Sunday, March 30, 2014

Review: A Fine Balance


A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. This novel of epic scope is set in India and covers the entire lives of the three main protagonists. Dina somehow manages to find love, but after her husband’s early demise, she can’t bear to stay with her brother and his family, so she tries to make it on her own by starting a tailoring business. Elsewhere, a low caste family of tanners tries to better their lot by traveling to the city to learn tailoring. When Dina needs tailors, she finds these two, an uncle and nephew. With these three at the center of the tale and many vivid secondary characters, Mistry draws a picture of what it’s like to live in India. Unfortunately, it’s heartbreaking to live in India, for nearly everyone concerned.

This was a huge doorstop of a book, and I had a tough time getting into it. Then, for most of the middle section, I was pretty interested. Then at the end of the book, my heart was broken, broken. Maybe this is because my dad was born in India and I’ve always wanted to go there, and he loved it so much that I want to love it, but this story made me hate it. This book was well written, and probably a work of genius, but I give these stars based on my experience while I’m reading the book (like, the book and me, not just the book). And sometimes I still love a book that breaks my heart, but this time, not. 3/5*

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Review: The Divorce Papers

The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger. Rieger is a lawyer, and this book draws heavily on her experience.
Sophie is a young criminal lawyer who is roped against her will into representing Mia Meiklejohn Durkheim (yes, as rich as she sounds) in an ugly divorce. One of those epistolary novels that you don’t see as much any more, this book is made up only of documents: letters, emails, memos, and legal documents, primarily. Through these documents, the reader follows the divorce from its inception through its resolution, and we also learn about Sophie’s life and relationships and her own parents’ nasty divorce. 

I was interested in this book, but not enthralled. Men didn’t come off very well, and there were a few too many actual legal documents (I don’t mind reading memos, but I’m not crazy about reading laws and numbers, especially the fabulously inflated incomes of nasty people). It’s one of those books that entertained me for a few days, but I wouldn’t rush out and buy it. 3/5*  

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Review: Cider House Rules

Cider House Rules by John Irving. Homer Wells lives in the orphanage run by Dr. Wilbur Larch who delivers and cares for unwanted babies, and aborts other unwanted babies. As he grows, he becomes a leader of the other kids at the orphanage, and Dr. Larch even trains him in obstetrical procedures. Though several adoption attempts don’t work out, Homer finally escapes the orphanage with Candy and Wally, who come in for an abortion and leave with Homer to help them with their apple orchard.
Like most other Irving books, this one is the story of a young man coming of age. You should know that I’m a big fan of Irving. The way he tells stories, I could keep turning pages forever. So for me, this review is just a comparison of this book with Irving’s other books, because it goes without saying that I’ll like it. Unlike many of his other books, this one seems to be less “his” story. It’s historical (pre-WWII), and it has a major issue to hype (i.e. abortion). While A Prayer for Owen Meany is still my favorite Irving book, and probably always will be, this one is high on the list (maybe second).

I try not to watch movies before I read the book, but in this case, I had seen the movie several years ago, and the casting was perfect. Tobey Maguire is the only way I will ever be able imagine Homer, and Michael Caine was the ideal Dr. Larch. So if you haven’t seen the movie, imagine those two as you read the book. 4/5*

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book Review: The Swan Gondola

The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert

Ferret Skerrit makes his living in 1890’s Omaha as a ventriloquist/letter scribe for hire. As the city 
gears up for the World’sFair, actors, con-men, and colorful characters of all types gather to make their fortunes. Among these is Cecily, who becomes the love of Ferret’s life. Ferret has competition, though from one of the wealthiest men around, who can give Cecily more than he ever could in terms of material possessions. Told as a flashback as Ferret recovers from a balloon crash in the house of two maiden sisters on a Nebraska farm, the story alternates between Ferret’s present and his past.

The book was very strong in terms of place. The evocation of the Omaha’s World’s Fair is magnificent; it’s one of the richest evocations of carnival that I’ve ever experienced in a book. The other strength of the story is Schaffert’s incorporation of details from The Wizard of Oz. This story isn’t an allegory or a retelling of the Wizard, but allusions and references occur throughout the book.
While Schaffert is masterful at evocation of place, the story didn’t quite hold up for me. I didn’t ever understand exactly what Ferret saw in Cecily (and what any woman might see in a man named Ferret). That human connection between them (or between them and me) didn’t happen. There were some nifty secondary characters; Ferret’s gay friend August was my favorite.

If you are interested in this era, or this geographical region, this book is not to be missed, but as a love story, it wasn’t as great of a success. 3.5/5*

Monday, March 24, 2014

Review: The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic

The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker

Nora, a graduate student in English, is at a rough spot. Her long-time boyfriend has left her for another woman and her dissertation just isn’t going well. Walking in the woods one day, she finds herself in an unfamiliar setting, the estate of a beautiful woman named Ilissa who inexplicably treats her like a cherished guest and begs her to stay. Soon Nora finds herself involved with Ilissa’s son, Raclin, like Ilissa too good to be true. When this idyll becomes ominous, Nora is assisted by the magician Aruendiel who eventually takes Nora on as an apprentice.

This book had everything I really love in a book: magic, fairies, romance, strong character building, and a fully-formed world. It’s a very long book, and I was completely engrossed the whole time I was reading. The one thing I object to in this book, and it’s sort of a big one, is that nothing at all was resolved. The romance—nope. The villains—at large. The disappeared good guy—missing. I guess in my husband’s favored genres (sci fi and fantasy) this is normal, but I’m not used to it, especially when the book isn’t introduced as “Book one of a trilogy” or something like that.  I did love this world and want to stay in it, and the fact that the book ended unresolved made me salivate for the sequel, but no clue when (if) that will be coming along. 4.5/5* 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Review: How to Create the Perfect Wife

How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and his Enlightened  Quest to Create the
Ideal Wife
by Wendy Moore

Thomas Day loved reading Rousseau, and he was a true disciple. When the wealthy young man had several unsuccessful courtships, he decided to try a new tactic. Enacting Rousseau’s Enlightenment philosophy of education, he chose two young orphans from an orphanage, ostensibly for “apprenticeship,” but in actuality to train them to be the perfect wife. He educated them to be able to converse with educated men, but also to serve the household needs, not to expect frivolities like fancy clothes or jewelry, and not to have their heads turned by dancing or other feminine foolishness. Author Moore did a fiendish job of researching this extremely odd story and pieced it together meticulously. It was such an odd story that it would have been difficult to believe without the undoubted documentary evidence. I think my only problem with the book was that it didn’t read like fiction, and it was such a freaky story. The central character, Day, was really unsavory and unpleasant. The women don’t seem to come alive (that was probably Day’s fault; he never wanted them to). Obviously, that wasn’t Moore’s fault. She told the story that she found.  3/5*

Friday, March 21, 2014

Book Review: North and South

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

After living with her cousin in London, Margaret returns home only to find that her father, a country vicar, is giving up his living due to doubts. The best he can do to continue to make a living is to find a job as a tutor in industrial northern England. The move is jarring for the entire family, but Margaret tries to make the best of it and to take care of her mother who is in frail health.  Industrialist John Thornton, Rev. Hale’s student, is attracted to Margaret, but it’s difficult for a lady from the rural south to accept the addresses of a tradesman from the north.

First published in 1855, this book is written in the style of the time, so lots of social prejudices, lots of overwrought women, etc. Margaret is basically too perfect to be believed, though she does commit one “sin” in order to give the novel a plot. What I liked about this book: the comparison between the social milieu in the two very different regions; the characters from up north (Thornton, his mother, the Higgins family); Thornton’s hopeless passion. What I didn’t like: most of the female characters; the ending that made me go “that’s it?”; the prejudice all over the place towards everyone. 3.5/5*

P.S. I've heard the miniseries is quite good. I haven't seen it.