Saturday, April 28, 2012

Book Review: Home

Author: Marilynne Robinson
Title: Home
Description: Robinson is an acclaimed author and Pulitzer prize-winner, though her fiction comes slowly. As far as I know, she has written only three novels: Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home.  Unlike seemingly everyone else in the universe, I was not wowed by the first two. Home is set in the same town as Gilead, with basically the same set of characters. While Gilead focused on John Ames and his young son, Home centers around another father and son, Ames’ best friend Robert Boughton (yet another preacher) and his black sheep son, Jack. Mostly seen from the point of view of Glory, Boughton’s daughter, Home tells the story of the desperate love the father has for the son—and the son for the father.
Plot: Robinson’s style is never plot-heavy, though this book has about as much plot as any of her books. Jack returns home after a decades-long absence, and much of the plot deals with what has been going on in his life during his time away from Gilead.
Characters: In the same way that plot isn’t that important here, the characters are all-important, and Robinson is brilliant as she first sketches, then colors, then details them. By the end of the novel, the reader feels almost a part of this family—at least I did. Robinson has the knack of making characters vivid without using caricature or overstatement, and they each possess the flaws and virtues that give them real life.
Writing style: Gilead is a small country town in Iowa, and the book is set in the 1950’s. The writing takes on that pace, then; in the country nothing really hurries and there is a lot of time to think about life in general. If there is a flaw in the book, it is in the understatement; there were times when one of the characters would imply something from someone’s actions or words that I would never have picked up on. I don’t know if that’s just me being obtuse, or if her characters are just masters of subtlety.
Audience: This is literary fiction. Although it has a mainstream publisher, the book would appeal to Christian readers, especially those who give the cold shoulder to Christian genre writing. Robinson tackles big themes without sugarcoating or simplifying.
Wrap-up: I grew up as a preacher’s kid in a small rural town in the Midwest, so maybe this book had more resonance for me than it would for some others, but I found nearly every page a wonder. What bothered me in the past about Robinson’s writing (her pacing, the lack of plot) doesn’t become an issue in this book; there is enough plot to keep me interested, and rather than being impatient at the glacial pace, I was able to read slowly and puzzle over some of the questions the characters were dealing with. This is my first 5/5* book of 2012!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Book Review: Overseas

Author: Beatriz Williams 
Title: Overseas
Description: Kate and Julian meet during negotiations between his high-powered hedge fund and her stock-trading employers, and he seems to fall for her immediately, though he soon cools off. As their on- again, off-again courtship proceeds, we find ourselves following a parallel narrative in which Kate finds herself in WWI France.
Review source: Library Thing Early Reviewers
Plot: As you may have guessed, it involves love and time travel. The time travel mechanism was fairly odd-- mostly it was a plot device.
Characters: Julian is too good to be true, and drop-dead gorgeous. Kate is the girl next door who can’t understand why this stunning billionaire is pursuing her.
Writing style:  A lot of angst about why he is pursuing her, why he wants to protect her, and how very much they love one another.
Audience: It’s a romance. I imagine it would appeal to fans of The Time Travelers Wife.
Wrap-up: My only objection to the book is that it goes on a bit long. It’s a sweet love story, though, and everyone lives happily ever after. 4/5*

Monday, April 16, 2012

Book Review: Seabiscuit

Author: Laura Hillenbrand
Title: Seabiscuit
Description: By now, many folks have already read this book, which was a bestseller a few years ago, or at least seen the movie. I had done neither, so when this was a pick for my book group, I came to it with only a vague impression of what the book was about. (race horse). Basically, I was right. The book is about a race horse, Seabiscuit, and those around him, chiefly his owner, his trainer, and his jockey. As a journalist, Hillenbrand weaves in many other threads—the beginning of the automobile business, the state of horse racing in the 1930’s, what it means physically to be a jockey, minutiae about handicapping horse races, and so on. The narrative arc of the book covers Seabiscuit’s discovery through his early success, his setbacks, and his final races.
Writing style: This book is documentary journalism; according to the background material on the author, Hillenbrand had written about thoroughbred racing for many years before she tackled this novel-length book. As such, it got too detailed for me about race after race and race-track after race-track.
Audience: To be fair, this is not a book I ever would have picked up on my own. I was very aware of it when it came out and when it was made into a movie and I hadn’t read it. For a reason. But, I’m a compliant book group member, so I dutifully made myself read it. I know it was a bestseller and I can’t quite figure out why. So I could take a guess as to the audience for the book, but I already know that the real answer to this question is “everyone but me.” Stumped.
Major ideas: Hillenbrand makes much of the idea of Seabiscuit as the unlikely underdog who came to be a symbol of the resurgence of the American spirit during the Depression. There is also some interesting social history, though very focused: the miserable living conditions of jockeys, East vs. West coasts within the horse-racing scene, and a lot more information about gambling than I will ever need to know.
Wrap-up: The popularity of this book is a mystery to me. There were 2-3 chapters that I found interesting; otherwise I had to force myself through it by refusing to read anything else until I had dutifully taken on Seabiscuit for a half-hour or so. I probably won’t be picking up any more Hillenbrand. 2/5*

Monday, April 9, 2012

Book Review: Sophie and the Rising Sun

Author: Augusta Trobaugh
Title: Sophie and the Rising Sun
Description : This is a short novel, close to a novella, set in Georgia in 1941. When Miss Anne’s oriental gardener and Miss Sophie begin to become friends, not only do they face their racial differences, but their age—and the beginning of WWII.
Review source: Library Thing Early Reviewers
Plot: Nothing mind-blowing. Two people who think they have missed love somehow find it, in the worst of all possible circumstances. Complicated by the church-going, Bible-thumping busybody that always hangs out somewhere in small towns like these.
Characters: Most of the characters are sympathetic, except for the above-mentioned busybody.
Writing style: Very understated. The book wasn’t put out by a religious press, but it could have been.
Audience: This book is a love story, but it’s not a romance (if that makes sense). I think romance readers might like it, though, as would literary fiction readers and those who normally go for Christian fiction.
Wrap-up: This book is quiet and understated, like its hero and heroine. It’s worth a read, though. 4/5*

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Book Review: The Violence of Love

Author: Oscar Romero 
Title: The Violence of Love
Description: This book is a collection of short excerpts from Salvadoran bishop Romero’s writings and preaching.
Source: Free for kindle
Writing style: The book was difficult to read because it was excerpts. I find it difficult to read writing that doesn’t sustain thoughts at length and doesn’t really shape the narrative.
Audience: Those who are interested in liberation theology. I know a little about it, but hadn’t read any. I feel like this book was an introduction to it, but again, not an organized one as such.
Major ideas: The Church exists to bring about God’s kingdom by proclaiming justice to the poor, and nothing should stop it. (For those who don’t know, Romero was martyred for his activism on behalf of the poor.)
Wrap-up: Romero’s words were powerful in many cases, and I highlighted many passages in this book. It’s tough to find a place for it, though. It’s not really what I would consider devotional, nor can you really read straight through it. I ended up reading bits at a time over several months.  3/5*

I'm claiming this book for three reading challenges: the new author challenge (19/15), the why buy the cow challenge, and the unread books challenge. 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Book Review: Smashed

Author: Koren Zailckas  
Title: Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood
Description: Painfully shy and awkward in social situations, Koren Zailckas began drinking (and getting drunk) when she was fourteen. Her  stealth and her parents’ denial—despite having to have her stomach pumped at age sixteen—allowed her to continue her pattern of frequent drunkenness through college. This memoir gives a chronological account of her life during that time interspersed with facts about young women and drinking.
Writing style: The writing is surprisingly lucid, considering that most of the book is about being drunk. I’m surprised she could actually remember what happened at the level of detail that she did. By the end of the book, I imagined that I could actually feel what it was like to be drunk—pretty remarkable, since I’m a lifelong teetotaler. I would come away from the book reeling a little, and with a headache.
Audience: This book would be a good read for anyone who enjoys memoirs, for young women, and for anyone who is struggling—or knows someone struggling—with an alcohol problem.
Major ideas: Zailckas contends near the end of the book that while she was a problem drinker, she was not an alcoholic. This has caused some controversy, but I didn’t have a problem with it; the main thing was that she finally realized that she hated how she felt while (and after) she was drunk and that she couldn’t continue to abuse alcohol.
Wrap-up: This book is extreme; it caused me to wonder things like “What were her parents thinking?” “How on earth could she pass even one class in college?” and “How did she manage not to kill herself?” Mostly, it’s a cautionary tale about how our society’s glorification of drinking, and ignoring of problem drinking, can nearly wreck a life before it gets started. It doesn’t get a higher rating because it nearly caused me to become ill every time I picked it up, but it is extremely well-written. 3.5/5*

I'm claiming this book for three reading challenges: the new author challenge, the unread books challenge and the Memorable Memoirs challenge (4/4).

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Book Review: Paris in Love

Author: Eloisa James
Title: Paris in Love
Description: Romance writer and Shakespearean scholar Eloisa James and her husband and two children take a sabbatical year in Paris after her brush with breast cancer. Sometimes a travelogue and sometimes just musings on parenthood, marriage, and life in general.
Source: Library Thing Early Reviewers
Writing style: If there was anything that put me off a little about this book, it was the style, which was mainly short, disconnected paragraphs. In the introduction, the author describes how she kept in touch via tweets and facebook updates and used them as the starting point for much of the book. Some of the paragraphs are just beautifully written, but overall, there was a little too much disconnection for me.
Audience: The book should appeal to those who enjoy memoir and travel books; it will have a built in readership of Eloisa James fans.
Major ideas: Maybe the French just know how to embrace themselves and their lives in a way that is fully engaged.
Wrap-up: Please don’t let the endorsement from Elizabeth Gilbert throw you off. This book is nothing like hers.  I mentioned my only caveat above. Mostly I really enjoyed this book, by one of my favorite romance authors. Her son is about the age of my son, so many of her stories really struck a chord. 4/5*

I'm claiming this book for the memoir challenge (3/4).