27 January 2010

The Only True Genius in the Family by Jennie Nash

Flap Copy: "Claire's father always said that in their family, genius skipped a generation. Maybe he was right. The daughter of a legendary landscape photographer and the mother of a painter whose career is about to take off, Claire has carved out a practical living as a commercial photographer. It may not earn her glory, but it's paid for a good life in a beautiful house on the beach.

When her father suddenly dies, Claire loses faith in the work she has devoted her life to - and worse, begins to feel jealous of her daughter's success. But as she helps prepare a retrosopective of her famous father's photographs, Claire uncovers revelations about him that change everything she believes about herself as a mother, a daughter, and an artist ..."

This book was a quick read, and I found myself grateful for that. I think Nash took on two very real problems - grieving for the death of a parent while still trying to parent one's own children, and struggling as an adult to find a place in the world and in one's own life - but she let the characters slip too deeply into cliched speech and behavior. It's very interesting to consider the ways in which parents injure their children, often without realizing, and the ways that childhood events linger in memory and influence adult behavior. But in my opinion Nash's characters were more annoying than compelling, their dialogue stilted and their emotions overdrawn.

Nash's exploration of the nature of creativity was definitely the most interesting aspect of this book for me - she questions whether we are all born with a seed within us that some people are just better equipped (or enabled) to express, or whether some people have genius and some just don't. Claire is a successful commercial photographer, but compared to her father's iconic work her successes seem insubstantial. She is haunted by his greatness, as well as by her daughter's seeming genius - did she get left out of the creative gene pool?

This book had potential, and definitely tackled some interesting questions; I just don't think Nash executed her ideas to the best of her intentions. The novel wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either - I give it 2.5 stars, I think I could find much better chick lit or family drama without too much effort.

26 January 2010

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

Flap Copy from ARC: "Who was Alice Pleasance Liddell? Eighty-year-old Alice mines her way to the heart of this question - speaking of the implacable mother who raised her, of the prince who loved her, of the sons she sent off to war, of the love affair that shattered her life. She reflects upon her halcyon days in Oxford: days of great privilege and greater tragedy, of being courted by royalty, and of finding life beyond the rabbit hole in a tumultuous but astonishing journey. In a novel that blends fact and fiction, a feather in the winds of literary history is ensnared as a woman reminisces about a lifetime spend trying to escape Wonderland - and of at last learning to embrace it."

Who doesn't have a childhood memory of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - the book or the Disney movie or both - few works of literature are so widely beloved. Benjamin's tale, told from the viewpoint of an elderly Alice looking back on a life lived in the shadow of her childhood self, was a poignant and engrossing look at the life of Alice Liddell, the 'real' Alice in Wonderland. I never knew more than that the book was inspired by a real girl - reading this novel made me want to learn more about the history of the original work.

I think Benjamin truly captured the essence of Alice's voice throughout the book, as an adult looking back at herself, her family and friends and trying to remember the people and events she has spent most of her life trying to forget. I felt for Alice, trapped in a house with an austere, uncaring mother, a distant father and a manipulative older sister; she was always the odd one out, struggling to find her place. She knew she didn't fit in; she knew that she was different, that she viewed the world differently than her peers -- it was this difference, which she longed to celebrate, that drew the attention of Charles Dobson and set in motion a chain of events that would change Alice's life forever.

This novel was a great read, a story about a story that I've always wished to further understand. Though the complete truth about the relationship between Dodson and Liddell will never be known, this well-imagined tale captured my interest and also my heart. One of the best books I've read this year - I highly recommend it.

25 January 2010

Someday My Prince Will Come by Jerramy Fine

Flap Copy: "Jerramy Fine wants to be a princess. At age six, she announces that she is going to meet and marry the Queen of England's grandson and as she gets older, not once does she change her mind. But growing up with hippie parents in the middle of a rodeo-loving farm town makes finding her prince a bigger challenge than Jerramy ever bargained for. How can she prepare to lead a royal life when she's surrounded by nothing but tofu and tractors?

Jerramy spends her childhood writing love letters to Buckingham Palace, and years later, when her sense of destiny finally brings her to London, she dives headfirst into a whirlwind of champagne-fueled society parties in search of her royal soul mate. She drinks way too many martinis and kisses far too many Hugh Grant look-alikes, but life in England is not the fairy tale she hoped it would be. Her flatmates are lunatics, London is expensive, and British boys (despite their cute accents) are infuriating. Sure, she's rubbing shoulders with Princess Anne, Earl Spencer and the Duchess of York - but will she ever meet her prince

This entertaining memoir had me at times laughing out loud, cringing with empathy and dreaming of my own royal future. Though I'm not sure I fully support her 20-year quest to marry a prince, I can't fault that level of dedication and tenacity - Fine is a girl and then a woman on a mission, never letting widely varied setbacks deter her from her dream. Fine's wry humor and honest voice carry the book, which often seems more like fiction than memoir - I'm so glad it wasn't! Fine's spot-on descriptions of life in London - from her prison of a dorm to her crazy flatmates and her bizarre social life - were even funnier because I knew they were true ... they also eerily mimicked some of my own experiences as a grad student at LSE!

I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a little romance, a lot of laughter and big dreams. Though I wish that Fine could have turned such intense devotion to a cause more worthy in my mind than finding the perfect man, I love her for the effort and for the resulting hilarious read.

21 January 2010

Saving Cicadas by Nicole Seitz

Book description: "When single mother Priscilla Lynn Macy learns she's having another child unexpectedly, she packs the family into the car to escape. Eight-year-old Janie and Rainey Dae, her seventeen-year-old sister with special needs, embark on the last family vacation they'll ever take with Poppy and Grandma Mona in the back seat.

The trip seems aimless until Janie realizes they are searching for the father who left them years ago. When they can't find him, they make their way to Forest Pines, SC. Priscilla hasn't been to her family home in many years and finds it a mixed blessing of hope, buried secrets, and family ghosts.

Through eyes of innocence, Janie learns the hard realities of life and the difficult choices grownups make. And she must face disturbing truths about the people she loves in order to carry them in the moments that matter most."

There are reasons that I avoid reading Christian fiction - this book encompasses all of those reasons, and then some. I was extremely disappointed with this novel, which did not bill itself as Christian-themed, but rather as a Southern family drama. Seitz did write some interesting characters, people whose lives I could have been interested in learning more about; her overly simplistic handling of Priscilla's unplanned pregnancy, however, and her preachy, anti-abortion message that read like bad propoganda completely turned me off even the most compelling moments in the novel - not that there were many to begin with. Add to these elements a lot of off-putting talk about God and angels and 'surprise' plot twists that were wholly predictable and you get a dull novel that I couldn't wait to finish. The book description and marketing plan should absolutely indicate the heavy-handed Christian content so that readers can make a more informed purchasing decision.

12 January 2010

Shadow Baby by Alison McGhee

Flap Copy: "Eleven-year-old Clara winter (she prefers the lowercase and she has her reasons) is struggling to find the truth about her imssing father and twin sister, but her mother refuses to reveal any information. When Clara begins interviewing her elderly neighbor Georg Kominsky for a school assignment, she finds that he is equally reticent about his own concealed history. Precocious and imaginative, Clara invents Mr. Kominsky's history just as she invents lives for the people missing from her own shadowy past. In this remarkable story of family and friendship, the unlikely pair of Clara and Mr. Kominsky embarks on a journey that leads them to discover what matters most in life and to find the scattered pieces of themselves."

I really, really wanted to like this book. I was a shy, quirky kid and lived a lot of the time in my own head. I had an elderly neighbor who was not only my mentor but for most of my childhood absolutely my best friend and confidante, a lady who, like Georg Kominsky did for Clara, helped me find myself. But I could not get through Shadow Baby with any ease - I found reading more than a few pages to be like pulling teeth. And it wasn't the story's fault, I certainly related to it and was interested by the overall lack of plot and the overwhelming focus on internal monologue and inventive storytelling. McGhee's writing was engaging, if at times a bit repetitive. But there was something missing, something crucial that made me struggle with every page. It was like the story had all the right components, but no life. Clara wasn't cutely precocious, she was annoyingly so. Her mother's complete lack of empathy was such a stereotypical view of the struggling single mom, it didn't do her or her own tragic experiences any justice. The only character I found redeeming was Georg, and we barely saw or knew him, we only knew Clara's overly precious ideas about him. I give this book 2.5 stars, I think McGhee could have done a lot better.

11 January 2010

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Flap Copy: "In 1996, a rare book expert is offered the job of a lifetime: analysis and conservation of a mysterious, beautifully illuminated Hebrew manuscript created in fifteenth-century Spain and recently saved from destruction during the shelling of Sarajevo's libraries. When Hanna Heath, a caustic Aussie loner with a passion for her work, discovers a series of tiny artifacts in the book's ancient binding - an insect-wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair - she begins to unlock the mysteries of the book's eventful past and to uncover the dramatic stories of those who created it and those who risked everything to protect it."

This wonderful book captivated me from start to finish. A work of fiction, it tracks the journey of the Sarajevo Haggadah through time and around the globe. Brooks presents the book's possible past as a series of narratives, each told from a different perspective and a different place in time; she personalizes this truly remarkable work of art and history and gives life to the remarkable resilience of the book's creators and its protectors. As Hanna Heath dissects various artifacts found in the manuscript and wonders at their provenance she also discovers her own family history, making a personal journey that Brooks managed to keep realistic as well as compelling. She also captured the heart and spirit of the city of Sarajevo and its people in brief real-time glimpses throughout the narrative - if I hadn't already lived there and seen the Haggadah muself, this book would have made me consider that unlikely vacation. I highly recommend this book, 5 gold stars!