will grab you by the lapels and keep you enthralled throughout its pages.

Eva, the narrator, relates a menacing tale about her encounter with an intruder while her daughters were still young (“I was the one who let him in.”) In retrospect, she says, “Later, I called it the episode. When I talked about it with other people…The episode is the anticipation of something more. But there was nothing more, he rang the doorbell that day, and after that he disappeared.”

The opening sets the stage for the episodic quality of this novel. Drama is always lurking beneath the surface – and sometimes rises to the surface with the clear ense that something bad is about to happen, but this isn’t a novel about action; it’s a novel about inaction.

Eva and her husband are an elderly Norwegian…and now he’s mute, a metaphor of the history of silence the two of them have shared. She muses, “Underneath everything, the house, the children, all the years of movement and unrest, there has been, this silence. That it has simply risen to the surface, pushed by external changes.”

Over and over, themes and motifs rise and fall again: both individual and societal retreats into unconscionable silence. The abandonment of those who deserve love and caring (whether it’s a child, a dog, or an entire people). The need to seek comfort and refuge and the failure of faith. Perhaps most of all, the search for an authentic self-narrative.

I thought this book was absolutely brilliant, beautifully atmospheric and crafted, insightfully focused on the repercussions of secret-keeping and missed connections, with a remote yet descriptive style that perfectly captures every scene. It is magnificently translated by Anne Bruce and a “must read” for those who love introspective literary fiction.

No Book but the World: A Novel
No Book but the World: A Novel
by Leah Hager Cohen
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.93
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Wanted to connect more but..., March 14, 2014
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No Book But The World is a serious book that raises serious questions: are we our brother's keeper? What happens to our personal development when we see ourselves early on as "outsiders?" Do we hobble our children early on with our own expectations?

Ava -- the narrator and older sister -- rushes to the aid of her brother Freddy, who could be autistic or at the very least, developmentally challenged, after he is jailed for the death of a pre-teen boy. As the narrative shifts from flashbacks to an unconventional childhood (their parents did not wish to conform to societal status-quo) and to the present, we view the consequences of the parent's quest for Rousseau-ian educational freedom and broken family dynamics. As Ava tries to make sense of her family background and confront the surreal accusations surrounding her brother (who has fallen through the cracks with an under-experienced public defender), we mull over this: "Does the concept of such freedom apply when custom, pretense and expectation have never been your to reject?"

Told from four perspectives -- Ava's, her husband's, her childhood friend's, and finally, her brother Fred's -- there's some meaty stuff here. Yet I couldn't help but feel that the writing sometimes crossed the line into pretentiousness and I never felt sucked into the story the way I wanted to. Admittedly, that could be saying more about this reader than the author and I would not discourage any other reader from his or her own discovery of this book.

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