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Alan A. Elsner "Alan Elsner, author" RSS Feed (Washington DC)
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Monsters: A Love Story
Monsters: A Love Story
by Liz Kay
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.82

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining love story, April 27, 2016
This review is from: Monsters: A Love Story (Hardcover)
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This is the unlikely love story between an "ordinary" woman and a Hollywood superstar -- and as such we've all read this plot before. This rendering is a lot above average because of the excellent writing and the convincing characters -- but it's still a fairy story on the Cinderella theme and you have to buy into that to enjoy it.

Stacey Lane is a poet who has written a couple of books (one a poetic novel which updates Frankenstein for the modern era in a feminist interpretation). Her husband died a year ago in a car crash leaving her with two small sons. She lives in Omaha and tries to juggle motherhood with mourning. Suddenly she's contacted by an agent who says a famous heartthrob, Tommy DeMarco, wants to make a movie out of her book. Before she knows it, she's being flown to his Caribbean hideaway for script-writing sessions. (The movie they make, by the way, sounded awful to this reader.)

For Tommy, I guess Stacey's attraction is that she doesn't suck up to him like all the acolytes in his entourage and starlets trying to get him into bed. Stacey doesn't put up with his bull and takes him seriously as an intelligent man. Stacey also begins to bond with his deeply-troubled teenage daughter. Soon, she's flying to Hollywood to convince a famous director to direct the movie and convince investors to back it. And she and Tommy are becoming embroiled emotionally -- and then physically. Lucky for Stacey, she has a convenient sister on hand to look after the kids whenever she ups and goes.

There is of course a predictability to this plot -- but one weakness is that I never really was persuaded that the ending was really the ending. Without giving away spoilers, I wasn't convinced that these two could really make it for the long haul. Can Tommy really be monogamous and faithful?

One thing they have in common is a prodigious drinking habit. They are always getting totally wasted -- and in one scene between the two of them put away four bottles of wine. Three glasses has me comatose -- but two bottles apiece? Wow!

Stacey is an engaging character -- spunky, independent, bright, sexy and doing her best with troubled kids. Tommy is less fleshed out. We catch a glimpse of his childhood but never really penetrate what makes him tick.

This is an easy and entertaining read many steps above a romance novel but a couple below a real literary creation.


The After Party: A Novel
The After Party: A Novel
by Anton DiSclafani
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.77

4.0 out of 5 stars Well-written social critique, April 25, 2016
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This well-written novel, set among Houston oil-rich socialites in the 1950s, revolves around the relationship of two women both named Joan whose lives are intertwined from the age of six. One is a rebel, flamboyant, a rule-breaker with a self-destructive edge. The other is a "good girl" who always strives to fit in and fulfill expectations. If the first Joan is the sun, the second is a minor planet revolving around her.

The narrator is the second Joan, known from early in the book as Cece. A teacher, seeing them both together, decided she could not have two Joans in the class and decided that the flamboyant Joan should keep her name and the shy Joan should be known by another one based on her middle name. It's a symbolic act that symbolizes that the first Joan will always have primacy.

Cece's life is not easy though she is rich. Her father leave her mother and eventually forms another family far away. When she's a teenager, her neglectful mother is stricken by cancer. Cece, the good daughter, cares for her through her final illness -and with Joan's help, eases her passing. Now an orphan, Cece moves in withJoan's family as an unofficial adopted daughter. Joan's parents accept but do not love her. But they see her as a good influence on their own wayward daughter.

Cece eventually marries a good, steady (boring) man and has a son -- while Joan disappears and then eventually reappears, drinks to excess and sleeps around. The African-American woman who was employed to help raise Cece explains: "Joan was a fireball because she had a mother who cared about her. You wanted to please because your mother didn't notice you."

There's something maddening about both of these characters. Cece, the narrator, is truly Joan's "handmaiden," as one of the other characters observes. She is so needy, so empty without her friend, so lacking in backbone. She even endangers her marriage to chase after her irresponsible friend. Toward the end of the book, she observes that without Joan's radiance, she would have been "just another girl" and the world would have been indifferent toward her. What was the great need within her, the yawning hole in her soul, that could only be satisfied by Joan?

And Joan, so thoughtless, shallow and self-destructive, is also hard to like. When her dreadful secret is eventually revealed, it comes as a false note, inconsistent with the character, and as something of an anti-climax.

Yet I believe this book has another more important message. It examines the lives of wealthy, unfulfilled women in the 1950s and finds them empty. None of these women work. They spend their lives lounging by pools, playing cards, gossiping and drinking vast quantities of alcohol while hired helpers raise their children. Cede observes that one did not get married and have children for fun or pleasure. "You married and had children so you could be an adult, so you could have something to worry about besides yourself. But not Joan."

It is this subtle indictment of the lives of subservient women before feminism that makes this book worthwhile despite the empty characters.


All In
All In
by Simona Ahrnstedt
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.21

5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping read, April 15, 2016
This review is from: All In (Hardcover)
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n its genre, this book is a real winner -- an absorbing beach read for the summer. It's a love story, with some quite raunchy and explicit sex scenes, set against the background of a corporate battle in Sweden.

David Hammer, an up and coming corporate raider, is aiming to take over and break up Investum, a group of companies run by an aristocratic family that bears more than a passing resemblance to the real-life Wallenberg financial empire. There is also a personal history going back to an exclusive boarding school between David and members of the family. This is not just business. It's revenge. But then he meets and falls in love with Natalia, the daughter of the family and a formidable businesswoman in her own right.

It's a Romeo versus Juliet situation. How can these two stay on opposite sides of a tumultuous corporate battle and yet come together as lovers? David and Natalia have a white hot connection and explosive chemistry -- but as soon as she finds out what he's plotting, the affair will end in tears and recriminations. Her family stands to be ruined and her own career is at stake.

Simona Ahrnstedt writes in short, gripping chapters that show off her familiarity with the lives of the Swedish nobility as well as the Stockholm business world. We visit the upscale summer resort of Bastad and wander around the streets of Stockholm in the long, white nights of summer. Every street, every shop is captured. The story would stand on its own merits but the characters are also compelling and convincing -- if flawed. And the love between them -- not only the sex -- is also convincing.

My one minor quibble is with the head of the noble clan, Gustav, who is an unreconstructed racist and sexist on a scale that's hard to fathom today. Not that racism and sexism are absent in Swedish business circles but it's hard to believe anyone actually using horrible and offensive terms like the ones he uses even in private these days.


Testament: Complete Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin by J. S. Bach
Testament: Complete Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin by J. S. Bach
Price: $21.99
26 used & new from $14.63

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful playing, April 10, 2016
This is a wonderful new account of these timeless and peerless masterworks by Bach. I compared Rachel Barton-Pine's interpretation to my long-treasured version played by the great Nathan Milstein -- and they are very different. Barton-Pine's performance is warmer, recorded in a church which produces a soft, glowing sound and she plays mostly with a sumptuous, smooth legato. Milstein is much choppier. He attacks many of the pieces, producing a more guttural, harsher effect. (I never realized this until I heard the contrast.) Obviously both are totally in command of their instruments.

I think there's definitely room in the world for both approaches. Barton-Pine lingers more on the beauty, with gorgeous, sweeping phrasing and a more ephemeral approach. Milstein seems grittier. I love them both.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 25, 2016 10:04 AM PDT


The Versions of Us
The Versions of Us
by Laura Barnett
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.44

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Destiny at work in two lives, April 10, 2016
This review is from: The Versions of Us (Hardcover)
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This novel asks the question we all ask -- what if I had done something even slightly different at a crucial point in my life? How would things have turned out?

The book begins in October 158 at Cambridge University. The heroine, Eva, is riding her bike when it hits a rusty nail and she falls off. She's observed by a law student and would-be artist, Jim, who rushes to help. From there, we get three versions of Eva and Jim's story. In version one, they begin a love affair that leads to marriage, infidelity and other problems. In version two, they part and go their separate ways and Eva marries David, a brilliant actor. Naturally, she's unhappy. Jim ends up wth Helena, a rather unstable, latter-day hippy and artist. In version three, they fall in love but Eva's already pregnant with David's child -- so she leaves Jim after the ecstatic beginning of a relationship.

We follow these characters through the next half century until 2014 -- versions one, two and three with one telling succeeding the other chapter by chapter, jumping forward a few years between chapters. I must say, it becomes confusing. In one version, Eva's daughter is Sarah, in another she's got a different name and in the third yet another name. As more children and even grandchildren accumulate, as well as lovers, spouses and significant others, it becomes harder and harder to keep them all straight. For those of us who read when we can -- on the train or for a few minutes over lunch -- and not in great slabs of time, it's hard to remember who belongs to whom.

In all three versions, the characters' lives do not run smoothly. They experience divorce, abandonment, the death of loved ones, problems with their children, sickness, tragedy, depression, alcoholism -- and also some measures of success and happiness. In one version, Jim becomes a pathetic failure. In another, he's a big success.

Eva is the most stable character -- the most true to herself in all three versions. I would say she's by far the most fully-realized character. Jim doesn't come to life in the same way. He's so radically different in the separate stories that one doesn't always feel as if he's the same person. There is also a rather large supporting cast of parents, siblings, friends and colleagues -- but I did feel that the author uses them all a bit like pieces on a chessboard or marionettes, manipulating them to make her own points.

Eva is Jewish and there are some halfhearted Jewish rituals in the book -- but these feel utterly false. I can't imagine any Jew consenting to being cremated after death -- this is very fundamental -- and in one version a character recites kaddish and Jim is "unprepared for its bare, unvarnished sorrow." It doesn't seem from this that the author actually read the kaddish or understood what it is saying at all.

Despite these criticisms, the end of the book is quite moving as the stories all converge and come to a meeting point, tying the narrative up and arguing that there is an essential destiny working its way through these two lives that they cannot escape. It's a nice thought although I don't believe it actually happen in real life which is far more governed by chance and random events. But this is not real life -- it's literature -- and I was glad to have continued through some of the more wearying episodes to reach this catharsis at the end of the book.


A Hero of France: A Novel
A Hero of France: A Novel
by Alan Furst
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.47

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Why did some resist the Nazis in France?, April 3, 2016
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We are in familiar Alan Furst territory in this book -- Paris in 1941 under the German occupation. The novel explores the very early days of the French resistance, focusing on a former newspaper editor called Mathieu who sets up a cell devoted to getting British pilots who have been shot down out of the country and back to England so they can resume the war.

The message of the book is that the resistance was carried out by essentially ordinary people who decided to take action. Apart from Mathieu, we meet his lover Joelle; a nightclub owner, Max; a Jewish teacher, Daniel; an aristocrat Annemarie -- and some others. The book asks what impels some people to risk their lives to do the right thing while most stand by -- and some collaborate with the conquerors.

There is a quietness to this book. Even in dangerous moments, it doesn't read like a thriller, more like a meditation. That's its strength -- and its weakness. The question Furst asks is important -- but he does't really provide an answer. Perhaps there is no answer. For some it's patriotism and national pride, for some it's hatred of the conqueror and what he represents, for some it's common decency. And for the traitors and collaborators, it's mostly self-interest.

I liked this book for its atmospherics, its faultless research and for its overall message. But the characters, apart from Mathieu, are not deeply drawn -- more like lightly sketched -- and so the reader's investment in their fate is not deep.


Shylock Is My Name (Hogarth Shakespeare)
Shylock Is My Name (Hogarth Shakespeare)
by Howard Jacobson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.48
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bitter retelling of Shakespeare's most problematic play, March 29, 2016
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"The Merchant of Venice" is one of Shakespeare's nastiest plays -- and this retelling is equally nasty. I mean that in a good way. There has been so much debate about whether the original is anti-Semitic. Of course it is -- deeply so. It helped create a negative stereotype of Jews that has resounded through history which has contributed to immense, unmeasurable suffering. I'm fairly sure Howard Jacobson sees it the same way -- as would most Jews who have been exposed to it.

In this modern reimagining of the play, Howard Jacobson doesn't just regurgitate the original story in modern dress. That would be crass and unacceptable. Instead, he produces a meditation of the play, discussing its effect on history and especially on Jewish identity while simultaneously getting in a few blows against Christians and modern celebrity culture as well. It's a sour take -- but wholly appropriate.

In this version, set in Manchester, England, the Shylock character is taken by Simon Strulovitch, an art dealer with a wayward daughter, Beatrice. But Shylock himself is also a character, magically alive, frozen in time at the moment the original play ended. Of all the humiliations heaped on him in the original, Shylock makes clear that the worst by far the most painful was the defection of his daughter Jessica who runs off with a Christian and converts. Strulovitch faces a similar dilemma since his daughter has become infatuated by a brainless soccer player. Strulovitch's pound of flesh is his demand that the moronic athlete submit to circumcision in exchange for his blessing on the relationship.

Antonio in this version is D'Anton, a sexless, dilettante. Portia is Plurabelle, a wealthy heiress who presides over a celebrity cooking show. Both are unapologetically anti-Semitic and unsympathetic. But neither come across as fully-realized characters. They remain caricatures. Again, perhaps this is appropriate -- a form of literary revenge.

The plot unfolds, as it must, in various ingenious ways riffing on the original. But the real reason to read this book is the author's acerbic asides and observations, mostly about what it means to be Jewish. We Jews, says Shylock, are always wondering if it's time to defect, "knowing there's nothing we could finally bear to defect to." Christians, he says, are so anxious to accommodate the modern that they have substituted carols for faith and are on their way toward extinction.

I had to say that though it is intellectually engaging and very clever, this book was not particularly fun for me to read. I think it's because the original play, which I personally weighed it down. There is no glossing over "The Merchant of Venice." It's nastiness and hateful nature will always intrude. However you dress it up -- and I have seen productions based in many different centuries and milieus -- at the end of the day, Shylock is always cruelly humiliated, losing everything -- his case, his self-respect, his daughter, his identity and his soul. Those who spat on him are triumphant.

In this telling Jacobson finally allows Strulovitch a measure of victory -- he is cheated of his pound of flesh, as the play demands, but he gets to keep something more precious. It's something -- but it can never obliterate the original which stands as a perpetual stain on the fabric of western civilization, never to be washed clean.


Contrary Motion: A Novel
Contrary Motion: A Novel
by Andy Mozina
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.33
75 used & new from $0.68

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Sad sack hero makes for heavy going for reader, March 22, 2016
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Matthew Grzbc (yes that's his name) is one of those sad-sack heroes you meet sometimes in literature who try to make you care about them through their adorable yet pathetic weaknesses. His family name, devoid of vowels, seems symbolic, because it quickly becomes apparent that Matthew also lacks something - joy, commitment, determination? It's hard to put your finger on it but Matthew is evidently drifting through his life without an anchor and is failing at almost everything he tries. He's morally flabby and uncentered.

Matthew is the divorced father of Audrey, a troubled six-yearold. He still carries a torch for his ex-wife Milena but she's getting close to marrying her new boyfriend. Meanwhile, Matthew is carrying on a rather uninspiring affair with a troubled lawyer, Cynthia -- but he's having trouble with his sexual performance. Matthew's personal life seems like a slow-moving failure until Audrey's troubles overwhelm her and create a crisis.

Matthew makes his living, sort of, playing the harp and for 20 years has worked for the chance to win a seat in a major symphony orchestra. Meantime, he makes a living playing brunches and weddings -- and then gets roped into playing for dying people at a hospice. It is this last gig, which he undertakes because he lacks the strength to say no, that eventually seems to pour some iron into Matthew's soul and lends him a sense of self-worth.

The most interesting aspect of this novel was its insights into the life of a harpist which the author clearly knows a lot about. Not just the precarious life but also the mechanics of the instrument and the technique that goes into playing it. The description of the audition process for the orchestral job is the only really gripping part of the novel. Those insights make the book worth reading. However the characters and the story I found quite uninspiring and Matthew himself is not a character the reader can easily bond with. He makes the book slow and heavy going at times -- and I didn't like him much better by the end than I had at the beginning.


While You Were Mine
While You Were Mine
Price: $5.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Predictable love story, March 18, 2016
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This novel takes the famous image of a nurse being kissed in Times Square by a sailor on the day World War II ended and builds an imagined story around her. The nurse is Gwen Muller, who grew up on a dirt-scrabble farm in Colorado and found her way to New York during the war. She shares an apartment with Alice who gets pregnant, gives birth and then falls prey to postpartum depression -- or maybe she's just a horrible, selfish woman. Anyway, Alice decides to leave for parts unknown, leaving her baby daughter, Mary, with Gwen to look after and bring up.

Gwen proves to be a model adoptive mother and soon falls in love with Mary. But then, on VJ Day, the very day she's kissed by a sailor in Times Square, the baby's father, the handsome John McKee, shows up to claim her. John turns out to be a bit of a softie and decides to let Gwen continue to care for Mary while he gets to know his daughter and lets her become accustomed to him. Predictably -- and this is a very predicable novel -- Gwen and John begin to develop feelings for each other. But what will happen when Alice reappears -- as we know she must and will?

In novel writing, the best authors have the ability to show rather than tell how the characters are feeling. In this book, it's all about telling. We have a plot and we know how it will unfold, and there are also subplots involving Gwen's roommate Dot and her upstairs German neighbor, but none of the characters really come alive. John is pathetic, although we're supposed to love him, and Gwen is simply too good for words. So it makes for a book which is compelling enough to keep you reading to the end but never truly satisfying.


The One That Got Away: A Novel
The One That Got Away: A Novel
by Leigh Himes
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.43

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very predictable, March 9, 2016
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Here's a familiar plot about a life not lived. Abbey Lahey is the struggling wife of a semi-self-employed landscape gardener, Jimmy, whose business is going dow the tubes. She's trying to juggle two demanding kids and an unsatisfying job while her marriage seems to be going the same way as her finances. One day, she trips on the escalator at Nordstrom and wakes up to find she's an entirely different Abbey living and entirely different life.

I felt as if I'd read this book before -- or at least seen the movie which as I recall was called, "Sliding Doors."

In her new life, Abbey is slimmer but bustier thanks to implants and her husband is the rich and sexy Alex van Holt, son of Philadelphia aristocracy who is running for Congress. They met briefly when both were single but Abbey had a boyfriend and nothing came of it. Strangely enough, Abbey still has the same two kids -- a genetic marvel but we shouldn't take these books too seriously I suppose.

The new Abbey has more fancy clothes than she knows what to do with, a nanny, a huge mansion and no job except to be a supportive wife. Her kids, though physically the same, are spoiled and bratty and Abbey allows the nanny to do most of the mothering. At first, Abbey is thrilled to be rich and the wife of this sexy man -- but it slowly dawns on her that he is not everything he's cracked up to be and she has become an unpleasant person living a rotten life. Yes folks, money can buy you a lot but it can't buy happiness.

While predictable and corny, this was not a bad read, though it followed every cliche of the genre with religious fidelity. It is certainly suitable for a long flight -- not too demanding and well-written enough for the reader to indulge the sense that we know exactly what's going to happen well before it does. Incidentally, it's blurbed by Nicholas Sparks -- quite a get for a first-time novelist. If you love Nicholas Sparks, feel free to act on his recommendation. If, like me, you find him to be saccharine and sentimental with a touch of cheap religiosity, don't let his blurb put you off.


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